Posted by: rmbrowning | April 25, 2011

N.T. Wright on Adam and Eve

Posted by: rmbrowning | March 26, 2011

Love wins

Rob Bell’s new book “Love wins” has stirred up quite a lot of controversy recently, which I have been slow to pick up on.  Initially I was quick to dismiss Bell’s critics as much of it seemed like sensationalist ranting.  However, since then I’ve begun to reconsider my initial reaction.  I began to ponder whether his critics had a point after seeing this video:

Bell’s critics are charging him with universalism, which is quite serious as it is not generally considered mainstream theology.  I haven’t read the book yet and I wouldn’t be too quick to label him a universalist from the video alone.  I personally (as a person with some occasional inclusivist leanings) would feel uncomfortable saying that “Ghandi is in hell” with any degree of certainty. I’m very troubled by Christians who seem content to condemn others to hell without reservation, that I have in common with Bell.

I also agree with Bell’s title that “love wins” I just don’t know if we each have the same meaning attached to those words.  Bell could easily be a univeralist from some of the reviews I’ve read (such as this one here which picks apart his theology.  I find peoples questions regarding hell/love/mercy interesting but I’m worried that people forget about holiness/justice/atonement.  So I’m interested to see how the controversy/situation continues to unfold.

“A God all mercy is a God unjust.” – Edward Young

Posted by: rmbrowning | July 25, 2010

A case for moderation – Part 2

The second part of this colossal brain fart deals with how one should deal with alcohol and Christianity.  It is not as relevant to those who are not part of the faith.

Throughout the Bible wine is mentioned hundreds of times in both the Old and New Testaments making it very commonplace.  Now in Christian circles alcohol is a substance of some contention with some people and religious groups advocating complete abstinence.  There are also those (particularly within recent generations) who seem to think that binge drinking is morally permissible.  I shall now provide a brief look at the Bible to provide a scriptural argument on how best to view alcohol.

Throughout the Bible wine is mentioned hundreds of times in both the Old and New Testaments making it very commonplace.  I do remember a total prohibitionist mentioning some years ago that only the negative instances refer to alcoholic drinks and other instances involve “new wine”.  I was somewhat confused by this at the time as the name of this grape juice has the word wine in it (which I take to mean it has been fermented) and being at a time before refrigeration any sugars are going to end up oxidised into ethanol anyway.  This idea seems to be further weakened by the fact that there does not seem to be any distinction made between alcoholic and non-alcoholic because the words used are the same.  In the Old Testament the Hebrew word yayin is used very commonly and in the New Testament the Greek word oinos is used.   As far as I know both are regarded positively and negatively within it’s respective testament, so can one really make a distinction?  Prohibitionists also tend to focus on verses that condemn drunkenness and ignore those that portray alcohol in a positive light.  Two examples of positive lights include Ecclesiastes 9:7 and 1 Timothy 5:23 (where Paul instructs Timothy to drink more wine as the unsanitary water of the time probably caused him stomach problems).

Now to our other group who seem oblivious to the fact that alcohol abuse is condemned in scripture which is more cut and dry.  Both the Old and New Testaments contain warnings against drunkenness.  Within the Bible we find that those who spend a great deal of time drinking find woe, sorrow and strife (Proverbs 23:29-30).  We also find that drunkenness is listed among acts of sinful nature (Galatians 5:19-21 and Corinthians 6:9-1).  The apostle Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).  Jesus also warned his followers not to be drunk (Luke 21:34).  Clearly binge drinking is not supported at all.

In conclusion I believe that alcohol consumption is best done within strict moderation.  This is because moderate consumption promotes good health while heavy drinking is likely to cause health problems (don’t get me started on smoking).  Also Biblically drunkenness is condemned while alcohol itself is ok.  I have no problem with those who do abstain completely as long as you’re not trying to pass it off as Biblical idea or commandment from God.

Posted by: rmbrowning | July 7, 2010

A case for moderation – Part 1

The reason for writing this that many societies today have an incredible propensity for binge drinking, which is doing a lot of harm.  In my own country a study found that 3.9 percent of all deaths were attributable to alcohol consumption.  This is not to mention the other harms caused by alcohol consumption not mentioned in mortality statistics.

Obviously, if you gleaned anything from the title, I’m not a prohibitionist.  I’m not advocating that we should all abstain completely (although there are instances where this may be appropriate).  Nor am I advocating that non-drinkers should start.  This is more of a call to be a bit more sensible about how alcohol is consumed.  The evidence at this time suggests that those who consume alcohol in moderation live longer and have better health than heavy drinkers (and even those who abstain completely).

