Medical Sustainability, January 21, UBC

Craig Mitton

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Associate Professor School of Population and Public Health

UBC Faculty of Medicine 

Senior Scientist at the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Evaluation

The Challenges of Sustaining Excellence in Canadian Health Care

Wednesday, January 21 at 4:00 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 1

GFCF Jan 21, 2015 Slides of the Presentation

Z0000005 Lecture File



In this presentation Dr. Craig Mitton will begin by describing the structure of the Canadian health care system and outline where Canada sits globally on several international outcome measures. In assessing the economic dimensions of the system, Craig will review two common myths related to aging and new technologies and will show that more resources for health care are not the answer. He will then put forward two key challenges, one related to the public and one related to physicians and finally he will offer a pragmatic solution to ensure excellence in Canadian health care that includes a number of immediate policy responses. The debate will be lively and the session will offer much time for interaction and audience participation.


Dr. Craig Mitton is an internationally recognized leader in the field of health care priority setting. He is a Senior Scientist in the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Evaluation and is both Division Head of Health Services and Policy and Director of the Master of Health Administration program within the School of Population and Public Health at UBC. Craig is the lead author on a book titled “The Priority Setting Toolkit: a guide to the use of economics in health care priority setting” and is the lead or co-author on over 100 peer reviewed journal articles. He has delivered over 150 presentations across many different countries and regularly runs short courses in health economics. He completed both his PhD and MSc at the University of Calgary and holds a BSc from UBC. Craig lives in Vancouver with his wife and two young daughters.

Bart Netterfield at TWU January 20

Back to the Very Beginning: Probing Cosmic Origins

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Top University of Toronto  Astronomer Dr. Barth Netterfield

DATE: Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TIME: 4:00 – 5:15 pm

LOCATION: Trinity Western University, Fosmark Centre, Room 130-131

Dr. Barth Netterfield, who is the leading cosmologist in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, is a devoted Christian for whom the study of the stars and distant galaxies increases his awe and wonder at the majesty of the Creator. He has just returned from the Antarctic where he and his research team launched a balloon-borne set of telescopes as part of the SPIDER project that is designed to peer into the furthest reaches of the universe from above earth’s atmosphere (read about it at and watch a clip of the launch at


Dr. Netterfield will talk about his current research, share his personal story, and entertain questions from the audience.

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Sponsored by ACTS Seminaries, the Institute for Christian Apologetics, TWU’s Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences, the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, and the Vancouver Area Science and Religion Forum. For more information contact Dr. Rob Hiebert at or 604-888-7511 ext. 3842.



Join, Share, and Invite others via the Facebook event page at

Spring GFCF Series

UBC Graduate & Faculty Christian Forum Spring Series

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1. Wednesday, January 21, 4:00 p.m. Dr. Craig Mitton, Associate Professor in School of Population and Public Health

The Challenge of Sustaining Excellence in Canadian Health Care

Woodward (IRC) Room 1


2. Wednesday, February 25, 4:00 p.m. Professor Benjamin Perrin UBC Law

Confronting Modern-Day Slavery: Human Trafficking in Canada

Woodward (IRC) Room 1


3. Wednesday, March 25, 4-6 pm Dr. Jason Lepojarvi, a Junior Research Fellow in theology at St. Basil’s Hall, Oxford, and former president of the C.S. Lewis Society  

Agape Versus Eros: C.S. Lewis and Anders Nygren on the Meaning of Love

Woodward (IRC) Room 1


4. May 6: Dr. Deborah Haarsma Calvin College Astronomer and President of BioLogos

God and the Multiverse: an Investigation 

Benjamin Perrin, UBC Law, February 25

Professor Benjamin Perrin

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Associate Professor UBC Law

Senior Fellow MacDonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy


Confronting Modern-Day Slavery: Human Trafficking in Canada

Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at 4 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 1


Modern-day slavery is one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time. Human trafficking involving sexual exploitation and forced labour occurs around the world – including here in Canada. Professor Perrin will present the main findings from his study on human trafficking in Canada, including the shocking prevalence of Canadian women and girls as victims, and discuss how our country is responding to this hidden national tragedy.


