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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 Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label belief. Show all posts
Showing posts with label belief. Show all posts

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.


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, April 26, 2016

We Don't Need to Recreate the First Century Church

The world in which we live is loud, distracting, and difficult. Attention spans are decreasing and the influence of secular society seems to loom ever larger in our lives. Many believers feel it is becoming harder and harder to honestly live out their Christian faith properly.

Moreover, the Christian church as an institution isn't immune from the influence of the culture. Churches today struggle with balancing a proper worship time with congregational participation. Pastors worry about how much theology they can present in their sermons before it becomes too "heady" and a "turn-off" for the congregant. They also want to figure out just which ministries they should be offering and how much technology should play a part in the worship service.

Given these stresses, it shouldn't be surprising that a common refrain heard in Bible-believing churches is the church needs to simplify. It needs to go back to its roots and look a little bit more like the first century churches. After all, those churches were started by the apostles, making them somehow more pure than the rather complicated practices the modern church adopts in the 21st century.

In fact, there was a big push to return and do church "the way the apostles did it" in the early 19th century, a movement known as Restorationism. It spawned several denominations such as the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ1. More recently, the Jesus People movement in the 1960s sought in some way to do the same thing, and the very recent house church trend claims to be "a return to first-century Christianity in its simplest form."2

The Problem of Purity

Perhaps you have heard someone say something like "we need to return our church experience to the way the first Christians did it." I've heard the statement from both pastors and the laity. But, I think there's an awful lot being assumed in such a statement. In fact, the first century churches were no more pure than those of today.

Let's begin by looking at what we know about the first century churches from the Bible itself. Several of our New Testament books are letters written to Christian churches of the first century and they give precise details on the real world problems those churches wrestled with. The church at Corinth, which was founded by the Apostle Paul himself, seems to be an absolute mess. There was a scandal rocking the assembly since one of its members had begun sleeping with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5:1). Further, because different members thought the pastor they liked best was the one who should be authoritative. Paul said this caused "jealousy and strife" among the congregation (3:3). Doesn't that sound pretty familiar?

The Corinthians had other struggles, such as the more "mature" members believing they were somehow better than their newer brethren on the matter of what they could or couldn't eat (8:1). Pride and selfishness had even crept into even the celebration of the Lord's Supper (11:21-22). They had already reduced communion to something it was never meant to be, even getting drunk during the service.

Problems Throughout the Churches

Let we believe that Corinth was some singular exception to the rule in the early church, the Bible gives us ample evidence of other churches wresting with various problems of their own. The Galatians were teaching some bad doctrine and thought only those who followed certain Old Testament precepts would be considered true Christians. The letters that Jesus dictates to John in the book of Revelation outline a slew of problems facing the churches in the first century, including wooden doctrinal adherence without love, accepting false teaching without discernment, allowing the cultural heresies to infect the church, operating on only dead works, and even being completely spiritually dead, holding on the only the name of Christian. James rebukes the church for quarreling, gossiping, and showing partiality. Even ion the book of Acts, the church continually wrestled with what to do about the divisions between those who were Jewish converts verses those who were Gentiles.

Main Thing Stays the Same

All of these examples serve to show that the first century church wasn't a panacea. Christians of the first century had as many struggles, complications, personality battles, and confusion as the church does today.They battles issues of sexual sin within their ranks as well as without. They had problems with pride. They mixed up what was cultural convention with what was essential doctrine. The first century church was very much like the 21st century church. Their problems were simply couched in the milieu of their time.

This shouldn't be a surprise to us. The Christian church of the first century was comprised of people and people are very, very fallible. I recently heard one non-believer say one of the reasons he isn't a Christian is because there are so many divergent opinions and practices within Christian denominations and secondly, there are many examples of injustice done by Christians on their fellow man. I cannot argue with either of these points; both are true.

However, as Christians we understand that it isn't the practices of the church we hold as the standard for life, but the example of Christ. It is our love and devotion to the one who sacrificed himself for our salvation that knits us together as a community. In that aspect, Christians of the first century and Christians of the 21st century are identical. We both worship the Son of Man who alone becomes the propitiation for our sins and who rose again on the third day. We recognize that we are sinners deserving to die but we have been reconciled to God. In that, we are as close to the apostles' teaching as the first century church was, and we can walk confidently forward in our faith knowing that is the model one must follow to be authentic.


1. Mallett, Robert. "Restoration Movement." The Christian Restoration Association. The Christian Restoration Association, 2003. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
2. Henning, Jefferey. "The Growing House-Church Movement." Ministry Today Magazine. Charisma Media, 31 Oct. 2000. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Atheists Admit Their Disbelief Linked to Emotional Discomfort

Recently, I was on a college campus as a young atheist asked what I thought was the cause behind the growth in the number of people, especially young people, who don't identify as any particular religion. I answered that it is a pretty big question and I think the reasons are varied and diverse as the group to which he was referring. He didn't seem satisfied with that answer.

My young interlocutor may have believed that nonreligious belief is on the increase because human beings are less gullible than in past generations and more willing to believe science can explain the world better than religion. It seems to be a common assumption with those I engage online, even though science cannot banish God. But even if atheists mistakenly assume science can somehow disprove God, this isn't the real basis for their atheism.

Two new studies by the American Psychological Association confirm that disbelief in God for a significant percentage of atheists is not due to dispassionate reasoning, but the effect of emotional or relational discomfort with what they perceived God to be. According to an article in Psychology Today, which summarized the findings, "54% of self-reported atheists indicated some relational and emotional reasons for nonbelief. In the second study, 72% of 429 American adults who expressed some level of atheism or agnosticism endorsed similar reasons."1 Those are pretty high percentages of self-described atheists who admit to an emotional or psychological component contributing to their disbelief.

As the article notes, this isn't a new revelation. Previous studies have shown that atheists have negative feelings toward their conception of God2 and those emotions play a part in their being atheists. Dr. Paul C. Vitz in his book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism explored the link between what Vitz calls "interpersonal trauma with attachment insecurity" of atheists in history. He sees a link between disbelief on God and defective fathers in the lives of atheists, along with other factors.