This better health and longevity is almost certainly due to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in Western countries.  Many studies have confirmed a link between moderate consumption and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.  This may be because moderate alcohol intake has been shown to have positive effects such as increasing high-density lipoproteins (“good cholesterol” which helps prevent arterial plaques) and decreasing clotting factors like fibrinogen (which could help to prevent thrombosis).

However, more isn’t better as binge drinking seems to contribute to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease.  New research has shown that the levels of a compound called acetaldehyde increase dramatically with binge drinking, which speeds up the formation of arterial plaques.  This could be why heavy drinkers have more than twice the risk of stroke than moderate consumption.  Other research has found that for women getting drunk once a month negates any benefits from moderate consumption and places them at greater risk of ischaemic heart disease.

Binge drinking is also a risk factor for several types of cancer, including: breast cancer, oral cancers, bowel cancer and liver cancer.  Having more than two standard drinks in one day will increase your risk of these cancers.  This is of course as well as behavioural consequences which have potential to ruin your life such as accidents, violence, poor social behaviour, drunkenness, unsafe/unwanted sex and listening to hip hop.

Connor, J., Broad, J., & Rehm, J., et al. (2005). The burden of death, disease, and disability due to alcohol in New Zealand. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 118(1213).

University at Buffalo (2007, May 25). Moderate Drinking Lowers Women’s Risk Of Heart Attack. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 22, 2009, from

Rodgers, H, Aitken, P.D., French, J.M., Curless, R.H., Bates, D., & James, O.F. (1993). “Alcohol and stroke. A case-control study of drinking habits past and present”  Stroke, 24,1473-1477.

Posted by: rmbrowning | July 3, 2009

Background information on moderation

My next posts deal with the moderate consumption of alcohol.  I thought I would make all the relevant definitions seperately in the interests of brevity.  It is worth noting that these guidelines and definitions differ between countries.  I am using those found in my country of origin.

What is a standard drink?

Firstly, the standard drink equals 10g of pure ethanol.   This roughly equates to:

  • One 330ml beer
  • 30ml of straight spirits (about one shot glass)
  • One 100ml glass of wine (a lot of people overfill their glasses and are actually drinking closer to 2-2.5 standard drinks)

From here.

What is moderation?

The current guidelines say:

  • Men have a daily maximum of 6 standard drinks and a weekly maximum of 21.
  • Women have a daily maximum of 4 standard drinks and a weekly maximum of 14.

It is also recommended that you eat food when consuming alcohol and have alcohol free days each week.  There are also instances when these figures are too high and circumstances where one shouldn’t consume alcohol at all.

You can read the full brief here.

However, I must say that I think that these guidelines are a bit high (more on why later).  Personally I prefer the recommendations of The Nutrition Taskforce which posits a maximum of 30g for men and 20g for women.  Obviously these guidelines are there for a reason as binge drinking is a large contributor of health and social ills.

You can find a quick quiz to test your drinking here.

Connor, J., Broad, J., & Rehm, J., et al. (2005). The burden of death, disease, and disability due to alcohol in New Zealand. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 118(1213).

Tasman-Jones, C., (2005). Alcohol drinking guideline,Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 118(1218).

Posted by: rmbrowning | June 12, 2009

Telling tails about bacterial flagella

Note: This post may be subject to some revision. I’ve hopefully managed to accurately summarise some scientific findings outside my area of proficiency.  Also, there is a lot that could be said here but I’m be trying my best not to bog this down too much. Dialogue and suggestions are most welcome.

The bacterial flagellum (from latin “whip”) is one of the most complicated examples of biological “machinery” we know of today. The projecting filament of the flagellum is capable of rotating at thousands of revolutions a minute to propel bacteria through watery environments, in a similar way to an outboard motor. Explaining how such a system works and how it evolved has been a subject of interest for modern biologists.

In recent years, the interest in this curious piece of micro-machinery has increased dramatically. This has been as result of the intelligent design (ID) movement using it as a challenge to evolution and the flogging the subject took at the Dover trial a few years ago. Cdesign propensists, claim that the bacterial flagellum is evidence for ID as it exhibits an attribute called “irreducible complexity” (IC), which was coined by Michael Behe.

