Thursday, May 1, 2008

Humans Did Not Descend From Apes

I ran across a post by John Shore of the Suddenly Christian blog titled, "If We WERE Descended From Apes, At Least I Wouldn’t Have To Work." His commentary is meant to be humorous, detailing how he is personally averse to labor and how this relates to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. But I thought the premise itself was worth a reply, as so many Christians I speak to are confused about this point of our relation to the apes (and all life, for that matter). And some seem just downright fearful of the prospect.

For example, I attended a Whitworth College alumni event (my pastor told me about it - I am not an alum) titled, "Christian Evolutionist: An Oxymoron?" Whitworth biology professor Craig Tsuchida gave an excellent explanation of how evolution works and various ways Christians can reconcile their faith with science. Afterward, a member of the school's board repeatedly asked Professor Tsuchida questions about our relation to the apes. She had a pained look on her face, and misunderstood his answers, rephrasing the question in an attempt to be told there was no connection between ourselves and the apes. If she had spoken her true feelings, I suspect the line of questioning would have been more of a plea, "Just tell me I'm not related to those damn, dirty apes!"

I think this particular aversion is based in [misplaced] pride, and it seems to extend from the same mindset that put Earth at the center of our first planetary models. But I don't buy the premise - that being related to apes, or being classified as animals, makes us somehow less valuable. First, imagine the worst possible human being (yes, I know who we're all thinking of). We are far more closely related to him than to any modern ape, but does that really affect the way we see and define ourselves? Surely, the horrible acts committed by humanity are a blight upon us all, but that just means that we are capable of both good and evil. No one wakes up and says, "I am distantly related to a criminal, so I might as well go murder and steal."

My second observation is that being a subset of the category "animal" need not sully the word "human." Why not simply expand our understanding of the word "animal" to encompass all that we find good about humans? I remember my sister and I trying to convince our mom that people were animals. My mom would say, "I just don't like that word." My sister had a quick repartee, "Well, we're not vegetables or minerals."

I should also make the third point that animals in general (and apes in particular) and not necessarily so bad. They, too, perform acts both good and evil by our standards. Chimps, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans all demonstrate love for their children, reciprocal altruism, and some even aid hurt members of other species. There is much more to be said about this, but I will briefly recommend Frans de Waal's book Our Inner Ape.

So, in the comment section of John's blog, I wrote the following:
Just a technical note for clarification… we are not descended FROM modern apes. We share a common ancestor WITH modern apes, the same way you share ancestors with your cousins, rather than being descended from your cousins. As to whether our shared common ancestors would be classified as apes, well, that’s simply a taxonomy question. The various species, genera, families, and other categories we place animals in are convenient groupings that help us organize, but do not capture the continuum of evolution. If you held your mother’s hand, and she held mother’s, and so on for about 300,000 generations back (approximately the time we split from chimps and bonobos), you’d have a chain about 216 miles long, and the individual at the other end would not be called human. However, you would never identify two individuals along the chain for whom you could say that one was human and the next was not.

It’s well enough to find inspiration from ancient tales like those in Genesis, and apply the insights of their authors and their times to our lives, but I’d recommend making that endeavor part of a fuller and more robust outlook. We are storytelling animals, and we want to be part of a narrative. What better narrative is there than the one that shows us where we REALLY came from, and demonstrates that we are cousins with all life? It is not merely a beautiful, humbling and awe-inspiring story, but one that is demonstrably true.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The World Is Just Awesome

My friend Stacey sent me a link to this video, a commercial produced by the Discovery Channel, and I thought it so perfectly captured why life is worth living. We live in an amazing world, with so much to do, learn and enjoy. Just this short clip is, I think, more powerful than any of the traditional explanations of our purpose and place. I especially enjoyed the cameos at the end by Adam and Jamie of Mythbusters and Stephen Hawking.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Happy Pi Day!

Since 1988* people have been celebrating the number pi (π) on March 14th, or 3.14. Some celebrants are more precise, and wait for 1:59 PM and 26 seconds to begin their festivities, as pi approximates to 3.1415926.

