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Sunday, February 28, 2010

God's jealousy, in the New Testament

James 4:4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (ESV)

When verse 5 recently struck me, I guess for the first time (although I have read it several times in the past) it struck hard. The Holy Spirit (which is apparently the spirit referred to) is jealous? I checked some other versions of the Bible:

5 Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? (KJV)

5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?
Text note: Or that God jealously longs for the spirit that he made to live in us; or that the Spirit he caused to live in us longs jealously (NIV)

The answer seems to be that the Spirit can be jealous, indeed.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson

I recently read Warbreaker (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2009) by Brandon Sanderson. See here and here for two reviews of the book, the first by Orson Scott Card.

A previous post by me muses on the first book of a trilogy by Sanderson.

I will parallel that post, in part.

First, as in the Mistborn trilogy, Sanderson has gone to some pains to construct a new type of magic. In this book, the magic is related to color. It is also related to Breath, which is some sort of attribute that each person has. (Their soul? Their spirit? Something else? I'm not sure.) People can voluntarily give their Breath to another person, and, in the process, lose their own, after which they become drab, or colorless. On the other hand, a person with breaths from several people can impart some or all of that breath to inanimate objects, such as ropes or scarves, and then these objects will respond to commands, such as to tie someone up, or to pull the person practicing magic to a height. The breath placed in inanimate objects can be reclaimed. Orson Scott Card wrote that "it seemed as if Sanderson was flailing around trying to come up with another cool new never-before-seen magic system." That had been my impression, but there's no serious harm in doing that, and, as Card wrote on, Warbreaker is a good story.

The magic was complex, and hard to understand, even though Sanderson provides an appendix on the relationship between breaths and powers. There was more magic than that. A few dead people, the Returned, are reborn (re-created? reincarnated?) as gods -- they have special powers, and bodies that are, essentially, perfect. Some other dead people, the Lifeless, are used as soldiers, or slaves. They don't seem to have self-awareness, but can obey commands. Sanderson seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics here -- the Lifeless don't eat, but apparently may serve as slaves for years. No special energy source is mentioned.

There are also kings, queens, and royal families, and a super-Returned, the god-king. There are references to a devastating war, fought a few centuries ago, and to the leading characters in that war, who apparently had special powers, ability, and knowledge.

As I wrote about the first book of the Mistborn trilogy, "there are interesting characters in the book. These characters have feelings, and flaws, and most of them are trying to do good." One flaw I found is that several of the characters seemed to sound alike.

There's plenty of action, and some romance, in the book. It's a real page-turner. But it has its flaws.

Thirdly, and as usual, I wish to muse about religious aspects of Warbreaker, giving away as little of the plot as I can in the process. One such aspect has already been referred to -- in the country where most of the action takes place, there are a couple of dozen or so gods, or goddesses, the Returned, in the book. They are not, as Lifesong, one of the main characters, and a god, keeps insisting, immortal, and don't have omniscience, either. They can only grant one petition for healing, and, if they do so, give up their own reincarnated lives in the process. There are priests or priestesses for each of the gods. These priests carry out every wish of their gods, or goddesses. But the gods are insulated from the real world, pampered amazingly, but trapped, as it were, in part of the palace.

Lightsong is as close to a Christ-figure as Sanderson comes:
"Lightsong gave his life to heal me," the God King said. "He somehow knew that my tongue had been removed."
"The returned can heal one person," the priest said, looking down at his god. "It's their duty to decide who and when. They come back for this purpose, some say. To give life to one person who needs it." (574)

There is another god, more of a creator type, in a smaller country next to Hallandren, the main one. 

All in all, a good read. Thanks for reading this!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Folk science, an essential concept

I have been reading the Quintessence of Dust blog for some time, but, apparently, not enough. That blog is essential reading for any Christian who takes science seriously, and wants to think about origins, even if she may not agree with Stephen Matheson, the author. Matheson is careful, thorough, and respectful of viewpoints that are not his own.

The reason I said "not enough" above is that I have recently come upon a post from 2007, in which Matheson discusses what he calls "folk science," which is, more or less, science used to defend a pre-existing view. As Matheson points out in a recent post, much of the defense of Intelligent Design is actually folk science, unfortunately. The same is true of much of the defense of Young-Earth Creationism.

Thanks for reading. Read Quintessence of Dust.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sunspots 249

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Humor:(This isn't especially humorous, but I don't have a category for it) The New York Times reports on a woman who died recently, leaving about 2,000 living descendants. She was a holocaust survivor.

Wired reports on a comet with a tail that is millions of miles long. There is a photo, taken with an infrared camera.

Quintessence of Dust continues a careful criticism of Stephen C. Meyer's Signature in the Cell .

A video of a robot, said to be made entirely from Lego parts, that can solve a Rubik's cube in seconds.

Christianity:According to Jan, Jesus lives in Michigan.

It is my understanding that John Wesley wrote his last letter on this date, in 1791. He wrote to William Wilberforce, urging him to continue the fight against slavery.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Day" as used in the Bible

A recent post had a comment, which, in part, said this: ". . . why does the Bible say a day and science say millions of years for creation?"

I responded, but perhaps a longer response is in order. One part of the response is to agree wholeheartedly that it is dangerous to ignore the literal text of the Bible. If, for example, the Bible says that Jesus rose from the dead, we need a very good reason to say that this wasn't meant as literal, and that He, in fact, did not so rise. There is no such reason, as far as I am concerned -- Jesus did rise from the dead.

