Thursday, October 29, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin’: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

In chapter 11, “‘The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin’: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings,” Hitchens suggests that religions are started either by superstition or by fraud. (Having attacked Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he now turns his target on latter-day religious movements like Mormonism.)

The chapter consists of three anecdotes. The first is from the 1964 documentary Mondo Cane, in which Pacific Islanders gave religious significance to American GIs' arrival there in World War II. According to Hitchens, the movie shows the birth of religion right on camera. The second is the story of Marjoe Gortner, whose parents made 3 million dollars forcing him to preach in charismatic churches from the age of four. He escaped the abuse at age seventeen, and then sought revenge by making a documentary in which he pretended to come back to Jesus and then fleeced the faithful for their hard-earned money. The third story is that of Joseph Smith and the origin of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints.

Hitchens writes:
What interests me and always has is this: Do the preachers and prophets also believe, or do they just ‘believe in belief’? Do they ever think to themselves, this is too easy? And do they then rationalize the trick by saying that either (a) if these wretches weren’t listening to me they’d be in even worse shape; or (b) that if it doesn’t do them any good than it still can’t be doing them much harm?
I am curious about Hitchens’ church background, because he repeatedly returns to the accusation that religious leaders use faith as a means of deceiving people into taking their money. I don’t get that. Either he drastically overestimates how much money people like me make or he is from a radically different tradition than me. If I wanted to make money, I definitely would be in a different career. (Not that my church doesn’t pay me well—they do. But I could definitely make more doing something else.)

This criticism from Hitchens is curious coming from someone who does something almost exactly the same as someone like me. Hitchens reflects on life, writes his thoughts down for people to consider, and receives a pay check from people who read his work. Incidentally, I am willing to bet that Hitchens makes considerably more money than most religious leaders. Are we to suppose that Hitchens is making everything up and that he's only writing what will make money, or is it possible that he actually believes some of what he writes about? Is it possible that he believes that his readers might be happier and more enlightened having read his work? If that's not too much of a stretch, than why is it so hard for him to believe that some religious leaders are genuine in their beliefs and ministry?

Are there bad people who use religion as a means of manipulation? Of course. But do a couple examples of fraud prove that all religions are fraudulent? Of course not. Hitchens even admits, “Jesus, it is true, shows no interest in personal gain.”

The question that Hitchens doesn’t ask (at least not in this chapter) is why people are so drawn to religion. Why does over 90% of the world believe in a god of some kind? Why are educated people drawn to things like Scientology? Could it be part of the human makeup to be “religious”? What might that mean for humanity?

I believe that God has created us with an innate need to know Him. When that part of us is out of whack, we look for other things to replace it. Does it surprise me that religious fraud is a money-making endeavor? No. It would surprise me if it weren’t.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Revelation: The Nightmare of the 'Old' Testament."

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

In chapter 7, “Revelation: The Nightmare of the 'Old' Testament,” Hitchens addresses religion’s claim to authority based on supernatural encounters between God and special men. He reminds the reader that the three major western religions all trace their roots to the Hebrew Bible, and subsequently attempts to debunk the Pentateuch as divine revelation. He uses three main arguments: (1) the laws in the Pentateuch are obviously man-made, (2) the teachings of the Hebrew Bible are immoral, and (3) arguments (1) and (2) don’t matter because none of it happened anyway.

The laws of the Pentateuch are obviously man-made. Hitchens singles out the Ten Commandments as “obviously man-made.” The first three commandments amount to little more than “monarchial growling about respect and fear, accompanied by a stern reminder of omnipotence and limitless revenge.” Then, there is a command “to keep working and only to relax when the absolutist says so.” There is a charge to honor your parents, and then four self-evident ethical admonitions against murder, adultery, theft, and false witness. Finally, there is an absurd command not to desire the things that your neighbor has. We could probably categorize the commandments into three groups: (1) those that put the people in their place, (2) self-evident ethics necessary for a stable society, and (3) and absurd command not to covet that obviously didn’t come from a wise God.

Hitchens reasoning is circular. The premise to be proven is: The Ten Commandments are man-made. The Ten Commandments are consistent with what Hitchens thinks man-made commandments might look like. Therefore, the Ten Commandments are definitely man-made. This is petitio principii, or begging the question.

