Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Elmasry's Replacement for the Lord's Prayer

I've often criticized my colleague Mohamed Elmasry in this blog (see here and here). However, in a recent issue of our local paper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Prof. Elmasry makes a very good suggestion:

I believe that most Ontarians, whether they profess religion or follow no religion at all, would agree with me that the Lord's Prayer should be replaced, not by another prayer, but with an inclusive and purposeful pledge-to-serve. It might go something like this:

"We pledge to serve all the people of Ontario with integrity and competence; to put the interests of the people above our personal interests; to put public good above party politics; to lead by example as role models and honest citizens; to serve all constituents justly, regardless of their wealth, power, or influence; to respect our colleagues and their opinions; to celebrate the diversity and culture of Ontario's people; to build a strong, just, and more inclusive society; to co-operate in working to eradicate poverty and homelessness; to provide adequate and dignified assistance to the sick and disabled, the elderly and the young, the student and the challenged learner; the newcomer and the unemployed. Above all, we who are privileged to serve in government pledge to not misuse our power and to spend Ontarians' tax dollars only for the public good."

Although I might quibble with the wording in a few places, I think this is not a bad idea at all.

Friday, February 15, 2008

My Debate Video is Finally Available

Back in October 2007, I debated intelligent design advocate Kirk Durston at the University of Waterloo. The debate organizers promised that video would be made available, but it never appeared on the debate website.

Now an e-mail message informs me that the debate video is available here, while the Q&A that followed the debate is available here.

My impression after the debate was that I did pretty well, demonstrating that Durston's claims were not substantiated (and in at least one case, that he blatantly misrepresented his sources). The local campus paper, the Imprint, seemed to agree.

However, the gentle and happy theists at Atheism Sucks! didn't appreciate my performance. They said I "sucked". I think that fairly represents the level of their critique.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Thank Who for Evolution?

Last night I attended a talk by Rev. Michael Dowd at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northwest Tucson.

Dowd is the author of a book, Thank God for Evolution. He and his wife, Connie Barlow, have been touring the US for the past 5 years, delivering a strange blend of religious revival and science tutorial. For about two hours in front of a largely aged, but receptive audience, Dowd paced, gesticulated, and even skipped while he delivered his message. I'll summarize what he said below, and my analysis follows.

Dowd thinks there is a "sacred, meaningful, inspiring story of the universe" that needs to be told "in a religious way". By doing so, he maintains, we will live "lives of greater integrity, passion, and service to the world".

Dowd used to be an "antievolutionary fundamentalist", but now he thinks we need to embrace an "evolutionary and ecological world view".

He drew a distinction between private and public revelation. A private revelation produces believers (the one who experiences the revelation and his/her followers), and unbelievers (those who are skeptical). By nature it divides. On the other hand, a public revelation is one that we can all share, a form of "collective intelligence".

Dowd thinks we need to preach the "nested emergent nature of divine creativity". By "divine" he means "the power to bring something into existence that never existed before". Creativity, he says, exists on multiple levels in the universe, from subatomic particles (which form atoms) to stars (which form galaxies). Out of simplicity comes complexity.

At times, Dowd sounded very much like a New Ager or pantheist, as when he said "We are literally the universe becoming aware of itself". He approvingly quoted the physicist Brian Swimme as saying "Four billion years ago the Earth was molten rock, and now it sings opera".

Dowd thinks that "all religious concepts and doctrines can be understood in a universal sense". He calls the literal interpretation common to fundamentalists a "flat Earth faith" -- these concepts are interpreted the same way as they were 2000 years ago. "God is the name for all realities, that includes all realities and transcends them".

Dowd drew a distinction between "day" and "night" language. (He also used language as a verb.) Day language is the everyday language of facts and experiences, but night language is the language of dreams. As an example, he gave the talking snake in Genesis. The mistake of fundamentalists is that they take the night language in the Bible as literal, when it is meant to be poetic or metaphoric.

Dowd thinks "facts just sit there, they need interpretation and metaphor". "Facts," said Dowd, "are God's native tongue".