Are there reasons to believe that the six days of creation, in Genesis 1, may not have been meant to be taken literally? I think there are. Am I sure that they were meant to be taken as something other than a literal day? No, I'm not sure.

To quote the King James Version of Genesis 1: "And the evening and the morning were the first day." This language is repeated, being found in verses 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31. Why "evening and morning"? I'm not sure, but would guess that the ancient Hebrews had a different view of when days started and ended than we do. Now, already there is a problem with taking these days as literal days, namely that the sun is said to have been made on the fourth day. How could there have been evening and morning on days one, two and three without the sun? I understand that God could have made evening and morning when there was no sun, but at the least, the listing of days before the sun requires something more than a literal interpretation of the word "day" in the first three instances where it occurs, in Genesis 1.

Then there's Genesis 2:4: ". . . in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens . . ." Here is a case, right after Genesis 1, where "day" doesn't seem to mean a literal 24-hour day, but rather a period of time, of at least a few 24-hour days in length. The phrase seems to be referring to the entire period of creation, based on the context. I'm not a Hebrew scholar, by any means, but if I go to the web page called up by the link for "Genesis 2" at the beginning of this paragraph, then click on the small "c" in the box to the left of verse 4, I get a display of the Hebrew words that the English translations are based on. The word used for "day" is rendered "yowm." Beside that word, there is a number, H3117, from Strong's Concordance of the original language. If I click on that number, I get an entry for that word. The first thing I note is that that same word, "yowm," was used for a number of things, including 24-hour days, years, and periods of time, just as day may be used in English. If I scroll down a bit, I see that the same word was used for each of  the six days, as listed above.

As an aside, Genesis doesn't tell us when the earth was created, nor the heavens, other than that they were "In the beginning." Were these created on the first day, or before the six days of Genesis 1?

Then, of course, there's 2 Peter 3:8, which says that a day is as a thousand years. Some people have taken that to mean that the six days of Genesis 1 were each exactly a thousand years in length, but I don't think that that is warranted.

My point is that it may be true that Genesis 1 is speaking of 24-hour days, but for it to be doing so, some assumptions must be made, or some other Biblical facts ignored. In other words, I believe that it is legitimate to believe that the days of Genesis 1 were not meant to be taken as literal days, and I am by no means alone in this.

I have posted on this question before. See here (which post considers the association of the days of Genesis with the fourth Commandment) and here (which post considers problems in interpretation of Genesis 2:5-7 literally) for more.

I thank the commenter for raising the question. I have by no means answered it fully. Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The God Delusion and disproving God's existence: Dawkins argues from chance

I have been posting on The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. In this post, which will be the last in the series, unless there are comments that need to be addressed in a full post, or unless I simply decide to post on the subject (It's my blog!) I wish to discuss Dawkins' central argument for the non-existence of God.

Dawkins discusses the Anthropic Principle. This has to do with the apparently very narrow constraints that astronomical facts, properties of matter, and physical laws place on the existence of life as we know it. For example, if the earth were a little closer to the sun, there wouldn't be enough liquid water for life. If the earth were a little further from the sun, there wouldn't be enough, either, because so much of it would be ice. But, of course, we are here! Why? One response is that there is a supernatural God who has planned things that way. Richard Dawkins will have none of that explanation, of course. I agree with him that this is an unprovable idea, and I believe that there is even scriptural proof that it is unprovable, but I believe it, nonetheless. Hebrews 11:3 says "By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." (ESV) Note that this says "by faith." Although the verse does not say that it is impossible to prove this, I think it means that. (I also believe that it is impossible to disprove it, and Dawkins, to his credit, does not make that claim. He does think that he has gotten very close, though!)

Why does Dawkins think he has gotten so close? He has done the opposite of believing in divine planning. Here's what he says, in reference to six physical constants, as discussed by astronomer Martin Rees, in his book, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe, 2000:
I won't go through the rest of Rees's six numbers. The bottom line for each of them is the same. The actual number sits in a Goldilocks band of values outside which life would not have been possible. How should we respond to this? . . . The theist says that God, when setting up the universe, tuned the fundamental constants . . . so that each one lay in its Goldilocks zone for the production of life. . . . As ever, the theist's answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained. A God capable of calculating the Goldilocks values for the six numbers would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that's very improbable indeed . . . (p. 143)

Say what? In the first place, it is not clear, at least to me, that God would have to be as improbable as such a combination of numbers, and I'm not alone. Of course, to a theist, God isn't improbable at all. The probability of His existence is 1.0. In the second place, assuming that God's existence is extremely improbable, how does Dawkins explain our existence? He claims -- I am not making this up -- that there are a great many universes, with many combinations of properties, and we just happen to live in one with a suitable combination. To quote Dawkins:
The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly unprobable in the same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each of these universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence. (p. 147)

So, let me get this straight. The existence of a supernatural God is highly improbable, but the existence of multiple universes is not?

Multiple universes have not been scientifically proved, or disproved. Richard Dawkins is asking us to forsake belief in a supernatural creator, in favor of belief that we are living in one of an infinite number of possible universes. He also wants us to accept that the latter possibility is orders of magnitude much simpler, and more probable, than the possibility of a supernatural Creator. I'm sorry, but I'll stick with God.

Here's my previous post on Dawkins.