What Atheists Themselves Say 

The interesting thing in these studies is that the findings are not a result of third party inference, but the admission of atheists themselves. It's nearly three quarters of atheists who are admitting an emotional reason as contributing to their atheism. Those numbers may be higher in actuality as self-reporting usually leads to lower than actual results. Some people may not realize certain emotional motivations and others may not want to admit to them. Regardless, the two studies referenced report the majority of atheists who participated do indeed have emotional reasons for not wanting God as they understand him to exist.

The reason all of this is important is a practical one. Just as dispassionate reasoning alone doesn't usually account for one's disbelief, it follows that dispassionate reasoning alone will only go so far in helping one believe in the God of the universe. As human beings, we are relational creatures. That's part of how we reflect God's image. If you're a master at facts and argumentation in defending the faith but you don't bother to get to know the person, you aren't going to be very effective. People are people and all want to feel like individuals who hold worth. That includes nonbelievers. Don't lead off conversations with your best arguments. Get to know one another. Build relationships. Show them real care and you may find a real person who's willing to share real hurts. Only then will they be really ready to listen.


1. Tix, Andy, PhD. "The New Psychology of Atheism." Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 21 Mar. 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
2. Bradley, David F., Julie J. Exline, and Alex Uzdavines. "The God of Nonbelievers: Characteristics of a Hypothetical God." Science, Religion and Culture SRC 2.3 (2015): 120-30. Web.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Unvarished Bias of Scientism

Recently, an episode of the Unbelievable? program featured a discussion on whether it is reasonable to claim that advances in science somehow undermine the existence of God. It pivoted on the assertion that science and religion are somehow opposed to one another, In other words, once certain scientific explanations for some observed phenomena are found, it removes the need for God to "do that."

The show pitted mathematician and physics Dr. David Glass against Oxford Emeritus Professor Peter Atkins and humanist James Croft. Peter Atkins is a physical chemist and a primary example of what it means to believe in not simply science, but scientism.

Atkins over and over again characterizes any appeal to a divine intelligence for explaining why things are the way they are as "lazy." It's as though the more he repeats the charge, the more believable he thinks it becomes. Then, at about the 44:52 mark, he offers this statement:
I'm just taking the world as it seems to me, from an utterly unprejudiced point of view. Lying here, looking at the evidence, assessing the evidence, accepting that this purported alternative explanation has arisen from sentiment, misogyny, power, hegemony, you name it… fear of personal annihilation, manipulation. All those things don't convince me that it's a better explanation.
Is this really the viewpoint of someone who holds an "utterly unprejudiced point of view?" Such a claim is farcical on its face. This isn't a one-off comment, either. Earlier in the program, he explained why he rejects theism as holding any sort of explanatory power:
I accepted right at the beginning that you can't disprove the existence of God, because as James [Croft] said, it's such a slippery and ill-defined concept. But what you can do is to understand how people came to believe that "God did it." That is, it's driven by sentiment, fear of personal annihilation, and cultural pressures, and history, and power grabbing, and all the things that go into religious belief. But if you discard those and you're left with trying to understand a mechanism by which the world works, a mechanism how it came into existence, then the only answer is through the scientific method, which is a procedure that depends upon evidence and setting theories into a whole network of understanding.
During the conversation, Glass queries Atkins and asks him how he proposes to use science to explain things like objective moral values, mathematics, and logic. Atkins retorts that ethics indeed can be explained via evolutionary survival principles, thus completely missing the distinction between functional outcomes and moral reality.

Who's Lazy Now?

Atkins' dodge should be noted. He cannot discuss how science claims to account for mathematics or the laws of logic. That's because it is impossible to do so, for science must assume these things before it can even start.

Even leaving all that aside, any person who is even half-interested in the truth will recognize that Atkins is anything but unbiased when trying to understand how beliefs are formed. His vitriolic mischaracterization that all cultures across all societies throughout history came to the conclusion of a creator for the material world because of sentiment, power, and hegemony is shameful. Has Atkins bothered at all to look into this matter? Why doesn't he acknowledge that world-class scientists like Francis Collins, who is doing top-notch work, would be deeply offended at such a characterization?

Atkins' statements do serve a purpose. They functions as evidence for only one conclusion: Atkins is the one corrupted by bias. He's the lazy one who isn't interested in seeking answers. He simply wants to throw insults, and his opinions on this issue can be ignored.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Questioning Our Over-Reliance on Science (video)

Recently, I got to sit down with the One Minute Apologist, Bobby Conway, and discussed several topics. One item that came up was our culture's over-emphasis of science as the last word in knowledge. The role of science does seem to be misunderstood these days, with people giving it more credence than it may deserve.

Interestingly, John Cleese of Monty Python fame also recently tweeted:
Cleese went on to offer a couple other tweets, which could be viewed in different ways, although folks like John Prager at AddictingInfo felt Cleese was slamming "anti-science conservatives." I don't know of that was Cleese's intention. However I do know that in his podcast, he seemed to make fun of those who would place an over-emphasis on science and scientists in this humorous video.

Of course, taking that tweet as it stands, Cleese is right. Science is only one method we use to know about the world and it is a fairly limited one at that. That's what I was able to explain in this short clip with Bobby Conway. You can watch it here:

For more detail on these ideas, check out my previous articles here, here, and here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is There Such a Thing as Rational Faith?

 A woman once told me "It doesn't really matter which religion you follow; if you're sincere, your beliefs are just as valid as mine." She struck me as a very genuine person in her view, but she was dead wrong. Sincerity never makes a belief true. Sincerity has merit, but one can be sincerely wrong. Her beliefs clashed with logic, and what she needed was a logical faith.

What is a logical faith? Is it possible to even reconcile those ideas? Society views people who can be rational in difficult situations as heroic, intelligent and in control. However, in matters of faith we seem to put up a wall, segregating the virtue of logical thought from the earnestness of religion. We tend to hold a view that reason and faith are much like oil and water and can't be mixed. But that is only because people think that logical reasoning will undermine their beliefs. If this is so, it's possible they might not have a good reason for their faith. 

I maintain there is no good reason for holding any belief system, save one. A person should believe something only if it's true. What good does it do someone to hold a belief if it's not the way things really are? A person can't be proud of believing what doesn't correspond with reality. If I told you I still believe in Santa Claus you might smile, pat me on the head and say, "Dear boy, that's nice" but you'd never take me seriously. If I refuse to let go of a belief even though it doesn't match reality, then you'd rightly conclude I'm deluding myself.

