Archive for the ‘Apologetics’ Category

Are Humans Unique?

01 Jan

Below is an except from a short novel I am working on.

A bit of background: the novel is actually a debate between two college students.  Anna is a committed Christian, while Grant is a firm atheist.  A few other students contribute questions or comments occasionally, but the argument is carried between these two.  Here, they are discussing whether humans are unique.


Brenda: Okay, Anna.  How are humans unique?  Isn’t every species unique?

Anna: Well, my argument is that not only are humans unique, but that they are unique in ways that set them apart from all other living organisms, but puts them in a totally different class of organism.

Brenda: What do you mean?

Anna: Well, think of some mammal, like a tiger.  A tiger is unique from other mammals in certain ways.  A tiger has certain physical traits that, in combination at least, make it a tiger.  No other animal has the exact appearance of a tiger.  The tiger also has a certain combination of behavior traits that are associated with him, for example, the cubs are raised by the mom alone, and it eats meat.  These are not unique.  Other species do this also.

Grant: Okay, so far so good.  But what if you are talking about some animal that really does have a unique behavior trait?

Anna: Like what?

Grant: Whales make unique songs underwater.

Anna: Other marine mammals make sounds underwater, some of them with some degree of musical scale.

Grant: But aren’t the oceans full of creatures that have bizarre and one of a kind designs?

Anna: Physically, yes.  But behaviorally, they basically do the same things other species in their environment do: they work to find food and safety, and they reproduce.

Grant: Rather, they seek to find food and safety so that they can reproduce.  Darwin for the win!

Anna: Not yet, or at least not totally.  My point is that humans are unique in a different way than other species are unique from each other.

Grant: Such as.

Anna: Well, there are quite a few, and I am not sure I’ve got the best way to organize these.  So I will just start with a rather everyday example, and work from there showing why it is unique.

Grant: Okay, what is your example?

Anna:  We laugh at dirty jokes.

Grant: What?  That is all you’ve got?  Are you even going to tell us a dirty joke?

Marty: I will!

Anna: Actually, Marty, while I appreciate your willingness to contribute, I think we have enough experience to not need examples.

Marty: Just trying to help.

Grant: Well this should at least be interesting.  I will concede that we do indeed laugh at dirty jokes, or at least good ones.  Where are you going with this?

Anna: Well, actually I hope to mine quite a bit from this.  In the first place, to tell or understand any joke, we need language.

Grant: Other species communicate, and our ability is only a difference is degree, not kind.

Anna: I disagree.  Other species communicate with some combination of body language and sound, just like we could if for some reason our mouth could not form actual words.  We have something beyond that.  We can communicate not just in that way, but a totally different way.

Grant: I know the science is still being worked out, but haven’t we trained some apes and even certain birds to recognize words?

Anna: I haven’t seen any experiments that they could use language anything like the way we use it.  In fact, it seems the researchers are back-tracking on some earlier claims.  In any case, even if a  human could train an ape or bird to respond in a limited way to certain words, it would still be the result of human training more than that animal’s natural behavior.  It is the exception for the species.   For us, it is an exception, if not a tragedy, for a member of our species not to be able to communicate with words.

Grant:  Look, I know we could argue this point all morning.  What else you got.

Anna: Well, jokes imply not only the use of language, but also abstract humor and laughing.

Grant: Don’t hyenas laugh?  You always hear of a laughing hyena.

Anna: Just our projections on hyenas, I’m afraid.  I think I’ve seen chimps laugh, but it’s a little hard to make out if they find something funny or just exciting and unusual.  In any case, that is why I specified “abstract” humor, that is, humor based on words or concepts, as opposed to slapstick.  No animal, no matter how smart, is going to laugh at the joke you tell it.

Grant: That seems rather trivial.

Anna: I don’t think it is.  What makes something funny?

Grant: It depends.

Anna: But don’t jokes, and most humor in general, depend on some element either of surprise, or a sense that something is not what is expected?

Grant: What do you mean?

Anna: If a person trips and lands on their rear, would you think that funny?

Grant: Maybe a little.  Again, depends on whom.

Anna: If you fell, would you smile and make some humorous remark?

Grant: Probably.

Anna: And which would you find more amusing, a child of two tripping, or the Queen of England at some formal event.

Grant: The queen, obviously.

Anna: Because her falling on her bum would seem out of place with the formality?

Grant: Gloriously so.

Anna: Now, have you ever laughed at a joke about a crooked politician.

Grant: Of course.

Anna: Why are jokes about crooked politicians funny?

Grant: Oh, I see.  You’re saying they are funny because they trade on the fact that politicians are supposed to be honest?

Anna: Something like that.  My point is that the very fact of humor depends on something not being what it is supposed to be.

Grant: And what does this say about humanity?

Anna: That we, alone apparently, have a sense of how things are “supposed to be”.  We have an idea not only of what is, but what could be or should be. 

Grant: Is that really that important?

Anna: It is crucial.  It is almost as great as the difference between a rat and a rock.

Grant: Surely not!

Anna: Think about it.  A rock shares certain traits with a rat.  They both exist.  They are both made up of atoms and molecules.  They both take up space.  In fact, you could even, if you were very skillful, carve a rock to have the exact shape of a rat.  But even though they have some traits in common, they have one difference, and that difference puts them in two different classes of being.  One is a living organism.  The other is just matter.  One exists passively in  the universe, while the other is an active agent who moves and acts in the universe, and can understand some things about the universe.  In the same way, there is a class difference between a being who can act in the universe and understand it, and a being who can not only do those things, but can picture a different reality altogether, and makes his or her agency work towards that unseen reality.

Grant: But don’t some animals, at least, envision a future and act towards it?  Beavers build dams, robins build nests, etc.

Anna: Well, it is hard to ferret out (pardon the pun) how much of that is cognition, and how much is just instinct.  When my Australian Shepherd gave birth to a litter of pups a few years back, she immediately knew how to tear open their birth sack, and care for the pups, even though she was a first time mother.  Instinct is an amazing thing.  And this does seem to be the instinct of the species, rather than the will of the individual that is in play in, say, a robin building a nest.  That is why one robin’s nest will pretty much look like every other robin’s nest. And even if animals do have an idea of how something should be and work towards it (which I do not concede), all their work again centers around their own needs for food, safety, and reproduction, not toward a picture of how the world should work or other beings in the world should act.

Sylvia: So you are saying that the very fact that we have humor is some sort of sign that we think distinctly from the rest of the animals?  I see your point, but why talk about dirty jokes, as opposed to jokes or humor in general?

Marty: Yeah, especially if you’re not going to tell any.

Anna: What are dirty jokes about?

Sylvia: Sex.

Marty: Or bathroom humor.

Anna: But have you ever wondered why?  Why do we laugh at these things, and why should this kind of humor be in a special category?  Brenda, I heard you say you grew up on a farm.  Don’t humans and animals have very different ways of feeling about sex or bodily elimination?

