Comparing Religions II: World Evangelism

Having introduced the subject of comparing religions, we will now analyze the first question:

1. Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?

One of the reasons for this question is that few people have time to investigate all of the numerous religions that exist.  (I've done more than most people ever will, but there are still huge gaps in my knowledge.)  Since it is not possible to do a complete analysis of every religious tradition, one must have some way of sifting out the more likely candidates from the less likely ones.  Whatever criterion one uses for this sifting, it has to be something which can be measured prior to doing an in-depth investigation.

In persuasive writing, it is generally considered most rhetorically effective to lead with one of your stronger arguments, so that people don't dismiss your case out of hand.  But here, the nature of the subject requires me to lead with one of the weaker arguments for a religion, namely its popularity.  But it is not so weak that it doesn't deserve careful consideration.  Later on, we will discuss some more dispositive tests.

Ad populum (appeal to mass belief) is not necessarily a fallacy, when it is used only as a probability argument rather than a deductive argument.  I would never say that a large number of adherents guarantees that a religion is correct; obviously not.  Many completely wrong beliefs (e.g. homeopathy and astrology) still have lots of people who swear by them.  There are, however, some cogent reasons why a true religion is likely to have more adherents than it would if it were false.  So while the fact that a significant fraction of the world population believes in something cannot (taken by itself) be enough reason to accept it, I do think it justifies taking it seriously enough to investigate its truth.

All Else being Equal, Truth is More Convincing

Presumably a true religion is more likely than a false one to be found convincing by a broad range of people.  It is also more likely to be regarded as important enough to share with others.  While human beings are far from infallible, it says something good about a religion if it can pick up a large number of voluntary converts.  At least some people take into account reason and evidence (and any "signs" they may happen to witness) when deciding what to believe; so all else being equal, truth should provide a religion with a survival advantage.  (If this were not true, then there would be very little point in writing blog posts analysing the evidence for or against religion, because nobody would take them into account.)

It is especially impressive if a religion has been found plausible by people from many different cultures and backgrounds.  A religion might take off in a single ethnic group because of some fluke of history.  On the other hand, a multicultural distribution suggests that perhaps the religion contains something true to life, that it is in some way suited to the human condition at large, not just one cultural milieu.  If it has seemed insightful to many kinds of poets, philosophers, and peasants, then it probably contains at least some element of universally valid truth.

A Census of World Religions

If even 1 in a thousand people (worldwide) investigate religions in a sufficiently sensible and open-minded way to identify the truth (whatever it is), then it would follow that the true religion must have at least 7 million adherents or so, which would narrow us down to about a dozen possibilities (according to the website in 2014.)  If you scroll down past the pie chart of the first link, you'll come to the following list:

  1. Christianity (2.1 billion)
  2. Islam (1.5 billion)
  3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist (1.1 billion)
  4. Hinduism (900 million)
  5. Chinese traditional religion (394 million)
  6. Buddhism (376 million)
  7. primal-indiginous (300 million)
  8. African Traditional and Diasporic (100 million)
  9. Sikhism (23 million)
  10. Juche (19 million)
  11. Spiritism (15 million)
  12. Judaism (14 million)
  13. Baha'i (7 million)
    [+additional religions with 4.2 million religions or fewer]

Of course, many of these categorization decisions are questionable.  Nonreligious is by definition the absence of a religious commitment (although Communism might be regarded as a religious substitute for a substantial minority of these people); Chinese traditional represents various admixtures of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship; indiginous or African traditional are umbrella terms for thousands of different pagan religious traditions (most of which would have less adherents than Baha'i if taken individually); while Juche is just the state ideology of the North Korean dictatorship (which has approximately the same moral credibility as Nazism).  Fringe Christian or Islamic cults might be better regarded as separate religions, and some of them (like Mormonism) I will be treating as separate religions in subsequent posts.  But the exact division is not very important.  The point is that there are really only a small number of options on the table, if you use the rest of humanity to sift out the options that have been found most plausible.

(That being said, if there is some particular religion with fewer adherents that you have some reason to think is specially promising, I'm not saying that you shouldn't investigate it.  But it is reasonable to start with more popular religions.)

