Friday, July 11, 2008

A "Dr." does not an expert make

I recently happened across a message board on which someone was vehemently arguing that World Trade Center #7 was destroyed not by the 9/11 attacks, but by demolition explosives that incredibly stealthy conspirators had planted on the building's vertical support beams. When challenged, the poster made it a point to emphasize that his theory was supported by the "research" of a certain "Dr." Jones.

I had to laugh a little. Fringe groups often cite the works of some "Dr." or other to strengthen a particularly absurd claim, but when one investigates their so-called expert's credentials, one finds that the PhD was honorary and/or from an unaccredited university and/or in a completely unrelated field.

Young Earth Creationists, for example, are fond of touting the "research" of "Dr." Robert Gentry to prove their delusions. Gentry uses lots of fancy terms like "polonium radiohaloes" to assure God-fearing folks in the Bible Belt that his pseudoscience is legit. Of course, those people never bother to check his credentials because, after all, he's a "Dr.", and perhaps more importantly, they want to believe him (as you want to believe Jones re: 9/11), so they pollute YouTube with ridiculous videos "proving" that the Earth is 7,000 years old and ignore the mountain of evidence to the contrary and many, many scientists with better credentials who soundly debunk his work. And they certainly don't realize that Gentry's theories rely heavily on geology, yet he has no formal training in geology and no real doctorate; instead, he holds a MS in physics from UF and an honorary PhD from an unaccredited (by any mainstream body, at least) fundamentalist university. Physics and geology are almost as far apart as Young Earth Creationism is from reality.

I'm not necessarily saying that the particular person he cited is a fraud, but rather that credentials, legit or otherwise, do not a legitimate theory make. Seriously. I mean, I'm a "Dr." too, technically. That doesn't make me right about everything. Only the vast majority of things. And this is one of them.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Constitutionality of the Monkey Wrench: Exploring the Case for Intelligent Design

Prof. Buckles’ lecture, "The Constitutionality of the Monkey Wrench: Exploring the Case for Intelligent Design," was based on his law review article (see 9 Okla. L. Rev. 527). Buckles opened with the following definition of intelligent design ("ID"):

"[T]he hypothesis that in order to explain life it is necessary to suppose the action of an unevolved intelligence. One simply cannot explain organisms, those living and those long gone, by reference to normal natural causes or material mechanisms, be these straightforwardly evolutionary or a consequence of evolution . . . . [I]t is not necessarily the case that a commitment to Intelligent Design implies a commitment to a personal God or indeed to any God that would be acceptable to the world's major religions. The claim is simply that there must be something more than ordinary natural causes or material mechanisms, and moreover, that something must be intelligent and capable of bringing about organisms.
He next stated that the purpose of his lecture was to explore how ID could be constitutionally taught in schools. To be fair, he emphasized that he wasn't certain it should be taught in schools because he had reservations about the validity of the science behind it. Then, rather inexplicably, he stated that intelligent design is not an inherently Christian theory and in the same breath "took us to seminary." Specifically, he spent the next twenty minutes cataloging the four creationist schools of thought and how they are compatible with ID. Little discussion was actually devoted to how ID could pass constitutional muster.

He left only enough time for two questions, one of which was from the faculty adviser to the Christian Legal Society, who wanted to know the maximum amount of time one could constitutionally get away with discussing ID in a public classroom.

The second was mine. I asked how an ID curriculum in the United States, even if not religious per se, could have a practical effect on children that was anything but religious. I believe my words were to the effect of "If ID creates a theological gap in which there must be an intelligent designer of some sort, then in our society, where 80% of the population identify with the Abrahamic religions, with what can a child fill that gap other than a Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or other religious conception of God?"

He responded that the absence of an ID curriculum would have a practical effect that was atheistic. He then proceeded to discuss events in Charles Darwin's personal life that led to his eventual rejection of Christianity, the atheism of Richard Dawkins, and early hostility in the scientific community towards the Big Bang theory. He did not, however, answer my question.

His response was revealing on several levels:

First, it suggested that he was either unwilling to consider an opposing viewpoint or simply could not answer my question.

Second, it confirmed that he had a bias in favor of religion, if not an outright agenda, which, given his seminary training, was hardly surprising, but it cast some of his arguments in an intellectually dishonest and teleological light.