At this point some may say "Yes, but you don't understand that truth is relative. My truth is different from your truth, and these things are true for me." This kind of statement sounds good on the surface but when you really examine it, it makes no sense. For one thing, people cannot hold this view consistently. They still have to look both ways before they cross the street. Their reality may not include the car that's barreling toward them, but they're going to get hit nonetheless. That's what reality does—it affects our lives whether we want it to or not.

Now all religions are in the business of making truth-claims. Religion seeks to accurately describe God, the world, and our relationship to them. If each religion is about truth, then we should be able to examine their claims and see which ones hold up. Good belief systems tend to make good sense and have good evidence, and they can withstand thoughtful, honest examination. If a belief system falls apart under scrutiny, then it probably wasn't true.

For instance, some people believe all faiths are equally valid and they all are using different labels for the same God. Is this statement true? Hinduism believes in millions of gods while Judaism and Christianity believe in only one God. Both beliefs can't be true. One denies the other and therefore at least one must be wrong. That means all faiths cannot lead to the same God. If some people still maintain they do, they might as well still believe in Santa Claus. That's why the woman I told you about was wrong in her opinion. She hadn't thought through what she believed.

Christianity is a faith that has always been very uncompromising in its demand for truth. In writing to the Thessalonian church, the Apostle Paul admonished the believers there to "examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good (1Thess 5:21)." He also wrote "If Christ be not raised [from the dead], your faith is vain." These two verses demonstrate that reason and faith aren't necessarily contradictory but complimentary toward each other. Paul expected believers in the Christian religion to believe only what's true.

One of our primary goals at Come Reason Ministries is to get the Christian church thinking about what they believe and why. We feel that in examining the claims of historic Christianity, along with those of other faiths, Christianity can be shown to be the most plausible. However, we also engage questions and opinions from people of all worldviews. We feel that discussion is healthy and when done honestly and openly it will bring all the participants closer to the truth.

So is there such a thing as a rational faith? Yes, there is. A faith that is true is rational. In matters of faith, what one believes can influence life decisions, actions, emotions, and even destinies. No belief system is above inquiry, and in matters of faith the only belief worth having is a true one.

Image courtesy innoxiuss [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Why Does God Remain Hidden? (podcast)

"If God is all-powerful, why didn't He create people who would all believe He exists?" It's a common question; one that stems from God's divine hiddenness. However, the freedom people have to deny God may be just as important as believing in Him. In this four part podcast series, Lenny explains why the nature of God demands that humans choose to follow Him freely.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Irrationality of Indifference to God

In my time on college campuses, I've had the opportunity to engage with people who are passionate about their particular faith, and I've been able to engage with those atheists who are passionate about their particular lack of faith. However, many of the students I engage are those who identify themselves as not really religious and not really interested in exploring the concept of God. They perhaps have some preconceptions, usually formed in the elementary or middle school years, and they reinforce those beliefs by pointing to selective evidence. For them, to actually put forth effort to examine the question of God, his revelation, and his attributes is simply too much work.

But this is certainly an irrational position to take. The question of God—does he exist, how can we know about him, and what does a living God mean for our own existence—should be of primary concern to everyone. If the Christian God is real, how we can know him and what he requires of us is of eternal significance.

Blasé Pascal argues much the same way in his Pensées. He explains:
Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.

Of all their errors, this doubtless is the one which most convicts them of foolishness and blindness, and in which it is easiest to confound them by the first glimmerings of common sense and by natural feelings.

For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal, whatever may be its nature; and that thus all our actions and thoughts must take such different directions, according to the state of that eternity, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgement, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.

There is nothing clearer than this; and thus, according to the principles of reason, the conduct of men is wholly unreasonable, if they do not take another course.

On this point, therefore, we condemn those who live without thought of the ultimate end of life, who let themselves be guided by their own inclinations and their own pleasures without reflection and without concern, and, as if they could annihilate eternity by turning away their thought from it, think only of making themselves happy for the moment.

Yet this eternity exists, and death, which must open into it and threatens them every hour, must in a little time infallibly put them under the dreadful necessity of being either annihilated or unhappy for ever, without knowing which of these eternities is for ever prepared for them.

This is a doubt of terrible consequence. They are in peril of eternal woe and thereupon, as if the matter were not worth the trouble, they neglect to inquire whether this is one of those opinions which people receive with too credulous a facility, or one of those which, obscure in themselves, have a very firm, though hidden, foundation. Thus they know not whether there be truth or falsity in the matter, nor whether there be strength or weakness in the proofs. They have them before their eyes; they refuse to look at them; and in that ignorance they choose all that is necessary to fall into this misfortune if it exists, to await death to make trial of it, yet to be very content in this state, to make profession of it, and indeed to boast of it. Can we think seriously of the importance of this subject without being horrified at conduct so extravagant?

This resting in ignorance is a monstrous thing, and they who pass their life in it must be made to feel its extravagance and stupidity, by having it shown to them, so that they may be confounded by the sight of their folly. For this is how men reason, when they choose to live in such ignorance of what they are and without seeking enlightenment. "I know not," they say…1
We chastise people for not having car insurance to guard against the expenses that would accompany an accident that might not happen. We shake our heads at those who would spend their paycheck on video games instead of paying their bills. Such behaviors are properly denounced as childish. Yet, death is not an uncertain end to our earthly existence. The statistics on death are pretty solid: every one out of one person dies. To dismiss the question of God and eternity then is to be even more foolish.


1. Pascal, Blasé. "Pensées (Fragments 195- 285)." Christian Apologetics Past & Present: A Primary Source Reader (Volume 2: From 1500). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 178-79. Kindle Edition.

Image courtesy Sander van der Wel. Licensed by [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Believing in God is not Believing in Magic

"You believe in magic!" Such is the charge that has been leveled against me and all religious believers by atheists who see the very concept of the supernatural as out of bounds. However, Christians do not hold believe in magic at all. In fact, the very idea of magic is antithetical to Christian theology.

