Saturday, 26 November 2011

Atheism: Worse Than Murder!

Objection Five: It's Offensive to Claim Jesus is the Only Way to God, Ravi Zacahrias, DD, LL.D.

This is a bit of a strange chapter, at least in comparison to Strobel's others.  Gone are the attempts to make his subject appeal to Strobel's American-centric readership - indeed, he positively stresses the fact that Zacahrias is Indian by birth and grew up in a multicultural environment.  There is a little of the drama-queen language ('I pulled my notes out of my briefcase and immediately zeroed in on the topic'), but it is dramatically toned down.  Even poor CS Lewis doesn't get a mention. 

Perhaps this is because of the nature of the subject.  When I read that title, my first reaction was: 'Probably, to some people.  Some people are determined to be offended by any challenge to their religion.  So what?'  And really, the chapter never moves much beyond this. 

Of course, you can't allow an apologist to witter on unchallenged for any length of time without them eventually spouting something demonstrably untrue or morally appalling (I'm thinking of trying to get Giford's Law established as an internet meme).  Since there is no issue worthy of debate here (even Strobel can't feign challenge in his questions, or surprise at the answers), all that is left for me to do is to note some of the bloopers among a spiel that, broadly, is entirely uncontroversial. 

Only once does anything intellectually interesting happen.  As I have said, I would not have raised this question, but there is a similar one of much more interest, to do with double standards.  Christians frequently use faith as evidence for their beliefs, but of course reject the faith of others as evidence for conflicting beliefs.  Strobel raises a point like this early in the interview: 'Why do Christians think they're justified in asserting that they're right and that everybody else in the world is wrong?'  This would have been a much better chapter title - given he leads with the question, I wonder whether that was Strobel's intent.  Zacahrias does not answer this point, instead pointing out that Christianity is not the only religion to claim this, which is true but irrelevant.  Perhaps Strobel realised that and changed the chapter title accordingly - but I speculate without evidence.  (Must have been reading too much apologetics.)

Zacharias contends that 'Clannish and political conflicts aside, I know of no Christianized country where your life is in danger because you are from another faith.'  Unless Zacahrias is claiming that religion cannot feed conflicts that are also (or become) political, he must be sadly uninformed.  Northern Ireland (and Old Firm matches) spring to mind, as do the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, or Orthodox Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia.  There are lesser-known Christian-organised pogroms also, such as those in Ivory Coast, Chechnya or the Philippines. 

There is also the very relevant point that most of the countries Zacahrias is thinking of as 'Christianized' are also secular, liberal and tolerant.  Historically, that was not so and even in the UK you could be burned at the stake for being the wrong kind of Christian.  A little earlier than that, and English Christians were setting aside their political differences with bitter Christian rivals to persecute Muslims in their homelands.  Jews have not always fully appreciated the hospitality extended to them by certain Christian leaders over the period roughly from 1096 to 1945.  Martin Luther's On The Jews And Their Lies calls for such tolerant actions as burning Jewish books and schools and confiscating their money.  So it seems that it's secular liberalism, rather than Christianity, that is the force of toleration here.  If Zacharias is trying to claim that Christianity is better than other religions because of the behaviour of its followers, the best he could say is that non-fundamentalist Christians are better - if only he weren't a fundamentalist himself. 

Aside from that, we're back to tired insistence that 'the historical record concerning the Resurrection is extremely compelling', and some spectacularly poor understanding of other faiths from someone who is billed as a great understander of other cultures: Buddhists and naturalists have no explanation for morality, Hindus can't explain what people were 'paying for' in their first reincarnations, and so on. 

In the final section, some of the incoherence he rails against in other religions begins to show through in his own words.  Gandhi was not a good man, because he was not redeemed.  Berkowitz, the American serial killer and Christian convert, on the othr hand won't go to hell, but that is not unjust because he is suffering in 'the hell of the heart'.  (One wonders whether his suffering is significantly greater than that of the relatives of his victims.)  'There are things much worse than death or murder [...] the worst thing is to say to God that you don't need him,' declaims Zacharias, which is at least consistent with his belief that he doesn't care if his religious views upset other people. 

