thomaslsimpson

Ramblings of a Southern Christian Engineer

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Faith, Love, Freedom and Refugees.

So, as I understand it, the head executive representatives from 31 of the United States have said that people fleeing civil war in Syria, seeking to escape their condition and find a safe haven, are not welcome in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Earlier this evening I was working on a simple project with my son about Thomas Jefferson. I was telling him some of the stories about Jefferson I remembered reading. My son has a parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence I got him on a trip to DC and I was staring at it and I found myself wondering what Jefferson would say about what his creation has become now.

I suspect Jefferson would immediately start an armed revolution in disgust. I didn’t mention this to my son.

Later I was reading a bit more about it, and seeing some comments people were making. The hate was stunning. I found myself wondering what Christ must think of His creation.

I understand the fear. When you can’t tell one foreigner from another and you don’t feel like you can understand their language or their culture or their customs; when you see the fruits of their religious belief on TV and it seems like they are all insane; or when it seems like people from some other place are telling us how terrible we are in the West; and then here they are wanting us to feed and cloth them. I get it.

I wonder what Christ would want us to do? Would He want us to turn then away because they are not Christian? Because they might hurt us? Because they talked mean about us? I recall something from the Bible about the sick needing the doctor, and turning the other cheek, and giving the coat too, and all that.

I guess it’s fine to talk about faith in church, or in theory but then when it comes down to putting ourselves at risk, or putting our children at risk, we don’t trust God with that. God can handle Aunt Suzy’s sore ankles or we might pray for World Peace, but let’s be realistic here: no sensible Christian American can afford to take a chance that one of those crazy Syrians won’t blow up a McDonalds or convert the whole kindergarten to Sharia Law over night!

If you remove everything American from America, what do you have left? The frightening thing about freedom of religion is that people are free to pick the other religion. Freedom of speech means people might say things you don’t want to hear. I guess we should just shut up about all these American ideals and admit that we don’t want your tired, your poor, your dirty masses yearning for our handouts. We want you to go away and leave us alone. We are a “Christian Nation” and by that we mean, “we go to church on Sunday and gossip about anyone who doesn’t and if you’re not Christian too then God says we can hate you. Unless you’re Jewish. Or Israeli. Or whatever it says in the Bible about that.”

I quoted Franklin a while back about liberty and safety. I guess if you haven’t gotten it by now, you never will get it. So, let me make it as clear as I can.

As an American, let me say, as clearly as I can, that the men who founded our country would be ashamed. If you are an American, and this is not obvious to you, then I beg you to educate yourself until you understand it and then you can call yourself worthy of being an American.

As a Christian, let me say, as clearly as I can, that the Lord who created us must surely be ashamed. If this is not clear to you, and you call yourself a Christian, then I beg you to educate yourself about Christianity until you understand it.

The long history of Muslims and Christians killing each other fills the pages in many volumes. I’m very little educated in those matters myself. I can tell you that we have been killing each other for a very long time. I can also tell you that there is only one answer to the entire question that is worthy of a follower of Christ.

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Martin Shkreli, Capitalist Hero: Immoral or Amoral?

Let’s say that you are the CEO of a big company and that this company has lots of cash sitting around and you need to buy something with it. (Remember now, your job as CEO is to make the maximum profit for your shareholders. You have a legal obligation to do this.) Say one of your employees shows you a pair of shoes that is on the market at $13.50 per unit. The company that owns the rights to these shoes is willing to sell the rights. Your employee tells you that people will still keep buying the shoes if you raise the price to $750 per unit. You buy the rights to the shoes, raise the prices, and make billions. You get on the cover of magazines and your shareholders love you.

In case you didn’t read about it, there’s a guy named Martin Shkreli who is the CEO of company. His company bought the rights to a drug that has been on the market for 62 years and is used to help keep AIDS patients alive. It was selling for $13.50 per pill. Once he got the rights, he changed the price from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill. People all over are calling him names.

If a lion kills and eats the weakest member of a flock of lambs, no one is mad at the lion. We don’t get angry at the lion for being a lion. The lion is “amoral” because it has no moral values at all: it is like a robot killing and eating whatever is available with the least amount of input cost. If a human being acted in this way, we would call them “immoral” because human beings are moral agents. We recognize that taking advantage of the weakest members of our own herd is against our sense of morality. It is “evil” in that regard.

In a capitalist system (this is what we have in America for you Facebook readers) companies are amoral agents. That is, they are not in business to consider the moral consequences of their actions. We do not call a bank immoral or “evil” for foreclosing on a house and throwing out the people who live there. (Unless we are the ones being thrown out and then we say it, but we know why they did it.) No one should be angry with Martin Shkreli for seeing a situation where he could make a tremendous amount of money and capitalizing on it.

So by now some of you must be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, but these are people we are talking about here and this guy Martin should have a heart and know that his actions were immoral.” I agree. Since I’m a Christian, and my belief is that you are responsible for your actions and that trying to live under the cover of, “I was just doing my job,” will do you no good when you know very well that your actions were immoral, I have a certainty that this was an evil act. I wasn’t in the room when they decided, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect I would not have done it myself. But that is my point.

