Saturday, 27 December 2008

atheist says christianity is good

These days it's not uncommon to read articles in which outspoken atheists angrily denounce how christianity causes terrible trouble in the world. So it's both surprising and refreshing to read a strong atheist express the opposite conclusion.

Matthew Parris, writing in The Times (As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God), explains that he grew up in Africa, in Malawi (then known as Nyasaland), and recently had the opportunity to re-visit. Christian missionaries bring much needed aid and assistance to African communities, and although he used to disagree with the spiritual teachings, he welcomed the good works. "...only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it."

But both then and now, he noticed that, by nature, many Africans seem passive, unwilling to work for positive change. They give too much respect to leaders, even if they are unjust and brutal, and those still under the influence of tribal religions live in fear and superstition.

But conversion to christianity changes all that, he says - "it liberates". And so he argues that practical help (schools, hospitals, emergency aid, etc) is not enough, the whole African belief system "must ... be supplanted". Africa "needs God".

This leads this obviously honest atheist to a surprising conclusion: "Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete."

The article is well worth a read, and reinforces a similar conclusion by another atheist journalist, Roy Hattersley, several years ago.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

history wars

Science is so often the battleground between atheism and christianity (and other beliefs too), but unfortunately history is not exempt. I have discussed the historical arguments about Jesus, but other aspects of history are also part of the battle.

The arguments arise because some atheists wish to discredit christianity by arguing that the church has oppressed people and opposed science at every turn. Thus it is argued that Hitler was a christian, or at least strongly influenced by christianity, the conquistadores were likewise christian, etc.

There is no doubt much that the church, and by association, christians, have in their history to be deeply ashamed about and sorry for, but many of the arguments which find their way onto the web are just plain wrong.

One argument (apparently) is the claim that attempts by nineteenth century Scottish doctor, James Simpson, to introduce the use of chloroform to relieve pain during childbirth, were opposed by blinkered churchmen. A historian has examined the matter, and found that there is no record of the church opposing Simpson, who was a devout christian, and there were many in the church who supported him. But someone made an unsupported and erroneous claim about Simpson's experience, and it was quoted and re-quoted until it became accepted "fact".

In due course I'll examine a few other historical arguments to see how they stand up.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

faith & science @ christmas

I've referred to a number of discussions and books about the supposed "war" between faith and science. But here's an article in the UK Daily Mail about scientists who see no conflict.

The writer starts with the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission, which orbited the moon but did not land, who on their public radio broadcast back from the 'far side of the moon' read portions of the creation story from the book of Genesis, concluding with the words "and God saw that it was good", then signed off with "And we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas - and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth".

Oxford particle physicist turned theologian John Polkinghorne, Oxford mathematician John Lennox, biologist Pauline Rudd from University College Dublin, and Stuart Burgess, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Bristol University, are all quoted on how they see faith and science as complementary.

It's all pretty brief, but worth a look.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

schoolies, red frogs and all that

Every year, in what has become a traditional rite of passage, thousands of teens who have just completed their schooling, descend on a number of beachside locations and generally go nuts. The biggest location is "Surfers", the beachside location of Surfers Paradise south of Brisbane.

It's almost a coming of age ritual, a way of celebrating the end of the tension of completing the Higher School Certificate, and, for some, a way to party until they drop. It's called "Schoolies", or "Schoolies week". And along with the fun comes the inevitable problems - drunkenness, drugs, high-spirited behaviour gone wrong, accidents, even exploitation by sexual predators. Local communities can benefit financially, but can still be wary of the cost.

A decade ago, a Brisbane church wanted to do something to help the kids have their fun, but provide support from those at risk. And so Red Frogs was born, and it has now grown to a nationwide movement with almost 2000 volunteers, 9 tonnes of confectionery, and a big welcome from schoolies and local communities.

No doubt the system varies a little in different places, but it basically involves:

  • young volunteers spending a week or two living in the big schoolies locations - in many cases, they live in the same hotels and apartments as the kids and act as "hotel chaplains";
  • the volunteers give out Red Frogs (this year donated by Nestle who makes them), a confectionery popular with the kids, make pancakes, hold BBQs, clean rooms and generally make positive contact with the kids;
  • the stay up late and walk kids home who might otherwise be incapable of getting there themselves, or who might be vulnerable, and are on call to help out in any way necessary;
  • on occasions, they are able to intervene in more serious situations, such as illness, accident or attempted suicide.

From all reports, the Red Frogs teams are well received and well respected. Some of the schoolies find the week away isn't exactly what they wanted, and the Red Frogs team can provide welcome relief which can develop into ongoing friendships. It's a great example of christian kids putting their faith into practice by doing something that is seriously useful.

Check out the Red Frogs website, the Citipoint church Red Frogs page, and reports by national and local media.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

the ice retreat continues

Climate change continues to present a challenge. The argument over its reality continues, but the converts continue to outnumber the sceptics. And the world economic situation gives the realists one more reason for caution.

