Blog Archive

Followers

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.

Powered by Blogger.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why We Should Expect God to be a Trinity

Many times when I discuss Christianity, those of other faiths get tripped up in the idea of a triune God. Skeptics claim the concept of God being three-in-one is a clear sign of the confusion that early Christians had in trying to elevate Jesus to deity while still maintaining a Jewish monotheism. Others, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, simply think that it is contradictory to claim God is both three and one at the same time. However, if you think hard about God and what He entails, you may soon see that the trinity actually solves more problems than it creates.

What Does God Need?

"Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it."
— Winnie the Pooh1

I doubt that Winnie the Pooh will ever make a list of great theologians, but I think his advice is sound in this question. When we begin to discuss concepts of God, we should at least start with identifying some of the attributes we would agree He would possess. According to Anselm, God is a being "which nothing greater can be conceived."2 In other words, God has no limitations and no need for help. He is all-knowing (omniscience), all-powerful (omnipotent), all-loving (omnibenevolent), and requires nothing or no one else in His existence. This last attribute is referred to as aseity in theological circles, and most philosophers agree that God could not be God if He had to rely on something other than Himself.

But we get to an interesting conundrum here. If God is all-loving, who did He love before He enacted creation? The Bible tells us that God is love, yet how can this be if He exists apart from anything else? St. Augustine raised a similar question. He wrote that when he thinks of himself as expressing love "there are three things concerned—myself, and that which I love, and love itself. For I do not love love, except I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. Therefore there are three things— he who loves, and that which is loved, and love." 3 So, Augustine says there must be a lover, a beloved, and the relationship of love that exists between the two.


This would place a God who is described as love in a pickle. It would mean that God could not be all loving until He created someone or something to be loved. But if God needs to create something to "become" love, then does that mean God must rely on His creation before He can exercise that attribute? Does this call God's Aseity into question?

However, if God exists as three persons on one being, then God can show love within those three persons without the need for any external thing. The Father can love the Son and the very existence of a triune being means that God is love becomes definitively true. Thus, in a Trinity, God's all-loving attribute is preserved.

Additional Advantages

Beyond God's lovingness, there are other attributes that a Trinity makes possible. God can be a relational being from all eternity, since relationship has always existed within Him. God can have humility. Philippians 2:6-7 states that Jesus "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men." Jesus expressed humility in his incarnation. He also acquiesced to the will of the Father (Luke 22:42). So, when we say that people should exhibit humility, we are saying that people should imitate God's nature.

Because God is triune, He can exhibit things like love and humility within Himself. They are not things that God chooses to be, but are part of His very being. This is a crucial difference between the Christian understanding of God and all others. When talking with those of other faiths, it is fair to ask how they can understand God to be without need of anyone or anything. Without a Trinity, God becomes something less than what we understand Him to be.

References

1. Powers, Joan. Pooh's Little Instruction Book. (New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1995).
2. Anselm. Proslogium. Fordham University Web. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-proslogium.asp#CHAPTER II> Accessed 4/30/2014
3. Augustine. On the Trinity (Book IX), Chapter 2. The New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130109.htm Accessed 4/30/2014

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

For Today's Youth, Life is Theater

This Sunday, I got into a discussion with a high school senior about the prom. She had a steady boyfriend and she knew they would be attending prom together, but she had grown anxious about him not formally asking her. Why would a formal invitation cause so much anxiety? They both knew they were going and they both knew they were going with each other. But for today's youth, being asked to prom is not what it used to be.


Kids today expect "promposals." If you're not familiar with the term, the promposal is a rather overt and showy way one would ask another to the prom and kids are using tactics that had previously been reserved for significant life-marking events such as engagement proposals. There are many examples. Fox News out of Boston just reported a teen enlisted the help of the local police to pull over his girlfriend so he could ask her to prom. One boy inflated 1500 balloons in his high school hallway and set up a 30' long sign reading "Will you go to prom with me?" and then carried his girlfriend blindfolded on his back to the location for the reveal, complete with a bouquet of roses. I would imagine that it took more hours to plan and execute the invitation than the dance lasted.

Why would kids today make such a fuss over something like a prom invitation? One reason is that it's become expected. The Washington Times reports the phenomenon of promposals really caught on because of two factors: the teen "reality" show Laguna Beach ran an episode highlighting some cast member making promposals and the advent of YouTube which allows kids to video tape their own promposals and get a bit of fame from them. The Times writes that "There are currently more than 40,000 videos tagged ‘promposal' and an additional 900,000 tagged ‘prom proposal' or ‘ask cute.'"

When talking with high schoolers, such as the girl above, a promposal of some sort is now expected. Junior Maggie Gitschier, who was interviewed by USA Today, expressed the sentiment. "Just a simple text asking to prom is not enough," she said. "Girls wait for this forever, so these guys need to keep up the good work and make sure it's cute." In the conversation I had, the girl had said that such acts "Make you feel special." She ended up making a sign to hang inside the pool at his swim meet and asked him rather than risking not having a promposal at all.

The Show's the Thing

The expectation of a promposal concerns me. Our culture has been accused of superficiality, but young people today are growing up in a world where they believe the media really is the message. They hold the production in high regard, but they lose perspective on the weight of the actual event. Kids are investing time, thought, and effort into asking someone to a dance, but acts that will have lifelong effects, such as intercourse after the dance are not given a second thought. According to the CDC, nearly 50% of high-schoolers reported to have previously had sexual intercourse.

I see the pervasiveness of the promposal another warning sign to say that even Christian kids can be more influenced by worldly values than we know. As Christian parents, we need to begin to ask our kids just how important a dance invitation really is. Are they giving it an appropriate level of attention? Are boys being pressured to make such a big display that their actions may be misinterpreted by their prospective dates? While kids like Maggie may think that being asked to the prom is something for which they've "waited forever," missing a high school dance won't change one's life all that much.

What do you think? Are promposals merely the latest youthful act of immaturity and nothing to worry about or are they more serious? I would like to think that we should be trying to teach our kids that big gestures match the big moments of life. Having a popular YouTube video isn't where we should place our emphasis. Developing authentic relationships with God and others should be. What message does a promposal really communicate and what are one's motives for so doing? I'd love to hear your views.

Monday, April 28, 2014

NOW and Abortion - A Study in Inconsistency

Last week, I had said that I hold to Christianity because it is both internally and externally coherent. Part of that internal coherency is the fact that it stays consistent in its values and teachings when they are applied to different situations. This is not always true of other movements, especially those who claim to take the moral high ground, but state that abortion is somehow permissible. Here are a couple of examples of how inconsistency looks.

A few years ago, when the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was making headlines daily, I came across a man protesting the U.S. involvement in a busy shopping area. Wanting to understand his position better, I approached him and began to ask him about his views. Unfortunately, he was more interested in shouting hyperbole than discussing the situation rationally. He wanted to make a big show of me so everyone would look, but he had no arguments, just accusations. (I also noticed that he got pretty mad, which I thought was ironic.)