Capitalism and healthcare don’t mix. They can’t. Capitalism is based on the idea that everyone will act in their own best interest. If one person makes a product and charges too much, another will produce it at a lower price. The market (the consumers) will set the price of any product because if the product is priced too high, the consumer will not buy it. If it is priced too low, the producer will sell out. So the price will naturally land at the right level for any product or service.

However, when the product in question keeps you alive, what are willing to pay for it? If you have a broken bone, what would you agree to pay to have it fixed? If you are having a heart attack, what would you pay to have them save your life? There is no way to put a price on medical care that follows the standard rules of free markets. The price is going to be whatever the producer chooses. The consumer will pay it because there is no other choice. Capitalism fails completely here because we destroyed all of the underpinnings that make it work.

To really put a fine point on it, if you need critical care, and your life is at stake, the doctor who has your life in their hands could charge you everything you have, and you would have to pay it. (I supposed you could argue that you have a “choice” of sorts in that you could choose to die instead, but that’s silly and I’m going to ignore it.) If the doctor were acting in his own best self interest, he or she would charge you everything you have and they would be following the most basic rule of capitalism when they did. We all rely on the idea that in healthcare, the producer will act as a moral agent and charge a reasonable price. We count on the good will of the healthcare provider, not on all partied acting in their own best self interest. The price is not set by the market. Capitalism does not apply.

So, make your mind up. Either applaud Martin for his genius as an amoral Capitalist Hero, or stop talking about how great free market healthcare is for everyone. Either the prices are set artificially or they are set by the owner. You can’t have both.

Evolution: Fun as a Barrel Full of Monkeys

Let me start by clearing up some common confusions about what evolution is not:

  1. Evolution does not imply that God does not exist.
  2. Evolution does not claim man came from apes.
  3. Evolution is not “just a theory” among many theories about how life began.
  4. Evolution is not “bad science” that attempts to intrude on religion.

I should expand on these a bit. If you agree with all the above, you can skip this paragraph and the next two. (1) and (4) are both based on the idea that God is supernatural. That is, outside of nature; not a part of nature, but something other than nature. (If there are any pantheists in the audience, pardon me, but I have to do one thing at a time, so I will only consider monotheism.) Since God is not a part of nature, and we are a part of nature, we cannot measure God. Therefore, science (and biology in particular) has nothing to say about the existence of anything supernatural and therefore nothing to say about God.

There are two ways in which (3) is annoying. My personal favorite is when I have heard, “evolution is just a theory, is hasn’t been proven,” from someone who clearly knows nothing about science at all. This is just confusion about the definition of theory. They seem to think that evolution is just an idea and that there are other competing ideas that are equally worthy of merit. This is not the case. A good theory explains the existing evidence and makes predictions about the future that can be tested and has stood up to many such tests and observations. Evolution is a solid scientific theory. “Creation Science” is not a theory at all and is really an oxymoron.

In (2) I am probably confusing the issue a little, but evolution does not claim humans came from apes. Rather, it claims that modern apes and humans both came from a common primitive ancestor. Chimpanzees did not become humans beings. Chimps and human are both descendants of another creature which no longer exists. So, when people say, “if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys,” they are simply showing that they do not understand the science at all.

If Not This, Then What?

So if it is none of those things, what is evolution? Charles Darwin wrote his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. In his book, Darwin proposed “natural selection” as the explanation for how a wide diversity of species could come into existence. He had visited the island of Madagascar and there on the island he had seen unique variations of animals found on the mainland. What struck Darwin was that the differences in the island animals were things that were helpful for living on the island. It was as if the animals had adapted genetically to living there. He had the idea that animals had come to the island from the mainland and over time had adapted to the different living conditions on the island.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggests that when animals reproduce, sometimes, slight mutations happen. If these mutations are things that tend to help a species survive and pass on their genetics, then the mutations survive. If the mutations are not good for survival, they will not be passed on to the next generation (or at least passed on in smaller numbers). Over a long period of time, these mutations pile up and make a big enough difference to appear as a different species altogether.

The appearance of mutations can be shown experimentally. This is not in dispute. The passing on of traits by genetics is not in dispute either. “Unnatural selection” by humans is how we breed domestic animals like dogs, pigeons, or cattle to be what we want them to be. It is clear that these parts of the model work fine.

People can usually accept the idea of small changes in animals over time, but not the huge differences between species or say the difference between fish and mammals. This is just a confusion over how large numbers work. Even if only one mutation in a hundred generations is useful, over a few million generations, even very unlikely events can be shown to happen often mathematically.

To expand on this idea a little, consider the domestic dogs many of us humans have as pets. If we breed two dogs together, the littler usually has some that look like the father, some that look like the mother, some that are like both, and sometimes an oddball or two that are maybe extra large or small or some other difference. By selecting the specific traits we want in each generation, over a few generations, we get very specialized breeds of dog. Hence, we have wild difference in the same animal in only a few years. Natural selection works in much the same way.

Apes who spend their lives in trees need great upper body strength and a tail for balance. Imagine a group of apes that splits into two groups (A) and (B) when food becomes scarce. (A) goes deeper into the trees. (B) moves to the edge of the trees to search more in the open fields and on the ground. Over a long period of time, as group (B) spends more and more time on the the ground, and less in the trees, those apes born with shorter tails prospered more since their long tales were no longer necessary and in the way. Those who had greater lower body strength for walking did better. The ones with a slightly tilted pelvis could walk upright just a little longer. Over a few million years, group (B) has no tail at all, stronger legs, and a tilted pelvis, allowing them to walk on two legs. If group (A) met with group (B) years later, they would share a common ancestor, but be different species.