Brenda: Of course.  I always thought it was gross to think see the animals copulating, but they never tried to hide it.

Anna: But we do. We want privacy in these things.  We would feel shame to do what every other creature under the sky does: appear without clothes in our day to day lives.

Marty: I’m all for it!

Anna: And we find transgressions or oddities in this area to be a great source of humor.

Grant: Come back to your point.

Anna: That we feel shame and humor and guilt about our bodies and our sexuality that is completely out of place as mere animals.

Grant: But this is just cultural conditioning.

Anna: Then why does it seem to be the rule for cultures across continents and across centuries?  Certainly some outer aspects of this vary by culture, but we react to Ovid’s dirty verses much the same as the Romans die two thousand years ago?

Grant: So sex is dirty?

Anna: You know that is not my point!  Our attitude towards sex is one area where we sense things are not as they should be.  No animal feels this.

Grant: So what you are saying is basically that we think in a different way than animals?

Anna: Not just a different way, but in completely different categories.  Because we see not only what is, but what should be, we are operating on a completely different level.  We are not only alone in speaking, but in seeing.  Our whole interaction with reality is different, unique.

Rick: Wait.  My dog shows guilt when I scold him.  Doesn’t that mean he feels guilt, and doesn’t that mean he sees how he should have acted, but didn’t?

Anna: Rick, glad you are still with us.  I thought you weren’t interested.  Actually, I don’t think dogs feel guilt.  They have the ability through body language to deflect aggression, and we project our human feelings of guilt onto their body language.

Rick: How do you know?  Are you a dog whisperer?

Anna: Easy.  I have dogs too.  They never display that cowering look except about the things they have come to expect a scolding or punishment about.  This isn’t an inborn sense of morality.  If you had never trained them to poop outside, they would happily do it in the living room with no remorse.

Brenda: So basically you’re arguing that only humans have a sense of morality.  Seems like a long road to get there.

Anna: Well, using jokes as my example, I was also able to show we are unique in our language.  But mainly I am also trying to show that a sense of morality implies a different way of interacting with reality.  We alone use our minds to imagine a reality more beautiful, good and just than the one we have now.  And we alone are able to use our mind and body and will to make that conceived reality an actual reality.  We live, we exist, in a fundamentally different way than animals do.



The Bible Story: God’s Response to Evil

23 Jul

Often when we see the evil and suffering in this life, the first question that comes to mind is, “Why does God allow such evil to exist?”  I think there are some good ways to answer that question, but I notice the Bible takes a rather different approach.  Even when the question is directly asked (as in the book of Job), it is not directly answered.  Perhaps this is because the answer is “above our pay grade”, that is, we do not need to know the answer in order to fulfill our purpose.  Or perhaps it is beyond our understanding, just as most of the things I do are above the understanding of my dog.

No, instead of answering the question, the scriptures answer a different question: what is God doing about evil?  The answer to that question forms the core of the Bible message. In fact, one could almost trace the major themes and events of the scriptures as stages in the answer to this question.

So what is God doing about evil? N. T. Wright suggests you can summarize it in three words.  First, he restrains evil.  Second, he judges evil. Third, he overcomes evil.  He restrains evil out of love for man; evil is like a great cancer—if left unchecked it soon destroys everything.  God allows evil to exist for a time, though he did not author evil, but he actively works to make sure the evil does not spread so deeply that good cannot also thrive.  He judges evil because He is a moral being and the judge of the universe.  Evil exists in a moral universe, and so must be judged, or the very notion of morality is mocked.  And he overcomes evil also because of his love, in particular the form of love known as grace.  God’s plan is not defeated by evil; it gives an escape from the judgment upon evil, and even uses evil for good.  Because love, not evil, will always have the last word in God’s universe.

I developed the following chart to help picture this.  It is imperfect, but some may find it helpful. Click on it for a better view.


Atheist Remix of “Welcome to this World”

30 Apr

A video produced by an atheist organization has been quite popular lately.  It is called, Welcome to this World, and is a satirical presentation of the Christian faith.  You can see the video here, and be sure to read the point by point rebuttal.

While I think the rebuttal is great, I also think this is a good chance for Christians to go on the offensive, and show the absurdities of the atheist worldview. So I took the liberty of creating an alternative narration.  This is not “answering a straw man with a straw man” because I have taken these ideas from the atheists I have read, and they are for the most part either from Nietzsche (the most consistent atheist) or the members of what is called the New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, Pinker, Dennet, and others).

By the way, Internet Monk was kind enough to publish my remix, and you can see the comments for that here.


My child, welcome to this world. Before you grow up, there are a few things we must tell you.

First, you are the chance, random result of certain biological processes, and nothing more.  Your father and I were inborn with a desire to spread our own genes and thus, you are here.  This is why we “love” you. In turn, we are also solely the result of the same impersonal drive of our ancestors to competitively reproduce their own DNA.  In truth, just as a chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs, you are your gene’s way of making more genes.

Oh, you will have false, deluded people who insist on making up stories about life having a purpose beyond this, but they lie. The cosmos is a closed system of matter. There is nothing outside it. Nothing.  The universe simply is. It has no purpose. And your own life, as part of this material universe, likewise simply is. It has no purpose.

Again, because there is nothing outside the universe (or at least nothing that could conceivably affect the universe), then matter is all there is.   You may someday wonder about the “why” of this.  “Where did the matter come from? Why is there something rather than nothing?” But there is no answer to that. The matter simply always existed.  There is no reason why.

Matter exploded into order not through the design or plan of anyone or anything, but solely through an impersonal explosion (again, don’t ask about the who or why of the explosion).  As the matter cooled, it formed itself into galaxies, stars and planets, and then somehow (we haven’t figured this part out yet) it changed into life.  That life evolved without help or design from anyone, and, in time, single cells of bacteria turned into ants, dogs and humans (including you of course).  Life is simply organized matter.

As your young mind learns logic, it will also see the implications of this truth.  You will see, for example, that your sense of free will is an illusion.  Just as we can tell the occurrence of the next comet, we could, if we had all the data, tell the next occurrence of everything, for everything in a closed universe must operate according to the laws of physics working out the results of the big bang.  Of course, you may feel you can do as you desire.  But you forget that your desires themselves must have a previous material explanation in a closed, material universe.  As one of our great prophets, Nietzsche, said,

If one were omniscient, one would be able to calculate each individual action in advance, each step in the progress of knowledge, each error, each act of malice. To be sure, the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition . . . this assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculable mechanism.

In other word, my child, your free will is an illusion.  Your own mind will convince you of this if you think through it: in a material world, where your mind itself is simply molecules colliding without reason or purpose, what could the concept of “free will” possibly mean? As another prophet, Skinner, has said, “A person does not act on the world, the world acts on him”.

