jason boyett on the creepiness of guardian angels

guardian angelmy friend jason boyett has a great post on the creepiness of guardian angels. it’s quite good. if you don’t follow jason’s blog, you should.

of course, i don’t buy the concept of guardian angels at all. the last thing christianity needs is a larger pantheon. somehow we went from the monotheistic concept of ‘one god’ to a trinity, then to angels, demons, saints, and now to personal guardian angels to serve us individually in our consumer-based, me first, ‘spiritual but not religious,’  ‘i can be religious without the church/community’ world. the espousal of guardian angels is the pinnacle of a self-centered christianity and betrays one’s concealed doubt that god alone is not big enough to do the things the faith traditionally says he can do.

as always, boyett communicates his thoughts with a smirking sense of humor, making it all the more enjoyable. check it out.

conversations on science and religion

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Logo

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Christian Brady has brought my attention to a wonderful June 17, 2010 article by David Moltz at Inside Higher Ed entitled, “Science Gets Religion.” The article examines the real tension between faith and science within academic circles. Simply put, there are just as many scientists that dismiss out of hand anyone espousing any form of faith or belief in a god whatsoever as there are fundamentalists of all faiths who dismiss science as a manner of understanding the world. Those of us standing somewhere in between the two extremes experience difficulty arguing in support of the need for dialogue between these two worldviews. Just as moderate politicians often find themselves defending against attacks from both sides, often (and unfortunately) resulting in their gravitating towards one pole or the other in an effort to maximize financial support and minimize political exposure, so to do many scholars gravitate towards one extreme or another, often for the same reasons. Rational dialogue is sacrificed for political and/or religious ideology and institutional funding.

The AAAS’s new Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) will assist with facilitating dialogue between the two groups. It will be interesting to see what kinds of discussions this group produces. Will it be junk science disguising religious fundamentalism pretending to be science? Will it become a target for attack from Dawkins’ “militant atheists?” Or, will the group ask for honesty from both sides and discuss matters of ethics and faith without sacrificing the fundamental principles of science?

The article is worth a read.

(via christian brady)

hendel’s must-read critique of sbl

Ronald S. Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley

Ronald S. Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley

Cal Berkeley’s Dr. Ronald S. Hendel has written a letter in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) that all biblical scholars should read. In his “Farewell to SBL,” Hendel examines the loss of the ‘critical’ part of biblical scholarship in the SBL. He laments the apparent exchange of critical investigation and rational scholarship for fundamentalists and charismatics, all for the sake of an increased membership and a few extra dollars. He highlights this very issue – the removal of the word ‘critical’ from SBL’s mission statement:

I wrote to the director and cited the mission statement in the SBL’s official history: “The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.” The director informed me that in 2004 the SBL revised its mission statement and removed the phrase “critical investigation” from its official standards. Now the mission statement is simply to “foster biblical scholarship.” So critical inquiry – that is to say, reason – has been deliberately deleted as a criterion for the SBL.

I agree with the good doctor from the University of California. The moment that critical scholarship is abandoned and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are entertained as equally authoritative, scholarship has lost its way. While the SBL should welcome all comers, its authority lies in its pursuit of academic excellence, not the appeasement of all points of view. For while the democratization of knowledge fostered by the Internet is a welcomed and beneficial advance in the accumulation of knowledge, the authority and credibility of scholarship comes from the training and expertise exercised in differentiating the credible from the problematic, the veritable from the sensational. The authority of scholars comes from the creation, cultivation, preservation, and dissemination of verifiable knowledge and critical scholarship, not from ecumenism or the sheer size of its membership. The SBL should embrace the critical method, not a popular membership, for after all, the SBL is a society, not a church, and the letters designate a conference of scholars, not an ecclesiastical order.

(For those interested, there is a facebook group dedicated to putting the word ‘critical’ back into SBL’s purpose statement.)

the ‘painter of light’ sees flashing lights: thomas kinkade arrested for dui

Thomas Kinkade. Photo by Monterey County Sheriff's Department, Monday, June 14, 2010.

Thomas Kinkade. Photo by Monterey County Sheriff's Department, Monday, June 14, 2010.

thomas kinkade was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. i wonder if his next series will be a bunch of blurry blue and red flashing lights?

Thomas Kinkade, the artist known for his light-filled paintings of cottages, churches and country gardens, spent a night in jail after being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

California Highway Patrol officials said Kinkade, 52, was pulled over outside Carmel and arrested just after 10 p.m. Friday. He was released Saturday morning, reports AP.

According to the Monterey Herald, Kinkade was pulled over because his 2006 Mercedes-Benz didn’t have a front license plate. After detecting alcohol, the CHP was called and an officer gave Kinkade a field sobriety test, during which he “displayed signs of impairment.” Kinkade was arrested, then taken to Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, Calif., where his blood was drawn. The report to determine Kinkade’s blood-alcohol content is pending.

don’t drink and drive! (especially if you want evangelicals to buy your paintings.)

they should arrest him just for wearing that shirt! (or for his paintings, take your pick.)

perhaps he has a history of this… (ht: m. suriano)

michael shermer on how and why we are wired to believe

Michael Shermer has given an excellent talk at TED offering an explanation as to why we believe. Shermer argues that belief is based upon our nature as a pattern-seeking animals. Our brains have evolved to seek out patterns and relationships between objects and events.

