Physics can say nothing about the end of religion

The BBC has a provocative link on its website “Physics predicts end of religion”. I think even they have realised how stupid that claim is, for the article at the end of the link seems to have been renamed, less controversially, Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says. Well, at least the BBC is accurate there: that claim is being made, in a study “reported at the American Physical Society meeting”.

In all of the nine nations in the study:

Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland

the main religion is Christianity. So the claim is essentially that the church will become extinct in these nations. And most of these nations are similar enough to the UK that any results could probably be extrapolated here – although probably not to the USA where the religious scene is very different.

So what can these physicists possibly have to say about religion? Have they discovered some fundamental particle which makes people religious, and which is decaying? No, nothing like that. As far as I can see, all they are doing is analysing the statistics showing a decline in religion, and tying them in with some theory, or speculation, about the “utility” of being a member of a social group.

Now it seems to me that here the physicists are dabbling in social science, outside their proper field of study. They may indeed have a better statistical model to offer, based on “nonlinear dynamics”, than the often flawed ones used by social scientists to make long term predictions – see my 2008 post Lies, damned lies and church attendance statistics, and the following discussion. But they can hardly claim to be experts on the central issue of their study,

the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

Indeed they seem to have completely missed the point here by presupposing that people call themselves religious because of “social motives”. Their study

posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.

Now this may be true of social clubs. It may also be true of minority language groups, as was suggested in a previous study which may be of interest to my minority language Bible translator friends. It may also have some validity for the kind of traditional churchgoing for social reasons which is indeed in steep decline, but not yet extinct, here in the UK. But it seems to me to miss the point completely concerning true biblical Christianity, which is in fact now growing here, to the extent that overall, as I reported in 2009, UK churchgoing is no longer in decline.

Although I was once a physicist, I make no claim to be a social scientist. But I have studied enough sociology to see a fatal weakness in the physicists’ argument. There are indeed social groups which people join because of their “social status or utility”, but there are others which they join because they are committed to a particular cause, which may be political, or perhaps semi-political like the environmental movement, or may be religious. The social dynamics of such groups are quite different from what the physicists seem to have modelled. Admittedly such groups tend to be small minorities; they can grow much larger but as they do they tend to change their character. But they can be large enough, and active enough, to be by no means “extinct”. Since the physicists seem not to have taken into account religious groups which follow this dynamic, their predictions are fundamentally flawed.

Anyway, sociological explanation is only part of the story. The physicists have left God out of the picture. But God is at work in his church, and we can be confident that he will not let it become extinct. Religion as a social club may indeed die. I would not be sorry to see this, although sad that it might mean the end of any Christian witness in some neighbourhoods and villages. But the true people of God, brought together not for “utility” but because they are committed to the cause of Jesus Christ, will continue to grow in strength and in numbers.

The wrath of God and apocalyptic events

I was surprised to find that more than a week had passed since I posted on The wrath of God, or the inevitable consequences of sin?, and that a whole week had passed since Sam completed his series on the wrath of God with part 4 and part 5I promised to comment again when the series was complete, but I have not yet done so, so here goes, briefly.

It is interesting to read that Sam sees the genocide in Rwanda as a foretaste of God’s wrath. I am happy with this as long as it is clear that earthly events are always a foretaste, never the fullness of God’s wrath. But would Sam say the same about more recent events in Japan? Is God’s wrath shown only when humans deliberately destroy one another, or also when natural or man-made disasters apparently accidentally to so?

A few days later Sam embarked on a follow-up series From Wrath to Apocalypse (part 1, part 2, still “to be continued”). I thought maybe this would be a quick response to the Japan earthquake and tsunami, but apparently like me Sam is ignoring Japan. However, his new series looks like a timely reminder not to over-react to apocalyptic predictions. Now I look forward to more from Sam on

what Jesus is doing is bringing “the end of the world” to bear on how people live in the present moment.

Why I am ignoring Japan

Many of my fellow Christian bloggers are busy writing about the sad events in Japan. Among those who have written sensibly, as almost always, is Eddie Arthur.

As for my own response, I came across an old post on this blog Why I am ignoring Burma and China, and this says it all about Japan as well. Note especially my point about the far larger numbers who die all the time, without publicity, of preventable diseases like malaria. So, I repeat,

as Christians we should not let ourselves be distracted by giving excessive attention to natural disasters, which are bound to come, but should keep our focus on the work of building God’s kingdom.