Since this is so, it follows that no actions can be “good” or “evil”. They simply are.  The Prophet Nietzsche again:

We don’t accuse nature of immorality when it sends us a thunderstorm, and makes us wet: why do we call the injurious man immoral? Because in the first case, we assume necessity, and in the second a voluntarily governing free will. But this distinction is in error.

Therefore, we will not punish you for being “bad” nor reward you for being “good”, for you had no choice in the matter. In any case, who are we to say what is “good” or “bad”?  We are simply pre-determined bodies of organized molecules like yourself. The only thing we have chosen by free will is to believe in a closed, materialistic universe that makes free will impossible.

As your mind grows, you will also need to make sure to not be deluded by the idea of “truth.”  Certainly, some things will seem true.  But remember your origins! Your mind is simply your brain, a physical organ, and it, like the rest of your body, has evolved from non-thinking matter.  And no-one and nothing is there to guide this evolving, other than the unreflective desire to reproduce.  Therefore, your mind evolved, not to find truth, but to reproduce your DNA.  Simply put, we have no reason to believe your mind has any other purpose than your genitals have, and thus no reason to think the idea of truth (if there is such a thing) matters to the mind.  The Apostle Steven Pinker puts it well:

We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.

Exactly. The question to ask is not whether an idea is “true” but whether it is “useful” to spreading your DNA.  (You may wonder if this makes our worldview self-defeating; it’s is best not to think too much about that. It is not useful).

This is the glorious world you have been born into.  Do not be deceived by those claiming you have value because you are human, or made in the image of some imaginary god.  The only difference between yourself and a fly is that your genetic information is more organized, just as a car is more complex and organized than a bike. In reality, they are both just matter. To be sure, sometimes one is more helpful than the other to get around in, but that all depends on whether you live in the Texas countryside or in downtown Hong Kong.  In reality, the matter in you (and thus, you yourself) is not more valuable than the matter in a corpse or a stone of the same size.  Of course, this applies to the other people you will meet also. Everyone and everything is the same: simply matter. And when you die, nothing will remain of you except a few memories in a few other bodies of soon-to-be dead matter.

My child, in keeping all these things in your mind from the start, you will be one of the few to rise above the herd and see clearly.  Even some of our fellow atheists still cling stubbornly and inconsistently to foolish notions of human freedom, human meaning, absolute truth, and all the accompanying nonsense of morality, justice and purpose.  BE CONSISTENT! Then you can end up like our great martyr Nietzsche, who bravely endured the insane asylum for his consistency. Yes, you will find for yourself the greatness seeing the world like the wise skeptic Mark Twain did near his death:

A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle; … they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; … those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. It (the release) comes at last—the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them—and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence,…a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever.

Yes, my child, welcome to this world!


Islam? What’s Islam?

01 Mar

Interesting post at Fraters Libertas:

While you may not agree with the views of the new breed of aggressive atheists who have emerged in recent years you have to admire their courage for bravely standing up and speaking truth to power against the various religious institutions whose integrity they seek to undermine. No matter what consequences they might face, they aren’t afraid to lay out their case against religion in terms that are often harsh and sure to offend. Here is an example from an article called Facing Uncomfortable Truths:
In a recent Al-Jazeerah interview, Richard Dawkins was asked his views on God. He argued that the god of “the Old Testament” is “hideous” and “a monster”, and reiterated his claim from The God Delusion that the God of the Torah is the most unpleasant character “in fiction”. 

As you can see, Dawkins has no trouble attacking the Hebrew God in a most direct and uncompromising manner. No atheist wallflower he. 

Asked if he thought the same of the God of the Koran, Dawkins ducked the question, saying: “Well, um, the God of the Koran I don’t know so much about.”

How can it be that the world’s most fearless atheist, celebrated for his strident opinions on the Christian and Jewish Gods, could profess to know so little about the God of the Koran? Has he not had the time? Or is Professor Dawkins simply demonstrating that most crucial trait of his species: survival instinct.

Whoops. It’s funny how these confident, cocksure prophets of atheism-who barely have time to take a breath between slamming the tenets of Christianity and Judaism-often get curiously tongue-tied and shy when the subject of Islam comes up. The idea that Dawkins doesn’t “know so much about” the God of the Koran is absurd. Of course he knows about Islam. And the same disdain and disregard that he has for Judaism and Christianity should surely apply to Islam as well. 

The truth is that bashing and mocking Judaism and Christianity is easy and painless. You’ll get praise and admiration from those within the “right” circles of academia, media, and entertainment. Your opponents will argue with and debate your views and they may even offer (gasp) to pray for you. There’s no real price to pay at all. 

However, should you direct the same scathing criticisms towards Islam you’ll find those “right” circles suddenly closed off to you. And your opponents’ rebuttals may not be offered in articles and debate halls, but rather with bullets, bombs, and knives. Standing up to that takes real courage not the false bravado we see on displays as atheists attack Judaism and Christianity.



Promethean Faith

23 Jun


I saw the SF movie Prometheus last week.  I won’t review it or summarize it here except to note that it featured a creature far rarer than aliens in Hollywood’s universe: a practicing Christian.  She is even portrayed in a positive light, and is, in fact, something of the heroine of the story.

Not that this is in any sense a movie advocating Christianity or even religion.  Indeed, we never see Elizabeth Shaw engaged in prayer, worship, seeking guidance from scripture or really anything that could be described as spiritual. How do we know she is a Christian at all? First, because of the cross she wears around her neck; It is so symbolic that at the end of the movie she even pointedly demands it back from the robot who took it from her (long story). Secondly because when challenged how she can still believe in spite of all the…mess…that has hit the fan, she says explicitly, “It’s what I choose to believe”.

There is a bit of backstory to that statement. Earlier we see a dream sequence flashing back to Shaw’s childhood, where she is sitting with her father (who appears to be a missionary, if I am not mistaken).  Some of the local people are waking in a funeral procession, grieving their dead, and the girl asks her father, “Can’t you help them?”

“They wouldn’t want help from me”


“They believe different things.”

“Well, how do we know they are wrong and we are right?”

The father answers, “It’s what I choose to believe”.

The adult Shaw, then, has learned this lesson well, and repeats the type of faith she inherited from her father.  This is the extent of her Christian belief portrayed in the film: wearing a cross, and clinging stubbornly to a faith that she simply chooses to believe.

What do we make of this?  Are Christians (or religious adherents more broadly) simply those who “choose to believe?” Or, as I have seen in put in more insulting terms, do religious people simply believe without reason or evidence? An atheist columnist in my local paper put it this way: “Christians don’t need reason. They take everything by faith”.  It seems the writers of Prometheus, in spite of their good intentions perhaps, have pretty much the same view. Are they right?


I think they are very much in the wrong. The error, however, is rather easily understandable.  Did not Kierkegaard speak of a great leap of faith?  And was it not the mighty Augustine who set the course for medieval thought with these words, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that thou may believe, but believe that thou may understand”? Yes and yes, but also no. Let me explain.