But Isn’t Evolution for Atheists?

No. Evolution is a scientific model for how different species of animals developed and continue to develop. Evolution has nothing to say about the supernatural. If this means that we now have a better idea of the method employed by God to create the various species then this should not be surprising at all. It happens all the time. Anytime we rely on the “God of the gaps” we are asking for trouble.

But That’s Not What Genesis Says!

Of course not, and I wouldn’t expect it to say anything like that. As I have said in other places, Genesis contains much allegory. Many smart people believe this. I believe it. St. Paul believed it and says so in Galatians 4:21-24. The book of Genesis is about man’s relationship to God, not the historical details. Read my article on the age of the earth.

Now, if Genesis is allegorical, we do not have to believe that every single creature that lives today was on the Ark. Do I believe there was an Ark? Yes, I do. Was there a flood? Yes, there was. Did it cover the entire surface of the earth? I doubt it. I suspect is was more localized to specific areas prone to such things and worldwide. I do not think it is a coincidence that there are stories of a flood at about the same time in cultures from all over the world, from the Babylonians, all the way to the American Indians. I’m going far afield from my expertise, but is it possible there was global climate change in the past, with glaciers still melting from the previous ice age and massive flooding worldwide?

The real question is: if the flood was not covering the entire surface of the earth, is the story false? Is it less in any way? I think not. I think the animals and people in Noah’s geographic area were all drowned. I think Noah’s observance of God’s instructions and his obeying were what saved him and his family. Did animals come from all over and get in Noah’s Ark? Yes. If you’ve ever seen animals moving ahead of a flood or a coming disaster this doesn’t surprise you at all. Taken with a little license, everything in the flood story is not only reasonable, it is likely.

Why mention all of this? Because as long as we continue to insist that our understanding of the Bible is correct even when it flies in the face of evidence to the contrary, we will continue to stumble in the dark on certain other issues. If Christians are willing to argue that scientist who spend their entire lives studying biology and had years of training and education are wrong because Christians think that Biologists must be wrong because what the Biologists are saying contradicts how Christians understand of the Bible. This needs to stop.

I’m Not Making This Up

If you look at earlier posts, or books by smarter people on the subject, you will find that many notable people have also believed this way. It is a very modern idea to think that one who is uneducated in the science or in the theology is qualified to have an opinion at all. In this case, if you do not understand the science behind evolution, or the theology behind the creation, maybe you should reconsider your position on rejecting the science. St. Augustine and most Christian thinkers of the past would have agreed with me. It is only the modern uneducated and politicians who want you to stand up in the face of science and deny them based on your own ideas about how the world should work.

Can We Stop Now?

Let’s all agree that we won’t talk about “Creation Science” anymore, now that we know it isn’t science. Let’s all agree that evolution is more like gravity that it is like atheism. Let’s also agree that although the Bible is God’s Word, we do not always have a perfect understanding of it, and that as science learns more about how God’s creation works, it is okay for us to try to understand what God is trying to tell us in the light of a new discovery.

Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar, was burned at the stake by the Church in 1600 AD for saying that the stars extended outward into space instead of existing in a celestial sphere at a fixed distance from Earth. In 1632, Galileo Galilei, building on the earlier work of Copernicus, claimed that the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than the other way around and the Church put him under house arrest for heresy.

These things happened because some (well-meaning I suspect) people in the Church believed that the science was wrong, not because they knew about the science, but because they believed it challenged the teaching of the Bible. They were wrong. They were wrong about what they thought the Bible was saying. They were wrong about their understanding of the science.

I propose that we stop now. Let us leave the science to the scientists. If we are not sure about which scientist to believe, I would not be surprised if we can find excellent scientists who are also Christian. I imagine it would not take long at all to find a Christian biologist who could explain evolution and we would not have to suspect a sinister motive.

I propose that we also drop this modern idea that anything new that tends to make us reconsider our current understanding of the Bible, or even of God for that matter, is bad or evil. Let’s consider it a good thing. The more I can understand about how the world works, the better I can understand the things God has been trying to tell me about it and therefore about Himself.

Evolve

The word “evolve” means to gradually develop. Our own understanding of God’s Word is always evolving. Our relationship to God is evolving. Evolution, gradual development, is everywhere in God’s universe. Rejecting evolution as God’s chosen method is unreasonable.

Technology Werewolves

I read The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks in school. I read a lot of books in school. But this one sunk in and the lessons in it have stayed with me for all this time. There is a ton of information in there but lately I have been thinking a lot about Brooks’s included No Silver Bullet paper.

Now, normally I don’t talk that much about technology when I write. I do that for a living. I do this for fun and as an outlet for rants. But maybe there is something in it for everyone.

First, let me explain the title for you non-software types out there. Brooks said that there was never going to be a technology developed that would make software significantly easier to create. He made this claim based on the idea that there were essential and accidental properties of software systems development. (See Aristotle or even Plato’s Forms for more of the philosophy of essential and accidental properties.) The new technologies like new programing languages and new methods for design and development or even new machines were all addressing the accidental properties. He claimed that the essential properties were problems that the human mind had to sort out and there were no ways to make it go faster.