"Why would you let a 1st-century dentist fill your children's teeth?" Dowd asks. "And yet we let 1st-century theologians influence our children's beliefs." As an example, he observed that the penalty for breaking the first 5 commandments is death by stoning; but the 6th commandment is "Thou shalt not kill."

"Scientists," says Dowd, "are empirical theologians". Science without religion (by "religion" here he seems to mean ethics or morality) is deadly to our species. "All entities are self-interested", and we have to "align the natural self-interest of individuals, corporations, and nation-states with the well-being of the planet".

Every living thing, says Dowd, is a gift. At this point I asked, "What is the gift of the tuberculosis mycobacterium?" He didn't seem to like this question; it was one of the few times he faltered during his presentation. But he recovered by saying that "God loves his plagues, too", which drew a big laugh from the audience. After all destruction, he said, comes new creativity. The primary thing that drives evolutionary creativity is chaos. Without the moving of crustal plates, we couldn't have a living planet, so the destruction of earthquakes are actually a necessary outcome. (I observe that this is very similar to a claim made by physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne.)

Preserving as many species as possible - biodiversity - is important. (But is preserving tuberculosis important?)

He recommends the book, The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt.

God's will and God's ways are best reflected, Dowd said, in the scientific community's achievements. Trying to understand what is real without an evolutionary world view is like trying to understand the physical word without telescopes or microscopes.

He says he is a "creatheist". A creatheist believes that

  1. The whole of reality is creative
  2. We are part of the process
  3. We need analogies and metaphors to describe the nature of reality

"God" is just a sacred proper name for all of reality. We should act as if the Universe is conspiring on our behalves -- even if you don't believe it. Prayer is like a cell in the body communicating with the body of which it is a part.

Dowd has a low opinion of the fundamentalist outlook: "We cannot trust our future to anyone who believes the world is but a few thousand years old." But he also thinks that only his approach will solve the creation-evolution debate: "Until churches preach evolution enthusiastically, the fight over evolution in public schools will never end". He believes most churches will embrace his perspective by 2050.

Count me as unconvinced. Calling scientists "empirical theologians" really seems like an insult to scientists, especially when Dowd admits that scientists have added more to our understanding of the world in the last 300 years than theologians have done in 2,000 years. Why denigrate science by associating it with the mumbo-jumbo of theology?

While Dowd said a lot that I agree with, most Americans aren't pantheists, and I don't think they are likely to become pantheists. The view of God as a personal being who hears and responds to prayers is very deeply engrained in most Christian denominations, and replacing this being with "the whole of reallity" is not likely to appeal to them. Too much of what he said sounded like New Age woo; he apparently has been influenced by Teilhard de Chardin. A belief that the Universe is "conspiring on our behalf" is the kind of romantic misconception that caused the death of Timothy Treadwell (as depicted in the documentary, Grizzly Man). The universe simply doesn't care about us, one way or the other.

However, if Rev. Dowd causes fundamentalists to rethink their beliefs, by talking to them in a language they find more appealing, then he may ultimately have a positive impact. I'd be interested in seeing how he speaks before a fundamentalist audience.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Discover Institute Fellow Exposed as Ignoramus

Take a listen to this delightful debate between biologist P. Z. Myers and Geoffrey Simmons, a fellow of the Discovery Institute.

Myers absolutely destroyed Simmons and demonstrated effectively that Simmons knows virtually nothing about the subjects he was pontificating about. When Simmons claimed that there were no transitional whale fossils, Myers trotted out three or four names of transitional fossils that Simmons couldn't even recognize. (Even I, a biological neophyte, knew about Pakicetus.) Simmons was reduced to spluttering that he had gotten his information from a recent issue of Scientific American. It's good to see yet another Dishonesty Institute fellow exposed as an ignoramus.

Simmons' entire argument in favor of intelligent design was (paraphrasing) 'look at how complicated organisms are; that could not happen by chance'. Of course, like a typical creationist, he gave no metric to measure complexity, and he offered no proof that mutation and natural selection can't generate complexity. We know that they can. Maybe Simmons is actually something even worse than an ignoramus.