Evolution and the acquisition of knowledge

March 29, 2009

This is sort of a piggyback on the last post in the sense that I’m posting again on evolution; it is actually a mere coincidence that I would write some musings on evolution and cognitive shortcuts (especially after a long break), only to be confronted by the idea of evolution yet again the following day in the last place I would generally hope to hear about it: my church.

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On correct meanings and “dusty old words”

July 10, 2008

As any frequent reader here should have picked up on by now, I hate false etymologies. I hate to say it, but the study of word origins has been co-opted for so many ill purposes (the infamous argumentum ad etymologia), and I despise that given that I enjoy the study so much.

So I’m especially irritated to see Graham Kendrick, a well-known Christian worship songwriter, make a statement like this:

Orthodoxy sounds like a dusty old word, but actually it means right glory, in other words representing God as he actually is.

There may be a nugget of truth in here: the Greek doxa, from which the word is derived (along with ortho, “correct”), is sometimes translated as “glory” or “praise” (c.f. Matthew 4:8). And in a sense, I think I can give Kendrick a little bit of poetic license, since orthodoxy may have at its roots a desire to glorify God by accurately representing Him. That’s fine, but the word “orthodox” doesn’t mean that – it means “correct belief.”

The OED says this regarding etymology:

[< post-classical Latin orthodoxus, ortodoxus, adjective and noun (4th cent.; freq. in Jerome) and its etymon Hellenistic or Byzantine Greek òρθóδοξος right in opinion (see note), person holding a right opinion < ancient Greek òοθο- ORTHO- comb. form + δóξα opinion, glory (see DOXOLOGY n.). In English perhaps partly via Middle French, French orthodoxe (1431 as adjective, a1565 as noun). Compare Italian ortodosso (1478 as adjective).
Ancient Greek òρθοδοξεîν ‘to have a right opinion’ appears first in Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, but remains rare. The cognate noun òρθοδοξíα appears first in Origen; the adjective óρθóδοξος does not appear until the late 3rd, or early 4th cent. With the exception of uses in commentaries on Nicomachean Ethics the group of words is restricted almost entirely to Christian writers.] [Ed. Greek characters should now display correctly]

So the usage existed prior to the Greek writings of the NT, and certainly one cannot say that orthodoxy does not today refer to belief, not to glory of praise.

Finally, a note: words, like books, don’t get dusty if they are used, and orthodox has been in great use for centuries now, thanks in large part to the insistence of religious organizations’ desire to see correct belief (i.e. adherence to their doctrines) among those who associate themselves with the organization. What Kendrick seems to be doing here is setting up orthodox as an elitist word, high and lofty and out of the comprehension of the common man. This is of course untrue; orthodoxy is easily understood by anyone who has been introduced to the idea of believing in the right things.

Putting ignorance in its place

June 25, 2008

You won’t see me link to Pharyngula often, but this response posted on P.Z. Myers’ blog is too good not to refer to, even given my often unfavorable opinion of his statements on religion: Lenski gives Conservapædia a lesson. Lenski here is Richard Lenski, one of the authors of a recent study showing a very interesting novel evolution in a population of E. coli, and he’s responding to the Wiki site Conservapedia, which is fairly well known for being a refuge for – how should I put this? – very right-wing, authoritarian sorts of individuals. (The fact that, in a thread there, Michael Behe – the posterchild for the Intelligent Design movement – was denigrated for adhering to common descent, evolution, and an old earth – as well as for not being a “Creation Scientist”! – should speak volumes.)

Most of it requires no comment – Lenski is clearly being very level-headed, given the sorts of criticism (if you can even call it that) that he is getting from the Cons. people – but the last two postscripts to the letter are worth noting:

P.P.P.S. You may be unable to understand, or unwilling to accept, that evolution occurs. And yet, life evolves! [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_pur_si_muove] From the content on your website, it is clear that you, like many others, view God as the Creator of the Universe. I respect that view. I find it baffling, however, that someone can worship God as the all-mighty Creator while, at the same time, denying even the possibility (not to mention the overwhelming evidence) that God’s Creation involved evolution. It is as though a person thinks that God must have the same limitations when it comes to creation as a person who is unable to understand, or even attempt to understand, the world in which we live. Isn’t that view insulting to God?

P.P.P.P.S. I noticed that you say that one of your favorite articles on your website is the one on “Deceit.” That article begins as follows: “Deceit is the deliberate distortion or denial of the truth with an intent to trick or fool another. Christianity and Judaism teach that deceit is wrong. For example, the Old Testament says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.'” You really should think more carefully about what that commandment means before you go around bearing false witness against others.

Lessons that all well-meaning Christians should consider when bashing others’ points of view.

Is ensuring someone’s salvation an intrinsic good?

May 24, 2008

In the comments of Ed Brayton’s blog, an argument was set forth regarding abortion and hell, which I will summarize as such:

  1. Most Christians believe that babies are not responsible for their salvation and so go to heaven if they die before a so-called ‘age of accountability.’ (Premise)
  2. Abortion kills unborn babies at a point where they are not morally culpable for their salvation. (Premise)
  3. Individuals going to heaven rather than hell is an intrinsic good. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, abortion results in an intrinsic good by ensuring the salvation of aborted babies. (from 1-3)

If it’s not completely apparent how tendentious and simplistic this is, let me spell it out.

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Suffering one’s fate

May 8, 2008

I hate to put it in such strong language as the title, but I sometimes wonder about trials in one’s life. (I also hate opening the can of worms that is the problem of evil, but oh well to that.)

Christians like to throw around language like “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I think there’s some sense in that, at least in thinking that God will limit our burdens reasonably because He’s benevolent. I sometimes wonder, though, whether or not that thinking is backward: maybe it’s that what we receive is meant to strengthen our character, and we often get as much strife as we need to build up that character. (Consider it like weightlifting: with weights that one knows are well within their strength, less progress will be made if the goal is merely to avoid pain.)

This would at least in part give a rationale for why some people have to deal with situations that seem gratuitous and not so easily overcome. Of course, it doesn’t answer the question of the disparate distribution, but that’s a bigger problem than any one individual can attempt to answer.

Hard question of the day: Church discipline

April 7, 2008

Pen and Parchment recently had a very interesting entry about what to do in a specific hypothetical case where a church member in leadership is acting wrongly and needs correction. It’s a difficult question to answer, and I can’t honestly answer the question, although there are some excellent ideas by commenters. Go check out the discussion, which has been left fairly open-ended.

Stretching credulity: On an exegesis of Matthew 8

February 28, 2008

I like to get information from a number of different sources from time to time, and one source that I like for its general fairness is Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars (fair warning: Dispatches is heavy on adult language and topics). Brayton is much further left politically than I, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders, and he often denounces irrational criticisms from those on his “side.”

Case in point: Ed posted about some rather poor logic a few days ago, and a commenter going by the name “Priya Lynn” jumped in. Ed (and other commenters) thoroughly criticized many of his/her positions, but I was interested in a site he/she listed called Would Jesus Discriminate?

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