What would a commandment look like that was definitely not man-made? Love your enemies, perhaps?

The teachings of the Hebrew Bible are immoral. Hitchens cites a number of passages from the Old Testament that are hard for us to read. One will suffice for illustration—Numbers 31:17–18. In the passage, Israel had gone out to battle Midian in retaliation to their leading them into idolatry. The Israelites went out and killed every adult male, and took the women and children captive. Moses was angry with the military officials for sparing the women and male children, and he said to them, “Now therefore kill every boy, and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse with a man. But all the young women who have not had sexual intercourse with a man will be yours” (NET). Kill the women. Kill the boys. Keep the young girls, presumably as concubines.

Let’s be honest—that’s horrible. But let’s also be honest about war—as General Sherman said, “War is Hell.” Do we think our wars are any more civilized than ancient wars? Is it somehow more moral to bomb innocent women and children than it is to run them through with a sword? Are we really so na├»ve as to think that there is no collateral damage in modern wars?

Don’t get me wrong, divine ordained Holy War bothers me. It’s one part of the Bible that I don’t “get.” But I accept it as part of our story, even if a puzzling part of the story.

None of the events described in the Pentateuch actually happened. Hitchens writes, “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.” (A very well written sentence, I might add, and it’s not surprising how well this book has been received.)

Before I get into Hitchens’ critiques of the Old Testament, I do want to mention that theism does not stand or fall with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. I believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, but if that were to be disproven I would not walk away from the faith.

That being said, the specific event that Hitchens attacks is the Exodus. I would probably include the Exodus as one of the “big” historical events, the historicity of which is necessary for faith. Hitchens even quotes Roland de Vaux, “if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.” If the Exodus were proven to be ahistorical, one would have to seriously reconsider the truth of the Christian religion.

Hitchens cites a study by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman that has “proven” that none of the events of the Pentateuch—from the Exodus, to the wilderness wanderings and the giving of the law, to the conquest of Canaan—ever happened. I had never heard of the study, so I asked my friend John, who has a PhD in Old Testament (from Cambridge, no less) and who teaches Old Testament at a seminary, what he thought of it.

John told me that while Finkelstein’s work represents the opinion of a large number of Old Testament scholars, it is not universally accepted. He referred me to some studies done by James K. Hoffmeier (Israel in Egypt: The Evidence of the Authenticity of the Exodus Traditions and Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition) that best defend the authenticity of the biblical accounts.

While Hitchens claims that there is “no” extra-biblical evidence for the Exodus, John asks what kind of evidence we would expect to find. For instance, Ramses II of Egypt was defeated in a battle at Qadesh, yet the Egyptian accounts of the battle spin it as a victory. Why would we expect these same Egyptians to agree with the biblical account of the Exodus? Further, much of the archeological material left behind by the patriarchs would have been under the water table, and have thus been destroyed.

I don’t know enough about these issues to offer a definitive opinion, but what John told me is consistent with what I see in issues related to the New Testament—there are some places in which the historicity of the text is disputed, even some cases where it is widely disputed, but questions of method and what constitutes “proof” prevent a consensus one way or the other. After all, history is not a "hard" science.

Hitchens goes too far in saying that the Exodus has been disproven. Are there difficulties with the biblical account? Yes. But are there problems with rival reconstructions? Yes. That’s why we will continue to have historical inquiry. John pointed out that in many cases the Bible gives a better explanation of the data than rival reconstructions, and much of what we know about the ancient near east is consistent with what we read in the Bible.

Our faith is based on real history, and we need to continue studying that history to evaluate our faith. If our faith is true, then we have nothing to be afraid of. I, for one, prefer to acknowledge and grapple with difficulties of this nature rather than sweeping them under the rug and pretending they’re not there. Every time we ignore legitimate problems, skeptics bring them back up in books like Hitchens’.

[I previously reacted to the chapters 8 and 10 of God is not Great. Chapter 9 is an attack on Islam. I’m not going to include a reaction to that on this blog, so I will pick up in chapter 11 next time.]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thoughts on Peirasmos in James 1

I am in a Bible study that is going through the Book of James. Last night we covered the first two sections, James 1:1–12 and James 1:13–18.

