The new religions, same as the old

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In recent posts, I have been highlighting the absurdities of religions like Mormonism and Scientology. There is no end to such religious weirdness. There is in India right now a person who calls himself a God-man who has millions of devout and devoted followers, manyy rich and powerful, who visit his ashram and give him money. His name is Sai Baba and he is a household name in the Indian sub-continent. I personally know people who believe his claims that he is an incarnation of god and have tried to persuade me to believe in him too, although there are many serious allegations that he is a pedophile and using magic tricks to create the illusion of having godly powers. See this video of him getting caught using a trick.

People who value rationality and logic and scientific thinking can dismiss all these religions, old and new, as the products of fraud, excessive credulousness, superstition, and wishful thinking, without a shred of credible empirical evidence in support of them. But people who belong to one of these religions have a tougher time explaining why their own religion is more credible than the others. For an example of this, here’s what Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate magazine during the last election when Mitt Romney (a Mormon) was still a candidate, trying to justify why he would not vote for a Mormon or Scientologist for president, while Jews and Christians were just fine with him:

One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor.

In other words, Weisberg says that yes they may all be frauds, but at least the old religions (which conveniently includes his own) have had time to create elaborate justifications for their frauds. Weisberg, though hypocritical and self-serving, is actually right. The only reason that traditional religions are not subject to the same kind of scrutiny that new religions face is because they have long had an army of propagandists (who go by the label of theologians) whose job is to create vague rationalizations that believers can grab onto to convince themselves that what they believe is not utterly absurd. Theology should be defined as the discipline that makes absurd religious beliefs acceptable to people who want or need to believe.

The sophisticated theologians and the average Friday or Saturday or Sunday worshipper have almost nothing in common in terms of beliefs, though they may use a common vocabulary and holy book. Sophisticated theologians think that the beliefs of ordinary people are laughable but they don’t say so openly. Their rationalizations are aimed at persuading sophisticated believers. The belief of these people then reassures the ‘common’ believers that their religion must be believable since all these sophisticated people subscribe to it.

It is quite conceivable that in the future, once they have had sufficient time to get their act together, we will see sophisticated Scientology apologists defend their religion in the high manner of Christian apologists like Karen Armstrong, H. E. Baber, and John Haught (more on him in a future post) arguing that there are ‘deep truths’ buried in the religion that we silly atheists with our shallow preoccupations with trivial things like evidence and truth, and our childish insistence that things make logical sense, simply cannot appreciate.

Some droll commenters over at Why Evolution is True provide examples of the kinds of verbiage we might see in the future from Scientology apologists, once they get the hang of how theologians in the older religions operate.

The problem is that militant scientology-haters are ignorant of sophisticated sciento-theology. Real scientology is like poetry–it transcends the question of whether Xenu exists. Fundamentalist a-xenuists are just rehashing the long debunked dogma of logical positivism. But if they read some Quine and got more up to speed on their philosophy they’d see the error of their ways. It’s entirely possible for an individual to believe in both Xenu and the science of aerodynamics, so clearly there is no conflict between science and Scientology. (Commenter Wes)

All Scientologists understand that Xenu is in fact a symbolic metaphor for the ground of being in which we all seek meaning. Thetans are sophisticated representations of our own inner journey to understanding, and limn the boundaries of our inner/outer conflict. (Commenter Tulse)

Of course, ordinary believers will find such things preposterous because they want magical thinking. Sophisticated theological language is always aimed at the intelligentsia, to persuade them to stay on board and give the religion credibility in the eyes of the masses. As George Orwell said in his Notes on Nationalism (1945) albeit in a different context: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

POST SCRIPT: Scientology exposed

Scientologists are sensitive to questioning about their beliefs, perhaps because of a realization of how ridiculous it sounds and also because having that knowledge freely available lowers its sale price. Recently the spokesperson for Scientology Tommy Davis walked out of an interview with ABC News’s Martin Bashir when he was asked about the Xenu stuff. He later tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent the broadcast of the interview. Watch.

Commenter Eric pointed out an expose of Scientology by the St. Petersburg Times that revealed the take-no-prisoners attitude that the church uses against defectors and those that accuse it of abusive practices.

The age of the Earth-4: The strategy of religions in response to scientific advances

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series on the age of the Earth, see here.