So Zacharias is led from the assumptions of his Christian faith to a series of morally outrageous conclusions.  And they are not done yet.  Strobel's gentle prodding continues with another obvious question, the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus and thus never had the chance to accept him as their saviour.  This is a problem for Christians because it seems unjust to condemn such people to Hell, yet allowing them into Heaven would undermine one of the central tenets of the religion, that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation.  Zacharias' answer has the sole redeeming feature of being novel - he denies that anyone exists who has never had the opportunity to hear of Jesus.  'God knows where we will be born and raised, and he puts us in a position where we might seek him.'  So Zacharias is forced to conclude that everyone has heard of Jesus, or at least had the opportunity to hear of him, even those in Muslim countries where Christian proselytisation is illegal, and any who reject Jesus 'fail the test of truth' and are not 'sincere'.  (Of course, who cares about being an insincere liar when you have also done something 'much worse than death or murder' by failing to reject the religious faith of your entire culture?) 

Zacharias makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he himself has followed in the faith of his Christian parents, despite his much-vaunted multi-cultural upbringing, which makes his complete lack of sympathy for those who live in non-Christian cultures all the more surprising.  He also freely admits that the most effective way of being converted is contact with a Christian, which would seem to further undermine his case.  He never directly addresses the fate of those who died before Jesus. 
Strobel devotes an entire section to why people would reject Jesus, never once considering whether any of the points he raises might cut both ways.  People might become Muslims 'because of geopolitical considerations.'  Hinduism is 'rich in philosophy'.  Whereas Christianity - presumably neither of those things according to Zacharias - 'calls you to die to yourself.' (unlike, say, Buddhism or fundamentalist Islam in their various ways.)  

He closes with a similar Biblical quotation to the one Craig referred to, 'You will find me when you seek me' - and again, my answer is the same.  I can guarantee from personal experience that Zacharias is wrong.  He can call me a liar and worse than a murder if he wishes - but making his views offensive does not make them true any more than it makes them false. 

Monday, 21 November 2011

Stormin' Norman Geisler

Objection Four: God Isn't Worthy Of Worship If He Kills Innocent Children, Norman L Geisler, PhD
CS Lewis Quotes:1 (Welcome back, Jack!)
Mentions Of Former Atheists: 3 (Lee Strobel (twice), Ed Boyd (co-author of a book of Christian apologetics) and 'prominent historian Sir William Ramsay (a distinctly dubious claim)
How Do I Know Norman L Geisler Is Like Me?  'It was a soft-spoken and grandfatherly Geisler who invited me into his modest yet comfortable office [...] Casually dressed in a multicolored sweater over a blue button-down shirt, he had an easy smile and a down-to-earth sense of humor.'  Yes, soft-spoken just like Bradley
How Forceful Is Strobel In Presenting The Questions? Very.  'I came armed with some of the most difficult issues of all [...] I looked up at Geisler to see if he was wincing from the sting of Paine's words [...] I raised my hand to protest [...] "Touche", I thought to myself.  Quickly regrouping, I pressed on [...] the time had come to get to the crux of the issue.  I looked into Geisler's eyes.  My voice leaked sarcasm as I posed the most pointed objection [...] that got me started on a roll [...] I continued, picking up speed as I went.'   

This section is rather interesting in that there's really very little for me to say on the subject.  Geisler's own words will show the bizarre depths that the book has now reached.  Geisler claims that God is entitled to kill whoever he wants, and then spends the rest of the interview refuting a random selection of claims of Biblical cruelty.  I will simply quote him, with minimal commentary, to give the reader a flavour of what to expect.  I can only assume that Strobel thinks that anyone who has bought his arguments so far cannot back away from the awful truth about his version of Christianity at this stage.
Amalekites: Why They Should Be Grateful We Killed Them

It's hard to know whether ones mouth should be slack-jawed with the flagrant hypocrisy of Geisler's arguments, or clamped shut to grind one's teeth at his utter contempt for humanity.  Strobel latches onto the slaughter of the Amalekites as a fairly typical episode in the dark, depraved depths of the Old Testament.  And why does Geisler tell us that the Amalekites deserved to be wiped out, slaughtered in their homes or defending their cities?  Well, the reason is, Geisler tells us, that the Amalekites deserved it because they were so Evil.  In fact, you know those Amalekites?  They had to be wiped out because they were genocidal

Erm... Norm? 