The Greek word peirasmos and the related words peirazo and apeirastos occur 7 times in James 1 (v. 2, v. 12, four times in v. 13, v. 14). The words are translated either "testing," "trials," or "temptation." Now the Greek word can mean either a "trial" or a "temptation," and most Bible studies differentiate the "trials" James refers to in vv. 2–4 and the "temptations" he talks about in vv. 13–15. Typically, Bible studies say that "trials" are difficult times that we go through and "temptations" are those times when we are tempted to sin.

This has always bothered me. Why do we make this distinction? Isn't it artificial? Why would someone use the same word in two completely different ways in the same chapter?

When I was preparing for the Bible study, I tried reading James 1:2–15 without vv. 5–11. Here is what the text says without those verses:
My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. (NET)
Without looking, can you tell where the break is? It's between the second and third sentences. But the text makes perfect sense without vv. 5–11. Why then, should we suppose a topic change between vv. 2–4 and vv. 12–15, especially since v. 12 seems to say the same thing as v. 2?
Further, compare this new reading of James 1 with what Paul says in Romans 8:5–8, 12–13 (NET):
For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. . . . So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.
Specifically, compare the following statements:
James 1:12, "Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him."

Romans 8:13, "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live."
James 1:15, "Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death."

Romans 8:13, "for if you live according to the flesh, you will die."
So what is James 1 about? I would read the "trials" of James 1:2–4 as "temptations." James says, "Consider it joy when you are tempted to sin, because such temptation makes you stronger." I think James 1 is about living the way God has created us to live, the way that leads to life that is truly life. Living otherwise leads only to death.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Random Thoughts on Sitcoms

Last night, after we put the kids to bed and cleaned up the war zone they left behind, I collapsed on our couch and decided to watch some TV before I went to sleep. Confession time--the shows I watched were "Modern Family" and "Cougartown."

Modern Family is about the relationship between relatives in a modern extended family. The dad divorced the mom after the kids were grown and married a significantly younger woman with a ten-year-old son of her own. The grown daughter is married with three pre-teen/teenage kids. The grown son is gay, and he and his long-term boyfriend have adopted a baby from overseas (I missed the first episode, so I can't remember which country). The show is about making the best of family dysfunction.

Cougartown is about a woman who married and had a child in her early twenties, then divorced in her late thirties. Now a mature but still fairly young woman, she is looking to start over. The show is about her misadventures in dating as she hangs out with her young-twenties single friends and her late-thirties still-married friend.

I noticed something about these two shows last night--they both have themes of redemption.

I said to Brooke, "Remember in the nineties we had shows like 'Roseanne,' 'Married with Children,' and 'The Simpsons.' These shows all mocked nuclear families--the kids were bad, the parents didn't love each other, and the unmarried characters were happier. It looks like that has changed. Now the shows are all about people trying to make the best out of non-traditional families."

Just now I remembered that between those two eras was the "Seinfeld," "Friends," and "Sex in the City" era that glorified single living and non-traditional lifestyles.

Has there been a switch between the "Roseanne" era and today? Does that say anything about where we've gone the last 15 or 20 years? How might those changes affect the way we share Christ?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Michael Kruse on Christian Economics

I know I've linked to this before, but it's worth the reminder. Michael Kruse is doing a series on Christian economics at Jesus Creed. It's fantastic. He has a new post on "wealth."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Christopher Hitchers on "The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

Chapter ten, "The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell," is about miracles. This is the chapter I expected under "The Metaphysical Claims of the Religion Are False."

Hitchens opens the chapter by recounting the fable of a man who couldn't stop telling this story of a miraculous long jump he performed on the island of Rhodes. Eventually his friends grew weary of the story and one of them said "Hic Rhodus, hic salta," "Here is Rhodes, jump here!" In the same way, religions claim validation by miraculous deeds of the past--events like the Exodus, the resurrection of Jesus, or the flight of Muhammed to Jerusalem. "Has the art of resurrection died out," asks Hitchens, "Or are we relying on dubious sources?"

