Saturday, April 30, 2011

Religious Deceit

"Religion provides the solace for the turmoil it creates"
―Byron Danelius (Professor of Biology)
This is an interesting criticism of religion, as it says to me that religious persuasion only works on people who already accept its tenets. A good example of this is the Christian conception of sin, and the corresponding forgiveness. Unless one already feels like they have committed a crime against the Judeo-Christian deity, why would one feel obliged to apologise and ask for forgiveness from it?

Similarly with Scientology, unless you have already accepted that you need to be fixed, what reason could you possibly have for getting audited, and mending your thetans. A person who believes that they are healthy doesn't check themselves in to a hospital for treatment. A sane person doesn't commit themselves to psychiatric care. Likewise, a person who doesn't believe in a religion shouldn't feel compelled to become a part of it.

Following from that, religions are almost forced to act like con-artists, playing physical and mental tricks on you to get you to believe their claims. The strategy used by Mormons, gets the 'mark' to read their scripture, while praying to their god to give them a warm feeling if it is true. I guess that this is a subtle form of psychological manipulation, the mark is required to actively interact with the deity without supposedly believing in it. On top of that, there is the confirmation bias of finding what you look for, if someone is trying to find that 'warm feeling' in their heart, they almost certainly will find it.

The strategy employed by many evangelical Christians isn't too dissimilar from the Mormon's, except they generally don't get people to try and read the Bible straight away. Emotion is a very popular tool, instead of actually showing that their religion is true they will tell their story of how Christianity helped them which they call 'sharing their testimony'. It should go without saying that the emotional solace one can feel from believing something has absolutely no bearing on its truth. It may feel great to believe that you are in a relationship with [insert attractive celebrity here], but it doesn't reflect reality. Delusions can make people feel on top of the world, but they're still just figments of imagination.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Beating the Ignorance Out of Them

So, in today’s lecture the professor did an excellent job of clearly explaining why evolution is factual, and explained what constitutes the theory of evolution and how it relates to the facts. He also explained how sub-hypotheses can be developed and tested within the framework of evolutionary theory. So if that lecture doesn’t get through to those ignoramuses I don’t know what will.

In fact there were several points in the lecture that I felt like cheering and clapping loudly, but out of respect for the learning of the other several hundred people in the theatre I opted out. One such moment was when he referred to Intelligent Design as a pseudo-science, and gave reasons why it was. It was also noteworthy that he made clear that he wasn’t attacking religion, as that would probably have made many of the creationists turn off even more than they probably already were.

One thing I was a little sad to hear, although it is almost certainly a necessary ‘evil’ in this context, was advocating the idea that Science and Religion are 'non-overlapping magisteria', or that they occupy different spheres of knowledge. I would never expect the opposite to be said within a biology class, because it is really off-topic, but rather I am sad that it needed to be said at all. That people disregard scientific evidence and theory in favour of magical creation in the first place is depressing enough, but that such an asinine statement must be made in order for them to even consider the possibility that science may be right is outright dismal.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ignorance in a Biology Class

As I mentioned a few months ago, I’m actually studying biology at the University of Auckland this year, and today I heard some baffling statements made by people sitting behind me before one of my lectures today that made me cringe.
It was the first lecture on the topic of evolution, and I assume this prompted the group of people behind me to start discussing it. Before the lecture started there was a picture of the stereotypical deity figure and a cell. The first thing I heard from this discussion that made me eavesdrop was hearing one of them say something like “I don’t even consider creation because I’m an atheist”. Over the course of the next 5 minutes before the lecture started I heard some horrendous things like “It’s still just a theory”, and “Until science proves evolution I can’t fully believe in it”. I am hoping that these individuals just went to bad schools, or didn’t study biology at all prior to this course (or science at all), because those are some pretty ignorant statements. If neither of those are true then I am ashamed of our education curriculum.

