Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Herod still runs amok: Islamists in Congo

United Methodist Bishop Unda Yemba Gabriel is resident bishop of the East Congo Episcopal Area. He preached at the Tennessee Annual Conference last summer. He sent this message to Bishop Bill McAlilly this week.
To brothers and sisters in Christ:
Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 
As I write these few lines, my heart is too heavy because of the situation going on in Beni territory, northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is part of my Episcopal Area. The efforts of our army (are) insufficient to protect people. 
People there are killed every day in the neighboring villages and we run the risk of losing all our believers. Two weeks ago, a group of Uganda rebels killed people in the villages (of) Kamango, Oicha and Mbawu. A Methodist family (a father, his wife and their two children) were killed with machetes. 
Many people are fleeing to Beni. Our local congregations there are crowded with displaced people who flee from villages for their lives. We need your prayers. But, as you know, food and basic needs must be met. Our evangelization should reach people in need. 
I am sending this SOS message to all those who may want to help. 
May God be with us all during Christmas, but let’s keep in mind that our brothers and sisters are dying somewhere because of selfish interests. 
Bishop Unda Yemba Gabriel
Resident Bishop, East Congo Episcopal Area
Two thousand years ago, King Herod sent his soldiers into Bethlehem to kill every male child two years old or younger, thinking that the dragnet would surely include the young Jesus. But Jesus and his family had already left town. The killing of the children has become knows as the "slaughter of the innocents."

Der Kindermord zu Bethlehem (The Slaughter of the Innocents)
Original lithograph, 1960, by Otto Dix
The world's opposition to Christianity certainly did not stop at Herod. In our present day the Islamist murderers of ISIS have been slaughtering Arab Christians by carload lots in Syria and Iraq. They have recorded the killings on video and posted them on the internet. I'll not post any here, they are shocking and gruesome, but according to Western Muslims who have translated the audio, the ISIS killers use actual formal phrases of sacrificial Muslim worship when killing the Christians. Clearly, they say, ISIS sees the murders not merely as holy duty but literally as human-sacrificial worship.

The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is not so clear, however. There have been anti-government insurgencies there with varying degrees of intensity for about 20 years. Presently, more than 15 different armed groups operate in the Beni region and even more in nearby Lupero. Attacks and abductions for ransom have intensified all around with many hundreds per year. These groups include but are not only Muslim gangs. Some are simply outlaw bandits. For example,
KINSHASA, 10 December 2014 (IRIN) - The murders of more than 250 men, women and children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Beni Territory in recent weeks have widely been blamed on an insurgency of Ugandan origin known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces-NALU (ADF-NALU). But several armed groups and racketeering gangs are active in the area and the culprits of these killings have not been incontrovertibly identified. 
Who is the Alliance of Democratic Forces? explains:
The Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF) is made up of Ugandan opposition forces, supported by the Government of Sudan, which fought the Government of Uganda. The ADF was formed in the late 1990s. According to the UN, most of its members are Islamists who want to establish Sharia law in Uganda. This Ugandan Muslim rebel group has conducted limited activities in Uganda and DR Congo. The Allied Democratic Forces, originally a Ugandan based insurgency, now operates in eastern DRC and is listed as a terrorist organization.
Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Beni Territory is on the DRC's east, bordering Uganda.
Bishop Gabriel did not identify who carried out the murders in the villages of Kamango, Oicha and Mbawu, although his identification of them as "Ugandan" reasonably points to the Islamist ADF. Originally, the ADF was made up of a coalition Ugandan refugee groups who found themselves marginalized after the fall of Uganda's dictator, Idi Amin. Taking refuge in Congo, they originally oriented toward agressing the Ugandan government, which they still do, but have over time attempted to cement Islamist rule in larger areas of the DRC. About the middle of last year the ADF began a resurgence in the Congolese district of Beni. The Congolese government says that the ADF is receiving training, equipment and funding from Al-Shabaab in Somalia, an Islamist group that rivals ISIS in its brutality and insistence on enforcing strict sharia law. It was Al-Shabaab that gained widespread notoriety for its kidnapping of dozens of Christian girls and young women to use as sex slaves, a deed that earned the Obama administration's condemnation. Some Western analysts affirm the ADF's relationship with Al-Shabaab but others do not.

Fortunately for Beni, the ADF is not very large, estimated to include no more than about 1,500 combatants. The ADF claims it is growing daily, however, and it is apparently very efficiently organized and managed. The great majority of Muslims in Congo and Uganda are not politicized and are not easily attracted to Islamist groups. (Interestingly, the ADF's leader, Jamil Mukulu, is a Christian convert to Islam. He has been under UN sanctions since 2011.)

ADF Leader Jamil Mukulu addresses some fighters and children. The Allied Democratic Forces rebels indoctrinate children as young as 3 years, before they become terrorists.

