Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Book Review: The Case for Faith

While I was on vacation in Oregon and perusing my favorite store in the world, I came across a book, The Case For Faith, by Lee Strobel. I was intrigued by the cover: “A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity.”

I bought the book because each chapter dealt directly with objections that I hear on a nearly daily basis, either from the blogosphere or from my friends, or even from myself. I was curious to see if the book addressed these questions with intellectual rigor, and whether it might be useful for future debates.

Yes and no.

The questions Strobel asks are:

  1. If God exists, why does he permit suffering in the world?
  2. Are there such things as miracles?
  3. Does evolution disprove God?
  4. Why does God kill innocent children?
  5. Is it offensive to say Christianity is the only true religion?
  6. If he's truly a loving, forgiving God, how can there be a hell?
  7. What does the oppressive and violent history of religion say about God?
  8. Can you have faith if you still have doubts?

Admittedly, the book is a Christian apology, and the arguments skew in Christianity’s favor. That’s a perfectly legitimate rhetorical strategy, but it’s not really “journalism.” Pointedly, the experts Strobel interviews are exclusively male, and predominately from the evangelical tradition. A broader diversity of sources would have increased credibility, and, in my opinion, probably the sophistication of the arguments.

Strobel also feels a bizarre compulsion to tell us what each interview subject is wearing. Maybe we are meant to feel more at ease hearing theological arguments from a man “dressed casually in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and deck shoes without socks” than, say, a man in Prada shoes and a pointy hat.

The strongest and most provocative chapters were on suffering, creation, and doubt.

In the first chapter, I found the following points significant: a) man has free will, therefore even if there is a God, most of the world’s suffering is man’s own fault; b) since we generally believe that adversity builds character, wouldn’t a life without suffering be dull and meaningless? c) God wants to ask how you can permit all the suffering and injustice in the world.

The chapters on creation, evolution and miracles expose the hypocrisy of the secular fundamentalists, as they, just like the proponents of intelligent design, draw non-scientific conclusions from scientific research and automatically discount the possibility of God even as they rely on theories of the origin of the universe that are equally statistically improbable. In a wonderful analogy, Walter Bradley suggests that if we were walking down the street and heard a loud explosion and you said, “Hey, what caused that big bang?” and I said, “Nothing, it just happened,” you would rightly assume I’m crazy. This is the proposition that evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins ask us to accept.

Another example: “If you took all the carbon in the universe and put it on the face of the earth, allowed it to chemically react at the most rapid rate possible, and left it for a billion years, the odds of creating just one functional protein molecule would be one chance in a 10 with 60 zeroes after it.” Bill Craig cites Stephen Hawking: “If the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed into a fireball.” Does this prove that there’s a God? Certainly not. But it reveals that atheists are clinging to a possibility (random chance) no less remote than the possibility of God.

Overall, it’s a thought-provoking read, if not wholly convincing. There was one chapter in particular, on the accuracy and reliability of the Bible, that was so weak and ludicrous it will receive its own subsequent post.


Hot Toddy said...

Did you meet my friend "The Professor" when you were here? He is a professor of religion at Reed College.

If not, make sure I introduce you to him next time you're in town. I mean, who doesn't want to meet a hot muscular gorgeous professor of religion?

Andy said...

I don't think I did. But then, you introduced me to so many fabulous people! I keep forgetting to tell my friends that I met a hot bartender who is a Battlestar Galactica fan. That might be reason for them all to move to Portland.

Elizabeth said...

'Kay, I'm trying to focus on your post and read what you're saying. But I'm stuck on this tidbit: Fred Meyer is your favorite store in the whole world? Really? The two or three times I've stepped into that store I've felt tainted. It's like a smaller-chain Super Walmart.

Andy said...

Okay, that was *slightly* tongue in cheek. But if you lived in Manhattan and dealt with our shopping options here (not to mention our customer service...or the customers themselves!) you, too, might find Fred Meyer some kind of beautiful vision of Eden, where everything you need is provided, orderly and in pristine condition. Your fall means you have been banished to the land of bodegas and Duane Reade.

DJRainDog said...

Your fall means you have been banished to the land of bodegas and Duane Reade.

And to think that my fall was the result of my own free will! Would that I might be God's automaton instead!

since we generally believe that adversity builds character

Who's this "we" character? I certainly don't! And that platitude has annoyed me beyond words since childhood.

Andy said...

Of course your fall was your own fault. You didn't appreciate how good you had it at Fred Meyer. You weren't grateful enough for what you had, so you were kicked out into the cruel hard world in order to understand your folly. Or maybe I'm projecting.

Come on, DJ. You don't think we learn anything important about ourselves, our world and our God from difficult situations? Do you think suffering is completely meaningless?

kr said...

Difficult to think suffering is meaningless and be Christian--that whole cross thing becomes rampantly unecessary instead of central to salvation history ;). What a waste of scriptural space, not to mention not too smart of Jesus to have done it!

