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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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Showing posts with label memes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label memes. Show all posts

Friday, February 10, 2017

Does Religion "Fly You Into Buildings"?


Physicist and anti-theist Victor Stenger famously claimed "Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings." This kind of throwaway line is standard fare for the new atheist types and is often repeated via memes shared on social media sites. Stenger isn't the only one who thinks religion is a way to manipulate others into doing immoral acts. Sam Harris claimed "One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not."1

I'm not sure how Harris concluded that religion divorces morality from suffering. If he were a true student of world religions he would recognize that the question of human suffering is the primary focus of most faiths. Hindus seek to be come closer to the divine, eliminating the suffering associated with the cycle of reincarnation. Buddhists teach balance to avoid pain and suffering. Islam holds suffering as Christianity focuses on eliminating suffering by eliminating sin and its consequences. While I don't agree with the underlying assumptions of other faiths, it is disingenuous to say that religion divorces morality from suffering. The problem of human suffering is front and center in religious faith.

What about Jihadists?

 So how do we explain the ISIS or Al Qaeda suicide bombers then? Isn't it obvious that such horrendous acts are religiously motivated? I would say it's true only in part. Islam is a faith that offers Muhammad as its exemplar—the model Muslim to which all others should aspire. Muhammad was a warrior who slaughtered innocents and the famous "sword verses" of the Qur'an commands the faithful to "slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush." (Sura 9:5) and "When you encounter the unbeliever, strike off their heads until you have made a great slaughter among them" (Sura 47:4). Also, the Qur'an promises a reward to the warrior who dies in his fight for Islam: "So let them fight in the way of God who sell the present life for the world to come; and whosoever fights in the way of God and is slain, or conquers, We shall bring him a mighty wage" (Sura 4:74).

Because Islam offers both the commands of the Qur'an and the example of Muhammad, it allows for jihadists to kill themselves while killing the enemy in the name of martyrdom. But that doesn't mean suicide terrorism is the first resort of Muslims. In fact, it turns out that suicide terrorism isn't a historically popular strategy for followers of Islam. Robert Pape in his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism notes that there were no suicide attacks by Muslims or any other groups from 1945 to 1980. From 1980 through 2003, Pape catalogued 315 suicide terrorism campaigns around the world with 462 individual suicide terrorists.2 Pape notes that "every suicide campaign from 1980 to 2003 has had as a major objective –or as its central objective—coercing a foreign government that has military forces in what they see as their homeland to take those forces out." 3Pape concludes, "The bottom line, then, is that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation."4 So, politics and power are the real motivation for terrorist campaigns. It thrives in Islam because the belief system doesn't contradict its use.

What about the Destructive Power of Science?

The biggest problem with Stenger's quip is it is so self-selective. It gives a rosy picture of science by the example of one of our greate3st achievements and then contrasts it with one of our greatest horrors. But it isn't "science" that flies us to the moon. It's human beings who do that. Science allows human beings to understand thrust and gravity. It is a tool to help us accomplish whatever goals we have. Humans used science to develop the planes that Stenger seems to be so worried about, but he doesn't mention that. We use science to construct better weapons, too, producing some of them most incredible destructive powers on earth. Without science, we would never have had a Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  And without religion, we would never have a Mother Theresa or a Father Damien.

The Golden Rule and the concept of the Good Samaritan find their origin in Christianity.  Dr. Alvin J. Schmidt explains that it was the teachings of Jesus that "elevated brutish standards of morality, halted infanticide, enhanced human life, emancipated women, abolished slavery, inspired charities and relief organizations, created hospitals, established orphanages, and founded schools."5

Harris and Stenger's comments not only show their bias, but they are demonstrably wrong. They have simply created straw men in order to easily knock them down. Perhaps if they showed a little more Christian charity toward those with whom they disagree, they wouldn't be so nasty and could see things a bit more clearly.

References

1. Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.
2. Pape, Robert Anthony. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2005. Print. 14-16.
3. Pape, 2005. 42.
4. Pape, 2005. 23.
5. Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. 8.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The silliness of claiming we were all atheists at birth



There has been a lot of talk in the past few months about "fake news." Fake news stories are those purported by some web site as real and shared by people who want them to be true, but have no basis in fact. They simply help confirm the bias of some group. Usually, the story gets repeated and simply because it appeared "in print" or from a semi-authoritative site it is accepted without question.

But, the phenomenon of believing outlandish claims because they conform to what we want to be true is not new. The Internet just helps to spread them more quickly. For example, take the idea that all people are born atheist. I saw a meme recently picturing a group of babies and a caption that reads "Atheists. Can't you just feel the evil of their ways?" Several show a baby being baptized while exclaiming, "Stop, I'm an atheist!" EvolveFish offers a bumper sticker for sale reading, "You don't become an atheist. You go back to being one." The most popular version takes a more negative tone in claiming "We are all born atheist until someone starts telling us lies."


With all their talk of being rational and "brights," I wonder how anyone in the atheist movement could buy into such a silly charge. No, we are not all atheists at birth. Newborns haven't yet developed the rational capacity for abstract belief. They are only concerned with their immediate needs: eating, discomfort, feeling safe, and the like. To claim that because they lack the capacity to understand the idea of God somehow makes them an atheist is akin to saying because they cannot yet understand the concept of round they must be considered flat-earthers. After all, flat earth believers only reject what they cannot see.

Desperately trying to bear no burden

Of course, one reason for the recent popularity of the claim that babies are born atheist is the desire by a lot of atheists to redefine the term atheism as something that is neutral; a term that makes no claims. But atheism does make claims, just as one who holds to a flat earth is making a claim. The earth must have some shape to it and as a person becomes aware of shapes he or she will no longer be neutral as to what they believe the shape of the earth is. They hold a position.

Similarly, as one becomes aware of the concepts like other minds exist, effects have causes, things that show evidence of design will have a designer, we must be able to explain our own origin, etc., then one will no longer be neutral as to the question of God. The person may not be "all in," that is 100% certain either for or against God's existence, but that doesn't mean he or she isn't making a judgment.

That's why it's impossible to take a position that says "We aren't going to teach our kids about any religion, but we'll let them make up their own minds." By modeling a life where God is meaningless, they are taking a position and they're teaching it to their kids. By claiming all children are atheists "until someone starts telling us lies," one is making a truth claim about God. It isn't neutral!

