Friday, February 26, 2010

Steve Taylor and one vision of Christian society

Recently, Steve Taylor (ex-pastor of Opawa Baptist) wrote about the images of church in society, and whether to take Exodus or salt as the dominant metaphor. This is a small response to that and, if you're interested in the whole article, I recommend reading about it here.

Steve wrote:

Exodus is a powerful and repeated Biblical motif.


But spatially, Exodus relies on a “going out.” The people are to leave behind what is bad. Contrast the metaphor of exodus with the metaphor of salt and leaven, which work only by staying within. Salt needs meat, leaven needs dough and so the metaphor acts spatially, in a startlingly different way than Exodus. Rather than leave in order to become God’s community, we become God’s community from within, by digging in and staying put, by infiltration, rather than by separation and removal.


She describes this as a “stealth operation” that looks for the Kingdom of God in the midst of (Roman) oppression. “It presumes that imperial structures will remain intact so that they can be infiltrated. This is a resistance that exploits the empire; it does not defeat, neutralize, kill, or escape from its host.” (162) She draws both on the parables and on the missionary text that is Luke 10, in which the disciples “indigenize themselves by attaching to the family that employs them.” (163)

This is a pattern of cultural immersion. It’s deliberate.

It’s also a pattern of cultural resistance. Salt not only preserves, it also corrodes. In other words using the metaphor of salt and leaven to understand ourselves as the church, allows “the gospel to be both corrosive and preservative like salt … to be infectious, expansive and profane like leaven.” (155) As a metaphor it still encourages the church as a contrast community, refusing to bless the culture.


The kingdom of God is not free-standing. It has to be sought in the middle of something else


It strikes me as a fantastically practical, deeply Biblical way for Christians to see ourselves in the world today.

There is another thing which fits the criteria for this imagery.

It moves in and stays within, often times via infiltration.
It resists the body in which it resides, although not too much; it is certainly true that "it does not defeat, neutralize, kill, or escape from its host."
In part, it preserves it's host insofar as it is required for proper functioning.
In part, it corrodes like salt.
In part, it spreads within like leaven.
While it remains, it acts as a contrasting body, refusing to bless its host.
This thing will never be free-standing; it has to be sought in the middle of something else.

This thing I was describing is a parasite.

Perhaps the similarity of the above biblical pattern of Christianity to parasite behaviour exists merely as a product of the natural constraints of any 'organic growth' pattern. Perhaps it exists in part due to intentions (for good or ill) within the architects of religion. This may be a natural model for any counter-cultural social group. This may be the natural structure of most highly successful meme complexes.

One thing that I do know, however, is that I feel slightly uneasy with an understanding of the place of Christianity in society that so readily resembles a parasite. This may require me to make a reappraisal of the merits of parasites, or it may call for a re-examination of the above understanding of Christianity. All the same, it's a topic worth thinking about.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Please let it be known:


That is all.

Islam versus science: a rebuttal

Muslim *vs* Atheist {Quran *vs* Science}

Claim 1: Atheists “believe in” science and technology.

Wrong. People may recognise the usefulness of technology and appreciate the power of the scientific method, but they do not “believe in” these things. Also, both of these things have nothing to do with religion. Many religious people also like science and technology.

Claim 2: The Quran refers to the “big bang”.

Unclear. As presented here, his argument seems very weak. The verse he states does not seem to unequivocally refer to the big bang at all. He would have to do more work on this point to be convincing.

Claim 3: The Quran recognises that the moon reflects the light of the sun whereas science has only recognised this 100-200 years ago.

Wrong. Anaxagora, a Greek philosopher, believed that the moon reflected the light of the sun in 428BC.

The Arabic world had many very good astronomers, philosophers, and inventors throughout history, so I’m not surprised that this information is written into the Quran.

Claim 4: The Quran identified the “geo-spherical” shape of the earth.

Wrong. The earth is an oblate spheroid whereas an ostrich egg is not. Taken from one angle (i.e. from the side), an ostrich egg may appear to be the same shape as the earth viewed from an isometric perspective. However, if you rotate the ostrich egg you see that it is very different to the shape of the earth. Rotationally, they are not at all the same shape.

Claim 5: The Quran identified that the sun rotates about its own axis.

Unclear. Referring only to the verse given in this video, it does not seem to specify that the sun rotates. The claim is that the sun travels, “in orbit with it’s own motion.” This could just as easily be read as saying that the sun and moon both move. That’s not saying much. If it were to be more clear then perhaps we would expect to read, “...and with the sun rotating about its own axis.” Notice that the verse mentions the sun AND the moon traveling “with its own motion” even though they exhibit completely different types of rotation. I don’t think that this verse is trying to suggest what he thinks it is.

Claim 6: the Quran predicts the expansion of the universe.

Unclear. The verse mentioned seems to suggest that Allah was responsible for creating the heavens and the vastness of space. If the verse said what he suggested I would expect to find something like, “...and We continually expand the boundaries of space even to this day.”

Claim 7: the Quran speaks of the watercycle, which was only discovered otherwise in 1580.

As well as being mentioned in the Quran, the “water cycle” is described in both the Bible (e.g. Job 36:27-29) and in other ancient literature. The complete science of the hydrologic cycle may have been fully understood in 1580 but there have been mechanistic, descriptive understandings of the cycle for millennia.

The multiple verses that he reads out on this point are redundant: nobody denies that the Quran mentions it, but nobody should be surprised either given that knowledge of the water-cycle is so old.

Claim 8: the Quran identified that plants have two sexes.

Human knowledge of horticulture is very old. Cultivation of opium poppies, for example, goes back to the Neolithic age. As an example of gendered plants, the people of eastern Arabia knew how to grow and cultivate Date Palms as early as 6000 BC. Given that 50% of date plants are female, nobody should be surprised that knowledge such as this made it into the Quran. It would be more surprising if it hadn’t.