Benjamin Perrin is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law and a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy. He is one of Canada’s leading authorities on human trafficking and author of Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking (Penguin, 2011), which was named one of the top books of the year by the Globe and Mail. Prof. Perrin has served as Special Advisor in the Office of the Prime Minister and Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. The U.S. State Department has recognized him as a “hero” acting to end modern-day slavery.

He received a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Calgary in 2001, a Juris Doctor from the University of Toronto in 2005, and a Master of Laws (with honours) from McGill University in 2007. He was called to the Bar in Ontario in 2007 and the Bar in British Columbia in 2010. Professor Perrin is an internationally recognized researcher and advocate for victims of crime. The Governor General of Canada and victims’ groups have also recognized him for his work to combat human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. Professor Perrin is the recipient of the Wilson-Prichard Award for Community and Professional Service from the University of Toronto. He is co-editor of Human Trafficking: Exploring the International Nature, Concerns, and Complexities (CRC Press, 2012), and editor of Modern Warfare: Armed Groups, Private Militaries, Humanitarian Organizations and the Law (UBC Press, 2012). He is also the author of numerous law review articles and book chapters, and regularly provides commentary in the media. Prior to joining UBC, he was a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada, judicial intern at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, assistant director of the Special Court for Sierra Leone Legal Clinic (which assisted the Trial and Appeals Chambers), senior policy advisor to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and executive director of a non-governmental organization that combats human trafficking.


Richard Johns on Materialism and Creativity, October 21


Dr. Richard Johns, PhD Philosophy of Science UBC 

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Department of Philosophy, Langara College

Can Physical Systems be Creative?

Tuesday, October 21 at 4:00 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 5 (UBC Gate One)



There are many arguments against materialism that take the general form: “Materialism is false because it cannot account for X”, where X might be consciousness, rational understanding, human free will, or the evolution of life.  Such arguments are advanced today by philosophers such as Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers and Alvin Plantinga.  Dr. Johns sees the last two arguments as linked, since free will and evolution both require creativity, in a sense that seems to be incompatible with both determinism and randomness (or a combination of them).  In this talk our speaker will define what it means for a process to be creative, and show that free will and biological evolution (as well as engineering) require creativity in this sense.  He will then look at arguments that material systems cannot be creative, and consider objections to them.


Dr. Richard Johns was born in the UK, and did his undergraduate training in mathematics and engineering before switching to logic and philosophy of science in graduate school.  He moved to Vancouver, B.C. to finish his PhD in philosophy at UBC.  Since then he taught philosophy courses at UBC and SFU before accepting a permanent position at Langara College.  His main research interest concerns the objective meaning of “probability”, as used in physical theories, which is the topic of his book, A Theory of Physical Probability (U. of T. Press, 2002).   He is also interested in the limits of self-organisation in physics, the question of whether material systems can have understanding, the possibility of free will in a material universe, and the recent emergence of “safety” as an overriding moral imperative.


Possible Reading: Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies; Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos; David ChalmersThe Character of Consciousness (2010). Oxford University Press


Summary of the Argument: Can Matter be Creative?  by Richard Johns

It is commonplace to compare living organisms to human technology. William Paley, for example, compared organisms to watches, in virtue of containing parts with obvious purposes that meshed together to produce a functioning whole. Richard Dawkins compared bats to spy planes, bristling with advanced technology. Also note that biologists consider human technologies such as cell phones and airplanes to be products of evolution, since their creators are themselves such products.

While life and technology are similarly functional, their origins are thought to be very different. The development of new technologies requires that engineers understand the problem to be solved, and have knowledge of physical laws, the properties of materials, and so on. In short, creative engineering requires understanding. This is especially crucial when solving very difficult problems, which may take many generations of engineers. The Wright brothers, smart fellows though they were, could not have made a supersonic jet. Solving the problem of supersonic flight required a long cumulative process of somewhat gradual improvements, involving many people, who each had to understand the successes as well as the limitations of earlier designs.

Evolution on the other hand is not an intentional process, according to the standard evolutionary theory (SET). (SET refers rather loosely to contemporary versions of the ‘Modern Synthesis’, or ‘Neo-Darwinism’, developed in the 1940s by Fisher, Haldane, Wright, etc.) Evolution is a purely physical process on this view, and no thought or understanding is involved, until perhaps humans arrive on the scene. Nevertheless evolution is often described as a ‘creative’ process, on account of the fantastic technologies it has produced. I will argue, however, that no physical process can be creative in the required sense.