Thanks for reading. I made some editorial changes on June 25, 2011.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Christian's entry into heaven, by John Bunyan

{392 - paragraph number} Christian's conflict at the hour of death
Then said the other, [Hopeful] Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good. Then said Christian, Ah! my friend, the sorrows of death hath compassed me about; I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey; and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. But all the words that he spake still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate. Here also, as they that stood by perceived, he was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both since and before he began to be a pilgrim. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words. Hopeful, therefore, here had much ado to keep his brother's head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then, ere a while, he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful also would endeavour to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us: but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; you have been Hopeful ever since I knew you. And so have you, said he to Christian. Ah! brother! said he, surely if I was right he would now arise to help me; but for my sins he hath brought me into the snare, and hath left me. Then said Hopeful, My brother, you have quite forgot the text, where it is said of the wicked, "There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men. [Ps. 73:4,5] These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses.
{393} Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was as in a muse a while. To whom also Hopeful added this word, Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole; and with that Christian brake out with a loud voice, Oh, I see him again! and he tells me, "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee." [Isa. 43:2] Then they both took courage, and the enemy was after that as still as a stone, until they were gone over. Christian therefore presently found ground to stand upon, and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over. Now, upon the bank of the river, on the other side, they saw the two shining men again, who there waited for them; wherefore, being come out of the river, they saluted them, saying, We are ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those that shall be heirs of salvation. Thus they went along towards the gate.
{394} Now you must note that the city stood upon a mighty hill, but the Pilgrims went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men to lead them up by the arms; also, they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river, for though they went in with them, they came out without them. They, therefore, went up here with much agility and speed, though the foundation upon which the city was framed was higher than the clouds. They therefore went up through the regions of the air, sweetly talking as they went, being comforted, because they safely got over the river, and had such glorious companions to attend them.
Now, now, look how the holy pilgrims ride, Clouds are their chariots, angels are their guide: Who would not here for him all hazards run, That thus provides for his when this world's done?
{395} The talk they had with the Shining Ones was about the glory of the place; who told them that the beauty and glory of it was inexpressible. There, said they, is the Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect. [Heb. 12:22-24] You are going now, said they, to the paradise of God, wherein you shall see the tree of life, and eat of the never-fading fruits thereof; and when you come there, you shall have white robes given you, and your walk and talk shall be every day with the King, even all the days of eternity. [Rev. 2:7, 3:4, 21:4,5] There you shall not see again such things as you saw when you were in the lower region upon the earth, to wit, sorrow, sickness, affliction, and death, for the former things are passed away. You are now going to Abraham, to Isaac, and Jacob, and to the prophets -- men that God hath taken away from the evil to come, and that are now resting upon their beds, each one walking in his righteousness. [Isa. 57:1,2, 65:17] The men then asked, What must we do in the holy place? To whom it was answered, You must there receive the comforts of all your toil, and have joy for all your sorrow; you must reap what you have sown, even the fruit of all your prayers, and tears, and sufferings for the King by the way. [Gal. 6:7] In that place you must wear crowns of gold, and enjoy the perpetual sight and vision of the Holy One, for there you shall see him as he is. [1 John 3:2] There also you shall serve him continually with praise, with shouting, and thanksgiving, whom you desired to serve in the world, though with much difficulty, because of the infirmity of your flesh. There your eyes shall be delighted with seeing, and your ears with hearing the pleasant voice of the Mighty One. There you shall enjoy your friends again that are gone thither before you; and there you shall with joy receive, even every one that follows into the holy place after you. There also shall you be clothed with glory and majesty, and put into an equipage fit to ride out with the King of Glory. When he shall come with sound of trumpet in the clouds, as upon the wings of the wind, you shall come with him; and when he shall sit upon the throne of judgment; you shall sit by him; yea, and when he shall pass sentence upon all the workers of iniquity, let them be angels or men, you also shall have a voice in that judgment, because they were his and your enemies. [1 Thes. 4:13-16, Jude 1:14, Dan. 7:9,10, 1 Cor. 6:2,3] Also, when he shall again return to the city, you shall go too, with sound of trumpet, and be ever with him.
{396} Now while they were thus drawing towards the gate, behold a company of the heavenly host came out to meet them; to whom it was said, by the other two Shining Ones, These are the men that have loved our Lord when they were in the world, and that have left all for his holy name; and he hath sent us to fetch them, and we have brought them thus far on their desired journey, that they may go in and look their Redeemer in the face with joy. Then the heavenly host gave a great shout, saying, "Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb." [Rev. 19:9] There came out also at this time to meet them, several of the King's trumpeters, clothed in white and shining raiment, who, with melodious noises, and loud, made even the heavens to echo with their sound. These trumpeters saluted Christian and his fellow with ten thousand welcomes from the world; and this they did with shouting, and sound of trumpet.
{397} This done, they compassed them round on every side; some went before, some behind, and some on the right hand, some on the left, (as it were to guard them through the upper regions), continually sounding as they went, with melodious noise, in notes on high: so that the very sight was, to them that could behold it, as if heaven itself was come down to meet them. Thus, therefore, they walked on together; and as they walked, ever and anon these trumpeters, even with joyful sound, would, by mixing their music with looks and gestures, still signify to Christian and his brother, how welcome they were into their company, and with what gladness they came to meet them; and now were these two men, as it were, in heaven, before they came at it, being swallowed up with the sight of angels, and with hearing of their melodious notes. Here also they had the city itself in view, and they thought they heard all the bells therein to ring, to welcome them thereto. But above all, the warm and joyful thoughts that they had about their own dwelling there, with such company, and that for ever and ever. Oh, by what tongue or pen can their glorious joy be expressed! And thus they came up to the gate.
{398} Now, when they were come up to the gate, there was written over it in letters of gold, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city." [Rev. 22:14]
{399} Then I saw in my dream that the Shining Men bid them call at the gate; the which, when they did, some looked from above over the gate, to wit, Enoch, Moses, and Elijah, &c., to whom it was said, These pilgrims are come from the City of Destruction, for the love that they bear to the King of this place; and then the Pilgrims gave in unto them each man his certificate, which they had received in the beginning; those, therefore, were carried in to the King, who, when he had read them, said, Where are the men? To whom it was answered, They are standing without the gate. The King then commanded to open the gate, "That the righteous nation," said he, "which keepeth the truth, may enter in." [Isa. 26:2]
{400} Now I saw in my dream that these two men went in at the gate: and lo, as they entered, they were transfigured, and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There was also that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them -- the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honour. Then I heard in my dream that all the bells in the city rang again for joy, and that it was said unto them, "ENTER YE INTO THE JOY OF YOUR LORD." I also heard the men themselves, that they sang with a loud voice, saying, "BLESSING AND HONOUR, AND GLORY, AND POWER, BE UNTO HIM THAT SITTETH UPON THE THRONE, AND UNTO THE LAMB, FOR EVER AND EVER." [Rev. 5:13]