What he means by this is:

“An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by numerous, successive, slight modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”

Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then if a biological system cannot be produced gradually it would have to arise as an integrated unit, in one fell swoop, for natural selection to have anything to act on.”

Essentially, an irreducibly complex system could be formed by the gradual processes of evolution as the non-functioning intermediates would not be preserved by natural selection. This harkens back to the old creationist arguments of “what good is half an eye” and William Paley’s argument for design (Perhaps these arguments and IC share a common ancestor?).

Despite the over-whelming rejection of ID by the scientific community and the gaping wound left by the rulings at Dover, ID proponents insist they have a case for design in irreducible complexity.  Do they?

I don’t think so when I consider:

  1. the bacterial flagellum isn’t irreducible

  2. homology within the proteins involved

  3. the many paths to bacterial mobility

  4. complexity design

An article by Nick Matze mentions that some bacterial flagella can function without some of the proteins that make up the flagellum. According to the definition we should not be able to reduce such a system to a functioning simpler form. It should be by definition non-functional.

Another reason not to accept the notion of irreducible complexity is the existence of homologies. One popular example is that of the type 3 secretory system (T3SS) which pathogenic bacteria use to inject cells with toxins. Several of the T3SS proteins are found in the bacteria flagellum. It’s currently debated which came first or whether they evolved from a common ancestor, regardless, this example shows how a partial flagellum could have a use. If it has a use it can be preserved by natural selection and exaptation/co-option to act on it, which leaves no reason to claim evolution is incapable of producing it.

In reading some of the literature surrounding bacterial flagella I came across something I had previously overlooked, which is possibly my new favourite reason to reject ID’s notions. The fact is that there is no such thing as the bacterial flagellum. Instead, we find huge variation in how flagella function and are assembled. Of the 40-50 proteins used in making a flagellum only 20 are universal. I think it’s unnecessary to detail all the possibilities, but this raises some rather awkward questions for the ID camp such as:

Why did the intelligent designer reinvent the design so many times?

Did the intelligent designer create all of these varying different flagella in thousand of special creations?

Is the intelligent designer trying to trick us by making it look like these different systems evolved from a common ancestor?

The final question for me is how on earth would we recognise design? Complexity is not necessarily a good indication that something is designed. What about simplistic designs? Paperclips and bricks aren’t complicated but we know that they are designed (albeit by human designers which is another limitation for intelligent design). What we’re actually looking for in design is artificiality, which is difficult to find in a biological system.

Bacterial flagella are complicated and their evolutionary history is not well understood.  However, I think that it is much better to leave science to explain, rather than invoking the arguments from psuedo-science which halt scientific enquiry.  Pointing at gaps in scientific knowledge without providing a scientific and testable alternative is not good science.  Furthermore, intelligent design implicitly limits God’s intelligence and power (most ID proponents think of the Judeo-Christian God).  A God who has to repeatedly intervene to maintain his creation is less intelligent than one who could had a process in mind which could produce such complex micro-machines.

Relevant articles:

Dolittle, W.F. & Zhaxybayeva, O., (2007). Evolution: Reducible Complexity — The Case for Bacterial Flagella , Current Biology, 17(13) , 510-512

Pallen, M.J., & Matzke, N.J., (2006). From Origin of Species to the origin of bacterial flagella, Nature Reviews Microbiology, 4, 784-790

Wong, T., Amidi, A., Dodds, A., Siddiqi, S., Wang, J., Yep, T., Tamang, D.G., & Saier, M.H., (2007). The Evolution of Bacterial Flagellum, Microbe, 2(7), 335-340

In response to this post:

Scientists have many different methods of dating our earth and universe. All of these methods give ages much older than those accepted by young earth creationism (YEC). If the earth is only 6000 years old, why does a mountain of evidence contradict this? For me it raises questions about the honesty of the God of YEC. These are just a few brief examples.

  1. Dendochronology or tree ring dating gives us an age of around 11000 years old.

  2. Thermoluminescence: method of dating materials based on stored nuclear energy, can date items more than 80,000 years old.

  3. Radioisotope dating: based on observed ratios between different isotopes of radioactive elements, dates some rocks on earth older than 4.4 billion years (uranium-thorium, potassium-argon). Carbon 14 dating is used on organic samples to gives dates of tens of thousands of years.

  4. Electronic spin resonance: can date samples hundreds of thousands of years old.

  5. Fission track dating is suggestive of an earth billions of years old.

  6. Light from distant galaxies reaching earth indicates the earth is much older than a few thousand, otherwise we wouldn’t see anything past the milky-way.

