Saturday, May 31, 2008

Evangelical Christianity and Proselytizing

There have been a variety of reports about evangelical Christians proselytizing while members of the United States military. Most recently, a group of Marines in Fallujah distributed gospel verses to Iraqis. In particular, they distributed coins that on one side asked “"Where will you spend eternity?" The other side read

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16."

I’m not going to discuss in detail how this sort of behavior is unproductive and undermines the U.S. presence in Iraq. The potential damage from these actions is obvious.[1]

I am going to discuss why evangelical Christians are more prone to these sorts of proselytizing abuses than are members of other religions. Evangelical Christianity has a track record of using positions of authority to proselytize and of claiming to be persecuted when its adherents are blocked from doing so. [2] More generally, evangelical Christians have more trouble abstaining from proselytizing than do members of other religious groups. In my personal experience, interfaith dialogue groups between Jews and Muslims, Jews and non-evangelical Christians, and between other groups work much better than any form of interfaith dialogue with evangelicals. One joint Jewish-Christian text study group at Yale College fell apart because many of the evangelicals were not trying to learn about Jewish attitudes towards the texts, but were interested instead in converting the Jews.

At an initial glance, the apparent difference between evangelical Christianity and other groups could be a matter of sampling bias. Evangelical Christianity is currently dominant in the United States. We have an evangelical President. The second most successful candidate in the 2008 Republican Presidential primary was an evangelical minister. Although there has been fluctuation in the fraction of the population which self-identifies as evangelical, currently about twenty-six percent of the population of the United States identifies itself as evangelical.[3] As a religion with many adherents and many of those adherents in positions of power, there will be more proselytizing incidents involving evangelicals than members of smaller groups even if the overall rate of the behavior is the same in both groups. This sampling issue could explain why proselytizing incidents such as that which occurred in Iraq seem more common with evangelicals than with other religious groups.

However, this is not a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon as a whole. For example, it does not explain why interfaith dialogue groups with evangelicals are more likely to be disrupted by missionizing tendencies than interfaith dialogue with other religions.

I suggest four reasons why evangelical Christians are less inclined or less able to restrain their proselytizing tendencies than are members of religious groups.

First, as discussed earlier, evangelical Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States. Evangelicals thus have more self-confidence than others in presenting their beliefs. Moreover, when they are restrained by courts or superior officers, evangelicals are more likely to feel that this is something out of the ordinary.

Second, evangelical Christianity in many forms emphasizes that failure to accept Jesus leads to consignment to hell for eternity with no chance for future redemption. This contrasts with the beliefs of many other religions. For example, in many forms of Judaism, eternal suffering is essentially impossible. In many Eastern religions such as Buddhism, the worst punishment one can get for bad behavior in this life is an unpleasant reincarnation. For evangelical Christianity, the stakes for failing to convert people are much higher than the stakes for other religions, given the evangelicals’ certainty that the unconverted will go to Hell for eternity. Petty, temporary laws such as the First Amendment pale in comparison to the threat of eternal damnation. Indeed, if someone convinced me that any individual who had not accepted Jesus as personal lord and savior was going to Hell, I’d abandon concerns like the First Amendment. It would be the only logical, decent course of action.

Third, even for the other religions and other forms of Christianity that believe that this life determines what happens to one for eternity, there are more options in the afterlife than just heaven and hell. For many evangelical Christians, the afterlife is an either-or proposition: the saved go to heaven and the unsaved go to hell. This contrasts, for example, with Roman Catholicism that historically adopted the idea of Limbo in which resided unbaptized babies as well as, in some theological lines, virtuous pagans.[4]

Fourth, the need to witness is evangelical Christianity’s strongest obligation for its believers. In contrast, other religions have many distinct obligations. For example, Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews believe that they need to keep kosher. Orthodox Jews pray three times daily. Roman Catholics take communion and go to confession. Reform Jews vote Democratic. However, evangelical Christianity has one single major obligation: proselytize.

Moreover, because there are few other obligations for evangelicals, proselytizing is an obligation of central importance. Thus, telling an evangelical not to proselytize is akin to telling an Orthodox Jew not to say Shemai. The Orthodox Jew so constrained will, understandably, feel under attack and persecuted. Witnessing is the primary ritualistic obligation of evangelical Christianity. Indeed, this is a religion whose name is intrinsically connected with spreading the “good news.” The centrality of witnessing leads to evangelical feelings of persecution when their proselytizing is blocked.

In summary, there are a variety of reasons why evangelical Christianity have difficulty restraining themselves when it comes to proselytizing. These difficulties are due in a large part to beliefs deeply embedded in evangelical Christianity. Thus, we are not likely to see this behavior change in the foreseeable future.

