Monthly Archives: September 2011

The best of the web

Here’s my roundup of a few things that have caught my eye. I don’t necessarily agree with them all, but I do think they are at least interesting.

A very interesting piece from Barna on why young people leave churches. Although it does raise the question as to whether or not these reasons are limited to older people or whether they have their own criteria.

Confessions of a doubting Thomas has a piece on whether Jesus was just an archetypal hero of fiction.

I don’t know if it’s true or a hoax, but a piece on a South African airline had me laughing at my desk when I read it.

Epiphenom has a look (with plenty of links) at a preliminary study which has suggested a possible link between autism and atheism. Personally, I’m not convinced.

And I share this video with you, as I cannot find a single thing about that isn’t brilliant:

The BC/AD & BCE/CE “debate”

As you may have seen, there was a mini debate that flared up over the last few days in response to an article in the Fail on Sunday about the BBC dropping the use of BC/AD as a label added to years in favour of BCE/CE. There are some very good pieces on the web, and I have referenced these at the foot of this post.

This is something I’ve changed my mind over in the last few years, so I’ll pen down my initial objections and why I am now not really fussed over it.

My objections

I first came across the use of BCE/CE as an alternative to BC/AD about 10 years ago. I can’t tell whether this had anything to do with my leaving a christian school around that time or whether there was a noticeable upturn in the use of BCE/CE as an alternative. If anyone has any statistics (preferably with references) on the relative usage of the terms, then please do point me towards them. I think the debate could be much better framed with more facts and less rhetoric, though the same is true of pretty much every debate I can think of!

At the time, I was younger and a little bit of a fundamentalist. My immature gut reaction was to think that this was stripping Christ out of the language, much as in the same way many Christmas cards are dubbed “Seasons Greetings.” I do still think there is some element of the “out of sight, out of mind” brand of secularism within this, but I do think it really is too minor to get one’s knickers in a twist about.

I wouldn’t mind so much if the terms were replaced with something that actually had some meaning, some reference, that signified an important event. When talking about housing construction in the UK, we often use World War 2 as a demarcation point, with buildings referred to as pre-war or post-war. But Common Era and Before Common Era are devoid of any meaning. I think this may be behind the supposed objection by the Plain English Campaign. I say “supposed” because the Fail only includes one quote from their Press Officer and yet there is no statement on their website about it.

My acceptance

Ultimately, it’s not the end of the world. There is still a demarcation boundary between these two eras, and it would be a very dull mind indeed that doesn’t enquire into why the two are separated. What event was it that heralded such a turning point in how all of history is oriented? Yet there are admittedly problems with the BC/AD system. Not least, it is widely regarded that whoever did the sums on behalf of pope Gregory got them wrong, and that Jesus was probably born in around 6 B.C./B.C.E. There is then the question of whether this is actually an important date for christianity at all. The hinge point is not Jesus’ birth at all, but rather it around the Easter weekend which witnessed his death and resurrection. Of course, there is then debate about precisely when this was, with dates ranging from A.D. 27 to A.D. 41.

I am writing another blog post at the moment on one aspect of the interaction between religion and politics, but for now I will summarise my view that I don’t agree with any group (religious or secular) imposing their system of beliefs on another. Discussion and persuasion are far better means to achieve a goal than dictation. So while the more fundamentalist view may be that this is an imposition of secular values stamping all over their beliefs, you have to recognise that the use of the BC/AD system may be perceived to be the exact reverse.

My opinion is that it should be the goal of the church to preach the gospel. Let the world know the historical facts and our best understanding of the interpretation of their implications. People can then be free to choose whether to accept or reject them.

I don’t consider that this silliness over a dating system is a serious hindrance to that goal.

I was reminded of the introduction to 1 Timothy, when the author writes:

“instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God” (1 Tim 1:3b-4a, NASB)

And on that note, I shall allow it to distract me no further.

Other references

Leading the charge from the newspapers was (unsurprisingly) the Guardian. The case here is made from an FAQ section of the BBC website, though the Guardian links directly to the FAQs, which has no link from the BBC’s religion site.

Blundering in like the hapless modern-day Falstaff that he is, Boris Johnson has written a piece in the Torygraph.

The satirical blog, The Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley, has an excellent take on it.

Probably the best right-wing defence of the Mail’s piece comes from Heresy Corner.

The final, concise, word goes to Phil’s Treehouse.

Of course, there are plenty of others which I may have missed. This is just what I’ve found from a quick perusal of the web.

Laws of the web

Just a quick little thought. I was perusing a couple of articles in the Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment is Free, and there have been a couple of invocations of Godwin’s Law recently.

What I was wondering this: is there an equivalent of Godwin’s Law on any “religious” discussion about bringing up Richard Dawkins? This may be done either by quoting/paraphrasing him as an appeal to authority, or to use him as a straw man?

