Monday, July 27, 2009

Christians Turned Me away from Religion

Once upon a time I was a Christian. I was a true Christian, not just in name only. I was not a perfect Christian, but then who is? I went to church every Sunday. I, in fact, attended several different churches from time to time as I tested the waters. I prayed. I repented. I was baptized. I sang the hymns. I made the offerings. I attended bible study. I read the bible on my own. I witnessed for Jesus.

I also was very interested in science. I became a science teacher with a master’s degree in biology. For many years, there was no conflict between my belief as a Christian and my acceptance of scientific facts. The two were not mutually exclusive.

But I was hammered continually by the fundamentalist wing of Christianity. They attacked me as not being a “true Christian.” They asked how I could possibly believe in something like evolution and still believe in God. They told me they would pray for my soul and for me to one day see the light.

But I knew for certain that the scientific method was not a spurious concept. I knew that there were many religions and, in fact, many different kinds of Christianity in the world. But there is only one science and it is the same everywhere in every country, regardless of political or religious culture. I knew science was self-correcting and that evolution had been proven in many different ways for decades.

But there they were, the fundamentalist Christians, attacking my beliefs and saying I was going to hell, even though I had repented and accepted Jesus and had done all the other things Christians are supposed to do.

I talked to my pastor about it. I was having a crisis of faith and needed his guidance. He assured me that these fundamentalists were in the minority and represented only a fringe element of Christianity. He told me that all the mainstream Christian denominations accepted the facts of science, including evolution.

But those words were small comfort to me. The fundamentalists might be in the minority, but they speak the loudest. And their minority status is now threatening to become a majority. Recent polls indicate that, while the number of Christians is dwindling, the number of fundamentalist Christians is increasing rapidly.

Eventually, I got tired of it. I started to wonder if I had been wrong. Since Christianity is so splintered, and since all the fundamentalist churches make the claim that theirs is the true religion, I started to apply logic to my beliefs. Before that, I had been able to compartmentalize my faith so that it not conflict with what I knew about science.

But the fundamentalists sparked an internal controversy. Although I had always believed that the bible was allegory, written as a guide to spirituality and not as a history book or a science book, I now started to wonder if there was any part of the bible that could be trusted.

I researched the bible. I discovered that it was compiled in the early fourth century by a group of Catholic cardinals who were working under duress from Emperor Constantine, who had recently been converted to Christianity in order to maintain easier control over his empire. I discovered that the inclusion of certain manuscripts was politically motivated. I learned that some manuscripts that were used by early churches were ordered destroyed, because they did not fit the new Catholic dogma.

Coupling that research with the intransigence and unintelligent blathering of the Christian right, I came to the conclusion that I wanted no part of it. I, as it turned out, was not a Christian. Christianity was associated with blind faith and lack of education. It was associated with a denial of facts. I wanted no part of it.

In fairness, not all Christians are uneducated morons. My pastor certainly did not fit that category. But even he once called himself a “Christian Buddhist.” He was a little uneasy with the title of Christian as well.

But the increase in the number of fundamentalists has, I believe, been one cause of why the number of Christians as a whole is decreasing. Christian fundamentalism has given Christianity a bad rap. It became a catalyst that caused me to eventually turn my back on Christianity. I believe it has caused others to turn away, too.

So maybe we freethinkers who have seen the light of day and no longer need to depend on an antiquated superstition owe these fundamentalists a debt of gratitude. They have pushed us away from religion, and we are better off because of it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Strength of Science

Sometimes scientists get things wrong. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Science is a process of discovery, analogous to the exploration of new lands by fifteenth-century sailors. Christopher Columbus originally thought he had discovered the East Indies when he landed in the New World.

So when science gets it wrong, that sometimes means the process has to start over or change directions. But that seeming weakness in the scientific process is actually one of its biggest strengths. Science is self-correcting.

