A Cosmic Wrench in Our Power Grid

Thoughts on scientific, technological and moral advancement and religion.


The podcast, Unbelievable, with host, Justin Brierley, is becoming a favorite food for thought. I just listened to Steven Pinker vs Nick Spencer: Have science, reason & humanism replaced faith? Pinker is an atheist professor of Psychology from Harvard, and Spencer is billed as a member of “the Christian think tank, Theos”. The subject was “Pinker’s recent book ‘Enlightenment Now’, addressing his claim that science, reason and humanism are the drivers of progress in the world, not religion”.

As with most of the episodes I have listened to, this one was a very civil and respectful “debate”, really more of a dialogue, on the respective points of view. This civility and respect sets Unbelievable apart from more reactive “discussions” of controversial topics.

In this particular discussion, the focus was on Pinker’s optimistic view of humanism bolstered by science and technology echoing the familiar theme that we are progressing as a species as we free ourselves from religion with the aid of science and technology carrying us forward. Pinker minimizes the influence of religion on the enlightenment and the sudden advancement of science that accompanied it, while Spencer argued that the influence of religion is what fundamentally motivated and shaped those movements.

Spencer agreed with much that Pinker says about the progress of modern man, though he disagrees that science has shaped the moral advances we have experienced. He says that the value of the individual and sanctity of human rights is at heart a religious concept. He even points out that Pinker has to resort to the religious term, sacred, to describe these concepts as some evidence of the religious influence.

I have long toyed with the notion that we are not as advanced, morally, as we think ourselves. The 20th Century was the bloodiest of all centuries. Characteristic of the 20th Century was the genocidal bloodshed and cruelty of the atheist regimes under Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot and others. Some would add Hitler to the hit list of atheist genocidal despots, but that point is often argued, with religionists foisting Hitler on the atheists, and the atheists pushing him back on the religionists.

Hitler is somewhat of an enigma, generating an almost religious following marked by a personality that modeled a religion-like fervor. Pinker and Spencer debated whether Hitler was influenced by Darwinism, with Pinker countering that Hitler despised Darwin.

Though the truth of Hitler’s motivations my remain a mystery, and despite the unprecedented genocides perpetuated in the 20th Century, Spencer agreed with Pinker that we have progressed morally into the 21st Century. We generally exhibit a higher morality, however you slice it, (at least in the western world) in modern times than ever before, and this higher morality tracks scientific and technological progress.

As the two men carried on the conversation about the relative influences of religion and scientific and technological advancement on that progress, some thoughts occurred to me that I hadn’t considered before. I would agree with Spencer that religion (principally Judeo-Christian principles in the west) has largely carried us to this place where, ironically, we are finding no more need of God.

This perspective, also, flows from those same Judeo-Christian roots that holds out human pride as the principal problem (sin) of humankind. Having achieved a degree of independence and comfort through the advancement of technology, we believe “can do this” on our own (to paraphrase the testosterone influenced enthusiasm of my former teenage boys).

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Ritual, Spirit and Truth

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I was raised Catholic. I say that often. Not that it is a bad thing. It’s just my experience. During my time in the Catholic church, through my childhood and early adulthood, I had no connection with God. I can’t lay the blame for that at the feet of the Catholic Church. That was just where I was.

When I became a Believer, when I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, my life changed. I also began to see the Catholic Church in a different light. I was never into the ritual and observance, which is a major component of the Catholic Church. Not that other denominations and religions don’t have central religious rituals. All religions have ritual observances and traditions.

Those ritual observances and traditions are not, in themselves, bad, but they can create a facade that hides emptiness, darkness and sin. They can create an appearance of piety with no spiritual reality behind them. They can be more superstitious than spiritual, like stroking a rabbits foot for good fortune. In these and other ways, ritual observances can become a substitute for relationship with God.

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Spirit and Truth vs. Self-Made Religion

It isn’t things from outside that corrupt a person, but things from inside.

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In a previous blog article, I talked about the shadow of things to come. Paul says that following rules and observing religious ritual is just a shadow of things to come. Later in the same chapter in Colossians, Paul explains in more detail what he is getting at. When we are focused only on the do’s and the don’ts and on observing religious rituals, we are focused on the wrong things.

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle,  Do not taste,  Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)

Paul isn’t advocating that followers of Christ abandon self-discipline and self-control and do whatever they like. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2) But, following Jesus doesn’t mean stepping up religious observances and following rules and regulations more closely. The focus on rules and rituals entirely misses the point.

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An Inkling of Transcendence: Lewis and Tolkien

Some say today that science is the study of everything that exists. If Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were millennials today, they would “call BS”.

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“[His] father had taught him to absorb doubt and disbelief into his beliefs.”