So far he’s right. People have claimed that various technologies have had a huge impact but these are simple linear improvements at most. At bottom, software design and development of complex systems is more like solving word problems than anything else. It is like suggesting that an author would finish a novel faster if she had a faster typewriter. As if the typing were the problem.

So, unlike the werewolves of the world, there is no silver bullet, no single solution to the problem of complex software design and development. But has there been any significant progress at all?

I think there has been some minor movement. But we may be getting close now to a big shift. Cloud computing and distributed systems are starting to make it financially viable to spend a little extra time doing the kind of additional work on software components that make them truly standalone. This means that they can be hosted and optimized as a single component, which gets us much closer to the revolution akin to the electronics revolution.

We were supposed to have this revolution a long time ago. Software was supposed to be reusable and more like installing components than doing everything with bare metal. Some progress has been made but we are still not there. It is simply not worth the additional investment to take a part of a module and make it into a standalone “product” that might stand for reuse or for individual consideration in some other way. The API and integration issues combined with the maintenance overhead make it a questionable investment at best.

But these new system architectures are different. If I want to run my component on multiple distributed nodes, it is worth the extra time to make sure it will move around. This change may bring us a significant improvement in the way developers use services and service-oriented code.

It won’t be anything to bother Mr. Brooks. There will be no revolution in the way we attack the essential nature of software development. But it will be fun to watch.

Freedom, Clocks, and Where Did America Go?

Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty not Safety. 

– Ben Franklin

I read a few articles covering the kid who brought a homemade clock to school and got arrested when it was mistaken for a bomb. Of course the kid has an Islamic name. Of course it happened in Texas. 

There is not enough information in the coverage to really judge the facts. It sounds like maybe the kid was new to the school. Maybe if the teachers had known him better it would not have happened? I read the kid was turned in by the English teacher, not the teacher the kid brought the clock to show. 

There is enough information to see that the kid was not brandishing the clock in a threatening manner. It was only discovered because it made a noise in the other class. No one mentioned a history of threats. From what I read, the only reason to assume that the devise was a bomb was that the kid had a name that sounded like he was Muslim. But I stand ready to be corrected. 

My first concern is not with the story. It is with the talk I have been hearing about the story. There are people who are content with the idea that it is okay for a kid to be arrested because someone thinks he might have something that might be part of a bomb.

It still shocks me when another American citizen is okay with someone else being deprived of civil liberty in the name of safety. I will grant that this is a school and that we have special issues relating to schools, but that’s not the point. The matter is the same regardless of place or age. And my fellow Americans do not seem to care as long as the Liberty being taken is being taken from someone else. 

If I passed around a petition for a law requiring all Muslims to submit to random searches by police, I bet it would get signed a lot. I bet I could get stunning support for a law titled “Christianity as the National Faith.”

I think Jefferson said:

The government you elect is the government you deserve. 

So, I suppose if the people around me are willing to enact those kinds of laws and happy to see civil rights vanish, then I should not be the least bit surprised with the government I end up with.

This country does not remain the “Land of the Free” Just because we keep calling it that. You can call an apple a lemon but it won’t make lemonade. 

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

– William Shakespeare

In order for America to be the country it is supposed to be, we the people have to be what America is supposed to be first. If that is not the case, then we can continue to call ourselves whatever we like, but we are no longer the Great Social Experiment that was once America. 

Atheist Arguments

I’ve mentioned before in other places that atheism is becoming “cool” again. The cool kids are starting to talk more and more about their atheism and why they are atheists. The thing is, the reasons they give for their atheism are all arguments that are really old and have been handled well a long time ago.

We, the Church, are failing in this. We are not teaching our children to understand the basic reasoning of our own religion. They are not prepared for conversations with people who do not think like we think. The doctrine of the church is, to them, in the same class with “be nice to old ladies” and other things you should do but only really have to do when people are watching. Accepting things on faith, without any reasoning may be enough for some people, but it’s not going to work for everyone and especially not for the younger generation.

So, we are going to have to go back and learn. The Bible does not teach us how to reason or how to defend our beliefs but it does command us to do so.

Doesn’t the Bible say “Lean not on your own understanding?”

Yes, it does. But that does not mean “do not try to understand” anything. It does not mean “do not use your brain.” If it meant that, then why attend sermons if we are not trying to understand? Why teach anyone anything? Why read the Bible if not to understand it? Why pray for answers since we can’t understand the answers we get?

The Bible is not the source of all knowledge. It didn’t teach you to read. You had to learn to read before you could read it. It does not teach you plenty of things. It is a valuable source of information and critical for believers. But it is for believers, not for unbelievers. The Bible is a helpful aid to Christians, not a tool to convert others, or the source of all knowledge.

We are to defend our beliefs with reason.

1 Peter 3:15
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;

2 Corinthians 10:5
We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ,

Colossians 4:5-6
Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.

Acts 6:8-10
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

Acts 18:4
And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

Titus 1:9
holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.

… and on and on.

We Christians need to reconsider out own education. We need to work to understand how to reason and argue. We should know how to persuade and know our doctrine.

The Atheist Arguments, with apologies to the real thinkers.