The view that we must simply choose what to believe, and that reason and evidence form no part of this choice, is called fideism (from the Latin word for faith, fides).  Philosopher Alvin Plantiga defines it this way: “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth”. I would only add to this definition that technically perhaps it is better to speak of a fideistic viewpoint as one that pits faith against evidence rather than reason (since reason is utilized even in choosing to go against reason).

Let us begin by noting that fideism has never been in the mainstream of Christian thought. Indeed, it is difficult to even find Christian thinkers of the past or present who would claim the label.  At the same time, two related themes have indeed been present in Christian thought from Tertullian in the second century to thinkers like C. Stephen Evans in ours. The first theme is the idea that reason (or evidence) by itself cannot prove the claims of Christianity. The second theme is that certain Christian doctrines go beyond reason in some sense.

It is important to realize that affirming both these ideas (as I do) does not make one a fideist, nor does it make faith “something I simply choose to believe”.  An analogy comes to mind.

A young woman falls in love and becomes engaged.  She eagerly begins planning the wedding (the groom being “not into details”) and her subsequent life joined to the man of her dreams. All is well until a week before the wedding.  She receives an anonymous note, claiming that her fiancé has been cheating on her this past year.  No proof is given, but its tone seems convincing.  She shows it to her fiancé, who denies the charge with indignation.

Question: does she call the wedding off?

Well, if she believes her fiancé really has been cheating on her this last year she certainly will. But does she now believe in her the man’s faithfulness? That is the question.  One the one hand, she has evidence, in the form of the note, that would argue against his faithfulness.  And she cannot prove his faithfulness (for that would have required 24 hour video surveillance). It is certainly rationally possible that he is a cheater and deceiver.  But on the other hand, she knows the man.  She has been close to him and observed him in a number of situations over the course of several years.  She has found him honest in other areas without fail.  And his response to the charge was not the sheepish look of a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but something like the anger and indignation she herself would feel if she were the subject of the accusation.

Again, the wedding is a week away. The invitations mailed; all the preparations made. Does she call it off?

What would you do?  If you, in her situation, went ahead with the wedding, then in some sense you have made a decision that goes beyond evidence.  You are making the decision to believe in something that goes beyond what you can know.

I have a friend who is getting her Ph.D. in epidemiology.  She also has a two-year old son. What happens when she takes him to get vaccinated, and he sees the fearsome needle approach? Does she explain all the facts of the immune system to the child, hoping he will make a rational decision based on those facts?  A child that age would not understand. It is not that he has no reason, but his reason has limits.  The reason he does have, however, has shown him that his mother loves him and can be trusted.

This, I believe, is the essence of Augustine’s famous quote cited above.  As he says elsewhere, “God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity”.  Even Kierkegaard, I believe, should be understood this way: the step of faith is not a call for rejecting reason in favor of faith, but rather a call to radically live out the implications of our faith, even when the choices go beyond our ability to see outcomes.

This type of faith, I believe, is what the best Christian thinkers have always tried to model, and that most believers I know seem to have (though most could not articulate it as well as Augustine).  They have many questions. Some things may not make sense. But they have also experienced the goodness of God, and learned to trust his words.  Their faith is without reason, but it may believe things reason cannot prove, just as the non-religious person believes manythings he cannot prove either.

So I was happy to Elizabeth Shaw, a Christian alien in the universe Hollywood has constructed. May her tribe increase. At the same time, the type of faith portrayed is the shallow, easy to dismiss kind that ultimately is not reflected in Christian teaching or practice.

But then again, perhaps that is not the final word.

The name Prometheus became associated with human striving. This could be striving against ignorance, tradition, or (originally) the gods of the Greek world.  The movie’s title, then, reflects not just the name of the space ship, but the attitude of the lone human who survives, and who, as the movie ends, plans to seek out and question those “gods” responsible for her life and her great pain.  When David, the robot, asks her why, she seems confused by the question.  To be human is to seek understanding, whatever the cost. Her stubborn faith that there is an answer to why, and that the answer matters, is contrasted with David’s cold and limited rationality; and it is this that makes her human.

Here we come, it seems to me, to the heart of true religion: To not be content with the facts, but to use the facts to ask the one question whose answer we can never prove, but can perhaps know: why?

Ultimately, the universe (including human life) either exists as a bare fact, requiring no explanation, or it exists as a thing with meaning.  It is the stubborn, promethean faith of Elizabeth Shaw, clinging to her cross as she boards a new ship to search for the gods, to search for meaning, that we can both celebrate and emulate.


My version of the Cosmological Argument

16 May

Below is how I would formulate and illustrate the cosmological argument.  It is very like William Lane Craig’s version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  The boxes on the right are designed to show why one choice is more reasonable than the other. You will need to click on it to see it full size.





What is Real?

29 Mar

What is real?  This question is the most fundamental question, but also the most human. It is impossible, indeed laughable, to imagine another species asking this question.  Indeed, the answer to that question has not only shaped human thought through the millennia, but has formed human cultures.  Here is the briefest and most general outline of how mankind has answered that question.

Let us begin with the beginnings of written language, around 2000 B.C. We start here not because human thought started here, but because it is only the invention of writing that allows us to know what people of the past believed.   The people of this time apparently universally believed in what today we would call paganism or polytheism. That is, they believed in a multitude of gods who had influence on the various aspects of the world and life.  This polytheism took various forms, from the highly structured temple worship of the Egyptians to the more confused and primal idolatry of the bush tribe. However, at least two things are common. First was the recognition that the visible world was influenced by the invisible world (or the spirit world). The sea was not simply water and salt, but the realm of Neptune, or even Neptune himself.  The second was the assumption or belief that the gods, however defined, were not separate from the world or the cosmos, but within it.  Zeus or Ra are powerful, perhaps even immortal; but they exist as part of the furniture of the cosmos.  This limitation, and their foibles, show that they are more like exalted men than truly divine beings.  So the first answer to the question of what is real was that reality consisted of the world around us, which has both physical and spiritual parts.

This answer held sway for untold centuries.  It only gave way when people and cultures began inspecting it more fully. How exactly do the physical (or visible) parts of life interact with the spiritual (or invisible)? More importantly, which aspect, the physical or the spiritual, is more foundational?  Which is the ultimate reality?  Three distinct answers arose to this question, and those three answers have determined, and are still determining, the shape of human culture and the flow of human history.

One answer is to assert that what is primary is spiritual, but not personal.  This is the answer of the East.  The great Oriental religions differ on many points, but agree that the physical world is an illusion.  The term used to describe this is maya, which means deception. The physical world is maya, an illusion or trick. The goal of enlightenment is to rise above this illusion, and see clearly.  This is the only escape from suffering.  Yes, eastern religion (at least in its popular forms) contains a multitude of gods, but these are all subsumed under the idea of monism: all is one. Distinctions of any kind are maya.  The final reality can be called Brahman, the One, (as in Hinduism) or the Void (Buddhism). In either case, the final reality is not a person, nor is it physical.

