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

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Identity vs. Use: What Is Religious Prejudice?



Imagine you are part of a church with a preschool and daycare center. You enroll children of any religion, and the townspeople rely upon to make ends meet. The preschool qualifies in every way for a state program to resurface your playground, but its application is denied simply because it is a church. Is that prejudice or simply the separation of church and state?

In the Supreme Court decision handed down for Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, seven of the nine justices agreed that the state of Missouri was discriminating against Trinity Lutheran Church by denying its application to participate in the state's successful Scrap Tire Program, where the school would be reimbursed for using ground up old tires as playground cover. Written by Chief Justice Roberts, the opinion states:
Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It is asserting a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character. The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant.1
So far so good. However, three of the concurring justices objected to a single footnote of Chief Justice Roberts's opinion enough to note it in their concurring statements. The footnote read “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”2 In other words, Roberts narrowed the ruling.

Don't be surprised if people act according to their beliefs.

Justice Gorsuch, in writing his concurring-in-part statement, raises some important points, notably that the opinion is trying to make a distinction between what constitutes religious status and what makes up religious use. He then asks:
Does a religious man say grace before dinner? Or does a man begin his meal in a religious manner? Is it a religious group that built the playground? Or did a group build the playground so it might be used to advance a religious mission? The distinction blurs in much the same way the line between acts and omissions can blur when stared at too long, leaving us to ask (for example) whether the man who drowns by awaiting the incoming tide does so by act (coming upon the sea) or omission (allowing the sea to come upon him).



I don't see why it should matter whether we describe that benefit, say, as closed to Lutherans (status) or closed to people who do Lutheran things (use). It is free exercise either way. 3
Justice Gorsuch's question is a good one. A person's beliefs should and will affect his or her actions. It shouldn't be surprising that Christian will do Christian things as a part of living life. He will hold to Christian beliefs and he may even write about those beliefs, as White House nominee Russell Vought has done. Yet, just two weeks ago, Senator Bernie Sanders redressed Vought for doing just that, blustering “this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”

Sander's statement is a great example of why Gorsuch, Thomas, and even Justice Breyer had a problem with that little footnote. This isn't only about playground resurfacing. Discrimination against religious believers is become more and more common, and we need a strong opinion to halt it in its track or we may lose the very essence of the First Amendment protections for faith. That is truly what this country is not about.

References

1. TRINITY LUTHERAN CHURCH OF COLUMBIA, INC. v. COMER. Supreme Court of The United States. 26 June 2017. SCOTUS Blog. Supreme Court of the United States, 26 June 2017. Web. 26 June 2017. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-577_khlp.pdf.
2. Trinity, 2017. 14. Footnote 3.
3. Trinity, 2017. Gorsuch Concurring in Part.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Myth of the Christian "Dark Ages"



In my college history class, I was assigned the book The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin. It was an interesting and eminently readable tome, becoming a best-seller. In what is labeled "a personal note to the reader," Boorstin states that he is a champion of the discoverer and that "the obstacles to discovery—the illusions of knowledge—are also a part of our story. Only against the forgotten backdrop of the received common sense and myths of their time can we begin to sense the courage, the rashness, the heroic and imaginative thrusts of the great discoverers. They had to battle against the current 'facts' and dogmas of the learned.1"

I believe Boorstin is correct in that for us to properly understand the momentous changes that paved human advancement we must look at the truth of historical setting and detail. Unfortunately, one area where Boorstin himself succumbs to the "current facts and dogma" that plague us today is the claim that the medieval period, when Christendom became dominant in Europe, ushered in some kind of dark ages.

 In chapter thirteen of The Discoverers (not so subtly entitled "The Prison of Christian Dogma"), Boorstin writes that Christians in the medieval period abandoned the work of discovery in order to generate simple, theologically appealing frames that were divorced from, fact. He claims "the leaders of Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge about the earth, "and that "we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia, which afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300."2

The Explosion of Advancement in Medieval Europe

Boorstin's view is a popular one; the Middle Ages were a dark and regressive period for Europeans. The Church was supposedly a science-stopper and anyone who wishes to look for scientific leaps that would lead to human flourishing must at this point in history turn to the Muslims or the Orient.  But it simply is a false view. Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University, clarifies:
Granted, like the Muslim conquerors, the Germanic tribes that conquered Roman Europe had to acquire considerable culture before they measured up to their predecessors. But, in addition to having many Romans to instruct and guide them, they had the Church, which carefully sustained and advanced the culture inherited from Rome. What is even more significant is that the centuries labeled as the "Dark Ages" were "one of the great innovative eras of mankind," as technology was developed and put into use "on a scale no civilization had previously known." In fact, as will be seen, it was during the "Dark Ages" that Europe began the great technological leap forward that put it far ahead of the rest of the world. This has become so well known that rejection of the "Dark Ages" as an unfounded myth is now reported in the respected dictionaries and encyclopedias that only a few years previously had accepted and promulgated that same myth. Thus, while earlier editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had identified the five or six centuries after the fall of Rome as the "Dark Ages," the fifteenth edition, published in 1981, dismissed that as an "unacceptable" term because it incorrectly claims this to have been "a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity."3
In his book God's Battalions, Stark notes there were tremendous advancements in the technology of the day, such as swivel-axeled wagons, shoes for horses, and better harnesses.  The plow was also redesigned and farming techniques, including the rotation of crops allowing fields to rest and not become nutrient-drained were adopted.

