Thursday 29 April 2010

Mathematics and beauty

The journal Mathematica Intellgencia held a vote in 1988 on the most beautiful mathematical theorem. Unfortunately they only got 76 responses. They published the results in 1990. I concur with the top place which went to Euler's identity. I doubt a more classy, yet simple equation exists.

e + 1 = 0

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The change wrought in the moral sentiments of Christendom

I was discussing with a fellow blogger the effect of Christianity on Western culture. It reminded me of a recent post by John C. Wright where he denied that increasing wealth has led to increasing freedoms. He argues that it is not wealth and education, or civility and law, that effects good social change, rather the Christian worldview which is in stark contrast to world it arrived in. It may be tempting to think the West was always like it was but this merely betrays historical ignorance. The West may be in decline now but its height was not a product of the evolution of European culture, it was the transformation of it by Christian belief.
I propose a radically different reading of history from yours. I propose that Christ introduced a view of man so remarkably different from that known in the ancient world, or in the East, as to be without compare or parallel. The change wrought in the moral sentiments of Christendom was so significant and widespread that you and every other scion of Christian philosophy have not even any awareness of it.

The Greeks with their infanticide, divorce, and slavery, held men to be innately unequal. Barbarians were fit only for servitude. The Romans, even worse, held it to be noble to condemn gladiators to fight to death for the amusement of idle crowds. Lavish executions by slow torture were commonplace. The idea of killing a man quickly, painlessly, even offering him a blindfold and cigarette so that he will not die without dignity is as alien to the ancient mind as non-Euclidean geometry. It is literally something from another universe.

The Indians with their caste system and the Chinese with their Confucianism and Legalism held the same view of man. Rulers rule. Servants serve. Slaves slave. Women bear children, which, when unwanted, are killed.

Imagine the scene of Jesus, a man of a conquered people, standing in chains before Pilot, the epitome of Roman power, law, and dignity. In the eyes of the ancient world, by the philosophy of the greatest and noblest sages of East and West, that scene would look like a clown confronting a demigod, with Jesus, the slave, in the role of the slapstick clown, someone whose role was to be hit with a pie or blown up by dynamite, and Pilot, speaking with the divine authority of Caesar, as the voice of heaven. The idea that the slapstick clown, whose mission in life was to die in torment for the amusement of the mob, was somehow greater than the voice of Caesar was inconceivable, radical, paradoxical, and backward by every ancient standard.

The Jewish notion that God was good is radically different from the Greek notion -- in Greek myth, after all, Cyclopes is the child of Neptune, and the gods are not always on the side of humanity -- just ask Ulysses. The Jewish notion that creation is GOOD is a radical defiance of the Greek notion that the world arose from chaos without purpose.

The adoption of the Christian world-view is what led to notions like the separation of church and state, the subordination of kings to the laws they make, the equality of men in the eyes of God, and so on. Without these ideas, the additional ideas of the security of property and the equality of slaves and women could not have surfaced. They are not natural ideas; they are not even rational ideas; they are mystical ideas having roots nowhere but Christendom.

The industrial revolution, the rising capital base, the specialization of labor, the rule of law and all other things you name or might name as sources of the increased felicity of man are products of nothing but Christendom.

Why did the industrial revolution happen in Europe, and nowhere else?

Why did modern science arise in the so called Dark Ages, and not earlier?

Why did the modern university system, with the notions of free inquiry and academic freedom, arise in Christian countries, and no where else?

Why did no one, no one, no one except the Christians ever free slaves, and why does slavery reappear within a few years in any land where Christians powers once ruled and now have withdrawn?

Why is Monogamy the rule, rather than the exception, in Christian lands, and why does the ruthless exploitation of women reappear within a few years in any land where Christians powers once ruled and now have withdrawn? -- We have God Damned HONOR KILLINGS happening in the United Kingdom these days. Is that just a coincidence or happenstance that this arose just when England moved sharply and clearly away from Christianity?

I humbly submit that you are conflating cause and effect. The cause of the improvement of man is the rise of highminded moral sentiments informing the laws and customs of man, producing such minor side effects as respect for reason, rights, and property, and which do not long last in the absence of the underlying moral sentiments.