Atheism makes a knowledge claim about God's existence; therefore, one must teach his or her children there is no God. If atheism were the default position, then history would be littered with civilizations and cultures that were atheistic. But those don't exist. The entire record of human existence clearly shows that human beings have held to the belief there is some kind of divine power to which we owe our ultimate origin. Certainly, many have gotten things wrong—that's another argument. But to claim that all babies are atheists is silly and actually embarrassing for the movement.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Deconstructing the "Atheist Nations are Better" Meme



Yesterday I wrote about a spate of memes on the Internet that assert countries with atheist majorities are faring better than those whose cultures reflect a religious majority. In that article, I distinguished that the concept of "better" is used pretty loosely, as suicides and the value of life itself seems to be much lower in Scandinavian counties offered as examples of secular states. Today, I'd like to approach some of the other problems with the assertion to provide a fuller response to those who would believe such hype.

Secularism is not Atheism

It must be mentioned at the outset that many of the memes out there are not accurate in their presentation of the facts. For example, the Iceland meme defines Iceland as an "Atheist majority population." According to the CIA World Factbook, the population of Iceland is actually "Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (official) 73.8%, Roman Catholic 3.6%, Reykjavik Free Church 2.9%, Hafnarfjorour Free Church 2%, The Independent Congregation 1%, other religions 3.9% (includes Pentecostal and Asatru Association), none 5.6%, other or unspecified 7.2% (2015 est.)."1 Taking the Nones and the unspecified together, it means 12.8% of Iceland's nearly 332,000 citizens don't identify with any religious group.  That isn't even close to a majority.

The question changes if one makes a distinction between a secular culture and an atheist culture. Even sociologist Phil Zuckerman, from whose research most of these ideas were taken, tried to be a bit more careful in his definitions, defining an atheist as "someone who doesn't believe in God and/or finds the very concept of God meaningless or incoherent" and a secular person as "someone who is non-religious, irreligious, or generally uninterested in, indifferent to, or oblivious to religious beliefs, activities, and organizations."2 As Zuckerman rightly notes, there are a wide range of beliefs, self-identifications, and even overlapping views. So, while Iceland may have a population that is uninterested in religious beliefs (we don't know if that's the case as no statistics are provided in the meme), it cannot be claimed to be atheist.

Selective Sampling

In another article written for Psychology Today, Zuckerman claims "those democratic nations today that are the most secular, such as Scandinavia, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, etc., are faring much better on nearly every single indicator of well-being imaginable than the most religious nations on earth today such as Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Malawi, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc."3 Interestingly, why did Zuckerman include the qualifier "democratic" in his assessment of secular nations but not of the religious ones? What about the human rights of the citizens of China or North Korea? Here, he doesn't say, but he does mention it in his other work. There, Zuckerman admits such nations "do miserably on various indicators of societal well-being" but he blames this on the dictatorships themselves.4 He may very well be right, but then what to do with including nations like Colombia and Yemen in the list above?

Also, while Zuckerman's article is written to counter what he says is a charge by "religious conservatives," the claim is too broad.  I don't claim that being religious or a belief in God is all one needs for a society to thrive. It is specifically Christian ethics and a society influenced by a Christian worldview that we must discuss.  Islamic nations have a whole host of other problems they must deal with.

In the next article, I focus specifically on the conclusion offered by Zuckerman that countries like the Scandinavian nations are faring better due to their secularism. For now, know that such claims rely more on assumption than fact.

References

1. "Iceland." CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency, 28 Oct. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2015. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ic.html.
2. Zuckerman, Phil. "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions." Sociology Compass 3.6 (2009): 951. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
3. Zuckerman, Phil. "Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-secular-life/201410/secular-societies-fare-better-religious-societies.
4. Zuckerman, 2009.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Are Atheist Countries Really More Moral?



Within the last twenty four hours I saw two different versions of a meme gaining popularity online. The latest one references the nation of Iceland with text that states "Iceland has no army, jailed their corrupt bankers, economy is booming, violent crime is rare, one of the lowest crime rates in the world." The meme then unveils its punchline: "Atheist majority population. Where is all that evil and depravity the religious talk about?"

Similar ideas have been offered before. Phil Zuckerman has written in this vein extensively. His article "Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies" that appeared last year in Psychology Today makes similar assertions:
…those democratic nations today that are the most secular, such as Scandinavia, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, etc., are faring much better on nearly every single indicator of well-being imaginable than the most religious nations on earth today, such as Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Malawi, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc.1
Is this right? Are nations such as Iceland, the Scandinavian countries, and Australia better off with their secular cultures?

Clarifying the Question – What Do you Mean by 'Better'?

Before we jump too far into the details, it is important to clarify just what is being claimed. Take the Iceland meme for example. Does anyone think it would be better if the United States had no standing army? I'm certain Iceland wouldn't like that, since as a member of NATO they rely on the U.S. and its NATO partners to protect them in the event of an invasion, as they did in World War II.2

Secondly, many of the measures that folks like Zuckerman uses are subjective on what makes a better state of affairs. For example, in her response to Zuckerman's book Society Without God, sociologist Lisa Graham McMinn notes how selective Zuckerman's definition of better is. She writes:
But Zuckerman flubs a fundamental point: He confuses a contented life with a good life. Zuckerman frankly admits the lack of purpose expressed by many Scandinavians. They aren't troubled by the need to find it either, but are satisfied living their lives without being overly concerned about the larger meaning of life or what happens after death.3
Interestingly, even Zuckerman admits in his own research that the one factor where the more secular nations fare worse is the number of suicides as a percentage of the population. In a paper presented in the academic journal Sociology Compass, Zuckerman writes:
As for suicide, however, regular church-attending Americans clearly have lower rates than non-attenders (Comstock and Partridge, 1972; Stack and Wasserman, 1992; Martin, 1984), although this correlation has actually not been found in other nations (Stack, 1991). Of the current top-ten nations with the highest rates of suicide, most are relatively secular (World Health Organization, 2003). 4

Does Being Liberal Mean More Moral?

Zuckerman immediately tries to brush off this correlation by explaining that perhaps most of the suicides are remnants from previous dictators in eastern bloc countries. However, he also notes in the report that the secular nations are much more supportive of physician-assisted suicide, which he argues is one factor in concluding that such stances make the secularist more moral than the believer:

But I would go farther. I would argue that a strong case could be made that atheists and secular people actually possesses a stronger or more ethical sense of social justice than their religious peers. After all, when it comes to such issues as the governmental use of torture or the death penalty, we see that atheists and secular people are far more merciful and humane. When it comes to protecting the environment, women's rights, and gay rights, the non-religious again distinguish themselves as being the most supportive5 (emphasis in the original).