  7. Red-shifted light from distant galaxies is indicative of the universe of almost 14 billion years old.

More reading:
Chronometric dating part 1
Chronometric dating part 2
Red shift

Posted by: rmbrowning | May 28, 2009

Thinking about lust

I’ve often thought that a lot of what I’ve been told surrounding lust has been ill-defined and much too black’n’white.  Perhaps this is because it might be because it is a difficult topic or perhaps a bit taboo.  I’m primarily interested to know if and where there is a demarcation between attraction and lust.  This is looked at largely from my perspective as a Christian and will probably make little sense from an outside perspective.

I’m inclined to think that sexual attraction is natural and good thing.  An example from my perspective: a female waist to hip ratio of around 0.7 is a characteristic that is considered attractive across time and ethnic groups.  I would say that male brains are hard-wired to find this attribute attractive because this ratio is associated with health, fertility and high-performance children.  I won’t go into why this makes good reproductive sense (I think most of the implications are self-evident) but I will say that such attraction is important for survival of the species.

However, I’m not sure this attraction is the same thing as lust, but where is the line?  Is there a line?  Matthew 5:28 says: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  The last part in particular leaps out at me as showing that this is a desire for something selfish and inappropriate.  Gluttony and greed are similar manifestations, and without them we can still eat and earn a living.  I think our topic falls in a similar category.

Perhaps what I’m looking for is a more balanced perspective on this.  I’d say that both the puritan and whatever the equivalent opposite is (I can’t think of a nice word) are both equally misguided on the issues of human sexuality.

Posted by: rmbrowning | May 22, 2009

On our new cousin Ida

Earlier this week a fossil Darwinus masillae (nick-named “Ida”) created a bit of a stir and sent creationist websites into deny-everything-about-everything mode.  The media has also been pretty unhelpful with it’s “missing-link” labeling and over-hyped rhetoric that this fossil has finally validated Darwin’s theory.  I’ve reluctantly decided to throw in my tuppence worth because some of what I’ve read has not been good.

Ida is:

  • 47 million years old, which makes her a great deal older than our species.
  • Well-preserved and 95% complete.
  • Not a lemur as she lacks a grooming claw and tooth comb.  Additionally, her talus is shaped like members of our primate line.
  • Helpful in giving us an idea of how various traits developed (which is pretty cool).
  • A bridge between lemurs and their more distant relatives such as monkeys and us.

Ida isn’t:

  • THE missing link.  (Every fossil is transitional in some way; Ida is one link in a very long evolutionary chain.)
  • The only example we have of a transitional fossil.  (There are so many that I feel sorry for those who have to store and categorise them all.)
  • An example of scientists trying to deceive you.  (Yes, there was a hoax but that doesn’t put every subsequent fossil in the same basket.)
  • A much needed piece of evidence for the theory.  (There’s a mountain of evidence that overwhelmingly supports evolution by natural selection. We don’t even need fossils due to: vestigial organs, embryology, morphological similarities, genomic similarities, observable evolution of micro-organisms and virtually every other discovery in biology over the 150 years.)
  • The work of Satan.

How Christians respond to facts such as these can be very influential as to how people view Christianity.  If one avoids, ignores or denies them it is very detrimental amongst those people who wonder about Christianity today.  Honest dialogue is necessary not only for our intellectual integrity but also for our message.

Posted by: rmbrowning | May 17, 2009

Abortion – What about the men?

I’ve read a lot of opinions on abortion I’ve disagreed with in the last week or so but one statement in particular irked me.

“It’s a women’s health issue and it’s nobody else’s business other than the woman’s.” – Fiona Robertson

This sentiment seems to be fairly common (also seen as “my body, my choice” slogans) and I disagree with it on a number of levels (though I’ll only address one). This way of thinking totally ignores men. While we may not have the same experience as the woman, it undoubtedly affects men too.

Hypothetically, if I get a woman pregnant I’ve provided half the genes and therefore it should be equally my business. If the woman decides to continue with the pregnancy I would be liable for child support even if I didn’t want the child. I agree that this is good practice because I should be responsible for my actions. Conversely though, if the woman decides to terminate the pregnancy and I want the child, suddenly nobody wants my input. If I wanted the child and it was terminated I could very well experience grief, depression, anger, helplessness and resentment.

There’s only one word to describe this situation: unjust.

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