Now, you don't have to be a scholar to understand how inconsistent it is to become violent while protesting for peace. But it seems more and more that people really don't think through their positions on matters, especially those dealing with the big questions of life. The recent debate over the war on Iraq is a good example of this.

An Issue of Life and Death

Although I don't think it proper in this space to debate the merits or flaws of the U.S. decision, I would like to look at some of the rhetoric voiced by certain organizations and see how truly coherent the Christian worldview is. No matter what side of the debate you were on - pro or con - it was evident that all understood we were dealing with life and death issues here. The National Organization for Women (NOW) recognized that as well when they wrote their open letter to President Bush objecting to the war. (Although the letter is no longer available on their site, you can read it via the Internet Archive's page here.) In that letter they make some interesting claims. For example, the letter states "Even more troubling are the costs in human lives and suffering that war will cause. Our women and men in the armed forces, though they understand the risks of enlisting, should not be put in harm's way unnecessarily."

NOW felt that U.S. soldiers' lives should be protected as much as possible, even to the extent that it would be acceptiable to leave cruel regimes such as the Taliban and Saddam Hussain's Baathists in power. Realize that the Taliban were no friends of women or women's rights. Their list of atrocities committed against women prior to the U.S. invasion is well documented. NOW says they understand the fact that soldiers are voluntarily enlisting into the armed forces and the normal expectation of enlistees should include the possibility of war. Yet they also feel we should err on the side of caution, because protecting life is of primary importance.

Not All Life and Death Issues are on the Battlefield

But, there is another life and death issue where many of these same choices come into play: abortion. How consistent is NOW's position in this instance? Not very. Protecting life isn't the primary concern for NOW in the abortion debate, a woman's choice is. Erring on the side of caution is not an option, even as medical science continues to allow babies to stay viable at earlier and earlier gestation.

The NOW letter continued, "Civilians in combat zones do not voluntarily take such risks... The killing and maiming of innocent people as well as the destruction of Iraq's physical and social infrastructure are inevitable in a massive pre-emptive military strike." The argument here is that some civilians (people who happen to live in Iraq but are not an immediate threat to the United States) will be hurt by the fighting and this is wrong, even to obtain a political objective such as overthrowing a despot and torturer such as Saddam. The political objectives are not worth the cost to life.

However, when looking at abortion, they don't feel the same way. NOW is very clear that a woman should maintain the right to eliminate the life inside of her no matter what the reason, and they'll do what ever it takes to achieve this political objective. Although the life inside a woman is an innocent, the baby's well being is not an issue. It has merely gotten in the way of the woman and her objectives in life, and because it intrudes, it should be killed.

Life Versus Potential Life

Some may object to my argument, saying that we're talking about two different issues. After all, NOW doesn't consider a pre-born baby a human life, but rather "potential life". While it is true that NOW's rhetoric differentiates the unborn from individuals who are already born, their reasons for doing so are the point of my objection. As I've pointed out, NOW says they believe that where life and death is involved, we should err on the side of caution, yet they don't approach the question of when life begins this way. They say they believe political motivations should be of secondary importance to risking lives, yet political concerns play a chief role in why they won't consider any type of limitation on any abortion procedures. Lastly, even though certain individuals (such as the Afghan citizenry) may endure long term suffering at the hands of a ruthless regime, NOW says there must be more at stake before we risk innocent lives in trying to oust that regime. How unfortunate that NOW refuses to see the innocent lives of the unborn that are being sacrificed merely to avoid the inconvenience they may cause in a person's life.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Belief in God is the Motor that Drove Science

Oxford Professor John Lennox on the relational dependence of Christianity and the development of the scientific enterprise:
Science as we know it exploded onto the world stage in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Why then and why there? Alfred North Whitehead's view, as summarised by C. S. Lewis, was that: "Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver." It is no accident that Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Clerk-Maxwell were believers in God.

Melvin Calvin, Nobel Prize-winner in biochemistry, finds the origin of the conviction, basic to science, that nature is ordered in the basic notion: "that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science."

Far from belief in God hindering science, it was the motor that drove it. Isaac Newton, when he discovered the law of gravitation, did not make the common mistake of saying: "now I have a law of gravity, I don't need God." Instead, he wrote Principia Mathematica, the most famous book in the history of science, expressing the hope that it would persuade the thinking man to believe in a Creator.

Newton could see, what sadly many people nowadays seem unable to see, that God and science are not alternative explanations. God is the agent who designed and upholds the universe; science tells us about how the universe works and about the laws that govern its behaviour. God no more conflicts with science as an explanation for the universe than Sir Frank Whittle conflicts with the laws and mechanisms of jet propulsion as an explanation for the jet engine. The existence of mechanisms and laws is not an argument for the absence of an agent who set those laws and mechanisms in place. On the contrary, their very sophistication, down to the fine-tuning of the universe, is evidence for the Creator's genius. For Kepler: "The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics."

As I scientist then, I am not ashamed or embarrassed to be a Christian. After all, Christianity played a large part in giving me my subject.
Portion taken from Prof. John C. Lennox. "BBC Lent Talks 2012." http://glenabbeymedia.org/bookletpdfs/bbc2.pdf Accesses 4/25/2014

Friday, April 25, 2014

How to Share Your Faith Without Using Scarecrows

I've recently written that a major problem I see in discussions of faith is the straw men that are erected by those who would seek to tear down a viewpoint. By creating a flimsy caricature of a belief, it becomes much easier to defeat that caricature than deal with the nuances of the belief itself. This is something that I work hard at avoiding when I discuss a belief different than my own. I absolutely hate the straw man, not only when someone substitutes a flimsy shell for my real belief, but I hate it when I misrepresent someone else's view. It's a form of bearing false witness and if someone values the truth, then straw men have no place in argumentation.

Because Christians and non-Christians are equally prone to commit the straw-man fallacy, I wanted to offer some tips on how to avoid misrepresenting someone else's views. These are pretty simple things to list, but sometimes they take a bit of work which may be why they aren't more frequently implemented. But if you follow these guidelines, you will be more informed and a better person for it.

1. Ask More Questions

I've written on this before, but it bears repeating. Instead of immediately launching onto along, drawn out apologetic against a position that you hear, first find out exactly what the person believes. If you find someone who states they are pro-choice, it's OK to ask "exactly what do you mean when you say 'pro-choice?'" You can then continue to explore their views. Do they believe the government shouldn't regulate any medical procedures? Do they believe that at no time before the birth that a human person exists in the mother's womb? How do they define personhood? By asking these questions, you can get a better picture of that person's particular views and you may find areas where you can point out a contradiction in their thinking.

In conversational first engagement, questions like "What do you mean by that," "Can you explain that more," or "Can you give me an example" are key go knowing just where the other person stands. Use them more often and ask more questions and make fewer statements.