To address the first statement, that evolution is only a theory, is quite simple. No, it is not ‘only a theory’. There are facts, and the theory explains those facts. There are also sub-theories and working hypotheses. There are also many areas which require much more research to be done. Even the language of ‘only a theory’ annoys me, because it implies that a theory is nothing to be proud of, which is about as far from reality as you can get. The theory of evolution (in fact any scientific theory) is a wealth of facts combined with descriptions of mechanisms and explanations of those facts all woven together into a cohesive unit. Evolution is perhaps simultaneously the simplest and most intricate theory in all of science.
Thankfully, in this introductory lecture, the professor began to explain this concept, and said he would elaborate more on the duality of the fact/theory of evolution in tomorrow’s lecture, so hopefully he’ll set those kids straight. He also gave some excellent quotes from the likes of Darwin and Dobzhansky,
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

-Charles Darwin
“Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”

-Theodosius Dobzhansky
As for the second statement, I can only attribute that to ignorance of both the evidence for evolution and the definition of proof. Many of you will be aware of the enormous mountain of evidence for evolution, from palaeontology, through to genetics that has accumulated over the last century and a half since Darwin published his theory. If you are not aware of the full extent of the evidence, here is a link to the TalkOrigins archive.

Regarding the issue of proof... Proof is only truly found in deductive arguments, which science does not make. Science is involved only with inductive reasoning. Science establishes ‘facts’ and creates theories to explain facts. Inductive reasoning is far more useful than deductive reasoning. We can leave proofs to mathematicians and philosophers. That is mostly a semantic issue, as they were most likely using the word proof in the colloquial sense, and in that case, they are also wrong. Evolution is an extremely well established theory, in fact as I just mentioned, the evidence for it is astounding. On top of that evidence, not a single piece has been found that contradicts the theory. You’d think that in 150+ years if the theory wasn’t true to a large extent that some evidence would have been uncovered to falsify it. With that in mind, if someone does not accept evolution, they are either ignorant or a fool (or an ignorant fool), there is no way around it.

I never studied biology in High-school outside of my 5th form general science class, so I do not have much idea about the biology curriculum. Although I distinctly remember that class did not cover the topic of evolution in the biology section, and I remember at the end of the year after the curriculum had been covered and we had a free period, when the teacher asked what we wanted to talk about, I (remember I was an evolution-denier at the time!) asked the teacher to talk about evolution. She refused because it wasn’t part of the curriculum. Who knows, perhaps if she had obliged, and presented the case for it well, I may have been set straight 4 years earlier.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Offending Religious Folk

With the controversies of late regarding the burning of Qurans, and the subsequent riots it is probably a good time to weigh in on the issue.

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about this, because in my opinion is it much ado about nothing, until people get hurt that is. In this recent case of Terry Jones and his Quran burning, the response was violent, and 12 people died.
I support the rights of imbeciles like Terry Jones to say whatever they want, and even to burn holy books if they so desire. I support the rights of Muslims to be offended by the actions and words of such imbeciles. In fact, the Muslim world could have used his actions as an opportunity to stand up and show the world that they are bigger men, figuratively speaking, and that Terry Jones is just a childish buffoon. That's not what happened though was it?

Instead of standing up like civilised people, a large crowd of Muslims in Afghanistan were riled up by some radical Mullahs, and stormed the United Nations building, killing 12 workers. This is not something that should be happening in the 21st century! This behaviour belongs back in the dark ages along with book burning.

I'm not about to go on a misguided rant about the evils of religion, because that's only a side issue here. Islam is not the problem in this scenario, ignorance and manipulation are. It seems obvious to me that the people at fault here are the Mullahs, who much like Hitler have the ability to incite people to violence. The crowd are equally guilty, for being susceptible to manipulation. An educated person, with critical thinking skills would not be susceptible to this kind of group-think or manipulation.

So with that said, I think it's time for a second enlightenment.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mutations increase Genetic Information.