Another Reason to Consider Popularity: Divine Favor

A true religion is also more likely to have divine favor assisting its spread across the world (assuming of course that the religion is theistic).  I don't want to put too much emphasis on this, since the worship of strength and worldly success is one of the crudest of all religions.  My own religion centers around the Cross, therefore it is (or ought to be) on the side of the unjustly persecuted everywhere.  Might does not make right.  Yet sometimes, when human hearts are receptive, right makes for might.  Truth may be weak, but sometimes this weakness is itself a paradoxical form of strength, as Gandhi showed in India, and the Civil Rights Movement showed in America.

If there is a religion revealed by God, then it is an obvious sociological fact that not everyone on earth has accepted the message.  For whatever reason, it is not the divine will to overawe everyone into accepting it (at least, not yet).  But if it is a genuine revelation, one expects that he would protect and defend it to some extent, at least enough to accomplish whatever goals he has in revealing the message.

At the very least, extinct religions like e.g. Greek or Egyptian polytheism are probably not worth taking very seriously—if those gods are at all real, why would they have allowed their names to be completely forgotten, except as fodder for dissertations, garden statuary, and comic books? It took a lot of kahunas for the prophet Jeremiah, way back in the 600s BC when the Jews were surrounded by polytheists, to taunt the followers of other gods by telling them (in Aramaic, the international language):

“These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (Jer 10:11).

But in quite a large portion of the globe, including of course the Middle East where Jeremiah was prophesying, this is exactly what has happened.  (This process is not yet complete, but if a prophet had predicted that all the world would one day consist of blue-skinned people, and then over the next few centuries half of the people on the planet had turned blue, I would start taking the rest of what he said more seriously, even if it hadn't yet happened to everyone!)

The Jewish Origins of the Idea of Progress

Historically, it was extremely unusual, in the pre-Christian world, for a religion to predict its own global dominance.  As moderns we think that every ideology should predict a future in which it is more widely successful, but that's not how most people thought back then.  The ancients usually expected that the world would keep on going more or less as it was before, or maybe keep getting gradually worse.  As Westerners we are used to ideologies having an eschatological aspect—looking forward to a future utopian society that is a radical improvement on the present—but the reason we think this way is precisely because of the influence of Judaism!  (The only other eschatological pre-Christian religion I know of is Zoroastrianism, which presumably either got it from Judaism, or else influenced Judaism in this respect.)

Universal vs. Ethnic Religions

The Jews did not (and still do not) regard it as necessary for pagans to become Israelites in order to be saved.  The Hebrew prophets spoke against idolatry and polytheism, but they foresaw the worldwide acceptance of pure Monotheism as a sign of the future Messianic Era, not as a realistic goal for the present day.

However, at the time of the Roman Empire, there were a large group of "God-fearers", who came to believe in the truth of Judaism, but did not formally convert due to the burdensome nature of Jewish ritual.  A lot of these people later became Christians, once it became clear that you didn't have to become a Jew in order to be a full member of the Christian Church.

If this model is right, then God cultivated an ethnic religion for a limited period of time, in order to produce the right circumstances in which the Messiah could come.  But now that he has come, Christianity is a religion for all people, in fulfilment of God's promises:

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:6)

Hence, if we wish to find a worthy rival to Christianity, it should probably be a universal religion, i.e. its message should be sufficiently relevant to the perennial human condition, that it can be adopted by people from every culture and tribe, without completely wrenching them out of their social context.  A religion cannot really be considered cosmic in scope, if it isn't even able to be cosmopolitan.  This criterion rules out a large number of purely ethnic and tribal religions.

If God were still restricting his message primarily to a single ethnic group, presumably the rest of us would not be judged too harshly for not being in on the program.  Even the insiders might not think you have a moral obligation to join their group.  This makes it a lower priority to investigate ethnic religions such as Judaism or Hinduism (unless of course you happen to belong to one of these groups already).

As the most extreme case of ethnic exclusion, some religions currently forbid conversion altogether, for example traditional Parsees (Zoroastrians in India), and the Druze (in the Middle East).  These religions also forbid their adherents to marry outsiders.  There's just no way to get in, even if you wanted to!

