Monday, March 28, 2011

Religion vs. Science (Part 3)

The past two centuries of human civilization has brought about a myriad of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the pace of progress is only accelerating. However, these advancements have incited some profound and contentious questions. Many of these questions arise from the discrepancy between ancient religious ideologies and recent scientific theories. These disparities have instigated religious, social, and political animosity, particularly in the United States. Why has this conflict developed? What is the most controversial issue? Most importantly, can religion and science coexist?

I will endeavor to answer these questions in a three-part series. Today, I will examine “Can religion and science coexist?” Note: Because I will be concentrating substantially on the United States, the primary religious doctrine scrutinized will be Christianity.

Religion in the United States, and Christianity in particular, is extremely diverse. There are thousands of denominations of varying sizes, each of which has had to confront the questions produced by modern science: Is the Book of Genesis in the Bible a literal guide to the creation of the universe and humanity? If so, how do you explain the contradictory evidence presented by science? If not, how do you understand the Book of Genesis in light of modern science?

In my experience, the conflict between science and religion has been "solved" in three distinct ways, with a majority of Christians advocating for one of these three solutions.

The first solution is a rejection of all scientific theories which contradict a literal reading of the Bible. Christians who advocate this position tend to be the most conservative and incredibly anti-cultural. They believe the Bible is inerrant and the literal word of God. Science which does not disagree with Scripture, such as the theory of gravity or atomic theory, is usually accepted. Obviously, theories such as evolution and the Big Bang are resolutely denied and dismissed. Evidence for such non-Biblical theories is discredited in a multitude of ways. The most prevalent explanation is simply that the scientists are wrong and that the evidence has been misinterpreted. Another, much less common, explanation is that the scientists are being tricked by Satan, who plants the evidence in order to deceive them and lead them away from God.

The second solution also rejects all scientific theories which contradict a literal reading of the Bible. However, these Christians do not just dismiss the scientists. They actually attempt to prove them wrong by concocting their own scientific theories, such as Intelligent Design. These Christians tend to be conservative, but not completely anti-cultural. They believe that the evidence for non-Biblical theories is being misinterpreted, oftentimes on purpose by scientists who (they believe) are striving to disprove God. Reinterpreting the evidence into a theory which does not contradict the Book of Genesis allows these Christians to compromise between keeping their religious tradition of an inerrant Bible and continuing to be relevant in the 21st century.

Unfortunately for them, this method has been largely unsuccessful outside their churches. Only a handful of school boards across the United States have voted to include, in varying degrees, Intelligent Design in the standards for high school biology. Of those, several school boards later had elections which ousted the members who voted to include Intelligent Design, and the new board promptly overturned the modified standards. Even worse was the court case I discussed in the second post of this series, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in which the judge determined that:
"overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory" and "the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, [is] in violation of the Establishment Clause." 
Since the United States Court system relies heavily on precedent, it is unlikely another court case would find in favor of Intelligent Design.

The third solution holds that the Bible does not necessarily have to be interpreted literally and that the Book of Genesis is a metaphorical story about how the universe, Earth, and life was created. This view tends to be held by moderate and liberal Christians. Not being restrained by a literal Genesis allows these Christians to believe in the validity of scientific theories such as evolution. These Christians are often criticized by their more conservative counterparts for believing parts of the Bible are metaphorical. They (rightfully) claim this begs the question "How do you decide which parts of the Bible to take literally and which parts to take metaphorically?" (however, that is a debate for another day). The most common justification I have heard for taking the story of Genesis metaphorically is that God gave the ancient Hebrews a creation story they could comprehend, since the reality was too complicated for humans of that time to understand.

As a scientist myself, I am closest in view to the liberal Christians. I believe religion and science can coexist. For me, they are complementary, not contradictory, because they are answering different questions.

According to the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, science is:
"any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation"
Basically, science answers questions like: What is the universe?  How do galaxies form? Why does the Earth have liquid water? How did humans evolve? All of these questions concern the physical world which we live in, and all can be answered through observation and experimentation.

Religion, on the other hand, asks questions like: Does God exist? Is there something beyond the physical world? Do we have an immaterial and immortal soul?  What is the meaning of life? Science cannot answer these questions and others like them because they do not concern the physical world. You cannot observe and measure such things in a laboratory. These questions are completely meaningless to science.

