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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 morality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label morality. 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.


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 30, 2017

Scientists Have Created Human-Pig Hybrids. So Now What?

It can happen during busy news cycles that some of the more important stories are missed. That may have been the case last week as scientists announced they had successfully created a human-pig chimera embryos in what was called a "first proof" of concept by the BBC. According to the report, scientists were able to inject human stem cells into a newly-formed pig embryo and then implanted the embryo into a sow, allowing it to grow for 28 days. They then looked to see whether the human cells were growing before destroying the embryo.

The ultimate goal in these tests is not to develop some kind of hybrid monster, but to be able to grow human organs in animals for eventual transplant to patients whose organs are failing. In this specific experiment, the embryos would be considered less than one-ten thousandth human. Still, it marks the first time functioning human cells have been observed growing inside a large animal, according to Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute, causing other researchers to describe the published findings as "exciting."

More Questions than Answers

I think this report is important for some very specific reasons. First, the idea of a human-pig chimera is shocking. It opens a lot of questions about humanity and our technical abilities. The report made it clear that this research is highly inefficient and would take many years to develop more fully. But the BBC report also noted this kind of research is "ethically charged" and offered a one-sentence disclaimer stating "There was no evidence that human cells were integrating into the early form of brain tissue." 1

The fact that our technology is progressing faster than our ability to place it in its ethical context is the biggest takeaway from the story. For those who hold to moral pragmatism—meaning the ends justify the means—then it makes sense to do whatever one wants in order to achieve a desired goal. Burt pragmatism isn’t real morality; it simply says the ends justify the means, which is a position used by tyrants.

How Science Cannot Account for Morality

More interestingly to me is the fact that the chimera research is a clear example of how science cannot answer all the important questions. Prof. Belmonte, who was o0ne of the researchers on the project was clear that at this time they were not allowing the embryos to grow longer than one month, as that’s all they needed to confirm development t of human cells in the pigs:
One possibility is to let these animals be born, but that is not something we should allow to happen at this point.

Not everything that science can do we should do, we are not living in a niche in lab, we live with other people - and society needs to decide what can be done.2
I’m glad to see a bit of caution in Belmonte’s words. He’s right to say not everything science can do it should. The statement really rebuts new atheists like Sam Harris, who famously argued in his book The Moral Landscape that science itself can be the foundation of morality. Well, here’s the science. Where does the morality come from? How would Harris ground any kind of moral reasoning as to whether we should do what we can do in this instance? Should we mix human and pig cells even more? What if human and pig brain cells were combined?

Ultimately, this shows that science can only tell us what is possible, not whether it should be. Moral reasoning must come a moral lawgiver, not from the fact that something can be done. Otherwise, we’ll all be left with a real Frankenstein’s monster of moral values.


1. Gallagher, James. "Human-pig 'chimera Embryos' Detailed." BBC News. BBC, 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
2. Gallagher, James. 2017.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Can Evolution Produce Objective Morality?

For the most part, people intuitively understand that moral concepts are real and they produce certain duties and obligations for each of us. For example, torturing small children for the fun of it is objectively wrong. It doesn't matter in what culture or time one is living, to inflict pain for one's own pleasure is simply evil. Each person has an obligation to a) not act in such a way himself and b) to do all that's in his power to stop someone else from so doing. This is what I mean by morality being objective and carrying obligations.

But who is that obligation to? An obligation implies one is beholden to another, and if there is no God to whom I must offer an account of my actions, then how does that obligation attach itself to my actions? As I've argued before, objective moral values only make sense if God exists. There must be a lawgiver to whom we are accountable if the laws of right and wrong are to hold any force, otherwise the very concepts of good and evil make no sense.

As you can imagine, grounding morality in God becomes a problem for the atheist. When confronted with the dilemma, those who don't believe in God will choose one of two paths. Some reject the idea that morality is objective. They believe that morality is simply cultural and relative. However this kind of thinking, when pushed to its logical conclusion, produces really scary results, such as the one girl I spoke with who ultimately said it would be OK for someone to rape her sister.

Others recognize that torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong, but deny that God is necessary for objective right and wrong to exist. Usually, they claim objective moral values can arise from evolutionary means to advance the human species. Such an argument is offered by Ronald A. Lindsey here. While Lindsey is pretty careful to unpack the various issues involved and generally fair, I think he ultimately fails to make his case.

The Products of Morality

Lindsey defers to tackle the "Why should I be moral?" question initially. Instead, he ask "What is it that morality allows us to do?" then answers, "Broadly speaking, morality appears to serve these related purposes: it creates stability, provides security, ameliorates harmful conditions, fosters trust, and facilitates cooperation in achieving shared and complementary goals. In other words, morality enables us to live together and, while doing so, to improve the conditions under which we live."1

The claim that being moral improves our living in community is true. But that doesn't make moral values objective. A potentate who slays his enemies while criminalizing murder by his subjects can get a lot done. One can live just fine in a world where one set of laws applies to a small privileged class while the majority of the populous must abide by a different set of laws, such as ancient Rome where infanticide and gladiatorial games did not hinder them from becoming the most advanced civilization of their day.

The Thorny Issues of Morality

Of course, Lindsey has limited himself to the easiest aspects of moral obligation: theft, murder, and such. What he fails to tackle are the more complex aspects of moral obligation. For example, if the evolutionary survival of the human species is the primary function of morality, then homosexual unions are a detriment to that goal. Homosexual unions reduce the number of capable individuals who can reproduce. How does Lindsey's definition answer the question "should we clone human beings?" How does it answer the question of whether we should forcibly take organs from death row inmates to help the innocent? Here is where an outcomes-based morality shows its weaknesses.

Even if it may be shown that the survival value of humanity increases as our currently understood, who is to say that humanity should survive at all? I've often asked those who point to evolution as the answer to moral grounding "why do you think humanity should continue? That may be your preference It may be what you'd like, but I'm not obligated to act in accord with your desires. Maybe humanity had its run. Maybe we should detonate the nuclear bombs and let the cockroaches have their shot." The whole problem here is when one uses worlds like "should" or "improves the quality," that person is already ascribing some objective value to the proposition. It becomes question-begging.