So, is it of any surprise to see suicide rates go up in a culture where practices like abortion and euthanasia are lauded? Isn't this devaluing of life exactly what Christians mean when they warn that "things will get ugly"? In the Netherlands, there has been a 300% increase in euthanized people in just over a decade. Worse, as Wesley J. Smith reports, "In only twenty three years, Dutch doctors have gone from being permitted to kill the terminally ill who ask for it, to killing the chronically ill who ask for it, to killing newborn babies in their cribs because they have birth defects, even though by definition they cannot ask for it. Dutch doctors also engage in involuntary euthanasia without significant legal consequence, even though such activity is officially prohibited."6

That doesn't sound better to me. I think McMinn is right when she concludes "Zuckerman sells humanity short. If people are content but no longer care about transcendent meaning and purpose or life beyond death, that's not a sign of greatness but tragic forgetfulness."7

There are more problems with the meme as well. Click here to read part two. Click here to read part three.

References

1. Zuckerman, Phil. "Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-secular-life/201410/secular-societies-fare-better-religious-societies.
2. IcelandicRoots. "The Occupation of Iceland During World War II." Icelandic Roots. Icelandic Roots, 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2015. http://www.icelandicroots.com/the-occupation-of-iceland-during-world-war-ii/.
3. McMinn, Lisa Graham. "Learning from Secular Nations." ChristianityToday.com. Christianity Today, 2 Feb. 2009. Web. 2 Nov. 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/february/13.57.html.
4. Zuckerman, Phil. "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions." Sociology Compass 3.6 (2009): 949-71. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
5. Zuckerman, 2009.
6. Smith, Wesley J. Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder. New York: Times, 1997. Print. 110-111.
7. McMinn, 2009.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Those Guilty of Doing Nothing in the Face of Evil

On October 27, 2009, a 15 year old girl went to her homecoming dance being held at the gymnasium of Richmond High School in Richmond, California. She was attacked outside the building and for some 2-1/2 hours was gang raped while as many as 20 bystanders looked on and did nothing.1 In October of 2012, a man is savagely beaten, robbed, and stripped of his clothes while onlookers laughed and filmed the event on their phones (clips of which can be seen here.)2 Jose Robles, manager of a Manhattan deli, after being beaten and mugged, complained from his hospital bed that no one stepped in to answer his cried for help. Instead, "people were watching and they were having a good time filming" the crime he said.3

Many people wonder how or why otherwise upright individuals could so callously ignore someone in need. Why wouldn't anyone help? In some situations, actually having a lot of people know about a heinous situation diminishes the desire for people to step in. Because of perceived social cues and reluctance to stick out, people will shy away from helping until they see others do so. The phenomenon is known as "the bystander effect" in psychology circles.4

The Bystander Effect

In her article on the bystander effect,5 Dr. Melissa Burkley references a landmark series of experiments conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latane. There they found two main components driving the lack of involvement by others. The first she dubs "pluralistic ignorance" and uses an example of a child who's splashing wildly in a pool. Upon seeing the child, you may survey the other adults in the pool area to see if anyone else is bothered by her actions. If they are concerned the child is drowning, you would dive in to rescue her. If they're indifferent, you may conclude nothing's wrong. But if no one knows and they all are looking at each other, then a false message is communicated.

The second factor of the bystander effect is what Burkley labels "diffusion of responsibility." She explains:
When you are the only eyewitness present, 100% of the responsibility for providing help rests on your shoulders. But if there are five eyewitnesses, only 20% of the responsibility is yours. The responsibility becomes defused or dispersed among the group members. In these situations, people may assume that someone else will help or that someone else is better qualified to provide assistance. But if everyone assumes this, then no one will intervene.6
It shouldn't be a revelation that those who succumb to the bystander effect are wrong. Even Jesus taught against it in his parable of the Good Samaritan. As beings who are morally aware, every person has a duty to help those in need. To watch others and assume you carry only a fraction of the moral responsibility in a dire situation is to allow evil to persist. Even if one is unsure, as in the pool example, there is nothing improper for a person to walk toward the edge of the pool and ask the child if she is in distress. An inquiry is preferable to a child's death.

Bystander Effect and Planned Parenthood

I bring this up because I'm seeing the bystander effect writ large in our society today. Millions of Christians as well as others are ignoring the evil of Planned Parenthood's extracting live babies from their mothers wombs in order to cut them apart and sell them off piece by piece. A few folks have written to me and asked "Why aren't people more upset about this?" As I've stated before, if public outcry can spur legislation within a month to ban confederate flags or one lion's death can ignite indignation across the country via social media, then certainly the lives of the most defenseless of human beings should be worth our time and effort. To ignore it or assume others will carry on with the fight is wrong.

There are many ways you can make a difference in the effort. First, if you haven't done so, make sure you watch the videos. I've linked to them all here. You don't have to watch the full footage, but the ten videos to date are damning evidence that this isn't manipulation or slick editing. Secondly, share them. Share them a lot. Voice your outrage at this barbarism. You can also follow some of the suggestions I've outlined here. And if you'd like to pass on some answers to the objections Planned Parenthood supporters are raising, check out the links to the articles below.

We must act in this crisis and not wait for others. As Carly Fiorina stated in the Republican Presidential debate on September 16, 2015:
I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully-formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain. This is about the character of our nation.7
It's also about the character of each of us as individuals.

References

1. CNN. "Police: As Many as 20 Present at Gang Rape outside School Dance." CNN. Cable News Network, 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 16 Sept. 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/10/27/california.gang.rape.investigation/.
2. Sylvester, Lisa. "Onlookers Jeer as Man Is Beaten, Stripped and Robbed in Baltimore." CNN. Cable News Network, 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 16 Sept. 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/09/us/maryland-beating/.
3. Burke, Kerry, Tina Moore, and Bill Hutchinson. "Port Authority Attack Victim Angry at Do-nothing Witnesses." NY Daily News. NYDailyNews.com, 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Sept. 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/port-authority-attack-victim-angry-do-nothing-witnesses-article-1.1742519.
4. Burkley, Melissa, PhD. "Why Don't We Help? Less Is More, at Least When It Comes to Bystanders." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 4 Nov. 2009. Web. 17 Sept. 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-social-thinker/200911/why-don-t-we-help-less-is-more-least-when-it-comes-bystanders.
5. Burkley, 2009.
6. Burkley, 2009.
7. Beckwith, Ryan Teague. "Transcript: Read the Full Text of the Second Republican Debate." TIME. Time, Inc., 16 Sept. 2015. Web. 17 Sept. 2015. http://time.com/4037239/second-republican-debate-transcript-cnn/ .