However, they are not meaningless to us. These questions, and others like them, reveal the deepest hopes, dreams, doubts, and fears of humanity. We have endeavored to answer them in nearly countless ways through religion. At times, this has led to violence and death. At other times, it has led to peace and progress. Obviously, the very nature of these kinds of questions means we can never have incontrovertible answers. Yet, these questions are one of the few universals of human life. We have contemplated them before and we will contemplate them time and time again, no matter how far scientific progress takes us.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Misconceptions About Universalism Part 1: Introduction

Before I begin this new series, I just want to say: yes, I am aware that I have not yet completed my last series, Religion vs. Science. I have attempted several times to write the final post, but each effort has been thwarted by writer's block. Therefore, I have decided to initiate my next series early in the hope that focusing on a new and different topic awhile will cure the writer's block.

The past couple months, universalism has been an extremely heated topic in conservative Christian circles, all because of one book: Love Wins by Rob Bell. The controversy began when Bell released a promotional video for his book. Many who watched the video believed Bell was promoting universalism. Even a full 6 weeks before Bell's book was released, fierce arguments transpired on social networking sites, especially Twitter, and condemning articles were posted on a multitude of Christian sites. Ironically, those individuals blasting Bell's book the heaviest are doing nothing but procuring more attention for it, which will probably just result in much better sales.

Unfortunately, in conservative Christianity, universalism is considered one of the most atrocious heresies to embrace. Anyone who professes a belief in universalism is immediately shunned and exiled. It is irrelevant if you hold this belief but remain orthodox in every other doctrine or if your universalism has transported you to a more liberal theology; you are rejected just the same.

An example of this is Bishop Carlton Pearson. He was the pastor of one of the largest churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma (sometimes referred to as the Buckle of the Bible Belt), which, at its height, had over 6,000 members. After publicly announcing his belief in universalism, membership at his church rapidly declined and the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops declared his teachings to be heresy. As Pearson writes in his book, The Gospel of Inclusion:
I was slandered and libeled every day-and still am by some of these paranoid religious zealots...[who said] "He's crazy. He's of the Devil. He's the Antichrist. He's a heretic. He'll lead you into hell."...Five or six thousand people walked away from the community we had built. I basically lost my ministry. I lost everything. (p. 269)
For my readers who are not universalists, please do not think those kinds of insults are a rare phenomenon. I, as well as most of the universalists I know, have been subjected to them at one time or another.

Bell's book was finally released last week. I received my copy Monday and quickly read through it. So, is Rob Bell a universalist? Based on what's in the book, no, he is not.* While Bell does advocate an extensively inclusive theology and his book is loaded with universalist themes, he stops just short of claiming that all souls will be saved in the end. Honestly, I was not surprised by that in the least. If Bell did cross the line into universalism, few, if any, conservative Christians, who are his target audience, would have even picked up the book. By staying a step away from universalism in Love Wins, Bell has a substantially higher chance of reaching conservative Christians who are having doubts about a supposedly all-loving God who throws His children into a perpetual eternity of conscious, unimaginable torment if they were not fortunate enough to be born into a conservative Christian family. 

*N.B.: I am not the only universalist who has arrived at this conclusion. Brian at The Beautiful Heresy agrees with me in his book review of Love Wins. Richard from Experimental Theology briefly concurs in passing while discussing evangelicals.
What frequently aggravated me in the countless disputes over Bell's book were not the cruel insults towards universalists. I am mostly used to those. It was the shameless misrepresentations and  misconceptions of what universalism is by church leaders and/or prominent theologians in the conservative Christian community, many of whom wrote articles for major publications, in print and online, concerning the universalist themes in Love Wins. Outright lying to disparage a group's beliefs because it bolsters your own viewpoint and/or attempting to disprove a group's theology of which you are entirely ignorant is shallow, malicious, and, if done from a position of power (e.g. a church leader or a theologian), unethical and unprofessional.

It is these misconceptions I desire to address and correct in this series. I will concentrate on the six I estimate are the most prevalent and pervasive. These are:

  • Absolute Inclusiveness: Universalists believe that all life paths are equally good and that every single path leads to God. 
  •  No Hell: There is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and every single person immediately goes to heaven after they die, no matter how evil there are.
  • No Justice: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, evil people are never punished for their sins, and there is no justice for their Earthly victims.
  • No Incentive to be Good: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and everybody goes straight to heaven, individuals have no reason to choose good over evil. 
  • Why Believe?: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and everybody goes straight to heaven, why believe in any particular religion and/or spiritual philosophy?
  • Un-Biblical: Universalism is not supported by the Bible.
Each color corresponds to one post in the series. In each post, I will explain the misconception(s), disprove the misconception(s), and examine why the misconception(s) is/are so prevalent and/or harmful.

I hope that all my readers, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), will find this series is enjoyable and insightful.

New Blog Design

My regular readers will notice that I have completely redone my blog. When I started writing last September, I was pretty unfamiliar with Blogger and had forgotten almost everything I learned in the HTML class I took in high school, so I basically just cobbled together something that looked nice.

