Militant Moderation

I recently had a “debate” with atheist activist Aron Ra. Aron is known for his sharp attacks on Christian apologists, as well as for being a staunch and highly educated defender of evolution. We first met two years ago, when he invited me for an interview on his YouTube channel, and we ended up having a pleasant and polite conversation (not, however, entirely lacking in disagreements).

The discussion we had a week ago was similar in tone. One reason Aron and I seem to get along, despite his fervent ant- theism, is mutual respect. He respects me for my scientific credentials and for my willingness to actively witness for the reality of evolution, including engaging in debates with well-known young-earth creationists. I respect him for his intelligence and the depth and breadth of his biological knowledge (especially in phylogenetics and cladistics).

At the very end of the discussion, just before the Q&A, Aron said (in response to my statement that I am not an apologist and not trying to convert atheists):

“One of the problems we have now in the US is we are so polarized. When you and I were young, the common man knew you have to be a fool to reject science. Science is real. But everybody also had this notion that they go somewhere when they die. And the atheists and the creationists were both on very far extremes. But now we have this polarized society where that middle-of-the-road guy, the person who holds both perspectives (science and faith) is almost absent. People are walking away from religion, and others are walking away from science. I would rather go back to that time than what we have now.”

I said I was in complete agreement, we thanked each other for the discussion, and we went to the questions.

I am very happy about that debate/discussion, not because I won or I convinced anyone that my position was correct, but because I feel that it could stand as a model for how to discuss things with someone you don’t agree with. And yes, as Aron and I proved, it’s possible to do so. One wouldn’t think it could be, listening to our President and his political opponents. (I don’t mean to imply that the two sides here equal).

Polarization is probably an understatement. In religion, in politics, in matters of sexuality and identity, people (especially people online) are ready to demolish, destroy, defame, denigrate, and otherwise attack those with whom they disagree.

I consider myself to be a militant moderate. This doesn’t mean that I tolerate actual fascists, racists, communists or radical crazies of any stripe. Buy unlike a good number of younger folk, I have had real life experiences with all of those, and I know how bad they are, and how dangerous they are for our society. But if we treat everyone who holds a different perspective than we do on the important issues of life and society as a pariah, we will continue to slide toward mutual hatred, and possibly violence.

We have already been there. In the late 1960s, the political divide over the war in Vietnam and Civil Rights was more contentious and violent that the current situation. It was exhausting and frightening. In one demonstration, a brick thrown by a construction worker narrowly missed me (it would have killed me). At Columbia University, I saw a cop beat a student bloody while smiling and cursing. And there were always those brave souls who threw bottles and stones at the cops from the safe back of the crowd. A lot of people were killed in the civil strife of those times.

What counts is our mutual humanity. All of us humans are one family, and it’s time to stop this incessant hatred. We can disagree, we can argue, we can vote for different people, we can worship different Gods or no god, but we cannot forget the universal truth taught by all religions – all people are our brethren. Learn to live with them, and perhaps even love them. It’s worth it.

 

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The Works of His Hands

I am happy to announce that my forthcoming book The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith is now available for pre-order on Amazon. 

The book will be released by Kregel Publications on November 19, 2019. I will be announcing the release (and pre-order availability) on Twitter and Facebook in the early fall, but I wanted to give the readers of this blog an advanced notification.

All editorial work on the book is complete, and endorsements from advance readers are coming in. Alister McGrath, one of my favorite theologians (and people), has contributed a wonderful foreword, and the marketing team is preparing to spread the word.

My wife and I just got back from a week-long trip to Wheaton College (near Chicago) for the annual American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) conference, where I gave a talk related to my previous post on replication. I also chaired a session, presented a report on God and Nature to the ASA Executive Committee, met Ken Miller, Hugh Ross, and many old friends, took a tour of Fermilab, and had a great time.

I also had a chance to give out a few flyers produced by the Publisher to advertise the book.  The pre-order price of $16.99 is guaranteed until release.

TWHH Flyer

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Replication and Evolution

When most people, including scientists, even including evolutionary and molecular biologists, talk about evolution, they dwell on the critical aspects of variation and natural selection almost exclusively. These two processes are considered to be the heart and soul of the evolutionary process. But there is another process that must also exist for evolution to occur, and that is replication of the organism in the next generation. I am not talking about reproduction, which of course must occur. Replication is more than simply an organism reproducing itself. Replication is the means by which reproduction occurs with extreme accuracy, so that the characteristics of the original are inherited in the offspring. Replication is what makes inheritance possible. And the fact that replication is less than 100% accurate is what allows for the existence of variation, which is critical for evolution.

