Creationism and Church Attendance

It turns out that Young Earth Creationists are still around, at least according to some Christianity Today figures. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, really, since many churches still teach Young Earth theories over and against the multitude of scientists who would say such beliefs are utter nonsense. Continue reading Creationism and Church Attendance

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Digging into Darwin

Darwin’s Dead and He Ain’t Coming Back…or so the Christian bumper sticker says. Personally, my favorite is the one of the Jesus fish eating the upside-down mutant fish with legs labeled ‘Darwin’. In the Jesus vs Darwin showdown, apparently survival of the fittest is true after all.

For many Christians, the instinctive reaction to Darwin, author of the theory natural selection—not, as commonly thought, the author of theory of evolution—is defensive and even hostile. Darwin, some think, is the guy who tried to kill God in the 19th century. He’s the main cause of modern secularization; his theory is in direct opposition to Christianity.

Everyone and their great-uncle’s cousin have an opinion about Darwin. But few have slogged through his five hundred-page classic The Origin of the Species—the book that influenced the future shape of biology, geology, botany, et cetera, et cetera…

But is it possible to let Darwin speak for himself? Not without cracking open Darwin’s text.

From the Introduction, Darwin states that his purpose is to show that “the view which most naturalists entertain…that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.” His goal concerns the origin of species, not the origin of life. Throughout the course of Origin, the exclusive focus of his work is the interconnectedness of specific species and how they trace back to one or more ‘archetypal’ organisms.

In fact, not even until the last pages of his work does Darwin address more universal implications of his theory:

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.

Assuming that the analogy holds true, Darwin still never attempts to answer where that ‘prototype’ might have originated. He certainly never rules out the possibility of a divinely orchestrated evolution that utilizes the means of natural selection. It would seem that, if a Creationist wishes to dismiss Darwin, it must be on scientific, not religious grounds—common descent of species is possible within the Christian conception of God. As author G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.”

Whether discussing the hive bee’s architectural genius or the tyrannical, slave-making habits of the Formica rufescens ant, Darwin’s observations of the natural world evidence how miraculous it is. If those species had a common ancestor, would they be any less miraculous? For my part, and aside from any concerns of the theory’s accuracy, I find the idea of God using the gradual processes of the natural world to develop his energy from a single seed even more awing. But for any Christian, The Origin of the Species is well worth reading, particularly while keeping that in mind. Give Darwin the benefit of the doubt: he’ll open up an amazing world of intricate and diverse, yet unified life. No cannibalistic Jesus-fish required.

The opinions here expressed are solely that of the author.
…well, not solely, but you know what I mean.

Deconstructing Darwin

Those who are surprised that a movie about Charles Darwin’s struggle to complete On the Origin of the Species raised controversy in the U.S. haven’t spent much time following the mundanity of the culture wars.  In this country, we’ve created entire industries based on the tit for tat public battles while often leaving the heart of the issues we argue, which deserve our full attention, unexamined.  Just a couple years after a bitter Republican presidential primary battle that had potential candidates raise their hands during a debate if they believed in intelligent design, it’s no wonder Creation had trouble finding a U.S. distributor.  But before you pan it because of your creationist views, or buy a block of tickets because you favor evolution, set aside your ideology and let director Jon Amiel introduce you to Charles Darwin, not the bearded scientist, but the young, grieving father.

Creation is based on the book Annie’s Box, written by Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes.  It is an unusual but intriguing approach to biography.  Rather than follow the usual path and tell a few anecdotes from the famous scientist’s childhood, then skip ahead to his great accomplishments, Keynes chose to focus on Darwin’s young adulthood through the letters, journals, and photographs of his family.  Director Jon Amiel said that when he was first approached about directing the book’s film adaptation, he wasn’t interested. “I don’t like biopics,” he said, “chronology is not plot, and reverential drama documentaries make saints out of people – how boring are saints?”  But when he read the book, he discovered a man he grew to like and deeply love.  The film introduces Darwin as a family man, a father, a husband, and a man wrestling with the incredible emotional turmoil over the loss of his child, and with the implications of his own ideas.  It was someone he never knew existed, Amiel said, and that story was worth telling.