This statement from the book, Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter, is spoken of Charles Williams, who was a regular participant in the informal discussion group, the Inklings, formed by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien at the University of Oxford, England. The group met at various times in Lewis’s classroom and a local pub from the late 1930’s to 1949. Charles Williams was an early member of the group and continued as a regular until his death in 1945. Williams grew up “a devout churchman” but was encouraged by his father “to appreciate the force of atheistic rationalism and to admire such men as Voltaire and Tom Paine”.

Lewis, of course, was an atheist when he arrived and began teaching at Oxford. His journey from materialism to agnosticism to Christian theism is chronicled in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Tolkien was already a Christian when Lewis joined him as a professor at Oxford, and Tolkien influenced Lewis in his transition to Christianity. Williams came along later. These men were attracted to each other as much by their love of language, literature and poetry as their faith, though their views on literature and faith often diverged sharply.

These three men, and others who joined them, were powerhouses of thought and creativity. CS Lewis, of course, wrote many books from fiction to philosophy. JRR Tolkien wrote, perhaps, the greatest mythological series of the 20th century in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Charles Williams, though lesser known, was a prolific writer, literary critic, publisher and student of English literature who could recite hundreds of passages from sheer memory.

They influenced each other, despite their very distinct differences, and their collective influence has been felt by generations from their day to ours. They were Christian men, believing very authentically in the Bible as scripture, but they were also fierce academics who held their faith up to the rigors of intellectual exercise.

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Rejecting the Right God

If anyone is going to reject God, they should at least be sure to reject the right God.

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It occurs to me that the “new atheists” are rejecting the wrong God. They are famous for saying that they don’t believe in the Christian God any more than they believe Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It seems to me that, if someone is going to reject God, they ought to be rejecting the right one.

Not all gods are created equal. The Christian concept of God is not on a par with Zeus or a “flying spaghetti monster”, to say the very least. The same can be said of the Islamic view of God or any other major world religion. The concept and “proofs” of God are much more sophisticated than the weak understanding displayed in a comment that likens them to a flying spaghetti monster.

The ignorance of the new atheists about these things is rather shocking, though it shouldn’t be altogether surprising. They admit they find no use for such things as gods and, therefore, and most have spent no time studying or considering them. The ignorance is actually willful, then, and inexcusable.

I can’t do justice to the subject in a short blog, but I will try to summarize. The only serious contenders for consideration as God are the gods of the major world religions. They can’t all be true because they are incompatible with each other[1], so which one, if any of them, is the most likely candidate?

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Religious Pluralism Sounds Nice, but Is It True?

It should be no surprise, if there be such thing as truth, that people all over the world would have some knowledge and understanding of the truth. Thus, we should not be surprised at all to find aspects of truth in all the world religions.

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(c) Can Stock Photo / rolffimages

One expression of pluralism is the idea that all truth claims are equally valid. (Pluralism doesn’t necessarily require this.) So does that include the truth claim that all truth claims are not equally valid? Think about it. This expression of pluralism that is quite popular today is already in trouble right from the start.

Religious pluralism is “the acceptance of all religious paths as equally valid, promoting coexistence”.

Religious pluralism sounds nice, and the motives for wanting to believe in religious pluralism are largely nobles ones. The idea of religious pluralism is born out of a desire for unity, respect for others and harmony, but can we live by it?

That we want religious pluralism to be true doesn’t mean it is true. We would like for gravity not to be “true”, especially while climbing a ladder, but wishing it so does not make it so.

My thoughts today are spurred on by a presentation by Vince Vitale on religious pluralism. You might want to listen to what he has to say about it before or after considering my thoughts.[i] He addresses several bad assumptions and several good desires that lead to pluralism. I only address two of the three assumptions here.

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The Jesus We Meet in the Gospels

 (c) Can Stock Photo
(c) Can Stock Photo

I didn’t want to read the NY Times article, What Religion Would Jesus Belong To, by Nicholas Kristof.[1] Just as I suspected, the article lacked a deep understanding of Christianity. It lumps Christianity together with other religions of the world in a pluralistic mush. I don’t know the depth of the author’s understanding of Christianity, but it didn’t show in the article (though he claims a conservative Christian background).

Still, the article makes a good point… and I shouldn’t be so reluctant to admit it.

American churches don’t reflect “the Jesus we meet in the Gospels”. Never mind that the author’s proof is another NY Times article complaining of the Christians of the Republican Party.[2] The author seems to equate Jesus with the current political and moral landscape, as if Jesus would condone it, as if the modern American church is the exact representation of Jesus. If the modern American church doesn’t accurately reflect the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, it isn’t a reflection on Jesus; it’s a reflection on the modern American church. Continue reading “The Jesus We Meet in the Gospels”