China’s Transformation and the Power of Christ

April 19, 2012

In a fascinating recent interview about his book  God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, Chinese author and reporter Liao Yiwu talks about the benefits of the growth of Christianity in China:

“Your question is better served by a quote from the Rev. Wang Zisheng, the son of Wang Zhiming, a Christian leader who was brutally executed for his Christian work in Yunnan province during the Cultural Revolution. His son is now following his father’s example and has become a prominent leader in the booming Christian community. “There is so much for us to do,” Wang Zisheng said. “In our society today, nobody believes in Communism, and everyone is busy making money. People’s minds are entangled and chaotic. They need the words of the gospel now more than at any other time.”

In addition, I personally believe that Jesus Christ was one of the earliest and the most famous dissidents in human history. He was crucified by authorities for spreading the Christian faith and ideas. While I researched for this book, I encountered many Christians like Wang, who were inspired by Christ and were willing to sacrifice their lives for the preservation of their faith. That’s the spirit that we need to bring democracy to China. If democracy comes to China someday, we should thank Christ for inspiring us to stand up for our faith and ideas.”

Yiwu, who has been the object of torture and imprisonment for criticizing China’s Communist regime is not himself a Christian – and yet he sees in Christianity a critical force for advancing democratic ideals against a totalitarian regime. He has personally witnessed the courage it brings to stand up against overwhelming forces of repression and bring hope to otherwise hopeless circumstances.

His views are similar to those of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an atheist who witnessed the repression of Islamic regimes in Somalia also sees hope for change in Christianity. In her memoir Nomad, she claims:

The Christianity of love and tolerance remains one of the West’s most powerful antidotes to the Islam of hate and intolerance. Ex-Muslims find Jesus Christ to be a more attractive and humane figure than Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

The fact that atheists from other countries extol the benefits of Christianity as a force for freedom and human flourishing highlights the stark degree to which the New Atheists in the West have strayed from reason. Rather than thoughtful discernment which separates beliefs by their actual impacts on human flourishing, the New Atheists lump all religious beliefs together as merely different points on the same spectrum of ignorance, evil and delusion.

A belief in Christ offers more than mere succor for impending mortality – it offers the possibility of transformation, a foundation for real moral courage and a stable grounding for human rights and human worth – and it transforms the cultures in which it takes root.

And to the degree New Atheists attack Christianity, to that degree they oppose the benefits it brings and they cause real damage to real lives.


Not Your Father’s Evolution

April 10, 2012

SticklebackIt isn’t hyperbole to say that in recent years there has been a revolution in our ability to explore the genome. Though genome sequencing occurred as early as the ’70s, it burst into the national consciousness in 2000 when the Human Genome Project completed its first draft of a complete human genome. Since that time nearly 200 organisms have had their genomes sequenced giving us an ever increasing picture of the diversity of life.

This growing knowledge has also impacted our understanding of how organisms are related. Unlike previous methodologies which relied heavily on interpretations of morphological similarities to determine relationships between organisms (particularly in the fossil record), methods which were fairly subjective and vulnerable to the predispositions of the person studying the organism, genome sequencing is a much more objective methodology which relies on more rigorous analytical comparisons to determine relationships between organisms. It is also modifying our view on how the genome interacts with the environment and how changes actually occur there.

One such recent analysis of a genome has to do with that of the three-spined stickleback, a species (actually, multiple species) which are found throughout the world in both fresh and salt water habitats. The forms actually vary morphologically depending on the sort of environment they are found in, which presents a significant opportunity to study genetic adaptation to different environments as investigator David Stanley of Stanford explains in the Sciencedaily report:

“The cool thing about these fish is that they’ve colonized a whole series of new environments in the last 10,000 to 20,000 years,” says Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator David Kingsley of Stanford University School of Medicine. As the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age, marine sticklebacks ventured into fresh water, settling in rivers, lakes, and streams. The fish adapted to their new homes. Compared with their marine relatives, freshwater sticklebacks tend to be smaller and sleeker, with less bony body armor. The challenges of surviving in new habitats also prompted modifications to their teeth, jaws, kidneys, coloration, and numerous other traits. Moreover, this pattern of colonization and adaptation has repeated itself in several areas where sticklebacks live, including the east and west coasts of North America, western Europe, and eastern Asia. “A world-wide collection of lakes and streams became countless natural evolutionary experiments,”

Many might see in such findings substantive evidence for evolution – and on a small scale, having to do with a variety of variations possible in an organism, they would be right. But these findings are actually quite contrary to the sort of evolution often advocated by Darwinian evolutionists. Instead of incidental mutations coding sequences leading to the production of new proteins (and conceivably, novel structures and systems) the researchers found that the changes were primarily to the same sets of regulatory sequences in separate populations of sticklebacks:

For their latest study, Kingsley, scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and an international team of collaborators started by sequencing the genome of an Alaskan freshwater stickleback to serve as a standard for comparison. That was an achievement in itself, yielding the first complete stickleback genome sequence. Next, the team followed suit with the genomes of twenty additional sticklebacks from around the world, including ten ocean stickleback varieties found around North America, Europe, and Japan, as well as the genomes of ten freshwater relatives from nearby freshwater locations. They then analyzed the sequences to identify DNA regions that changed whenever the fish made the move from salt water to fresh.