Engineers have, we might say, a ‘bias’ towards functional structures. If you produced a vast number of structures randomly, all with the same probability, very few of them would be functional. Very few would ‘do something useful’, such as walking, swimming, flying, detecting remote objects, producing light, generating electric currents, etc. Random processes are therefore unlikely to produce anything functional. Engineers however don’t produce objects randomly. They’re much more likely to produce a functional object than a random process would be.

Can physical processes have a similar bias toward functional structures? Evolutionary biologists say, “Yes indeed!” (Richard Dawkins is especially clear on this point.) Were this not the case, evolution – a physical process – could never have produced the complex life we see around us in so short a time.

Here’s the difficulty. The process of evolution must have a strong bias toward making new functional structures, or it cannot explain life as we find it. On the other hand, the laws of physics themselves have no bias toward functionality. The laws of physics are very simple and symmetric, and have been shown to produce only objects that are either simple and repetitive, or complex but random-looking and haphazard (or a mixture of the two). Such objects are never functional to any significant degree. A bias toward functionality arises only, SET claims, with the first appearance of a self-replicating entity, whose descendants differ from one another in minor ways. This leads to a struggle for existence, a competition for resources among these variants, and an automatic ‘selection’ of the more functional types.

So SET is committed to four claims:

  1. (i)  The laws of physics have no bias toward producing ‘technology’, or functional structures.
  2. (ii)  The process of evolution, which begins with the appearance of self-replicators, has a strong bias toward functionality.
  3. (iii)  Evolution is a purely physical process.
  4. (iv)  The spontaneous appearance of a self-replicator may be improbable, but it isn’t fantastically improbable (or evolution would require a miracle to get going).

The conjunction of these claims is however in conflict with probability theory. The first claim entails that complex life is fantastically improbable relative to the laws of physics, too improbable to be a realistic possibility, even in billions of years. (In the Markov chain formalism that can be used to represent a physical system, it has very low ‘stationary probability’.) If this probability becomes much larger, upon the appearance of a self-replicator, then probability theory tells us that the appearance of a self-replicator must also be fantastically improbable, contradicting claim (iv) above. In technical language, if Prob(A) is some low number , but Prob(A | B) is some much larger value q, then Prob(B) is no greater than /q. In effect, the probabilities of events in a physical system are fixed by the laws of physics, and the initial state, and cannot change much thereafter. For an improbable event to become probable, an equally improbable event must occur first.

There is no possible escape to this problem, as long as the probability of functional organisms is indeed very low at the beginning of time. But to drop this assumption (i) commits us to the view that the laws of physics themselves have a very strong bias toward functional objects, including computers and bicycles. Apart from there being no evidence for this at all (and much opposing evidence), it would seem to remove the need for SET in the first place.

In summary, if evolution is a physical process, then it can produce living organisms only if the laws of physics and initial state are ‘pre-programmed’ (so to speak) to do so. There is no question of a physical process creating such a disposition toward technology on its own. Physical systems, whether deterministic or not, are ruled by their laws and initial conditions.



Dawkins-Lennox Debate, September 22 @ UBC

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Oxford Biology Professor Richard Dawkins

will debate

Oxford Mathematician/Philosopher Dr. John Lennox

Monday, September 22 @ 4:00 p.m.

Woodward IRC Room 6, UBC Gate One

Screening of  a film of a recent debate on The God Delusion followed by a panel discussion with

Dr. Dennis Danielson English Department UBC, and Dr. David Helfand, President of Quest University, Squamish, BC 

If you want to watch the entire film of the Dawkins-Lennox Debate go to YouTube:

Post-Event Commentary on the Helfand-Danielson Dialogue

A. Dr. Bert Cameron, former Head of Nephrology at UBC

se are deluded and doing harm”, there is little to discuss. Prof. Helfand’s statement that the universe is meaningless, reflects his subjective conclusion based on his personal experience and reasoning. As such, according to his own criteria, this opinion should not be given weight as scientific evidence.

