Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why Oil Companies Don't Use Flood Geology

The Deluge. Gustave Doré
One of the best ways of testing young earth creationism and flood geology (the idea that most geologic structures above and below ground were created in the flood) is to ask whether they're useful in the real world. For example, do oil companies use flood geology to find oil? You can bet they would if it helped them find oil better than mainstream geology. After all, oil companies aren't known for their liberal agenda or their devotion to the scientific consensus (climate change, for example), but they are known for doing what they need to do to make money. They can't afford to use faulty science. So, do they use flood geology?

Absolutely not. But don't take my word for it. Dr. Donald Prothero is a paleontologist and geologist who has written the standard textbooks in sedimentary and historical geology as well as paleobiology. He has far more knowledge and authority in these fields than I ever will, so I'll just shut up and quote him:
The most significant implication of flood geology and its fantasy view of the earth is a practical problem. Without real geologists doing their work, none of us would have the oil, coal, gas, groundwater, uranium, and most other natural resources that we extract from the earth. There are lots of devout Christians in oil and coal companies (I know of many of them personally), but they all laugh at the idea of flood geology and would never attempt to use it to find what they’re paid to find. Instead [...] they have seen the complexity of real geology in hundreds of drill cores spanning whole continents and don’t even begin to try to interpret these rocks in a creationist mold (even though they may be devout Christians and believe much of the rest of the fundamentalist’s credo). If they tried, they’d find no oil and lose their jobs! As creationists keep trying to get their bizarre notion of flood geology inserted into classrooms and places like the Grand Canyon, we have to ask ourselves: are we willing to give up the oil, gas, coal, groundwater, and uranium that our civilization requires? That would be one of the steepest prices we would pay if we listened to the creationists.

See also:

Why I Left Young-Earth Creationism / Glenn Morton (by a geophysicist working in the oil industry)

Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters / Donald Prothero. This is where the quote above comes from. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Deciding What to Believe: A Speculative Infographic

Silly little chart made by author, using
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." - Carl Sagan
The little chart above probably should have been left to speak for itself, but I couldn't resist posting some commentary: When you hear someone say they believe something, it's natural to assume they mean they actually think it's true. But that's a risky assumption, because when many people decide what they're going to believe, truth seems to be, at best, a minor consideration. I've heard people say they believe things because they're fun to believe (ghosts, astrology, etc.); because they give them comfort (things happen for a  reason, heaven is for real*), and because they grew up believing them (usually ethical/religious beliefs--"I was raised to think..."). It's as though the word "believe" means something different to them than "To think something is true". 

That's always seemed odd to me. Of course, I'm sure I'm prone to the same sorts of biases, but when I say I "believe" in some fact or theory, I mean, "I think that's actually how reality is." I don't mean I enjoy believing it, or that it's comforting to me, or that I hope is true...I mean it's what I think actually is true, whether I like it or not. Ideally, I would also have evidence that it's true, but as I said, I'm sure I'm prone to my biases too, and I can't honestly say I can lay out the evidence for everything I believe.** But I at least try not to believe implausible things just because I want to.

When some people talk about what they believe, though, it's not just that they don't necessarily have evidence for their beliefs--in many cases; evidence is beside the point, because they're not even really talking about truth at all. They're talking more about what they want to be true than what is true. All the bigger slices in that pie chart above are reasons that people want things to be true, and they're all very questionable ways of deciding what really is.

The problem with believing what you want to be true, of course, is that reality isn't obliged to be what we want it to be. That means believing something just because you want it to be true really doesn't make any sense.*** It's just a way of fooling yourself, and when a lot people do it, it creates a hostile environment for truth, and fertile ground for falsehood. 

That's why I suspect that the world would be a better place if people took the idea of belief more seriously, and remember that's it's bound up with the idea of truth. If I just believe whatever's fun or comforting or familiar to me, then I don't have any real respect for the truth. To put it another way: I'm being dishonest. I'm telling myself what I want to hear, instead of telling myself the truth. And when I'm dishonest with myself, I'll be dishonest with others, without even realizing it. I'll be doing one of the easiest things in the world--spreading falsehood--instead of the hard, uncomfortable work of seeking the truth.