Another answer to the question of what is real is supplied by atheism, which can also be called materialism (only the material universe is real) or naturalism (only nature is real).  Atheism, of course, is the belief that there is no God. So of necessity the atheist, when asked, what is real, gives the answer: only the physical universe. There is nothing outside of it (no supernaturalism) and there is nothing inside it that can properly be called “spiritual”.  Everything is matter. Nothing but matter exists. Sometimes this matter takes the form of energy, so it perhaps is best to speak of reality as “molecules and motion”.  Ideas of God or gods, life after death, and religion are only projections of the brain, caused by unguided evolution, or perhaps the result of a virus.

Perhaps atheism seems the opposite of eastern thought. In fact, they share one great tenet: reality is not personal; there is no Person who transcends the universe or created it with a purpose.  Because of this, the ideas of right and wrong become problematic for both the Hindu and the atheist (with some of  the most devoted and consistent adherents of each denying the very concepts of  an objective “good” or “evil”).

The last answer to the question of what is real is given by the theist: reality is God and His created universe.  The reality we experience is both physical (because it is created as such) and spiritual (because it is created by Spirit, that is, a non-physical person).  Of course, in one sense God is primary over His creation: He can exist without it; while it cannot exist without Him (it is contingent upon Him).  He is ultimate. But creation is real (not an illusion) since He wills it into being.

This answer is given by the three great theistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Of course, the difference between them here is whether God is a trinity (three persons in one essence) or not (one person with one essence). Without debating which is true at this point, allow me to point out one great difference that results from believing in the trinity.  If God is not a trinity but a single person of one essence, then love is not ultimate.  It was created (or developed) when God created the universe for before then (or apart from His creation) there was no-one and nothing outside of the solitary God. The concept of love would have no meaning apart from creation.  But if God is a trinity, then we have another possibility: that love is fundamental and eternal, and exists apart from creation. We even have the possibility that love itself is the reason for creation: not simply love for the beings of creation (though that is just as real) but the love of the members of the trinity for each other.  This idea, it seems, underlies the affirmation of the New Testament that God is love, as well as the breathtaking thought that believers in Christ are actually invited to share in this inter-Trinitarian love (see John 17:20-26).

This, then, is the basis for the three great modern worldviews: eastern monism, naturalism, and theism.  Though each has various branches, every branch arises from one of these three trunks.  And each begins with their answer to the most basic question imaginable: what is real?


R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens

16 Dec

I first came across Christopher Hitchens when he started writing for the Atlantic, a magazine I have subscribed to for most of the last 25 years.  Three traits distinguished his writing.

The first was an obsession to show off his immense vocabulary. Hitchens was the only writer in any mainstream magazine I read where I actually had to look up words.  This was at times annoying, when he used an obscure word when a more common one would have sufficed, but it was also intellectually satisfying to look up and learn new terms.

Second, Hitchens had a depth of reading almost unseen anymore.  They were few writers, especially English and American writers of the last century, which he was not familiar with.  Of course, being a Brit, he was especially immersed in the mid-century writings of that country, and was invaluable in opening my eyes to figures I would not know otherwise.

Third, and most thankfully, Hitchens constantly surprised me on where he would side on a given issue.  He was a socialist, of course, but also a foreign policy hawk, and this mixture enriched his thoughts rather than diluting them.  I came to greatly appreciate his columns, especially in the Atlantic.

Hitchens’s later writings sometimes dismayed me, however, especially when he began his polemics against religion.  I purchased his book, “God is not Great” and found it to be a rather terrible mess.  The book had two great problems. First, Hitchens made so many factual errors (for example, he repeated the outdated calumny that Jewish couples made love through a hole in the sheet, so afraid they were of nudity) that one suspected he really did not have more than a Sunday School knowledge of most of the religions he was bashing.  The second problem was that he consistently conflated the sundry religions whenever doing so would allow a weakness of one of them to discredit religion in general.  In short, the book was more of an insult than an argument, and a great discredit to such a wonderful mind.

Hitchens passed away yesterday of throat cancer, and it is a profound loss to the English literary world.  Though I grew annoyed with some of his later writings, I always maintained a fondness for the man’s broad and lively mind.

RIP, Christopher Hitchens. You will be missed.


C. S. Lewis on why God is not more Obvious

11 Nov

A while back I wrote a post on why God is not more obvious.  C. S. Lewis answered the same question a hundred times better and more creatively, in his book, The Screwtape Letters.  The book purports to be a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon, to Wormwood, a recent graduate of Hell’s Training College. In these letters, Screwtape gives advice on how to tempt and destroy a human soul.

One such letter follows.  I put it here because it is a superb piece of writing, and may help some of us who have wondered why God is not felt or seen more in our everyday lives, or why, when we have been growing in the knowledge of God, we do not seem to always possess a growing “feeling” of His presence. 

The emphasis is mine.


My dear Wormwood,

  So you ‘have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away’, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Subgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one every told you about the law of Undulation?
   Humans are amphibians– half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation– the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life– his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.
   To decide what the best use of it is, you must ask what use the Enemy wants to make of it, and then do the opposite. Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself– creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in,, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
   And that is where the troughs come in. You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs– to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtual as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

You affectionate uncle


Four Things Science Cannot Prove (but are necessary for science to work)

20 Oct

Perhaps the most common misunderstanding of science today is the idea that it alone operates only on what can be proven.  The scientist, we are told, unlike the historian, sociologist, or (shudder) the theologian, believes nothing except what is proven to be true by the scientific method; therefore he or she alone is the oracle of true knowledge of the physical world.

It is remarkable how prevalent this thought is, even when not articulated, since it is so easily shown to be not the case.  Science is a wonderful and noble way of exploring and understanding this world we find ourselves in, but it in no way operates solely on the basis of proof. Some things it must assume. I will list a few of them.

[Note: nothing I can say will stop some people from viewing this as an attack on science; it is anything but, as I think as reasonable reading will show. ]

1. Reality is rational.

That is, its makeup is such that it exhibits order and consistency, so that we can make predictions and postulate laws and theories.  Now this may seem like common sense, but that would be common only to sensibilities formed in and shaped by what could loosely be defined as “western” thought (though of course we mean history more than geography here).  To the ancients, and to many of the east today, the idea that the universe is rational and subject completely in its physical workings to consistency and order is not something assumed at all.