2. Restate the person's position back to him

Once you feel you have understood your interlocutor's point of view, repeat it back to them. Say something like, "If I understand you correctly, you feel that the government should stay out of women's healthcare issues because it interferes with their lives." This approach is what is known as a Socratic dialogue. This approach figures prominently in Plato's writings and was further used effectively by Thomas Aquinas. By repeating the person's arguments back to them and ask if they agree with that summarization, you have paved the way to make a convincing argument without the knee-jerk response of "That's not what I meant!" They have just agreed that you have understood their view; thus you are in a better position to be more persuasive since they agree you understand their reasons well.

3. Get information from the horse's mouth

While inquiring from the person gives you a lot of information about their specific beliefs, I think it's also important to read primary sources from the different faith positions to make sure you understand what the actual belief system entails. In talking with folks, I find that thy really don't even know what their own faith tradition teaches and they believe something different than the official dogma/theology of the faith with whom they identify. This happens often in discussions Mormons and Roman Catholics, but it can even be true with atheists or any other belief system. Therefore, it's good to read the actual publications and pronouncements that are held as authoritative. Talk with a Mormon Bishop or read LDS writings. For the abortion debate, make yourself aware of Margaret Sanger's motives and read NARAL's political stances on things like late-term abortions.

I realize that this kind of research can only happen after you have engages someone in conversation. If you don't know what you will run into, it can be pretty tough to read up on everything. I know very few Christians who have even heard of Vedanta Hinduism, for example. So, you may have to do your research after your initial encounter. However, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, and atheists are common enough that you can begin to study their beliefs and doctrines simply to be prepared in case such an encounter arises. If you can master the basic history and concepts of the more common worldviews, then the details offered during discussion will make more sense.

As someone who has been teaching apologetics classes for some ten years, I've covered quite a variety of beliefs. More than once, I've given a presentation on a religious belief system where the people present were either previous adherents or even still practicing adherents. To be told that I was fair in my representation of their view gives my apologetic more weight in their eyes. To erect a straw man is really tantamount to lying about another's belief, and that should never be a part of our witnessing approach.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why I Am a Christian: Because of the Problem of Evil

Yesterday, I began to explain why I hold to Christianity. Of course, as I've said before, there is only one good reason to believe anything and that is if it's true. I believe Christianity is true and I've been laying out my reasons why Christianity is true. One reason I want to talk about today seems rather backwards. In fact, many will tell you that this particular issue is the toughest challenge to Christianity and a lot of atheists became such because of the problem of evil in the world. But I believe that Christianity is true because of its approach to the problem of evil.


The problem of evil is usually presented like this, "How can an all-powerful, all-loving God exists when there is so much evil in the world?" That seems to be a hard question, and even though the argument fails logically, it intuitively strikes people as an objection needing an answer, and Christianity does offer one. Christianity teaches that God simply isn't done with us yet. God allows evil for certain period of time in order to accomplish the purposes He set out for man and His creation. Once those purposes are complete, He will vanquish all evil. The cross of Christ has guaranteed that Jesus has triumphed over death and sin and the Christian rests assured that evil will not exist for all eternity. In a relatively brief period, God will vanquish all evil yet preserve our freedom to exercise our love towards Him forever.

What other worldview provides a better answer?

The interesting thing in this question, though, is that it isn't incumbent on only the Christian to answer it. Evil is recognizable in any religious system or non-religious system. Every worldview needs to account for the problem of evil; not just Christianity. How do the other belief systems measure up?

When someone offers an objection to God on the basis of the amount of evil in the world, they are conceding at least two things:
  1. There is an objective "good" whereby we can measure actions and label them as good or evil.
  2. The fact that evil actions exist means there are problems in the world that need to be solved.
Given that those two facts can be established, they open up questions of their own. For the first, one must ask "Where are you getting this idea of good and evil from? Is evil real? If so, what is that objective standard whereby we can measure actions as good or evil?" The next question can then be, "and what is the solution to evil according to your worldview?"

These questions pose significant problems for other worldviews. Atheists, for example, cannot ground their understanding of evil in anything objective. Evil becomes relative to the individual or the community, and therefore true, objective evil cannot really exist. An atheist who claims that the natural world is all there is would say that's just the way the world works. People are born and they die and eventually our sun will be extinguished with no thought at all toward humanity. The result of an atheist worldview is that suffering will never be able to be overcome. Cruelty is woven into the fabric of life and there is no hope of vanquishing it.

Eastern faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism would provide a different understanding. They hold that the evil we experience is as illusory as our earthy existence. We have forgotten that we are one with the divine and we need to become one again. Only by being liberated from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth through enlightenment can one escape the karma that is responsible for our discomfort. Once this happens, evil will vanish like the illusion it is. The result of this view is that they ignore the reality of evil and ignore the reality of suffering people experience.

Finally, there are faiths that hold that God exists, but evil is something that sits outside His complete control. Rabbi Harold S. Kushner voiced this view in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. God is limited in His power so he cannot control all the evil that we see. He can work within the natural order of things, but the conquering of evil is beyond His reach. Such a view robs God of His position as God and is internally incoherent. The result becomes that evil is stronger than God and there is no hope for vanquishing evil.

I've made the claim that Christianity is both internally consistent and externally coherent. It does not contradict itself in its own claims, even though it makes claims about huge concepts like the nature of God, the nature of man, how people work, and the nature of morality. It also helps us make sense of the world and how we experience it. Looking at how other worldviews answer the problem of evil shows that the difficulties their positions create are far greater than the challenge to the Christian. Christianity offers both a compelling understanding of the fact that real evil does exist and it offers the believer the hope that one day that evil will be vanquished.



Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why I'm A Christian - Part 1


I've been doing apologetics for nearly 20 years now. In that time, I've had the opportunity to engage in conversation with many who either don't believe in Christianity or don't believe in God at all. There have been a lot of conversations where we've traded various proofs for our point of view, but I cannot point to one extended conversation where someone has asked me, "So tell me, why are you a Christian?"

I've talked before about why it is important to ask people why they believe as they do. It helps you to understand the important things that motivate the person to believe as the do. It also keeps you from constructing straw men, something that everyone should avoid. I stress this because not arguing against a straw man shows that one is really interested in the truth, not merely "winning" some kind of debate contest. But I do find it interesting that in all my engagements with atheists, I simply don't get asked this question.

There was a recent Twitter exchange where I posted a link to the testimony of Matt Walsh. An atheist responded to my tweet and asked, "so why did you end up deciding to believe in the particular deity you did?" Given the way he phrased the question, I had a suspicion that he wasn't truly interested in my story (and the ensuing conversation, which you can read here, proved my suspicions true). My answer was that Christianity was the only faith I've found to be both internally and externally coherent, meaning that it doesn't contradict itself within its own tenets and it matches our experiences with the outside world. So let me now share with you, dear reader, why I am a Christian.

Why I am a Christian - Christianity Meets Natural Expectations

The first reason why I am a Christian is because it is natural to assume that God exists. Children really don't require much teaching to believe in God. They look at the design in nature and they intuitively know that something doesn't come from nothing and design requires a designer. These are usually my first two arguments when I speak to someone about the existence of God, but they only require that level of sophistication when someone is denying either of those points. Because there is something rather than nothing and because the something that we see (creation) shows balance and design, it makes sense to conclude that a mind created it. God fits.