On the other hand, there is widespread disaffection among the population in and around Beni, who believe, on the whole, that they have been neglected and shortchanged by the central government in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Flush with new, foreign cash, the ADF has been literally buying the people's loyalty with simple but valuable gifts such as new bicycles.

Congo's government has not mounted effective actions against the ADF but, rather, just a series of individual firefights with no apparent organizing principle or strategy. A Western journalist noted that government forces, "will come in, handle fighting, declare their victory and go home. At this point the rebels move back in again... and the villagers are punished as a whole,"

All of which is to say that there is no good omen for this part of Bishop Gabriel's episcopal area. To respond to his plea, Bishop McAlilly writes,
If you wish to offer any financial assistance for the current crisis he describes, please send to your conference treasurer for “Bishop Unda SOS.” 
I am sending a donation and I hope you will, too. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Silly atheist quotes

Such as from Morgan Freeman:

Which reminds me of the conversation I had one time with a self-proclaimed atheist. He insisted that there was no evidence for God.

"What about the universe?" I asked. "Does the universe count as evidence?"

"Of course not," he answered.

"Then you are asking for evidence that would be greater than the universe. What exactly would that be?"

Sound of crickets chirping . . .

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Call to Worship

We gather to celebrate anew the advent of our Savior in our world.
We welcome the Christ with great gladness!
Let the Lord enter again into our lives and shape our souls to his likeness.
In the Nativity God was made flesh and became one in whom we place our whole trust.
For our Lord was born of a woman as we are and was adopted by her husband into the family of humankind.
In that manner, we are born again by God’s Spirit and are adopted by God into his family.
We thank our redeeming God for that Marvelous Exchange!
We pledge in our worship to be reborn in his image. We promise in our Christmas to keep Christ in us. We vow in our lives to be his presence in this world.
We keep Christ in this Christmas, remembering with gladness the reason for this day!
We shall keep Christ from this Nativity day until the next, remembering with thankfulness that we are his body in this world. Come, holy Jesus, come, and dwell with us!

Jesus, the evidence

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Whaddya know, the Bible is right about sex and marriage after all

On The Liberal Marriage Hypothesis -

But when you look specifically at sex itself, at patterns of actual sexual activity and their link to marital happiness and longevity, direct evidence for a permissiveness premium is extremely hard to find. And for women, almost all the the data points sharply in the opposite direction. Notwithstanding the potential for regrets, women who only had sex with their future spouse are more likely to be in a high quality marriage than women who had a higher number of sexual partners. Divorce rates are higher for women with multiple premarital partners than women who had only one; they’retwice as high for women who have cohabitated serially than women who only cohabitated with their future husband. Independent of marriage, relationship stability is stronger when sex is initiated later, and monogamy and a restricted number of sex partners isstrongly associated with female happiness and emotional well-being, period. And these results hold irrespective of education levels, as this piece by Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger points out: There’s a stronger correlation between multiple premarital partners and marital instability among less-educated Americans, but well-educated Americans, too, show much stronger marital outcomes when they have fewer premarital partners. (And interestingly, the usual connection between education and stability disappears entirely for people who married their first partner: They’re equally unlikely to divorce no matter whether they attended college or not.)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Unbroken - a review

My wife and I went to see the upcoming movie, Unbroken, Thursday evening at an advance showing for pastors, and they even comped the tix. The movie is due to open nationally on Dec. 25.

That the story here is true is remarkable. It is simply a stunning piece of work with no unneeded scenes nor a word of unnecessary dialogue. It will hold your attention every moment. The movie is not overtly religious; title character Louis Zamperini, though raised in a Catholic household, considered himself not to have become a Christian until a few years after the war. (The movie ends with his release from captivity.)

That the movie has no "star" (no major actor-celebrity) and uses actual Japanese actors even for the worst characters (rather than Asian-descended Hollywood pretenders) makes the movie more compelling. The actor playing Zamperini is a Brit. The actor playing "The Bird," a Japanese POW camp commander of shocking brutality, is Japanese pop-artist musician Takamasa Ishihara, who performs under the name of Miyavi. None of these actors are much known the the United States, and the movie is, IMO, all the better for it.

The screenplay is by the Coen brothers and the film was directed by Angelina Jolie. To their credit, they do not shrink from portraying the awful brutality of the Japanese camps. (One percent of American POWs held by the Germans in World War 2 died in captivity. Of Americans held by the Japanese, 40 percent died.) However, the scenes are not bloody.

This is simply an amazing piece of cinema for which I give you my unqualified recommendation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Harvard Prof: If you take away religion, you can't hire enough police

Harvard Business Professor Clay Christensen on the relationship between religion and democracy: "If you take away religion, you can't hire enough police."

