I get Christian email: more irreducible complexity

September 14, 2010 • 6:46 am

Because of my book, I often get emails from religious people.  Some of them damn me to hell or accuse me of overweening arrogance, and some have real questions about biology.  But a third class is very common: under the guise of asking a biology question, and praising my book, someone affirms his faith, challenging me to disprove it. I call these “brickbat” letters, from a famous epistolary exchange in 1937 between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.  Fitzgerald had written to Wolfe, ostensibly to praise him but really offering some pretty severe criticism about what he saw as Wolfe’s overly baroque prose.  Wolfe began his letter of defense with this: “Your bouquet arrived smelling sweetly of roses but cunningly concealing several large-sized brickbats.”

Yesterday I received a brickbat email from a British Christian, and am highlighting it not only to demonstrate class 3, but also to show a recent but very common objection to evolution.

Dear Jerry,

Unwarranted familiarity—I’ve never met the guy.

My name is [REDACTED]. I am a student at [REDACTED] University in England. I study Architecture so am by no means a biologist.
I am also a Christian.

First of all I would like to apologise for Christians who give you a hard time for holding to Evolution. It is not Christ like to be unkind or aggressive.

I have some questions about the theory of Evolution. I am truly asking with an open mind, because the bible is clear that Christianity is not true then it is foolish. It literally says that.

I would have tried to email Richard Dawkins, but he comes across a little more aggressive that you, so I felt you would give me a more reasonable answer.

I apologise if my language is unscientific, but I am not a scientist. I am just good at drawing. I have two main Questions.

Questions
1.At what point did male a female come into the world?

I ask because it seems as though you would need the male and female organisms to develop at the same moment in order for them to then reproduce bringing more male a female organisms.

Ten or fifteen years ago I never got this question, but recently I’ve heard it at least half a dozen times.  It’s an argument from “irreducible complexity,” but applied to whole organisms—sexes in this case—instead of organs or molecular pathways within organisms.  The import is that because males and females are both needed to produce offspring, they could not have been produced by evolution, for what use is one sex without the other? Ergo a creator; ergo Jesus.

You could also make this argument for obligate mutualists, such as the algae and fungi that together make up lichens.  Neither species can exist on its own—they function only together, as an amalgamated “species,” with each constituent providing vital support for the other.  Since neither species can live without the other, how could this have evolved? God must have made it.  Ergo Jesus.

If you’ve followed the arguments against intelligent design and irreducible complexity, you’ll know the response: things that look irreducibly complex could have evolved from simpler constituents in a step-by-step process, with each step conferring selective advantage over the preceding one. In the end, things look as though adaptive intermediates could not have existed, but that’s because those intermediates are effaced in the evolutionary process. (A common example is the construction of a stone arch.  It looks as though you couldn’t build it by putting stone on stone, because the intermediate stage of “half an arch” would have collapsed.  But of course there was an intermediate stage, one in which the arch was supported by a scaffold. When the arch is finished, the scaffold is removed, effacing the method of construction.)

And this is the answer to the sex question.  What we see as male and female metazoans (multicellular animals), or male and female multicellular plants, are the end products of a long evolutionary process, probably beginning with one-celled organisms.  And each step of that process could have been adaptive.  Here’s the latest thought on the evolution of different sexes, which involves four steps.

  • One celled creatures that could mate with each other and produce offspring; there were no males or females, so each individual could mate with any other. (I won’t explain theories on why sex evolved in the first place, as they are many and complex.)
  • “Mating types” evolved: genetic differences between individuals ensuring that successful matings could occur only between individuals of different types.  Individuals still look alike. (These mating types are, for example, seen in the one celled Paramecium.
  • The different mating types became specialized: one type became large and immotile (the ancestor of the “egg”) and the other smaller and motile (the ancestor of the “sperm”).  (The condition of gametes being of very different size is called anisogamy.) There is a substantial body of evolutionary theory showing how this evolution of different mating types into physically different mating types might be favored by natural selection.
  • Finally, multicellularity evolves: the naked gametes become the reproductive parts of organisms that have evolved differentiated cells and tissues.

Biologists have plausible theories about how each step of this process might have been favored by natural selection.  All intermediate stages could have been adaptive.  Now we’re not sure if the different sexes of multicellular organisms really evolved in this sequence (though I suspect they did), but constructing such an adaptive scenario immediately disposes of the “irreducible complexity” argument.  If you posit that the lack of a plausible Darwinian pathway proves Jesus, the best answer is that there are plausible pathways.

But we also have some empirical data. (Remember how Darwin disposed of the “irreducible complexity” argument against the evolution of eyes by showing that one can put together existing eyes of animals, from simple eyespots to complex camera eyes, in a plausible evolutionary chain?)  We can see intermediate stages of a sex-evolution pathway in nature. I’ve already mentioned Paramecium, and have posted before on the green algae Chlamydomonas and Volvox demonstrating a plausible transition from one-celled to multi-celled organisms.

And there’s other evidence, too. You can show theoretically that if there are different mating types that are not physically different from each other, they can evolve physical differences only if those physical differences are genetically linked (i.e. nearby on the DNA strand) to those genes determining the initial mating types.  This was confirmed in a paper this year in Science (reference below) by Ferris et al.  If the sexes had been created, you wouldn’t expect such linkage, but it’s a requirement for the evolutionary transition.

These are early days in studies of the evolution of sex, but so far there’s no insuperable problem in explaining it.  I fully expect that we’ll understand it much better in a few decades.

NOTE: There was no question #2.

3. Can you proof [sic]that Jesus Christ didn’t rise from the dead?

For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God. The history does seem to back it up.

No, I can’t. Neither can I prove that hordes of invisible leprechauns don’t roam the bogs and fens of Ireland. (There are lots of stories, too, that back up that assertion!)  But I don’t worship leprechauns, or spaghetti monsters, or Zeus, or the pantheon of Hindu gods—or any of the entities that can’t be disproven.  As for the history, well, we all know how accurate the Bible is.

Perhaps readers would like to respond to this young man in the comments, as I’m going to refer him to this post.  Be nice!

The letter continues:

I have noticed you often talk about errors in design which disprove God. However the bible is under no illusions that the world is perfect. In fact it describes the world as you do. Very accurate and yet with flaws. Not a perfect world.

As I mention in the book, it’s not just that the world is imperfect, or that organisms have “bad” designs: it’s that those bad designs are exactly what you’d expect to see if evolution were true. How does the Bible explain the vestigial limbs of whales, or all those “dead genes” in our genome that are functional in our relatives?  If you want to explain these things by invoking God, you’re forced to see God as a Divine Trickster, who cunnningly made things to appear as if they evolved.

Just wanted some answers. There are lots more questions, but these seem more blatant to me.

Please do respond.

I would like to suggest that people not agreeing with you isn’t a total disregard for science. We can see water boiling and that sort of stuff, whereas there are a lot of unknown factors in evolutionary theory. You cannot know that conditions haven’t changed, so although I respect your position to assert what you believe, you must acknowledge that conditions could well have changed.

Thanks for reading this.

God Bless

NAME REDACTED

p.s. You seem very nice. How do you explain Anthony Flew?

Answer: Somewhere around the beginning of May, 1922, Mr. and Mrs. Flew had a little dinner, a little wine, a little music, and then. . .

___________

Ferris, P., B. J. S. C. Olson, P. L. De Hoff, S. Douglass, D. Casero, S. Prochnik, S. Geng, R. Rai, J. Grimwood, J. Schmutz, I. Nishii, T. Hamaji, H. Nozaki, M. Pellegrini, and J. G. Umen. 2010. Evolution of an expanded sex-determining Locus in Volvox. Science 328:351-354.

160 thoughts on “I get Christian email: more irreducible complexity

  1. I would have tried to email Richard Dawkins, but he comes across a little more aggressive that you

    You’ll have to work on that.