While one may try to argue that there are a lot of gods who create (most religions have some kind of creation story), the fact that the Christian God created the universe out of nothing as opposed to the elements of the universe already existing. The fanciful nature of those myths, such as the Hindu and Chinese creation stories where God springs from an egg to form the universe or the Greek and Babylonian accounts of the elements of creation actually being the ancient gods don't offer an explanation of where these elements came from. They also have a diminished view of deity, as their gods can come into being and cease to be. They simply don't make sense.

Why I am a Christian - The Christian Faith is Rooted in History

Another reason why I am a Christian is because I found that there really was a man named Jesus of Nazareth who really lived some 2,000 years ago. The historical evidence of Jesus' life and ministry is as strong as anything we could hope for from ancient sources. When one views the New Testament documents, it is clearly evident that those who wrote the New Testament lived in the time and place which they are describing. The Bible doesn't read as some far-off, third hand account. It reads like ancient history.  Jesus also had a great impact on not only his immediate followers but his teachings radically changed western society. The proof of Jesus' life is like the proof of a stone thrown into a pond: you may not see the stone, but you can look at the surface of the pond and see the stone's effect. You can know he was real.

The historical aspect of Christianity is not a secondary consideration, but a primary one. From its very beginning, Jesus' disciples pointed to the real events of the resurrection and their eyewitness testimony. Paul tells the Corinthian church that the resurrection must be historical or their faith is worthless and he points to eyewitnesses. History and multiple people attesting to the facts surrounding the origin of Christianity are crucial to its very existence. Therefore, Christianity isn't merely a "take it by faith" type of belief system, but one that is rooted in an historical event: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Tomorrow, I will continue to offer my reasons as to why I am a Christian, but for now, I hope you'll consider these points. Any belief system needs to correspond to itself, that is it should be internally consistent, and it needs to clarify what we experience in life. I think Christianity does both.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beware of Straw Men!

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Ray Bolger was originally cast to play the part of the Tin Man instead of the Scarecrow. According to Wikipedia, he longed for the part, though. Luckily, he was recast as the straw-filled character movie audiences have come to know and love. Bolger's character is someone you would want to embrace, a true friend who can sing and dance his way into your heart.



However, many times I find people much too easily embracing another type of straw man, one that should be avoided at all costs. I'm referring to the straw man constructed by those arguing for one particular position over another. I've discussed some of the different ways to argue about a position. I don't mean a fight, but the rational exchange of ideas. Sometimes when building their argument, people make mistakes. These are known in logic as fallacies and the straw man is a classic fallacy. Basically, one constructs a straw man when they argue against a position that the other person doesn't hold, or they mischaracterize the other person's position. Usually, this kind of mischaracterization is used so that, like a straw-filled sparring dummy, the person's argument is easier to knock down.

Examples of Straw-Man Arguments

Some examples of straw-man arguments are easy to see. In their book The Fallacy Detective, Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn use the following example of a straw man:

POLITICAL CANDIDATE A: Due to this year's budget problems, I think our state should decrease the amount of money going to the schools. This would solve the problem. We could bring the amount of money back to normal next year.

POLITICAL CANDIDATE B: My fellow citizens, is this what you want in a candidate? Someone who is against our schools, against our children's education, and against our futures?

As you can see, Candidate B does not talk about the question that Candidate A is focusing on: solutions to a budget problem. Instead, Candidate B misrepresents Candidate A's position to make it sound as if he is seeking to cut school funding because he doesn't want schools to succeed. It's much easier to win an argument in the minds of the people when you create a faulty position and then turn around and argue against a position that the other person never took. That's why the Bluedorns classify a straw man as an attempt to avoid the real question.

When defending one's faith, this kind of switch happens far too frequently. Here are some classic examples:

CHRISTIAN: Without a wholly good God, there is no way to ground moral values. Therefore atheism cannot hold to objective morality.

ATHEIST: How dare you Christians say that because I'm an atheist I cannot understand what it means to be moral!

In the above exchange, you can see that the Christian wasn't discussing whether the atheist could recognize or comprehend what it means to be moral. That's a knowledge question. Rather, he was making the claim that there is no logical basis for believing such morals, even though they are recognized, should carry authority over someone's actions. This is known as the moral grounding problem.

ATHEIST: Science is based on reason while religion is only based on faith.
In such a statement, there are really two straw men. The one easier to identify is that religion (usually meaning Christianity) is only based on faith. This simply isn't true as Christianity from its very beginnings have relied on the evidence of the eyewitnesses and the empty tomb (ref Acts 2:32, Acts 3:15, 1 Cor 15:3-8). Even so far as appeal to the crowd with phrases such as "as you yourselves know."

Secondly, the statement mischaracterizes science as somehow being completely devoid of passion or bias. The history of science argues otherwise, with huge fights breaking out over various positions. Because money and position are now a part of the scientific process (most on the university campus has heard the canard "publish or perish") it is easier for people to inadvertently become biased in their research. In fact, that's what this recent article in the science journal Nature warns. They noted within the field of pharmaceutical development "Science's internal controls on bias were failing, and bias and error were trending in the same direction — towards the pervasive over-selection and over-reporting of false positive results." This doesn't mean that every scientific discovery is biased, but it does demonstrate that science is not somehow immune from bias any more than any other field of study.

Imposing a straw-man fallacy during an argument is not playing fair. It judges another person for a view that he or she doesn't hold and then pretends to make the perpetrators seem more intelligent than they are. If we are going to engage others, we must make sure that we properly understand their specific position. Tomorrow I will talk more about that.

Monday, April 21, 2014

An Untangled Problem for Evolution: DNA Topoisomerase.

Background

DNA replicates itself. That is Biology 101. The process is quite complex and any biology student required to rattle off the procedure on an exam can confirm. Although there are separate kinds of topoisomerase,1 they perform the same essential function within the process of replication.

What is topoisomerase?

In each human cell, there are approximately 2 meters of DNA compacted within a nucleus of the diameter of about 10 micrometers.2 For perspective, imagine that the nucleus is represented by a standard basketball. The length of all the DNA compacted into the ball would go round-trip between the earth and the moon just shy of twice. Topoisomerase has the job of ensuring that the shape of DNA is manageable. Add in the fact that DNA is not just a helix, but a double-helix. As one might imagine, the task of trying to do anything productive with this material presents very serious concerns that need to be dealt with. During replication, the topology (i.e. the shape and structure) of DNA and the movement in unzipping result in issues like tangling and kinking, so the process faces a formidable and complex challenge of bioengineering.3 It’s topoisomerase’s job to alleviate those issues so they don’t halt the replication process.4 If DNA cannot replicate, then an organism cannot grow. Additionally, DNA doesn’t just unzip for replication. It unzips in a process called transcription, which, with the help of RNA, is the first half of producing vital proteins in the cell.