A lesson he says he learned from a Marxist Chinese visiting professor.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Astronomers: Alignment of quasars is "spooky"

The European Southern Observatory (ESO), "formally the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere; Observatoire européen austral in French) is a 15-nation intergovernmental research organisation for astronomy. Created in 1962, ESO has provided astronomers with state-of-the-art research facilities and access to the southern sky."

Two weeks ago the ESO published a very technical paper about quasars' alignment across the universe which its news release called "spooky" since there is less than a one percent chance the alignments are the result simply of chance.  

Quasars (short for "quasi-stellar objects") are are supermassive black holes in the center of their host galaxies. "These black holes are surrounded by spinning discs of extremely hot material that is often spewed out in long jets along their axes of rotation. Quasars can shine more brightly than all the stars in the rest of their host galaxies put together."

The ESO studied 93 quasars "that were known to form huge groupings spread over billions of light-years, seen at a time when the Universe was about one third of its current age." 
The first odd thing we noticed was that some of the quasars’ rotation axes were aligned with each other — despite the fact that these quasars are separated by billions of light-years,” said Hutsemékers. 
The team then went further and looked to see if the rotation axes were linked, not just to each other, but also to the structure of the Universe on large scales at that time. 
When astronomers look at the distribution of galaxies on scales of billions of light-years they find that they are not evenly distributed. They form a cosmic web of filaments and clumps around huge voids where galaxies are scarce. This intriguing and beautiful arrangement of material is known as large-scale structure. 
The new VLT results indicate that the rotation axes of the quasars tend to be parallel to the large-scale structures in which they find themselves. So, if the quasars are in a long filament then the spins of the central black holes will point along the filament. The researchers estimate that the probability that these alignments are simply the result of chance is less than 1%.  ...
The alignments in the new data, on scales even bigger than current predictions from simulations, may be a hint that there is a missing ingredient in our current models of the cosmos,” concludes Dominique Sluse.
"... the probability that these alignments are simply the result of chance is less than 1%." 

Which means, apparently, that there is a 99 percent chance that the alignment is deliberately contrived. Now how could that be?

Scientist Robert Griffiths, winner of the Heinemann Prize in mathematical physics, once told an interviewer, "If we need an atheist for a debate, we go to the philosophy department. The physics department isn't much use."

And so:
"The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Psalm 19.1 
 The ESO's news release is,"Spooky Alignment of Quasars Across Billions of Light-years"

The technical paper is, "Alignment of quasar polarizations with large-scale structures."

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I love the smell of greens on Advent Sunday mornings

Mark 1.1:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 
Work with me here:

"Good news" was a common expression in the ancient world. Most often was used in military contexts, to report victory in battle. When a general or emperor was told there was "good news," they immediately knew the army had won.
But "good news" was also used to describe important events in the lives of the top people of the Roman empire. For example, the birthday of Caesar Augustus was always announced as, "good news for the world," since Caesar was ruler of the world known to them at the time. 
The ancient term "good news" was always plural. The good news of Augustus's birthday was the announcement of one good tiding among others. But Mark uses "good news" in the singular, making sure his readers knew that the advent of Jesus in the world was not simply one fine thing among many good things. It is a stupendous, exceptional event that is unique and unequaled.
This rhetorical device was intended to evoke a belief and understanding in the minds of the hearers of the Gospel. It was intended to make them perk up and take notice.
One way to understand the meaning of Mark's word is this:
"The beginning of the victory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
"Christ" is Greek for, "anointed one." But the Greeks didn't use the word in association with their gods whom they believed lived on Mount Olympus. So Jesus the anointed one, the Son of God, would not have made much sense to a Greek.
However, in the Old Testament there are references to the priests being anointed, repetitive references to kings of Israel being anointed, and also some prophets. There is even a description in Isaiah of the Persian King Cyrus being anointed. In most of these contexts, the anointed one is described as one to whom God gives victory.

"The beginning of the victory of Jesus the Triumphant, Anointed One of God, the Son of God."
I think that gets more accurately to the sense of what Mark was trying to convey.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Is it time for Horus to ruin Christmas yet?

Soon I suppose we will once again hear how the narrative of Jesus' birth (and death and resurrection) was all stolen from existing pagan mythologies.

Get ready for Horus to drop in this season!

"We should not be surprised when people reject proof of Christ's resurrection in favor of demonstrable lies that let them remain in unbelief."

For a more scholarly presentation, here is Dr. William Lane Craig:

As it turns out, those pre-Christian deities aren’t much like Jesus after all. And in many cases, they are not pre-Christian at all. Skeptics of Christian faith say that the story of Jesus is not much different from scores of pagan religious stories about savior figures.

However, experts in the field are not making this claim. Professor Norman Geisler of Loyola University explains, “No Greek or Roman myth spoke of a literal incarnation of a monotheistic God into human form by way of a literal virgin birth, followed by his death and physical resurrection.” Furthermore, “Most of the evidence for the alleged similarities from the pagan myths date between the second to fourth centuries,” long after the New Testament had been written.

