God, Evil, and the Bible

Criticizing God for all the evil in the world — and especially the evil in the Bible — seems like an easy target, until we take a closer look at how God deals with it. It’s a reasonable story, if we’ll treat the evidence fairly.

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The Jesus Myth

Enemies of Jesus and Christianity have used a variety of strategies to attack the faith, but none is more bizarre than the assertion that the entire Jesus story is nothing more than a myth concocted out of details borrowed from other ancient mythologies. This “Jesus myth” idea has been popularized by the movies Zeitgeist and Bill Maher’s Religulous. But the facade of scholarly respectability underlying the theory has been maintained by D. M. Murdock (aka Acharya S), a prolific author who recently passed away from cancer–ironically, on Christmas Day, 2015.

Murdock’s claims are so demonstrably fantastic that even many atheists and skeptics steer clear of her work. See a lengthy exchange between Murdock and Christian apologist Mike Licona for a full refutation of her views (part 1, response, part 2).

I suspect she is re-evaluating her views now.

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Fleecing the Suckers

David Blankenhorn exposes the moral corruption that lies at the foundation of our culture’s gambling craze.

This class divide, when it comes to who is being fleeced by slot machines and who is benefiting in some ways from the fleecing, is the dirty little secret of state-sanctioned gambling today, and one of the deepest reasons for its bipartisan popularity among state politicians looking for ways to pay for state government without raising property taxes for the affluent.

Contrary to the claims of their political sponsors, the casinos now rapidly spreading across our country do not exist to provide jobs, grow the economy, or expand entertainment options for the American public. (Much research suggests that casinos do not contribute to economic growth over time, primarily because they don’t produce anything of value.) State leaders today in both red and blue states, from Mississippi to Massachusetts, are supporting casinos for one reason only: to take money from the vulnerable and unwary, overwhelmingly via slot machines, and deliver a large portion of that money to the state.

They should be ashamed of what they are doing. . . .

But they aren’t, and that’s the tragedy of our modern American political class. For all their stern lectures about income inequality, their only real concern is lining their own pockets.

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Fact or Opinion?

A sharp-eyed professor of philosophy — and parent — explains why so many college students today do not believe in moral truths. It starts early . . .

When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

If the glaring flaw in those definitions does not smack you in the face, read them again carefully, and think about what they are saying. Or let the professor explain it for you:

Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). . . .

But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.

But it gets worse:

Kids are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. . . . This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.

The schools where this misinformation is taught insist on holding their students to high standards of integrity: treat others with respect, don’t cheat, work hard, etc. But the kids are not dumb. These are value judgments that (as the signs over the bulletin board remind them) are merely opinions. They can internalize them or dismiss them at their leisure.

The curriculum sets our children up for doublethink. They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.

In the real world outside the classroom, moral truths exist whether anyone believes them or not. Our children must be equipped with the tools to find and apply those truths in their lives.

Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.

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Feminism Has Jumped the Shark

Whatever feminism may have accomplished for women in earlier years, the movement in its modern iteration has clearly jumped the shark. Consider the evidence:

Brendan O’Neill summarizes the current state of the movement perfectly:

Taken together, all these recent feminist ventures speak to a movement that has become deeply censorious and unjust, riding roughshod over free speech and due process. Feminism is no longer a women’s liberation movement — it’s a women’s authoritarianism movement. Under the new tyranny of feminism, anyone who possesses allegedly warped views or produces saucy culture could potentially find themselves cast out of public life.

Does this description represent all feminists? Certainly not. But let’s face it, the feminists who are pulling the levers of power in politics, academia, and journalism definitely fit this pattern. They have convinced politicians that they speak for all women, with disastrous results in the last election. Men in overwhelming numbers recognize the extremism at work here, and are checking out entirely. A strong majority of women see it as well, and want no part of it.

Some feminists recognize the damage that modern feminism is doing to the cause of women and are fighting to restore the movement to its former ideals (Christina Hoff Summers and Camille Paglia come to mind). I wish them luck, but I suspect they are fighting a losing battle. For all its irrationality, feminism enjoys a great deal of momentum and will likely inflict a lot more damage before it runs its course.

