Author Archives: 4n0nymous

Star Trek, Christianity, Ethics and Atheism

It’s coming up on the 21st anniversary of Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) passing away (October 24). From his grave in space (that’s right! Space!) he would have been able to see mankind launch the international space station, hopefully a first step towards human beings exploring the stars together.

Gene Roddenberry famously said that Star Trek was an attempt to show that mankind will not reach maturity until we come to not simply tolerate our differences, but learn to celebrate and take delight in them. He would have said “humankind” towards the end of his life.

Gene Roddenberry was also a devout atheist, and he imagined that in his utopian future everyone was atheist and “better for it”.

That’s very interesting isn’t it? Creation Ministries International just published an article on Hell that suggests the opposite.

To paraphrase, they believe that Hell is the place people go for sinful conduct. Sometimes, in this life, crime does pay. There is absolutely no controversy on that point. Sometimes human beings profit from immoral conduct. Sometimes living virtuously has harmful effects. Sometimes the innocent are punished. So why should we not behave immorally when we have the chance to get away with it, and why should we behave morally when it only serves to harm us? This is called the free-rider problem by philosophers.

There are many answers to this question as almost all systems of ethics posit some form of answer. Christianity posits Hell and Heaven – the belief is that while justice in this life is imperfect, God will ultimately make sure that perfect justice is done. You may live like a king because of your crimes, but God will give you your just desert; you may live like a pauper for your virtue, but God will give you your just desert.

This is the thrust of the famous Voltaire quote Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer or if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. God being there to look over your shoulder solves the free rider problem by evaporating it. There is no problem because God will always make you pay for your ride in the end (to mix metaphors).

On the other hand, Gene Roddenberry knew that Religion had a terrible track record for starting violent, large conflicts. Further, he knew that conflicts of ideology are more heated, less rational ones which tend to be more harmful (Vulcans were on the verge of annihilating themselves because of age old fiery hatred). Genocides tend to follow theistic lines very tightly; while it is known that Hitler was not a Christian personally, he did appeal to Christianity very strongly and very often in order to rally a nation behind him. That polarizing ideology was necessary for the Nazi movement to become what it was and accomplish what it did.

Further, religions like Christianity prevent moral reasoning. Because there is exactly one authority on right and wrong which is inerrant and infallible we have no latitude to analyze a situation morally. We instead go to our book, find the passage that applies, read what we ought to do and then we do it with the absolute certainty that we are correct. And when we are blinded by authority we often cannot see what would otherwise be an intuitive moral result (see Nazism).

Not to pick on Christianity by comparing it to the Nazis, but the two have the same structure as an ethical system – a wise and benevolent ruler who really and truly loves you is at the top, and that ruler speaks in edicts which give you the exact moral truth and are completely beyond reproach or criticism. If that’s the kind of thing you believe, you’d better be right (see Nuremberg). Christians think that they are right – so did the Nazis.

Gene Roddenberry versus Voltaire is the game then. Religion polarizes and blinds us on the one hand (and historically this is true) but Religion compels us to behave morally even when nobody is looking on the other.

I don’t think either one is right.

Voltaire is correct in that we need something to solve the free rider problem. That something does not have to be God however; Gene Roddenberry is correct there. We just need a belief in ethics, a belief that there is a fundamental way that we ought to behave purely because it is right. In Star Trek moral beliefs are guided by respect for individual autonomy – each person and culture should be free to self-determine so long as it does not harm others. This conflicts with greater utility very often, see A Private Little War for a classic example.

But how can Gene Roddenberry say that mankind will not reach maturity and wisdom until it celebrates its differences and then deny the future its Religions in the same breath?

Gene Roddenberry was surrounded by big Religion/State-Religion conflicts during his life, through WW2 and into the Cold War. Plurality of Religion could not be the answer as a historical fact.

Note that Religious plurality is not the same as cultural plurality. Different religions are not like different cultures – a culture is a way of living, its the combination of art, philosophy, thought, music, law, norms and myriad other things. Culture is something we live, not something we believe. Religion is a set of beliefs about what exists beyond the world we occupy. Religion is something we believe based on faith.

Religion operates on faith – there is no other way to have beliefs about the world outside of experience (ie, God) apart from faith. Atheists and humanists believe things on faith too – any belief about God, including the belief that God does not exist, can only be based on faith. There is no evidence for or against God; God is completely outside the universe we live in.

Cultural differences should not matter; Indians like Naan, Greeks like Pita, Italians like Pizza. That’s fine, you cook whatever bread you want and I’ll cook whatever bread I want. If I don’t like yours I won’t eat it. Cultural plurality is ultimately about living your life the way you want to. And Gene’s point is just this: who would want to live in a world without Naan, Pita, and Pizza? A one bread world would be truly sad.

But as a matter of fact, religious differences affect the way we live with other people. Muslims and Jews attach very different significance to a small piece of land in Asia which leads to a good deal of conflict. From the 1100s to the 1600s Christians and Muslims went through a series of long wars called the Crusades over the same dusty little piece of land.

But the answer isn’t to the remove the Religions; that’s a part of culture too, it’s a part of our freedom to live how we want.

The answer is to say who gives a damn about the land?

I use the term Metaphysical Religion to denote a system of beliefs about the things outside of experience which posits no beliefs whatsoever about the world of experience we live in. Atheism and Humanism are metaphysical religions. So is Taoism.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not metaphysical religions. They say things like this sport on the ground, this is where Jesus died. This bit of fabric, this is what Jesus was wrapped in after. This mosque, this temple, this church, this book is important beyond its physical utility. It is an object of faith with direct and deep religious significance. The Bible does not just teach me my religion; the book itself is also holy, and that makes how you use it very important. It cannot be kindling for a fire. These might be called the factual aspects of religion.

That kind of worldview cannot persist. Mankind reaching maturity is not compatible with plurality of non-metaphysical religions. Metaphysical religions are simply a part of culture, they are something we live. The metaphysical aspects of non-metaphysical religions are likewise a part of culture and they should persevere. Mankind is stronger for having them. Gene Roddenberry could not separate the metaphysical aspects of religion from the factual aspects; maybe he did not believe such a thing was possible.

But so long as I think that Jerusalem is a bit of scrub brush with an old city on top while Jews see the Temple Mount and West Wall, Christians see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Muslims see the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa we’re not going to agree about how that land should be used or who should be using it. Further we’ll feel compelled by the religious beliefs we accept on faith – not fact – to see that the land is used in accordance with our theology.

No Idols except me – that got it right in a very fundamental way. If each of those three religions saw Jerusalem the way I do – as an old city in Asia – then think how many fewer people we would have killed.

Creationists are convinced of the literal truth of every word in the bible. They think when you start saying that the Earth took longer than 6 days to be created, that the Universe is 14 billion years old, and than man exists because of evolution and never lived in a Garden with God that you compromise the authority of the Bible and this is a slippery slope to Atheism.

That is wrong. It is a slippery slope to Christianity as a metaphysical religion. The more factual aspects you discard the closer you move to being a pure metaphysical religion. As more and more of the factual tenants of a religion are shown false it must grow increasingly metaphysical to survive. And while factual aspects can be contradicted by things in the world, metaphysical aspects cannot. They are the moral lessons about how to live and why we live, and the metaphysical beliefs about death that soothe us and make life tolerable in the face of inevitable demise.

Moral reasoning remains a problem, but as a religion grows more and more metaphysical it also grows more and more abstract. I believe that that particular dilemma will sort itself out given time. But if it does not, any religion which prohibits moral reasoning and uses its dogma as a moral checklist must also be discarded. Allowing that exception allows Nazism to seep back in.

My fantasy is that one day (although certainly long after I die) all Religions will be purely metaphysical. Christianity will say “this is why we are here, this is who started everything, this is how He says to live your life, and this is what will happen when you die”. And that’s it. Nothing about the history of the world or the importance of anything on it (apart from pure moral significance). Bibles will simply be books that teach you about God, important only for their contents. Like John Lennon mused in imagine, there would be nothing to kill or die for in this world.

Then, and only then, can we truly celebrate – instead of (at best) tolerate – all of our differences.

How do we know the Earth is Old? Biologos vs. Creation Ministries International

Biologos released a poster which really steamed two writers for Creation Ministries International. The poster details why academic scientists in physical and biological fields agree that the Earth must be older than 7,000 years (if you doubt that they do believe that, feel free to visit this link and read a very strong endorsement of an Old Earth from a very very illustrious collection of the world’s top academic scientists). Now I do not agree with everything that Biologos says, but I certainly like them much much more than I like Creation Ministries.

Creation Ministries published a paper delivering refutations of Biologos’ claims. Let’s look at the Biologos claims (BL), look at the CMI response (CMI), and see what we think.

Opening Statement

BL: There are several reliable ways to accurately estimate the age of materials on earth. Some methods measure radioactive atoms that decay at steady and predictable rates; others count layers that grow or are deposited in recognizable yearly patterns.

CMI: … There is only one way to reliably know the age of anything and that is by eyewitness testimony, on the basis of their written records…so how are the ages established? They are assumed, … all such ages rely on unprovable assumptions about the past. … a person can obtain any age that they like depending on the assumptions that they make. The methods described in this poster are … ‘observe and extrapolate’ methods of dating. These methods rely on three basic assumptions—(1) we can somehow know the initial conditions of the system from present observations, (2) the rate of change in the system currently observed is constant and measurable, and (3) the system is sufficiently resistant to interference that we are warranted in extrapolating the rate of change back thousands, millions, or even billions of years based on a few decades’ worth of data.

Science and Religion: If the only way to know the age of anything reliably is to have eyewitness testimony, consider this: do you have a clock in your house? Of course you do. And do you watch it all day? Of course not, you have a job or go to school, you have hobbies and other pass times. So when you get home at the end of the day, how do you know your clock is still accurate if nobody was there to eyewitness it?

You do make an assumption there. Your clock works on mechanical or electrical processes that operate with a predictable rhythm and pattern; you assume that even when you aren’t looking your clock continues to operate in the same way because the physical processes controlling it are constant.

We use that assumption, plus a fact about the world – that when my clock is working under the guidance of physical laws it keeps accurate time – to infer that my clock which was accurate this morning is still accurate this evening. Inference means something is very likely to be true. So long as the laws of physics governing it operate uniformly, the clock will keep time.