Nor were such stories very common at all. Only about fifteen such ancient stories are identified by claimants. British scholar Norman Anderson argues,
The basic difference between Christianity and the mysteries is the historic basis of one and the mythological character of the others. The deities of the mysteries were no more than ‘nebulous figures of an imaginary past,’ while the Christ whom the [apostles] proclaimed had lived and died only a few years before the first New Testament documents were written.
As Peter told the people of Jerusalem on Pentecost, you know this Jesus of whom I speak. Peter was not referring to a mythical figure of a hazy, distant past, but one whom his hearers had known personally.

Furthermore, “Most of the evidence for the alleged similarities from the pagan myths date between the second to fourth centuries,” [link] long after the New Testament had been written. If anything, most of those ancient myths are likely based on Jesus rather than the other way round.

See also,
Those Pre-Christian Deities Aren’t Much Like Jesus After All

Reasons to disbelieve that Jesus rose from the dead

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Universe teeming with life? Not so fast, say physicists

This NASA Hubble Telescope photo shows 10,000 galaxies.
Of them, 9,000 are dead and lifeless, say research astrophysicists.

New study: gamma ray bursts make life impossible in 90% of galaxies
This is a peer-reviewed article from Science, one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. It speaks to the fine-tuning of the galaxy for life.
The article says:
Of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, only one in 10 can support complex life like that on Earth, a pair of astrophysicists argues. Everywhere else, stellar explosions known as gamma ray bursts would regularly wipe out any life forms more elaborate than microbes. The detonations also kept the universe lifeless for billions of years after the big bang, the researchers say.
Another relevant discovery: "Invisible shield above the Earth protects us from electron threat."
A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered an invisible shield some 7,200 miles above Earth that blocks so-called “killer electrons,” which whip around the planet at near-light speed and have been known to threaten astronauts, fry satellites and degrade space systems during intense solar storms.
The "shield" is related to the Van Allen Belt, an electromagnetic ring around the earth that was discovered in the mid-1950s. The VAB is the product of the fact that earth's core is made up mostly of iron, the outer layer of which is liquid. The Earth's rotation produces convection about the core that in turn creates a magnetic field around the entire planet. The convection is itself produced by loss of heat from the core, and this heat loss comes from plate tectonics that, over enormous periods of time, churn the earth from the outer core to the near-surface and back again. Without plate tectonics, says Joseph Kirschvink of Cal Tech, there would be no convective "cells" to generate the magnetic field.

"Without our magnetic field," write paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee in Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe,
Earth and its cargo of life would be bombarded by a potentially lethal influx of cosmic radiation, and solar wind "sputtering" (in which particles from the sun hit the upper atmosphere with high energy) might slowly eat away at thew atmosphere, as it has on Mars.
Even in the 10 percent of galaxies that  "can support complex life like that on Earth," the radiation problem remains at the planetary level: does an otherwise-suitable planet have the necessary shields against lethal, non-gamma radiation? Unless the planet is highly ferrous, it won't. Unless is is highly ferrous and rotating fairly rapidly, it won't. Unless it is highly ferrous and rotating fairly rapidly and features plate tectonics, it won't. And none of these features have been found on any extra-solar planet.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why physicists' heads explode
One problem is that conventional physics doesn't really account for why the universe is so large, Arkani-Hamed said.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity showed that a huge amount of energy exists in the vacuum of space, and it should curve space and time. In fact, there should be so much curvature that the universe is a tiny, crumpled ball.

"That should make the universe horrendously different than what it is," Arkani-Hamed said.

But quantum mechanics also poses a problem. The theory is good at describing the very small realm of particle physics, but it breaks down when physicists try to apply it to the universe as a whole.

"Everything that quantum mechanics is, is violated by our universe because we're accelerating (referring to the idea that the universe is expanding) – we don't know what the rules are," Arkani-Hamed said. "When you try to apply quantum mechanics to the entire universe, quantum mechanics cries 'uncle.'"
But fear not! The reason that our universe acts in ways that physicists don't understand is because they are simply living in the wrong universe! There are trillions and trillions of other universes, they claim, and perhaps if Arkani-Hamed lived in one of them it would make perfect sense to him. 