  2. Nice answer to the Anthony Flew question!
    The sex question was constantly raised (and far less lucidly) by the Banana Man and is a question that indicates that lots and lots of people that have problems with evolution simply do not understand evolution and haven’t read enough. While I can be sympathetic with this to some degree, if one then wants to argue contra-evolution surely one should make the effort to read widely about it. It’s not as if there arn’t plenty of elegantly written and accessible books around. Banana Man obviously never did, hence asking the same damn questions over and over again. I’m sure the young man who wrote to you will not fall into the same trap.

  3. Regarding this: You cannot know that conditions haven’t changed, so although I respect your position to assert what you believe, you must acknowledge that conditions could well have changed.

    I slept in this morning, and did not see the sun come up. I just woke up and it’s already up there in the sky. I can’t say with absolute certainty that it didn’t just appear there the second I opened my eyes. However there is an alternative explanation that only relies on phenomena I have seen in action, and that explanation agrees with the historical record provided by other people’s observations. Treating the two ideas (“sudden appearance” vs. “astronomy as usual”) as equivalent simply because there is no absolute certainty in the world is just ridiculous.

    1. I have said before, that most reflective people realize sometime around late high school and early college that you can’t ever really know anything.

      Most of us resolve that epistemological crisis by realizing that solipsism is completely useless, and then choose to join the adult world where inductive “proof” is good enough.

      Or more pithily: Eat my shorts, Hume!

    1. But are humans really smarter than yeast?, would be the bigger question. In one respect our brains just keep us busy while we do what yeast do.

  4. I would like him to tell me where heaven is. Jesus is sitting at the right of the father in heaven. We used to believe heaven was that blue thing that covered the earth. Now we know better. But where is it? Beyond the solar system? The Via Lactea? The Universe? Don’t tell me it is a spiritual place; that’s not what the Abrahamic texts say. Elijah and Mohammed are also there alive, with horses! And Mary too. Did they wear spacesuits for their trips? The texts don’t say.

    1. Isn’t it a huge cube floating in space, that is approaching the Earth? I think it was in the Weekly World News, a highly reputable publication.

      1. My old pastor once talked about something like that. He said that someone was emailing him demanding the evidence, and he was just about to send his rebuttal with all the evidence, when he realized that he didn’t even exert this much effort to contact his own mother. So he decided to not waste his time on this guy.

        I never did find out what the evidence was.

        1. How convenient for the old fraud.
          I bet he didn’t tell you that his mother had died decades before this incident!

  5. More evidence that sex evolved can be discerned in the extensive structural similarities between men and women, even in the parts that show sexual dimorphism. A creator could start from scratch for each sex; evolution could not.

    1. Yeah. It reminds me of a typical “exploit the elderly” confidence game. Befriend the person and use the trust of the friendship to manipulate and con them.

      With Flew, he only lost his reputation. With most old people, it’s their life savings.

      1. I expect his reputation would have been far more valuable to him. He wasn’t going to be needing his life savings for much longer but now his rep is trashed for eternity. Sad, very sad.

  6. “you must acknowledge that conditions could well have changed”

    And you must acknowledge that conditions could well have stayed the same. In fact, in every area of natural sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, cosmology, geology, etc) the evidence we have to date is that the “conditions” of the universe have never changed. Not since the big bang at least. So, if god exists, she/he/it is a deity only, watching but not touching.

    1. Of course “conditions” have changed. Two billion years ago there was no oxygen in the air, then photosynthesis evolved and now we have 18% of the air as oxygen. The climate changes constantly with temperatures rising and falling dramatically from the entire planet covered in ice to no ice at all. These changes have often driven evolution. After the increase in oxygen in the atmosphere eukaryotic cells which could use it to provide energy for respiration evolved, and of course after the dinosaurs mostly died out (birds were left) the mammals took their oportunity to radiate.

      What hasn’t changed is the laws of physics on which depend the laws of chemistry and biology. If you really want to understand how the world around you operates then you should start reading. Jerry’s book is a good start but there is much more to be done. You did not learn to be an architect by reading one book and you cannot expect to understand any other substantial field of knowledge without a reasonable amount of effort.

  7. On the banks of the Redacted River,
    There’s a school that’s known to all;
    Its specialty is winning,
    And those Brickbats play good ball;
    Brickbat teams are never beaten,
    All through the game they fight;
    Fight for the only colors:
    Black and White.

    Go right through for Redacted U,
    Watch the points keep growing,
    Brickbat teams are bound to win,
    They’re fighting with a vim!
    Rah! Rah! Rah!
    See their team is weakening,
    We’re going to win this game,
    Fight! Fight! Rah! Team, Fight!
    Victory for Redacted U!

  8. regarding:
    “3. Can you proof [sic]that Jesus Christ didn’t rise from the dead?

    For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God. The history does seem to back it up.”

    Using the bible to “prove” the stuff that is claimed in it is like using Star Wars to prove the existence of Darth Vader.

  9. For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God. The history does seem to back it up.

    Contrary to what you have been told, there is zero historical evidence that Jesus “rose from the dead.”

    Most historians of the era accept that someone named Jesus lived around this time, but the more fantastical stories about his life (and death) circulated word-of-mouth for decades before they were written down. This is hardly trustworthy “evidence” and true historians disregard these stories as the fables they are.

    Many Christians claim there were “eye witnesses” to the risen Christ, but we don’t have their testimonies — we have what was described third or fourth hand, many years removed from the purported events. These are not eye witness accounts. (And as you know, there isn’t even this scant “witnessing” of the Resurrection itself.)

    Isn’t it far more likely that — like many, many other legends and myths throughout human history and across many cultures — that fabulous tales of a Messiah are just that, tales?

    So no, history doesn’t seem to back it up. If it did, there would be no need for faith.

    1. “we have what was described third or fourth hand, many years removed from the purported events”

      Not only that, but the few accounts we DO have about finding the empty grave and Jesus’s appearances after his crucifixion all WILDLY contradict each other. Don’t take my word for it: read your New Testament.

    2. Most historians of the era accept that someone named Jesus lived around this time

      I should hope so. Yeshua, a form of Joshua, was a pretty common name in that time and place. I think you could also get most historians to agree that someone named Pedro is living in the Mexican state of Chiapas at this very moment!

      1. Sure, there were probably tons of people named Jesus/Joshua/Yeshua. Maybe even some priests/teachers/rabble-rousers/magicians. That doesn’t mean the one from the bible in any way ever existed.

      2. I know I keep saying this but peeps should really go to the ‘Jesus Puzzle’ website and buy Earl Doherty’s book ‘Neither God Nor Man’. There is no solid evidence that Jesus was anything more than a revelation of scripture. There is nothing written by anyone who lived at the time he did, and there were several competant historians who would have been expected to have noticed such a commotion in Israel and written about it, but they didn’t. Robert M Price’s ‘The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man’ is good too and easier to read.

    3. “Most historians of the era accept that someone named Jesus lived around this time, but the more fantastical stories about his life (and death) circulated word-of-mouth for decades before they were written down. This is hardly trustworthy “evidence” and true historians disregard these stories as the fables they are.”

      Which era might that be? Because there is an ear-shattering resounding silence among historians of year 1-50 regarding Jesus Christ. Not a single (historically reliable) word is said of him [ see http://www.nobeliefs.com/exist.htm for an introduction to this] although they DO actually mention some very minor street preachers of the name “Jesus” who had no followings and are NOT who we know as Jesus Christ.

      Quite a curious silence considering the fact that the Bible describes such “facts” of JC publicly performing miracles, causing great crowds of people who followed him all around, and causing hundreds of buried corpses to reanimate. The silence is deafening and can not be squared with a factual basis for scripture. Either scripture is false regarding those crowds – including the Sermon on the Mount – or there was no history recorded of JC because he did not exist. In either case, [REDACTED]’s use of scripture as a literal historical proof source fails.

