The Pointlessness of Evangelizing in the US

It has been a long time since I posted anything, and I doubt many people will find this post very interesting, but it is a topic that has been bugging me for a while.  I’m aware that not everyone reading this is intimately familiar with the inner workings of Christian churches in the US, especially in evangelical Protestant churches, but, as the name implies, evangelism is a big deal.  For those of you unaware, evangelism is basically the spreading of the Good News, the Gospel of Christ.  This is basically the idea that God sent his Son, Christ, the Redeemer, to die as payment for the sins of the world, and that individuals can avoid being damned for all eternity if they but accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  Having some way of avoiding eternal torment is good news indeed, and the purpose of evangelism in Christianity is to tell people about this possibility for salvation.  Of course, I am sure you’ve heard that story more times than you can count, and that’s the concern of this post.

It should be noted that evangelism is not proselytizing.  Proselytism is actively attempting to convert someone on to your view, like your religion.  The difference between proselytism and evangelism should be obvious as the former involves providing arguments for a specific position while the latter merely involves a declaration of some state of affairs.

With that out of the way I can get to the issue at hand.  I do not think it would be controversial to say that most Christians believe there is a Scriptural mandate to evangelize (Matthew 28:19,20 and Mark 16:15 are common examples of this).  But what happens when everyone already knows about the Gospel?  Does it make sense to continue explicit evangelism programs when the message completely saturates the society in which the evangelism is happening?  For anyone who suggests that the Bible doesn’t say to ever stop, I would suggest that commands generally have such understanding built into them.  For example, if I tell you to cook a meal, it would make little sense to continue to cook after the meal was completed.  Rather, the notion that you can stop once the ordered task has been finished seems implied in any reasonable interpretation of that command.  In which case, I have to wonder why evangelism is still so important.

Here’s the big point:  everyone already knows the Good News.  And no one has to take my word for it.  Check out the jesus signpicture to the right.  It has a single word on it:  Jesus.  That’s it.  No context is provided in the sign itself.  Rather, the assumption is that merely saying the name will tell the reader all they need to know.  It’s a reminder, not something that communicates new information.  And this kind of sign is not unique.  On the contrary, it is incredibly common.  In my city there are whole billboards that say nothing other than “JESUS” or “PRAY.”  That’s it.  Just big while letters on a black background.  And yet, I think people would be very surprised if anyone seeing those signs asked “What’s a Jesus?  Is that some guy?  Why is his name up there?” or “Pray for what, about what, TO WHAT?”  That would just be unthinkable to those putting up these signs.  Rather, they assume that an understanding of the intent of the “message” is available to everyone seeing these signs, else they would have included that information.  But, of course, that’s just not something they need consider because everyone already knows the story of Jesus

And that’s exactly my point.  The entire endeavor of evangelizing, at least here in the US, is completely pointless, and those people most concerned about this action are the ones most evidently aware of this fact.  It would never occur to them that someone had genuinely never heard of Jesus, and, of course, it should not occur to them.  The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the purpose behind that are so pervasive in our society that getting through without hearing the details is simply impossible.

That just leaves me with one unanswered question:  what exactly do all these evangelists even think they are doing?

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The Problem of Silence

There is an activity popular amongst those who consider themselves tolerant or “enlightened” that occurs at meetings and gatherings both public and private.  This is is known as a “moment of silence.”  It takes place at the same time as what would traditionally be a prayer.  However, those demanding this moment of silence believe that a prayer to any particular god is an act of prejudice as there may well be those in attendance who worship a god other than the one to whom the majority would be praying.  In their benevolence and understanding, in their supreme tolerance of others, these people choose the moment of silence as a way to show their respect for all faiths.  I think this practice is at best foolish and at worst insulting.

This video should highlight the problem, but let me make it as clear as possible.  There is little in the way of “respect” shown to someone’s god when you 1) don’t let them say it’s name out loud, and 2) grant equal “respect” to other gods, you know, the ones who don’t exist for the believers.  All you can succeed in doing is belittling the beliefs of the devout, and this should not be surprising.  After all, how other than a veiled insult can someone take the suggestion that their god, the real one(s), is the same as all the false gods that adherents to other religions think exist?  It is ridiculous to think that anyone even could take such a situation any differently if they’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening.

