Alex’s Heresies – embracing a physical reality

news, commentaries and articles dedicated to a non-dualistic view of the world

Archive for October, 2009

Comment: Being critical in a claim-rich world

In a newly-released book, Genesis Enigma, biological scientist Andrew Parker argues that the Jewish Book of Genesis and modern science have unexpectedly similar accounts on the origins of life. He goes on to suggest that the Genesis authors were divinely inspired to explain such similarities.  I have not read the book: this is my summary from Amazon.

This book, however, raises important questions about whether or not to take such hypotheses seriously. More specifically, how do we separate important claims from spurious ones as ignorant (perhaps), non-specialists readers? This is what I do.
Do the claims make prima facia sense against existing knowledge?
My first stage is to do a quick check of the claims against my existing knowledge and my world-view or perspective. I decide whether it is worth pursuing the book and its claims any further. If so, then I list the issues that need to be addressed in considering the author’s claims seriously. I try to recognise that this is very much subject to my biases.
As a naturalist – all things come from physical causes – I immediately have doubts about Parker’s claims of divinely-inspired Genesis writers. So, admittedly, I start very sceptical. Also there are many cases where people seek to prove or disprove points from selective use of the wildly diverse texts of the Christian Old and New Testaments. It is a popular pastime to find ‘hidden’ numeric meanings in biblical texts and, for me, another reason I should be sceptical.
Most biblical scholars see the Torah (also the first five books of the Christian Old Testament) as an assembly of stories from different Jewish traditions and from neighbouring cultures. They were written and edited by multiple authors over hundreds of years to address religious needs of their specific communities, not as sacred texts. Very few scholars believe Genesis was authored by Moses or was dictated by God.
The original texts were written in Hebrew and then subsequently translated into Greek, Latin, Coptic, and English as well as other modern-day languages. There is no such thing as one version of Genesis, either today or throughout history. Each writing and translation was to meet particular ideological of the authors and theological needs of the communities. At least until the advent of printing, we are better seeing the history of scriptural texts as dynamic. In particular the book of Genesis has two distinct and contradictory origin stories, each representing two different historical traditions and exempified by their different portrayals of God.
I like to see if the book claims are consistent with or challenges existing knowledge and thought. Challenging current thinking is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can make you wary.  Homeopathy is premised on the basis that substances and liquids have ‘memory’. So no matter how many times you dilute a substance in a liquid there will still have an effect from the ‘memory’ of that substance in the liquid.  This is contrary to all our understandings from chemistry and therefore, quite reasonably, I am very sceptical about the efficacy of homeopathy despite claims by practitioners and patients.
Conservatively comparing claims with current thinking is not being narrow-minded or anti-progressive: it is prudential. The breadth of scholarly work itself can be diverse to the extent that is rarely is one view considered orthodox. Typically we talk of one or more mainstream views with still others sitting respectably outside of those positions. In biblical studies, for example, two well-respected religious scholars hold diametrically-opposed views. John Dominic Crossan believes the resurrection of Jesus never happened, while N.T. (Tom) Wright argues it did. Both scholars are highly qualified and operate well within the biblical studies community. If an author proposes a radically different hypothesis, then I like to know if the author is working within his or her scholarly community or just appealing directly to the general reader.
I usually like to see a number of things with new hypotheses:  (1) properly conducted research through experimentation or use of independent historical data; (2) some explanatory models to incorporate the new data; and (3) submission to academic peer reviews via respectable scholarly journals. The more challenging is the claim, then the more demanding should be the evidence. Human wishful thinking is a powerful driver.
In Genesis Enigma, Parker is drawing from modern science and the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Jewish Torah. His comparisons and conclusions seem to have little support in the academic worlds of science and biblical studies. Even the publisher acknowledges that these are dramatic claims. Even though Parker is a well-qualified biologist, he appears unqualified in biblical research. I could find no evidence of his claims being reviewed by recognised scholars, qualified in the fields his covers. I generally place little weight in anonymous and potentially unqualified user reviews, found at Amazon.
What are the qualifications and experience of the author or authors? Are they relevant to the claims?
Being dubious about Parker’s claims of divine inspiration, I would quickly check his qualifications and academic experience in the biological sciences (considerable) and biblical research in the Torah in Hebrew (appears none).
Authors should be able to demonstrate a deep understanding to the material associated with any claims.  In the case of Andrew Parker I would expect to find advanced qualifications with research experience in both the biological sciences and biblical studies, especially associated with the book of Genesis. In the case of Parker he qualifies for the former but not the latter. Private independent study does not usually qualify for recognised expertise.
At this point I would not consider the Genesis Enigma book any further.