Making Life Better for the Average Man

Putting the ability of horses with their new harnessed together with the more efficient plow had a huge impact on lifespans. Stark notes "land that could not previously be farmed, nor not farmed effectively, suddenly became very productive, and even on thinner soil the use of the heavy moldboard plow nearly doubled crop yields."4

Adding this to the improved farming techniques, Stark concludes:
As a result, starting during the "Dark Ages" most Europeans began to eat far better than had the common people anywhere, ever. Indeed, medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by a poor diet, with the result that they were, on average, bigger, healthier, and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.5
Stark offers more and more varied examples of how during the Middle Ages that Christian Europe's "technology and science overtook the world" in his book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, but this will serve us for now. The idea that Christianity was a science-stopper in the Middle Ages is nonsense. Christianity not only taught that God's word was to be discovered, but it taught that all human beings are inherently valuable and both these key concepts made the Western world the leader it is today.

References

1. Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to His World and Himself. New York: Vintage, 1985. Xv. Print.
2. Boorstin, 1985. 100.
3. Stark, Rodney. God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. New York, NY: Harper One, 2009. 66.Print.
4. Stark, 2009. 69.
5. Stark, 2009. 70.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Demanding Scientific Proof for the Soul is Like Valuing a Sunset by Its Price Tag



I recently had a discussion with an atheist on where we debated the reality of the soul. During a Twitter exchange, I had mentioned the soul as a real entity. Here’s the first part of that exchange:

@comereason: Never discount the witness of the soul.

@chipsalonna: True. One should discount the soul itself until such time as its existence is proven.

@comereason: Just what do you mean when you say "proof"?

@chipsalonna: Actual evidence. Hard data. Good, peer-reviewed scientific efforts. That kind of thing. Not anecdotes. Not stories. Not feelings.

@comereason: So you want to only use materialistic tests to prove the existence of an immaterial object. And you think that's rational?

@chipsalonna: If you have verified procedures/tests for proving immaterial things exist, I'm all ears. If you don't, why should I believe the soul exists?

As you can see, my interlocutor didn’t see the inherent problem with his criteria for proof of the soul. If the soul is an immaterial entity, asking for material proof helps you in no way at all. He wants "verified procedures/tests" as proof. But what does that mean? The phrase implies that he’s still looking for some kind of scientific way to prove the soul’s existence. But science is a discipline that only informs us about the material universe. It can never test for things like good and evil, whether someone is in love, what the experience of the color blue is, or whether immaterial entities exist.

One way to think about this is to remember the premise of the film The Matrix. There, people were unknowingly trapped inside what would be considered an incredible virtual reality world. They believed they were free, experiencing the sun on their faces or walking down the street when in reality electrodes were feeding their brains with stimulus from a computer program to make them believe their experiences were real.

If we were to see the scientists trapped in the Matrix, we’d see them doing experiments and obtaining results. They would be drawing conclusions from these verified procedures and tests. But the tests themselves weren’t real because the world the scientists believe they inhabit isn’t real. The test results are part of that virtual reality program, and as anyone who has played video games can attest, the laws written in the program can violate those of the real world but still make sense within the program itself.

This does not mean there are not convincing forms of evidence for the existence of the soul. The fact that we have thoughts prove that immaterial things like minds exist and we can know that our minds are not our brains. We can show the soul’s existence through both logical argument and direct experience. Asking for scientific proof for the soul or for other immaterial things like God’s existence is a clear category error, akin to asking for the monetary value of a sunset. The sublime experience of a sunset is not something one can measure in financial terms. Economics is simply not the right discipline regarding the nature of beauty. If your criteria for believing in the immaterial is to be shown material proof, then your criteria is irrational.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Persecuting Christian Belief for Public Office


Religious liberty is a key right recognized by all civilized people. The ability for one to not only worship as he believes but to live out that faith is enshrined in the United States Constitution as our first freedom, and it points back to the Pilgrims' efforts to settle a new land where they could do just that.

That's why I'm particularly bothered by the inquisition Senator Bernie Sanders recently inflicted upon White House nominee Russell Vought, as David French highlighted in his piece. There, Sanders interrogates Vought on his Christian beliefs asking him about points he made in an article written for Wheaton College's magazine:

Sanders: You wrote, "Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned." Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?[1]

Vought responds by denying the Islamophobic charge, but as he tries to explain how he as writing from a theological viewpoint for a theological audience, Sanders interrupts him and doubles down, asking "Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?" Certainly this is a question of theological belief. "Stand condemned" is a phrase relating to the belief of one's relationship to God, not with other citizens or the body politic at all. Yet, any time Vought tried to explain that he was restating a core tenet of the Christian faith, Sanders would double-down:

Vought: Senator, I'm a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College…

Sanders: I understand that. I don't know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

Vought: Senator, I'm a Christian…

Sanders (shouting): I understand you are a Christian, but this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that's how I should treat all individuals…

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that's respectful of other religions?

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about. 

The Question of Christian Exclusivism

You can watch the entire exchange yourself, but notice what Bernie Sanders was objecting to was Christianity, although he did try to paint is as Voght holding a bias. Sanders is right in recognizing there are other belief systems out there, like Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews. But any faithful Jew must believe the Hindu is violating God's first commandment to have no other gods before him. Muslims hold that Christians and Jews who reject the prophethood of Muhammad stand condemned before Allah. Atheists write books condemning Christians as being deluded and telling how their faith poisons everything.