This is taken from first part of The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (1678 - Public Domain) One source for this text is here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The God Delusion and disproving God's existence: The tooth fairy

I have been posting on The God Delusion, a book by Richard Dawkins.

In this book, Dawkins explicitly says that he is trying to convert people to atheism. How well did he do? It's hard to say. The book has sold millions of copies, and, presumably, most of the people who purchased it read at least some of it. Others, like me, are using library copies of the work. Perhaps some of these people have been converted to atheism. Probably many more have found their atheism strengthened.

How does Dawkins attempt to convert? His plan is straightforward. He attempts to show that the classic proofs of God's existence are inadequate. He attempts to show that the chance that there really is a God is very small. He attempts to show that religions could exist, even prosper, for purely naturalistic reasons. He attempts to show that belief in God is not just misguided, but dangerous.

I wish to muse about Dawkins' treatment of religion. Although he is opposed to belief in any God, or gods, Dawkins concentrates on Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. As I understand him, this is because he thinks that those religions are those most influential in Western thought, or at least those that people who speak English are most likely to pay attention to.

Dawkins has occasionally compared belief in a supernatural God to belief in the tooth fairy. Alister McGrath has taken Dawkins to task on this. Dawkins has even said that ignorance of theology is not a problem, because "Christian theology is a non-subject. It is empty. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content." (This was before the publication of The God Delusion, which book indicates that Dawkins does have at least some knowledge of Christian theology, although some critics have said that he doesn't have much such knowledge.) It could be that Dawkins is correct, and that there is neither a God nor a tooth fairy. But belief in a God is often not the same as belief in the tooth fairy. Unfortunately, some people will fight to the death, or commit cold-blooded murder, based on what they say is a belief in God. No one murders because she believes in the tooth fairy. It is also true that there have been many cases, some prominent, most not so much, of people coming to belief in a God as adults. I've never heard of an adult who came to believe in the tooth fairy.

Dawkins discusses a number of attempted proofs of God's existence. One that he leaves out is fulfilled prophecy. I would suppose that Dawkins thinks that there is no such thing, and he may be right, but Jews and Christians believe that the Bible sets forth a number of such prophecies, made by a person speaking for God, which came true. Two such examples are prophecies that the descendants of Abraham would inherit the land of Canaan, and that they would live in Egypt for over 400 years, but return to Canaan, and control it. There are many more such prophecies, including some which have yet to be fulfilled.

Dawkins discusses a comment by C. S. Lewis, who said:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: What One Must Believe to Be a Christian. New York: Macmillan, 1952. pp. 56-57. I doubt if Dawkins ever read this himself, but if he did, he missed the point. Dawkins writes:
A common argument, attributed among others to C. S. Lewis (who should have known better), states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or insane or a liar: 'Mad, Bad or God.' . . . A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken. (p. 92).
Dawkins is correct that this is a possibility. But if Jesus had been mistaken about this, then He wouldn't be worth being called, and followed, as Lord, any more than  He would have been worth that submission if He had been a raving lunatic.

In a previous post, I described how an atheist scientist criticized some of Dawkins' attempt to explain the existence of religions, assuming that supernatural beings do not exist.

A review of the The God Delusion in the New York Times includes the following statement: "Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience."

A review of The God Delusion in the London Review of Books is scathing: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."

The God Delusion is an important book, but it has some serious weaknesses in its treatment of Christianity.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The God Delusion and disproving God's existence: Two published criticisms of Dawkins

I have been posting on The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. In this post, I shall briefly consider two published criticisms of the book, which, it seems to me, are from sources that must be taken seriously.

The first is by Antony Flew. Flew, as Dawkins put it, ". . . announced in his old age that he had been converted to belief in some sort of deity . . ." (p. 82). The conversion was from atheism. Dawkins not only implied that Flew had become senile (why else mention his age?) but criticized him for accepting an award related to Intelligent Design. (See here for my own problems with the Intelligent Design movement.)

Flew responded. His strongest criticism is this: "But an academic attacking some ideological position that he believes to be mistaken must, of course, attack that position in its strongest form." Flew says that Dawkins has not done this, in particular in respect to the beliefs of Einstein. Indeed, comparing the use of quotations from Einstein (see the index in The God Delusion, which index is excellent) with those in the Wikipedia article on "Albert Einstein's religious views" is interesting. Dawkins claims that Einstein's statements that seem to indicate that he was a deist ". . . are pantheistic, not deistic . . .." (p. 18.) The Wikipedia article on Einstein's religious views quotes Einstein as explicitly saying that he was neither a pantheist nor an atheist. For some reason, they do not give documentation for that quotation, but this may be at least a secondary source. I have previously posted, discussing Dawkins' tendency to find that prominent individuals were atheists, when the persons he found such denied it. Flew's criticism seems well-founded, in the case of Einstein, at least.