What we tend to overlook is that replication, while it cannot be perfect (so as to allow for variation), must be very, very good. If it weren’t, then whatever selective advantage an organism might have gained by a change in some allele would not be transmitted to the next generation, and no evolution would occur. If a bird had developed better vision than its siblings, that bird would have a great selective advantage during its own lifetime. But if that characteristic were not inherited by its offspring, evolution of better eyesight in that species would never happen.

Modern life replicates its phenotype with at least 99.99999% fidelity. This leaves enough room for naturally occurring errors (mutations) to produce the variation needed for Darwin’s theory to work. But what about the lower limit of replication fidelity? How good must replication be in order to avoid “error catastrophe”—which means, in this context, a level of error such that no selective advantage is possible?

The threshold for a mutation rate that would cause an error catastrophe has been determined theoretically and confirmed by experiment to be simply equal to the inverse of the size of the genome. Thus, if an organism has a genome of 10,000 bases, like some bacteria and viruses, a mutation rate greater than 0.0001 or 0.01% would lead to a loss of any selective advantage for the fittest organisms, and thus it would not allow for evolution to work. This seems like a very low mutation rate, and it is, but of course in large multicelled organisms with genomes in the billions of bases, the error rate is correspondingly lower. Since replication fidelity is equal to 1 minus the mutation rate, the minimal level of replication fidelity is 0.9999 for single-celled organisms, and 0.9999999 for animals and plants.

Are such high values for replication fidelity in early life reasonable to expect? Not when we consider that for even the most primitive modern organisms, replication, transcription and translation involves a host of error correction enzymatic processes, all of which had to evolve—but how could they if the prevailing error rate was too high to allow for evolution?

This seems to leave a large gaping hole in our attempt to understand the origin of life, particularly the origin of evolution. The best solution to this mystery is to posit some other type of evolutionary process whereby early primitive cells could replicate themselves (meaning their entire phenotype) with great accuracy that did not involve the extremely complex advanced mechanisms of DNA replication and DNA-directed protein synthesis. The RNA world (generally assumed to predate DNA world) doesn’t look much better. Even if we assume that the RNA-world genome is a set of RNA ribozymes, and that the smallest such self-replicating molecule might be as small as 50 bases, we still need to have a 98% accuracy in replication of RNA, which is far less than the 80% fidelity (at best)  observed in lab experiments. We have no idea what such an alternative evolutionary mechanism not working with replicating nucleic acid polymers might consist of.

But we can still address the fundamental question of replication fidelity evolution even if we have no idea how that evolution could have occurred. I recently completed a study of a simulation model for studying replication fidelity in early life that makes no assumptions about replication mechanisms.

The results (which I have recently submitted in a paper for publication) are interesting. To summarize, it seems very clear that regardless of what the unknown evolutionary mechanism might be, a smoothly continuous evolutionary path to high replication fidelity is impossible. At some point during the evolution of protolife to modern life, there had to be one or more major jumps (saltational events) in the degree of replication fidelity. We have a long way to go before we can get close to any idea of how life and evolution might have gotten started.

 

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Thoughts on Science, ID, Evolutionary Continuity, and Eugene Koonin

In 2007, the famous and highly respected evolutionary biologist, Eugene Koonin, published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Direct. The paper is titled “The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution.” In the abstract, he summarizes the problem he aims to address as follows:

Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution.

In other words, he is stating the observed fact that there are frequent discontinuous jumps in complexity, with the emergence of entirely new classes of biological entities (including organisms and biochemical molecules).

His model evokes the cosmological concepts of rapid inflation and Big Bang singularity. In the biological case, the inflation is the result of “extremely rapid evolution,” and the biological “Big Bang” emergence of novel complexity “is envisaged as being qualitatively different from tree-pattern cladogenesis.” In other words, not at all Darwinian gradualism.

Koonin is an atheist who despises creationism and Intelligent Design (ID), and he is a fiercely independent and brilliant thinker. One might wonder how the tone and content of this paper was received by reviewers, except that we don’t need to wonder at all. Biology Direct is an open access journal that also uses open review, still fairly rare among scientific journals. The names of the reviewers are published, as are their comments and the author’s replies. I found this fascinating to read.

In one comment, the reviewer (William Martin) writes:

“In each major class of biological objects, the principal types emerge “ready-made”, and intermediate grades cannot be identified.” Ouch, that will be up on ID websites faster than one can bat an eye.