I really can’t understand the minds of creationists when they say things like “mutations only remove information” when it is clear they have no idea what mutations really are. There are several basic types of mutation, only one of which could really be said to 'remove' information (deletions), but even then, if the deletion causes a frame-shift then it has the potential to make a completely different protein (generally harmful, but a small chance for a beneficial mutation). The other mutation types either add, rearrange or replace DNA.

Not only does their claim parade their ignorance of how mutations actually manifest, they seem to ignore or overlook the fact that beneficial mutations, that allow organisms to perform functions that they previously could not do have been observed. Every time a bacteria develops a resistance to a particular drug, it is because its DNA mutated. It was not resistant to this drug before. This is something new. It is a new function, or an extension of a function the organism already possessed. Either way you look at it, it is an increase in functionality and 'information'.

Not only have we observed bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, we have observed other beneficial mutations in bacteria, such as in Richard Lenski's long-term evolution experiment, and in the case of Nylonase (an example of a beneficial frame-shift mutation). In both of these cases, the bacteria developed the ability to digest a new substance and use it for fuel that it previously was unable to digest. This is not a loss of information, it is an increase.

Not only do they deny this solid evidence, they have to invent bullshit about there being limits to the variation that can arise from mutation. There is no biochemical mechanism preventing an organism from accumulating mutations to the point that would be considered another species. In fact we have even observed speciation. The only thing we haven’t observed is a change from a major group of animals to another, and we can demonstrate quite clearly that this happened in the past. Through genetic analysis of similar species (and even distantly related species) we can determine approximately how long ago the common ancestor was between them, through the amount of genetic material they have in common.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Historical Jesus Cannot be Found

Nothing we know about Jesus can be confirmed.

When we try to build up a picture of the ‘Historical Jesus’ in comparison to the ‘Christ of Faith’, we aren’t left with much information. To begin with, it is widely accepted that the gospel accounts weren’t written until decades after the death of Jesus, and they weren’t written by eyewitnesses, nor do they claim to be. The earliest Christian writings are by Paul, and he doesn’t provide us with any biographical information about a Jesus figure that had lived recently. The large majority of Paul’s writings refer to a Christ, a god, who created the world, and will judge it. No details are given of his family, ministry or miracles. The closest Paul comes to anything closely biographical is the mention of the one who betrayed him, which doesn't even necessitate an earthly event.

With that said, if we look at the gospels themselves, the authors of which may or may not have been influenced by the teachings of Paul, we don’t arrive at a coherent picture of who this Jesus person really was. Mark (the earliest) contains no information about the early years of Jesus’ life, we have to rely on Matthew and Luke for that, and they can’t agree on anything: the year he was born, the ruler he was born under, his genealogy and so on. If you find a detail mentioned in Matthew or Luke about the early years of Jesus, chances are, the other gospel says something different. Even if one of them provided us with an accurate picture of Jesus, we can’t tell 2000 years down the line which one is actually true.

To compound the problem even further, the synoptic gospels can barely agree on anything Jesus said or did. Even Matthew, who based his work heavily on Mark, diverges significantly from him on many issues. Names are changed, the order of events is changed, some events are left out, words are changed. These things aren’t even significant discrepancies, and are common types of variations in folklore. The biggest problem that we face in my opinion is that there is no real biographical information. He performed miracles, rose from the dead, had a suspicious number of close followers. His name suspiciously means "Yahweh delivers". There are quite frankly, a lot of things that just do not add up. Don't even get started on the gospel we call John, that thing is in a league of its own in terms of contradictory ideas.