Specifically, Shermer argues that animals make two types of errors in cognition. A Type I error is a false positive, that is, when we believe a pattern is real when it is actually not. A Type I error is when we find a nonexistent pattern. A Type II error is a false negative, that is, when we don’t believe a pattern is real when it actually is. A Type II error is when we don’t recognize a real pattern.

Humans tend to make more Type I errors because they are less costly. His example is that of standing in the jungle and hearing a rustle in the grass. If we believe the rustle in the grass is something that is going to jump out and eat us, then we are cautious and move away. If it turns out that the rustle was just the wind, then there is really no cost to us except for the time we spent moving out of the way and being cautious.

However, if we make a Type II error and we don’t believe that the rustle in the grass will harm us, and it actually was something that can do us harm, we’re dead. Those individuals that gravitate towards the Type II errors tend to die out over time, while those that trend toward the Type I error survive to pass on their genes. Over time, this process results in a species of animals that are more likely to see patterns that are not there (Type I error) because it is selectively safer.

The cost of making a Type I error is less than making a Type II error. Or, to put it another way, it is safer to believe in something that doesn’t exist than it is to not believe in something that does.

Shermer argues that this is why so many people are still very religious, or at least believe in a god, despite our movement towards a scientific world that is regularly disproving many of the myths contained in accepted religious literature. He argues that ‘agenticity,” or the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency, often from the top down with invisible agents or beings is responsible for the development of religion. This explains angels, demons, and gods, but also a belief in aliens and in government conspiracies.

This conclusion should also speak to scholars, who tend to look for patterns in texts or archaeological evidence that simply aren’t there.

I like Shermer’s explanation. It explains the single most prevalent, yet least-spoken reason why so many people are religious: they’d rather live a religious life and be wrong about hell’s existence than not live a religious live and be wrong about hell. The Type I error results in a life that believed in a superstition, and perhaps that loss of a little “fun.” The Type II error, however, results in eternal damnation.

That is to say, many people believe in a god and follow a religion just in case

This reasoning does not make for good people of faith and explains why so many people are looking to do the bare minimum “to be saved” instead of living a life of service to their fellow humans.

Of course, the next appropriate question is: what is driving us to do good for one another if there is no god? Attempts to explain this question are at the heart of the secular humanist movement and others like it.

Shermer makes some other very interesting comments about cognitive priming and other psychological phenomena. My personal favorite is when he states:

I want to believe and you do too. And in fact, I think my thesis here is that belief is the natural state of things. It is the default option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural; disbelief, skepticism, science is not natural. It’s more difficult. It’s uncomfortable to not believe things.

Regardless of your point of view, this is a fascinating lecture and is worth a listen.

how would bp handle a coffee spill?


watch and decide for yourself.
(HT: joel watts)

the purpose of worship

i find myself promoting some comments i recently made on worship to a blog post of its own. i feel that if one is going to criticize the practice of others and point out an injustice or a problem, then one ought to do something constructive as well, like offer a viable alternative. in this spirit, please allow me a few brief thoughts on the purpose of worship.


"Contemplation" by Jean Proulx Dibner. Bronze and Stone.

"Contemplation" by Jean Proulx Dibner. Bronze and Stone.

i have a fundamental difference of opinion with many others regarding the purpose of worship. this difference in the understanding of the purpose of worship is based upon a related difference in my understanding of what it means to live a life of faith. i seek enlightenment through knowledge and reason, allowing for the possibility of that which i cannot understand, but rejecting that which has been materially disproved, lamenting that which is ignorant, and attempting to shed light on darkness. a life of faith is not about a set of orthodox beliefs, but a set of adopted behaviors that rejects complacency and instead embraces a life dedicated to solving problems, be they intellectual or practical, individual or social.

a life of faith seeks to utilize one’s talents to help others. for me, a life of faith is to endow others with verifiable facts, teach them to reason, and encourage them to ask questions. a life of faith is one that understands the science of the physical universe, as well as the unquantifiable mysteries of love and beauty. a life of faith is neither about making money nor preserving money, but making sure that others have when they have need.

a life of faith should not revolve around proper doctrine and dogma, but service and compassion. it is not about being right; it is about admitting that we don’t know, and supplementing our ignorance with acts of kindness and service.

this understanding of a life of faith manifests itself in a particular view of worship. the goal of worship is not ecstasy, nor is it communion with the divine. in fact, the goal is not even about getting to heaven, as if proper behavior is somehow a means to an end, a capitalistic investment for a future return on my deposit. rather, the goal of a life of faith should be to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with god. it is to give the cup of cold water when i have one to give. it is to celebrate the joy, lament the sorrow, and laugh with (and at times at) that which is humorous.

for those who see worship as a pep rally, a concert, a money-making endeavor, or a charismatic communion with the divine, they have received their reward. rather, i view worship as an opportunity to say thank you. thank you for my life – good or bad – and for the opportunity to think, wonder, rationalize, philosophize, ponder, ask questions, discuss, learn, experience, and hopefully pass on both a balanced mindset of discovery and disposition of service to those around me.

worship is acknowledging and offering thanks for my very existence, the mere opportunity i’ve had to experience life itself.

if worship has any purpose at all, it is an opportunity to say thank you. it is not for us, but for god.

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