I thought Dennis Danielson’s contribution was helpful

– rejection of the “non-overlapping magisterium” approach

– accepting God as an agent but more interest in what kind of God

– faith supported by scripture, history and experience

– pointing out that roots of science inspired by theological insight (I would add health care to that)

Professor Helfand’s presentation took me by surprise so I have had to think about it. He claims to be a complete sceptic. He begins with the premise that “there is absolutely no meaning to life whatsoever” therefore he claims not to be looking for meaning but only for understanding of mechanism. From this starting point he is convinced that the methods of science provide the best basis for understanding. Even here however, all findings are tentative, he claims to have “no faith” in any theory. “Subjective evidence is not a category” for him. Even the fact that the universe is explicable is just a “contingent hypothesis”. He would give little credence to any theory, including the “multiverse”, until there was some empirical evidence for it.

Thus, though Dawkins and Prof. Helfand both claim to be atheists, he isn’t particularly a Dawkins fan. In this, he is in company with a number of other non religious intellectuals such as Terry Eagleton, John Gray and Thomas Nagel.

We really didn’t question Prof. Helfand on this, but he does not seem to be driven by the same moral imperative of Dawkins and some others such as Hitchins and Harris, that religion is so harmful it needs to be driven from the world.

He seemed rather to be expressing a personal perspective that might be summarized like this: “At this point in my life I have come to the conclusion that there is no overarching or ultimate meaning. I look at this fascinating and strangely  intelligible universe that I love to explore but I am not inclined to consider the possibility of a designer. I  find sufficient personal meaning in exploring and understanding the mechanisms of the cosmos which the physical and evolutionary sciences seem to be in the process of elucidating while recognizing that this understanding is based on a ‘contingent hypothesis’.”

It seems to me, that unless Prof. Helfand takes some moral conclusion from this, such as “others ought to think as I do” or “people who find meaning in the universe are deluded and doing harm”, there is little to discuss. Prof. Helfand’s statement that the universe is meaningless, reflects his subjective conclusion based on his personal experience and reasoning. As such, according to his own criteria, this opinion should not be given weight as scientific evidence.

Most of our understandings and decisions in life are based on data that would be considered  “subjective” since it is not empirically tested or testable. However, that does not mean that it is unreasonable to accept it.  As far as Christian faith is concerned, as Dennis quoted, Christians are called to “give a reason for the hope that is within them.”

 David Helfand, a prestigious Columbia astronomer, placed his whole position behind Karl Popper and the falsification doctrine. He took the position of mechanism and claimed that meaning is in the realm of religion which he rejects. From is perspective life is meaningless. He held to a non-overlapping magisterium between science and religion. He didn’t totally agree with Dawkins on all points. Danielson does not see this sharp distinction between the realm of science and the realm of religion. He believes in both God and good science; religion and science are two ways of understanding one world as physicist Jon Polkinghorne might say.
B. Dr. Richard Johns, Philosophy of Science and Logic at Langara College writes: “Most philosophers of science reject falsificationism.  Duhem and Quine showed, for example, that theories only make predictions when combined with a framework of background assumptions.  So when a prediction is false, the problem could be with the framework, not the theory itself.  Kuhn showed that all theories, even the best ones, are inconsistent with some of the data.  Hempel showed that many scientific statements aren’t falsifiable.  Bayesians (who are now the dominant group) reject Popper’s fundamental claim that theories are never probably true.  Popper is much more popular among scientists than among philosophers of science.
Also, while there is disagreement among Bayesians and others, present views don’t allow such a sharp separation between science and religion.  Kuhn for example says that the present “paradigm” isn’t open to rational scrutiny, but shielded from criticism, and paradigm shifts are only partially rational.  Bayesians says that science depends on subjective judgements of plausibility in addition to logic and data, etc.”
See also Roy Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality; An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (rev. ed.; University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 12.54.22 PMProfessor David J. Helfand, President and Vice-Chancellor, Quest University Canada; President, American Astronomical Society, Professor of Astronomy, Columbia University (on leave). He has spent 35 years as Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, where he served as Department Chair and Co-Director of the Astrophysics Laboratory for more than half that time. He is the author of nearly 200 scientific publications on many areas of modern astrophysics including radio, optical and X-ray observations of celestial sources from nearby stars to the most distant quasars. He is engaged in a research project designed to provide a complete picture of the birth and death of stars in the Milky Way.