Nor can reality be “proven” to be rational.  Indeed, ask yourself how this would be proven from the viewpoint of someone within this reality.  You cannot prove it by experiment, for you cannot experiment on reality as a whole. You cannot prove it by induction, arguing that since everything we have studied has proven rational that reality itself must be. An inductive argument like this fails for four reasons.  First, an inductive argument of this sort will only grant a probable truth, not a certain one, so the best we could say is that, “reality is probably rational” which is a world different from saying “reality is rational”. Second, we have no way of measuring how much of reality we have “figured out” versus how much we have not, so there is no way of knowing if we have high probability or very low probability for our inductive claim.  Thirdly, it is simply not the case that we have figured out everything we have been able to study.  When Richard Fenyman wrote, ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,’ he was including himself which is disconcerting given how many books he wrote on that very subject.  No-one today can give a satisfactory answer to the most basic question of physics (how quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity can both be true since they contradict each other) nor can astronomers and astrophysicists give an agreed upon answer to the quandary that most of the matter of the universe (dark matter and dark energy) cannot even be observed (but must be assumed to make sense of everything else).  Fourth, even if everything we can study shows rationality, that is no proof that we do not inhabit a slice or bubble of the universe that has qualities different than the universe as a whole (an idea which some astrophysicists argue as possible).

Now, I do believe reality is rational, for I believe it is the creation of a rational being.  And I suspect the legacy of this belief gives a clue to why science developed more successfully in theistic societies than pagan, pantheistic or animistic ones.  So I am not arguing that reality is not rational, but that science is logically dependent on a belief that it cannot prove.  Unless reality is rational, science is not possible.

2. Reality is knowable.

This is not the same argument as above.  The success of the scientific method assumes not only that reality has the quality of rationality, but that it is also knowable. That is, it is conceivable that realist is rational, but I could be irrational, and not able to form valid conclusions about reality.  My mind must be “on the same wavelength” to capture its rationality.

Steven Pinker, the famous evolutionary biologist, unwittingly encounters this very issue when he writes on page 561 of “How the Mind Works”:

We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.

Somehow, one gets the impression that Pinker feels his own mind is an exception to this rule, else why would he write the book (or even ask us to believe the above quote).

But indeed, how could we prove that the human mind is a capable tool for understanding reality and finding truth, especially on the assumptions Pinker makes (that the mind evolved to solve practical problems that affect reproductive success, not to find truth)?  But without the belief that the human mind can understand reality, there is no reason to study reality.  One is better off not wasting the time.

Again, I am not arguing that reality is not knowable.  I believe it is because I believe the same rational being who created reality (thus ensuring its rationality) also created mankind in His own image, thus ensuring the possibility of valid knowledge of, and reasoning about, that reality. No, I cannot prove that scientifically.  But neither can the scientist prove that his or her mind is capable of anything more than an utilitarian problem solving that may or may not speak actual truth.

3. Causation

Surely, if there is one thing science can prove, it is that one thing causes another, right?  Actually, nothing could be farther from the case.  The very idea of causation must be assumed.

David Hume, of course, is the one who most famously has shown this.  Imagine, he said, I have one hundred windows in a row, and I take a hammer and hit the first 99.  All of them shatter.  I approach the last one.  Will it shatter also when I hit it?  Hume argues that you cannot know that, for there is no way of proving that the impact of the hammer caused the other windows to break. It is conceivable (even if unlikely) that some other forces or forces broke the windows at the exact time the hammer hit them.  Causation, he argued, is an attribute of the mind, by which it tries to make sense what happens in the world.  But there is no way to prove beyond doubt that causality applies beyond the mind’s interpretation.

Hume’s argument is epistemological, that is, a question of how we know things.  But 20th century science (in the form of quantum mechanics) itself has undermined the concept of causation (please read up on simultaneous causation and the uncertainty principle to see this).

Also, as I am writing this, the world of science has been shocked by the apparent find of a team at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) that some particles travel faster than the speed of light. One article notes,

The existence of faster-than-light particles would wreak havoc on scientific theories of cause and effect.

“If things travel faster than the speed of light, A can cause B, [but] B can also cause A,” Parke [head of the theoretical physics department at the U.S. government-run Fermilab near Chicago, Illinois] said.

“If that happens, the concept of causality becomes ambiguous, and that would cause a great deal of trouble.”

At this point, both philosophically and scientifically, the simple idea of causation (A causes B) is very much a working assumption that makes science possible, not the result of science itself.  [Please note I am talking about the concept of causation, not examples of one thing causing another].

4. The very existence of an external universe consisting of matter

I will spend the least time here, for this is unable to be proven by any worldview or any method of knowledge.  Suffice it to say that both solipsism and idealism would deny the existence of an externally existing material universe.   Solipsism argues this world does not exist outside my mental projections, or, as my epistemology professor put it, “I’m the only pebble on the beach. And there is no beach”. Idealism argues that only the spiritual is real, and the material world is an illusion (or, as for Berkeley, real only as the thoughts of God).  Technically, neither idea is refutable (any arguments against them must come from inside the projection or illusion).

Again, this does not count in any way against science.  Of all the four things on this list, this is to me the least substantial (since no-one can consistently live out this idea).  I include it here to remind us of the need for intellectual humility, whether we are a scientist or theologian.

Other presuppositions of science include the following:

  • The laws of logic (especially the law of non-contradiction)
  • The adequacy of language to communicate reality and truth
  • The existence of numbers
  • The existence of other minds

All these have been argued by philosophers and others, and none of them can be proven by the scientific method.  In short, they are metaphysical assumptions, not proven facts.

Also, related to this but somewhat a distinct issue is that science assumes certain values in order to proceed, without being able to scientifically prove the validity of these values.  Chief among these values is that of honesty.

All this to say that science is a wonderful tool for granting knowledge about this universe we find ourselves in.  It in no way is to be despised or denigrated.  But enough of the foolish talk that it alone traffics in certainty and what is beyond doubt.  It is an invaluable servant, but makes a terrible idol.

*note: I originally posted this at internet monk


Six Stupid Things People Say About Religion

09 Sep

On any topic on which emotions run high (global warming, abortion, Antarctic agriculture) reason will sometimes not only take a back seat, but be clinging with its fingernails to the bumper.  Such, of course, is the subject of religion, as evidenced by the statements below.

Now, I’m not saying anyone who has said one of these things is stupid. Even smart, wise people sometimes say stupid things; nobody bats 1000.  But if you find yourself about to utter one of these sayings…just…stop. Please.

I’m not religious, but I am very spiritual

This statement is stupid because it means exactly nothing.  Both religion and spiritual are words so broad that in some sense they apply to everyone.  If religion is a system of beliefs which undergird a code of ethics (one reasonable definition) then anyone above the level of chimpanzee is religious in some sense.

More serious, though, is the slipperiness of the word, spiritual.  To say “I am spiritual” is to affirm nothing more than a belief that I am more than simply brute matter.  Of course, usually the statement is intended to tell us that the speaker is not exclusively concerned with material (wealth and status) pursuits, but is also attuned to more esoteric concerns (without defining or defending such concerns).  In the end, this statement almost always comes across as meaning, “I’m more truly spiritual than those religious nuts and less shallow than the average materialistic American”. In other words, it is akin to saying, “I am very humble, you know”.