Think about it.  Say that you’re a Muslim, and you believe Allah is the One True God.  What you have is a situation where the people leading the moment of silence saying both that it is appropriate for others to pray to false gods, to flaunt their status as an infidel in your face, and that you yourself should afford such behavior some measure of respect.  Who are these people to demand something so absurd of someone?  Of course, the same goes for an adherent to any religion that holds that it is wrong to worship false gods, that being most of them.  Certainly, Christianity is one of those religions, the first one, two, or three (depending on how you count them) of the Ten Commandments dealing with that very thing.  It is foolish to think that any Christian who takes the Ten Commandments seriously would be comfortable with this moment of silence that grants false gods the same respect as God.  I mean, duh.

Worse, the only people who might not be upset about this, the only people who might appreciate such a situation, are the very ones for whom such a demonstration of “respect” is wholly unnecessary.  That is, it is only those people who are comfortable with other people worshiping different gods, who take no offense at such activity, that would be okay with this generic “moment” in the first place.  I mean, if I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god, then I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god!  For that reason, this attempt at pacification and tolerance is pointless in relation to the only people for whom it might be acceptable.

Then we have the issue of non-believers and those who might believe in a god but just don’t like him.  For atheists, the demand that they take a moment to show respect for nothing is just strange.  What could the point of that be?  Surely it can’t be to show respect for gods they don’t think exist.  How insulting, how patronizing and condescending, it would be for an atheist to pat someone on the back and say, “You go ahead and pray to your imaginary friend.”  Even worse, if that’s possible, would be for the individual who believes but refuses to give respect to the deity.  Imagine someone who looks at the world with its various catastrophes, e.g. the floods, hurricanes, genocide, raping of babies, and the burying of women up to their necks in the sand for the purpose of crushing her skull with rocks until she is dead, out of “respect” for a god no less, and has concluded that no amount of evil could exist without a designer, an infinitely powerful fiend whose sole desire is to torment and cause suffering.  That person almost certainly has no desire to show respect for that god, and yet this is exactly what this moment of silence demands of her.  That’s absurdity of cosmic levels.

This demand for a moment of silence can only be made by those who are woefully ignorant or just jerks who don’t care about or respect the actual beliefs of others.  Let’s cut this crap out.

*Lest there is any confusion, I do not have in mind here anything like the similarly-called “moment of silence” used as an opportunity to remember the dead at funerals and memorial services or anything of that nature.

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I’m the One Full of Love, You Jerk!

castanza7For those who don’t know, Christopher Hitchens has cancer.  It’s become this weird kind of big deal as a lot of the people who have been his intellectual adversaries have been fumbling all over themselves to let everyone know that they are praying for him.  I find that odd in the first place because I don’t see 1) why they presume that anyone would think otherwise, and 2) why they would think that if someone did think otherwise that their coming out and saying anything would change that person’s mind.  I mean, if I thought you were the kind of bastard who would wish someone dead by way of a terrible disease that causes a great deal of suffering over an intellectual disagreement, strenuous though it might be, why would I believe you when you tell me that you’re really not a bastard at all? 

Regardless, a quick web search would tell you all you need to know about that.  But then there’s a new thing that occurred on Wednesday.  David Brog, a long-time critic of Hitchens, came out over at HuffPo to tell everyone that not only is he praying for Hitchens, but that he, and other Christians, are all better than Hitchens, too.  After talking about how it is only natural that he and his fellow Christians in the media would wish Hitchens well and pray for him, Brog take the opportunity to get in the amazingly low blow.  He writes,

I doubt we’ll ever hear Hitchens apologize for blaming almost every evil in human history on those with whom he disagrees: Christians, Jews, and other assorted faithful. Hitchens is fierce and downright ugly in his attacks on religion and the religious. He and the generation of new atheists he lead don’t just disagree; they demonize and dehumanize.

Don’t hurt yourself with all that Christian “charity” there, buddy.  Yea, it’s not just Hitchens who is a jerk.  It’s all the “new atheists.”  You’d never catch them wishing anyone well if they got cancer!  Jerks!

