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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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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Talking with Mormons (podcast)



Mormonism boasts over 12 million adherents, and it's still growing. What should we say when Mormon missionaries come to our door? How are Christian beliefs different than Mormon beliefs? In this latest podcast, Lenny provides are some ways to help you how to engage Mormons in fruitful discussion.
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Monday, September 11, 2017

Yes Jesus Existed: Even Romans Outside the Bible Wrote About Him


It seems that given enough of a shine, any bad idea can gain traction. For most of history, scholars have debated the events of the life of Jesus recorded in the biblical accounts. However, the vast majority of New Testament scholars, both those who are of the faith and those who are critical of it, have held that it as historical fact that a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived in first century Palestine, had disciples follow him, and was eventually put to death. While a few fringe elements doubted the idea of a historical Jesus, not even most atheist New Testament scholars believe that Jesus never existed.

But with the advent of the internet and the ability to self-publish, that fringe has grown a much larger following. Now there are very popular atheists who hold that the entire account of Jesus's life, teaching, and death, are simply made up, setting a fictional stage for a fictional tale of a mythical messiah. They claim that if Jesus was such a big deal he would surely have been noticed and written about by more than just the biblical authors.

While that argument isn't valid—in comparison to the events of the Empire in circa 30 A.D., the goings on in Palestine wouldn't be considered newsworthy to those living in Rome—the fact is that Jesus does get mentioned in ancient Roman sources. In his book Jesus Outside the New Testament, Dr. Robert E. Van Voorst pulls together citations from Roman writers such as Thalles, Pliny the Younger, Seutonius, Tacitus, Mara bar Serapion, Lucian of Samosata, and Celsus, along with Jewish sources such as Josephus and other rabbinic writings. Of his Roman sources, Van Voorst underscores that this is a pretty diverse group:
The famous Roman writers on history and imperial affairs have taken pride of place: Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger. On the other end of the spectrum, the comparatively unknown writers Mara and Thallos have also contributed their voices. Philosophic opponents to Christianity such as Lucian and Celsus have also written about Christ. These writers have a range of opinion: from those perhaps sympathetic to Christ (Mara); through those moderately hostile (Pliny) and those fully hostile but descriptive (Tacitus, Suetonius); to those not interested in description, but who vigorously attack Christianity and in the process attack Christ (Lucian and Celsus). A variety of languages is also notable: Latin, the official language of Rome; Greek, both a common literary language and the language of trade; and Syriac, a main language of the eastern Mediterranean. Together, they speak of a variety of topics about Jesus' teachings, movement, and death. And they know that Jesus is worshiped by Christians, which they relate to his founding of a movement.1
Van Voorst is cautious not to make too much of these mentions, as he notes most of the outside accounts of Jesus's life are coming from Christians who do believe He existed. He even states "by the strictest standards of historical evidence we cannot use them to demonstrate the existence of Jesus. On the other hand, given the nature of the evidence on Jesus from classical authors, neither can one use them as conclusive evidence to disprove the existence of Jesus."2 But these sources cannot be counted out as of no value at all. After all, some of these sources were very hostile to Christianity and they would have motive to point out the fact that such a man as Jesus was mythical. Instead, Van Voorst sees them as secondary sources of historical accounts. After making the above points, he continues:
…Although independent confirmation by contemporary classical writers is excluded, we do gain a later corroboration of certain key elements in the life of Jesus. Corroboration of knowledge is important, in historiography as in the natural sciences. If classical writers had never mentioned Jesus, or especially if they had argued that he was a product of Christian myth­making, then it would be a different matter. They did treat Jesus as a historical person, the founder of his movement, and had no reason to doubt his historicity. It would have been easy (if Jesus never existed) to deliver a strong blow against Christianity by showing that it was based on a myth when it claimed to be based on history. But these writers accepted Jesus as historical, and all but one used the events of his life as arguments against Christianity: he began a movement that they called a pernicious superstition, and he was executed as a criminal.3
Van Voorst concludes that ultimately to do good history, we must do what scholars have done for centuries. We have to take the New Testament accounts themselves as what they are, documents of ancient history. The evidence there is very strong that the New Testament authors were writing in a specific genre of ancient biography, meaning they were writing about a real person. And given that both Jewish antagonists and Roman antagonists argued that the events of the life of Jesus proved he wasn't worthy of worship, it seems a much more reasonable to conclude that Jesus was a real person rather than that he never existed at all.