Koonin responds:

Here I do not really understand the concern… there is little I can do because this is an important sentence that accurately and clearly portrays a crucial and, to the very best of my understanding, real feature of evolutionary transitions…  if our goal as evolutionary biologists is to avoid providing any grist for the ID mill, we should simply claim that Darwin, “in principle”, solved all the problems of the origin of biological complexity in his eye story, and only minor details remain to be filled in… However, I believe that this is totally counter-productive and such a notion is outright false… I think we (students of evolution) should openly admit that emergence of new levels of complexity is a complex problem and should try to work out solutions some of which could be distinctly non-orthodox…

(Note: most of what I omitted in that quote are protestations against ID.)

Complaints by some academic scientists about language in scientific papers and presentations that sounds too much like ID or creationism are not uncommon these days. I fully agree with Koonin that such rigid adherence to the dogma of neo-Darwinism is counterproductive in the search for truth. It might, in fact, simply be true that some of the ideas of ID are more consonant with the reality of biological evolution than is generally acknowledged.

In fact, the prediction that ID folks might jump on this and similar ideas has come to pass to some extent. Randy Isaac recently drew my attention to a meeting in Austria where evolutionary biologists presented ideas contesting the standard model of Darwinian gradualism, and even discussed the forbidden word – teleology. Several members of the ID-based Discovery Institute also presented their work at this meeting.

An article about this meeting written by Discovery Institute’s newsletter “Evolution News” claims that some of the speakers from academia expressed fears of possible harassment or worse from their academic departments because of the kind of concern expressed in the reviewer’s quote above. It is certainly the case that hints of Intelligent Design sympathy are not well received in academic biology.

Eugene Koonin has no need to worry about reactions to his thoughts. His position (at the Library of Medicine in the NIH) and his reputation as a brilliant scientist are secure. Like Stephen Jay Gould and the more modern proponents of the extended evolutionary synthesis, Koonin is not afraid (thank God) to move the entire field of evolutionary biology forward with bold new ideas.

Science cannot be stopped by political, religious, or social viewpoints. At least not for long. It is my own belief that just as the original Big Bang theory put astrophysics and Christian cosmology in closer concordance, we will eventually see a similar trend in biology. God willing.

 

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About My Book and Two Others (by Jon Garvey and Joel Edmund Anderson)

My new book, The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith is now in the final editorial stage, and the Publisher (Kregel Publications) has been working on starting the marketing and promotion process. The book is a first-person account of how I, formerly an atheist scientist, came to embrace Christianity while maintaining my scientific worldview. It includes several chapters on modern science and its compatibility with faith in a creator God.

You can find a link to a new website for the book by clicking on the “My Book” tab above. That site will contain updates as the book goes through the publishing process up to and beyond its release date of November 19, 2019.

I am honored and blessed to announce that famed theologian (and scientist) Alister McGrath from Oxford University has written a wonderful Foreword for the book, and a final cover design has been crafted and approved, as shown below.

COVER

When the book is available for pre-order, I will be sure to post that here, as well as on my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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Speaking of books, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight two other books that I have recently had the pleasure to read, written by fellow bloggers (and friends).

Jon Garvey’s God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation (Cascade Books, 2019) is a beautifully written book that can be read for pure enjoyment and enlightenment, and/or used as a scholarly resource on the essential problem of evil in God’s creation.

Jon, a retired physician and the blogger behind “The Hump of the Camel” (and a frequent commenter on this blog) uses historical scholarship to argue that neither Scripture nor the early Church fathers maintain the view that the world was perfect before the sin of Adam and Eve. He presents a convincing case that the modern Christian concept of a curse on creation itself (not just the original sin of human beings) is not rooted in traditional orthodoxy nor in the Biblical text. The chapters on science are a powerful antidote to the prevailing popular view of evolution as a violent deadly struggle. In all of this, Garvey speaks to his readers in terms that all can understand.

The optimistic theme of the book, while controversial, is a rare commodity in the modern marketplace of ideas. This book is full of new ideas, fresh approaches, and profound insights. I strongly recommend it.

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Joel Edmund Anderson, whose blog is “Resurrecting Orthodoxy,” is a religious scholar and the author of the highly regarded book The Heresy of Ham about the extreme young-earth creationist views of Ken Ham. Joel has now published a new book, entitled Christianity and the (R)evolution in Worldviews in Western Culture: A brief review of Christianity and the development of western civilization…and why it is important to understand if one is to make sense of our world today (Archdeacon Books, 2019).