In the past few months, I have become more familiar with Blogger and refreshed my HTML skills, so I thought it was time to give it another try. I must admit, it came out much better than I expected. I hope my readers like it as much as I do. However, I am always open to comments, criticisms, and suggestions.

Don't worry, I am not going to give my blog a new style every few months. I know that irritates some people. While I did like my old design, I wanted something a bit more "me". Unless everybody tells me they absolutely hate it, this will be the permanent face of The Scientific Universalist.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Flordia Pastor Burns Qur'an

Last summer and fall, the United States saw a considerable increase in anti-Islamic sentiment. This was mainly due to the building of a mosque near the site where the World Trade Center previously stood. The controversy surrounding the New York City mosque set off a chain reaction across the country. Mosques in Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas (to name a few) were protested and vandalized. In this wave of religious intolerance, the low-point was Florida pastor Terry Jones' threat to burn a Qur'an on the anniversary of 9/11. Eventually, Pastor Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center decided not to carry out their plan, saying:
"We feel that God is telling us to stop" and "We will definitely not burn the Qur'an...Not today, not ever."
Unfortunately, it looks like Pastor Jones does not keep his word. This past Sunday, Pastor Jones' congregation conducted a "trial" of the Qur'an, with Pastor Jones as the judge. Not shockingly, the Qur'an was found guilty and sentenced guessed it...burning. When asked why he burned a Qur'an after specifically saying he wouldn't, Pastor Jones' claimed that he never promised  not burn a Qur'an, but that he would never establish another International Burn A Qur'an Day.

This man and his congregation sicken me. They claim to be Christians, but I discern nothing in their actions that shows they even know what Jesus stood for. Instead of loving their neighbor and helping the less fortunate, they are creating international religious conflict. Potentially, Muslims all over the world will see his desecration of their holy book and be outraged. The actions of Pastor Jones and his followers could get someone killed, and I highly doubt they would even care. Yet, if a Muslim group here in the US burned a Bible, for whatever reason, I highly doubt Pastor Jones would defend them.

While I do not believe in the infallibility of either the Bible or the Qur'an, both of these books contain wisdom. To desecrate the holy book of any religion is abhorrent, especially if your reason for doing so is to initiate animosity. No matter what your religious beliefs, or lack-thereof, are, as human beings we have an obligation to make this world a better and more peaceful place. Despite belonging to a religion whose primary tenet is "love your neighbor as you love yourself", Jones and his ilk are doing just the opposite. The sheer hypocrisy makes me beyond angry.

The only bright spot in this situation is that the media is completely occupied with covering the tragedy in Japan and the rebellion in Libya to notice Pastor Jones' latest bid for attention. In situations where bigots are using offensive activities in order to attain a national audience, the best response is to ignore it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saturday Night: Full Moon Coincides with Perigee

Tonight's full moon is rather special. First, the moon will be full, which is always an amazing and beautiful sight. Second, the moon will be at perigee. Perigee is the point in the the moon's monthly orbital period where it is closest to the Earth. Conversely, apogee is the point in the moon's monthly orbital period where it is farthest from Earth. This month's perigee will be the closest approach towards the Earth the moon has made in 18 years. This fact, along with the moon illusion, means that if you catch the moon near moonrise or moonset, you are in for a spectacular view, and I strongly encourage everyone go outside and gaze at the moon tonight, even if only for a quick glimpse. Here is a calculator to find the moonrise and/or moonset times at your location.

Learn what makes a big full moon a true 'supermoon' in this infographic.
Source All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

However, I cannot say I am thrilled about the media dubbing tonight's event a "supermoon". While this combination of events is relatively rare, calling it a "supermoon" helps inflame rumors and panic that this full moon will generate natural disasters, such as huge earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. It will result in a larger range in the tides (i.e., high tide will be higher than normal and low tide will be lower than normal) over the next two or three days, called a perigean spring tide, which could possibly cause minor coastal flooding.

However, as an astronomer, I am thrilled anytime the general public is interested in astronomical phenomena. In the modern world, I think we sometimes take for granted the incredible celestial bodies which light up our night sky. Personally, I am greatly anticipating observing the full moon with my telescope tonight.

The Theology of Right

In the comments of my last post, Bruce of Fallen From Grace, a former evangelical Christian pastor, wrote "For me, the most important thing was being right. In my mind I believed that by striving to be right I was closer to God."

Bruce's remark stuck with me today, presumably because it elicited vivid memories from my past. Why is the need for "rightness" so common in Christianity, especially the more conservative denominations? What has the requirement of being right done to Christianity as a whole? Does it, as Bruce once believed, bring one closer to God?

