Thursday, 30 December 2010

Is science our only hope?

I'm still at my parents for Christmas and I don't have all the resources with me that I'd like for continuing the series on God's normal 'policy of communication' so I'm putting that on hold for the time being. Right now I want to comment on a particular argument that John Loftus, a sort of atheist 'internet activist', is advocating on his blog and elsewhere. Let's have a looky ...

"Anthropological studies show us that religion and culture are almost synonymous. Sociological studies confirm it when we look at the geographical distribution of religion. Psychological studies show we are self-centered gullible people who believe what we were initially taught and that we believe what we prefer to be true. They show us we are ignorant of our own ignorance. The conclusion is that given these scientific disciplines we should all be skeptics. We should trust the sciences even if they are sometimes fallible because there is no other way out of such a morass. The ONLY reason this is controversial is because believers know it undermines the rationality of what they believe. They kick against the goads not to join us and be skeptics."

He adds this comment on the same theme on Victor Reppert's blog, "My point ... is that the only way to break free from our prejudices is to follow the sciences. They are our best and only hope.

Religion does nothing here since we believe what we prefer to believe.

And philosophy? Come on now. Again you cannot be that dense. Tell me which philosophical opinions have a consensus to them? Philosophy uses the biases we inherit and then constructs reasons why our biases can be justified." 


He's basically saying that we have good reasons to believe that most of what we believe in matters of philosophy and religion, we believe for arbitrary reasons, thus we should abandon all that we believe in these areas and base our thinking solely on science, the methodology of which greatly reduces the biasing effects of culture and individual psychology.

His lack of supporting sources for these studies aside, the argument is, frankly, horrendous. Firstly if successful it would support agnosticism, not atheism (to which Loftus adheres to), because science in itself cannot answer the question of God's existence. Science is the study of the natural world, and God is not part of the natural world. Poster 'Rational Gaze' on theologyweb explained the point helpfully and with a dash of humour when responding to another skeptic; "using science to declare that the supernatural does not exist and that only the natural exists, would be like using a ruler to declare that weight does not exist and that only height exists." A ruler is of course only meant to be used to measure height, not weight; a ruler cannot comment on weight, like science cannot comment on the supernatural. 

It doesn't get any better ...

Really though the problem with the argument is that it is self-defeating. Loftus says we should abandon philosophy! Well hang on, isn't that a philosophy itself? Yes, it is. Loftus tries to save himself from this gross error by saying that only philosophy "based on science" is allowed. This isn't going to help him. First of all, the practise of science presupposes that certain things are true, i.e. that the universe is intelligible, stable, that our minds are fit to study it, and that our senses can be trusted. These are philosophical claims, ones that aren't based on science, for they are the prerequisites of science. So he's in trouble if he doesn't allow those.

Secondly Loftus would have to admit, claims that we ought to only believe certain things are not claims that can be directly verified in a lab or anything like that. So Loftus presumably means that his philosophy of abandoning philosophy is based on science in that it is argued for with reference to scientific findings. The trouble is there are theistic arguments that do this as well, like the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Fine-Tuning Argument. So even if we stupidly accept Loftus' philosophy, that doesn't shut out belief in God at all.

Loftus used to be a defender of Christianity and he is not an uneducated man (he has couple higher degrees even). But given what I have seen following his blog for the last couple months, seeing records of his past exploits, and engaging him in debate personally on theologyweb (rather than address my counter-arguments he just ducked out and asserted that I was ignorant - see link below), I feel I can safely conclude that he is a man whose capacity to think critically has been crippled by his emotionally driven disdain for Christianity. Ironic given his concern for arbitrary bias. His arguments are now so sloppy that I wonder how he could have ever earned a philosophy degree. I know that there are sincere and clear-thinking skeptics out there, but Loftus is not one of them. What is sobering about his material is not its rational persuasion but the testimony it gives as to how far the mighty can fall.

Loftus' cowardly dismissal (read the first couple pages - his username is Doubting John, mine is nightbringer)

Saturday, 25 December 2010

You didn't buy that story, did ya Joseph?

Although this entry is being posted on Christmas day, I'm actually writing it on Christmas eve for the obvious reason that I have better things to do on Christmas than update a fairly modest blog - things like spending time with family and opening presents and stuff. So Merry Christmas from the past.

Here in the past it's pretty cosy, or at least it is where I am. The fire is on, I've sank a tasty pint of John Smiths, Prince Caspian is on TV, and I've been reading 'The Atheist's Guide To Christmas'. It was a well chosen joke gift given by a mate who graduated with me (she inisted that I opened it there and then, don't worry; I don't break the sacred Christmas gift-opening rules lightly). I've got a soft spot for inter-religious (or counter-religious) banter so I was keen to get stuck in, and true enough it's been a pretty funny read that's had me laugh-out-loud at parts.

Naturally however, when you get some folks to contribute to a volume that centres around a specific viewpoint, they'll now and again slip in some disparaging comments about the opposing viewpoint: in this case, Christian theism. I got no beef with this, I expect and in fact welcome it (though I do wish that in a book which is clearly meant to be humourous, there'd be a bit more, dare I say it, grace, given by the authors; the dichotomy between atheists as cool dispassionately reasoned fellows, and theists as irrational loons is a tiring canard that appears through-out the book), but what's bewildering is how downright silly some of the objections are. Uh-oh, I sense your unease. Now I know it's Christmas but that doesn't mean we can't get our philosophy hats on, does it? Just pretend the paper hat you got in your cracker is a bit more profound and a bit less naff than it actually is. Sorted? Good. Let's check out an objection that's particularly relevant to tomorrow (err, today), that is, Christmas, which for Christians is a celebration of the virgin bith of Jesus.

Science disproves the virgin birth?

If only Joseph had known about modern science. Poor guy. If he had he would have known that Mary could not be both pregnant and a virgin. Sadly he didn't have a clue about the birds and the bees so he accepted Mary's story about angels and the Holy Spirit and was duped by the cunning lass.

What's ridiculous about the above reflection is that it didn't take the advent of modern science for people to discover that virgins don't get pregnant. Believe it or not, the ancients knew that you didn't get the bump without doing the business. They weren't any more prone to believe that a virgin just happened to get pregnant any more than we are. Unsurpringly we read in Matthew that Joseph was going to leave Mary until an angel appeared to him in a dream and comfirmed Mary's story to him (whether or not you believe this actually happened is irrelevant to the point that Joseph clearly knew that virgins don't get pregnant). Despite this, Mitch Benn, in his otherwise intelligent contribution, scoffs at the "scientific implausibility of virgin births", as if the fact that virgin births can't occur through natural means is a blow against Christianity. Of course they don't occur naturally! I don't know any Christian who disagrees. Our claim is not "Mary got pregant through some natural cause even though she was a virgin", but rather "God caused Mary to be pregant even though she was a virgin."

There is a world of difference between these claims. Do you think the fact that virgins can't become pregnant through natural means establishes the impossibility of a all-powerful being who created nature causing a virgin to be pregnant? Clearly not. Even if there are concrete and binding entities called natural laws, if God exists he created them and thus can over-rule them. Benn has merely assumed that the Christian God doesn't exist, the very thing he was supposed to be arguing for.

On the plus side he does convincingly argue that atheists need not shun Christmas because of its religious association, something I wholly agree with. Christmas is what you make it, and if you're a non-religious folk who just wants to have a good time with a little wine and some mince pies, be my guest. Have a merry Christmas!     

Friday, 24 December 2010

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Reflections on "Christian Music"

I love music.

I sometimes remark to people that music was my God before I found God. Listening to it is what I do to relax - it's part of how I live and breathe during the day. You're probably familiar with my type. We are the ones who rag on the X Factor and complain about the state of music on the radio. We're the ones who want the actual physical CD (or vinyl), not just mp3s. We like albums, not isolated tracks and we'll probably be a bit too keen to browse through your iPod to 'rate your taste'. A bit pretentious perhaps, but we put it down to passion, or artistic integrity ... or something. Anyway I like a good tune.

But Christian music has a lousy rep. "Christian music sucks" the mantra goes. And I largely agree although I think the statement needs qualifying.

It should be said first of all that the label, "Christian music", certainly as a genre label, is rather suspect. Taken literally as 'music composed by Christians' it would be the most stylistically diverse genre on earth, ranging from hymns to black metal; certainly the label couldn't denote anything musically unique about "Christian music". The only uniqueness it identifies is ideological, but we don't have "Feminist music" as a genre or "Humanist music". Splitting the musical spectrum along ideological lines would leave a very fragmented aftermath, one not worth pursuing.