The objection that Sanders voices is an old one. How can Christianity be about love if you think everyone else is going to hell? But the problem is simply this: all beliefs carry truth claims. Therefore, if you don't hold to the the belief, you reject the truth claim that comes with it. If Muhammad was truly Allah's prophet, then Christians are wrong, but if Jesus is truly the resurrected Son of God, then Muslims are wrong. Both cannot be right.

Even Bernie Sanders himself castigates others for not abiding by his economic beliefs. A Washington Examiner story recently highlighted Sander's tweet exclaiming: "How many yachts do billionaires need? How many cars do they need? Give us a break. You can't have it all."[2] Is THAT what Sanders thinks this country is supposed to be about?

Sacrificing Tolerance for Confusion

By positioning Vought's beliefs as disqualifying, Sanders is guilty of his own standard. He's condemning Vought's beliefs which he expressed in that Wheaton article. Sanders' belief in non-offensiveness is itself contradictory! But this is the problem with many progressives today. They cannot grasp the fact that a person can believe others have inestimable intrinsic worth while still believing they are in danger of offending almighty God. Heck, Sanders thinks it is OK for him (a millionaire with three houses) to tell others how much they should or shouldn't possess, but not for a Christian man wring for a Christian college's magazine to state basic Christian doctrine.

Sanders is completely wrong. One should be able to be appointed to public office even if his orthodox religious views are not shared by a senator from Vermont. That is exactly what this country is about and what it always has been about. It's what makes America—dare I say—exceptional.

References

1. French, David. "Watch Bernie Sanders Attack a Christian Nominee and Impose an Unconstitutional Religious Test for Public Office." National Review. National Review, 07 June 2017. Web. 08 June 2017. http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/448393/watch-bernie-sanders-unconstitutionally-impose-religious-test-public-office.
2. Chaitin, Daniel. "Bernie Sanders Slams Billionaires, Gets Reminded He Owns 3 Houses." Washington Examiner. Washington Examiner, 20 Apr. 2017. Web. 12 June 2017. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/bernie-sanders-slams-billionaires-gets-reminded-he-owns-3-houses/article/2620865.
Image courtesy Gage Skidmore and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: Dictionary of Christianity and Science


It should be no secret science plays an inordinately large role on modern culture. As I've noted before, scientific advancements have allowed human beings banish diseases that were once fatal, create new materials in the lab that outrival nature, and generally control and command their world in ways that had heretofore been thought impossible. In short, the last 150 years of scientific discovery have changed everything about how humans live and interact with their world.

Because of these great successes, societal attitudes toward science have become distorted. People place science on a pedestal, believing that if a claim is scientific, it will be unbiased and more reliable than other forms of knowledge. Science and faith are seen as foes and atheists will challenge Christians, claiming scientific facts are incrementally undermining Christian beliefs.

In reality the war between Christianity and science is a myth and the recently released Dictionary of Christianity and Science goes a long way toward helping to dispel that myth as the fraud it is. General Editors Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher L. Reese, and Michael G. Strauss have assembled a strong collection of writings covering a wide range of topics in what would more properly be understood as a cyclopedic volume instead of a dictionary. With over 140 top scholars writing on over 450 topics, the Dictionary serves as an excellent starting point to research various topics that most Christians will face when researching or discussing these issues.

Given the breadth of the subject matter, the articles could have all been relegated to short introductory overviews and a list of additional resources at the end of each entry. But the editors wisely chose to have three different types of articles appear in the Dictionary. For the less controversial and more agreed upon topics (such as key historical figures in science or specific terms like emrpicism), an introductory article is all that's warranted. But for other entries they chose to include longer articles  labeled essays that give more background, competing views, and the evidence they rely upon. The entry on "The Genesis Flood and Geology" is an example of one such essay.

Finally, there are the multiple-view discussions where different scholars who take up contrary positions are each allowed an extended article within the same entry. For example, of one were to look up the state of creationism, the user would be greeted with an introductory article on the concept of creation, an article entitled "Creation, Intelligent Design and the Courts," and four essays on creationism: one critical and one supportive of old-earth creationism and one critical and one supportive of young-earth creationism.

I'm really impressed with the level of scholarship and the wide range of topics that have been compiled in the volume. The editors included key figures like Thomas Kuhn and philosophical concepts like Inference to the Best Explanation that are not well-known outside the study of the philosophy of science. Further, articles on people like Galileo Galilei seek to strip the legendary tales of his scientific advancement and show why it would be incorrect to see his conflict with the College of Cardinals as a case of science versus religion.

There are a few drawbacks to the book. First, there is no table of contents or topical index. I suspect that is because it is marketed as a dictionary and as such will have its entries placed in alphabetical order. However, if someone looks up the aforementioned creation entry, he would be missing several other articles that focus on the topic, with multiple-view entries on the flood and on the Genesis account in the F and G areas respectively. One would then have to turn to the I section in order to read the Intelligent Design entry. And if someone doesn't know who Thomas Kuhn is and why his work is so important, it may be easy to miss this entry.

Secondly, while it cannot be avoided, the book is a product of this particular time. The articles that have the most information are those that are the most debated right now. In ten years, this volume will suffer from its age as some debates will change, others may be settled, and new discoveries will make several of the entries obsolete. I would hope an accompanying online site would be able to provide some kind of resource direction until the inevitable updated volume will be released. But these are just quibbles in an otherwise excellent product.