Fresh from convicting the Amalekites of being immoral on the basis of documents written by their sworn enemies (neither Geisler nor Strobel ever think to question the Biblical description of the Amalekites), Geisler now unleashes a spew of venom against the whole of humanity.  He starts mildly (by his standards): God can kill anyone he wants because he created life so he can therefore take it away.  (Let's hope we never clone anyone, eh Norm?)  From this he builds steadily to a crescendo of bloodthirstiness that would have most Bond villains eyeing him and edging towards the doors:
technically nobody is truly innocent.  The Bible says in Psalm 51 that we're all born in sin; that is, with the propensity to rebel and commit wrongdoing.  Also, we need to keep in mind God's sovereignty over life [...] he has the right to take it if he wishes [...] the fate of children throughout history has always been with their parents, whether that's for good or ill [...] In that thoroughly evil and violent and depraved culture, there was no hope for those children.  This nation was so polluted that it was like gangrene that was taking over a person's leg, and God had to amputate the leg [...] In a sense, God's action was an act of mercy [...] According to the Bible, every child who dies before the age of accountability goes to heaven [...] if they had continued to live in that horrible society, past the age of accountability, they undoubtedly would have become corrupted and thereby lost forever.' 
(My emphasis.) 

Oh dear, Norm, I don't think you and I are going to be friends.  If Strobel was shuffling uncomfortably in his seat at this point, he doesn't tell us so.  The only hint that we get that he might be just the teensiest bit wary of what he has just heard is that for the first time I can recall in the book, he asks a follow-up question rather than just unthinkingly swallowing whatever his interviewee says:

'If ultimately it was best for those children to die before the age of accountability because they would go to heaven, why can't the same be said about unborn children who are aborted today?' 

It' a good question.  It's not the one I would have asked - I would have asked if there are any more ways of getting to Heaven without accepting Jesus, and why Jesus' sacrifice was necessary at all in that case, thus rendering much of Christian theology redundant.  But I digress, with my heathen common sense. 

Geisler responds in two ways, the first of which is simply false:

'First, God doesn't command anyone today to have an abortion; in fact, it's contrary to the teachings of the Bible.  Second, today we don't have a culture that's as thoroughly corrupt as the Amalekite society.  In that culture, there was no hope; today, there's hope.'

I have discussed abortion and the Bible elsewhere. 

Geisler continues to try to find reasons to justify genocide:
they had four hundred years to repent.  That's a very long time. 
Surely the ones who wanted to be saved from destruction fled and were spared. 

'God's primary desire was to drive these evil people out of the land that they already knew had been promised for a long time to Israel.  [...] He wanted to create an environment where the Messiah could come for the benefit of millions of people through history.' 

Got that?  So the Amalekites were so depraved they deserved to die (according to the testimony of the people who massacred them).  Killing their children was an act of mercy.  And anyway they wanted to die or they would have fled.  Besides, God didn't want to kill them, he just wanted ethnic cleansing, and they should have known this by studying the religious texts of all the other nations around them. 

My word, psychopaths and rapists are supposed to be the ones who blame their victims like this. 

We get the same calumnies repeated against the (other) Canaanites at Jericho.  And then Geisler offers us a ray of hope.  Nineveh was also 'corrupt' but the residents repented and God saved them. 

Erm, Norm... when exactly did Nineveh become Jewish, Norm? 