Creation opens with Annie (Martha West), Darwin’s beloved daughter, sitting for a portrait.  She asks Darwin (Paul Bettany) to “Tell me a story about everything.”  He launches into a story from his journey on the H.M.S. Beagle to Tierra del Fuego.  From that point on, the film traces Darwin not as he develops his theories, though that is certainly a strong thread in the plot, but as he grieves for Annie after her death from scarlet fever.  A story effectively told out of order, the film uses the device of a phantom Annie, visible only to Darwin, to delve into his psyche: the grief and illness that plagued Darwin as he struggled to come to terms with his failing faith, his controversial theories, and his attempts to reconcile with his deeply religious wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), both for his evolutionary views and the circumstances of Annie’s death.

As a film, it’s a bit uneven.  The cinematography is excellent with occasional glimpses of something brilliant.  Bettany takes a role that would be easy to overact and evokes sympathy and pathos through subtlety instead.  His interaction with real life wife Connelly is heartbreaking as they journey through their suffering and estrangement, and their performances give the story an added depth that provides it with the authenticity it needs to carry the viewer through its journey.  Bettany lends his character both strength and vulnerability, especially when haunted by visions due to treatment for his severe stomach illness and when being bullied by Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) about publishing his book.  Newcomer Martha West (daughter of actor Dominic West) shines as Darwin’s doomed daughter Annie, and the bond the two actors forged in rehearsal plays beautifully on screen.

The balance between the story of Darwin’s family and his scientific journey is where the film struggles.  Compared with the drama of losing a child who is a soul mate and the despair of the widening gulf between husband and wife, father and surviving children makes much more compelling cinema than writing a book, even if that process is consumed by a crisis of faith and drives a wedge between Charles and Emma.  Even Amiel seems to acknowledge this imbalance, and the sequences in which Darwin discovers and explains his theories are cut oddly with audio overlapping in one scene to the point that it’s nearly impossible to follow the dialogue.  The focus of this film is not the theory, but the anguish it caused its creator.

Amiel says that he did not set out to make a polemic film to “poke creationists in the eye.”  His vision was to make a film true to the spirit of Darwin himself, who hated controversy and confrontation to the point that it made him physically ill.  To offer Darwin’s opposition a fair hearing, Amiel says they intentionally cast Jeremy Northam, England’s famous, handsome leading man as Reverend Innes, Darwin’s parish priest, in an attempt to “prop up the role of the Church of England” to be, as Darwin describes in the film, a bark that carries society, “an improbable bark, I grant you, but at least it floats.”  However, the film never allows Innes to be anything more than a straw man, no matter how handsome he may be.  Innes offers weak, illogical arguments in response to Darwin’s honest questions about the problem of evil in the created order, and he later makes Darwin’s beloved Annie kneel in rock salt for insisting on the existence of dinosaurs.  He is an opponent who is easy if not to hate, to pity as a scared ignoramus.  In that effort, Creation falls short of the spirit of Darwin who, according to Keynes, respected others religious’ views; though it isn’t hard to imagine that Darwin ran into equally empty arguments against his own.

This film will offend people, probably on both sides of the debate.  Proponents of intelligent design may dismiss the film for obvious reasons and as Amiel remarked, “staunch darwinites are going to be offended because we present him as an extremely fragile and vulnerable man at times, this great bastion of rational thought as a man who goes through some extremely difficult, tormented irrational passages.”  Regardless, extremists on both sides should take the time to see this film.  In it, Bettany introduces a Darwin largely unknown to modern society, a real man with a family, doubts, and tenderness.  The best sequence of the film is haunting, the scene when Darwin first meets an orangutan named Jenny at the London Zoo.  Bettany is a skilled improvisational actor, and upon meeting the ape cast to play Jenny, Amiel realized that she would take to him immediately, so he chose to film their first meeting.  It was a brilliant decision.  The sequence, shot and cut so that it plays like an island of peaceful beauty in a sea of dark doubt, is something like a shadow of Eden, which if he didn’t believe in, Darwin likely respected.

