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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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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Defending Your Faith in the Classroom



Last week, I told you about someone who asked for help when his Sociology professor broached the subject of religion, but basically dismissed it as a fabrication. The student wrote:
Some notable points he brought up, which are straight from the Sociology textbook, is that all religion is "socially constructed" and that faith is "belief without scientific evidence." ...

He stated that religion is constantly evolving and falsely asserted that Christianity was the first to develop monotheism. His final statement was made near the end of the lecture that "we all need to exercise some level of spirituality in order to survive" since religion provides comfort in the case of tragedy.

How does one, especially as a student, respond to such claims? It's apparent the professor has already chosen where he stands concerning religion. When another spoke up during the lecture, it was clear all he wants to do is debate. As Christians, should we speak up or not cast our pearls before swine?
For the answer to the main charges, you can read my last article here. As to the question of engagement, let me say that I've received more and more of these kinds of questions in recent years. Sometimes, they even come in the form of a plea, where the Christian really wants to defend his or her faith but doesn't know how. There's a real conflict here. On one hand, we want to share the truth of the Gospel message with others and not let mischaracterizations about our faith remain unanswered. On the other, the student recognizes the professor holds the position of power, not only in terms of stature and who gets to speak in class, but ultimately because the prof assigns the final grade for the course.

First, Pick Your Battles

My first piece of advice to this student is to be thoughtful. Exchanges with those in authority need to be judicious and part of that is weighing what the reaction to an objection may be. Jesus told us, "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16, ESV) and that applies here. The professor is the "man with the microphone," which means he controls the conversation. That also means you probably won't be able to have a sustained argument in class, which is appropriate since that's really not what the class is for anyway.

We have a couple of good examples of how Christians faced such conditions in the New Testament. Peter and John faced the Jewish rulers. Paul was also brought before the Jewish High Council and later before Felix. In each of these cases, the Christians never tried to steamroll the questioning authority. Instead, they first waited until it was the appropriate time for them to speak. Notice that Peter and John don't respond until questioned by the elders (Acts 4:6). Paul waits five days until he is summoned and even then only speaks when the Roman governor Felix "nodded to him to speak" (Acts 24:1,10). So, it is important to have a good "feel" for both the prof and the teaching style of the class before trying to engage at all.

Clarify Through Questions

Next, in each instance they pointed to their own good conduct (Acts 4:8, 23:1, 24:12) and asked questions about exactly what the main issue was. This is so important that I want to emphasize it again. Questions are the primary way to open a conversation in a respectful and open manner. They can be hugely effective when engaging someone who is antagonistic to your point of view, as demonstrated here.

In the classroom especially, questions are expected. They allow you to not make assertions but ask for clarification which can serve to show a contradiction in the teacher's positions. For example, compare the two opening charges listed above. The prof claimed 1) religion is "socially constructed" and 2) faith is "belief without scientific evidence." The prof clearly mis-defined faith, as has been argued multiple times in the past. Leaving that aside, I would ask for clarification of his point. When the prof talks about religion, does he mean the various expressions people may produce in trying to reach out to the divine? I don't think it's controversial to recognize that the worship music of 21st century America will be colored by our current culture and be very different from the practices of a second century church in Antioch.

The question isn't how culture affects our stretch toward the divine, the question rally is whether God really exists and what is the most appropriate way to know how he has revealed himself. Feuerbach and Freud would say God isn't real, and I think this is also the professor's claim. If that is so, the next question should be "If scientific evidence is the standard for believing a claim, then what scientific evidence can be offered for holding that God does not exist, but is simply a socially constructed belief?"

The prof has alluded to the standard of science to determine truth value it seems to me. But there are a lot of things I believe that science has no bearing on. I believe I'm not in the Matrix, for example. I believe my memories for the most part accurately represent what happened to me previously. I believe that when I see the color green I have the same experience as you do.