Two examples might help illustrate some of the mechanical concerns that arise. Without even trying, the ordinary use of a wired phone produces coiling in the helical cord. No extraordinary spinning or energy is required to produce the effect, but it doesn’t take long for the cable to go from fresh and neat to knotted spaghetti, which seem to never come out. Even if the tangle is gone, there always seems to be a small bend or a missing turn were the tangle was. The second illustration may serve to demonstrate the problem of kinking just prior to cutting the DNA strand in two. To demonstrate the concept, you can take a piece of twine and try to unwind it by pulling away both its twisted strands away from each other. A "Y"-shape forms: the two strands being pulled apart are each the top segments of the "Y" and the rest of the twine is the bottom. Now at some point, enough tension will build up at the center of the "Y" to where you can no longer pull the strands apart. Fortunately, topoisomerase is there to work out these sorts of problems. Its process is so vital and complex that some have referred to topoisomerase as the "magicians of the DNA world"5 because of their uncanny ability to manipulate the DNA strand and master its topology. 

The Problems for evolution

1: Does not fit early evolutionary models for an ancestral topoisomerase

It is still unclear how exactly topoisomerase originated on an evolutionary model, particularly because all the different types of topoisomerase appear to have originated independently of one another.6 A core tenet of evolutionary biology is that all life can be traced to a common ancestor (more technically, LUCA: last universal common ancestor). It is natural to assume that LUCA would have some master topoisomerase that would have developed into the varying domains7 of natural life: Achaea, Bacteria, and Eukaryota. But, this seems to be an incorrect inference that does not align with the actual data.8  It is speculated that topoisomerase might have emerged with either an ancient viral lineage or a LUCA that began with RNA genetic information or a combination of the two.9

These RNA-infused models would be controversial, because such scenarios involve the already contested10 (among researchers in that field) RNA-world hypothesis for the origin of life. And, the progressive introduction of topoisomerase and other necessary replication proteins into the evolutionary lineup seems an inventive proposition, but requires massive amounts of biological informational leaps that are unfounded, especially within the limited time window for the emergence of life on earth that evolution demands. 

2: Conceptual Paradox11

Most of all, the origin of topoisomerase presents a chick-and-egg paradox. To replicate itself the DNA molecule needs topoisomerase to unwind it. And, DNA would need to code for a protein to do the unwinding (in order to pass on the genes to code for topoisomerase). It’s like having a car with no gas. You need to drive to the gas station to get gas, but you need gas to get to the gas station. DNA might have obtained topoisomerase from somewhere else, but the instant it makes a copy of itself, the other strand needs topoisomerase also. The scenario requires the leap to the reality, where DNA actually codes for this protein itself. That is not to mention that the actual mechanics of unwinding get even more complicated, because topoisomerase is able to cut and re-join small sections of DNA, which require precise biochemistry to ensure the right pieces get linked back up with each other and at the proper speed. Too slow, and the DNA doesn’t unwind fast enough for cell division (mitosis) and the cell dies before replication can occur.12 Too quickly, and the cell can set off its own self-destruct sequence (apoptosis) or cause irreversible damage to the genes that results in cancer.13

Conclusion

Lastly, it is also important to keep in mind that this is only a piece of a wider issue for evolutionary biology to explain DNA replication in general: proteins that function as stabilizing clamps, ones that actually unzip the DNA strand, others that error-check the new copies, or the fact that one side of the DNA is duplicated backwards and in sections…

References

1. For the sake of simplicity, all types of topoisomerases will just be noted as 'topoisomerase'.
2. Joseph E. Deweese and Neil Osheroff, "The DNA cleavage reaction of topoisomerase II: wolf in sheep’s clothing," Nucleic Acids Research 37, No. 3 (2009): 738-748.
3. Ibid.
4. James J. Champoux, "DNA topoisomerases: structure, function, and mechanism," Annu Rev Biochem 70 (2001): 369–413.
5. James C. Wang, "Cellular roles of DNA topoisomerases: a molecular perspective," Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology 3 (June 2002): 430-440. Wang also makes use of this phrasing in his conclusion of his ‘Minireview’ in "Topoisomerases: Why So Many?" in The Journal of Biological Chemistry vol. 286, 11 (April 1991): 6659-6662.
6. Patrick Forterre and Daniele Gadelle, "Phylogenomics of DNA topoisomerases: their originand putative roles in the emergence of modern organisms," Nucleic Acids Research (2009), 1. The two coauthored a similar article with Simoneta Gribaldo and Marie-Claude Serre, called "Origin and evolution of DNA topoisomerases," in Biochimie (April 2007): 426-446. 
7. A domain is the largest formal classification of living organisms on earth. By contrast, a species is the smallest formal classification.
8. Forterre and Gadelle, 1, 12 (and throughout the article in fact).
9. Ibid.
10. Patrick Forterre, one of the authors mentioned in this article, notes the RNA-world hypothesis, but references its implausibility on page 146 in the chapter entitled Origin and Evolution of DNA and DNA Replication Machineries of "The Genetic Code and the Origin of Life," published by Kluwer Academic and Plenum Publishers. Jonathan Filée and Hanny Myllykallio.
11. This paradox seems lost on some. The article by Allyn J. Schoeffler and James M. Berger entitled, "DNA topoisomerases: harnessing and constraining energy to govern chromosome topology," Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics 41, 1 (2008): 41–101, puts forth: "Understanding topoisomerase specialization is necessary to illuminate the evolutionary interplay between supercoiling homeostasis and the requirement for multiple topoisomerase activities to shepherd DNA through transcriptional, replication, and recombinational processes." The authors acknowledge that topoisomerase is subject to the mechanisms of evolution. How exactly does a mechanism necessary for evolution to work – even at the basic level – get thrown into the mix if it’s not functional with the first strand of DNA? That is not to say that it cannot improve or adapt with time, but it must work from the onset to begin with. And not just it, but DNA and its other requisite enzymes and processes.
12. Deweese and Osheroff, 741-742.
13. On the other hand, however, the essential nature of topoisomerase to cell replication (which requires DNA replication) has been exploited in anti-cancer drugs, which target the topoisomerases within the unwanted cells.

Image entitled "Replication complex" by Boumphreyfr - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Need For God in Government

A lot of attention has been given to the expression of religious belief in government institutions. We see people more and more claim that religion should not be part of the political process. Religion, they would argue, is personal while politics can affect us all. But politics uses legislation as its tool, and any legislation has a moral makeup. Politicians seek to pass laws "for the good of the people." But how can we understand what "the good" is? Are we justified in holding to any laws at all if we exclude God as the basis of their authority?


Now, this may seem like a strange question. "Of course we should have laws," you may think. "Without laws, how would society function?" That's fair. However, my query is based not on the pragmatic effects of laws, but on their authoritative nature. What right do legislatures have in making rules for me to live by? Why should I be obligated to follow rules created many times by people with whom I disagree? If you're a human being and I'm a human being, then what makes your rules better than mine?