Other religious traditions teach that God reveals himself through all cultures and therefore it is counterproductive to cast aside your ancestral teachings in favor of theirs.  These religions may discourage converts: for example, a woman from the church I grew up in became interested in Hinduism, and went to India to study under a guru.  He told her to go back to the USA, saying that she wasn't done being a Christian yet!  I've heard other anecdotes along similar lines, so apparently this attitude is fairly common among Hindu teachers.

Then there are various small religions (such as Baha'i, which is right on the edge of my somewhat arbitrary 1/1000 threshold) that are clearly intended to be international in scope, but have failed to achieve a very large number of converts to their cause.

(In some cases this might be because the religion is new.  Of course all religious movements start out small, so we can't place too much weight on this criterion or it would imply that nobody should have followed Jesus at the beginning, when he only had a few disciples.  At the same time, it seems reasonable to say that an untested charismatic cult leader needs to clear a higher bar than a well-established religious tradition.)

Hence, to score top points on this criterion, it is best to have already convinced a significant fraction of the world.

The Three Big Evangelical Religions

These considerations suggest we should focus the most attention on Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.  These are the 3 world religions which have had the most success in gaining converts even in radically different cultures, the ones whose message has been perceived as "Good News" to numerous people groups around the world.  (But I will still try to say some things about other religions as well, to the extent that my limited knowlege allows.)  To what extent their religious teachings actually are good news—well, that is a subject for the later posts!

Of these three "evangelical" religions, the spread of Islam is somewhat marred by the fact that the early spread of Islam, starting during Mohammad's lifetime and continuing for several centuries thereafter, was largely due to military action and subsequent cultural imperialism.  Although obviously Muslims would attribute this rapid spread to God's will, from a human point of view it seems that the sword discriminates among truths far more clumsily than rational discourse does.  (There are however a few countries, such as Indonesia, where the spread of Islam seems to have largely occurred through peaceful means such as trade.)

Of course some Muslim historians will insist that each of these conquests was morally justified by various particular circumstances.  But, to paraphrase a bit of popular wisdom: anyone might meet one or two jerks, but if everyone you meet seems to be a jerk, then you should consider the possibility that you might be the jerk, and they're just reacting to your personality.  In particular, any group that tries to conquer large parts of the world by the sword, should not be too surprised when the other countries look on with dismay and try to fight back.  (Here I am speaking historically, and not attempting to justify any particular modern wars.)

It actually took several centuries for these conquests to result in a majority for Islam in the Middle East and North Africa.  At first it was mainly the rulers of the conquered lands who were Muslims.  While pagans were required to convert at swordpoint, monotheistic groups such as Jews, Christians, Mandaeans (yes, there still exist followers of John the Baptist who never converted to Christianity!—although by now they have become very gnostic and reject even Moses), and Zoroastrians were generally tolerated, so long as they accepted second-class citizenship (dhimma), paid extra taxes (jizya), and did not try to convert Muslims to their religion.  Over the long run these legal disadvantages gave Islam a decisive advantage.

Mind you, at times the situation for Jews or "heretics" in medieval Europe was even worse than this.  It is easy to find examples of persecution of religious minorities in Christian history.  (Officially speaking, the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy only asserted authority over baptized individuals, but sometimes local rulers would impose Christianity on their domains, and then later the Church would try to enforce orthodoxy in these populations since they were now "Christians".)

Even Buddhists have sometimes engaged in religious persecution, e.g. historically in Japan, and at the present in Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma).  A college friend once tried to argue to me that anyone who persecuted other people wasn't a real Buddhist and therefore didn't count.  But this was an obvious use of the No True Scotsman ploy.  In my opinion the Christians who persecuted people weren't in that respect very good examples of Christianity either, but they still existed.

However, I think it is fair to say that both Christianity and Buddhism usually spread to new cultures primarily through evangelism.  This is especially true in their early years, and also in the contemporary world.