Third, it significantly reduced his credibility with regard to his repeated assertion that the motivations of ID proponents do not necessarily make ID a religious theory. Applying his same logic to proponents of evolution, Dawkins’ vocal atheism and Darwin’s private disillusionment with Christianity should not have factored into the conversation. Why did their disbelief matter to him if he truly believes that the motivations of a theory's proponents do not reflect upon the theological merits of the theory itself?

Fourth, it reflected a false dichotomy central to his thesis, specifically, that there are only two possible approaches under the Constitution: intelligent design and "atheistic evolution."

Given the well documented negative connotations the term "atheist" has in America, his word choice of "atheistic evolution" strikes me as subtly alarmist. There is not a public high school teacher in this country with such ironclad job security that he would tell his students "This is how natural selection works, and your god has no role in it whatsoever." As a former teacher, I can state with confidence that such proactive atheism would be career suicide in this country, where three-quarters of students are statistically likely to identify as Christians. The likes of Richard Dawkins are not representative of the average freshman biology teacher. Yet an educational system in which all teachers espoused atheism with the ferocity of Dawkins is precisely the portrait he painted as the sole alternative to ID.

It is not.

The principles of evolution, as Prof. Buckles admits, are not inherently atheistic. It is perfectly possible to present the theory of natural selection through the lens of creationism (hence, for example, "evolutionary creationism"), just as it is possible to do so through the lens of atheism. Obviously, neither approach has a place in public schools under the Constitution. But it is just as possible to teach the basic concepts of evolution without contemplating the ultimate origins of the universe in any way. Evolution as it is actually taught in public schools does not force children to add a theological element to their understanding of evolution as a biological process. Instead, it leaves to parents the option to teach their kids that God, or Zeus, or little gray space aliens, or no one at all was responsible for setting evolution in motion. Evolution in schools can and should be a theologically neutral theory.

Unlike evolution, ID simply cannot remain theologically neutral. It forces children to conceive of an intelligent designer that defies the laws of known physics, in effect asking them to answer a question that requires faith in an entity whose existence cannot be proven and who cannot be described in scientific terms. Such faith is indistinguishable from religious notions of deity in all but the most precisely legalistic sense. To recall the old saying, if it looks like a snake, slithers like a snake and bites like a snake, is it not a snake? Buckles repeatedly sidesteps this line of inquiry by stating that ID "does not explicitly argue that the designer is supernatural, let alone divine." But how does that change the practical effect? How else can children in our overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian culture be expected to conceive of an intelligent designer?

Neither Buckles’ lecture nor his paper provided a convincing example of how the theological question that ID raises could be answered in other than deific terms. His paper weakly offers Aristotle’s Prime Mover as one example of belief in a designer that seems to fall outside the Supreme Court’s tenuous definition of religion, the fact that Aristotle refers to the Prime Mover as "God" notwithstanding. But I cannot imagine that any statistically significant percentage of primary school students have read any Aristotle, much less understood the concept of his Prime Mover, much less distinguished it as anything other than a metaphor for the mainstream conception of God. Nor will they ever.

Buckles’ thesis is intriguing as an intellectual exercise but becomes lost in semantic and legalistic tangents and loses sight of the real-world issue, namely, the practical effect that teaching ID would have on American youth. Thus, I ask again, how could an intelligent design curriculum in the United States, even if not explicitly religious on its face, lead children to conceive of an intelligent designer that was not inherently religious in nature?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Richard Dawkins' "The Root of All Evil? Part 1: The God Delusion"

As part of Diversity Week, the Rationalist Society presents The Root of All Evil? Part 1: The God Delusion. Approximately 1 hour of film, with a discussion to follow. Food will be served.
Wednesday 1/23. Classroom A, 6:00.

This BBC documentary, presented by eminent ethologist and biologist Richard Dawkins (
University of Oxford), explores the unproven beliefs that are treated as factual by the world's major religions and the extremes to which fundamentalism has taken them. Dawkins argues that "the process of non-thinking called faith" is not a way of understanding the world, but instead stands in diametric opposition to modern science and the scientific method; it is divisive, dangerous, and at the core of much of today's global conflict. ~50 mins.