At the close of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities stands the famous quote spoken by Sydney Carton, awaiting his death: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Being moral can sometimes mean outcomes that are not better. The outcome could be worse in terms of survival, economic impact, or by any other cultural measure. Sometimes, acting rightly is done for its own sake. If there is a God to whom we find ourselves accountable, this makes sense. But evolutionary advantage is simply incapable of giving those actions any meaning at all.


1. Lindsey, Ronald A. "How Morality Has the Objectivity That Matters-Without God." Council for Secular Humanism. Council for Secular Humanism, 14 July 2014. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Why Virtue Matters in Politics

Today, as Americans across the country select the next Commander in Chief, many go to the polls with trepidation at the choices set before us. Does character matter in a candidate? In surveying the charges against character, it seems a lot of political supporters believe character only matters if your opponent shows a deficiency. If it is the candidate you support, then poor character may be excused.

I'm not pointing to a specific candidate in my remarks today. Neither presidential contender could be described as virtuous in any sense of the word. But this cavalier attitude towards character is disturbing. I believe our Founding Fathers were smart men who understood some of the dangers that could befall our freedoms and created a system of checks and balances so that should one branch of government become corrupt, it would be restrained by the other two.

However, one thing the Fathers could never guard against is if the American people as a whole became unprincipled and selfish. That would be the grains of sand that would bring the whole engine to a stop. John Adams, when writing to the Massachusetts Militia made this abundantly clear:
But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, … while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.#1
Is there another way than "assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance" to describe a people who bludgeon those seeking to live out long-established religious beliefs in the name of tolerance while accepting those who have proven themselves to disregard law or common decency in their arrogance? Virtue does matter. Without it our government will no longer function to secure the freedom of people but will crumble to an oligarchy serving only a privileged few.


Adams, John. "From John Adams to Massachusetts Militia, 11 October 1798." National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, 2 Feb. 1999. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
Image courtesy Erik (HASH) Hersman and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Battling the Culture Wars (podcast)

Popular media today has an incredible influence on thoughts and attitudes. From blockbuster movies to superstar pop divas, our minds are being shaped by the values that Hollywood deems important. How can Christians protect their families from such a powerful message?

In this podcast series, Lenny offers ways to provide a counterbalance to culture's corrupting influence.
To see more podcasts, check out our podcast page. You can subscribe to our podcasts via iTunes or using your favorite software.

Monday, August 15, 2016

What if Morality was Based on Empiricism instead of Christianity?

The Western world is what it is because of the enormous influence of Christianity. Without a Christian understanding of human beings as those who bear the image of God, our society would be a far different place.

However, atheists have been pretty vocal in their contention that a society based on empirical mortality and not Christian values would be better for humanity. Neil deGrasse Tyson has recently advocated for such a virtual society he named "Rationalia." Tyson's proposal is problematic on many grounds, but he isn't the only one advocating for such a world.

New Atheist Sam Harris doesn't believe a Christian worldview is necessary to ground moral principles, either. In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris tries to argue for a secularly based moral framework. He believes that values and morality "translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture—just as facts about physical and mental health do."1

Viewing People through Empirical Lenses

Is Harris right? What would happen if a thoughtful, advanced culture viewed individuals through only an empirical framework? Physical and mental health states, as Harris mentions above, would feed into the value society places upon those individuals. This isn't speculation; we have a couple of good examples to show how this happens.

Along with Christianity, ancient Greek thought has significantly shaped western culture. At its zenith, Greece was one of the most advanced civilizations the world has ever seen and its philosophers continue to impact how we understand our world. Aristotle sought to scientifically categorize the various relationships between people in his On Politics. There, he begins

As in other departments of science, so in politics, the compound should always be resolved into the simple elements or least parts of the whole. We must therefore look at the elements of which the state is composed, in order that we may see in what the different kinds of rule differ from one another, and whether any scientific result can be attained about each one of them.2

Aristotle then goes on to systematically build his case. There are different kinds of communities to which we all belong: households/families, villages, city-states. He also notes there are also two kinds of necessary relationships for the human species to survive: the male-female relationship, which is necessary for the propagation of the species, and the ruler-servant relationship. Of the second, Aristotle's observations lead him to conclude that some people are naturally predisposed to be slaves of other, more capable men:
But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?

There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.3
When reading Aristotle's reasoning, one can see how systematically it moves from empirical observation through reason to its conclusions. Certain people are not smart, or not capable of leadership, or they don't measure up in any one of a myriad of ways. To Aristotle, it makes sense that those individuals are naturally predisposed to be the servants of others—the Gammas and Deltas of Huxley's Brave New World.

Darwinian Theory Leads down a Similar Road

But many people would dismiss this example as an argument against a "scientific approach" to morality simply because it's old. They may be tempted to say something like "We've learned so much in 2500 years, no one would come to such conclusions today." Yet, the modern eugenics movement, based on Darwinian evolutionary theory, took the United States by storm, classifying certain people as less worthy to reproduce. This even led to a Supreme Court case where the Court upheld the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck. Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. famously ordered Buck's sterilization concluding:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.4
Adding to this, just two years ago famous atheist Richard Dawkins held that for a pregnant woman who has discovered her unborn baby has Down's Syndrome, morality means killing the child:
For what it's worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do. I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child's own welfare.5
Each of these positions begin with a natural or empirical understanding of human beings. They measure people based on their output. But Christianity holds there is more to a person than his or her observable advantages for each one bears the image of God, which gives each one transcendent value. What other rational basis can one offer for holding that all people, even those with mental disabilities, hold inherent worth? There is no empirical measurement that makes us otherwise equal and at that point Aristotle and Dawkins may well be right.

What would a society without Christianity look like? It looks pretty scary indeed.


1. Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free, 2010. Print. 1-2.
2. Aristotle. "Politics." The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001. Print. 1127.
3. Aristotle, Pol. 1132.
4. Russell, Thomas D. "BUCK v. BELL, Superintendent of State Colony Epileptics and Feeble Minded, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)." American Legal History – Russell. 18 November 2009. Web. June 24, 2013.
5. Dawkins, Richard. "Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar." Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Richard Dawkins Foundation, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Aug. 2016.
Image courtesy Wellcome Library, London and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 [CC BY 4.0] license.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Morality: Answering "What Makes You Think You Know Better?"