But he doesn't, nor do any others, so they mentally invent them. It's called String Theory, the idea that there are indeed trillions and trillions of other universes, and lucky us! we inhabit this one. As I have written before, advanced cosmologists have started writing science fiction, not science, although they use equations for their fiction rather than prose.
All their equations may work out, but that don't mean they actually know more than before or that reality has been discerned to a greater degree. Hawking admitted that postulating a universe of three or four dimension did not resolve mathematically. In fact, using up to 10 dimensions didn't work. So they tried 11 and presto! X = 0. Or something. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "These are our equations. If they don’t work, we have others."
But back to the multiverses. Prof. Arkani-Hamed (he teaches at Harvard) and some others insist that there is a real problem with living in a universe that appears so finely tuned to support our lives when such fine tuning has no scientific explanation. So they say that there are, minimally, 10^500 other universes because that is the minimum number to make our universe's fine tuning feasible. Author Donald Johnson explains,
Koonin explains, "In an infinite multi-verse ... emergence of highly complex systems by chance is not just possible but inevitable. That this extremely rare event occurred on earth and gave rise to life as we know it is explained by anthropic selection alone." The anthropic illusion basically says we just lucked-out in that our Universe appears to be designed "toward man" (anthropic). The fallacy is that we're considering the only universe that we know exists (ours), and the fine-tuning that is evident in it. Speculation of innumerable other universes does not explain our Universe's fine-tuning.   
Others note that "String Theory" is not a scientific theory since it cannot be observed, tested, or falsified. "Alternative universes, things we can't see because they are beyond our horizons, are in principle unfalsifiable and therefore metaphysical." "The trouble is, proponents have not produced an iota of empirical evidence for strings. That's why University of Toronto physicist Amanda Peet--a proponent--recently called string theory a faith-based initiative'. "No part of it has been proven and no one knows how tо prove it'.   
"Because our Universe is, almost by definition, everything we can observe, there are no apparent measurements that would confirm whether we exist within a cosmic landscape multiple universes, or if ours is the only one. And because we can't falsify the idea, ... it isn't science '. "If ... the landscape turns out to be inconsistent ... as things stand we will be in a very awkward position. Without an explanations of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics'. It is clear that string theory is not science, but a philosophical belief. (Italics original)
So the physicists' dilemma is either to accept that, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," or find some way, however screwy and fictional, to deny it. 


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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Not all wounds have scars . . .

Just because you cannot see any scars does not mean they are not wounded.

I cannot put it any better than Army wife Rachel Latham:
I have stood by and seen my husband off to war three times. Three times I have wondered if he would return home. Three times he has stood, along with others, to offer himself in the name of freedom.

I have felt the presence of God push me to my knees in prayer, only to find out later that the timing matched the exact hour of a firefight. I have seen both beauty and fear in those lonely days and nights.

I have stayed awake through the nights, unable to sleep, the reality of my comfortable secure  bed paid for at the price of those standing on the front lines.

I have calmed the fears of children, spoken words of strength and comfort into their hearts, when I felt so little in my own heart. A mother’s love can do that- offer what isn’t even always there in order to bring peace to a worried little one.

I have felt the joy of the return, knowing how so much has changed, but eternally grateful for the opportunity to learn each other again. Not everyone is allowed this, and I do not take it for granted. 
The war doesn’t leave and I have seen the burden carried by our vets as they recall those moments- the fights, the fears, the victories and the losses. I see them standing at monuments, a vacant look in their eyes as they remember, as their fingers drag along the discovery of a name on the monument. They can’t forget, and neither should we, the price that was paid.

I have seen the veterans in the hospital, seen the camaraderie that spans the generations of war…bonds that only those who have lived through could understand. I could never understand, not really, but that isn’t what I have been called to do. I can, however, be thankful.

I have seen and felt the thrashing in the night, of memories that will remain forever, relived only in nightmares.
I remember through this how precious our freedom is, how without those who have chosen to serve, we would have nothing. That freedom we enjoy is paid with this price. It isn’t paid only once though, but repeatedly by those who willingly serve. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What are the odds of life? Beyond mere astronomical

 Lecompte de Nouy
The French biophysicist and mathematician Lecompte de Nouy was an internationally-regarded scientist whose work on surface tensions and other properties of liquids is still studied today. 

During his work, which started in World War One in trying to mathematically describe the healing of wounds, he examined the laws of probability for a single molecule of high dissymmtery to be formed by chance. De Nouy found that the time needed to form one such molecule worked out to be 10^253 years, or countless trillions of years. (This in a universe that scientists today say is a mere 14.5 billion years old.)

"But," continued de Nouy, "let us admit that no matter how small the chance it could happen, one molecule could be created by such astronomical odds of chance. However, one molecule is of no use. Hundreds of millions of identical ones are necessary. Thus we either admit the miracle or doubt the absolute truth of science." 

I posted before a lecture by James Tour, one of the 10 most cited chemists in the world, whose particular specialty is making molecules from scratch, ab initio, from atoms. 
… I will tell you as a scientist and a synthetic chemist: if anybody should be able to understand evolution, it is me, because I make molecules for a living, and I don’t just buy a kit, and mix this and mix this, and get that. I mean, ab initio, I make molecules. I understand how hard it is to make molecules. I understand that if I take Nature’s tool kit, it could be much easier, because all the tools are already there, and I just mix it in the proportions, and I do it under these conditions, but ab initio is very, very hard.
Think about this: the simplest form of life is the single-cell creature. There is, after all, no such thing as a "half-cell" creature. Of such organisms, prokaryotes "are the earliest and most primitive forms of life on earth." 