The Gospel is not incompatible with theistic evolution

It is a long time since I have discussed here issues of creation and evolution. Indeed I think my post from two years ago Most British people still believe in God the Creator, but why? is the most recent to touch on this matter, and even there I don’t really discuss my own position.

However, in recent weeks I have become involved in some Facebook discussions on this matter, and have made some comments which are really too long for such threads. Here is the latest of those. The discussion had been about whether animals could have died before the fall of Adam and Eve. I was recommended an article by David Shackelford, published by Creation Ministries International, with the provocative title The relationship between the Fall, the Curse, and the Gospel, and its incompatibility with theistic evolution. In response I wrote (slightly edited):

Interesting article.

Therefore, the ontological foundations of the pre-fallen world require that there be nothing below that standard. Such an environment requires the absence of violence, death, or bloodshed.

This is a non sequitur, at least if talking about animals. It needs to be argued, not assumed, that violence and death among animals falls below God’s standard of perfection. I take the point about initial vegetarianism in Genesis 1:29-30, but this cannot imply that animal death is objectively evil because then the revocation of vegetarianism in 9:3 is God commanding sin. An argument can perhaps be built from 9:4-6, but it needs to be built, not assumed.

If any one of these three elements in Genesis is reduced to something other than a historical event, the whole of Scripture is called into question and the Gospel of Christ begins to crumble. It is likewise axiomatic that if theistic evolution is true, then not just one, but all three of the aforementioned criteria are false and must be jettisoned.

Another complete non sequitur. Theistic evolution does not imply that Garden of Eden story is untrue or “unhistorical”. I do not deny that there was a first couple set apart in a “garden”, who really lived and really died. The only issue is exactly how they were created and came to be in the garden.

While some theistic evolutionists would say that Adam and Eve were real people but not directly created by God, they still face insurmountable problems with the plain teachings of Scripture; for example, the inherent sinful nature, the continual upward progress demanded by most versions of evolution, and so forth.

Please tell me what problem I am supposed to have with “the inherent sinful nature”. I would love to know! I don’t hold to Augustine’s view of it, see my post Augustine’s mistake about original sin. But I really don’t know what version is supposed to cause me “insurmountable problems”. As for “continual upward progress”, this is not real evolutionary science but the half-baked philosophy that some atheists have tried to bolt on to it.

Most evolutionary theories (particularly theistic evolution) assume an upward spiral of progress, including the development of man.

That is complete nonsense, concerning theistic evolution. OK, some pseudo-Christians who actually believe that in the continuing progress of mankind may hold to some kind of theistic evolution. But evangelical theistic evolutionists are clear that progress is possible only as God makes it possible, and that it stopped, at least in spiritual and moral areas, when mankind turned away from God into sin.

I will leave to scientists the task of demonstrating the scientific weaknesses of evolution.

I will leave it to Dr Shackelford to demonstrate the theological weaknesses of his position – or at least the logical weakness of this sentence.

Jonah's whale returns to the coast of Israel

For decades I have been taught that the fish that swallowed the prophet Jonah, and then vomited him up on the beach near Joppa, could not have been a whale. After all, I was told, there are no whales in the Mediterranean Sea. So, the argument often went on, the story of Jonah cannot be true and the Bible cannot be trusted.

So it should “shock” biblical scholars as well as conservationists that, as reported by the BBC,

A gray whale has appeared off the coast of Israel

– and indeed is pictured with Herzliya Marina, just up the coast from Joppa/Jaffa, in the background. Apparently these whales normally live only in the North Pacific, and none have been sighted in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean for centuries. But for some unknown reason this individual, perhaps one of a colony of gray whales, has swum half way round the world to the coast of Israel.

So, when we read in Jonah 1:17 (TNIV) that

the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah

he could well have brought it all the way from the Pacific – and so the absence of whales in the Mediterranean is no barrier at all to taking the story of Jonah as a true one.

The end of the world postponed until 2013?

In September 2008 I reported on the panic that was gripping the world that the whole universe might come to an end the following day, when the Large Hadron Collider was switched on. Of course nothing much happened that day, except that the LHC was eventually switched on – and then rather quickly switched off again because of a fault. In fact in 2008 they never really got round to colliding any particles.

By November 2009 the LHC was up and running again, and colliding particles. Indeed in that month it succeeded in breaking the record for the most energetic particle collisions ever done – but only by a rather small margin, 1.18 trillion electron volts compared with a previous record of 0.98 trillion. This year they are hoping to increase the power gradually to seven trillion.