So Geisler has claimed that genocide was restricted to peoples trying to wipe out the Hebrews, who were living in the 'promised land', and that women and children would have fled anyway.  Let's take a quick look at a Biblical verse to see how he's doing, shall we? 
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 
When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it.  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. 
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.
However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.
Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you.
Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.
- Deut 20

Got that?  There are specific injunctions pertaining to attacking cities not within Israelite territory, and not home to the nations the Bible names in the quoted section.  The Hebrews clearly were expecting to find women and children inside.  They were permitted to surrender, but only to become slaves.  Geisler's knowledge of the Bible doesn't seem too hot here, or his defence too accurate. 

Next we get the story of Elisha and the bears.  Geisler again uses a dubious translation to claim that the forty-two people slaughtered were soldiers rather than small children; this too I have dealt with elsewhere, and it is simply untrue - the Bible specifies 'small children' in unequivocal language. 

Errant Inerrantism

Having come as close as he will to addressing the issue at point head on, Strobel now completely changes the subject and (after a brief and uninformative interlude on the ethics of animal sacrifice) begins a discussion on the accuracy of the Bible, claiming 'There's more evidence that the Bible is a reliable source than there is for any other book from the ancient world' (really?  Caesar's Gallic Wars not as trustworthy as the Book of Genesis then?).  This subject is clearly only of mild interest to him, as he describes his reactions to it in fairly middling terms, by his slightly hysterical standards: 'sitting back down on the edge of my seat in anticipation', etc. 
Geisler chooses to deliver a string of unsupported and false claims:
'Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [...] are increasingly corroborated'

(In fact there is not a shred of archaeological evidence for any of them.) 

He claims Sodom and Gomorrah have been located (they haven't), and that the Biblical Hittites have been discovered (they haven't, although an unrelated culture from a different time and location have been given the same name due to some early confusion). 
In among all this, he does throw in a few real examples such as the Exile; it's notable that this occurred at around the time the Bible was actually being written, whereas the others are far earlier.  Somewhere between the two, he mentions in passing King David; that there is now a small amount of evidence suggesting he was a real person is one of the few nuggets of truth in Geisler's otherwise unbroken parade of wishful thinking, and consequently this is about the only claim Geisler makes that rises to the heights of being controversial. 
Oh, and for good measure, Luke is 'an impeccable historian [...] never proven wrong.'  (Three hour eclipse, anyone?  The beach resort of Gadara?

I Saw This Coming...

Having utterly muffed his archaeology, Geisler now moves on to 'evidence of divine origin' (by which he means fulfilled prophecies). 

Virtually everything he mentions is either a prophecy 'fulfilled' before the prophecy itself was written down, or a dubious claim clearly made by the NT in order to show Jesus fulfilling an OT prophecy.  Apparently, he sees no problem with either of these scenarios. 
Nostrodamus, we are told is 'so confusing that the entire prophecy is meaningless', yet Daniel apparently gives an exact date for Jesus (not unless Jesus was born 62 weeks after Jerusalem was rebuilt, it doesn't).  He claims there is no false Biblical prophecy (apparently unaware that Jesus is quoted as predicting the end of the world within the lifetime of those present). 

He starts to argue that modern psychics have no real powers (something with which I can actually agree) before suddenly blurting out that 'besides, you'll find that [...] psychics commonly deal with occult practices - [Jeane Dixon] used a crystal ball, for example - and that could account for some of what they predicted.'  (Again, my emphasis)  So crystal balls really work, but they are the wrong kind of prophecy.  Perhaps Geisler has one himself, so that he could research Dixon in advance of Strobel's question? 
Geisler continues his descent into his own fantasy version of rationality. 

Some truth in [Biblical passages] can appropriately be applied to Christ even though it was not specifically predictive of him.
Got that?  So it's perfectly legitimate to hunt through the OT for passages that can be applied to Jesus retro-actively and then use them as evidence that Jesus was predicted.  I'm not parodying this, that's actually Geisler's point: if it sounds like Jesus, it's evidence for Jesus even if it's just a coincidence. 