The "Christian music" label is also rather suspect on theological grounds as it suggests the validity of the great sacred/secular divide, as if all music written by non-Christians is not appropriate for Christians to listen to. But the Bible is not afraid to quote pagan literature when it affirms truth. The whole world is God's and non-Christians can speak truth and make beautiful art too, and that should be affirmed.

Despite these reasons, somehow "Christian music" has become a label with currency and it's usually given to bands not because they have Christian members, but because they have explicit Christian content. The message of the lyrics is seen as a little "preachy" and there is often a perception that the band is trying to imitate styles made popular by non-Christian artists. The impression this stuff leaves is "laaame." No doubt, as with all broad labels or stereotypes, it's a bit crude and sweeping (I myself do like a couple popular Christian bands), but there's some truth in this characterisation. How have so many (presumably well-meaning) Christian artists given off such a bad impression?

I got thinking about this when I watched a lecture recently by Ravi Zacharias on worldviews. I can't reproduce his words ad verbatim but what he basically said was, we will never effectively communicate to a culture unless we understand that culture's pain. He said that Christians have frequently done a miserable job of doing this. Nail. On. The. Head.

Christians make bad music when they want to communicate a good message, but fail to treat the audience with respect. It is offensive to take the huge complex morass of emotions and questions that make up the culture this generation - my generation - lives in, and remedy it with pithy sayings and one liners that reveal that you just haven't understood. Musical styles have evolved to express these feelings and voice these questions, and you cannot merely hi-jack them and sprinkle a veneer of Christianity over it. Oh no. It has to be deeper than that. You can bring your faith into it, yes, but make sure you "get it" first. And not in a merely theoretical sense either. You need to show you're human enough to hurt like the rest of us, and then you can talk about where you've found the strength, comfort, and guidance to get through. If you don't your message will have no validity and we shan't trust it. This, I think, is where Christian music often falters.

Anyone who hopes to impact a culture needs to understand this. I feel I need to understand this; I need to keep connected to people, I need to keep engaging with what engages them.

Although it is sad that people have a negative view of Christians in music, I do think there are a number of great Christian artists who are being empathetic and organic in expressing their worldview - people who are being real. I've leave you with a personal favourite example, the band Thrice. Not all of Thrice's members are Christians but a couple are, including the lyricist and vocalist, Dustin Kensrue.

This song of theirs, 'Lost Continent', breaks me ...

     
                               

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The sheep hear his voice

November has been a crazy busy month for me, as evidenced by the lack of blog entries. I'll fill you all in on some details when I do the next Relay update, but for now let's continue our look at the issue of whether God promises to regularly communicate to Christians outside of the Bible.

The sheep hear his voice.

There are a number of passages Christians often point to that purportedly show that God's will is regularly made known to us outside of the Bible, through 'promptings of the spirit' or the allignment of circumstances or some other phenomena that needs to be interpreted correctly. One of these passages in John 10:1-5,

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers."

Because this passage talks about the sheep recognising the shepherd's voice it is said that Christians should expect to hear God's voice regularly in some special way. The problem with using this passage to support the special communication view is that when we see the verse in context, Jesus just isn't talking about how believers ought to discern God's will. This teaching of Jesus occurs in a narrative whereby he has healed a man of blindness on the Sabbath and the religious leaders are angry at him for doing it during this sacred time. They deny that Jesus is doing God's will, whereas the man who was healed recognises that Jesus was doing God's will. Jesus calls the religious leaders blind and then begins this passage, referring to himself as the shepherd. 

The Old Testament used the word shepherd to describe the spiritual leaders of Israel. Mostly likely Jesus is referencing Ezekiel 34:1-12 which speaks of God's anger towards the failings of the religious leaders in truly caring for their flock. God promises that he himself will be their shepherd in the future. Jesus is saying that he is the real shepherd who cares for his flock and his flock recognise him as performing this role, as the blind man did, whereas the false shepards, the religious leaders, do not.

At any rate even if this passage did talk about God's special communication, it is vague, simply talking about the shepherd's voice, not the manner in which this is discerned and so cannot support any particular view of God's regular special communication.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

God now talks to us like he did to Adam?

We're continuing our look at whether the Bible teaches us that God regularly talks to us in ways outside of his written word. This series kicked off over here. Right now we're looking at arguments put forward to support the view that God does talk to us in this way, to see whether they hold up to examination.

One argument I've heard for this view is that God seemed to talk to Adam conversationally in the garden of Eden, and since Christians partake in the renewal of creation according to God's original intended plan, we should be talking and listening to God conversationally now.

But it ain't that easy

First of all it isn't clear what exactly the conversational relationship between Adam and Eve and God looked like. While God does seem to talk to them directly Genesis doesn't give any descriptions of how this happened. We can't just read ideas of "listening to that small inner voice" or "waiting for the Spirit's promptings" into the text when they aren't there. There is no prescription for that sort of thing in Genesis.

Secondly, the Bible teaches that God's renewed creation is not here in its fullness yet. We have some parts of it now, and some parts will come later when Jesus returns. For instance we still have disease and death. We depend on Bible passages describing the nature of the life of believers in this age to tell us what is present and what is to come. The advocate of the "regular special communication" view needs to provide passages that tell us that conversational communication between us and God is a part of renewed creation now and not just later.
 
Next we'll look at specific passages that are said to support the view of "regular special communication."  

Friday, 5 November 2010

God is always talking to people in the Bible?

We're looking at the moment at whether the Bible teaches the idea that God will regularly communicate to us directly outside of his written word. Christians who believe the Bible does teach this often claim that we should "listen to the Spirit", or wait for that "still small voice". They might teach that "prayer is like a telephone" and so we should not only talk to God, but wait for him to talk back. All of these methods usually amount to waiting for a strong inner "impression" of something. Sometimes they might say that we need to read our circumstances correctly so as to ascertain God's will. I contend that this is a mistaken belief about the Bible's teachings and I want to have a look at some of the arguments Christians sometimes put forward to support it.

Just read your Bible man; God is always giving direct communication to people!

One of these arguments is that it is just readily apparent that because the Bible includes lots of accounts of God giving direct 'supernatural' communication to people, we should expect to have that too. But this is a rather superficial reading of the Bible as the historical narratives contained within span thousands of years and are not random insights into the every day life of a believer - they are recollections of special events within the history of God's people.

Most of the time period that the Bible covers takes part in the Old Testament and we have good reason to think that in this time God's people didn't expect regular communication to every believer. Unlike their surrounding pagan nations the Iraelites didn't believe that God's will was discerned through "deductive divination" which involved interpreting circumstances and omens to discern God's will. Rather "in Israelite thinking that which is in the category of inspired divination is allowed - God speaks; but that which is in the category of deductive divination is forbidden (John Walton - Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2007: 249)." As Walton explains, inspired divination came specifically through prophets - and not everyone was a prophet! 

A case for God's regular special communication to all believers cannot be made on the observation that God communicates directly a large number of times in the Bible.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

"Why won't God answer me?"

"Why won't God answer me?" can be one of the most agonising questions a believer in God can face. In fact I've met a number of people who cite divine "silence" as a reason for their walking away from Christianity. In the Bible there is a collection of poems and prayers called the psalms and many of them express anguish over the distance or non-responsiveness of God. However, I am convinced that when the psalmist yearns for God to answer, he is hoping for something quite different to what modern believers typically have in mind.

Anyone who's spent some time in Bible-believing circles will know that it is often taught that God speaks to us regularly outside of the Bible and it is taught that the Bible tells us as such. We are told to "listen to the Spirit", or wait for that "still small voice". We are told that "prayer is like a telephone" and so we should not only talk to God, but wait for him to talk back. All of these methods usually amount to waiting for a strong inner "impression" of something. The stakes are raised as we often told that we need to do this to "find out God's will" so we can step in accord with his purpose for our lives.

Is there another way?

I guarantee you that in any reasonably sized Christian bookshop you fill find books instructing you on how to better listen to God. Many of these books presume that their audience are having quite a bit of difficulty. I can remember a couple years back desperately wanting to know how to listen to God at all for I seemed to be having no success at it. In fact I found my own prayer times deeply frustrating. Sometimes I would even end up shouting and raging at God because of the ambiguity of his communication. Knowing that my experience just didn't match up with what I was taught, I starting re-examing the Bible to see what method it taught for discerning God's voice. I was initially further frustrated that I couldn't see any relevant instruction! Eventually through further reading of the Bible, aided by J.P.Holding's work on contextualising it, I came to find that the Bible does NOT promise this sort of intimate special communication as a regular/normative experience. I want to spend some time defending this view and showing how the "regular special communication" view does not handle the Bible correctly.