If there is please let me know. If not, perhaps there could be a title awarded to the first person to bring him up. Maybe a Richard-head, or some abbreviation thereof?

Sorry, not feeling terribly gracious today.

Einstein, falsification and the spirit of science

There has been much written over the last few days in reaction to the news coming out of CERN that some neutrinos may have been observed breaking the “cosmic speed barrier.” I won’t go into too much detail here, as there is plenty to be found elsewhere on the web, though of varying qualities. One of the things that has bothered me is that many of the news sources refer to c as “the speed of light.” This is incorrect as the c which is used in relativistic notation is specifically “the speed of light in a vacuum.” Everyday experience tells us that the speed of light varies in different media. When you’ve seen a straw or stick in water appear to be bent, this is due to refraction. Refraction occurs because the light has a slower speed in water than it does in air.

My second slight gripe is over the fact that the result has not been confirmed. At the time of writing (Friday night/Saturday morning) the results are still subject to further scrutiny. For me, I wonder if the experiment which produced the result has been repeated. The best science must always be reproducible, given the same setup. This, of course, does assume invariance under time translation. Now *THAT* would shatter the scientific paradigm, if it were falsified.

There is also a slight laxity when discussing the idea of neutrinos breaking the speed barrier. The special theory of relativity doesn’t actually prohibit faster than light travel. If you actually work through the equations, what you end with is that you cannot accelerate a massive particle (that is, a particle that has mass, it’s nothing to do with it being exceptionally large) to c or beyond, from a speed which is less than c. The reason being that as it accelerates, it actually gains mass. The more mass it has, the harder it is to accelerate and you end up that as the speed approached c, the mass is unbounded (or in other words, it tends to infinity) and so cannot be accelerated any further. In theory, if a particle, at the point of its creation, travels faster than c, then it will remain faster, though it does throw out a whole host of other problems which I shan’t go into here.

So what if Einstein was wrong? He was still a hell of a lot smarter than I am. He wrote the paper “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies” when he was 26, younger than I am now. I still find it amazing at how much others achieve at a comparatively young age, and to be honest I find it quite depressing at how little I have achieved given that I am fast approaching 30.

If Einstein’s theory does need to be superseded, you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You have to remember the historical context in which he worked. The Michelson-Morley experiment had falsified the idea of the ether, so something new was needed. Building on the work of Lorentz, Einstein’s view not only needed to be radically different from the prevailing Newtonian viewpoint that had dominated physics (or natural philosophy as it was originally known) for the previous few hundred years, but it also had to incorporate the well-tested Newtonian model in the vast majority of cases. In other words, for massive particles travelling at significantly less than c, the theoretical predictions between Newtonian and Einsteinian dynamics should differ by an unobservably small amount.

If Einstein now needs to be revised by another paradigm shift, any new model will also have to incorporate the results that have supported Einstein’s work over the last hundred years. Einstein’s remains a very accurate model of reality. Had it been a poor model, it might have been found out much sooner.

All this points me towards falsification. I think I have mentioned in another recent post that I am currently reading through Popper’s The Logic Of Scientific Discovery. Towards the start, he makes a very good demolition of positivism, and makes his proposal that scientific theories ought be falsifiable, rather than be built up via a kind of inductive method based on verification.

While this is my first time reading it, the general philosophy is very familiar, having been woven into the fabric of my scientific education.

All of science is provisional. The work of the great scientists represents our current and best understanding of the universe we live in. As Richard Feynman put it, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Nothing is to be deemed unquestionable, whether it be the work of Newton, Rutherford, Dalton, Darwin, Maxwell, Einstein, Feynman, Witten or Hawking. All are fair game.

To claim that to challenge any scientist or any theory is a kind “heresy” is a claim that could only be made by someone who has little to no understanding of the spirit of science. No theory of nature should be beyond question, even if we don’t have the answer. In fact, the nature of science is to state that there we don’t have the answer. All we can come up with are models of how the universe works that line up as closely as possible with reality. Of course, not everyone holds this view, as was demonstrated by Hawking & Mlodinow last year when they published The Grand Design in which they proposed a bizarre model of “model-dependent realism” though, thankfully, this seems not to have caught on. Yet I applaud them for at least challenging the spirit, which in itself is a spirit to challenge. A merry-go round of Russian dolls, perplexities and unknowns, and so the confidence of an earlier generation may be shown to be no more than hubris, and the quest for truth continues.

How do you define a christian? Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

Link to part 1.