So all we assume here is that the laws of physics don’t make an exception for time or place – they are constant and predictable. That assumption is a perfectly valid and safe one to make. Life would be chaotically unpredictable if it wasn’t. In fact, every observation that has ever been made by anyone is consistent with the statement that physical laws and causality operate consistently with no exception for time or place. Nobody can produce an observation to the contrary.

In fact, if it were the case that we could not trust physical laws to be constant absolutely no science could be done! If causality could not be relied upon the world would be absolute chaos, you couldn’t even be sure you wouldn’t fall right through the floor at any moment.

As for the validity of each of the ‘assumptions’ in dating methods, we shall examine CMIs claims one by one.

So CMI can’t knock-em-down and drag-em-out with this argument. Assumptions like “the laws of physics make no exception for time or place” will not end up being fatal because, best we can tell (and we have spent a long time checking), that’s completely accurate and any special exceptions to physical laws behave in predictable, measurable ways.

Radiometric Dating

BL: Radioactive dating is based on the measurement of unstable types of atoms (isotopes) that decay at a predictable rate. There are many different radioactive atoms, each with its own rate of decay. Old rocks require dating using isotopes that decay slowly, because faster decaying isotopes have already gone.

CMI: .. all ‘ages’ calculated from these dating methods are based on assumptions about the past. In the case of radiometric dating the assumptions are: (1) we know the rock’s initial conditions, (2) the rock has remained a closed system for millions/billions of years, and (3) the radioactive decay rate of the isotope in question has remained constant all that time. All three assumptions are known to be unreliable…part of the standard dating procedure is to check the calculated ‘age’ against what is expected, and to change the assumptions so the result makes sense.

S&R: That’s actually false CMI.Those three things are not assumptions, all of them have been tested or can be tested experimentally.

Radioactive dating in a nutshell: Isotopes have a “half-life”, a physical property that predicts their decay rates. Randomly, all isotopes will shoot out alpha, beta, or gamma radiation. When they do, they turn into simpler isotopes or elements. Those simpler elements themselves have a half-life. Half-life is the time it takes half of a sample to undergo radioactive decay (but the sample is not gone in 2 half-lives, it is half the size after 1 half-life, a quarter the size after 2 half-lives, an eight the size after 3 and so on.) The initial element is called the parent isotope, and the element it decays into is called the daughter. So the ratio of parent to daughter tells us how many half-lives have passed.

‘Assumption’ 3, that decay rates are constant, has consistently been shown to be true. As long as the isotope is in the same inertial frame of reference as the observer (and all isotopes on Earth are in the same frame of reference) they undergo decay at the same rate. In fact, experiments have specifically tried to change the decay rates of isotopes under extremely high energy conditions in particle accelerators, but were unsuccessful. It may be possible in theory to change decay rates by increasing absorption rates, but the energy and pressure needed would have only existed in the big bang at a time when the universe was too high energy for atoms to exist.

Assumption 1, that we know the initial conditions, isn’t always true. But we don’t use or rely on radioactive dating techniques when it isn’t true. And the age of the Earth is based on a known quantity.

The oldest estimates of the age of the Earth using radiometric testing use Zircon crystals. Zircon is not a “rock” which is a mixture of many different elements and isotopes. Zircon is a “mineral”, a solid mass of a single ion (ZrSiO4). Zircon always forms the same way when it precipitates out of molten igneous rock.

Zircon crystals trap uranium suspended in Igneous magma when they form. Because of the charge and structure of Zircon crystals, they very conveniently do not allow lead inside of them when they form. Zircon forms all the time in volcanic magma today and we can, and have, examined fresh zircon in great detail. It invariably rejects lead.

Lead is what uranium ultimately degrades in to through a very long decay chain. So we know that zircon traps uranium and doesn’t trap lead. We know that uranium will eventually decay into lead. So if we find lead inside of a zircon crystal, we can chalk it up to radioactive decay; there is no other way for lead to get inside the crystal.

‘Assumption’ 2 – our samples are not contaminated with lead from somewhere else. Geo Physicists take great care to prevent this – they are careful not to select samples that are exposed to the elements for example, but instead they dig deep into the Earth where contamination is less likely. But there are better ways to tell if a sample is contaminated than that.

Zircon incorporates uranium in predictable quantities around 10 parts per million. It doesn’t matter that zircon doesn’t incorporate the same amount of uranium every time because it is the ratio of uranium to lead we are interested in. If a sample were contaminated it would be quickly apparent for two reasons.

First, there would be too much lead. There is very little uranium in zircon by percentage, so a daunting amount of lead must have come from somewhere else.

Secondly, it would be the wrong isotope of lead. This is important. Lead has several stable isotopes; Pb 204, 206, 207 and 208. If you find a piece of lead in the world it will be a predictable mixture of these four isotopes, with each isotope appearing in a predictable ratio based on its stability. But only three isotopes, Pb 206, 207, and 208 are part of the decay chain from Uranium into lead. In other words, the presence of Pb 204 instantly tells you that there is contamination.

But even that is not fatal! This is important, and CMI does not understand it, so read carefully. Because naturally occurring lead is a predictable mixture of those 4 isotopes, if you know how much lead 204 is in the sample, you also know how much of the other isotopes contaminated the sample! So we can still rely on radiometric dating because the contamination can be controlled for using more complicated mathematical models.

And that is exactly what it means when CMI says that part of the process is to predict the initial age and change the assumptions based on what is found. This is a process of selecting a model which either accounts for contamination or does not. We assume an uncontaminated sample, because we chose it carefully. If we find lead 204, we know that there was contamination so we have to change that assumption.

More complicated models have a greater degree of uncertainty, but that uncertainty is still only millions of years – in other words, the data can’t tell us if the Earth is 4.41 billion years old or 4.39 billion years old because of sampling error. That is a lot of years, but it tells us for certain that the Earth is at least 4.39 billion years and no older than 4.41 billion years.

So, like the clock in my house, using this dating method is based on only one assumption – that the laws of physics are constant. If they were not, no science could be done. The other three ‘assumptions’ are directly testable, and have been tested and accounted for in dating the Earth.

Listen, that section was complicated, especially if you don’t have a background in science. Please go back and read it once more if you are at all unsure what it said. It will be very important.

Missing Isotopes

BL: Experiments that collide atoms at high speed have allowed scientists to determine what isotopes would have been formed in stars and supernova events. Looking for these isotopes in nature, we find only the very long-lived varieties. The short lived isotopes are “missing” because the Earth is old enough for them to have decayed away. The longest-lived missing isotopes require at least 1 billion years to decay below detectable levels.

CMI: If [the scientists] did not observe it we know they are telling a story. It is just their subjective opinion … the claim here simply begs the question…why should we accept that all the isotopes in the universe formed billions of years ago in supernova events? There is in fact a decided lack of supernova remnants that should exist if the universe were billions of years old…If we accept that God created the earth in six days some 6,000 years ago as the Bible describes, why would God have created short-lived, highly radioactive, and harmful radionuclides? And even if he did create them, it’s likely that accelerated nuclear decay during Creation Week would have neutralized such radionuclides…

S&R Again, scientists have specifically tried to increase the rate of radioactive decay. It cannot be done under the laws of physics as we know them, so accelerated nuclear decay is not possible. If CMI is invoking miracles then their arguments cannot refute actual science. Miracles are fully outside the realm of science.

“It is just their subjective opinion” – that’s not correct. It is their inference based on evidence and known laws of physics and chemistry. Opinions are our subjective beliefs. Inferences are stronger than that, they are based on evidence and they are rationally considered. This is not like reading Hamlet, where in your opinion he was insane and in mine he was faking insanity. There is a right answer and there are ways to find it out with varying degrees of trustworthiness. the scientific method is one very trustworthy technique.

The postulate is also not question begging; it starts with a theory that is supported by evidence, and it finds further corroborating evidence! Being right is not question begging!

Based on astrophysical observations scientists say that “all the matter around came from high energy collisions in stars and super novae.” To test this, they simulate those high energy events in particle collides and see what comes out. They then see what kind of elements they find in nature. Those elements look exactly the same, except some are missing!

You would of course expect some isotopes to have decayed away by now, even the creationists thinks so. Theory corroborated! So we can see what’s missing and use that information to guess at when the raw materials for the Earth were first formed based on established knowledge and only one assumption: that physical laws have been constant.

And guess what? When we date the universe this way it gives us the same age we get from dating the Earth with radiometric U-Pb dating of Zircon crystals! That isn’t question begging, it’s evidence that the theory is correct! And not only that, two different processes conceived and tested independently by different people based only on one assumption (that the laws of physics are constant) gave us the same age!

The Creationist answer is not science. God made the universe without all those elements – why? And how would you tell if it was God or radioactive decay? Well we can SEE radioactive decay happening all the time. Can you see God? No, God is not something science can engage with. The creationist answer must be taken on faith. All we take on faith is that the laws of physics make no exception for time or place, something we must believe if we are to understand the most basic causal relationships, and something which is glaringly well established.

Radiometric Dating of Rocks and Meteorites

BL: The oldest rocks on earth come from the interior of continents, where erosion has exposed the deep crystalline basement rock. These rocks are over 3 billion years old, with the oldest being almost 4.5 billion. Multiple meteorites have also been dated, with the oldest consistently falling close to 4.5 billion years of age.

CMI: Consistently falling close to 4.5 billion years (Ga) of age? …There are many examples for most of the radiometric methods where dates in both terrestrial rocks and meteorites are significantly older than 4.5 Ga, even though they appear to be verified by the numerous ‘reliability criteria’ that geochronologists employ … these dates are interpreted in such a way as to conform to the accepted secular history of the earth … One typical rationalization is to invoke open-system behaviour in the rocks. Such anomalies are never considered a problem but presumed to explain more about the history of the rock, all of which is speculation and none of which has been observed! (Note for interest that the erosion of the interior of the continents was caused by the receding waters of Noah’s Flood.)

S&R: This has already been covered. Unquestionably different radiometric dating techniques have different applications and uses, and just as a screwdriver makes a poor hammer if you use an inappropriate technique you will find incorrect results.

As discussed above, these rocks date older because of exposure to naturally occurring lead. You can tell that lead occurred naturally because there will be Pb 204, which is not part of the U-Pb decay chain. This tells you you are dealing with an open system.