I expect some people might be eager to learn about the view I now hold, having had a similar experience of frustration to myself. I expect others might be more cautious and unsettled. Let me say right now that I do not think anyone has taught the view I now consider false out of any malicious intent. Rather I think they have either been taught incorrectly themselves or have interpreted the Bible incorrectly because they've (unknowingly) read modern Western ideas into the text. Nor do I think any positive results or experiences that seem to have emerged from practising that view are necessarily fraudulent or delusory in any way. Rather, like all of our experiences, they need to be understood within the proper framework. Ultimately if we want to know what proper Christian beliefs about God and the Christian experience is like we need to look at the Bible, and I hope you'll be willing to do that as I hope I am.

Somewhat linked to this topic is the argument from "divine hiddenness" which argues that if God really existed he'd be a lot more obvious than he is. That is not the issue I'm going to be addressing in the next few posts. I'm only going to be addressing what the Bible teaches about God's means of communication. As well as J.P.Holding's work I'm also going to be utilising Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson's book "Decision Making and the Will of God" the contents of which, for me, were the final confirmation that I had arrived at basically the correct view in this area. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this topic.

Next entry the task begins!

Friday, 29 October 2010

How can each Divine Person be fully God?

Last time we looked at the claim that the Trinity is a contradictory concept because it is impossible for God to be 'three in one'. Now it's time to look at another question relating to the doctrine's logical coreherence; how is it possible for each divine person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be fully God, simulatenously and eternally?

Jimbo: Don't think I'm through with your Trinitarianism yet, Benny. How is it possible for each Divine Person to be fully God?
Benny: Well why exactly do you think it's impossible?
Jimbo: Hah! Remember last time when you used ants to illustrate how the Trinity can be three in one?
Benny: Yeah ...
Jimbo: Well that same illustration will now support MY argument. We both agreed that thousands of ants can be one colony. But we surely can't say that each of those individual ants is a full colony can we? For each individual ant is just that, one ant - a part of the whole. 

Jimbo's response is a good lesson in how analogies have limited use! The ant/colony illustration certainly does break down when trying to explain the full deity of each divine person in the Trinity. Let's bring up the "being" and "person" distinction we talked about last time. There are different sorts of beings, like ants, horses, tigers etc. I am a particular being of the sort known as 'human'. I am also a person, and I am the only person in this particular being. But with God it's different. God is a divine being, and unlike with humans, God has three persons in one being, not just one person in one being. Think of them as three centres of consciousness.  

How does this help us? Well, I can say that I am fully human. I lack no feature that is essential for humanity. And each divine person can say "I am fully divine. I lack no feature that is essential for God-ness." The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three parts that make up a whole. They are three persons who share a divine existence. There is no part of the divine being that is just the Father's, or just the Son's. Each person has the full divine being. Hence each person is fully God.

Handling the Trinity can be quite tricky at first but it eventually becomes clearer!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

How can God be three in one?

Christians have a rather unique belief about what God is like. A belief that is often misunderstood by both Christians and skeptics alike. It's the belief in the divine Trinity. Attacks on this doctrine generally come in two different types. One attack consists of the claim that the Christian's own Scriptures do not actually teach the concept of the Trinity. The other questions whether the Trinity is a logically coherent concept. I don't believe either attack succeeds, but I want to focus in the next couple entries on showing that the Trinity is a logically coherent concept.

How can God be three in one?

We better start by explaining what exactly the doctrine of the Trinity is. Wayne Grudem, in his 'Systematic Theology', sums up orthodox Trinitarian belief in this statement; "God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God."

People who have some vague familiarity with the Trinity might think that there is a problem with the claim that God is three in one. They say that's a contradiction. But it's only a contradiction if the claim is that God is one and three of the same thing...

Jimbo: Benny, Benny, Benny ... I know I haven't had much success refuting your theism. But I know one thing I can refute about your specific brand of theism! Lad, the doctrine of the Trinity is logically contradictory!
Benny: That's a strong claim mate. Why do you think that?
Jimbo: Because God can't be three and one! That's clearly impossible.
Benny: Do you think thousands of ants can also be one colony?
Jimbo: Yes, of course ...
Benny: But it would be impossible for a thousand ants to be just one ant, right?
Jimbo: Duh!
Benny: It's the same with the Trinity. We aren't claiming that God is three Gods and one God. We are claiming God is three PERSONS in one God.

We can clarify by saying that God is three persons in one being. I, as a human, am one being. But I, Martin, am the only person within this being. God however, has three persons in the one divine being. It is hard to imagine but it isn't logically impossible! And it's certainly pretty cool, at least in my opinion. Next entry will discuss another potential 'logical issue' with the Trinity.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Relay Update: 26/10/10

What is Relay? Relay is a discipleship program I'm doing this year and you can read all about it here. I'll be updating the blog from time to time with updates for all the people partnering with me during the year. And this is one of those updates!

First of all, I've really got to thank you for your generous donations in the past couple months. Thanks to you I've been able to pay my rent, eat, travel to my CUs, buy books for study and just live really. I'd been really stressed about whether I'd have the money to get by and you've blessed me ENORMOUSLY. Thank you so very much. And thank you to everyone who's been praying for me and the work of the CU's. Our work is only fruitful because of God's power.

So what's actually been going on?

Well term is in full swing now. The Freshers' weeks are over and students are settling into their weekly routines. Many of the new students who came to CU right at the start have stuck around and for that we're all really thankful! And as the students have acquired a sense of normality in their lives, so have I.

Every week I'm meeting with students to study the Bible with them and encourage them to live for God on campus. I'm going through Romans with some of the freshers and 2 Timothy with a couple of the older students. It's been great fun and I really feel excited about the leadership potential in these guys! We're also just starting to read Amy Orr-Ewing's "Why Trust The Bible?" which is an accessible but substantial defence of the Bible's veracity. Hopefully we will all grow in confidence and love for the truth we proclaim.

In terms of my own personal study, like all the other Relay workers I've been looking at the doctrine of the Trinity. It was great to look at it in more depth as in the process I was able to elucidate and wrestle with some of the potential logical inconsistencies I saw in the doctrine. I am now convinced the nature of the God-head can be expressed in a logically coherent way, thankfully! It is also one of the coolest doctrines in Christian theology, I gotta say. It's also been an appropriate topic to study as myself and Jason have been meeting up with some Mormons for the last couple weeks. This month I'm going to be looking at the nature of God's sovereignty. I approach the topic as someone with very little sympathy towards Calvinism, but other than that I'm not sure where I stand so it should be interesting! I attended a day conference on Open Theism (a particular belief about God's sovereignty that emphasises human freedom) this Saturday just gone, which was a good event to start thinking about this sort of thing.

In terms of my own elective study I've been cracking on with looking at what the Bible says about the whole creation/evolution debate. I've read some very persuasive and also challenging stuff from a couple different perspectives. I have a lot to think about the moment and shall divulge a bit more once I've got my head around some things.

Since I last updated I've also given a talk on "Surviving As A Student" to both Stafford and Buxton CUs. Both times went reasonably well (I think!) and taught me some stuff on how to improve my talks. I've also been planning and talking to CU committee people about running a weekly apologetics workshop called 'Equip'. The first session in Stoke is set to begin on November 1st. Hopefully it won't be too far behind in Keele. I've also met with the university Chaplain, Benedict, who has been keen to start a monthly open discussion group on matters pertaining to the big questions in life, which will also kick off in November. I look forward to updating you on how all that goes!

I hope you can see that there's a lot of exciting stuff going on with much to pray for. I'd love it if you could pray for some of the following things ...

~ Please thank God for the work he is doing through and amongst Stoke and Keele CUs.
~ Please pray that I would lead 'Equip' with wisdom and that people attend and benefit from it.
~ Please pray that the CU leaders would continue to act toward, and communicate to their members, a missional vision.
~ Please pray that I would tackle difficult questons arising from my study with courage and wisdom.
~ Please pray that God would continue to provide for me financially.

If you’ve offered to support me financially and I’ve given you a form that you haven’t sent off yet, please send it! =) I know it is easy to forget to do these things (I’m terrible with forms), but I really do rely on your donations so please send it off as soon as you can. If you’ve lost the form or you want to start supporting me financially but haven’t got one, you can download it at www.uccf.org.uk/relay/give-to-relay-workers.htm It would be great if you could donate £5-20 a month to me.