For example, after converting to Buddhism, the Indian king Ashoka (formerly a cruel tyrant) seems to have become a pacifist who promoted religious toleration (although there are some contrary traditions whose accuracy is disputed); his support for missionary activity in other countries helped spread Buddhism to many other nations.  And for the first 3 centuries the Christian Church rapidly expanded, even though it had no control over the government and intermittently went through periods of severe persecution, prior to its legalization by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine.

Of course there were plenty of instances of persecuting others which occured after these religions were well-established.  But it is open to both Buddhists and Christians to claim that the persecutors were bad examples, that they were ignoring the explicit instructions of their own sacred texts, and ought to have known better.  And perhaps that, in the long run, their religion would have advanced just as well or even better, without the aid of violent support.  It is not really open for a Muslim to say the same thing, because then they would have to disown their own Prophet and his immediate followers.  Of course they can still renounce particular instances of expansion through warfare, as being done in an inappropriate time or manner, but they cannot renounce it on principle.

(Christians do have to deal with divinely commanded warfare in the Old Testament, although this was not for evangelical purposes and was geographically limited.  There was no command to spread Judaism to other nations by conquest!  I will reserve discussion of the ethics of this violence until later, but it does introduce our next topic, namely continuity with other religions.)

Next: Ancient Roots

Posted in History, Theological Method | 8 Comments

Comparing Religions I: Introduction

A while back, a reader named "Martin B" once asked me this question about other religions:

May I ask what it is that makes you think Christianity stands out and is more believable than other religions and faiths on this planet?

In my previous response, I came up with a list of questions to ask to compare religions.  Here they are again:

  1. Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?
  2. How does the religion relate to previous and subsequent religions?
  3. Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher who didn't claim to have divine sanction for their teaching?
  4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?
  5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?
  6. How long was it between the time when the supposed supernatural events took place, and when they were first written down (in a document that has had copies of it preserved).  Is it early enough to suggest the text is based on testimony rather than later legends?
  7. What are the odds that the purported supernatural events could have occurred for non-supernatural reasons?
  8. Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it?
  9. Is there significant evidence of fraud among the originators of the religion?
  10. What is the general moral character of the religious teaching?
  11. Do people who are serious about this religion generally feel that they are put into an actual relationship with the divine?

I will now attempt to answer these questions, both for Christianity and its competitors.

Some disclaimers are probably appropriate.  Obviously there are some religions I know more about than others, and I apologize in advance to any member of another religion if I've gotten anything factually wrong.  Corrections are welcome in the comments.

Obviously, in order to say why I think Christianity is more plausible than other religions, I will have to be honest about what I think the shortcomings of other religions are.  In doing this, I do not intend to communicate any disrespect to the adherents of these religions.  I would like to believe as well of everyone as I can, but I am constrained by the truth to give my honest opinion.  I will try to do my best to highlight the good aspects of other religions as well as the problematic aspects.

I do not aim to write from a "neutral" viewpoint (nor do I think there is any such thing on this subject), but I do think I'm fair-minded enough to explore things from other perspectives, yet also—and this is equally important—interested in identifying actual evidence and truth, unlike supposedly "objective" scholars of comparative religion.

Not being interested in the truth of the underlying claims (or at least, interested in imagining what it would be like to care about the truth claims) is actually one of the most subjective ways to study a religion, in my opinion.  Because it sidesteps or brackets the thing most essential to most actual religious believers, it has a tendency to end up comparing superficial cultural similarities and differences, rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

And I am certainly not trying to evangelize my own culture.  I do not want everyone to share my own culture, but Christ.  Christian missionary work is not about the Imperial impulse, getting other people to give up their own culture, in order to learn Greek or English and become Europeans or Americans; no, it is about bringing Christ into every culture, to transform it into what God created it to be.  Certain specific cultural traditions may need to be changed because they are unjust or idolatrous—but that applies to Western culture as well!  The point of missionary work is to introduce other cultures to Jesus and let him show them what needs to change so that they can truly be themselves, not to make them over into the image of another group of people.

Some Christian missionaries have made the Imperial mistake in the past, but I think they've mostly figured it out by now.  I have seen many missionaries give presentations at churches about their foreign work, and almost down to the last man and woman, they have all seemed far more excited to share what they've learned about foreign cultures with Americans, then to spread American culture anywhere.  It is Jesus and the Gospel which they want to share, not Western culture in general.  (The one major exception is Western medicine, another type of "good news" which is beneficial to everyone, and which most missionaries are also very interested in sharing with other cultures.)