A Little is a Lot

Lastly, know when to be done. One or two key questions are usually enough to break the fa├žade of assurance originally presented by the prof but not so much that the exchange begins to feel like a confrontation. Paul would wait for Felix to call him and they would then have conversations. But Paul didn't try to "eat the entire elephant" at once. Be patient and trust that God will provide the proper opportunities and the proper words for such times. Those are the marks of wisdom and gentleness, as Jesus commanded.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

How to Know God's Will For Your Life (video)



Have you ever wondered what God has prepared for your life? How can I be certain my desires match his plan? Do you want Him to use you like He did to the heroes in the Bible?

In this chapel devotion presented before a high school group, Lenny explains one way God prepares us for the calling He has for us.



Image courtesy Anne-Lise Heinrichs and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The Logical Incoherence of Arguing God is a Social Construct



Yesterday, I received a message from a Christian student who was frustrated at his professor's dismissal of religious belief as socially constructed. He writes:
Today in my Sociology class, we covered a very controversial topic--Religion. My professor explained to us that his goal was to be as objective as possible, but still, implemented his ideas into the lecture.

Some notable points he brought up, which are straight from the Sociology textbook, is that all religion is "socially constructed" and that faith is "belief without scientific evidence." He then brought up the Council of Nicea, concerning the nature of Christ, which reconciled the two ideas that Christ was both fully man and fully God, but attributed it to maintaining unity in the church. In short, we made this up in order to keep peace.

He stated that religion is constantly evolving and falsely asserted that Christianity was the first to develop monotheism. His final statement was made near the end of the lecture that "we all need to exercise some level of spirituality in order to survive" since religion provides comfort in the case of tragedy.

How does one, especially as a student, respond to such claims? It's apparent the professor has already chosen where he stands concerning religion. When another spoke up during the lecture, it was clear all he wants to do is debate. As Christians, should we speak up or not cast our pearls before swine?
There are really a couple of questions here. On Monday, I'll tackle how Christians should respond when placed in these difficult situations, but first I want to talk about some of the professor's claims, many of which are demonstrably false. The easiest one to dismiss is the one the student already recognized: that Christianity was the first to develop monotheism. Simply put, no one believes this! Judaism had monotheism down well before Jesus ministered on earth, a fact that is widely accepted by sociologists of all stripes. Either the prof misspoke, was misunderstood, or chose to ignore an accepted point of history on this.

Dealing with the "Socially-Constructed Religion" Charge

What about the larger point that religion is "socially constructed?" The charge isn't new. It was probably most famously made by the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach in his The Essence of Christianity in 1841. There, Feuerbach lays out the argument that human beings will see and interpret their world to reflect their own nature. In other words, God doesn't really exist; he is an expression of understanding the world in human terms and is a super-human projected onto the world.1 Freud taught a similar concept, that the belief in God, salvation, and the resurrection was simply forms of wish-fulfillment to satiate the desires of humanity's frailty.2

Feuerbach's charge has been offered over the years as the trump card to explain the universality of belief in the divine. There's only one problem; it doesn't follow. Another philosopher named Eduard von Hartmann spotted the logical flaw in Feuerbach's argument and clearly dismantled it. Alister McGrath explains:
At the heart of Feuerbach's atheism is his belief that God is only a projected longing. Now it is certainly true that things do not exist because we desire them. But it does not follow from this that, because we desire something, it does not exist. Yet this is the logical structure of Feuerbach's analysis. Eduard von Hartmann pointed this out nearly a century ago, when he wrote: ‘it is perfectly true that nothing exists merely because we wish it, but it is not true that something cannot exist if we wish it. Feuerbach's entire critique of religion and the proof of his atheism, however, rest upon this single argument – a logical fallacy.'3
The thing von Hartmann realized is that people wish for all kinds of things. Snowboarders in California have been wishing for the drought to end so they can go snowboarding, for example. However, just because people wish for something doesn't mean the thing they wish for is untrue. If the meteorologists are right, California is in for a very wet winter this year! Similarly, whether or not people wish that God exists has no bearing on whether or not he does in fact exist. Those are two separate issues and von Hartmann rightly notes that Feuerbach, and Freud by extension, have staked their dismissal of God on fallacious reasoning. They're being illogical to hold to their position.