Producing proteins merely ("merely") takes meteors with the building blocks (they exist, in number--all that carbon, you know) running into our planet--they simulated it in a lab and shocked the hell out of themselves (OK, bad metaphor ;) ), thinking such an impact would, of course, burn the stuff (peptides?) up--but it polymerized, forming protein chains. For those of us who are comfortable with God AND a billions-years universe, How cool is it that God designed THAT?? Love it. Personally, every time a previously "only miraculously possible" thing is explained, I just stand in awe at how incredibly the entire system works together ... how utterly necessary each part is ...

And how frightening that we as a species have historically had so little regard for ourselves as part of the system. Whether God created us or we are an accident, any attempt to separate ourselves from the universe seems so obviously unhealthy! It almost makes me want to be a godess-worshiper, since they often base their beliefs on the we are one with nature thing.

Except that I'm Christian (much to the continuing frustration of fellow one-with-naturist FG ;) ), for pretty much the reasons Andy stated in the previous post.

Dude, I so totally agreed with you about 15 years ago--I actually know an evangelical who felt called by God to wage spiritual battle to cleanse the downtown Beaverton FM (I couldn't set foot in that store); it took like seven years (and other Prayer Warriors working there with her).
About a year before Kroger bought FM out, the bad stuff was mostly cleared up, even in the skanky old ones like the two in N Portland. Since Kroger is literally rebuilding the chain, residual bad mojo is largely being released.
You might give Freddy's another try ;).

In random cultural Fred Meyer news, film PA's, up from Los Angeles, FREAK OUT when they find out about Fred Meyer--you can get like ANYTHING you need, anytime from 7 AM to 11 PM, all at ONE STORE ... !?! (You can hear the freak out there--film PAs are generally hyped on caffeine and Doritos ;). )

Andy, even having only spent three weeks total in NYC, Yes. In your context, FM should be compared to Heaven ;). Now that they have added 1 free hour of kid-sitting, I wish I drank coffee so I could take advantage of the in-store Starbucks!

Andy said...

KR: re the proteins: this book made another good analogy. It's 4:58 and I'm trying to leave work and I can't find it, so correct me if I get this wrong. Proteins are built from amino acids, correct? And in order for the protein to be functional, the amino acids must be correctly sequenced. The chance that an asteroid or meteor containing the correct parts that would somehow coincidentally arrange themselves in the right order forming a functional protein would be like a box of typeset letters crashing to earth, only to spill out forming a coherent sequence the length of a novel.

One of my favorite people I like to defer to on the issue of religion and evolution is Dr. Kenneth Brown, a professor of evolutionary biology (and a Christian) at Brown University. He argues that intelligent design is not science, but says scientists are hardpressed not to admit that the most amazing thing about the universe is that it works!

Anonymous said...

This is a bad book. Almost any book on these subjects, would be better than this book. I guess the reader should know what the person being interviewed, was dressed like at the time of the interview.

little-cicero said...

I had ventured fairly well into this book, and I found it thought-provoking, but as you said, much more slanted to the Christian right relative to The Case For Christ. I actually enjoyed his characterizations of interviewees, unlike anonymous, as it truly gives you a connection with the "characters," Maybe it's because I like to picture myself as such a scholarly intellectual someday, but that really struck me as entertaining as I am fascinated with people.

DJRainDog said...

Actually, I do have to admit that I think most suffering is, in fact, meaningless, and more importantly, avoidable! I won't say that we don't learn anything in the process; certainly, much of my own suffering has been the result of imperfect choices on my part, and I HOPE I've learned from those missteps. I just object to platitudes like "adversity builds character", because that's lazy thinking, and it's far from always true, at least not in terms of the connotation of the word "character". Adversity just makes some people cynical and downright mean, or even criminal. It's been noted by more than one person that it is something of a wonder that I didn't go Harris/Klebold on my own high-school. There but for the Grace of God, good parenting, and better choices...

Andy said...

Hey Steve, thanks for coming by.

Coupla thoughts: actually no, do unto others and other moral standards cannot be explained by evolution because they are absolutely 100% counter-Darwinian. Why, if our sole "purpose" is the propagation of our own genes, would we place so much cultural emphasis on defense of the weak, the oppressed, the marginalized? Why do we care what happens to senior citizens who can no longer contribute to the gene pool? For what reason should I be outraged about Darfur? About Katrina? Why do we regard rape as wrong? After all, if I raped a woman, I increase my chances of keeping my genes in play. What are civil rights? What is the value of an individual if we are all soulless blobs of carbon? I'm sorry, human morality is *distinctly* un-natural.

I'm going to give your first comment more thought for a fuller response.

Andy said...


No, I'll admit I have not read The God Delusion, but I have read and seen several interviews of Dawkins. Frankly, I have to tell you, I am not so generously inclined as to give a lot of credence to someone who claims atheism innocently in the name of objectivity while loudly insisting -- on the cover of a book, no less -- that I am deluded. I prefer more civil discourse.

