Becoming like little children does not mean what you think it means

Another Bible verse that is repeatedly misunderstood and incorrectly portrayed as an anti-intelletual manifesto is Matthew 18:3:

And he (Jesus) said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I’ve heard many interpretations of that verse over the years. Many of them make good and noble statements in themselves, but unfortunately they almost always miss the point that Jesus was actually making.

Take, for example, the idea of “child-like innocence.” Innocence is indeed important, but how many children do you actually know (other than your own, of course — everyone knows that their own children are perfect) who this actually describes? Anyone who’s ever been bullied at school, or who has ever had to look after a screaming toddler throwing a tantrum in Tesco, will know full well that the concept of “child-like innocence” is a fantasy.

Nor is this verse an anti-intellectual manifesto. Jesus is not telling us here that our faith should be child-like, or, as an old song by Chris Bowater once put it, “children believe the truth unhindered by reason.” On the contrary, the Bible tells us that we should move on to a mature faith, informed and tempered by wisdom. 1 John 4:1 tells us not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to see which are from God. If your faith is unhindered by reason, you won’t just believe the truth, you’ll end up believing a whole lot of patent nonsense along with it. Somehow I don’t think Jesus was intending here that we should fall hook line and sinker for astrology, homeopathy, water divining, reading tea leaves, feng shui, ancient aliens, anti-vaccination, or accelerated nuclear decay.

So what was Jesus talking about then? The answer becomes clear when you look at the one thing that everyone ignores: the context from which this verse was taken. Here are the first five verses of Matthew 18 in full:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Puts an entirely different perspective on it, doesn’t it? Jesus’s words were in response to yet another argument among His disciples about who was the greatest, who would be in charge. Children, by contrast, are anything but in charge. They are accountable to everyone and responsible for no-one. They have rules and restrictions that adults don’t. They lack rights that adults enjoy. They have to go to bed early. They are not allowed to drive or to vote. They have to go to school. All in all, they are Just Another Brick In The Wall.

By telling us that we have to become as little children, Jesus was not telling us how to behave, nor that we had to dumb things down. On the contrary, He was calling for humility. He was telling us that the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven is not at the top of the org chart, but at the bottom.

Featured image credit: Lead Beyond (via Flickr)

1 Corinthians 1 is not an anti-intellectual manifesto

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 is probably one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

There are a few things that everyone needs to understand about these verses.

  • They are not a command to drop out of school or university.
  • They are not an instruction to pretend that you don’t understand things that you do.
  • They are not a free pass to make things up, or to preach falsehood or misinformation.
  • They are not an invitation to let your education or training go to waste.
  • They are not a licence to view subject matter experts with contempt.
  • They are not an excuse for sloppy thinking, intellectual laziness, or dumbing things down.
  • They are not intended to make anyone feel ashamed of their Oxbridge or Ivy League education.

The “foolish things of this world” that Paul talks about here are people who lack education and understanding for reasons beyond their control. In New Testament times, only one or two percent of the population could even read or write. Basic literacy and numeracy skills were a privilege on a par with getting into Oxford or Cambridge today. In modern times, they refer to people such as children with Down Syndrome; to those born into poverty; to those living in war zones whose schools have been bombed and whose teachers have been killed; and to victims of discrimination who have been denied an education simply because of who they are. They do not refer to people who lower their intellectual standards by choice.

Unfortunately, far too often I have heard these verses preached in ways that seem to encourage or even command these things, telling us not to be afraid to appear “odd” or “unintellectual.” To be sure there may be times when we may need to stand for positions that are unpopular, or take decisions that appear crazy at first — any venture capitalist will tell you that very often the best ideas fall into this category, only to be vindicated later on — but when the message being preached is one that demonises “reason” and critical thinking as if they were the enemies of faith, or when the “foolishness” being proclaimed is outright misinformation, then what we are looking at is the glorification of wilful ignorance. Such behaviour is not just foolishness; it is laziness and dishonesty.

It also misses the point of these verses completely. Paul’s statement here is primarily a political one. Knowledge is power, and very often people with a good education or superior technical knowledge use that knowledge to control and manipulate others. We see that in politicians, we see it in lobbyists and marketers, we see it in the military-industrial complex, and we see it in advertisers and Big Tech, who invest vast sums of money on data mining and coming up with algorithms to manipulate and control people. One of the recurring themes throughout the Bible is redressing the balance of power away from people such as these towards those who are less fortunate. That is what the Beatitudes are all about, for example.