I think every Christian family should have a copy of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science. Anyone who has sought to understand controversial issues on science and faith by searching on Google or looking up the topic on Wikipedia knows that getting solid information from top scholars is challenging to say the least. I've noted myself that any old fool with a modem and an opinion can post online or edit a Wikipedia entry. The Dictionary of Christianity and Science gives the Christian a strong place to start in his or her understanding of how their faith does not contradict modern scientific advancement as well as to get a deeper understanding of what science actually is and where the state of the debates lie.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Don't Be Afraid of Questions about Evil



One of the most difficult objections a Christian faces is what to do with the problem of evil. They claim the Christian God doesn't make sense given all the evil we see in the world today. Some non-believers play the objection like a trump card, thinking this proves the irrationality of believing in a divine being.

I would encourage the Christian to not shy away from the question of evil in the world, but embrace it. That's because the problem of evil is a problem not simply for the Christian, but for everybody.

There are a lot of things on which people of different political and social viewpoints disagree, but I think everyone can be in agreement that the world isn't as it should be. When atheists complain that all the evil in the world shows there is no God, they are admitting there is a right and wrong, and there's too much wrong in the world. Social justice warriors on college campuses try to silence what they deem as evil speech while those on the other side see the act of censorship itself as evil. ISIS, people suffering in the inner cities, regimes ruled by tyrants, kids starving in underdeveloped countries are all serious issues in need of thoughtful solutions.

Because the problem of evil is a serious one, no one is off the hook. Every worldview needs to be able to at least begin to answer the question "what can be done about it?" How does the objector's worldview correct the problem? All seem to agree that the world is out of sorts and things aren't the way they should be. But what can be done to make evil less than it is now? How do different worldviews solve the problem of evil?

Three Choices for a Broken World

When a man on an expedition finds he has damaged his only transport vehicle to the point where it isn't running reliably, he is faced with choosing one of three options. He may try to fix it himself. This is certainly the quickest way to solve the problem, but it isn't as easy as it sounds. Repairing a vehicle is complicated. It requires the proper diagnostics, the proper tools, the right replacement parts, and the proper knowledge. For example, modern vehicles equipped with computers and sensors cannot be fixed without high-tech tools. And the risk of assuming one is more capable than the person's skill warrants could lead to making things worse.

A second option is the man may ignore the issues and continue to drive the vehicle. He may place a piece of tape over that warning light and hope all the stalls and grinding won't get too bad until he arrives at his destination. But when survival is at stake, this is certainly not a prudent idea. There's a high risk the vehicle will fail completely, leaving him stranded and in danger for his life. Or perhaps the brakes fail or the accelerator sticks and the vehicle could then cause his death.

The third option for the man would be to return to the company from which he obtained the vehicle and ask those responsible for it to correct the defects or replace it. Once his vehicle is running as it should, he may proceed to explore the wonders of the unknown without concern for his travel. These strike me as the only options available and the man must choose at least one of them.

What's the Solution?

The options we face with the problem of evil are much like those the explorer faces. Some believe we can fix it all on our own. However, not everyone is agreed even on what constitutes evil. Hot button issues such as abortion, immigration, dictatorial regimes, persecution of people of faith, or persecution of LGBT people are just a few of the many, many, difficult and contrasting viewpoints we face today. How do we fix that?

Further, what are the proper diagnostics to use? Everyone may say certain issues are obvious. Going back to our analogy, a fuel leak would certainly be a problem in need of repair. However if the vehicle you're diagnosing is an SR-71 plane, the plane is designed to leak fuel while on the ground. In the air the tanks expand and seal. If you "fix" the fuel leak on the ground, they will burst in operation.

The second choice is to try and ignore the issue. One may hold this world as ultimately meaningless. In the final reality, one must not love too much or hate too much. All desires equally lead one astray. One must simply retreat within oneself in order to find Nirvana and become like a candle that has been blown out.

Interestingly, there is a contingent within modern atheism that has chosen this second option in a different way. Given that we are all simply electro-chemical matter that happened to evolve over time by chance, good and evil don't really make sense. Nature is red in tooth and claw and that is simply the way it is. Black widows devour their mates, male chimps cannibalize male infants, and cone cannot assign a moral value to those acts. As animals, we are simply acting upon our urges, too.

The third choice is to try and seek out the one who made the world in the first place.

Certainly, there are people who don't fall neatly into one camp. They try to balance two or three of the options based on the situation at hand. But Christianity holds the high ground here. The Christian worldview holds that we cannot fix it ourselves, nor should we ignore evil. Christianity teaches that God must come down and fix the problem himself. And since it is God is the one who grounds all good, he can be relied upon to properly diagnose and fix the problem. This makes perfect sense.

We've not yet come to the end of all evil. That will happen. But of all the different worldviews available, Christianity offers a rational solution to a pressing need. But remember the next time you may be asked "What about all the evil in the world," the problem of evil is as much of a problem for the atheist as it is for anyone else.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Atheists Should Admit Christianity is Different than Made-Up Faiths



Last month, the Dublin newspaper The Evening Herald reported that fifty different official religions were given to the 2016 census takers, including one newly added category: Jedi Knight.1 This isn't really a surprise, given that since the turn of the millennium, hundreds of thousands of people across the English-speaking world have been so doing, as Wikipedia documents.2

While the number of people who list their belief system as "Jedi" or "Jedi Knight" is minute relative to the population as a whole, those that do has caused concern and not only with the census takers. The Atheist Foundation of Australia has begun a campaign telling Aussies not to mark their census with "joke answers" to the question of religion, but to mark "no religion". They even set up a web site and explain their reasoning:
What happens if I write Jedi Knight/Pastafarian?

