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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes

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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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Unhinging the Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence Mantra



As it is Easter season, skeptic Michael Shermer has an article in appearing in Scientific American entitled, "What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?" Shermer writes that as a skeptic, there are propositions he can accept as true, such as the number of pages in a magazine, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the origin of the universe by a big bang. Unsurprisingly however, Shermer can think of nothing that would count as enough evidence for the resurrection for that particular proposition to be considered true. He claims this is due to the "principle of proportionality," something that "demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find." 1

So, Shermer has fallen back to the old canard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But what does he mean "extraordinary evidence?" The phrase sounds good, but is truly fuzzy when one thinks about it. As I've stated before, evidence is either strong or weak; categories like extraordinary don't really fit here. But it isn't as though we have no evidence. Shermer himself brings up eyewitness testimony, quickly dismissing them as possibly being superstitious or seeing "what they wanted to see." But what evidence has Shermer offered for those motivations? He's offered nothing except the claims "The principle of proportionality also means we should prefer the more probable explanation over less probable ones, which these alternatives surely are."2

Extraordinary claims don't only deal with miracles

One problem with Shermer's use of the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" trope is he is inconsistent in using it himself. Remember I said that Shermer holds to the universe as having a beginning. But ask him who was ultimately responsible for that beginning, and Shermer dismisses the idea of God out of hand. In a previous article, he wrote, "For millennia humans simply said, ‘God did it': a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence out of nothing. But this just begs the question of what created God—and if God does not need a creator, logic dictates that neither does the universe."3

Here Shermer makes an obvious category error, one that has been brought to his attention several times in debates with Christians. Yet, he persists in believing the universe (or possibly some kind of universe-generating machine) has come into existence from nothing. But isn't this an equally extraordinary claim? If his statement "Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find" is the criteria for an extraordinary claim, then the universe beginning from nothing is surely even more extraordinary. In all of human history, there has never even once been anyone who has observed something coming into existence from nothing at all. Not once. Even quantum fluctuation/quantum foam is not nothing, for it has specific attributes and potentials. None of those 100 billion people Shermer points to will bolster his claim for an uncaused universe. Yet, he isn't skeptical about that proposition. In fact, he prefers it.

If the principle of proportionality were to be applied consistently, Shermer would have to admit that the evidence for a personal cause for the origin of the universe is much more probable than an uncaused universe popping into existence out of nothing. Is Shermer guilty of what he claims about the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus? Is he only seeing what he wants to see or perhaps superstitious or credulous? I don't think he would admit to any of these. But if Shermer's principle of proportionality fails here, then perhaps it isn't the last word on how to discern the truth for events like the resurrection, either.

References

1. Shermer, Michael. "What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?" Scientific American. Scientific American, 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-would-it-take-to-prove-the-resurrection/.
2. Shermer, 2017.
3. Shermer, Michael. "Much Ado about Nothing." Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer, May 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. http://www.michaelshermer.com/2012/05/much-ado-about-nothing/.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Pornography, Cannibalism, and Debasing Humanity through Non-Belief



In the early 1970s, there was a concerted effort to mainstream pornography. Not only did several mainstream studio/high production value films choose to feature nudity and overt sex scenes, but the pornographic film Deep Throat became the center of attention across the nation. Even trusted middle American publication Time magazine produced a feature on Deep Throat,1 giving a smut film the air of credibility.2 The New York Times writer Ralph Blumenthal commented that the film had "become a premier topic of cocktail‐party and dinner‐table conversation in Manhattan drawing rooms, Long Island beach cottages and ski country A‐frames. It has, in short, engendered a kind of porno chic."3 Not discussed were the countless number of victims in pornography's wake. Linda Boreman, billed as Lovelace in the film, has said "When you see the movie Deep Throat you are watching me being raped. It is a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time."

The trend towards porno-chic should have served as a caution. Sexual freedom advocates claimed licentiousness as liberation, arguing that old-fashioned morals were repressive and holding society back. However, the opposite has proven true. Today, one doesn't even have to look at naked people to see it.