1. Natural Law

Much of what we base western society on today is derived from the concept of natural law. Natural law says that the ideas of good and evil, justice and injustice are divine in origin. When God designed man, He created us in a way so that we can identify these concepts. St. Thomas Aquinas called the ability to discern good and evil "nothing else than an imprint on us of the divine light." 1

The English philosopher John Locke took the concept of natural law even further. Locke said that not only did God design us to recognize concepts of good and evil, but He also created us to be "free, equal, and independent." 2 However, Locke understood that man is also naturally a communal creature. Complete independence was impossible, partly because of the need for other people and partly because of man's sinful nature. Man was selfish and would seek his own benefit above that of his neighbor's. He writes "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it... that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."3 Locke goes on to explain that because we are God's creation and we serve His purposes every individual must try to "as much as he can, preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another."4

2. The Need for Government

It is the need to do justice that creates the need for government. Philosopher John Locke wrote extensively on this concept. Locke felt that because man seeks selfish interests, a governing institution must exist to judge between individuals and to protect the liberties of all its citizenry. "The law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world be in vain, if there were no body that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders." 5

In forming  governmental structures, Locke said that individuals would willingly give up certain freedoms in order to gain the safety and advantage of living in a community. He termed this exchange a "social contract". We give up a small amount of freedom (such as driving as fast as I like) and instead obey the laws of our community, but in return we become safer on the road since we know other drivers are to also obey those laws. In the end, everyone benefits.

By continuing to live in the community, we continue to agree to that exchange- it is what Locke calls "tacit consent". We participate in and enjoy the benefits of the community's laws, so we therefore support the contract. But all this is predicated on the idea that the state should seek to preserve the rights of the individual as much as possible. When a political system fails to do so, the individuals have the right to dismiss that system as corrupt. 6

3. God and State

Notice that in Locke's view, the government becomes necessary to enforce laws out of a obligation to justice, a justice that is based on the concepts of right and wrong established by an omnipotent God who created all men as equal. If God is removed from the equation, then where does the authority and mandate for the existence of government come from?

Some have suggested that government is there to enforce the will of the majority, but this cannot be the entire basis of government. If it were, then where do the rights of the minority come from? Do we really believe that slavery was right because it was legal or that the majority held it to be correct? Was the extermination of Jews appropriate in WWII Germany because it was legal? Thinking the majority makes something right is a fallacy. Martin Luther King, Jr. said as much when he was questioned by church leaders as to whether his civil disobedience was the Christian thing to do. He wrote:
One may ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all".

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. 7
We hear so much about the separation of church and state today that I'm afraid we have forgotten the need for God as the basis to justify government's existence and our personal liberties. To be sure, this doesn't mean that we should mandate a specific religion for the citizenry, for that would be intruding on individual liberties. But it does mean that we cannot separate God from government or from liberty and equality. To do so would be to lose all justification for both.

References:

1.  Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica as quoted in Questions That Matter Ed. L. Miller
McGraw Hill Companies, New York 1996 p.503
2.  Locke, John Second Treatise of Government, VIII, 95
http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr08.txt
3.  Ibid. II, 6, 8
http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr02.txt
4.  Ibid. II, 6
5.  Ibid. II, 7
6. The Founding Fathers of the United States appealed to this principle when they sought to gain independence from George III. Locke's influence on the Declaration of Independence is evident in its opening lines: "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." As you can see, it is by appealing to God from which the ideas of freedom and equality stem.
7. King Jr., Martin Luther "Letter From the Birmingham Jail"
http://almaz.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Would the World Be Better Without Religion? (podcast)


Skeptics such as Richard Dawkins often claim that the biggest evils in the world are perpetrated because of religious beliefs. Does religion cause more wars, more hatred and prejudice than other views? What would a world free of religion look like? Listen into our latest podcast series where I demonstrate why why such claims have no grounding in reality.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why Holy Saturday is so important


Dr. N.T. Wright on the importance of Holy Saturday in the Resurrection Week:
After Good Friday comes Holy Saturday, the day of waiting, waiting without hope, without knowing what will come next. Go down deep into Holy Saturday, because once again you are called away from the public arena – extroverts in particular find this hard – and into the stillness where you don’t understand, you don’t have an agenda to work on, you don’t know what it is you want or expect God to do. Without the still, dark privacy of Holy Saturday, the new kind of public message which is the resurrection of Jesus could turn simply into a shallow or angry response to the taunts and violence of Good Friday, answering the world in its own terms. The church is sometimes tempted to do that, to huff and puff and charge off to 'defend' God and the gospel. Holy Saturday commands us to lay down our swords and wait: wait without thought, says Eliot, for you are not yet ready for thought.
Wright, N.T. "God in Private and Public" NTWrightPage.com
http://ntwrightpage.com/sermons/MaundyThurs08.htm 20 March 2008 Accessed: 4/19/2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

Does God Care More about Saving Souls than Strengthening Minds?

Today is Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus' ultimate sacrifice for our souls. It is this day when Jesus was tortured by the thrashing of the Roman whip and the blows of the soldiers. It was this day when he was forced to carry the method of his execution in public humiliation. It was this day that he was put to death in one of the most excruciating ways possible. And he did it so that people could be forgiven of their sins and reconciled to a loving and just God. This is good news: Jesus' death and resurrection means that we can be saved.

Photo provided by AKM Adam
For evangelicals, the salvation message is at the center of their faith. We take the command of the Great Commission seriously. We talk about sharing our faith and leading people to Christ. Churches have outreach services with altar calls. All of this defines Evangelicalism.

I think sharing the Gospel is crucially important. I really do. But sometimes I think we as evangelicals can be a little too myopic in our understanding of the Great Commission and somehow reduce it to telling lost people about Jesus. We get it in our heads that the greatest thing one can do is to lead a lost soul to Christ and all other ministries are subservient to that goal.

This topic came up when a friend and I were discussing how engaging in faith-based conversations online leads to different responses. Sometimes, you will find that people who are not Christians will ask questions about your beliefs. This obviously leads to opportunities to evangelize. Other times, you find out that the other person already trusts in Jesus, but that person's faith may not be very mature. Which type of conversation should we spend more time on? Is God more concerned with saving a soul than strengthening a Christian who is only grasping the basics of the faith?

I don't think so. I think that God is as glorified by the teacher who is growing the hearts and minds of believers as He is by the evangelist who reaches out to the lost. In fact, the epistles of the New Testament are not instructions on how to evangelize, but they are letters written by the Apostles to those who already follow Jesus, correcting their misunderstandings and growing their faith. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews even rebuked the Jewish believers for not understanding as much as they should. In Hebrews 5:11-14 he writes:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
The analogy of parent and child is a good one here. Newly married couples celebrate with their families and friends when they discover they're expecting a child. It is truly a joyous occasion. However, the important part of being a parent doesn't stop at the birth. The goal of a parent is to train up the child to be a fully-functioning adult, who can be self-sufficient and make thoughtful, mature decisions. Sometimes, this means "wasting" time by allowing the child to learn a task when you could accomplish it yourself so much more quickly. Good parents will invest the extra time into their children so they can learn to be skilled and independent adults.