Then it gets even more strange.  Brog writes,

The fact is that people of faith have been the driving force behind every one of the West’s most important human rights struggles. It was devout Christians — and only devout Christians — who fought the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the American Indian. It was believing Christians — and only believing Christians — who fought to end the slave trade and then slavery itself in both Great Britain and America. Our civil rights movement was largely a movement of the churches led by pastors. And today, those at the forefront of the struggle to relieve the debt and disease of Africa are typically committed Christians and Jews.

That’s right, it was ONLY devout, believing Christians who opposed the wars against American Indians, opposed slavery, and who fought for civil rights for minorities here in the US.  None of those jerk atheists, self-described agnostics, deists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus (fuck you, Gandhi!), Buddhists, or anyone else ever stood with Christians on those issues!  Jerks!

Groan.  All I can hear is Weird Al singing “Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?  Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art!” from “Amish Paradise.”

It’s difficult not to wonder if this is some kind of bizarre joke.  I can’t help but be curious if Brog even showed this to anyone else before he published it.  It’s hard to imagine that no one noticed the irony of the piece before it was published, that it’s quite an odd juxtaposition to claim the moral high ground while attacking a guy who likely won’t have much time to respond seeing as he’s battling throat cancer.  Basically, Brog is telling us that he is better than Hitchens because he would never attack someone personally the way Hitchens does, but in doing so he’s not criticizing any particular argument Hitchens has made or even his larger position.  Rather, he’s just saying that he thinks Hitchens, and all “new atheists,” is a jerk, he’s attacking Hitchens personally, and he’s doing so while patting himself on the back for being big enough to pray for Hitchens while he has cancer.  Man, what a jerk move.

Brog finishes with this:

Christopher Hitchens’ arguments have never persuaded me. But it is his behavior — especially when contrasted with that of believers — that has done the most to convince me of the limited value of his ideas.

Wow.  Irony.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s going to come back to bite him.


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The Supreme Court Says the Cross Is Not about Christ

mojave-cross1 This is a subject on which I’ve meant to write twice before, didn’t have time, and then decided against writing on it as it seemed too late to do so.  But every time I decide not to write about this, some new twist occurs, giving me yet another opportunity to make a post on the subject.  Far be it from me to ignore such obvious signs.

There is a cross in the Mojave National Preserve that serves as a war memorial.  It was erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  A decade ago a retired National Park Service employee, Frank Buono, sued to have the cross removed on the charge that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.  Buono won the case, and the cross was ordered removed, so Congress decided to give the land to the VFW so as to avoid having to remove the cross.  A federal court ruled that such a transfer was clearly intended to sidestep the requirement to take down the cross, and, as such, was illegal.  The government appealed that case to the Supreme Court, and on April 28, in a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that that transfer was, in fact, legal (that ruling can be seen here).  The result of that ruling was that the cross got to stay.  However, on May 9, the cross was stolen by thieves.  Then, to everyone’s surprise, a cross appeared in the same spot just last Wednesday, May 19.  It is unclear whether this is the same cross that was removed or if it is a replica.  It is also relevant to point out that in 1999 the park service denied a request to allow a Buddhist memorial in the same area, and Easter services have been held at the memorial for the past 70 years.

That is a quick and dirty rundown on the background of the issue at hand.  What’s funny about the Supreme Court case is that, even though it was supposed to be about the legality of the transfer of the land by the federal government into the hands of a private organization for the purpose of avoiding following a mandate handed down from a federal court, most of the hearing centered on whether or not it was proper to have a religious symbol on land owned by the federal government, especially whether it was legal to have a symbol of only one religion while excluding others.  Looking at the First Amendment, it might appear that the obvious conclusion is that it is indeed illegal to have such a symbol erected on federal land.  Quoting an editorial from the New York Times:

On the merits, the appeals court was right that the cross must come down. By allowing a Christian cross, and not symbols of other faiths, on federal land, the government was favoring one religion over others. Also, Congress has designated the cross as a national memorial, which means that it continues to have official government endorsement.

