Tag Archives: Apologetics

Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity

Slacktivist recently posted a very insightful series called Unlearning the Lies We Learned from the Theologians of Slavery. Briefly, he points out that many of the great Protestant theologians who are America’s spiritual Founding Fathers supported slavery or even owned slaves — men like Jonathan Edwards (yes, even in the North!), Patrick Henry and George Whitefield. Slacktivist shows that this disturbing truth ought to challenge us in many ways. Do read his whole series, but I’d like to focus on one sentence from Part 4:

You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing [slavery] wrong.

What wrong steps did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield take that made that final step of justifying slavery seem perfectly sensible and even godly? Might we have already taken some of those steps?

As a former conservative Christian who walked the same path as Edwards et al, I suggest the road to moral insanity can go something like this…

  1. You believe that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this gives you a supernatural edge in deciding moral questions: you can understand scripture and hear God’s voice more reliably than people who do not “know God.”
  2. In fact, you are taught to distrust non-believers’ ideas as non-spiritual “worldly wisdom” or worse.
  3. From that privileged position, you allow yourself a moral epistemology that you deny to others. When a fundamentalist Muslim arrives at obviously inhuman morality based on the Koran, you wonder how he can be so blind. “Why don’t his conclusions lead him do question his scriptures?” you ask. But when the same hermeneutic is applied to the Bible to arrive at positions that the rest of society has come to agree are harmful (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality), you defend the process as being “faithful to God’s Word.”
  4. Having fully embraced an epistemology that has, by your own account, failed everywhere else it has been tried, you are well-prepared for final steps to moral insanity.
  5. You encounter passages in the Bible about, in this case, slavery. Although you are a good person, the plain reading of the text is that God not only tolerates slavery, but actually commanded his people to enslave whole cities full of people that were at a distance, minding their own business. The New Testament provides not a glimmer of relief for slaves, with Jesus’ parables casting God himself as a harsh slave-owner, and Paul teaching that slaves should obey their masters, rather than teaching masters to free their slaves.
  6. Although you are a kind person and would never in a thousand years have tried to justify slavery on your own, far be it from you to deny the authority of God’s Word. You come up with excuses for it. If you are Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, living in a culture where a consensus against slavery has not yet emerged, you positively endorse it as part of God’s Order.
  7. As I outlined in my last post, you are now mired in the same moral insanity as ISIS, for exactly the same reasons.

Maybe you think, “I’m quite sane, thank you very much. I don’t support slavery at all. I’m completely against it.”

Really? Have you repudiated God’s commands to enslave in the Bible, or do you justify them with one lame excuse or another?

When your Bible tells you that God commanded genocide, do you blame the victims, or do you say that genocide is wrong, period, therefore the Bible is wrong?

When the Bible commands a man to stone his own wife to death if she expresses the slightest desire for religious freedom, what is your reaction? Do you justify this command as “God forming his people” or do you say that no amount of historical context can justify stoning one’s wife?

These are all markers of moral sanity.

Although slavery, genocide and religious freedom are no longer a sources of controversy in America, we are fighting other battles in the culture wars, with same-sex marriage and abortion rights being the most active and long-running. More lately, a flare-up has started over contraception. In each case, the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield appear to be on the wrong side of history.

Jesus said, “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. The gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

As we consider the questions that stand where the slavery question stood 150 years ago, I would add, “Be careful. The gate to moral insanity can look a lot like the gate to God’s Kingdom, and the road can appear to be the road of faith.”

ISIS, Evangelicals, and the Mantle of Moral Leadership

Even if you’re reading this ten years from now, I doubt you’ll have forgotten the horrifying events of the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have, among other atrocities, besieged members of the Yazidi religious sect at the Sinjar mountain, where children have died of thirst; they have captured and enslaved hundreds of Yazidi women after killing their male relatives; and they have issued “convert or die” ultimatums to hundreds of other members of this often-persecuted minority, slaughtering at least one entire village that refused. ISIS have not been kind to anyone, but they seem to have an especially large ax to grind with the Yazidis, holding them to be polytheistic devil-worshipers who should not be allowed to live.

How can this happen in the 21st century? Haven’t we arrived at the point where every person on the planet knows it’s wrong to besiege a religious minority, to enslave and rape its women, and to kill its men? Have we not learned that nothing can possibly justify this behavior — not even even the demands of the One True Religion?

Apparently not. But at least we Americans have gotten the memo, right?

Again, apparently not. I have heard more than one such American use the same thinking as ISIS to justify the same behavior as ISIS and defend a tribalistic morality that is just like ISIS’. I have heard this from Americans who are nice people and whom I otherwise respect. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be; there are tens of millions of Americans who hold these views.

