Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Scientific American: Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth

Self-esteem has been an obsession of the West for decades and many decisions regarding education, social policy, and interpersonal advice have focused on raising people's self-esteem. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that a many of our beliefs regarding self-esteem are just not supported by the research. The authors of the Scientific American magazine in the article, Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth describe the findings of their examination of the research literature on self-esteem and conclude that 'Boosting people's sense of self-worth ... [is] of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior'. Read the full article here.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Book Review: "The Divine Conspiracy"

The topic of discipleship has been examined and re-examined for centuries. But Dallas Willard brings a fresh perspective to this topic and shows the practical relevance of following Christ by being part of the 'Divine Conspiracy' - God's plan to undermine evil with good. Meatiness and depth mark this book. It is essentially an applied exposition of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. The chapter on the Beatitudes is brilliant and worth the price of the book on its own. Be prepared for a radical shift in your understanding of them. In a couple of places the book gets a bit too mystical for me and his discussion of the nature of death is dualistic (but there are some valuable points). Overall, a practical and richly nuanced view of the life of following Christ. The challenge, of course, is to put it into practice!

The Physics of Santa Claus

Check out this delightful debate on the existence of Santa Claus and the possibility of doing what he is claimed to do each Christmas: The Physics of Santa Claus.

A Letter from 200 Clergy on Evolution, Creation, and Curriculum

Here's the text of a letter by 200 clergy from different denominations in Wisconsin (USA). They sent this letter to school officials who approved a curriculum which would include Intelligent Design as a model for understanding origins. It shows that not all Christians believe the same thing about Genesis 1 and can still remain Christians.

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible — the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark — convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rest. To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God's loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Source: The Church of Critical Thinking

Saturday, December 25, 2004

'When Backward Is Forward' (Christianity Today Magazine)

'Christmas may be the best argument against genetic enhancement' according to Andy Crouch of Christianity Today Magazine. Bringing together the latest reality TV show in America, which placed five Amish youth in a Beverley Hills mansion with five city kids, and the latest gene technology which may provide the opportunity to enhance humanity, he asks whether we want the fully human life modelled by Christ or 'technology's alluring facsimile'. When, as Crouch reports, there are already parents who want to hormone boost their kids who are a bit shorter than "normal" it is time to ask ourselves just where genetic technology is taking us. You can read Crouch's full article here:When Backward Is Forward.

Friday, December 24, 2004

'Ten myths about assisted suicide' (Spiked)

A lot of the arguments against euthanasia (assisted suicide) are presented by religious groups including many Christians. Here's an interesting article that offers an analysis of ten myths about assisted suicide that are 'non-religious'. They include such 'myths' as:
  • It is just about individual autonomy
  • We all need the 'right to die'
  • The central issue is pain

and others. The author (Kevin Yuill) finishes the article with a compelling question of alternatives:

So shall we project our own cramped and gloomy worldview on to those who are most sensitive to counsels of despair? Or shall we continue to view all human life as valuable, doctors as curers of physical disease (rather than prescribers of death for therapeutic reasons), and life as worth living?

You can read the full article here: Ten myths about assisted suicide.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Movie Review: Shall We Dance?

Shall We Dance? Director: Peter Chelsom If you are looking for a nice feel-good movie then Shall We Dance? should fit the bill. A bored, overworked Estate lawyer (Richard Gere) travels home on the train every night and catches sight of a beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez) gazing out of a ballroom dance studio window. He signs up for dancing classes without telling his family. It’s a pleasant romantic comedy that capitalises on the current interest in ballroom dancing. Don’t expect anything profound or deep -- it’s an enjoyable bit of fluff. My Rating *** (out of 5) Best Review ‘Gere is a pleasure, smiling and spinning and high-fiving his two classmates -- played by Bobby Cannavale and Omar Miller -- and the movie is happy and extremely likable (sic)’. Wesley Morris -- Boston Globe Worst Review ‘Miscast, misguided and woefully misbegotten, this clumsy American remake of the deftly delicate 1996 sleeper hit from Japan is too blah to bludgeon.’ Peter Travis -- Rolling Stone

Monday, December 20, 2004

'A Fallacy Files Christmas'

Back in 1897 an 8-year old child called Virginia wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun asking whether Santa Claus was real. She had been told by some of her friends that Santa didn't exist. Her father told her to write to The New York Sun because, according to him, if it appeared in the newspaper then it must be true. She wrote to the paper and received a reply, which was published, arguing that Santa Clause was, indeed, real. There was also a follow-up editorial critiquing the first one. You can read both of the letters here: Fallacy Watch: A Fallacy Files Christmas. There are also some links to the fallacies that appear in the letters.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Would you like to be known as 'smart'?