[1] I’m also not going to comment on their failure to use the original Quenya: “An Eru tambë mellë Ambar sa antanes eressë yónerya, ya nostanes, sië aiquen ná vórima tan avafiruva, mal haryuvas oira cuilë.”

[2] See for example this essay by Elizabeth A. Castelli, "Persecution Complexes". See also Laurie Goodstein, "Air Force Chaplain Tells of Academy Proselytizing" , May 12 2005, The New York Times.

[3] Laurie Goodstein, October 7, 2007, For a Trusty Voting Bloc, a Faith Shaken The New York Times. Larry Eskridge, Defining Evangelicalism.

[4] While Dante is not an authority on Catholic theology it is noteworthy that he includes even Saladin, a Muslim, in limbo.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Old Friends: The Vatican and Extraterrestrials

Over the last few weeks, there has been much discussion about the comments of José Gabriel Funes, the Vatican’s chief astronomer, asserting that there is no contradiction between belief in extraterrestrials and Catholic doctrine. Many commentators such as Greg Laden suggest that this is a noteworthy event contrasting with prior statements by the Vatican. In fact, Catholicism has historically been open to the existence of intelligent life on other worlds. Catholic writers have discussed such notions for hundreds of years.

Michael Crowe in the “Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900” surveys religious literature concerning extraterrestrial life from 1860 to 1900. Crowe does not claim that his survey is systematic or exhaustive but rather focuses on influential and prominent writers. According to Crowe, a substantial fraction of Catholic writers in the 19th century supported the existence of extraterrestrial life.[1]

Catholic authors have debated these issues for along time. Crowe traces discussion back to the early Church fathers such as Augustine who were largely opposed to the notion of extraterrestrial life. However, by the Middle Ages, pro-ET views were more acceptable in the Catholic Church.[2]

The existence of extraterrestrial life has posed serious problems for Christian theology. For example, if Jesus was incarnated once as a human, how could other species be saved? Some writers in the 19th century rejected Christianity on this basis, arguing that extraterrestrial life exists and that extraterrestrial life could not be reconciled with Christianity. Other writers have speculated that only humans fell or that Jesus came to multiple worlds. While Laden and others imply that such speculation is a new phenomenon it has been discussed for centuries. The Church has never taken a strong position on whether belief in extraterrestrial life is compatible with Christianity.[3]

In summary, the recent statement by the Vatican’s chief astronomer is not groundbreaking. It does not represent a substantial departure from existing Catholic doctrine nor does it represent progressive thinking by the Church. For further details on this topic, I recommend that interested readers read Crowe’s book which is dry but informative.

[1] Crowe’s numbers do not add up. He states that there are twenty seven Catholic authors with fourteen supporting extraterrestrial life, ten opposed and four not easily classifiable. 14+10+4=28 not 27. I have not made a detailed investigation to determine where Crowe’s math is off but I think there were only 3 unclassified (he does not give a table or any similar breakdown). Pg. 457 Michael J. Crowe, “The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750 -1900” Dover Publications 1999.

[2] Crowe, pg. 6.

[3] The urban legend that Giordano Bruno was executed for believing in many worlds with life on them is false. While this was one of his views that the Church at the time objected to, Bruno espoused many other views which the Church considered far more problematic.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Possible contempt of court by Premise Media?

I'm becoming more convinced that for policy reasons, if not as a matter of jurisprudence, Expelled's use of Imagine should constitute fair use. As you may recall, Ben Stein's Expelled used a short clip of Lennon's Imagine without permission. Yoko Ono is now suing while Stein and the production company, Premise Media, is claiming that their use constitutes fair use. Wikipedia has a good article on Expelled which discusses this issue in some detail. (Disclaimer: I've helped write some of it). There is a temporary injunction to prevent new distribution of the movie.

I'm having trouble seeing how this article isn't talking about a failure to follow the injunction against continued distribution of the movie. The article talks about how Expelled is about to run in a new theater in central Iowa. Given that the injunction allows places that have the movie to continue showing it but prohibits new distributions of the movie I'm puzzled as to how this can done consistent with the injunction which as of Monday's hearing still stands.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Modern Geocentrism

Naftali was kind enough to give me a copy of a tract that he received in the mail. This isn’t any ordinary tract. It is geocentrist. That’s right: There are people who still believe the sun revolves around the earth. They even direct you to a website, , apparently run by one Gerardus D. Bouw who has a PhD in astronomy from Case Western University and is a professor emeritus at a small Methodist university.