Knowing that naturally occurring (non-radiometric) lead always has a predictable ratio of the four stable isotopes, you can use the quantity of Pb 204 to tell how much of the other Lead isotopes contaminated the sample. It was never observed, but we know it to be the case that Pb 204 is never found inside of Zircon, so it must have gotten there from outside.

So at first we would have gotten a very old date and also found lead 204. Because it is established fact that Zircon rejects lead, including lead 204, and because it is established fact that nothing in a Zircon crystal decays into lead 204, we must adjust our model. This is not tinkering with the numbers after the fact to make the data fit, it is procedural science based on established facts and known physical laws.

As for erosion of the interior of the Earth during the flood, there are layers upon layers of rock which water cannot permeate. Artisan springs in the mountains occur where water is trapped between two such layers in a semi permeable stone and those layers are bent by geological processes. Most of the crust of the Earth is water tight, especially the igneous rocks we find Zircon in. And meteorites were not on Earth during the flood were they? So aging or contamination due to a worldwide flood is insufficient to discredit U-Pb dating of Zircon or meteorites.

Counting Methods

BL: Counting methods are based on observation of natural processes that produce a distinct layer with the passing of each year. For many tree species, slow growth in winter and rapid growth in summer produce a distinct annual tree ring. Some lakes produce annual sediment deposits called varves. Glaciers also preserve a record of annual sediment depositions between winter and summer.

CMI: .. what is being counted [is]not years. … It is now clear that multiple rings and layers are regularly produced in a single year, depending on such factors as climate and hydraulic conditions… some of these methods are calibrated against radiometric dating methods, which is tacit admission that the methods are not reliable..and … the calibrations introduce a calibration bias that stretches the timescale to fit the long age paradigm. All these techniques … ignore the effects of Noah’s Flood. …this annuls the assumptions behind these methods and is a factor that the long-agers are not even prepared to consider.

S&R: Actually, these calibrations are done because C14 dating has a unique problem – we know the decay rate, but the starting amount has changed over time. More on that later.  As for the specifics of each method, we shall see, but they will all boil down to exactly one assumption: that the seasons changed from summer to winter in the past, which is a specific instance of the assumption that physical laws operate with no regard for place or time.

The orbit of the Earth and the Seasons in a nutshell: The Earth orbits the Sun; it follows an elliptical orbit obeying laws of gravitation that were laid out by Newton and Kepler. As it orbits the sun the Earth also spins about its axis.

However, the axis of rotation is tilted. As the Earth orbits the sun, that tilted axis results in a summer and a winter in the Northern and the Southern hemisphere depending on which side is angled towards the sun. This rotation can be explained and measured using Newton’s laws of motion and the conservation of angular momentum.

The exact angle of the Earth’s tilt varies over time. This can cause more intense summers and winters. Over the past 100,000 years the angle of Earth’s tilt has changed about 7 degrees (it now sits as 23 degrees, but it was closer to 30). This means that summers are cooler now, but not by a phenomenal amount.

The important thing is that these changes in the cycles of the Earth are controlled by physical laws. Further, the cycles have been very stable over Earth’s history and virtually static over the past 100,000 years.

Tree Rings

BL: The oldest living trees have more than 4,000 rings. Because annual growth varies with yearly climate differences, the ring pattern of a tree core of known age can be matched with a tree core of unknown age (perhaps taken from a beam in an ancient cliff dwelling) to extend the ring count back in time. This process, known as cross correlation, allows reliable counting back to about 12,000 rings.

CMI: There is widespread evidence that many trees…produce multiple growth rings per year depending on environmental conditions. … further, the past climate patterns after the Flood were significantly different from what we have today, causing major uncertainty in tree ring dating. .. the extremes between different seasons were muted and the environment was in general much wetter, which would have produced faster growth rates. Therefore, growth rings would not have been correlated with seasonal extremes, but more likely with individual storm surges. Moreover, researchers construct long ‘chronologies’ from … fallen logs on the ground … and this is usually constrained by carbon dating the tree cores. This is … circular reasoning. Further, matching the tree ring pattern between separate samples is a highly subjective and flexible process. Without independent confirmation of the dates (which is best done by eyewitness testimony), this method is nothing but circular reasoning.

S&R: The evidence of multiple rings you are referring to comes from research done by the same community of researchers who date the trees! They understand how to look at tree rings because they wrote the academic literature on the point! Saying that the people who invented reading tree rings can’t read tree rings because of something in their own literature is actually silly.

Generally, trees grow in the summer and stagnate in the winter. This creates areas of dense wood when the tree grows slowly and areas of less dense wood when the tree is growing quickly. Of course quickly for a tree is still not that quickly. But this process produces bands on the inside of the trees. If the seasons are constant, these bands will alternate between light and dark each year.

A drought will produce years with relatively thin bands, and a rainy year will produce thick ones. We can see this using eyewitness evidence. Trees that were alive during the droughts of the 1930s have skinny bands in those years.

Trees were not always correlated using radiometric dating (which is not circular reasoning anyway. Radiometric dating confirmed what was already known about tree ring dating, proving it is also a reliable way to date trees). It is thought that rainy years affect all trees in roughly the same way and droughts affect all trees in roughly the same way. Imagine two trees alive in the 1930s. One died in 1945, the other in 1985. The tree that lived to the 1980s will have the skinny drought rings of the 1930s in the middle, while the one that lived to the 40s will have the skinny drought rings on the outside. And we can use this to date trees in an area, using overlapping patterns and counting backwards, moving from from tree to tree as needed.

To call this highly subjective is incorrect. It is difficult and requires an expert eye; one must know very astutely what to look for. And you need a microscope, which not everyone at CMI owns. But assuming that 1. The seasons are constant (which is based on what we know about astrophysics,) and 2. Trees in the same area are affected the same way by the same weather (why wouldn’t they be?) there is nothing wrong with relying on this science which is exactly why it was later independently corroborated by radiometric dating.

So as long as we believe that in the past winter changed to summer every year (which everything about astrophysics tells us is true) then using tree rings is perfectly sensible, as they just are a visual representation of these annual changes.

As for Noah’s flood, there is absolutely no compelling geological evidence that such an event took place. Why are fossils layered from simple to complex? Why are there angular unconformities in sedimentary rock? Why is erosion not uniform world wide? Why did the ancient oceans have different salinity when they should have mixed into a solution? Why didn’t all the trees drown simultaneously?

Varves

BL: Layers with actively forming varves can be found with 100,000 or more layers. Each lake sits on complex rock layers that have their own history. Based on these modern lakes, the age of the Earth must be older than 100,000 years. In ancient lake deposits now turned to rock (such as the well-known Green River Formation), millions of layers are preserved, suggesting the Earth’s age exceeds several million years.

CMI: Varves are a favourite of long-agers, and have been since they were selectively defined as annual layers, this is merely another case of question-begging in favour of millions of years. First, there is experimental and observational evidence that demonstrates that layers form automatically when sediment composed of different sized particles is deposited from moving water. Moreover, multiple layers are deposited at the same time and they give the appearance of varves but are not annual layers. Second, for these varves to produce the sort of ‘clock’ that is here supposed we have to assume that the environmental conditions remained stable enough to produce this pattern over 100,000 years in the case of modern lakes, and for millions of years in the case of the Green River Formation. The evidence from so-called varves is consistent with the biblical timescale of thousands of years

S&R: Varves form along rivers and lakes. In the winter months, water levels drop and in the summer water levels climb. During rainy times, water runs down into lakes and rivers carrying sediment with it. During the dry times, the sediment has a chance to rest and get compacted. This produces bands in the rock based on annual seasonal changes; like tree rings we can see when there was growth and change happening and when there was stagnation based on alternating layers of sediment. These layers alternated based on rain and water-level, which is itself based on the seasons. That is why varves were defined as annual bands. The observation, not the definition, came first.

Layers do form when moving water deposits sediment,but a verve does not form every time it rains. Varve layers are very large and thick, far too thick for a single rainfall to carry enough sediment to create a layer. A varve is the sum of a season of rain, not a single storm.

You do get a thick layer of sediment in a flood, but those layers do not look like varves. They look ordered, from heaviest sediment at the bottom to the lightest at the top. Varves are uniform. If all the Earth was covered in water which suddenly dried up we would not find varves as a result.

CMI is right in that we have to assume that the changing seasons each year also changed for the last million years. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to think based on everything we know about astrophysics (which is alot). Noah’s flood would not have produced the regular, rhythmic pattern of varves we find today. It would have dropped tonnes of sediment all at once in order of heaviest to lightest everywhere in the world. That isn’t something we find.

Again, we are making exactly one ‘assumption’, that the seasons are a constant (which is an instance of ‘the laws of physics are a constant).

Ice Cores

BL: Ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica preserve the longest record of snow deposition. In Greenland, the annual layering can be visibly counted down to about 50,000 layers. In Antarctica, the annual snowfall is less than Greenland, causing less thinning of the layers due to compactions, resulting in more than 400,000 measured layers.

CMI: One problem is with the identification of the layers. Another is that multiple layers formed each year depending on environmental changes, especially in the earlier, deeper parts of the core. It’s the deeper parts of the core where the layers are increasingly difficult to identify, and this significantly affects the reliability of the ice core ‘data’. The interpretation of the cores, driven by the long-age philosophy, has many problems. They are better interpreted as forming after Noah’s Flood during the Ice Age and beyond.

S&R: Antarctica and Greenland both have summer and winter. In summer, the top layer of ice and snow melts a bit during the day. In the winter, snow accumulates. Next summer, this new snow melts a bit. This pattern alternates over years as the glaciers build. When the snow accumulates a light colored band appears and when the snow melts into ice a dark colored band of thick ice appears. When you look at a 50,000 year ice core with the naked eye it is hard to see the individual bands (It doesn’t snow much in these places, so each band is small) but if you examine one with a microscope the bands are visible plain as day. Here’s an example – the light bands are accumulation periods and the dark ones are melting periods. Can you identify the layers? Is it as hard as CMI made you think?

Ice core sample showing bands of annual accumulation

Even if dating the bottom of the ice core is difficult, That’s the oldest part. We count DOWN from the top layer, this year’s layer, backwards to age the core. Even if the very oldest layers run together, the vast vast majority of the core is not. We can tell clear as day the 10,000th layer from the 10,001st layer.