As organized in the Three Domain System, prokaryotes include bacteria and archaeans. Prokaryotes are able to live and thrive in various types of environments including extreme habitats such as hydrothermal vents, hot springs, swamps, wetlands, and the guts of animals. Prokaryotic cells are not as complex as eukaryotic cells . They have no true nucleus as the DNA is not contained within a membrane or separated from the rest of the cell, but is coiled up in a region of the cytoplasm called the nucleoid. 
Study that diagram and try to answer Dr. Tour's simple question: 
How do you get DNA without a cell membrane? And how do you get a cell membrane without a DNA? And how does all this come together from this piece of jelly?” We have no idea, we have no idea.
Prokaryotes did not evolve. Taking Dr. Tour's point, the cell's DNA contains the coding for the  formation and structure of the cell wall. But the cell wall could not have come after the DNA because without the cell wall to begin with, the DNA could not have either formed or survived its environment if it had formed. The DNA and cell wall had to have formed simultaneously, but how could that be if forming any organic matter at all is nothing but random chance combinations of atoms that have, in some vital cases, one chance in 10^253 to have formed at all? 

A prokaryote cell cannot have come into existence bit by bit because no bit could have survived without the rest of the cell to support it and give it life. And scientists have neither discovered nor described a potential, simpler pre-prokaryote. No, such a cell not only came into existence all at one time, it had to do so already capable of reproduction through binary fission, else the first would have been the only. 

And of course, this all happened by random chance, right? Which begs the question, What are the odds? 

No wonder that Freeman Dyson, one of the most celebrated scientists of the last 100 years, wrote in his essay, "How We Know," 
The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions [boldface added].
Then we have this observation by GK Philip & SJ Freeland, NASA Astrobiology Institute, University of Hawaii, in considering that of the 80 amino acids that could be used to build genetically encoded protein polymers, nature uses a “standard set” of 20 identified amino acids.
“Specifically, we show that the standard set of 20 amino acids represents the possible spectra of size, charge, and hydrophobicity more broadly and more evenly than can be explained by chance alone.” (emphasis added)
Amino acids, of course, are the building blocks of proteins, without which there is no life. But, "What are the odds of getting a functional protein by chance?" Well, see for yourself:
  • BONDING: You need 99 peptide bonds between the 100 amino acids. The odds of getting a peptide bond is 50%. The probability of building a chain of one hundred amino acids in which all linkages involve peptide bonds is roughly (1/2)^99 or 1 chance in 10^30.
  • CHIRALITY: You need 100 left-handed amino acids. The odds of getting a left-handed amino acid is 50%. The probability of attaining at random only L–amino acids in a hypothetical peptide chain one hundred amino acids long is (1/2)^100 or again roughly 1 chance in 10^30.
  • SEQUENCE: You need to choose the correct amino acid for each of the 100 links. The odds of getting the right one are 1 in 20. Even if you allow for some variation, the odds of getting a functional sequence is (1/20)^100 or 1 in 10^65.
The final probability of getting a functional protein composed of 100 amino acids is 1 in 10^125. Even if you fill the universe with pre-biotic soup, and react amino acids at Planck time (very fast!) for 14 billion years, you are probably not going to get even 1 such protein. And you need at least 100 of them for minimal life functions, plus DNA and RNA.
But the difficulties of "random chance" continue. E.V. Koonin and A.S. Novozhilov, National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, wrote:
A real understanding of the [genetic] code origin and evolution is likely to be attainable only in conjunction with a credible scenario for the evolution of the coding principle itself and the translation system.
Which is to say: 
  • The origin of the genetic code is unknown
  • The code operates according to a coding principle but no one knows how the principle started
  • No one understands how the coding principle could have preceded the code itself, or even whether it did so.
But it all started randomly and uncaused, right? It just happened. Lucky us! British cosmologist (and ETI enthusiast) Paul Davies observed that there are just three possibilities of how life started on earth: 
  1. A fluke (random chance), 
  2. Unknown laws that make life a cosmic imperative, 
  3. A miracle (that is, intentional acts by an outside agency)
Of number 1, Davies says this is the "ultimate just-so story." Of number 2, there is no evidence at all and of number 3, well, he doesn't say much. 