Here is a short sample of some of the things I hear a lot and the beginnings of how they have been handled by smart people from as far back as 300 AD or before. I will try to do them a little justice, though I may fall short:

Science has disproved Religion.

Science is a very specific method for learning about the universe. Unless it is a lot like, “to test my hypothesis, at 3:35 pm on June 5th, 2015 I heated the material to 450 degrees centigrade and it turned purple, providing additional evidence in the affirmative though more results are required,” then it is not science. Religion is about the supernatural: things that are outside nature. Science has nothing to say about the supernatural at all and it never will. (C. S. Lewis, but he got it from countless others.)

Only uneducated people believe in God.

If they were alive, you could tell that to Isaac Newton, or Blaise Pascal; two of the smartest and most educated people who ever walked on the planet. Or Rene Descartes if you prefer a philosopher? The list of brilliant and highly educated believers is very long. I have a BS and a MS myself. In fact, in my experience, it is often the partially educated who do not believe in God. They know just enough to be dangerous to themselves. (This is just me, so pardon me if I missed something big.)

If God existed, He would not allow bad things to happen.

This is one of the oldest arguments around: “the problem of evil.” It is sometimes put more like this, “if God is all powerful, He can stop evil, but He does not; therefore He is either evil Himself or He does not exist.” It has been dealt with over and over for more than a thousand years. St. Augustine argued that evil is not created by God, rather, it is an absence of good, a parasite that exists where good does not. Others have formed it various ways. In short, there is simply no way to have a free will and remove evil as an option. Try to imagine even a very simple universe with creatures who can do whatever they like but who cannot do anything evil. It just won’t work. It is not possible.

Can God make a rock bigger than He can pick up? (… and other nonsense of this sort.)

Some ideas carry their impossibility with them. They are not possible in any world by any agent. They reduce to, “Can God make true the same as false?” And the answer is, “No, nor can anyone else.” It is nonsense and we need not bother with it any further.

I cannot believe in a God who would create Hell and punish people with it.

God did not create Hell for people. (I’m not even sure He created Hell in that way at all.) Hell is where you end up by choosing to be separated from God. It’s what you are left with in the end, not a place to which God sends people. (Full disclosure: there are some denominations of Christianity [Universalists] who believe that all people are eventually reached and no one ends up in Hell.)

There is a lack of evidence of God existing.

Some people insist God must be believed in on “blind faith” and that there is no evidence for God’s existence. In fact, there have been a multitude of books and portions of books dedicated to proofs of God’s existence. Many of the greatest philosophers who lived also wrote about it much more eloquently than I ever could. But to claim that there is no good reason to believe in God, as if it were the same as believing in a fairy tale, is simply ignorance of the massive body of work on the topic. And this is not the work of uneducated, backward people. It is the work of highly educated geniuses. Even a brief hunt around the Internet will turn up some good stuff for the reading.

There are thousands of religions and you want me to disbelieve all of them but yours.

This is actually a great point, if you grant the premise. I do not. There are not that many religions. Oh, there have been loads of religions if you counted each denomination of Christianity as a religion, and did the same kind of thing with the other religions, but if you take the basic beliefs and group them, there simply are not that many. Most quickly converge into a few belief systems. For example, all pantheist religions are different in the details but on the whole are the the same in terms of how they view God. Some people would count Buddhism and Hinduism as different but from a “view of god” standpoint, they are the same. Polytheistic religions are silly, since when you get to the back you find there is always a king of all the other gods and so it converges to monotheism. There are plenty of Pagan religions but again, they view god in the same way with differences in details. The mystery religions can be grouped together as well.

I will not make an argument about which religion is the right one here, but let us not pretend there are thousands to choose from: there are not. Either the universe is god (pantheism), or there is a mind at work from outside the universe. Either there are lots of gods (polytheism) or one (monotheism.) Either there is a way to influence the spirit world by magically changing this one, or there is not. So we are only talking about a few choices at bottom.

But, one might argue, “as long as there is more than one religion, does that not mean even believers don’t know what is right?” This is also reasonable. But consider this: what else should it look like? If you assume for the moment that God does actually exists, what would worship of Him look like in that world? Would it not be an extended process of trying one thing after another while man attempts to find out the right relationship to Him? How else could it ever have gone?

We no longer need God to explain things we don’t understand, which is all He has ever been.

This is the “God of the gaps” idea that says God is pulled out whenever we need to explain something we cannot explain any other way. There is some merit in this argument since people do it all the time these days. But please do not let these confused people make you think this is correct. It was not that Joseph believed in the virgin birth because he didn’t know where babies came from, on the contrary, he was “minded to put Mary away” and then he believed because an angel came and told him it was true. People who throw up their hands and say, “it was the work of God” when they don’t understand something might mean well, but they don’t know what they are talking about.

Learn Something

If you’re an atheist and you think you have some “new ideas” that no one else ever thought of, I strongly suggest that if you want to be intellectually honest, in the way you claim you do, you should seek out and read some old books that will probably show you that your ideas are quite old. You are probably walking on ground that has been well trodden.

If you are a Christians and you find yourself unfamiliar with any of these things or worse still, uncomfortable talking about them, please go out and find some smart person to teach you. C. S. Lewis is a wonderful introduction in any number of his books. There is a whole world of philosophers and apologists out there for the taking.