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was the most devastating critic of miracles. Defining a miracle as a disturbance of what is normal or expected, Hume points out that miracles also involve a decision. When Moses saw the burning bush, he had two possible interpretations: (1) the laws of physics have temporarily been suspended, or (2) I am delusional. Which is more likely? Hume continues that when you consider reports of miracles that you didn't actually witness, you have to adjust the odds accordingly. You must further adjust the odds when you are considering reports of miracles by people who lived thousands of years ago and whose testimonies have been past down in books that may or may not have been corrupted.

Hitchens challenges the reader to compare miracle claims with claims of UFO sightings. On what basis can we reject UFO sightings as the ramblings of lunatics, and yet accept testimonies like Matthew 27:51–53 ESV, "And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many"?

Hitchens' challenge is fair, and my response is in two parts. First, the empty tomb and resurrection appearances are necessary but not sufficient for faith. Second, the continuing work of the Holy Spirit is necessary but not sufficient for faith. The three in tandem (empty tomb, resurrection appearances, continuing work of the Holy Spirit) are sufficient for faith.

The empty tomb and resurrection appearances are necessary but not sufficient for faith. Many Christians may be shocked to read that sentence, but I'll explain. First, the empty tomb and resurrection appearances are necessary for faith. N.T. Wright covers this wonderfully in The Resurrection of the Son of God and (the more readable) Surprised by Hope. He argues that the early church needed both an empty tomb and resurrection appearances in order to believe. If someone presented the corpse of Jesus, the resurrection appearances would have been dismissed as delusions. If there were no resurrection appearances, the empty tomb would have been a mystery, but it probably would have been dismissed as grave robbery. But because there was both, the early Christians concluded that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Paul himself notes that if there is no resurrection, there is no Christianity (1 Corinthians 15:12–19).

Hitchens counters that the resurrection doesn't prove Jesus was God. True. But, we have no other record of anyone else raising himself or herself from the grave, so the resurrection of Jesus at least gives us a reason to consider his claims to be unique. When you put that together with the claims that he made about himself, the divinity of Jesus is not a reach (the Transfiguration perhaps is the tipping point). If he's not God, then he is the most supernaturally powerful human being ever, who for one reason or another decided to deceive millions of people throughout history into thinking he was God. As C.S. Lewis noted, this would make Jesus the most demonic figure in human history.

The empty tomb and resurrection appearances may be necessary for faith, but are they sufficient grounds for faith today? I would say that they are not. I think Hitchens (well, Hume really) nails this. Why do we accept the supernatural claims of the Bible and not those of other religions? Why do we believe in the resurrection of Jesus and not UFO claims?

There has to be something in play that makes Christianity's claim of the miraculous more credible than other religions' claims. Richard Dawkins says that most people don't believe in thousands of gods; some people just go one god farther. Along the same lines, Christians reject thousands of miracle claims made by competing religions. What basis do we have to accept the resurrection?

The continuing work of the Holy Spirit is necessary but not sufficient for faith. Galatians 3:1–6 ESV says:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain- if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith- just as Abraham "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"?
Notice in this passage what the basis is for Paul's arguing for justification by faith and not works of the law--they received the Spirit by faith. Reception of the Spirit by faith was evidence that Paul's Gospel was true and the judaizers was false.

In 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5 ESV, Paul writes, "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake." Paul's preaching was validated by miraculous works of the Spirit.

Finally, in 1 Corinthians 2:3-5, Paul writes, "And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." Again, demonstrations of the Spirit accompanied Paul's preaching, validating his message.

Christianity needs the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the continuing work of the Spirit to be valid. With just the ancient testimonies, there is no reason to accept its claims over those of other religions. With just the Spirit, it is an existential philosophy with no grounds in history. But with both, it is a valid (and in my opinion, compelling) faith option.

Why do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus and not in UFO's? Because the work of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the life of my church validates the message of the Gospel. Could personal transformation be explained by means other than the Holy Spirit? Perhaps. But I don't think so. Maybe I don't have stone-cold logic to prove that it is so, but everything inside of me says that it is so.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "The Evil of the New Testament"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

Chapter seven, “Revelation: The Nightmare of the Old Testament,” has specific attacks on the reliability of the Old Testament that I do not know enough to answer. I have asked a much more qualified friend specific questions related to the issue, and I am awaiting his response. More on that later.

Chapter eight, “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the Old One,” is more up my alley. In it, Hitchens does not discuss the “evil” of the New Testament as much as he does the worthlessness of it. In short, the New Testament documents are late and unreliable when it comes to information about the historical Jesus. He calls it “a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right."