The error that these atheists make is one of equivocation. They mis-define magic to mean anything that is outside of a purely naturalist worldview. Of course, this is very wrong. As Dr. Ewin Yamauchi notes in his article "Magic in the Biblical World," even in Old Testament times when cultures existed that believed in magic and tried to practice it, there was a marked difference in understanding religion and magic. He explains:
There can be no doubt that both the Old Testament and the New Testament were born in environments permeated with magical beliefs and practices. It should come as no surprise to find Moses contesting with magicians in Egypt, later identified as Jannes and Jambres (2 Tim. 3:6-8), as magic was a dominant factor in Egyptian culture. For Egyptians to attain to an afterlife they had to provide themselves with magical incantations such, as the Pyramid Texts in the Old Kingdom, the Coffin Texts in the Middle Kingdom, and the Book of the dead in the New Kingdom. Magic was also a potent force in other contemporary cultures, such as that of the Hittites.

Though magic and religion are not mutually exclusive categories, they have generally been understood to represent two different attitudes. Put simply, in religion one prays to the gods; in magic one commands the gods. In this sense Egyptian religion was, as often as not, magical. The Egyptian magician threatened the gods by gods by virtue of his magical power.

This prime distinction between magic and religion, which is usually traced back to the pioneer anthropologists, E. B. Tylor and James Frazer, was originally noted by the Protestant Reformers. The element of 'coercion', 'control', or 'manipulation' has been regarded as an essential element of magic in many definitions. For example, H. H. Rowley notes:
The line between magic and religion is not always easy to define, but broadly we may say that wherever there is the belief that by a technique man can control God, or control events, or discover the future, we have magic.
According to William Howells, an anthropologist, 'magic can compel things to happen, whereas prayer to a gad can only attempt to persuade. The psychologist Walter Houston Clark declares, 'Typical of the magical attitude is the idea that man may coerce or strongly influence God by adherence to proper rituals or imprecations'.

The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski further argues that religion deals with ultimate issues, whereas magic focuses on the immediate concerns: 'While the underlying idea and aim is always clear, straightforward, and definite, in the religious ceremony there is no purpose directed toward a subsequent event.1


1. Yamauchi, Edwin M. "Magic in the Biblical World," Tyndale Bulletin 34 (1983): 169, 175-176.
Image courtesy Sean McGrath [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, September 19, 2015

To Draw Close to God You'll Need Theology (video)

Ever heard anyone say, "I don't need all that book-learning. Just give me Jesus and that's enough for me"? It's become common in the church to base our understanding of God on our feeling of him instead of our knowledge of him. In this short clip, Lenny  demonstrates from C.S. Lewis and from the Bible why the study of theology is crucial for the Christian to grow closer to the God we love.

Image courtesy Paul O'Rear and licensed via Creative Commons. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Inherent Bias in Science

Last week, I wrote about an online conversation I had with an atheist who accused me of making a God of the gaps type argument for the origin of life, even though all the observational evidence across humanity's history demonstrates that life comes from life. He claimed that "Science may well provide an answer to the origin of life in the future," whereby he commits the very fallacy he accused me of committing. While not appealing to a God of the gaps, he is certainly appealing to "science of the gaps."

In our engagement, I asked for some justification for such an unwarranted claim. He leaned on this explanation:
Apocryphally, Edison learned 999 "wrong" ways to make a light bulb in in the process of finding 1 "right" way. (Was he ever really wrong?) Obviously, science has proposed wrong explanations many times as it approaches the truth. The more pertinent inquiry would be "Are there any cases where science has settled on an explanation only to be proven wrong by a theistic explanation?" Because the reverse admits of many, easy historical examples.
His reasoning is misleading in many ways. First, there's a significant difference between a single research project, such as Edison's testing of different material for light bulb filaments versus the assumption that science can answer every question of origins. That's a simple category error. By using Edison as an example, and then saying that the entire discipline of science is functioning in the same way, he has equivocated how an experiment works with how a consensus is built.

Not Counting Wrong Conclusions

In fact, accepting new scientific conclusions works in a much different way than Edison's trial-and-error approach. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated that science isn't the incremental set of discoveries most think it is. When one really studies the history of scientific discovery, one finds the personal beliefs and biases of scientists themselves color their investigations. Kuhn writes "An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time." 1 He explains in his book how scientific research is "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education."2
Perhaps science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions. Simultaneously, these same historians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the "scientific" component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled "error" and "superstition." 3
Exactly, It's easy to claim science always advances forward if you don't count any of the conclusions that we now reject as science, but label them error or superstition.

Kuhn explains that in the enterprise of science, scientists are not readily willing to give up on their preconceptions and biases:
Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Much of the success of the enterprise derives from the community's willingness to defend that assumption, if necessary at considerable cost.

Scientists Tend Toward Stasis

All of this means that many scientists will accept their current understanding of the scientific landscape and a kind of stasis will develop. Students learn their scientific assumptions from their professors, who teach what they also had learned to be true. Kuhn coined the term "paradigm" to describe this common set of assumptions. It isn't until there become so many problems or deviations from what was expected given the prevailing paradigm that a flurry of new research will ensue and may create a paradigm shift—a new idea replacing the old one:
Normal science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments. Nevertheless, so long as those commitments retain an element of the arbitrary, the very nature of normal research ensures that novelty shall not be suppressed for very long.

… When the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice—then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead the profession at last to a new set of commitments, a new basis for the practice of science. 4
This is the common pattern in the history of science. It isn't a smooth slope upwards of increasing knowledge. It has fits and starts. It has many dead ends. Scientists get things wrong, such as the alchemists trying to turn lead into gold, but the atheists don't count them. They claim "that wasn't science, it was superstition." Still, the tree of modern chemistry grows from the roots of alchemy.

Don't Assume Science will Always Succeed

Remember, "science" makes no claims; scientists do. As I've said before, "scientists are not immune to bias, deceit, greed or the quest for fame and power any more than the rest of us. In fact, scientists ARE the rest of us!"5 I've illustrated that even when scientists reach a consensus, it doesn't mean their conclusions are correct.

Thus it is just as likely that science will not find the answer to the origin of life. It may be the search for turning material into life may be like the search for turning lead into gold. To hold to a science of the gaps theory offers no real advance in knowledge; it is simply shows one's willingness to defend their paradigm and at considerable cost.


1. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1970. Print.2.
2. Kuhn, 1970. 5.
3. Kuhn, 1970. 5.
4. Kuhn, 1970.5-6.
5. Esposito, Lenny. "Should We Place Our Trust in Science?" Come Reason's Apologetics Notes. Come Reason Ministries, 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 01 Sept. 2015.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

If You Want to be Reasonable, Then You May Have to Believe

I've had the opportunity to interact with many people who would classify themselves as either atheists or agnostics. (Sometimes, they try to classify themselves as both, but that's an untenable position. ) While theists and atheists will argue back and forth on the legitimacy and support for each one's position, it is the agnostic position that intrigues me the most. Many agnostics claim to be reasonable people who rely on evidence and rationality to come to a conclusion about God. But is the person who withholds a belief always more reasonable than one who accepts it? In a word, no.

To Hold a Justified Belief

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identified Roderick Chisholm as "one of the most creative, productive, and influential American philosophers of the 20th Century."1 Chisholm studied an area of philosophy devoted to understanding how we know things, called epistemology. His book A Theory of Knowledge provides a strong framework for what constitutes a rational belief. There, Chisholm explains that to have not simply a belief (which anyone can hold about anything—reasonable or not), but to have a justified belief is to "say something about the reasonableness of that belief." 2 Chisholm goes on to explain that when we make statements like "one who believes in X is at least as justified as one who withholds belief in X" we are making a claim that each position is equally reasonable; that is there is just as much reason to withhold that particular belief as there is to affirm that belief.

However, Chisholm makes the point that if arguments or evidence are presented that argue for a particular belief, the equation changes. To withhold a belief is to be neutral, not to take sides either way. For example, I'm completely neutral as to whether I think the Philadelphia Phillies will be playing in the World Series. I do not follow baseball closely and I don't know the standings of the teams. But after I look at the standings, even for a moment, I would no longer be neutral. Given the Phillies are last in their division and have a record of 47 wins versus 73 loses, it would be unreasonable for me to remain neutral on this question. Knowing the standings doesn't give me certainty about my belief, but I'm more justified in holding to the belief that the Phillies won't make it to the World Series.

Chisholm argues in a similar way when he writes that "St. Augustine suggests that, even though there may be ground to question the reliability of the senses, most of us are more justified most of the time believing that we can rely upon them than believing that we can not rely upon them" (emphasis in the original).3 Because there is good evidence that our sense tell us the truth about the world most of the time, it is more reasonable to believe what our senses tell us rather than doubt that they are providing truthful information. If additional evidence is offered (i.e. the person is having an extraordinary sensory experience and has taken a hallucinogenic) then we can adjust the justification to that additional information and say one may be more justified to not believe their senses in that instance. However, neutrality, what Chisholm calls counterbalanced, is a difficult position to maintain.

Can Agnostics Be Counterbalanced?

Given the fact that arguments and evidence changes the equation of belief, I must question those who claim to be agnostic on their position. It is not reasonable to withhold a belief if there are facts that argue either for or against a position. The agnostic wishes to stay neutral on the question of God's existence, but we know quite a bit that makes neutrality a less reasonable position than that held by the theist. We know that something doesn't appear from nothing. We know that consciousness has never materialized from non-conscious material. We know that at least some people have reported seeing miracles and we know that includes the reporting of seeing the resurrected Jesus. All these facts point to the existence of a God. If one were to argue against these as evidence for God's existence, then the burden would be upon that person to show why their approach isn't assuming atheism rather than agnosticism. But to simply claim to withhold belief given the facts above is simply not justified. It is what Chisholm would call unreasonable.


1. Feldman, Richard and Feldman, Fred, "Roderick Chisholm", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
2. Chisholm, Roderick M. Theory of Knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989. Print. 8
3. Chisholm, 1989. 8.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

How Can We Know God Exists from Creation? (video)

Christians hold that God exists , but is it only a claim based on nothing more than pure faith? The answer is no. By looking at creation and seeing its design we have evidence of God's existence.

In this short video, Lenny reviews some of the primary arguments for God's existence and shows why believing in God is the most reasonable position one can hold.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

How Christian Faith is Based on Fact (video)

Faith for the Christian is anything but blind. In this short clip, Lenny answers a question from a student, explaining how Christianity has always been a belief system based on evidence and reason and why the modern mischaracterization of faith as something opposed to reason is completely wrong.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Answering "You'd be Muslim if You Were Born in Morocco"

Have you ever tried to argue for the truth of Christianity and had a person object that "The only reason you're a Christian is because you were born in a Christian country. If you were born in a Muslim nation, you'd be Muslim"? It's a common charge that sounds like it makes sense, but as Alvin Plantinga shows below, nothing follows from it. Plantinga writes:
There is an oft-repeated pluralistic argument that seems to be designed to appeal to reliabilist intuitions. The conclusion of this argument is not always clear, but here is its premise, in Hick's words:
For it is evident that in some ninety-nine percent of cases the religion which an individual professes and to which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth. Someone born to Buddhist parents in Thailand is very likely to be a Buddhist, someone born to Muslim parents in Saudi Arabia to be a Muslim, someone born to Christian parents in Mexico to be a Christian, and so on.
As a matter of sociological fact, this may be right. Furthermore, it can certainly produce a sense of intellectual vertigo. But what is one to do with this fact, if fact it is, and what follows from it? Does it follow, for example, that I ought not to accept the religious views that I have been brought up to accept, or the ones that I find myself inclined to accept, or the ones that seem to me to be true? Or that the belief-producing processes that have produced those beliefs in me are unreliable? Surely not. Furthermore, self-referential problems once more 100m; this argument is another philosophical tar baby.

For suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. (For one thing, I probably wouldn't believe that I was born in Michigan.) The same goes for the pluralist. Pluralism isn't and hasn't been widely popular in the world at large; if the pluralist had been born in Madagascar, or medieval France, he probably wouldn't have been a pluralist. Does it follow that he shouldn't be a pluralist or that his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process? I doubt it. 1
Plantinga clearly points out the propensity to identify with a belief because one is born into a certain culture does nothing to prove the truth or falsity of that belief. Sure, if I were to  be born in aboriginal Australia five thousand years ago, I probably wouldn't believe men could ever construct flying machines, but such a belief would be untrue.