The New York Times publishes reviews of important books. They published a review of The God Delusion, by Jim Holt, who was presumably a well-qualified reviewer. In his review, he criticizes Dawkins in a number of ways. Holt, according to the note at the end of the review, was working on a book on the existence of God. He said that "The least satisfying part of this book is Dawkins’s treatment of the traditional arguments for the existence of God." Holt has other important criticisms of The God Delusion, and I will deal with some of them in further posts, God willing. (One of the criticisms has already been considered, in this post.)

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Pilgrim's Progress: publication anniversary

John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim's Progress a long time ago, related to the lifespan of most published books. It was first published on this date in 1678. As the book is in the public domain, the text is available on-line, at least here and here.

When I was growing up, I was told, more than once, that the book, which presents the Christian life in story, or allegoric form, had been read more than any book except the Bible. I don't know if that is true or not, but the archaic English in the book can make it difficult to follow for 21st century readers, I'm afraid. But it's still very much worth reading.

Thanks for reading. Read Bunyan.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sunspots 248

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Humor:(or maybe Sports) NPR reports that the inventor of the Frisbee has died. He was 90 years old. Thanks to him!

Christianity Today has released its annual list of the Top Ten Most Redeeming Films of 2009. I actually saw three of them, and hope to rent a couple more, or get them from the library.

Christianity:In Answers in Genesis Research Journal, an article on how important textbooks in Systematic Theology treat the Age of the Earth. Warning: the article is 25 pages long. As I am not an expert in Systematic Theology, I have not read it all. I was interested in the introduction, which sets forth the reasons for Young-Earth Creationism. Some or all of the reasons can be refuted, but they are well set out. The author believes that Systematic Theology textbooks are misleading future ministers, by not supporting Young-Earth Creationism.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The God Delusion and disproving God's existence: memes and group selection

I have been posting on The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. In this post, I discussed Dawkins' explicit atheist bias.

I now wish to muse about a concept Dawkins uses, namely the concept of a meme, a concept which Dawkins originated, or at least brought to prominence, in his The Selfish Gene. Dawkins says that religion is largely useless, or worse, but acknowledges that the fact that most people subscribe to some sort of religion. If religion gives people a disadvantage, why hasn't natural selection operated against people who have one? Dawkins has an explanation. He says that religion is a meme.

So what is a meme? Well, according to Dawkins, a meme is a unit of culture -- a song, or a way of clothing oneself -- that can be replicated and passed along from person to person. It seems pretty clear that some songs, and some ways of clothing ourselves, can, indeed, be passed along to others, even though they aren't our descendants. Often this is done quite rapidly. Dawkins believes that various religious ideas are memes. He cites some examples: believing in a life after death; being specially blessed if you die a martyr's death for your religion; non-believers should be punished, even killed; belief in a supreme being; and others. (pp. 199-200).

Religious ideas, at least some of them, seem to run counter to what would be expected if natural selection operates as most scientists think it does. For example, being celibate, like Catholic priests are supposed to, or many female Protestant missionaries have done, would seem to work strongly against passing your genes on to the next generation. There is a branch of biology that concerns itself with apparent altruistic behavior. There are several possible explanations for it, all compatible with natural selection, which explain, in one way or another, how sacrificing oneself may really help the sacrificer's genes to be passed on. For example, going to war, and risking death, may make it more likely that your siblings, or other relatives, will survive to pass on genes that they share with you. It is difficult to see how becoming a celibate Protestant missionary helps that person's kin be more successful in passing on genes that they share with her, however.

Dawkins method of dealing with religious behavior that doesn't seem to give an advantage is to explain it as a meme -- something passed on by cultural replication, which can, he believes, be independent of natural selection for genes.

David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, an expert on group selection. (There doesn't seem to be an article on him in the Wikipedia, but several of the references cited in the meme article in the link above were authored, or co-authored, by Wilson.) He is an atheist, and, therefore, agrees with Dawkins in many things. But he has two problems with Dawkins, as I read him.

The first problem is that Dawkins is not consistent with how he deals with group selection. How does group selection relate to the topic at hand? The Wikipedia article on the subject gives the example of viruses in a rabbit. If there is a group of viruses infecting rabbit A, and a different group infecting rabbit B, and the first group is genetically programmed to be virulent, and kill the rabbit quickly, then few or none of them will get the chance to pass themselves on to other rabbits. The entire group will be selected against, with respect to group B. It is possible that religious ideas are selected for in that way. A group that consistently works together to defend itself would probably be selected for more strongly than a group that doesn't cooperate. A group that is honest with each other might be less prone to stress and injury than one that deceives.

Says Wilson: One of the sleights of hand performed by Dawkins in The God Delusion, which takes a practiced eye to detect, is to first dismiss group selection and then to respectfully cite the work of Richerson and Boyd—without mentioning that their theory of cultural evolution is all about group selection. - Wilson, "Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Dawkins is Wrong About Religion," eSkeptic, July-Dec 2007.

Wilson's second problem is that he has studied religious behavior, and finds that much of it is of considerable practical value.That means that it should be selected for. People practicing, for example, refraining from smoking, for religious reasons, should be more likely to leave offspring than people who smoke.