But most of all, David is an inspirational teacher, who received the 2001 Columbia Presidential Teaching Award and the 2002 Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. He has a deep concern about the state of the modern research university which he sees as dysfunctional, in part because of the impossibly large number of functions which the research university is expected to fulfill in 21st. century North America and in part because of the low priority given to teaching excellence. Because of these concerns, he has taken the radical step of pioneering a university dedicated to innovative teaching. David believes that he is a better cook than he is an astronomer and, ambiguously, colleagues who have sampled his gastronomic delights agree. We welcome him as a major public intellectual and a personal friend of many of us.


Dennis Danielson professor of English at the University of British Columbia, is a literary and intellectual historian who has made contributions to Milton studies and to the early modern history of cosmology, examining scientific developments in their historical, philosophical, and literary contexts. His books include Milton’s Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy (1982) and the Cambridge Companion to Milton (1989, 1999), both published by Cambridge University Press. His subsequent work in the history of astronomy, especially The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking and The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution, has engaged both humanities scholars and scientists in dialogue about the historical and cultural as well as cosmological meaning of Copernicus’s legacy. Danielson was the 2011 recipient of the Konrad Adenauer Research Prize from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. His new book Paradise Lost and the Cosmological Revolution is in press and scheduled for publication by Cambridge University Press in 2014.

Grad Students may also check for relevant information and activities.

pdf of Dialogue Between David Helfand and Alister McGrath on the New Atheists SKM_C554e14091911460

Paper on Scientism by Dr. Gordon Carkner SCIENTISM:Apologeetics Canada

Canadian Science & Christian Affiliation (CSCA) ( local contact: Dr. Arnold Sikkema TWU Physics)

Scholarly Responses to New Atheism 
Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: what the Old Testament really says and why it matters. (Baylor 2014)
Hart, David Bentley, The Experience of God: being, consciousness and bliss. Yale, 2013

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: science, religion and naturalism.

Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos. (questions whether reductionistic explanations are adequate)

Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: the search for God in science and theology. (2009 Gifford Lectures)

——————–, The Dawkins Delusion

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its fashionable enemies.

John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Lion.

——————, Gunning for God: why the new atheists are missing the target.

John Lennox debates Richard Dawkins at Oxford’s Museum of Natural History:

Craig & Meister (eds.), God is Great; God is Good: why believing in God is reasonable and responsible:

Peter Hitchens, Rage Against God: how atheism led me to faith.

Denis Alexander, Evolution or Creation?

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making sense of the Old Testament God.

Further Reading on Science & Religion

Polkinghorne, Sir John, One World: The Interaction of Science & Theology. Princeton. (physicist/theologian—leading light on Science & Religion)

Polkinghorne, Sir John, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of ScienceReligion, Science and Providence.

McGrath, Alister. A Fine-Tuned Universe: the quest for God in Science and Theology. (Gifford Lectures)

Hutchinson, Ian. Monopolizing Knowledge.

Craig & Meister (eds.). God is Great; God is Good.

Gingerich, Owen, God’s Universe.

Collins, Francis, The Language of God. Free Press.

Pascal, Blaise.  Pensees.  Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer.  Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1966.

Capell & Cook eds., Not Just Science: Questions Where Christian Faith and Natural Science Intersect. Zondervan

Jaki, Stanley, The Road to Science and the Ways to God. Chicago (Gifford Lectures on history of science)

Russell, Colin, Crosscurrents: Interactions Between Science & Faith. Eerdmans

Danielson, Dennis (ed.), The Book of the Cosmos. Perceus.

Plantinga, Alvin, Where the Conflict Really Lies: science, religion and naturalism. (a critique of the new atheist and the hegemony of Philosophical Naturalism)

Lewis, C.S., Miracles. Macmillan (a classic)

Waltke, Bruce, “Gift of the Cosmos” (article on Genesis 1:1-2:4) Chapter 8 in   An Old Testament Theology, Zondervan, 2007.

