Book Review: “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation” by Bill Nye

Many of you may remember watching Mr. Wizard while growing up. The cheerful grandpa figure spent years showing us how learning about science could be fun, using clever experiments and demonstrations that could keep a child mesmerized for a half-hour (the length of his typical television program). As Mr. Wizard retired from the business we were introduced to a new, bow-tied individual who had an unsurpassed interest in science and shared the same ability to present the wonders of this fabulous subject to children of all ages. His name was Bill Nye and, if you will forgive the pun, represented the evolution of science programming for children. Bill Nye the Science Guy aired from 1993-1998 and solidified Nye as a scientist who could take complex ideas and break them down so that they could be understood by laymen of all ages. It was this ability, attached with a contagiously enthusiastic personality, which ultimately launched Nye into the general public at large.

This book stems from his foray into the masses and his near evangelistic tone regarding the dangers of climate change and other scientific causes that often receive little attention. While leading his crusade for the need to improve scientific literacy, especially among young people, he found that some schools were teaching creationism as science, which it is undoubtedly not.   The fear that the most basic concept of our natural sciences, evolution, was not being taught, or taught in tandem with non-scientific dogma, made Nye very concerned about the state of science education as a whole. He decided to take this issue head on and eventually found himself at the Creation Museum for a heavily publicized debate with its curator, Ken Ham. While Ham and his followers built the event as science versus religion, which was never the point, Nye was there to speak to scientific fact, while Ham relied on religious dogma. Since Ham has a literalist view of The Holy Bible this was ultimately his one and only source to disprove evolution. Ham unfortunately brought a knife to a gun fight, or more accurately, he brought an ancient relic of stories that were never meant to be used as literal fact to a debate regarding how the world actually works. Nye spent the night explaining why the literal interpretations of many of the stories in The Bible were not scientifically possible (a six-thousand year old earth, an ark carrying two of every species during a worldwide flood, etc.) and providing evidence for why the science of evolution delivers a more accurate picture of earth’s creations.

The book chronicles pieces of the debate but its overarching theme revolves around the dangers of teaching dogma and/or non-scientific research in a science setting. Nye doesn’t spend his time bashing religion or belittling people of faith, he simply provides large quantities of information on why evolution is the genesis (yes, another pun) for much of our scientific thought. Ultimately, the same science that has provided all of the wonderful innovations that are allowing you to view this post, at this moment, is the same science that brings us evolution. People of faith and non-believers alike can both accept scientific theories like evolution, gravity, and relativity. Bill Nye is not asking you to leave your faith, he is simply asking you to believe in science.

Does Prayer Change Things?

When I was a little boy I remember sitting on a stool at the small bar in my grandparent’s kitchen, eating breakfast or helping put a puzzle together. I spent many hours on that stool, and I always noticed a plaque on the wall, tucked in between the Grandmother and Grandfather of the year awards I had proudly given them in previous years. On this plaque was an outline of praying hands and the words “Prayer Changes Things” running down the right side. I must have read those words a thousand times through the years. As I got older, I would read those same words and wonder, “…does prayer change things?” This was not a cynical argument, I truly believed in an ever-knowing and ever-powerful God who watched over us all. The problem I had was how did this quote coexist with an all-knowing God? If God knows everything, then he must know the future and what will transpire. The logical next step was that God hears our prayers and if we pray hard enough, long enough, correctly, etc. then we would be able to change God’s mind.

Here is where the paradoxical loop came into play for me. If God changes his mind, then he doesn’t know the future, because what he had planned will now be different based on the influence of our prayers. But hold on a second, God is all-knowing and all-powerful, how can we dictate God’s plan? The thought that God’s plan is changing because of a human request seems quite pompous on our part doesn’t it? We have the ability to lobby the creator of the universe, the maker of all things?

After much thought, it seemed to me that the only way I could reconcile this was to give in on prayer…at least the changing God’s mind piece. Now my brain could wrap around this conundrum – God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and prayer doesn’t “change” anything, it happens to be the vehicle we use to thank God for what he has created and the path he has picked for us. The issue with this route though is two-fold: why pray at all and why do people keep asking for things?

Why pray at all? God knows what we are thinking at all times, he knows that we are grateful (or ungrateful, I don’t believe we can trick God) and he knows what lies in front of us. Doesn’t this make prayer redundant?

Secondly, if we know that God already has his plan, why do we continue to lobby him and ask him to change it? Even if we are praying for the health of a family member who is very ill, God knows when that person is going to die, so what are we praying for? Some would say we are praying that the family has peace…but doesn’t God already know if they will or will not have peace with the outcome. Also, God has laid out our feelings and reactions long before this moment. This would have to be the case if you believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God. If the person survives and a miracle occurs, well that is what God had planned in the first place. What good did your prayers have?

Note: If you’ve made it this far, I thank you, and once again ask for your understanding that I’m not posing these questions to be cynical, I’m posing these questions in a logical framework to better understand the power, the need, and the effectiveness of prayer. I’m not asking questions to be blasphemous, I’m asking questions to better understand a relationship with God.

There is one answer that I believe is the closest thing you’ll ever come to answering these questions: our human brains can’t understand or comprehend this apparent paradox. We just don’t have the mental capacity to understand, and the void that’s left is filled with what we call faith. The example above is one of many that you could have and ultimately end up at the same place, right back here, filling the void with faith. Whether or not an individual is able to accept that faith is what separates believers from non-believers. Besides, at some point, hasn’t it always come down to faith?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Book Review: “Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind”

I have just finished reading “Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind” by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. The book is an overview of the qualitative research the authors performed of those in the ministry who have reached a point where they no longer believe in the message they preach. The beauty of the book is how it takes a look at these individuals as human beings and the logistical challenges associated with continuing to work for something that you no longer believe in. In any other line of work this would not be strange, and in many cases commended, but not so much within the clergy profession.

The book does a good job of casting a wide net to include individuals from many different denominations and beliefs, ranging from liberal to literalists. It details their internal struggles of falling out of a belief system that many have committed their life too. As well, it highlights the challenges and consequences that arise if these congregational leaders decide to look for a new line of work. Most of these individuals have gone to seminary or schools of divinity, and now find themselves with the same types of worries that non-clergy members have when considering a career change (income, health care, retirement).

While the authors, from the very beginning of the book, express the challenges associated with “qualitative” research and that any extrapolation of their findings should be used with care, it does provide us with insight that these individuals do exist, and possibly on a larger scale than most would imagine. If you have an open mind, both believers and non-believers can enjoy the stories in this book and the observations provided by its authors.