One of the major developments in the history of christianity was the development of the various creeds. Probably the most famous of these in the Nicene Creed, which came out of the first council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. There are various other creeds such the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasean Creed, the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession. These have been used over the years as a statement of faith to affirm what various christians believe. i.e. a christian might be defined as someone who agrees with one or more of these statements of faith. However, I have some reservations about them:

Firstly, they are often taken as foundational, when in fact they are really conclusions. I recently had someone “throw” the Nicene creed at me during a discussion as their way of stating what I believed. I found it quite ironic as the discussion had been started by an atheist who was tired of being told what he believed, and I pointed out that christians were also often “told” what they believed. I think the irony was, unfortunately, lost on my accuser. However, it showed the perception that such creeds have outside of christianity, as being the basis on which on all else rests. As I shall demonstrate later in this post, there are some conclusions in them that I have not yet reached.

If you were to define a christian as someone who believes one or more of the creeds, then what about someone like me who has some reservations about a few points? It strikes me as a little too dogmatic.

Second, there is a dilemma over how long or short they should be. Generally, the shorter they are, the more inclusive they are, and the level of inclusiveness will decrease the more detail is included. I will deal with inclusion/exclusion in a little more detail in the next part. For now, I am not convinced that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that:

“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”(1 Cor 1:10, NKJV)

that he had in mind a kind of “Stepford church” where everyone absolutely thought the same thing. After all, the same letter has chapter 12 in it (I won’t copy it all here) where he talks about us all being different, yet united in Christ. So it seems to me more reasonable to suppose that in chapter 1, what he had in mind was that all should agree on “the basics.” Of course, here is where we hit the nub of the problem – how do agree a) what the topics that should be foundational are and, b) what the content of those statements should be.

I have had many disagreements over the years with people over what issues are foundational. Admittedly, most of those have been with creationists who argue along the lines that if you don’t believe the literalist interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, then how can you claim to believe any of the bible.

The more interesting debates are on b) where people’s own theologies and prejudices really come to the fore, my own included, though I shan’t delve into them here. I’m sure a browse through this blog (especially anything tagged “apologetics” will reveal something of my worldview)

The third objection I have about creeds is their formalistic structure. The bible is not a book of systematic theology. Nor is it simply a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” To restrict the books of bible to a short list of normative statements has two effects:

1) It strips the bible of its richness. There is much that is nuanced in the composition of the bible, with the same topics being approached from different viewpoints by different writers, addressed to different audiences.

2) It sets in stone what may already be misunderstood and creates further room for misunderstanding. I would liken this to the codifying of the American constitution, where the supreme court judges have it as their job to interpret the constitution and where, it seems to me, their interpretations can be quite far removed from the intentions of the original authors. It is a case of a text being ripped from its context as a pretext.

Of course, in all this, I have not (yet) denied the actual content of the creeds themselves. I will only state my reservations about one (the Apostles’ Creed), for fear of boring you even further, and of repeating myself. You can then decide whether to burn me at the stake or not.

1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
10. The forgiveness of sins:
1l. The resurrection of the body:
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

In point 3, I am not convinced of the historicity of the virgin birth. Firstly, the eyewitness evidence “from the beginning” was from the start of Jesus’ ministry as an adult, so I am quite sceptical about the source from which Matthew and Luke obtained the nativity narrative. There is also the potential that Matthew in particular was not originally a Greek composition, and that the word that was translated as virgin (gk: parthenos) may have originally meant “young girl.” This latter theory seems to be falsified though by verse 18 of the first chapter “Now of Iesous Messiah the birth thus was: being betrothed for the mother of Him, Mariam, to Ioseph, before joining of them, she was found in womb, pregnant by Spirit Holy.” (Green’s literal translation).

In point 4, there is a statement that Jesus “descended into hell.” The canonical gospels make no mentioned of where Jesus went (if anywhere at all) during the time of his death. To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I am mistaken), the idea of Jesus going to hell was a comparatively late idea, and the earliest writings to contain the idea was in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. The earliest date for this work is the mid-second century, though it was more likely written towards the end of that century. In it, there is “a voice out of the heavens crying, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep [i.e. the dead]?” and from the [talking] cross was heard the answer, “Yes.””

The point that really sticks in my craw is point 9: “I believe in a holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” At the time it was composed, nothing resembling the modern Roman Catholic church had been established. The first use of the term “pope” (I am here using the Anglicisation, if you will forgive both the linguistic sloppiness and the denominational pun!) was used as a descriptive for Damasus the first, some half a century after the first council of Nicaea. The term catholic, therefore, had the contemporary meaning of “worldwide” with none of the connotations that we would associate with Roman Catholicism today. My point here is not so much with the actual statement of this section of the creed, but rather with the wording as used, which I think is misleading to the modern reader. Readers who are likely to misinterpret the term “catholic” are also likely to misunderstand the term “saints” where this is actually a general term for believers, rather than any special subset of holy folk who have been beatified.