Thanks so much again for your support and I hope you've been encouraged through seeing what your money and prayers contribute toward.

Much love,

Martin

Sunday, 24 October 2010

What's our focus?

Sometimes I choose not to attend my regular church on a Sunday to see what other local churches are like. I usually leave an 'alien' church with a better appreciation of the variety and family unity of the Christian community. However after one of my visits to a local church I left deeply concerned about their priorities and their 'spiritual health'. I felt like I'd witnessed first hand something from America that I'd only before read about or seen on TV. What had angered me from afar was now visible right before my eyes. While the underlying attitude of this church has not been entirely absent from other churches I've visited, never had I seen it manifested so fully. It is an attitude that Christians must stand firm against for its results are disastrous.

Entertainment =/= Mature discipleship

While one can make the mistake of not communicating in an engaging way, we must utterly resist the temptation to make entertainment the priority of a Sunday morning. Our culture is entertainment mad, and while relying on flashy media, energetic songs and other such stimulations might bring in lots of numbers it does absolutely nothing to help people become mature disciples of Jesus who will follow him their whole lives. A focus on games and emotional experiences centred on ourselves might keep the kids interested but without substance what are they going to do when they go to university and someone brings 'The God Delusion' their way? Neglect proper teaching of doctrine and reasons to believe and people's faith will be based on emotional highs that result in doubt when one isn't 'feeling so good'.

Attractiveness and Comfort =/= Authentic Christianity

Why did Jesus die on the cross for us? To atone for our sins. He did not die for us primarily so that we would have successful, worry free lives. We must resist the temptation to distort the Christian message - the gospel - so that it becomes about what 'stuff' Jesus can give us. The focus of the gospel isn't on giving us meaningful, whole lives, although that is a wondrous outcome. It is about being saved from the wrath of God incurred by our own sin. Making the focus anything else is highly dangerous. We start to see ourselves not as undeserving sinners, mercifully saved and loved by a gracious God, but as victims who are owed God's service. God's job becomes one of fixing our lives. We become confused when life is tough and see our negative life circumstances as evidence of God's neglect or even absence. We may feel guilty or inadequate because we don't feel good like we think we should. But the Bible promises us hard times in numerous places. Jesus said that here on earth we will have tribulation (John 16:33). Paul said that all who want to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). We must daily bear our crosses.

The gospel has never been intended towards producing comfort, nor is its message comfortable. It was an offensive message back in 1st century AD and much of it is now. If you want to concentrate on mass appeal how will you preach God's wrath? How will you tell people that they deserve death before a holy God? There is no good news without the bad news.

Let us not judge our church's success on the numbers it pulls in. Let us judge it rather on how faithful it is being to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Reject an attitude of favouring entertainment over substance.

I invite you to read some similar reflections along with a strategy for improvement, over here.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Dawkins on "what if you're wrong?"

There's a video I've come across a couple times now where Richard Dawkins, Britian's famous outspoken atheist, answers the question "what if you're wrong?" That is, what if he's wrong about atheism. You can watch it over here (apologies for any profanity or excessive stupidity in the comments section). In his response Dawkins makes a popular objection to the rationality of religious belief that is worth looking at.

Firstly I want to say that Dawkins got one thing right. It is possible that we're wrong about the non-existence of the flying spaghetti monster. It is possible that we're wrong about tons of stuff. That's because few items of our knowledge are logically necessary. Even your belief that you are reading a blog could be mistaken. It is logically possible that an alien is tapping into your brain causing you to think you're reading a blog when in fact you are not. But we generally don't worry about the things we could possibly be wrong about because we feel that while the possibility exists, it is quite unlikely for we have good reasons to believe what we do, and to doubt these things is not rationality but insanity. Had Dawkins left it at that he would have answered the question adequately. However he kept going and said some rather foolish things.

He presumes that his questioner was brought up in a Christian home, and that this is the reason for her Christian belief. Why does he assume that people only persist in religious beliefs because they are brought up with them? I'm a Christian and I was not brought up to believe the Bible or go to church. I was an agnostic and hostile to Christianity till I was 19. I know plenty of other people who are Christians from non-Christian backgrounds. Spend some time asking around in my church and you'll find these people. Has Dawkins not met any such Christians? Not only that, but talk to most any adult Christian who was brought up in a Christian home and they'll tell you of a time when they had to think through and choose the faith for themselves. Does he honestly think that people only continue to believe in Christianity based on the arbitrary conditions of their upbringing? As someone who has been involved with Christians at university for over three years, let me tell you, any students who do believe primarily because they were brought up to do so either quickly abandon those beliefs when they start their adult life at uni, or have a hard time of questioning after which they are usually far stronger, having really found the faith for themselves. Dawkins' views on this are so patently false that I wonder how Dawkins, who claims to be an authority on religion, can sincerely believe it. He can't have talked to many Christians.

Now if you're brought up in say, a Muslim country, are you more likely to believe in Islam than Christianity? Yes, probably. You'll probably have less access to Christian people and resources which might otherwise influence you. But if you believed in Islam in this scenario, would your beliefs necessarily be arbitrary? I see no reason to think so and certainly Dawkins hasn't provided one. Besides, what of Dawkins' own belief that religious choice is dependant upon upbringing? Is this belief not more likely to be held in modern pluralist Britain, than in a Muslim country? Undoubtedly. Does this alone make Dawkins' belief irrational? He would of course have to say no. Double standard much?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Does evolution disprove God? (3)

In this entry we're finally finishing our look at the relation between evolution and belief in God. In the previous entry I argued that evolution need not be a stumbling block to believing in bare bones theism. Now I'm going to see what challenges evolution poses to specifically Christian theism. Or at least, to a Christian theism that believes the Bible to be true in everything it intends to teach. (There are a number of Christians who don't feel that their Christianity hinges on the full truthfulness of the Bible. Whether or not that position is defendable is not the focus of this entry).

So what's the problem?

When we pose the question of whether evolution and the Bible can be in accordance with each other, we need to figure out what exactly it is that the Bible teaches on these sorts of matters. I'm sure many people who tout evolution as their reason for disbelieving the Bible haven't even read the alleged problem passages, let alone studied them in depth. Now there are a few passages that might be in conflict with some aspect of the evolutionary narrative, but most see Genesis chapter 1 as the real centre of importance. Give it a read before you continue.

You can probably see quite easily why people regard the text as being incompatible with evolution. It describes creation as having taken place in 6 days not millions of years. It seems to describe an instantaneous creation of life, not a gradual process, and in fact the order of creation differs from the evolutionary timeline. And how could creation be declared good when there was animal death and suffering? Tricky ...

Take a deeper look

These sorts of ojections naturally arise from a casual reading of Genesis. But sometimes what we see as the obvious reading of a text differs radically from the author's own intended meaning for the text. Remember, the meaning of a text is set by the author's intent for it at the time of writing (see here). Often our reading of the Bible is skewed when we assume that the authors thought in basically the same ways that we do as modern westerners.

So what assumptions are we bringing to the table that might not have been shared by the author of Genesis? Well, for one, that the act of creation is about material processes. Did you notice that in verse 2 the earth is described as formless and empty? Did you notice that in verses 8-10 God didn't actually create anything material? This is because the people in this time saw creation as the establishment of functions not as the process of material moulding. The creation narrative describes how the functionless, formless, empty earth becomes suited to human living by God ordering the cosmos. John Walton brilliantly demonstrates this in his book 'The Lost World of Genesis One'.

When we realise that Genesis 1 just isn't talking about material origins, we are provided with a plausible interpretation that could eliminates our issues. Genesis isn't saying that God formed the materials of the universe in only 6 days. It isn't saying that God formed the materials of living things in only 6 days. It isn't saying that God formed the materials of livings things in a specific order. It just isn't talking about material origins. With this context in mind we can reasonable argue that when God declares creation "good", he is not making a moral statement but a statement about the universe's proper functioning.

Sorted?

We're not quite there yet. After all a critic could claim that if nothing material happened in the 6 creation days, God wouldn't really have done much of anything during that time. This might be a fair point, though a lot hinges on what we perceive as being a meaningful activity which again ties into our assumptions about what a creative act is. At the very least it should be obvious that with a text that has a cultural backdrop so far removed from our own, we cannot just read it with modern western eyes and assume we've got its message right.