      If by “of the era” you mean present day, I think that what you will find is that the historicity of Jesus Christ – whether he actually existed – is a subject addressed almost always by Biblical “scholars”, who don’t use accepted historical methods and that real historians avoid the subject like the plague. Strangely enough, there IS a consensus for the historicity of JC among Biblical scholars, but then again, almost all of them are devout Christians who work for organizations whose employment contracts demand belief in the historicity of JC.

      1. “…they DO actually mention some very minor street preachers of the name “Jesus” who had no followings and are NOT who we know as Jesus Christ.”

        I am vitally interested in this topic, and beg you for a formal reference to this assertion.
        As far as I can determine, the texts refer to a “Chrestus” only.

    4. “Isn’t it far more likely that — like many, many other legends and myths throughout human history and across many cultures — that fabulous tales of a Messiah are just that, tales?”

      Osiris and Dionysus both are risen from the dead. Osiris who is central to the ancient Egyptian religion seems to have been the root of the Christ myth.

      Even the existence of a historical Jesus is debatable. There is no solid historical evidence for his existence. There is only Josephus’s mention which is regarded by many historians as a later Christian interpolation. Pretty thin evidence there.

  10. “For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God. The history does seem to back it up.”

    This question was addressed by Frank Harris in a book I read many years ago and whose title I do not remember.

    Harris accepted that, because of historical evidence, Jesus did reappear after the crucifixion.

    He then notes that in actual crucifixions, those that occurred in more recent times, victims typically survived for two or three days. Jesus according to Scripture died in three hours.

    I found Harris’s explanation persuasive: Jesus was mistakenly thought to be dead, removed from the cross and placed in a tomb. He regained consciousness. He lived for a time afterwards but eventually died of his wounds.

    Even in modern times “dead” people are occasionally found to be merely in a coma. Why assume that the Roman soldiers in charge of this crucifixion 2000 years ago were equal to the task of distinguishing death from coma?

    1. It’s certainly plausible (unlike the rising-from-the-dead story), but it’s somewhat of a Just So story.

      Interesting nonetheless.

      I was always told in Sunday School that the reason Jeebus died so fast was that typically crucifixion was done by binding the arms and legs to the cross with rope, rather than driving nails in… and that Not-Our Lord died from bleeding rather than the usual process of slow asphyxiation.

      Which if true kindof undermines the whole image of the nails being driven into his wrists and ankles as being some kind of cruel torture. That, and the spear thrust in the side, seem merciful in comparison to three days of gradually becoming unable to work the muscles that keep your lungs going. This problem occurred to me even back then…

      In any case, if there was a historical Jesus (and FWIW I’m in the camp that thinks there was, if only because if he was completely mythical then implausible “census” story that allows Jesus of Nazareth to be born in Bethlehem would seem superfluous) any reliable information we would have about him is lost to the sands of time. There is only Jesus the Character now.

      1. If the Jesus tales developed out of earlier myths, then the Bethlehm/Nazarath story could have been an attempt to harmonize several different tales. Or they could have been harmonization of several different messiah figures of different cults (for the hustorical side). It could also be that (for either historical or mythical) the tales were of a Nazorean and that got confused with the town of Nazareth.

        Whether any of this is plausible, though, well, actually I’m not sure we know enough to figure probabilities, so I can’t say. I agree with Robert M Price that we might never know.

        1. All very good rebuttals to the Nazareth/Bethlehem confusion. As I say, it’s not by any means proof, it’s just a line of reasoning that I find intuitively appealing.

          And as we all know, believing something with no evidence is always better than scientism, so don’t criticize me for that or else you are intolerant! :p

        2. Heck, IIRC, there are seven cities claimed to have been where Jesus was born/grew up/lived. It’s actually not even clear what occupation his father had, or if he had brothers, or how many sisters he had. There are conflicting accounts of his mother’s conception. There is virtually nothing written about his younger years, and no hagiography of the important sites of his history – no house, tomb, cave, tabernacle, birthplace, etc. All of which is rather unusual for mythic figures with actual historicity.

    2. That, or Jesus died and then his followers just said he rose (spiritually) and later gospels fudged the facts. After all, the earliest gospel Matthew ends with Jesus stone dead (the end you read in your home bible was a later addition).

      Or the gospels are a total fiction.

      Fact is, by the standards of even historical accounts the gospels are a mess. We don’t know the authors, they don’t mention sources, they include much which must be imagined (like the birth scenes and where Jesus is alone) and offer no means of telling which is which.

      There’s no way an independent outsider could look at the gospels and say it was good historical evidence for a resurrection.

      1. I think you meant to say that Mark was the earliest gospel, and had a more satisfying ending tacked on centuries later. There’s an excellent lecture on the gospels to be heard here.

        And now, back to a discussion on the evolution of sex (a much tastier topic).

    3. Well, that’s a nice hypothesis…

      So, in order to confirm that it happened to this person, first we need to determine whether there was someone named Joshua bar Joseph living in Palestine around that time. The so-called “gospels” mention a census. That’s the reason “Joseph” and “Mary” were traveling to Bethlehem. Where’s the census listing the trio? Oh, right, it doesn’t exist, and doesn’t ever appear to have performed according to actual historical records, rather than the myth-making.

      OK. Well, the “gospels” also claim this preacher was lauded as he came into Jerusalem. Where’s the historical accounts of this? Outside of the mythical accounts in the holy books? Nowhere.

      Where’s the evidence that someone was arrested by the Sanhendrin (the Jewish authorities), tried by Pilot, found INNOCENT by Pilate, but executed by the Roman authorities nonetheless? Nowhere. There are Jewish historical accounts of other Joshuas (it was as common as “John” or “Mohammed” today) who were executed for blasphemy — but not at that time and not in the manner prescribed. Why not this Joshua?

      The so-called gospel of John declares that after this person raised himself out of the grave, he committed so many wondrous acts “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25). Why does it appear that no one, not even the other gospel writers, bothered to note even ONE of these “wondrous acts”? If this is the single, once-only appearance of the human embodiment of the all-powerful creator of the universe on the planet, why would it be that John couldn’t be bothered to detail ALL of the “wondrous acts”? Or maybe, perhaps, he ran out of imagination.

      And why is it that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people(!) after his resurrection, yet only four (actually, only two if you want to get technical about plagiarism) of them bothered to actually tell someone about it?

      If you apply modern historical methods to the tales, they are clearly mythology. I go back and forth as to whether the figure of “Jesus” was completely fictional (Scarlett O’Hara fictional, inserted into a real time and place), or a concatenation of some of the more-aggressive messianic preachers of the day (John the Baptist being one model — there’s historical evidence for HIS life).

      There is not one contemporary eyewitness corroboration of any of the accounts of any of the events told in the “gospels”, or to the existence of the main players in the myths. The earliest references to Jesus are forgeries — insertions into histories by Josephus. But Josephus himself was born well after the time in question; and was not an eyewitness. Nor was Tertullian, Polycarp, or any of the others. Nor was Paul. He had a vision (hallucination); he himself said he was born too late to see Jesus’ bodily form on Earth.

      Outside of bad myths told badly, there are no other reports of this person existing.

      On balance, the evidence does not support the conclusion that Jesus was real.

      1. As I understand it, the story of the census was invented to give a reason for Mary and Joseph to be in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.
        In order to find ‘prophesies’ that confirmed Jesus as the Messiah, his followers cobbled together the evidence ad hoc.
        So Micah 5:2 talks of Bethlehem Ephratah which would give rise to a military leader. This was interpreted to mean Jesus and the fact that Bethlehem Ephratah was a reference to a clan and not the town of Bethlehem was ignored.
        Matthew even altered the text to – “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda” from “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel….”- more than likely to deliberately give the impression that the prophesy talked of the town of Bethlehem rather that the clan of Bethlehem Ephratah

        1. Yeah, whenever anyone asks you about how many OT prophecies were fulfilled, you can quite reasonably answer “zero”.

          The NT writers tried to reconcile their myth with OT “prophecy”, but only succeeded in displaying their complete and total ignorance of OT prophesy.