But it seems the world has a reprieve of four or five years, from the original switch on date, before it is in real danger – that is if there is anything real about this alleged danger. The BBC reports today that the LHC will be run at half power, a maximum of seven trillion electron volts, until late 2011 – and then shut down for up to a year, for safety improvements before it can be run up to its full power of 14 trillion. That means that the earliest it will be used at full power is late 2012, and more likely not until 2013. As the real predicted danger, of black holes and strange forms of matter being formed, comes at that 14 trillion electron volt level, it seems that we can sleep in peace for a few more years.

Or can we? The LHC may not be coming in full power until 2013, but perhaps Jesus will come first…

A question for complementarians: Will women ever be equal?

I thank Suzanne McCarthy and John Hobbins for a two link chain leading me to Jeremy Pierce’s interesting post Ontological Equality and Functional Subordination. Here Jeremy examines the argument that both in the Trinity and in relationships between men and women eternal functional subordination, in either case a controversial doctrine, implies ontological or essential inequality, which in either case could be seen as heretical.

In his post Jeremy discusses a point made by Philip Payne, who wrote:

I believe that ontological equality is perfectly compatible with functional subordination as long as that subordination is voluntary and temporary, as was Christ’s voluntary and temporary subordination to the Father in the incarnation (e.g. Phil 2:6-11). It seems to me that if subordination in necessary and eternal, it is then an aspect of one’s essence.

Jeremy looks at this issue primarily from the perspective of the Trinity, which I will not consider in detail here. In his last paragraph he comes back to what for me is the more relevant issue, relationships between men and women. He points out that

Marriage relationships end in death, and there’s no reason to think elder-congregation relationships continue with any authoritative relationship post-death.

Therefore these relationships are not eternal, and so the argument that eternal subordination implies essential inequality, even if it is valid, does not apply here.

However, Jeremy had earlier argued that in the case of the Trinity the distinguishing issue which might make functional subordination ontological or essential is not that it is eternal, in the strict temporal sense of lasting for ever past and future. For indeed

Something’s being true at every time certainly does not imply that it had to be true.

Rather, as Jeremy suggests but does not explain in detail, what would make a particular type of subordination essential is that it is true in every possible world.

Is this true of the subordination of women, as taught by complementarians? Would they say that women are functionally subordinate in every possible world? That is an interesting question, and not an easy one to answer.

Now clearly God could have created a world in which women are not subordinate to men – in fact I believe that he did! He is able to do such things because he is able to create separate families of women and men who are ontologically different from our own human family. But the real issue has to be about whether subordination of women is an essential attribute of our own species, the notional descendants of Adam and Eve. The question is not about separately created species – any more than it is about animals, some of which naturally change their gender implying that for them gender is not an essential characteristic.

So the question really is this: are there, in the complementarian world view, possible worlds in which human women, related to us, are not functionally subordinate to human men?

Now I am sure that complementarians would hold that their rules on subordination of women would apply in any human colony in any other part of the universe which humans might in future be able to travel to. Indeed they probably already want to apply them on the International Space Station. So this subordination applies, on their view, in any world to which the descendants of Adam and Eve can travel by their own power.

But how about any world to which God might want to move them, or from where he might have moved them in the past? I know that complementarians generally hold that Eve was already subordinate to Adam in the Garden of Eden, basing this view on a misunderstanding of “helper” in Genesis 2:18,20. Do they hold that women will remain functionally subordinate to men in God’s eternal kingdom, or in the lake of fire? I guess I would accept that there is subordination of women in the place of eternal punishment, where the curse of the fall may apply with its fullest force. But in the new heavenly Jerusalem?

So, complementarians, if you want to show that women are essentially, ontologically equal to men, and that this equality is not compromised by the functional subordination you teach, then you need to tell us about a possible world in which truly human women, daughters of Eve, are not subordinate to their men, the sons of Adam. If it is indeed part of your future hope that in the coming kingdom women will fully enjoy their essential equality with men, then please tell us that openly. But if it is not, if you hold that women will remain subordinate in God’s eternal kingdom, then you are left with no possible world in which women are not functionally subordinate. And that, by Jeremy’s argument which seems convincing, implies that women are not essentially equal to men. If that’s what you really believe, admit it!