Reza Aslan's interaction with a small extremist Hindu group of Aghori nomads where his face is smeared with the cremated ashes of the dead and he actually joins them in eating brains from the deceased and drinking from a human skull4 is as offensive and pornographic as any sexually explicit scene ever filmed. Aslan's choosing to capture the grotesque rituals of this tiny sect, not even representative of Hindus, is offered for shock value and to titillate. It reminds me of citizen spectators who stretch to view mangled bodies after an automobile accident: they feign horror as they struggle to see the carnage up close.

Robbing Human Worth for Ratings

Christianity has always held that human beings are intrinsically valuable. Human bodies are not a tool separate from the person, but part of what makes a person complete. Therefore the human body has intrinsic worth. Aslan's participation in eating brains is like a news reporter decrying the tragedy of the accident while zooming in for a close-up of the corpse. The very act itself is defiling and debases the value of the deceased. The Aztecs were noted for their human sacrifices, but we certainly don't need to recreate that today in order to understand their faith. Neither does any civilized person need to participate in cannibalism to understand the faith of this sect.

Here's the point: as our society abandons its Judeo-Christian ethic, it becomes more uncivilized by tolerating more and more acts of degradation. Pornography was previously seen as a vice that caters to man's animal instincts rather than his higher nature as a rational, civilized being. Newspapers wouldn't run pornography advertisements and "smut" carried a strong social stigma. Now, we have the most popular sit-coms writing full episodes about how the protagonists get to obsessively watch the free porn channel on their television set for a week.

Atheists are quick to charge that religion poisons everything and the world would be better without its constraints. They're wrong. No one would like to see their beloved parent or grandparent's body used as food for ritual or for ratings. It robs them of their dignity. Aslan is a secularist and he isn't behaving any better than these Aghori. CNN, in airing the piece, is also culpable. Porno-chic now includes mainstreaming cannibalism. What will be next?

References

1. "The Sexes: Wonder Woman." Time. Time Inc., 15 Jan. 1973. Web. 04 Apr. 2017. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,906765,00.html.
2. See this quote from Carolyn Bronstein: "The editors of the Los Angeles Times decided to stop bowdlerizing the Pussycat copy, figuring if small-town America could tolerate exposure to Deep Throat in the pages of its hallowed news weekly, then Californians could surely handle some movie ads." in Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-pornography Movement; 1976 - 1986. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. 63. Print.
3. Blumenthal, Ralph. ""Hard‐core" Grows Fashionable—and Very Profitable." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Jan. 1973. Web. 04 Apr. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1973/01/21/archives/pornochic-hardcore-grows-fashionableand-very-profitable.html.
4. Safi, Michael. "Reza Aslan Outrages Hindus by Eating Human Brains in CNN Documentary." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/10/reza-aslan-criticised-for-documentary-on-cannibalistic-hindus.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why the Gospels are History (podcast)



As we approach Easter, Christians will get inundated with media specials trying to proclaim the "lost" story of the real Jesus. But they have it wrong. Listen in to all four parts of this new podcast series  as we examine why the Gospel accounts are completely trustworthy as reliable sources of ancient history.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Jesus Didn't Become God; the Earliest Christians Believed Him to Be Divine



In his excellent new book, God Among Sages, Kenneth Samples has done a wonderful job in combining an apologetic showing the Gospel accounts reflect the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth and how the Jesus of the Gospels is markedly different from the founders of Eastern religions, such as Krishna, who was also thought to be a god taking on human form.

The comparison is interesting, especially considering the charge made by many modern skeptics that the Christian belief of Jesus as God incarnate was foreign to Jesus's first followers and only grew as a later addition to the new religion. Bart Ehrman's book How Jesus Became God is one such challenge. Samples answers it well when he writes:
But just what did the earliest Christians believe about the nature and person of Jesus Christ? A major textual breakthrough over the last couple of decades has al1owed scholars to see more dearly what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus Christ, particularly as expressed in their church services.