          And, of course, it would be like my writing today about how I predicted 9/11. I can make my prophecy fit the known fact; but you can’t check on whether my prophecy was, in fact, pre hoc.

    4. “Harris accepted that, because of historical evidence, Jesus did reappear after the crucifixion.”

      Then he is either incompetent, insane, or lying.
      (Or a special Christian Cocktail of the trinity of these excuses.)

  11. What is with capitalizing common nouns? And only some common nouns at that? Evolution and Questions are both capitalized. Do people think it adds emphasis or something?

      1. Though of course words were quite randomly (to this German speaker’s eye) capitalized in earlier English, too. (See the US-American constitution, IIRC.)

        I guess capitalization may serve as emphasis, marking them as semantically (and not just grammatically) “substantive.”

    1. I’ve seen people capitalize evolution because they want to conflate it with religion. The same thing is often done with the terms atheist and atheism.

      Capitalizing ‘questions’, on the other hand, is completely bizarre. Maybe it’s just a typo.

  12. Hoo boy.

    That’s one big load of stupid you dropped on us, Dr. Coyne.

    The implication is that the very first human male must have had to mate with the very first human female. And since humans don’t mate with chimps … well, there you go. Instant Jesus in a can.

    (Herein I commit a sacrilege) I’m not overly fond of Dr. Dawkins’ writing style (herein ends the sacrilege), but I would point REDACTED to The Greatest Show on Earth for a nice discussion about this topic.

    And, of course, you allude to Dan Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (winner of today’s alliteration award). He’s probably way too sophisticated of a writer for someone this dense, but if you want a creationist argument refuted, that’s the book wherein it’s refuted.

    1. In fairness, I can tell you that if your knowledge of evolution ends with what is taught in the NYS educational system (even at a decent suburban school), the question about the evolution of sex is a puzzler. It troubled me from time to time — though I was never anywhere near being a Creationist, omfg — before I started to get really interested in it and read some books on the topic.

      So I don’t think that part of it was really a “big load of stupid”. Assuming that since you don’t know the answer there must not be an answer… well, that’s a big load of arrogance. But the evolution of sex is genuinely confusing for people who know virtually nothing about how natural selection and evolution actually work.

      1. I agree that arrogance is at least a part of what’s on display here.

        I wonder what he thought the answer would be from Dr. Coyne? Probably something along the lines of “OMG!! You’re RIGHT!!!!! I never thought of that!!! Darwin was wrong!!!!! That must mean that Jesus is real!!! Let us pray.”

        He’s trying to proselytize. To himself, more than anyone else.

    2. Dan Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (winner of today’s alliteration award)

      Dan Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Dope – there, fixed that for you.

    1. How about, “If he died on Friday evening and stayed dead till Sunday morning, decomposition – especially of his brain – would have gone irreversibly far”?

      Isn’t death by definition what you don’t rise from? If he was dead, he didn’t rise. If he rose, he wasn’t dead.

      I don’t know why Redacted didn’t just say “Look, I believe this, not that, and stop trying to confuse me with facts.”

  13. How do you explain Anthony Flew?

    When Flew published There is a God, he was 81.

    My parents are in their 70s. They just bought a conversion van to ostensibly make it easier for my wheelchair-bound dad to get in and out of the car without help from my Parkinson’s-afflicted mom. I saw them try to use it last night and since my dad refuses to get a powered wheelchair and has difficulty getting up the ramp, he almost fell right off the edge of it. This is a $30k purchase and they either need to stop using it right away or my dad’s going to crack his skull.

    My parents did not used to do things this boneheaded. Anthony Flew was five years older than the oldest of my two parents when he wrote his infamous book.

    You do the math.

    1. Heh. My dad’s 86, and he has to be told to zip his fly.

      My mom, on the other hand, is 85, and still sharp as a tack. Her driving is a bit suspect, but that’s a whole other issue.

      I hope I inherited marble-retention from mom and not dad. Or don’t make it that far.

      Getting old sucks. Getting old AND losing one’s mental faculties…double sucks.

    2. Anthony Flew had Alzheimer’s when that book of “his” was ghost-written by an infamous Christian evangelizer. Flew didn’t even remember what he said several months after it was published.

      In any case, Flew never reverted to Christianity, only a professed Deism. Not exactly any kind of sterling recommendation for the faith. Shame someone told [REDACTED]* it was a good reason to believe in Christianity. ;(

      * I hereby claim all rights to the use of [REDACTED] as a Web name.

        1. This is Tim Harris. I did not write the above comment, and I find, like most people, I imagine, writing comments that either you haven’t the courage to put your own name to or that you want to cause mischief with wholly contemptible. I hope that the person who wrote it is not Michael Kingsford Gray. Perhaps he might care to assureus thathe is not responsible.

          1. I can assure you that it was not I.
            Quite why you assumed that I was the source of such base & infantile trickery is beyond me.
            Such is not my style.
            I am truly worried that you are becoming a trifle obsessive about me for some bizarre reason.

            1. I am very glad to learn that it was not you, and I will take your word for it that you were not. As for your worries, there are no obsessions on my part, I can assure you: it was your past behaviour with respect to some comments of mine me that suggested to me – wrongly as it now appears – that it might have been you who indulged in this silly mischief.

  14. If the young man honestly thinks there’s good historical evidence for the crucifixion, he should read this:

    http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/camel.html

    The gospels are not independent sources, so they cannot confirm each other. And no other historical sources confirm any specific part of the Christ gospels except for the broadly historic stuff (Pontius Pilate was governor, but that doesn’t imply that anyone walked on the Sea of Galilee).

    If an historian were to look at the evidence as objectively as possible — i.e., assuming every part of the gospels is false unless it can find confirmation is a near-contemporary independent account — he would have to conclude that there really is no evidence even of Christ’s existence. The fact that the Christ story is so well known is circumstantial evidence that he existed, but it’s certainly not a reliable indicator that he was a common variety miracle worker much less the son of God.

    1. …and, of course, there is the issue of the so-called miracles.

      Miracles are critical to the myth. Without miracles (up to and including the resurrection), you cannot distinguish Jesus from Buddha, Mohammed, or any other too-human non-god. Only by virtue of miracles can we “know” that Jesus is a supernatural creature.

      And all of the miracles left behind precisely zero evidence that they occurred. Every one of them is a “the dog ate my homework” miracle that cannot be verified.

      *Where’s the wine? We drank it.
      *Loaves and fishes? Eaten.
      *The healed sick? Dead.
      *Lazarus? Dead again.
      *The resurrected Jesus? Invisible in heaven.

      Meh. It’s not the impossibility of miracles that I object to; it’s the total lack of imagination of the miracle worker and his inability to leave anything tangible behind.

      Sometime, do the physics around each of the miracles…ask yourself, “If I had the power inherent in THAT miracle, would I use the power in that particular way?” You’ll probably giggle at the ludicrousness of the miracles.

      It’s like Randy Johnson lobbing softballs underhanded. Unlimited power used in the oddest, least-convincing fashion.

      1. … which reminds me of this article, “Is God scraping the barrel for miracles?”, which makes an excellent observation on religious miracles:

        And so the story becomes thus: Deacon Jack Sullivan had a pain in his back. After a year it got bad enough that he consented to a fairly routine surgery from which most patients are able to return home in a couple of days. He had the surgery, he got better, and 10 years later he can still walk. Miraculous? Not really. […]

        Even if this were a miracle, it would only reinforce a disturbing long-term trend. God used to be able to part seas and flood planets. By the end of the Old Testament he was turning people into pillars of salt and Aaron’s rod into a snake. At the time of Jesus, God our omnipotent deity was basically down to party tricks, and now, what, easing an old man’s backache for a few months? It’s hardly the swaggering, all-conquering God of the glory days.

        So what’s happened? Are we not devout enough? Is God getting old? Has he lost interest? Are his powers subject to some form of spiritual entropy, leaving him hot and spent in heaven? Perhaps this worrying decline in God’s powers is what the Vatican’s crack team of miracle investigators should really be researching.