Also, the core gives us more data than the number and size of layers. It also has air bubbles trapped in it. We can look at those air bubbles and measure atmospheric carbon dioxide. That allows us to corroborate our results between other cores and, you guessed it, all the cores gel perfectly.

Not only that, but years where there was a lot of snow melting also tend to be years where the tree rings grew quickly! That is, we can find consistent patterns about the global climate which corroborates tree ring data. When two separate, independent methods produce the same results it is very indicative that those results are correct.

Steleothems

BL: Cave growths forming in regions where local climate varies seasonally between wet and dry or cold and warm will form an annual layer similar to tree rings. In some cases, cave formations preserve more than 200,000 annual laminations.

CMI: The description “annual” here is unobserved, subjective speculation … Long-term climate changes affect the rates at which the speleothems form within caves, and the climate changed considerably after the Flood….Moreover, the speleothems formed after the cave itself was carved …The initial carving of the caves is explained by upwelling of hydrothermal solutions, which would have occurred during and after the Flood.

S&R: Again, while we cannot observe the steleothems accumulating in the past, we know how they accumulate today. During the wet, rainy period of the year sediment continually drips down through the cave and is deposited in the form of moist steleothems. In the dry season those structures harden. We can see it happening, we can watch new rings being added all the time at the rate of one per year, with each ring corresponding to the cycle of winter and summer.

Now there is absolutely no reason to think that those structures formed in a different way in the near past. Each year there is exactly one winter season and one summer season as the result of the tilting of the Earth as part of its orbit and Earth’s orbit has been stagnant for a long time. There’s nothing even remotely compelling to make us think that these processes used to be different over the period that the steleothems formed.

Further, steleothems accumulate more in wetter years because more water comes bringing more sediment with it. And, if you didn’t guess, years where steleothems grew quickly also turn out to be years where trees grew quickly. The two methods of dating correlate nicely in research done by independent researchers.

So again, the only thing that we are assuming is that the seasons continue to operate the way they do now. The seasons change as a result of the orbit of the Earth, which is itself operated on by gravitation. So unless the Earth had a drastically different orbit recently there is no reason to think that steleothems are unreliable.

Ocean Spreading and Dating

BL: Satellites measuring distances between continents show that they’re moving. Africa is currently moving away from North America at a rate of about 1 inch per year. New Ocean floor is created at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as the continents move apart. This creates a testing opportunity for the reliability of radioactive dating. If the radioactive dating works reliably, the calculated rates using the radioactively determined ages should be approximately 1 inch per year—and they are!

CMI: This is an impressive claim but again we need to ask ourselves what has actually been observed. There is no reference to where this test has actually been reported in the literature, so it is an unsubstantiated assertion. This claim suggests that the rate of plate movement has remained constant for millions of years. However, the satellite data only goes back a few decades. Is it valid to extrapolate today’s rate over thousands of kilometres? This is an open question in the creationist literature …The Catastrophic Plate Tectonics model assumes the general pattern of relative age preserved in the radiometric signature of the ocean basins but shows how this can be interpreted within the biblical timeframe.

S&R: Now we haven’t been asking for references to the academic literature to this point, we’ve been taking the science as given for the sake of argument. This makes the creationist look cornered. But in fact there are lots of experiments on the ocean floor one can find that demonstrate this and other geological principles. It is demonstrated by radiometric dating that on average an inch of ocean floor corresponds to one year. This isn’t done inch by inch of course, that would be too difficult and time consuming, and traveling kilometers between samples still shows the effect just as clearly.

Actually, plate tectonics can also be traced further back than what satellite data allows using ocean floor studies. When new ocean floor forms at the spreading center, it is new liquid rock turning into basalt. It forms like any igneous rock, containing normal minerals like zircon, silicon, lead, cobalt, iron, and nickel.

As you know, iron, nickel, and cobalt are magnetic. And it just so happens that when there ferromagnetic materials precipitate out of magma they are free to move around the fluid rock until the other precipitates trap them (but iron precipitates out early, so it is free for some time before this happens). So where do magnets want to point? you got it, North! They behave exactly the way a compass does.

Now what do you suppose it looks like if we look at the magnetic minerals in the ocean floor? If they all formed at one time, all the magnets should be facing due North. But as it turns out, they are not! Each inch you move makes the magnets further and further out of line with Earth’s North Pole; if you move towards the center of the spreading zone the magnets get more and more aligned with the north pole until, at the center, they are perfectly aligned.

Further, every million years or so the Earth’s magnetic poles switch! Craziness! You can tell when it happened because if you look at the ocean floor’s magnetic elements they are in bands that flip every million inches! Craziness, right? And because this pattern of geomagnetic inversion is predictable, it acts like a time traveling ocean floor speedometer.

You also find the exact same thing when you look at volcanoes; magma builds up in layers of rock, and some layers are magnetically inverted.So known major eruptions also help corroborate this dating method’s reliability.

And, if you want to guess, radiometric dating places inverted rock on the Ocean floor in the same time periods as inverted rock on Earth’s surface! Once again, the time measurements between radioactive dating, ocean spreading, and geomagnetic inversions all line up neatly. And how could the flood have changed the magnetic poles of the Earth or made the Ocean spread faster?

Correlating Radiometric and Other methods of Dating

BL: Counting tree rings and varves assumes that each layer represents 1 year. Radioactive dating assumes decay rates have been constant over time. We can put all these to the test at the same time by combining the data. When we compare the carbon-14 content of cross-correlated tree rings and varve samples from Lake Suigetsu in Japan, they confirm the validity of radioactive dating methods.

CMI: Actually the results from the different methods do not agree. The researchers produced a calibration curve for carbon-14 in order to adjust for the discrepancies between the methods. But what they are unable to correct for are factors that affect all methods, and there is one such factor which they have ignored—Noah’s Flood. This event upset the carbon balance on earth which means increasingly larger corrections are needed for carbon-14 results as we approach the date of the Flood

S&R: Varves and tree ring data lined up with each other but did not gel perfectly with C14, so calibration was needed.

Carbon, like lead and uranium, has several stable isotopes. Carbon 12 and Carbon 13 are very stable, but Carbon 14 is not.Carbon 14 has a well known half-life of roughly 5,700 years.

C14 is produced when cosmic rays hit the atmosphere; it forms part of the air around us and permeates into the oceans. Living things breath in the air and drink the water, which is part carbon. And that carbon is a mixture of Carbon 12, C13 and C14. So Carbon 14 gets into living things based on how much C14 is produced in the atmosphere.

Once a living thing dies, it stops taking in carbon. This means that no more carbon 14 is taken in. The C14 in the organism then starts to undergo radioactive decay, and it has a short half life (making it only useful in dating living things that are no more than 45,000 years old or so). We know how much C14 is lost each year, so we can tell how far apart two living things died using C14 – this is the distance in “uncalibrated years”. All we do is measure how much C14 is left in a thing, knowing that when it died the carbon in its body would have been a mixture of all the carbon isotopes based on their relative abundance.

The problem is that atmospheric C14 has not been constant; it is produced by cosmic rays, which fluctuate in intensity based on how active the sun is. The sun goes through very very long cycles of rising and descending activity. So we can know how much more carbon 14 one thing has left than another.

So we can’t directly measure how much C14 was in the atmosphere at any point in the past. We could see how much was left over, but without knowing the initial quantities that didn’t mean much. We could tell that tree A was 100 years older than tree B, but we could not tell their absolute age in “calibrated years”.

So we used other dating methods in combination with C14 dating. If we date the different layers of a tree or a varve or a speleothem, knowing that each layer is a single year, we can measure the C14. Knowing the decay rate of C14 is easy, so we can figure out how much C14 would have decayed in that period. From those two pieces of information we can measure how much C14 there was initially! Later we could use ice cores to see if our math worked; air bubbles trapped in the ice cores had ancient C14 stuck in them, and the air bubbles had the right amount of C14 based on data from speleothems.

So yes, C14 dating had to be “calibrated”. This was done to bring it into alignment with dating instruments that we knew to be accurate. This is not because the dating method was unreliable but because the initial quantity of C14 was unknown. But because the decay rate is constant and because we know contamination is impossible in this instance (C14 is found in the air and it moves into water and living things. Dead things don’t absorb C14) it follows that we can figure out the initial levels of carbon 14 by using other dating methods. The changes in atmospheric C14 over time is what we wanted to know all along – that was the point of calibration.

So Calibration of C14 was not done to make several methods of dating line up fraudulently or arbitrarily. It was done to establish an absolute timeline against which C14 can be measured. C14 dating can now work in either calibrated or uncalibrated years depending on the needs of the researcher; that is, we now can say that X is so many uncalibrated years older than Y, OR we can say that X is so many years old absolutely!

As for Noah’s flood affecting the C14 distribution, this makes no sense. C14 forms when cosmic rays interact with the atmosphere 10 to 15 kilometers above the Earth, which is the tropopause. Weather conditions in troposphere do not affect either the stratosphere or the tropopause, so even a lot of rain clouds would not affect C14 production. Unless the building of the flood caused more cosmic rays to hit the Earth there would not be more C14.

Confirming Radiometric Dating with Known Historical Events

BL: Radioactive dating methods applied to deposits of known age, such as ash from the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, have yielded correct ages.

CMI: A test based on eyewitness reports is the only valid test for radiometric dating. All the above ‘cross-checking’ methods compare methods that all use the same basic assumptions, so they are not independent tests of reliability. They could all be influenced by an unidentified factor, or cases of confirmation bias. Concerning this confirmation with Mount Vesuvius …  The article proves the dating methods are not independent. In this case, they collected a sample of sanidine from pumice of known age based on historical eyewitness reports of the 24 August 79 AD eruption … Their total argon gas results gave an age of 3,300 years, which they knew was wrong because the correct answer was 1,918 years. So, using the known age they calculated the amount of ‘excess’ argon. The paper is a warning to researchers to watch out for excess argon.

S&R: Again, this misinterpretation of radiometric dating is based on a misunderstand of how radiometric dating works. When igneous magma is expelled from the Earth it contains Potassium 40 which degrades into Argon 40, but the magma also contains naturally occurring Argon 40.

Argon 40 passes through the liquid rock whereas potassium 40 doesn’t – so K 40 ends up getting trapped in air bubbles while Ar 40 vents out of the magma. So if you find an air bubble in magma you know that when it formed it contained only K 40, and any AR 40 is from radioactive decay.