Of course, any numerical expression of pi is approximate, as pi is an irrational number (it cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers), and thus it never stops and never repeats itself. Pi is also a transcendental number. As I hope all of you know, pi (pronounced like "pie", hence the visual pun to the upper-right) is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. The history of mathematical progress in finding more precise values for pi is a fascinating one (In the Bible, 1 Kings 7:23-26 gives the value as 3), and pi currently has been calculated to over a trillion places. You can see pi up to a million places here. Pi (π) is a greek letter, an abbreviation for the greek word for perimeter.

Pi has long held a sentimental value for me. When I was in fourth grade, my dad (who is a high school math instructor), offered extra credit to students who could memorize 35 places of pi. He and I decided to have a contest to see who could learn the most places, and I (with my 9 year old plastic mind) was able to memorize 105 to his 65 (I can currently rattle off 120 from memory). This has served no practical purpose in my life, but it has been an excellent conversation starter and ender. The closest it came to being useful was in high school, when my good friend Frank told Brian, his fellow football team member, that I knew 105 places. Brian was skeptical, saying I was probably bluffing and offered a $10 bet to prove it. Frank took the bet, and Brian approached me with a printout from the internet. Frank won the $10. Pi memorization is an age-old nerd exercise, and the Guiness Book of World Records tracks the individuals who have memorized the most. Apparently Daniel Tammet is the current record holder, with 22,514 places.

(More on Pi and Pi Day at Wikipedia, and Science Friday's tribute to Pi Day here.)

*I was not aware until I started writing the post, but Pi Day began in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium! You can see video of their 20th annual celebration here. The Exploratorium was one of my favorite places to go as a kid, with interactive science demonstrations that you weren't just allowed to touch, but encouraged to touch! Highly recommended if you're in the SF area.

Awkward Bible Passages Part VI

"If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again."
- Deuteronomy 13:6-10 (NIV)

This one starts out so nicely, evoking images of our closest loved ones. Ah yes, my brother, my son or daughter, the wife I love, my closest friend. But it's all down hill from there. We are instructed by Yahweh that if anyone, no matter how close to us or loved by us, should try to lead us away from him to worship other gods, then it's okay - nay, necessary - to murder her. And not just to hand her over for others to murder - we ourselves must be the first to put her to death (and then everyone else gets to join in).

Once again we see the jealous Yahweh (he freely admits as much - see here, here, here, here and here for a few examples) throwing a hissy fit because his tiny creations might worship some other god. There are quite a few problems with this, but I will mention some of the most salient:

1) Why the insecurity? Why does Yahweh need to be so jealous, anyway? He has lots of followers; is it really such a big deal if a few go astray? I'm not sure if his feelings are just hurt, or he doesn't feel appreciated, or what - but this seems awfully petty (and anthropomorphic) for the supposed creator of the universe. As Roy Zimmerman says in his brilliant song Jerry Falwell's God, "...If people are jealous and judgmental and vengeful and violent, maybe it's because you made them in your image."

2) Where's the free will? I thought the reason God allowed suffering was because he wants us to have free will. But how free can our wills be if we are threatened by force to remain believers? "You have two choices... you can believe in me, or you can DIE AT THE HANDS OF YOUR LOVED ONES!!" That's not really much of a choice. And it's rather immature. It's like telling your children, "You have two options... you can stop arguing, or I'll drive this van off the cliff." The subtext is clear... there's only one option.

3) Why does he remain hidden? If God is so insistent on being believed, then why doesn't he act like he exists? Why make the world seem chaotic and indifferent? Why let good things and bad things happen to good and bad people without any overriding pattern or justice? Why let there be other gods to worship? Why not just show up on a regular basis and confirm your existence? If blind faith is required, and punishment is death, then it just seems like Yahweh's trying to lure people in by entrapment.

4) There are other ways. Immediately killing a person to stave off deconversion is hardly the best option here. If I were a god, I could devise a better, moral way to handle the situation. First of all, I'd trust in my believers to think for themselves. I wouldn't be worried that someone else's mere suggestion could turn them away from me, especially because I wouldn't make myself so hard to believe in in the first place. Perhaps I'd give my follower the words to entice the loved one to believe in me instead, rather than killing her.