The history of the science-religion conflict follows a standard pattern. Religions make claims that lie within the framework of science, saying those claims must be true because of their divine origin (because of revelation or religious texts). Then it fights any scientific advances that challenge those claims. Then when the evidence becomes too great and further opposition becomes ludicrous, they concede the point and retreat to a new line of defense. Then after some time has elapsed to allow people to forget its previous objections, religions argue that the very scientific discoveries that they once vigorously opposed now actually support their religious beliefs. They sometimes even go so far as to suggest that their religion actually predicted them. (The comic strip Jesus and Mo has something to say on this here, here, and here.)
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The age of the Earth-3: The Earth gets old again

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series on the age of the Earth, see here.

The Enlightenment brought with it the separation of scholarly thinking from religious dogma and this enabled scientists to think much more freely and broadly about all matters, including the age of the Earth.

As the desire for conformity with biblical estimates weakened, scientists started devising theories of the formation of the Earth and the universe and doing calculations that were not explicitly linked to Biblical theories. Immanuel Kant (1724-1793) and Pierre Laplace (1749-1847) created a new model of the universe, the nebular hypothesis, that said that stars and planets originated as clouds of gases. They used Newton’s laws of mechanics and his theory of gravitational attraction to explain the formation and evolution of the solar system.
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Scientology

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

If the rise of Mormonism in recent times is surprising, Scientology is even more so, since it came into being in just the last fifty years. I must emphasize again that the belief structure of Scientology is no more bizarre than that of Christianity or Islam or Mormonism or any other religion. What is surprising that it, like Mormonism, came into being at a time when people had easy access to the story of its founder, stories that had enough suspicious elements that should have made any reasonable person wary as to his bona fides.
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The age of the Earth-2: The Earth gets its first birth day

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

For a long time, people were comfortable with the idea that the Earth and the universe might have been in existence for an infinite time and is undergoing repeated cycles of creation and destruction.

Things changed with the arrival of Christianity. That particular religion could not tolerate the idea of the universe occurring in cycles because that would mean that Jesus was dying over and over again for our sins, which seemed preposterous. (The discovery of sentient life on other planets is going to create problems for fundamentalist Christians as it is not clear how they would fit into the whole ‘original sin and Jesus sacrifice’ model.) So there had to be a chronology with a definite beginning and this acted as a spur to make calculations to fix the date of creation. Theophilus of Antioch (~115-183 CE), a convert to Christianity, provided an early estimate that the Earth had existed for 5,698 years until his time (Jackson, p. 13) and Julius Africanus (~200 CE) gave the creation date as 5500 BCE (Burchfield, p. 4).

These Christians based their calculations using an interpretation of the Bible (found in Psalms 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8) that held that the Genesis story of six ‘days’ of creation was a metaphor, where each ‘day’ represented 1,000 years. The total of six days of creation was interpreted as meaning that the universe would last a total of 6,000 years. The appearance of man on the sixth day of the Genesis story represented the arrival of Jesus sometime in the last 1000 years. These calculations, based as they were on metaphorical readings of the text, lacked a certain rigor.

It took until the 1600s for the age of the Earth to become really quantified, with scholars getting down to the nitty-gritty of calculating an actual age, with the Bible again being the main source of data, and the results obtained strongly influenced thinking in the Western world. I have written before of Bishop Ussher’s (1580-1656) calculation of October 22, 4004 BCE as the day of creation (see part 1 and part 2 ) but his was just one, and not even the first, of many precise calculations around that time that used various versions of the Bible and thus arrived at slightly different values that rarely differed by more than a thousand years.

Why there was such an explosion of so many calculations done in the early 1600s is a bit of a mystery. One suggestion is that people began to realize that if the Earth was only going to last exactly 6,000 years total, then the end of the world was quite near and hence calculating the exact age of the Earth was of practical importance. After all, if you knew for sure that the world would end in a specified year with the return of Jesus, then you could make appropriate plans, or so at least religious people think though I am at a loss as to what one might do. One finds the same kind of obsession amongst present day Rapturists. They work feverishly to look for signs of the end times because they think it is very near. People seem to be strangely drawn to the idea of an imminent apocalypse, as can be seen in the commercial success of films based on that theme.

The first Bible that had carried a chronological marginal creation date was published in 1679 but it was the insertion of the creation date of 4004 BCE and the dates of other significant biblical events next to the relevant sections of Genesis in the annotated versions of the authoritative King James Bibles in 1701 that cemented that date in the public consciousness. These marginal dates continued to be printed until the late 20th century. Ussher was not cited as the source of the dates and may not even have been the source since there were other chronologies, such as that of William Lloyd (1627-1717) who became the Bishop of Worcester in 1699, that also arrived at the date of creation as 4004 BCE. Since the latter was considered the foremost chronologer of his time, he may well have been the source of the date with which Ussher is now indelibly linked, although it is also possible that his calculations were strongly influenced by Ussher’s earlier work (Jackson, p. 30).