Biblical scholarship (in this case, a type of form criticism) has discovered primitive Jewish-Christian creeds, confessions, and hymns woven into Scripture. The early Christians in their worship services used these compact confessions of faith long before the New Testament was written. As New Testament scholar Ralph Martin explains, "The church of the New Testament is already a believing, preaching, and confessing community of men and women. This implies the existence and influence of a body of authoritative doctrine ... which was the given and shared possession of those who formed the nascent Christian communities in the world of the Roman Empire."1
I've written before on the creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and how it shows the resurrection account existed as a foundational belief from the earliest moments of Christianity. Here, Samples is arguing that there are other early creeds recorded within the pages of the New Testament showing a very early belief in the divinity of Jesus. Some of these passages are actually central to the case of understanding Jesus as the God-man.

Philippians 2:6-11, a key passage discussing how Jesus existed in the form of God, but humbled himself and became man, is the first example. Because of differences in its language and its poetic approach separate it from the rest of the epistle lead scholars to believe this was an early Christian hymn.2 Paul wrote the epistle to the Philippians around AD 62, which means a hymn exalting the incarnation of God in the man of Jesus was well established within thirty years of Jesus's crucifixion.

Jesus Seen As God Very Early

Pointing to Craig Blomberg's work, Samples highlights two other passages (Colossians 1:15-20 and 1 Peter 3:18-22), also written around AD 62. He then notes "the hymnal and creedal portions of those letters date much earlier, possibly back to the Jewish expressions of Christianity in the 40s or even earlier in the 30s."3 These early dates make it impossible for the deity of Christ to be ascribed to either later legend or Gentile influence. It places the central theology of the Trinity at the very beginning of Christianity itself! This is all the more remarkable given that as Jesus first followers were Jews, they would've strongly resisted any claims to divinity that would impeach Yahweh as the one and only God. Remember, this is exactly why Paul sought to kill Christians to begin with.

The early creedal statements within the epistles written by both Peter and Paul—two key founders of the Christian church—show that the incarnation, like the resurrection, was a formative doctrine of Christianity. Jesus didn't "become God" as Ehrman puts it, but was always seen as God. What could have made such a scandalous claim seem palatable to the first Jewish Christians? Nothing other than a resurrection, I believe.

I highly recommend you grab a copy of God Among Sages for yourself. There are so many good things here Samples has given us, this being just one nugget. It's a fresh approach to the question of the historical Jesus and how he compares to other religions' founders.

References

1. Samples, Kenneth Richard. God Among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017. 71. Print.
2. Samples, 2017. 72.
3. Samples, 2017. 73.
Image courtesy Lawrence OP and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why the Supreme Court's Decision Doesn't Change the Concept of Marriage



Is the question of same-sex marriage over? The Supreme Court has ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage is legal and must be recognized across the United States. Does that settle the matter? Actually, no. The Supreme Court has made other definitive decisions which have been later overturned because the assumptions from which those decisions were made were false. Last Monday marked the 160th anniversary of Dred Scott v. Stanford, a seven to two decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that African-Americans whose ancestors were slavers were ineligible to be considered people of the United States. This May will mark the 90th anniversary of the famed Buck v. Bell decision by the Court, where they authorized the forced sterilization of people.

So, what are the assumptions underlying the Obergefell decision? One is that the state has a role in defining marriage.1 Certainly, governments have traditionally recognized marriage and crafted legislation that affects its citizens on the basis of their marriage status, but do governments have the authority to define the very essence of what constitutes marriage? Just what is marriage and who gets to define its terms?

How Do We Begin to Understand Marriage in Relation to Law?

In the debate over same-sex unions, it has been popular to place the "what is marriage" question into a dichotomy. Most people ask whether marriage is something invented by the state or something that stands objectively outside the state. In reality, though, there are three categories societies rely upon to understand and help in the civil interaction between its individuals: societal creations, societal conventions, and natural laws.