Red Herrings

A “red herring” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:

2. fig. and in figurative contexts. A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question.

In a political context, it is a phrase often used to describe an issue of little real importance that distracts from the real question at hand. When done on purpose, it is a kind of mental slight of hand or rhetorical trick and it has become so commonplace that I don’t think anyone notices it.

Consider my last post about the County Clerk not issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. She claims she is not handing them out due to her religious beliefs. She has now been found in contempt by a judge for not performing her duties. I’m seeing comments by figures in the Christian religious community saying that the United States is beginning to criminalize Christianity.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In the context of the County Clerk, her religious belief is a troublesome red herring. The issue at hand is that, as an officer of the executive branch, the County Clerk’s job in this instance is to determine if a couple has met the qualifications for marriage according to state law. She is not being asked to perform a marriage, nor is she being asked to agree with a marriage. She is not being asked to perform a moral judgement. Her religious belief is a distraction from the real issue which would be the same even if she were an Atheist.

To illustrate, let us consider absurd alternatives. What if she were refusing to allow a mixed race couple to marry? No one would argue that she had a right to deny them on religious grounds no matter what her religion. What if she were Muslim and refusing to allow a Christian couple to marry because they were not married properly according to her beliefs? Would she be getting support from the same people on the grounds that her 1st amendment rights are being violated? What if she were an Atheist who did not believe in marriage? Can she refuse to issue license to everyone?

If you, dear reader, are a practicing Christian, and you truly want to be a useful member of the body of Christ, learn to identify and ignore red herrings. If you are convinced that homosexuality is wrong according to God, then focus on converting people to Christianity and let God deal with their soul. This is the real issue, not the specific action. Spending your time and energy trying to fight battles that have little or no meaning are what keeps you too tired to keep your hands up in the real fight.

Getting us to focus all of our attention on one thing while other important things are going on somewhere else is how magicians have been fooling people for a very long time. When hot button exciting issues like abortion, prayer in schools, or homosexuality pop up, they drown out all the other conversation. Sometimes Christians (Protestants anyway) forget that all sins are equally bad in the eyes of God and that their distasteful comments and disapproving stares at the teenager who had an abortion are at least as sinful as the abortion itself.

My personal suspicion is that people love to jump on the “big ticket” sin bandwagon whenever there’s a spot available because it lets them feel like they are on the “good team” when they are normally feeling like an outcast. The nut that beats up a homosexual gets to pretend he is doing God’s work. (Of course, since the nut doesn’t know what doing God’s work actually feel like, I don’t suppose they have any way to know the difference?)

Prayer in Schools: red herring. Yep. No one took prayer out of schools. It’s never been in schools legally. Though they may have had prayer in school, performed by school officials in many places (especially down here in the South) long ago when communications were less pervasive, public schools could never have official prayer legally according to the 1st amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …

It is perfectly legal for students (or teachers) to pray in school. It has always been legal for them to pray in school. It is even legal for them to gather for prayer at certain times in school. It has never been legal for the school to have a prayer. This would violate the 1st amendment.

The End is Near: red herring. The end may, in fact be near. The curtain may fall before I finish this article. But people have been saying “the end is near” every year for the entire 2000 years since Christ’s ascension. It is clear that the disciples that were still there right after He ascended believed that Christ would return any day and certainly while they were still alive. And every generation since then has thought so and written books about why they were different or special and how the end was really near this time.

The World is Getting Worse Then Ever Before: also a red herring, keeping you thinking about how bad the whole problem is instead of what you can do yourself about particular issues. And it’s not true. Statistically, violent crime is down and has been falling in a steady decline since 1991. Abortion peaked in 1980 and has been on a steady decline reaching it’s lowest point in 2011 since it became legal. Teenage pregnancy is half what is was in 1990. The world is not worse. It just sounds worse because only the bad things get our attention. (Info from various places like The Washington Post; Guttmacher Institute; CDC; Dept. Health and Human Services: do your own research I’m not hunting it up for you.)

Creation Science: total red herring. This is a non-issue and complete non-problem for believers. I have no idea how it got whipped up into a live issue for real people. Unless you are an educated cosmologist, or at least have some advanced training in science or some related field, you have no business discussing what is taught in a science class any more than you do how mathematics is taught unless you know advanced mathematics. If you want to chime in on these topics, first get a degree in the appropriate areas, then form an opinion based on reasoned logic, and then you have a right to be heard. Otherwise, pay them no attention. If you are not comfortable with your children being taught science in school, then you should explain to them why you believe the scientists are wrong, but do not expect the scientists to say what you want them to say. This is ridiculous.

There are many, many more. On the whole, when we focus on an issue that has little real value but generates lots of comments, we should look for the force and effect. We should ask ourselves, “what happens if this issue is resolved one way or the other?” Is the Clerk’s refusal to issue a license to a homosexual couple going to get the couple to reconsider their choices? What is the end she is trying to reach?

“Red Herrings” are not red herring themselves. That is, it is not a non-issue that we spend time thinking and talking about non-issues. Our resources in time, money, and energy are limited. Every resource spent fighting an issue that is not a real issue is wasted. We could have spent some of that time or money elsewhere and maybe gotten something for it. Everything comes at a cost and we should consider the price we are paying for what we are getting.