This book, however, raises important questions about whether or not to take such hypotheses seriously. More specifically, how do we separate important claims from spurious ones as ignorant (perhaps), non-specialist readers? This is what I do.

Do the claims make prima facia sense against existing knowledge?

My first stage is to do a quick check of the claims against my existing knowledge and my world-view or perspective. I decide whether it is worth pursuing the book and its claims any further. If so, then I list the issues that need to be addressed in considering the author’s claims seriously. I try to recognise that this is very much subject to my biases.

As a naturalist – all things come from physical causes – I immediately have doubts about Parker’s claims of divinely-inspired Genesis writers. So, admittedly, I start very sceptically. Also there are many cases where people seek to prove or disprove points from selective use of the wildly diverse texts of the Christian Old and New Testaments. It is a popular pastime to find ‘hidden’ numeric meanings in biblical texts and, for me, another reason I should be sceptical.

Most biblical scholars see the Torah (also the first five books of the Christian Old Testament) as an assembly of stories from different Jewish traditions and from neighbouring cultures. They were written and edited by multiple authors over hundreds of years to address religious needs of their specific communities, not as sacred texts. Very few scholars believe Genesis was authored by Moses or was dictated by God.

The original texts were written in Hebrew and then subsequently translated into Greek, Latin, Coptic, and English as well as other modern-day languages. There is no such thing as one version of Genesis, either today or throughout history. Each writing and translation was to meet particular ideological of the authors and theological needs of the communities. At least until the advent of printing, we are better seeing the history of scriptural texts as dynamic. In particular the book of Genesis has two distinct and contradictory origin stories, each representing two different historical traditions and exempified by their different portrayals of God.

I like to see if the book claims are consistent with or challenges existing knowledge and thought. Challenging current thinking is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can make you wary.  Homeopathy is premised on the basis that substances and liquids have ‘memory’. So no matter how many times you dilute a substance in a liquid there will still have an effect from the ‘memory’ of that substance in the liquid.  This is contrary to all our understandings from chemistry and therefore, quite reasonably, I am very sceptical about the efficacy of homeopathy despite claims by practitioners and patients.

Conservatively comparing claims with current thinking is not being narrow-minded or anti-progressive: it is prudential. The breadth of scholarly work itself can be diverse to the extent that is rarely is one view considered orthodox. Typically we talk of one or more mainstream views with still others sitting respectably outside of those positions. In biblical studies, for example, two well-respected religious scholars hold diametrically-opposed views. John Dominic Crossan believes the resurrection of Jesus never happened, while N.T. (Tom) Wright argues it did. Both scholars are highly qualified and operate well within the biblical studies community. If an author proposes a radically different hypothesis, then I like to know if the author is working within his or her scholarly community or just appealing directly to the general reader.

I usually like to see a number of things with new hypotheses:  (1) properly conducted research through experimentation or use of independent historical data; (2) some explanatory models to incorporate the new data; and (3) submission to academic peer reviews via respectable scholarly journals. The more challenging is the claim, then the more demanding should be the evidence. Human wishful thinking is a powerful driver.

In Genesis Enigma, Parker is drawing from modern science and the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Jewish Torah. His comparisons and conclusions seem to have little support in the academic worlds of science and biblical studies. Even the publisher acknowledges that these are dramatic claims. Even though Parker is a well-qualified biologist, he appears unqualified in biblical research. I could find no evidence of his claims being reviewed by recognised scholars, qualified in the fields his covers. I generally place little weight in anonymous and potentially unqualified user reviews, found at Amazon.

What are the qualifications and experience of the author or authors? Are they relevant to the claims?

Being dubious about Parker’s claims of divine inspiration, I would quickly check his qualifications and academic experience in the biological sciences (considerable) and biblical research in the Torah in Hebrew (appears none).