* Please don't misunderstand me. My point is not that that these things aren't true, even though I personally doubt them. My point is that people all too often believe them because they want them to be true, not because they have evidence for them.

**For example, I don't have data to back up my little chart above--but it's more to make a point than to make a precise claim, and I figure truth matters to most people quite a bit more than I'm suggesting there. 

*** There are exceptions, I think. Sometimes it makes sense to believe you can succeed even if you don't know for sure you can, because belief will actually help you do it. I also think it makes sense to have hope that life is worth living and humanity isn't a lost cause, for similar reasons.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jesus Versus the Religious Right

Sermon on the Mount, Carl Bloch
Among the multitude of Republican presidential candidates for 2016, several are proud members of the religious right, including Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz. These candidates all really dislike the idea of separation of church and state, and say they want the country to be run according to Christian principles.

That's what they say, anyway, but when I listen to the other things they say, I get confused. If a Christian government is really what they want, I would think they would take the words of Jesus as a starting point. Surely it's not a stretch to think Christians are followers of Christ? But when I read Jesus' actual words, I have trouble finding much of a link between what he said and what these candidates say, at least when it comes to certain topics.

Instead, what I hear from these candidates is scorn for the poor and for immigrants, glorification of wealth, war, and weapons, advocacy of harsh judgments and punishments (instead of forgiveness and mercy), and support for public displays of piety. This is all confusing to me, because when I read what Jesus said about these things, it almost sounds like these candidates have gotten it completely backwards. Are they reading different Gospels than I am? Do they have a Bible with missing pages? I don't know, but one thing that's clear to me from reading Jesus' words is that he couldn't abide hypocrisy. Saying you're following Jesus, while advocating things that run counter to what he said, seems like hypocrisy to me.

But I can't imagine these earnest-looking Republicans are really hypocrites--not when Jesus spoke as clearly about hypocrisy as he spoke about anything. No, surely they've just forgotten some of the things Jesus said, and could use a gentle reminder. With that in mind, I've put together some words about Christianity which seem important to me, because they touch on some of the issues these candidates often discuss, and because they come from Christ himself. Even though I'm agnostic and an advocate of strict church-state separation, I find many of these quotations quite wise and beautiful, and it's been thought-provoking to see how they relate to each other--how Jesus' ideas on hypocrisy, for example, relate to his ideas on judging others harshly; or how his ideas on judgement relate to his ideas on forgiveness, and turning the other cheek.

Anyway, I've arranged them by topic. I've also printed off a copy of them and put them in my wallet, so I can remind myself--and others--about them when questions come up in the next few months. I'm pretty sure they will.


The Poor, Sick, and Needy

Blessed are you who are poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God. - Luke 6:20

Give to everyone who asks of you. - Luke 6:30, Matthew 5.42

...I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.

Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ - Matthew 25.44-45

Do unto others as you would have them do to you. - Luke 6:31

See also the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and the lesson of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4)

Wealth and the Rich

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. - Matthew 6:19-21

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. - Luke 6:24

If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. - Matthew 19:21

Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. - Matthew 19:23-24

But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation. - Luke 6:24

Immigrants, Foreigners, and People Different from You

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? - Matthew 5:46-47

Do unto others as you would have them do to you. - Luke 6:31

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37, italics added)

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life? 
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have. 
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.
See also Old Testament verses like Exodus 22:21

Punishment and Forgiveness, Judging Others, War and Peace
(These themes are more intertwined than I ever realized before)

Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy. - Matthew 5.7

Blessed are the peacemakers,    
For they shall be called sons of God. - Matthew 5:9

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? - Matthew 5:43-47

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. - Matthew 5:38-39

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. - Matthew 6:15

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. - John 8:7

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. - Luke 6:35-36

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. - Matthew 7:1-2

Do unto others as you would have them do to you. - Luke 6:31


Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. - Matthew 22:21

The story of the widow's mite may also be relevant here.