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Why Would a Loving God Allow the Earthquake in Nepal?

Like most people, I grieve for the tremendous tragedy the Nepalese people are suffering after a violent 7.8 earthquake and its aftershocks devastated much of the nation on Saturday. According to the latest reports, over 4,800 people have dies and at least 9,200 have been injured in the disaster.1 Those numbers are staggering and help is desperately needed for the survivors.

Of course, when a tragedy like this happens, questions of why arise. I saw one meme that shows an image of a girl praying with the superimposed text:
 "Dear God, please help the victims of that terrible earthquake — wait, aren't you the one that created it? Why are we asking you for help? This makes no sense!" (Emphasis in the original.)

As with most memes, this is a dramatic oversimplification of an issue that seeks to sound good without thinking through its underlying assumptions.

I don't think there's any doubt that this meme is meant to argue against the existence of God. It seems to be implying at least two reasons to hold that belief in God is unreasonable. The broader question is "Why would a loving God create something as devastating as earthquakes?" But another question may be "Why would a loving God allow such a devastating earthquake strike such an impoverished nation like Nepal where the death toll would most certainly be high?" Let's look at each in turn.

Earthquakes and Life

The causes of earthquakes are studied by geologists in a rather new field of science named plate tectonics. As this LiveScience article explains, scientists believe the Earth's outer layer is like a hard shell broken into several plates that move over the earth's mantle. When the mantle pushes and pulls these plates, they rub against one another in certain ways, causing earthquakes. Sometimes plates are pulled apart, such as the process that forms the deep trenches in the oceans, sometimes they rub sideways like those like in Los Angeles's San Andreas fault, and sometimes one plate is pushed underneath another, like the plates that for the fault in Nepal.2 The plate movement in Nepal is much faster than most other plates on earth, and it is the reason why eight of the ten highest mountains on earth fall within the borders of the small nation.3

As we learn more about the earth's plates and their movements, astrobiologists and geologists are beginning to discover just how crucial plate tectonics is for life to exist. In their book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, Drs. Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee note that of all the planets we observe in our solar system, only the earth has signs of shifting plates in the form of mountain ranges and ocean basins.4 Some of the key benefits they list concerning plate tectonics are:5
  • It promotes high levels of global biodiversity as species as they must adapt to different environments which ensures they don't fall extinct easily.
  • It manages the amount chemicals that form carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, helping to keep the earth's temperature stable, keeping liquid water abundant on the planet.
  • It creates ocean basins and lifts dry land out of the sea, allowing advanced life like humans to be land-dwelling animals.
  •  It also recirculates the minerals that erosion has deposited in the sea,
  • Finally, it creates earth's magnetic field, sheltering life from "potentially lethal influx of cosmic radiation, and solar wind "sputtering" (in which particles from the sun hit the upper atmosphere with high energy) might slowly eat away at the atmosphere, as it has on Mars."
Ward and Brownlee conclude that if there were no more earthquakes, the earths temperatures would quickly become unlivable and "planetary calamity for complex life would occur shortly after the cessation of plate movement."6 Earthquakes are necessary for you and me to exist on earth at all.

Why would such a poor country be hit by such a big earthquake?

At this point the atheist may narrow his claim and simply ask "OK, but why would God allow such devastation in an area where there are so many people?" AS I explained above, there are many areas such as the sea floor where these kinds of earthquakes occur and they hurt no one. But land-based earthquakes are necessary to do some of the things I mentioned above. It is no surprise that Nepal is prone to devastating earthquakes. The Himalayas attest to the fault's activity. In fact, the last devastating quake happened in 1934, killing about 10,000 people. Geologist Hongfeng Yang said that geology of that part of the world is "generally consistent and homogenous" and the region should expect a severe earthquake every four to five decades.7

I live in Southern California, with my house very close to the San Andreas Fault. We know that the San Andreas is overdue for a very large earthquake. While we don't know when it will come, it is a recognized danger. Both private citizens and the government have made preparations for when "the big one" hits. In Nepal, the warnings of the 1990's were ignored, as Samrat Upadhyay explained in his recent article in the Los Angeles Times.8 My survival may depend on having emergency supplies in my home if an earthquake hits. But in other areas of the world, planning and infrastructure buttressing may be thwarted not by God but by the corruption or greed of those responsible for such safeguards. While no one can assume there would be no loss of life in any natural disaster, the loss of lives can be significantly mitigated by those who live in the area.

 The meme seeks to blame God for creating earthquakes.  Yet, without them, our world may be a sterile as Mars or as lifeless as Venus. People have the capability to prevent a significant amount of damage and loss of life from the quakes. Perhaps we should begin by investigating why no one acted on the warnings instead of trying to point an uninformed finger at God.

References

1. Watson, Ivan, Jethro Mullen, and Laura Smith-Spark. "Nepal Earthquake: Death Toll Climbs above 4,600." CNN. Cable News Network, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/28/asia/nepal-earthquake/.
2. Oskin, Becky. "What Is Plate Tectonics?" LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 04 Dec. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.livescience.com/37706-what-is-plate-tectonics.html.
3. McClain, Sean, and Shirley S. Wang. "How the Nepal Earthquake Happened Like Clockwork." WSJ. The Wall Street Journal, 26 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-nepal-earthquake-happened-like-clockwork-1430044358.
4. Ward, Peter D., and Donald Brownlee. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. New York: Copernicus, 2000. Kindle Edition. 194.
5. Ward and Brownlee, 194.
6. Ward and Brownlee, 206.
7. McClain and Wang, 2015.
8. Upadhyay, Samrat. "Nepal Earthquake: We Had Been Warned." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0428-upadhyay-nepal-earthquake-20150427-story.html.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Does Being Old Disqualify the Bible's Teachings?

Recently, I ran across another of those atheist memes that have become popular online. As I've demonstrated before, these little quips, while attractive on the surface, usually make huge errors in thinking. However, since Christians are likely to run across similar objections to their faith from skeptics or others, I do think it can be educational to take some of these apart.



The latest meme has a simple image of a man's torso holding a Bible, accompanied by the statement/question "Would you let a doctor with a 2000 year old medical book operate on you? No. So why let a priest with a 2000 year old storybook tell you how to live?"