Please bear in mind that I'm trying to paint in really broad strokes here, because otherwise each of these questions would have to be a book in its own right.  So if I say that a religion is "primarily based" on something or other, or I summarize its teachings very briefly, I expect that there are plenty of nuances which I'm glossing over; due to my misperceptions as an outsider, different sects adopting different interpretations, and so on.  There is certainly potential for bias in my descriptions, but I still think these comparisons are worth doing.  Even near-sighted people can usually tell the difference between an elephant, a dog, and a rat.

While I may occasionally mention them, I will not be too concerned with the theological differences between different Christian denominations in this series.  I believe that what Christians share in common is far more important than what separates us.  (Here I am referring to geoups that actually believe in the supernatural claims of the New Testament, and have the mainstream Christian view about the basic nature of God and Jesus.  Fringe groups like Mormonism are probably better thought of as separate religions.)

In some ways, the internal differences within non-Christian religions are actually more significant for this project, because when a dispute between Christians is important, if need be I can simply defend the viewpoint I find most plausible.  But if there is a division inside of a non-Christian religion, in priciple one would need to investigate every possible permutation of the other religion to find the most plausible version.  This task is particularly vexatious in the case of Hinduism, which I am not sure should even be regarded as a single religion!  (Since you can find Hindu sects with basically all possible positions on the nature of divinity and its relation to the world.)  In other cases, I am going to try to keep things simple by focussing on the religious founder and trying to identify what form of the religion he (or she) taught, even though it's conceivable that the version that is most "authentic" to the founders intentions might not always be the version that is most true or beneficial.

Note that I will be discussing a fairly large number of criteria in the blog posts that follow, and it is not necessarily obvious which criteria are the most important.  Hence, even if I seem to "eliminate" a religion from consideration in one blog post, I may nevertheless continue to discuss that religion in future blog posts.

I am particularly grateful to my friend and fellow physicist Ahmed (of firewalls fame) for several conversations on Islam which have significantly benefitted my understanding.  I consider myself to have much more important things in common with him, than with any of the run-of-the-mill irreligious physicists I know.  Of course the views I express are my own, and so are any mistakes!

When irreligious skeptics in America bring up other religions as an objection to Christianity, it seems to me that they are quite frequently arguing in obvious bad faith.  When they look for parallels to the claims of Christ in some other religion, it is really to argue against Christ, and not because they actually take seriously, for one minute, the idea that some exotic foreign cult leader might actually turn out to be the true prophet sent by God.  If they did take these other religions seriously as rivals to Christianity, I think they would approach the question with far more caution, and would inevitably find themselves making distinctions between the plausibility of different ideas.

(Surely it is horrendously unlikely that all religions would have exactly equal plausibility.  Even if they were all fake, some fakes are a lot more convincing than others!  And you can't possibly know they're all fake, until you've investigated them carefully.)

At this point I should also mention another "skeptical" approach to evaluating religions which I think has very little merit, just to get it out of the way.  And that is to read the scriptures of a religion solely for the purpose of compiling a long list of "contradictions" that supposely disprove the books in question.  The main problem with this approach is that, generally speaking, the "worse" of a reader you are (i.e. superficial, hostile, and literal-minded) the more seeming contradictions you will find.  In other words, this is an approach which rewards poor reading.  And as St. Lewis remarked in one of his Narnia books, "the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."  (Of course, this approach is even sillier when done by followers of another religion, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their own holy book might be subjected to the same treatment.)

You have to give a text an chance, "suspending your disbelief" and savoring its taste on your tongue, even in order to find out what it is really saying.  Only then can you judge whether the ideas in it are sound or not.  This goes doubly for texts that were written a long time ago, where the authors lived in a completely different cultural milieu from our own.  Any historian worth his salt knows that even very accurate historical texts can contain puzzling statements, which may be difficult for us to reconcile with the rest of our knowledge about the period (but the resolution might have been transparently obvious to those who lived through the events, perhaps so obvious that they didn't bother explaining it).