Authors should be able to demonstrate a deep understanding to the material associated with any claims.  In the case of Andrew Parker I would expect to find advanced qualifications with research experience in both the biological sciences and biblical studies, especially associated with the book of Genesis. In the case of Parker, he qualifies for the former but not the latter. Private independent study does not usually qualify for recognised expertise.

At this point I would not consider the Genesis Enigma book any further.

Alex McCullie
Q&A with author in UK

Interview on Australian ABC radio

No comments

News: Magic, mysticism and religion from science

Our belief in magic continues to haunt humanity – religions, churches, sacred texts, and – now – crazy interpretations of scientific research. Recently the New York Times, copied and extended by the Sunday Age, produced fanciful religious-style speculations of serious empirical research – Large Hadron Collider project near Geneva. The Age article, in particular, makes a seemless transition from some science reporting, well requoting of the NYT article, to a mixing poetical story telling; crazy faith claims of near-death experiences; and stories of saints.

As soon as we find something unexplained in science, out come the gurus, gullibly quoted by unqualified feature writers, to spruke simplistic mixtures of new-age mysticism with traditional religious beliefs, ‘explaining’ the unknowns in such strange worlds as sub-atomic particles. Worst still, even renowned scientists leave their areas of expertise (while still being quoted with those same scientific qualifications) to declare evidences for god, free-will, consciousness or any other mystery, without the slightest shred of empirical evidence. This is speculation at its worst and most dangerous. One such scientist even won the lucrative Templeton Prize for his god-like imaginations, good for his bank balance and great PR for the religious Templeton organisation.

Do not believe that quotations from scientists actually support these ideas. We must remember that scientists often use god-type language to explain wonderous mysteries. But they do not mean anything like the Christian, Islamic or Jewish God. Even Einstein did this while strongly disbelieving in any sort of god. Scientists are excited and often mystified by findings at the frontiers of knowledge and then will use poetic language to describe those mysteries. Most are not seriously seeking answers from 2000-3000 year old writings of Middle Eastern desert tribesmen.

Alex McCullie

No comments

News: Catholic leadership wants a more supportive secularism

Catholic Culture website quotes Msgr. Anthony R. Frontiero, a priest of the Diocese of Manchester (New Hampshire) as criticising a secular approach to tolerance:

[N]eutrality toward world views cannot be truly tolerant and respectful. Likewise, an absence of convictions does not define tolerance; and in the absence of some compelling notion of the truth that requires us to be tolerant of those who have a different understanding of the truth of things, there is only skepticism and relativism.

and later:

An authentic notion of tolerance in pluralistic societies demands that in their dealings with unbelievers and those of different faiths, believers should grasp that they must reasonably expect that the dissent they encounter will go on existing. At the same time, however, secular political cultures must encourage unbelievers to grasp the same point in their dealings with believers. When secularized citizens act in their role as citizens, they must [not] deny in principle that religious images of the world have the potential to express truth. Nor must they refuse their believing fellow citizens the right to make contributions in a religions language to public debates.

Again, the Catholic hierarchy view astounds me. I would have thought neutrality towards religious world views would more naturally lead to tolerance than say an ardent Christian, Islamic or Jewish view. Many religious people love conflating secularism and atheism to be anti-religious. They seem to work on the most intolerant mentality of ‘for us’ or ‘against us’. So who is really intolerant?

The real agenda comes in the second quotation. The Catholic leadership wants to imposed their faith-based morality (derived from revelations and ancient scriptures) onto the modern secular world. I have no problems people having religious attitudes. However, and this is a big ‘however’, discussion in the public space needs to be based in modern-day secular terms. Restricting condom use in HIV ravaged Africa, for example, should not be argued on the basis of God’s will or preventing soul-creation.

Alex McCullie

No comments

News: Bible to justify killing – Texas, US

According to Amnesty International a Texan jury consulted a Christian bible to justify the death penalty in a murder trial. It is good to see Christian scriptures being put to a humane use – perhaps not.

Alex McCullie

No comments

Comment: How powerful is all-powerful?