Leaving aside the loaded language of "2000 year old storybook," the meme tried to do two things at once. First, it tries to make a comparison between a medical procedure and matters of faith. Secondly, by so doing, it argues that because a text is old it is somehow deficient. Let's take these claims in order.

I would like to take these claims in reverse order, but the careful reader should note that the meme is wrong in its claim that people don't allow doctors with ancient medical books operate on them. Acupuncture predates Christianity by thousands of years and I have known many people who reject the wisdom of the Bible but embrace it as a treatment for their ailments. The practice has received enough attention that the Journal of the American Medical Association and the British medical journal Lancet have written articles on the practice.1 Whether the relief people feel from acupuncture is due to the procedure or simply a placebo effect, acupuncture patients will tell you that they continue to have treatments because it helps them.2 So, many people do let a medical practitioner with an ancient "medical book" operate on them.

One Cannot Dismiss an Idea Solely Because of its Source

The main error the meme commits is shown by those people who continue to pay of acupuncture. It doesn't matter how old a procedure is; the real question is "does it work" or "is it true." In logic, dismissing an idea because it comes from an old source is a form of the genetic fallacy. If you aren't familiar with the term, a genetic fallacy is a mistake in logic where a person claims the falsehood of an idea simply because of its origin. For example, I learned from my school teacher that 2 + 2 = 4. But if my teacher is later found to be a habitual liar, it doesn't mean that I must now reject the notion that 2 + 2 = 4! She could have lied about everything else, but that idea is actually true.

Similarly, one cannot dismiss the Bible as a source of wisdom on life simply because it is old. In fact, unlike medical procedures, which are more mechanical, issues of life are universal. This is why we require students to read Shakespeare, Boethius, and Homer—because we can learn from them, even though they are ancient. Human beings have faced the same big questions of life since our origin, and these are not things where the answers come more easily with better technical expertise.

For example, I would not let any doctor operate on me who doesn't adhere to the dictums of the 2,400 year old Greek physician Hippocrates who taught that medicine must be practiced morally and with the patient's best interest as the primary motivation. Such wisdom is so valued that 98% of American physicians today swear by the Hippocratic Oath when gaining their medical degree.3

So, the meme is asking the wrong questions. It doesn't matter how old a text is. What should be asked is "Is the text true?" For that we have strong evidence that the Bible is what it claims to be: the word of God given to men so they may find the answers to those big questions of life.

Perhaps if the meme's creator had spent more time reading Aristotle's 2,300 year old writings on logic, he may not have made such an egregious error.

References

1. JAMA articles on acupuncture may be found at http://jama.jamanetwork.com/solr/searchresults.aspx?q=acupuncture&fd_JournalID=67&f_JournalDisplayName=JAMA&SearchSourceType=3 . For a list of various Lancet articles on the subject see http://www.thelancet.com/search/results?searchTerm=acupuncture&fieldName=ArticleTitleAbstractKeywords&journalFromWhichSearchStarted=

2. To be sure, the efficacy of acupuncture is highly debated in the medical community. One of the most difficult problems, as the Lancet mentioned is that it becomes difficult to create a control group for a blind study when the procedure itself requires one to have needles inserted into the body. Regardless, the falsity of the "no" answer in the meme is proven.

3. Crawshaw, R. "The Hippocratic Oath. Is Alive and Well in North America." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 08 Oct. 1994. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. .

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Don't Blame Christian Martyrs for Violence

There is a lot of sloppy thinking in our modern world, especially when it comes to the area of faith and beliefs. While this shows up frequently in mainstream outlets (the blog over at GetReligion has covered the myopia of the press for years), social media is one of the main enablers of quick quips that sound good but really make no sense at all. The internet meme is a prime example of this.


I've been deconstructing memes every once in a while on the blog; you can find some of my previous posts here.  Yesterday, though, I had the first opportunity to interact with the creator of one of these slick picture-slogans. Atheist Michael Sherlock claims "Christianity did not become a major religion by the quality of its truth, but by the quantity of its violence." After I had pointed out the fact that early Christianity didn't spread by doing violence, but were the victims of various martyrdoms, Sherlock sought to argue that the early church leaders would solicit Christians to become martyrs for the PR value and attract more adherents. Yesterday I showed why his claims and sources fail.

However, there's another problem with the argument. It simply isn't true that since Christians were the recipients of violent acts, it somehow justifies his meme. If one looks carefully at what Sherlock's meme states, the reasons become apparent.

Martyrdom Wasn't Attractive to Romans

First off, it would be a mistake to assume that ancient Roman culture would look upon those who are conscientiously objecting to state requirements in the same way that we may in the 21st century. One source Sherlock cites is a footnote of Anthony Briley that supposedly shows Christians are trained to be martyrs. Briley comments that "Marcus thinks of Christians as 'lined up unarmed' for death, as soldiers in battle array: but not as persons who had really made an individual reasoned choice — they were drilled, and trained to die…" I think Sherlock misunderstands this passage. Briley wasn't saying that Christian were training to die. Rather, he was using this as one of many examples of how Aurelius would see Christians in a negative light.

It strikes me this is actually evidence against Sherlock's charge. The Romans were a militaristic people and valued not dying for one's own cause, but killing on behalf of the state. Alvin J. Schmidt quotes Richard Frothingham stating "The individual was regarded as of value only if he was part of the political fabric and able to contribute to its uses, as though it were the end of his being to aggrandize the State."1. Roman virtues of frugalitas, severitas, and fidelis that Roman soldiers were expected to exhibit were considered virtuous, not the giving of oneself to death. A man who is martyred for crimes against Rome would be about as attractive to Romans as suicide bombers are to Americans today. You may get a few fringe followers, but it would in no way explain drastic growth in the same way that Christian charity and missionary efforts do.