When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling on Stormans, Inc. v. Wiesman, they tacitly approved the actions of the state of Washington, who is forcing pharmacy owners to sell abortifacient drugs against their religious beliefs. In that case, the Storman family would not stock two drugs that would cause abortion either days after or weeks after conception in their general stores, which included pharmacies because they held life begins at conception.1 However, Washington state passed laws specifically targeting religious pharmacy owners, forcing them to sell the drugs according to a 2012 Federal court ruling.2

The Stormans' case has its critics. Someone recently commented on an article I wrote concerning the case. She felt that the choice of the pharmacy to not stock the drugs was what was limiting freedom:
How is it that you see it as ok for a pharmacist to second guess a prescription ordered by a doctor? The pharmacist is not the one treating the patient, he has not evaluated the patient and likely has no knowledge of other conditions the patient may have. If the pharmacist has a problem with a d[r]ug a doctor prescribes he should discuss it with the doctor, just as he does when he catches a potentially dangerous drug interaction that the doctor may have missed. It seems highly unprofessional to just refuse to fill the prescription.
I simply replied that her description of the situation was euphemistic. I noted the drugs weren't simply a "prescription ordered by a doctor." They were designed for a very specific purpose: to cause an abortion. I also noted that a prescription is not sacrosanct. I would have a problem selling drugs designed for the purpose of euthanasia, which is also wrong. She challenged my objection, stating:
When a person, in consultation with their doctor, decides that ending their own life or terminating a pregnancy is the best course of action for their unique situation, what make you think that you know better?
There are two problems with such a question. First, it seems to assume that ethics are only situational and closed to only those who know the intimate details of the situation. But that isn't true at all. Imagine if I were to say "If a person in consultation with their doctor decides that killing their two year old is the best course of action for their unique situation, what makes you think that you know better?" Such a question would rightly be considered absurd. In such a circumstance it isn't necessary we know all the details; killing an innocent human being is wrong full stop. Unique circumstances don't change that.

Who Gets to Decide What's Moral?

But this isn't even the main problem in the Stormans' case. I get that my interlocutor holds a different points of view on abortion. At issue in the Stormans' case is the right of individuals to freely follow their consciences and their religious beliefs. By forcing them to sell drugs they see as immorally ending a life, the state deems its own interpretation of morality more valid than that of its constituents. This is wrong. It is well within one's rights to not engage in commerce when it violates one's conscience on clear grounds.

I can offer a real world example to make my point. Capital punishment has been authorized in 31 states with lethal injection being the primary way the sentence is carried as the Supreme Court declared a three-drug cocktail as being legally acceptable.3 However, many activists both here and across Europe object to any form of capital punishment. Pressure from several European countries has led drug manufacturer Pfizer to not allow its drugs to be used in lethal injections.4

These are almost parallel situations. According to the logic of the 9th Circuit ruling, Pfizer should be legally compelled to sell its drugs to all states for use in lethal injections. Who is Pfizer to override the will of the people who voted in capital punishment? How can any activist who is believes capital punishment is morally wrong and applied pressure to Pfizer to stop selling the drugs to correctional facilities claim that other companies must be forced to sell abortifacients to whomever walks in off the street?

Should State Fiat Overrule Conscience?

Of course, even in this instance, Stormans' has the more defensible position. While Pfizer's primary motivation for banning the purchase of its drugs for lethal injection is economic (Pfizer doesn't want to lose the significant customers of several European national health systems), the motivation for the Stormans family is based on strongly held personal conviction which could actually cause them to lose money by not making a sale.

If the Washington case is indicative of how matters on conscience are to be treated in the future, all Americans can be forced to participate in actions they deem immoral. If the state gets to decide which moral issues may be worthy for objection and which hold mandatory participation, then it isn't our consciences that matter. We become the pawns of the state; which is the very thing our founders fought against.


1. Alliance Defending Freedom. "Stormans v. Wiesman." Alliance Defending Freedom, 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
2. Harkness, Kelsey. "Alito: Value Religious Freedom? You Should Be Worried." The Daily Signal. The Heritage Foundation, 28 June 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
3. "States and Capital Punishment." National Conference of State Legislatures. National Conference of State Legislatures, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 July 2016.
4. Eckholm, Eric. "Pfizer Blocks the Use of Its Drugs in Executions." New York Times. The New York Times Company HomeSearchAccessibility Concerns? Email Us at We Would Love to Hear from You., 13 May 2016. Web. 28 July 2016.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Are Christians Too Judgmental? (podcast)

The most well-known verse in the Bible is not John 3:16, but Matthew 7:1—"Judge not lest ye be judged." People quote it all the time when a Christian seeks to take a stand for biblical values. But what does it mean? Should Christians "force" their beliefs on others and is it right to take stand against an immoral practice by trying to pass laws affecting all citizens?In this four-part podcast, Lenny examines these charges, showing what Jesus actually meant and why Christians must identify sin to be loving.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Why Eternal Punishment is not Nonsensical

Many people wrestle with the question of how an all-good and loving God could ever send someone to Hell. Some have claimed the two concepts don't make sense together; if God is good and loving, why of course he wouldn't send people to Hell for eternity. However, I have written before that to be separated from God means to be separated from his goodness and all that entails. Thus, the only thing left for a person where God's good gifts of peace, contentment, and rest are missing is torment.

For others, they may accept that God's justice would warrant him to allow a certain amount of suffering for those who rejected him. (For example, if one asks about what the fate for a cruel dictator or one who sells children into sexual slavery should be, most would understand simple annihilation as unfair. These people caused an undue amount of suffering and they shouldn't get off so easily by simply ceasing to be!) But why must such suffering be eternal? Isn't God unfair if the crime is finite but the punishment is infinite? Does the idea of an all-loving God and eternal punishment even make sense?

What Kind of Beings are Humans, Anyway?

To better understand God and his relationship with humanity, I think it's important to look at human beings the way God created them. In Genesis 1:27, the Bible states "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (ESV). The repetitive emphasis of being created in God's image (it is mentioned three times in verses 26 and 27) is meant to emphasize just how important this image bearing is.

As image-bearers, humans are endowed with the ability to weigh moral values and duties against our own actions. We are rational beings, capable of making meaningful choices. We can relate to the person of God, even though he is immaterial. These are all aspects that separate man from the other creatures of creation. If God were to change a person into someone who no longer was able to make meaningful choices, we would see that as demeaning the humanity of that individual. We lament those who fall victim to head injuries and are no longer able to function autonomously. We take pity on them because they cannot exercise their full humanity.