Detractors of science, such as those who insist that evolution cannot be true since the theory has been riddled with hoaxes and wrong conclusions, are quick to conclude that these past mistakes have polluted the process, so that most if not all of the conclusions reached by the theory of evolution must be treated with suspicion.

They point to Piltdown man, which was a hoax, and Nebraska man, once thought to be a new species of early human, to justify their argument that all fossil evidence indicating a change from one species to another over time must be erroneous.

But the fact that scientists sometimes draw the wrong conclusions should in no way tarnish the valid scientific conclusions that have withstood the test of time and have been useful in furthering the understanding of how nature works. Everybody makes mistakes. The real test is whether or not those mistakes are eventually recognized and corrected. In science, they always are.

Take Nebraska man as an example. The story is often told that a fossil tooth was found by a farmer in Nebraska who sent it to the American Museum of Natural History. There, a paleontologist identified it as a species of early human. According to the story, it became widely accepted by scientists that this find represented a new species of human being.

In actuality, the paleontologist, Henry Osborn, first identified the tooth as possibly belonging to an ape. It actually turned out to be the tooth of a peccary, a type of wild pig. Other scientists were always skeptical of the claim that it was an ape, much less an early human. Peccary teeth are similar to human teeth, so the mistake was an honest one. But the fact that other scientists did not automatically accept Osborn’s conclusion and then went on to prove he was mistaken shows that although individual scientists might occasionally misinterpret the evidence, the scientific community requires much more validation before accepting that evidence as factual.

It is also true that sometimes scientists, when they believe they have discovered something important, grow fond of their hypotheses. Occasionally, there is even enough data and evidence in support of a hypothesis to actually call it a theory, even if it later has to be modified. In science, a theory is an explanation of a natural phenomenon that is supported by much evidence and has been verified by many scientists.

Take the Superstring Theory, for example. It is the theory in physics that says, in a nutshell, that all the particles in nature that make up the structure of matter can be thought of as tiny vibrating loops or strings of energy. The harmonics of these vibrations determine the type of particle it will be.

Superstring Theory grew out of attempts, which started with Einstein, to merge the two great theories of physics together into a “theory of everything.” Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity dealt very nicely with cosmic phenomena, such as galaxies and black holes. The Quantum Theory was equally adept at describing the very tiny, such as subatomic particles. But they were incompatible with each other.

So scientists worked for decades, trying to merge the two theories. They thought they had succeeded with Superstring Theory. The theory required a 10-dimensional universe and was described using complex mathematics. The problem was that, instead of a single equation, there were at least five equations that worked equally well at describing the universe. This was not an elegant situation. Five equations are too many when you’re looking for one.

A less popular competing theory added an eleventh dimension. But attempts by the small group of scientists supporting this 11-dimensional universe were ignored by the string theorists for more than a decade.

Finally, in a desperate attempt to save their theory, the superstring theorists added an eleventh dimension to their math. Not only did this work, it actually proved that the five earlier equations representing Superstring Theory were actually not separate mathematical descriptions for the universe, but were merely components of the larger eleventh dimension. Mathematically it all fit and has been dubbed Membrane Theory, or M-Theory for short. The one-dimensional strings were stretched into two-dimensional membranes.

It’s all quite esoteric, but the complex mathematics work perfectly well to combine Relativity Theory with Quantum Mechanics. It took more than a decade, but science once again corrected itself to come up with a better explanation of the universe.

This scenario is in stark contrast to those who claim that evolution and the Big Bang didn’t happen because the universe was created in less than a week by a supernatural creator. Called Intelligent Design, their proposal is not a theory because it was not developed using any part of the scientific method. It started with a conclusion, that everything was specially created. And that conclusion can never be modified, regardless of competing evidence.

Think about what would happen if science worked that way. What if Nebraska man had been accepted on face value by all scientists as being true? And what if, even in spite of additional evidence to the contrary, scientists continued to support the notion that Nebraska man was a human ancestor, even to this day? The truth would never be known. If science worked this way, there would be no such thing as new technologies. The world would fall back into the Dark Ages, or would never have emerged from them in the first place.