The Problem with Blaming Christians for Being Martyrs

What Sherlock has attempted to do is to justify his meme after the fact by claiming that performing violence on Christians is the same thing as Christian violence. Note what the meme states: "Christianity did not become a major religion by the quality of its truth, but by the quantity of its violence." Anyone who reads that will understand it to say that Christianity grew to a world religion through violent conquest as its primary proselytizing method. The phrase "quantity of its violence" can be parsed clearly. Sherlock uses a possessive pronoun to state that it is Christian-generated violence that expanded the faith. Then, when called out on the mistake, he makes says the violence of martyrdom justifies his meme. He writes, "Thus, in the ante-Nicene period, prior to its transformation into a dangerous and murderous religion, Christianity was but a violent suicide cult, the aim of which was to spread by way of violent theatrics aimed at inspiring onlookers with the needless spilling of the blood of innocent fools."2

To claim that Christian martyrs died as a PR stunt is despicable . Briley, in the same footnote that's mentioned above, talks about the charges of incest and cannibalism that would also arise against Christians, false charges that Roman apologists such as Minucius Felix or Lollianus would use to stir the populous against them. 3 The fact that the Romans felt they needed to fabricate false charges puts Sherlock's claim in doubt. Historian Robert L. Wliken tells us that charges of incest and cannibalism "had become widespread" against Christians by the late second century and comments that in the Roman world "charges of immorality and licentiousness were often brought against devious individuals or groups."4 Wilken then notes how the charges became standardized, following a very specific pattern which underscores their dubious nature.5

So how does Sherlock come to the conclusion that Christian leaders would encourage "many of their followers to provoke the Roman authorities?" If so many Christians were seeking to provoke the powers that be, why would a society that values law and order need to invent anything at all? The fact is that no reputable scholar of the anti-Nicean period would ever take Sherlock's interpretation seriously. He's gasping at trying to make Christianity into something it isn't. Sherlock is using the same tact that Felix and Lollianus did, only the evidence falls against him.

The early martyrdom suffered by the saints cannot be considered Christian violence, but only violence done to Christians. Even today, Christians are the most persecuted people in the world because of their faith. Reports out of Nairobi and other nations about gunmen hunting down Christians in shopping malls are horrifying. Does Sherlock label this "Christian violence?" Does he think that the dozens who died simply because they were attending  All Saints' Church staged it for the PR value? Such claims would rightfully be considered disgusting and offensive. Just because the early martyrs preceded these by some 1700 years doesn't make Sherlock's claims any less so.

Internet memes can be very attractive if one doesn't think to carefully. It's easy to try and reduce centuries of history to a few words. But history isn't so reducible. Neither is dismissing the deaths of others because you don't like their faith.

References

1. Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004). 48.

2. Sherlock, Michael. "Violent Christianity — Refuting the Christian Apologists at Come Reason Ministries." Web. 7-7-2014. http://michaelsherlockauthor.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/violent-christianity-refuting-the-christian-apologists-at-come-reason-org/ Accessed 7-8-2014.

3. Wilken, Robert L. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984). 18.

4. Ibid. 17-18.

5. Ibid. 18.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Did Christianity Dominate Through Violence?

Yesterday, I began to examine a particular charge made by an atheist that "Christianity did not become a major religion by the quality of its truth, but by the quantity of its violence." This charge is not new; claims of Christian domination are common, with some offering the Crusades and others pointing to colonialism as examples of how Christianity sought to dominate the world. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, neither of those examples are evidence for spreading Christianity through violence.

Missionary Christianity — The Spread of Love

When Christianity first began as a persecuted faith in the Roman period, the thing that attracted pagans to Christianity is their selflessness and their love. An anonymous second century letter exists, addressed to Diognetus, where the writer gives a clear description of how Christians are seen:
Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens…They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed… They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance.  They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life.1
This unwavering dedication in the face of the persecution that I wrote about in my last post is the evidence that the Christians' "quality of truth" was lived out.

Colonization and the Crusades

The spread of Christianity through missionary efforts providing the love of Christ did not end when Constantine converted. Augustine of Hippo, one of the smartest men in history, converted to Christianity because he was seeking wisdom.2 Other leaders of western thought, such as Tertullian, Origen, and Justin Martyr also converted on the strength of Christianity's truth claims.

The living out of Christian love had a huge impact as well. The Eastern churches began monasteries to what are now Russia and the Slavic states, where the people converted not by sword, but by their embracing of the local peoples. In the west, saints like Patrick, who was enslaved by the pagan Irish for six years, came back and showed his love to them, leading to the nation's conversion.

Of course there are examples of attempts at forced conversions by rulers such as Charlemagne or the Spanish Inquisition. But these are political power plays that sought to co-opt Christianity for their own ends. Christianity had a mandate from its founder to "make disciples of all nations," but Jesus forbade the use of the sword as the means to accomplish that task. These are the exceptions in the history of Christendom and they only occur after Christianity has become dominant within the culture, not before.

The Crusades are a unique matter. While they did contain a lot of heinous actions on both sides, one must remember they were never an attempt to conquer or convert anyone. Paul F. Crawford I his excellent "Four Myths About the Crusades" shows clearly that the Crusades were launched as a response to Islamic attacks on Christians in the Middle East. Christians were protecting their lands against invaders, not invading themselves.

The fact that Christianity grew through the missionary's sweat and not the soldier's boot is a well-known fact of history. By asserting that violence spread the Christian faith, Michael Sherlock hopes to with a wave of his hand erase some 2000 years of history. It's a claim that defies credulity. But there's one more piece of evidence that Sherlock fails to consider: the fact that even today the fastest growing religion in the world is Christianity and I know of no armies conquering ion the sign of the cross. We'll look more at that next time.

References

1. "An Anonymous Brief for Christianity Presented To Diognetus." Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.x.i.ii.html Accessed 4/6/2014.
2. In his Confessions, Book III, Chapter IV, Augustine writes, "In the ordinary course of study I came upon a certain book of Cicero's, whose language almost all admire, though not his heart. This particular book of his contains an exhortation to philosophy and was called Hortensius. Now it was this book which quite definitely changed my whole attitude and turned my prayers toward thee, O Lord, and gave me new hope and new desires." See "Augustine: Account of His Own Conversion" from the Medieval Sourcebook web site. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/aug-conv.asp

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Answering Memes: Christianity Spread Through Violence (to Christians!)

Every once in a while I see an Internet meme that begs for comment. Memes are those individual images with a quip or slogan that supposedly provides amazing insight in a single thought. (For past posts, see here, here, and here.) Atheists believe these memes offer devastating blows against Christianity, but most are flat out wrong when it comes to the facts. They rely on shock value and an audience predisposed to agree with them without ever really thinking about the claim the meme makes. Still, some will capture misconceptions held by a wider group of people, so I like to address them from time to time to dispel the myths.