And when it comes to the more intangible spiritual or ethical truths, only a fool would automatically reject any hint of paradox or tension between opposing ideas.  That's like saying that because your left eye and your right eye show slightly different images, you have to disbelieve either the one or the other, or both.  The better option is to combine both images, and then you can see in 3D!

This does not imply that all religious ideas are equally valid, either historically or philosophically.  At the end of the day, there might be irresolvable contradictions in a putative religious system.  But you should always make sure to criticize the essence of what is being said, rather than sniping at superficial "gotchas".

For these reasons, I find it's usually far more interesting and productive to have conversations about religious disagreements with an actual believer of another religion.  In this case, neither participant can "win" simply by retreating into a bottomless pit of endless skepticism, since each person also has something they wish to defend!

Next: World Evangelism

Posted in History, Theological Method | 5 Comments

Out with the Old Random Links

Since it's now 2019, it's a good time to clear out some random links I've got bookmarked to show you.  Here they are:

♦  You can't take an introductory psychology course without hearing about Zimbardo's "Stanford Prison Experiment", but in fact many aspects were faked.  Part of the scam is that the experiment went so "badly" that it would be unethical for any other researchers to repeat it—but not so badly that it couldn't still be used to catapult himself to perpetual fame and glory.

♦  The hot new result in biology is "epigenetics", the idea that (modifying the standard Darwinian picture) the experiences of one generation can affect which genes are expressed in the next generation.  You'd never guess from the wild news coverage of this that the phenomenon has never been convincingly demonstrated in human beings.

♦  Martin Gardner's attack on Karl Popper.

♦  Llamas, the secret bioweapon for producing vaccines that work on all types of flu?  I'm putting a question mark on this, only because 90% of the amazing news stories about medicine don't pan out somehow.  I wish journalists would write more news stories about the things researchers discovered 10 years ago that are now definitely curing lots of people...

♦  Potoooooooo, a famous race horse and stud.  Pronounced POT-EIGHT-OHS.

♦  Rithomachy, the medieval arithmetic battle board game, was apparently nearly as popular as Chess for a few centuries.

♦  An illustrated history of the American Revolution by a Japanese book in 1861... in which the Founding Fathers battle various giant beasts.

♦  Bitcoin is currently using half a percent of the world's electricity.  Perhaps we shouldn't be squandering the planet's resources on a mindless race to manufacture currency that doesn't actually produce anything valuable?

[UPDATE 2/7/19: here's a possible rebuttal of the guy whose blog apparently started this ecological alarm.  Haven't put in enough work to figure out who's right here, but until then I'm taking these articles with a grain of salt.    If anyone knows more about this I'd be grateful if they weigh in.]

♦  In other cryptocurrency news: The (arguably unconstitutionally appointed) Acting Attorney General was previously involved in a scam to try to trick people into buying time travel cryptocurrency.  Unbelievable!  As if an AG disbelieving in Marbury vs. #@*$^&! Madison weren't bad enough.  (I knew about the UConn crackpot from when I decided not to apply to a faculty position there, but I had no idea these threads were connected...)  Apparently it really is important to educate the public about why time travel is worth talking about but not really worth investing your retirement savings in.

♦  The Sabbath as a radical act of protest against being treated as a slave by the economic system.

♦  The Graphing Calculator Story, another radical act of protest... in favor of voluntarily working without pay?  Hilarious.

♦  As for involuntary servitude, a cynical take on schooling: Part I, Part II.  As a lazy bright kid who didn't do most of the homework I was assigned despite significant feelings of guilt, I 100% endorse these posts (except I disagree with the bit opposing standardized tests, and have some reservations about the section labelled "foreign kids").

♦  Why state educational ratings are measuring the wrong thing.  As a libertarian magazine, Reason has its own biases, but it seems quite reasonable that we should control for different state populations, and shouldn't count money spent on education (which is a cost) as if it were an educational outcome (a benefit).  Don't forget to click on the plot that shows their new rankings.

♦  How the US Educational system does math word problems completely wrong, by a mathematician from Russia.  Come on, folks!