During this academic year I'm going to be doing some research into what Genesis and other evolution-relevant texts are saying as the fulfillment of my elective study in the Relay program I'm involved in. My aim is to find out what a Bible-believing Christian is actually committed to in terms of evolution and the age of the earth. I shall no doubt report some of my findings later in the year.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Relay Update: 27/09/10

What is Relay? Relay is a discipleship program I'm doing this year and you can read all about it here. I'll be updating the blog from time to time with updates for all the people partnering with me during the year. And this is one of those updates!

A huge hello to all my supporters!

Thank you so much already for any time you’ve prayed for me and for any gifts of money you’ve given me. I cannot tell you how much it’s all so very appreciated! I thought I’d now share with you some of the exciting things that have already happened during my short time doing Relay.

Before I actually returned to Stoke to work alongside the students, I attended two back-to-back conferences in Quinta Hall, Shropshire. The first conference was ‘Relay 1’, which you may have guessed, was catered specifically for Relay workers; it was designed to equip and train us for the term ahead. While the conference dealt with many of the practical issues we would be facing as Relay workers, what the entire conference truly centred around was the gospel. I was completely refreshed with a far fuller appreciation of what Jesus achieved on the cross. What really clinched it for me was Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-14. Give it a read. Examine the Pharisee’s words. Jesus criticises him for thinking that his own good works would make him right before God. But the Pharisee isn’t as blatantly self-righteous as we might think. Notice that he actually gave credit to God for his righteous behaviour! The Pharisee probably thought that he understood God’s grace. But for all his lip service to God’s provision for him, he was still trusting in his own ability to impress God.

As all this was unpacked for me, I knew that I had been making the very same error. I was thanking God for the good works I was producing, but I was trusting in those works to make me acceptable to him, rather than trusting in Jesus’ work on the cross. While I felt convicted of this error, I immediately felt joy at the wondrous freedom this knowledge provided. Throughout Relay and beyond, I need not feel that my ‘spiritual performance’ determines my worth before God. I need to keep beating this truth into my head as it does not always reside there naturally!

As Relay 1 ended, the next conference began (no, there was no break in between!) ‘Forum’ is a conference for Christian Union student leaders from all over the country. There were about 800 in total and us Relay folk got to spend the week meeting up with our respective CU leaders. I’m working with the Keele and Stoke CUs this year, and while the Stoke CU were unable to come, the Keele bunch were around, braving the annual Forum downpour. It was good to spend some time with them as I don’t know them as well as the Stoke lot. We got to meet up with the guy who is speaking at a week of gospel events the Keele CU have planned for after Christmas. He gave some very wise counsel and really fired us up for the coming year at Keele.

By the end of forum I was fairly conference-out and thankfully all the Relayers were commanded to take two days off the next week. I was happy to oblige.

The week just passed has been Stoke’s Fresher Week, where all the new students move in, and the University and its clubs and societies, put on a number of events to welcome them all into university life. Fresher Week is a very important week for a CU. The life of a CU is greatly affected by the number of freshers that join and stay committed. The first few weeks are crucial for making the new students feel welcome. In addition many Christian students can come to university with a young faith, either because they are themselves recent converts, or because they have simply been going through the motions with it, having been brought up in a Christian home where it is just normal routine for them. The CU can have a vital role in supporting these students as they grow in Christian maturity.

We are very thankful that our first CU meeting brought in a large number of freshers, a good portion of which were guys, which we desperately needed! In the week ahead, myself and my co-Relayer, Jason, will be keen to spend some time with the guys getting to know them better and seeing how they’re adjusting to university life.

Part of the importance of fresher week is not just finding the Christian students, but building relations with the non-Christian students. The CU hosted many social events during the week to get non-Christians involved in our community so we can love them and hopefully show them that Christians don’t all adhere to the unflattering stereotypes that the media presents! One of the definite highlights was conversing with two Muslim girls who were quality to chat to and were very open to discussing their faith with us. Myself and a couple other Christians spent a few hours with them inquiring into each other’s respective faiths and just enjoying each other’s company. I wish all inter-faith dialogues could be that engaging!

Keele have their fresher week this week so I get to do all this again! I would love it if you could pray for the following things:

- Please pray that the Stoke freshers stay on board with the CU and join a local church.
- Please pray that the Stoke CU would remain in contact with the non-Christian students we encountered during Fresher week.
- Please pray that Keele CU would draw in plenty of freshers.
- Please pray that I would feel settled in with Keele CU and that I’ll learn my way around their campus.
- Please pray that I would continually remind myself of GRACE.
- Please pray that God would provide for me financially.

If you’ve offered to support me financially and I’ve given you a form that you haven’t sent off yet, please send it! =) I know it is easy to forget to do these things (I’m terrible with forms), but I really do rely on your donations so please send it off as soon as you can. If you’ve lost the form or you want to start supporting me financially but haven’t got one, you can download it at www.uccf.org.uk/relay/give-to-relay-workers.htm It would be great if you could donate £5-20 a month to me.

Thank you for your continued partnership with me. I thank God for all of you and I’ll give you another update soon.

Much love,

Martin

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

What's going on this year?

I've not been particularly blog-busy during the latter parts of Summer. And I thought I'd let you in on one of the reasons why that is so.

This academic year just beginning I will taking part in a discipleship training program called 'Relay'. The program is ran by UCCF the Christian charity that supports Christian Unions in the UK - groups of Christian students on university campuses seeking to give every non-Christian student the chance to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.

During my three years at Staffordshire University I was actively involved in the Christian Union, serving on the committee leadership team for one of those years, hosting events, and co-leading Bible studies for skeptics while I sought to intelligently share my faith with my friends with honesty and integrity. I got a lot of things wrong during my three years as a student, but I also learnt a great deal about leadership and about God's underserved love for me and my friends.

The Relay program is in place to allow graduates to work with their university for a year after they graduate to pass on what they've learnt to the younger students as well as to continue growing in Christ-like character and leadership qualities themselves. I will be meeting with students in small groups to encourage them in their faith and to study the Bible with them. I will be giving talks at some Christian Union events, something I'm very keen to do and I have plans to start a regular workshop group to help equip Christians to think through and answer the objections to their faith that are common in the university environment. The aim is to invest in people who then in turn go on to invest in others.

During this time I'll be attending various UCCF conferences to aid me in serving the students better (it was because I attending two of these at the end of August and start of September that I haven't been very active in the online world). I also have some of my own study to be getting on with! I have some core modules to study on various aspects of central Christian theology and then some elective study where I can choose a topic of my choice to research.

This entire year is voluntary work. I shan't be getting paid for it, nor can I get a job on the side as this is a full-time commitment. Hence I'm relying on people partnering with me throughout the year to support me financially and in prayer. I've been blessed with a number of partners already though I currently don't yet have enough income to get through the year! I'd really appreciate it if you could think about whether you'd be able to give between £5-20 a month to help me live. If you'd like to sponsor me please download the sponsor form over here. And tell me that you have so I can make sure you're updated with what I'm getting up to.

If you can't support me financially please still pray for me and my work this year. I'd really appreciate that and I'd love to keeep you updated too.

Much love,

Martin

Friday, 27 August 2010

Does evolution disprove God? (2)

In this entry we're going to have a look at what sort of state theism is in if evolution is true. We're not discussing Christian theism yet, just basic theism - the belief that there is a personal creator God, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. So there'll be no talk of the Bible or any specifically Christian beliefs - that's for next time!

It's straightforward, isn't it?

Many people I've talked to say that they don't believe in God because they believe in evolution. The implication is that God and evolution just aren't compatible and it's that simple. But this is clearly false. It is perfectly possible for God to use evolution as his creative means. Evolution doesn't disprove God. But perhaps the skeptic is not saying that evolution disproves God, rather the skeptic is saying that evolution makes God an unlikely hypothesis...

Pip: Well look who it is! It's Benny.
Benny: Hello again Pip.
Pip: You think it is quite reasonable for someone to believe in God and evolution, right?
Benny: Gosh you waste no time with the questions! Yes I believe that.
Pip: Well while I concede that evolution doesn't disprove God, I think it gives us reason to doubt that he exists.
Benny: Ok ... why do you think that?

Arbitrary?

Pip: I have a few reasons. Firstly, it is needlessly time-consuming. Why take millions of years to create man when he could have done it instantly?

