February 2009


Albert Mohler examines an article in U.S. News & World Report that is quite troubling.  It appears the Obama administration requires those who offer prayers before an Obama speech, to vet it with the White House first for their approval.  This is quite clearly a government entanglement with religion.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is a need to even have someone offer a prayer prior to an Obama speech, but if you are going to have prayer be offered, it should not have to be reviewed and possibly edited by the White House.  This goes beyond political correctness into theological arbitration.  As Mohler wrote, “When a White House approves or edits prayers, it has entered theological territory and takes on a theological function.  The President of the United States is our Commander in Chief, not our Theologian in Chief.”

One of my favorite book titles is I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norm Geisler and Frank Turek.  But I think Ray Comfort’s new book title comes in for a close second: You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think.  That is classic!

bridge-the-gap-failedScience-types tend to dismiss theism on grounds that it’s rooted in an ignorance of material explanations for natural phenomena.  Science has discovered material explanations for most things once thought to be acts of God (lightning, gravity, etc.).  Seeing that the gaps in our understanding (gaps once occupied by God) have increasingly been filled by materialist explanations, so, they say, is the need for theism.  Furthermore, given the track record of scientific progress in the last few centuries, even those gaps that remain are likely to be filled with materialistic explanations, leaving no room for theism.  Are these conclusions reasonable?

I’ll begin by addressing the question of whether scientific progress eliminates the need for God.  To speak of the need for God, in this context, is to speak of His explanatory power.  Scientists who think finding materialistic explanations for natural phenomena eliminates the need for God presuppose that God is just a hypothesis, and that this God-hypothesis is only needed to explain the natural world.  Both presuppositions are false.

Most people who believe in God do not do so because God explains some X that is otherwise inexplicable.  For them, God is not an explanatory entity, but a living reality they encounter.  They believe in God because they have experienced Him.  There are, however, some theists who believe in God only because of the explanatory power such a being holds.  What these science-types miss, however, is that for these individuals, God explains much more than just the natural world.  There are non-physical realities that need to be explained such as the existence of objective moral values/duties, the existence of mind/consciousness, and freedom of the will.  Materialistic explanation of these phenomena are not plausible.  An immaterial being, however, provides a sufficient cause.  So even if God was no longer needed to explain all features the universe, His explanatory power would not be obsolete.  There would still be a need for the God-hypothesis.

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That’s right.  The British government is advising parents that they should only discuss their sexual values with their children, but not try to convince them of what’s right and wrong because it “may discourage them from being open.”  I’m irked by the fact that the government thinks it can tell parents how they should teach their kids values.  I’m amazed that England thinks this will help their society.  What good comes out of teens doing whatever they want sexually?  Nothing.

The sorts of things that are happening in England are not limited to England.  We’re already seeing them here.  I find it ironic that the very worldview that promoted religious tolerance in the first place, is the very worldview that is now being suppressed.  I would love to see how things would have been different if Muslims, rather than Christians, were in view.

In 1941, philosopher Mortimer Adler wrote a short, but impactful article for the Journal of Educational Sociology titled an “Invitation to the Pain of Learning.”  Adler argued that thinking/education is one of the highest and most rewarding pursuits of man; unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult and painful.  As a result, genuine education is being abandoned for what some have called “infotainment.”  Education has become a passive enterprise, in which teachers provide students with information dumbed down so that it is entertaining, fun, and pragmatic.  But education should be an active enterprise in which we engage ideas and subjects that challenge our mind and shape our character.  Adler calls both people and educational institutions to focus on the short-term pain of educational learning for the ultimate satisfaction of a transformed life.  Here are some great excerpts that are worth your time to read:

One of the reasons why the education given by our schools is so frothy and vapid is that the American people generally – the parent even more than the teacher – wish childhood to be unspoiled by pain. Childhood must be a period of delight, of gay indulgence in impulses. It must be given every avenue for unimpeded expression, …and it must not be made to suffer the impositions of discipline or the exactions of duty, which of course are painful. Childhood must be filled with as much play and as little work as possible. … Heaven forbid that learning should ever take on the character of a serious occupation – just as serious as earning money, and perhaps, much more laborious and painful. … It must all be fun. It must all be entertaining. Adult learning must be made as effortless as possible – painless, devoid of oppressive burdens and of irksome tasks.