So, Wilson, an important atheist scientist, has problems with Dawkins' science, and his characterization of religion.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The God Delusion and disproving God's existence: Dawkins' bias

Some time ago, I posted on a book by Alister McGrath, who criticized Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I received some comments on that post. One of those comments said that I had mistakenly said that Dawkins claimed to have proved that God doesn't exist. The commenter was correct, and I was mistaken. I apologize.

I have since read The God Delusion, and wish to comment on what Dawkins actually said in the book.

First, as Dawkins admits, this is a book of advocacy. "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." (p. 5) There's nothing wrong with advocacy, but it should not be confused with unbiased scholarship (if there is any such thing).

Dawkins shows his bias occasionally. He claims that several prominent thinkers, including some of the founding fathers (38-9), were atheists, although they called themselves deists.

One of the most remarkable statements in The God Delusion is this: "I simply do not believe that Gould could have possibly meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages." (57) See this Wikipedia article on Gould's book. What Stephen Jay Gould wrote was that religion and science each have a valid place, and are useful for different things. Dawkins doesn't bring any evidence to support his belief that Gould didn't mean what he said. Why should Gould have written a book with a central claim that he didn't believe? Gould was a scientist with impeccable credentials, and also perhaps the most important communicator of science to the public in the US at that time. His stature, and experience, were surely such that he had no need to write something he didn't want to. That would almost be the equivalent of someone saying that Dawkins really is, say, a closet Buddhist. It's hard to imagine anyone saying that Gould wrote a book that he didn't believe in, and, I'm afraid, claiming that he did shows Dawkins' strong bias. Here is a short excerpt from Gould's book:
I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values-subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.* Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballentine, 1999, pp. 4-5.

And here is a quotation from an essay by Gould, written earlier, that presents the same idea:
I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion…If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. Stephen Jay Gould, "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" Natural History 106:16-22; 60-62, March, 1997. Quote is from pages 61 and 62.

I can't believe (because of my own bias, perhaps) that a tenured scientist who had the ear of the public, had written several well-received books, and had written that he is not a religious man, should have been so afraid of stating atheistic beliefs, that he wrote positively about the validity of religious thought.

Why would Dawkins say that people who claimed not to be atheists were, in fact, atheists? Well, one reason, of course, is that, just as some conservative Christians claim that all the Founding Fathers had beliefs compatible with theirs, either in spite of the evidence, or without examining it, Dawkins wants to show that the beliefs of prominent people were compatible with his. He wants this to be true so badly that he makes unsubstantiated claims. In fairness, there is another reason that has some validity, namely that atheists may be afraid to be labeled as such, especially in the US. Dawkins mentions that. But I don't accept that as an explanation for Gould's book, nor do I accept that all Founding Fathers who said that they were deists were actually atheists, but were afraid to say so.

As this Wikipedia article on Deism puts it (accessed February 2, 2010): Currently there is an ongoing controversy in the United States over whether or not the country was founded as a "Christian nation" based on Judeo-Christian ideals. This has spawned a subsidiary controversy over whether the Founding Fathers were Christians, deists, or something in between.

Note that the article does not even mention that they might have been atheists.

So Dawkins is biased. That's common, in books of advocacy, and forgivable, but it means that Dawkins' claims in this book should be treated with considerable skepticism.

I close this post (I expect there will be a few more on this subject) with a confession, or retraction. In an earlier post, I said that Dawkins claimed that he had proved that God does not exist. For the few who read this blog, including the previous post, I'm sorry. I was carried away by my own bias, and shouldn't have been. Dawkins did not really say that. He does say that he has good evidence that God does not exist, but does not make the stronger claim.

Thanks for reading.

*Lest there be any doubt, I disagree with Gould. I believe that, if we could interpret scientific and Biblical evidence correctly (and we have problems with both) they would agree. I can't prove that, but I believe it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rest in Peace, John Redmond Coyle

I'm sorry, but this is not a Valentine's Day post, or at least not anywhere close to a normal one.

I have been putting this off, but I need to do it. One of my wife's brothers, a small-town lawyer, was shot to death as he was leaving his office to go to church with his wife, his daughter, and a grandson. They, and an employee, were witnesses to the event. Those four, the rest of the family and other employees, certainly need prayer. So do the family of the shooter, who turned his gun on himself at the scene.

We, and, I believe, the immediate family, have been overwhelmed by all sorts of expressions of sympathy, offers to help, and actual help, although, of course, only God can help in the ways most needed.

When my wife and I were married, we, perhaps wrongly, were not certain that some of her family were able to testify that they believed in Christ for salvation. It's been over four decades, so my memory isn't perfect, but one or both of us claimed part of Acts 27:24, which part says ". . . lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee," for these people, one of whom was my brother-in-law. It's dangerous to take a verse out of context, but it's also dangerous not to trust God. It's not up to us to judge, but from all the signs, God has answered our prayers on this subject in abundance. My brother-in-law was known for his Sunday School teaching. His Sunday School class served as honorary escorts at the funeral, came to see the family, and did all sorts of things, some of them I don't know about, to help the family, and expressed their gratitude that my brother-in-law had helped them grow spiritually, even helped at least one class member shake off a serious addiction problem. He was known for his careful preparation and his love for the Bible. He was also known for his generosity to all, and for his competence as a lawyer. Doing his job well was another symptom of his devotion to God. My brother-in-law's children include a newly ordained Baptist deacon, a missionary now studying Biblical Archaeology, and a minister in training.