So what about those of us who do have a good education? For us, the relevant passage of Scripture is the Parable of the Talents. It’s a familiar story — three servants were entrusted with their employer’s assets; two put them to work and doubled their investments, while a third just went and buried his in the ground. The response of their boss is pretty much what you would expect: the two who doubled their investments got promoted, while the one who did nothing ended up getting fired.

There is no shame in being intelligent or well-educated. Our skills, abilities and education are a gift from God and we need to acknowledge them as such and give thanks for them. But more importantly, we need to put them to use in ways that are fruitful. And we need to use them to protect those who do not have the same blessings as we do. There are ways in which their lack of education and understanding leaves them vulnerable to deception and manipulation, and we need to support them, protect them, and help them to avoid it.

Featured image credit: Tom Hilton (via Flickr)

The mother of all conspiracies

Some people insist that the theory of evolution, and deep geological time with its millions and billions of years, are all a lie, and a complete fabrication by the scientific community. But could this really be the case?

First of all, consider what kind of a lie we are talking about here. One that spans millions of research papers published by millions of scientists over a period of more than two hundred years. One that is detailed, meticulous, comprehensive, mathematically precise, and very self consistent. While not every study fits precisely, those that do not are the exception rather than the rule, and only ever concern the fine details and not the overall bigger picture.

It is not possible for such a level of deception to be sustained merely through casual fraud by individual researchers. To get the level of detail that we see in the scientific record, millions of scientists worldwide across multiple different disciplines — geology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, paleontology, anthropology and more — would have to have been consciously and deliberately acting in collusion for more than two centuries to squander trillions of dollars on systematically misinterpreting, misrepresenting and even fabricating evidence in a tightly coordinated and disciplined way in order to weave such a narrative.

Such a deception would have to encompass scientists from all walks of life — from undergraduates and postgraduates through to retirees, as well as people who have made career moves from paleontology, evolutionary biology or geology to other lines of work such as software engineering, who would no longer have any incentive to remain silent about it.

It would have to include scientists working in areas such as oil exploration and cancer and vaccine research, whose financial and professional incentives are to produce results that are correct rather than ideologically convenient.

It would have to include not just atheists but Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews. It would have to include scientists from multiple different nations, including places such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, where you would expect the prevailing Islamic religious climate to incentivise exposing such a deception rather than being complicit in it.

Every other scientist working in academia and industry would have to be turning a blind eye to it, even though they were having to compete with it for funding for their own research projects.

Accountants and administrators in academia and industry would have to be complicit in it, even though they in particular would want to scrutinise what the money they were managing was being spent on, and what return it was giving on people’s investments.

Politicians worldwide would have to be complicit in it — including the Islamic authorities in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, and young earth creationist politicians in the USA. None of them are demanding investigations into what all the government grants on evolutionary science are being spent on, nor are they demanding that scientists develop additional rules and protocols to tighten up and prevent such deception.

Furthermore, the millions of people worldwide involved in the deception would all have to be so adept at keeping it under wraps that there is not a shred of evidence for it on Wikileaks or the dark web. Investigative journalists too would have to be complicit in it, because investigative journalists build their entire careers on sniffing out and exposing scandals such as this, and such a story would be the scoop of the century.

If this really were happening, then it would be the mother of all conspiracies. NASA faking the moon landings, 9/11 being an inside job, MI5 being behind the death of Princess Diana, chemtrails, alien spacecraft in Area 51, and the US Navy covering up the existence of mermaids are all child’s play by comparison. If this really could be happening, then it is difficult if not impossible to think of a conspiracy that could not.

I shall leave the final word on that one to Charles Colson, who had this to say about conspiracies in his book Born Again:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world — and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.

Featured image credit: Beatrice Murch

Accurate and honest weights and measures everywhere

Whenever I address young earth claims, I always start off by quoting Deuteronomy 25:13-16.

¹³Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. ¹⁴Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small. ¹⁵You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lᴏʀᴅ your God is giving you. ¹⁶For the Lᴏʀᴅ your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

There are three reasons why I take this line. First, it establishes a clear Biblical basis for my response. YECs insist that the Bible needs to be our starting point, and accordingly I am doing precisely that. Secondly, my university degree is in physics, and physics is basically the study of what accurate and honest weights and measures look like in a wide variety of contexts.