This is a delightfully written and comprehensive but also highly accessible treatise on philosophical ideas regarding Christianity and religious faith and the historical contexts in which they arose. Anderson covers pretty much all the main threads in Western philosophy and historical viewpoints, going back to ancient Greece. His chapters on the “so-called” Enlightenment and the 19th century contain valuable insights into the origins of many of our modern ideas about the place of religion and Christianity in particular.

I found the descriptions of the major philosophical views and their authors to be refreshingly candid, highly readable, and engaging. If you (like me) tend to fall asleep at the mere mention of the name Kant or Hegel, this book is for you. Not only is the writing clear and jargon-free, but the essences of the ideas are presented in a way that allows for easy understanding of often difficult concepts.

The book also goes into scientific history and the relationship of science with the historical and philosophical trends in Europe.

This is a book for everyone, especially those who are looking for an accurate and insightful depiction of how our worldviews emerged from the thinking of the best and brightest philosophers throughout the ages.

 

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The Conundrum of New Atheism

If we define atheism as the lack of belief in God, gods, or the supernatural in any way, or even if we define atheism as the positive belief that gods do not and cannot exist, it’s clear that atheist philosophy is based on one simple, negative statement about reality. If things ended there, there would be little or nothing to discuss. My own atheism, which was of the stronger version (no gods exist), was not something I thought about, or spent any time on. I’m pretty sure that was true for the majority of atheists I knew, and I think its probably true for the majority of atheists now as well.

For most atheists in days gone by, the only time their atheism ever came up was if someone said something like “pray with me” or “Do you believe in God?” For me, working in an academic scientific setting, this was a very rare occurrence.

But times have changed. Militant “New Atheism” is a modern movement that is based on taking atheism out of the closet and loudly proclaiming it to the world as an important and proud vision of reality. The slogan on the side of London buses—“There is probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”— is one of many examples of this new in- your-face public expression of atheism.

The original “Four Horsemen” of atheism—Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett— have made it very popular to go far beyond politely declining an invitation to go to someone’s church or to pray for a mutual friend. The public is exhorted to confront theists, demand rational evidence for their harmful and foolish nonsense, and proclaim the truth of atheism in the public square by publishing books, giving interviews, writing articles, and producing TV shows, films, and online videos—getting the word out that gods are not real by any and every method imaginable.

The original four have been joined by scientists like Krauss, Coyne, Tyson, Carroll, and Atkins; entertainers like Teller, Maher, and Gervais; and YouTubers like Dillahunty, Ra, Andrews, and a slew of others. There are now atheist conventions, atheist rallies, and many atheist organizations.

And there are also a whole set of brand new atheist conundrums, all of which stem from the problem that atheism is supposed to have no common belief system other than a simple negative statement. As it turns out, this is not completely true for a very large number of the followers of the new atheists. If one looks into the ideas expressed by the leaders and routinely echoed by the followers of the new atheism, a great many positive statements about how they see the world can be discerned. Here is a partial list:

  1. Science and the scientific method are the only legitimate epistemology. This view has been called scientism, a term rejected by the new atheist dogma.
  2. Free will does not exist. Strict determinism is the rule in the universe, and therefore free will is an illusion.
  3. Human life is nothing special compared to other life, and human consciousness is an illusion.
  4. Our planet is tiny, insignificant, probably one of millions of such planets with all kinds of sentient life, and there is nothing at all special or even interesting about the earth or its inhabitants.
  5. The concept of purpose, meaning, or anything beyond physics and chemistry is nonsense. Reductionism is the answer to everything, and logical positivism was right after all.
  6. Evolution is not only true, but it provides the answers to all questions not yet answered by other scientific means, such as why is there good and evil, why do we have delusions of meaning and grandeur, what is the origin of love, beauty, emotions, etc.

There are more, but these are enough to get the picture. It could sound pretty gloomy, but there is some light in this philosophy as well. The famous statement that we are all stardust sounds at first somewhat spiritual, but it is in fact based on the scientific fact that we are constructed from the carbon and other atoms thrown into space by exploding stars. Nice. And it’s science!

But there remains a problem. Science (as all real scientists know) is not a philosophical position, but a method to find natural truths. One can use this method (originally formulated by people who were believers) no matter what one’s religious or philosophical beliefs are, which is why scientists are not all atheists, but also Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. Atheists cannot claim science as their specific and exclusive domain of knowledge or worldview.