Geisler chooses to close with the usual epic fail on probability:
Mathematics has shown that there's absolutely no way [Biblical prophecies] could have been fulfilled by mere chance.
And to conclude, he argues that the Bible is either reliable about everything or nothing, so evidence supporting the historicity of the NT setting is also evidence for OT miracles.  He thinks Moses was a real person.  He claims that Nicodemus and John the Baptist believed Jesus was the Messiah based on the fact the Bible says they did.  He notes in passing that this is a circular argument, but discounts this because 'the Bible proves to be the word of God.'  (His emphasis this time)

The interview ends shortly afterwards.  There is a short and rather pointless lunch interlude afterwards where Strobel asks another question that has nothing whatsoever to do with God killing children, but which apparently he forgot to ask in the main interview.  I am personally of the opinion that this whole coda is fictional and that Geisler actually disappeared into a singularity of perfect contradiction when he defended the validity of a circular argument.  And good riddance - we could do with fewer religious maniacs justifying genocide.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Return of the Clown Prince

Objection Three: Evolution Explains Life, So God Isn't Needed; Walter L Bradley, PhD. 

CS Lewis Quotes: 0 (I miss you, CS)
Mentions of Former Atheists: 2 ('Scholar Patrick Glynn [was] lead back to faith in God'; 'I was more than happy [...] to jettison the idea of God
How Do I Know Walter Bradley Is Like Me?  'The soft-spoken, self-effacing Bradley [...] is a strong family man [...] his wife, Ann; daughter, Sharon; and grandchildren Rachel, Daniel and Elizabeth joined us for lunch.' 
How Forceful Is Strobel In Presenting The Questions?  Very.  'I asked, incredulity in my voice [...] I slumped back in my chair, amazed at the implications of what Bradley had disclosed [...] new discoveries have changed everything [...] I let out a low whistle.'

With a headline like that, you know just where this is heading.  Craig has done his best to promote the 'rational face of Christianity' - and Lee has even toned down his purple prose a fraction in deference.  But now it's back to business as usual.  Which is good news for me.  There's nothing more tedious than having to respond to genuine points.  Instead, here we get by-the-numbers Creationist tripe, backed up by Strobel's pantomime credulity. 

Strobel opens as he means to go on, with a burst of unsupported claims that run counter to all the evidence.  So we get:
New discoveries [...] have prompted an increasing number of scientists to contradict Darwin by concluding that there was an Intelligent Designer [...] more and more biologists, biochemists, and other researchers - not just Christians - have raised serious objections to evolutionary theory in recent years.[/quote]
Strobel doesn't bother to back up any of this.  He doesn't tell us what he means by 'recent years'.  Nor does he give any examples (here or elsewhere) of any non-Christians who think that Intelligent Design Creationism represents a serious challenge to evolutionary theory. And of course it is an outright lie that Creationism is gaining ground among scientists. 

Next we move onto Strobel's personal hobby-horse: people only 'deny God' because they are immoral.  His support for this, of course, is his own personal lack of morals:
I was more than happy to latch onto Darwinism as an excuse to jettison the idea of God so I could unabashedly pursue my own agenda in life without moral constraints. 

We are presumably supposed to conclude that a self-described 'morally unconstrained' person is now utterly trustworthy in assuring us of his own former untrustworthiness. 

If that is not enough of a transparent piece of invective, next we get to following unintentional irony:
My training in journalism and law compels me to dig beneath opinion, speculation and theories, all the way down until I hit the bedrock of solid facts.[/quote]
Let's hold Strobel to that for the quite reasonable length of one chapter, and see how good his 'digging' is. 

He claims that bacterial resistance is 'micro-evolution'.  He doesn't define 'micro-evolution', or point out that this is a basic change to cellular chemistry that adds information (by at least one of the criteria he is about to use).  Then he repeats a common out-of context quote from David Raup, that 'we have even fewer examples of evolutionary transitions than we had in Darwin's time'.  Had he bothered to do the quite basic 'digging' of reading Raup's original paper, he would have realised that Raup agrees that the fossil record given incontrovertable evidence of change over time, and disputes only whether a gradualistic mechanism can be deduced from this alone. Raup continues, for instance: 'what appeared to be a nice simple progression when relatively few data were available now appear to be much more complex and much less gradualistic.' - got that?  More complex, but still evidence for evolution.  