How much wood can a woodchuck chuck…

… and how long before the Sierra Club stages a protest?
A group of environmentalists was appalled to find evidence of an illegal logging operation in a Polish nature reserve this fall. When the activists discovered a neat stack of twenty tree trunks they quickly alerted the police – hoping, no doubt, to save the remaining trees that were notched for felling.
As Barry Arrington points out,

Most crimes require the prosecution to prove a culpable mental state. For example, to prove murder the prosecutor must prove the defendant intended to kill the victim. On the other hand, to prove criminally negligent homicide, the prosecutor need only prove that the defendant was negligent.

Environmental laws are an exception to this rule and fall under the rubric of “strict liability.” To obtain a conviction for violation of an environmental law the prosecutor need only prove that the defendant engaged in the proscribed conduct (in this case, felling trees). His mental state is not relevant.

So, just to be clear, the culprits that started this illegal logging camp should be prosecuted no matter what their mental state. Motive is irrelevant here – the culprits belong in jail, right?
Because if we don’t keep those renegade beavers at bay, the Cows With Guns may come after us. And we can’t have that.
I echo Mr. Arrington’s query:

Now here’s my question for the materialists. Should the beavers be arrested and jailed for violating the environmental laws? It is no answer to say the beavers cannot form the requisite criminal intent. The crime is, after all, a strict liability crime and their mental state when they felled the trees is not relevant.

Materialists? What say you?

Ad Hoc Review #3

Expelled Expelled {Documentary} – Ben Stein’s new documentary Expelled is a Rorschach test for revealing people’s true feelings about intellectual freedom. Not surprising, many people–especially academic and media elites–loathe the film. While these groups often claim to value freedom of expression and thinking that challenges the status quo, they are often rigidly doctrinaire. Most blog readers will find this point obvious, for the blogosphere is crowded with young academics that use pseudonyms for fear that they will never get tenure if they speak their minds.
But there are many Americans that are surprised by the McCarthyite tactics that are used to quell dissenting views. It is this group that Stein and company are aiming to shock in this amusing, intriguing polemic.
The film doesn’t attempt to present the scientific case for ID (though Stein promises this will be included on the DVD version) nor does it attempt to undermine the credibility of neo-Darwinism (though the Darwinists in the film do a masterful job of that, albeit unintenionally). Stein’s primary focus is on the freedom of academics to merely consider an idea that is deemed verboten in the Ivory Towers. He uses a series of interviews, interspersed with Cold War imagery, in a way that that is both entertaining and enlightening. It is only when it veers off into the historical connection between Darwinism and Nazism that the film stumbles. The conjunction between the two is indisputable, though ultimately as irrelevant as the connection between religion and ID. Scientific theories must be judged on their merit, not on unfortunate outcomes that may result.
Another caution is that Expelled isn’t a fair movie. When Stein interviews advocates of ID he selects scientists and philosophers that are thoughtful and sober while the Darwinists tend to be either a bit nutty (Bill Provine) or unable to keep from damaging their own cause (PZ Myers). Likewise, he stacks the decks in ID’s favor by interviewing intellectual heavyweights like David Berlinski while allowing neo-Darwinism to be defended by Richard Dawkins, a man who is highly educated but of only modest intellect. The result is a film that isn’t balanced and isn’t fair. But it is both funny and infuriating. At least it is, as Stein would no doubt say, if you value freedom. Rating: B+


SalvoSalvo {Quarterly Journal} — Salvo has been described as “Adbusters for Church Kids” (by a detractor) and “like Richard Weaver back in the flesh with cyberpunk clothes” (by a fan). Both the praise and the criticism are apt; Salvo is both snarky and sincere, ultra-hip and uber-conservative. But it’s also one of the few journals for people who can appreciate Adbusters, cyberpunk, and Richard Weaver.
A publication of The Crux Project, Salvo is “dedicated to the cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed the notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded our appetite for transcendence.” Such an anachronistic mission statement seems more fitting for dusty church bulletins than for a journal filled with satiric faux ads and articles on cutting-edge topics. Yet the quarterly manages to fill a void for its target audience (which ranges from sharp young Christians to oldheads like me who miss re:generation Quarterly). Not everyone will “get it” and not everyone will like it. But for those who are looking a quirky, culturally relevant, and intellectually stimulating read, Salvo may be just what you’re looking for. Rating: A-