Religion is the opiate of the people

Karl Marx coined this phrase to discredit and marginalize people of faith who might stand in the way of the great communist revolution he was advocating.  Those repeating this tripe today might well consider the origins of the phrase, as well as asking if the non-religious cultures of communist societies he inspired were any more discerning and courageous than the opium-induced worshippers who preceded them. This is an insult, not an argument, and says much more about the arrogance of the speaker than about those it intends to slander.

Religion is the primary cause of all wars and violence

This statement is willfully ignorant.  Do not bother talking to a person who utters wisdom such as this; you will have more success in a conversation with a person who thinks they are a light bulb.

It should be apparent to anyone with even a passing knowledge of human nature or human history that religion and violence are both consistent parts of the human experience, for good and ill.  One is no more is the cause of the other than love is the cause of political power, or fear the source of knowledge (to name just a few other human constants).   If this was ever in doubt, the 20th century surely proves the point.  The greatest murderer of mankind by far (Stalin) was an avowed atheist, as were the regimes in China, Cuba, and Cambodia in the great genocide of the 70’s (when the atheist regime of the Khmer Rouge murdered two million people, or roughly one-third of the population. Please read that statement again).  In fact, communist countries were not only non-religious, but the only societies which explicitly promoted atheism, and it is difficult to find a single example of such a country not marred by human rights abuses of the worst kind.

Religion operates by faith,  and science by reason

Leaving aside for the moment the things science must take by faith (for example, that we live in an ordered universe, that the laws of physics apply everywhere and to all times of the past and present, that our senses give us accurate knowledge of the world, etc…) the real problem with this statement is the idea that religion is a totally faith operation.  This is shown false simply by asking why a religious person believes the Bible or Koran, for example, and not that the moon is made of green cheese, or that cows fly.  The answer, of course, is that the Christian or Muslim believes they have good reason to suppose their book is true, and therefore its teachings likewise true.  Now, they may be very wrong in this.  But they choose to believe it at least partly on the grounds of reason, not faith.  In fact, I don’t know one person who would go on observing their religious activity if they were totally shown by reason and argument that their belief was false.

I expect this confusion results from the rather narrow definition of “reason” used by some today, by which anything not proven by the scientific method does not count for knowledge.  But of course, most of the things we believe (that our mother loves us, that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, etc…) are not proven in this way before we believe them.  Knowledge comes to us in a multiplicity of ways, and each sphere of human interaction has its own ways of knowing.

All religions teach basically the same thing

Of this whole list, this one is the most easily disproved.  Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Animists, etc…teach different and mutually exclusive doctrine on such basic issues as God, reality, sin, salvation, and so much more.  The Animist  teaches a plurality of gods within nature, each with different power and nature. The Jew believes in one personal God, separate from nature, who is holy and loving.  To the Hindu, the physical world is maya, an illusion, and history is at best a circle that repeats. To the Christian, the physical world is real and good (though not ultimate), and history has both providence and a goal. Anyone who claims religions teach basically the same thing simply shows they don’t really know what religions teach.

Now it is true that the different religions are more alike in their ethics than their theology.  For example, every religion I know of views murder, cowardice, and lying as wrong.  And many of the practices of virtue are somewhat consistent: praying, giving to the poor, worship, justice, and so on.  But pies with identical crusts can still have very different fillings, and ethics can seem alike, even as their purpose and basis varies.  A Hindu does good for the sake of Karma: he or she hopes to be reincarnated in a higher form. A Christian (hopefully) does good out of gratitude for God’s grace, and to become more like the one they love.

I’m not religious, I just love the Lord

This one is usually uttered by the religious person (specifically a Christian).  In one way, the motive is right: it is an attempt to focus on the person of Jesus rather than all the trappings of religion and religious argument.  Nonetheless, it seems to me a confused and vapid statement.  It makes “religious” to be a bad word, and implies the speaker has risen above such odiousness.  In fact, it is impossible to “love the Lord”, as He defines love in the Bible, without obeying His instruction, and this includes things like prayer, corporate worship, giving, adherence to a certain ethical standard, etc…, all of which fit under a common-sense definition of religious activity.  As a Christian, it seems better to me to make sure one does such religious activities while still focused on Christ, rather than advocate some kind of ethereal inner love for God that does not produce any of these things.


Scientists > Theologians?

17 May

Every age needs their heros (or idols, for the more cynical of you).  When I was growing up, they mostly wore fatigues and helmets.  Today they wear lab coats.  Again and again new TV series and movies show us the wise and courageous scientists solving crime, curing obscure diseases, and generally  just saving the world.  All while looking like models.

On a recent imonk discussion, I mentioned the danger of deifying scientists.  My point (soon lost on some commenters, of course) was not that science was bad or scientists stupid.  Rather, I was trying to make the point that no mind knows everything, or precious few are brilliant in more than one limited field.  It is a very good idea to listen to a theoretical physicist when he or she speaks of physics.  It is folly to give him special privileges when he or she talks of religion, philosophy or politics. One or two people took this as occasion to bash theologians, since they, unlike scientists, had not made anything like telescopes, the internet, drugs, etc… As one put it, “pardon me if I choose the side that has results”.

I have seen this mindset so often.  I am not a theologian, but it seems to me to be a very confused (even if wide-spread) viewpoint.  This is an expanded form of my response on that blog:

 First, to compare the accomplishments of theologians and scientists in terms of what they have “given us”, especially when that is framed in terms of inventions, is to completely miss the point of their respective roles.  What have music theorists, or sociologists, or teachers invented?  The argument seems to confuse value with a certain type of production.

Second, to do an adequate job of accessing what the scientists have “given us” we would need to do a cost/benefit analysis of all modern technology (including such things as nuclear bombs) which would also include their social cost. For example, one commenter mention the “combustible engine” (and I assume he meant the internal combustion engine, not an engine that explodes); this has given us mobility, but at the price of pollution, white-flight, the rise of the suburbs, the decline of the downtown, global warming, and other ills.  Is it worth it? Are the gains greater than the costs? Ultimately, that question can only be answered by the value-judgments you place on human mobility and freedom versus the value judgments you place on the environment, racial integration, and healthy human society.  But how do you make those value judgments without relying on a worldview, which will include judgments of a religious or metaphysical nature?  In other words, no important invention is value neutral, and the value cannot be determined only in scientific terms.

Thirdly, to draw a sharp dichotomy between the contributions of science and religion is to show a lack of understanding on how much western science is based upon religious (in particular, Jewish and Christian) foundations.  It is not mere chance that the scientific revolution occurred in those countries and cultures that had a Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of reality and the worth of man. In particular, Judaism and Christianity both provided a framework for believing reality is rational (since a rational God created it) and knowable (since God has made us in his image).  Without a strong belief in these two ideas (that reality is rational, and the reality is knowable) modern science is without a foundation.