Hypocrisy and Public Displays of Piety

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. - Matthew 6:1

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. - Matthew 6:5-6

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. - Matthew 23:14

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. - Matthew 23:27

And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye. - Luke 6:41-42

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. - Matthew 7:15

A Concise Summary

Many of the saying above come from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew or the shorter version, The Sermon on the Plain, in Luke. Luke 6:20-42 is a nice summary. When I read it, it sounds nothing like the platform or policies of Jindal, Perry, Huckabee, and company. Am I interpreting it incorrectly?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Praise Pictures and the Great Agnostic

Yesterday was the 4th of July, and Facebook was full of the usual patriotic memes and pictures of barbecues. I didn't pay much attention to most of them, but the one to the right caught my attention. It was posted by a Christian film company called Praise Pictures. It currently has 17,450 "likes" and has been shared 8,548 times. Most of the comments are some variation on "Amen" or "God bless America" or "One Nation under God". One person even posted a link to the website for Chick tracts--those little Evangelical cartoon booklets people leave lying around.

The quotation was a big hit with Christians. Which is odd, because the guy who said it was decided not a Christian. In fact, Robert Ingersoll was a 19th century lawyer and orator famous as "The Great Agnostic". He actually traveled the country giving speeches questioning Christianity. The freedom to do so was an essential part of his idea of liberty.

A further irony is that the quotation comes from Ingersoll's defense of a fellow freethinker named C.B. Reynolds, who was charged with blasphemy in New Jersey for arguing against the infallibility of the Bible. Here's Ingersoll's quotation with a little more context:
For the sake of your State, acquit this man. For the sake of something of far more value to this world than New Jersey—for the sake of something of more importance to mankind than this continent—for the sake of Human Liberty, for the sake of Free Speech, acquit this man.

What light is to the eyes, what love is to the heart,
Liberty is to the soul of man.
Without it, there come suffocation, degradation and death.
In the name of Liberty, I implore—and not only so, but I insist—that you shall find a verdict in favor of this defendant. Do not do the slightest thing to stay the march of human progress. Do not carry us back, even for a moment, to the darkness of that cruel night that good men hoped had passed away forever.
Though people were impressed by Ingersoll's defense and soaring oratory, Reynolds was found guilty and fined $75 dollars, which Ingersoll paid. Blasphemy was still a punishable offence in those days.

As for the meme, somehow I doubt that most of the people sharing it know it's a quotation from a famous agnostic, defending another freethinker, who was on trial for blasphemy. I doubt they know they were saying "Amen" to the words of a man who also said, "We are satisfied that there can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven." I suspect some of them still think you should be punished for saying things like that, but I hope I'm wrong.

What about the people at Praise Pictures? Did they know who they were quoting? I don't know, but I like to think they did, and quoted him anyway. Here's why: the quotation works for everybody who wants freedom of thought and expression. It works for a Christian who cherishes the freedom to believe and proclaim Christianity, and it works for agnostics like me, who cherish the freedom to question Christianity and all other religions. Maybe the people at Praise Pictures see that? I hope so.

Few Christians take their freedom of conscience for granted, because they know that Christians have been punished or even killed for their beliefs, and still are in some places today. On the other hand, those who question Christianity and other religions have also been punished and killed for it, and still are in some places today. If I had lived in the 19th century, it could have been me charged with blasphemy. If I had lived in the 17th century, I might have been hanged or burned at the stake. And if I lived in Saudi Arabia today I could be whipped for writing some of the things I write. Like Christians, I don't take my freedom of conscience or speech for granted. In fact, that's probably why I exercise it a bit more than I probably should--because I'm glad I can! That's what I think about on the 4th of July.

So, I'm not writing this essay to make fun of Christians for posting a quotation by an agnostic. For all I know, they did it on purpose. I'm writing it to say I like the fact that they did, and I hope they did it on purpose. Why? Because the quotation is just as true for a Christian as an agnostic. If if weren't, it would mean nothing. If liberty only applied to certain beliefs, then it wouldn't be liberty at all.


Trial of C.B Reynolds for Blasphemy. Project Gutenberg