World War ZWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War {Audiobook} — Zombies have become the monster metaphor of choice for our post-9/11 culture. Whereas vampires and werewolves once fulfilled the role as Threatening Other, zombies show us the Threatening Us. The attack from within–from our own friends, family, and neighbors–is what makes the threat of zombies so poignant. But while most zombie tales focus on the geographically local (New York City in I Am Legend, England in 28 Days Later), Max Brooks offers a global scale apocalypse in World War Z.
Brooks frames the story as an oral history, a series of post-war interviews with notable survivors of the “Zombie World War.” Each interview provides an intriguing personal perspective while revealing the larger events that transform a world plagued by the “living dead.” This structure lends itself well to the audiobook format. The abridged version, which won an the 2007 Audie Award for best Multi-Voiced Performance, is read by a host of actors, including Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, Henry Rollins, Rob Reiner, and John Turturro. (Here’s a sentence I never imagined I’d write: Alan Alda’s performance is absolutely riveting.)
Brooks’ has a superb eye for the intriguing how-did-he-ever-think-of-that detail. He also manages to keep the focus on humanity, even when fighting an enemy that has lost theirs. Even those who aren’t fans of the horror genre will find themselves hooked by this gripping alternative history. Rating: A+

10 Ways Darwinists Help Intelligent Design (Part I)

Why do so many people have such difficulty accepting the theory of Darwinian (or more precisely, neo-Darwinian) evolution? Is it due to a resurgence of religious-based creationism? Or is it that the Discovery Institute and other advocates of Intelligent Design are more persuasive? I believe the credit belongs not to the advocates of ID but to the theory’s critics.
Just look around at the reaction to Ben Stein’s new film Expelled. The film was trashed by numerous critics, dismissed by the blosphere’s intelligentsia, and yet still managed to pull in the second largest gross box office receipts on opening weekend of any political documentary (second only to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11).
Had the critics remained silent over the past decade, ID might possibly have moldered in obscurity. If they had given the theory the respect accorded to supernatural explanations like the “multiverse theory” it might even have faded from lack of support.
But instead the theory’s critics launched a irrational counter-offensive, forcing people into choosing sides. The problem with this approach is that the more the public learn about modern evolutionary theory, the more skeptical they become about it being an adequately robust explanation for the diversity of life on earth. For instance in Expelled, Michael Ruse and Richard Dawkins provide two explanations for how life probably began. Ruse says that we moved from the inorganic world to the world of the cell on the backs of crystals while Dawkins says that life on earth was most likely seeded by aliens from outer space.
When even Dawkins admits that intelligent agency is involved in creation of life on earth it isn’t difficult to see why other people think it is plausible.
I won’t argue that critics of ID are always wrong or that ID is always–or even mostly–right in its claims. But I do think a compelling case can be made that the anti-IDers are losing the rhetorical battle–their frothing at the mouth reaction to Expelled is a symptom–and that they have only themselves to blame.
Here is the first five in a list of ten reasons ways in which the critics of Expelled (as well as other neo-Darwinist apologists) are helping to promote the theory of intelligent design.

Continue reading 10 Ways Darwinists Help Intelligent Design (Part I)

Cribbing in the Courts:
The Toleration of Legal Plagiarism

What do you call someone who implies original authorship of material which he has not actually created and incorporates material from someone else’s work into his own work without attributing it?
His honor.
Consider, for example, U.S. District Judge John Jones III. The man Time magazine hailed as one of the world’s “most influential people” in the category of “scientists and thinkers” may need to be re-categorized as one of the most influential “cutters-and-pasters.” According to a new report by the Discovery Institute (DI), a significant section of the judge’s ruling in last year’s controversial intelligent design decision appears to be copied-and-pasted from an ACLU document:

Continue reading Cribbing in the Courts:
The Toleration of Legal Plagiarism