References

1. Robert E. Van Voorst. Jesus Outside the New Testament: an Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2000. 68.
2. Van Voorst. 73.
3. Ibid.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Are All These Natural Disasters Punishment from God?


The news seems to be filled the last few days with one natural disaster on top of another. Texas has already been victimized by Hurricane Harvey, with massive flooding and untold suffering. It was the largest hurricane Texas has ever recorded and may be the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history with estimates placing the damage at up to $180 billion.1 But Houston may not hold that record long as Florida sits directly in the path of Hurricane Irma, with Hurricane Jose following behind her. We then have a massive 8.1 earthquake off the coast of Mexico which may cause a tsunami. What’s going on?

Given the terrible destruction and suffering caused by Harvey and Irma, people are beginning to wonder if there isn’t some kind of divine retribution going on. Jeffery Terry tweeted "#HurricaneHarvey is Gods punishment for those who support @realDonaldTrump may God have mercy on them" and University of Tampa Professor Ken Storey tweeted "I don’t believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesn’t care about them." (Although Storey’s tweets are protected, you can view a screenshot here.)




Jennifer Lawrence didn’t blame God, but did invoke Mother Nature and insinuated that the recent destructions are somehow related to the recent election of President Trump, saying "We voted and it was really startling. You know you’re watching these hurricanes now, and it’s really hard especially while promoting this movie, not to… not to feel Mother Nature’s rage, wrath."2  Of course Christians are not immune to the temptation, either. Newsweek reports that Rick Wiles claimed "‘here’s a city that has boasted of its LGBT devotion, its affinity for the sexual perversion movement in America. They’re underwater."3

Shark Attacks and Jumping the Shark

So, with so many out of the ordinary natural disasters occurring, shouldn’t we attribute them to God’s wrath? Before we jump to that conclusion, maybe it would be wise to find out just how out of the ordinary this weather cycle is. It seems that with media channels reporting the continued destruction in our 24-hour news cycle, one could hardly be blamed for assuming 2017 was a special year for natural disasters, but that’s not necessarily the case. According to the folks over at Weather underground, 2005 was truly a record year, with 28 storms and 15 hurricanes in the North Atlantic. Of those, five were large and/or deadly enough to have their names retired (Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan, Wilma). 2017 isn’t close to that yet.

Interestingly, we’ve actually been in a downward trend of hurricanes that hit the United States. Writing for the NOAA, climate scientists Gabriel A. Vecchi and Thomas R. Knutson show how the United States has been seeing a decrease in the number of storms causing damage on land. They provide the figure below with the following caption:


Since the late-19th Century global (green) and tropical Atlantic (blue) temperatures have risen – an increase that was partly driven by increased greenhouse gases. If one does not account for possible missed storms (first red line) Atlantic tropical storms appear to have increased with temperature; however, once one accounts for possible missed storms (second and third red lines) basinwide storms have not exhibited a significant increase. When one focuses only on landfalling storms (yellow lines) the nominal trend has been for a decrease.4
So, the number of hurricanes displacing people and causing widespread damage is not increasing, even though we may think it is. A lot of it is because we forget just how bad seasons like 2005 really were and compare this year to last year or to two years ago. Some of it is the continued discussion in the media, spurring what is sometimes called "the shark attack effect" following the release of the book and movie Jaws. A quick explanation is that while shark attacks in real life are very rare (more people die from bee stings in this country each year than from shark attacks), once it captures our psyche, we are prone to look for more examples to confirm our fears. It’s kind of like how only after buying a new car you notice how many of that same model are on the road.

We live in a fallen world and natural disasters are a part of that fallenness. It is also true that God has and will use natural calamities to punish or correct nations. However, when people jump to that conclusion first, they remind me of Jesus’ disciples in John 9, who asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" There, Jesus gave a most prescient answer: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him." That should be the Christian response. Let us show the goodness of Christ’s love by reaching out to those afflicted by nature’s devastation and stop trying to pin the blame on some perceived sin. It will be a more effective way to share your faith with others.