It gets counted as 'Not defined' and is not placed in the 'No religion' category. This reduces the 'No religion' numbers and therefore advantages the religion count. While it may be funny, it is a serious mistake to answer in this way.3

Why Do You Assume Jediism is a Joke?

I think this response is fascinating because it really undermines some of the arguments atheists themselves make against the belief in God. My question is simple: why do they assume a response of Pastafarianism or Jedi Knight is not a serious answer to the faith question? What is obvious in that these answers are not to be taken seriously? What is the distinguishing feature that makes Christianity a faith that isn't a joke while Jediism is?

According the atheists, Christianity is a legend that grew from tall tales some thirty years after they were first formed. That fits with the Star Wars saga. These were incredibly popular tales that captivated the hearts and imagination of millions and now, forty years later, the Irish are marking that they are Jedi Knights. The Jedi even have a church in Wales, offering weddings and funeral services. So, what makes this different than the beliefs Christians hold today?

Christianity is Based in History

While there may be a Jedi "church" in Wales offering religious services, rational people will recognize the whole thing is kind of a put on. No one seriously believes they hold the attributes that were invented by George Lucas for the heroes of his science fiction film. Even the census respondents themselves don't believe it. Imagine those same people facing a Nero-style persecution for their identification with the Jedi faith. How many do you think would still maintain their devotion to that belief system?

The difference is that Christianity isn't based in a story without any grounding in reality. It is based on history. From its very beginning, it was the fact of the resurrection that attracted followers and changed the minds of even it most ardent enemies, like Saul of Tarsus, who couldn't deny that he saw the resurrected Christ. It changed him from a killer of Christians to an evangelist overnight.

While atheists like to claim that flying spaghetti monsters are synonymous with belief in God or mythic legends are the same as the origin of Christianity, the truth is they don't believe that to be true. Their plea that one not answer the census with something that "may be funny" but isn't what one truly believes means even the atheists can tell there's a difference. It means they need to take Christianity much more seriously than just responding with "Jesus is a myth" or Flying Spaghetti Monster memes. They certainly seem to when counting beliefs hurts their numbers.

References

1. "Jedi Knights Are New 'force' in Census as 50 Religions Are Listed." Herald.ie. The Evening Herald, 19 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017. http://www.herald.ie/news/jedi-knights-are-new-force-in-census-as-50-religions-are-listed-35634362.html.
2. "Jedi Census Phenomenon." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 May 2017. Web. 04 May 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jedi_census_phenomenon.
3. "Were You Born into a Religion but Are No Longer Religious?" Mark No Religion Census 2016. Atheist Foundation of Australia, 2016. Web. 04 May 2017. http://censusnoreligion.org.au/.
image courtesy Tom Blackwell and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Archaeology Topples Objection to Biblical Samson Account



Certainly one of the most fantastic characters in the Bible is Samson. Everything about his exploits reads like a comic book: killing a lion bare-handed, slaying 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, pulling up the gates of Gaza. He seems to be a man of steel living in the Bronze Age!

But, just like the modern day Superman (who was modeled in part from Sampson), the hero had his own form of kryptonite in pretty faces. Samson had a weakness for woman and no one can think of his name without also recalling the name Delilah, who prodded the source of his strength from him so she could then sell him to the Philistines. Even in this story we see a tragic climax, where Samson, blinded by his enemy is placed in the center of the temple of Dagon between two pillars to entertain his foes. He prays to God for strength one last time and collapses the pillars so the Philistines both inside the structure and on the roof were killed by the collapse, along with Sampson himself.

Of course, such as story strikes the modern ear as too fantastic to believe. How could such a character as Sampson have lived? Obviously, we don't have any way of testing whether he did beyond the record presented to us in the book of Judges. It's therefore not unexpected that the tales of Sampson's exploits would be met with skepticism from scholars like John L. McKenzie who writes:
…the historical quality of heroic tales is always low. This is easy to see in Samson. A palace or temple which could support several thousand people on its roof supported by two central pillars separated by an arm's length never existed.[1]
McKenzie is right in noting the detail of two pillars holding up a roof would be odd. In fact, Philistine temples that had been known to archaeologists didn't have such a design at all—until the 1970s when Amihar Mazar unearthed a temple at Tell Qasile from the exact same time period of Sampson and discovered a unique feature of its design was it had two central pillars in the center that supported the roof.[2] Nearly two decades later, while digging in another site some 20 miles away, archaeologist Trude Dothan found another Philistine temple with a similar structure:
On the north-south central axis of the main room, we discovered two pillar bases (and possibly a third), one located exactly in the center of the hall. This configuration resembles that in the Philistine temple at Tell Qasile, where two support pillars stood about 6 feet apart. These two pillars, of course, also recall the pillars in the Philistine temple mentioned in the famous Bible story in Judges 16. Chained and blinded, Samson brings a Philistine temple down on himself by pushing two pillars apart. The two pillars in the Ekron building were 7.5 feet apart.[3]
To be clear, I don't believe either of these temples is the one mentioned in the Samson story. However, the archaeological discoveries do show that such a design wasn't at all uncommon in Philistine architecture. It doesn't prove the Sampson story as true, but it definitely removes the claim that the two pillars are a fictitious invention of the author of Judges.