I’m not going to discuss in detail why geocentrism is stupid or why this website contradicts itself. I will however briefly note that the proponents cannot make up their minds whether all evidence is completely consistent with both geocentrism and the standard view of the universe, or whether there is in fact actual evidence for geocentrism. Logically, either but not both of these can be true.[1]

There are four similarities in both the geocentrists’ rhetoric and the rhetoric of anti-evolution proponents.

First, the geocentrists base their views on their interpretation of the Bible. According to the pamphlet, “The change in theories damaged our viewpoint of the Bible, which is geocentric. The King James Bible is openly geocentric.” This is almost identical to what anti-evolutionists say. For example, Answers in Genesis, the largest Young Earth Creationist ministry in the United States, emphasizes that it is devoted to “defending the Bible from the very first verse."

Second, the geocentrists assert that “if the earth is not fixed on center stage of the universe, then life on earth and man himself are essentially meaningless.”[2] This claim is identical to claims made by all sorts of anti-evolutionists, such as young earth creationist Henry Morris and intelligent design proponent Phillip Johnson.

Third, the geocentrists attempt to disguise what they talking about by changing its name. However, their disguises are even more superficial than those of the anti-evolution proponents. The geocentrists claim that they aren’t proponents of ideologically-driven “geocentrism” but rather the modern, scientific notion of “geocentricity,” just as creationism became creation science and then later became intelligent design and “sudden emergence theory.”

Fourth, the geocentrists emphasize that they have supporters who have PhDs, some of which are even in physics and astronomy. This claim is identical to how anti-evolution proponents point how they have supporters who have PhDs in mathematics, chemistry, and even cell biology.

To all this one might retort that geocentrists are a tiny minority. However, 18% of the population of the United States thinks that the sun revolves around the earth. Geocentrism is so common that Answers in Genesis has felt a need to respond to it in multiple articles on its website. The next time an anti-evolution proponent makes one of these arguments, ask the person, “Hey! I’ve heard geocentrists make the same claim. How is your claim any different?”

[1] Actually, I can’t resist pointing out another example of how interesting these people are. Bouw correctly explains arrow notation and then uses it to make an apologetic argument for how you don’t want to be in hell for 10↑↑10 years and that eternity is even worse.

[2] Bouw also claims that heliocentrism leads to the mistaken notion that man is the measure of all things as opposed to God. I’m a bit confused how to reconcile this with the claim that humanity not being at the center of the universe makes humanity meaningless.

Edit: Fixed mistake pointed out be Harry below.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The number 1 does not exist.

Edit: I apologize for the crappy formatting. I'm having some trouble with blogger and using small fonts. I'll probably go harass Abbie or someone else who knows more about blogger's interface.

I'm a bit of a fan of fallacious proofs. This will be the first in a series of a posts over the next few weeks of some of my favorite fallacious proofs. Today we are going to prove that 1 does not exist.

Now you may recall from calculus that L'Hospital's rule states that if I have a limit of the form f/g and both f and g are both going to infinity or are both going to 0 then the limit is the same as the limit of f'/g' where f' is the derivative of f and g' is the derivative of g.

So for example, if I
had lim x ->oo (x^2+1)/(2x^2) as x goes to infinity this would be equal to lim x ->oo 2x/4x=1/2 since the derivative of x^2+1 is 2x and the derivative of 2x^2 is 4x and both the top and the bottom of the original limit are going to infinity.

Another example would be if we had lim
x ->oo (x+sin x)/x^2. We set f(x)= x+sin x and g(x)=x^2. f is going to infinity since sin x >=-1 so f(x) >= x-1 which goes to infinity. g(x) is clearly going to infinity. So we can apply L'Hospital's rule. f'(x)=1+cos x and g'(x)=2x. So lim x ->oo (x+sin x)/x^2 = lim x ->oo (1+cos x)/2x and this is clearly going to 0 since the top stays between 0 and 2 while the bottom goes to infinity.

Now a fun one:
lim x ->oo (x^2+ sin x)/(x^2). I claim we can evaluate this limit without using L'hospital's rule. We have x^2- 1 <= (x^2 + sin x) <= x^2 + 1. Thus, (x^2- 1)/x^2 <= (x^2 + sin x)/x^2 <= (x^2 + 1)/x^2. Finally, since lim x ->oo (x^2- 1)/x^2 = lim x ->oo (x^2 +1)/x^2 = 1 (this is a good exercise if you haven't done any limit problems recently) we have lim x ->oo (x^2+ sin x)/(x^2) =1.

