Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A Non-Believer's Thoughts on "Ask It" by Mega Pastor Andy Stanley.

I was recently given a recommendation to listen to a lecture series by mega pastor Andy Stanley. Since I'm the type of person who absorbs more information while taking notes, I did just that. Then I formatted them into a more readable blog format and added my own thoughts. The series can be found at Justaskit.org

Part 1: Question Everything.
This first part I found kind of...hypocritical. The title is called "Question Everything." What is the first thing he says before he starts? "If you're not a bible believing person, I want you to suspend your skepticism about the bible." Basically, question everything...except the bible. Then he says "Let's start with the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians." I guess I'm also supposed to suspend the fact that we don't know who wrote the words, or that most biblical scholars believe it was actually a second generation of Christians who wrote Ephesians specifically. Also, suspend the thought that of the 14 books in the New Testament attributed to Paul, only 7 are considered authentically authored by Paul himself.
Yet, I can see what he wants to get across. It doesn't matter who I think wrote these particular words. Wisdom is wisdom, whether spoken by a saint or a sinner, a wise man or a fool.

He wants us to ask ourselves "What is the wise thing to do? Not the right thing to do, or the legal thing to do, or what works for other people." At this point, I mentally added "Don't ask what the bible says to do, it specifically states a follower shouldn't question everything, but rather just have faith that they're right." Although, I don't think that's what he had in mind. What he meant was "question everything inside this box."

In totality, I agreed with most of what he said. Be wise, skeptical, and plan your future. Learn from the past so you can live in the present in a way conducive to your future.

“The future depends on what you do today.”
- Mahatma Gandhi

Part 2: Musical Chairs.

There are three ways people can be unwise:
Inexperienced - When a person hasn't had the time or opportunity to be corrected or taught.
Fools - When a person has the experience, knows something is wrong, but does it out of apathy.
Mockers - When a person has vocal disdain for people whom he knows are right.

Inexperienced people, through no fault of their own, may be unwise about something. Everyone has been this type of unwise. When not concerned over miscommunication, I like to use the word ignorant. Unfortunately people tend to misinterpret ignorant to mean stupid. It just means a person doesn't have knowledge or experience in a particular area. A 15 year old is ignorant of love. A person without children is ignorant of parenthood. When Dawkins or Nye say someone is ignorant of evolution, what they mean is the person hasn't taken the time to learn or understand it enough to refute it. I think a humble person would say they are ignorant of more things than they are knowledgeable.

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”
- Benjamin Franklin

When I think of his definition of fools, I get a sense of not only apathy, but also of false security. I think the target people for this message are apathetic believers. They believe their religion is true, but they don't care much about it, even though they know they should. I would take it a step further. What is the reward from gaining a degree? Opportunity. What is the consequence of lacking one? Generally, less opportunity. We spend about 4 years of our lives to gain that degree. Now, what is the reward for gaining knowledge and understanding about the creator of the universe? In many religions, eternal/infinite bliss. What about the consequence for failing to do so? Eternal/infinite agony. I think if people truly dropped their apathy about religion, they would schedule time regularly to study the various Christian theologies, as well as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. With so much at stake, why assume you were born into the correct religion? Sure, Christians feel confident because of faith, but so do Muslims and Jews. No matter which one (if any) turns out to be right, it will be a minority of the Earth's population.

When I think of mockers, I think of the religion debating forum on Reddit. It's one of the most active forums for religious discussion on the internet. There is only one rule: No ad hominems! You may not mock someone for their beliefs or lack of beliefs. You may not attack someone's character. Discussions are carried out in civility and rationality without personal attacks. Besides, people who resort to "Well, you don't know anything, you're an evil atheist/Christian/Jew/Muslim" usually do so because their argument has failed them. One can critique views and ideas without criticizing the person holding them, indeed that's how we handle ourselves in politics and other conflict resolution situations elsewhere!

Part 3: Time Over Time

"Time is important and priceless because it's set. You can't get any more. Time spent investing in your health, family, relationships, and spiritual self is cumulative. Neglect is cumulative as well."
I totally agree. I think the main thing I've been neglecting would be my health. Everyone uses winter as an excuse for not working out, but it can't be an excuse for me because I have access to decent indoor equipment. Plus, we just bought a rower that I haven't used once... >.>

He mentioned we shouldn't read the bible all at once. I'm not totally sure what he means, but I do think its a good idea for the sake of continuity and tone to try and read each individual book (maybe with the exception of a few of the longer books) in one sitting. When I read through it, I decided to set aside a couple hours every time I wanted to start and finish the next book I was on. The gospels especially have very different emphases and if they mesh together in your mind over time, you may miss something the individual authors were stressing in particular.