A few rebuttals to your comment:

the God question can be answered with science and probability

Well, this presumes that faith and science are not complementary, and I think they are. Science and faith are not the same thing, but nor are they forces in opposition. I think your assertion that the probability for God must be equal to or greater than the probability against God is rather arbitrary. By whose rules? The probability that our universe would develop exactly as it has is infinitesimal; since you cannot prove that there isn't a God, objectively you must therefore concede the possibility of God, and the probability of God, I would say, is at least equal to or greater than the probability that our universe developed exactly as it did by random chance.

a theory which is wholly untestable and unprovable

Untestable and unprovable by scientific methods, yes. But nonetheless not unknowable or undetectable. To understand why God is not scientifically provable, you must look to Christian thinking on free will, which I would attempt to explain here, but it would take up a lot of space. I have addressed it in past posts, if you care to go through my archives, as you invited me to do for you.

From an objective perspective, one faith is just as "believable" as any other faith...

Now, that's not true at all. I believe there are very few faith traditions which can withstand the intellectual scrutiny that has been applied to -- and indeed, is a part of -- Christianity.

so long as the believer is willing to abandon empirical evidence to get to said belief

What empirical evidence am I abandoning? If you have empirical evidence -- other than your improbable probability argument -- that there is no God, please share it.

Everything in our universe has developed through a series of small incremental steps

Except for, notably, the creation of the universe itself.

Your generalization doesn't hold completely true for evolution, though, either.

the argument that a God answers the question of "why?" is wrong on its face as it presupposes the existence of a "why."

Yes, I would agree with you insofar as I do, in fact, believe there is a "why." But I think you go a little far -- relying on "empirical evidence" as you claim to do -- in insisting my position is "wrong."

Andy said...

One further question on "why": you may not care, and that's okay (I guess). But I am curious as to why inanimate chemicals ordered themselves in such a way as to ultimately create beings who were capable of contemplating their own origin.

Andy said...

Everything in our universe has developed through a series of small incremental steps

OH, and meant to add, so what? It's not conceivable that this was part of the intention? Why does God have to have created the universe in the manner in which you or Richard Dawkins think makes the most sense or is most logical?

kr said...

Andy: Steve's comment: missing?

DJR: Yep, have to admit "Adversity builds character" is like saying "Having kids will help your marriage"--um, it will "help" you do even MORE of whatever you most naturally trend to, or "build" whaterver delightful character you were already working on ; P.

During the assisted suicide debates here in Oregon, I grokked the extent to which suffering is not seen to have any inherent value--not even any potentially inherent value--by lots of people, especially by non-theists, but by some theists (mostly from the feel-good churches), too. Just lke Andy's "do unto others" reply (so much more coherent than my version a couple of weeks ago--plus, Andy didn't swear ;) ), intense suffering makes no sense to the individual organism, if means exist to make it stop and there is no perceived evolutionary advantage to continuing to live with it. (Evolutionary advantage can include things like taking care of offspring, or offspring of the group, or being the sacrifical victim when the wolves come howling so the healthier members stay alive--I am not a big supporter of absolute individualism, which I don't see evidence for in nature, but only in anti-nature environments like modern culture.)

That said, if a person doesn't have access to the divine or a really good psychological therapist, suffering, especially intense suffering, is observably rarely redemptive : P.

Andy said...

Whoa, yeah...that's odd, KR, his comments just removed themselves. How sad. He made strong arguments and I made an attempt to respond. I would repost, because I thought his comments were completely worthy of discussion and consideration, but obviously that's Steve's call.

Andy said...

Oh, crappity crud, I am a dufus.

Steve actually posted his comments to a previous post. I just got them via email and assumed they applied to this post -- which actually they sort of do. Ooopsie.

DJRainDog said...

Andy: Steve's comments were actually on your posting about Dawkins's Silly Science. Go look in your archives. (Problem with Blogger: Sometimes doesn't tell you on which post people commented. People comment on my posts months late, sometimes, and I have to sort the comments by post, rather than by date.)

kr: Wow, I've missed you. And yes, you're right; it sometimes takes faith in the Divine or good psychotherapy to get one through intense suffering. I thought after posting that comment, though, that my REAL problem with "adversity builds character"-type statements is that I feel they fall in line with, "It's not our place to question God's purpose"-type statements. I think Andy and I both agree that it IS our place to question God's purpose, if only to figure out how we can, through our (potentially unpleasant) experiences, best fulfill it. That's why such a platitude caught my eye (yea, even like unto a fish-hook). Oh, and by the way, the more I think about my referencing of Pascal's Wager, yes, that was lazy thinking, too, and I should have acknowledged it as the snarky Devil's-advocate knee-jerk reaction that it was.

Steve said...

Andy: Some brief comments.

Altruism can, in fact, be explained through Darwism through a method called group evolution (this is, I attest, a hotly debated subject). This theory applies natural selection to entire groups of socialized species, in that, through developing behaviors that increase the survivability of the group, the group's overall survivability increases, which increases the survivability of the individuals within the group. Altruism falls under the category of behaviors that increase the survivability of a group.

You're right, altruism goes against individual selfish survival; this is why it takes a special effort to give without receiving. It is our societaly-inflicted morals (brought about through group evolution) that encourage individuals to sacrifice and give without receiving.