I beg to differ.

The most substantial arguments that Hitchens makes are: (1) the “lateness” of the Gospels, (2) the dubiousness of Jesus’ existence, and (3) tampering charges against the New Testament documents themselves.

The Gospels are late. It used to be theorized that the Gospels were second-century documents written long after the events described in them. This theory has been abandoned by most scholars. The 1935 discovery of P52 showed that the Gospel of John had been in wide circulation as early as the middle of the second century. This means that it could not have been written later than the end of the first century. Most scholars think that the Synoptic Gospels were written between 60 and 90 AD, and John written somewhere in the mid-90s.

The degree of overlap between the Synoptic Gospels and the Jesus material in Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23–26, etc.) demonstrates that accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds circulated early, probably both in written and in oral form. James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered is an excellent source for information on how the Gospels came to be.

Thus, while the Gospels themselves were composed 30–50 years after the events they describe, they were based on records passed down from eyewitnesses. Also, we should not be quick to dismiss the idea that eyewitnesses played a key role in the composition of the Gospels themselves (as tradition tells us they were).

We don’t know that Jesus even existed. There is strong extra-biblical evidence for Jesus' existence. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions him as does the Roman historian Tacitus. These testimonies are especially significant because neither was a follower of Jesus. Josephus says that Jesus was a magician who led people astray. Tacitus says that Jesus was executed by Pilate and that his followers were “hated for their abominable crimes.” John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew, James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, and N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God are excellent resources on the historical Jesus. They are tough reads, though, and N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, Darrell Bock’s Studying the Historical Jesus, and Ben Witherington’s The Jesus Quest may be better introductions.

The New Testament documents have been corrupted over time. Hitchens cites Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus to demonstrate that the New Testament has become corrupted. Specifically, he mentions John 7:53–8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, which scholars have shown “was not a part of the original Gospel.” Ehrman is right—most scholars do not think that John 7:53–8:11 was part of the original Gospel of John. But just about every Bible says that in the margins. It’s a great story. It probably happened. But it’s not part of John.

Hitchens is slightly deceptive when he says that the New Testament documents have been corrupted. It is true that the thousands of manuscripts that we have all include minor variations (i.e. one manuscript may read “he” when another clarifies “Jesus”), but they are over 95% similar and none of the variants affects Christian theology in any way. John 7:53–8:11 is by far the most significant variant. The longer ending(s) of Mark are also significant, as is 1 John 5:8. As with John 7:53–8:11, most Bibles have notes in their margins as to why these passages are included or omitted.

Text critics weigh the textual evidence to try to discern what the original New Testament documents said and how the variant readings came to be. Sometimes scribes made mistakes. Sometimes they tried to “clarify” the text. Sometimes they made outright edits. Thankfully, we have thousands of manuscripts to compare in order to discern the original. (Here is a simplified example of what they might do: if 9,999 manuscripts read "he said" and one says "Jesus said," can you discern what the original reading was and how the 1 variant came to be? Most text critical decisions are far more complicated that this, but you get the idea.) While we will never have 100% certainty of the original documents, we have far greater certainty about the New Testament than we do any other ancient document. We can be sure that the Bible we read is true to the original.

As I was reading this chapter, I couldn’t help but feel that Hitchens attacks were a workshop in missing the point. Let’s say we grant all of Hitchens’ objections. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, we allow that the New Testament is not a product of the eyewitnesses and that in places it is contradictory. Does this destroy its testimony to the significance of Jesus? After all, something happened. We know that Jesus lived. We know that people thought he was an exorcist and miracle worker, and that he preached the coming of the Kingdom of God. We know that he made specific prophetic actions signifying the start of a new religious movement, and that he prophesied the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. We know that he was rejected by his Jewish contemporaries for being a blasphemer and that he was executed by Pontius Pilate for claiming to be the King of the Jews. We know that his followers claimed that he rose from the dead—that his tomb was empty and that there were reports of resurrection appearances. We know that typically, when the leader of a messianic sect was crucified, his followers would scatter and disappear, but that this is not what happened with Jesus’ followers. And we know all of this by the historical method, without considering the Bible as anything special.