I think his emphasis for this talk was to make time for your spiritual needs in particular. Ironically, this something that lead to my deconversion. I had just gotten married, I had to quit my part-time job in order to plan and attend my double international wedding. After we married, I spent most of  my time in Canada. I couldn't get a job in Canada until my Permanent Resident card was obtained. We also didn't want me to go back to work in Michigan because it would mean we had to be apart. With all of this free time, I felt the need to get to know God and Jesus more. Although we agreed on most things, my Catholic wife and I differed on some things. So I made a goal to research and pray until I knew God more than I ever had. I read books that had been on my book list for years. I was at church every week and went to bible study every week for six months. One of the first things I discovered was there wasn't much reason to believe in the rapture. (Or at least like my favorite book series "Left Behind" had portrayed it.) It's only a belief for a minority of protestant denominations, but the book series had convinced me of it. Upon discovering this misinterpretation, I wondered what else I had believed without researching. I started frequenting Jewish forums to find out why they reject Jesus as the messiah. I read through Muslim forums to find out why they (along with Jews) rejected god being part of a trinity. I started taking free online classes. (yes, they exist!) One class was on the origins/authorship of the Pentateuch, (First five books of the bible) and another on New Testament authorship/history. With these added perspectives, I was free to make my own conclusions. I started watching debates archived on YouTube. I frequented religion debate forums. Agnostics and atheists seemed to always make the best arguments and seemed the most humble. I started reading atheist books. They cemented my agnosticism into atheism.
For me, the act of honestly, prayerfully, and studiously seeking God led to my skeptical view of theism.

I still go to church, sometimes go to bible study, and I'm still not done researching. Right now, I'm taking an online course from Harvard about early Christianity and the letters of Paul. I encourage others to seek with everything they have as well.

Part 4: Edged Out

Don't assume "If something isn't wrong, then it's right."
I agree. Take any class on ethics and they will explain that morality isn't black and white, but comprised of many shades of grey.

"A series of unwise decisions often precede a major bad decision."
Also true and noteworthy.

"Whether you believe it's inspired or not, you should read the New Testament for moral teachings."
I agree, and although I prefer Thomas Jefferson's version, there are good things to be taken from it either way. Some aspects of Jesus's teachings are definitely beneficial to reflect on. Just like some of Gandhi's, Buddha's, Confucius', and Plato's teachings are also beneficial. Although each religion has some people who claim their holy book is the sole source of moral teachings, I think everyone should read the wide range of authors throughout history.
My skeptic side can't help but kick in and think about how one of Jesus' best moral examples likely never happened. The story of the adulterous woman (he without sin cast the first stone) isn't found in any of the earlier versions of the book of John. It appeared in much later copies in the footnotes section and later was inserted into the book itself. It doesn't appear in any Greek manuscript until the 5th century, and no Greek church father comments on the story prior to the 12th century. So this particular moral lesson is likely thanks to an unknown 5th century theologian rather than Jesus himself.

He spends most of his time on sexual morality. If we don't define sexual morality the bible's way, I agree with what he says. In most of the western world, monogamy is expected. Breaking the trust of your spouse is probably the most devastating thing you could do to them. While Christian teachers and theologians have changed their definition of sexual morality over time, (i.e. They eventually excluded marriage between first cousins and eventually included inter-racial marriages.) the lesson that it might be one of the slipperiest slopes with the most devastating of consequences has held true.

Being an awkward, introverted (especially around girls) nerd most of my life, I couldn't really relate to this part as much as others might have. It was still worth watching just the same.

Part 5: Hold My Hand

"Don't make decisions based on emotions."
I would add "don't go grocery shopping while you're hungry" to that list as well!

"Private decisions have public consequences." Definitely. One of the reasons secular people have become so vocal and political is because the private beliefs of some people are being forced into the public square onto others who don't subscribe to the faith. For Christians, homosexuality is a sin, and in a nation where Christianity is the state religion, (Like England) it wouldn't be considered a valid marriage, and would probably even be considered an illegal activity. When the founding fathers fled other nations with state religions, they set up a secular constitution so that people not of the same (or any) faith tradition wouldn't have to be subjected to the religious edicts of others.

"Wise people know what they don't know, and they're not afraid to engage the people who know. They aren't too prideful or arrogant to think they know."
I love this. It's one of the reasons I frequent Reddit. I made an account and customized my feed so it gives me discussions within the Christian community, the atheist community, the conservative and liberal communities, and also several debating communities. I remain open to further change, and I'm always willing to share what I've learned thus far.
This quote also sounds a lot like one of the wiser men in recent times, physicist Richard Feynman. He was considered the smartest man in the world since Einstein. He once said:
"I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs, in different degrees of certainty... But I'm not absolutely sure of anything and of many things I don't know anything about. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things."
I also think of the anonymous quote, "When an honest man discovers he is mistaken, he will either cease being mistaken, or cease being honest." I think this can be said of a wise man as well.

