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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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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Worldview Definitions: Rationalism and Naturalism

The worldview of theism powered humanity for much of its existence.  Even in primitive cultures, people looked to their gods as well as the world around them and tried to make sense out of both. But without divine revelation, they often got things wrong (expecting rain after performing a certain dance or something of that sort.) Christianity, with its foundations in the Jewish faith, taught strongly that God revealed Himself in two ways: through His creation and through His Word.1

Something happened, though, as Christians began to investigate God's world.  They started to discover more and more things in nature they had assumed were a result of a divine agency were really responding to laws of nature and biology and by altering the circumstances or the variables they could change the outcome of those processes. At the same time, they made great advancements in mathematics and they reawakened to the philosophy of Plato and the Greeks, which emphasized logic being the ultimate guiding force of knowledge.

Because so many achievements were coming from men thinking hard about their world, philosophers began to conclude that the ability to reason was all they needed in order to know everything there is to know about the world. Many believed God existed, but they felt that God's revelation was unnecessary for discovering truth.  They assumed that given enough time and thought, man would figure it all out on his own.  God was removed from being the primary source of truth as people became convinced that they were smart enough to discover anything with enough thought and analysis.

Naturalism: "God Doesn't Count as Knowledge"

The removal of God as the primary source of truth was a huge shift in thinking for the world. If all people need to discover truth is to identify facts and reason through them with a good mind, then focusing on nature becomes more important and focusing on God less so. Thus the Grand Story in western society shifted from God to Nature itself, just as Romans 1:25 warned. Therefore, since God wasn't needed to understand the ways of the world, many educated people took the next step and denied Him altogether.  If God doesn't offer any explanations to the ways of the world, why assume one needs to worry about Him? The worldview adopted by those who think this way is called "naturalism". The world is seen in purely mechanistic terms: this causes that just because the laws of the universe work that way. 

Naturalists, because of their worldview, now seek to explain everything without pointing to God at all.  Even in big issues, such as the origin of life on the earth, God cannot be accepted as a cause, because it violates their notion of "really" explaining things. Therefore, Darwinian evolution becomes the capstone in the search for a purely mechanistic way to explain how the diversity of life arose on the planet.  In fact, to say "God did it" is seen as a cheat; naturalists would object to anyone claiming the involvement of a divine being saying the person hasn't thought hard enough about the problem. They define knowledge of God as false knowledge.

You can see how important it is to understand worldviews!  Since naturalists are committed to not accepting explanations that involve God, their minds are closed to the existence of God before you even give evidence. The bias of naturalism is plainly seen everywhere today, even in popular culture.  Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, held to this view, and one of Star Trek's recurring themes is the evolution of man to his betterment.2 No religious belief system is  ever in view for the show's protagonists. Roddenberry believed reason alone would catapult mankind into this new utopia and his popular franchise has continued to preach his message ever since.


1. This idea of dual revelation is taught explicitly in Scripture.  Psalm 19 and Romans 1 declare how God reveals Himself thorough His creation, an idea known as "general revelation". But since all of creation is warped by the fall of man (Genesis 3:16, Romans8:22), it is an imperfect revelation. Therefore, God provides us with the more clear word of Scripture "for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness." (2 Timothy 3:16)
2. See Bronislaus B. Kush' article "‘Star Trek' franchise an homage to humanist philosophy" in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Wordview Definitions: Theism

Yesterday, I discussed the importance of understanding what a worldview is and the fact that everyone has one. There are many diverse worldviews that exist today, and we can see that even within the different ideas about how the world works, there are common threads that run through each.

All worldviews start with what philosophers call a "meta-narrative" or "Grand Story". These are beliefs or ideas about God and truth. Meta-narratives are the foundation and basis of what shapes one's worldview, they inform and color all our other beliefs. They deal with how we got here, why we're here, and how to discover truth about the world around us. I want to spend some time looking at four of the most widely accepted meta-narratives by people throughout history. To be sure, all of these worldviews exist today and studying them a bit will give us a better grasp of how others ground their concept of truth.

"We Need God to Understand His Creation"

Traditional theism is the position taken by most people historically. Theism holds that there is a God (or perhaps gods) who is responsible for creating the world. It further implies that the world was created with some type of order to it; there are laws that govern how the world works. Judaism and Christianity especially hold to the idea that God has created the universe with certain features or laws that are orderly and reliable. If one were to create the same set of circumstances today (such as dropping a cannon ball off the Tower of Pisa) that he had set up a year ago, he should be able to achieve the same result.

This idea of purpose shows up everywhere. A seed that is planted and watered should grow into a tree. Introduce a fungus or virus into that tree and it can die. The traditional view holds that God created the world in a rational, predictable way. It therefore means the world is predictable and laws of physics we discover today will allow us to predict outcomes tomorrow or millennia from now.

Theism and Human Exceptionalism

Of course, physical laws like gravity are not the only things that are predictable. When God created human beings, He created them with some unique differences from all other creatures on earth. For example, animals are aware of their environment, but only humans are aware of ourselves. No matter how smart a chip or a dolphin may be, they will never wonder when they will die, or what it would be like to be another species. They are not self-aware.

People have the capability to be aware of more than just themselves, though. We can take that awareness and apply it to others. We can sympathize with another person who's suffered a loss or tragedy. We can project what it would be like if we were in the same situation and perhaps try to prevent such a situation from occurring. We can also gain awareness of God and comprehend the concept of a divine being who would have us relate to Him and to others in particular ways.