It is curious, then, that the Supreme Court ruled to allow the cross to stay.  We can see the reasoning behind the majority opinion in this exchange between Justice Antonin Scalia and ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg (the pdf of the court transcript can be found here):

MR. ELIASBERG: … I think it would be very odd indeed for the VFW to feel that it was free to take down the cross and put up, for example, a statues of a soldier which would honor all of the people who fought for America in World War I, not just Christians, and say: Well, we were free to do that because even though there’s the sign that says, this cross is designated to honor all the —

JUSTICE SCALIA: The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war? Is that — is that —

MR. ELIASBERG: I believe that’s actually correct.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Where does it say that?

MR. ELIASBERG: It doesn’t say that, but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins, and I believe that’s why the Jewish war veterans —

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It’s the — the cross is the — is the most common symbol of — of — of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn’t seem to me — what would you have them erect? A cross — some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, Justice Scalia, if I may go to your first point. The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.


MR. ELIASBERG: So it is the most common symbol to honor Christians.

JUSTICE SCALIA: I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, my — the point of my — point here is to say that there is a reason the Jewish war veterans came in and said we don’t feel honored by this cross. This cross can’t honor us because it is a religious symbol of another religion.

And that seems to aptly summarize the kind of debate that went on in the courthouse.  The result was that the Court decided to that it was appropriate and legal for the cross to stay.  From the New York Times:

“A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies would be compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”

This strikes me as simply bizarre, and I am not alone in this view.  Even other Justices agree.  From the same article:

Justice John Paul Stevens rejected that view. “The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice,” he wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. “It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.”

And that’s the point I want to make here.  In order to render the cross legal, they had to render it largely impotent.  That is, the cross is no longer, for the majority of the Court, a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world so that Man might have communion with God and have the opportunity to be forgiven by His Grace, which is arguably the core belief of Christianity.  I mean, the whole point of the cross is that Christ died on it!  What Kennedy and the majority have done is say that this is not the meaning of the cross, that instead it is just something we stick on graves.  But can they really believe that?  Is that why churches have the cross in front of their buildings?  Is that why people wear crosses around their necks?  Also, why was the cross chosen as this symbol, and why aren’t crosses put on all graves rather than only on the graves of Christians?  And all of this ignores the earlier points that other religious symbols are not allowed, and Easter services are held at the foot of the cross, but, of course, those issues highlight just how weird the ruling is.  The absurdity of such a view is staggering.

What is remarkable about this ruling is that, in order to keep the cross, it had to be stripped of all its meaning, and that seems to defeat the purpose of having the cross erected in the first place.  Certainly, the reason the cross is a desired symbol is because of its religious symbolism.  Once that is removed, once that meaning is gone, there seems to be little reason to fight to keep the cross in place at all.  Why not just have a plaque or any other strictly secular symbol?  What does the cross matter once it no longer stands for Christ?

Lest there be any confusion, Christians conservatives have not taken this ruling to mean what the Justices say it means.  With titles like “Big Week for Religious Liberty!” on articles praising the ruling, it seems clear that many Christians take this ruling to be a sign that the Supreme Court has ruled that religious symbols on federal property is appropriate and legal.  But, again, that is not the sense one gets from reading the ruling and comments of the majority of the Court.  Rather, the cross has been deemed to not be religious!  It’s difficult to overstate the weight of that.  What the court has told Christians is that their symbol, the one they use to demonstrate their belief in their god’s sacrifice for them, is often not a symbol of any such thing.  Rather, it is something to stick on graves.  In specific, the cross in the Mojave Desert does not represent Christianity.  It is not, in Justice Kennedy’s words, “a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs.” 

It seems that if any of these Christian conservatives were actually paying attention, they would not be celebrating.  Rather, they would be outraged.  I can’t help but think we should all be outraged at the kind of game that the majority of the Court is playing by saying that the most well-known symbol of the Christian faith is actually no such thing.

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Why Is This So Hard to Understand?

There is a gubernatorial race going on in Alabama right now.  I don’t live in Alabama, and likely you don’t either, so the race itself is of little consequence to me or most of you.  That said, there is something of which I think we should take note in terms of how the race is being run.  There are those who don’t like Bradley Byrne, who is running as a Republican in the election.  They do not think Byrne is conservative enough, and they offer up evidence of this in the video to the right.  The website of the group behind the video can be found at

First, let me say that I don’t care at all who becomes governor in Alabama, nor do I care about Byrne.  I only care about this issue as it highlights in a powerful way something that many want to deny.  This issue is not merely the fact that there is a vocal group out there who wants to destroy science education.  It is the further fact that this group recognizes that they are simply not the small minority that we are constantly told they are.  Were that the case, an ad such as this would have no power.  It only works if it finds traction with some large group of voters out there who share this anti-science sentiment.