Further, it lends credibility to the author's reliability in getting certain details right, since Jewish architecture, definitely did not feature two central pillars. The author seems to have some real familiarity with Philistine temple construction, bolstering his reliability in the process. This is just one more way modern archaeology has lent support to the biblical accounts and why we continue to trust the Scriptures.

References

[1]. McKenzie, John L. The Old Testament Without Illusions. Chicago: Thomas More, 1979. 229, as quoted in Roskoski, John, PhD. "Between the Pillars: Revisiting 'Samson and the House of Dagon'". Associates for Biblical Research. Associates for Biblical Research, 24 July 2008. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/07/Between-the-Pillars-Revisiting-Samson-and-the-House-of-Dagon.aspx#Article.
[2]. Mazar, Amihai. "Additional Philistine Temples at Tell Qasile." The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 40, no. 2, 1977, pp. 82–87., www.jstor.org/stable/3209491.
[3]. Dothan, Trude. "Ekron of the Philistines, Part I: Where They Came From, How They Settled Down and the Place They Worshiped In," Biblical Archaeology Review 16.1 (1990): 24–36.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Romancing the Mind - Why Apologetics is Crucial for Women (podcast)



Women are crucial in service to the body of Christ. Women tend to pray more than men, tend to volunteer more, and attend service more, too. Most churches offer different ministries aimed at women, from Bible studies to cooking and craft workshops. Yet, there are very few women's classes aimed at teaching them how to develop their minds and thoughtfully engage the culture with the reasons for their faith. This is a glaring omission for both Christian women and the churches that serve them. Listen in as Lenny presents to a women's group and explains why women need to develop not only a strong spiritual relationship with God, but also a strong intellectual one as well.
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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.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Progressives: Please Help Me Understand International Women's Day


Today is marked as International Women's Day, described as "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity."1 The Women's March, among other progressive women's rights groups, decided to mark the day by creating "A Day without a Woman" campaign, instructing women to:
  1. Take the day off, from paid and unpaid labor
  2. Avoid shopping for one day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses)
  3. And Wear RED in solidarity with A Day Without A Woman
As a heterosexual white male living in the 21st century, I definitely want to highlight the crucial contributions women have made to our society. But I need some help in understanding just how to go about doing this. Lest I be accused of "mansplaining" or bias because of my sex, I want to ask my progressive friends to help me make better sense of this day and just what it is I'm recognizing.

Question 1: How Do We Mark Achievements Today?

As noted above, this date is set aside to celebrate "the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women," yet women are being instructed to take the day off from labor—to go on strike. Fox News reports that "Several schools in at least four states were closed Wednesday so teachers can participate in ‘A Day Without a Woman' strike in which organizers are urging female workers to stay home."2How does this celebrate achievement? What happens to the female students who are supposed to be taught today? Does losing one day's instruction give them an advantage?

Question 2: How Do We Accelerate Economic Gender Parity?

Perhaps the strike is meant to accelerate gender parity. After all, the day is to be marked with calls to action. Does the fact that these schools closed mean the school districts need to hire more men so the ratio of genders is equal? Should we put quotas in place to ensure parity? What about other jobs where men are in the vast majority, like sanitation engineers or coal miners? Business insider lists these as two of the fifteen most deadly occupations with fatalities per 100,000 workers at 22.8 and 38.9 respectively.3 Christina Hoff Sommers documents how in the top ten highest paying college majors, men overwhelmingly outnumber women in all but one while in the ten least remunerative majors women outnumber the men in all but one. So, how do we accelerate gender parity economically here?

Question 3: How Do We Accelerate Cultural Gender Parity?

Perhaps economic parity isn't the only kind of parity we should strive for. Perhaps we can recognize that women as women offer unique and worthwhile contributions to our society that cannot be measured (or are undervalued) economically. But this seems to get sticky pretty fast. Can I say that women as a gender have a unique view on society and its problems? When the city of Los Angeles was in danger of having an all-male city council, former councilwoman Laura Chick decried the possibility, saying "Shame, shame. Absolutely it makes a difference. Our brains are different. We have different perspectives.... There's something terribly wrong with this."4

But how can this be true if a family requires two loving adults, no matter what their gender? Progressives have been telling me for a long time that children don't need women as mothers, they simply need loving individuals. Gender doesn't matter at all. To create a situation where children are intentionally denied the opportunity for a mother is so inconsequential that it shouldn't even be up for discussion. It certainly shouldn't be considered as a factor when adopting, as Catholic Charites were told, forcing them to shut down their adoption services in Massachusetts.

Question 4: What do You Mean by Woman?

Perhaps the fact that women bear children and are responsible for the lion's share of rearing them is a point to be underscored. But that would mean that the very concept of being a woman is rooted in biology. But according to my progressive friends, that isn't true at all. They say the very idea of gender is simply a social construct. All that is required to be a woman is to identify as a woman. Is that right? But that means I can be celebrated if I choose to identify as a woman today.

The big question in all this is how do we celebrate the achievements of women and rally to gain parity for women when the concept of what a woman is isn't defined? This is probably where I need the most help, as I can't make sense of it at all. If the very definition of what constitutes a woman is up for grabs, then what happens to those gender parity issues? I mean, there are those who deeply identify as football fans or basketball fans. I'm in the minority as a hockey fan. Should I seek a day for celebration of achievement and a call to parity since hockey fans are so underrepresented in society?