Of course, modern Christians and Jews do not adhere to this passage, and I've never heard it mentioned, let alone endorsed, in a sermon or Sunday School class. But here lies the rub: if we can all recognize this command as immoral, then why would Yahweh attribute it to himself in his word? And why would anyone persist in saying the Bible is a source of morality if we must purposefully ignore this kind of nonsense? If the Bible is the word of God, then God is as immoral as it says he is.

The image above is one I created after getting the idea that it would be funny to have an inspirational photo (like one of the Footprints in the Sand pictures) that looks like a beautiful scripture verse until you actually read it. I figured the Deuteronomy passage was ideal, because the first few lines sound so sweet and gentle. I've already given this, in a 5x7" frame, as a gag gift to some of my Christian friends, and they've gotten a kick out of it (or so they told me). The photo was taken by my wife, and shows the cliffs in Santa Cruz just down the street from where I was raised. I added the cross (it was actually just a sign warning people to stay away from cliff edges), for extra effect. I'll make prints available on a future site I'm building.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Evolution and Christian Faith

My presentation on February 11, 2007 at Westminster Presbyterian Church entitled "Evolution and Christian Faith" (read more below):

Part 2 (More Q&A):

Every year, churches around the world celebrate Evolution Sunday, an effort resulting from the Clergy Letter Project, in which over 11,000 fair-minded clergy members have signed a statement affirming evolutionary theory as confirmed truth that cannot contradict Christian teaching.

I approached my pastor in late 2006, mentioning that the following February would be Evolution Sunday, and that we as a church might want to spark a discussion of how evolution can be reconciled with Christian faith. I offered my services to give a lecture or participate in a panel, and honestly didn't expect it to go anywhere. Instead, I was surprised when he asked me to explain the issues involved. We met later in his office, and I provided my own explanation of evolution and intelligent design. I quoted some of the prominent people of faith who have endorsed evolution, and argued that Intelligent Design is not only bad science, but bad theology also. Once again, to my surprise, he said, "Yes, we should do this."

A couple weeks later we had a meeting with half a dozen elders of the church. We watched the pro-Intelligent Design film Case for a Creator (based on Lee Strobel's book of the same name), and then talked at length afterward about the arguments for and against. At that meeting, I was open as a someone who does not believe in the supernatural (and I can't stress enough how much I was impressed by everyone's open mindedness in listening to me), but it was agreed that if I included that information in my speech, some in the audience would stop listening and a) start worrying for my soul, or b) become furious with me.

As I put together the suggestions from that meeting and the various references I'd read (I was surprised to find just how much attention I had focused on the Evolution/ID divide), the message of the speech became clear: evolution is confirmed and compelling truth - a Christian should always be willing to embrace new truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is to re-evaluate core beliefs. One book I had recently read was Michael Shermer's Why Darwin Matters, which is a great primer on the debate that also serves to emphasize that very point. Shermer states it beautifully:
It should not matter how God created life whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of Gods works command awe regardless of what processes He used. We have learned a lot in four thousand years, and that knowledge should never be dreaded or denied. Theists and theologians should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors.
It was still difficult for someone like me, being free of supernatural beliefs, to tell a group of believers how they should approach their faith. After all, don't I believe that a thorough understanding of evolution refutes the arguments for God's existence? Well yes, I do. But those arguments are separate from the scientific evidence supporting evolution itself, which is demonstrable truth. If we can agree on that, then how we reconcile those facts with our own beliefs is another matter, and an area that I promised to avoid when giving my talk. The bottom line is, I'd hate for someone to reject good science because they are afraid of the consequences of questioning held assumptions. As I state in the talk, the outcome of honest inquiry can only be positive: either our previous understanding is confirmed, or we toss aside old beliefs to embrace new truth. And whether or not I personally think evolution and Christian faith are compatible, there are clearly many sophisticated believers who have managed to make the claims consistent to their satisfaction (Kenneth Miller, Pope John Paul II, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Francis Collins among them).

And so, on Evolution Sunday 2007, I gave my presentation after the regular services at Westminster Presbyterian Church. It's by no means a perfect speech - there's a lot of things I'd like to change or state differently - but I think the underlying messages got through to a lot of people and impacted them positively. There was some negative reaction as well, but I think that was the idea; to kick-start the thinking process.