The latest shrill to emerge is a meme from atheist Michael Sherlock and makes the claim "Christianity did not become a major religion by the quality of its truth, but by the quantity of its violence." Really? I mean, really?? Is Sherlock such a poor detective of history that he can do no investigating at all? There are three areas where this meme goes horribly wrong, each of which is actually a feather in the cap of Christianity. Therefore I'd like to look at all three. I'll begin with the first, Christianity's growth during its first centuries.

Early Christianity—The Blood of the Martyrs

The first substantial growth of Christianity comes in the first three centuries after Jesus' crucifixion. From a band of a few dozen disciples on the day of Pentecost to the Diocletian persecution ending in AD 311, Christianity grew exponentially. Much of this growth was in spite of heavy persecution of Christians by the Jews and later the Romans as Christians expanded across the Roman Empire. Roman historian Tacitus writes that Nero is famous for having Christians covered in animal skins and set before wild beasts or rolled in pitch and set aflame to light his evening chariot rides.1

During the Diocletian persecution, Eusebius reports upside down crucifixion, being burned alive, Christians having each limb fastened to bent branches and then releasing the branches and tearing the Christians to pieces.2 In between, Christians faced many difficulties throughout the empire and martyrdom was commonplace, yet the believers continued to add to their ranks. This dichotomy was so evident it caused the church father Tertullian to famously state:
Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer; for but very lately, in condemning a Christian woman to the leno rather than to the leo3 you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.4
Christianity had grown so much during its times of pain and death that just two years after the Diocletian persecution, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan and gave Christianity protected status and the right to worship God as they saw fit.5

So, Christianity in its formative years did grow during violent times. Unlike what the meme implies, though, the violence was against the Christians themselves. But perhaps such an elementary deduction has eluded Sherlock. Perhaps he had only trained his spyglass on the time after Christianity was established as a world religion. Tomorrow, I'll look at the spread of Christianity from the fifth through the 19th centuries.

References

1. Tacitus. Annals, Book XV. The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html Accessed 6/5/2014.

2. Eusebius. Church History (Book VIII, Chapters 7 and 8). New Advent Web site. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250108.htm Accessed 6/5/2014.

3. This is a pun in Latin. Leno would be a pimp. Tertullian is saying the Romans testify to Christian virtuousness because they inflict a greater punishment in forcing Christians to be prostitutes rather than feeding them to lions.

4. Tertullian. Apology. Chapter 50. New Advent Web site.  http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm Accessed 6/5/2014.

5. Wright, David F."313 The Edict of Milan." Christianity Today. Issue 28, 1990. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1990/issue28/2809.html Accessed 6/5/2014

Monday, July 15, 2013

Atheists, Pink Unicorns, and God

I've written before about atheist Internet memes, these static images with a slogan or question are meant to quickly prove the atheists' point that belief in God is just so ridiculous it can be this easily disproven. But such attempts usually backfire, showing the poster as the one who really doesn't know the arguments in question, or even the subject matter of the meme itself.


I stumbled across one just the other day that truly underscores my point. A group of atheists who manage a couple of pages on Facebook page look to be responsible for the image to your right. The meme is meant to answer the Christian demand that if atheists want to state a proposition like "God does not exist" or "God is a fictitious being" then they should be able to provide arguments and evidence for their position.

Many atheists have responded to the demand by saying that one cannot prove a universal negative. They say it's like trying to prove that invisible pink unicorns don't exist. As the meme says "prove to me the Invisible Pink Unicorn doesn't exist and I'll use your method."

OK, let's give this a try:
  1. The property of color is defined as a visible property.
  2. An object that has a visible property must be at least visible in that property.
  3. An invisible object is defined as an object that is not visible (e.g. lacking any visible property.)
  4. The Invisible Pink Unicorn has the property of color (namely the color pink.)
  5. The Invisible Pink Unicorn lacks any visible property.
  6. Therefore, The Invisible Pink Unicorn is visible (from 1,2 and 4)
  7. Therefore, The Invisible Pink Unicorn is not visible (from 3 and 5)
As my argument shows, belief in an invisible pink unicorn requires believing in a contradiction, that it is visible and invisible at the same time. Any belief that entails a contradictory belief cannot possibly be true, so this serves as definitive proof that invisible pink unicorns cannot exist anywhere. This means that one can prove a universal negative; it is impossible for an invisible pink unicorn to be real.

So, now the burden rests on the atheist to disprove God in like manner. Remember, the meme says if I prove it, they will use my method. Now, of course many will try to offer arguments that are either invalid or unsound. But offering just any argument doesn't do the trick. A sound argument must support its conclusion with its premises, just as I did above. I made sure I defined my terms and I didn't make any leaps in assumption when laying out my premises. Therefore, my conclusion necessarily follows.

I was able to show that a universal negative can be proven and I was able to meet the atheists' challenge. What are the odds that they will give a serious attempt to actually act on their words and use my method?

Friday, May 03, 2013

Do You Need Religion to Have Morals?

I recently had a friend who posted a picture to a social media site. It was an Internet meme, one of those quick little quips that have become so popular online. This one had symbols from all the larger faith systems (and a couple of lesser ones as well) with text that read "You don't need religion to have morals. If you can't determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion." Is this right?


My first reaction to the post is that it reminds me of the objection I always hear when discussing moral grounding with atheists. I argue that the only way objective moral values and duties can exist is if they are grounded in God. In other words, in order for morals to be prescriptive (that is, how we should act), they must come from a lawgiver that is above humanity.

Now, most atheists misunderstand this argument and retort that even though they don't believe in God, they are moral people. But that isn't what I was trying to say.  I can freely admit that relatively speaking there are many atheists who act more uprightly than some people of faith. The question isn't if adherents to one faith (or no faith) are behaving morally. The question is how can a moral prescription such as "Thou shalt not commit adultery" be binding at all times for all people unless there is an authority higher than man who prescribes it?

And that's the real problem with this meme. Sure, we may all agree that things like torturing small children for no other purpose than one's own entertainment is wrong.  That's because the law of God is written on the hearts of all men (ref. Rom 2:15). However, the sticky part comes in when we consider moral laws like the prohibition against adultery. Is adultery wrong even if your spouse has already been cheating on you? Is adultery wrong if you both agree to be "swingers"? What if someone has enough empathy to make sure his or her spouse never finds out about the affair? Is it wrong then? Jesus placed an even higher demand on moral purity when he said that if you lust after a woman in your heart you are as guilty as if you committed adultery with her. Is that a lack of empathy?