Whatever the original source of the date, the blame for leading present day fundamentalist Christians into an anti-science cul-de-sac from which they have never emerged surely must lie at the feet of John Fell (1625-1686), Bishop of Oxford and Dean of Christ Church College and the person who for some time controlled the operations of the Oxford University Press. It was he who in 1672 proposed putting the creation date in the King James Bible. If not for that, it is possible that the idea of a 6,000 year-old Earth may have remained a speculation, one among many, that could be interpreted away as science advanced, as has happened to so many other beliefs. But putting it in the hugely influential King James Bible raised it to the level of an infallible truth for many Christians because of their belief that if something is in the Bible, it must be literally true.

Western scientists at that time (or natural philosophers as they were then known) were mostly Christians and while they may not have been as convinced about the ideas of end of the world and Jesus coming again, they saw no reason to challenge the Bible-based calculations as to the date of creation. They took their cue from these biblical calculations and saw their purpose as trying to explain how life could have appeared and how geological forces could produce the features of the Earth, such as mountains and ravines, within that short time. This naturally led to biological theories of special creation and geological theories of catastrophism, a model in which sudden and violent upheavals produced major geological changes.

While some Christians then (and young Earth creationists now) may have seen Noah’s flood as the single major catastrophe that produced all the main features, other less Biblically-literal minded scientists such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) were willing to consider multiple catastrophes, with fire and water as the agents of these major changes, while still sticking with the biblical chronology (Burchfield, p. 5).

But with the Enlightenment, the desire for conformity with biblical estimates weakened, and people started devising theories of the formation of the Earth and the universe and doing calculations that were not explicitly linked to Biblical stories. These developments will be examined in the next post in the series.

(Main sources for this series of posts are The Chronologers’ Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (2006) by Patrick Wyse Jackson and Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth by Joe D. Burchfield (1975).)

POST SCRIPT: Book signing and reception

Tomorrow (Thursday, December 3, 2009) there will be a short talk by me on my latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, followed by a book signing and reception. All are welcome.

Where: Flora Stone Mather room at the Kelvin Smith Library, Case Western Reserve University
Time: 3:00-4:00 pm

Origins of religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I sometimes hear the argument that Judaism must be true since so many people would not have been fooled by a scam such as a priest, on instructions from his king, creating their texts and claiming that they were of divine origin. I hear that kind of argument from Christians too who say that Jesus’s disciples would not have believed and propagated the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, an incredible story, unless it had really happened and they had seen it for themselves.

Those who think that their own religion must be true because it is highly unlikely that so many people could be gullible enough to be fooled by a false prophet’s claims should bear in mind how other religions began because each one has a similar incredible origin and they can’t all be true. So we have direct evidence that large numbers of people can be fooled in precisely this way.

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The age of the Earth-1: The history of the search

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It has been awhile since I have made the regular readers of this blog suffer through a long multipart series exploring a particular question. But my post on the interconnectedness of scientific theories spurred me to thinking about finding a good example, and the age of the Earth popped into my head as almost perfect. This series will be interspersed with posts on other topics.

The process by which science came to be interconnected can be described as beginning with a transition from ‘early modern science’ (which I have chosen to date as beginning with Galileo around 1600 CE) to ‘modern science’, that started around 1800 as new disciplines like geology, chemistry, and biology started to become mature and independent, developing their own theories and research protocols. But starting around 1900 a new trend emerged, which I will call ‘late modern science’, in which these somewhat independently developing fields began, as they grew, to encroach on each other’s territories, and the need to seek consistency among them became apparent. After some initial crises of incompatibility, by around 1930 the theories had started to mesh reasonably well.
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The evil of the consumer economy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

(Due to the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, edited and updated.)

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00 am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy.
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Thanksgiving musings

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

(I am taking the day off for the holiday and reposting an item from Thanksgiving of last year. I would like to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving holiday.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.
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Free will and the Jesus people

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the manner of TV soap-opera introductions, we ended yesterday with my talking with three Jesus people, a middle-aged woman, a middle-aged man, and a younger man, who had just made the astounding claim that if god did something, anything, (like the mass murder by drowning of infants) it could not be evil by definition, even if that same act would be universally condemned if done by a human.
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