Pip's first objection appeals to the intuition we have that the whole process is a bit lengthy for an all-powerful God. There are a number of responses that could be made here. First we can note that for an eternal God, the matter of time is not really an issue. A process of trillions of years would feel no more drawn out than something instantaneous. Secondly, a theist might not necessarily believe that God has humanity as creation's ultimate goal. Perhaps the stuff that was around before us was as valuable to God as we are. Even if we take a human-centred view of creation, God might not see humanity as the only valuable part of his creation. Why must God necessarily rush to our creation? Nothing seems to demand that he do so.

Purposeless?

Pip: Secondly, evolution is a blind process. It doesn't work towards any goals. Why would God use such a means for creating?

To answer this objection we need to take a lesson from the last entry; we need to separate the philosophy from the facts. Clearly Pip is right in some sense; looking purely at the material processes involved in evolution, we cannot detect any goal being worked toward. But Benny, as a theist, doesn't believe the material world is all that exists. Benny believes that God orchestrates many aspects of the material world toward God's aims. Benny can reasonably believe that God orchestrates or intends evolution to some purpose. Pip's objection is weak because it 'begs the question', it assumes the very point being argued, in this case, that God doesn't exist.

Wasteful?

Pip: Thirdly, evolution is a wasteful process. Why go through millions of years of death and mutation to finally get to us?

This objection once again assumes that God would only have our creation as his goal. But again, why assume this? Can God not value our evolutionary ancestors too? Perhaps they aren't just 'waste' to him. Also included in this objection are issues related to the problem of suffering, i.e. why would a good God allow things like animal suffering? We looked at these problems very recently (click here). I also recommend Glenn Miller's article here for an attempt to assess how extensive and how severe animal suffering is in the natural world.

Better explained by ...

Pip: Lastly, evolution is the sort of thing that is more likely to happen if naturalism is true.

This is Pip's strongest objection. If theism is true then there are a number of possible ways life could come about. God could use some sort of evolutionary means, but he could also use a very different process or just create us instantly out of nothing. But if naturalism (the belief that the natural world is all the exists) is true then something like evolution appears to be the only way life could come about. And if we take it that evolution is indeed true, if we ignore everything else related to the question of God's existence, we would say naturalism is more likely to be true.

Of course it is because we don't have to ignore everything else related to the God question that Pip's final objection isn't a crucial blow against theism. So long as overall, Benny has better grounds for theism than naturalism, this objection doesn't oblige him to change his views. Even in science, we do not judge one theory as better than another just because it handles one bit of data better. All the relevant data needs to be examined. It might happen that one theory handles one bit of data very well but utterly fails to account for much other data.

In fact many theists are now turning Pip's objection on its head, and are claiming that the existence of any life would be very improbable if naturalism were true because life requires very precise settings that the universe seems suspiciously fine-tuned for. Head here to read a debate on the argument between Robin Collins (theist) and Paul Draper (atheist).

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Does evolution disprove God? (1)

Last time we saw that a theistic outlook on life is not incompatible with a scientific one. In fact, they gel quite nicely. This time we're going to discuss something rather more juicy. We're going to see whether a particular scientific theory - the general theory of evolution - gives theists an intellectual problem to consider. It is certainly true that of all the reasons skeptics often give for not believing in God, evolution ranks rather highly. But what exactly is the blow that evolution brings for the theist?

Before we recklessly dive into the question we need to break the issue down. As far as I can see, the broad question of theism's relation to evolution can be split into three lines of inquiry. Firstly, we should ask whether evolution is true. Secondly, we should ask whether, if true, evolution poses a challenge to basic theism. Thirdly, we should ask whether, if true, evolution poses a problem for specifically Christian theism (given the interests of this blog). In this entry we'll look at the first question.

Burn the heretic?

Many will consider me frighteningly fanatical, enormously ignorant, or horendously dishonest for even posing the question of whether evolution is true or not. Why is this? Well perhaps the evidence for evolution is so strong that in fact, accepting it is always the most rational choice for a person with the relevant facts at hand, and as it happens, the modern Brit does have such facts at hand. Even so, the shear horror displayed at the slightest doubt of evolution's truth is surely an exaggerated response, cultivated out of an (understandable) fear of mindless religious fanaticism. It seems clear to me however that with a question so bound up with important matters such as the origin and purpose of humanity - of ourselves - we have a right to have a little breathing space to voice any doubts we have even if these doubts are returned with a staunch assurance of evolution's truth. So let me breathe a little and a take a bit more of a personal stance in addressing this question.

I was a convinced evolutionist once. Then I was a convinced special creationist (I believed that God miraculously created all the basic kinds of creatures in the world). Now I'm somewhat agnostic on the matter. I'm not a scientist, and being so drastically removed from a subject I can claim even the most minor expertise in, I'm not going to tell you what the scientific facts are. I'm going to share some reasons as to why I personally have some reservations as to evolution's truth and then I'm going to talk about the nature of science so as to help you make a more informed decision for yourself.

Doubts

The general theory of evolution states that every creature alive today is the result of millions of generations of ancestral creatures who had random genetic changes (produced by mutations or some similar mechanism) which conferred some survival advantage (or at least weren't enough of a hinderance to result in a creature's death before reproduction) and were passed down. So it goes that dinosaurs gradually accumulated mutations which produced wings and feathers, and these mutations proved beneficial over those who didn't have the mutations, so dinosaurs eventually evolved into birds. And similar stories account for all the variance of life we observe.

Nobody can reasonably doubt that creatures do undergo changes from generation to generation. What I (and others) doubt is the potential the mechanisms that produce these changes have for certain large scale changes. When do discussions about evolution really detail how a gradual change could be made from gills to lungs or cold-blooded to warm-blooded systems or any other significant changes? More puzzling yet is how sexual organs could have evolved from asexual reproductive methods. The sorts of changes involved would certainly be hazardous to the creatures who underwent them.

When I've raised these doubts in the past the response often given involves an account of why the trait which emerged was ultimately beneficial. This I do not doubt, but showing that a trait is beneficial is not the same as showing that a trait evolved or how it evolved. Even if it's not impossible, is it probable? In addition, given how sketchy our speculations are as to how consciousness emerged and as to how chemicals arranged themselves into the first living thing (which is technically the matter of abiogenesis rather than evolution but they are both wrapped in a similar over-arching narrative) I don't feel irresponsible in withholding some certainty about evolution as a comprehensive theory of life.

Anyway, even if I'm a fool and evolution is a dead cert' (or is at any rate, true) there sure are a lot of bad arguments put forward for it, and certainly a lot of bad arguments masquerading as science generally. Let's cut through the fog ...

Separate yer philosophy from yer facts

Looks like Benny has found himself in another tight spot ...

Pip: Funny, you know last time we chat, and you said that you're interested in science?
Benny: Yeah, I'm not that forgetful.
Pip: Well it seems your love is rather misplaced as a theist!
Benny: Oh?
Pip: Didn't you know? Science has proven that religious beliefs are just a misapplication of our evolved ability to understand the minds of other creatures.
Benny: Woah. Urm, really? Sounds like bad news for theists like myself.
Pip: Yup, it's true I have the paper that proves it right here. The study showed that people of all sorts of different religious backgrounds all use the same part of the brain to form beliefs about God's intentions. It's the same part we use to form beliefs about human intentions.
Benny: Lemme see that paper ...

This conversation is actually based on a recent experience I had with a skeptic on a debate forum. He too claimed that science had proved that religious beliefs were malfunctional in this manner and linked to a paper which he believed supported these claims. You can read the paper here. But what the skeptic and Pip (and the paper's author) haven't done is distinguish the facts from how those fact have been interpreted.

There are some parts of science which are essentially philosophically neutral. Measuring the distance from the earth to the sun, seeing what temperature water boils at, and calculating the speed of light are all such examples. We consider that you'd reach the same conclusion about these things regardless of your religious stance. But not all of science is like this (or at least certainly not everything that is passed off as science is).

Imagine (to loosely borrow an example found in Reason For The Hope Within) that you return home to find your house in tatters and your super-expensive television missing. You're a bit stunned and you aren't sure what to make of it. But you have two friends with you, and they both have their own explanation. One of them tells you regretfully that you have been burgled and your TV has been stolen. Your other friend tells you a somewhat cheerier account (she is something of an optimist). She remarks that possibly your neighbour scared the thief and took your TV into her house in case anyone else came in and stole it before the police arrived. Both interpretations fit the evidence. But they can't both be true ...

Naturalism. It's everywhere.