[T]he fundamental activity that is involved in every kind of genuine learning is intellectual activity, the activity generally known as thinking. Any learning which takes place without thinking is necessarily of the sort I have called external and additive – learning passively acquired, for which the common name is “information.” Without thinking, the kind of learning which transforms a mind, gives it new insights, enlightens it, deepens understanding, elevates the spirit simply cannot occur.  Anyone who has done any thinking, even a little bit, knows that it is painful. It is hard work – in fact the very hardest that human beings are ever called upon to do. It is fatiguing, not refreshing. … Far from trying to make the whole process painless from beginning to end, we must promise them the pleasure of achievement as a reward to be reached only through travail.

I do not know…whether it [radio and television] can ever do what the best teachers have always done and must now be doing; namely, to present programs which are genuinely educative, as opposed to merely stimulating, in the sense that following them requires the listener to be active not passive, to think rather than remember, and to suffer all the pains of lifting himself up by his own bootstraps.

Unless we acknowledge that every invitation to learning can promise pleasure only as the result of pain, can offer achievement only at the expense of work, all of our invitations to learning, in school and out, whether by books, lectures, or radio and television programs will be as much buncombe as the worst patent medicine advertising, or the campaign pledge to put two chickens in every pot. 

I particularly like what he says about teaching over people’s head.  While this practice is usually condemned, Adler argues it is absolutely essential to good education:

[W]e must have no fears about what is “over the public’s head.” Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude; for nothing can elevate a mind except what is over its head; and that elevation is not accomplished by capillary attraction, but only by the hard work of climbing up the ropes, with sore hands and aching muscles. The school system which caters to the median child, or worse, to the lower half of the class; the lecturer before adults…who talks down to his audience; the radio or television program which tries to hit the lowest common denominator of popular receptivity – all these defeat the prime purpose of education by taking people as they are and leaving them just there.

I couldn’t agree more.  People need to be intellectually challenged if they are ever to grow intellectually.  That’s not to say we should speak in words they do not understand (at least without defining those words for them), or that we do not appeal to their existing knowledge base, but it is to say that we shouldn’t always be covering the ABCs.  It’s appropriate to move on to higher letters in the alphabet.  Christians need to be weaned from theological milk, and learn to eat some theological steak.  Otherwise, they’ll be condemned to being Peter Pan Christians for the rest of their lives.

Have you ever seen those motivational posters that have a nice, serene or inspiring picture, and a word-message beneath it?  For example, it might show a rock climber pulling himself over the summit of a mountain.  And the word will be “achievement,” followed by some inspirational line about achievement.  I hate those posters!  I much prefer the ones created by Despair, Inc. One of my favorites is “Incompetence: When you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there’s no end to what you can’t do.

I would like to make a polemical “demotivational” poster of my own on the topic of “Atheism,” and I would like your help in determining the caption and picture.  Here are the captions I have come up with:

  • Atheism: The best way to become your own boss is to pretend your boss doesn’t exist
  • Atheism: Because God didn’t qualify for the job
  • Atheism: There is no God, and I hate him.
  • Atheism: An elite club for those with enough faith to believe everything came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing, Amen.
  • Atheism: Because nobody tells me what to do.

Which is your favorite?  Can you think of some alternatives?  Paint for me a picture to go along with the caption you selected.  For example, for the first caption I envision a big corporate conference room with a man sitting in the CEO’s chair on his lap, acting as if the CEO is not there.

Philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig, has frequently made reference to the turn of events in philosophy over the past 40 years.  What was once a very secularized field has been “invaded” by theists.  As evidence of this phenomenon, consider what atheist philosopher, Quentin Smith, had to say in the journal Philo:

By the second half of the twentieth century, universities and colleges had been become in the main secularized. … Analytic philosophers (in the mainstream of analytic philosophy) treated theism as an antirealist or non-cognitivist world-view, requiring the reality, not of a deity, but merely of emotive expressions…. The secularization of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of [Alvin] Plantinga’s influential book on realist theism, God and Other Minds, in 1967. It became apparent to the philosophical profession that this book displayed that realist theists were not outmatched by naturalists in terms of the most valued standards of analytic philosophy: conceptual precision, rigor of argumentation, technical erudition, and an in-depth defense of an original world-view. … [T]oday perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians. … God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.[1]

In other words, the intellectual respectability of theism was resurrected.  Theism was rational after all (even if [as Quentin thinks] it is ultimately false), and formed a beachhead against secularism in university philosophy departments.  What I find interesting, however, is the response of naturalists.  According to Smith

the great majority of naturalist philosophers react by publicly ignoring the increasing desecularizing of philosophy (while privately disparaging theism, without really knowing anything about contemporary analytic philosophy of religion) and proceeding to work in their own area of specialization as if theism, the view of approximately one-quarter or one-third of their field, did not exist. … [N]aturalist scientists…are so innocent of any understanding of the philosophy of religion that they do not even know that they are innocent of this understanding, as it witnessed by their popular writings on science and religion.[2]

And again,

If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.[3]

Be sure, this is not because Smith thinks theists have the better arguments.  On the contrary, he is persuaded that naturalism is the true ontology.  But he recognizes that 99% of naturalists are so ignorant of the philosophy of religion that they would not be able to refute the arguments.  I have found this to be true of many naturalists.  They continue to speak as if theism requires an irrational, blind leap of faith into the dark, and continue to present tired-old arguments against theism as if those arguments have not been answered by theists both past and present.  They are unaware of those responses, because they do not engage the philosophy of religion with the same rigor that theists engage philosophical naturalism.

Furthermore, because most naturalists ignore philosophers of religion, they are also unaware of the fact that theistic philosophers have defeated their arguments for naturalism, and thus ignorant of the fact that their belief in naturalism is not justified (at least until they are able to undercut or rebut those defeaters).  As Smith notes, “They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief.”[4]

While Smith is concerned about the recent turn of events in philosophy, I find it reason to rejoice.  It is a testimony to the intellectual credibility of the Christian faith.  Religious faith does not require a commitment of the will in the absence (or in spite of the) evidence, but rather is a persuasion based on reasonable knowledge.  Christians need not fear philosophy; we need only avoid the false philosophies of men (Colossians 2:8).  As C.S. Lewis once said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”


[1]Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo, 4:2 (2001); available from http://www.philoonline.org/library/smith_4_2.htm; Internet; accessed 07 January 2009.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

This past weekend I flew to Virginia.  On the lavatory door there reads a sign: “No smoking in lavatory.”  Anyone who knows the English language would interpret this as a clear message prohibiting smoking.  But what if there was another sign on an adjacent wall that read, “If you smoke, please dispose of your cigarette butt in this receptacle, not the trash can”?  Surely I would think the airline did not take its no-smoking rule too seriously.  I would see the sign as a sort of wink-wink that it is really ok to smoke in the lavatory, even if the airline would prefer that I don’t.  In other words, the second sign demotes the meaning of the first sign from a command, to a mere suggestion.  

I see a parallel to the sex education we offer children and students in many parts of this nation.  We tell them they should abstain from sexual relations prior to marriage, but then give them condoms and birth control.  Wink-wink.  Handing them the condom/pill negates the authority of the first message. 

Some will argue that we’re only passing out condoms and birth control to protect teens who have no intentions of obeying the “no sex rule.”  It’s the “they’re going to do it anyway so we might as well help them do it safely” objection.  But why think they are going to do it anyway?  Maybe if they thought their parents and educators were serious when they say “don’t have sex,” they wouldn’t “do it anyway.”  The didn’t “do it anyway” 50 years ago, because they knew the culture was serious about its no-sex rule.  But how can they take that command seriously today, when we utter the same rule, but give them a condom right afterward?  