Unfortunately, contamination is a problem once again. Ar 36 and Ar 40 occur naturally in the air and often contaminate samples. Fortunately, we can use math to solve this problem the same way we did with Zircon.

Naturally occurring argon has a well known decay chain. Further, argon in the air always occurs in the same ratio of Ar40 to Ar36. We can measure how much K-40 there is in a sample and how much of each of the different argon isotopes are found in the same sample, that’s easy enough. Then, using some complicated math, we can find out how much K-40 there was originally and how much AR-40 there was originally was. The math is the same as is used finding out how much naturally occurring lead is in Zircon,

So yes, extra Argon is a problem – but determining how much extra argon there is is not a question of wild speculation but complicated and reliable mathematics. The problem with “extra Argon” is easily solved because the extra Argon is the wrong kind of Argon.

Closing Points

BL: Through various scientific methods, we can test, retest, and cross-examine to find the right answer.

CMI: And here is the fundamental assumption on display for how we can supposedly know that the earth is old—science will tell us the story. … But does it? Consider Jesus’ miracle at Cana of turning water into wine. We could conduct chemical tests on the wine,… But because numerous people saw that the wine was water mere seconds before, any inference we make about a vineyard origin of the wine from the chemical analysis will be wrong. …This is why we need to begin with God’s eyewitness testimony when we investigate natural history…BioLogos has presented a very brief and misleading version of what actually goes on in these methods, presented the interpretations of these methods for chronology as ‘reliable evidence’, and proclaimed old-age chronology correct by fiat. Most of their ‘cross-checking’ methods beg the question in favour of long-age assumptions. The one independent test for long-age dating methods, historical witness, proves to be the one standard these methods fail against…What we don’t accept are the assumptions long-agers make about the past. We don’t accept that prehistory is a given. We don’t accept that natural processes (and in some cases, their rates) have basically remained the same throughout history. We don’t accept that we can implicitly trust forensic science to ‘tell’ us about this prehistory. And we don’t believe that nature is all that matters for natural history.

S&R: Big finish! CMI says that science is wrong about all miracles and that may just be true. Luckily zircon crystals do not form by miracle. Zircons do not exclude all lead and incorporate uranium by miracle. Uranium does not turn into some lead isotopes and not others by miracle.The clock on my wall does not run on miracles. We are not talking about miracles, we are talking about natural causes and physical laws in the world we live in. If we cannot depend on the laws of causality and physics to be constant we cannot do science. If we cannot depend on causality we cannot even make a single prediction about the future!

The cross checking, as we saw, was not question begging but mutually corroborating. These cross checks also gel with historic eyewitness testimony (contrary to misapprehensions by CMI about how radiometric dating works – Argon 40 is not the same as Argon 36.) The only assumptions we are making are about the constancy of physics; the constancy of natural processes is entailed by the constancy of physics and does not need to be assumed if physical laws are reliable.

Physical laws are known to be constants; they make no exceptions for time or place. Decay rates are constant – we have tried to change them using the most powerful particle collisions since the big bang but weren’t able to. The orbit of the Earth and the seasons have not undergone any significant changes for as long as the Earth as been solid on the outside, meaning the seasons have been roughly constant for that period.

We don’t accept that prehistory is a given – there are mountains of evidence as should be clear from the above discussion.

We don’t accept that natural processes (and in some cases, their rates) have basically remained the same throughout history – fundamental properties of matter make no exception for time or place. The laws of physics (natural processes being a simple instantiation of one such law, gravitation) make no exception for time or place. Causality makes no exception for time or place. These are not assumptions – they are the sum of every observation ever made! Nobody has ever made an observation which has contradicted these points!

We don’t accept that we can implicitly trust forensic science to ‘tell’ us about this prehistory – you’re not being asked to implicitly trust anything. You’re asked to make observations about the world and accept that physical laws are constant (which has all the evidence in the world behind it). The observations, in tandem with the prolonged operation of physical laws, are what you trust. That trust is not implicit, not should it be. It is based on evidence, rationality, and scientific argumentation.

And we don’t believe that nature is all that matters for natural history.

After all the allegations of question begging we just heard, that’s how you’re going to close this argument CMI? What is it matters to the history of the universe which is not the universe or any part of it? Because if it’s something outside the universe that fundamentally begs the question against science; science can only deal with the things that make up the universe, and you’re saying that whatever controls events in the universe is the sort of thing which can never be seen, tested, or observed by anyone ever no matter what (but never the less that thing is undoubtedly real and the only valid topic in science class?)

To put it bluntly, saying that nature is not all that matters to natural history is very literally self contradictory. I put an emphasis on that because it’s so very rare to argue against someone who makes such a ridiculously incorrect point.

If you don’t believe that physical laws apply to the universe constantly you don’t believe science is at all possible. If you think that whatever controls the universe is something outside of it you have no reason to believe in causality. No evidence can possibly stand for either of those propositions because that evidence would be the fundamental opposite of what we mean when we say the word evidence.

Theistic Evolution, Creationism, and Science Education

I feel I was a bit harsh in my last post. When I read it there was more malice than I think there ought to have been. The topic is silly, but I’m sure Gary Bates is not a silly man. I didn’t get much sleep last night, I guess it made me crabby? Most of my posts are actually compelled by insomnia, so if you catch a typo or bad grammar please chalk it up to sleeplessness. Unless it’s a split infinitive, I think it’s alright to boldly go where no one has gone before. The OED agrees btw.

So there is no controversy in the scientific community; human beings are on a roughly 4 billion year old Earth as a result of roughly 2 billion years of evolution. We came to be as a result of physical processes which caused rudimentary life to form, although the exact processes at work are an ongoing investigation (which is fine, of course, the project of science is to solve problems and fill gaps. The presence of a problem or a gap does not disprove or discredit science, it gives it something to do.) Western Academies of Science all advocate this version of the Theory of Evolution and the associated physical/chemical origins of the Universe, the Earth, and life. The controversy in “teach the controversy” is unequivocally about theology, not science.

This makes it somewhat ironic that the Young Earth Creationists tend to be conservatives. American Science Education falls behind when it fails to keep up with scientific developments, and the result will eventually be that related skilled jobs will migrate towards nations where Science Education more closely mirrors scientific consensus. That tax dollars are paying for science education which leaves American students at a disadvantage compared to Swedish and Japanese students is fiscally irresponsible.

Pragmatism aside, many Christians believe that the Theory of Evolution is compatible with their theology. This view is called “Theistic evolution”, and it basically says that God did make human beings, but the way he chose to do so was a ~14 billion year process called the Big Bang culminating in ~2 billion years of evolution on a ~4 billion year old Earth. A group of Christians called Biologos advocates this view. I like their name, I always loved that “biology” means “life-knowledge”. Creation Ministries International, on the other hand, doesn’t like them.

Creation Ministries doesn’t like theistic evolution for two reasons. First, it contradicts their theological world view – when the Bible said that God made all the animals in one day that’s what they believe actually happened. That wasn’t a metaphor for a 10 billion year process, it’s the literal truth according to them. Secondly, they say Theistic evolution is a slippery slope to Atheism.

The first point is bang on. Theistic evolution contradicts a Biblical Creationist worldview. However, for the last 100 years the viewpoint of the scientific community has been that the Biblical Creationist worldview is not correct when it comes to the origin of the Earth or human beings. Of course the consensus of the scientific community has been wrong before, but a 100 year consensus (and among academic biologists evolution is as close to consensus as science ever gives) of scientific experts is a very strong reason to include something in science education. It could turn out that Creationism is actually right, but until the science shows it we’d be jumping the gun to teach what the scientific consensus might one day be. Creationists are free to believe that day will come, but they aren’t free to treat the current consensus as invalid because of that belief. That isn’t how science works.

So to make their theology gel with scientific consensus, many Christians advocate Theistic Evolution which says that we got here the way science tells us, but God started and maybe guided the whole thing. It literally takes evolution and tacks on God (theism).

To a scientist, evolution and theistic evolution are identical; “God started evolution” is not a testable hypothesis, so it rests outside of science. “Evolution happened”, the common ground, absolutely is testable and in fact it has been tested many times. The two theories are the same outside of the theology, and a scientist would test and evaluate those theories in the exact same way. Evolution is a postulate of biological sciences and God starting evolution is a postulate of theology. Put differently, in practice Occam’s Razor converts theistic evolution into evolution simpliciter (except that theistic evolution allows simultaneous belief in God-as-creator.)

This view requires a non-literal reading of Genesis of course. Biblical Creationism typically requires that its subscribers take the Bible as 100% inerrant literal truth. However not all sects of Christianity are committed to this view, and many recognize that the Bible often speaks in metaphor and should be read as a moral lesson and not as a history lesson. Creation Ministries think that “It’s not Christianity” to ascribe to this view but that’s false; it’s just not their version of Christianity.

The allegation is that these Christians take Evolution as a higher authority than God because scripture must be “distorted” to fit with the theory of evolution. But that isn’t the case at all. Scripture must be reinterpreted in light of the progress that science makes, but that doesn’t mean that the authority of the Bible is compromised. The Bible is at the core a moral lesson, and morality cannot be proved or disproved by science. Peripheral facts about who begot whom give context to the parables; they do not give validity to the parables and they are not the meaning of the parables.

But what about the slippery slope to Atheism? Atheism is legitimately not Christianity after all, so maybe that’s what CMI is talking about.

Think about this – suppose we read Genesis non-literally and we say Adam and Eve are metaphoric, they’re symbolism for the core of a person or something. Why did Jesus die on the cross for original sin if that original sin is purely imaginary? That’s crazy! And if God wanted to create life why did he do it in a way that started with 10 billion years of nothing? Wouldn’t he want to get right into the important stuff? This is Dawkins’ argument, but CMI seems to be adopting it (a very out of character move).

Well before we investigate that, consider this miniature Pascal’s wager. Even if we take it as true that evolution entails a religious crisis for believers, evolution is a scientific consensus that all believers will be exposed to. It is a fact about how we got here. Would it be better if we take the bible as non-literal and have a crisis of faith, or should we take it as literally inerrant in which case the Bible is actually disproved by evolution? A crisis of faith sounds better than a loss of faith.

And besides, isn’t it a good thing that people ask questions about their most fundamental presuppositions? Is it scary to do so? Of course! If there is no God then you’re going to suffer an inevitable, final, permanent and complete death. A lot hinges on it, and I suspect that at some level that’s a large part of why people cling so tightly to religion.