Secondly, God created humans to be immortal beings. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 draws attention to the fact that when God breathed his spirit into Adam (Gen. 2:7), that Adam became a living being. God's desire for humanity was and still is for us to fellowship with him for all eternity. Thus, another aspect of being human is that humans will endure eternally. And because we were made as embodied souls, our eternal state will also be as embodied souls. That's why there is a resurrection of the dead for both believers and unbelievers at the final judgment.

God Won't Make Humans into Non-Humans

In understanding that human beings are a very unique creation of God endowed with particular attributes, two of which are the ability to make meaningful choices and an ongoing immortality in some kind of state. That's how God created Adam and Eve. Sin introduced a corruption to humanity, but I argue that it didn't make humans into non-humans. It may have distorted the image of God in human beings, but it never cancelled it.

One point I must make is on the concept of death itself. Death in the Bible is used to talk about separation, not annihilation. Physical death is the separation of the soul from the body (Gen. 35:18, Ecc. 12:7) and spiritual death is the separation of our spirit from God's spirit. That's why God told Adam that the very day he sinned he would die (Gen. 2:17). It is our separation from God that is labeled death. Paul consistently uses this kind of terminology, stating the Ephesians were dead in their trespasses and sins but still walking according to the world's standards.

So, humans by definition bear the imago Dei, the image of God. That is the differentiation between them and every other creature we see. Humans are therefore morally aware beings that can recognize sin and can make meaningful choices. Give this, how would an all-good God still be all good if he takes away the immortality aspect of the imago Dei? Does it make sense to say God is all good if he changes those who choose to reject him into something less than human? Or how could God remove the ability to make real choices from those who reject him? Does that sound like mercy or a replay of the lobotomy scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Humans are created to be immortal, thus their choices will have a very real effect on their immortal existence. Humans are beings that hold the ability to make meaningful choices. That means even after physical death, they can choose to continue in a state of sin and rebellion against God. Thus ongoing torment is a reflection of ongoing sin in the hearts of the rebellious. To me, this doesn't seem cruel or nonsensical at all, but the tragic result of free creatures who have been given the ability to make decisions for themselves.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Let's Change our Message on Sex (video series)

We live in a sex-saturated culture, one which warps our and our children's understanding. Yet, the church hasn't done a very good job in expressing exactly what the Christian position on sex really is. We hear that sex is bad... unless it is confined to marriage. But that sends a confusing message to our kids. Instead, Christians should understand sex as a reflection of worship.

In this three part series, Lenny explains some of the subtle and not so subtle ways we've come to think about sex and why the standard Christian message of sex as "good when married, but bad any other time" is flawed. He then shows how the most consistent parallel the Bible draw to sex is not something that's dirty, but something that's holy. Finally, Lenny explores how changing our focus of sex from fun to holy changes the dynamic in relationships for husbands, for wives and elevates the calling for those who remain single.

Check out this provocative idea in the videos below:

Part 1 - Sending the Wrong Message

Part 2 - Sex as a Reflection of Worship

Part 3 - How Re-Messaging Sex Changes Relationships

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

When Does Cultural Insanity Hit the Breaking Point?

The Internet is ablaze with all kinds of opinions on about the shooting of Harambe, a seventeen-year-old gorilla zookeepers shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after the beast grabbed a three year old child who had fallen into his enclosure. Twitter showed the hashtag #JusticeForHarambe was trending over the weekend and a petition entitle "Justice for Harambe" has garnered over 350,000 signatures urging that the parents of the toddler "be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life."1

Obviously, this only proves there are 350,000 people in the world who have never had to watch a toddler for an extended period of time.

Others are decrying the response of the zoo in shooting the ape. NBC News reported "Animal rights activists continued to protest Monday" over Harambe's death. But just what is there to protest? A child's life was in danger and the only way to guarantee his safety was to shoot the animal. This is a no-brainer, yet it has seen a significant amount of coverage and discussion across the various media outlets.

Detaching Desire from Reality

The gorilla protesters aren't a big thing by themselves. However, the event is indicative of a very scary trend that has been developing rather quickly in society. People have basically decoupled themselves from reality. We have seen it in the transgender issue where people not only wish to believe their desire is enough to change the reality of their biology; they demand that everyone else reinforce their desire. We've seen it in spoiled college kids who think if they only hear opinions and ideas about how they want the world to be, they won't be "triggered" and therefore bad things won't happen to them. We've seen it in every televised police pursuit where each felon seems to really believe that he or she can unilaterally escape an entire police squad wit radios, spike strips, and helicopters to track their every move. How do those always end?

While it's easy to point at each scenario and shake our heads, I'm wondering when will enough be enough? I understand and accept in any free society one will face competing belief systems. I think that's actually healthy. Everyone should be challenged to understand and produce reasons for the beliefs he or she holds. But that isn't what this is. We've moved from reasoning to reactionary, and from truth to tale. Just as those who use edited photos and posts to craft a non-real version of their lives on social media, there are those who now believe they can similarly shape their entire world experience.

The problem is that the real world doesn't play this game. People end up getting hurt. Zookeepers explained that tranquilizers don't work like you see in the movies. They can take up to 30 minutes to take effect. In the interim, you've just angered a 450 lb. gorilla who can crush that toddler like an empty soda can. Is that really a good plan? If it were your child, would you still advocate for it?

Reality can be hard. Ignore it and sooner or later it comes back at you like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, coldly asserting "I'm not going to be ignored!" If protesters were there to stand in front of the zoo marksmen, stopping them from shooting and the child died, then what? Who would be to blame then?

I applaud the zoo officials for making the right call in this instance. Human beings are more valuable than animals, full stop. If you must choose between one or the other, choose the human. That's what being civilized is.


1. Hurt, Sheila. "Cincinnati Zoo: Justice for Harambe.", 29 May 2016. Web. 31 May 2016.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Morality Must be More than Increasing Happiness

Moral knowledge is something people take for granted. We understand that someone who inflicts pain and torture for recreational purposes is evil. That's why the rapist is so reviled. It shows morality as something objective, not merely a preference to be held. Moral values and duties must be anchored in God to be meaningful.