The most common question I still receive from both religious people and fellow skeptics is, "Why do you still go to church?" I think this presentation is one of the best answers I can give.

Judge Jones Wins Religious Liberty Award

Happy Darwin Day, everyone! As you may already know, February 12th is the birthday of Charles Robert Darwin. He was born in 1809 (coincidentally, on the same exact day as Abraham Lincoln), making this his 199th birthday. He published (after many years' hesitation) The Origin of Species in 1859, so next year will mark both the bicentennial of Darwin the man and the sesquicentennial (no relation to the sasquatch) of his most famous book.

To celebrate this august holiday, the American Humanist Association has awarded Judge John E. Jones III the Religious Liberty Award. For those of you who are not familiar with Jones's name, you may be surprised to find a secular organization lavishing praises on a man of faith who is a Republican judge appointed by George W. Bush. It all becomes clear when you learn that he presided over the trial of Dover v. Kitzmiller, which became a huge impediment for the Intelligent Design movement. It becomes clearer still when you read the brilliant decision he wrote after wading through copious evidence and weeks of testimony. Near the end, the decision reads:

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources. [emphasis mine]
If you want to learn more about the Dover trial and the people and issues involved, I heartily recommend the book Monkey Girl by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Humes. It is a book we read in the monthly book club at CFI Los Angeles. He frames the entire situation with a recap of the long-lived debate between science and the readers of Genesis, describes the school board meetings that led to the curriculum change, and sets the stage by introducing all the people we saw in the news coverage as well as the individuals and organizations who worked behind the scenes. It is a fascinating story, especially when you learn how abysmally little the school board members knew about the science of Evolution, or even the Intelligent Design they were so eager to replace it with! Again, from Jones's decision:
The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.
The funniest anecdote comes from the last day of the trial (quoted from pg. 327 the hardback edition):
Pat Gillen, soon to return to Ann Arbor and the offices of Thomas More [the firm representing the school board], had one more question to ask: "By my reckoning, this is the fortieth day since the trial began, and tonight will be the fortieth night, and I would like to know if you did that on purpose?"
"Mr. Gillen," Judge Jones responded with a smile, as the courtroom erupted with laughter and applause, "that is an interesting coincidence, but it was not by design."
What a brilliant response! That really sums it all up, and I join the AHA in saluting Judge Jones for his work in the service of religious liberty. (Thanks to Greg for the link that led me to the AHA news.)

Rediscovering the Bible (Sermon)

My good friend Jerry (who happens to be a more faithful reader of this blog than I am a writer of it) is a fellow skeptic who I know from our various overlapping interests at CFI. He also attends a Unitarian Universalist church, and has told me about it in the past. I was very impressed by what I heard: the Unitarians manage to preserve the social atmosphere of mainstream religion (think potlucks and network of friends), and the social activism (think charity work and donations to good causes), without any of the dogma or supernaturalism we've come to associate with church. The emphasis, instead, is on acceptance and affirmation of all individuals, and celebration of everyone's personal journeys.

Though I was always very interested in visiting (and have been wanting to experience more varieties of religious experience), I usually wanted to spend my available Sundays at my regular Presbyterian church. Then, late last year, Jerry invited me to come and speak about the Bible. I eventually picked a date in January, and decided I'd talk about how I learned to appreciate and enjoy the Bible more when I learned to read it critically. Two weeks before I was scheduled to speak, I came to get a feel of what I was in for.

I must say, I was impressed. One of the first things I saw, in the fellowship hall, was a stack of flyers welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered couples. For someone from an evangelical background, this seemed like an amazingly huge step forward for mankind. No church I'd ever been to before would advertise acceptance of gay people, let alone have a nice picture of two men embracing affectionately. If they did accept gay people, it would be with a "don't-ask-don't-tell" style approach, or a "let-us-try-to-fix-you" policy.

Another thing that impressed me was that after the lecture, which was about the naturalist John Muir, there was a question and answer period! As someone who usually has something to say, it's always been difficult for me to sit on my hands after a sermon and have no outlet to respond (well, I can talk about it with a buddy or email the pastor). But think of a church where you can get up afterward and tell someone you disagree!