But science isn’t like that. It is self-correcting and dynamic. That is not a flaw that should be used to prove a weakness in science. Indeed, it is science’s greatest strength.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't Single Out Evolution as Bad Science

For the past couple of days I’ve been entertaining myself by taking part in the discussion forum attached to a Facebook opinion poll. The poll is really an overly simple one with only three options. It is called the Evolution vs. Creation Poll and the three choices are evolution, creation, or don’t know.

There are more than 18,000 responses so far and the results show that almost half pick evolution while about 44 percent pick creation. That is better than it could be, but it is not better than it SHOULD be. It never really ceases to amaze me how in the 21st century in a country that is still (barely) the world leader in technology that so many people still believe whole-heartedly in a quaint, antiquated story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and how God created the universe and everything in it in only six literal days.

I know that the majority of Christians do not believe that the bible can be taken literally. I also know that most mainstream Christian denominations have no problem accepting evolution. But even with that knowledge, as a science teacher, it still disturbs me to know that there is still a very sizeable minority who do not accept the theory of evolution at all. They actually believe in the magical creation of the earth and all life in less than a week about 6,000 years ago. It’s depressing.

Public education in this country is not up to par with other industrialized nations. I do my part by devoting a lot of time to evolution in my science classes and to how science is supposed to work. But it doesn’t always take, because so many kids these days have grown up on biblical fairy tales. They stop believing in Santa Claus by the time they are 10, but they still believe in divine creation even as adults. Why?

I guess I know the answer to that question. It really is a multi-part answer. For one thing most people are afraid not to believe. They are afraid of going to hell. Hell is one of those places thought up by the early Catholic Church to keep people coming every week with their donations. Jesus never mentions hell. Some bibles translate his references to Gehenna as hell. But Gehenna is an earthly place, near Jerusalem. It has a long history in the Old Testament as a really bad place. It was like a garbage dump that was kept burning all the time. It is where they dumped corpses of criminals who had been crucified.

Jesus used Gehenna many times as a metaphor, the same way we might actually use the word hell as a metaphor for an extremely bad situation. For example, “Yesterday was a living hell for me.” It just means you had an extremely bad day. For a very interesting treatise on hell, go HERE.

Another reason people still believe in the allegories of the bible is that they have been taught them in Sunday school ever since they were young children. They believe the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and Jonah just like they also believe in Santa Claus. But because the children’s picture bibles have an actual adult counterpart that includes the same stories, they never get the message that these stories are only allegories (fables with deeper meanings).

Finally, when they get into high school and are (hopefully) taught science, which includes the teaching of the theory of evolution, they protest. I see it almost every year in my classes. I can’t tell them what to believe; all I can do is offer up evolution as a scientific theory that has been proven using real facts and empirical evidence. Then I proceed to list and explain all the evidence to them. I allow them, using methods of logical reasoning, to deduce for themselves what the evidence tells them. Most of them finally get it.

But it is an uphill battle when we have institutions like the Institute for Creation Research. It is a Christian apologetics organization. The bad thing is that it pretends to be science (Note the word research in its name). Its goal is to infiltrate public schools with its dogma by disguising it as science. Nothing it does involves scientific inquiry; its sole purpose is religious.

Then there are those who don’t see the importance of believing in evolution. They might be open minded to it. They might believe it but say it was directed by God. But to them it isn’t that important that they believe it. So why is it really important that people understand and accept the theory of evolution?

Evolution is the base theory of biology. It is the foundation. If you don’t accept evolution, it is difficult to understand any of the tenets of biology as well as other sciences, such as earth science or cosmology. If we, as a nation, fall short in educating our kids about science, then we lose our leadership role as a nation. We no longer will be a global factor in scientific research, inquiry, and technology. We will become a backward nation.

It is already happening. Most Europeans have no problem with the theory of evolution. They don’t understand why we backward Americans have a problem with it. Their children are being properly educated in science. And their schools don’t have to fight with the belief system of their students’ parents. Science teachers in America have sometimes received so much flack about teaching evolution that they no longer teach it, which is just what the Institute for Creation Research wants.