You may aspire to being someone who is known as a smart person. But Jeffrey Williams, in his incisive article, Here's the Problem With Being So 'Smart', explains how being smart has come to replace such things as soundness and rigour. For Williams, it is about the market rathern than scholarship.
The promise of smart is that it purports to be a way to talk about quality in a sea of quantity. But the problem is that it internalizes the competitive ethos of the university, aiming not for the cultivation of intelligence but for individual success in the academic market. It functions something like the old shibboleth 'quality of mind,' which claimed to be a pure standard but frequently became a shorthand for membership in the old boys' network. It was the self-confirming taste of those who talked and thought in similar ways. The danger of smart is that it confirms the moves and mannerisms of a new and perhaps equally closed network.
I guess we'd better rethink our desire to be smart!

More on Antony Flew's beliefs in relation to God

I previously referred you to some information about the famous atheist, Antony Flew, and his alleged movement towards a belief in God. I thought you might be interested in this article by Richard Carrier on The Secular Web. Richard has actually spoken personally to Flew and reports on his conversation. You can also read an exclusive transcript of an interview between Flew and Gary Habermas, a philosopher and historian who has debated with Flew on a number of occasions.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

'Professor demystifies urban legends at philosophy talk'

I'm sure you have heard at least one urban legend. For example, about the rat found in KFC takeaway. Or the hitchiker that gets picked up and tells the car occupants that the end of the world is coming and then disappears. There are literally thousands of urban legends and it is surprising how many Christians I have come across who believe at least some of them! The Vista Online reports on the visit of Dr Mark Webb, a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University who started off his talk with the question, When should I believe the story I've been told? This would be a great question for all Christians to ask and think about carefully. One of the most significant pieces of advice is to never trust the friend of a friend. Stories that get handed around are, even if they contain a kernel of truth, so distorted as to make them untrue. Read the whole story here. There are a number of websites that deal with urban legends. One, referred to by Professor Webb in the article, is the Urban Legends Reference Pages. So next time you hear a story that you feel compelled to pass on to your friends, check it out first!

'Law to safeguard religion is no joke, warns Blackadder' (Guardian)

I believe, wholeheartedly, that tolerance is an absolutely essential attitude for us to have in this day and age. But just what tolerance means and what it should cover is a controversial issue. The Guardian recently reported on a proposed law in Britian that seeks to protect Muslims from religious hatred. But many, including Rowan Atkinson, believes that the law attacks a fundamental right of free speech -- particularly the right to criticise religion (as opposed to persons). You can read the story here along with quotes from Rowan Atkinson's criticisms of the proposal. At the end of the story there are a number of humourous quotations to consider by asking whether they are 'offensive... Or just plain funny'. You can read more of the text of Rowan Atkinson's speech here.

Angels photographed over Washington DC?

See the blue shape in the top right hand side of the photograph? Carrie Devorah, the photographer, rhetorically wonders whether she has inadvertently captured angels flying over Washington DC when she got home and looked at her photo. You can read the whole story here and make up your own mind!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

'A Nation of Wimps'

I attended a graduation recently at a private school. Overall, it was a great graduation. But one event in the program was absolutely bizarre: Every student in the school got an award trophy! These awards were given out for such things as excellence in sport or a study area; but also for things like being helpful and being a good friend. But it seems to me that giving every single student an award completely undermines the meaning of an award. There are people who stand out as excellent in some sphere of activity and should be awarded in recognition of their achievements. But what value are those awards if we feel the need to give everyone an award? What's behind this? As far as I can tell it has something to do with the belief that we need to bolster the self-esteem of children by rewarding them for everything and anything positive they might do. Or, maybe, if a child sees someone getting an award and they don't that, somehow, it might damage their self-esteem. It so happens I came across this disturbing article in Psychology Today magazine called A Nation of Wimps which describes the way in which 'parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life for their children'. The author warns, however, that 'parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile; that may be why they're breaking down in record numbers.' This article is must reading for all parents. Imagine one of these children at the graduation who, all through their schooling, has always received an award for even the most trivial good behaviour. Then they move out into the 'real world' and, say, become a movie actor. Imagine that, at the next AFI awards, they are not nominated as best actor. How will they feel? Given the accumulating evidence, it would not be surprising if this person developed a major depression or even became suicidal. I started thinking about the way in which Christian youth are often 'protected' from negative experiences from which they may learn. It is very rare, for example, to hear youth, in the church, express doubts or struggles about their faith. And how many times have you heard a testimony that is about God not answering prayer or a person not being healed? Surely telling only 'positive' stories of faith sets up an expectation in the listeners that, if they only have enough faith - only pray enough - that they can be healed or reassured or comforted without experiencing the distress and pain of not having a prayer answered the way we might expect. Too often we try to protect our children and youth from the messy questions - the difficult experiences - the grey areas of life. We try to answer all their questions for them instead of allowing them to find their own answers. Marano, the author of the article I have referred to, cites Portman who warns that
Parents need to abandon the idea of perfection and give up some of the invasive control they've maintained over their children. The goal of parenting ... is to raise an independent human being.
Surely that, too, is the aim of Christian education in home, church, and school. It reminds me of the phrase in Hebrews (5:13, NLT): 'a person who is living on milk isn’t very far along in the Christian life'.