As if that weren't bad enough, he then uses Philip Johnson (the Creationist lawyer) as a source for a quote about the Cambrian Explosion.  I've read Johnson's book, and it's flat-out dishonest.  Perhaps Strobel is even aware of this; most of his sources are cited in the text, but Johnson's name is hidden away in the end-notes.  The quote in question is simply wrong, claiming that all nearly all modern animal phyla first appear in the Cambrian (they don't - only eleven of around thirty two animal phyla have a fossil record starting in the Cambrian) and that they appear 'without a trace' of evolutionary ancestors (they don't).  Apparently Strobel's 'digging' doesn't extend to checking the 'facts' he is searching for, at least not when they support the conclusion he wants. 
As if that weren't enough, he (again) cites Behe's concept of 'Irreducible Complexity' - see the Craig section for a note that even Behe has been forced to admit this is unscientific.  It is also wrong, since it is possible to conceive of evolutionary mechanisms that can produce structures that would meet Behe's definition of 'irreducible complexity', either by losing a part or by having more than one function. 

So Strobel has engaged in a lengthy and poorly researched diatribe before he even starts his interview here.  But this is just standard Creationist double-talk; where is the pantomime prose we have come to love from Strobel?  Where is the sudden astonishment that passes for digging 'until I hit the solid bedrock of facts'?  Fear not, it is not far from hand. 

Finally, The Interview

Strobel has stressed his drive to 'dig' until he reaches the truth.  It is natural therefore that he would interview a well-qualified biologist, without regard to religious opinion, about evolution.  If he has natural bias that he is trying to deny even from himself, he might subconsciously end up chosing a Christian biologist, which at least would give him some plausible deniability.  Instead, he selects... a devoutly fundamentalist materials scientist and mechanical engineer, who also happens to be a Fellow of the main ID pressure group, the Discovery Institute.  And here I really have to cry foul.  A mechanical engineer?  Is Strobel genuinely 'digging'... or is he chosing someone he thinks will give him the answers he needs to hear?  I think the answer speaks for itself. 

So, never mind the obvious bias and questionable honesty. How does Dr Bradley do in his attack on science? 

Firstly, note that he flat out refuses to dispute evolution at all.  Apparently, this is a lost cause even in a book of fundamentalist apologetics (though Strobel seems unaware of this).  Instead, he focuses purely on the origin of life, known as abiogenesis. 

His first port of call is the Miller-Urey experiment.  This, he tells us, has been 'invalidated' and that 'the deck was stacked in advance to get the result they wanted', and that 'the scientific significance of Miller's experiment today [...] is zilch'.  Clearly Bradley doesn't understand the significance of Miller-Urey, that complex biological molecules that were previously thought to be too complex to form spontaneously can actually be generated from the simplest available precursors, rapidly and under realistic conditions.  Nor does he seem aware that variations of Miller-Urey have been repeated with a variety of atmospheres, including those likely to have been found on the early Earth, with better results, not worse.  The claim about 'stacking the deck' is yet another outright falsification, designed to make Miller and Urey (and, by implication, all atheists) look dishonest.  In fact, they used the atmospheric mix considered most likely at the time they ran their experiment.  Our scientific understanding of this has since changed, and the experiment been duly re-run; but to imply that Miller and Urey were dishonest is itself simply dishonest. 

Now we move on to another Creationist trope, 'information'.  Bradley gives a very idiosyncratic definition of life, that includes information but not, for instance, movement, homeostasis, cellular structure, growth, adaptation or response to stimuli.  As far as I can tell, salt crystals meet Bradley's definition at least under some circumstances.  I have to wonder why Bradley doesn't go for a more standard definition of life; the answer would seem to be that he needs information in there to make a theological point. 