I hear the tired old rhetoric from conservative Christians that evolution is only a theory. A theory, in science, is more than a guess. It is a coherent and logical explanation of a natural phenomenon based solely on evidence and empirical data. It is widely accepted by scientists and, most importantly, it makes predictions about what should take place given a specific set of circumstances. Evolution theory is very good at being useful. Thank evolutionary theory the next time you get cured of an infectious disease or the next time you eat a vegetable or fruit that has been genetically enhanced through techniques obtained by studying the processes of evolution.

People want to reap the rewards of science. They hold scientists in high esteem, except for the one case of evolution. But evolution is no different from any other scientific theory. If you reject it based on nothing more than a belief system, then you must reject all science. That means no more going to the doctor, watching TV, eating modern food supplies, or using your computer. All science follows the same rules. Either believe in it or don’t. But don’t single out evolution as somehow being bad science. It’s simply science. And not believing it will not make it go away.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Poll: How the Public Views Scientists

A new Pew Research Center poll released July 9 is interesting in what it shows about the public’s perceptions about science and scientists compared to the views of scientists themselves on the same topic.

The good news is that the public holds scientists in high esteem, with 70 percent of respondents saying that scientists contribute a lot to the public’s well being. Scientists rank third, below the military (84 percent) and teachers (77 percent).

But even though people tend to view scientists in a favorable light, they still do not concur with them on some hot-button issues that are almost universally agreed upon by scientists. Take climate change, for example. Whereas 84 percent of scientists agree that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity, only 49 percent of the public believe the same thing. And there is a more dramatic schism between scientists and the public on the topic of evolution. Only about a third of the public (32 percent) believe that all living organisms, including humans, evolved by natural means from earlier forms of life, a full 87 percent of scientists believe it.

This brings up an interesting question. What is the source of the beliefs? Scientists tend to shape their beliefs based on things like empirical evidence, observation, and research. The public tends to base its beliefs on information it gets from politicians, the media, from church ministers, or just from word of mouth.

Take the evolution question as an example. A full 97 percent of scientists believe all life on earth evolved, with 87 percent saying that evolution occurred by natural means. Only 32 percent of the public believe evolution occurred by natural means and another 22 percent say evolution occurred, but was guided by a supreme being. Of those who claim a religious affiliation, only 19 percent of Protestants and 33 percent of Catholics believe evolution occurred by natural means, while 60 percent of those claiming no religious affiliation believe evolution occurred naturally.

But that is still a fairly wide disparity between the 60 percent of non-religious lay people and 87 percent of scientists who believe that evolution took place by natural means. The difference can be attributed to how and where the public gets its information. Again, scientists rely on facts and empirical data to form their opinions. The public gets is information from the media and from word of mouth. And there is a flow of information (much of it false) from the religious segment of the public to their non-religious acquaintances.

Even scientists blame the media in part for the public’s lack of good information on scientific topics. According to the survey, 76 percent of scientists say that the media does not do a good job distinguishing between well-founded scientific findings and those that are not. Typically, the media will report on the results of a single, small, and perhaps flawed scientific study as though those results represent a full scientific consensus. That can confuse the public especially when it is bombarded by conflicting results of several studies over a period of years.

Scientists do not accept the results of a single study until other scientists working in the field have confirmed those results with additional studies. Evolution and global warming have been studied by scientists for decades and those studies corroborate each other. But the public hears only two things: Scientists believe that global warming is caused by human activity or that organisms on earth have evolved, and conservative politicians say the evidence is lacking and no conclusions can be drawn. The media report both sides, in an effort to be fair and balanced.

But it really isn’t fair and balanced when comparing almost universal acceptance of an idea by those who have studied it for decades with the ideas of those who are not even in the field and whose agendas are political, religious, or personal. The public still sees equal treatment of both sides in the media and then must choose which side to believe.