Now, let's see what happens when we apply L'Hospital's rule: Set f(x)= x^2+sin x and g(x)=x^2. Both are going to infinity. f'(x)= 2x+ cos x and g'(x)= 2x. So lim x ->oo (x^2+ sin x)/(x^2) = lim x ->oo (2x+ cos x)/(2x). Ok, this is still infinity over infinity so we can apply L'Hospital's rule again. Thus lim x ->oo (x^2+ sin x)/(x^2) = lim x ->oo (2x+ cos x)/(2x) = lim x ->oo (2 - sin x)/(2), and this limit doesn't exist because sin just keeps oscillating. But the limit has to be 1 by our earlier work. We thus conclude that 1 does not exist.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The US Air Force Wants to Hack Your Computer

Edit:TG below points out that the original news sources appeared to be in error. The original USAF proposals says "The U.S. would not, and need not, infect unwitting computers as zombies." My apologies. Should have checked the original USAF article.

According to recent news reports the US Air Force is considering constructing a botnet to use in future conflicts. A botnet is a large collection of computers controlled together for nefarious ends. These uses include generating spam or launching denial of service attacks where all the computers make information requests to a server or website in a short period of time to knock it offline. The Air Force wants botnets to knock out enemies’ computer networks and engage in similar cyberwarfare.

Unfortunately, the USAF thinks that the “military should consider infecting civilian machines with trojans, making them potential zombies, should the need for the botnet's use arise.” In English that means the Air Force is thinking about putting computer viruses on your computer without your permission to be used for military purposes. There’s no way to prevent the military from also using these infections as opportunities to spy on civilian computers. There’s also the problem that even well designed viruses will frequently have unintended consequences and can corrupt your data or allow unauthorized third parties access to your machine.

From this description, it sounds like the USAF wouldn’t even alert you to the fact that they had infected your machine. Whatever happened to the right of due process to protect life, liberty and property? Infecting, controlling and potentially damaging my property without even letting me know is about as far from due process as you can get. The Air Force is considering acting like an unethical hacker. I suspect that many people would be willing to install such software if the USAF asked for volunteers. I’d certainly consider it. But this plan, as it is stated, ignores our basic property rights and civil liberties.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ur Doing it Wrong!

First let me apologize to readers. The title of this blog entry is inspired in part by having read way too many of Abbie Smith’s blog entries. I am slightly infected by Lolcatese.

Now, who is doing it wrong and what is it? “Who” is Alaska’s legislators and “it” is science. Alaska’s legislators have decided that they are unhappy with the idea that polar bears might be endangered by global warming. Thus, they want to hire scientists to conduct a study that says otherwise. Newsflash to Alaska: Science doesn’t work that way. You don’t conduct studies with a specific result in mind, working towards that result.

Now, in the past when science has been inconvenient, groups have tried to quietly hire people who were nominally scientists to say otherwise. Tobacco companies conducted studies dismissing the dangers of cigarettes. Oil companies conducted studies dismissing the danger of global warming. There are many other examples. These all pretended to be serious, independent scientific studies.

This Alaskan situation is unique in that no attempt is being made to hide the motivation or the desired result of the study. So here’s my question: Are the Alaskan legislators so ignorant that they don’t understand how science works? Or have anti-science attitudes become so prevalent that it has now become acceptable to engage in blatant junk science in full view? Or is the Alaska legislature so full of chutzpah that they just don’t care?

Regardless of the cause, we should all be filled with outrage at this sort of behavior. This is the logical result of the continuing war on science. Groups on both the left and the right have repeatedly tried to pass their propaganda as science. Now, educated adults in positions of power cannot even tell the difference between science and advocacy.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

National Day of Prayer and the First Amendment

Today is the National Day of Prayer.

One might be able to argue that a sufficiently ecumenical National Day of Prayer does not violate the First Amendment. However, don't worry. The National Day of Prayer is now being run to be a blatant violation of the First Amendment. See for example what is happening in Minnesota.

The entire list of attendees at the state capitol is composed of evangelical Christians. There will not even be a Catholic representative. This isn't a coincidence either. The event is run by Shirley Dobson, the wife of James Dobson who founded and runs Focus on the Family. Mrs. Dobson also runs the National Taskforce to coordinate the event. Dobson only lets people be state coordinators if they sign a statement affirming that "I believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of The Living God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation and have an ongoing relationship with God." The statement continues but that enough should make it apparent. This about as blatant a violation of separation of Church and State as you can get. This amounts to nothing less than active discrimination against non-evangelicals.

Have other religious groups decided to protest and maybe sue? No. That would be too sensible. Jews on First, a group that has a good attitude about the First Amendment issues is promoting a separate inclusive day of prayer. Screw that. What we need is a special day honoring the First Amendment where we can explain to everyone what the First Amendment says and explain what they can and cannot do with our tax dollars. If James Dobson and his ilk want to undermine the fundamental values of this great nation they can do so without us paying for it.

Hat tip to Pharyngula.