I am going with number 3 myself. I do not have enough faith to believe the other two.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

14 Questions Church Leaders Should Ask about Church Finances

14 Questions Church Leaders Should Ask about Church Finances

A Checklist for Your Consideration

For now, I offer a checklist of questions. As you answer these questions, I hope you will be motivated to think how your church might look at its expenditures and budgets in a different light.
  1. If you were to start your church’s budget from scratch, how differently would it look than your present budget?
  2. Do you have programs and ministries that, if they were discontinued, would have little negative impact on the church or the community?
  3. How much of the church’s expenditures reflect “the way we’ve always done it”?
  4. Are there clear lines of accountability for spending at every level?
  5. How much of the church’s funds are used to impact the community?
  6. Is the church spending its personnel dollars in the most effective ways?
  7. Who are the true decision makers on how church funds are spent?
  8. Do some of the expenditures reflect preferential treatment toward some of the members?
  9. Is debt hindering your church from doing effective ministry?
  10. What are the potential unintended consequences of making significant changes in the budget and expenditures?
  11. Do you know clearly how church funds given to support missions are being used?
  12. Does your church spend too much or too little on physical facilities?
  13. Does the church have adequate funds for training and development of staff and laity?
  14. Does the church’s budget reflect faith, futility, or foolishness?

An Attitude of Abundance

If we really trust that God will provide for our churches in all areas, including finances, we may realize that we do not have a money problem; we may have a stewardship problem. These fourteen questions can be a starting point to help you move toward a realistic and faith-based approach to church finances.
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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Reason or superstition?

If this never happened, what did happen on Dec. 25-26, 1776?
From Atheist Professor to Catholic: An Interview with Dr. Holly Ordway
There were many pieces of evidence that all fit together to make a convincing case for the Resurrection [of Jesus]; I’ll mention just a couple here. One of them is the behavior of the disciples before and after the Resurrection. The Gospel accounts do not portray their behavior after the Crucifixion in a particularly flattering light. Even though Jesus had predicted his own resurrection, the disciples gave up and went away, assuming that Jesus was a failed messiah. If the disciples had made up the Resurrection story afterwards, why would they have included details that made them look disloyal and cowardly? My academic studies in literature allowed me to recognize that the Gospels were written as history, not myth or parable, and that there hadn’t been enough time for a legend to form. It began to seem like the best explanation for all these events being recounted this way, was that they really happened.

Then, after the Resurrection, there’s a complete turn-around in their behavior, and they become bold proclaimers of the Risen Lord. There were plenty of words that people in ancient times could have used to describe visions or sightings of ghosts, and indeed, such language would have gotten them in much less trouble! But they spoke of a Jesus who was alive, bodily resurrected, and in short order were willing to die for that claim.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection, though, was the Church itself. If I supposed that the Church had invented the Resurrection to explain its own worship of Jesus, I had to ask, how did that worship arise in the first place? If the Church was not the result of a miracle, it was itself a miracle.
The last point is actually much stronger than people give credit. Skeptics and some self-described atheists (including some I have talked with) dismiss the historical fact of Jesus, claiming Jesus was invented by the Church or was, perhaps, a real man but one who was nothing like the Jesus described in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.

The problem is, as Prof. Ordway points out, that none of those alternative theories of Jesus explain the rapid rise of the apostolic missions and the sudden appearance, at a definite time of history and place, of the Church, which has from its inception declared it was founded solely on the life death and resurrection of one Jesus of Nazareth.

So if not those things, which an atheist must deny, then on what was the Church really founded? The Church undeniably began in the middle third of the first century C.E. It did not exist before then. How then to account for its founding apart from Jesus and the apostolic proclamation?

An analogy I have often used is this: The US Marine Corps was founded at Tun Tavern, Philadelphia, on Nov. 10, 1775. On that day, so the story goes, the first USMC recruiter enlisted the first USMC recruits (in a bar, of course, they being Marines after all).

Now to treat the founding of the Marine Corps as do skeptics treat Christianity, a skeptic would say something like this: "The USMC was not founded on Nov. 10, 1775, in Tun Tavern, but much later, perhaps as late as 1840. It probably was still in Philadelphia, though."

But on what basis could he make such a claim? Like the founding of the Church, there is no alternative story of the founding of the USMC that can be imagined to account for all the facts of the Corps' history. There is exactly zero evidence to support the contention that the USMC was founded other than what the histories say, and there is no evidence, either, to support the idea that the Church was founded either (A) at a time or place other than when claimed, or (B) for any reason other than what is claimed, namely, the resurrection of Jesus.

Or another way, if a skeptic were to claim that Washington never actually crossed the Delaware that night to attack the Hessians at Trenton, NJ, then he would have to also provide an historically-grounded  explanation of why and how the Hessians were defeated, killed, captured and plundered that day. Absent such, we will have to continue to adhere that Washington did indeed cross the Delaware as claimed.

My experience with such skeptics (who often call themselves "rationalists") is that as soon as you challenge them to produce actual historical evidence that the Church was not founded on the resurrection and its immediately-following apostolic proclamation, but on something else, and would they explain what that something else was and what is its documented, historical grounding, they change the subject and start talking about who will win the Super Bowl come February.