There are other moral questions that become hopelessly confused when we rely on ourselves as the yardstick for morality. The famous Heinz dilemma is a good example:
Heinz's wife was near death, and her only hope was a drug that had been discovered by a pharmacist who was selling it for an exorbitant price. The drug cost $20,000 to make, and the pharmacist was selling it for $200,000. Heinz could only raise $50,000 and insurance wouldn't make up the difference. He offered what he had to the pharmacist, and when his offer was rejected, Heinz said he would pay the rest later. Still the pharmacist refused. In desperation, Heinz considered stealing the drug. Would it be wrong for him to do that?
One I've used before is should we harvest organs from a living inmate on death row if we can save the lives of five young individuals who are upstanding citizens? What if they are all brilliant scientists close to a cure for cancer and the inmate is a child-killer? Should we take his organs then? Right and wrong are sometimes not as clear as we like.

Above all, though, the biggest problem with the meme is that it assumes too little about morality. It ignores that recognizing and properly acknowledging God as our creator is itself a moral act. In fact, it is the first and most important of all our moral requirements – to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. If we are not doing this then we are being immoral, we are not behaving as we ought to behave. Therefore it is impossible to be completely morally upright and shun God if God does indeed exist and as the source of the Good He deserves our worship.

Because God must exist in order to ground moral law, then one can't ignore God and still claim morality. Morality requires God's existence; since He exists it follows that one has not properly determined right from wrong if he is not recognizing Him as God. Thus, it is impossible to be irreligious and completely moral together.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Can Religion Offer a Better Answer than Science?

Internet memes, those single images overlaid with a quote or quip, are all popping up all over social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Some are funny, some make one reflect, but those hoping to prove a point can often be inadequate to the task.


One such meme that's becoming more frequent is the challenge New Atheist Sam Harris offered theists during his 2007 debate against Rabbi David Wolpe. Harris asked, "I would challenge anyone here to think of a question upon which we once had a scientific answer, however inadequate, but for which now the best answer is a religious one."1

Many people have read the challenge and chat boards are filled with comments from people who simply cannot think of a single question that qualifies. Some atheists have crowed about the inability of theists to do so.  Has history only gone from the religious to the scientific? Is there no question that can meet Sam Harris' charge?

Astronomer Robert Jastrow thought of one. Science had assumed that the universe had always existed. It was infinite and eternal. This was so ingrained into the scientific thinking of the day that Einstein adjusted the calculation of his General Theory of Relativity to only show a steady state universe.2After the Big Bang model was proposed, vehement arguments ensued about the whether the universe had a beginning. After its beginning was confirmed, Jastrow told Christianity Today "Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact."3

There you go.  Sam Harris' challenge is met. However, some may object to this answer, saying that it was actually science and not religion that proved the universe had a beginning. I would argue that point, but let's lay it aside for a moment. Is there another question that relies only on religiously-obtained knowledge to provide a better answer than science?

Let's try this one: "Can we clone a human being?"

A question like this really asks two things: it asks if humanity is capability of performing the task and it questions the prudence in performing it. For the first part, the cloning of large mammals from adult cells was not possible prior to the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1996. Through the discovery of somatic-cell nuclear transfer it became possible to clone sheep, monkeys, and even human beings. We didn't have the science, so the answer to "Can we clone a human being?" was "No, it's not scientifically possible." But now that it is possible4, we must turn to the second implication of the question, whether it is prudent to do so.

To answer to this part of the question, we find that science is woefully inadequate to the task. This is because science deals with the what, the why, and the how of natural processes. In other words, it only worries about function. It cannot deal with the questions that focus on the ought, the good, or the right. Science can tell us the best way to transplant a kidney is by using a living donor. However, it is totally impotent to tell us whether the living donor should be restricted to volunteers or enlarged to include, say, convicted murders who haven't given consent. This is a moral question, and such questions surround our scientific advances routinely.

Similarly, science says we can clone a human being. The possibility is there for science to use cloning as way to create spare parts for people, allowing for transplants that wouldn't be rejected.5But most nations have outlawed people even attempting to do so. The ability to clone humans is now not limited by the procedure, but by its moral implications and the concept of human worth and dignity. The answer to "Can I clone a human being?" is still "no" but the reasons for that answer are informed by religious values and not by scientific ones.

To decide to clone people on only the scientific response to this question would be barbaric. As Baruch Cohen explains, the Nazi experimented by freezing holocaust victims and the data they obtained is the only controlled scientific data we have on hypothermia.6But because it gives us scientific answers surely doesn't mean we should duplicate it.

It should be evident that science alone cannot answer all the questions humanity has.  It cannot even answer all the questions it raises though its own discoveries. Questions about God, the purpose of man, the ethics of cloning or transplantation, and even how we gather our scientific data must come from somewhere other than science. Religious and moral beliefs are necessary, not only because they can answer these questions, but because without them science can become a monster acting on whatever capability it discovers.

It isn't sceince but virtue that measures the enlightenment of a society.

References

1.Padilla, Steve. "Rabbi, atheist debate with passion, humor". Los Angeles Times. 12/29/2007.
<http://articles.latimes.com/2007/dec/29/local/me-beliefs29> Accessed 4/10/2013.
2.Dr. Sean M. Carroll writes that the Constant's "original role, to allow static homogeneous solutions to Einstein's equations in the presence of matter, turned out to be unnecessary when the expansion of the universe was discovered." See "The Cosmological Constant" by Sean M. Carroll  Living Reviews in Relativity.  Vol 4.(2001) 1. Accessed online at http://relativity.livingreviews.org/Articles/lrr-2001-1/fulltext.html 4/10/2013.
3."A Scientist Caught Between Two Faiths: Interview With Robert Jastrow," Christianity Today. August 6, 1982. Cited in Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jastrow Accessed 4/10/2013.
4."In November 2001, scientists from Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT), a biotechnology company in Massachusetts, announced that they had cloned the first human embryos for the purpose of advancing therapeutic research."
"Cloning Fact Sheet". Human Genome Project Information.
http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/cloning.shtml Last modified 5/11/2009. Accessed 4/10/2013.
5."Scientists hope that one day therapeutic cloning can be used to generate tissues and organs for transplants. To do this, DNA would be extracted from the person in need of a transplant and inserted into an enucleated egg. After the egg containing the patient's DNA starts to divide, embryonic stem cells that can be transformed into any type of tissue would be harvested. " (Cloning Fact Sheet, 2009).
6.Cohen, Baruch C. "The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments". Jewish Law Articles.
<http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/NaziMedEx.html> Accessed 4/10/2013.
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