Book Review – The Wonder of the Universe

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Books (February 2012)
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  • Imagine reading a book about science . . . and liking it.

    The Wonder of the Universe (Karl W. Giberson, IVP Books, 2012) offers a clear exploration of scientific discovery from the understanding the ancients had to the knowledge we have today to discoveries yet to be made.

    And yet as I read the words just penned—or computered—I realize they certainly do not reflect the wonder and joy I knew as I read this book.

    The book is about how science explores.

    The subtitle, Hints of God in Our Fine-Tuned World, might evoke from a Christian an expectation of a book about weird bugs, the eyesight of owls, whale song, how our bodies work just right. But instead, readers of this book are treated to a real discussion of how scientists learn, how they go “where the evidence leads,” how scientists want to get it right, that they are looking for truth.

    A Christian expecting validation of certain responses to some of the “I think I’m supposed to believe . . .” hot-button issues won’t find them here. Age of the universe? More than a cool billion, Giberson declares. Evolution? He states, “I argue that the history of life on this planet is neither random nor purposeless. In doing so, I start by accepting that the biological theory of evolution is basically true.” Climate change? Just a “handful of climate scientists . . . deny global warming.”

    Surprised? Read the book anyway. The Wonder of the Universe was not written to discuss the particulars of any given issue. It’s broader, and more inviting, than that.

    This book instead discusses how science works. At once interesting to a nonscientifically minded person like me and challenging enough for those who are of this bent, Giberson assures us that science does not constantly change, as some religious skeptics accuse. Rather, the “typical scientific advance is one that extends, encompasses, and absorbs rather than refutes old understandings.”

    The author is a scientist who is solidly Christian. What I gained from this book—besides the pleasure of reading something I usually wouldn’t and liking it—is that science is not to be feared, nor must it be either defended or denigrated. And thanks to this book, I’ve decided to stretch. I’ve got on reserve at the public library the author’s The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions.

    Imagine reading a book about science, liking it, and trying to review it. I wouldn’t know what angle to take, other than to absolutely recommend this one.

    Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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The Missing Links — May 15, 2011

Opening logo to the Star Wars films

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  • Audio of the 2010 debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza at Notre Dame.  The video is here.
  • The blog of the recently formed Christian Apologetics Alliance is up and running.  You can follow us on Twitter as well.  If you’re on Facebook and a student of apologetics, you can search for our name and request to join the Facebook group.
  • Alvin Plantinga’s recent Bellingham Lectures on the topics of  God and Evolution:  Where the Conflict Really Liesand “Does Science Show That Miracles Can’t Happen” can be viewed online here.  It’s not clear whether both lectures are included on the video or only one, but the running time of two hours, 22 minutes seems long for a single talk.
  • I love this video.  Your favorite characters from Star Wars quoting Jean-Paul Sartre. : )
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Book Review — The Passionate Intellect

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  • Hardcover: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (July 2010)
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    I recently had the opportunity to review Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect. The book, subtitled “Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind,” explores the practice of Christian theology and its relevance to the modern church and to Western culture. It is based on lectures and addresses given over the course of several years by McGrath, a Christian apologist and theologian who has gained public recognition as a speaker and author. Dr. McGrath’s credentials as a former atheist and an accomplished academic theologian with doctoral degrees in molecular biophysics and divinity give him a unique perspective in discussions of science, atheism, and Christianity.

    The first chapters of The Passionate Intellect primarily discuss the functions of theology as an aid to faith and understanding for the individual and the benefits of theology for the Christian community. The combination of the academic writing style and the subject matter made this part of the book a difficult read; analysis of a field of study is, to me, less engaging than the field of study itself. However, McGrath communicates very clearly his passion for a relationship with God that transcends intellectual understanding. Theology for McGrath is not merely a dry study of the history or meaning of God’s actions in this world, but a pursuit that should “leave us on our knees, adoring the mystery that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.” He advocates a theology that is rooted in a personal desire to know God more deeply, is useful to the church, and that informs apologetics and evangelism. For the church as a whole, he argues that theology can hold the church to a dynamic orthodoxy, making religious truth accessible to a changing culture while remaining faithful to original apostolic teaching.