I would really love to celebrate women. However, in today's world with all the different messaging going on, I can't figure out just who it is we're celebrating or what kind of achievements qualify to be celebrated. If anyone can help me out, I'd be really appreciative.

References

1. "About International Women's Day." International Women's Day. Aurora Ventures (Europe) Limited., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. https://www.internationalwomensday.com/About.
2. "'Day Without a Woman' Strike Shuts down Schools as Teachers Bolt." Fox News. FOX News Network, 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/03/08/day-without-woman-strike-shuts-schools-down-as-teachers-bolt.html.
3. Lubin Gus and Kevin Lincoln. "The 15 Most Dangerous Jobs In America." Business Insider. Business Insider, 21 Sept. 2011. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/most-dangerous-jobs-2011-9.
4. Newton, Jim. "An All-male City Council?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. http://www.latimes.com/la-oe-newton-column-women-in-los-angeles-politics-20130401-column.html.

Friday, March 03, 2017

A Big, Dangerous Universe is NOT Evidence Against God



The recent discovery of the seven planets orbiting the TRAPPIST star has a lot of folks talking. As I wrote last week, even though they're labeled as "earth-like" and reside in what astronomers call the habitable zone, the idea that life could exist on them is remote in the extreme. The fact that our planet is so uniquely situated in just the right spot with just the right conditions around just the right kind of star provides strong evidence for design, like finding a cabin in the middle of an unpopulated forest.

Of course, others won't admit that our world shows marks of design. Some even offer the uniqueness of the earth as evidence against its design. I had one such interaction on Facebook where a gentleman names Simeon responded to my article by saying, "The rarity of habitable planets in the universe is actually evidence for a universe not designed for human habitation." After some interaction, he went on to claim "An all-powerful deity would not need to create an entire universe to support a single planet. He could have just made a single flat Earth with a dome over it, like some of the ancients believed." He finally summarized his position by writing "I think you are demonstrably wrong that the entire universe, as is, is required to support a single life-bearing planet. There is no way for planets around a distant star to have any bearing on Earth's habitability."

What Does it Take to Make a Biosphere?

I don't know if Simeon holds is a theist or not; we never discussed that issue. However, I've met many atheists who argue along similar lines, holding the vastness of space as evidence against a universe created to sustain human life. Couldn't God create any old kind of universe he wanted? Why would he need to make the universe so big just for one "pale blue dot" as Carl Sagan put it?

I think there's hubris in assuming that God can just create some kind of terrarium that holds the Earth but doesn't impact our biology and our experience. I remember being particularly intrigued at an extensive experiment to try and create a self-supporting environment that mimics the earth's in the 1980s. A group of scientists and investors built a large, airtight facility in the Arizona desert called Biosphere 2. Within it, they created a wetlands area, a desert, a rainforest, a savannah, and an "ocean" and then populated it with plants, insects, and animals. The goal was to create a mini-self-sustaining environment where people could live. If it worked here, it may have been possible to build a similar structure on another planet, making human habitation possible.

I loved the idea of biosphere 2. Unfortunately, creating a self-sustaining habitat on a smaller scale than the earth itself proved to be incredibly difficult. The New York Times reported that the results of a two year experiment in sustained living were a disaster: "The would-be Eden became a nightmare, its atmosphere gone sour, its sea acidic, its crops failing, and many of its species dying off. Among the survivors are crazy ants, millions of them."1 The paper reported how the facility was then sold to Columbia University who used it to model environmental catastrophes, instead of running tests on how to create sustainable environments.

Making Claims is Easy; Building Life-Supporting Universes is Hard

My point here is simple. It's easy to claim "God could have just made a smaller system" but that claim has no evidence behind it. Dr. Hugh Ross in his new book Improbable Planet discusses many of the factors of our universe that had to be just right in order for a livable earth to exist, using as one example its massiveness. He writes:
If the universe contained slightly lower mass density of protons and neutrons, then nuclear fusion in stellar furnaces would have yielded no elements as heavy as carbon or heavier; if a slightly greater mass density, then star burning would have yielded only elements as heavy as iron or heavier. Either way, the universe would have lacked the elements most critical for our planet and its life—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and more. For life to be possible, the universe must be no more or less massive than it is.2
The fact that the universe, as massive as it is, still proves to be delicately set up for life on earth is a fact that hasn't escaped even secular scientists. Physicist Paul Davies, when he won his Templeton Prize, confidently proclaimed:
You might be tempted to suppose that any old rag-bag of laws would produce a complex universe of some sort, with attendant inhabitants convinced of their own specialness. Not so. It turns out that randomly-selected laws lead almost inevitably either to unrelieved chaos or boring and uneventful simplicity. Our own universe is poised exquisitely between these unpalatable alternatives.3
So, no, God couldn't have just made it smaller. Even if we discover there are no other truly habitable planets in any of the billions star systems across the billions of galaxies we know exist, it still wouldn't prove the universe wasn't designed for life. The interplay and complexity of the created world is a marvel to behold, and it clearly points to a Designer.