'Famous Atheist Now Believes in God'

We often hear stories of Christians giving up their faith and turning to atheism. Here's an interesting story of the opposite. Antony Flew has been described as 'one of the most renowned atheists of the 20th century'. I have a book in my library entitled Does God Exist? A Believer and an Atheist Debate. The atheist is Antony Flew. Yahoo! News has just reported that Flew now believes in God. A new video is about to be released where Flew explores the question, Has Science Discovered God? It is important to recognise, however, that the God that Flew now considers a possibility is not the God of evangelical Christianity. Rather, it is a deistic god -- one which has power and intelligence but does not interact with creation. Yahoo! News reports Flew, in the video, as saying:
biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved"

Apparently, Flew's reasons for changing is mind about the possible existence of God is similar to the Intelligent Design (ID) movement's which argues that the complexity of nature requires an intelligence behind it. You can read the whole story here.

You might also like to read the press release from the Institute for Metascientific Research who ran the symposium at which Flew revealed his change of mind. Another interesting site on Flew is here where you can read past writings and comments regarding Flew.

All in all, quite a remarkable event.

'Season's readings'

The holidays are here (for some of us at least!) and you may be looking for some good reading while you laze on the beach or languish under the shade of a tree. If so then check out Guardian Unlimited's Season's Reading where 'Writers and guest critics recommend their favourites, from bestsellers to the undeservedly obscure.'

'God is in the plot details'

I guess those of us who love the movies realise by now that many of them have religious themes running through them -- not always obvious. In a highly cynical article, Kim Lenekin lists the religious themes in movies of 2004 by religion. There's Christianity - ancient and modern; Islam; Judaism; Buddhism; Shyamalanism; and Atheism (interesting that atheism is considered a religion by this author). It's difficult to know what the point of this article is -- but I guess one conclusion is that religion -- in distorted form -- seems to have been the flavour of the year. But where is a realistic, serious, positive portrayal of religion? I don't know of a movie that I have seen this year that suggests that religion might be a good thing? Is that because there aren't any models of positive, life-enhancing religion? I find it hard to believe that. But it is scary that they're not obvious!

Friday, December 10, 2004

Euthanasia debate in Europe focuses on children

For many years, anti-euthanasia groups have argued that, if voluntary euthanasia of consenting adults was legalised, it wouldn't be long before other groups of people may be involuntarily euthanased. According to this article in GrandForkHerald.com, Dutch doctors have euthanased four newborns in recent months believing that they were terminally ill. These actions were taken under the Groningen protocol.
Under the Groningen protocol, if doctors at the hospital think a child is suffering unbearably from a terminal condition, they have the authority to end the child's life. The protocol is likely to be used primarily for newborns, but it covers any child up to age 12.

You can read the whole news story here.

Bible.org Toolbar (Beta)

Bible.org is a site where you can find all sorts of Bible study resources including the NET Bible, an online theology course, sermon illustrations, study tools, and more. But a site like this needs a quick way to find things. Bible.org have released a dedicated toolbar that installs itself in your internet browser (in the same way that, say, the Google toolbar does). You can quickly type in a topic and hit the search key and it will return results from the Bible.org site. You can download it here. It's FREE and very useful.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Rorschach Icons

Some time ago I posted a blog about an image of the Virgin Mary appearing in a piece of toast. The phenomenon of images "miraculously" appearing in all sorts of places is actually quite common. Click here for an article describing some of these and the explanation for them.