For those unable to attend, this film is available online at:

Stephen Colbert interviews Dawkins about his book The God Delusion:

O'Reilly interviews author Sam Harris about his book The End of Faith:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Reactions to "The God Who Wasn't There"

Our viewing of the guerilla documentary The God Who Wasn't There was a resounding success, with a large and diverse turnout that included law students, faculty, and even a local pastor. After the film, I briefly opened the floor for discussion. Here are some reactions from the audience:
  • The film does an excellent job of drawing attention to the historical gap between the supposed death of Jesus circa 32 CE and the writing of the Gospels circa 70 CE, and highlights some of the inconsistencies between New Testament accounts of Jesus' life. In so doing, it raises pertinent questions that merit real intellectual debate. However, some felt that the filmmaker should have given theologians an opportunity to provide their own explanations instead of forcing the audience to accept those of the narrator.
  • The film should have devoted much more time to exploring the concept of Jesus as an allegorical figure derived from the popular pagan savior mythology of the period. This is a particularly compelling argument against the historical case for Christ, and one that is rarely offered by atheists.
  • The film's shift towards filmmaker Brian Flemming's personal experiences with fundamental Christianity detracts from its overall effectiveness and validates criticism of the film as an obvious propaganda piece made by a person with an ax to grind.
  • Similarly damaging are many of the cheap shots Flemming takes, such as quoting particularly insane biblical passages (of which there is no shortage in the Old Testament) out of context or juxtaposing ebullient Christians with the likes of Charles Manson.
  • One person felt that Flemming should have counterbalanced his attacks with "all the good things one gets from a Christian upbringing" (namely, morality); I didn't want to debate this point because it wasn't directly related to the film, but countless studies have demonstrated that morality and religion are not mutually inclusive (in fact, in the US, they seem to have an inversely correlative relationship; see Societies worse off "when they have God on their side"). There are clear evolutionary advantages to being a "moral" person. See, for example, eminent biologist Richard Dawkins' documentary Nice Guys Finish First.
  • The film's interviews with random Christians, all of whom were caught off guard when asked specific questions about first century Christianity and ancient pagan savior figures, brought mixed reactions. Some felt that ambushing believers on the street was unfair and unbalanced, and that theologians should have been interviewed; others (myself included) felt that, although theologians would have obviously been much more articulate in their views, it was appropriate to pick everyday Christians because they are representative of the vast majority of believers.
  • Some objected to the montage of violent scenes from the "Passion of the Christ" as gratuitous and/or another cheap shot. I felt that it was effective in showing the extent to which a n obsession with suffering and death pervades Christianity, albeit subconsciously.

Friday, February 9, 2007


"Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish." – Richard Dawkins

In keeping with this theme, in addition to watching The God Who Wasn't There, we will be celebrating Darwin Day with the kickoff of our clothing drive. Donations will be sorted and sent to several secular charities in Virginia and West Virginia.

For a fascinating discussion of the role of altruism in natural selection, see Dawkin's The Selfish Gene (available for perusal at Carrel 110) and the following documentary:

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The God Who Wasn't There

Bowling for Columbine did it to the gun culture.

Super Size Me did it to fast food.

Now The God Who Wasn't There does it to religion.

Holding modern Christianity up to a bright spotlight, this bold and often hilarious new film asks the questions few dare to ask.

Your guide through the world of Christendom is former fundamentalist Brian Flemming, joined by such luminaries as Jesus Seminar fellow Robert M. Price, professor Richard Dawkins, author Sam Harris and historian Richard Carrier.

See the movie the Los Angeles Times calls "provocative - to put it mildly."

Hold on to your faith. It's in for a bumpy ride.

The Rationalist Society is sponsoring a free screening of this film on Monday, February 12th at 7pm in Classroom A. There will be a general club meeting afterwards.

"Repeat after me, bitch: I come in the name of Jesus!"

The Spirit Of Truth is a frighteningly hypnotic televangelism program that aired on Los Angeles public access cable in the 1990s featuring the incoherent ramblings of a foul-mouthed ("Motherfucker, I'm the ruler throughout all eternity!"), cane-wielding preacher set to funkadelic music.
  • Part 1 (Google Video, 8 mins.)
  • Part 2 (Google Video, 18 mins.)