All this means that we can have moral awareness. We have the ability to understand that there are certain things we should or shouldn't do. And if God creates with an order to things, then it follows that there is an order to the way beings with awareness of God and each other should act. Certain moral laws exist that are always true just as certain physical laws exist that are always true. If the circumstances are the same, then God expects us to behave in a specific way. Ultimately, it means that anyone who holds to traditional theism believes there are certain moral precepts that are absolutely true—true at all times for all people in all locations.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why Worldview is Important

Photo courtesy Franz Schuier
It seems that Hollywood has fallen back in love with the 3-D movie. A big draw in the 1950s, they faded to obscurity until after the start of the new millennium. Now, some of the biggest movie titles are filmed and marketed in 3-D, even though the cost to make and show such movies is significantly higher. The reason for the cost increase is because it takes special equipment to make a movie look like it's popping off the screen.

In order to achieve the 3-D effect, two images of each scene are superimposed on the screen, each shot with a slightly different perspective. The 3-D glasses have two different lenses with a filter tuned to each of the different images. That way, when you watch the movie with the glasses, they block one image from one eye and the other image from the other. Since you look at the real world with two eyes, each having a slightly different perspective on an object because they are spaced apart, your brain automatically tries to put the images back together and assumes that the difference it sees between the images is because of depth and you therefore see the images jump from the screen and feel like they're right in front of you.

I've personally never been a big fan of the format, and that's mainly because of the glasses you're required to wear in order to see the 3-D effect. The effect isn't perfect (it still feels forced in many places) and the glasses affect the hue and clarity of the picture. Wear the wrong kind of glasses and you get a distorted picture, one that's out of focus and off color.

Looking at the world through our own set of glasses

It's not only the imaginary world of movies where this kind of distortion can occur, though. Every person on the planet receives information about how the world works from innumerable sources. All of your experiences, interactions, movies, books music and more feed you with information on how the world works and how we should understand reality. As each of us receives this information, we process it and try to relate it to other experiences in order to make sense out of all that we've received. The sum total of how we suppose God, life, the world and all of reality work is known as our "worldview". These are our "glasses" so to speak; the ideas that shape our thinking about what is true and what isn't. Its how we anticipate what may happen or what should happen. It is, you might say, our biases about the world.1

It's important to note that everyone has a worldview. Everyone has some type of bias. There's just no way to live your life with any degree of sanity without being able to associate some cause (such as reaching towards a flame) with an effect (such as the pain from a burned hand). Even though people may have never heard the term "worldview", they still have beliefs on how the world works so they hold to some type of world view. The "glasses" of their worldview can be quite different from yours or mine and it colors the world quite differently for them. Different glasses affect their understanding and they will approach situations with a different attitude.

Understanding worldview is important in apologetics. If we are presenting ideas or arguments that are tuned to a different set of glasses, the person we are speaking to will only see a distortion, and one that is probably not pleasant to look at. So think about how you can adjust your discussion to take worldview into account. By so doing, your arguments will seem anything but two-dimensional.


1. Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1999) 16-20

Friday, May 03, 2013

Do You Need Religion to Have Morals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Relativism Sinks into the Quicksand of Meaninglessness

Whenever I look at the issue of moral relativism, I find that there are many different ways it doesn't make sense. The concepts of right and wrong must be grounded in something beyond our personal opinions or feelings. One of the problems of relativism is that is sinks in the quicksand of meaningless morality. Let me explain what I mean.

If relativism is true, then societies themselves cannot advance to the betterment of its members. There are those relativists who believe that although relativism is not based in absolute values, each person living within a social framework should obey the laws and culture that the society deems proper. Polygamy, for example, is neither right nor wrong in itself. It’s simply that some societies have a history and culture of allowing polygamous relationships and others have a history of promoting monogamous relationships. Neither is really right or wrong- They just have different cultures and each should be allowed to express their preference. They believe that morality is determined by the dictates of the society.

Relativist claim: "Each society does what is right for them and we should allow them to practice the dictates of their own culture and habits"

This is a type of cultural relativism is known as Normative relativism – meaning that whatever mores the society holds should be followed. But what about those people to rally for social change? Slavery was once the majority view in the South, so should it have therefore been left in place? If a society agrees that a practice such as slavery or infanticide is acceptable, then one cannot say abolishing those practices is the right thing to do. In fact, our society today is not better than the slave-holding south, it’s just different. Relativism without a solid foundation of objective standards quickly sinks into a quicksand of moral meaninglessness where no laws or moral frame work is better than any other.

It gets worse, though.  If morality means agreeing with whatever the society says is OK right now, then anyone who stands up to those concepts would be considered immoral since they are fighting against the majority opinion.  It makes those that would push for the rights of the downtrodden to be immoral! The abolitionist movement and Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests would be categorized as immoral actions. Concepts of justice are nullified. The idea of fair laws and unfair laws disappears. If there is no absolutes to stand upon, if everything is viewed by what society says is right right now, then fighting for improving things doesn’t make any sense.

 C.S. Lewis said "A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line."1 If you think about it, this is a very profound statement. There is only one way to create a straight line, you find the shortest distance between two points. However, there are many ways to be crooked: a line can have many angles, a soft arc or deviate just slightly from the intended target. Crooked lines come in all kinds of shapes, but the only thing that defines a crooked line as crooked is it is not the shortest distance between two points; it is not straight. That’s how morality works. We need to know what the objective is in order to see what deviates from it. Both individually with good and evil and as a society, an objective morality is necessary for the world to function. Otherwise we’re all slowly being pulled down by the weight of various opinions. The more people struggle to hold onto this view, the faster they sink into meaninglessness.


1. Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. (New York:Macmillan Pub. Co., 1960) 45.
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