I believe the primary motivation behind the need to be right in much of Christianity can be traced back to the notion of moral superiority I discussed in my last post. I said that conservative Christians "vigorously insist that the only way to procure a genuine relationship with God and enter into heaven is through their religious system". This conviction naturally leads to a certainty of moral superiority. However, moral superiority is not solely an abstract idea. Adherents believe it is manifested in the individual doctrines advocated by conservative Christianity. This is where the demand to be right originates. For a particular doctrine to be morally superior to other doctrines explaining similar questions, it must be considered "right". If it was not, competing doctrines could  assert "rightness" and then moral superiority would be in question. So, the more engrossed a denomination is with moral superiority, the greater the necessity for them to regard their beliefs as "right". In my experience, this correlation is most obviously demonstrated by fundamentalist Christianity.

Personally, I think this obsession with being right has absolutely decimated Christianity. There are currently thousands of separate Christian denominations. A majority of these denominations did not emerge from thin air, but instead were frequently created by schisms of  previously established denominations. The dominant rationale for these schisms is a dispute in some point of theology. Some of these disputes are more serious than others: Was Jesus fully man, fully God, or both? Is salvation principally achieved by faith or works? Other disputes are comparatively minor: Is the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday? Did Jesus drink wine or grape juice at the Last Supper?

My personal favorite though, is: Will the Rapture of true believers occur before, during, or after the Tribulation? In the past decade or so, most fundamentalist believers have become thoroughly convinced that we are in the midst of the end-of-days. I found the intensity of the arguments over the timing of the Rapture to be beyond absurd. I observed not just churches, but actual families, being torn apart over such an insignificant issue.

Honestly, I find it rather depressing. Early Christianity had such awesome potential to transform the world. Yet, when I review history, I am left considerably disappointed. It seems as if much of this potential was squandered on superficial disagreements.

So, does striving to be right above all else bring one closer to God? While I cannot speak for everybody, I can speak for myself, and for me, the answer is no. Actually, quite the opposite. Growing up, I questioned  many of the supposedly "right" beliefs. I realized they were either logically or morally inconsistent. Unfortunately, this brought on massive amounts of guilt and fear. As a child, I was taught those doctrines were the laws of God, and to question them put my immortal soul in danger. If you did not have perfectly right beliefs, God would torture you in hell for all eternity. Far from being close to God, I was terrified of Him.

Even today, I can still fall into the trap of "being right". Although universalism has brought me close to God in a way fundamentalism never could, sometimes I become anxious. What if I have gotten some of the details wrong? What if I have made a mistake? What about the questions I don't yet have answers too? When this occurs, I must to remember to step back and observe the bigger picture. Universalism has taught me that it is love that truly matters; God's love for each of us and our love for each other. The details are just that: details. I am not saying details are completely meaningless, but we cannot allow the details to take over our lives. If we do, our priority becomes being right, when it should be love.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Religion and Morality

One of the first religious beliefs I questioned as a child was the concept that only Christians possessed morality and that atheists and agnostics were sinful and depraved. To this day, it is a belief that I continue to find bewildering, since it is so obviously incorrect. Yet, it is still a widespread notion within fundamentalist Christianity. Why? For the same reason fundamentalist Christians hold most of their beliefs: fear.

A quick note: I am well aware that agnosticism is not the same as atheism, and that it is quite possible for an agnostic to be either a theist or an atheist. However, in my experience, a majority fundamentalist Christians do not distinguish between the two, which is why they have been lumped together in this post. 

The entire system of fundamentalist Christianity is established on the few being entirely right and the many being completely wrong. There is no wiggle room. They vigorously insist that the only way to procure a genuine relationship with God and enter into heaven is through their religious system. All other methods are an illusion. Of course, as humans, we frequently judge the merits of a belief system on the actions of its adherents. Fundamentalists know this. That is why they advocate the position that they solely exhibit morality. First, it lends credence to their particular beliefs. Second, it disparages non-believers. From the outside, this accusation seems obviously ludicrous. But to a believer, it merely confirms their convictions.

Most fundamentalist Christians were raised in the faith. Despite claims to the contrary, long-term converts are relatively rare. Because of this, it is in the church's best interest to retain as many of the children as they possibly can. Fear of losing members forces them to assert the immorality of atheism and agnosticism. Even if a person is entertaining doubts, they are less likely to renounce their beliefs if they assume that all non-believers are corrupted by the devil. Church leaders regularly promote their moral superiority by highlighting some predicament currently effecting the world and connecting it with godlessness. Even troubles within the church are attributed to nonbelievers masquerading as Christians.