Even if we grant all of Hitchens’ objections (which I don’t), we have reason to give special consideration to the Apostle Paul's claim that "There is another king, namely Jesus."

Nobel Peace Prize

Here is a list of people who apparently were not as deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize as President Obama.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Michael Spencer Writes about a Former Student Leaving the Faith

This is iMonk at his best.

Christopher Hitchens on "Arguments from Design"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.”

In chapter six, “Arguments from Design,” Hitchens tackles the Christian assertion that apparent design in nature proves that there is a Designer, namely God. Personally, I think David Hume and Karl Barth killed this horse, but Hitchens gives its corpse quite a beating.

Though argued throughout history, the argument from design was most famously articulated by William Paley in his fictional account of a primitive person finding a watch washed up on shore. Even though he has never seen a watch before, nor does he know its function, he concludes that there has to be a watchmaker—that the pieces did not randomly come together and form a watch. In the same way, we look at the delicate balance of life-sustaining forces in the world, and how each species seems perfectly designed to thrive in its environment, and conclude that someone must have designed this place we call earth.

Hitchens turns this argument on its head, pointing out all of the flaws in the world—vestigial organs, natural disasters, and adaptations that favor one species over another. God may have designed gazelles with the ability to outrun lions and thus survive, but why didn’t he just design lions vegetarian?

Hitchens writes in response to the inventions argument:

We know the answers in all cases: these were painstaking inventions (also by trial and error) of mankind, and were the work of many hands, and are still ‘evolving.’ That is what makes piffle out of the ignorant creationist sneer, which compares evolution to a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard of parts and coming up with a jumbo jet. For a start, there are no ‘parts’ lying around waiting to be assembled. For another thing, the process of acquisition and discarding of ‘parts’ (most especially wings) is far from a whirlwind as could conceivably be. The time involved is more like that of a glacier than a storm. For still another thing, jumbo jets are not riddled with nonworking or superfluous ‘parts’ lamely inherited from less successful aircraft. Why have we agreed so easily to call this exploded old nontheory by its cunningly chosen new disguise of ‘intelligent design’? There is nothing at all ‘intelligent’ about it. It is the same old mumbo-jumbo (or in this instance, jumbo-mumbo).
I see three major arguments in this chapter: (1) design does not demand a Designer, (2) our imperfect world would have to have been designed by an imperfect or inept Designer, and (3) the theory of evolution more accurately explains the world around us than does intelligent design.

I want to say up front that the evolution/creation debate is not one that I enjoy. I think Christians spend way too much time on it and my interests lie elsewhere.

Design does not demand a Designer. Hitchens’ first point is true. The argument from design is not the best Christian apologetic. In his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, David Hume points out that analogies are only as strong as the things compared are similar. Analogies comparing dissimilar objects are not as strong. For instance, when older students lament “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” I always tell them, “But you’re not a dog and you’re not learning tricks.” Dissimilarities between objects compared make analogies weak.

The question David Hume asks is, How similar is a watch to the cosmos? Therefore, How strong is the analogy of the watch? Not very.

Another weakness of the argument from design is the holiness of God. God is unlike anything else in creation. What can we possibly learn about a holy God from what is created? Even Romans 1:19–20 limits “natural theology” to “eternal power” and “deity.” (And nowhere does Paul say that “design” is the basis of this knowledge.) Karl Barth argued that God is only known through Jesus Christ—God made flesh. I wouldn’t go that far—I think God reveals himself in other ways, too—but I do not think that the Christian God is intuitive from nature. We need special revelation.

The theory of evolution more accurately explains the world around us than does intelligent design. I think this is a bit of a non sequitur, since evolution and design are not mutually exclusive. Plenty of Christians accept the theory of evolution as the means by which God differentiated the species. The question of origins and the question of the differentiation of the species are two distinct questions. I am not a scientist, and like I said, I really don’t care much about evolution, but I don’t think its incompatible with my worldview and I’m not losing any sleep over it.

Our imperfect world would have to have been designed by an imperfect or inept Designer. This point is the most interesting—does an imperfect creation demand an imperfect god? On one level, I would have to say yes. I actually talked about this last Sunday. If this world is all that there is, than we have to conclude that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God does not exist.