        1. Really? That’s the miracle? A successful back surgery?

          Heh. Says something about the relative success of back surgery, doesn’t it?

  15. As a historian, I am quite pissed off at those who do not seem to understand the processes of historical investigation. I’ve mentioned before that history is an academic discipline based on reason, rationalism, and logic just as much as science is, and yet we have these odd conclusions about history. We must all note that Francis Collins is indeed a very successful scientist and scientific administrator. But what really got me about him (besides his general ability as a supposedly thinking human being to come to the conclusion that not only does God exist, it’s specifically the Christian God) was his laxed standard for history. Would he accept such behavior from a fellow medical doctor? I think not. But when it comes to history, he seems to completely ignore any concept of standards. In the film Religulous, Bill Maher asks Collins what evidence he has for his beliefs. Collins answers, seriously, that the Bible reads to him like a historical record. Ergo Jesus. The follow-up question that I wish Maher would have asked is: What reason do you have for no believing in any of the other hundreds of religious texts? And there is no good answer, from the perspective of history. But especially dealing with the Bible, we have no reason, no evidence that would suggest it was in fact a historical document (nor until recently have people even been forced to consider it as such). As liberal theologians like to say, the Bible is not a science textbook. I agree, but it’s necessary to also point out that it isn’t a history textbook, either. It’s a mythology, a collection of stories put together to codify a set of practices and beliefs that we now call Christianity. It’s evidence of nothing more than the origins of the Christian religion (that is, the writings of some men).

    1. OT – Chris, have you or any historian you know of considered writing (or perhaps already written)a book showing the United States to be founded on Enlightenment ideas and not Judeo-Christian values? Similar to how Jerry did with WEIT. Point by point, laying out the evidence, how it would be different if one were true as opposed to the other. That sort of thing.

          1. You’ve got to be careful here, though. Yes, I would of course argue that the philosophical underpinnings of the newly formed United States were the outcome of Enlightenment ideas and ideals. All you need for that is to look at what the founders said they themselves were reading, people like Locke and Mill. And yes, if you look at the founders, especially some, like Jefferson and Paine, you see deism or even atheism (rather than theism). And even the supposedly religious ones, like Washington, didn’t allow themselves to be dictated to by divine authority.

            However, the U.S. was still a nation founded by people who were for the most part religious, who were, at the very least, theists. Most citizens of the U.S. have always been Christian. So to say that the nation wasn’t founded on Judeo-Christian values is a complex point. For many people, democracy itself might have been a Judeo-Christian value. Obviously, from a historical perspective, that’s laughable, but that doesn’t mean that many people didn’t see it that way; they very well might have seen something like religious tolerance not so much as a moral or ethical imperative of reason or freedom, but as a virtue of their religion.

            It seems that the U.S. government was indeed setup to be irreligious, but at the same time, I don’t think everyone realized what this might have meant. Just look at the Scopes Trial. And that was in the 20th Century. I think the most clear conclusion is that the United States as a society and the government of the United States both have complex relationships with religion.

            1. Thank you, Chris. Is it fair to suggest one was essential while the other was ancillary and perhaps even superfluous? Not to suggest that Christianity could have been replaced by any other religion and end up with the same result but had there been no religion it seems likely we’d have ended up with something similar to the Constituion. Perhaps even a bit better.

            2. Do you think the enlightenment might to some extent owe a debt to the reformation?
              Of course the ideas of enlightenment couldn’t be further removed from the ideals of Martin Luther, John Calvin, or, best of them all, Henry VIII. However, some think, opening the door to dissent, might have set a precedent, paving the way for what came next.
              I have also heard the risible idea that we owe democracy to the reformation. Right, specifically John Calvin’s model of government in Geneva. Very democratic.

            3. CDubya, that’s quite a hypothetical. I’m not a historian of early American history or of the relationship between government, democracy, and religion, so I really don’t have the knowledge base to begin to think about this. I might add, though, that even if I did have the requisite background, I wouldn’t be comfortable making a prediction about what would and would not have happened if certain variables of history were changed. Religion is such a huge variable, I don’t think we could just remove it and say, ok now what would happen.

            4. Thank you, all. I think I’m just being lazy and trying to find a quip to shut people up when they assert we are a nation based on Judeo-Christian values. I don’t want to make shit up, though.

            5. I think one of the most helpful replies would be to remind others that belief in the supernatural is not a requirement for being a citizen of the U.S. I’m afraid to say that many Americans are actually not pleased by that. I really think that many so-called freedom and liberty loving Americans really do want a sort of theocratic state. Just remind these people that freedom of religion means I can be a good, patriotic American and be an atheist.

              I think the best thing to do is ask people what they mean by “a nation based on Judeo-Christian values.” Most likely, when they then tell you what that means, you will be able to easily refute it. For example, if by Judeo-Christian values they mean the 10 Commandments, you can point out that belief in one true God (1st Commandment) is not only not a value, it’s not, as many have noted, a particularly ethical statement. If they say that freedom is a Judeo-Christian value, well, that one’s also pretty easy to debunk. My favorite response would be to remind them that belief in an all-powerful supernatural being that controls the outcome of your eternal existence is completely antithetical to freedom.

      1. When in conversations on this subject with theists, I always begin by asking them to show me where in the bible the concept of an elected government can be found.

        You can look and look, but you won’t find any.

        Then I ask them to show me references to kings and kingdoms.

        The fact that the First Amendment directly contradicts the First Commandment is another one I go for early…it usually ends the conversation.

        First Commandment: No other gods but me.
        First Amendment: Any god you wish or none at all.

        Tell me again, where is the Judeo-Christian value?

        1. “First Commandment: No other gods but me.
          First Amendment: Any god you wish or none at all”

          Well said, sir!

          I sincerely hope I remember to pull that out of the hat the next time I’m stuck in one of those conversations.

      2. CDubya,

        I don’t know if this is what you are looking for but I just received a book along the lines of what you are asking (I have not read it yet), it’s called “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers” by Brooke Allen. Part of the book description reads:

        “In her lively refutation of modern claims about America’s religious origins, Brooke Allen looks back at the late eighteenth century and shows decisively that the United States was founded not on Christian principles at all but on Enlightenment ideas.”

          1. America Declares Indepedence, by Alan Dershowitz
            This has the added benefit of containing one of my all-time favorite ironic quotes (unfortunately, I have not been able to find this quote independently sourced anywhere else):

            “People who do not study history can be made to believe anything.”
            James Dobson

  16. “For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God. ”

    That is true but says a lot more about the sorry state of apologetics than it does about Jesus.

    As I see it, any argument for God must start with a neutral position with respect to any claims and adopt a consistent methodology for evaluation claims, then it needs to look at not just Christian claims but all of the other hundreds (or thousands) of religions. That’s a pretty standard scientific principle but because it’s such a prevalent error in theology, John Loftus calls it “The Outsider Test of Faith”: act like you’re an outsider and have not accepted all the dogmas of your religion and then present an argument.

    I think the e-mailer will find things very different.

      1. Sorry. I have seen that blog and wouldn’t recommend it.
        Not because content is bad. But because it is infested with extremely persistent and irritating trolls. John Loftus doesn’t do a good job of keeping them out like Jerry Coyne or PZ.

  17. I’d like to read a post on “why sex evolved in the first place”. I’m aware of the genetic diversity position, which I’ve always accepted, but you said they are many and complex. I’d like to see your take on an overview of them.

      1. Seconded. I’m re-reading this at the moment; one of my favourite things about Lane is that he doesn’t shy away from pointing out when we don’t have all the answers.

        The pomposity of his foreword notwithstanding. 😉

    1. I am most definitely not a biologist, but for what it’s worth I liked The Red Queen, Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley.

  18. This was an excellent post. I’m not a biologist but evolution is a really fascinating process, and it’s nice to have a patient specialist to explain things like this. Preferring the Bible to scientific observation to explain how the world works just confuses me. It’s like having a garden but denying photosynthesis – whether you believe in it or not, it still happens!

