I watched part of the Grammy Awards last night. The decision-making process was a tortuous one. I had serious reservations about the worthiness of the Grammys to occupy my Sunday evening time due to, a) the overhyped, oversexed, undertalented spectacle it seems to have become; and b) the fact that I was far from convinced that I needed to spend over a third of the next few hours subjecting myself to mindless advertising. As it happens, the stasis produced by a fairly exhausting weekend full of church activities won out over my myriad principled objections to watching the Grammys. The best laid plans, and all that. Read more
So, this one has been making the rounds in the social media universe… Apparently, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has “defeated” the world’s leading atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins in a recent debate at Cambridge University. Quite handily, in fact—324 votes to 136. The resolution under discussion was “religion has no place in the 21st century.” Apparently it still does. Rowan Williams has saved the 21st century… or at least the day. We can all take a deep breath and relax. Religion will be around for a while.
I finished Marilynne Robinson’s excellent book When I Was a Child I Read Books over the course of a weekend trip to Edmonton. Amidst a wonderful collection of very stimulating essays, one in particular stood out, and I wanted to record a few of the more interesting passages here. The essay is called “The Human Spirit and the Good Society” and deals with the perennially contentious issue of human nature. What does it mean to be a human being? What, if anything is a human being for? What are our origins and our destiny? Amidst the many competing religious and secular narratives out there, and all of the possibilities these narratives open and close for us, where do we go to hear the truth about these vital questions? Which narratives do we trust to describe us to ourselves. Read more
A bit of a mixed bag this morning, but here are a few things that have caught my eye over the last few days and have me thinking (and avoiding sermon-writing!) on this crisp September morning. These are mostly unrelated themes, but if pressed for a connection, I suppose I would say that they deal in turn with the nature of religion, the purpose of religion, and the practice of religion. Read more
Why do people believe and behave as they do? Especially people who believe and behave differently than we do. Or who believe and behave in ways that we think are dangerous, imprudent, confusing, stupid, or just plain irritating. There are so many people who believe such strange things, after all. Why? Read more
Regular readers of this blog will know that the subject of my masters thesis a few years ago was the rise of “The New Atheism” (the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett) and that I interpreted this phenomenon not as the inevitable triumph of scientific rationality over superstition (as many of the authors were fond of claiming) but as a form of protest atheism against the evil in the world and against a God that they expected better from.
One of the books that I have been looking forward to reading for some time is Marilynne Robinson’s recent collection of essays called When I Was a Child I Read Books. Happily, a little brown package arrived in the mail today! I have enjoyed Robinson’s fiction immensely (Gilead and Home obviously come to mind), but haven’t had a chance to read her nonfiction just yet. I am very glad for the opportunity to correct this regrettable deficiency. Read more
Alain de Botton has been in the news a lot recently. His Religion for Atheists has garnered considerable attention, whether from atheists who think he is entirely too appreciative of religion or from religious folks who think he is rather selectively and inconsistently describing and accessing their traditions. In the last week alone, I’ve come across no fewer than ten reviews, articles, and interviews trying to make sense of his strange (to some) project of trying to take the best parts of religion and use them to construct a more meaningful secularism. Read more
Steven Pinker has a new book out called The Better Angels of Our Nature and is currently doing the rounds to promote it. I heard part of an interview with Mr. Pinker on CBC’s The Current yesterday, and today read an article on the book from The New York Times. I’ve not yet read Pinker’s (apparently massive!) book, but as I understand it the basic thesis is that, contrary to what one might expect to hear from an evolutionary psychologist committed to the a view of the world that sees natural selection as the driving force behind human history, we are becoming more peaceful as a species. Read more
One of the questions I have come to dread over the years is the “so what do you do for a living?” question. It’s not that I am ashamed to be a pastor, it’s simply that very often the discovery that I am “religious” can be something of a conversation-stopper. Pastors are strange creatures, to be sure, and many people seem unclear about what to do when encountering one outside of their natural habitats (i.e., a church). At the very least, disclosing that I am a pastor often makes the conversation instantly stranger, as people either a) hastily and awkwardly change the topic; b) begin to laboriously and not altogether coherently demonstrate how they are religious too; c) explain why they don’t go to church anymore; or d) stop talking altogether. Read more
It is not at all uncommon to hear some variation of the story that 18-30 year olds are one of the most under-represented groups in the church today. It seems that young adults are fleeing the church as soon as they leave high school, and only starting to trickle back once they have their own children, if they make their way back at all. While some of the reasons for this are undoubtedly related to the general transience of this age demographic, it’s a worrying trend that has been and continues to be the subject of exhaustive analysis. Read more
In the summer of 2006, I had just completed my first year at Regent College, and was looking for a few interesting summer courses to accelerate my degree. When I sat down to my first class with Prof. Alister McGrath on Christian Apologetics—a course that spent a lot of time on the ideas of Richard Dawkins—I had no idea that a few months later The God Delusion would hit the shelves, kick starting a half decade or so of fairly lively debate in the Western world on questions about the existence of God, the role of religion in public life, and the nature of belief.