I am thinking, of course, of American evangelicals. Before you close your browser, hear me out.

Consider Bible passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15, in which the God evangelicals worship commands his people (verse 15) to besiege (verse 12) members of other religions, and enslave them (verse 11), treating women as “plunder” to be “used” (verse 14) after killing their male relatives (verse 13).

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

As Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, evangelicals must defend God’s commands in this passage as “good” — and they do. As a member of that group for 40 years, I heard all the reasons.

“Those nations were evil and deserved what they got” is the primary one. “He had to drive the infidels out of the Promised Land” is another. “He was forming his people” is a third.

That sounds a lot like “This is where the Islamic State belongs and these Yazidi devils who are in it now don’t deserve to live,” doesn’t it?

But what if evangelicals are right? What if God really did have good reasons for ordering genocide, enslavement, and the plundering of women? Is that possible?

The thought is not as crazy as it sounds. Ironically, the idea that some entities are justly privileged to do things that others may not is what the rule of law is all about. Think about it. The State gets to put criminals in jail, but if a private citizen does the same thing, it’s called kidnapping. The State may impose a fine, to be paid to itself, but if a person does that it’s called stealing.

So is God like the State, meting out justice in ways for which the rest of us are not qualified? Not in the case we are considering. The claim that God is perfectly just, coupled with the claim that he is omnipotent, implies that whatever he is up to in Deuteronomy 20 is the best of all possible worlds. What we call atrocities are, in fact, the highest good. His plan could not possibly be any better.

Is that true? Presumably a state of affairs in which everyone, including God, is at least as well-off would be a better one. Can we think of such an outcome?

It’s easy. Here’s one modest improvement. Surely there were children in these cities who had not yet reached the age of reason. If they worshiped another god, it was only because their parents dragged them to church, so to speak. They did not deserve to become slaves. God could have tucked in a verse along the lines of “…but every child under the age of ten, you are to raise as your own, lovingly teaching them all I have commanded.” To kill the parents and steal the children would still be barbaric, but it would be better than calling the kids “plunder” to be “used”.

And don’t even get me started on what it meant to “use” the women as plunder. Are we seriously saying that such explicit permission brought about the highest possible good?

And let’s not forget that God could have sent his Holy Spirit on these distant cities, converting them into worshipers of himself, or at least giving them the chance. He would supposedly do exactly that in a few hundred years. Why wait?

The argument that God was doing the very best that could be done, given his broader purposes, just doesn’t hold up. The hard reality is that the God of the Bible ordered the same atrocities that ISIS has committed, for much the same reasons, with just as little justification. And tens of millions of evangelicals in America continue to defend him for it.

I believe that most evangelicals have good hearts and want what’s right. I believe that if all the passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15 were in a book other than the Bible, Christians would believe that book to be inspired by the devil himself. Yet there they are in the Bible. Christians now must choose between defending and repudiating them. As long as they continue to defend, it will be hard for some of us to believe that Christians are in touch with moral reality.

Christians who stick by those passages have the same moral epistemology as ISIS: consult an ancient text and justify whatever you find there. Why should such an epistemology, which has led to moral and humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, be trusted in our churches?

American evangelicals want to wear the mantle of moral leadership. That’s fine, but to qualify they must stand up and thoroughly repudiate the moral philosophy of ISIS.

Why the Big Bang Does Not Imply a Creator

If nobody is around and there’s a Big Bang, does that mean Someone clapped?

Where I come from most people would say yes. As Robert Jastrow famously put it:

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe? And science cannot answer these questions…

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Law of the Cosmos. What a talent that man has for explaining things!

He points out that even in light of the Big Bang, it’s quite possible that the universe is both infinite and eternal. “But wait!” you say. “The Big Bang means there was a beginning, doesn’t it? And how can the universe start from a point and become infinite after only 13.7 billion years?”

While the Big Bang may have been the beginning of our universe, it could have been just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs in an eternal multiverse. The multiverse may be infinitely large and infinitely old.

There was a time when I thought the multiverse was just a wishful invention of scientists who were looking for any scenario that did not require a Creator God. However, as both Brian Greene’s book and Lawrence Kraus’s book, A Universe from Nothing, explain, multiverse scenarios are a natural consequence of the known laws of quantum physics.

Nor are these untestable speculations. You may have heard in the news recently that one key component of most multiverse models, known as cosmic inflation, has received stunning empirical support.