Thirdly, and most importantly, however, I thought that it was something that we should all be able to agree on, at least in principle, no matter how old we believe the earth to be, or who or what we believe did or didn’t evolve from what. I expected the young earth response to be either some sort of attempt (however ill-informed or unconvincing) to try to persuade me that their approach to weights and measures was indeed accurate, or even perhaps to attempt to deflect the question with an accusation that “evolutionists tell lies too.”

I turned out to be wrong.

To date, almost every single YEC who has responded to these verses has done so by denying that they are even relevant to the discussion. One person said he thought I was “overthinking” things, and another said that I needed to “balance” them against other verses of Scripture. But by far the most common response has been an accusation that I’ve been taking them out of context, and that they are all about buying and selling, and not about “historical” science. So far, about a dozen different people have taken this line with me. At least two of them were staff members of one of the Big Three young earth ministries.

Demanding the right to tell lies

Not having accurate and honest weights and measures is, by definition, lying. This is the case in every context that involves measurement, whether it involves buying and selling or not. No exceptions, no excuses. I shouldn’t even have to quote the Bible to make this point, let alone quibble about the context. It is simply a statement of the obvious.

This is why you can’t play the “out of context” card here. Even if these verses did have some specific contexts in mind, to exclude them from other contexts where measurement is used is flat-out demanding the right to tell lies about those contexts. It is also effectively an admission that you know full well that you aren’t telling the truth, but that you are demanding that your falsehoods be accepted as truth anyway.

But playing the “out of context” card has other implications as well. If someone thinks that the Bible’s demands for accurate and honest weights and measures do not apply to the historical sciences, what else do they think they do not apply to? And what other forms of dishonesty do they think are acceptable and in what contexts? If someone isn’t prepared to even acknowledge the need for accuracy and honesty about everything, how can they expect anyone to consider them accurate and honest about anything?

For example, if they are undertaking any form of Biblical exegesis, how can their teaching be considered reliable about what the original Hebrew text of the Bible means, or about the cultural, social and political contexts in which it was written? Furthermore, even if they acknowledge the need for accurate and honest weights and measures in trade and finance, are they practicing what they preach?

What is the context of Deuteronomy 25 anyway?

Deuteronomy 25:13-16 comes towards the end of a passage of Scripture consisting of a variety of miscellaneous laws and regulations. In the NIV, Deuteronomy 23:15-25:19 is headed “Miscellaneous laws.” Some of them involve trade, commerce and finance, but others do not — other topics include such matters as marriage and divorce, the treatment of animals, caring for the poor and needy, handling disputes, and so on. The only overarching theme is broad, general principles of fairness and justice in society.

In any case, if you are selling books or educational material that promote a sloppy or dishonest approach to weights and measures, or if you are making a living as a public speaker promoting such an approach, what you are doing comes under the umbrella of trade, commerce and finance anyway.

The rules of measurement are universal.

Accurate and honest weights and measures are determined on the basis of universal rules. These are rules that apply to every area of science, whether you want to call it “operational” or “historical”; to every area of engineering; to finance and commerce; and even to some areas of politics such as how elections are conducted.

If someone’s arguments about “historical science” flout the rules, they will be sowing confusion in people’s minds about what accurate and honest weights and measures even look like in the first place. They will end up applying fallacies that they see in YEC arguments to other areas of science and engineering, to finance and commerce, and to all sorts of other areas. They will believe that they do indeed have accurate and honest weights and measures when in reality they do not. This will have all sorts of bad consequences, from undermining their ability to do their jobs properly, to opening them up to prosecution for fraud, to even in some cases killing people.

In fact we’ve seen that happening a lot over the past two years or so with many of the conspiracy theories around COVID-19. Many of the falsehoods in arguments against vaccination or masks have made exactly the same logical fallacies that I see time and time again in YEC arguments. For example, both adopt a very black-and-white approach to “unreliability” that takes the view that because something doesn’t work perfectly, that somehow means that it doesn’t work at all. By contrast, the rules of accurate and honest weights and measures tell us that unreliability must be quantified and that you can’t claim that a measurement technique is any more unreliable than what is indicated by its error bars.

Accuracy and honesty are non-negotiable.