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Why America Is Tearing Itself Apart

There is a growing unease among Americans that our nation is coming apart at the seams. Some tension can be expected in even the best of societies, but the level of conflict we’re witnessing today is unusually toxic. What are the underlying forces that are creating this split?

Some point to widening regional socio-political differences. Tim Carney, for example, argues that Democrats did so poorly in the 2014 midterm election because a progressive government has been waging a culture war on the South (“Democrats and the Left have tried to outlaw Southerners’ way of life”). The South pushed back by repudiating Democrats in the polling booth, accelerating this regional divide.

A variation of this theme lays the blame on an increasingly partisan media that no longer makes any effort at objectivity in reporting the news. Rick Wilson asserts:

The media’s customers have been burned over and over by bias, and by reporters with an agenda or an axe to grind. They’ve searched for news and information, only to be forced to piece it together on their own when the Official Media decides they’re going to ignore a story.

The result is a two-tier media system, serving two widely divergent audiences with different versions of reality. Over time, the chasm between the two groups grows wider, resulting in wildly differing ways to respond to—or even understand—the issues that trouble us.

Others see a more complex socio-cultural divide at work, locking people into two distinct social classes heading in different directions. This view has been popularized in Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum, 2010). These two classes, Murray asserts, are divided not chiefly by race or economic inequities, but more by behavioral factors relating to marriage, industriousness, and religion. The upper class is becoming stronger, richer, more stable, while the lower class is becoming more dysfunctional and poorer.

All of these theories—and a number of variations—provide partial explanations of what is happening in our country. But they fail to uncover what I believe to be a deeper fault line in the American psyche. That fault line lays astride our definition of truth.

In past generations, the overwhelming majority of our citizens believed in an external, objective standard of truth. Truth was “out there” and real, something to be sought, embraced, and defended—however imperfectly—by flawed human beings. This concept of truth shaped society’s approach to morality (“right vs. wrong”), media (“speak truth to power”), law (“the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”), economics (“handshake and a deal”), education (Harvard’s motto “Veritas” [Truth]), and politics (“I promise . . . so help me God”). Rooted in a historic Judeo-Christian worldview, this understanding of truth was a firm taskmaster, forcing all of us to at least make an effort to constrain our passions according to a common benchmark, and punishing us when we failed to do so.

Today, under the influence of postmodernism, that view of truth has been widely abandoned, replaced with a relativistic model that defines truth as whatever an individual/group/society defines it to be. That redefinition, so simple in its structure, has had enormous repercussions in society. Morality is now defined as whatever the latest polling data says it is. Politics has become a naked grab for power, consequences to the nation be damned. Media is no longer a quest to hold power accountable to truth, but a campaign to promote whatever “social justice” fad is raging today, even to the point of cozying up to the powerful and spinning facts if necessary. Business ethics has become whatever-we-can-get-away-with. Education has turned into a propaganda ministry.

The political, social, and economic issues that are tearing our nation apart today are all merely symptoms of a deeper intellectual divide. A sizable portion of our population still clings to the traditional concept of truth, and try to live their lives by that creed. However, a growing number have jettisoned that concept in favor of an amorphous view that allows each person to choose their own personal truth, independent of any external standard. The two groups can debate policies and issues all day long, but until that philosophical chasm is addressed, there can be no resolution.

History has seen this phenomenon before:

No one calls for justice,
Nor does any plead for truth.
They trust in empty words and speak lies;
They conceive evil and bring forth iniquity. . . .
Justice is turned back,
And righteousness stands afar off;
For truth is fallen in the street,
And equity cannot enter.
So truth fails,
And he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. . . .
(Isaiah 59:4, 14-15)

That environment did not end well then, and it will not end well today. Like the prophets of old, our task is to engage society on a philosophical level, challenging the root disease that is killing the patient. Everything else is just noise.