Monday 26 April 2010

Monday quote

And this is why one of the first principles is that the rulers of the people are not qualified for their task unless they are men who hate covetousness.

Douglas Wilson

Friday 23 April 2010

Raising up the evil or for evil

I understand how people respond to Romans 9, but there is also Romans 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, and other books. In Deuteronomy we read,
"If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst." (Deuteronomy 13)
Given what else I read in the Bible I see this an example of how God would use a person to test the hearts of people. That is I do not think that God created a reprobate with the intention that they would grow up and reject God and attempt to draw people away from him. God did not make a person planning for him to always be evil just so he can use him to test others and with the intention of damning him no matter what.

So I see this as an example of someone who has chosen to reject God and subsequently God uses this person to test the hearts of others. Now God could raise up a person like this, ie. bring them into a position of influence, but then God is giving some temporary power to men who have chosen evil, God may do this to bring about other changes he intends.

I have no problems with God using people to his own desires. However the idea that God would force a person to act in a certain way then judge him for it does not seem compatible with God’s frequent call to repentance. How can we choose to do differently when we are constantly doing every little thing according to God's intention?

Monday 19 April 2010

Monday quote

Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.

Thomas Mann

Saturday 17 April 2010

Does tax exemption for churches directly cost taxpayers?

Ken Perrott wrote about several objections he had to religious charities, specifically churches, being tax exempt. This was in response to my thoughts on proposed tax law changes. Initially he made this unlikely (or perhaps hyperbolic) claim of how to significantly reduce the tax burden,
Remove the classification of religion as a charity. That is allow charitable tax exemption only for genuine charity. Not for teaching of supernatural dogma.
Given that most churches make little surplus money, and taxes are on the profits of a company, this revenue stream is going to be very small. Charities are not able to make large amounts of money and spend it as they wish, they must put the money back into the charity's cause.

Ken did also raise a related issue about the cost of charities being born by others. Philosophically I have sympathies with the potential issue he identifies; I object to both covering costs for other people that they should cover, and funding groups that promote ideology I disagree with. I can appreciate that an atheist would object to his money being used for Christian evangelism, much in the way that I object to my money being used to promote humanism. However I am not certain that churches are that costly.

Now tax exemption is not a direct cost, it is a refusal to tax. When Ken was asked what was the cost to him, his initial reply was twofold: religious charities were using publicly financed resources and they have a responsibility to share society's financial burden. Interestingly Ken was happy to subsidise genuine charities. Interesting in that I am not certain I support the use of government money in supporting any charities, religious or non-religious.

Ken's more detailed response can be read here. He covers several areas. His complaint is
  1. Religious organisations can get charity status and tax exemption but science, reason, or atheist organisations cannot register as charities;
  2. Churches do not pay rates, thus these services are covered by other people;
  3. Individuals can manipulate the system to their benefit;
  4. Charities offer fringe benefits;
  5. Charities have an unfair commercial advantage;
  6. Some religious people are morally corrupt; and
  7. Forced tithing has been important to the survival of the church.
I think the main issue is around item 2, but I will briefly address the others.

Item 1 is untrue. About 15% of the more than 25,000 charities in New Zealand are religious in nature. The criteria for charities are
  • the relief of poverty
  • the advancement of education
  • the advancement of religion
  • any other matters that are beneficial to the community.
There are plenty of charities in New Zealand that are involved in scientific research. Schools can be charities. Neither is tax exemption restricted to charities: some sports groups have tax exemption and some of them can also request charity status.

Item 3 is not unique to charities. Trusts can be misused, and some companies shift profit around the world to minimise tax. Simplifying tax law and minimising tax take are more likely to counter this problem.

Item 4 is irrelevant. Companies do this too. Individuals can allow people to stay with them and not charge board, though other people may have to. This is an issue of envy, not justice.

Item 5 could be a problem if true. It would need to be confirmed. Claims by business of unfair advantage may be an attempt to gain their own advantage, not necessarily because there is a legitimate unfair advantage. Offering my free services to any company, charity or not, is not an unfair commercial advantage, I am allowed to do what I want with my time.