Civil Servant Disobedience

I have been reading about civil servants refusing to issue marriage certificates or other legal documents to homosexual couples. It seems like these civil servants are taking it as a matter of proper civil disobedience to refuse to complete these documents. Most of what I have read leads me to believe that these civil servants are claiming that to issue these documents would be a violation of their religious beliefs, and so they are refusing to perform these duties of their office.

They are wrong. In numerous ways, they are wrong and it has nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality or religion. In fact, the specifics of sexual orientation do not even need to be considered.

Civil disobedience has a long and distinguished tradition in the United States of America.

Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.

I’m speaking of a civil servant defined as:

A civil servant or public servant is a person in the public sector employed for a government department or agency.

For example, when a County Clerk refuses to issue a marriage license, this is an instance of a civil servant refusing to perform the duty of their office.

Why is this wrong?

First, it is not civil disobedience. The person in the job is not being forced to obey the law. They have the option to vacate their office. This would be the proper course of action. Staying in office and refusing to perform one’s duty as prescribed by the oath a person takes on acceptance of that office is wrong. It is not civil disobedience; it is plain disobedience and this person should be dismissed if they refuse to resign.

Second, it is not a religious matter. Take an alternate example to illustrate. If the law says that muslims may marry, then a County Clerk cannot refuse to issue a marriage certificate because they do not believe muslims should marry based on their religious beliefs. Again, the civil servant has the option of resigning. They are not being forced to perform. Their job requires them to uphold the Constitution whether they like it or not.

Thirdly, it violates the separation of powers as intended by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has determined who can be married. If anyone meets those guidelines, the County Clerk shall issue a marriage certificate. Allowing them to not do so would give the Executive branch power to supersede the Judicial branch, circumventing the intended balance of authority that the framers of the Constitution intended.

Christ said to “render unto Caesar” with the intent of telling His followers that we Christians need not force our beliefs into our government, rather, that this was an unrelated matter. Government should be like mathematics. There is no “Christian math.” There is just math. And we do not need a “Christian government” to have Christians in the government and Christians making up the people being governed. Our job as Christians is to be a good witness, doing our jobs rightly in a way that reflects well on Christ: and refusing to perform the duties we have sworn to perform is not the right way to go about it.

The best way to manage a law you don’t like is not to cry that the nation is falling apart because the law was passed; it is to work to convert people to Christianity regardless of what is legal. The law has little or nothing to do with Christianity. Christ told us to obey the laws. But living like Christ is rarely anything like following civil laws. It is not illegal to give to the poor, nor is it illegal to ignore the poor: it is simply not a factor. It is not illegal to lie, but it is sinful. It is not illegal to dishonor your father or mother but it is sinful. The law is really not something we should be concerned with in that way.

So, the proper place to fight this battle was in the legislature and then in the courtroom. These battles were fought and they are over. It is now the responsibility of the civil servant to serve. The option of resignation is available and honorable if their disagreement runs deep enough to require they not participate in the performance of their duties any longer. Otherwise, they must execute their duties as described in their job titles or they should be removed from office.

The Proper Making of Holes in People

The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Most Americans have understood this to mean that is it the right of American citizens to own and carry firearms. Most citizens have also agreed that some restrictions on this right are reasonable (you can’t carry fully automatic weapons in most places), though the exact restrictions have been debated as society changed or new weapons are invented.

Lately, what we often see the conversation centered around is the latest tragic incident where a gun was used. Someone kills some people with a gun and we hear some version of, “this would not happen (or not be as bad) if we had better gun control laws.”

Dwayne’s bad chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver from under his pillow and stick it in his mouth. This was a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

First, I would like to clear up something that bothers me when I hear people discussing this issue. Sometimes they put forth something to the effect that the full meaning of the 2nd amendment should be considered and that it means something other than, “Americans should have a right to own weapons which can be used to kill people.” This parsing of the argument is bad for both sides and it is not a reasonable interpretation of the meaning. We do not need to talk about “hunting rights” or about “property rights” or any other subset of the full American right provided for in the amendment.

For example, it is sometimes put forward that the starting words, “A well regulated militia” implies that the writers intended that the amendment would provide for local militia groups, not individual gun owner rights. This is simply not the case. Many articles and pamphlets were written by those attempting to get the Constitution ratified after it was completed. The signed paper was no good until the states had voted for it. So there are many published documents that expand and clarify the thinking of those who wrote the amendment. It is clear that they intended the amendment to insure that Americans would have the right to keep up arms against their own government so that they might overthrow the new government if it became too powerful and attempted to take the rights of the citizens. They did not want to finish a war for freedom just to be enslaved by a new government.

It is clear from the body of writing by the authors of the Constitution and by those people who were debating it in newspapers and public forums, that all understood the power in question to be the power to use technology to empower the citizens to revolt. All the watering down of the amendment is a very modern confusion. Let us do away with it.

So, in considering the proper argument, should we now, in our new and more modern society, disarm our citizens? Do we now live in a country where the concerns that pushed people to add the 2nd amendment in the first place are no longer applicable?

At the core, a gun is powerful because it levels the playing field. It does not matter who is bigger when both opponents have a gun. This is the effect of all weapon technology. It gives the advantage to the smarter opponent and removes it from the brutish. In a world without weapons, the bigger and stronger triumph over the smaller and weaker. In a world full of advanced weapon technology, the smartest always wins. And so also, whoever possesses the best, and most of the technology, tends to win. If citizens are unarmed, they are no threat to their government.