Posted in Culture, Philosophy, Truth | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Science of the Gaps

Skeptics frequently charge theists with clinging to a “god of the gaps” approach to explaining natural phenomena. The argument goes something like this:

  1. A certain natural phenomenon has no known scientific explanation or cause (e.g., lightning).
  2. Given the absence of a naturalistic explanation, the phenomenon is attributed to some divine power (e.g., Thor’s hammer).
  3. In time, science discovers that the phenomenon, in fact, has a perfectly reasonable naturalistic explanation (e.g., the discharge of static electricity between clouds and ground).
  4. The supernatural explanation is discarded as superstition based on ignorance, leaving one less “gap” in our knowledge to be filled.
  5. With the advance of scientific knowledge, more and more of these gaps are closed, leaving an ever-shrinking range of unexplained phenomena to attribute to God.
  6. Those who continue to invoke God as an explanation for unknown causes, therefore, are clinging to a rapidly diminishing “god of the gaps.” It’s only a matter of time before the few remaining gaps are filled, and this impotent deity will be relegated to the dustbin of history, along with other ancient superstitions.

The strength of this argument rests on an extrapolation embedded in #6, namely, that naturalistic science is the sure path to finding all the answers. We may not have found the answers yet, but the track record definitely points away from supernaturalism and toward naturalism.

Up to a point, this is a valid line of reasoning.  There is no question that science has vastly improved our understanding of how the world works, reducing the need for supernatural explanations. Ironically, it was believers who, based on their conviction that God created an orderly universe, played a major role in discovering and explaining many of these natural processes, thus closing gaps in our knowledge (e.g., Newton, Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Herschel, Faraday, Mendel, Marconi, etc.). True believers are always open to new knowledge that helps us understand how nature works.

The mistake is projecting this history of scientific advancement forward to an absolute conclusion that all gaps will be answered by science leaving no room for the supernatural. This is a leap of faith into a very dark and dangerous void.

In the first place, while science has made incremental improvements in expanding our understanding of the natural world, some very large chasms remain unbridged: Why is there something rather than nothing? How can we account for the human concept of morality and evil? For all our advancement, modern science still struggles awkwardly with these very basic questions.

More significantly, the popular image of science steadily progressing toward a “final answer” is not as neat and tidy as proponents would have us believe. Some scientific discoveries close some gaps, only to open others. Newtonian physics, for example, explained the realm of physics for several centuries, until Einstein’s theory of relativity exposed some new gaps in our knowledge. Einstein in turn has been further complicated by quantum physics. That same process of advancement, retrenchment, and adjustment routinely takes place in every field of scientific endeavor.

Thomas Kuhn highlighted the messiness by which science makes progress with his concept of “paradigm shifts” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, 1970) . It’s not a neat, linear process, but a never-ending quest for understanding marked by advances, setbacks, unexpected anomalies, blind alleys, and outright error. Those who proudly proclaim “the science is settled” in any field of study (here’s looking at you, climate activists) are displaying an unwarranted level of intellectual arrogance.

In other words, the “god of the gaps” argument turns back on itself. By clinging to naturalistic explanations for all unexplained phenomena, skeptics themselves are using a “science of the gaps” argument. The list of gaps is not steadily shrinking, but constantly morphing, with gaps opening and closing as new knowledge is gained. They’re playing whack-a-mole with a universe of complexity far beyond human comprehension, all the while expressing absolute confidence that science has the answers out there somewhere in the future. Agnostic David Berlinski summarized the problem well in The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretentions:

As a rhetorical contrivance, the God of the Gaps makes his effect contingent on a specific assumption: that whatever the gaps, they will in the course of scientific research be filled. It is an assumption both intellectually primitive and morally abhorrent—primitive because it reflects a phlegmatic absence of curiosity, and abhorrent because it assigns to our intellectual future a degree of authority alien to human experience. Western science has proceeded by filling gaps, but in filling them, it has created gaps all over again. The process is inexhaustible. (p. 183-184)

As a theist, I freely admit that there are gaps in my understanding of how the world works, and I applaud the crucial role that science plays in helping to understand that world. But I plead with atheists to show the same humility in acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, there are forces at work in our world that cannot be explained by natural causes.

Posted in Atheism, Science, Theism | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments