Saturday, 22 October 2011

Let's Talk About Sex

When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, my parents gave me a book, about sex, by Dr. James C. Dobson (it was the original version of "Preparing for Adolescence").  At the time, I found it to be a very interesting read, for obvious reasons.  I can still remember several things that Dr. Dobson said, in the book, such as the fact that it was ok for boys to masturbate, but that it wasn't ok for girls (I'm not kidding, he really said this).  And of course, as Dr. Dobson pointed out, masturbation becomes sin, even for boys, if they think about girls in a sexual way while doing it.  (He never really explained how that was supposed to work.)  I also remember a few little quirky details, such as Dobson mentioning that a boy would often begin to find themselves attracted to seemingly random parts of a girls body during their adolescence (he used a girl's ankles, to illustrate the point). 

I couldn't argue.  (Yes, ladies, boys even find your ankles attractive sometimes!)

Looking back, I realize this book laid the groundwork, on how I would view sex for the next 20 plus years.  The bottom line is I bought the Christian message, on sex, hook, line and sinker.  That message goes something like this...a) masturbation might be bad, we pastors and theologians can't entirely agree on this, but it's definitely bad if you actually think about the opposite sex while doing it!, b) pornography, in any form, is for sure bad, very, very bad in fact (and this includes the lingerie ads on TV or the Sears catalog btw, just in case you were wondering guys), c) the only thing worse than pornography is sex outside of marriage, & d) the only thing worse, than pornography, and sex outside of marriage, is homosexual sex (in any context).

Even prior to my de-conversion, which began in my early 30's, I remember making the occasional observation, about sex, that just didn't seem to jive perfectly with my Christian worldview.  (Although, I'm not sure I would've thought of it in those terms at the time.)  For example, it wasn't hard to pick up on the fact that Christians seem to be just as driven by the "outward appearance" as anyone else in society.  Why do youth pastors, for example, have such a reputation for getting the "hot wife" (and the hipper the pastor, the "hotter" the wife)?  Shouldn't we Christians be less shallow, in this respect, since we are trying to emulate God?  In 1 Samuel 16:7 it says, "...Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (bolding mine). 

Oh well, I thought, perhaps the Bible is just describing the way things are here on planet Earth.  As such, maybe we shouldn't try to fight against it so hard.  Perhaps, instead, we should just accept the fact that "man looks at the outward appearance", and move on with that understanding in place.  After all, it's not like we don't take the heart into consideration, right??  We're still not as bad as those non-Christians who only care about the outward appearance (what heathens)!

Later I would also pause, to reflect and think, after learning (from their radio broadcast) that Focus on the Family had a phone line, specifically dedicated to pastors who are "struggling with pornography".  Really?  I mean, I knew pornography was a huge problem in society, generally, but is it really that major of an issue for pastors?  Apparently so.  The way they described it, "pornography addiction" was in fact a mammoth issue, amongst pastors, and one of the most active "ministry" branches at Focus on the Family.

But was Focus truly solving anything, I thought, or were they simply giving pastors a safe place to vet their guilty conscience and pray with a counselor for a few minutes (without risk of losing their job)?  After all, if someone in the congregation is struggling with pornography, and they are actually willing to come clean about it, who would they normally talk to?  Well...their pastor, of course!  How many of those very same pastors were struggling with it themselves, I wondered, but they had no one to go to?

Now, I don't mean to pick on pastors here.  For that matter, I don't mean to pick on Dr. Dobson, or Focus on the Family, either.  I simply want to make the point that there are some oddities about sex, if you want to call them that, which don't fit perfectly into the Christian worldview.  Even as a Christian, I could see that, but of course I just chalked everything up to this "fallen world" that we live in (and to Satan's corruption of God's "good gift").

Even still, I couldn't help but wonder, why did God make sex such a powerful force?  There had to be a reason.  He wants us to populate the earth, sure, but did He have to additionally make it so distracting, in our day to day lives, especially for those who sincerely desire to do His will?  Let's suppose that humanity's sexual urges were cut exactly in half, would that stop us from procreating?  Hardly!  But it might make things significantly easier, not only for those who are unmarried (and, as such, relegated to complete celibacy on the Christian worldview) but also for pastors (and the rest of us believers) who want so desperately to stay "pure" sexually. 

And what about all the marriages that breakup due to sexual indiscretions, of one sort or another?  Or the pastors who (sometimes famously) "fall from grace", as a direct result of being caught in sexual sin?  Can all of this really be explained by our "sinful nature" alone?  This seems to be the implication but, again, what if sex were a little less powerful?  Would it persist in being such a major issue, for Christians, or would we simply relegate it to the proverbial sin back burner?  (Like we do with gluttony, for example?)

These are the sorts of nagging questions I had about sex, while I was a Christian, but frankly they didn't bother me all that badly.  I just pushed them aside, as I always did with nagging questions, and it wasn't until years later (more specifically, when I began to think and learn about evolution) that they came bubbling up to the surface once again. 

During my de-conversion I would also consider an assortment of brand new questions, related to sex; questions that potentially cause a much more significant problem, for the Christian worldview.  I'll consider some of those next time.

So to the Christian, reading this blog, I would leave you with the following two thoughts, for now.  I realize they don't deliver a knockout blow, to Christianity, so there's no need to point that out to me (this isn't the point I am making).  Even still, I think they are worthy of consideration.  Firstly, why did God make sex so powerful?  And, secondly, could he have (safely) cut it in half, without losing any of His greater "purpose" for sex?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Is Evolution Compatible With Christianity?

In the last couple of posts I talked, very briefly, about how it is that I came to believe in evolution (and, simultaneously, to reject young earth creationism).  I mentioned, at the outset, that evolution played a "side dish" role, in my de-conversion from Christianity, so in this post I'd like to examine that connection a little further. 

Is evolution compatible with Christianity?  It would seem this is a million dollar question, and also one that nearly everyone has an opinion on these days (usually a very strong opinion).

But, are we really asking the optimal question here?  I believe there is a better, and more helpful, way to frame the conversation about evolution & Christianity.  When one asks "is evolution 'compatible' with Christianity" many Christians will simply interpret this as a challenge, and it's one they will very often willingly accept, "in defense of the faith".  To the believer the question then becomes "can you think of a way that evolution and Christianity could both be true?".  The hidden implication is that, if it can be demonstrated evolution and Christianity don't irrefutably contradict one another, the believer has won the argument and Christianity remains true, as if that were automatically the case by default.  (This is a category error, but that's a whole different discussion.) 

As such, I think a better way to frame the question is something along these lines..."Does the fact of evolution make Christianity less probable, more probable, or does it have no effect?".  Or, perhaps, "if evolution is true, does it make Christianity any less likely?".  I think the answer, to this latter question, is "yes".  Evolution may not disprove Christianity (although, as it happens, I think a reasonable case could actually be made for this), but it does diminish the likelihood of Christianity.  There are two points I'd like to make in this area...

1) Firstly, Christian theology is inexorably tied to the creation story in Genesis.

According to the Christian narrative, sin entered the world through the fall of Adam.  God, being perfect and holy, cannot look upon sin, so he sent Jesus to take our place, satisfying his wrath and allowing mankind to be reconciled to himself.  But, what if Adam & Eve never even existed?  This is precisely what scientists now believe.  (Christianity Today has an excellent 8 page article, on how Christian theologians are currently grappling with this new problem, right here.  It's worth a read.)

As it happens, the difficulties are yet deeper still, because both Jesus and the apostle Paul believed in a historical Adam.  Listen to Paul, in Romans 5..."Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people...death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come...For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!...For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!"

This leads believers straight into the middle of a very sticky the New Testament wrong, or are modern day scientists wrong??  Sadly, many Christians will see this as another opportunity to take a stand for Jesus (so they will reject the science, without so much as a nagging doubt about the validity of their faith).

2) Secondly, if evolution is true, why didn't God send Jesus sooner?

Christopher Hitchens has made this point many times, in his public talks, and here's one example...

I can't say it any better than Christopher, so I'll leave that one right there.

There are many other relevant issues, along this same theme, such as the intense (and pointless) suffering that animals go through.  Sure, Christians believe that we live in a "fallen world", but does God not care about the unspeakable suffering of animals?  (What did they do to deserve this?)