Fear of an individual's ultimate fate another rationale for alleging moral supremacy. In fundamentalist Christianity, the fate of an individual, in theory, is relatively simple. If you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior and you have followed all the beliefs of the church, you will progress to heaven. Everyone else is condemned to hell. Of course, as I have written about previously, fear of hell is an excellent motivator. In my experience, many fundamentalist Christians felt prompted to be "good" because of their fear of hell and their desire for heaven. They presumed that, if you took away the threat of punishment and/or the reward of paradise, there would be no incentive for an individual to be a good, moral person.

Personally, I find this motive for morality to be exceedingly immature. If your only rationalization for behaving well is your dread of punishment, you are not an authentically good person. To truly be a moral person, your motivation should be your knowledge of right and wrong, and an eagerness to be good just because it is the right thing to do. You should treat people compassionately because it is proper, not because God might punish you if you don't.

The perception that religion must be the basis of morality is utterly absurd. For several years after I left the Southern Baptist church, I considered myself an agnostic with a slight leaning towards atheism. It is during this period of my life that my personal system of morality developed. I desired to be a good person because I longed to help people. I did not require a God or the threat of punishment to justify that aspiration. I still don't. Although I do now consider myself a theist, my moral convictions and my basis for them have not substantially changed.

Religious hostility has done nothing except allow for increased conflict in the world. If we concentrated on assisting our fellow man instead, we could make our world a better place. Personally, I believe God would much rather us feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and comfort the suffering than argue about whose morality is inherently superior.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Death Toll in Japan Likely Above 10,000

After I finished working on my last post, I decided to check on how things were progressing in Japan before I got some sleep. This article hit me like a ton of bricks and has left me in tears.

I would just like to encourage all my readers to please donate to a charity helping with the disaster relief in Japan. Here are a few links to some absolutely wonderful charities assisting the earthquake and tsunami victims:

Red Cross (or text "REDCROSS" to 90999 to donate $10)
The Salvation Army (or text "Japan" or "Quake" to 80888 to donate $10)
Convoy of Hope
Global Giving
International Medical Corps

Fear and Organized Religion

Fear is one of the most basic, primitive, and powerful human emotions. It comes in a variety of distinctive nuances, including anxiety, paranoia, dread, terror, phobias and panic. It can be rational or irrational. No matter what form it possesses, fear is frustrating, for it cannot be easily dismissed or ignored. We all experience fear at times, although most of us are not inclined to admit it. Some fears are universal: fear of death (either our own or of a loved one), fear of the future, and fear of punishment. Others are more individual. For example, before I became ill a year and a half ago, I was absolutely terrified of hypodermic needles. Anytime I saw one, even on TV, I had a panic attack. Just thinking about them could make me break out in a cold sweat. The fear was so intense that it became a danger to my health. The only vaccines I got were those required by law for school. Despite having asthma, I refused to get the annual influenza shot. The first times I had blood drawn and an IV inserted was when I began showing symptoms of leukemia, just after my 20th birthday.

When I reflect on these facts now, after hundreds of needle sticks in the past 18 months, I feel rather foolish. Of course needles are not pleasant, but they did not deserve the fear I had attached to them. Luckily, the object of my fear was a relatively insignificant part of my life and could usually be avoided. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. The universal fears I mentioned earlier are neither minor pieces of our lives, nor can they be circumvented. These profound fears leave us open to manipulation and abuse by organized religion.

Organized religion in its most conservative forms, such as fundamentalist Christianity and Islam is guilty what author and counselor Boyd Purcell calls "spiritual abuse" or, in extreme circumstances, "spiritual terrorism". Basically, spiritual abuse is the use of fear to control and manipulate members of a church. Since a majority of fundamentalist believers were raised within their sect or denomination, ideas are instilled at a young and impressionable age. This is where the fear originates. Children are instructed to believe certain doctrines and to comply with specific rules. They are then warned that questioning the doctrines or violating the rules will result in severe divine punishment.

Within fundamentalist religion, the fear results from the perceived negative characteristics of God. Although God is often attributed positive traits, such as being all-loving, fatherly, merciful, etc., fundamentalists tend to believe that God exhibits negative traits, such as being wrathful, judgmental, and cruel. Fundamentalist leaders describe in great detail the ever-lasting torment awaiting unbelievers in hell. Believers are threatened with a supposedly all-loving God's condemnation to hell eternally for even minuscule infractions. This fear stifles intellectual curiosity and spiritual growth. For the leaders, however, this fear ensures them constant power, with an army of loyal believers too scared to even consider challenging the status-quo. Depending on the individual's personality, this fear can cause immense damage. To honestly believe that God will send billions of people to hell and torture them eternally is horrifying. Although many are able to bury this teaching in the depths of their mind so they do not have to actually contemplate its true significance, some cannot. Of course, this leads to skepticism of their beliefs, a forbidden activity which ushers in even greater fear.