Sometimes science works like our example above. We all have the same facts but it's possible to interpret them in more than one way. In the buglery scenario, a cynic and an optimist will likely interpret the evidence in different ways. In some scientific matters, a theist and an atheist (or naturalist) will likely interpret the evidence in different ways. Currently it is far more popular and 'academically acceptable' to interpret the evidence in a naturalistic outlook. Philosophical naturalism is the belief that the natural world is all that there is, that there are no divine or supernatural beings of any kind. Naturalistic interpretations dominate scientific discussions at the moment. In fact naturalistic interpretations are often conflated with actual scientific data. This is a gross error that all of us must guard against. It would be like taking your optimistic friend's account of the burglar story as the observed fact, when actually that story is only a possible interpretation of the facts. This is the error that Pip made and the research paper made.

The facts of the paper (the things which have actually been observed) are that religious beliefs pertaining to God's intentions as a person are handled by the same part of the brain that handles beliefs pertaining to the intentions of human persons. Now see how these facts can be interpreted in two completely different ways ...

Naturalistic interpretation: human beings gradually evolved parts of the brain that allow us to consider what other people are thinking and feeling. Because this function of the brain isn't perfect it sometimes over-reaches and forms people-related beliefs about things that aren't people. People frequently observe things occurring in nature, like earthquakes, and they wrongly conclude that there is intent behind these things. People label the source of this intent as God.

Theistic interpretation: God is a personal being and through some process created humans with the capacity to relate to other beings by allowing them to consider what other people are thinking and feeling. Because God is a person, the part of the brain that enables this is also a perfectly appropriate tool for forming true beliefs about God himself.

So Pip was quite mistaken. 'Science' has proven nothing of the sort that she claimed. One must already accept naturalism to accept her conclusions. And since Benny is a theist he can go on his merry way. When thinking about the truth of evolutionary claims for yourself, make sure you distinguish the facts from the philosophy!

For the Christian, I consider Alvin Plantinga's advice very sound for discerning what to think about evolution. You can read his article 'When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible' over here. I also recommend his two part paper attacking the prevalent view that naturalism is a necessary assumption of science which can be found here and here.

Next time we do a bit of 'damage control' and see what would follow for theism if evolution were true.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Is science incompatible with God?

Having looked at the problem of evil, it's time to look at another objection frequently given as a reason to disbelieve Christianity. The objection is that science has disproved God or has in some way rendered belief in God obsolete. The reasons people give to support this objection can vary a fair bit. In this entry we'll look at one particular way in which people can believe that God and science are in conflict. We're gonna look at the claim that the scientific method is itself at odds with a theological outlook on life.

Medicine, cars, miracles, and God. They don't mix?

'House MD' is one of my very favourite TV shows. The lead character, Dr. Gregory House is an emotionally stunted medical genius and a pretty hardcore atheist. His atheism is not something he keeps secret and there are a number of episodes where he berates religious patients for their faith. For a short while in the show, House works with a colleague who happens to be a Mormon. House takes great delight in giving this colleague a hard time for his beliefs and in one particular episode he really gets aggressive. They're having a hard time diagnosing a tricky case and while the exact words escape me House asks something to the effect of, "I wonder what Joseph Smith [the Mormon prophet] would say? Doesn't the book of Mormon have all the answers?" The response he receives is that the book of Mormon gives answers to questions of morality and meaning, not science. House is not satisfied by the response (I think it was a fair response in the context but too simplistic to be taken as a rule of thumb) and calls the guy a hypocrit for believing in science and medicine alongside God. He seems to think it is unreasonable for one to take modern medicine, to drive to work, to use computers, AND to believe in God. And he's not alone in this belief.

People often claim that they believe in science rather than religion as if the two are mutually exclusive. Let's describe this belief as the claim not that some particular scientific theory is incompatible with a certain religious teaching, but as the claim that the scientific method itself is incompatible with a way of looking at the world that includes God. Let's see how someone might justify this claim...

Pip: I'm a scientist. I really love my science. Especially cutting edge physics. I can't wait till we understand more about the quantum world!
Benny: Yeah I'd love to learn about all that stuff.
Pip: Hang on, Benny, aren't you a theist?
Benny: Urm, yeah. So?
Pip: Well. I'm just a bit surprised. How can you believe in science and in superstitious stuff like God?
Benny: I don't think belief in God is superstitious but I'll let that slide. Why do you think I can't practise science and believe in God?
Pip: Because science is all about understanding the natural world. God is what primitive people used to explain what they couldn't understand.

The God of the gaps

Pip thinks that people only believe in God because they use him as an explanation when they are presented with some phenomena which cannot be explained by currently known regularities of nature (what we might call natural laws). There are a couple problems with this assumption that are worth noting.

Likely Pip considers that she has evidence for the claim she's making. She might point to an ancient polytheistic religion where natural occurrences were explained by a deity's whim - say, lightning bolts explained in terms of a god's anger. We can grant her that this explanation is false but that doesn't mean every religion is built on such false claims. In fact to discredit Christianity in the way she intends she would have to provide evidence that the Bible's claims resulted only from a misunderstanding of natural occurrences. This is a heavy evidential burden that I don't think anyone has ever carried.

In additions it ignores the fact that a theological view of the world accounts rather nicely for the necessary conditions that must be in place for science to work. What do I mean by the conditions of science? Well it may surprise you that whenever someone practices science they are making several assumptions about the world which cannot themselves by proven by science. For instance one must assume that the world is orderly, or there'd be no 'natural laws' to discover, everything would be a mess. One must assume that the future will resemble the past otherwise no past experiment would give us any bearing on how a future experiment will turn out. One must assume that the human mind can comprehend the world, otherwise they'd be no point in trying to understand the world. There may be others but these are certainly the key assumptions.

If we believe in God then we can understand that the world is orderly because it is the result of the creative act of a rational mind. We can understand that the future will resemble the past because God is consistent. We can understand that we are able to comprehend the universe because we were created with minds to do so. Scientific methodology fits quite nicely with God.

The God who sustains nature

Pip wouldn't actually just have skeptics as company in some of her ways of thinking. Some Christians might be worried that science might eventually find natural laws that describe essentially how everything works. The fear is that in such a scenario, God is left with nothing to do. But this is not a Biblical picture of God's relationship with creation. The Bible describes God as the being who puts nature's regularities in motion and who keeps them going. In Jeremiah 33:24-26 God declares that he has a fixed order of earth and heaven, and earlier in the chapter, declares that he has appointed times for the arrival of day and night. In Hebrews 1:1-4 Jesus is described as the God who upholds the universe by his word. The Christian then should not think that God is required to hide in the gaps of scientific understanding and should not base his/her beliefs on such gaps. The Christian ought to understand that God allows science to be possible by sustaining the universe with such regularity. Note: this isn't to say that God can't at times do unusual things (what we would normally call miracles).

In conclusion Pip's objection is not a very good one. We have a much trickier one to deal with next however, and that is the objection that some specific scientific theory discredits belief in God, namely, the general theory of evolution.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Does evil make God improbable?

Last time we examined the argument that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God - the deductive argument from evil. Hopefully I showed that the argument isn't successful. Today we're going to see whether the existence of evil poses a different kind of problem for theists. We're going to see if the existence of evil makes belief in God irrational. Like I said last time, please understand that we're tackling the purely intellectual side of the problem of suffering so don't think I'm insensitive to the emotional pains of evil just because I am dissecting this problem in a 'detached' intellectual way. I think our pain matters and I think also it matters to God. But the aim of this entry is not to counsel anyone.

Let's carry on ...

The evidential argument from evil

Let's return again to our favourite hypothetical debaters, Benny the Christian and Jimbo the skeptic. In the last entry we saw that Benny had the means to counter Jimbo's deductive argument from evil. Because it is possible that God has a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil, it is not impossible for evil and God to co-exist. So where does this leave them?

Jimbo: Gotta say Benny, I'm impressed that you managed to defeat the deductive argument from evil. But you aren't out of the woods yet my friend.
Benny: Oh no?
Jimbo: Nope. It's slam-dunk time. You see perhaps God does have a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil. But given the extent of evil we see in the world and the types of evil we see, it just isn't likely that he does.
Benny: I don't like the sound of this. You're gonna have to explain your point further.
Jimbo: Gladly. Imagine a deer in a forest. There's no one around. And as it happens it's standing next to a rotting tree. The tree collapses and lands on the deer crushing its back legs. The deer isn't dead yet but it can't move and it is in agony. After a couple of hours a bear finds it and eats it further adding to the deer's agony before it finally dies.
Benny: That isn't the most pleasant thing to imagine...
Jimbo: Quite. Can you think of any greater good that would be achieved by this happening?
Benny: ... not really.
Jimbo: Indeed. We seem to come up short when we think of any reason that might justifiably permit God to allow this to happen. It seems reasonable to think that probably, no such reason exists. And as a result, probably God doesn't exist.
Benny: This does sound quite convincing...

