April 27, 2012

“Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy.”

G. K. Chesterton


The Chinese Discover what Western Secular Leftists Have Forgotten

March 27, 2012

I recently finished reading Civilization: The West and the Rest by influential Oxford historian Niall Ferguson. It details the six ‘killer apps’ that have allowed the West to flourish while other civilizations stagnated or retreated. He cites Competition, Science, Property, Medicine, Consumption, and Work as being integral to the West’s success. In his chapter on Work (as in other chapters) Ferguson chronicles how important Christianity is to the work ethic of the West – and he reports the fact that some in China have come to appreciate this fact:

After much hesitation, at least some of China’s communist leaders now appear to recognize Christianity as one of the West’s greatest sources of strength. According to one scholar from the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences:

“We were asked to look into what accounted for the…pre-eminence of the West all over the world…At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of the social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

Another academic, Zhuo Xinping, has identified the ‘Christian understanding of transcendence’ as having played ‘a very decisive role in people’s acceptance of pluralism in society and politics in the contemporary West’:

“Only by accepting this understanding of transcendence as our criterion can we understand the real meaning of such concepts as freedom, human rights, tolerance, equality, justice, democracy, the rule of law, universality, and environmental protection.”

Though I don’t find this assessment of the West’s success the least bit surprising (I have frequently made such claims myself) I found it quite surprising to see that China, which has been officially atheistic for over sixty years, would make the same assessment. Maybe it takes experiencing the emptiness of atheism to appreciate the way Christianity propels human flourishing.

Craig On Hawking

December 6, 2011

Good (albeit lengthy) discussion by William Lane Craig on about Stephen Hawking and his claims about the supposed death of God and philosophy:

Needless to say, Craig demonstrates that both God and philosophy are alive and well.

The Evisceration of Our Moral Sensibilities

December 6, 2011

There is an interesting article in Education Forum a publication of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, The author Dr. Stephen Anderson reports the reaction of students in his class when he shared with them the details of the case of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan woman was mutilated by her in-laws for fleeing her abusive husband. Time magazine had done a cover story on her, featuring her horrifically scarred face absent a nose on the cover.

When Dr. Anderson presented this to his students in his senior philosophy class during a discussion on making moral judgments he made a startling discovery – the students couldn’t bring themselves to criticize Bibi’s mutilators:

But I was not prepared for their reaction. I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture. They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no conscious-ness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

As a teacher, I had to do something. Like most teachers, I felt uncomfortable with becoming too directive in moral matters; but in this case, I could not see how I could avoid it. I wondered, “How can kids who have been so thoroughly basted in the language of minority rights be so numb to a clear moral offense?” Where are all those “character traits” we inculcate to address their moral formation? You know them — empathy, caring, respect, courage—the wording may vary among boards, but we all know the script.

My class was “character developed” and had all the “traits” in place. They were honest – very frank in their views. They had empathy — extending it in equal measure to Aisha and to the demented subculture that sliced her up. They were accepting — even of child mutilation. And they persevered — no matter how I prodded they did not leave their nonjudgmental position. I left that class shaking my head. It seemed clear to me that for some students—clearly not all — the lesson of character education initiatives is acceptance of all things at all costs. While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”

Any many ways this incident shows the vacuity of what passes for secular morality. I am often told by atheists that ‘morals’, such as they are, are a product of our natural inclination to feel empathy and our evolutionary tendency toward cooperation – but as Dr. Anderson notes, neither of those traits is particularly ‘moral’ in and of itself. Absent a truly objective moral framework such traits could just as easily result in the moral weakness we see pictured above. True moral courage requires a clear ability to ascribe inherent value to individuals and a sense of confidence in the right based on transcendent eternal values. Those values can be derived from the teachings of Christ, but they cannot be derived from either nature or mere reason – and it is increasingly clear the ongong secularization of our culture is eviscerating the moral sensibilities of our children.

Transcendent Truths – The Image of God

November 9, 2011

One criticism I have occasionally faced is that I am a mere critic of atheism (particularly from the viewpoint of skepticism of material and natural explanations) and that I don’t actually attempt to defend the truths of Christianity. There are several reasons for this; one of the main reasons being that my time is limited and I have to pick my battles, the main battle currently being addressing the claims of the New Atheists. Another reason is as a former agnostic and skeptic of religion I see clearly the intellectual weaknesses of materialism, naturalism and scientism that inform modern atheism. And to be completely frank it is simply so easy to point out the internal contradictions of New Atheist claims that doing so is as irresistible as spiking a volleyball that has been gently lobbed at few inches above the net. One can barely help but to swat it back into the other court.