I know this is a controversial topic, even among Christians.  I myself have been conflicted about it.  On the one hand, I don’t want to send mixed messages, taking back with one hand what I gave with the other.  On the other hand, I know some kids are going to have sex no matter how strongly we preach a no-sex-until-marriage message, and I would rather that they don’t get STDs or pregnant in the process.  So I see some wisdom in both approaches, but I see more wisdom in setting the proper expectations of our children.  No one smokes on airplanes anymore because the airlines couldn’t be more clear about their prohibition on smoking.  Even the chain-smoker-though he may be dying for a cigarette-won’t light up on that four hour flight because he knows there will be consequences for his actions.  Isn’t the same thing possible for our sex-crazed teens if they know society means what they say when they tell them not to have sex?  I’m not so idealistic as to think we’ll eliminate the behavior, but I’m not so stupid to think we’ll get teens to curb their sexual desires by giving them the tools they need to engage in them a little more safely.  At least, that’s the way I see it.

Ever want to know the religious makeup of Congress?  Pew has it for you:

cong1

Last year the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its findings on the religious beliefs and practices of Americans based on an extensive sampling (35,000 people).  I blogged on their findings, noting that 70% of religious Americans in general, and 57% of evangelicals in particular, believe many religions lead to eternal life.  

Many questioned the accuracy of the data due to the ambiguity of the question posed to respondents.  “Religions” could be interpreted to mean non-Christian religions, or other Christian denominations.  So in August 2008 Pew clarified the issue by re-asking the same question in expanded form to a sampling of 2908 people.  Not only did the number of evangelical who affirmed “many religions can lead to eternal life” drop from 57% to 47%, but of that number, only 72% had non-Christian religions in view.  That means “only” 34% of evangelicals believe non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life (within all of American Christendom, that number is 52%).  So it’s not as bad as originally believed, but 1 in 3 is still bad!

When it is broken out by who these evangelicals thought could be saved apart from Christianity, the data is pretty scary.  A full 64% of them thought Jews could be saved; 35% thought Muslims could be saved; 33% Hindus; 26% atheists; 35% non-religious.  When 1 in 4 of them think somebody can deny God’s existence and still be saved, something is wrong!

On the positive side, the number of evangelicals who believe one must be a Christian has actually increased from 37% in 2007 to 49% in 2008.  From Pew: “Fewer than half of evangelicals (47%) say many religions can lead to eternal life, down nine points in the course of a year, while 49% say theirs is the one, true faith.”  So it appears that Christian particularlism is on the rise, and religious pluralism is on the decline in evangelical circles. 

Religious pluralism among religious believers of any stripe is also in decline, decreasing from 76% in 2002, to 65% in 2008.  These figures do not isolate “strong religious pluralists” from those who simply allow for the salvation of those in various factions of their own religion (“weak religious pluralists”).  When we isolate the strong from the weak religious pluralists, the numbers are smaller.  That subset constitutes a slim majority of religious Americans (52%).  The 2002 data did isolate this subset, but if we apply the 2008 ratios of strong-to-weak religious pluralists to the 2002 data, it would yield a figure of 61% strong religious pluralists.  A 9% reduction in religious pluralism over a 6 year period is significant indeed.

If you are into cultural and political news with a twist of humor and sarcasm, Strange Herring is for you.  I love it!

Gallup recently conducted a nationwide poll to see what states were the most and least religious.  People were asked if religion was an important part of their daily life.  The state with the highest religiosity is Mississippi, with 85% of those polled declaring religion to be an important part of their daily lives. Vermont is the least religious state, with only 42% of those polled affirming the same thing.  My own state of California came in at number 38 (57%), beating out Montana (56%) and New York (56%). 

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Here is a pictorial representation of religiosity levels in the US.  The darker the green, the more religious:

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Indeed, there is a Bible Belt in the U.S.  And then there is that Bible vacuum we call New England and the West Coast!