    From these first chapters, McGrath moves into a discussion of engaging with our culture. For me, McGrath’s strength lies in these subjects; he tackles the supposed conflict of science and religion, the implications of Charles Darwin’s ideas, and the “new atheism” with thoughtfulness and an impressive command of both history and the natural sciences. He criticizes the dogmatic assumptions inherent in the arguments of scientific atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins, who argue that good science is incompatible with religion. In this section, McGrath devotes a well-balanced chapter to the implications of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species for the Christian faith. In my opinion, the most fascinating chapter in the book follows the chapter focusing on Darwin. In chapter nine, “Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution,” McGrath describes the conclusions that Augustine (354-430 A.D.) drew after much reflection and study of Scripture regarding God’s creation of the universe. Of course, Augustine was not responding to Charles Darwin or his work (Augustine predated Darwin by fifteen hundred years or so), but his conclusions are remarkably applicable to the current creation debate.

    The last several chapters focus on the new atheists’ metaphysical and sociological arguments, and their intellectual heritage. McGrath thoroughly addresses the new atheists’ assertion that “religion poisons everything,” a sound bite coined by Christopher Hitchens (2007) asserting that religion is responsible for most of the social ills in the world. This popular argument most commonly blames violence (particularly wars, terrorism, and abuse) on religion. The author dismantles the argument piece by piece, drawing from history, philosophy and sociological research to support his case.

    Alister McGrath is reasonable and meticulous when discussing the history and sociology of Christianity, enthusiastic about science, and passionate regarding the prospect of a life spent getting to know God. The Passionate Intellect is the product of a believer who expresses his faith with intellectual integrity and a remarkable command of the historical and scientific evidence. This book is a valuable resource for Christians seeking to clarify their thinking on the issues at the intersections of science, modern atheism, and Christianity. The Passionate Intellect is confirmation that a vibrant intellectual life is fully consistent with a deep faith in God.

    — Reviewed by Desmognathus.  A follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.  Desmognathus now blogs at Fish Nor Fowl.

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Richard Dawkins’s Defective Understanding of Religion

    The God Delusion

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    A recent post mentioned Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion as an example of the way the New Atheists present their arguments against God’s existence. These New Atheists often show such a disdain for religious thought that they seem not to bother to understand the beliefs that they criticize. As The Nation states in a favorable article about four New Atheist books, including Dawkins’s, “They show little understanding of religion or interest in it.”

    That lack of understanding is one of several serious flaws in The God Delusion. Dawkins tries to refute the popular arguments for God’s existence, and presents his arguments against God’s existence. Many of these arguments are misinformed or not logically sound. He makes no bones about his lack of respect for religious people in general: “What works for soap flakes [marketing] works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today’s less educated classes.” That attitude toward the other side of the issue doesn’t seem to encourage thoughtful debate.

    Dawkins’s main attempt to prove that the universe was not created by a God is as follows: He proposes that any intelligence complex enough to design anything must have taken a long time to evolve, therefore must appear late in the timeline, and so (voila!) could not have designed the universe in the first place. There are several fairly obvious objections to this reasoning:

    1. Many Christians believe (and there is scriptural support) that God created time along with the universe, and is therefore outside of time. This is not an esoteric view, or a new one.

    2. Almost no one believes that the creator God is a biological creature subject to natural selection. Most Christians do not believe that God is physical. There is no reason to accept Dawkins’s assumption that any intelligence that exists, anywhere, inside or outside of our universe, must be physical or must have evolved by Darwinian means.

    These objections are based on fairly common points of view, yet they are not addressed.

    In some cases, Dawkins actually makes his case worse by ignoring the obvious. In a section denouncing the “argument [for God] from personal experience,” he says:

    “On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun ‘tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude’, are harder to write off. […] It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. […] But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing.”