References

1. Reuters. "Hurricane Harvey Damages Could Cost up to $180 Billion." Fortune.com, Fortune, 3 Sept. 2017, http://.fortune.com/2017/09/03/hurricane-harvey-damages-cost/
2. Long, Jackie. "Jennifer Lawrence: ‘I’Ve Heard and Seen Things on TV That Devastate Me and Make Me Sick.’" Channel 4 News, Channel Four Television Corporation, 6 Sept. 2017, www.channel4.com/news/jennifer-lawrence-ive-heard-and-seen-things-on-tv-that-devastate-me-and-make-me-sick. Beginning about 5:14.
3. Sinclair, Harriet. "Did Gay Sex Cause Hurricane Harvey or Was It Climate Change? Some on the Right Blame LGBT Americans (No Seriously)." Newsweek, Newsweek, LLC, 3 Sept. 2017, www.newsweek.com/gay-americans-are-blame-hurricane-harvey-apparently-659059.
4. Vecchi, Gabriel A., and Thomas R. Knudseon. "Historical Changes in Atlantic Hurricane and Tropical Storms." Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, GDFL/NOAA Research, 29 Aug. 2017, www.gfdl.noaa.gov/historical-atlantic-hurricane-and-tropical-storm-records/.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Approaching Reality with a Childish Mind



There used to be a time when most children in society would dream of becoming adults. When I say that, I don't mean how kids dream of adventurous occupations ("I want to be a fireman!") or the grandness of their wedding day. I mean that most children understood that as children they lacked the experience, wisdom, and maturity to be a fully functioning member of their community. They saw adulthood as the proper destination for childhood and if one did not arrive at becoming an adult, something went terribly wrong.

In a recent audio piece, Sir Roger Scruton in examining J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels expresses his concern that the novels not only became incredibly popular with adult readers, but how so many adults are trying to make the fantasy of Potter's world is spill out into the real one.

To understand this a bit better, one must understand the two categories of children's literature Scruton identifies:
On the one hand, there are stories addressed specifically to the child's state of mind and which play with those primordial emotions which are the residue of hunter-gatherer terrors. Of this kind are the folk tales collected and embellished by the brothers Grimm.

On the other hand, there is literature which is aimed not at the child, but at the idea of the child; literature that frames the childish mind, treasures it, and also uses it to convey truths about adult reality. Among works of this second kind are some of the masterpieces of our literature, including the Alice books of Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain's story of Huckleberry Finn.

Children's literature of this second kind is about the world as it really is, but written in such a way as to put the innocence and the guilelessness of the child in the center of the narrative. Children's literature of the less artful kind is not about the world as it really is but about the world as children perceive it when deprived of adult wisdom and experience.
Scruton doesn't disparage Rowling's work. He even commends her ability to grip audiences and her deft skill at creating imaginary worlds with engaging names. However, he notes that this less artful literature paints a childish and simplified picture "where good and evil are revealed in concrete terms and divide reality between them." Adults who would hold to such a view of the world would be quite capable of distorting reality, reducing complex issues like free speech, race relations, and differently held views to rather childish views of good guys and bad guys.

Desiring to be Children Instead of Dreaming to be Adults

To be clear, I don't believe Rowling's books are causing such childishness in adults. I believe it simply is one sign of many that our culture continues to shun the responsibility and weight of adulthood for what they perceive as the more carefree existence of childhood. Look at the rise of the Twitter hashtag #adulting, commonly used when someone must deal with choices that aren't necessarily fun, but are required to be considered a responsible person. More and more people bristled against such responsibility instead of embracing it as a welcome sign of maturity and ability.

J.M. Barrie tells us that Peter Pan "still had all his first teeth." I do not desire to now have all my baby teeth. If that were the case, I would seek medical attention because it is a signal that I'm not developing correctly. It would also mean that I would be less capable of enjoying the robust diversity of foods available to me. While children may hold that McNuggets or Mac and Cheese are the best things to eat, they really are poorer than adults who have developed a sophisticated palate.

Similarly, those with a childish concept of the world are poorer in that they cannot understand or experience the wide range of positions, ideas, and emotions that diverse people will naturally have. Tales of a world of magic where every bad guy is easily identifiable is comforting for children who do not yet possess the mental or emotional wherewithal to handle the intricacies of life. But one should not want to remain a child forever. To do so is terribly tragic.

Image courtesy Carlos and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

That Google Memo and the Glory of Motherhood



Saying that men and women are different is now a very dangerous thing. Notice I didn't say anything about one being inferior or another being better. Just calling out the fact that males and females as broad groups have differences in motivations, desires, and place different values aspects of life is something that can now get you fired, even though these findings are agreed upon by a consensus of scientists who study such issues.