    And as for the question about Jesus rising from the dead, I think his understanding of the burden of proof is a tad off, to say the least. Why all the questions and skepticism about evolution but the blind acceptance of stories of ancient magic?

  19. To the young man who wrote the letter:

    “Just wanted some answers. There are lots more questions…”

    Professor Coyne was kind enough to write a lengthy and serious response to your question on the evolution of sex. I hope you will do him the courtesy of reading it carefully. Click on the link in the post and read about Volvox (a really interesting post with cool photos). Go to the library and get the copy of Science cited in the reference and read that, too. And if you still have lots of questions (by all means, keep asking!), go check out Prof Coyne’s own book “Why Evolution Is True”. It lays out the evidence for evolution in the clearest and most concise possible way.

    And if, as I am, you are really intrigued by Professor Coyne’s mention of the many and complex theories as to why sex evolved in the first place, maybe between the two of us we can badger him into going into that. Or at least dropping some hints. Or some references:))

  20. “For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God. The history does seem to back it up.”

    What “history” is it that you are referring to? Are there historical sources other than the Gospels which report that Jesus rose from the dead? If so, what records are these?

    Does not one of the Gospels (I don’t recall which one- and do indeed note I think it was only one) say that many people rose from the dead and walked among the living at this time?
    Would not something as remarkable as this be noted by the other Gospel writers as well? Would not something this amazing be noted by other writers from the time?

    Just think about it; dead people brought back to life. Had they been restored to their life appearance or were they simply reanimated corpses? What sorts of complications and difficulties would this have brought about within Jewish society (which, if I understand correctly has fairly specific guidelines around dealing with death in general and dead bodies in particular). What about the next of kin? Would their inheritance then become null and void if the dead returned to claim their property? Do the resurrected eat? Sleep? Defecate? How much longer did these resurrected people hang around for? Did they die again? What did they die of the second time?
    If the Gospels are the best (or indeed the only) evidence one has for the resurrection of Jesus, then you’ve got a long way to go to convince someone who is not already a Christian of the truth of its claims. The Gospels often contradict each other on many things. Just compare the stories of the trial and crucifixion, detail for detail. It’s not just they disagree with each other; in “real life” eyewitness testimony is often contradictory and unreliable. How would the writers find out about what happened in the audience with Pilate? Were there friendly witnesses to that whom the gospel writers interviewed? How to sort out which account-if any of them- is correct?

    The Gospels are not disinterested, detached historical accounts. They have axes to grind, and not all the same ones. In some, the Romans are made to look good and the Jews are made the scapegoats. From my understanding this was in order to make the Christian message more palatable to Romans and other Gentiles and to distinguish Christians from Jews when it came time to punish and oppress the latter.

    There are other religions that focus on a dead person (or god or demi-god) brought back to life. The Egyptian story of Osiris comes to mind. Do you believe that Osiris rose from the dead? If not, why not? I view both stories of resurrection as equally mythological, with the caveat that, being more recent the stories of Jesus might be slightly more likely contain a few more particles of factual information of an actual historical, human figure upon which the Jesus character is based.

    1. I think this is exactly the right way to look at it. Many, many cultures have these sorts of stories. Why is it that Christians seem to think that their story is the only one that’s true? Do they have any solid evidence for this? No, their only “evidence” is the Bible, a written source. Just because it was written down does not make it true.

      I wonder if perhaps there is a time disconnect for many Americans. The time of Jesus was 2,000 years ago and that doesn’t seem, to us Americans, like a point of actual historical inquiry. But if you look at other cultures and other places around the world, there were thriving civilizations, and there are people who study the history of these places. China, for instance, has had a unified civilization for over 2,000 years, which means that there are people who study the history (not the mythology) of that place 2,000 years ago, they study the writings of 2,000 years ago China and they, as good historians, must apply rigorous standards before coming to conclusions. Yet we are so very comfortable with no such treatment of the Bible and Biblical history.

    2. Re: reanimated corpses.

      According to the burial practices of the time, people were placed in tombs temporarily in order for their flesh to rot off the bones. After a period of a year, the bones were collected and placed in ossuaries.

      There was no attempt at embalming or preserving bodies (especially by the Jews). No mummies. The whole POINT of the tomb was for the flesh to rot off.

      So, a reanimated corpse would not only have to be reanimated, but re-fleshed, re-muscled, re-nerved, re-eyeballed (eyeballs shrivel fast in the desert), re-coloned, and all the rest.

      Didn’t happen. Certainly not without a LOT of people noticing. No one did.

  21. @ [REDACTED]:

    I apologise if my language is unscientific, but I am not a scientist. … Can you proof [sic] … You cannot know that conditions haven’t changed, so although I respect your position to assert what you believe, you must acknowledge that conditions could well have changed.

    It is not that your language is unscientific, but that it is espousing an idea of science that harks back to the times when evolution was discovered and the religious of the time started to criticize that science.

    This idea, inductionism, has been rejected as both a) inconsistent, since induction can’t prove induction in the same way that modern falsifiability can test falsifiability and b) false, since scientists in fact can often easily, or at least in the end, tell when a fact is in error or a theory doesn’t work to predict said facts.

    However, religious argument over science continues with its frozen picture of a 19th century science. It is sad, really.

    To answer your question, evolution builds on a changing environment, which changes the genome and adapts new and old species. At the same time we can test for changes in the environment, as Rick noted in the extreme case of the universe itself.

    We can see water boiling and that sort of stuff, whereas there are a lot of unknown factors in evolutionary theory.

    We can also see evolution in action, from the growth of cancer that adapts around the cytotoxins used in treatment, over bacteria who adapts to antibiotics, to new species that have been observed to evolve in historical times (say, the London Underground mosquito).

    In fact, compared to certain geological or cosmological processes, evolution is a fast process, so it is no surprise that if we can observe the former we can observe the later.

  22. “For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God.” If you add the First Cause, Ontological, Design, and a few other famous “proofs” on there I’m sure it adds up to one concrete infallible proof.

    1. …and almost completes my Creationist Bingo Card.

      I just need “Darwin recanted on his death bed” or “Hitler was an atheist” in order to win a toaster. 😉

      1. I hesitate to use internet-speak in such an erudite blog, but there is really only one possible response to that comment, and that response is “LOL”.

  23. Indeed, if Jesus rose from the dead it would be a proof of God, or certainly would give any atheist pause. Problem is, first you need proof that Jesus rose from the dead.

      1. True enough. But it might be hard tracking it down given that he was reportedly (nearly a hundred years later) born at the time of a census that took place in 6 CE *and* during the reign of Herod the Great who died in 4 BCE.

        Why in the world does anybody believe this stuff? That is the “mystery”.

        1. “Why in the world does anybody believe this stuff?”

          “believe”?
          One reason:
          Fear.

          Fear & Ignorance.
          2 reasons.

          Fear of being different from one’s tribe. (cf: “shibboleth”)
          Fear of becoming an outcast.
          Fear of rejection, esp wrt. sexual intimacy.
          Fear of losing one’s employment.
          Fear of being falsely accused of crimes.
          Fear of alienating one’s offspring from community.

          Six, six reasons.

          Nobody expects the Banish Inquisition.

          1. Historically those reasons were important, but I don’t think so today, at least outside the muslim world. Despite the polls of what people profess, I suspect most who claim to believe don’t really. They just won’t admit it. I look around my neighborhood–nobody seems to go to church. I look at our popular culture–all secular. I suspect that many people are really atheists, but it is just not conventional to say you’re an atheist. Maybe that will change.

            1. It was intentional, as it is a play on the preceding theme. I should have followed it with [sic], to make it plain.

  24. 3. Can you proof [sic]that Jesus Christ didn’t rise from the dead? For me Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the single greatest proof of God. The history does seem to back it up.