On another level, I have to say no. Christians also believe that the world is not as it should be, and that God is in the process of reconciling it. We have a theological category for “things not operating according to divine intent.” Imperfections and even atrocities are to be expected in the current state of the world (see Matthew 13:24–30 and Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and Weeds).

While I usually don’t use the argument from design in explaining to people why I am a Christian, I do think it has some value in apologetics. I have heard (but again, I am not a scientist, so I can’t properly evaluate these claims) that the probability of matter randomly coming together to create life is so remote that it is a scientific absurdity. This is why most scientists do not think that there is life on other planets—the probability of it happening randomly is too remote. Further, Hitchens laughs off arguments from irreducible complexity, but they are a damaging critique of the theory of evolution. The best counter I have heard from a scientist to the argument from irreducible complexity is “just because we don’t know how it happened doesn’t mean we won’t know some day.” Fair enough.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.”

In chapter five, “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False,” Hitchens argues that religion is the product of a pre-modern people who sought answers to explain the unknown. He writes:

I wrote earlier that we never again have to confront the impressive faith of an Aquinas or Maimonides (as contrasted with the blind faith of millennial or absolutist sects, of which we have an apparently unlimited and infinitely renewable supply). This is for a simple reason. Faith of that sort—the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason—is now plainly impossible.
After spending a few pages recapping natural phenomena explained by scientists that priests and shamans previously wrote off as “acts of God.” He says that “There would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable.”

Finally, Hitchens warns us of Ockham’s razor, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” We don’t need the god hypothesis to explain the world, so we need to stop pretending that he or she or they are there.

I was prepared for some philosophical discussion in this chapter, but I was let down. Hitchens doesn’t argue the impossibility of miracles—he simply dismisses them. God is not Great is an atheistic book unlike any other I have read. There are no philosophical arguments. There are no attacks on the accuracy of the Bible. Hitchens doesn’t fight with logic or reason; the primary weapons in his arsenal are wit and ridicule.

And he’s effective.

I had to stop and reflect on Hitchens’ attack on the metaphysical claims of religion before offering a response. His argument is, “I don’t need God, so I don’t believe in God.” Do I want to respond to that by saying we need God? Well, in one sense I do think that we need God. But if I am honest, I am not sure that that is why I am a Christian. I am not sure that I am a Christian because I would be in despair if there were no God. It’s not so much that I think there has to be a God, as it is that I think that there probably is a God.

In his book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton compares materialists to the insane. (Chesterton uses the word “materialist” to describe someone we might call a naturalist—someone who doesn’t believe in God or the supernatural.) He writes:

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful king of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is
not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.
Later he writes:

His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of a madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.

If the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.
In his book, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright writes about four things that a naturalistic universe cannot explain: our longing for justice, our sense of beauty, our desire for community, and our need for the spiritual. Ockham’s razor may imply that Hitchens is right, but his cosmos, the cosmos that cannot explain justice, beauty, love, or the spiritual, looks more like the conspiracy theory of a madman than it does the real world that we live in.

Friday, October 2, 2009

100 Years of Visual Effects

HT: Once Upon a Win

Christopher Hitchens on "Religion Can Be Hazardous to Your Health"

In chapter 4, “A Note on Health, to Which Religion Can Be Hazardous,” Hitchens crucifies the major world religions for the harm they have done to humanity. This is certainly the most powerful of the early chapters of the book. Hitchens recounts some Muslims’ opposition to polio vaccines, the Vatican’s opposition to the distribution of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to give their children life-saving blood transfusions, the Roman Catholic Church’s protection of abusive priests, and religious oppression of women and homosexuals.

Why are religions so hostile to health and human rights? Hitchens says:

The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile. A modern believer can say and even believe that his faith is quite compatible with science and medicine, but the awkward fact will always be that both things have a tendency to break religion’s monopoly, and have often been fiercely resisted for that reason. What happens to the faith healer and the shaman when any poor citizen can see the full effect of drugs and surgeries, administered without ceremonies or mystifications? Roughly the same thing as happens to the rainmaker when the climatologist turns up, or the diviner from the heavens when school-teachers get hold of elementary telescopes.
In summary, because religions aim to retain power, they will always oppose scientific and sociological advances that undermine their authority. In many cases, scientists and sociologists have offered better explanations of the world than have their religious counterparts.