Further, it doesn't even follow that I would continue to be a Muslim if I was born into a Muslim culture. I have several friends who were born and raised Muslim, and yet they converted to Christianity when they saw its truthfulness. Thus, the objection falls flat on every point.


1. Plantinga, Alvin. "A Defense of Religious Exclusivism." Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. By Louis P. Pojman. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1987. 651. Print.

Friday, April 17, 2015

True Beliefs and The Truman Show

The concept of belief has been twisted and distorted to mean something different than what had been traditionally understood. Belief is simply what one holds to be real, what one takes as true. It is just as proper to say that I believe my favorite team will win the championship as it is to say I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. I may have different kinds of evidence for claim number two than claim number one, and I may have a different level of certainty for each, but if I hold each proposition as true, then each forms a belief.

The common perception today is when one references beliefs that relate to certain metaphysical claims like the existence of God or the foundation of morality, belief is nothing more than a preference. Such views are mistaken. Because one's view of reality is different, one's beliefs are different, and that matters quite a bit.

But how can we as Christians communicate the importance of holding true beliefs? Getting someone who holds a different view to understand just what Christians mean when they say belief in God is objectively true or that right and wrong really make a difference can be frustrating. In teaching about spiritual matters, Jesus often used situational stories, called parables, to make his point. Like Jesus, we can use examples to help us illustrate our points. One of the better places to draw upon stories that would be understandable and relatable to most people is Hollywood.

Leveraging secular films to convey biblical truth may seem strange at first, but it shouldn't. All people struggle with the same "big questions" that ground their worldviews: What's the meaning of life? Does it matter what I do on this earth? Should I be true to my beliefs? What is my final destiny? Hollywood has explored these questions almost since the motion picture was invented. While they don't get everything right, you can find real gems in Hollywood blockbusters.

We Should Desire to Know What's True

We can see the value of true beliefs by watching The Truman Show. In Peter Weir's film, Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, who had been adopted by a television company so they could film his every reaction to the scripted life they created. Truman is real, but he has grown up in a false world. Friends and family are scripted actors. His town is a gigantic soundstage with the capacity to manufacture weather and change night into day. Since Truman doesn't realize that he's being manipulated, he thinks he's living in the real world. Yet something is gnawing at him. He senses that things in his little town of Seahaven are too perfect and yet too restricting. Living here is safe, but it isn't living. Ultimately, Truman would rather die than not experience the greater reality of life in all its gritty messiness.

In the climax of the movie, Truman is offered the safety and security of staying inside his bubble, but he would have no part of it. He would rather face the difficulties and the unknowns of a world that he never has experienced than live in a world system that isn't real. We hope and cheer for Truman because we instinctively know that being lied to is worse than whatever struggles lie ahead. Manufactured worlds are for hamsters, not humans.

Seek the Truth

The belief that Truman had in the film is that the world was different than the one presented to him. He believed the world was a bigger place than the one presented to him, and he sought answers to those things that didn't make sense to him. While the film doesn't show us this, I imagine that Truman would be quite shocked at the dirty, dangerous nature of the real world. I can't imagine the mental anguish someone in such a situation would feel as they reflect upon all the lost years and dreams of being deceived into believing in a world that wasn't true. However, he doesn't stop searching because the truth is worthwhile, even if it ends up being unpleasant.

Christianity holds that the truth matters. Paul encourages the Thessalonian church to "test everything; hold fast what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21, ESV). As I've said before, Christianity even offers a way to investigate its claims. That gives every person a way to check out the truth claims of the Christian faith. If the world is really the way the Bible says it is, then to not believe so is akin to running on a hamster wheel. It may seem fun for a while, but you are really going nowhere.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Are Christians Like Atheists With Respect to Islam?

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris makes the claim that Christians know just what it's like to be non-believers. In fact, he asserts they are non-believers if one is considering the Muslim god. Harris writes:
Why don't you lose any sleep over whether to convert to Islam? Can you prove that Allah is not the one, true God? Can you prove that the archangel Gabriel did not visit Muhammad in his cave? Of course not. But you need not prove any of these things to reject the beliefs of Muslims as absurd. The truth is, you know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. You think that Muslims are fooling themselves? You think that anyone who thinks that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe is misguided? Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way Atheists view Christianity, and in fact the way we view all other religions.1

Harris seems to make a convincing claim. Is this right? Are we rejecting Islam in the same way that atheists reject Christianity? Actually, no. Harris offers a false analogy here; Christians have very strong reasons for rejecting Islam while still holding to Christianity as the one true faith.

Evaluating the Evidence

Harris first tries to stack the deck with his claim that Christians cannot prove that the angel Gabriel didn't visit Muhammad in a cave to unveil the first verses of the Qur'an. That story is itself not part of the Qur'an, but in the later written collections of traditions about Muhammad known as the Hadith.2 These stories were compiled by al-Bukari some 200 years after Muhammad's life.3 While this doesn't exclusively invalidate the Islamic revelation tale, it certainly doesn't put it on the same footing as the Gospel accounts that were written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to Jesus's resurrection.

More importantly, the Qur'an references the Bible throughout its pages. Note that the angel claimed to visit Muhammad is the Arch-angel Gabriel. Gabriel is mentioned in both the Old Testament (Daniel 8:16, 9:21) and the New Testament (Luke 1:19,26). Jesus (Isa) is talked about repeatedly as is acknowledged as a messenger from God. Further, the Qur'an points to the Gospels and even instructs Muhammad to verify his doubts with “those who have read the book before you” (Sura 10:94) meaning Muhammad should check with the Christians and Jews who had the Word of God in their book.

Contradictory Claims

Given that Muhammed is to compare his teachings with those of the Bible, it is reasonable to say that the Qur'an recognized and leverages the authority of the Bible. Yet, as Muhammad's teachings evolved over the years, they became more and more unlike those found in Scripture. Islam's description of God is nothing like that found in either testament. So, it is reasonable to reject Islam on the basis that the very authority of their faith (the Qur'an) extols that Bible as the confirmation of the truth, yet contradicts the Bible on the essentials of who God is and what his message is. The Qur'an gives us the test as to whether Muhammad's message is reliable itself: compare it to the Bible. All Christians know that Islam and Christianity are simply incompatible belief systems. They cannot both be true. Since the Qur'an relies upon the Bible and holds it up as a preexisting standard, one is more reasonable to believe the Bible rather than the Qur'an.