    As Jerry indicated, proving a negative isn’t actually possible nor plausible. The only actual disproof that can be provided, as a moment’s thought will demonstrate, is showing that the proof (or better yet, evidence) for such an event does not stand up.

    I can challenge you to disprove anything I imagine on the spot. Your failure to do so offers absolutely nothing in the way of support for what I imagined in the first place, does it? Don’t make the mistake that a lack of disproof amounts to anything positive in any way, or in thinking that if something is not negative, it must be positive – there’s such a thing as zero, neither positive nor negative.

    Which means the onus is on you, and christianity, to establish something decent supporting the resurrection in the first place. Bear in mind that, if your evidence can be used in exactly the same way to support the existence of Harry Potter, you need to work a lot harder.

    We can see water boiling and that sort of stuff, whereas there are a lot of unknown factors in evolutionary theory.

    The very first thing I’ll say is, be sure you get your information on “unknown factors” from someone who actually has some understanding of the field (preferably a lot,) rather than someone who makes their living from “faithful” contributions…

    The problem with your argument is, any aspect of a theory being unknown doesn’t actually damage the theory. The numerous aspects that are known, and fit tightly, and are used to predict, and are used to produce vaccines, and are used to identify things like birth defects, and resulted in the eye color you now have, all support the theory, and have been ever since it was first proposed. It was proposed, by the way, on the weight of the evidence in the first place.

    Your argument is the same as putting together a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. You might have gaps in the finished puzzle, but chances are you can still identify it. Many religions want to argue that, without this bit of sky and the horse’s hooves, the puzzle must therefore be the Mona Lisa. They haven’t explained why the Mona Lisa looks like a freaking horse, though, and until they do, I’m going to consider their arguments fatuous.

    Now, ask yourself this: how many unknown factors are there in, for instance, the resurrection? I’ll be happy to provide a few to get you started, but you shouldn’t have any issue finding these on your own.

    Did those unknown factors cause you to question it? And if not, why not? I just want to be sure you’re being honest with yourself in your criteria for accepting things.

    You cannot know that conditions haven’t changed, so although I respect your position to assert what you believe, you must acknowledge that conditions could well have changed.

    See above. Did you apply this open-mindedness to the idea that scripture might simply be fiction?

    What we base science on isn’t wild speculation as to possibilities (with the exception of string theory) – it’s based on what we can examine and test, and how well it thus applies to anything else. Any factor within our base of knowledge may, at some point in the past, have been different, but this has no bearing on anything at all if it leaves no evidence that it has done so. Has light always traveled at the same speed? Possibly not, but if it hasn’t, then something had to happen to change it, and there’s no evidence for that. It really has no bearing until something is found that makes it pertinent, like stars far older than the age of the universe.

    What you’re doing is trying to find excuses for the fact that scripture is not supported by the evidence we have now. There’s nothing wrong with conjecture, but comparing scattered and contradictory writings to a base of knowledge involving millions of data points is ludicrous, especially when the scripture contains no new, useful, or predictive information.

    Let’s, for the sake of argument, assume that scripture is found to be supported in some way. Does this mean that all of the scientific advances we’ve made in the past few centuries magically cease to exist? Does it mean that genetic similarities among different species vanish? Does it mean that we can use scripture to, for instance, vanquish diseases, avoid meteorological catastrophes, and produce food for expanding populations? What, exactly, would it affect, other than your piece of mind?

    1. Oh, I’m sure he’ll go right for McDowell or Strobel. Or perhaps even (ick) William Lame Craig.

      After all, the question is straight from the dope of all dopes, Ray Comfort.

  25. Dear [Redacted]-

    Why don’t you try reading a good analysis of the new testament and where it came from? Bart D. Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” would be a good place to start.

  26. it started off reasonable enough sounding but then you hear “you can’t prove jesus didn’t rise from the dead” and you immediately know you’re talking to someone who just isn’t particularly interested in thinking honestly about things.

  27. Others have already addressed the dubious circumstances of Anthony Flew’s “conversion,” so I’ll confine myself to making the obvious point: “so what?”

    Suppose Flew was completely rational and of sound mind when he “converted.” And let’s even pretend that he converted to Christianity instead of some form of deism. Or, to make is easier, take the example of Francis Collins, who is a Christian who converted after being an atheist in his adult life. (At least, that’s his claim, and I’m prepared to grant it.)

    For every Anthony Flew and Francis Collins you can point to, I can point to a Richard Dawkins or a Dan Barker who believed in Christianity at one point and subsequently became atheists.

    People convert in different directions, sometimes multiple times. This is only evidence that (some) human beings are capable of changing their minds.

    Theists seem very fond of bringing up Flew. It’s as if they’re projecting their own distaste for apostasy on the rest of us.

  28. as a living prophet i profess thus:

    this young, intelligent man will soon enough be converted to the Horde of the Ungodly…

    thanks for humbly handing him his humble ass…

        1. Well yes, I was kidding – any excuse for a bad pun!
          I actually grew up a few miles away from Pollardstown Fen – the first one of the examples you posted. My father used to take us there to look at the plants – I was really interested in carnivorous plants like sundew and would collect specimens from there to take home.

  29. Dear [REDACTED],

    If you’re still reading this thread all the way down here, I’d like to offer you a different perspective on the historicity of Jesus.

    Specifically, I’d like to suggest a lot of homework for you to do. Once upon a time, it would have meant a lot of obscure library research. However, thanks to the ‘Net, you can very easily find good modern translations of all these original sources with just a little bit of Googling.

    Start with the complete works of Philo of Alexandria. That’ll take you a while, but I doubt you’ll find it objectionable; most Christians find his writings very agreeable. Philo was old enough to have been Joseph’s brother, and he outlived Pontius Pilate. He was the brother-in-law by marriage of King Herod Agrippa. He is the Jewish philosopher credited with incorporating the Greek concept of the Logos — the Word that opens the Gospel According to John — into Judaism. He was a prolific author and most of his works survive to this day. His last work was an account of the diplomatic mission he made in the year 40 to Caligula to protest the Roman mistreatment of Jews.

    As you read Philo’s works, pay close attention to what he wrote about Jesus. Start by tallying each reference, perhaps accompanied by a brief characterization.

    After that, read what Justin Martyr — the original Christian apologist, writing in the early parts of the second century — thought of, as he put it, “Sons of Jupiter.” Be sure to familiarize yourself with the stories of the various sons, if you aren’t already.

    Next, read what early Pagans thought of the early church, especially the letters of Pliny the Younger. Don’t just read the selected passages apologists usually cite as evidence of an historical Jesus; read the entire works so you can understand what the Romans thought of the new religion. They didn’t like Christians — you probably already know that — but try to understand why they didn’t like them. Understand all the reasons, not just the obvious ones.

    Finally, read Lucian of Samosata’s account of the passing of Peregrinus, keeping in mind what you had earlier read in Martyr’s apologetics.

    If you’re still not convinced, re-read the Gospel stories of Lazarus, the Crucifixion, the Signs and Portents, the Resurrection, and Doubting Thomas. Don’t just tick off the events in your mind; actually read the stories, and don’t let your eyes glaze over. Ask yourself how believable it is, and whether or not it’s anything you’d actually want to be personally involved with if it is.

    And if even that hasn’t convinced you…read Numbers 31, keeping in mind the age of marriage in Biblical times.

    Good luck. You’ll need it.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. Now, that’s just MEAN.

      Especially re: Philo of Alexandria.

      But I would be interested in his report on the number of references to Jesus. 😉

      1. Well, as I wrote, Christians generally find a great deal of common ground with Philo. So, yeah, it’s a lot of reading…but [REDACTED] should hopefully enjoy reading the words of a kindred spirit, somebody whom one might describe as one of Jesus’s philosophical fellow travelers.

        I mean that perfectly sincerely: though Philo was a Jew, his philosophical heart was in close alignment with that of early Christians. Christians who read his works are pretty much universally struck with how powerfully he speaks to support and affirm that which they as Christians hold dear.