Again, Hitchens is right about a lot. (For those of you keeping score, this makes me three-for-three in at least partially agreeing with Hitchens.) There are a lot of religious authorities that feel threatened by scientific and other advances that undermine their authority. Many of Hitchens’ examples are valid.

But, as I was reading this chapter, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of exposure Hitchens had to mainstream religions. I will in no way defend the people Hitchens assaults, but I will say, That looks nothing like my religious experience.

How many hospitals in the United States are run by the Roman Catholic Church or other religious organizations? (If the name of your local hospital begins with “Saint,” be careful about rejecting religion’s involvement in health care.) How much work have organizations like World Vision done globally to combat hunger and preventable diseases? Has Hitchens heard about how much Rick Warren and Saddleback Community Church has done to alleviate the destruction caused by AIDS in Africa? Has he heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Desmond Tutu, or Mahatma Gandhi, whose faiths compelled them to champion human rights and racial reconciliation? Has he heard of the International Justice Mission? Where are their stories?

I have seen first-hand the benefits that Christianity can have to society. The local food bank is faith-based and supported mainly by donations and volunteers from local churches, including my own. My church also supports (with money and volunteers) a youth center that recently opened in Tillicum, one of the poorest neighborhoods in our community. Now kids and that community have something else to do rather than wander the streets and get involved with gangs. They have a safe place when they can do their school work or just hang out with adults who care about them. I could go on.

I do not deny that there are some bad apples in the bunch who call themselves “religious.” I won’t even deny that some of those bad apples are of the same variety as me. But there are also some really good apples, and you can’t argue the bad without accepting the good as a counter-argument.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Why Heaven Hates Ham"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.”

In chapter three, “A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham,” Hitchens extols the virtues and dietary benefits of the pig, and then lambasts the major western religions for prohibiting its consumption. All religions have these sorts of irrational dietary prohibitions, says Hitchens (for instance, the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition of eating meat on Fridays).

Hitchens alludes to King Lear, that “the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.” In other words, we most passionately denounce the vices for which we secretly long (good insight by Shakespeare). So, the reason that eating pork is prohibited is because it is so tasty. Why would a religion outlaw pork when other tasty meats are permissible? Hitchens says that rumor has it that human flesh tastes like pork. Because eating pork reminded the ancient Jews of cannibalism, the food became taboo.

What does clerical porcophobia have to do with atheism? Well, “In microcosm, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world.” In other words, it’s just one more example of how kooky religious people are.

As in my last post, I have to point out that Hitchens accurately debunks the idea that God forbade the Israelites from eating pork because it was bad for them or because they didn’t know how to cook it properly. He points out that one way archeologists can distinguish between excavations of Jewish ruins and those of other groups is the presence or absence of pig bones. In other words, the other people around Israel ate pork, apparently with no detrimental health effects.

Hitchens argument is a straw man, however, since no Old Testament scholar argues that the prohibition of pork was for health purposes. Leviticus 11:7 NET says, “The pig is unclean to you because its hoof is divided (the hoof is completely split in two), even though it does not chew the cud.” The prohibition is based on hooves and cud-chewing, not on health. Old Testament scholars are still searching for a unifying principle behind the various dietary restrictions of the OT, but the best explanation I have heard is that “oddball” animals were restricted. Shellfish live in water, but they are oddballs because they don’t have scales or fins. Pigs don’t eat cud, but they are oddballs because they have cleft hooves.

Do Judaism and Islam’s “irrational” prohibitions against eating pork prove that religious people are kooky? I don’t think so. How would the typical American react if you invited him or her over for dinner and served dog? Do we have a rational reason for our aversion to canine meat? No. It’s a cultural thing. Everybody recognizes that.

I think God prohibited eating pork as a way of setting the Jewish people apart from the pagans around them. Hitchens acknowledges this function: “[Not eating pork] emerged in primitive Judaea, and was for centuries one of the ways—the other being circumcision—by which Jews could be distinguished.” So, when a young Jewish kid asked mom or dad why they didn’t eat ham with their eggs like their Canaanite neighbors, the parents would respond, “Because we’re different.” All cultures have similar mores and taboos that serve the same function.