Let's circle back to where we started..."Is evolution compatible with Christianity?"  Well, not really, but I suppose one could try and make it so via strenuous and creative arguments (and many do just that).  But it's sort of like shoving a square peg into a round might get it in there, eventually, but that still doesn't mean it's supposed to go there (and both the square and hole will get damaged in the process). 

One need not prove something impossible in order for it to become improbable (even highly so).  In my observation there are many Christians who utterly fail to understand this key distinction.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Evolution Is...True!

In addition to watching dozens (perhaps hundreds?) of youtube videos, from both sides of the evolution/creation debate, I also began to read books on the subject.  Several of them were pretty interesting (ie. "Why Darwin Matters", by Michael Shermer) but there was one, in particular, that sealed the deal for the time I finished Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True" I was a full blown (gasp!) "evolutionist".  (I feel it's important to note, again, that only months earlier I had been a full blown, and lifelong, "young earth creationist".) 

I won't take the time to do a full scale review of the book, but what I will do is quote from three places and, in each case, I'd like to suggest you ponder a simple question (this is aimed squarely at the reader who still doubts and/or disbelieves in evolution, you know who you are)'s the question, "if evolution is false, how would you explain this?". 

Sound fair enough?  Ok, remember, be honest with yourself.

Let's begin with a quote from chapter 2, "Written In The Rocks", where Jerry is discussing the discovery, in 2004, of a transitional form between fish and amphibians.  As you're reading the quote, keep my question in mind...

"How did early fish evolove to survive on land?  This was the question that interested--or rather obsessed--my University of Chicago colleague Neil Shubin.  Neil had spent years studying the evolution of limbs from fins, and was driven to understand the early stages of that evolution. 

This is where the prediction comes in.  If there were lobe-finned fishes but no terrestrial vertebrates 390 million years ago, where would you expect to find the transitional forms?  Somewhere in between.  Following this logic, Shubin predicted that if transitional forms existed, their fossils would be found in strata around 375 million years old.  Moreover, the rocks would have to be from freshwater rather than marine sediments, because the late lobe-finned fish and early amphibians both lived in fresh water.

Searching his college geology textbook for a map of exposed freshwater sediments of the right age, Shubin and his colleagues zeroed in on a paleontologically unexplored region of the Canadian Arctic: Ellesmere Island, which sits in the Arctic Ocean north of Canada.  And after five long years of fruitless and expensive searching, they finally hit pay dirt: a group of fossil skeletons stacked one atop another in sedimentary rock from an ancient stream...

...Tiktaalik has features that make it a direct link between the earlier lobe-finned fish and the later amphibians..."

So, getting back to my question, if evolution is false, how would you explain this?  (Any takers?)  In this case, one would not only have to explain the transitional form itself (is it a fish, or is it an amphibian?) but also, and perhaps even more significantly, how it is that Mr. Shubin knew exactly where to dig for such a fossil?  If evolution is really false, was it just a lucky coincidence?

On to my second quote...

"...where we find transitional forms, they occur in the fossil record precisely where they should.  The earliest birds appear after dinosaurs, but before modern birds.  We see ancestral whales spanning the gap between their own landlubber ancestor and fully modern whales.  If evolution were not true, fossils would not occur in an order that makes evolutionary sense.  Asked what observation could concievably disprove evolution, the curmudgenonly biologist J.B.S. Haldane reportedly growled, 'Fossil rabbits in the precambrian!'  (That's the geological period that ended 543 million years ago.)  Needless to say, no Precambrian rabbits, nor any other anachronistic fossils, have ever been found.

Again, if evolution is false, how would you explain this?  Why are exactly the "right" types of fossils found in exactly the "right" places, every single time?  (No exceptions...ever!)  Any takers on this one??

My third (and final) quote comes from chapter 3, "Remnants, Embryos, and Bad Design"...

"When he wrote The Origin, Darwin considered embryology his strongest evidence for evolution.  Today he'd probably give pride of place to the fossil record.  Nevertheless science continues to accumulate intriguing features about devolopment that support evolution.  Embryonic whales and dolphins form hindlimb buds--bulges of tissue that, in four-legged mammals, become the rear legs.  But in marine mammals the buds are reabsorbed soon after they're formed...