References

1. Broad, William J. "Paradise Lost: Biosphere Retooled as Atmospheric Nightmare." The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Nov. 1996. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/19/science/paradise-lost-biosphere-retooled-as-atmospheric-nightmare.html.
2. Ross, Hugh. Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity's Home. S.L.: Baker Book House, 2017. 24. Print.
3. Davies, Paul M. "Templeton Prize Address." Paul Davies Web Site. Arizona State University. 23 January 2010 http://cosmos.asu.edu/prize_address.htm.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

What to Make of the New Seven Earth-Like Planets Discovered



The headlines were spectacular. Time Magazine pronounced "NASA Announces a Single Star Is Home to At Least 7 Earthlike Planets."1 Vox exclaimed "NASA has discovered 7 Earth-like planets orbiting a star just 40 light-years away."2 Even the official press release from NASA offered some tantalizing tidbits, noting that all seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system reside in the habitable zone necessary for life and it included artists' rendering of what the view may look like from one of these newly discovered sisters of earth.3

Certainly, the discovery of planets orbiting another star is an exciting one. The fact that the TRAPPIST-1 star is relatively close in astronomical terms (40 light years away) means the system is more easily observed by our telescopes; we can gather more data on the planets themselves. To find seven of them ups the chances that we may find water on them, too. But does this mean we've uncovered a bunch of earth-twins that are just ready to be populated by living organisms? Not by a long shot.

What do you mean "Earth-like"?

Since capturing eyeballs and clicks are the driving force behind both news organizations and sites like Vox, one should be a bit cautious before jumping to conclusions by just a screaming headline. When I saw this story, I was intrigued, but upon reading the details, certain terms don't carry the weight one may assume at first.

For example, both the Vox and the Time article called these planets "Earth-like" in their headlines. That will certainly evoke a picture in the minds of most casual readers, but what does Earth-like really mean? Both articles did unpack the term to mean a planet whose size is within a certain percentage of Earth's and is not too hot or too cold for water to exist somewhere on its surface without it being boiled away or perpetually frozen. Mars is within our solar system's habitable zone, while experts disagree about whether Venus qualifies or not.

But just having the ability for water to exist really isn't enough for life. The TRAPPIST-1 star is a much weaker star than our sun. As Hugh Ross explains, TRAPPIST-1 is very small and very weak, not putting out much heat at all. Thus, the planets are a whole lot closer to their star than the Earth is to the Sun, which locks them into a non-rotational position – one side always light and extremely hot while the other is perpetually dark and continually freezing cold.

According to Ross, only the "twilight areas" of each planet would be able to support liquid water. Ross then states "Only in the twilight zone boundary between perpetual light and perpetual darkness will surface liquid water be possible. This possibility presumes that for each planet the twilight edge will not move. Given how close the planets are to one another, it is inevitable that the twilight edge on each planet will move. Thus, realistically none of TRAPPIST-1's planets are likely to ever possess any surface liquid water."4 Of course, it hasn't even been proven the planets have an atmosphere yet.

Also, since these planets must be very close to their weak sun, their years are very short: it takes only about twenty days for the furthest of the seven planets to complete an orbit and only one and a half days for the closest! Knowing how crucial seasonal changes are to life on Earth, there's absolutely no chance of seasons for any of these planets. What's worse, the planets orbits and close proximity mean their gravitational pull will affect each other. The moon's gravity causes the tides on Earth and it is only one sixth the pull of the earth's gravity.* Imagine how an equally sized planet's gravity orbiting close by would affect the Earth. Ross concludes, "These periodic gravitational influences rule out the possibility of life on these planets."

Selling the Sizzle, not the Steak

The "earth-like" description of these planets in the articles is I believe a little misleading. All the outlets I read hyped the possibility of finding life on these planets while never mentioning the incredible difficulties any life would face on them. The Vox story is a good example:
The more Earth-like exoplanets astronomers find in the galaxy, the more they update their estimates of how many Earth-like planets could be out there. "For every transiting planet found, there should be a multitude of similar planets (20–100 times more) that, seen from Earth, never pass in front of their host star," Nature reporter Ignas Snellen explains in a feature article. And the more exoplanets there are, the more likely it is that life exists on at least one of them.5 (Emphasis added).
I highlighted that last line to make a point. While it is true mathematically that finding more planets can make the odds of finding life lower, it's a bit like claiming your odds for dealing four perfect bridge hands are lower the more shuffled decks you use. It's true but still beyond any reasonable explanation that someone will do so, whether you use a hundred, a thousand or a million decks. By obscuring the difficulties these planet offer for life and only highlighting the two or three possible similarities, these reports are selling the sizzle instead of the steak. There's much we can learn from this new discovery. Learning about extra-terrestrial life forming isn't really one of them.

References

1. Kluger, Jeffrey. "NASA Announces Trappist-1 Star Is Home to Earthlike Planets." Time. Time, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. http://time.com/4677103/nasa-announcement-new-solar-system/.
2. Resnick, Brian. "NASA Has Discovered 7 Earth-like Planets Orbiting a Star Just 40 Light-years Away." Vox. Vox, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. http://www.vox.com/2017/2/22/14698030/nasa-seven-exoplanet-discovery-trappist-1.
3. "NASA Telescope Reveals Record-Breaking Exoplanet Discovery." NASA. NASA, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around.
4. Ross, Hugh. "Earth's Seven Sisters: Are They Really Similar?" Reasons to Believe. Reasons to Believe, 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. http://www.reasons.org/blogs/todays-new-reason-to-believe/earths-seven-sisters--are-they-really-similar.
5. Resnick, 2017.
* This sentence has been corrected. It originally read "The moon's gravity causes the tides on Earth and it is only one sixth the mass of the earth."
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