Google employee James Damore wrote that now-famous (infamous?) Google Memo (read it here), asking some poignant questions of the company's diversity push. Damore did his homework and did not stereotype. He didn't say that women were biologically incapable of doing tech jobs, as is being repeated ad nauseam in the press. He simply talked about trends and interest differences between men and women. In fact, he explicitly wrote :
I'm not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are "just." I'm simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there' s significant overlap between men and women, so you can't say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.1
Damore cited his sources, too.  Scholar David P. Schmitt confirms there is scholarly evidence for Damore's claims and then observes:
Culturally universal sex differences in personal values and certain cognitive abilities are a bit larger in size (see here), and sex differences in occupational interests are quite large. It seems likely these culturally universal and biologically-linked sex differences play some role in the gendered hiring patterns of Google employees. For instance, in 2013, 18% of bachelor's degrees in computing were earned by women, and about 20% of Google technological jobs are currently held by women. Whatever affirmative action procedures Google is using appear to be working pretty well (at least at the tech job level).2
So 18% of women choose to graduate with a degree in computer science and Google' s hiring rate for jobs that would require this type of degree is 20% female. Why is this controversial?

The Unmentioned Assumption: Women without Powerful Careers are Losers

One has to wonder why there's such a virulent backlash against this memo. I think part of it is simply because many women hear that they are being repressed given the vast majority of tech jobs being held by men and they believe there is some kind of systemic sexism going on. However, they themselves may not personally want to become a computer programmer, they just don't like the way the numbers look.

The Guardian ran an interesting article where one woman was talking to her friend about the pressures placed upon women in today's drive for equality. The friend argued that since all the women now go to work, the country has seen a fairer distribution of jobs than before, but women aren't happier for it. She claimed that women who aspire to have children actually got the short end of the stick because the pressure to not be a stay-at-home mom was great.  The author reflected on this and concluded:
I avoided parenthood for the best part of 40 years, having been led to believe it would feel like a stultifying trap compared to the excitement of wage-earning work. Turns out, at the last minute before the door closed, to be more fulfilling than anything I have ever done!3
That's the unspoken piece in this whole debate. Maybe there are a lot of women who are like the author above, who think  that a successful career is the key defining metric for a woman and then become shockingly surprised to find out how natural and fulfilling it is to nurture and mold the very lives, values,  and sensibilities of the next generation can be.

When women argue about their value coming from their careers, they are really using a man's yardstick. Why should we assume that this is the best way to measure success? I think G.K. Chesterton summed the controversy up best. He wrote:
When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.4

References

1. Damore, James. "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber." Letter. July 2017. Google Diversity Memo. N.p., July 2017. Web. 08 Aug. 2017. http://diversitymemo.com/.
2. Schmitt, David P. "On That Google Memo About Sex Differences." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 07 Aug. 2017. Web. 08 Aug. 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201708/google-memo-about-sex-differences.
3. Mitchell, Victoria Coren. "Women Can Still Have It All. Can't They?" The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 June 2017. Web. 08 Aug. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/11/girls-depression-can-women-still-have-it-all.
4. Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. What's Wrong with the World? London: Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1910. Print. 132-133

Friday, August 04, 2017

The New Generation and the Lack of Struggle



There's a very interesting scene in the movie The Matrix where Agent Smith, speaking for the computers, tells Morpheus how early versions of simulated worlds constructed by the Matrix proved to be failures. He explains:
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this...
I don't think Smith got it quite right. Human beings don't define our reality through suffering, but suffering definitely wakes us up to what is truly real, what is valuable, and what is important. During the Great Depression, children would go out and work if they could, perhaps selling newspapers or whatever they could find, in order to bring their earnings home and lay them on the table. They didn't demand to keep “their” money. They did it because it could mean the difference between eating something that night or not. They learned that one cannot expect to have every desire satisfied. That's a luxury, not real life.  It's no wonder that these children went off to fight in WWII and became known as the “great generation” for their continued self-sacrifice.

Of course, after the war, things changed. The Baby Boomers were given advantages their parents had never before seen. The Boomers then reared their children with privileges and technologies that were unthinkable two generations before. It is kids from this generation who demand that no one should ever feel offended and who believe that happiness is a right by virtue of birth. It is this generation that has spawned the Social Justice Warriors, who want to wage a war against any imagined slight or bias they can think of.