But the alarming data continues to mount. Among the latest news is the retreat of the Arctic ice, with the mimimum summer area in 2007 the lowest ever recorded (see graph). While some say that we've been there before, researchers say this is not just a cyclic fluctuation. Rather, the loss of ice reduces the reflection of solar heat, increasing the heat retained, and hastening the rise in local sea temperatures, thus creating a vicious circle. The future may well be worse than the graph suggests.

Data taken from BBC report

Scientists are predicting that the arctic may be ice-free in summer in less than a decade, which will have enormous environmental consequences and will threaten many arctic species. As you'd expect, there are business interests that oppose doing very much about the problem; in fact some fear that human interference in the area can only increase as the ice reduces.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

trends (3): crime

I think most people living in major cities feel crime is more threatening than it used to be, but statistics suggest otherwise. Recent statistics for New South Wales reveal that the occurrence of most of the defined "major crime" categories are either stable or falling over the past two years. For example:

  • domestic violence assault was down 8%, the first fall for more than a decade;
  • assault with firearm was down 26%, and with other weapons was down 18%;
  • many other forms of theft were also slightly down.

The only major crime area which has shown an increase is fraud, up by 19%, and almost half of this is due to theft of petrol when service station patrons do not pay. It seems that whenever petrol prices rise, petrol theft rises correspondingly.

Some categories of crime (e.g. drug use) are not included in the "major crime" categories, because they are victimless crimes and not reported, therefore the statistics reflect the effectiveness of law enforcement as much as criminal behaviour. Drug use is generally increasing.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

trends (2): mothers

Photo: Morguefile

There is a trend for Australian women to delay motherhood. A recent report (reflecting 2006 data) indicates that the average age of mothers giving birth is now almost 30, more than a year older than a decade ago.

The percentage of births to women aged over 35 has increased from 15% to 21%. The number of first births to women over 35 rose from 8% to 14%, and those over 30 rose from 28% to 41%. The number of women under 20 giving birth halved in the last decade.

Yet despite all this, the number of births in Australia jumped more than 10% over two years, after being pretty constant for almost a decade.

Commentators, including some mentioned in the report, suggest that financial uncertainty and large mortgages are major reasons for delaying childbirth, along with improvements in medical procedures and other social and educational factors.

As a result, household demographics have changed remarkably in 30 years:

  • the number of couples with dependent children fell from 48% to 37%;
  • the number of couples without children has risen from 28% to 37%;
  • the number of single parent families has risen from 7 to 11%.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

trends (1): smoking

Photo: Morguefile

For many years now, there has been a strong anti-smoking campaign in Australia, as doubtless there has been in many other countries. It has included limitations and bans on cigarette advertising and media advertising campaigns.

And the good news is that it seems to be working. Smoking rates among men are now almost a quarter of what they were in 1945, and half those in 1980. Rates among women have also dropped (after a short term rise). And the younger age groups seem also to be getting the message, with less than half the number of young adults (18-24) smoking than 25 years ago. The incidence of deaths from lung cancer is also falling.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

infidelity lures

".... everyone loves a tale of extramarital activities." So says Julia Llewellyn Smith in an article in last weekend's Sydney Morning Herald, taken from an article in the London Telegraph. She continues: "Titillated by its trappings of sex, deception and risk, we can be so entertained that we ignore the suffering of those involved."

The immediate catalyst for these comments was an affair involving chef Gordon Ramsay that has apparently become public recently. But the article went on to examine how affairs were easier these days, with discrete online access to chat rooms and escort service, and emails to make clandestine liaisons. And, experts are quoted as claiming, it is wealth that provides the trigger. Some men under pressure at work, and providing everything financially for their families, apparently feel that a "little fling" on the side is quite justified. There are even introduction agencies for people looking to have an affair with another married but romance-starved person.

Yet, the experts say, and not surprisingly, affairs are hurtful: "I cannot tell you just how much pain they cause" says a marital therapist. The pain is not just from finding out one's partner has been unfaithful, but the increasing anxiety some husbands and wives feel about any behaviour of their partner that could be seen as suspicious.

A person's ethics are shown not so much in their public behaviour, but in what they do and value in their privacy. With increasing opportunities for discreet infidelity, are we showing our true colours?

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

the atheist wars continue

One of the most formidable arguments against the existence of God is the extent of evil in the world - either God's not very good, or he's not very clever. Or perhaps he's stranger than we sometimes imagine.

One of the strongest responses to this argument is to ask what is the definition of "good" and "evil" on which the argument depends, and where did it come from? We normally think of morality as something which defines things we "should" or "should not" do, despite how we might wish to do. Without God, ethics seems to be nothing more than how natural selection has led us to think, and there is no "should".

Christopher Hitchens has written with some passion about the evils of religion, and in a 2007 debate with a christian theologian, his views were put to the test (a downloadable pdf file is also available).

Read it for yourself and make your own judgments, but I thought Hitchens came across as evasive and unable to provide any objective basis for his ethics.