My position on all discussions about science and faith — whether we are talking about creation and evolution, climate change, vaccination, election results, or anything else, stands. I don’t have a problem with the age of the earth itself, but when discussing what can or cannot be supported by the evidence, honest reporting and honest interpretation of accurate information is non-negotiable. Any creation model, any interpretation of Genesis 1, any attempt to challenge the scientific consensus on the age of the earth or evolution, must obey Deuteronomy 25:13-16, and any that does not is not scientific, not Biblical, and not honest. As for people who deny that accuracy and honesty are even necessary, I find it very difficult to see how such people could possibly even be approaching these discussions in good faith.

Failing the FizzBuzz of geology

How much scientific knowledge do you need to fact-check young Earth claims?

Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationists love to point to the credentials of their leaders. Andrew Snelling and Steve Austin have PhDs in geology; Jason Lisle, Russell Humphreys and John Hartnett have PhDs in astrophysics; and John Sanford has a PhD in genetics. The irony of this is, of course, that they are quite happy to dismiss the overwhelming majority of PhDs who aren’t young Earth creationists out of hand. But the implication of this is, of course, that if you don’t have a PhD yourself, then you should just shut up because you don’t have the authority to contradict them.

Or do you?

In my own field of software development, we have a problem. Very often, when interviewing job candidates, we will get someone with an impressive looking CV and impressive looking qualifications, yet who struggles to handle even the most basic programming tasks. When faced with such candidates, we need to filter them out at the earliest possible stage of the recruitment process in order to avoid wasting time and money.

To this end, candidates are often asked to complete a ridiculously simple coding exercise right at the very start of the interview process, typically in the initial phone screen. The most famous example is called the FizzBuzz test. It is based on a children’s game, and it asks you something like this:

Print out the numbers from 1 to 100. But for every number divisible by three, print “Fizz”. For every number divisible by five, print “Buzz”. If a number is divisible by both three and five, print “FizzBuzz”.

Even entry-level developers should be able to answer this question with their eyes closed. But many candidates — some of whom even have PhDs in computer science — struggle with it.

Only if they manage to complete FizzBuzz does the interview then proceed to more advanced topics such as object oriented design patterns, regular expressions, database concurrency, test driven development, or machine learning. If they don’t, they are thanked for their time, the phone screen is cut short, and they are not invited for a second on-site interview.

One point worth noting is that as well as being a very simple test to answer, this is also a very simple test to administer. A suitably briefed member of your HR team should be able to weed out the non-FizzBuzzers armed with nothing more than the most rudimentary understanding of programming, and a crib sheet highlighting the important things to look out for. For what it’s worth, here is what it looks like in Python:

for i in range(1, 101):
    if i % 3 == 0 and i % 5 == 0:
        print('FizzBuzz')
    elif i % 3 == 0:
        print('Fizz')
    elif i % 5 == 0:
        print('Buzz')
    else:
        print(i)

Young Earth Non-FizzBuzzers

There are some young Earth claims that I wouldn’t expect everyone to be able to fact-check. It took me several evenings to understand the RATE project’s study on helium diffusion in zircons, for example. I had to read the RATE report itself, its critiques, the RATE team’s responses to the critiques, and a whole lot of background information. I had to revise areas of physics that I hadn’t looked at since I left university. I wouldn’t expect anyone without a university degree in physics or geology to even know where to begin with that one.

But this is where FizzBuzz comes in. Discussing helium in zircons is the geological equivalent of asking a job candidate to create a neural network to implement biometric face recognition software from scratch, in assembly language, on the Nintendo Switch. Instead, start with the claims that are easiest to understand and easiest to fact-check, and work up from there.

For example, you don’t need a degree in anything to see that when a PhD geologist claims that a rock formation is not fractured, yet photos on his organisation’s own website clearly show fractures in the very places where he claims there aren’t any, he has failed the geological equivalent of FizzBuzz. Sure, he may try to explain away the fractures and “reinterpret” them when confronted by their existence, but when he started off by claiming that they weren’t even there in the first place, how can you consider his “reinterpretation” to be credible?

Similarly, what scientific knowledge do you need to understand just how devastating a deal-breaker the RATE project’s 22,000°C heat problem is for a young Earth? You just need to know that 22,000°C is four times as hot as the surface of the sun, six times as hot as the highest known boiling point to science, and hot enough to vaporise the surface of the Earth many times over. These are things you learn at school, or that you can find out with a simple Google search.

So here I pose the question. If a PhD geologist is making such easily falsified claims about aspects of geology that you, as a non-geologist, are able to fact check, why should you take them seriously when they talk about the aspects that you are not?