Benny is right, it does indeed sound convincing. This is the evidential argument from evil. Or to be more accurate, this is one example of an evidential argument from evil. There's more than one way a skeptic can present this sort of argument but as a species they share a similar spirit to the one Jimbo presented. The idea is that some amount or type of evil appears to be gratuitous - that is, unnecessary - and so most likely there are no good morally justifiable reasons for these evils to be permitted. And if God doesn't have a morally justifiable reason for permitting evil, that means he can't exist (or at least, he can't be both all-loving and all-powerful simultaneously).

How can we give Benny a hand here? Debates over the strength of the evidential argument continue and being but a new student of them myself I shall just pass on what I've learnt from those on the front lines.

The worst case scenario

For the sake of argument let's assume that Jimbo is right and that looking at the situation it is quite improbable that there exists a morally justifiable reason for why the deer died as it did. We might think then that, judging solely by the kinds of evil that exists, the existence of God is improbable. But the key thing to note is that this argument is judging the liklihood of God's existence based on evil alone.

Imagine you have a friend who has gone to buy a pet earlier today. She has gone to 'Pet's Palace of Perfectly Pretty Poodles', a shop well known for selling Poodles. In fact the shop holds 99 animals and all but one of them are Poodles. The other one is a cat (leftover from the times before the shop owner began literally worshipping the pink pooches). Based on this knowledge alone if you had to guess what pet your friend took home, you'd say it is overwhelmingly likely that she purchased a Poodle. It would be pretty unreasonable to think she'd bought the cat. But what if you knew that your friend was both scared of dogs and allergic to them? Then your estimation would radically change - it would be more reasonable to think that your friend bought that lone cat.

Similarly it might be the case that based on evil alone, the existence of God is unlikely, but with our other knowledge factored in, the probability is not so low or is even high. So if you already have good grounds for believing that God exists, then the evidential argument from evil doesn't render your belief irrational. If you don't have good reasons for believing in God this argument might push you more toward atheism, and if you're already there, well then, you'll feel more secure in your atheism. But what more can we say?

What are the odds?

You might have noticed a certain assumption within the argument. It goes something like this; "we can't think of a morally justifiable reason for why x occurred. If there was such a reason, probably we would know it. But we don't know it, so there probably isn't such a reason." But is this assumption correct? Why think that if there is such a reason, we would know it?

Imagine a field of thousands of acres. It's vast, expansive, and rather pretty. And you're stuck inside. You're in the kitchen of some manor overlooking just a few feet of the field which is the grounds of your place. You're already kind of annoyed at being stuck inside when you could be roaming the grounds, but to make matters worse your spouse comes in the room and asks you where the kids are. Apparently, you ought to have been looking after them. You aren't sure where they are but you decide to narrow down the options. You peer out of the window at the small part of the grounds you can see. You can't see the kids there and so you conclude that they aren't in the grounds. Would this be a reasonable conclusion?

No, it wouldn't be seeing as you aren't in a position where you'd be likely to see the kids if they were in the grounds - after all it's a massive area and you can only see a very small part of it. Perhaps we are in a very similar position with God and evil. We can't see a morally justifiable reason for certain evils, but then maybe we just aren't in a place where we're likely to see those reasons. After all God is far more intelligent then we are and as Isaiah 55:8 declares, his thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways. This gap between ourselves and God means it might not be as probable that there are no morally justifiable reasons for certain evils as we think.

Theodicies

Another factor to consider in our estimations of the probability that God could have a morally justifiable reason for evil, is any plausible theodicies we might have. A theodicy is a proposed reason that God might have for permitting certain kinds of evil. The most famous and most widely accepted theodicy is the 'free will theodicy'. This theodicy attempts to explain why God allows evil performed by people. The reasoning is that genuine free choice is a valuable thing - if we were forced to do certain things (like love) they'd be a lot less meaningful. Because of this, God gave humans genuine free will and because God cannot force anybody to act a certain way without taking away their free will, necessarily he must allow some people to commit evil if they want to. The theodicy is not without its counter-arguments (and counter-counter-arguments etc) but it is illustrated here by way of example. A plausible theodicy will certainly impact our etimation of the odds involved here.

Conclusion

The evidential argument from evil is not a bad argument but even if we can't boost the probability of God having a morally justifiable reason for certain evils, this is only a problem for the person whose basis for believing in God is already rather shakey. Evil provides more disturbing emotional concerns than intellectual ones. Jimbo hasn't given Benny a slam-dunk yet! And as I hope to explore later in the blog, evil might present the atheist with their own challenge to overcome.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Does evil disprove God?

Having spent some time establishing the fact that Christianity is not anti-intellectual in principle, it's worth having a quick look at whether Christianity is anti-intellectual in actuality. That is, are there are certain facts that we know that render Christianity impossible or irrational? After all it's good and well to say that Christianity doesn't teach you to throw your brain away, when it might be the case that actually believing it would require you to given the circumstances. Many people believe this is the very position we find ourselves in. And frequently a chief reason cited as the cause for this sorry states of affairs is the argument from evil, a.k.a the problem of suffering.

What problem are we looking at?

Now before we jump in to examine this objection we need to clarify what exactly it is we're trying to achieve. We've all experienced suffering of various kinds and for many of us the tension between God's existence and the existence of evil is not a purely academic concern. It is personal and it hurts. This entry is absolutely NOT going to counsel those hurts. It is going to focus on the intellectual problems evil gives us. So please do not think I'm being intentionally cold or detached when I discuss the matter.

With that caveat aside, there is yet another to consider. Conversations like the following are familiar to many of us:

Benny: Man, God is so good. He's really blessed my life.
Jimbo: Oh? If God is so good then why does he allow earthquakes and murders?
Benny: Urm ....

Yeah... *the theists in the room all nod understandingly*. Now in actual fact the way that Jimbo has expressed the problem of suffering is rather distracting. What he hasn't said is what actually follows if Benny is unable to answer. Does that mean that God can't exist? Does that mean that Benny's belief in God is irrational? Jimbo hasn't clarified either way. He hasn't really presented an argument. If you're a skeptic I'd encourage you to actually formulate the steps of the argument you're putting across. If you're a theist I'd encourage you to call out anyone who approaches the subject in this way. Sometimes this sort of presentation is masking a mere 'argument from outrage' rather than an honest rational enquiry. Let's say that Benny challenges Jimbo on this and Jimbo obliges and forms the following argument...

Jimbo: Benny my boy your theism is done for! You think that God is all-powerful and perfectly good. But if God is perfectly good he always desires good for his creatures. And if God is all-powerful then God always has the power to carry out what he desires. So there shouldn't be any evil. But evil exists! Therefore your God cannot.

So Jimbo has contrued the argument so that it's trying to persuade us that God logically cannot exist alongside evil.

A heavy burden to bear

The form of the argument Jimbo has presented is called the logical argument from evil or the deductive argument from evil. This argument would have us believe that to claim that God exists alongside evil is as impossibly contradictory as saying that your mother exists and doesn't exist at the same time. This is a very strong claim and the burden is on the skeptic to demonstrate this impossibility. For the theist to defuse the argument, all that must be done is show that it is possible that God can exist alongside evil. Benny doesn't have to explain why God permits evil he only has to show that it is not impossible for them to co-exist (that is why posing the question as Jimbo initially did can be distracting). As it happens it is quite easy to show that the two can possibly co-exist. In fact philosophers have basically abandoned the logical form of the argument (it is the 'evidential' form of the argument from evil which is discussed nowadays, and we shall turn our attention to it next time).

The solution

Simply put it is possible that God has a morally justifiable reason for permitting the existence of evil. Philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder says this about the failure of the logical argument from evil:

"... nothing we know rules out the possibility that there is a morally justifying reason for a wholly good thing to permit evil she could prevent. Indeed, consider the proposition that

J: There is a morally justifying reason for God to permit evil he could prevent, a reason we could not know of, and He permits evil for that reason, and evil results.

Nothing we know rules out J as a possibility ... (The Evidential Argument from Evil. 1996: xiii-xiv)"

And well, that's it. Because it's possible, it's not impossible. So evil alone does not disprove God. Next time we'll see if evil nonetheless gives us a good reason not to believe in God.