I have written before how I myself was caught in this perpetual cycle of fear and doubt and doubt and fear. Escape took years and I suspect the wound will never totally heal. I am left with one nagging question: Why has such fear of God been allowed to propagate?

Much of the fear can be traced to an aggressive thirst for power. During the late Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, Christian kings and emperors used Christianity to justify the conquest of vast territories in order to convert the pagan inhabitants to Christianity. Of course, there had to be an incentive for the pagans to convert. Fear of eternal damnation in hell coupled with the promise of eternal bliss of heaven persuaded conversions by the thousands. God was subverted from a redeemer of broken souls to a political tool.

That power grab continues to this day. Churches fight for members and political influence. Fear allows church leaders to control the rank and file. If any of them cease to toe the party line, a warning is conveyed, usually thinly disguised as concerned advice, that God is not pleased with their actions and that their soul is in jeopardy. This happened to me several times. Once, I asked a question in Sunday school class about how ancient cavemen fit into the story of Genesis. My Sunday school teacher later pulled me aside and in a “concerned” voice told me that God was upset and angry that I was reading such books because it showed that I lacked faith in Him. She admonished me to dedicate everything I did to Jesus or risk being left behind when the Rapture came (which we believed was imminent). It was all I could do not to burst into tears right then. I cried myself to sleep for weeks in terror.

As a universalist, I now discern what this fear genuinely is: toxic and soul-killing. I believe that the doctrine of hell has wreaked incalculable devastation on humanity. It has created a god who is astonishingly cruel and shallow. Is it not shocking that so many have rejected this god as an impossible monster? Regrettably, when this distorted version of God is rejected, many abandon hope for God at all. I did so myself for several years.

Universalism does not just reveal the love of God. It reveals that God is Love. Fear of God, fear of hell, fear of death, all are vanquished, for "perfect love drives out all fear" (1 John 4:18). God loves every human being He has ever created with an unimaginable intensity. To feel God's infinite love is beyond indescribable. It is as if all the fear and all pain are erased in an instant. But it's not just the love that is moving. It is the sorrow. The deepness of the sorrow God feels for His children's suffering. Every ounce of pain and every drop of misery His children endure is acutely felt by Him.

Fundamentalist religion is so caught up with doctrines, laws, and absolute perfection that they miss the point entirely. It should proclaim the love and closeness of God. Instead, it declares that we are separated from God by our own sin and weakness. It tells us God gives us but one chance to get it right while living on an Earth filled with hardship and pain. If we fail, God will throw us away like garbage. But this is a lie. God is always with us. Nothing could keep God away from us. He desires so intensely for us to see Him as He really is: our Creator and our Father whose strength more than makes up for our weakness and who will never abandon a single soul he has made. He aches for us to trust Him so He may heal the destruction fear has caused. Although the first step away from the organized religion which has ravaged us is scary, we have nothing to fear from the God who loves us.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan

Please keep the people of Japan in your thoughts and/or prayers as they deal with the destruction from the earthquake and the tsunami. Hundreds, if not thousands of people lost their lives. It will be days before we know the true scope of this disaster. The only bright spot so far is that the tsunami generated was relatively small, although that is probably no comfort to those in Japan who have lost loved ones.

When natural disasters like this occur, we all ask the same question: Why? 

As believer in a personal, all-loving God and the inherent infinite value of every human being, these situations greatly sadden me. I so wish I had a simple answer to why these terrible events occur. I think everybody does. But, the truth is, I do not know. Nobody knows. However, what I do know is that humans are capable of immense kindness and charity. It is during these harrowing times that you are able to observe the absolute best of humanity. Offers of help and support have come flooding in from people and governments. For a short time, we overlook all the differences between us and focus on what truly matters. I pray that one day it will not take a major natural disaster to bring out this behavior.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Existence of God

In the 21st century, few issues are debated with as much passion and intensity as whether or not God exists. One of the reasons I often refuse to enter this dispute is because it almost inevitably descends into ad hominem attacks. To me, the purpose of any debate is not to defend my beliefs and/or an attempt to change someone's mind. The point is to learn and understand. You must enter a debate with a willingness to modify your beliefs. However, that almost never occurs in a debate about God's existence. People often initiate this debate for the sole purpose of converting their opponent. They have no actual desire to honestly consider their opponent's point of view.