Also, a side point: recipricol altruism is slightly different than pure altruism in that it expects something in return down the line, which is, in fact, in line with Darwinism.

On the slow incremental steps: there is no evidence that the universe did not come into being in slow incremental steps. Many hold (Hawking) that the universe is slowly and incrementally expanding and extracting in an eternal cycle, leading to an infinite amount of "big bangs" throughout its existence. While our theories on the subject are not wholly provable at this point, that is not a good reason to start pointing towards a higher power. This line of reasonings is commonly referred to as the "God of the Gaps" argument, in which people point to holes in scientific knowledge and claim them as God's domain. This used to be used to explain the rising and setting of the sun, creation of human beings, etc. As science fills in the gaps, God of the Gaps proponents look for more gaps to fill with God. This is generally unnecessary and leads to stagnation as opposed to discovery, something which I think we can both concede is a negative development.

On Christianity: I'm not truly clear on what you mean by intellectual scrutiny, as most of the "christian" movements into science and logic have been largely discounted. Intelligent design comes to mind. The "intellectual" aspects of Christianity often sound more like creative explanations for an ultimately unreasonable point of view. For example: it is unreasonable to view the "sacrifice" of Jesus Christ as a true sacrifice. Afterall, he is an eternal being who created the heavens and the earth. For an eternal being, a mere 33 years as a human is not even a blip on the radar. The two days of beatings that he underwent were not extraordinary for the time, as many people had to undergo the same amount of pain. If 33 years is short on an eternal time scale, consider the inconsequentiality of a couple of days! All of this, mind you, with the full knowledge that he would return to heaven in a short period of time to resume his reign as the eternal God in paradise. That doesn't seem very hard, yet we are supposed to devote our lives towards thanking him for it.

Also, why come down in the first place? If he is in fact an omniscient, omnipresent, benevolent being, why not simply decide to forgive? Why create and impose restrictions on yourself? And then there is the concept of "orginial sin," in which human beings exist in a state of sinfullness simply for the crime of existing. Or was it the crime committed by Adam? Adam, of cours, is widely held as a metaphor by any scientifically-minded Christians.

So let me get this straight (and this is a paraphrase from Dawkins): God acted as the judge, jury, and execution victim in attonement for a sin committed by a metaphor. Try to intellectually scrutinize that!

On morals: all of the examples you listed (rape, etc.) are considered wrong for a multitude of reasons, none of which can be traced to the Bible or a particular religious belief. The purpose of my arguing this is to prove that morals are a part of the human fiber, and not bestowed upon us by faith or a particular religion. There are countless passages in the Bible condoning truely horrific deeds as moral (murder, rape, genocide).

Human beings are social animals, similar to chimpanzees or wolves. We survive strictly because of our fellow human beings; put a man alone in the wilderness naked and he will almost certainly die (though amazing stories exist to the contrary). Put him in the wilderness with 10 other men and women and they will survive (though some stories may exist to the contrary). This is because our main evolutionary advancement (communication / intelligence) is useless without other people to aid us. If we rape or kill or lie, this reduces the liklihood that others will want to help or work with us, which decreases the individual's chance of coppulating and contributing to the gene pool. Thus, recipricol altruism has always been encouraged in human animals.

Our socialization has increased to such an extent through written word and codified rules and laws that morality has become a focus of study and debate. We have defined, refined, and redefined morallity as species so many different times throughout so many different societies, and we are still not getting it right. Your questions are good ones: what are civil rights? What is equality? How about affirmative action? The fact that there are still questions about morality, to me, proves that we do not have an objective source in the sky or in the Bible to turn to. Instead, we are attempting to refine our concept of morality through thought and contemplation.

Also, looking throughout history, it generally tends to be the most religious societies that commit the greatest atrocities. Look at Europe in the Middle Ages (Spanish Inquisition, for example) adn the Middle East now. The reason for this is that the Bible and Koran are such poor moral guides. Now consider the most secular societies (Denmark, Sweden, etc.); they generally tend to be significantly more moral. This merely furthers my argument that morals are not derived from the Bible or Koran or any objective source in the sky; if they were, we would all understand morals better, and more religious societies woudl be more moral.

Empirical evidence: nobody can prove or disprove anything, so that is a tough argument to make. All you can do is look at the evidence and try to make an objective decision. While there is no evidence to disprove God, there is evidence to disprove specific religious teachings (creation vs. evolution). All a nonbeliever can argue against is the Bible and specific teachings, and I think we're doing a pretty good job.

I'm really enjoying this debate, and look forward to your response!

Elizabeth said...

Andy, I think you just need to move back to Portland. There are much cooler stores than Fred Meyer, and much more fun to shop in! And KR--I've only lived here a year. The very first time I stepped into one was while we were here looking for a house to rent. I had heard such good things! And we were so disappointed! That said, we are moving on Monday to a house we've bought that's just, like, two blocks from the North Portland Fred Meyers. I can foresee sending my kids over there to get stuff I've forgotten, since they can walk there. And probably some late-night shopping there will also occur.

kr said...