On top of the lack of viable information we have about him, there is a lack of credible historical evidence he even existed in the first place! No contemporary sources even mention him, and the later historians merely mention the beliefs of Christians at the time. Considering Paul had written earlier than these historians, this is not a problem. When it comes to the Jewish Historian Josephus, who wrote extensively about Pontius Pilate, isn’t it suspicious that a later Christian scribe felt the need to interpolate a passage about Jesus into Josephus? If Jesus had existed, surely he would have garnered the attention of Romans and Jews at the time, enough to justify a mention in Josephus? (there is another passage that mentions "the brother of Jesus", but that has most likely been doctored by Christian scribes also, to include the words "was called Christ")

The stories in the gospels place Jesus reading scrolls, and have him making acquaintances with people such as tax collectors, along with what would now be working class people. So amongst his greatly diverse crowd of followers, there would surely be a handful who were educated and literate, and he was obviously literate himself (according to the stories anyway). So why then, if he was literate, and many of his followers were too, do we not have any accounts written by any of them? This is really an intriguing piece of the puzzle. How are we to determine what is actually historical about Jesus, and who he was as a person if we don’t have any firsthand accounts? All of the writings we have are either hearsay, or are merely inventions of the author. Take Paul for example, he says that much of what he teaches comes from his own personal revelation. Why should we take his word for any of it, considering he never even met Jesus?

If you think that the gospels are a legitimate source of historical information about Jesus, and think that the evidence provided by them is better than for other figures, whose existence we take for granted, such as Julius Caesar, I have a few things to say. Firstly, the evidence we have for many figures in antiquity are actually recorded in the works of historians. Regardless of how objective these historians were about the details of the lives of their subjects, this was their job. They wrote down historical works. As I mentioned before, the prolific first century Jewish historian Josephus doesn’t mention Jesus. The mention he gets was certainly added by a later Christian scribe, who was likely perturbed by the fact that Josephus didn’t acknowledge Jesus’ existence. On the other hand, the writers of the Gospel accounts are for the most part, anonymous. The only one we have some idea of who wrote it is Luke, who was supposedly a follower of Paul. Beyond this, we really have no information about them. We have no idea whether they wrote anything else beyond what is contained in the New Testament.

I actually am of the opinion that there was a historical Jesus to start off a movement that eventually led to the creation of what we now know as Christianity. I do not think however that we can really know anything about what he said and did. This is because many aspects of his life are not original, and were essential parts of the mythical stories of various other dying and rising gods and their associated cults. The miracle of turning water into wine for example, sounds remarkably like something Dionysus the Greek god of wine would have done. Dying and coming back to life? That story had been going around the region for centuries! Osiris, Horus and many others for example. Having a divine conception? Herakles had been there and done that hundreds of years before! Don’t even get me started on a god being in human form! That was part of virtually every single one of these myths.

Many details contained in the gospel accounts are not only contradictory, but absurd, take for example the earthquakes and darkness that supposedly happened when Jesus died. This isn’t recorded anywhere besides the (one or two) gospels. It isn’t exactly an un-noticeable event. Another example is the dead rising and walking through Jerusalem. This isn’t recorded anywhere but the book of Matthew. Then we have the star hovering above Bethlehem that apparently wasn’t noticed by anyone but the three wise Arabic men. None of these events are attested in ANY historical accounts, and they even defy common sense. A star in the sky cannot point you to a specific location. You may walk in an around-about direction, but you certainly aren’t going to end up at a small village in the middle of the Judean hill country.

There have been attempts to try and separate the fact from fiction in the gospels, to find the actual historical Jesus, but in my opinion, these events are wholly futile. The best we can do is to distinguish the elaborate fiction from the plausible. Jesus may have lived, been a teacher, the son of a carpenter, executed for heresy and had a following, but we certainly cannot say from the evidence we have that he was god incarnate, rose from the dead, performed miracles, atoned for the sins of the world, ascended into heaven or was born of a virgin. The historical Jesus is simply unverifiable, the evidence is scant and unreliable, much evidence in fact attests to a reality contrary to that of the gospels. So was there a historical Jesus? I think there probably was, but I do not think for one second that we can know anything about him, not even his real name.

Further reading:
'Misquoting Jesus' - Bart Ehrman
'The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man' - Robert M. Price
'The Mythmaker' - Hyam Maccoby
Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to AhistoricityHistoricity of Jesus FAQ
The Testimonium Flavianum
Who Was the Historical Jesus?