The Category Error of Harris' Atheism

There's one other point I want to make in Harris' charge. Believing in no God at all is markedly different than believing in one specific God over another. The fact that there is a Creator of the universe has been recognized throughout all of human history. Getting attributes of the Creator wrong is not the same thing as dismissing any chance of a creator at all.

Other atheists I've engaged with have offered a more sweeping but similar charge, something like “There have been thousands of gods people have believed in across history; you don't believe in Thor or Zeus or Ra. While you're an atheist regarding all these, we just believe in one less god than you.” Such a retort is silly. Imagine turning in your math quiz blank and telling your teacher, “There are thousands of answers to those problems that you don't believe are right. You reject them all. I just believe in one less right answer than you.” I don't think such logic would carry you very far.

Atheists like Harris are categorically different than theists like Christians and Muslims. We recognize that the problem of “Why is there something rather than nothing” is a problem on the table and needs an answer. As a Christian, I will work out the problem with the factors that are set before me. The evidence adds up to Christianity. Harris turns in his blank page and smugly walks away telling everyone else he aced the test.


1. Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.7
2. Al_Bukarhi , Muhammad.“The Revelation.” Sahih al_Bukarhi, (Vol 1, Book 1, Num 3). Web.
3. "Sahih Bukhari.", n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Hidden Factors in Atheism

Professor of Psychology Paul Vitz was an atheist. Though he was raised in a minimally Christian home, he identified as an atheist during his college years and into his adult life. Vitz went on to study the motivations of atheists past and present, ultimately producing the book Faith of the Fatherless, where he lays out his theory that "in most cases alienation from God was a reaction to an absent or defective father."1 Vitz himself credits his strong relationship with his father for helping him come out of atheism.

While Vitz’s theory is fascinating, I think that Vitz’s personal story is just as informative. In a short paper entitled, "The Psychology of Atheism," Vitz provides a brief summary of the factors that contributed to his own denial of God. He notes that he wasn’t aware of these factors playing in his decision to abandon belief, yet upon retrospect they were the main contributors to his atheism. He writes:
The major factors involved in my becoming an atheist-although I wasn't really aware of them at the time-were as follows:

General socialization. An important influence on me in my youth was a significant social unease. I was somewhat embarrassed to be from the Midwest, for it seemed terribly dull, narrow, and provincial. There was certainly nothing romantic or impressive about being from Cincinnati, Ohio and from a vague mixed German-English-Swiss background. Terribly middle class. Further, besides escape from a dull, and according to me unworthy, socially embarrassing past, I wanted to take part in, in fact to be comfortable in, the new, exciting, even glamorous, secular world into which I was moving. I am sure that similar motives have strongly influenced the lives of countless upwardly mobile young people in the last two centuries. Consider Voltaire, who moved into the glittery, aristocratic, sophisticated world of Paris, and who always felt embarrassed about his provincial and nonaristocratic origin; or the Jewish ghettos that so many assimilating Jews have fled, or the latest young arrival in New York, embarrassed about his fundamentalist parents. This kind of socialization pressure has pushed many away from belief in God and all that this belief is associated with for them.

I remember a small seminar in graduate school where almost every member there at some time expressed this kind of embarrassment and response to the pressures of socialization into "modern life." One student was trying to escape his Southern Baptist background, another a small town Mormon environment, a third was trying to get out of a very Jewish Brooklyn ghetto, and the fourth was me.

Specific socialization. Another major reason for my wanting to become an atheist was that I desired to be accepted by the powerful and influential scientists in the field of psychology. In particular, I wanted to be accepted by my professors in graduate school. As a graduate student I was thoroughly socialized by the specific "culture" of academic research psychology. My professors at Stanford, however much they might disagree on psychological theory, were, as far as I could tell, united in only two things-their intense personal career ambition and their rejection of religion. As the psalmist says, ". . . The man greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord. In the pride of his countenance the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, 'There is no God'" (Psalm 10:3-4).

In this environment, just as I had learned how to dress like a college student by putting on the right clothes, I also learned to "think" like a proper psychologist by putting on the right-that is, atheistic-ideas and attitudes.

Personal convenience. Finally, in this list of superficial, but nevertheless, strong irrational pressures to become an atheist, I must list simple personal convenience. The fact is that it is quite inconvenient to be a serious believer in today's powerful secular and neo-pagan world. I would have had to give up many pleasures and a good deal of time.2
One of the most popular statistics that atheists have shared with me is the fact that the vast majority of scientists alive today don’t believe in God. For example, according to a 2009 Pew study, only one in three of those who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe on God. 3 Looking at the motivations that Vitz describes, it isn’t a big stretch to think that many who jump into the various fields of scientific study face the same pressures and will also succumb to them. In fact, these factors may be prevalent in a lot of areas, not just in scientific academics.

The fact that biased environments can increase bias among its population shouldn’t be a surprise. The fact that most atheists may not even realize unspoken factors of socialization have a real influence on their lack of belief is important for Christians to understand. When sharing our faith, hidden reasons for atheism may be very common. What’s unique is Vitz’s candor and introspection. That’s because examination of hidden motivations is difficult and can leave people vulnerable. I wonder how many atheists are willing to risk such dangerous undertaking.


1. Van Hove, Brian, S.J. "Atheism and Fatherlessness | A Review of Paul Vitz's "Faith of the Fatherless"" Ignatius Press, 8 Jan. 2008. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.
2. Vitz, Paul C. "The Psychology of Atheism." LeaderU. Faculty Commons, 9 Jan. 1996. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.
3. Masci, David. "Scientists and Belief." Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 04 Nov. 2009. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Are you Ready to Argue Like Jesus?

Are you ready? Do you have what it takes? Are you prepared to argue? Christians today face more opposition to their beliefs than in the past. Those people are going to assert them to us. Therefore, we need heed the charge of the Apostle Peter who commanded that we always be ready to make a defense for our hope in the gospel (1 Pet. 3:15). One way to do this is to learn to argue well.