Yet, people don't like to admit an objective morality means they themselves may be morally culpable for acts they choose. So they try to escape the consequence of objective morality. Some do this by trying to claim that morality isn't objective but relative. This reduces them to state absurd conclusions like rape may be morally justified. Others try to ground objective morality in something other than God. I think those folks don't really have an appreciation for what true morality entails. Still, they offer ideas such as morality is a byproduct of evolutionary survival benefits.

One of the more popular ways to try and hold to an objective morality while dismissing God comes in the form of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism holds that increasing happiness and diminishing suffering is the measure of what's good. There are many problems with utilitarianism, but one particular problem is its definition is too narrow to identify all questions generally agreed as moral questions as being truly questions about morality. Richard Swinburne makes this point well:
For some, a belief about moral worth is simply a belief about which actions are important to do. But that use would allow the narcissist, who thinks that is important that he promote his own happiness, to have a moral view, and so it would fail to bring out the distinction which most of us make among the considerations by which we judge the worth of actions, and which I argued to have such importance. For others, a belief about moral worth is a belief about the importance of actions in virtue of their universalizable properties of a certain kind—e.g. those concerned with sex or (more widely) those concerned with the promotion of happiness or unhappiness of other people. On the latter account it would be a moral view that men ought to feed the starving; but not a moral view that men ought to worship God, or that artists who can paint great pictures ought to do so even if those pictures will be seen only by themselves. If you use 'moral' in this limited sense, you can say without contradiction 'I think that religion is more important than morality'; but on my preferred use it would be self-contradictory to assert of anything describable in universal terms that it was more important than morality. A man's morality is (with the qualification that it be not centred on self or any other particular individual) what he believes most important. My grounds for preferring my use are that so many men's beliefs about which actions are important to do are supported or opposed both on grounds which concern the happiness and unhappiness of other people and also on other grounds (e.g. whether the action shows due loyalty, pays honour to whom honour is due, involves keeping a promise or telling the truth), that confining the term to the narrower use would obscure the overlap of grounds of the different kinds in leading to beliefs about overall worth.1
Swinburne is arguing for a view of morality that is objective and prescriptive; moral values and duties are real "oughts" to which all of humanity are beholden. If something like telling the truth is valuable in itself, then morality must be larger than simply adding to the happiness of an individual or individuals. If morality is only about increasing happiness, it begs the question of whether honor has any real meaning since one can bestow false honor on another to make him or her happy. But there is something not quite right with honoring a coward alongside a hero after the battle. And the weighing of the rightness or wrongness of an action identifies it as a moral question, one that defining morality as increasing happiness alone cannot solve.


1. Swinburne, Richard. The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986. Print. 223-224.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How Can We be Equal without Christianity?

Throughout the history of civilization, people have sought to understand themselves by seeking to understand their place in society. When that society was patriarchal, the most respect was given to the forefathers, especially the eldest and most direct ancestor. When societies grew into city-states, one found his place in the service to that polis. Plato divided the classes into the guardians, the warriors, and the commoners, each serving the state in a specific capacity.

This kind of understanding extended beyond Greece. Rome granted citizenship was highly valued because it gave the citizen an elevated place in the society with greater rights.1 We see cultures, such as those of Saudi Arabia or oriental nations who still adopt a hierarchical view of the individual. But the West is different. Here, we value all people as equal. In the United States, our nation was founded on the principle. What caused the nations that sprang from the Roman Empire to so drastically alter their understanding of the worth of the individual?

Changing the Measure of Worth

In his excellent book Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop answers that question by pointing to the rise of Christianity. Siedentop details how the teachings of Jesus and Paul caused a "moral revolution" in thought, moving the value of the individual from hierarchical to equal. Individual freedom becomes elevated. He explains:
Previously in antiquity, it was the patriarchal family that had been the agency of immortality. Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.2
Because the individual now holds the ability tom become immortal, one's understanding of morality is changed as well. Instead of Plato's justice being determined by how one is helpful to the Polis, morality becomes more about an individual's actions to other individuals. Siedentop argues that "the premise of moral equality requires a human will that is in a sense pre-social,"3 meaning independent of one's position within the societal structures. The only way people can do that is through faith in Christ. He continues, "Faith in the Christ requires seeing oneself in others and others in oneself, the point of view which truly moralizes humans as agents." 4

How Christianity Impacts More than Civic Status

Once the basis for moral equality is established through Christ, Siedentop then shows just how powerful those ideas become. For example, he points to Tertullian to show the radical new way of thinking Christianity offers the world:
If God created humans as equals, as rational agents with free will, then there ought to be an area within which they are free to choose responsible a free choices. Identifying such an area was at first meant to be self-defence by Christians. But soon it was also much more than that. Tertullian saw clear implications of Christian moral beliefs. "Here lies the perfection and distinctiveness of Christian goodness," he argued. "Ordinary goodness is different; for all men love their friends, but only Christians love their enemies."5
This is how true goodness comes from Christianity alone. The moral equality of all people rests in the Christian understanding of redemption. Realize, I don't know whether Siedentop is a Christian or not. His book is written from his position as a scholar of political history, serving at Oxford among other institutions. His book does not push Christian beliefs, but simply describes the paradigm shift Christianity brought upon the world. Without Christianity, moral equality cannot find its footing. Without Christianity, the value of the individual fades into how one services the state.


1. "civitas". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 17 May. 2016
2. Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism. Penguin Books, 2014. Print. 58.
3. Siedentop, 2014. 64.
4. Siedentop, 2014. 65.
5. Siedentop, 2014.76.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

New-Fangled Values May Hold Old-Fashioned Dangers

Downton Abbey, the BBC series showcasing the way of life of the English aristocracy and their servants proved to be a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. For each of its six seasons, audiences would anxiously tune in to watch the Crawley family's exploits as they struggled to adjust from Victorian era mores to that of the modern age.

Part of the attraction of the show was just how foreign the manners and customs of the English aristocracy strike modern viewers. Imagine dressing differently for each meal in tuxedos! The show's expert historian, Alistair Bruce, strove to make the fictional series as historically accurate as he could, although the show is clearly written to reflect 21st century values. For example, the house royalty wouldn't give the servants much of a second thought; they were considered less like employees and more like tools to an end.1 Thus, there's a bit of a wink the writers share with the audience on how quaint and antiquated the customs of the old days were.

