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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Using Public Funds to Establish Atheist Beliefs



What counts as state-sponsored indoctrination? That's a question that has increasingly come under examination, especially with regard to the establishment of religion. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise." The amendment limits the power of the Federal government from creating or giving favor to a specific religious entity or belief system.

Atheist advocacy groups have taken the first portion of that statement, known as the establishment clause, and interpreted it very broadly. Organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Americans for the Separation of Church and State continue to file lawsuits against cities or public agencies for displaying crosses on hilltops or Nativity scenes at Christmas. They complain that these displays amount to an endorsement of one kind of viewpoint, and since their content is religious it violates the establishment clause.

Such charges have followed into even the public school system, where attempts to teach the problems with neo-Darwinian evolutionary models have been shut down. Neo-Darwinism has at its core unguided and purposeless changes in the genome, which are then established and propagated through natural selection. If one were to challenge this viewpoint, one must presuppose some kind of non-purposeless process; we call such causes intelligent and the challenging idea is labeled intelligent design.

Of course, intelligent design has been fought vigorously by the atheist groups as being religious. While intelligent design does not support any specific religion itself, these groups feel that any school district teaching intelligent design is using a public institution supported by tax dollars to advance a particular religious view. They claim this violates the First Amendment's Establishment clause.

The most well-known of these challenges was the high-profile Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board trial, where this line of reasoning was used extensively. Of course, intelligent design has been fought vigorously by the atheist groups as being religious. An article in Time magazine summarized their charge well, saying "intelligent design is inherently religious since it relies on a supernatural creative force, which cannot be tested or proven by scientific experiments."1

Geese and Ganders

Here's the thing in all of this, it is impossible to take a position and not use public agencies or public tax money to thrust some kind of belief system upon others. If one holds that displaying a Nativity scene or a cross on a mountaintop advocates for a specific religious position, then demanding the public schools teach that there is no God who took part in the origin or the development of life also advocates for a specific religious position, namely the position that any belief system holding a contrary view is wrong. If affirming a religious claim violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, then demanding a denial of that claim does so as well, for the subject of the claim is religious in both instances.

So, how is it the public schools are leveraged and my tax dollars are spent on actively advocating for a no-God position regarding life and this isn't also violating the Establishment clause? If any kind of intelligent agency proposal is banned, then there is a clear bias towards a non-belief in God presented in the instruction.  It seems to me those who complain about religious messages being offered through public agencies aren't worried at all when the message is the one they wish to communicate, only when it is one with which they disagree. That is the kind of position the First Amendment was meant to guard against.

References

1. Scully, Sean. "'Breathtaking Inanity': How Intelligent Design Flunked Its Test Case." Time. Time Inc., 20 Dec. 2005. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Answering Bible Contradiction Claims (video)



Last week I gave two talks at the annual Speaking the Truth in Love apologetics conference. Here is the video from one of those, entitled Answering Bible Contradiction Claims. Enjoy!



Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Understanding the Bible Requires Humility



The Bible is a unique work in human history. It isn't simply one book, but a collection of sixty-six books written by about forty authors in at least three languages over some 1500 years or so focusing on some of the most important moral and spiritual questions of all time.

One would think such a collection would be utterly incompatible; ideas and precepts would contradict each other on every page. Certainly, skeptics like to make such charges, but some Christians do, too. Take the prohibitions on homosexual relations as an example. In a recent discussion, Brian McLaren holds the passages banning homosexual sex no longer apply. He feels while the admonition was appropriate for those of the first century world, the modern nature of homosexual orientation and unions are something different and therefore the overarching principle of love should take precedence. McLaren pointed to other passages where Jesus seemed to also overturn scriptural commands, such as not working on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8).

Andrew Wilson, who engaged McLaren, disagreed. Wilson holds that Jesus' teaching about the Sabbath in the Matthew passage restores the original intent of the command. It doesn't change it. I tend to agree with Wilson, here. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was correcting the deviations that had snuck into the religious teaching of the day. Jesus is saying that the opinions of the Pharisees were misunderstanding the admonitions. He needed the people to learn the correct lesson.

A Proper Approach to the Bible

The thing I liked the most about the discussion is how Wilson clarifies the way each reader should approach the biblical text. Given there is so much content placed in different genres and written across different times and cultures, there can be places where one would ask “how should I understand this?” Wilson offers a method when reading the scriptures, which is to apply humility four different ways:
  • Humility toward Community– We must first ask how other good, stable Christians have understood such passages. People have a tendency to slant or bend the ideas they receive towards their own experiences, but by asking others one can mitigate such tendencies and pool their common understanding into a more expansive view. This doesn't always mean communities settle on the right understanding, but it is a good first step in seeking a more reliable comprehension of the thought being conveyed.

  • Humility towards Catholicity-Beyond just the local community, one should also ask how Christians across all cultural spectrums would see the passage in question. Obviously, in the antebellum South, slave owners were wont to take Paul's command in Ephesians 6:5-9 as justification for slavery. However, others, such as William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement explained how chattel slavery was antithetical to Christianity. If one were to humbly listen to those voices outside their primary circle, they could come away with a new and more profound understanding of difficult biblical passages.

  • Humility towards Orthodoxy-While current points of view are important, there is a basis of orthodox beliefs against which all biblical interpretations should be measured. The early church fathers labored incredibly to ensure they understood the primary aspects of Jesus and the Apostles' teachings. Over the course of decades and sometimes even centuries, these core beliefs were honed to precision. Therefore, when one comes across a passages that isn't as clear, it is incumbent upon him or her to make sure such beliefs do not undermine these essential positions of the faith.