I like this continuation to Jastrow’s story from the Skeptic’s Play blog:

After staying a while to share some stories with the theologians, the scientist begins to explore the surrounding area. Soon he realizes that the mountain goes much higher, but the path is poorly marked and obscured in fog. He points it out to the theologians, but they cannot see the markings.

“How did you get this far?”

“God guided us here.”

“Can God guide you further?”

They cannot agree amongst themselves. Some declare they are already at the peak. Others speculate that there is no peak, and thus no reason to continue. Still others say, “Yes, God will guide us,” and begin to wander in the direction pointed out by the scientist, to become forever obscured in the mist.

The scientist prepares to leave, bringing only a few theologians with him. He slowly continues to scale the mountain, meticulously checking every rock, and occasionally backtracking for days at a time.

Those would not be the last theologians he would pass by.

If There’s No God, Then Where Did All This Come From?

When I made my exit from evangelical Christian faith, my friends’ most common objection was, “If there’s no God, then where did all this come from?” I heard this again recently, so I thought I’d write about it.

The first-cause argument for God has a long history, dating at least from Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. It seems persuasive:

  1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. (Also put as “Something cannot come from nothing.”)
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

How could anyone object to that?

As it turns out, we can and should object to each of those steps.

1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. I 

Not true. “Something” comes from “nothing” all the time. In A Universe from Nothing, physicist Lawrence Krauss explains why “nothing” is actually an unstable state (chapter 10). In fact, taking the admittedly non-intuitive, but experimentally proven principles of quantum mechanics to their logical conclusion, it is entirely possible that our entire universe arose from nothing.

2. The universe began to exist.

That five-word sentence hides two assumptions that can slip right by us.

First, scientists are increasingly convinced that it is incorrect to speak of “the” universe. Our universe may well be just one in an infinite set of universes — the multiverse. Universes may give birth to one another in a chain that extends to the infinite past — a chain that did not “begin to exist.”

Second, even if our universe is the only one, it does not make sense to speak of its beginning, as if there was a time before it existed. From the Big Bang arose not only space, but time. As Stephen Hawking says, to speak of anything before the Big Bang is like speaking of a point that is more south than the South Pole.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This conclusion of the syllogism is already in doubt because its premises are suspect. However, let’s grant the conclusion anyway: the universe has a cause. Would that lead us to the traditional God of Western culture? Not necessarily, for the following conclusions are equally valid.

  • The god who created the universe died in the process, like a woman who dies in childbirth. God used to exist, but no longer does.
  • A committee of gods created the universe.
  • God created the universe, and then let it run based on Laws of Nature. God does not care about what rules you live by, does not answer prayers, and does not offer salvation to humankind.
  • God created the universe not for us,  but for black holes. After all, there are many more black holes than people. We are just an accidental byproduct.
  • A natural process that we have not yet discovered created the universe.

When trying to prove the existence of God, the Argument from First Cause has a lot of emotional appeal. Upon closer examination, it does not get the job done.

Experts and the Availability Bias

You’ve heard the aphorism, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This week, I learned a new way that that’s true.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating book about how the brain works. In one of the chapters, author Daniel Kahneman explores what makes us subject to the “availability bias.” This is the tendency to believe things because it’s easy to call supporting arguments to mind, rather than because those arguments are sound or because we’ve conducted thorough research and considered all sides.

According to Kahneman, one of the factors that makes us susceptible to this bias is being “knowledgeable novices on the topic … in contrast to true experts.”  Our knowledge makes it easy to cite a few arguments, and we lazily and happily believe we’re right, no matter what the experts say.

That is humbling. I think of areas where I have fancied myself so knowledgeable that I was qualified to dismiss the findings of experts, and later discovered that the experts had been right all along. The most egregious instance is my pooh-poohing of evolution, but there have been others.

In the 1980s, I attended a speech by the chief economist of CIGNA. He predicted that the 1990s would be an excellent decade for stocks, and he cited several reasons based on his research. He was a very impressive guy: brilliant, well-traveled, and well-connected, but I knew better than to be taken in by this so-called expert. I had read a book called Bankruptcy 1995, which made it very clear that America was headed for financial ruin — and soon — due to runaway national debt. I may have been a novice compared to Mr. Chief Economist, but I was a knowledgeable novice!

Of course, we know who turned out to be right. I missed one of the greatest market booms in history.

dow

Opportunities to be a knowledgeable novice abound. Do you find yourself saying any of these things? If so, you might be right, but be careful!