DJR: hey, loverboy, I've missed you too ;). I'm on an even keel this week, thought I'd participate before I veer off again.
d'ja read my random thoughts on that archived post? thought you might like them :).
I knew you weren't a Pascal-ite really. 's why I toned down my initial response when I typed that one ;).

YAY! Another thinker! Love it.

group evolution
see, and you even note right there that it is hotly debated. That rocks. (My comments on assisted suicide, above, of course reflect my perception that group evolution makes reasonable sense to me.)

"Do unto": From your post on the archived blog: It is an expression of an innate human condition of reciprical altruism, and not a "law" created by God.

I still stand by my assertion there, though, that "do unto others," while lots of more-enlightened folks might have constructed it in lots of different places (thank goodness--if you'll excuse the expression ;) ), is not observably a common human behavior in history or what little we can suss out of pre-history.

Essential to our survival as a species? Yep, it's looking like it. We haven't been terribly successful at inculcating this apparently necessary teaching, though, which suggests that even if it is a "natural" development of evolution (via social development and our powers of analysis), we are naturally rejecting it in favor of less-effective survival tactics. Sux to be us. (Laughably, perhaps there is here somewhere an argument for the usefulness of some religion, as religion seems to be the only vehicle via which people accept that teaching in any large numbers!)

Totally agree with it being somehow inherent ("innate") in being "human;" not so much seeing that we own it by physical-natural means. (Natural means other than physical, maybe ... but science is pointedly ignoring those this last couple of centuries, so we'll have to wait and see.) Observing and giving a fancy name to a (hopefully) universal pattern does not mean you (or Dawkins) understand it, any more than our calling it a gift from God means we understand it. (I'd be surprised if Andy would call it primarily a Law of God--I would only do so in the sense that I consider laws of physics to be laws of God.)

"Do unto" seems to have been applied fairly successfully within self-defined groups (tribe, family, nation, "race") but not generally--not naturally, not instinctively, not intuitively--to all of humanity. Hence Jesus' Good Samaritan parable, and I'm sure other similar teachings in other traditions (I make no argument that Christians have a monopoly on enlightenment, and in fact assume, with my church and the Pope, that we don't).

Within the Bible we can clearly trace some moral developments, and I don't remember reading about other cultures where "do unto" wasn't a _development_. (It's been awhile since I've had time, but I used to read a lot of archaeological stuff.) I suspect that's the very reason we find it recorded in so many places--it was worth recording, needed to be "taught."

You see the vehicle as some especially (naturally) analytical people seeing a necessary survival step and trying to teach/impose it. I see that a lot of smart well educated people here in this culture (where we theoretically need not fear death as much as all previous peoples everywhere ever), still don't think this is an important--nay, vital--tenet. (Say, all the Cheney-type Republicans, just for the most obvious group.)

If one believes in God (and I strenuously object to your assertion that one must deny empirical evidence to so believe--my empirical experince would suggest quite the opposite, but then not everyone has shared my experience*), it is not unreasonable that God helped things along a bit in the interest of mitigating the degree of destruction we would visit upon ourselves before the teaching became self-evident.

* Insanity is sometimes seeing things that are not there--and it's sometimes denying things that are. One of my favorite sayings: Reality is that which does not change, even if you want it to. ;).

kr said...

Elizabeth--Ah, well, can't win 'em all. Guess it's a good thing you weren't here fifteen years ago ;)!

NoPo, no kidding? We've been here six years, probably moving this summer tho'. (Fourth kid = bigger house and better schools needed.) Interstate Freddies is WAY better than St Johns; not sure which you'll live next to. COngrats on your new house, may you see the 100% appreciation we have seen on ours, while enjoying living in it ;).

Andy said...

Oof. A big problem, of course, in defending faith from skeptics is that the nonbelievers have a large arsenal of significant arguments; the responses are necessarily complex to the extent that in order to full answer this barrage of concerns I would have to write something that, at a minimum, would span several pages in order to avoid oversimplification. Nonetheless, I will attempt, as before, to refute at least a couple of your points here. Most effectively, if you really want to have this conversation, then I hope you'll stick around and continue to read me and raise each point as they (will inevitably) apply to future posts, and focus on one issue at a time.

So, here we go:

It is our societaly-inflicted morals (brought about through group evolution) that encourage individuals to sacrifice and give without receiving.

Bizarre choice of words. You think that selflessness is something that has been inflicted upon the world by religion (as a social phenomenon related to evolution)? Well, then, that sounds to me like a good argument that even if there isn't a God, religion has brought important and beneficial values to our world.

recipricol altruism is slightly different than pure altruism in that it expects something in return down the line

Well, then it's not altruism. Period. Let's say I gave money and wrote letters to congress urging action on the situation in Darfur. What is it, exactly, that I could expect the Sudanese refugees to ever do for me in return? I'm not following you here. Furthermore, the Gospel condemns this reciprocity you're talking about: it is more blessed to give than to receive, among other tenets.