Christians, Muslims, and Jews – the traditional ones – quite happily refer to their God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good without much reflection. And this seems natural and necessary for something deserving of unreserved devotion. These qualities of God are treated as perfection without peer.
So what does all-powerful mean especially in light of all-good? Do the concepts even make sense? Though believers in the pews seem unperturbed about these ideas, it has been the focus of intellectual activity by philosophers and theologians for hundreds of years. One famous paradox is God’s ability to create a rock so heavy that even God cannot lift it. The general consensus amongst theologians seems to be ‘no’. So that is the first limitation of all-powerful, only things logically possible.
How about 2+2 equals 4? Again the feeling seems to be that God cannot make 2+3 equals 4. Add that to the list of cannot do’s. This is one of many logical impossibilities that God cannot do. A person being both 25 and 40 years old at the same time is another.
How about past events? World War started in 1939. Can an event that has already happed be changed by an all-powerful being? Again the consensus is no. It seems that changing past events is beyond even something all-powerful.
Can an all-powerful God make a person freely choose an action? ‘Make’ and ‘freely-chosen’ seem necessarily contradictory. So that needs to be added to the list of restrictions.
So all-powerful seems to mean doing anything except
That is necessarily false (2+3=4)
Logically impossible (‘unliftable’ rock)
Completed in the past (WW2 started 1939)
Enforce ‘freely-chosen’ actions by people.
Finally, can an all-good, all-powerful God who commit evil? It seems not. It is necessarily impossible for an all-good God to commit evil even though all-powerful. We have the interesting situation that people are able to do something at God cannot do – commit evil. So in that limited sense we are more powerful than even the all-powerful God of the Christians, Muslims and Jews.
So what are God’s limitations? God cannot do the following:
That is necessarily false (2+3=4)
Logically impossible (‘unliftable’ rock)
Completed in the past (WW2 started 1939)
Force ‘freely-chosen’ actions by people.
Commit evil even though we can! (assuming all-good)
So, when do we reach a point that the religious see this God does not warrant unreserved devotion?
Alex McCullie

Christians, Muslims, and Jews – the traditional ones – quite happily refer to their God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good without much reflection. And this seems natural and necessary for something deserving of unreserved devotion. These qualities of God are treated as perfection without peer.

So what does all-powerful mean especially in light of all-good? Do the concepts even make sense? Though believers in the pews seem unperturbed about these ideas, it has been the focus of intellectual activity by philosophers and theologians for hundreds of years. One famous paradox is God’s ability to create a rock so heavy that even God cannot lift it. The general consensus amongst theologians seems to be ‘no’. So that is the first limitation of all-powerful, only things logically possible.

How about 2+2 equals 4? Again the feeling seems to be that God cannot make 2+3 equals 4. Add that to the list of cannot do’s. This is one of many logical impossibilities that God cannot do. A person being both 25 and 40 years old at the same time is another.

How about past events? World War started in 1939. Can an event that has already happed be changed by an all-powerful being? Again the consensus is no. It seems that changing past events is beyond even something all-powerful.

Can an all-powerful God make a person freely choose an action? ‘Make’ and ‘freely-chosen’ seem necessarily contradictory. So that needs to be added to the list of restrictions.

So all-powerful seems to mean doing anything except

That is necessarily false (2+3=4)

Logically impossible (‘unliftable’ rock)

Completed in the past (WW2 started 1939)

Enforce ‘freely-chosen’ actions by people.

Finally, can an all-good, all-powerful God who commit evil? It seems not. It is necessarily impossible for an all-good God to commit evil even though all-powerful. We have the interesting situation that people are able to do something at God cannot do – commit evil. So in that limited sense we are more powerful than even the all-powerful God of the Christians, Muslims and Jews.

So what are God’s limitations? God cannot do the following:

That is necessarily false (2+3=4)

Logically impossible (‘unliftable’ rock)

Completed in the past (WW2 started 1939)

Force ‘freely-chosen’ actions by people.

Commit evil even though we can! (assuming all-good)

So, when do we reach a point that the religious see this God does not warrant unreserved devotion?

Alex McCullie

No comments

Comment: Jesus the Stranger

This is a story of two competing Middle Eastern religious movements in the first century CE, a small Jewish sect based in Jerusalem and a new mystery religion in the Jewish Diaspora. One faded into oblivion some two hundred years later while the other grew to be the basis of faith for more than two billion people today.