The main rationale for this, I believe, is the profoundly personal nature of this enigma. An individual's belief or disbelief in God helps to compose the foundation of that person's identity and the meaning they place on their life. It is so integral to who we are and how we perceive the universe that the notion of changing is absolutely terrifying. I have firsthand experience of this both ways. As I have mentioned before, I was raised a conservative Christian, became an agnostic leaning towards atheism, and then proceeded back to theism, albeit in a radically different configuration than before. Both transitions were an emotional roller-coaster. It's a transformation of your complete self; your soul is ripped apart and pieced back together. Nothing is left unscathed.

Unfortunately, we do not get much assistance either. Of course, both sides claim evidence for their belief, but neither side can reasonably, empirically, scientifically prove their theory. No one can hold up an item or event and say "Here is proof beyond all doubt that God does/does not exist!". Despite all the books, the arguments, the claims, and, sometimes, even the threats, in the end, we have nothing but our own faith to rely on.

Although I do consider myself a believer in God, my beliefs often leave me feeling extremely isolated. My religious journey has put me on a controversial path. A majority of religious believers consider me a heretic. They are certain that I shall be tormented in hell for the sin of advocating universalism. A couple even seemed to take pleasure in this fact, something beyond my comprehension. On the other side, I am a scientist. Religious belief is generally regarded suspiciously. Although I have discovered that a belief in God of some form is more common in scientific circles than the evidence first suggests, it is not a topic widely discussed. In fact, it is almost a taboo subject. To top it off, because of the staunch fundamentalist Christian beliefs in my family, my own beliefs must remain hidden from them.

So, I am an exile in the religious world and an outlier in the scientific world. Honestly, it is not a place I ever imagined I would end up. The isolation itself is a challenge. It forces me to examine my beliefs all the more. However, despite the isolation and the doubts, I feel secure in my faith. When someone asks me why I believe in God, I find it difficult to answer, especially if I am attempting to explain to a non-believer. The only way I understand how to explain it is a deep and profound certainty. I know it in the very core of my being stronger than I know anything else. It is the astounding realization of God's absolute and unconditional love for myself and all others. It is the enduring recognition that no matter how terrible things get, no matter how alone I feel, God is always with me and supporting me, even if I am not always aware of it at that moment. It is the undeniable comprehension of what it means to say that "God is love". But what genuinely amazes me is that is it so far beyond anything I expected to ever find. I went from sheer terror of God to complete trust in my Father and Creator. It is worth being the outlier, the exile, and even the heretic for, a billion trillion times over.

Of course, I realize that my feelings and my experiences cannot prove a single thing to another person. Nor do I attempt to make them. I believe each person must find their own path. I enjoy sharing my beliefs and experiences with others, and in turn, I love learning about theirs. Instead of being a debate, it should be a dialogue. If we become convinced of our own superiority, we shall lose valuable interactions and insights from those who have chosen a separate path. Both sides can learn much from the other.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Religion vs. Science (Part 2)

The past two centuries of human civilization has brought about a myriad of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the pace of progress is only accelerating. However, these advancements have incited some profound and contentious questions. Many of these questions arise from the discrepancy between ancient religious ideologies and recent scientific theories. These disparities have instigated religious, social, and political animosity, particularly in the United States. Why has this conflict developed? What is the most controversial issue? Most importantly, can religion and science coexist?

I will endeavor to answer these questions in a three-part series. Today, I will examine “What is the most controversial issue?” Note: Because I will be concentrating substantially on the United States, the primary religious doctrine scrutinized will be Christianity.

In my first post of this series, I touched on the scientific theories which have caused the most friction with religious belief, namely heliocentrism (historically), evolution and the Big Bang. I mentioned that the two latter theories are routinely dismissed by those who hold a conservative religious philosophy because they can provoke intense fear and an agonizing identity crisis. Of all the controversial scientific theories, evolution is currently the most contentious, since most high-schoolers in the US take a biology course which includes evolution. In today's post, I will examine the specifics of evolution which incite the fear and the identity crisis and attempt to determine why they do so. I will also detail the countermeasures conservative Christians have taken in the United States in an effort to combat the influence of evolution.

Evolution is the gradual change of organisms over extended periods of time due to natural selection, which initially leads to variation within a species and then eventually leads to an entirely new species. Because of this, it is logical to assume that all organisms currently alive share a common ancestry. Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution in his book On the Origin of Species, published after his now-famous journey on the HMS Beagle. It was immediately controversial, both in the scientific world and the religious establishment.