Alexander, Denis, Rebuilding the Matrix: Science & Faith in the 21st Century. Zondervan (director of Faraday Institute in Cambridge, UK)

Burke, ed., Creation & Evolution: 7 Prominent Christians Debate. IVP UK.

Livingstone, D. N., Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter BetweenEvangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought.

Owens, V.S., Godspy: Faith, Perception, and the New Physics.

Gingerich, Owen, “Let There Be Light” article on natural theology by America’s top Christian physicist at Harvard’s Smithsonian Institute.

Theology of Creation

Alexander, Denis, Evolution or Creation?: Must we Choose?

Capon, R. F.,  “The Third Peacock” in The Romance of the Word. Eerdmans

Gunton, C., The Triune Creator: a historical and systematic study. Eerdmans (English theologian)

Walsh & Middleton, The Transforming Vision. IVP (on Christian worldview)

Bouma-Prediger, S., For the Beauty of the Earth: a Christian vision of creation care. Baker Academic, 2010.

Nagel, Thomas, Mind and Cosmos.

Limits of Science

Medawar, P., The Limits of Science.

Schumacher, E.F. A Guide for the Perplexed. Abacus. (brilliant challenge to ontological reductionism)

Carkner, Gordon, Unpublished paper: “Scientism and the Search for an Integrated Reality” (several posts from this on the Blog)

McGrath, A. & J., The Dawkins Delusion? IVP 2007.

Lennox, John. God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Lion Books, 2011.

Jeeves & Berry,  Science, Life, and Christian Belief. Apollos Books.

Ward, Keith, Pascal’s Fire:  Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding.

Harper, Charles Jr. ed., Spiritual Information: 100 Perspectives on Science and Religion. Templeton Foundation Press.

Spencer, N. & White, R. Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living.  SPCK, 2007.

See also DVD Series called Test of Faith from Faraday Institute in Cambridge, UK

Iain Provan Examines Two Mythologies, March 12, 2014 @ 4 pm, Woodward 6

A Critical Examination of Two Myths that Drive Culture: the Axial Age and Dark Green Religion

Dr. Iain Provan, Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies, Regent College

Wednesday, March 12 @ 4:00 p.m.        Woodward (IRC) Room 6, UBC near Gate One


The contemporary world has been shaped in part by two important and potent myths.  Karl Jaspers’ construct of the “axial age” envisions the common past (800–200 BC), the time when Western society was born and world religions spontaneously and independently appeared out of a seemingly shared value set. Conversely, the myth of the “dark green golden age” as narrated by David Suzuki and others asserts that the axial age, and the otherworldliness that accompanied the emergence of organized religion, ripped society from a previously deep communion with nature. Both myths contend that to maintain balance we must return to the idealized past. In this lecture, Iain Provan will engage critically with both myths, explaining why we should not embrace them and why it matters if we do.


With his doctorate from Cambridge University, Dr. Iain Provan has been the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College since 1997. He was born and educated in the UK and retains strong family, academic, and church connections with his homeland. He received his MA at Glasgow University in Mediaeval History and Archaeology, his BA from London Bible College in Theology, and his PhD from Cambridge, where his thesis focused on the books of Kings, and was subsequently published as Hezekiah and the Books of Kings. Iain Provan’s academic teaching career took him to King’s College London, the University of Wales, and the University of Edinburgh, where he was a senior lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament Studies. He has written numerous essays and articles, and several books including commentaries on Lamentations, 1 and 2 Kings, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, and co-authored with Phil Long and Tremper Longman A Biblical History of Israel. Most recently he released Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World that Never Was., the concern of this talk. Iain is an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland; a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge; and the recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship. He and his wife, Lynette, have four children and he holds full credentials as a soccer coach in BC.

On My Book Convenient Myths: ~Iain Provan

Most people, I believe, do not comprehend the way in which each of us is inevitably caught up in what theologian Ched Myers has called the “war of myths” – a battle of overarching stories that claim to explain life (what it’s about, where it’s going, and what its purpose is).  For Myers, our lives are war-zones.  Very different “big stories” about the world vie for influence over our hearts and minds.  But most people simply take the world as they find it and get on with their lives without reflecting too much about this battle.  They simply assume that what is true about reality and about right and wrong is obvious.  However, the fact of the matter is that every one of us lives in a world profoundly shaped by other people’s ideas.  Everyone lives inside an (inevitably disputable) story, recounted to them in the first instance by other people. Human beings are always “storied” in this way—regardless of whether they reflect upon this fact—just as they are always “political,” regardless of whether they vote.  The only question that faces us is this: are we going to make any effort to ensure that we inhabit a true and a good story, rather than a false and possibly dangerous one?