On the origins of the universe, you seem to be mistaking Christian fundamentalism for mainstream Christian theology, which is an enormous objective error. You seem to be under the impression that if the creation of the world as stated by Genesis is untrue (which it is, in a literal sense), then everything that follows is untrue, but this is specious reasoning, not least because -- as you later point out -- most Christians regard Genesis as metaphorical. (Even so, I might add three things: the ancient Hebrews of 3,000 years ago could not possibly have comprehended the origin of the universe as we understand it today; the Bible was not intended to be a biology textbook; of all the earth's creation myths, this one is actually closest to what really happened).

Likewise, this "God of the Gaps" idea is utilized only by Christians who fear critical thinking and the atheists who fear them. One of my favorite quotes that I use frequently on this blog is, "We get nowhere by labeling our ignorance God." My argument is not: you can't explain the origin of the Big Bang, therefore the cause must be God. My argument is simply, as I said before, since you cannot disprove the existence of God, you must objectively accept the possibility of God, and the probability of such existence is no less unlikely that the universe developed in any of the ways you suggest, especially since, as you admit, our theories on the subject are not wholly provable at this point. I am merely pointing out that you are holding people of faith to a higher standard of probability than you hold yourself.

The intellectual traditions of Christianity to which I refer tend to the philosophical, rather than laboratory science. Augustine, Aquinas, Bonhoeffer, CS Lewis, Da Vinci, Galileo...these are not mental lightweights. There is reality beyond the empirical.

Speaking of CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity I seem to recall he had a really good explanation for why the crucifixion was not as "easy" or pointless for God as you suggest. I'll have to brush up on that.

Why did he come down at all? Well, you may claim that morality is merely a product of evolution, and they may in fact be universally shared values, but as reader KR pointed out a few posts back, the teachings of Christ -- most especially "do unto others" -- sure don't seem very intuitive when you look around at the world in which we live. Frankly, I think the better argument to make is that the Darwinian survivalist instincts are what lead us to acts of depravity, and that religion counters those instincts by teaching respect for our fellow inhabitants of creation that otherwise would not exist. Do unto others may be a universal value or aspiration, but it's not even remotely a common practice.

You misunderstand original sin, which is not a surprise since most Christians do, too. Original sin is not sex or "mere existence," but this belief that we do not need a God, least of all in order to determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, that there is no objective morality. You say rape is wrong and point to heartless Darwinian arguments about the survival of a species; I say rape is wrong because I believe that each person is special and sacred, and that sexual intimacy is special and sacred, and to violate both individual and sexual sanctity with violence is an objective moral error, and not merely because there are practical arguments as to why that might be bad for the social group.

There are countless passages in the Bible condoning truely horrific deeds

Ehhh....yes and no. Christianity is based on the Gospel, which in no wise condones violence of any kind. Now, presumably you're referring to the Old Testament. History, as we know, is written by the victors. Much of the Old Testament is the "official" history of the rulers; I subscribe to the idea that kings like David had the histories written this way to justify their accession and their wars as "God's will." If you read the New Testament, you see why these acts could not possibly have been God's will. *That* largely answers your question about why Jesus even had to come at all: we were getting God SERIOUSLY wrong. (And we still are, but now we have less excuse in that the Gospel is there for all to read.)

we are attempting to refine our concept of morality through thought and contemplation.

Yup. Christians are still doing that. Contemplation is a synonym for prayer. To take one issue: homosexuality. Many Christians -- myself included -- are advancing scripturally based arguments in favor of the essential perfection of God's creation (including innate sexual orientation) and the sanctity and value of all humanity. Millions of Christians in a variety of denominations are now advocating a Biblical case for the equality of gay people and relationships; Conservative Judaism is doing the same, following in the footsteps of Reform Judaism, in which homosexuality is no longer much of an issue. Remember also that the greatest American civil rights hero of the 20th century was a minister who demanded Christians take a fresh look at Scripture with regard to racism and slavery.

it generally tends to be the most religious societies that commit the greatest atrocities

Objectively not so. The 20th century was the most violent of all; the greatest atrocities were committed by the USSR (enforced atheism) and Nazi Germany (which, contrary to popular rumor, did not exterminate Jews because of religious conviction but rather based on the advancement of "scientific" evidence of their racial inferiority; Hitler imprisoned and executed many Christians who stood against him).

That's not to deny the criminality and amorality of the crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, etc. But to say Christianity is to blame is to not understand what the Gospel says. These acts were a perversion of Christ's teaching. They are not defensible. They were not Christian acts. Condemn the moral failures of Christians as individuals, but you can't condemn Christianity for condoning the behavior because, in fact, it does not.

there is evidence to disprove specific religious teachings (creation vs. evolution) Now, as an Episcopalian, I belong to the second largest Christian denomination in the world, after Catholicism. My church does not teach "creation vs evolution."

Andy said...

mxnbgiMy church does not teach "creation vs evolution."

I decided, even after this horrendously long post that no one except KR, *maybe* Raindog and hopefully Steve are still reading, that this needed further explanation in order for me to be clear what I meant.