Jesus Movement

The Jesus Movement – Jesus, his family and his supporters – grew from the teachings and pronouncements of Jesus, an early first century devout Jewish rabbi. Like all devout Jews he advocated strict adherence to the Torah – circumcision, food laws, Sabbath adherence, Jewish moral laws – to be in a right standing with God. This was the way to combat the dominance of the ever-encroaching Hellenistic culture with Roman occupation and Roman Pax Romana. The Jesus Movement was based in Jerusalem.

Three major Jewish groups, the Pharisees, Essenes (Dead Sea Scrolls communities), and Zealots, resisted the degradation of Judaism and their special covenant with God in different ways. The Pharisees, though compliant, taught Torah and its adherence amongst the people, particularly the poor. They were much respected and admired as a result. The Essenes withdrew to exclusive communities like Qumran, while the Zealots took up armed resistance against the occupation. Another way, from a long history of apocalypicists, was to announce the imminent end-time when a new “kingdom of God” would replace Roman occupation with a glorious rule of God and Israel. Jesus was one of those.

Jesus’ family and supporters saw him as a teacher, preacher and prophet, even a messiah, but still very human. They continued Jesus’ teachings through the Jesus Movement under the leadership of his brother, James, after his sudden and surprising death. Like Jesus, they were part of Judaism; adhered to Torah; and attended Jewish religious services. Male babies continued to be circumcised as part of being Jewish and being part of this movement. The Jesus Movement was fully a sect within Judaism.

Eventually the Jesus Movement faded within an environment of Jewish local political upheavals and failures of Roman resistance. The Ebionites were the last representatives of the Jesus Movement and, ironically, they were branded as heretics by the soon-to-be orthodox form of Christianity. The original teachings of Jesus were effectively expunged.

Christ Movement

Paul never met Jesus. Some twenty to thirty years after the death of Jesus, Paul started the Christ Movement from his perceived post-death experience of Jesus. He evangelised throughout the Jewish Diaspora based on his interpretation of Jesus’ death as the risen Christ. His teachings had little to do with the physical life of Jesus.

The Christ Movement appealed to gentiles, “god-fearers” (gentiles who worshipped with Jews) and, even to some Diasporan Jews, by rejecting traditional Jewish practices and beliefs including male circumcision and dietary restrictions. Salvation now became belief in the risen Christ instead of righteousness through traditional practices as specified in the Torah. Paul’s strong rejection of Judaism became the intellectual basis for much of Christianity’s anti-Semitism over the years. As well as laxer religious practices, Paul’s Christ movement also offered familiarity to gentiles with its many similarities to the Hellenic mystery religions – Christ as a deity returning to life after human death; mystical experiences; and ritual secrecy. Paul specifically targeted pagan Gentiles, “god-fearers” and, Hellenistic Jews.

Ultimately Paul’s teachings became the basis for orthodox Christianity some three hundred years later.

Christians and Jesus Today

Jesus was closer to an orthodox Jewish rabbi spooking dire apocalyptic warnings than today’s Christian imagings. Traditional Christians envisage a Pauline-type risen Christ for their salvation. Progressive and liberal Christians advocate an inclusive, liberal-minded sage to suit our modern sensibilities.

Christians today are more removed than just 2000 years from the historical Jesus. Instead of worshiping the historical Jesus, most Christians would see him as some sort of religious extremist, if not a crank.

Alex McCullie

No comments

News: Atheist and Be Ordained

If you want to be both, you can be ordained on-line for free through to US$89.95 for the deluxe version. A site for spiritual humanism offers ordaining packages without the need for seminary training. I have no idea whether it is a simple money making activity or someone seriously wanting to allow atheists to conduct civil services and other religious roles.

It doesn’t help in Australia as we have particular requirements before one is able to conduct wedding or funeral ceremonies.

Alex McCullie

No comments

News: Atheist Convention Melbourne March 2010

The Rise Of Atheism 2010 Global Atheist Convention

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (12-14 March)

Presenters: Richard Dawkins, Catherine Deveny, Phillip Adams, Taslima Nasrin, Peter Singer, PZ Myers, Dan Barker, Stuart Bechman, Sue-Ann Post, Kylie Sturgess, John Perkins, Tamas Pataki, Max Wallace, Russell Blackford, Ian Robinson, AC Grayling, Robyn Williams, Jamie Kilstein, Simon Taylor

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