The ad says that “Byrne supported the teaching of evolution, said evolution best explains the origin of life.”  At the end of that quote, the narrator’s voice goes up in pitch as if this were a question, suggesting that he thinks this is so incredible as to be absurd.  That’s right, this group is presenting an ad to sway voters away from Byrne by saying that he is a proponent of the apparently nutty idea that evolution explains the origin of species better than other explanations, and this is tied to his supposed claim that “parts of the Bible are…true and parts that are not.”  That is, Byrne’s endorsement of the teaching of evolution in the science classroom is seen by these people as a rejection of Christianity.

Of course, evolution does not actually explain the origins of life at all, regardless of what Byrne might have said, but I’ll be charitable here and suggest that he meant something like the origin of species instead.  Also, a point that might be noteworthy here is that, according the the website behind this very video, Byrne did not actually suggest that parts of the Bible were not true.  Rather, the word left out of the ellipses that matters is ‘literally’, and there is quite a big difference between saying that some parts of the Bible are literally true while others are not and saying that some parts of the Bible are true and some are not.  No believer, no matter how devout, can deny the former without looking like a complete fool.  After all, Jesus Christ was called the Lamb of God in the Bible, yet I seriously doubt anyone would claim that Christ was a literal lamb.  That’s just silly.  John 1:29, then, is clearly not meant to be taken literally, yet that has little to do with whether or not it is true nonetheless.  This shows that even fundamentalists think that some parts of the Bible are not literally true, so that in and of itself is no big issue.

That out of the way, the point here is that the anti-Byrne camp here is attempting to use Byrne’s apparent endorsement of the teaching of a radically successful scientific theory for the purpose of condemning him and showing him to be ungodly in the eyes of conservative Alabamians.  This would only work, though, if there already exists in the minds of these people a clear link between endorsing the teaching of evolution and abandoning Christianity.  And, of course, such a link does exist in their minds.  It is simply the case that a number of Christians believe that accepting evolutionary biology as a legitimate explanation of anything involves an explicit rejection of Christianity.  They believe it’s an either/or kind of situation, where, in this case, being pro-science is to be anti-God.

That’s the point that so many on the science side of the debate seem to miss, and it’s baffling to me that they miss it.  The tension between religion and science is not the result of a bunch of strident new atheists running around yelling that they hate the baby Jesus.  Rather, it is a result of these religious groups who are simply continuing the long tradition of rejecting science when it contradicts their favored interpretation of their holy text.  These people get to define what their religious beliefs are, not anyone else, and they say accepting science is rejecting their God.  And they are right.  They are right because their beliefs are theirs, so they get to say what they are.  The tension here is real, and it is real because of the religious folk, not a bunch of loud-mouthed atheists.

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Using the Bible to Learn about…Atlantis?

via PZ Myers

atlantis2 The Answers in Genesis crew does more than run the Creation Museum.  They also attempt to teach you how to use the Bible to gain insight into a variety of questions.  One of these questions, you might be surprised to learn, is whether or not Atlantis existed and, if it did, where it was.  Let me spoil it for you:  Bodie Hodge, the author, has no idea.  That’s right, AiG went to the trouble to put up an essay in their “Answers in Depth” section on a subject with little to no legitimacy that provides no answers at all.  What it does provide, though, is some insight into the depths of goofiness of this strange group of creationists.

Let me point out at the beginning of this that there almost certainly was no lost continent of Atlantis.  There is a general consensus amongst scholars that Plato was using a fictional historical account to make a point about law and society.  Further, if you accept plate tectonic theory, and you should, the idea of any lost continent becomes simply implausible.  For these reasons, the entire question of whether or not Atlantis existed already has an answer without looking to biblical text.  But that doesn’t stop Hodge from using a lot of words to say nothing at all.