In the Anglican Church, we are not really hung up on the literal infallibility of scripture. Episcopalians like myself believe the lessons we are to take from Genesis are not meant to be scientific.

kr said...

Steve: intellectual scrutiny

In Western culture, most universities and schools were founded by the Christians you accuse of not being comforatble with intellectual scrutiny. More to the point, they were founded and justified because of the firm Christian belief in a rational God, who created a rational world, which can be at least partly discovered with our rational minds.

This is a belief that I COMPLETELY admit lots of Christians (historically and currently) either never understood or prefer not to bother with--but it is implied in all of the internicene theological bickering that even the least scientifically rational Christians seem to love. There are sects of Christians for whom "belief" is "enough" ... until they discover that (of course) it ISN'T, and they have nothing to fall back on when challenged by an experience they (/their cult) cannot intellectually account for.

In any case, all that not-very-solid thinking
1) makes better "news"-fodder (riles up the masses on both sides, sells papers)
2) is generally based on emotional need-to-believe, and so yes, is often clearly anti-rational or at least less-rational
3) is often firmly supported by one's social group, making seeing the other side much harder

Andy and I both grew up in an intellectual environment not supportive of our (really quite separate, although the differences rarely emerge here) belief systems, and live in intellectual environments that are generally hostile towards our belief systems (he, Manhattan, I, urban Portland, Oregon).

Intellectual scrutiny, speaking for myself, is all I have ever lived with--imposed by situation, chosen when I chose my friends (and unthinking Catholics are NOT among the people I've ever preferred to hang out with), chosen when I run up against morally challenging situations, chosen when I see a new aspect of my life that is an assumption rather than a chosen belief. Chosen because my parents graduated from Caltech, and one is atheist and one is theist. Chosen because I, and many people (both theist and non-) that I know personally or know of, "see" a lot of stuff that "science" generally refuses to look at.

Intellectual scrutiny goes both ways. I have friends who have told me that they hold the possibility of spiritual reality open only because they were effectively challenged by me--and at risk of sounding stuck up (in fact this is only the truth, and one which I am even still uncomfortable with), these friends and I are the among the creamiest of the intellectual cream of the crop.

Christian intellectual scrutiny of the types you might respect tends to be long, technical, and terribly boring to anyone not interested in the point at hand. It makes horrible "news" and is practically unquotable. Like all solid academic intellectual scrutiny, actually, which rides with so many caveats and endnotes that any short blurb almost has to misrepresent the whole work. ('Love those articles where the "abstract" takes up most of a page : P. Be a lot easier if one could just say, "Proves 1 + 1 = 2," without having to mention what takes up the 568 pages or whatever it was when somebody finally did that in the 80s.)

kr said...

So let me get this straight (and this is a paraphrase from Dawkins): God acted as the judge, jury, and execution victim in attonement for a sin committed by a metaphor. Try to intellectually scrutinize that!

Y'know, Steve, the thing of it is, we HAVE been trying to intellectually scrutinize that for as long as it has been part of our history. Doesn't make sense; lots of Christians have noted that; it's inscrutibility is the source of the troubling "just believe" thoughtset.

And yet, an awful lot of the witnesses to Jesus were willing to live inglorious lives of hardship and social revilement and die horrible deaths because something he said or did convinced them he was worth that, and they were so believable that literally thousands of others followed them, and thousands more followed them. Can't say humans are always rational, but that's a little over the top on the irrational-belief scale, don't you think? At least suicide bombers have the assumption that their society will laud them and that their suffering will be brief.

(Obviously after Christianity became Establishment the question gets less pertinent--but then, generally the believing got less adamant, too.)

kr said...

Catholic dogma does not include six day creation, as was clarified specifically by that well-known paragon of progressive teaching, John Paul II. (Actually, in many ways, he was a paragon of progressive teaching, but yes that was tongue-in-cheek ;). )

And Catholic dogma includes inerrancy but not literalism. Steve, I am SOOOOO not going to get into that, catholic.com probably has some shortish coherent articles available if you care, most people don't.

kr said...

Spanish Inquisition: not generally supported by the rest of Christian Europe (in fact condemned by lots of folks, in and out of the heirarchy). People actually shared tricks for ending up in the church courts instead of the King's courts, because they were far more lenient (being inherently less interested in ethinic cleansing and power consolidation).

Andy answered the religious-badness vs. a-religious badness question. (20th c sucked.)

Andy said...

Christian intellectual scrutiny of the types you might respect tends to be long, technical, and terribly boring to anyone not interested in the point at hand. It makes horrible "news" and is practically unquotable.

I'm SO quoting that later. Well done.

Future Geek said...

actually no, do unto others and other moral standards cannot be explained by evolution because they are absolutely 100% counter-Darwinian. Why, if our sole "purpose" is the propagation of our own genes, would we place so much cultural emphasis on defense of the weak, the oppressed, the marginalized?