  • Doctors don’t know anything. This alternative/shamanic/new-age remedy is what really works.
  • Related to that… If I just take this fistful of pills that I got at GNC, I don’t have to loose weight or exercise.
  • Based on their research, most university professors say that a strong social safety net reduces poverty and increases general happiness. Of course they would say that! They’re biased liberals! They may have advanced degrees, but Rush Limbaugh has given me a real education!
  • I don’t need any fancy studies to prove it. I know that prayer to my God works! My holy book says so, and I’ve even seen some sick people get well after prayer.
  • So-called experts in foreign relations suggest a measured approach in the Middle East. I know how the world really works: if we just turned part of Saudi Arabia into molten glass, those A-rabs would start to pay attention real quick!

Once in a while, an opinion outside the expert mainstream is proven right. More often, it is the experts who have the expertise. If we disagree with them, let’s be humble enough to admit the possibility of our own availability bias. Let’s be even more careful than usual to practice shaphat.

What do you expect them to do?

One of the most-read posts on this blog is What did Jesus say about slavery? People often land there by Googling exactly that question; although biblical slavery ended millenia ago, people are still troubled by it.  So, I am not totally surprised when the series on biblical slavery that I wrote almost two years ago continues to garner the occasional comment.

The latest was from Henry. I had been addressing a passage where God commands Israel to sack distant cities and enslave their populations. Henry said of the captives,

They were prisoners of war, what do you expect them [Israel] to do capture the city and let them regroup for retaliation? (Only Americans and British let their enemies go free so they can come back to fight again.)

Henry asked, “What do you expect them to do?”

I suggest that this is not the most fundamental question. It was supposedly God, not the Israelites, who came up with the idea of enslaving these cities. I suggest a better question would be, “What do you expect God to do?”

Here are some possibilities.

Instead of directing the Israelites to enslave distant cities, God could have told them, “March around the city 7 times, praying for them. Upon completion of the seventh circuit, I will send my Holy Spirit upon them. They will welcome you into their city and you are to teach them my ways.”

If that would be just too easy, God could have said, “You are to be missionaries to the distant cities. Some of you will suffer and even be killed for my Name’s sake, but you must continue to faithfully spread my love.”

If that would be asking too much, God could have just said, “Stay away from them, and I will make sure they stay away from you.”

If God had really wanted those distant cities to be judged, using Israel as his instrument (which I highly doubt), he could at least have said, “You are not to use my solemn judgement as an occasion to gratify your carnal lusts. Keep your hands off the women.” (But of course, he said just the opposite. See the last part of this post.)

…and I’m sure you can think of more ideas.

If I were to steal a loaf of bread to feed my child because I have no food, no job, no friends, no money and no alternative, few people would condemn me.

If I were to do the same thing when I had a refrigerator full of food and all the money in the world, people would think I was compulsively evil.

Of all the characters that have ever been reputed to live, the one with the most embarrassing richness of alternatives for everything he does is God. That’s why his horrible acts in the Bible troubled me enough to finally push me out of the faith.

If he exists, he could have done so much better.

The Problem of Evil on the Margin

The Problem of Evil was never a problem for me.

I could easily believe that a world with a mixture of good and bad was better than no world at all. I could even believe that God had to allow evil in order to make his glorious plan of redemption meaningful. Perhaps wars must be fought so heroism can have a forum.

Wars, corruption, man’s general inhumanity to man … all this evil on a large scale … I can accept all that.

Rather, it is the small things — what I’ll call evil on the margin.

The Bible says that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” In colloquial terms, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” God may work in mysterious ways, but he is at work in every circumstance.

If God is perfect, his plan is perfect. It cannot be improved one iota. Any change would diminish its perfection.

So here we have a boy who is being raped by his priest. Far from turning to God in his suffering, the boy ends up embittered against the Church. No vindication of God’s plan there. The priest’s heart becomes more corrupt with each rape he commits and his hypocrisy takes deeper root. No good there, either. The abuse is never uncovered, so no social good comes from reforms or repentance.

In short, the evil is entirely gratuitous and without a redeeming consequence.

Those who believe God is sovereign and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” must believe that God’s plan would somehow be diminished if this boy had not been raped.

And let’s have none of the argument that evil is the inevitable consequence of God granting the wonderful gift of free will. Free will can have limits and still be free. My kids have free will even if I will intervene before one of them inflicts serious harm on another. (I have free will, too! Doesn’t God?)

In my four decades as a theist, I could understand why God’s plan might allow evil in general and on the scale that turns history. It was the individual, senseless, gratuitous acts against innocent people and animals that presented a greater problem.

I will not argue that a world without war would be better. That argument would be too complicated. Let’s keep it simple: will any theist argue that God’s most perfect plan had to include the rape of that one boy?