For many people, that last sentence sounds counter-intuitive. "Didn't your mother tell you it isn't nice to argue?" they may ask. Others think it's downright anti-Christian to argue. But, neither of these responses are true; and that's because when I use the word argument, I mean something different from what they're hearing. When I say the word "argument," I don't mean two people yelling at one another or hurting each other's feelings. I mean something completely different; and it has more to do with growing your understanding than raising your voice.

Why It's Impossible to Avoid an Argument

All people have beliefs. You can't be a functioning human being and not hold to at least some beliefs. Some of them are easily identified, such as "I'm alive right now" or "I'm reading this blog post." Others are a bit more complex, such as one's belief in the existence of God or which political party has better answers for his or her country, yet all these beliefs have some kind of reasoning behind them. It may be that you investigated the data or it may be that you were taught a belief from a young age. The authority figure or your study helped form your beliefs. There are a few beliefs that are self-presenting, like the belief that I am not in pain right now. I know I'm not feeling pain because pain experience is direct and immediate. However, most of our beliefs are formed through other means.

Because each one of us has beliefs, each one of us holds to certain things we believe are true about the world. A belief is simply that, something we take as true about the world. Those beliefs will also shape my actions and reactions to situations around me. If I believe in the power of prayer, that belief is going to play itself out in the action of my praying. If I believe that an unborn baby is made in the image of God, then that will shape my political views on abortion. Your beliefs will always spill out into your actions and touch the people and institutions you come in contact with.

There's the issue, though. Because different people hold different views about the world, it should be no surprise that you will run into people who don't believe things that you hold as true and they believe things you hold as false.  Such contacts mean two people will desire different outcomes to a specific situation, each believing that his or her outcome is the correct one. Just like two cars that are traveling in opposite directions arrive at a one-lane bridge simultaneously, both cannot go on their merry way until the conflicting desires are resolved.

Preparing to Argue Like Jesus

Because you, dear Christian, have reasons for your beliefs, and everyone will face beliefs that conflict with their own, it becomes crucial that you make sure you are better prepared to engage those conflicts. That requires you to learn to argue well. As I said at the top of this post, arguing doesn't mean yelling, fighting, or hurting someone's feelings. Arguing is simply discussing your beliefs with another person, but doing so by providing reason and evidence, or as Michael Palin defined it: "An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition." It means we talk and support our belief with the reasons why we think that such a belief is true.

As I've been saying, this is exactly the way Jesus did it. The Gospel of Luke tells us that "The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him" (Luke 2:40). Jesus in his human nature grew in knowledge. He learned how to speak, and he learned the beliefs of his day. Jesus quoted the Scriptures – do you think he studied them? Do you think he worked at memorizing them? Do you think Jesus was a good student?  Did He study hard? He certainly seemed to know the beliefs of the Sadducees and the Pharisees as he put both to shame in Matthew 22.

I invite you to join me for the next few days as I lay out what well-structured arguments look like, and how you can make them. I also want to show what fallacies are, both to help you avoid them and to pick them out if your opponent should use them. Learn to argue more effectively; you will be following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

How to Have a Justified Belief

The concepts of belief and knowledge are woefully confused today by both Christians and non-Christians. Some of this has to do with anti-theistic rhetoric made popular by the New Atheists, some is the prevalence of Internet memes that make slick sounding but fallacious charges, and some is just the general ignorance. For example, here's how Christopher Hitchens tried to separate himself from beliefs:
And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.1
First of all, everyone has beliefs. For Hitchens to say that he doesn't have a belief is simply ridiculous. He believes he should rely on science and reason alone and he believes he should distrust other forms of knowledge.  His entire book is a treatise on what he believes and what he believes you should believe, too! So, let's set aside any nonsense that one can hold to facts without beliefs. As I showed yesterday, any claim of knowledge requires one to believe that the claim is true.

Yesterday, I was asked, "To what degree do you think it's possible to be 'belief-free'?" It's simply impossible to be belief free, since beliefs are a core part of our knowledge. The famous philosopher Rene Descartes developed a thought experiment where he tried to doubt everything. He even doubted his own senses, considering the possibility that they may be manipulations of a deceiving spirit (think the Matrix).  But he found that he couldn't doubt the fact that he was doubting! He had at least found one belief—that he was capable of thinking and doubting—he held to always be true.

What is a Justified Belief?

All people hold beliefs, but that doesn't mean that all beliefs are equal. There is a difference between a justified belief and an unjustified belief. For example, I may mention to you that I believe a certain sports team will win in the playoffs this year. You would naturally ask, "Why do you believe that?" If I respond with statistics about the team or how they have performed against their opponent, you would know that my belief isn't based on nothing, but I've come to my conclusion using information appropriate to make a decision. Even if you disagree with me, you wouldn't say my belief was arbitrary. It is rational given the facts presented. My belief is justified. It was derived based on relevant data, and it is not an unreasonable conclusion.

However, if I were to tell you that the team will win because I picked them out of a hat, or I liked their team colors, or even because they are "my team," then you could conclude that my belief is not justified. Team colors or a person's allegiance doesn't affect the outcome of a professional sporting match. They have no influence on the performance of the players.

Of course, there are degrees of justification, too. The strength of the facts presented and how well the belief explains other things we know give a belief more justification than one that rests on just a few facts. Roderick Chisholm breaks justification into six degrees of positive belief (Certain, Obvious, Evident, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Epistemically in the Clear, and Probable) and defines each one to show how one belief may be stronger or weaker than another.2

One Cannot Justify Science and Reason without Belief

All people have beliefs and some of those beliefs concern how one understands God, life, and the world around us. These are important beliefs, as they make up our worldview. If one's beliefs can be shown to be justified and they don't contradict one another, then that person has a coherent worldview.  Hitchens' has a problem, however. He holds that science and reason are good and beliefs are bad. Yet, one cannot have science or reason without beliefs. That means that Hitchens' worldview is contradictory; he wants to reject beliefs and uphold rationality when rationality forces one to choose whether to believe a claim or not.

Beliefs matter and they are fundamental to knowledge. To discount belief is to know nothing at all.


1. Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything New York: Twelve Books, 2007. Kindle Edition. 8.
2. Chisholm, Roderick M. Theory of Knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989. Print. 8-17.

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