But believing wrong things in the core of your being makes you think wrong things. For more on that point see the page on axioms, the link is to your right. But one good example is Biblical Creationism; because these people believe in the core of their being that every word in the bible in inerrant truth they believe that the earth is 10,000 years old, a blatant falsehood that has been contradicted by mountains of evidence. Evaluation of our fundamental beliefs is scary but immensely important to our development as rational beings.

Creationism and UFOs?

This is almost too funny to be true.

Aliens. What do you think about them? I’ll give you my theory, which gels pretty well with physics, astrophysics, and biology.

The universe is a really big place. There are too many stars to actually count, but if you count an area and use it to estimate the total number it turns out there are about 10 to the 24th power or a septillion stars. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars – literally trillions of trillions: literally thousands of billions of thousands of billions of stars.

Now on Earth it only took about 2 billion years for life to emerge. The universe is about 14 billion years old.

If life on Earth came to be purely as the result of physical processes, it could happen somewhere else too; physics does not make exceptions for time or place.

Now with that many stars it is going to happen by chance that there will be solar systems with planets similar to Earth. And there is so much time and so much more time available that we can almost guarantee that somewhere else out there life either has or will come to be.

However, the emergence of life requires very exact circumstances – it’s a perfect storm kind of thing. Most planets don’t end up being Earth-like. So it will happen given enough time and trials that life will emerge, but it will be extremely infrequent.

Now of the septillion stars in the Universe only a small handful are close to us. We can’t travel very quickly through space, and nobody can travel through space faster than the speed of light. The observable universe is about 98 billion light years across (because of the Hubble effect we can see things further away than 14 billion light years).

To meet an alien, one has to be close enough to us that we can travel that distance reasonably, and they must exist at the same time as us. Either of those things could happen. But given how short our history is relative to the history of the universe, and the rate at which we’re depleting our resources, both of those things happening at the same time before humanity peters out is very very unlikely.

But it would be so cool if we found aliens. Almost everyone thinks so. If you’re interested, look up the Voyager Golden Record. When Voyager was launched, NASA put a record player on board with a golden record in case aliens found the thing. The record contained an introduction from the Secretary-General of the United Nations, greetings from the Nations of Earth, and selections of Earth’s greatest music (Johnny B Goode made it on, but EMI wouldn’t let NASA use any Beatles tunes). The B side was a map to Earth and a picture of hydrogen atoms. Now that should show you that we do, in our heart of hearts, think that aliens would be really cool. It isn’t easy to book the Secretary General of the UN after all.

But whoa! Genesis doesn’t talk about God making all the animals of the Earth, which he lets Adam name, and then God going on to make the aliens which he hides from Adam. Then there are other issues – does original sin apply to Aliens too, seeing as it applies to all creation? If so, does Jesus’ death save the aliens, or did they need their own alien Jesus? Because of these theological problems, some Creationists believe that aliens cannot possibly exist or it would say so in the Bible. Gary Bates is one such creationist. He is also a founding figure of Creation Ministries International.

Gary Bates is not a psychologist, astrophysicist, or a biologist. But he was very troubled by the prospect of aliens. A good many people were reporting either seeing aliens or being abducted by aliens, and this posed a problem to his world view in the same way that an evolutionary origin of human beings does. The Bible is inerrant, and aliens would put it in error in his mind. So he set out to research this issue.

This is actually too good to be true, Want to guess what he found out?

It’s the Devil. Aliens are the devil.

Satan actually comes and tricks people into thinking they’ve been abducted by aliens to torture the wicked. You can stop the abductions by accepting Jesus as your Savior. I kid you not, Bates insists that the supposed aliens are actually demons.

Now, scientists have actually studied this phenomenon and found convincing answers not by looking for aliens but by looking at the “abducted” individuals. Cognitive Psychologists posit an answer that involves sleep paralysis, a rare and actually very tragic form of night terror. Gary Bates doesn’t appear to be familiar with this, but if you are interested I encourage you to read up on it. I would also strongly discourage you from reading Bates’ book. The man has no insight or expertise in the area and his answer actually posits “Satan did it”. Excepting Paradise Lost, very few well written things have ended with “Satan did it”.

But this is actually very telling. The way Bates investigates UFOs is the same way creationists look at evolution. Bates knew the answer before he set out – it had to be the case that there were no aliens. He then went on a mission to find out why there were no aliens. What he came up with had no grounding in any reasonable science, it actually completely ignored the well grounded and tightly researched scientific theories, and it fits perfectly with his theology by use of very uncomfortable reasoning.

Creationism and Intelligent design – what’s so intelligent about design?

Creationists believe that all living things were designed in roughly their current form by God, who is omnipotent and omniscient. To bolster this point they like to point out how some natural structures display clockwork like workings. Many parts appear to work in unison. If evolution were the cause then how did each of those little parts (which would be useless by itself) come to be as the result of only luck?

One example that is often used if the eye. Sometimes this argument is coupled with a Darwin quote, where in Origin of Species Darwin muses “To suppose that the eye … could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” omitting the important following sentence “Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

So there are arguments on both sides. And as-it-so-happens, these arguments look like scientific hypotheses. That’s interesting, maybe we can test them?

Hypothesis one can be formulated as follows: “God designed the eyes of all creatures, including human beings.” What predictions can we make from that?

Well, the eye should look like something God designed. God is omnipotent and omniscient, so he’s the best designer possible. He knows everything and can do anything. The eye should be as close to flawless as anything which is not God can be. And while things in the world are always imperfect, the design that God makes for them is not a thing in the world. In other word, eyes should be imperfect but their design should not be.

Hypothesis two can be formulated as follows: “The eye came about through the process of evolution, or natural selection through heritable traits.” What predictions can we make from that?

Well there are lots of creatures with eyes. Those creatures must have a common ancestor which also had eyes, or several ancestors if eyes developed simultaneously in different populations (that is, it matters if eyes are the result of convergent or divergent evolution).

Further, eyes should look like the kind of things that came to be as a result of a process of gradual heritable changes. They should not look like they appeared out of nowhere perfectly formed.

Human eyes are well understood, so we’ll look at a human eye to test these hypotheses. Eyes are sense organs that act as photo-detectors. They gather information through special cells called photo-receptors and transmit that information to the brain. The actual photo-receptors are cells called rods and cones which line the back of the eye, and which undergo chemical changes when light interacts with special light-detecting chemicals in them. The other parts of the eye function to support these cells by protecting them, transmitting the information they collect, or assisting them in detecting light, for instance by focusing light entering the eye on the retina.

The eye looks complicated with plenty of small, interrelated parts which wouldn’t work or be helpful on their own. But let’s look deeper.

Now suppose we’re evolutionary biologists. We want to imagine the likely evolutionary history of the eye so we can make a hypothesis about how eyes formed. What would the absolute simplest eye be, the original eye which could form by itself and still be useful?

Probably a lone photoreceptor cell, right? What use is an optic nerve with nothing at the end, or a cornea that focuses light onto nothing. But a cell that can detect light and tell the brain, that’s handy albeit crude.

But these cells are using all their ATP just to detect light. They can’t transmit information quickly, and speed counts big time in the evolutionary world. So you would expect some kind of support cells to develop to speed this up. And of course these cells are sensitive and important, so protection should also develop. These things would come about after though.

Now you would expect the same parts to form already perfect if God made it. But would the two eyes look the same?

This is a diagram of cells in the back of the human eye. It looks kind of complicated, but here’s what you need to know. The far right is the back of the eye, and moving to the left moves you toward the front of the eye. The long cells at the back of the eye are the photo-receptor cells, the cells which actually respond to light. The cells in from of them are support cells called Ganglia, which take information from the photo-receptors, condense it, and send it quickly to the brain.

Now something should occur to you instantly. Why are the photo-receptors behind the support cells? Don’t those cells get in the way of the light? They do, and in fact it’s worse than that. Those support cells need to get information to the brain, which is on the other side of the photo-receptors. They all meet and cross the photo-receptors at a point, and at that point there are no photo-receptors. There is, in other words, a blind spot built in your vision. Find yours here.

Now I’m not as smart as God, but that doesn’t seem like good design. Why would your eye be built with a blind spot? As it turns out, cephalopods like octopi have eyes with a different evolutionary history than vertebrates. They have a unique kind of photoreceptor that is coded for by a different gene than the one that codes the rods and cones of vertebrates (the fact that the same gene codes all vertebrate eyes is strong evidence for evolution by the way, as it suggests a common history for all vertebrate eyes). Cephalopod eyes have other difference too. Most notably, their optic nerve is behind their photo-receptors. In other words, the humble squid has better eyes than you, at least in-so-far-as it doesn’t have a blind spot.

Now if human beings are God’s crowning achievement, designed carefully in his own image, then why did he do a worse job designing our eyes than he did designing squid eyes? It should be obvious to anyone that the human eye could be better, it could have the ganglia behind the photo-receptors like in an octopus’ eye. That would eliminate the blind spot and let more light hit the receptors, letting the eye work more efficiently. I can’t see how that wouldn’t be an improvement, and God would not have designed something with a fundamental flaw unavoidably inherent. This is not the same as designing human hearts that will ultimately fail, this is a design which by an avoidable feature makes the product of that design worse at the task it is designed for, and does so necessarily and in all instances. That is, not only are our eyes imperfect but they are designed in a way that makes them worse than they could be.

On the other hand, if the eye developed step by step starting from a lone photoreceptor cell then a stacked retina makes sense – once the photo-receptors grow at the back of the eye where else could ganglia go if not in front of them? Vertebrate eyes are located in hard bony skulls after all. And evolution doesn’t care if a solution is pretty or perfect; the results are all that matter. If ganglia that interfere with light are still a net benefit to the organism then natural selection couldn’t care less.

So we’ve made two hypotheses with two different predictions. Hypothesis one said that if God made eyes, they should look like something God made. Hypothesis two said that is eyes evolved, they should look like something that evolved. We gathered data by looking at the retina of human and cephalopod eyes. And we saw that eyes are designed with a blind spot in them, which is the kind of thing evolved structures might have but God designed structures would not have. So as good scientists we are obliged to discard this version of hypothesis one and treat hypothesis two, the evolutionary origin of the eye, as corroborated.