Victorian Prudes and Victimless Crimes

It can become easy to assume that old ways of doing things are backwards or naïve. Certainly, this seems to be the case with moral prohibitions concerning sexuality today. Over and over again I hear the claim that because our society is less repressive and sexually freer than in the past, making it somehow better. Casual sex, known as hook-ups, is exploding across college campuses, especially those where the number of female students outweighs the males.2 Sex outside of marriage is considered so normal that virginity is an oddity. Pornography has become rampant, and women are consuming more porn than ever before.3

But is all this really a good thing? Those who would question the sexual liberation and its aftermath are considered out of touch prudes. Sex is what always happens, they say. Porn is just being honest about one's sexual desires; it's one of those victimless pleasures that good people can do in the privacy of their own homes. If the person enjoys it, what's wrong with allowing them to consume it?

In reality, porn is harming a generation of people. The group Plan International, Australia recently completed a survey of teenage girls in that country and revealed some shocking findings:4
  • Seven out of ten Australian girls aged 15-19 believe online harassment and bullying is endemic
  • Australian females aged 15-19 do not want to share sexual photos of themselves online
  • 81% of girls believe it's unacceptable for boyfriends to ask for explicit content although they believe pressure to do so is now commonplace
According to a 2012 report in the scholarly journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity and reported by ABC Religion and Ethics:
Adolescent consumption of Internet pornography was linked to attitudinal changes, including acceptance of male dominance and female submission as the primary sexual paradigm, with women viewed as "sexual playthings eager to fulfil male sexual desires." The authors found that "adolescents who are intentionally exposed to violent sexually explicit material were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who were not exposed."5
I recommend you read the whole article. But is seems pretty evident that our sexually charged culture is not helping people become better human beings. In fact, the results of porn are actually harming women and young girls. They are becoming more victimized and more objectified. Today's open sex culture is not advancing women, it's degrading them.

The old-fashioned folks of early 20th century England would never hear of such open displays of lasciviousness. They recognized the difference between a man's higher nature and his base nature. The higher nature consists of rationality, self-control, moral uprightness. Man's base nature is one that could be found in animals, consisting of satisfying appetites and desires, reacting based on emotion, and so on. Constraining those base natures requires diligence and practice. It doesn't come automatically. But not constraining them leads to the dehumanization of people. Just look at what those 15-19 year old girls in Australia are experiencing.


1. Lee, Adrian. "The Real Life Downton Abbey: The True Story of Servants." Express. Northern and Shell Media Publications, 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
2. Birger, Jon. "Unequal Gender Ratios at Colleges Are Driving Hookup Culture." Time. Time, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
3. Carey, Tanith. "Why More and More Women Are Using Pornography." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 07 Apr. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
4. "Don't Send Me That Pic." Plan International. Plan International Australia, Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
5. Liszewski, Melinda. "Growing Up in Pornland: Girls Have Had It with Porn Conditioned Boys." Collective Shout. ABC Religion and Ethics, 8 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Confusion of Atheistic Moral Grounding

Is morality evidence for the existence of God? At first blush, the answer seems to be no. Certainly there are many moral people who don't believe in any kind of God just as there are people who are strong believers, yet perform some of the most vile, immoral acts. Christopher Hitchens famously dared believers "to find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion." This is usually the way such exchanges progress.

But framing the debate in such a manner makes two fundamental mistakes: it begs the primary question while creating a biased set of assumptions. We can look at each of these in turn.

Atheists Acting Morally Begs the Question of Moral Grounding

It doesn't seem to be a grand claim to say human beings are built to be moral beings. By that I mean the vast majority of humanity is inherently sensitive to the concepts of right and wrong, even if their understanding of what constitutes right and wrong are debated. The quip that the young cannibal is still instructed by his mother to clean his plate demonstrates this. It is human to understand actions can have moral implications.

The problem comes in when we begin asking "how do we know which actions are moral and which are not?" What is the "thing" that moral actions share but is missing from immoral ones? It cannot be something as simple as  survivability, for there are many scenarios where people have freely chosen to die for a moral cause. Take abortion, for example. Certainly, if  survivability is the only guideline, then abortion clearly diminishes the survival function of the species and is thus immoral.

This is worse if the natural world is all there is, for we never claim rape or murder for a male lion seizing a female to copulate or a black widow eating her mate.

When one claims that God is necessary for morality to be real, he is not claiming no one can act in ways recognized by a society as moral if they don't believe in God. Rather, he is asking what grounds choices as right or wrong intrinsically? What is the fundamental thing that anchors right and wrong? What is it that stands above and beyond all human beings and even all nature that is at the core of morality? Morals must transcend nature to be prescriptive. What is it on an atheistic worldview that does this transcending?

Slipping in Moral Assumptions

One possible counter by non-theists would be it isn't something as crude as  survivability only that grounds morality. One must consider human flourishing, the quality of life we would experience if we deemed immoral acts moral. But such a move doesn't help them in their quest, for terms like flourishing are loaded with moral implication. To flourish beyond  survivability means to advance toward some goal. What is the goal to which we are advancing and why should human beings objectively be the ones to advance? They say cockroaches will be the only ones left after a nuclear war; perhaps homo sapiens have had their run and it's time for the cockroaches to take a turn.

To claim that one's quality of life is the judge or that morals evolve from a concept of reciprocity ("I wouldn't like it if someone did that to me so we shouldn't do it to them") falls into the same trap. Why does it matter whether you like it or not? There's a big difference between preferences and the oughtness of moral values and duties. Moral quandaries are not about what one likes or doesn't like. Situations like the Heinz dilemma show just how problematic these become.

By appealing to one's actions ("I act morally"), to survivability, or to reciprocity, the central question of moral grounding remains unanswered.  None of these responses nail down the foundation of morality; they never answer what makes moral values different than preference or cultural convention. Of course, one could hold that there is no other moral grounding, making objective morality a useful fiction. But if morality isn't real, then no one is really moral at all, including the atheist. It seems the only coherent foundation allowing morals to be real is a transcendent God.
Image courtesy Dean Hochman and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Moral Argument for God's Existence (podcast)

Atheists claim the God of the Bible is evil, but what makes an action good or evil? Are right and wrong simply what we all agree upon or must they originate in something bigger than humanity? In our latest series, Lenny explores what morality requires and why the existence of right and wrong means God must exist.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Star Trek, Saving Private Ryan, and the Problem with Evolutionary Morality

Morality is real. There are ways one should or should not act. There are values and duties that attach to being human, such as killing babies for no reason other than pleasure is always wrong. Some people don't agree with this view, holding morality as a useful fiction, but I will place them to one side for the moment. I think most people would agree with me that morality is a real thing; good and evil are real concepts.