I hope it is obvious to all, by the way, that those two statements are philosophical/theological statements, not something that can be proven scientifically.  They are metaphysical statements, not physical statements.  Modern science is a wonderful house, but can only be built on a foundation supplied by a certain type of religion.

This is why the sociologist Rodney Stark could say, “It is the consensus among contemporary historians, philosophers and sociologists of science that real science arose only once: in Europe.  The leading scientific figures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were overwhelmingly devout Christians who believed it their duty to comprehend God’s handiwork.”

Comparing the contributions of scientists and theologians is like comparing the value of sunshine and Tolstoy.  Let each be valued and appreciated without what used to called, “odious comparisons”.


Do Evangelicals Hate Jesus?

05 Mar

Sorry for the overly provocative title.  I usually try to steer clear of that.  But I am responding to a particular article on the Huffington Post called, Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus.  Please go ahead and click on that link and see what passes for measured discourse today.  I’ll wait.

Here is my take on the article:

Judging from the responses, many find this article a persuasive indictment on evangelical faith.  I find it less so, for the following reasons.

First, the title itself is not supported by the article.  Even if everything in the article was true, this would not imply that evangelicals hate Jesus, but rather they are inconsistent in following him.  Of course a title like, “Some People don’t live up to their Ideals” generates a lot less page views than, “Evangelicals Hate Jesus”.

A more substantial problem with the article is Zuckerman’s breezy assurance that he understands the message of Jesus, and his stunted summary of that message.  I note that he chooses not to quote any words of Jesus.  Surely this would not be too difficult, and necessary if one was going to make the case he does.  But this would allow others to analyze those words of Jesus in their literary and historical context.  Instead Zuckerman simply asserts the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, occasionally throwing in a word like “unambiguously”, as if that would make it so. By taking the easy and cheap route, the author betrays a shallow and one-sided understanding of the teaching of Jesus.

The third problem with the article is the ignoring of the distinction between personal responsibility and government responsibility.  The author castigates evangelicals for upholding the death penalty and tough sentencing for “Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness”.  But surely this confuses forgiveness with pardon. If a man murders my child (to take an extreme example), I would like to think I could come to the place of forgiving that man.  But that would not change the fact that he committed a crime against society, and must face legal penalties for that.  Zuckerman’s position would make the penalty for a crime dependent on the willingness of the victim to forgive and show mercy.  Does no-one see a problem with this?

In the same way, Zuckerman seems to equate care for the poor with governmental assistance to the poor, or, rather, certain government policies toward the poor. But again, this is simply confused.  Jesus was not advocating a particular government programs, but individual generosity and compassion.  It is possible this could translate in a democracy towards governmental programs; it is equally possible governmental programs could make the problem worse, while simultaneously reducing motivation for individuals to show care to the poor.  People of good will can disagree.

In fact, recent studies have shown that religious conservatives are the most generous givers to charity in our country.  Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University performed a detailed study on which segments of society give to charity and which do not. “When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.” Brooks found that the single biggest predictor of whether someone will be charitable is their religious participation.

Religious people are more likely to give to charity, and when they give, they give more money: four times as much. And Arthur Brooks notes that giving goes beyond their own religious organization:

“Actually, the truth is that they’re giving to more than their churches,” he says. “The religious Americans are more likely to give to every kind of cause and charity, including explicitly non-religious charities….It is one of the bitterest ironies of liberal politics today that political opinions are apparently taking the place of help for others.”

Brooks also notes that religious conservatives are more likely to give time to charities, and even to give blood.

This demonstrates the heart of the issue.  Evangelicals are certainly not consistent in living out their ideals.  What group (in the aggregate) is?  But to say they hate Jesus because they tend to have certainly political views is not only harsh and judgmental, but…stupid.


Do the religious have a worse morality record than the non-religious?

04 Jan

It used to be the case that even those who were not religious would concede that religion strengthens morals. Not anymore. A whole slew of writers and bloggers now want to place every ill of society on the neck of the believers. Christopher Hitchens subtitled his latest polemic, “How religion poisons everything”, and the contents of the book are just as nuanced and balanced as that subtitle.

Reading a blog this morning, I found the following quote, and it typifies thousands more:

“Historically speaking, people of faith appear to have a worse record [about good deeds] than the faithless.”

Despite the fact that statements like this have become commonplace in some circles, I think it is clearly a logical fallacy to assert its truth.

Several things would have to happen to make this statement known to be true.

First, we would need to have a set of criteria for what counts as good works and what does not. This criteria would need to be objective and agreed upon by all parties in the dispute, and, at least for the Christian, would also need to be identical with God’s criteria, since He is the source, standard and judge. But, of course, this is not the case. Is praying for someone a good work? What about giving to missionaries? Were the crusades an unmitigated atrocity, or (since Islam had conquered 80 percent of Europe) did they at least start out as partially justified? Note, I am not arguing that there is no objective morality, but rather what counts as a “good work” will vary by time, place, and viewpoint.

Secondly, we would also need to weigh all the actions of all the people of faith in the past compared to all the actions of the faithless (and figure out what to do with those who don’t fit neatly into our two categories). This would imply an exhaustive knowledge of past events, which none can claim. Actually, since most ethicists argue that motive is one part of what makes an act good or evil, we would also need to know the motives of everyone that we are attempting to measure.

Thirdly, we would need to be assured of the neutrality of our judgment.  But our views of the actions of those in the past will always be seen through the tinted glasses of the spirit of our age, as well as our personal views (we ALL tend to discount evidence that undermines our viewpoint).   Even if we had the complete knowledge alluded to above, why should we assume we are free from observational bias in interpreting this data?

For this reason, I think the claim that non-religious people have a better historical track record than religious ones is fallacious. Obviously, on these grounds, the claim that religious people have a better historical record of morality than non-believers is equally fallacious. We are simply not in the epistemological position to make such judgments.


What Do You See?

16 Nov

In my last post, I mentioned that seeing the universe as a Christian allows a deeper vision than seeing it as a nonbeliever.  A Christian (or most religious people) see the glory, not only of the masterpiece, but of the master. This video illustrates this wonderful enhancement. The song is called, Creation Calls by Brian Doerkson. The footage is taken (with permission) from the BBC series, Planet Earth.  I love watching Planet Earth.  It showcases the beauty and wonder of the world better than any film I have seen.  But watching a video like the one below  illustrates in a small way how a religious viewpoint adds to, and does not detract from, an appreciation of the physical world.  It adds meaning and music, and turns prose into song.  A  high def copy of this is available here (it is too big to upload to this blog), or you can click below for a standard definition video. If you want to download the high def version, go to the bottom of this page.


 Thanks to my friend Scott for passing this along.

Random thoughts on life, the universe and everything