The study of ecology suggests that community is a vital to the health of ecosystems. A forest ecosystem is one big cooperative community. Trees produce sugars through photosynthesis and take nutrients from the soil. Fungi take the sugars from the trees and produce the nutrients. Animals eat the fruit of the tree and spread the seeds. Insects and microbes aid in the process of decay, returning nutrients to the soil, etc. etc.

It is a fallacy to assume that evolution means some sort of endless struggle for domination. There are struggles, death, decay and destruction, but they generally fit into a much bigger picture of birth, death, and renewal.

As for human community, it makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective to be cooperative. Our species would not survive if we did not take care of our most vulnerable: children. Our children are basically defenseless for years, longer than any other mammal, so it makes sense that we would evolve bigger brains and friendly communities to take care of them. With the bigger brains would come language, religion, and morality.

Dagon said...

"Hey, what caused that God?"

"Nothing, He just happened."

"You're crazy."

Andy said...

Dagon sweetie, God, being eternal, does not have a "beginning" and therefore does not require a "cause."

Andy said...

Re: morality and cooperation, are you trying to get me to insist that these things could only have arisen because of God? I wouldn't say that. This is not as strong an argument as you apparently think it is, because the possibility that morality is arose from and was key to evolutionary development does not mean God was not involved somehow.

kr said...

OH! I remember the other thing I wanted to address.

Now consider the most secular societies (Denmark, Sweden, etc.); they generally tend to be significantly more moral.

1) secularism based on rationalism based on the assumption of a rational God (Denmark and Sweden being,you know, mythologically cultural hotbeds of rationality--not! ... some credit for the transition from Thor et al to secularism probably due here)

2) none of us will know for sure until (if there is a God+afterlife) after we die, but if abortion in fact is a moral evil (a killing of the most innocent and defenseless humans, rather than a convenient service for older humans), these societies? Not so high on the moral scale. Euthanasia, also becoming more accepted in Western cultures, also something to be considered ... we maybe just have much more subtle ways of being evil, cloaked in the excuses of secular scientism rather than in ugly religious justifications.

It's alll self-serving.

little-cicero said...

You do know that in these morally superior countries they are carrying out "euthanasia" on the mentally deformed, in addition to horrendous abortion rates, promiscuity, prostitution and sexual sin. Looking at Great Britain, their violent crime rates in large cities areas bad as or worse than American cities.

All in all it is hard to calculate the condition of souls on a society-wide scale, but in my judgement that comment is completely out of sync with reality.

Andy said...

Little Cicero, these social ills you point to are universally at their highest rates in America in the Bible Belt red states.

Steve said...

Abortion is a tough one because there is no exact distinction between "clump of cells" and "human being." Euthanasia, however, is a different story entirely. What could possibly be immoral about reduction of suffering, especially if the victim chose the service themselves? My aim in life is simple: reduce suffering. If this involves allowing a suffering person a merciful and painless way out, then so be it. Prolonging the inevitable is, in my opinion, simply torture.

This is what is mildly annoying to me about many religious viewpoints; they have a way of twisting seemingly rational things into immoral acts. Read: stem cell research, homosexual tolerance, euthanasia, etc. None of these instances involve any actual suffering; in every case, they involve the reduction of suffering. Whenever you convince a large amount of people of the facts that a) believing for the sake of believing with absolutely no evidence is a virtue and b) the word of God is final, you have just created an incredibly dangerous group of people. Read: extremist muslims, anti-gay marriage proponents, the bombing of abortion clinics, etc.

Future Geek said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Future Geek said...

the possibility that morality is arose from and was key to evolutionary development does not mean God was not involved somehow.

But it does mean that he might not have been, thus, human morality is not proof of god. It could easily have evolved as a survival mechanism, without any divine intervention.

Andy said...

FG: I never said it was, though there are some (CS Lewis, for example) who make strong arguments.

Why are we still talking about proof or the lack thereof? The lack of proof one way or another means that God remains an objective possibility.

Steve: Well, again you raise incredibly complex issues that just can't be satisfactorily answered in a couple of short sentences. Suffice it to say, people of faith are not in universal agreement about stem cells, euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, etc. Most of us are wrestling with it just like everyone else. Case in point: in today's NY Times, there's one story about Christian conservatives up in arms over Mary Cheney's baby and another about how Conservative Judaism will now approve gay rabbis and same-sex (but not interfaith) marriage.

Elizabeth said...

KR--it's the Interstate FM we'll be next to. And we've already, at closing, got about 25% equity--it appraised at 64k over what we're paying for it! We are jazzed. And we homeschool so we don't worry about schools. :-)

4th child? Expecting now? Congrats! (But I'm glad to be out of the small-child phase!)

Steve said...

Hah, sorry for the complexity (again) Andy! It seems to be a bad habit of mine.

I look forward to future posts (and debates!)

Andy said...

Oh, Steve, never ever apologize for complexity. If only more people had complex questions and were willing to hang around for complex answers.

kr said...

Elizabeth--Nice! Yes, we had some equity at closing, too ... it's a beautiful thing.
Yes, #4 on the way.
Homeschooling: that's great! I considered it, but after having fifth and sixthtoughts decided I hadn't the energy ;).