The Necessity of Being  Just and Wise and Charitable 

Sir Roger Scruton, speaking at the end of the James Delingpole podcast, made a striking observation.  Delingpole noted “Presumably, we're not living in the darkest times that anyone has lived through…” prompting Scruton to reply:
Absolutely. That is part of the problem. But, em, the new generation and beyond has nothing to confront. They've got an abundance of everything, of food, of clothing, a shelter, and opportunities. And, you know, there are some who are less well off than others, but there's a—the element of struggle has been removed from their lives. And I think that's one reason we've produced a different kind of human type, one that's out of touch with ancestors for whom, who required virtue in order to live properly. They had to be courageous. They had to be just and wise and charitable if they were to make their way in society.

They were… In those days, there was a real difference between human types: those who could attract to themselves friends and a circle of collaborators and those who were on the margins. Now, you know, with social media and all that, it helps people to get by without virtue. You can cultivate the substitute virtue—virtue signaling as it's called—and have friendships which are purely spectral, which exist in cyberspace but not in reality. So, it's easy to get by without furnishing yourself with the real moral attributes that you need.

But I think at a certain stage young people will wake up that they've done this and they rebel against it and they do want what is real.
I hope Sir Roger is right and young people will wake up to the difference between what they perceive as virtuous versus what virtue actually is. If we as a culture can only learn through suffering, the future looks very bleak indeed.

Image courtesy Andrew Ciscel and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 (cc-by-sa-2.0https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en) generic license.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Atheists Dragging God Down to Our Level



The Christian God is a God who expects worship. I don't think that point is controversial. However, many atheists have offered this fact as some kind of flaw or as an example of a contradiction within the Christian view of God. They see God as some kind of egomaniac since he demands his creation worship him.

One good example is this quote from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry supposedly gave Paramount a script for a Star Trek treatment whereby he sought to tease out the fallibility of the traditional concept of God:
One of the Vulcans on board, in a very logical way, says, 'If this is your God, he's not very impressive. He's got so many psychological problems; he's so insecure. He demands worship every seven days. He goes out and creates faulty humans and then blames them for his own mistakes. He's a pretty poor excuse for a supreme being.1
I've sourced this story back to a 1994 book by Edward Gross, but I cannot find a hard copy to confirm the quote. Still, regardless of whether an actual script was offered, the quote has since turned into a meme promoted by atheists online as one way to show how the biblical God doesn't make sense. But does it show a God who demands worship is insecure? If so, he is hardly worthy to be worshipped as God.

Is God Insecure in Asking for Worship?

I think the objection says a lot more about the objector than it does about God. Firstly, the meme ignores the fact that God is not on the same level as man. Certainly one man demanding worship from another would demonstrate a psychological imbalance, but that's because we recognize the equality of human beings. We also recognize that all human beings are flawed. It is the fact that that other person is not God as to why we their demand for worship as wrong.

On the other hand, God holds certain unique attributes that make it sensible for humans to worship him. One of these is the fact that God is the very essence of goodness. We certainly see the value in acknowledging the good in people. That's why we name streets and celebrate a holiday in Martin Luther King's honor. We don't worship King, but parents will tell their children that it's important to uphold applaud the good that people do. The concept of good should be held in the highest regard. Thus if God is the locus of the good, then he is rightfully exalted for his nature.

Secondly as creator and provider, God should be worshipped. We see this in a smaller way within human relationships, too. Children should honor and respect their loving parents. This is appropriate and children who are defiant of parents who only have their best interests at heart are considered spoiled.

While each of us is indebted to our parents, our indebtedness to God as our creator is of a greater kind. As the author of all life, it was God who not only gave us life, but shaped us into the very individuals we are. He didn't simply stop there, either. He sustains us, blessing us with the ability to breathe moment by moment, gives us the very food we eat, and a rational mind to know Him.

The atheist who claims God is being egomaniacal or insecure by demanding worship has a woefully underdeveloped view of God. God is not simply a bigger, more powerful human. God is different in kind from us, not simply different in degree. Given that even within our own humanity, we see it as logical and right to honor someone for upholding the good and appropriate to give deference to parents and those in authority, then is certainly would be logical to worship a being from whom all goodness derives and by whom we owe every aspect of our existence. If a parent demands such respect from a child (and not demanding such is actually detrimental to the child by spoiling her), then I cannot see the supposed logic of the Vulcan's statement. In fact, it strikes me as illogical to treat a being like God as just another human creature. It's simply one more attempt to drag God down to the atheist's level.

References

1. Gross, Edward, and Mark A. Altman. Great Birds of the Galaxy: Gene Roddenberry & the Creators of Trek. London: Boxtree, 1994. Print. 27.

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.

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