 I extend an invitation to engage in the serious critical appraisal of two influential myths of our time. Both myths are stories about the past told in pursuit of present and future agendas.  The first I have labeled the myth of the axial age. The idea of an axial age was first introduced to the world by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers in the period just after the Second World War. Modern human beings stand, he proposed, on the far side of this crucial turning point in history (800–200 BC), which produced the basic categories within which we modern human beings still carry on our thinking.  The cultures that experienced this new beginning constantly return to it in order to renew themselves. As they do so, they recognize what they hold in common, beyond all particular differences of faith. It is to this common past that we ourselves must now return, as we strive to make the unity of humankind concrete in the present. We must return to this axial age—the wellspring from which all faith once emerged, behind and beneath all specific religious and philosophical worldviews and their secularized, political forms. And, having gone back, we must move forward to build a new world order. We must birth a new axial age—an age of world peace.  This myth has in turn been popularized by many others, including the religious studies expert John Hick and the popular religious historian Karen Armstrong.  Even those who have never heard the terminology may be familiar with the myth itself as expressed in the kind of statements that often appear in Karen Armstrong’s books (e.g., the ways in which all religions “are at the core really just the same, focusing on compassion”).

The second myth, I have labeled the myth of the dark green golden age. The mythmakers in this case also believe in something like an axial age, but they do not look back to it for inspiration, because they regard it as an age, not of enlightenment, but of repression. Axial age civilizations destroyed prior societies based around natural and cosmological cycles. They broke the human connection with the earth. They also broke down human community, as individual religious identity developed.  Axial age (world) religions, since they were not connected with particular places, inevitably reduced the importance of place, unless that “place” was in a spiritual afterlife. Much of what is wrong with contemporary human life results from this embrace of civilization. To recover ourselves, we must now get back behind the axial age, in order to recover a more authentic way of being. We must revisit the Paleolithic era, and reconnect with our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the state of nature. That is where we will actually find the spirituality of empathy and compassion that we need, to save both ourselves and the planet.  How can we access this Old Stone Age, which is long gone, and of which there is so little meaningful trace even in the archaeological record?  We can access it by way of surviving preaxial tribal peoples not yet entirely assimilated into axial reality – indigenous peoples of the modern period, who still tell truer stories about the world than we modern people do. It is by listening to their wisdom that we can save ourselves and the planet; for even into modern times, they have lived more world-affirming, equitable and peaceable lives than axial peoples, informed by a much more authentic, organic spirituality than is available in the world-denigrating world religions.  In particular, even into modern times, these ancient peoples, living in harmony with nature, have displayed the ecological knowledge without which we cannot now manage.  So we must listen carefully to them, reconnect with our deepest past by doing so, and in this way equip ourselves to move ahead into a sustainable future.  Among the many accessible books that promote this myth are those written by ecologist David Suzuki and anarcho-primitivists John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen.

Both these stories have been told and retold in recent times by well-motivated people who want to make the world a better place. Both have proved to be remarkably influential, whether at sophisticated levels of politics and government, or at the more popular level. The popular appetite for the myths is well-illustrated in the difficulty I faced, when writing my book, in even getting access to the writings of people like Karen Armstrong and Derrick Jensen for any extended period of time, because of the demand for them in our local (including university) libraries. Certainly here in the Pacific Northwest, many people are drawn to these myths, and in recognition of the demand their proponents’ books are well-represented in our bookstores.

For my own part, I have enormous sympathy for the agendas of the writers in both camps. Nonetheless, I believe each of the stories is patently false – and that is what I try to argue in my book.  But I also explore why it is that the two stories are so widely believed by so many, even though they are evidently untrue, and, most importantly, I ask whether this matters.  I think it does; I think false stories are dangerous. The flourishing of our planet, and indeed of its human inhabitants, will not in the end be advanced by such.