  • Humility towards Scholarship-Lastly, one must realize there's a whole lot about a text he or she may not know. For example, how slavery in the ancient world of Paul had a much wider range of experience than the slavery practiced in the South. Scholars explore the ancient language, the cultural background, the types of uses of words, and the opinions of other scholars to come to their conclusions. A truth-seeker must be able to include their voices when struggling with a difficult section of scripture.
The person reading the Bible is well served through this practice of humility. Realize, humility doesn't mean one should de facto accept the word of the community or of scholars, etc. It does, however, give appropriate credence to them and one's mind will be opened to possibilities that may not have otherwise been considered.

Whenever I speak with skeptics, humility towards the text seems to be the biggest thing they're missing. They want to believe passage X proves their point. Their stance may give them assurance, but it ultimately won't further the truth.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Christianity, Judaism, and Sharing the Messiah (podcast)



How should Christians witness to Jewish friend and neighbors? We share so much, yet the Judaism of today is not the same as what was practiced in the times of the Old Testament. Grab these lessons to learn ways we can share Jesus with the Jews.
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Monday, August 15, 2016

What if Morality was Based on Empiricism instead of Christianity?



The Western world is what it is because of the enormous influence of Christianity. Without a Christian understanding of human beings as those who bear the image of God, our society would be a far different place.

However, atheists have been pretty vocal in their contention that a society based on empirical mortality and not Christian values would be better for humanity. Neil deGrasse Tyson has recently advocated for such a virtual society he named "Rationalia." Tyson's proposal is problematic on many grounds, but he isn't the only one advocating for such a world.

New Atheist Sam Harris doesn't believe a Christian worldview is necessary to ground moral principles, either. In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris tries to argue for a secularly based moral framework. He believes that values and morality "translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture—just as facts about physical and mental health do."1

Viewing People through Empirical Lenses

Is Harris right? What would happen if a thoughtful, advanced culture viewed individuals through only an empirical framework? Physical and mental health states, as Harris mentions above, would feed into the value society places upon those individuals. This isn't speculation; we have a couple of good examples to show how this happens.

Along with Christianity, ancient Greek thought has significantly shaped western culture. At its zenith, Greece was one of the most advanced civilizations the world has ever seen and its philosophers continue to impact how we understand our world. Aristotle sought to scientifically categorize the various relationships between people in his On Politics. There, he begins

As in other departments of science, so in politics, the compound should always be resolved into the simple elements or least parts of the whole. We must therefore look at the elements of which the state is composed, in order that we may see in what the different kinds of rule differ from one another, and whether any scientific result can be attained about each one of them.2

Aristotle then goes on to systematically build his case. There are different kinds of communities to which we all belong: households/families, villages, city-states. He also notes there are also two kinds of necessary relationships for the human species to survive: the male-female relationship, which is necessary for the propagation of the species, and the ruler-servant relationship. Of the second, Aristotle's observations lead him to conclude that some people are naturally predisposed to be slaves of other, more capable men:
But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?

There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.3
When reading Aristotle's reasoning, one can see how systematically it moves from empirical observation through reason to its conclusions. Certain people are not smart, or not capable of leadership, or they don't measure up in any one of a myriad of ways. To Aristotle, it makes sense that those individuals are naturally predisposed to be the servants of others—the Gammas and Deltas of Huxley's Brave New World.

Darwinian Theory Leads down a Similar Road

But many people would dismiss this example as an argument against a "scientific approach" to morality simply because it's old. They may be tempted to say something like "We've learned so much in 2500 years, no one would come to such conclusions today." Yet, the modern eugenics movement, based on Darwinian evolutionary theory, took the United States by storm, classifying certain people as less worthy to reproduce. This even led to a Supreme Court case where the Court upheld the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck. Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. famously ordered Buck's sterilization concluding:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.4
Adding to this, just two years ago famous atheist Richard Dawkins held that for a pregnant woman who has discovered her unborn baby has Down's Syndrome, morality means killing the child:
For what it's worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do. I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child's own welfare.5
Each of these positions begin with a natural or empirical understanding of human beings. They measure people based on their output. But Christianity holds there is more to a person than his or her observable advantages for each one bears the image of God, which gives each one transcendent value. What other rational basis can one offer for holding that all people, even those with mental disabilities, hold inherent worth? There is no empirical measurement that makes us otherwise equal and at that point Aristotle and Dawkins may well be right.

What would a society without Christianity look like? It looks pretty scary indeed.

References

1. Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free, 2010. Print. 1-2.
2. Aristotle. "Politics." The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001. Print. 1127.
3. Aristotle, Pol. 1132.
4. Russell, Thomas D. "BUCK v. BELL, Superintendent of State Colony Epileptics and Feeble Minded, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)." American Legal History – Russell. 18 November 2009. Web. June 24, 2013. http://www.houseofrussell.com/legalhistory/alh/docs/buckvbell.htm.
5. Dawkins, Richard. "Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar." Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Richard Dawkins Foundation, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. https://richarddawkins.net/2014/08/abortion-down-syndrome-an-apology-for-letting-slip-the-dogs-of-twitterwar/
Image courtesy Wellcome Library, London and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 [CC BY 4.0] license.
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