Hodge correctly points out that the earliest mention of Atlantis comes from Plato.  In fact, all further mentions of Atlantis rely on Plato’s account.  With that in mind, exactly what sort of illumination does Hodge think can be provided by the Bible?  Well, first, if it existed, it sank post-flood (that would be the Noahic flood).  Hodge writes,

Since the modern continent scheme was changed significantly from the Flood and Plato was referring to post-Flood places, it is very unlikely that this Atlantis was pre-Flood. Plato’s book Critias gives details of the island and much more (such as the ancient Egyptians originating the account), implying that if it existed, it was likely post-Flood. Egypt was formed by Mizraim, Noah’s grandson, and is still known as Mizraim in the Hebrew language. So, for Egypt to be aware of it requires Noah’s grandson Mizraim to have existed to begin Egypt. If so, descriptions given by Plato appear to place it outside of the Mediterranean in the Atlantic Ocean.

Now, those familiar with Plato’s writing probably find this odd, and this is for the simple fact that the war between the Athenians and Atlantians was supposed to have occurred nine thousand years before the life of the Athenian lawmaker Solon, who lived from 638 BC–558 BCE.  In Plato’s Timaeus the character Critias, recounting an Egyptian priest speaking to Solon, says “As touching your citizens of nine thousand years ago, I will briefly inform you of their laws and of their most famous action…”  That action turns out to be the ancient Athenians fighting off the Atlantians, and that war ended with Atlantis sinking.  That puts the sinking of Atlantis at almost twelve thousand years ago, an event three times older than the supposed Great Flood.  That makes it difficult for Atlantis to have been post-flood, but why let reason get in the way of whatever this is supposed to be?

It is quite peculiar that Hodge would take Plato’s account of an ancient civilization from, at that time, about nine thousand years earlier, seriously but think they missed the mark by seven or eight thousand years.  In fact, it’s even weirder than that.  On the possible date of the sinking of Atlantis, Hodge eventually writes, “To be generous, let’s set 600 BC as the latest date. So, we have a range of 1818 BC to about 600 BC.”  So, 600 BCE becomes the most recent on the possible range, and that’s pretty funny given that Solon, the supposed origin of this report for the Athenians, was born in 638 BCE.  That would put Atlantis sinking during his lifetime.  Of course, this is really being reported by Plato, and Plato was born in 438 BCE.  Still, given the records kept by the Athenians, one would think they would have a record of the war with Atlantis of which Critias is speaking if it had occurred so recently.  Again, that puts the war  in Solon’s lifetime, and they knew of Solon, but they did not know of this war, so that clearly cannot be anywhere close to correct.

Now, someone might suggest that we should be more generous to Hodge in his dates as 600 BCE is at the end of the range.  But the point here is that putting something within that range is absurdly sloppy scholarship for the reasons listed above.  Moreover, it is just weird to suggest that we should take part of the account of the character, Critias, seriously, that there was this mysterious island nation of Atlantis, but that we should discount the rest of his story that puts that island sinking thousands of years before AiG says the world was created.  That’s just goofy.

Hodge has some other oddness in this piece.  He suggests that Atlas, in this story the son of Poseidon, was a real person, as was Poseidon.  Why would anyone, especially a Christian, suggest that the Titans, the forbearers of the Greek gods, were real?  Well, because Hodge thinks that the name “Cronos,” the father of Poseidon, sounds like “Kittim.”  He writes, “take note that Poseidon was son of Cronus, which is a variant of Cethimas/Kittim (Cronus/Kronos, Κρόνος). Biblically, Kittim is the son of Javan, the son of Japheth, the son of Noah. With this mind, Atlas was likely Noah’s great, great, great grandson.”  Oh yea, “likely” indeed.  So that means that Atlas, the ruler of Atlantis, was likely real, and that gives weight to the idea that Atlantis was real.

Hodge has some other dodgy math, but I won’t get into it.  He goes on to suggest that it was rising sea levels resulting from melting ice caps that really caused Atlantis’ disappearance.  He writes, “Keep in mind that an island being overtaken by rising sea levels appears identical to an island sinking!”  Sure, except for that whole happening in a single day bit and the fact that, surely, the Egyptians and Athenians would have noticed the rising sea levels taking over their own lands, thus preventing them from describing Atlantis as sinking.  But, except for that stuff, sure.