I also had no idea that a year later I would be getting very well-acquainted with Messrs. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, during my Masters thesis attempting to locate the phenomenon of the new atheism as a response to the problem of evil. Read more
“The more scientifically literate, intellectually honest, and objectively sceptical a person is, the more likely they are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.”
So begins a video compilation sent by a friend yesterday, assembled by British medical doctor Jonathan Pararajasingham, and consisting of clips of 50 academics talking about their views on God, religion, and the afterlife. One suspects, from the quote at the outset, that there will be little diversity of opinion forthcoming and—34 minutes or so later—this suspicion is certainly validated. The smart people have unanimously spoken: Religion is for the weak and the uninformed. God is a myth. This world is all there is. Get used to it. Read more
Well this story is bound to induce a combination of chuckles and mild derision towards “born again” Christians and Roman Catholics. Apparently, Duke researchers have discovered that Protestants who claimed not to have had a “born again” experience had larger hippocampuses than Protestants who had. Roman Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated were also discovered to fall into the “smaller” category. Read more
I had breakfast yesterday with a couple of friends, one of whom happens to be the interim editor of our denominational magazine, the Mennonite Brethren Herald. Not surprisingly, the conversation eventually touched on the January issue of the Herald which was devoted to the doctrine of creation. Perhaps less surprisingly, given the nature of the issue’s content, my editor friend has been getting a bit of heat—both directly, via email, and indirectly via the blogosphere—from those on the “young earth” end of the spectrum. Even less surprisingly, the rhetoric can (and does) quickly turn fairly nasty when it comes to topics like these (I’ve reflected on this before here). Apparently, we still have much work to do when it comes to learning how to disagree Christianly. Read more
I’ve been reading books/articles related to science, faith, and philosophy over the last few weeks as I finished off an article on the (increasingly not so) new atheism for Direction Journal. One article I came across this week was Jesse Bering’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Brain” over at Slate. The article is not terribly original or new in the approach it takes—the basic idea is that our evolved psychological capacity to imaginatively reconstruct the mental states of others is thought to lead to the conclusion that our idea of God is just the biggest and most elaborate version of this process—but I think it provides an opportunity to identify a common error in discussions around this topic: the idea that if this or that feature of human thought and behaviour can be shown to have been evolutionarily useful at some point in human development, it is therefore explained without remainder by its function. I believe it was Holmes Rolston III who called this the “if functional, false” fallacy. Read more
On my walk home from work yesterday, I listened to part of a lecture on the nature of science. The speaker was very matter-of-factly talking about matters of cosmology, describing the forces that contribute to the ongoing operations of the cosmos, the relationship between the sun and the moon and the earth, and the general picture of how life is produced and sustained on this big chunk of rock rotating “as on a spit” around a fiery ball. Throughout the portion I listened to on my walk, the speaker’s voice barely changed in its tone. You could never have guessed that he was speaking about some of the most profound mysteries the human mind has ever approached. He could have been reading the instruction manual on how to clean my barbecue, for all his voice gave away. Read more
This past Saturday, I attended John Stackhouse’s lectures on faith, reason, and the new atheism down at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre. Evidently, there is still some interest in this topic as the event sold out—even in hyper-secular Nanaimo! Around twenty people from our church attended which was fantastic to see! I was in and out of the sessions throughout the day due to carting kids to hockey, friends’ houses, etc, but a couple of things struck me about his presentations: Read more