Scientists also say that lack of scientific knowledge by the public is a hindrance. The survey indicated that 85 percent of scientists believe the public does not know very much about science. If the public’s science IQ were higher, people would find it easier to ignore media reports on flimsy research and they would be more adept at distinguishing well-founded scientific data from political opinion.

And that’s where a good science education comes in. The U.S. continues to lag behind other developed countries when it comes to educating its children in math and science. New priorities need to be established that will remedy that situation.

In the mean time, it is at least heartening to know that those who agree with scientists on the issues of global warming and evolution tend to be younger and more highly educated. So there may be some hope for the future after all.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A Different Kind of Summer Camp

Hello Muddah. Hello Faddah.

It’s summer and all across America and around the world kids are attending summer camp. They are playing ball, swimming, hiking, canoeing, and sitting around campfires singing silly songs. It’s all great fun for the younger set.

And most of them are also engaging in other mandatory activities that may or may not be so fun. They are praying and listening to their camp counselors spew forth religious propaganda. Yes, most summer camps in the U.S. are sponsored by churches or other religious organizations, like the Boy Scouts.

Most Boy Scout camps are not as aggressive about promoting religion as church camps are, but the Boy Scouts of America still forces its members to sign a Declaration of Religious Belief.

I was a Boy Scout when I was about 12. While in my early and mid 20s, I was also a scout leader. It was fun. We hiked and camped and had other social activities. But at no time did we pray as a troop or otherwise engage in religious worship. We all recited the oath, pledging to give service to God and our country. But nobody really thought much about it. I went to church back then, too. And I really didn’t consider what the meaning of the pledge to serve God was about; it was just a phrase. It was just something we recited as scouts.

The summer following my college graduation I worked as an assistant program director for a summer camp sponsored by the Indianapolis Boys Club. The Boys Club has a secular mission statement. Yet every Sunday during camp the camp staff took turns being preachers. We held a church service in our shelter house. And all the boys had to attend.

I was always uneasy about hosting mandatory church services. When it was my turn to be the preacher of the week I spoke on ways of controlling anger. I didn’t mention God at all. Even though I was raised a Christian, I felt it was inappropriate to force the campers to sit through a Christian church service when some of them might not have been Christian.

I wanted to attend summer camp when I was a kid, but I never got to. A close friend of mine and I begged our parents to send us to a summer camp sponsored by our church. But my friend’s dad said it cost too much. So we settled for taking turns spending the night at each other’s houses or pitching a tent in the back yard.

Church camps and bible camps are just another way for Christian evangelicals to assimilate young people. Although there are fun activities going on, the main purpose of the camps is to solidify a child’s relationship with the church.

But there is at least one organization that is starting to intrude into the dominance of bible-oriented summer camps in America and in the UK. Camp Quest was begun in 1996 in Ohio. It now operates six summer camps in the U.S. and Canada. And this year it is sponsoring a humanist summer camp in Great Britain.

According to its Web site, Camp Quest’s purpose is “to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”

It does not indoctrinate people into atheism. It welcomes all young people regardless of their religious persuasion. But it does cater to those who hold to a naturalistic, not a supernatural world view. It stresses scientific inquiry over supernatural explanations of the world.

The Center for Inquiry also offers a summer camp. It is taking place currently in Holland, New York. Called Camp Inquiry, its purpose is to foster scientific inquiry in children and to allow them to discover for themselves that myths of all kinds do not hold up to rational scrutiny.

These alternatives to church-sponsored summer camps also teach kids about ethics and morality. They teach them to be upstanding citizens who respect the rights and beliefs of others. Yet they are still far outnumbered by the summer camps that indoctrinate kids into the religious world, which is too often dominated by bigotry, judgment, shortsightedness, and the hampering of scientific thought.

What we need in this country are more institutions like those sponsored by the Center for Inquiry or Camp Quest. Those who donate to good causes might want to consider adding a secular summer camp to their list of charities.