♦  I've heard several times before that there are different potentially valid models of how to look at mental illness, but I think a few paragraphs in the middle of this blog post give a particularly striking answer for what makes a "spiritual model" different from other approaches, namely that it actually engages with—even when it does not agree with—the content of mental issues in a way other approaches do not.  (I don't have any reason to think the author is a Christian, but I still found this helpful.)

Oh, and Ivy League schools should stop discouraging people from being supportive to students with mental illnesses!

♦  This account of fixing an issue causing depression is also somewhat interesting, although I'm not sure how well the method would work on everybody...

♦  St. Shamus Young has an interesting series about procedural world-building that I think is pretty cool; his autobiography/conversion-story is also worth reading through.  Not for the slow of connections, though.

♦  An interview with a Christian neuroscientist at Stanford, St. William Newsome.

♦  Here's a brain viewer that's supposed to show you how different parts of the brain are mapped out, but I'm not sure my own brain is capable of handling the web interface.  Let me know if anyone figures out how to actually extract useful information from this.

♦  A side effect of people becoming less religious is we start treating political cults as if they were a religious identity.

♦  St. Ben Sasse, Senator from Nebraska and St. John's College graduate, had some balanced remarks about the MeToo movement during the recent confirmation fight.

♦  Tips for more productive and realistic political conversations.

♦  The Believing Game, another conversational tool for identifying certain sorts of truths.

♦  A while back I gave some advice about how to read the Bible.  The same guy also asked about Church History, and I put off answering because I thought I might write a whole blog post on the subject.  Ha!  My actual recommendation is to start by reading The Lion Handbook on the History of Christianity.  Then, if you are curious about some particular great Christian of the past, find a translation and start reading their work for yourself.  If it doesn't speak to you, pick something else.

♦  You know how in the Bible, when the king Jeroboam split Israel off from the southern kingdom of Judah, he set up an alternative system of worship involving a sycretistic hybrid religion where YHWH was worshipped in the form of golden calves?  [If the answer is no, click on the first link in the previous item.]  Well, archaeologists have recently found a payrus with some creepy alternative psalms from the Northern Kingdom religion.  Although there are parallels to the Biblical Psalms, in these psalms YHWH is worshipped alongside other Middle Eastern Gods, and may be identified with a "Bull".  He is also portrayed as being satiated by bowls of sacrificial blood.  I think most Christians don't realize how a lot of the biblical Psalms (like #50) are polemics against this sort of crass religion.

♦  One of my ancestors, the Rev. Aron Wall, helped lead a group of Mennonites from the Ukraine to the United States.  I'm staring right now at a photograph of him and his wife that is hanging on our mantelpiece, and he looks almost exactly the same as in the photograph I just linked to.  The Mennonites weren't originally from the Ukraine either; as Anabaptists (the more radical wing of the Reformation) they had been persecuted by both Protestant and Catholic countries in Central Europe.

♦  The Biodeterminist Guide to Parenting, by popular blogger Scott Alexander, one of the few people I trust to summarize the actual scientific evidence in a suitably tongue-in-cheek manner.

♦  Recently I've been commenting sometimes on Scott's blog Slate Star Codex.  Readers of this blog may be interested in my Ask Me Anything which mostly turned into an argument about the evidence for Christianity.

I've also been having some interesting conversations with a guy who is summarizing the beliefs of secular biblical critics about the Bible; this spans many threads but you can find most of them by tracing back links from the index post for the Torah /"Deuteronomistic History", the index post for the Prophets, and the most recent post of his ongoing series on the Writings [I may update this with the Index post later.] You can find out why scholars believe the Documentary Hypothesis, and more about why I'm skeptical of such hypotheses.

Have a blessed 2019, everyone!

Posted in Links | 5 Comments

Breakthrough Panel Discussion on Time Travel

Everyone seemed to love the panel discussion on "Is time travel possible?", featuring Veritasium's Derek Muller as host; and Nima Arkani-Hamed, Daniel Harlow, Daniel Jafferis, and myself as panelists. We had a lot of fun with it, but also there's some profound physics involved, in what one might have thought was a pretty flippant choice of topic. So without further ado, here it is:

(Back up to 7:55 if you want to hear all the introductions to the event at the beginning.)