Nicaea Was Not About Making Nice

On the idea that Nicaea was held to reconcile the divinity and humanity of Jesus so that everyone could, to quote Rodney King, "just get along" is simply untrue. The concept of the Trinity predated Nicaea by some time. In fact, Tertullian used the word to describe God at least a century earlier. By 325, there were the Trinitarians who held to Jesus's equality with the Father and the Arians, who held that Jesus was divine but not in the same way as the Father. Both sides held to their views adamantly and Nicaea was called to discuss which view was correct.

The Council at Nicaea clarified the orthodox stance that most Christians already held, but it certainly didn't make everyone get along. The fight continued for another fifty years and got so heated that Pope Liberius who had supported the Nicaean Creed was exiled by the Arian Emperor Constantius II. He was then pressured to excommunicate the Trinitarian champion Saint Athanasius and ultimately even signed off on a creed that espoused Arianism and rejected Trinitiarianism!4 It wasn't until the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD that Arianism was definitively defeated and Trinitarianism was solidified as the orthodox position of the church. So, if the Trinity was invented at Nicaea to maintain unity in the church, it was an incredible failure!

As you can see, when one studies the history and the background of these claims, a much different picture of them emerges. I will address the thorny issue of how to engage in class discussion on these topics next time, but one thing you should consider is that the more you know about the history of your faith, the better prepared you can be when such discussions arise.

References

1. Feuerbach writes, "Religion is that conception of the nature of the world and of man which is essential to, i.e., identical with; a man's nature. But man does not stand above this his necessary conception; on the contrary, it stands above him; it animates, determines, governs him. The necessity of a proof, of a middle term to unite qualities with existence, the possibility of a doubt, is abolished. Only that which is apart from my own being is capable of being doubted by me. How then can I doubt of God, who is my being? To doubt of God is to doubt of myself." Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. London: Trubner, 1881. Print. 20.
2. Holt, Tim. "Sigmund Freud Religion as WishFulfilment." Philosophy of Religion.  Philosophy of Religion. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2015. http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/arguments-for-atheism/the-psychogenesis-of-religion/sigmund-freud-religion-as-wish-fulfilment/.
3. McGrath, Alister. "God as Wish Fulfilment?" Bethinking.org. UCCF: The Christian Unions, 12 May 2005. Web. 04 Dec. 2015. http://www.bethinking.org/does-god-exist/god-as-wish-fulfilment.
4. Pavao, Paul F. "Pope Liberius." Christian History for Everyman. Greatest Stories Ever Told. Paul Pavao, 2009. Web. 04 Dec. 2015. http://www.christian-history.org/pope-liberius.html.
Image courtesy Maciej Chojnacki and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Attacking Prayer Shows How Far Culture Has Fallen

The news was overwhelming and sad. Fourteen people were killed by a man and woman in San Bernardino. As the events are still unfolding, we don't yet have a clear picture of what their motives were or how much of the attack was planned. We don't know if this was a planned terrorist target, a reaction by a disgruntled employee, or something else. It's best not to speculate until the facts are in.

However, the shock of the events had people wanting to express themselves so the first reaction people had was to pray for the comfort of the victims' families and any injured in the attack. Government officials and presidential candidates offered public statements to that effect. Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted "Please keep the victims of #SanBernardino, California in your prayers." Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, "Our prayers are with the victims, their families, and the first responders in San Bernardino who willingly go into harm's way to save others." These sentiments were joined by many thousands of others.

The turn in all this was the snide reaction of others to the idea of praying in response to a tragedy. Cruz's tweet was met with comments like these:

Those in the media also assaulted any public call for prayer, like the headline of the New York Daily News:


The Huffington Post ran a piece with the lede "Another Mass Shooting, Another Deluge Of Tweeted Prayers: Seems to have been an ineffective strategy so far."

The fact that one's commendation of prayer is now condemned by media and a segment of the general public shows just how far down the rabbit hole our culture has fallen. I realize that much of these railings against prayer are by people and organizations who want to establish gun control laws. But why would they choose the encouragement of prayer as their target when their motivations are a political stance? How does that follow? We don't know anything about where or how the killers got their guns, why they were shooting people, or what their ultimate objectives were. Therefore, we cannot know that any kind of gun control measures would be effectual at all. The killers had also constructed at least three bombs, which were defused by authorities. How come no one is asking for more bomb-control legislation?