Nonetheless I have become increasingly interested in the Christian truths that promote human flourishing. The reality is that Christianity has given, and continues to give a better foundation for human health, wealth and lasting happiness than any other system of belief (or lack of belief). The importance of Christian values is evident in the history of Western culture and it’s even more evident when Christianity is absent from a culture. I have decided to call this category Transcendent Truths a place where I will occasionally consider a truth from Scripture or Christian tradition that has transformed our society and the way we live.

Perhaps the primary transcendent truth derived from Scripture has to do with the concept of Imago Dei – or the ‘Image of God’. It is a concept that comes to Christianity through Judaism, specifically from the book of Genesis:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
–  Genesis 1:26 – 27 

From this text, some aspects of what it means to be made in ‘the image of God’ are obvious. We are the dominant creatures on the planet, we have a responsibility for nature and we are unique amongst the planet creatures in not merely being biological, but also reflecting the immaterial nature of God. Other aspects also seem apparent – that we have reason, that we have a moral will or conscience, that we have spiritual natures. But where this has a practical consideration in Scripture has to do with our inherent worth – that we have a value that transcends our mere biology our physicality. This becomes apparent when God communicates to Moses the first law in Genesis 9:6

 Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man.
–  Genesis 9:6 

For Christians, the relationship between human worth and the image of God is even more direct. The teachings of Jesus make a clear connection between how believers treat ‘the least’ – the poor, the stranger, the physically ill and their association with Jesus Himself.

 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
–  Matthew 25:35 – 40 

Whether or not one believes God exists or gave humans moral precepts is irrelevant to understanding the essential importance of these texts. From these doctrines grows a clear foundation for the belief that all persons are worthy of preservation and protection. Some might consider this a universal human value, but it is important to note that historically that hasn’t been the case for most cultures. For most of human history the prevailing value has been a casual indifference to human life. Whether we consider slavery or wars of choice to advance power or wealth or merely indifference to the basic needs of others, the overwhelming inclination of humans is to treat others not according to a measure of inherent value but according to one’s or one’s groups own needs or desires.

The major shift in this thinking came with the introduction of Christianity to the pagan world. Infused with the Jewish idea of the image of God which was reinforced by the teachings of Jesus, the morality of early Christians stood in stark contrast to the pagan world around them. As C. Ben Mitchell, Professor of Bioethics and Contemporary Culture relates in his essay on the impact of the Christian notion of human worth, Legatees of a Great Inheritance: How the Judeo-Christian Tradition Has Shaped the West, Christianity immediately had an impact on human rights in the Roman world in a number of different ways – from the treatment of infants, the elderly and slaves to dissension from the gladiator culture. As Christianity spread and influenced the West its values spread with it, by ebbs and flows like an endless series of waves which slowly shapes a beach.

And the influence of this concept was influential long after the inception of the early church. A derivation was encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence when the American Founders argued that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

It was carried further in the work of the abolitionists who opposed race based slavery. A snapshot is seen in the dissent of Justice McLean from the notorious Dred Scot opinion when he claimed:

A slave is not a mere chattel. He bears the impress of his Maker, and is amenable to the laws of God and man, and he is destined to an endless existence.

It was the motivation for people like G.K. Chesterton when he voiced one of the few objections to eugenics laws which were to later inform the destructive racial policies of Nazi Germany:

“If man is not a divinity, then he is a disease. Either he is the image of God, or else he is the one animal which has gone mad.”
–  G.K. Chesterton.[72] – George J. Marlin and Richard P. Rabatin. “G.K. Chesterton and Eugenics.” Fidelity Magazine, June 1990, pages 33 to 43.

And this idea of Imago Dei was reiterated powerfully several decades later by Martin Luther King Jr. as spoke about the importance of the image of God when considering the civil rights of African Americans:

You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. “The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected.  Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God.  And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity.  And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God…  We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.

– Martin Luther King, from his speech, “The American Dream” Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965.

And this concept continues to motivate Christian’s work to protect and preserve the poor and the powerless, from leading the fight against human trafficking, to saving children in the Ethiopia from native superstition, to being international leaders in disaster relief.