Dr. Ordway again:
It’s important to say that there was no single, knock-out piece of evidence that convinced me; I was convinced by the cumulative claim, the way it all fit together. Historical events can’t be proved like a math problem or tested like a scientific hypothesis, and there’s always a way to form an alternate explanation. But just because an alternative exists doesn’t mean it’s is equally reasonable or likely. Speaking within my own field of literature, there are people who claim that William Shakespeare didn’t really write his plays. There are even a few legitimately fuzzy areas: for instance, a few of his plays were co-authored, and it seems likely to me that at least one passage in Macbeth (Hecate’s speech) was a later interpolation. Nonetheless, the evidence taken as whole points to Shakespearean authorship!
This is another key point. Frequently (well, almost always), the skeptics or atheists I have talked with have invariably claimed that science rejects the resurrection and indeed, God himself. But they do not seem to grasp that the founding of the Church was an historical event, not a scientific experiment, and the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event, too, not a scientific experiment. Science can't validate or invalidate historical events: you can neither prove nor disprove, scientifically, that Gen. George Washington led his army across the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, to attack Hessian forces at Trenton, NJ.

Human reason and intellect is much more than mere scientific knowledge. The question is not, I think, is there ironclad, "scientific" proof of God or the Resurrection, but is this: based on the weight of evidence, is Christian belief reasonable? For 2,000 years, reasonable has garnered the votes.

And that is most reasonable, too, as Blaise Pascal explained.

Update: "Why the Ancient Christian Record About Jesus Is the Most Reliable"

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Monday, October 20, 2014

How we are committing cultural suicide

 From American Digest. The entire essay is here.

What is the conext? Among other things, this:
Today, though, sexual intercourse is delinked from procreation. Since the invention of the Pill some 40 years ago, human beings have for the first time been able to control reproduction with a very high degree of assurance. That led to what our grandparents would have called rampant promiscuity. The causal relationships between sex, pregnancy and marriage were severed in a fundamental way. The impulse toward premarital chastity for women was always the fear of bearing a child alone. The Pill removed this fear. Along with it went the need of men to commit themselves exclusively to one woman in order to enjoy sexual relations at all. Over the past four decades, women have trained men that marriage is no longer necessary for sex. But women have also sadly discovered that they can't reliably gain men's sexual and emotional commitment to them by giving them sex before marriage.
That's how we committed (and continue to commit) cultural suicide, but it doesn't say why. As for that question, here is one clue:
In particular, sexual sin seems to be the largest single factor driving disbelief in our culture. Brant Hanson calls sex “The Big But” because he so often hears this from unbelievers: “’I like Jesus, BUT…’ and the ‘but’ is usually followed, one way or the other, with an objection about the Bible and… sex. People think something’s deeply messed-up with a belief system that says two consenting, unmarried adults should refrain from sex.” In other words, people simply do not want to follow the Christian teaching that sexual intercourse should take place only between and man and woman who are married, so they throw the whole religion out.
But I maintain that after 50 years of this "liberation," it is empirically provable that this is the way that leads to death.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Left Behind gets left behind

Thankfully, American movie goers seem to have enough sense not to waste their time or money with religious escapism nonsense. Left Behind, the new thriller based on the best-selling books of the same name, and starring Nic Cage, basically bombed at the box office by pulling in less than $7 million its opening weekend, ranking it the sixth in box office gross.

The Rapture is not biblical and was not taught by the apostles or their successors. The whole thing was simply made up whole cloth by members of a small sect called the Plymouth Brethren in the 1820s. (The Plymouth Brethren are still around, btw.)

Here's a short video to get up to speed on how it came to be: Where Did Rapture Theology Come From? by leading Bible scholar Ben Witherington.


 And the long course, 32 minutes, by William Lane Craig:


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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Topics too tough to preach

I call the list below by that name because they usually not suitable for a Sunday sermon because they have one or more of these characteristics:
  • They are too complex to cover well in 15-20 minutes
  • They are topics for which faithful answers can be found on multiple sides
  • They press to close emotionally to some people
  • They may be important and faith related, but they are not necessarily “worshipful” for inclusion in a worship service.
  • They may have political overtones.

For these reasons, I think a sermon delivery is too one-way and non-interactive to effectively address them.

With that said, here is my list of such topics. Please feel free to add your own in a comment. 

·        Sexuality, cohabitation, weddings, marriage and the Church in the age of the Pill
·        Immigration, compassion and justice
·        Divorce
·        Homosexuality and same-sex marriage
·        Terminal care and end of life for parents or other loved ones
·        The death penalty
·        Violence done to or by Christians
·        What does the Bible really say happens when you die?
·        The Rapture and being "Left Behind"
·        Islam
·        Just War Theory and the new war against ISIS

·        Others?