More tellingly, this reaction shows just how out of touch these folks are with religious ideas as elementary as prayer. Notice the theme in the incendiary reactions to prayer. They all talk as if we are praying God would somehow stop all shootings. That isn't what people were being asked to do. They are praying for a safe resolution to the evil actions committed by sinful human beings. They are being asked to petition for a level of solace for the victims' families. They are praying for the recognition that whether it's a gun, homemade bombs, knives, airplanes, or something else, the evil inherent in mankind will continue to express itself in the death of others until Jesus comes back.

Prayer is one way we demonstrate that we as human beings don't have all the answers. We can try to reduce the evil we see in the world to some extent, but to think that we don't need prayer because we can legislate all evil away is an uncanny mix of stupidity and hubris. We need prayer not only so God may offer grace to those suffering, but to remind ourselves that we are beholden and answerable to an authority above ourselves. And those who pray are more likely to offer grace and mercy in other, more tangible ways as well. So, let's encourage prayer.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Absolute Irrationality of Expecting Absolute Proof for God



In a recent blog post, Sean McDowell interviewed atheist-turned-theologian Guillaume Bignon about his path to Christianity and some of the pieces that contributed to his conversion. There are many good pieces to the interview, especially the concept of clarifying what the Gospel is and what it is that Christians actually believe. I've written before about why this is crucial since we live in a post-Christian culture.

Another point Guillaume made is that he first became more sensitive to the concept of God when he gave up the idea of absolute proof being essential to believe. He explains:
An important piece I came to understand prior to my conversion was that my standard of proof was completely unrealistic. I wanted airtight proof before I could believe in God, and I came to realize almost none of the things I knew in life enjoyed this kind of support: my name, my date of birth, the reality of the outside world, the existence of other people, and a multitude of other things I was yet fully rational in believing. So my expectations about God suffered from a double standard.1
Guillaume's demand for proof of God is a common theme in the many atheists I've spoken with over the years. They really expect God to do things like make limbs grow back or write his name in flaming letters across the moon. Yet, even miraculous signs like the resurrection of a decomposing corpse have been dismissed by those whose hearts are sufficiently hardened.

How Much Proof is Reasonable?

The bigger point Guillaume made is most of the things we believe and believe reasonably are not the things we demand such proof of. For example, most people believe they know who their biological father is or was. They believe this without running paternity tests to have scientific proof that the man listed on their birth certificate contributed 50% of their DNA. However, we also know it isn't a stretch for a woman to be unfaithful, get pregnant, and then pass the child off as her spouse's progeny. We don't know exactly how many children such as this exist, but the odds are strong it‘s much more than a handful.

Given this fact, is it unreasonable for you to believe that the man you believe is your father is actually not your biological parent? Should everyone run DNA tests before claiming their heritage? Of course not; such a demand would be unrealistic, unnecessary, and irrational. Imagine a friend kept saying "But you don't KNOW that man is your father without proper proof! You're just taking their word for it and it is in their best interest to cover up that embarrassing indiscretion!" None of those statements are false, so why dismiss the friend?

The demand of the friend is unreasonable because we include all we know and experience in our beliefs. You don't only look at the fact that some chance exists your father isn't really yours. You also consider the character of your parents, what their relationship to each other is like, and your interaction with them. None of these things prove paternity, but that doesn't make it unreasonable of you to hold to your belief.

Being reasonable doesn't require airtight proof. As Guillaume said, there are millions of beliefs we hold where we would never demand such a level of evidence before believing in something. On the contrary, demanding airtight proof is usually a sign of being unreasonable. I pray more atheists will follow Guillaume's lead and realize that point.

References

1. McDowell, Sean. "Former French Atheist Becomes a Christian: An Interview." Sean McDowell.org. Sean McDowell, 02 Dec. 2015. Web. 02 Dec. 2015. http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/former-french-atheist-becomes-a-christian-an-interview.
Image courtesy Charles Knowles and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
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