There is of course no way to attribute intrinsic and universal worth to humans via the materialism or naturalism of atheism. In fact atheists take pains to diminish human exceptionalism; they see our genetics, biology and ability to reason as mere derivations of attributes found in the rest of the animal kingdom. We don’t reflect purpose and perfection of a Creator, but are the product of incidental forces which were shaped by an effort to survive. From a purely material view there can’t be a universal human quality – our intellect and physical capabilities vary widely.

And the impact of secularism on modern society becomes obvious as one considers how such a trend has diminished our capacity to appreciate the inherent worth of humans. Secularists argue for respecting the rights of women while pushing for greater freedom to access to pornography and prostitution. They use our modern medical technology to destroy humans in the womb, often as the result of tests which show them disabled in some way then while demanding that the disabled be treated with dignity and respect.  Secularists decry ‘bullying’ while denigrating those who they disagree with as stupid, deluded, and dangerous.

Invariably those who dismiss theistic basis for human worth that transcends the material reject the only certain grounding there is for respecting and preserving all human life. As a result they reject the essential foundation for human flourishing, that which directs our resources and laws toward the preservation and protection of all human life. 

Unlike atheism, in Christianity there is a sound and logically consistent basis to argue for intrinsic human worth and to promote such human flourishing. Respect for human life emanates directly from the Judeo-Christian belief that humans are made in the Image of God. This has been made evident by history of the West both in its flourishing in association with the Church, and its current decline as it abandons the faith of its fathers.

Who’s Pretending Now?

September 15, 2011

In a recent post discussing the debate between philosophers and neuroscientists about free will, Jerry Coyne concludes that a world without free will isn’t that big a deal, because we can still act as if we had free will:

The more I read about philosophers’ attempts to redefine and save the notion of “free will” in the face of the neurological facts, the more I think that they’re muddying the waters. I believe that the vast majority of nonphilosophers and laypeople hold a consistent definition of free will: that we really do make decisions that are independent of our physical make-up at the moment of deciding. If this isn’t the case, we need to know it. Yes, it may be depressing—Haynes admits that he finds it hard to “maintain an image of a world without free will”—but we can still act as if we had free will. We don’t have much choice in that matter, probably because we’re evolved to think of ourselves as choosing agents. But rather than define free will so we can save the notion in some sense (this is like substituting the word “spirituality” for “religion”), why don’t we just rename the concept we’re trying to save? Otherwise we’re just giving false ideas to people, as well as providing succor for religion, where the idea of real free will—the Holy Ghost in the machine—is alive and crucially important.

*emphasis mine*

I find this interesting, because one charge leveled against Christians is that they cling to their notions of God not because they have any evidence He exists, but because the find the idea of God comforting. Of course atheists say this to denigrate Christians, the implication being that Christians believe certain delusions to be comforted, while atheists are skeptical realists.

Now we have Coyne suggesting that atheists embrace a delusion (that we have free will) in order to avoid the fact that being automatons is depressing. Not only is Coyne arguing for delusional thinking, but he is arguing that atheists embrace a delusion knowing full well it’s a delusion. His argument is even more convoluted given that he is recommending that people choose to act in a certain way to avoid the implications of the reality that we are incapable of choosing how we act. The mind boggles.

At the very least Christians can say their belief in God and a mind independent of a physical brain is consistent with the sensation we all have that we are choosing to do certain things. Unlike Coyne and his New Atheist followers, Christians don’t have to pretend something is true in order to make sense of their own experiences.

Blogging the EPS conference 1

November 19, 2010

First up to speak last night was Dr. Alvin Plantinga  – he is a bit of a rock star here, which is amazing considering he is a 78 yr. Old philosopher.

Dr. Plantinga is incredibly credentialed; taught at Yale and Notre Dame, former President of the American Philosophical Association and widely published, he is a preeminent scholar.
The argument he presented, one which I had heard before concerns the fact that naturalism is a defeater for a belief in evolution. I have never met an atheist who could effectively counter this argument once they understand it. Basically it demonstrates that holding a naturalistic view of our origins and believing we are evolved creatures makes the likelihood our cognitive abilities are reliable very low. This can actually be demonstrated formulaically:

P(R/N&E) – P being probability, R being reliability of our cognitive abilities, N&E being the acceptance of both naturalism and evolutions true.

The reason for this is that a belief needn’t be true to promote behaviors that enhance survival – thus there is no inherent reason for evolution alone to have conferred highly reliable belief forming abilities as part of our cognitive equipment. So a a belief in naturalism actual undermines a belief in evolution. Heady stuff, and that was the opening session. 🙂

I will try to put up more later.