Claim 9: There are two types of water - sweet and salty - and there is a barrier between them.

I have no idea what he is talking about. I have never heard of sweet and salty water types. Does he mean salt water and fresh water? That’s not a new idea. I don’t know the barrier he refers to either.

Claim 10: Science tells us that the mountains prevent the earth from shaking.

What “science” does he mean by this? The verse that he uses to talk about this says, “Have We not made the earth as a bed, and the mountains as pegs?”

If he claims that science tells us that the mountains peg the earth down, does this mean he will also claim that the earth is a giant bed? This claim seems to be a fairly over-reaching mis-use of what is otherwise poetic metaphor. I don’t see the point of this claim.

Claim 11: Every living thing is created from water.

This is about as true as saying that my cat is made from cat-food. Humans drink water, and my cat eats cat-food. As biological creatures, our bodies absorb the nutrients of what we consume. Again, this claims seems to be an unnecessary and weak point that doesn’t really say much.

Claim 12: The Quran speak of zoology: of the spider, ant, bee

The verse he references seems to mention a spider-web. Does he think nobody knew about spider webs before 1400 years ago?

The verse about the ant really doesn’t say anything zoologically significant at all.

The verse about the bee only says that they make their homes in mountains and trees; this isn’t very rare or amazing knowledge for the time of the Quran.

Claim 13: The Quran speaks of embryology and embryological stages.

This verse he refers to says that man was created from a clot of blood. This isn’t a very clear or accurate description of embryology, as he would have his audience imagine.

The “embryological stages” he mentions is a discussion of man being created from water, clay, and sexual discharge, then being placed in the womb and being made from bone and flesh. Firstly, the initial description is a terrible attempt at describing embryological stages, and the second part of knowledge is not rare or amazing at all. Humans have known the function of wombs for many millennia (when did they ever not know?), and that people are made from flesh and bones is hardly revolutionary or pioneering ideas.

Claim 14: The only person who could have known the above information is the creator, Allah.

Wrong. If you don’t agree then read through claims 1-13 again very carefully. All of his claims are either vague claims, unclear textual usages, or simply regular knowledge that he is trying to make seem impressive.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Prayer versus Science

Prayer is a difficult subject. Every believer wants to believe in "the power of prayer."

Some YouTubers have suggested that praying to a bottle of milk may be as effective as praying to God. The following is a slightly more sensitive (and less patronising) explanation from one ex-evangelical:

One (now 'notorious') study demonstrated that prayer not only failed to work but also produced a greater negative outcome in the study group (see a NY Times article on it).

I have just spent the weekend at my church camp. The main topic for the camp was about prayer.

I heard the speaker, Marjorie Gibson, a pastor from Auckland's Pakuranga Baptist who was considered to be somewhat of a prayer expert, make various statements about how prayer works. When I heard her say something like, "sometimes God will answer your prayer by giving you more than what you ask for," I could only think about how wide she was casting the PETWHAC net. The more unspecific the prayer, the longer you wait for an answer, and the more nebulous the success conditions, the greater the likelihood that you will think that any given event is a positive hit for the power of prayer... even if it simply isn't.

I thought that the speaker was an amazingly excellent lady, very passionate, and quite genuine. However I also couldn't shake the feeling that her encouraging talks were actually more like group training in anti-critical thinking.

I had the itch to write and clarify my ideas, so I sat down and tried to sort out...

The Difference between Prayer and Science (or critical, evidence-based thinking):

How Prayer Works:

(1) God can act before you pray.

(2) God knows what you need even without you praying the words.

(3) Sometimes if you don’t pray, God won’t act (contradictorily to points 1 & 2 (and possibly omniscience/omnibenevolence))

(4) God won’t always give you what you ask for.

(5) God might give you something different to what you ask for.

(6) God might not answer your prayer (i.e. he might say no).

(7) God might not answer your prayer soon, and may expect you to keep persisting in prayer for a very long time (sometimes indistinguishable from point 6).

(8) God might not give you what you pray for because you’re praying for the wrong thing (which is possible irrelevant according to points 4 & 5).

(9) Sometimes, prayer is about getting on board with what God wants (rather than changing God through prayer).

(10) Many different things can be a prayer; everyone can pray in different ways.

How Science Works:

(1) Derive a prediction from the current theory to be examined.

The prediction must be clear, specific, and unambiguous.

(2) Perform controlled experiment.

(3) Examine results: do they confirm initial prediction?

(4) Confirmed predictions raise the probability of the hypothesis being true.

(5) Modify hypothesis accordingly and make a new prediction.

Prayer in practice:


Person prays to God.

Prayer is or isn’t answered.

Content of prayer: variable and unspecific [see 1, 2, 4, 5, 9, and 10]

Duration of experiment: unknowable [see 1, 6, and 7] (from no duration through to more than a lifetime)

Conditions of prayer success: unknowable [see 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10] (it may be exactly what is prayed for, it may be more, and it may be totally different to what is expected).

Conditions of prayer failure: unknowable [see 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8] (since any given prayer may be an experiment of infinite duration, we cannot be sure how long to wait until ending the experiment. Also, the prayer may be answered totally differently to expected meaning that an unrelated event may actually be the success condition).

Science in practice:


Scientist makes prediction.

Prediction is or isn’t confirmed via experimentation.

Content of hypothesis or prediction: exact, clear, and specific [see 1].

Duration of experiment: specific and necessary [see 2].

Conditions of prediction success: specific and necessary [see 3, 4, and 5].

Conditions of prediction failure: specific and necessary [see 3, 4, and 5].