Dawkins and His Poor Scholarship

St. Augustine as imagined by Sandro Botticelli in the late 15th century. (Public Domain Image)
I was speaking to a group of people in Portland, Indiana last night. As always, I took questions from the audience, and after the session, people came up and asked me more questions. In this individual question/answer session, one man said that he had read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and he was wondering if I had any insight into something Dawkins claimed in the fourth chapter, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” The man didn’t have the book with him, but he said that Dawkins claimed that St. Augustine (properly pronounced uh gus’ tin) encouraged people to avoid learning about the natural world, as gaps in our knowledge of the natural world glorify God. In other words, if we were to understand everything about the natural world, there would be nothing left to attribute to the Hand of God.

I read The God Delusion a few years ago, and I didn’t remember Dawkins making such a statement. I told the man that I am neither a philosopher nor a historian, but I can’t imagine St. Augustine saying any such thing. Augustine was very concerned about all manner of learning, and although he rarely wrote about anything related to science, I couldn’t imagine him saying that we shouldn’t learn about the natural world. I promised the man that I would look into it and write him back.

This morning, I looked around in Chapter 4 of my paperback edition of The God Delusion and found the portion to which the man was referring. In a subsection of the chapter entitled, “The Worship of Gaps,” Dawkins discusses Intelligent Design. He says that it basically promotes scientific laziness, because as soon as you attribute something to the Hand of God, there is nothing more you can learn about it. He then goes even further and says that an advocate of Intelligent Design would actually tell scientists to stop learning about something that is amazingly complex, so it can always be attributed to God. He then says:1

St Augustine said it quite openly: ‘There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.’ (quoted in Freeman 2002)

The reference he gives (Freeman 2002) is The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman. Like his discussion of Intelligent Design before it, this quote is 100% false.

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The SEEK Graduation Ceremony

Yesterday, I had the distinct honor of speaking at the 2012 SEEK graduation ceremony. As I told the graduates, I do a lot of speaking around the world on many different topics, but speaking at homeschool graduation ceremonies is my very favorite kind of speaking engagement. I thoroughly enjoy being a part of such an important time in the lives of students and parents, and this specific graduation ceremony was particularly enjoyable. The event was efficiently organized and ran like a well-oiled machine, but more importantly, it was inspiring and uplifting.

It began with a short welcome by a graduate named Jensen. When people speak in public, they often take on a completely different personality. Sometimes, this is good, and sometimes, it is awkward. Jensen simply didn’t do that. He came up and welcomed us as if he was talking to each one of us individually. His personality came shining through in his welcome, and it set the tone for what was a very real, very enjoyable evening.

After a sincere opening prayer given by another graduate named Troy, we were treated to a graduate (Joe) who played and sang “If I stand,” by Rich Mullins and Steve Cudworth. Now I play the piano well enough so that I don’t offend anyone, and I thoroughly enjoy listening to those who can really play. I also sing in a way that doesn’t offend too many people, and once again, I love to listen to those who can really sing. Well, this student could really play and really sing, and he could do them both at the same time! The song, of course, is chock-full of meaning, and the chorus says it all:

So if I stand let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to You
So if I sing let me sing for the joy that has born in me these songs
And if I weep let it be as a man who is longing for his home

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Homeschooling with Heroes

The U.S. capitol building at night. (My photo)

Last week, I had the privilege of of speaking to the Bolling Area Home Educators (BAHE), a group of military homeschoolers who live on the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling near Washington, DC. In other words, I got the opportunity to speak to heroes and their families. These brave men and women sacrifice so much in order to keep up safe, and those who choose to homeschool their children sacrifice even more. The nature of military life often means one spouse is gone for extended periods of time, which means that the spouse who stays at home must carry the burdens of parenting and educating alone. In addition, homeschooling is made significantly easier when you have a consistent network of other homeschoolers in your area. Because our military heroes rarely stay in one location for more than a few years, a military homeschooler rarely has the consistent support network enjoyed by most other homeschoolers in the U.S.