The researchers found 147 “reused” regions in the fish’s genome. That suggests that each time the fish left the sea, variants in this same group of genes helped remodel the fish into forms that were better suited to fresh water, Kingsley says.

While the researchers continue to use the term ‘evolutionary change’, the reality is this is nothing like the sort of change described by the modern evolutionary synthesis, a theory which relies on natural selection acting on genetic mutation. The very fact that the researcher describes these as “key genes that control evolutionary change” contradicts the ordinary notion of evolution itself, which is purportedly an unguided process. If natural selection acting on incidental mutations were actually capable of producing the radically different body plans, structures and systems we find throughout the plant and animal kingdoms, then we wouldn’t expect to see the consistent similarity of genetic modifications that we do with regard to the various populations of sticklebacks. The changes wouldn’t be a matter of merely regulating extant genes, but the origination of new genetic capabilities. As it is, the genetic variation in sticklebacks conforms closely to the expectations we would have if there were limits to evolution as proposed by Michael Behe in his book The Edge of Evolution. Genetic sequencing continues to demonstrate that there are limits to biological variation.

Biologist Francois Jacob famously said, “evolution is a tinkerer, not an engineer”; if that is the case then the various populations of stickleback can’t be said to have ‘evolved’ given that the variations they display appear to be the result of well-designed systems engineered to allow organisms to adapt themselves to a variety of environments.

Remembering Dr. King

January 16, 2012

In remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. it is often forgotten that he was first and foremost a Christian pastor and his beliefs in human rights and equality were grounded firmly in traditional Christian thought. There is perhaps no greater articulation of this than in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Here he lays out his views on the basis for law, and civil disobedience:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

This sort of reasoning has a long and well-founded history. We see it in the Old Testament prophet Daniel and his refusal to bow to pagan idols. We see it in the actions of the apostles who refused to cease preaching the gospel saying, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” These men were willing to endure the persecution of authorities because they had a moral courage derived from a belief in the supremacy of the unchanging moral law of God.

As we remember Dr. King today, it is also good to remember the source of his courage and philosophy on civil rights.

The Absurdity of Jerry Coyne on Free Will

January 9, 2012

In a recent USA today column, New Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne explains how the proper (read: atheist) view of our minds renders it impossible for us to have free will; we are in fact “meat computers”:

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.

As one can imagine, such a view of the mind would modify our vews on a whole host of issues. Of course Coyne atheist that he is, sees this reality as undermining Evangelical Christianity:

But there are two important ways that we must face the absence of free will. One is in religion. Many faiths make claims that depend on free choice: Evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that those who don’t freely choose Jesus as their savior will go to hell. If we have no free choice, then such religious tenets — and the existence of a disembodied “soul” — are undermined, and any post-mortem fates of the faithful are determined, Calvinistically, by circumstances over which they have no control.

Coyne is apparently unaware that a number of Evangelicals are Calvinists (and that Calvinism is Christian theology) but he is right that as much as one’s theology depends on free will it would be undermined by his view of the mind. Obviously all of this is moot if we accept that Coyne’s premise that we are merely ‘meat computers’, so why he bothered to go down this road to begin with is a mystery. Alternatively if we think humans are something more than that, that is we have a spiritual aspect, then we would reject Coyne’s reductionism anyway.

But what Coyne doesn’t seem to be aware of is that the ‘no free will’ argument undermines atheism as well. After all, if what we believe is merely the product of incidental physical inputs that produce “nothing more than structural and chemical changes” than that would also include beliefs about atheism. The atheist idea that our beliefs are the result of either ‘reason’ or ‘faith’ is absurd since if atheism were true all ideas are merely the result of uncontrollable physical inputs. Coyne’s materialism destroys both reason and faith.

This was not always so. Once upon a time atheists and skeptics referred to themselves as ‘free thinkers’ – my own father considered himself one of these, predicated on the notion that he had chosen to embrace reason and reject the authority of religion. The word ‘skeptic’ connotes the same thought process – one is deciding what to believe as a result of skeptically evaluating the options. If what Coyne says about free will is true, then no such thought processes or choices are going on. Religious, irreligious, skeptical, atheistic – all are merely organizations of molecules in the brain resulting from processes far beyond the control of the thinker.