Another problem that modern atheism as a movement faces isn’t philosophical but political. Some atheists see their movement as part of a larger, radical movement for social justice in opposition to the often conservative, oppressive Christian (and for some, Muslim) viewpoints regarding gay rights, the role of women, racism, male privilege etc. But many other atheists challenge this view and reject the progressive brand of atheism as being just as intellectually weak and even unscientific as religious faith.

Dawkins and Harris have spoken in terms that other atheists have considered to be outright misogynistic and racist. Some younger atheists, who simply want nothing to do with the churchiness of their elders, are part of various neofascist or alt-right ideologies stimulated by 4chan, the incel movement, Gamergate, and related cultural trends.

The political rift within “organized” atheism has resulted in bitter feuds and disputes, including the cancellation of a number of atheist conferences, online and in-print hostility and antagonism between atheists, and a dawning realization that atheists have really nothing in common to talk about other than the stupidity of believers— which can eventually get old.

Attempts to forge a philosophical consensus of what kind of ideas should replace belief in God have so far failed. There are so many current and past theistic scientists (including scores of Nobel Laureates) that atheism cannot legitimately claim scientific thinking as its own. The same goes for liberal and social justice political activity. Yes, Christians endorsed slavery at one time, but both the abolitionist and civil rights movements were led by Christians. I have seen atheists on Twitter resort to using historical (especially biblical) references to burning witches or stoning gays as a last resort in condemning Christianity as morally bankrupt.

If it makes no sense to conflate atheism with science, or with social justice, what should be the positive content of modern atheistic philosophy? If all that’s left is their original core belief that there are no gods, there isn’t much to have a movement about. If Christians accept evolution and mainstream science (as the majority do), and if LGBT rights are well established, as is separation of Church and state, it’s hard to discern what religious dangers atheist defense organizations like FFRF need to fight against.  If atheists are unable to come up with some sort of positive message (other than “stop worrying”), it could spell the eventual demise of the New Atheist movement. I predict that within a few years, someone will coin a new phrase: “New Atheism is dead; God, not so much”.

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My Holy Week Tweets

The following are the daily tweets I posted during this past Holy Week. The video clip is from The Gospel According to Matthew by Pasolini (1964). The music at the end of the clip if from an African mass called Missa Luba.

(Ignore the first few seconds of the video)

Saturday 4/13. Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, is the start of Holy week. As is my custom, from now until after Easter, I will engage with other Christ followers, but will not reply to anti-Christian posts or replies. This is a period of deep reflection on our Savior’s sacrifice, not one for arguments.

Palm Sunday 4/14. “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” The words of the Jewish crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem. All phrases showing they believed Him to be the Messiah. As He has proven to be, and so much more.

Monday 4/15. Jesus cleansed the Temple of the money changers & all who profaned His Father’s house. My Church is an old stone building with courtyards, chapel, lots of space. When I’m there alone, I find the calm & quiet conducive to prayer & reflection. I think Jesus would be happy there.

Tuesday 4/16. The words from Matthew, spoken by Jesus as a man “Yet not as I will, but as Thou wills” should be part of every prayer. We’re told to pray for what we need & what we want, but those words remind us that we are to accept God’s will, even if it seems a bitter cup. We too will rise.

Wednesday 4/17. “He denied it again, with an oath: I don’t know the man!” Peter’s words (Matt 26:72) break my heart, just as they broke Peter’s when the rooster crowed. To face one’s own betrayal, cowardice, & failure is bitter. Yet we do it, are forgiven, & like Peter, carry on in Christ.

Maundy Thursday 4/18. Pilate asked “What is truth?” but Jesus gave no answer, because He knew it wasnt a question. Pilate was saying we will never know the complete truth. He could not understand that the complete incarnated truth was standing in front of him. In 3 days, that truth would be proven.

Good Friday 4/19. The curtain between Heaven and Earth is torn. The ground shakes, the sky darkens. Today we are a people of sorrow, acquainted with grief. In despair, we can only pray, and wait. But He is with us, even today.

Holy Saturday 4/20. Today Peter, no longer a rock, is simply Simon. Imagine him, recalling his failure and despair of yesterday, with no idea of the coming joy. Have you been there? I have. But we know what Simon didn’t. Tomorrow brings joy and hope. Peter will rise with Jesus, and so will we.

Easter Sunday 4/21.

Shout! Run! Sing! Rejoice!

HE IS RISEN

Glory Hallelujah!

He is Risen Indeed.

 

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