The mortuary/funeral home has a web site, with over 100 messages of condolence on it, many from people wanting to express their thanks for this man's life. There is a Facebook Group with about 1,000 members, again, with many expressions of gratitude. The visitation/viewing took five hours, with the funeral home estimating that there were 3,000 who greeted the family. The funeral director said that, to his knowledge, there had never been a funeral with such a large attendance in the county.

More people will attend a funeral, and related events, after a sudden death. No doubt that explains part of the expression in this case. But surely much of it was genuine appreciation for a life well lived.

As one of the funeral speakers, a brother-in-law on the other side of the family, said, Redmond will not enter heaven because of what other people say about him, or for his many good deeds, or for his relationship with the church. He will, or has, done so because he trusted in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and Christ provided the remedy for his sins. May I continually do the same.

My words, of both sorrow and gratefulness, are almost totally inadequate.

I have not been visiting some blogs that I would have otherwise got to, because of events surrounding this tragedy. Sorry.

I thank God for memories of my brother-in-law, for his family, for his life, and especially for his Savior. Thanks for reading! You may also want to read a brief, but powerful, meditation by my brother-in-law's youngest son.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sunspots 247

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Science:NPR reports on the difficulty of seeing some things against some backgrounds, such as cancers in breast X-rays, or weapons in luggage screens at airports.

NPR also reports on why events, like Christmas and our birthday, seem to get closer together as we age.

NPR says that blue whale songs are lower-pitched now than they used to be. You can hear audio from this link.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle

I have read The Hollow Kingdom (New York: Holt, 2003) by Clare B. Dunkle. It is part of a trilogy, which series won a Mythopoeic Award for children's fantasy in 2004.

I will summarize the story. Kate and Emily, two teenage orphaned sisters, are sent to live with a supposed relative (it turns out that they aren't really relatives) near a mysterious region of England, probably during the 18th century. They find that there are goblins in the area, and there used to have been elves there, too. The goblin king wants Kate for his wife. The goblin kings only marry a human wife, and, if all goes well, they produce a son, who will himself eventually become king.

Kate does not want to do this. The goblin king is considerably older than she is, and his appearance is not totally human. He lives underground, and if she joins him, she can't come out again. Most of the goblins are even less human in appearance than Marak, the king.

But Kate agrees to become queen, to save her sister, whom she loves (and who is more inclined to live underground). During the marriage ceremony, Kate is given some magical powers. And, it turns out, she and her sister are part elf. She gradually comes to love Marak.

Marak and other goblins are enchanted and stolen by a wicked magician living far away. Kate is the only one who can save them. She is allowed to leave the underground, and rescues them all. At the end, she produces a son, who is mostly human, but has some animal-like characteristics.

The really interesting part, to me, is two religious statements in the book.

If God is so good, she considered unhappily, why won't He make this horrible creature go away? . . . God gives his creatures freedom to act, her father had taught her, and it is our responsibility to use it correctly. (p. 51)

Kate was taken aback. "Revenge is wrong," she told him solemnly. "Vengeance belongs to God." (p. 130)

I wouldn't call The Hollow Kingdom a Christian, or even a religious book, but Dunkle is clearly aware of Christianity.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Sin is against God, primarily, no matter who else we have hurt

Genesis 39:6b Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master's wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master's wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God? [Not against Potiphar, his master.]

Psalm 51:4a Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight, [This was written by King David, who had committed adultery with Bathsheba, lied, and arranged to have Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, killed.]

This is not to say that we might not owe an apology, or restitution, to some human we have sinned against. We also might have to pay some civil penalty. But sin is primarily an offense against God.

All scripture quoted from the English Standard Version.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

"Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart" by George Croly

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as You are;
And make me love You as I ought to love.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.

Teach me to feel that You are always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

For You have bid me love You, God and King,
All, all Your own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
I see Your cross; there teach my heart to cling:
O let me seek You, and O let me find!

Teach me to love You as Your angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The kindling of the heaven descended Dove,
My heart an altar, and Your love the flame.

George Croly, 1854, Public Domain. Sung to Morecambe, by Frederick C. Atkinson, 1870. Public Domain.

I altered a few words, changing all archaic pronouns ("Thee," "Thou," and an "art" to "are," which removes a rhyme. However, I believe the meaning is still present, and more so to us 21st-century readers.

I thank the Cyberhymnal, which is my main source of information on this, and other, hymns. The link allows you to hear the tune.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Do your cells belong to you? Maybe not

The New York Times has published (only on-line, but print will be available soon) a review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which looks like it's going to be an important and interesting read.

Who was Henrietta Lacks, and why is she immortal? Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. However, some cells from the cervical cancer that killed her -- literally tons of them -- are still dividing, and metabolizing -- alive, by many biological definitions.. See here for the Wikipedia article on these cells. Neither Mrs. Lacks, nor her family, gave permission for this use, and the family didn't even know about it for over a quarter of a century. Apparently, this could happen to your cells, or mine, according to the book review, and the Wikipedia article. The book is said to cover the life of Mrs. Lacks, and of her children, the science, and the ethical issues.

The first link in this post has a few photos of the Lacks family. Amazon has an extensive page on the book, linking to some podcasts by the author, Rebecca Skloot.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 05, 2010

A man supposedly in a vegetative state can communicate.

CNN reports that a man who had been diagnosed as being in a vegetative state is actually aware of the outside world. He responded to questions, as indicated by brain waves.

Most persons who have been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state do not show this indication of awareness.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Sunspots 246

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else: 

Humor:(Not exactly, but I don't have a category for this one) The New York Times reports that prisoners are prohibited from playing Dungeons and Dragons in Wisconsin, and the ban has held up under a lawsuit. 