I think a more subtle idea he was hinting at, which he kind of mentioned at the very end, was to accept the wisdom of God and Jesus. I'm guessing this was intended for the believers in the audience because to an atheist, it makes as much sense as "accept the wisdom of Allah, Mohammed or Athena." Human history is filled with wise people, Solomon included. There is plenty of wisdom offered throughout history for both believers and non-believers to saturate their lives with.

Part 6: The Beginning

"We all need help from others in painting out our lives."
I agree. Family, friends, and people with experience from whom we can draw wisdom.

"Specifically, we need God's help in our lives."
I guess it depends on the god. Some religions see humans as autonomous and independent. Some see humans as dependent. Christianity is one of those. I've found I'm just as happy, if not happier as an agnostic atheist though.

"To make wise decisions in any arena requires an understanding of, and submission to, the principles and rules that govern that arena."
He used driving as an example, but how do we learn the principles and rules of an "arena?" We use science, reason, and evidence.

"The principles and rules inform the decision making process."
True, and how do we decide which religion to subscribe to? We use the principles and rules of logic and reason. Even a believer would say God gave us these tools to assess truth.

"The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the lord and the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of God is the understanding. All who follow God's precepts gain understanding."
If we applied this in today's multicultural reality without making the assumption that the religion we were born into is right, it would take us forever to go through even just the major religions. As things are, the Christians just submit, the Muslims just submit, and the Jews just submit. Yet, they're all still convinced they submitted to the right god. "Submission first" is an ineffective way to discern truth. Besides, Solomon said this as a theocratic ruler. Of course he would want them to submit first and ask questions later. Mohammed said similar things. "Islam" after all means "submission to God."

"Science and faith don't conflict.
"I'm guessing he takes the modern view that if science reveals something to be true, (evolution, big bang, etc.) it must be how god did things. That's exactly how I saw things. We need more Christian theology like that. We need less segregation and less assuming that one's interpretation is infallible. We also need more curiosity and open mindedness.

Final Thoughts:
Overall I'm glad I watched them all. It was thought provoking and reminded me a lot of self help/motivation techniques. In fact, that's exactly what I would label it. (save for the last part tying the previous 5 to the Jewish god.) The overall summary would be "Think about your future before you act!"

Monday, 3 February 2014

I'm Disappointed with the Attitude Preceding the Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate.

Preceding the debate tomorrow, there have been many articles and opinion columns from various blogs and news sources and I think I've only read one or two that see the debate in a positive light. The atheist and scientist bloggers say it's a bad idea because it "legitimizes creationism" in the public's eye. The Christians who accept evolution say it's a bad idea because it entrenches Christianity in a literal interpretation of Genesis. Other commentators say creationists are too stupid to understand or too indoctrinated to accept evolutionary theory. Many creationists wish a more scientific person (from the Discovery Institute for example) would debate for the creationist side.

Let's put this debate into perspective. This isn't a debate for the scientific community.
-Paleontologists aren't going to stop using their evolutionary knowledge to classify fossils when they place them in evolutionary order.
-Geneticists aren't going to stop using the evolutionary model to assess gene mutation when they place someone on a family tree or when they research genetic defects.
-Doctors won't stop making vaccines because they no longer accept that viruses evolve.

This battle is over public understanding. The latest poll (Dec. 2013) puts the percentage of people who believe humans have always existed in their present form at 33%. That's a lower number than usual, but it's been stagnant between one-third and half of the population for almost a century.

I was a creationist or "intelligent design" proponent back in high school and early college. I wasn't "too stupid" to understand evolution. I was never exposed to it. My high school biology teacher, Mrs. Moore, told us that (macro) evolution wasn't true because nature can never have a positive mutation, only neutral or negative mutations. She even told us Archeopteryx was a hoax! Beyond high school, I only ever read books on the subject of evolution that were written by religious people. (I read the back cover to see how they approached the subject) Books like "The Science of God" always tried to harmonize 6 days of creation with scientific evidence. I know now that it cherry picked data and ideas that gave the illusion of support from science. It wasn't until I watched a documentary on evolution that my horizons expanded. It had no religious bias or preconceived notions to conform to or harmonize with. Here's the theory, here's the evidence. Mind. Blown. I started reading books by actual scientists who produce peer-reviewed papers, and I stopped rejecting evolution immediately

What can be taken from my story is the creationist perspective. The point of the debate is to expose people, and especially children to the uncensored, unbiased perspective of evolution. I've never talked to a creationist who understood evolution well enough to reject it. You can't blame them either. The teachers and parents in their lives have given them what they know and put them on a set course. Bill Nye knows this isn't a debate to be won as much as it's an educational experience to be had. In between Ken Ham's performances of misrepresentations and "argument from ignorance" logical fallacies, kids being raised in creationist science classrooms will hear for the first time an inkling of the grandeur of nature.

People don't seek or accept other answers if they believe they already know the truth, but children are an exception to this rule. Their minds are too open to be trapped yet. We can break them free, and Bill has been doing it for decades.

Then there will be a fantastic follow-up: The Cosmos coming March 9th!