Perhaps the funniest aspect of this entire post is Hodge reporting the possible location of Atlantis.  He says, “If it did exist, it was most likely a post-Flood island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, not far from the Strait of Gibraltar.”  That’s some great research, there, putting it exactly where Plato did.  Awesome.

It’s hard to know what to think of these people.  This entire piece seems so strange and wrong-headed that it is difficult to imagine why they would even write something like this.  I seriously don’t get it.  Then, when they do write about it, they produce this.  The possible location of Atlantis is identical to what Plato said, the likelihood of its actual existence is a shrug of the shoulders, and the possible time frame is simply absurd.  At my most generous, I’m just left think “What the hell?”  Seriously, guys, what the hell?

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Loxton and the Standard Pablum

untitled Daniel Loxton recently had a book published entitled Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be.  It is a children’s book on evolution, and it has received great reviews in several places.  One such review is by the (in)famous PZ Myers.  Myers says of the book, “I am just so delighted with this book! Loxton hits the key concepts perfectly, and without being stuffy about it. A wonderful book to donate to your local library.” [EDIT: Loxton wrote to correct me on this. This quote is from Eugenie Scott, not PZ Myers. My bad.]  That said, he is critical of one sub-section of the book:

What about religion?

This is a question people often ask when wondering about evolution. They want to connect the discoveries of science to their religious understanding.  Unfortunately, this isn’t something science can help with. Individual scientists may have personal opinions about religious matters, but science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.  Science is our most reliable method for sorting out how the natural world functions, but it can’t tell us what those discoveries mean in a spiritual sense. Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions.

Writing on this Myers says, “I recommend it highly, but with one tiny reservation. The author couldn’t resist the common temptation to toss in something about religion at the end, and he gives the wrong answer: it’s the standard pablum, and he claims that ‘Science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.’”  And Myers is not the only one annoyed at this seemingly unnecessary addition to a science book for children.  The noise has been significant enough that Loxton has seen fit to respond to these criticisms.  He writes,

In blogs, tweets, and direct messages, quite a few of my friends in the atheist community have raised concerns about this section, calling it “the pandering paragraph” or “one of the only parts I disagree with in your book.”

My editor was caught off guard by this sharp focus on a minute sub-section, but I knew in advance that this was likely. It follows from an old, old split within the skeptical community. On the one hand, there are skeptics who see god as simply the granddaddy of all paranormal claims; on the other hand, there are those who think the core claims of theistic belief are different in kind from testable paranormal claims, and therefore out of scope for scientific skepticism.

I am part of this latter group. I think skepticism is a different project than atheism. This is the de facto position for most skeptical and scientific organizations, but advocating this in the wake of the new atheism has become a bit of a lonely thing to do.

Clearly, then, Loxton feels that the criticism he is receiving is somewhat unfair and unjustified.  I don’t think it is.

Let’s look at exactly what Loxton claimed in his book:  “science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.”  Is that even superficially true?  Well, I suppose it depends on what one means by “religion.”  Science has quite a bit to tell us about the various explicitly testable empirical claims of various religions.  In Christianity, for example, there are claims made about the origin of the universe, the Earth, humans, etc, and each of those fall under the purview of some area science, so it looks like science can absolutely say something about that stuff.  Then there are the claims about various specific events, such as the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt.  Archeology certainly has something to say about that.  There are various instances that would require the world being a certain kind of way in order for things to be possible, e.g. talking snakes, people surviving in large fish, and virgin births, and science has something to say about all of those things.  Moreover, things that seem to be ruled out, like the last items listed, can even be bolstered and corroborated by science if the right situation presented itself.  For example, if we found Jesus Christ’s DNA, and it lacked all the signatures of the male contribution to his genetic makeup, that would, at least, be something in the way of evidence for a virgin birth, and it would be the result of scientific study.  The same would be true for finding a serpent with vocal cords necessary for speech.  That would certainly count as some for evidence of a talking snake, and, again, that would be a contribution from science.

I could go on, but the above should suffice for my point here.  There are countless religious claims of which science can and does say a great deal.  So, in that respect, Loxton is just wrong.