The same is true in the Christian life. Is it better to simply go out and evangelize everyone, counting the number of converts from service to service or is it better to invest in the lives of believers, training them and weaning them off the milk, so o they can also be effective teachers and evangelists? Certainly this takes more time and isn't as sexy as an altar call, but it is crucial if we want to be faithful to the heart of the Great Commission.

Jesus doesn't just want people to be Christians. He wants disciples. That's what Jesus said when He commanded his followers to go out and share the good news: "make disciples of all nations." We have a glorious message in the gospel. We have a clear command in the Great Commission. Let's make sure we are fulfilling all of it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Crucial Lesson Taught on Holy Wednesday


Today is Wednesday of Holy Week, the week of Jesus' Last Supper and crucifixion. Many scholars have worked through the Gospel narratives to provide a chronology of the events they record during this week. Most know that on Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem as the crowds exclaimed "Hosanna to the Son of David!" proclaiming His messiahship. On Monday, He curses the fig tree and He then cleansed the Temple of the moneychangers, both actions showing how those called by God must be faithful and pure in their responsibility.


Tuesday was very busy, and the Gospels record several different exchanges of Jesus. First, he faced off against those responsible for the spiritual welfare of the Jewish people, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Jesus then takes some of His disciples up to the Mount of Olives and gives them a two-chapter overview of what they can expect at His second coming and cautions them to be ready. Of course, Thursday is the Last Supper and it kicks off a chain of events leading to Jesus' capture, Friday crucifixion, and His glorious Resurrection on Sunday morning.

What's interesting in all this is that today—Wednesday—The Gospels are pretty much silent on the actions of Jesus. The only thing we know about Jesus' day is that Mary anointed His feet at Bethany (Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8). There's nothing recorded about Jesus coming again to Jerusalem or even giving a sermon on this day. It seems a bit strange that, with all the action building toward the climax of Friday, none of the Gospel writes would tell us all that Jesus did this day, as they've done so far.

If you put yourself in the place of the disciples, you might have found yourself a bit confused by Jesus' lack of action on Wednesday. Here, they've achieved a lot of momentum in their ministry. I mean, Jesus has finally allowed Himself to be recognized as Messiah and the crowds were with Him. He faced off against the prevailing power structure and had beat them at their own game. Passover had caused Jerusalem's population to swell, but after tomorrow the Sabbath would take a lot of opportunity to reach even more people away.

Certainly, Jesus shouldn't waste this day and do nothing important, right? Ministry moments are fleeting! But Jesus knew what was ahead for Him. He had greater things planned than the conquering of Jerusalem. His plan was to conquer sin itself. The quiet He cultivated before His final events provides us with two good lessons.

First, quiet times are important in ministry. For most people, ministry isn't one's primary vocation, but a labor of love done in addition to the job that provides the paycheck. Even here, when there's so much to do, it's important to pause and refocus your attention and devotion o what Jesus would have us do. Mary's anointing was a pure act of devotion. It also showed her sensitivity to the things of God. Mark tells us that more than one disciple felt indignant about the costly perfume being "wasted", but Jesus corrected them. Mary had insight that they lacked. We, too, must cultivate our own worship and devotion to God first, lest our business miss the point of ministry.

Secondly, sometimes when God seems silent, bigger things than you realize may be coming! Don't imagine that God's silence means nothing is happening. Many times in apologetic ministry, we think all we are doing is posting things no one is reading or arguing with others who never change their minds. However, you can never know this side of heaven how God is using the faithfulness you show in those areas to His greater glory. Jesus said of Mary, "She has done what she could… And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."

So, minister, remember to pause and reflect on this week. Think about what Jesus has done for us and remember to take time out for Him. Don't lose faith because He seems still or your ministry seems to not be moving forward. God can do great things with the quiet times.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is a Changed Life a Valid Proof for God?

In arguing for God's existence, apologists will offer various points of evidence, such as the existence of something rather than nothing, the design of the universe, the existence of real moral values and duties, and so on. One point that philosophers such as William Lane Craig and others has offered seems strikingly different from these more objective facts: the fact that people who become Christians experience a changed life. Is such a subjective point valid when arguing for God's existence? I believe it is, but I want toreview a few reasons why.


One of the promises of Christianity is the believer will become "a new creation" (II Cor 5:17) and will be "born again" (John 3:16). The concept the Scripture is communicating is that people will experience real change in who they are and in their very nature. This is why people who share Christ with others will use their testimony as a point of evidence to the reality of Jesus.

Is The Experience Real?

Just because a change happening to an individual is subjective (that is we must rely on the testimony of the indivisual to tell us what they are experiencing), it does not diminish the reality of that experience. Scientists study the effects of mood-altering drugs on patients, which are similarly subjective, but they can with various degrees of certainty claim that it is the drug that is causing the patient's mood to be changed, and not other conditions.

The strength of the argument then lies in finding whether the changes are a real result of something happening outside the individual, or is it merely the belief of the individual himself that is causing the change. Dr. J.P. Moreland states the problem in this way, "It is possible to argue that all such experiences are merely psychological or perhaps the result of sociological factors like peer pressure. One could hold that some sort of placebo effect is going on."1

If such a placebo effect is occurring, then it is not God changing people's lives, but it is the people believing their lives are changed that are responsible for the said change. If this is true, then we don't prove God at all.

So, how can we determine whether a placebo effect is happening? Or how can we tell if some other factor is causing such a change? Moreland lays out three main points as to why we can claim the Christian experience as valid:

  1. The claim of personal religious experience of God doesn't deny psychological factors, it merely claims that they are not enough in themselves to explain a transformed life. This means that people will of course be subject to both social and psychological influences. However, these influences do not by themselves have adequate power to explain religious transformation. In fact, religious experiences exhibit properties that are unique to themselves.
  2. Attempts to reduce religious transformation to psychological factors must assume there are some common factors that would cause the similar experiences. However, as we see more diversity in the causes of people's lives being changed, that explanation becomes less likely to be true. In other words, as the sample size grows, and the backgrounds and other variables are eliminated as a common cause, the more difficult it is to ascribe such a change to a psychological cause.
  3. Finally, religious transformation in Christianity is tied to objective events (the resurrection) and an objective interpretive grid (the Bible) which render transformation probable. This point is perhaps the most important. These experiences are not based on only the belief of the subject, but they are linked directly to an event that is historically verifiable. The Bible also predicts that this type of experience would happen to the believer (as shown in the second paragraph above).2
Now, I am not arguing that we should accept all claims of religious experience as actual. We must approach these as we would any other truth claims: in a discerning manner using the points I've outlined above.

How We Should Approach Subjective Truth Claims

Josh McDowell demonstrates how he approaches subjective claims. "There are two questions or tests I apply to a subjective experience. First what is the objective reality for the subjective experience, and second, how many other people have had the same subjective experience from being related to the objective reality?"