I can imagine someone saying, “the main thing guns let a person do is to kill many more people than they could otherwise.” Or maybe, “I don’t care about all that abstract stuff when kids are getting killed in schools.” Well, if you are one of these people I encourage you to stop. Removing technology will not save children, or movie theater patrons. It will however, take away a little more of our liberty (which is a shiny word for freedom):

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

– Benjamin Franklin

Franklin knew, because he was a genius, and because he lived in a time when it actually had been fought and bled over, that freedom is hard fought to win and very easy to give up. And at the bottom, America is about freedom.

So there it is. Would America be safer with gun control? Maybe. There are plenty of articles full of statistics you can read to figure that out. But it wouldn’t be America. It would be the country that was once the land of the free. Like many other things in our country, if we want to live in a place where people are free, we have to be willing to give up some safety in the knowledge that Liberty comes at various prices all along the way.

The Earth is Old and I Don’t Care and Neither Should You

I’m going to make this old argument here just so I can tell people where to look it up on the Internet in case I don’t have time or don’t feel like going through it all at the moment.

Executive Summary

The Earth is much older than 6,000 years. Scientists change their mind about things all the time (which is absolutely what they are supposed to do) so the date moves around but everyone agrees it is over several billion years old. The Creation story in Genesis is allegorical, not a historical account of facts with dates on them. This does not, in the smallest way, change the meaning of the book nor the impact it should have on Christian readers, since it was never intended to be read as history.

Genesis Contains Allegory

By allegory, I mean: “stating one thing directly while intending the reader to get another meaning from my statement indirectly and usually on their own.”

Parts of Genesis are allegorical. I’m certain of this. If you’re not, consider that St. Paul agrees with me because he said so in Galatians 4:21-24.

(24) Now all this is an allegory; these [two women] represent two covenants.

Feel free to read it all for context but rest assured, Paul is saying that this story from Genesis is allegorical. (In Jewish language it is midrash where Paul is telling us the real meaning of the story.)

Also, consider the common belief that the serpent in the garden story is really Lucifer and not simply a serpent. There is no direct written reference the states this. The serpent can only be Lucifer if the story is allegory. We must either admit that the story is allegorical or that it is only a serpent and there is no reference to Lucifer. We can’t have both.

Allegory is used all over the Bible in other books as well: Jesus spoke in parables which are also a type of allegory.

Since some of Genesis is allegorical, any of Genesis could be allegorical.

Bible Genre

Modern readers want to think that everything has always been the way it is right now. They might be shocked to learn that the way people have written things down over the years has changed quite a bit. The modern novel, short story, biography, and most everything we read, did not exist long ago. The author of ancient works had different ideas in mind and assumed the reader would be a certain type of person with a certain type of expectation that was different from ours.

An example of this is the classic myth. When we hear “myth” we think of mythological monsters and such but this is not what I mean. I mean the “likely story” of the Greek philosopher. This was a common technique where the philosopher told a story that was plausible and might even involve people the listeners knew but it was not “true” in that is may have never really happened, but the point was not to relate factual events, the point was to teach something. No one who was listening was “fooled” into thinking the events were real because the hearers were all familiar with the story telling device. If we read ancient writing without knowing that this technique was common, we might assume it was historical and meant to be a fact, when it was not written with that intent at all.

This Does Not Change the Story

I cannot understand why anyone thinks that since the Genesis Creation story might not be literally hooked to calendar dates it is somehow less valid. After all, the point of the story is to teach the reader something about God, not about how God made the universe.

Also, let me point out that this view is in good company:

In one of his books, Billy Graham wrote:

I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say, I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

The Clergy Letter – from American Christian Clergy – An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science
(signed by over 12,000 Christian Ordained Clergy Members.) http://www.theclergyletterproject.org/

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Pat Robertson

…there was a point of time after the earth was created after these things were done, after the universe was formed, after the asteroid hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, after all that, there was a point in time where there was a particular human being that God touched and that was the human that started the race that we are now part of and I think prior to that who knows what was here. ….

You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to think that this earth that we live in only has 6000 years of existence. It just doesn’t.

Pastor Brian Houston, Hillsong Church Australia

I believe in creation. The Bible starts in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. If I waver on the first 10 words of the Bible I think I’m going to have problems properly representing the rest of the Bible. However, timeframes, over what period of time that was, whether there was room for any evolving in some areas of life as well, I’m more than open to that. I’m happy to leave that to the experts.

Pope Francis

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

“He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

Francis said the beginning of the world was not “a work of chaos” but created from a principle of love. He said sometimes competing beliefs in creation and evolution could co-exist.

Pope Francis tells an audience that the Big Bang does not contradict the “creative intervention of God”. He says, “on the contrary, it requires it”.

“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” the pope said. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

This goes all the way back to Saint Augustine who said in effect that where the discoveries of science contradict our understanding of God’s Word, we should first reconsider our understanding of God’s Word.

So, I think this should do it. If not, feel free to ask me questions. I’ll try to answer them. I would especially appreciate any comments pointing out factual mistakes. Reread the story and see what you think.