Finally, there's a way to tell the color of some dinosaurs, according to a report on NPR.

Wired reports that playing simulated games has a real impact on the way professional athletes play their sport.

Wired reports that even careful, very careful, computer use may not make your computer activity untraceable

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ariel by Steven R. Boyett

I recently read Ariel: A Book of the Change (New York: Ace, 2009), by Steven R. Boyett. The book is a re-issue. The original publication date of this, his first novel, was in 1983. Boyett was 21 when the novel was sold.

I don't really recommend this book, for several reasons, but it made enough of a splash that Ace has re-published it, with additional material by the author, and has also published a sequel. I'll get to the reasons in a bit.

The book is set in the 1980s, apparently. The Change is a catastrophic alteration, such that electricity, including telephones, no longer works. Neither do combustion engines, or guns. But, as Boyett points out in an epilogue, which, among other things, indicates some of the problems that he now sees in his own novel, fire still works, so why don't combustion engines? No explanation is given for the cause of the Change. Another part of the catastrophic alteration is that mythical creatures appear -- manticores, gryphons, unicorns, and dragons. Also, some people are now magicians. Even people with no apparent magical powers have familiars -- animals they share a special bond with.

The main character, Pete, has a unicorn as a familiar. Pete is a virgin. If he were not, he would not be able to touch Ariel, the unicorn.

Some of the book is exploring the ins and outs of the relationship between Ariel, who can read and speak, and Pete. But a lot of it is about martial arts, swords, blowguns, bows, which entails considerable violence, some described rather graphically, almost as if Boyett relished it.

Why don't I recommend it? There is a lot of unnecessary foul language in the book. Boyett has some trouble with geography. He also concentrates too much on cities, even when they have scarcely no population, and shouldn't have any particular significance. As he knows, himself, there are aspects of the plot that are weak. Finally, there is no evidence of worship, unless it be of demon beings that are summoned by some magicians, or any other religion.

There are two passages that I found to be of particular interest. One is on the nature of magic:
". . . I always thought of magic as unnatural."
"Don't be stupid. It it's unnatural it can't happen within nature. Magic is just a different set of physics laws than the one you're used to." She blinked and struck sparks. "But it still has to be consistent with itself, Pete; otherwise it wouldn't work. . . ." (pp. 136-7). "She" is Ariel, the unicorn. She has been describing the physics and chemistry of how dragons fly and emit flame.

In Chapter Fifteen, Pete and Shaughnessy argue over whether or not the earth is a better place to live after the Change. Pete thinks so, Shaughnessy, a woman Pete and Ariel are traveling with, does not.

It was a good effort for a man of Boyett's age, and, if nothing else, displayed considerable tenacity -- it's a fairly long book, and he says that Ace bought it, but required lots of cuts before the original publication. (At least one chapter has included which wasn't in the first publication.) Perhaps he is doing better now.

Thanks for reading. Don't read Ariel.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Leprosy in a house?

Leviticus 14 has some amazing statements, including this one:
33 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 34 “When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a case of leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession, 35 then he who owns the house shall come and tell the priest, ‘There seems to me to be some case of disease in my house.’ (emphasis added) (ESV)

Robert Jamieson put it like this:

34-48. leprosy in a house--This law was prospective, not to come into operation till the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan. The words, "I put the leprosy," has led many to think that this plague was a judicial infliction from heaven for the sins of the owner; while others do not regard it in this light, it being common in Scripture to represent God as doing that which He only permits in His providence to be done. Assuming it to have been a natural disease, a new difficulty arises as to whether we are to consider that the house had become infected by the contagion of leprous occupiers; or that the leprosy was in the house itself. It is evident that the latter was the true state of the case, from the furniture being removed out of it on the first suspicion of disease on the walls. Some have supposed that the name of leprosy was analogically applied to it by the Hebrews, as we speak of cancer in trees when they exhibit corrosive effects similar to what the disease so named produces on the human body; while others have pronounced it a mural efflorescence or species of mildew on the wall apt to be produced in very damp situations, and which was followed by effects so injurious to health as well as to the stability of a house, particularly in warm countries, as to demand the attention of a legislator. Moses enjoined the priests to follow the same course and during the same period of time for ascertaining the true character of this disease as in human leprosy. If found leprous, the infected parts were to be removed. If afterwards there appeared a risk of the contagion spreading, the house was to be destroyed altogether and the materials removed to a distance. The stones were probably rough, unhewn stones, built up without cement in the manner now frequently used in fences and plastered over, or else laid in mortar. The oldest examples of architecture are of this character. The very same thing has to be done still with houses infected with mural salt. The stones covered with the nitrous incrustation must be removed, and if the infected wall is suffered to remain, it must be plastered all over anew.
48-57. the priest shall pronounce the house clean, because the plague is healed--The precautions here described show that there is great danger in warm countries from the house leprosy, which was likely to be increased by the smallness and rude architecture of the houses in the early ages of the Israelitish history. As a house could not contract any impurity in the sight of God, the "atonement" which the priest was to make for it must either have a reference to the sins of its occupants or to the ceremonial process appointed for its purification, the very same as that observed for a leprous person. This solemn declaration that it was "clean," as well as the offering made on the occasion, was admirably calculated to make known the fact, to remove apprehension from the public mind, as well as relieve the owner from the aching suspicion of dwelling in an infected house. (1871, public domain)

I am not sure what mural salt is, but suppose that it is a deposit of crystals, caused by a fluid containing a crystallizable substance, which fluid seeps out of a wall, and evaporates, leaving a crystalline residue.

Thanks for reading.