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.