McDowell then goes on to use an example of a man who claims a fried egg over his ear gave him joy and peace, and shows how this flunks his test. However, when judging claims of changed lives from believing in the objective reality of Jesus Christ and His resurrection he says "the evidence is overwhelming... that truly millions from all backgrounds, nationalities and professions have seen their lives elevated to new levels of peace and joy by turning their lives over to Christ."3

Because there exists a vast number of people from all cultures over nearly two thousand years who made similar claims of transformation bolster our position that their experiences come from outside of themselves. And by understanding these three points, we can make a viable claim that God is really working in the lives of those who believe in Him and therefore He exists.

References

1. Moreland, J.P.Scaling the Secular City.
Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1987 233

2. Ibid. 233-234. 3.McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands A Verdict.
San Bernardino, Ca: Here's Life Pub., 1989l 327-328

Monday, April 14, 2014

Challenging the New Atheists

In the November 2006 issue of Wired magazine, Gary Wolf coined the term "New Atheist". In his article, "The Church of the New Believer" he defined the New Atheist as someone who will "not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God."1, In other words, there is a movement today where atheists are engaged in an ideological war with people of faith, and they feel they are on the side of virtue.

Three primary proponents of this "war against faith" (Wolf's term) are highlighted in the article - zoologist and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, End of Faith author Sam Harris, and philosophy professor Daniel Dennett. Although each seems to take a different tact in their approach to unseating the entrenched religious viewpoints of the masses, they all seem to argue that they advance their cause as a moral obligation.

Eroding the Moral Argument

The fact that Dawkins, Dennett and Harris all appeal to a moral framework in their belief system fascinates me, for by its nature, atheism has no objective standard by which to claim moral values. The article restates Dawkins position that bad ideas foisted on children are moral wrongs. But talking about things like moral rights and wrongs bring the question of good and evil into play and that requires a moral framework from which to judge things as being either "good" or "evil".2  One must have a basis to compare one's actions or ideas to classify them as falling into one category or the other .

This is one area where an atheistic worldview fails. Moral frameworks require a moral lawgiver who transcends humanity. In other words, moral laws require an all-good God who can tell us what's good and what isn't. Without God, then man is the ultimate arbitrator of what's good and what's not, which simply means that it's my opinion against yours. In fact, if evolution is true, if we really are here only due to a random series of natural processes, then saying we "shouldn't" do this or that is tantamount to saying a comet shouldn't have struck the earth and killed all the dinosaurs. So the primary premise of the New Atheists really rests on an assumption of God's existence while they try to deny that very existence! Every time they claim a moral reason for advancing their cause, they are trying to smuggle in a condition that could only exist if God does.

Self-Refuting Assumptions

The contradictory nature of Dawkins and company doesn't stop with morality, though. Dawkins admits in the article that the main point of contention is a clash of worldviews - those who hold to naturalism versus supernaturalism. Naturalism is the belief that the only things that can be believed are those things that can be measured by science. We see this in the article as it says how some scientists who hold to a supernatural world view have "implicitly accepted science as the arbiter of what is real. This leaves the atheist with the upper hand… There's barely a field of modern research - cosmology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, psychology - in which competing religious explanations have survived unscathed."

First of all, the second statement is really question-begging. Only if one assumes that we must nullify supernatural explanations for natural ones does one arrive at these "corrosive arguments". But, beyond that, the concept of scientific naturalism collapses upon itself. You see, one must first start with the assumption that the only things we can really know are those things that can be verified scientifically. But that particular premise - that we can only know something if it is scientific -cannot itself be discovered by any type of science. It is a statement of fact that cannot be justified by its own criteria. Imagine if I said to you "Only statements in Latin are true facts." Since that statement is in English, it doesn't meet its own criteria - it refutes its very premise and must therefore be false. The same is true for the scientific naturalist.

Dennett believes that "neutral, scientifically informed education about every religion in the world should be mandatory in school." But again, science cannot test for God any more than it can test for love. They start with an assumption that supernaturalism cannot be true and then build a set of rules that by definition exclude supernatural causes from being considered evidence. However, the rules that they build do not themselves stem from scientific discovery, so they must be false.

Having Faith in Non-Faith

The fact that Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett hold to these rules is one example of how these "freethinkers" really are nothing of the sort, merely adherents to another form of faith. The article points to research by anthropologists that we humans are naturally wired for faith and atheism, when examined carefully, is simply one type of belief system with its dogmas and orthodoxy. The language throughout the article cannot escape this. We see Harris talking about a kind of "religion of reason" with a Sabbath and prayer. Dennett says that no rational creature would be able to do without unexamined, sacred things. Dawkins invokes morality in his position. But to build a religion on non-religion is also contradictory. And by the end of the article, the author begins to note this himself.

Wolf writes that "Dawkins' tense rhetoric of moral choice, Harris' vision of the apocalypse, their contempt for liberals, the invocation of slavery - this is not the language of intellectual debate but of prophecy." He then goes on to conclude that, while he is an agnostic, he couldn't be one of the New Atheists. "The irony of the New Atheism, this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism - is too much for me." Wolf claims that his desire to not be dogmatic about his nonbelief is reasonable. "It simply reflects our deepest democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could be wrong."

My question to Wolf would be from where do the values of democracy come? This is certainly not the way evolution works, claiming survival of the fittest and let all the others go extinct. Indeed, as the New Atheists become more and more vocal in their opposition to faith in general and Christian faith in particular, they cannot help but draw upon the tenets of faith in order to make their points. And that, as rational beings should see, is telling evidence that they are wrong.

Recently, I've contributed to a book that focuses on the New Atheism movement and the problems inherent there. Entitled True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheists, it holds contributions from prominent apologists including William Lane Craig, Sean McDowell, and Tim McGrew on why the New Atheism fails. Now, you may receive your copy as free thank you gift for supporting our efforts at Come Reason. Just click here for details.

References

1. "Church of the Non-Believers"  Wired Magazine, November 2006.  See http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/atheism.html for the full article.

2. There is, of course a third option, that the thing in question is neither good nor bad but morally neutral. Given the purposes of our discussion, though, the categories above will suffice to make my point.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Contempt Prior to Examination is an Intellectual Vice


William Paley on how intellectuals can be biased against evidence:
Contempt prior to examination is an intellectual vice from which the greatest faculties of mind are not free. I know not indeed whether men of the greatest faculties of mind are not the subject to it. Such men feel themselves seated upon an eminence. Looking down from their height upon the follies of mankind, they behold contending tenets wasting their idle strength upon one another, with the common disdain of the absurdity of them all. This habit of thought, however comfortable to the mind which entertains it, or however natural to great parts, is extremely dangerous; and more apt, than almost any other disposition, to produce hasty and contemptuous, and, by consequence, erroneous judgments both of persons and opinions.
Paley, William. The Works of William Paley: With a Life of the Author, Volume 4
(London: G. and J. Robinson, etc. 1825.) 395.
Come Reason brandmark Convincing Christianity
An invaluable addition to the realm of Christian apologetics

Mary Jo Sharp:

"Lenny Esposito's work at Come Reason Ministries is an invaluable addition to the realm of Christian apologetics. He is as knowledgeable as he is gracious. I highly recommend booking Lenny as a speaker for your next conference or workshop!"
Check out more X