Item 6 is true, but completely irrelevant.

Item 7 is irrelevant to New Zealand. It is more an issue in Europe. And I agree, forced tithing with money compulsory collected by the government and forwarded to the relevant church should not be compulsory based on your stated religion/ denomination. Preferably it should not be collected by the state at all. Some church organisations may struggle if this occurred, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Returning to the main issue, item 2: churches getting services that are paid for by others. This includes services that local and national government supply, the first via rates, the latter via taxes. Ken argues,
Churches, religious organisations, trusts, etc., are not paying their fare share of social costs - streets, rubbish, defense, health, emergency services, fire service, etc. Everything our taxes/rates are used for. The fair share my secular science and reasons organisation would have to pay.
Now I think that many of these things should be funded by the people using them. Rubbish does not need to be run by council, nor does water supply, or sewage. However the system is that these things are provided by council currently. So I agree that it is reasonable for the charities to pay towards these things, but let's review specifics.

The costs should only be those that relate directly to the organisation and its property, not the people in it. This is because the individuals who are paid by the charity pay their own tax at the normal rates. So health costs for a person who works for a charity are contributed to from his personal tax. The organisation does not have any health costs. Conversely, if a church calls the police about vandalism to their property, then they are using this service as an organisation. So fire, police, water, sewage, rubbish are real costs incurred by the charity which if not paid by the charity are then covered by others. Health, defence, social welfare, retirement, education, are not costs that a church incurs and are covered by the individual tax of its workers. I have left off roading as it is mixed, though on balance is a minimal cost, and almost certainly covered by fuel taxes.

Charities do pay rates. Yes it is reduced to a nominal amount and may not cover the full cost of amenities, but they contribute toward it.

Charities can claim sales tax, but if they hold an event that they charge for they have to pay sales tax.

So the legitimate costs of charities associated with their tax exempt status are small. These categories (such as water) are not significant costs to government.

But how much do religious charities save government? The amount of food, counselling, shelter given to people in- and outside the church is enormous. It would easily dwarf any savings they make from not having to pay their contribution to say policing, and probably decreases policing costs indirectly.

Not that I think churches shouldn't pay for water and rubbish. Ideally these would not be managed by the council anyway, and then everyone including the church would have to pay private providers who could choose whether or not they wished to discount charities. And everyone would pay the true cost, and likely pay much less. But the situation is that the direct costs of religious charities to the state is minor, and completely offset by the savings they provide.

Monday 12 April 2010

Monday quote

Most businesses are like beehives. If government doesn't bother them, they don't bother government. If government meddles with business, the bees swarm Washington. Yet time and again, the liberal "remedy" for the bee problem is to smack the hive with a bigger stick.

Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Email request: God as the Master Builder

PC asks if I could link to a sermon.
Joelee Chamberlain made a Creation audio for children, "The Master Builder", which is on Sermon Audio. It gives the argument for the Creator from cause, design, and contingency for 4-5 year olds in 25 minutes. She also presents the Gospel pointing to the brokenness of the world and that God is the Master Re-Builder. She presents mostly arguments from design of man, the world and the solar system, but at a level that a 4-5 year old could understand but without bringing up any doubts.
I downloaded it and listened with my son. He enjoyed it especially some of the facts it introduced. Chamberlain does quite well, I would agree with most of the sermon. I disagree with the analogy of energy for machines and God's sustaining power she uses, but this is a minor dispute. It is definitely targeted at the age level mentioned.

I am not certain my readership is large enough to modify download frequency but I am happy to provide a link. You do not need to sign up to the newsletter to download. Here are her other children sermons.

Friday 9 April 2010

Translation choices

Glenn Peoples raised the question why translators use "spiritual" over "reasonable" in Romans 12:1
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (ESV)
There are couple of verses that I think are worth mentioning in this vein. 1 from the Old Testament, 1 from the New.

This I have mentioned before, and is more a best translation issue. Ezra 6:14 states
And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia;
While the additional conjunction "and" is the most common word for the Hebrew term, the explanatory conjunction "that is" is a legitimate choice and one that seems to fit the context better.