Then there is the scientific process itself.  While not exclusive to science, there are aspects of scientific reasoning that have something to say beyond mere empirical claims.  Myers himself points this out.  He writes, “We can confidently say that nearly all religions are definitely wrong, if for no other reason than that they contradict each other.”  Myers rightfully suggests that scientific reasoning tells us that if two things contradict each other, then at least one of them is wrong, and possibly both are.  Scientific reasoning also tells us the kinds of things that we should be able to test in the first place, thus providing the fodder for the kinds of research into empirical claims discussed above.  With these things in mind, it is clear that both the reasoning and practice of science explicitly have something to say about religion in general.

Let’s now look at another aspect of Loxton’s claim, something else that has drawn some ire.  Loxton says, “Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions.”  What can this even mean?  If Loxton has ruled out both empirical evidence and general reasoning as a means of looking into religion, why would anyone think that a child’s family or friends would have any insight into the question?  Indeed, if evidence and reason are not allowed, what could they even possibly have to say?  It does not look like they could say anything of substance at all, and, if Loxton has some response to this, he certainly hasn’t told anyone what it is.  As a result, I am left just puzzled and perplexed by what Loxton could have in mind beyond giving some sort of political lip service to religion, which is what he explicitly says he is not doing.

Loxton says some other weird stuff in his attempt to defend himself.  He writes, “It has long struck me as strange that atheists and religious fundamentalists share an assumption that atheism and acceptance of evolution are the same thing.”  What?  Who says that?  I want to see the quote from a reasonable pro-science advocate that evolution = atheism.  Indeed, that’s exactly the absurd position that creationists have been advocating for a century and a half, and it’s as incorrect now as it was when it was first levied against Darwin.  That said, acceptance of evolution absolutely does force theists to, at the very least, accept that their holy books are not literal.  However, as pointed out earlier, that very much does look like it says something about religion in general, even if not about the possibility of religion in all cases.

But Loxton says something even more strange.  Directly following the above quote, he writes, “This assumption is,  at least in demographic terms, incorrect. Discussions about public attitudes toward evolution typically neglect a remarkable fact:  In North America, most of the people who accept evolution are religious.”  So what?  This ridiculous reasoning has been picked over repeatedly, but it still keeps showing it’s ugly head.  I’ll say what has been said over and over and over:  the mere fact that a majority of people hold two positions does not mean those positions are coherent with one another.  In that light, it is entirely irrelevant that the majority of people who believe x also believe y.  That argument yields nothing.  So that part of Loxton’s response to his critics is wholly irrelevant.

So, where are we left?  The obvious question is one Loxton himself addresses at the end of his essay:  “Then Why Include that Section At All?”  He says, “This question, ‘What about religion?’ is, without any doubt the single most common concern people have when they consider the evidence for evolution. I could hardly ignore that.  So, how did I answer this sensitive and nearly universal question?  As simply and honestly as I knew how.”  But that’s exactly the problem, or, rather, problems.  It isn’t at all clear that a children’s text on the science of evolution has any legitimate reason for discussing religion at all.  Indeed, it looks very much like the converse is true, that it should avoid that discussion altogether.  Even worse, the answers Loxton provides, that “science as a whole has nothing to say about religion” and “Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions” both seem anything but honest.  As discussed above, science very much does have something to say about religious claims.  Further, there is no reason to privilege your family’s or your friend’s opinion on something if it is the case that reason and evidence can’t touch it.  How is that honest?

I would never suggest that Loxton should have told children that acceptance of evolution and religious beliefs were mutually exclusive.  That would have been just stupid as well as incorrect.  That said, what he wrote, and his response to the criticism of that writing, seems, well, a little dishonest.  I don’t mean to suggest that Loxton is a liar.  But I do think that he is not being honest with himself if he thinks that the sub-section in question and his response to the fallout it generated is legitimate.  It isn’t.

This stuff isn’t that hard.  You should keep religion out of science.  That isn’t just true for creationists; it’s true for everyone.

For the record, none of this diminishes the rest of the book, which, by all counts, is the best children’s book on the science of evolution written.  My aim here is in no way to dissuade anyone from purchasing it, and, were I asked, I would strongly recommend it.

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