Societal creations are those things that are invented by the state. Examples include which is the "right" side of the road to drive on, the legal recognition of corporations as individuals for legal contracts, and the postal system. Each of these are creations of the state and each can be redefined or even abolished through legislation.

Natural laws, on the other hand, are recognized by the state but sit above the state. The right to life, the right practice one's religious beliefs without undue government interference, the right to not be enslaved, and the right to the fruits of one's labor are things that government doesn't give us; we hold them inherently as a result of being human. While governments can pass legislation that denies us our rights, the rights themselves don't go away. They are simply being infringed upon. Just as the slavery issue proved, even if the law states slavery is legal, that doesn't eliminate the right to freedom for the slave. It just means the law is corrupt.

Societal Conventions Differ from Societal Creations

But there's a third aspect to societal interactions: societal conventions. These are things that naturally come out of civil human interaction. David Hume defined convention as "a sense of common interest; which sense each man feels in his own breast, which he remarks in his fellows, and which carries him, in concurrence with others into a general plan or system of actions, which tends to public utility."2I think that's right. Shows of respect, for example, are ubiquitous across all cultures. However, what counts as a sign of respect can differ widely, like bowing before a company president versus simply shaking his hand.

The wedding ring is another convention we use to communicate marriage. Not taking another person's spouse would fall into natural law, but the way to recognize a person as married can and has differed in different societies, with the wedding ring serving as a societal convention that is recognized across Western culture.

Is Marriage a Creation, a Convention, or a Reflection of Nature?

Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion seems to place marriage in the category of a societal convention. He said, "The ancient origins of marriage confirm its centrality, but it has not stood in isolation from developments in law and society." Here, Kennedy is I think purposely obtuse. What does he mean by "the ancient origins of marriage?" The coupling of men and women to produce children is older than human history itself. It's ingrained into our biology. Does that mean every sexual encounter is tantamount to marriage? Of course not. However, marriage has always been seen as the intentional joining of two people of the opposite sex presumably for life, whether or not any government exists to recognize it as such.

Kennedy is also right to say that marriage has not stood "in isolation from developments in law and society." But that doesn't mean marriage itself is a societal convention. While the ring that helps people recognize marriage is a convention, the marriage that it symbolizes existed before rings. It existed before marriage certificates. Marriage is actually a reflection of nature, and to degrade it to a social convention that can be changed or redefined undercuts the essence of what marriage actually is.

So, what about those "developments in law and society" to which Kennedy refers? He rightly raises the point that arranged marriages are no longer the norm for Western societies. More importantly, he points out law of coverture are no longer recognized, either. Is this an example showing how legal recognition changed marriage itself? Do these changes show that marriage itself can evolve? No, for these do nothing to change the essence of marriage, which is the only recognized institution humanity has ever had to properly rear the next generation. Let me state that again. There exists no other institution that human beings recognize for the proper creation and rearing of children than man-woman marriage.

Governments cannot define marriage because governments didn't create marriage. Governments can only recognize marriage as the institution rooted in nature that it is. Like other natural laws, governments can choose to ignore what marriage is or choose to abuse or withhold it from its citizens. Just because the Supreme Court said that Dred Scott had no inalienable rights because his ancestors were slaves or Carrie Buck had no right to protest her forced sterilization, doesn't mean those rights didn't exist. It just meant the Court was in grievous error.

In my next article, I'll go a little further into the distinction between creations, conventions, and natural laws, demonstrating that even though governments may pass laws with respect to aspects of marriage, it in no way proves that marriage itself can be defined by law.

References

1. In the decision, Justice Kennedy wrote, "Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations."
2. Hume, David. "Appendix III. Some farther considerations with regard to Justice." An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals. The University of Adelaide Library. 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2017. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92pm/appendix3.html.

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