I would think that most people would agree that there are certain oughts to which people should adhere. One ought not to enslave another human being, for example. The point of disagreement is rooted in where these kinds of oughts come from and why we should follow them. Atheists and humanists feel that moral laws came about because they conferred a certain evolutionary advantage to the group, as Herbert Gintis, et. al writes:
From an evolutionary viewpoint, we argue that ethical behavior was fitness-enhancing in the years marking the emergence of Homo sapiens because human groups with many altruists fared better than groups of selfish individuals, and the fitness losses sustained by altruists were more than compensated by the superior performance of the groups in which they congregated.1

A Utilitarian Morality

In the evolutionary view of morality, it is the survival value of the altruistic act that becomes the crucial thing. Those societies that encourage helping one another, even to one's own detriment, will be "more fit" than others, increasing the survivability of the group as a whole.

Such a scenario makes some sense. If one is to save others at the cost of even one's own life, it is easy to see how survivability is increased. This is a utilitarian concept of morality that philosopher Jeremy Bentham pioneered, but most people would be more familiar with how Leonard Nimoy's character Spock voiced it in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There, Spock heroically exposes himself to lethal radiation levels to save the ship, then pronounces "It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

What if Morality Contradicts Survivability?

While a utilitarian view of morality seems plausible and fits within an evolutionary framework, it runs into problems in other circumstances. For instance, let's take a different scenario of altruism, the one offered in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. There, a platoon of soldiers is sent deep into enemy territory in order to extract one man—Private Ryan—whose three brothers had already been lost in combat. A real-life scenario similar to the film played out in the Niland family, and their four sons Robert, Preston, Thomas, and Joseph. The Canisus library reports:
Robert was killed on D-day while manning his machine-gun post in Neuville, a city not far from the beaches. Preston was killed the next day near Omaha Beach. Fritz, meanwhile, had been dropped between Omaha and Utah beaches while Thomas was involved in a glider unit that landed in France. Joseph, 25, was not involved with the invasion.

When the Army heard of the tragic story, they determined that the Nilands would not suffer the death of their last child.2
In the film, the Army seeks to do the right thing in removing Private Ryan from potential harm and restoring at least one son to the family. However, the cost is high. In order to save one person, many in the company are lost. Also, significant resources such as these battle-hardened soldiers are not spent engaging the enemy, but rescuing this one young soldier. In any analysis, it seems this situation is all about the needs of the few or the one trumping the needs of the many.

So, here's the question: does the Army act morally in the Saving Private Ryan scenario? Was this the right thing to do or was it evil? If the utilitarian ethic is all there is, that is if survival value is all morality boils down to, then sacrificing so many for the life of a single man is not only not morally good, it is the opposite. That makes it evil of the Army to order Tom Hanks and company to go save Matt Damon.3 But I think people will intuitively understand to call the actions in Saving Private Ryan evil simply doesn't work. There's more to morality that the result of survivability which means that morality cannot be as simple as an evolutionary mechanism.

In order for morality to be real, God must be real, too.


1. Gintis, Herbert, Joseph Henrich, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr. "Strong Reciprocity and the Roots of Human Morality." Social Justice Research 21.2 (2008): 241. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
2. "The Niland Boys." The Niland Boys. Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library, July 2006. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
3.As an aside, just how many times is Matt Damon going to need to be rescued? He's rescued from a poor life in Boston, from enemy territory, from Mars, from a planet on the other side of a black hole, and even from himself in The Bourne Identity.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Does Modifying Your Body Disregard Its Intrinsic Worth?

It's no surprise that culture is changing at an ever more rapidly pace. Norms that had been held consistently for centuries have in a couple of decades undergone radical redefinition. Marriage is one of these, but it is far from the only one.

One stark example may be the huge increase in the popularity of tattoos and other forms of body modification. According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, nearly four-in-ten Millennials have at least one tattoo and half of those who have at least one have more than one. Additionally, "nearly one-in-four have a piercing in some place other than an earlobe — about six times the share of older adults who've done this."1 Tattoos and other forms of body modification are just as likely to be found on evangelical Christians in the pew as they are in the general public, which underscores their ubiquity in our culture.

What Do We Mean by Body Modification?

Within the Christian community especially, body modification has become a very controversial issue. In fact, whenever the topic comes up a contentious discussion usually ensues, especially online. It's that contention that bothers me the most, for I fear that Christians need to be careful and think about all the implications of their particular stance. That's why I want proceed with caution as we think through many of the facets that encircle the debate, some of which most people haven't yet considered .

First, as I argued in this article, the human body is not nothing. It has intrinsic value, which places it in a very limited category. Therefore, taking care to think about what modifying one's body means is appropriate for the Christian. There may be a different answer for those who don't share a Christian worldview. My thoughts in this and the articles to come are primarily targeted to those who hold the body as something that holds intrinsic worth. It seems to me that intrinsic worth is really where the main objections to body modification can be centered. I say this because when one looks to define just we mean when we talk about body modification, the categories are a lot larger than most people let on.

Four Categories of Body Modification

In the book Brave New World of Health, sociologist Isabel Karpin provides a very helpful overview of the various ways human beings have modified their body. She breaks these down into four primary areas: modifications that are therapeutic, cosmetic, enhancements to the body itself, or what she terms radical modifications.2 Usually, the first and at least some forms of the second set are non-controversial.

Therapeutic modifications are defined as "performed on abnormal structures of the body, caused by congenital defects, developmental abnormalities, trauma, infection, tumours or disease. [They are] generally performed to improve functions, but may also be done to approximate a normal appearance"3  Thus, breast reconstruction and tattooing would fall into this area. Many breast cancer survivors will receive tattoos to simulate lost areolas. If applying ink under the skin is by its nature a violation of the intrinsic worth of a body because it is artificial, then these types of modifications would be considered wrong. However, I don't see anyone arguing that way.