How to Build a Bomb in Public Schools?!

I kid you not, Creation Ministries international recently posted an article with that exact headline. Read it here if you like (and aren’t sensitive, the article doesn’t exercise much tact discussing school shootings)

The article starts with the infamous incident in Columbine and asks “how do young men turn into killers?” Well, it turns out to be a 3 step process according to CMI.

1.Teach them that there is no God, the Bible is false, that no absolutes exist, and that people are animals who came to be as a result of accident and death.

2. Remove the Bible, prayer, and the ten commandments from schools

3. Wait. That’s all you need, and you’re guaranteed to have teenagers shooting each other to death sooner or later.

That, of course, is ridiculous. But that’s the thrust of the article, that because “most public schools in Western nations now teach that violence and death are ‘natural’ evolutionary mechanisms that have operated with chance processes to produce man over millions of years” children today have no moral guidance.

Some Christians cannot fathom that morality exists without God. That’s blatantly false. Some also see evolution being taught in biology class as a scheme to destroy the church, another blatant falsehood.

To start, teaching evolution in biology class is not the same as teaching that “There is no God” or that “The Bible is not True”. All it teaches is that human beings are here because of a long process of natural selection. It has absolutely nothing to say about the existence or non existence of God. God is the kind of thing that is outside the realm of science; God is metaphysical, and therefore completely outside the ambit of the physical sciences.

Evolution has exactly one thing to say about the Truth of the Bible; the Bible is not literally true when it says that God made all the animals out of dust and then made Adam, the first man, and then made Eve from his bones. That’s doesn’t say that Genesis is wrong, just that it isn’t literally true. The Bible speaks in metaphor all the time. Jesus didn’t actually want the disciples to feed his sheep. That was a metaphor, Jesus wasn’t concerned with actual sheep roaming the fields. The moral and theological lessons are there even if Jesus didn’t have a sheep to his name.

But what about “there are no absolutes”? Can we still have morality in a world with no absolutes? Is there still a morally compelling reason not to shoot everyone to death after the Death of God?

Some Christians think that absolute ethics are impossible without God. Of course the word “Ethics” comes from the Ancient Greek Ethos, which means Character (in the sense of integrity, not in the sense of a character in a play). The PreSocratic philosophers, Socrates/Plato and Aristotle all had no cause to invoke God. In fact Aristotelian views on the Principle of Being would shape Jewish and Christian thought on the absolute nature of God (and not the other way around).

Plato instead taught that if Justice exists it must be an absolute concept. Exactly what that concept is and what it means is the job of the philosopher to discover. But whatever it is, that’s what it is. It’s a universal truth. Confucius was about 200 years older than Plato. He never read a Bible in his life. However his philosophy, the precursor to Taoism, believed in unflinching absolutes. Tao means “the way” and Confucius laid out the Tao, or the Way, which set moral rules to follow as universal maxims. No rewards were offered, one followed the way simply because it was the right thing to do even if it lead you into poverty.

Both Plato and Confucius, without ever having read any Judeo-Christian dogma, had strict philosophies founded on the principle that there was Absolute Truth in Ethics. Later, Immanuel Kant would found a strict ethical system called Deontology which believed that all ethical behavior must be guided by acting in accordance with universal truths about morality. Yet Kant specifically and vocally rejected Christian dogma or God as the grounding principle for ethics.

But the Christian would say “ah, but those guys were all wrong. You can’t fathom absolute truth without God as a reference point!” But that isn’t correct.

Consider the following sentence: One twice is two.

Say that sentence. It’s a true sentence. Have your mom say it. Have your Dad say it. Teach someone who speaks no English to say it. Teach someone who knows no math to say it. It doesn’t matter who says it, it doesn’t matter when they say it, it doesn’t matter where they say it. One twice is two is an absolute truth.

Math is one “language” of logic, and the arithmetic math you learned in school is itself just one kind of math (ancients Greeks had a different kind of math, Sumerians had another, and both were “languages” of logic). Logical postulates do not depend on anything outside the tenants of their “language” to be true (and those tenants can be tested with mathematical induction, a meta-logic).

“One twice is two” does not rely on God to be true. Why would it need to? It would be equally true no matter who said it, when they said it, or what circumstances they said it in. In other words, it would be as true in a world where God exists as it would be in a world where God did not exist. So absolute truth can exist absent God.

Now can absolute moral truth exist absent God? That’s harder, although some (Confucius, Plato, and Kant for starters) are sure it can. But putting that aside let’s ask “do we need absolute moral truth to have morality?”

Now think about this. We have math and logic, those things don’t need God to be true. We also have facts. Fact means a true statement about the world. Logic doesn’t get its truth or falsity from the world (one twice is two is a logical axiom – you don’t have to put one and one together each time to know that one twice is two, it’s true by definition that any time you have one twice you have two). Facts, on the other hand, get their truth from the world we live in. So facts can be true or false at any moment, but they are not absolute truth. They could be otherwise, so we have to check each time. If I say “there are tomatoes in my garden” It might be true right now and false in a month. I have to keep checking. Even if I said “there were tomatoes in my garden”, that’s a sentence that could be false (unlike one twice equals two). I still have to look at the world, specifically at what was the case once, to know if that’s a fact.

Facts get their truth and falsity from the world. Now even if God made the world, even if without God the world would evaporate, God is not the reason that it’s true that there are tomatoes in my garden. The reason that that statement is true is simple – it’s true because when I say it there actually are tomatoes in my garden.

Now without God we may not have absolute Goodness (thought I’m not conceding this point, see Kant and Plato above). But even if we need God to have absolute Goodness, we can still have ethical reasoning without God. Further, there are no practical differences between the God-guided version and the Godless version! Let’s read on and see.

It is a fact that raping a woman is harmful. That’s a true statement, rape is the kind of act which has consequences that are harmful. But because it’s a fact it could be otherwise. If we reproduced asexually like amoebas then rape would be impossible, so raping a woman would not be harmful. But if there are women then raping them does do harm. That’s true,and it’s by definition.

So we have no absolute moral rules. Rape may be bad, but there are some possible things you just can’t rape. But we do have rules that are true for people like us. All people like us are harmed by certain things. If you make a list of those things, and say “don’t do these things because it does harm” then we have a list of rules that are true for people like us. These rules are not absolute moral truths, but instead are moral rules that will be able to govern any moral situation any human being will ever be in. So God says “Do not rape because it is an absolute wrong” and the Atheist says “do not rape because it is wrong for people like us.”

In fact, even though the Atheist cannot say “Rape is wrong” with absolute certainty, the Atheist can say “Rape is wrong for people like us” with absolute certainty. See the difference? The Atheist, if his moral reasoning is correct, can know with absolute certainty what morally wrong for human beings.

That isn’t to say that there is exactly one way to formulate ethics after discarding God. There are many many ways of conceiving of ethical behavior regardless of the presence or absence of God as a grounding principle. One conception is Moral Relativism. Relativists hold that ethics is something we cooked up as a society, and it has no meaning outside of that society. There is no higher truth to appeal to because whatever definition we give ethics as a society is exactly what ethics is. America in 2012CE has one definition, Rome in 30CE had another, Germany in 1939CE had yet another. They are all different, but there is no way of saying which is better.

That doesn’t mean that there is no ethics of course. What happened at Columbine was ethically wrong even to a moral relativist. Columbine was contrary to our societal notions of morality; that’s as wrong as it gets for a relativist. The holocaust, on the other hand, was perpetrated by people acting in accordance with their society’s ideas of right and wrong. We say it was wrong, but the Nazis would not have. Neither view has a privileged position.

Note that relativists are not the only ethical black hats, and they aren’t even the worst. Egoism is the philosophical view that the only moral imperative is to look out for yourself. Egoists are jerks. If something does more long term good for the egoist than it does long term harm then it is the only ethical course available for that egoist.

Another Black Hat ethical worldview is called Nihilism. Famously (and incorrectly) identified with Friedrich Nietzsche, ethical Nihilism is the view that there is no truth in ethics. Right and wrong are just words, they have no underlying meaning. Nihilism is worse than egoism. Egoism at least posits that there is some kind of ethical truth. Nietzsche was the man who declared “God is Dead” – he wasn’t being literal, he was declaring the end of appeal to authority as the justification for absolute truth. His view was that after the death of God we have to find ethical truth for ourselves and within ourselves. In fact, the thing Nietzsche valued above all else was seeing Christian Love divorced from the dogma of Christianity. Atheists don’t like Nihilists any more than Christians.

The absence of absolute standards of right and wrong are necessary for Relativism, Nihilism, and Egoism. But those philosophies are all also devoid of standards of the form “[such and such] is wrong for people like us” too. They aren’t just philosophies devoid of absolute ethical truth, they have no universal ideas about human goodness. Most Atheists and Christians regard egoism, nihilism, and relativism as Black Hat philosophies.

The point I’m driving at is that atheism requires each individual to sort out personally what they believe to be right or wrong. That doesn’t mean there’s no absolute truth, it just means that there’s no one stop-shop for guaranteed absolute truth. We have to work hard and subject our lives to rigorous moral reasoning, and some people are going to do a poor job at that. Voltaire famously said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him; an easy, one stop guide to all moral questions is no doubt very useful to society. But that doesn’t mean that such a guide is the correct ethical world view.

So there we go.Summary.

1. Atheism can lead to relativism nihilism and egoism, but it doesn’t necessarily do so. Each individual must come to a considered opinion on questions of ethics. Many of these views posit universal ethical truths.

2. Ethical statements do not require God to be absolute truth. Even if they did, absolute ethical truth and absolute ethical truth for people like us are indistinguishable in the field.

3. Egoists are jerks: Atheists and Christians agree. Relativists are wrong: Atheists and Christians agree. Nihilists are wrong: Atheists agree, Christians agree, fuck even Nietzsche agrees. Columbine was wrong. Atheists agree, Christians agree, and even moral relativists agree.

4. Taking the Bible out of school doesn’t lead to school shootings. However it creates a gap that needs to be filled. Taking the Bible out of schools means that children need to learn ethical reasoning somewhere else. Science class is not the place to teach ethics and nobody thinks it is. The challenge is to find a tolerant, non dogmatic way to address questions of ethics in an open, academic environment. Teaching the Bible in school does not accomplish that goal.