And it is not only atheism and Christianity that are undermined by Coyne’s view of the mind, but the common view of human history as well. Ordinarily we view human history as a set of events driven by the choices of humans in the past. Choices to conduct one war or another, choices to follow one set of beliefs over another. We even designate entire periods after those choices – the Enlightenment or the Reformation for example. If Coyne is right, human history is no different than any other natural phenomena; that is, merely the inevitable interaction of physical events set in motion by the Big Bang. Human history would be no more a product of choice than is the orbit of the moon or the chemical composition of Martian soil. And if past history is merely the result of forces set in motion by the origin of the universe, then so too is all future history – and we would no more be able to change the future by our choices than we can change the motion of a our galaxy. The future of humanity was already determined moments after the Big Bang.

Of course, most people don’t believe any of this. The vast majority of humanity has been and is theistic in one form or another because people don’t like to pretend that the evident design of nature, the innate desire for truth, the hunger for meaning and the sense a choice are all illusory. They prefer to live lives where truth can be known and meaning can be found and choices can be made in internally consistent ways. And the reason people become Christians is because they believe that truth and meaning are best found in the person of Christ Jesus.

It is the great irony in all this that people become atheists in part because they don’t want religious dogmas to control their choices; if atheist Jerry Coyne is right then that is not a choice anyone can make.

*Hat tip to my friend Neil at Eternity Matters  for spotting this first – he makes a number of fine points in his post*

Steven Pinker on Civility

January 2, 2012

I am about half way through Steven Pinker’s much discussed recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature a book on why violence has supposedly declined over time, and I have to say there is much there for a Christian to agree with. I plan to write a few posts reviewing the book once I am done but something he wrote about the spike in violence in the ’70s and ’80s starting on p. 160 struck me. He attributes this spike to the ‘decivilization’ of the 1960’s specifically to attacks on self-control, the delegitimizing of webs of interdependence that obligate us to other people and the undermining of marriage and family life during that time. These decivilizing forces created a huge spike in violence in the US, reversing a decade’s long decline. In many ways I see the memory of this history as being one of the main factors in opposition to the current gay marriage efforts. One of the reasons there is an age gap between supporters of gay marriage and those who oppose it, is that the older generation remembers the impact of the sexual revolution of the ’60s. It created societal chaos, greatly damaged the family and was very detrimental to the poorest segments of society.

In short, when gay marriage advocates claim that arbitrarily changing the institution of marriage to satisfy particular sexual proclivities won’t damage the institution of marriage we have empirical evidence to prove this isn’t true. We have been there and done that and the results were devastating – in fact we have only in the last decade begun to recover from the last round of social experimentation.

Pinker counts himself amongst the ‘New atheists’, so he obviously has no reason to empirically verify these essentially conservative and Christian values and yet he does so throughout his book. I think this is the inevitable result of a cold and hard chronicling the facts of human history.

The great experiment on what values and morals best lead to human flourishing has already been done – I for one appreciate the fact that someone like Steven Pinker has been honest enough to take a look at the data.

Merry Christmas All!

December 25, 2011

Havel and Hitchens

December 20, 2011

With the deaths this last week of these two great voices for freedom, there have been many remembrances and much analysis on the impact of each man. In a recent article in the American Spectator, writer Paul Kengor does a brief yet insightful comparison of the two men highlighting the understanding Havel had that Hitchens lacked:

Václav Havel was not just a man of politics and intellect, but a man of the arts, theater, literature — and, yes, of God. He exhorted the West and the wider post-modern world to seek “transcendence.” Hitchens might have figured God “the ultimate totalitarian,” but Havel saw God as the solution to totalitarianism, as tyranny’s antidote, as the fountainhead of freedom. This was something Havel deeply admired about America and its roots — its fusion of faith and freedom and the recognition that the latter cannot genuinely exist without the former. “The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty,” Havel concluded in his July 4, 1994 lecture at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, home of that very sentiment. “It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”

While it is proper to call Hitchens a crusader against tyranny, he only slowly abandoned the Marxist beliefs which dominated his youth. When Havel began his anti-communist activities in Czechoslovakia, Christopher Hitchens was working as a student at a Cuban ‘summer camp’ with his fellow leftist students helping to support the burgeoning Castro regime. While Václav Havel sat in prison for voicing opposition to the repressive Communist regime, Hitchens was writing for The Nation, penning critiques of American foreign policy, much of which was aimed at curbing the spread of Soviet sponsored communism. Havel was a man of action in the middle of the fight; Hitchens was an observer who rarely suffered for his anti-authoritarian views.

In many ways this explains why Havel, despite not being a believing Christian understood the need for transcendence in the postmodern world; mere words are not sufficient to battle the tyranny of the state. Such a battle requires truths that are rooted in permanence beyond the material world. Hitchens on the other hand saw the threat of an oppressive state but his militant atheism never allowed him to articulate a substantive basis for human rights and liberty nor did he need to – he was comfortably ensconced in the West where such rights were already recognized.

As a result, in the end Václav was a reformer while Hitchens was a political gadfly.