What about cosmetic modifications? I will leave aside temporary modifications such as haircuts/dyes for the moment and focus on only those things that permanently change the body. Are they different? Here Karpin defines cosmetic modifications as things like tummy tucks and breast augmentation. However, permanent cosmetic modifications also include such subtle things as braces for straightening teeth, ear piercings, hair transplants and permanent eyeliner. To condemn all cosmetic modifications would be to condemn these as well.

The last two categories are normally where there is more contention. Enhancements are those like people having magnets implanted under their skin to pick up metallic objects.4 Radical modifications are those that are the most non-conformist in our culture.  Radical modifications include nipple or genital piercings, skin braiding, scarring, branding, 3D implants, such as silicone horns, metal screws to attach whiskers, tongue slitting, Karpin defines this category somewhat subjectively as "as the alteration of someone's appearance in a way that does not accord with cultural ideas of the normal and the natural."

Modification and Worth

So, does modifying the body show a disregard for its worth and dignity? I don't believe it does specifically. Therapeutic modifications seem to recognize the value of a healthy, fully formed body and recipients are seeking to emulate that. I also don't believe that simply because a modification is done for cosmetic purposes, it invalidates the body's value. Sometimes, permanent eyeliner or laser hair removal is undertaken as simply a time saver rather than a statement. The appearance of those individuals still conforms to societal standards.

Even when defining radical modifications, societal standards play a central role. That's the key, it seems to me. I don't think body modification is something that violates the recognition of the body's intrinsic worth by definition. That isn't to say no body modifications ever disregard the body's intrinsic worth.  The issue is actually more complicated than that. One must know if and when modification does demonstrate disregard for the worth of the body. That means Christians shouldn't approach body modification with abandon. I'll tackle that in an upcoming article.


1. "Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next." Pew Social Trends. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., Feb. 2010. Web. 2 Mar. 2016.
2. Karpin, Isabel. "Constructing the Body Inside and Out: Genetic and Somatic Modification." Brave New World of Health. Belinda Bennett, Terry Carney, and Isabel Karpin, Eds. Sydney, NSW: Federation, 2008. 77-81. Print.
3. Karpin, 2008. 80.
4. Karpin, 2008. 81.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christian Bakers Forced to Pay Fines; Here's What We Can Learn

This morning, the lawyer representing Sweet Cakes by Melissa reported that the couple was paying the fine of over $135,000 levied against them by Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries for not baking a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian doled out the heavy-handed fine, claiming the bakers were being immoral in their stance, inflicting emotional and mental suffering and violating the women's civil rights by discriminating on the basis of their sexual orientation.1 Avakian had prompted the payment by seizing every penny the bakers had in their bank accounts.2

It seems we live in a topsy-turvy world where wrong is called right and right is called wrong. But this shouldn't be a surprise to Christians. I understand that people have a tendency to think of the problems they currently face as new or unique. While for some things this may be true (substituting screen time for real relationships doesn't seem to be a problem of past generations), human beings are a remarkably consistent lot and the early believers faced many of the same trials we do today.

Athenagoras gives us one example. In the second century AD, Christians were being persecuted in various cities across the Roman Empire on trumped up charges. Different city official and citizens objected to Christians not bowing to their gods, which basically meant rejecting whatever morality they themselves deemed appropriate. The officials would put the Christians on trial under false accusations, such as being immoral or being atheists, condemn them in a kangaroo court, and use it as justification to persecute them and seize their belongings.

Charges of immorality are as old as Christianity

The injustice of this all disturbed Christian philosopher Athenagoras so much that in AD 177 he wrote a letter to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Emperor of Rome himself and argued the case for the Christians. One of the charges brought against Christians was they were engaging in immoral sexual acts. Athenagoras writes, "they have further also made up stories against us of impious feasts and forbidden intercourse between the sexes, both that they may appear to themselves to have rational grounds of hatred, and because they think either by fear to lead us away from our way of life, or to render the rulers harsh and inexorable by the magnitude of the charges they bring."3

Athenagoras goes on to argue that Christians are not immoral at all; they are actually more moral than even the belief systems of their accusers, pointing out how gods the officials worship, such as Zeus, were adulterers and incestuous. He writes that Christians held to a high view of the sanctity of marriage. He then goes on to compare Christians and their accusers. Notice how modern the charges in this paragraph sound:
But though such is our character (Oh! Why should I speak of things unfit to be uttered?), the things said of us are an example of the proverb, "The harlot reproves the chaste." For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure—who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations, outraging all the noblest and comeliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonouring the fair workmanship of God (for beauty on earth is not self-made, but sent hither by the hand and will of God)—these men, I say, revile us for the very things which they are conscious of themselves, and ascribe to their own gods, boasting of them as noble deeds, and worthy of the gods. These adulterers and pederasts defame [people choosing to remain unmarried for life] and the once-married (while they themselves live like fishes; for these gulp down whatever falls in their way, and the stronger chases the weaker…), but it is incumbent on us to be good and patient of evil.

Two Lessons from Athenagoras

While the persecution of Christian bakers is not nearly as severe as what second century Christians faced, I think there are lessons to be gleaned from the parallels between this event and what Christians faced in Athenagoras' day. First, charges against Christians on grounds of morality won't go away. Christian values are not those of the world and no one should be surprised when those who are in charge come against Christians and successfully use the law as a hammer against them. Jesus himself warned us of this when he said, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18-19. ESV).

Secondly, we must make certain as Christians that we consistently live up to our own moral standards. Athenagoras' argument is anchored on the fact that Christians really did value marriage. They held it in the highest regard and shunned things like divorce and adultery. He states Christians are opposed to immorality for entertainment, such as was common in the gladiatorial events.

How seriously do Christians take their entertainment choices? Do you hold your marriage in the highest of regards, seeing it as inviolable until death? Does your life help make the case against persecution or is it undercutting the contrast? We must live as Christ has told us to live, for we will certainly suffer if we bear his name.


1. Rede, George. "Sweet Cakes Owners Pay Damages While Continuing Appeal of $135,000 Bias Case." Oregon Live LLC., 28 Dec. 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
2. Starnes, Todd. "Costly Beliefs: State Squeezes Last Penny from Bakers Who Defied Lesbian-wedding Cake Order." Fox News. FOX News Network, 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
3. Athenagoras. "A Plea for the Christians." Chapter 31. Translated by B.P. Pratten. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Web.

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