I don’t know which is more difficult: trying to change the beliefs of religious people, or trying to change the beliefs of those who are apathetic towards religion in general.  Either way, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

 

HT: Albert Mohler

I just received an email from Greg Koukl, president of Stand to Reason ministries.  He penned a short article (what I like to call a “shorticle”) clarifying the sense in which moral relativism is relative, and the sense in which it is not.  His insights are worth producing in their entirety:

“Moral relativism is a kind of subjectivism. When it comes to moral rules-principles of right and wrong-it’s up to the subject, the individual, to decide because there are no true, universal, ethical obligations or moral principles that apply equally to all people. Since no universal standard exists to govern all groups, each decides right and wrong only for itself without judging those that hold other values.

“Even with this brief description, I think you can see a problem beginning to emerge.  A relativist is not going to be able to get any traction if he wants to condemn (in any ultimate sense) any behavior, regardless how evil it seems to be.

“Since this is the relativist’s fatal weakness, I’m not surprised when I get pushback on this point.  “No relativist believes that anything goes,” I’ve been told.  “You’re twisting our view.  Every culture has its own framework of right and wrong.  Even if there are no universal standards of morality, that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all within a given group.”

“Fair enough.  Let me answer this charge with a simple illustration.  Let us pretend that you want to play the classic board game, Monopoly. Like every other game, Monopoly has rules. There are standards, a framework of right or wrong of sorts that works within the Monopoly “community.”  According to the rules of the game, for example, you cannot have houses and hotels on the same piece of property. That would be wrong. Parker Brothers, the inventors of the game, said so.

“Relativism is like Monopoly. In one sense, it’s not the case that “anything goes.” Rather, standards set by the community (Parker Brothers, in this case) govern behavior.

These laws are “true,” though, in an entirely different way than, say, the laws of gravity are true. They are not true because of the way the world is structured, but because of the way human beings (subjects) have arranged the game. If you don’t like the rules, you can change them (variations that are sometimes called “house rules”), or play a different game, or play no game at all. It’s completely up to you.

“You can’t do that with gravity. If you don’t like the laws of physics, too bad. Adapt or die. Reality will punish you if you don’t take it seriously.

“Yes, even in relativistic systems you can get punished by the group if you break the rules and get caught. But I think you can see this is a contrived sort of “punishment” based merely on human conventions (“Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.”), not on transcendent standards.

“In the end, as I said, anything goes.  That’s always the case with relativism.

If you are a moral realist (objectivist), you think moral rules are real things, not individual whims or social conventions created by culture.  They are like gravity, not Monopoly.  If you are a relativist, you are playing Monopoly with right and wrong.

Of course, this would not make relativism false.  It might be that, given the nature of the world, all we are left with when it comes to ethics are human conventions. But if that’s the case, then an intellectually honest relativist will have to admit that, given his view of the world, ultimately, anything goes.”

QuentinSmithThe kalam cosmological argument for God’s existence goes as follows:

(1) Anything that begins to exist requires a cause
(2) The universe began to exist
(3) Thus, the universe requires a cause

With some additional philosophical reasoning, the cause of the universe is ultimately identified as God.  Many atheists object to the first premise, claiming that the universe just exists inexplicably.  Such include Frank Wilczek, Chrispen Wright, Bob Hale, and John Post.  Atheist philosopher, Quentin Smith, rejects this response as intellectually inadequate.  He agrees that the universe needs a cause, but identifies that cause as the universe itself.  He is not the first to do so.  Daniel Dennett et al have made similar claims, but Smith’s version is much more sophisticated.  Unlike most others, his version is rationally coherent (even if it is ultimately untenable), and thus deserving of attention.[1]

In Smith’s cosmogeny,[2] the beginning of the universe consists of an infinite number of simultaneous events, each causally connected to the next so that nothing popped into existence uncaused.  Since the chain of events is infinite, there is no first event that lacks a causal explanation, and thus there is no need to posit God as the first cause of the universe.  Each part of the universe is fully caused by another.

The events are identified by Smith as elementary particles (such as electrons and quarks).  If we let t = 0 stand for the beginning of the universe, “…” stand for an infinite regress, e stand for electrons, q stand for quarks, and > stand for simultaneous causal relations, we can picture the beginning of Smith’s imagined universe as follows:

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