The trip got off to a very military start, because a good friend of mine has his private pilot’s license, and he agreed to fly me there in a Cessna Cutlass 172RG. Since we were flying into the DC area, there were all sorts of restrictions related to where we could fly, and he was actually given instructions on what to do if the fighter jets came to escort us out of a restricted area. Since there were so many restricted areas, I assumed we wouldn’t see any actual military traffic. It turns out that I was wrong.

We were flying towards the Manassas Regional Airport at an altitude of 5,000 feet. There was a solid layer of white clouds at around 2,000 feet, well below where we were. As we were flying, air traffic control told us to be aware that there were two F/A-18 jets doing some maneuvers in our area at about 3,000 feet. We scanned the sky below us and sure enough, we got to see them flying around! Of course, they were flying so quickly that they were hard to follow for any length of time, but it was amazing to watch from our point of view!

Once the bird’s-eye view of military maneuvers was over, we landed, and it was time to get a ground-level view of military life and homeschooling. Because the guest housing at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling was full, we ended up staying in the guest quarters at Fort Belvoir, another military base in the D.C. area. It was very interesting to see life on the base from the inside.

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The 2012 Midwest Homeschool Convention

I spent the past weekend in Cincinnati, the site of the Midwest Homeschool convention. This was the original Great Homeschool Convention, and it is one of the most popular homeschooling conventions in the nation. As usual, the attendance was huge, and I gave a total of seven talks over a period of 2 and a half days. There was a steady stream of people coming to my booth to ask specific questions, so when I wasn’t giving a talk or answering questions on stage, I was generally answering questions at my booth. It was very busy, but I had a blast!

I got to meet the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys at this convention. These three young men started posting videos of their bedroom practice sessions on YouTube (an example is given above), and because of their incredible talent, the videos almost immediately went viral. The videos have millions of views, and the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys have appeared as musical guests on The Late Show with David Letterman and the Today Show on NBC. In addition, when they appeared on the Mike Huckabee show (Fox News), they were so popular that they were invited back the very next week. They are the only musical guests to appear in back-to-back episodes of that show.

These talented young men are homeschooled, so it was natural for Great Homeschool Conventions to invite them to appear. They gave a great performance, and later on, I happened to be dining at the same restaurant as they were. As a result, it was my honor to meet them personally. Not only are they excellent performers, but they are also genuinely fine young men who have the right priorities in life. They are just another example of what wonderful things can be accomplished as a result of the individuality and flexibility of home education.

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The MidSouth Homeschool Convention

Over the past weekend, I spoke at the Midsouth Homeschool Convention, which is a part of the Great Homeschool Conventions series. It was held in Memphis, TN, so pictures and tributes to Elvis were abundant everywhere except the convention itself. I didn’t give as many talks at this convention as is typical, so that left more time for my favorite part of a homeschool convention: talking with students and parents.

Since I am not selling anything at homeschool conventions these days, my booth in the exhibit hall looks rather odd. It consists of a plain black-and-white sign that just has my name on it, an empty table, two chairs, and me. In contrast to most of the other booths that try to attract people in with color banners, comfy couches, potted plants, and videos, mine looks pretty bare. The CEO of Home Educating Family thought it was just too bare, so he added one “decoration.” On my plain white sign, he wrote “The Doctor Is In” and gave me a sticky note that said “OUT.” When I left my booth, I could cover the word “In” with the sticky note. Perhaps it doesn’t sound funny to you, but I thought it was hilarious, and I used it the whole time I was there. I regret that I did not take a picture of it before I left.

Although the bulk of this post will deal with a question I got in one of my talks, I do want to mention one thing that really impressed me. It turns out that during the conference, some low-life broke into several of the vendors’ vans. While most vendors didn’t lose much, one vendor’s van was loaded with an iPad and some other important technology, so they were looking at a serious financial loss. In order to help them out, several other vendors took up a collection. Now these vendors are all competitors. If you buy a math course from one vendor, that probably means you won’t buy a math course from any other vendor. Nevertheless, the vendors all gave generously. That really impressed me. Even in business, Christians should put compassion first, and that’s what I saw happening in Memphis.