In the century and a half since the publication, evolution has grown to be the accepted theory on the origin of the diversity of life within the scientific community, especially with the discovery of genetics as the mechanism of natural selection. However, the religious debate still rages on. This debate is centered on the origin of humans. Evolution proposes that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors about 200,000 years ago. Conservative Christianity, however, believes that God created humans about 6,000 years ago. This belief is based on Genesis 1-2, the absolute beginning of the Bible, which describes God's creation of the heavens, the Earth, plants, animals, and finally, Adam and Eve, the first humans. A large majority of conservative Christianity believes this story is a literal and true description of events, a belief called creationism, for they believe in the unconditional inerrancy of the Bible.

Conservative Christians seem to be threatened by evolution because, in their mind, it takes away the "specialness" of humanity. The Bible specifically says God created the first humans from the dust with His own hands. It also alleges that God granted humans superiority over all the plants and animals of the Earth. However, by claiming that humans are just descendants of "lower" animals, conservative Christians evolution makes us equal to all other life forms on the planet. They also believe that evolutionary theory removes the possibility of God, which they find offensive. As I stated in my last post in this series, denying God or their beliefs about God is threatening not just to their faith, but to their very identity. It is why their negative reactions towards evolution and other controversial theories are so intensely fierce.

The debate between evolution and creationism comes to a climax with the issue of which theory should be taught in public schools. In the early 1900's, many Southern states in the US passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. In Tennessee, it was the Butler Act, enacted in 1925. This law was infamously challenged the same year in the Scopes Monkey Trial, where John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution and fined $100. For several decades, the controversy died down. By the 1960's and 70's, many public schools were teaching evolution as scientific fact. However, in the late 1980's, Louisiana passed a law requiring that creationism be taught alongside evolution. The controversy was reignited and a lawsuit progressed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court ruled that creationism cannot be taught in a US public school. They determined that the teaching of creationism violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution because it attempted to advance a particular religion.

The outrage from conservative Christians was enormous. In response, they formed a new theory: Intelligent Design. Basically, it is a pseudo-science claiming "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection". Throughout the late 90's and early 00's, local school boards in conservative areas of the US began to advocate a policy called "teaching the controversy". This would often entail Intelligent Design being added to the high school biology ciriculum, despite that there are extremely few scientists researching and advocating Intelligent Design.

Once again, the controversy came to a head during a court trial, this time in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2004, the Dover Area School Board passed a resolution requiring that all high school biology classes be read a short statement claiming that "[g]aps in the Theory of Evolution exist for which there is no evidence". It also informed the students that a textbook advocating Intelligent Design, called Of Pandas and People, was available to any student interested in learning more. Understandably, quite a few parents in the school district were upset, and a group of them sued the Dover School Board. The verdict of the lawsuit was in favor of the plaintiffs. The judge ruled that Intelligent Design was just creationism repackaged and, therefore, it violated the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

This debate personally effected me as well. Several months before the ruling in Kitzmiller, the school board of my hometown passed a similar resolution. I was in 11th grade and taking AP Biology. My biology teacher was extraordinarily irritated and refused to read the statement. This caused a minor scandal in the school district. Parents on both sides of the debate were complaining. There were several deeply religious students in my class, including one I considered a friend, who were upset when our teacher blatantly insulted creationism and Intelligent Design. She and the students who defended her, including myself, were threatened with hell and violence. The true passions involved in these conflicts are difficult to capture in a news story or a documentary.

Although Intelligent Design has faded somewhat from the national consciousness, the movement is still strong. In 2007, Answers in Genesis opened the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which presents an account of the origins of life consistent with creationism. Homeschooling is becoming more popular with religious families, especially now that textbooks advocating either creationism or Intelligent Design are easily available. The movement has shifted focus from legislating its beliefs into public schools to withdrawing their children from society and educating them with a narrow worldview which does not include information that contradicts their beliefs. Honestly, I feel that is a testament to the strength of the scientific theories. The evidence is so compelling that these people refuse to allow their children to study science for fear they will reject their religious upbringing. Unfortunatly, this leaves their children woefully ignorant in areas such as science and history, and places them at a remarkable disadvantage if they decide to attend a non-religious college. It is also contributing to the decline in the scientific and technological relevance of the United States and the so called "dumbing down" of America.

The conflict between science and religion bothers me for a multitude of reasons. Growing up in the Bible Belt, I had quite a few friends who were fundamentalist Christians. As an astronomer who studies theories rejected by conservative Christianity, there are times when I have visited back home and been condemned just for discussing my work, including by friends and family. I am automatically assumed to be an atheist and my research is taken as a personal attack. Although it pains me to admit it, this is quite painful, especially because I do believe in God. However, I am also encouraged by the increasing numbers of religious believers who are able to reconcile their faith with the facts of science. It gives me hope that science will win the day.