Give Islam a break

This is totally off topic. I’m in the middle of drafting a post about ethics after the Death of God – Christians, generally creationists, think that after we remove God from ethical thinking we can’t have morality because absolute truth evaporates. More on that to come.

But I happened upon a series of news articles about violence or anticipated violence surrounding Islam and Muslims. France is closing its embassies because violence is anticipated after a French magazine depicted Mohammed. An anti-Islam video called “Innocence of Muslims” has resulted in violence and protests.

Fuck, just give Islam a break.

Ok, so dime store history of Islam. Islam is an “Abrahamic Religion” and the most modern one. Judaism is the original Abrahamic Religion. Christianity came on later and took all of the Jewish texts as gospel but tacked on Jesus and the New Testament as a newer, higher authority. And then Islam came along and tacked on the Qur’an as the newest, highest authority. So Muslims take as gospel everything Jesus or Moses ever said, they just take Mohammad as higher better Gospel. Allah is Arabic for God; God and Allah are the same thing, just like “Deuctschland” and “Germany” are the same thing.

Also, we have more in common with Islam than is generally know. The classical Greek and Roman era; philosophy, math, science, literature, medicine, and art all thrived. Then the dark ages came with the advent of Christianity and much of the old thinking, art, and science was lost for centuries. Then the Renaissance and the enlightenment came. Great thinkers, scientists, and artists picked up where the Greeks and Romans left off. How did that happen? Did the thinkers and artists just find old books that had been forgotten in a dusty old corner?

Of course not. Those books, those ideas, those ways of thinking had been discarded in the West. However, they had been passed on to Eastern nations. Italy and Greece would trade more than goods across the Mediterranean, they would spread their ideas, science, art and philosophy. And the Islamic world picked these ideas up and ran with them. The first hospitals were Muslim inventions. The first modern surgical tools were Muslim inventions. Modern math is a Muslim invention. Astronomy is miles ahead of where it would be were in not for Islam. These ideas were incubated in the Islamic world and later rediscovered there. Islam has a strong ideological commitment to servitude to Allah but it is very quick to view art, philosophy, and science as a tool of that servitude.

And listen up. Because Islam views scientific progress as religious, they view science as worship. Google Al-Zahrawi, one of the earliest eye surgeons. His tools are very similar to ones used today, with two main differences; first, they were larger (we weren’t as good at manufacturing back then) but secondly they are more ornate; they are made of beautiful gold and silver, they have ornate inlays or engravings, they are truly pieces of art. Many islamic scientific instruments have the same quality because they are truly and directly tools of worship as much as they are tools of science. It makes science very beautiful (both aesthetically and spiritually) to view it in this light.

Oh, Islam is sexist you say.

We are from a sexist culture too. In fact, it’s only very very recently that we’ve gotten past that sexism in any significant way. We have a 200 year head start on Islam, so give it a break. Let’s see.

“A man is worth twice as much as a woman”

This is Islamic law, Sharia law. Specifically, this is the law of wills. When a person dies, their possessions are to be divided among their living relatives in equal shares, except that men are to receive twice as much as women. That’s sexist, but listen up.

We come from a legal tradition where a man’s property (women had none) devolved entirely to his eldest son. That’s sexist. But there’s also a reason that property devolved from Father to son.
The Eldest Son was tasked with looking after the family after the Father died. That is to say, the well being of the entire household became the oldest son’s burden upon the death of the Father, the same way it had been the father’s responsibility when he was alive.

So of course the property should devolve to the son. He has the responsibility for everyone, so he should also have the resources needed to carry that responsibility out. Now maybe it’s sexist to think that nobody else could manage the household, but ask the eldest son if that phases him. As long as he is going to be held responsible for what happens to his family, he’ll say that for better or worse he ought to have the resources he needs to fulfill that responsibility.

And Islam is the same way; men are stewards of women. They are protectors. The Qur’an specifically contemplates that although they have separate roles it would be improper to think of men as superior to women; their role is different, but not worse.

That’s still sexist. But think about Western law. When did women start taking an empowered position in society? Well after the western ideals of the Rule of Law were best enunciated in the Constitution of the United States. In fact it was almost a century after that, in the 1970s, that equality under the law really started to have significance in terms of property rights for women. Women would be called equal partners in marriage but be left without a dime to their name if their husbands should up and leave. They would have no entitlement to the home and the estate they worked tirelessly to build. And property rights for common-law spouses is a still more recent development. Our sexism in property laws is still very warm in the ground. They’ll get there too, but they may need as long as we did. That isn’t a fault we can condemn them for.

Some Sharia law also suggests that Two women are needed to testify against a man before the female testimony can be given credit. That is, if the case is the word of a man versus the word of a women the man wins by default. Not all Islamic Jurists ascribe to this view, but let’s consider it for a moment.

The law of evidence emerged early int he history of law. Blackstone famously said that it is better that 10 guilty men should go free than one innocent man should be punished. And historically punishments were sever; many places in the Western world still use the Death penalty, and when the law of evidence was emerging death and torture sentences were ubiquitous. A dark time in our legal history, but there you have it.

So Judges started conceiving rules for what evidence they would hear and what evidence they would not. Maybe they didn’t want the hanging of an innocent man on their conscience, or maybe it was compassion, but modern laws of evidence like hearsay, relevance, privilege and so forth came to be. It was thought that certain pieces of evidence could not be trusted enough to hang a man on their basis.

And there were, back in the 1300s, rules against taking a woman at her word. Women were less educated than men; that wasn’t their fault since they weren’t allowed to be educated, but it was a fact. Women were less worldly than men because they weren’t permitted to go afield in the same ways or have jobs outside the home. So because of their perceived naivety the testimony of a woman was not to be accepted by itself.

This endured until the mid 1970s. If a woman came before the court claiming that she had been raped one could guarantee that no charges would be laid unless there was 1. corroborating evidence – something besides her word that showed guilt, and 2. recent complaint – it was thought that recent complaint was needed to prove that the rape wasn’t fabricated out of some other more trite motive. Women were perceived as being petty and motivated be jealously.

This is obviously a sexist law, but it was also a reflection of the role women had in society at the time. While that role was perpetrated based on sexism the law was a response to it, not the cause.

And so it is with Islam. Yes, under Islam women are less worldly, less experienced, and have less education. But given that that is true, taking their testimony as less trustworthy has intuitive value. I’m not advocating the viewpoint, I’m just saying that it took until the late 1970s until we, the uber civilized western world, got past this particular hang up. We can’t legitimately expect Islam, whom we had a 200 year head start against, to share the same enlightenment.

Rape

Sharia law is very explicit; the penalty for committing rape is death, but there is no penalty to the victim. There are some sexist governments and cultures which are also Islamic which punish rape victims. Islam itself does not. We don’t always walk our talk either. Sad, shameful, but the shame is on the people and not the ideology.

Hijab

Hijab is not a symbol of oppression. Men are also obliged to Hijab, which is simply an obligation to dress and act modestly. There are many religious views on it; some limit it to covering the top of the head with a scarf, which is no different that Sikh turbans. People tend to get more inflamed about the Burqa, a full body covering some Muslim women wear in public,

France, for instance, outlawed the Burqa. It’s a repulsive symbol of repression they might say. But let’s think about that. Why is repression bad? Because individuals should be free to choose for themselves how they live, dress, and so on. The repressive doctrine, the repressive husband who clings to it, they say to the woman “Put that thing on!”. But then France turns around and passes a law that says “Take that thing off!”. Either way, the woman isn’t the one choosing for herself; she’s equally repressed when we force her not to wear the Burqa as when someone else forces it on her.

The solution isn’t to outlaw the Burqa. It’s to make it an actual choice. Some Muslims might say “put that thing on”. Some Catholics tell nuns to put on a habit. The thing we should be doing is saying “put on the Burqa/habit if you want to. If you ever want to take it off, we guarantee you’ll be safe.” Exist laws are the only answer that respects individual autonomy. Not respecting individual autonomy is what’s wrong with repressive rules.

Jihad

This one is touchy. Jihad is a religious duty which requires Muslims to fight or struggle for God. While we often translate jihad as holy-war the two are not synonymous. Surely holy-wars as when catholic Europe invaded Islamic nations in an attempt to conquer Jerusalem (the crusades) invoked a Jihad which was also a kind of Holy war. But jihad is a different, much broader thing.

Jihad has many meanings. The first is personal Jihad; it refers to ones own relationship with God. It’s an internal struggle to be a good Muslim, not far removed from Christian conceptions of original sin.

Secondly, Jihad is an obligation to build a good Muslim world. Most Muslims view this as an obligation to strengthen their community; the most extreme mainstream view is that this obliges Muslims to be evangelists (which we tolerate in Christians, although I do so begrudgingly.) However some Muslim extremists view this as an obligation to make Islam dominant to all other religions (see Al-Quada). Bin Laden doesn’t speak for Islam any more than David Duke speaks for Christianity. Yes, it’s a shame that there are people with these world views, but neither Christianity nor Islam are more of a factor than the other. Some people are going to be like that when you give them a strict religious ideology. Baptist racist and Sunni extremist are both problems, but niether discredits their core ideology because they stray so far from what that ideology actually stands for.

Lastly, jihad is viewed as an obligation to protect Islam by force is needed. This is mostly an obligation of self defense, wherein Muslims must defend their nations and ideologies from outside invaders. There is absolutely nothing peculiar, violent, or backwards about this way of thinking, almost all nations and ideologies require the same thing.

Closing

So yes, there are sexist elements to Islam. We also share a common history with it, and that’s in large part a history of sexism. We got past it too. It took awhile, but we did (for the most part, there are still hold outs). There’s no reason to think that Islam won’t do the same given the same time. Yes, some of their ideas look backwards through our modern eyes. But some of our own ideas from the past 50 years look equally backwards today.

The point, the real bottom line, is that Islam isn’t special. Its sexist ideas formed under the same cultural conditions that our old sexist ideas formed under. Islam currently faces the same pressures that we do, the pressure to keep up economically or sink. That will lead to the same outcome as it did for us, which will be increased tolerance in the interest of better exploiting our female and multicultural work force.

Seriously, get off your high horse. It took us a long time to clean our act up. We can give guidance and insight to help the Islamic world through the same process we went through, or we can be dicks and have Draw a Picture of Mohammad day. We’ve come further than such an intolerant stance I think, but if we haven’t then how can we expect Islam to have done so?