The translation query from the New Testament is more in line with Glenn's question, and perhaps even less justified than Romans 12:1. It is from another Pauline letter, 1 Corinthians 12:1
  • Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.(ESV)
  • Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. (KJV)
  • Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. (ASV)
  • Now, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand about spiritual gifts. (NCV)
  • Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. (NIV)
  • Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. (NASB)
  • My friends, you asked me about spiritual gifts. (CEV)
  • With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. (NET)
The question is why "gifts"? when it is not in the Greek. There is no word "gift". Paul uses the word "gift" elsewhere when referring to spiritual gifts (Romans 1:11) but the Greek here is
  • Περι δε των πνευματικων,
  • Now about [the] spiritual,
Granted "spiritual" is an adjective acting as a substantive here, and "spiritual" alone does not work in English. But why not say "spiritual things"?

Some versions do say this.
  • But of spiritual things, brethren, I will not that ye not know (Wyclif)
  • About matters of the spirit: brothers, I do not want you to be unaware. (HCSB)
  • And concerning the spiritual things, brethren, I do not wish you to be ignorant; (YLT)
Also the NET Bible footnotes "spiritual things," the KJV and NASB have the word "gifts" in italics showing that it is not in the Greek.

ESV footnotes an alternative translation "spiritual persons."

The other place "spiritual" is frequently translated "spiritual gifts" is 1 Corinthians 14:1
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.

Monday 5 April 2010

Monday quote

The Age of Reason is a specifically Christian heresy. It is an attempt to erect and defend a Christian World View without Christ.

John C. Wright

Sunday 4 April 2010

Response to the resurrection

Those who claim there was no resurrection of Jesus often do so from the perspective that such an event is impossible. An argument could be along the lines of
  1. The laws of nature cannot be circumvented except by the supernatural
  2. There is no such thing as the supernatural
  3. God is supernatural
  4. Thus miracles are impossible
  5. Resurrection of dead people is a miracle
  6. Thus the resurrection of Jesus did not happen
This argument is not airtight, one could quibble about the relationship of God to the supernatural, and one could be more precise about circumventing laws of nature, but it suffices for our purposes.

The premises in the argument are disputable. Presuppositions are fine. We all have them and use them to filter our experience and construct a worldview. However, once we encounter evidence that challenges our conclusions we do well to examine our presuppositions. If we have good evidence that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, then this means that at least one of the premises is incorrect. This should lead us to change our mind. In this case one would then think either that the laws of nature can be circumvented or, if we have reason to think they cannot, that the supernatural does in fact exist.

The problem we face is that men will accept all sorts of alternative explanations, even completely unreasonable ones, just so that they can keep their presuppositions. Their denial of God means that no evidence for God is good enough because for some God cannot exist axiomatically. Any explanation, however preposterous, is always to be preferred over challenging one's belief about the existence of God. This is not following the evidence wherever it leads, it is restricting evidences to those that conform to the unchallengeable worldview.

A resurrection denier could raise the same objection about those who affirm a resurrection. There is truth to the fact that the theistic presuppositions can be challenged by contrary evidence as atheistic ones can. However it is not the resurrection where this challenge is strong as the explanation of the resurrection is consistent and, one could argue, parsimonious with the data.

Which raises a question, are those who deny the resurrection biased? The answer is yes. We all are biased. Deniers are are likely to be negatively biased to various degrees. This is because the resurrection is not a neutral fact, thus more prone to be affected by underlying bias. I can prefer the birth year of Aquinas to be 1224 AD over 1225 AD with little effect on my obligations. But affirming the resurrection impels me to address Jesus' question, "Who do you say I am?" And if I have already affirmed Jesus' resurrection I am likely to think he has given credence to his claims of who he is.

Therefore the request for historical and modern examples of non-Christians who affirm the resurrection is disingenuous. Sure, such people, if they exist, are powerful hostile witnesses; but the lack of examples is not surprising, and the request for such examples is similar to only accepting evidence for oxygen from ardent phlogistonists.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Chariot skates

I would be interested in trying these out.

Michael Jenkins is an Australian inventor who reckons these can get up to 40 km an hour and go over rough terrain. At £1,000 they are a little pricey though.


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