    Visions are, well, visions – no one claims that they are actually occurring in a physical sense (except perhaps inside the brain). Omitting such an obvious, mainstream interpretation of the event and claiming that those who accept the Fatima event believe that the solar system no longer exists doesn’t help his case.

    The passages in TGD that cite scripture are particularly badly reasoned. He omits or misinterprets important passages and does not seem to be aware that the Bible authors recorded some events that they considered bad. For example, he describes a wrenching story in Judges 19 about a woman being raped and murdered in a strange city and uses it as an example of the misogyny of scripture, implying that the Bible condones such actions; however, he strangely omits any mention of the last verse of the chapter, which contradicts his point: “Everyone who saw it [the body of the murdered woman] said, ‘Such a horrible crime has not been committed since Israel left Egypt. Shouldn’t we speak up and do something about this?’” (Judges 19:30, NLT)

    Dawkins believes that religion is evil because it sometimes motivates evil actions. Although Dawkins implies that the evils done by various religions are reasons not to believe in any God, he doesn’t believe that the good things done by religions are reasons to believe in God. He says, “When I pressed him [obstetrician Robert Winston], he said that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims.” I agree – but I would add that the fact that some religious people lead bad lives does not have much bearing on the truth of a religion. It’s not possible to fairly weigh the overall good and evil done as a result of any religion. The question isn’t, “Do I like religion X?” or even “Will religion X make me a better person?” The question is, “What is the truth?”

    – Cloud of Witnesses thanks Desmognathus for this guest post.

    Desmognathus is a follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.



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    On Naturalism, “Blind, Pitiless Indifference” Is Our Lot

    As argued by Richard Dawkins.  And, given his worldview commitment of metaphysical naturalism, he’s quite right:

    “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    River Out of Eden (Basic Books, 1996), p. 133.

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    On Naturalism, Human Dignity Disappears

    Charles Darwin at age 51, just after publishin...

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    This isn’t too surprising, since matter and laws of nature are incapable of generating value, regardless of how they interact or what levels of complexity they achieve.  Value or worth is never the product of a chemical reaction or the movement of particles, or the conclusion of an equation.

    On naturalism, man is simply one animal among many, with no special moral status, as philosopher James Rachels articulates:

    The traditional supports for the idea of human dignity are gone.  They have not survived the colossal shift of perspective brought about by Darwin’s theory.  It might be thought that this result need not be devastating for the idea of human dignity, because even if the traditional supports are gone, the idea might still be defended on some other grounds.

    Once again, though, an evolutionary perspective is bound to make one skeptical.  The doctrine of human dignity says that humans merit a level of moral concern wholly different from that accorded to mere animals; for this to be true, there would have to be some big, morally significant difference between them.  Therefore, any adequate defense of human dignity would require some conception of human beings as radically different from other animals.

    But that is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question.  It makes us suspicious of any doctrine that sees large gaps of any sort between humans and all other creatures.  This being so, a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defense of human dignity is most unlikely.

    – James Rachels, Created from Animals (Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 171-172.

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    The Religious Views of Scientists

    An overview of the structure of DNA.
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    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on these interesting statistics:

    According to a survey of American Association for the Advancement of Science members, conducted by the Pew Research Center in May and June, a majority of scientists (51 percent) say they believe in God or a higher power, while 41 percent say they do not.

    Furthermore, scientists today are no less likely to believe in God than they were almost 100 years ago, when the scientific community was first polled on this issue. In 1914, 11 years before the Scopes “monkey” trial and four decades before the discovery of the structure of DNA, psychologist James Leuba asked 1,000 U.S. scientists about their views on God. He found the scientific community evenly divided, with 42 percent saying that they believed in a personal God and the same number saying they did not. . . .

    But the scientific community is much less religious than the general public. In Pew surveys, 95 percent of American adults say they believe in some form of deity or higher power.

    And the public does not share scientists’ certainty about evolution. While 87 percent of scientists say that life evolved over time due to natural processes, only 32 percent of the public believes this to be true, according to a different Pew poll last year.

    (HT: Faith-Science News)

    It seems that most scientists aren’t compelled by their discipline to abandon their religious beliefs.

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