Our world may be a giant hologram

I thank a Facebook friend for a link to a fascinating article. According to the New Scientist (and it’s not the 1st April issue), Our world may be a giant hologram. No, this is not some new science fiction idea, the next step on from The Matrix perhaps. Apparently some real scientists have detected tiny oscillations in space-time which are best explained by this theory: everything we see in three dimensions is in fact some kind of holographic projection of events on a two-dimensional boundary of the universe.

I must say I am not entirely surprised. What does surprise me is that the scientists, or at least the writer of the popular New Scientist article, put this in terms of space only and not also of time. If in fact we are talking about the four-dimensional space-time we observe being a hologram projected from its three-dimensional boundary, then that is getting very close to the kind of concept I was struggling towards, but never fully articulated, more than three years ago, in my unfinished series Kingdom Thermodynamics (part 2, part 3, part 4 which is as far as I got with this).

In that series I was thinking mostly in terms of the universe as we now observe it being determined by its boundaries in the past and in the future, in the same kind of way that a hologram is determined by the details on its boundaries. This is distinct from the generally understood picture of the universe, as constrained by what happened on a past boundary but open in the future. In fact this latter is the picture presupposed by discussions of causality and of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as I discussed previously.

Of course this has theological implications. The universe open to the future presupposed by scientists is the basis of Open Theism, the controversial teaching that even God doesn’t have definite knowledge of the future. By contrast, more traditional evangelical thinking, Arminian as well as Calvinist, is or at least would most logically be based on the idea of a closed and predetermined future, an ultimate boundary to space-time.

I can’t help wondering if scientists are now inching towards this latter position, rather than the open future which they have presupposed for so long. I should clarify that this does not imply determinism. Indeed the evidence they have found for the hologram idea is precisely that what happens on the boundary is random, on a tiny scale, and so not predetermined. Instead we have a picture of a universe which is not fully deterministic, but nevertheless whose future is in general terms already fixed – very much like the biblical picture.

Primate genetics

Once before I commented on a BBC report about primates as if it was about archbishops rather than monkeys. But this time a new report on the BBC science website about primate genetics really is about an archbishop, Desmond Tutu – in fact retired and so a former primate. After tests of his genetic health, and comparison with results from other southern Africans, he discovered:

I am related to the San people, the first people to inhabit Southern Africa.

I am sure that doesn’t make him more closely related than anyone else to those other, non-human, primates. But I can’t help wondering which of the genetic traits of the San people would be of use for their work of leading Anglican churches.

Global warming: we are trying our best to make it happen!

Sam Norton is sceptical about Anthropogenic Global Warming, i.e. the widely accepted conclusion that the world is getting warmer because of human activity. Well, his post suggests that one piece of evidence for this may, or may not, have been debunked. So perhaps we can’t be as certain as we once thought we were that the world today is warmer than it was in the Middle Ages.

But there are things that we can be sure of. One is that the world today is quite a lot warmer than it was in the early twentieth century. That much is clear from temperature records.

Another is that (according to Wikipedia, yes I know this is not the most reliable source) the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is around 20% higher than it was 50 years ago and perhaps 35% higher than the level before the industrial age. The amount of carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere each year from burning of fossil fuels, around 27 gigatonnes in 2004, is about twice the observed rate of increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 0.4% of 3 teratonnes which is 12 gigatonnes. Presumably around half of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide is taken up by various “sinks” and half remains in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile the reason I am enjoying eating fresh tomatoes in October is not global warming – but is an effect which is also linked to global warming. My tomatoes are in a greenhouse, which is warmer than the garden outside not because it is heated by burning fossil fuels but because the glass traps the sun’s rays. It is well known and easily demonstrated that carbon dioxide has a similar greenhouse effect. Plug into the equations, or into a simple experimental rig, the increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and the result is clear: an increase in temperature of a few degrees Celsius – just about what has been observed.

So we have observed A, a large and apparently anthropogenic increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And we have observed B, an increase in global temperatures. We can also show by theory and experiment that, everything else being equal, A causes B. I accept that that falls short of proof that the observed A is actually causing the observed B, because there are other factors which makes everything else not equal.

But perhaps it would be fair to say that if the observed B is not being caused by the observed A, but by some other factor outside our control, then we as humanity are extremely fortunate that the predicted greenhouse effect is being cancelled out by some unknown factor and so not causing even faster global warming. To put it in other words, we humans, by pumping all that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, are doing all that we can to cause global warming, and if we are not causing it that is by luck rather than responsible judgment.