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The Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire Convention

The view from my room at the Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire Convention.

On Friday and Saturday, I spoke at the Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire convention. It was held at a very nice resort in the town of Laconia, New Hampshire. The resort was right on a lake, so the views were beautiful. Indeed, my Saturday talks were held in a large room that had huge windows and a great view of the lake. I expect people were enjoying the view more than my talks! Even so, there were some great questions, and because it was a smaller convention, I got to spend a lot more time talking to people one-on-one.

The conference started on an incredibly memorable note. I was sitting at a table in the vendor hall waiting for my first talk to begin, and a young woman who was in her 20’s came up to me and asked if I was Dr. Wile. When I told her that I was, she introduced herself, giving me her married name and her maiden name. I seemed to recognize the maiden name, but I couldn’t place it. Then she told me her story. Back when I owned a publishing company, I used to have a “Science Question of the Week” competition on the company’s website. I would post what I thought was a challenging science question, and I would invite students 18 or younger to answer the question. After 12 questions, whoever had the most correct answers got to choose from a list of four prizes, typically bought from the Edmund Scientifics catalog.

This young lady told me that she was a past winner of the contest. That, of course, told me why I recognized her maiden name. She said that she chose a Galileo thermometer as her prize and had treasured it for many years. Well, not too long ago, she was cleaning the shelf where it was stored and broke it. Even though she is now an adult with young children of her own, she actually sat down and cried over the loss! Her grief must have been evident, because her husband ended up buying another one to replace it.

Her story meant a lot to me. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on the Science Question of the Week, but I had no idea that it meant so much to (at least some of) the students who participated in it. It just goes to show that when you work with students, you never know how you will touch them. Never in a million years would I have thought that the contest meant so much to a student that even as an adult, she would be emotionally affected by the loss of a $30 prize. Teachers and homeschooling parents, take this as a lesson. The things you do that you think are small and insignificant might affect your students in an incredibly powerful way!

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The 2012 Southeast Homeschool Convention

Last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I spoke at the 2012 Southeast Homeschool Convention in Greenville, South Carolina. It was the first of the Great Homeschool Conventions, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I got to “catch up” with several of my colleagues who also work with home-educating families, but most importantly, I got to speak with homeschooling students and parents. The very first time I spoke at a homeschooling convention, I noticed a distinct difference between homeschooled students and their publicly- and privately-schooled peers. While most publicly- and privately-schooled students actively avoid interaction with adults (especially adults who are teachers), most homeschooled students actively seek out such interaction.

I will never forget an experience at that first homeschooling convention. I was sitting in my booth, and a teen came up to me and said, “You’re a scientist, right?” I told him, “Yes. I am a nuclear chemist.” His eyes brightened up, and he said, “Great! I need to ask you something.” He then sat down and asked me a very detailed question about the nature of light. While he had some misconceptions about the subject (don’t we all?), I was pretty impressed with his knowledge. More importantly, however, I was impressed with how he sought me out and was perfectly comfortable discussing science with me for what ended up being well over half an hour. In addition, he was very careful to avoid monopolizing my time. If someone else came to my booth, he would indicate to me that I should pay attention to this new person, and he would wait until I was free again.

Since then, I have come to expect such interactions at homeschooling conventions. This one was no exception. I ended up having a long talk with a teen who really wanted to understand how gravity can affect the passage of time. He had read about the strong evidence indicating that time passes more slowly in the presence of strong gravitational fields and more quickly in the presence of weak gravitational fields, but he wanted to understand why it actually happens. Of course, without the appropriate mathematics, it is rather hard to understand, but I explained it to him as best I could. He seemed to get it in the end, and he was very appreciative of my time.