...One of my favorite cases of embryological evidence for evolution is the furry human fetus.  We are famously known as 'naked apes' because, unlike other primates, we don't have a thick coat of hair.  But in fact for one brief period we do--as embryos.  Around six months after conception, we become completely covered with a fine, downy coat of hair called lanugo.  Lanugo is usually shed about a month before birth, when it's replaced by the more sparsely distributed hair with which we're born.  (Premature infants, however, are sometimes born with lanugo, which soon falls off.)  Now, there's no need for a human embryo to have a transitory coat of hair.  After all, it's a cozy 98.6 degrees Farenheit in the womb.  Lanugo can be explained only as a remnant of our primate ancestry."

And, once again, I would pose to you my simple and straightforward question, if evolution is false, how would you explain this?

If I had more time there are several other areas I could get into, but I think you get my point.  (Personally, I found chapter 4, on the geographic distribution of animals, to be the single most convincing argument presented in the entire book.) 

(Creationist) believer, how much do you really know about evolution?  Have you ever read any "pro" evolution books?  Why not start with Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True?".  If it's really "the truth" you're after, what have you got to lose?

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Evolution Is...True?

I've written a good deal about the Bible, here on the blog, since (in my view) its measure of reliability is of paramount importance, when it comes to discussions about the truth or falsehood of Christianity.  It would be almost impossible to over-emphasize this point.  It's not that Christians "worship the Bible" (as I sometimes hear it said, sarcastically).  This certainly isn't true.  But they do worship the God that the Bible supposedly describes.  Additionally the Bible is, by far, our best source for the life of Jesus...and there are about 2 billion people, on earth today, who believe that Jesus was synonymous with the very creator of the universe!  That's kind of a big deal.

But for these next few posts I'd like to take a left turn, so I can delve into a couple of issues that are certainly connected, but admittedly not directly related, to the Bible or even the claims of Christianity.  When one experiences a dramatic shift in their worldview, like I did, there really isn't anything in that person's life which doesn't get re-considered.  And sometimes when you change your mind on one (major) issue, it causes you to think, "wow, if I could be so spectacularly wrong about issue a), perhaps there are other things I've been really wrong about all this time??".

For me, there were two such issues, especially, that played what you might call a side dish role in my de-conversion...evolution and sex.  (It could be argued this is just one topic, but I'll treat them separately anyway)

It had already become clear to me, by this point in my journey, that the book of Genesis is terrifically inconsistent with modern science.  Naturally, this caused me to speculate, anew, about the whole evolution thing.  I'd noticed that, for some reason, it seemed to be pretty convincing to most non-Christians (especially those who were really "big into science"). 

My first foray, into this area, came via youtube videos (lots of them).  I started with the huge "Why do people laugh at creationists" series, from this guy I'd never heard of before (named Thunderf00t), followed by many, many, many others (such as the "Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism" series, by AronRa).  Initially, I was just taken back somehwat by the sheer volume of evidence that seemed to exist, in favour of evolution.  I was also surprised to see the evolutionists take on the creationist arguments so directly and forcefully.  These youtube users weren't unaware, for example, that creationists say carbon dating is unreliable...rather, they seemed to be keenly in touch with what the other side was claiming (and had little difficulty in showing why it was misguided).

Slowly I began to realize that, as a Christian, I had really only rejected evolution for one doesn't jive with what the Bible says in Genesis.  When properly understood, evolution isn't the ludicrous idea that many Christians think it is.  Also, many of the things that (creationist) Christians believe about evolution are patently false (ie. that humans came from monkeys, or that evolution is in question since it's "just a theory").

Maybe evolution is, actually, true?

If so, what a tragedy that I had never really paid much attention to it. 

These youtube videos planted the seed in me (to use a Biblical analogy) but, next time, I'd like to talk about a book that sealed the deal.  By the time I closed its pages, and in combination with everything I had learned up to that point, it had accomplished the nearly unthinkable...taken me straight from a "young earth creationist" to someone who embraces evolution.

More on that and, eventually, some thoughts on sex as well over these next few posts.