So far, I’ve been quite negative, and you have probably tsk’d and tutted your way through this with various disagreements along the way. To try and give some balance to this, I’m not wholly opposed to them. I think they can be a great guide to study where we can ask “how were these conclusions reached?” and “why are these considered the important points?” However, I believer in the idea that christianity is not restricting, it is freeing. And I will choose to exercise my free thought to believe what I think is true, and not to be dictated by some conclusions that others have made for me.

To my understanding, one of the key features of their development was less about asserting what christians believed to those outside the church, but rather to defend against heresies that had developed within the church. So for example, some of the items included in the Athanasian creed were included for the specific purpose of countering Arianism. By this, there was an attempt to make a distinction between who “truly” was a christian and who merely professed to be such. This leads to the sociological problem of “the other” and how that may be used to define a group identity, which I shall look at in the next part.

How do you define a christian? Part 1: Intro & self-definition

Introduction

The question “how do you define a christian” is one that has been bugging me for a little while. It sometimes crops up in conversations I have with non-christians who are keen to try and put me in a box. The question often comes in some variation of “what kind of christian are you?” At this point there’s usually an involuntary rolling of the eyes, but I do my best to be helpful. Afterwards, I often question myself as to whether it’s the best approach to pander to someone’s expectations or whether it would be more kind to let forth an exegesis on what christianity means to me. Erring on the side of caution, and not wanting to come across as a “bible-basher” my current thinking is that the gentler answer is the more productive.

It’s not a question I actually can give a definitive answer on. Here, I am just exploring some ideas, and would welcome other views and input on the matter. To my way of thinking, there are 4 routes we can head down, and I will sketch each of these in turn. There is some overlap between them, but I’ve tried to segregate them as reasonably as possible. These are:

-Self-definition
-Following a creed
-Sacraments as boundary markers
-Denominations, cults & heretics

I also acknowledge that my articulation is somewhat lacking to be able to discuss this without resorting to the occasional tautology, but I have felt they needed to be included, or else I’d be driven down a reductionist road of infinite regress, which never leads anywhere meaningful. I will also be quite frank, which may cause some offence, though that is not my intent.

As the writing of this particular piece has gone on, it just started to get longer and longer. So I have decided to split it up into several separate parts in order to make it more readable.

Self-defining?

One of the first and most obvious definitions of a christian is for someone to simply self-define. i.e. a christian is whoever says they are a christian. At first glance, this is quite appealing, as it is the free choice of any given individual to be whatever they want to be. However, you quickly come across difficulties. I have come across a group before who called themselves “christian atheists,” who are a very interesting bunch; they don’t believe in God, but do think that Jesus was a great moralistic teacher. So, as followers of Jesus, how many other christians would affiliate themselves with this group? I think not many.

More recently, we had the example of Anders Breivik, who murdered 76 people in Norway recently. He described himself as a christian on his Facebook profile, though again, I don’t think that many christians would recognise his right-wing extremism in the gospels.

The short answer to this dilemma is that if I am free to say that I am a christian, anyone else is free to make the same claim, yet we can believe completely different things and consequently display different attitudes and have different relationships. To simply state that one is a christian is completely meaningless without some other definition of christianity that various parties can agree upon. It’s a little like two people who call themselves vegetarian, one of whom is fine with eating fish and another who is not. Who is then to determine which is vegetarian or not? Are they both vegetarian, given the difference in their viewpoints?

The obvious step is then to then to define some set of parameters which can be agreed upon. In the case of christianity, this has come about the form of a doctrinal basis, statement of belief or creed, which I will look at in the next part.

The best of the web

As you are well aware, this is not the highest quality blog on the internet. One of my problems is trying to be concise. At present I’m cooking up “How do you define a Christian” though I’m already over 1,800 words and I haven’t even finished with the Apostles’ Creed!

So in the mean time, please find some links to some much better-written blogs than mine. Since finally getting my Twitter account unblocked, I’ve been able to harass various people who now have one more idiot of whom to think “who the hell are you?” It does allow me to see a wider of range of blogs, though, which I am grateful for.

About half way between a blog and news editorial site, we have Open Democracy. This is usually replete with great articles, but this week, I’ll point you to their Anatomy of a networked riot.

There are some very interesting thoughts on the anthropic principle at Quodlibeta. There is plenty there that I’m sure many will disagree with, but it is well-written and thought-provoking.

The best discovery I made on twitter. I follow the Natural History Museum who retweeted something from minibeastgirl. Her boundless enthusiasm for all things entomological is highly evident, and makes for a great read.

I recently came across Confessions of a doubting Thomas, which is a marvellously honest account of one man’s doubts about christianity. The blog, like this one, contains a fair few book reviews, and we actually cover some of the same books. So I would recommend that his reviews be read as a counterpoint to mine.

Batty Towers has an account of the Great North Run. It brought back some memories of when I did it back in 2004, along with the joy of finishing, the disappointment of being overtaken by a giant hamburger and the heartbreak of watching someone being resuscitated by the roadside.