        But, yeah. He did write an awful lot, and insisting that [REDACTED] should read it all probably is a bit mean…but I really do think it’s vital. I think you can understand why.

        And I, too, will be quite interested if his tallies of the numbers of Jesus references matches mine.

        Cheers,

        b&

    2. And a note for any tyro Jesus researcher: the oft quoted passage from Josephus is recognised by most Christian Bible scholars as a later addition. (In other words, a crude forgery.)

      1. And, let’s not forget: not only was Josephus writing his histories at the end of the century, he wasn’t even born until after the end of Pilate’s reign. Philo was a prolific Hellenistic Jewish philosopher right there in the middle of the action as it all went down; that’s why I consider him by far the most important chronicler of the events depicted in the Gospels.

        Cheers,

        b&

        1. But none of Philo’s writings are extant. The earliest existing N.T. fragment (which doesn’t mention Jesus, but is obviously a codex page from the gospel of John, it mentions Pilate) is P457 (in the John Rylands Library in Manchester), which has a rather dubiously optimistic dating of 125~150 AD, based on nothing more than Christian scholars’ guesses by orthography.
          I have been pressing for this fragment to be dated by nuclear luminescence by Australia’s ANSTO labs for ages now, with not a bit of luck. The ‘destruction’ excuse of old will not wash, as all it will take is samples of papyrus dust from the bottom of its sealed package. What are the curators afraid of? A dramatic drop in value, ala the Shroud of Urine?
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rylands_Library_Papyrus_P52

          1. I’m not sure what sense of “extant” you’re using.

            Sure, none of the originals exist — but, then again, I’m not aware of any originals that old which still survive. The originals of Julius Caesar’s works are long gone, yet surely the copies-of-copies we have are reasonably trustworthy and of vital importance, no?

            The situation with Philo would seem to be much the same.

            For the record, you can read Younge’s translation of Philo’s complete works here:

            http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/philo.html

            I wholeheartedly agree completely that ancient religious artifacts should be subjected to the same objective analyses as any other ancient artifact. I also rather doubt that they ever will be — at least so long as they’re in the possession of those who consider them sacred. As you write, it’s not the nonexistent or insignificant physical damage they fear, but the “spiritual” damage that will arise from having their dissonances cogitated when they learn that they’ve been worng all these years.

            While I agree that the dating of P52 seems overly optimistic, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that the gospel stories have histories much more ancient than commonly supposed. My own hunch is that Christianity began as an obscure syncretic mystery cult in the first century BCE, and that the author of the Pauline epistles was merely one of many attempting to muscle his own “spiritual interpretations” into the mix. Over the decades the cult grew in numbers and the richness of its tradition, adding bits of pieces of this and that along the way, until it settled into a single orthodoxy. We can see hints of the contentiousness of that growth and the power politics going on behind the scenes in his writing.

            For example, I think we can be very confident that “Paul” is the one to have given Christianity the Eucharist (and therefore the Last Supper story). The most specific Paul ever gets about Jesus’s biography is when he’s giving instructions on how to perform the Eucharist, and we know from Martyr that worshippers of Mithras had a nearly-indistinguishable ceremony. And Tarsus was a hotbed of Mithraic activity, and we know it was a well-established religion by the first century, and we have references to secret rites that long predate Paul…and, well, it’s a smoking gun, even if it’s not irrefutable.

            To bring it back full circle, it also seems obvious that the author of G. John was a student — not necessarily personally — of Philo, and that Philo is the original source of what is today considered Christian philosophy. If any part of G. John were ever reliably dated to before the second half of the first century, I would be rather surprised and very interested, indeed.

            Cheers,

            b&

            1. I’m afraid that I do not share your optimistic lucubration. Plus, I expect that this thread is not quite the correct place to conduct dry biblical scholarship!
              Do I remember discussing this very topic at some length with you on Usenet’s alt.atheism, many years ago?

            2. True, we do seem to be getting quite deep into the thick of things here…if you’re still reading this, [REDACTED], don’t mind Michael and me. For your search for the historical Jesus, it’s plenty to learn who Philo was and discover what he knew about Jesus.

              And, yes, Michael, I’m sure we’ve discussed this on USENET. If I remember right, I knew very little about the topic then, and you were one of the ones to greatly expand my knowledge. Thanks!

              Cheers,

              b&

            3. Post Scriptum:
              You are correct to question my use of “extant” for, as you well know, I tend to use Latin, Greek & Hebrew words in their literal sense, which in this case means “protruding” in Latin, (more or less). But not this time! By ‘extant’, I mean the english version, as in: “still existing in the original material”.
              The Dead Sea Scrolls are an example of extant documents from the target era. (They make no mention of anything at all to do with Jesus, his supposed miracles, the gazillion zombies that are supposed to have wandered free in 33AD, nor anything that would even hint at Christians existing, nor anything even vaguely akin to such a cult).
              This makes the DSS the most pressing and utterly convincing evidence AGAINST Christians of that era in general, and Jesus in particular.
              If Christians had been around, or if Jesus had done even 10% of what is claimed, the authours of the DSS WOULD HAVE DOCUMENTED same, without a shadow of doubt, as they were lurking in the very same region at the purported period, and were canny enough to notice any “irregularities” in physical, moral, or religious laws.

              Case closed. Philo or not.

            4. You know…I don’t know why the DSS never registered on my consciousness before as being relevant. Seems I have yet more homework to do. Thanks again!

              Very cursory Googling has apologists getting all excited about finding Isaiah intact essentially unchanged and that this somehow “proves” that all those “prophecies” were somehow real. And there was a third-hand account of a still-secret fragment allegedly directly referencing Jesus.

              In other words, there’s no “there” there, or else the apologists would have been all over it by now….

              Cheers,

              b&

            5. A final response:
              As you rightly allude: finding a copy of Isaiah intact is no more remarkable than me finding a copy of Homer’s Odyssey in a bookstore. That would not prove the magical feats of Odysseus any more than a copy of Isaiah proves it’s particular violent fantasies.
              As for the “secret fragment”, how old do they think that we are??! I know some 6 year olds who would not fall for such a transparent lie…

  30. ID creationists have been doing this for years, pretending to be students in order to “challenge” biologists, then taking the lack of reply (usually, there are eight to ten questions) as evidence that the questions can’t be answered. Of course it would be futile to ask them questions. (Does design involve directed genetic variation, directed selection, or both? Is design imposed on the germ line genome of individual organisms, or of populations?)ID is about questioning, not about answering.

  31. Some day, perhaps, creationists will realize that Dr. Coyne – and scientists in general – do not pursue their research with the sole purpose of debunking religious beliefs.

  32. “I am truly asking with an open mind, because the bible is clear that Christianity is not true then it is foolish. It literally says that.”

    Well, I hope that the christian author realizes that christianity is in fact foolish rather than true.

    1. This actually raises a very important point: cognitive dissonance is playing a huge role here.

      Put simply, [REDACTED] realizes that Christianity is either true or, in his words, foolish. [REDACTED] doesn’t want to be a fool; he believes in Christianity; ergo, Christianity must be true.

      It’s a powerful mental trap that is very difficult to both avoid and escape. [REDACTED] can’t admit that Christianity is foolish without also admitting that not only has he been a fool but that he’s wasted huge amounts of resources doing very foolish things.

      Until and unless the mental cost to him of pretending that Christian foolishness is truthful outweighs the cost of being a foolish Christian, he will continue to believe in the truthfulness of Christianity. What might tip those scales one way or another is anybody’s guess; we all weigh such matters differently (even if there are many similarities).

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. Some folk have the fortitude & maturity to cut their losses, climb out of the embarassing hole that they have dug for themselves, and become a rounded adult.
        I’ve seen it many a time and, who knows:- [Redacted] might well possess said wisdom, courage & self-confidence.

  33. I should like to point out here as well that the cruel quip about the conversion van which was entered above under my name was not written by me, but by somebody who is clearly a dishonest mischief-maker and a coward.

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