After our panel there were two others on "What are the limits of Science" and "Is there life in the Universe", recorded in the same video. There were a lot of interesting people on these panels, although I don't think the conversations cohered quite as well as ours did, perhaps because they involved people from different disciplines.

In the second panel, Andrei Linde is a fun speaker, but I think he overplayed how much we currently know for sure about the early universe after inflation happened. There are a lot of mysteries between the time inflation ended (about 10^{-35} seconds after the Big Bang by his reckoning) and the time of the Higgs Phase Transition (about 10^{-12} seconds, which corresponds to the highest energy scale we can measure at the LHC). Between these times there are a lot of mysteries, like what process produced more matter than antimatter, as needed for any matter to exist today. I also wish he'd mentioned Cosmic Variance, a pretty obvious Limit on Science in his field.

Gary Ruvkin, the guy who thinks life on earth came from outer space was also kind of interesting. Apparently after about a billion years of nothing, life shows up on Earth and it's already pretty complicated. So maybe it came from elsewhere? The downside of this hypothesis, he said wittily, is that it "only buys you another 10 billion years" to evolve life (going back to the Big Bang). Since this is a physics and theology blog, I'll mention that even though I generally think that Darwinian evolution suffices to explain the evolution of complex life from simpler life, it does seem bewildering how something as complicated as the first cell might have arisen naturally, without a miracle. But just because I can't imagine it doesn't necessarily mean it couldn't have happened by some natural process. As a theist I am philosophically open to both supernatural and natural explanations, both of which are ultimately due to the Creator of all things.

That third panel should really have been: "Is there other life in the Universe", otherwise I think the question is pretty easy. This panel includes Jocelyn Bell Burnell who received a special Breakthrough prize this year for her revolutionary discovery of pulsars. Scandalously, the Nobel was given to her advisor but not to her; either because of sexism, or because of a bias against graduate students, or some combination thereof.

This seems like a good time to mention that, if I understand the history correctly, it was Daniel Jafferis' grad student Ping Gao who had the original idea to try to make a traversable wormhole in AdS/CFT. (Although as the 3rd person to join the collaboration, I can't speak to the exact division of labor between Ping and Dan.) Now the New Horizons prize was awarded for our lifetime of work so far, and not just for this one article, so I'm not saying that Ping should have been eligible for this particular prize. But I do think it's important for people to acknowledge junior collaborators, and not just assume the senior people did all the best work. So thanks Ping!

[Apparently I misunderstood the history, and is was Daniel who had the original idea and assigned it to Ping as a project.  I apologize for the mistake, but of course I'm still grateful to Ping for his hard work and insights!]

Posted in Physics, Talks | 4 Comments


I've recently won a pretty big prize in theoretical physics, called the New Horizons Prize.  This is a smaller version of the Breakthrough Prize which is awarded to more junior researchers.

My prize is shared with MIT's Daniel Harlow and Harvard's Daniel Jafferis, both of them excellent physicists.   Amusingly, each pair of us have written exactly 1 article together (but we have never collaborated as a trio).

I hope it is not too vain to share some news articles about the prize, in case people want to know more:

There is also going to be a prize ceremony today [i.e. the day I am writing this post], Sunday Nov 4th, in Mountain View.  You can find more information about the broadcasting of the event, and the other prize winners, here.  There will also be an all-day symposium at UC Berkeley this Monday, at which I will be getting the actual trophy and also we will be speaking at a panel on whether time travel is possible.  You can watch it live streamed here.

I've also recently received the 2018 Philippe Meyer Prize and the IUPAP Young Scientist Prize [alt link], both of whose award ceremonies will be in the future.

After all this shameless self-promotion, I have some even better news that makes me even prouder: in January Nicole and I are expecting our first child, a son!  We are so pleased by this, and hope that he will find this world hospitable as God's will is accomplished in his life.  I don't feel prepared yet to be a father, but then again no one ever is.  I understand that children are very good at training up their parents, so hopefully it will turn out all right!

Posted in Blog, Education, Physics | 10 Comments