So, on January 27th, 2007, I came to speak at Jerry's church. I first talked to the children, reading pieces of Richard Dawkins's letter to his daughter on Good and Bad Reasons for Believing (I really should have tailored it and made it more interactive), and then gave my talk on "Rediscovering the Bible." You can listen to the full audio of my talk here (or right-click the link to save the .mp3 file):

20080127 Ross Blocher - Rediscovering the Bible - UU Church of Verdugo Hills

The talk seemed to resonate well with a lot of the members there, a lot of them having been raised in conservative religious traditions as well. I got a lot of great feedback, and even someone who chose to disagree with me! I plan to attend again this Sunday to hear my friend Jim Underdown talk about the similarities between miracles and paranormal claims.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Doo Dah

Since 1976, Pasadena has been home to the Doo Dah Parade, a counter-cultural alternative to the pomp and circumstance of the Rose Parade. I hadn't heard of the Doo Dah until my friend Stacey suggested that we at CFI-LA (The Center for Inquiry Los Angeles) be involved. She formed a committee, and we eventually settled on the theme of Science vs. Nonsense. Our "float" ended up as a chain gang of scientists, scholars, upright apes and intellectuals being harassed and harangued by a rag-tag cadre of religious fundamentalists, a Scientologist, a psychic, and other proponents of illogic. We passed out Red Hots candies and copious amounts of CFI bookmarks.

I was dressed as a television evangelist, replete with full suit, slicked back hair and a Bible to thump. Originally I was going to be a priest, but my outfit was pretty crummy and we already had a pope (Jay) and my friend John had a great priest/Creflo Dollar getup. This turned out to be fortuitous, as who should I see at the pancake breakfast but Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping! You may have read my previous coverage of his media campaign. I saddled up to the pompadoured man and he agreed to take a picture with me!

My friend Charles was recruited to be our Muslim cleric. I must take the blame for this, as I imagined early on that his long beard, dyed black, would be perfect for the part. He took care of dying (the beard), and I visited a couple websites to learn how to wrap a turban. I had no idea how involved this would be! First of all, there is no one standard way to make a turban. I was expecting something akin to the "Windsor knot" of turban-wrapping. Instead, I found it to be quite the art form that is a very individualized expression of the person wearing it. Turban-making also requires an extremely long piece of cloth. I was able to get a large white sheet from the thrift store, cut it into strips, and then sew two strips together to make a 17 by 2 foot cloth that was folded length-wise and then wrapped around Charles' head. All things considered, I'd say it turned out pretty darn well for my second attempt!

After our breakfast, we headed out to stand in line for the parade to begin. And stand in line we did - for nearly two hours! Though we had plenty of visual oddities to see, and people to meet from other floats, the sun was blazing and we got so uncomfortable that one of our marchers had to get a ride home. At least I had God's word to stand on, but this will certainly be a lesson to us in the future.

Another lesson we learned was to bring amplifiers if there's any intention of playing music. We had a boom box all set to play Stevie Wonder's "Superstition", but the sound was drowned out by the general crowd noise and the Raelians in front of us who were blasting Edwin Starr's equally-catchy "War". I had always liked "Superstition", but was never aware of the great lyrics. Here are some of the highlights:

Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladders bout to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin glass
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past.
Very superstitious, nothin more to say,
Very superstitious, the devils on his way,
Keep me in a daydream, keep me goin strong,
You dont wanna save me, sad is my song.
When you believe in things that you dont understand,
Then you suffer.... Superstition ain't the way.
Once we got started up, the parade itself was only about five blocks long. This was still enough to prove quite tiring, though, what with my running about, waving a Bible, passing out bookmarks, getting into balloon-sword fights with the other cast members, and shouting things like, "Praise Jesus!" and, "It's easier to change the Constitution than to change the Word of the living God!" (a little reference to Huckabee). All of this in a suit jacket. Suffice it to say, afterward I was very sweaty, tired, and ready to go home.

See more of my DooDah pictures on Flickr, or the set posted by Paula (who played our Scientologist). She also posted video here.