I talked with homeschooling parents as well. One set of parents came by my booth and told me that their daughter was pursuing a PhD in biology. They said she credits my books with sparking her interest in science and preparing her to excel at university. Obviously, that made my day! I asked them what her PhD thesis would be about, and as near as I can tell, she is working on the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer between organisms from different biological kingdoms. It sounds like fascinating work, and if my experience with homeschool graduates is any indication, she will probably be incredibly successful at it.

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La Presidenta and Other News from Costa Rica

The wonderful lady second from the right is the President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla Miranda.

Last week, my wife and I went to see a friend who is currently living in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country that I find significantly more pleasant than most other Central American countries. We could drink the water in Costa Rica without experiencing any digestive issues. In addition, we actually ate food that people were selling on the side of the road, and we experienced no problems whatsoever. In fact, my favorite Costa Rican dish was queso palmito. It is essentially a ball of incredible cheese, and we bought it from a roadside vendor. Also, even though there is poverty in the country, it is not nearly as extreme as the poverty I have seen in other parts of Central America.

During our visit to this wonderful country, we actually got to meet the President, Laura Chinchilla Miranda! We were touring the main governmental building in San José and were allowed into a press conference that the president was having. It was all in Spanish, of course, so I didn’t understand a word. However, I will have to say that I was incredibly impressed with how the president handled herself. A member of the press would ask a 1-2 minute question, and the president would reply with a 5-10 minute answer. She did this with no notes or teleprompter. She had two advisers with her (the Vice President and her press secretary), but she rarely referred to either of them. My impression was that she was giving detailed answers to the questions off the top of her head. It was definitely a lot different from the kind of press conferences U.S. presidents give!

After the press conference, the president was kind enough to come down from the stage and meet us. She even let us take a picture with her (shown above). When I told her what an honor it was to meet her, she told me (in perfect English) that it was an honor for her to meet me. Obviously, she was simply being gracious, but once again, I doubt that I would see such graciousness from a U.S. president. While I know nothing of her political stances, I have to say that after that day, I became a fan!

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Homeschooling in Australia

The iconic Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia.

My international homeschooling tour ended in Australia, where I met some of the nicest people in the world. I was actually a bit worried about getting into the country, because when I left South Korea, most of Australia’s domestic flights were grounded due to an ash cloud from a Chilean volcano. My connecting flight out of Guangzhou, China was delayed for two hours, but in the end, it was able to land in Sydney.

Even though I arrived late, I still had a long layover in Sydney, so a wonderful family came to rescue me from the airport and show me some of the sights. That’s how I was able to take the picture shown above. The Sydney Opera House sits in the Sydney harbor, which is really quite beautiful. We certainly don’t have anything like it in Indiana! The highlight of my Sydney tour, however, was lunch, where I got to have kangaroo pizza. Yes, you read that right! Since my first trip to Australia back in 2005, kangaroo has been my favorite meat. Put it on a pizza, and now you have my two favorite foods! It really was wonderful.

Of course, the purpose of my trip was not food. It was to speak to homeschoolers in Canberra, Adelaide, and Melbourne. So after lunch, I went back to the airport, where all the domestic flights were back in the air again.

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Creation Science in South Korea

I am on my way home from an incredible tour of New Zealand, South Korea, and Australia. I had great experiences in each country, and they will lead to several more blog posts. Even though I was most recently in Australia, I am not done reporting on my experiences in South Korea. I first want to finish my report on that country, and then I will discuss my wonderful time in Australia.

After speaking at the DCTY homeschooling convention in Seoul (which was fantastic) I spoke at KAIST church. To fully appreciate my experience there, you have to understand that KAIST is the main science and technology university in South Korea. Well before I knew I was going to travel to South Korea, I had heard of KAIST. It has an international reputation for producing not only good science, but also excellent graduates. It is not surprising, then, that KAIST is sometimes referred to as the MIT of South Korea.

The church service was held on the third floor of the student center, a building that sits on the university campus and was built by the university for its students. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the room in which the church service was held and saw this:

A creation science display on the KAIST campus

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