But never mind.  The important point here is what Bradley's definition of 'information' is.  He never offers one, and from the way he uses the term it is clear that he is using it in at least two different ways.  This is of central importance to his argument.  There are many definitions of 'information'.  Under some of them, it is impossible for evolution (or any process) to increase information.  Under some, evolution does not require an increase in information.  The challenge Bradley must meet is to give a definition of information that (a) must increase in order for evolution to occur, and (b) cannot or does not increase by undirected, natural processes.  He never even attempts this, instead using different meanings of the word 'evolution' to support each of those points separately.  This means he simply has no case here. 

Fortunately, Strobel is still giving leading questions that stand in comic relief to his claims to be 'shocked' by the 'revelations' Bradley is making: 'Did Darwin consider [...] a one-cell organism to be rather simple?'  Gosh, what a strange thing to think of in the midst of an interview.  It's almost as if he already knew what the standard Creationist response to this is. 

Our expert on metal fatigue spends a lot of time attacking the idea that the first replicators were amino acids - something that is a very minority position, if anyone still holds it at all.  He then claims that scientists thought the Earth was infinitely old until 1965!  (There was no measure its age; that's not the same as saying they thought it was infinitely old.  In fact, radiometric dating methods revealed an age of the Earth surprisingly high to many geologists, who were thinking in terms or hundreds of millions of years - Lord Kelvin, for instance, put it at between 20 and 400 million years.  But there's no reason to expect someone qualified in strain computations to know the history of radiometrics - unless, apparently, you are Lee Strobel.) 

After all this, Strobel and Bradley have not even touched on most of the evidence in favour of evolution.  Instead, they have side-stepped the issue by focusing on abiogenesis, where they can make a 'god of the gaps' argument.  Even within abiogenesis, they simply haven't considered the most widely accepted idea, that the first replicators were RNA.  Are we really supposed to take this as - to quote the cover blurb, and naming and shaming - 'the tenacity of a tough interrogator' (Ravi Zacharias), or 'probing interviews [to] some of the toughest intellectual obstacles to faith' (Luis Palau, President, Luis Palau Evangelistic Association)? 

The run-through of theories continues with equilibrium and non-equilibrium ideas, as though these were in themselves models of the early Earth rather than categories into which other models fit, plus Cairns-Smith's crystalline theory, which again is not really a major contender anyway.  (It is at this point, incidentally, that Bradley explicitely compares biological information to the number of letters in an encyclopedia - if that is the definition we are using, we can observe that natural processes such as evolution do cause increases in information.  But of course by that definition, evolution has been observed to cause an increase in information).  And he uses the example of the film Contact as an example of how easy it is to distinguish intelligently designed information from natural processes, apparently unaware of the confusion quasars caused when first discovered, and under the strange impression that the genetic code is literally writing. 

Strobel, of course, leaves the interview claiming that 'a rudimentary understanding of evolutionary science had once propelled me toward atheism; now, an increasing grasp of molecular science was cementing my confidence in God.'  I can only concur with his own thoughts: 'How ironic.'

Sunday, 13 November 2011


The previous post reminds me: I should read (but will probably never get around to) When Prophecy Fails, by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter.  Sounds like it is a scientific study that heavily undercuts the argument that the disciples could only have given their lives for their faith if they had seen the risen Jesus.  Festinger et alinfilitrated an apocalyptic UFO cult and observed that when the end of the world failed to arrive on cue, the group became more devout, not less. 

If that's accurate, it would be a comprehensive rebuttal of one of Craig's favourite claims.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

That Thin Line Between Dishonesty and Incompetence

Continuing on my blogging of Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ:

Objection Two: Since Miracles Contradict Science, They Cannot Be True; William Lane Craig, PhD.

CS Lewis quotes: 0
Mentions of former atheists: 3 ('a fellow [Craig] recently met', 'a former skeptic myself', 'Harvard-educated Patrick Glynn [...] abandon[ed] atheism and [became] a Christian'
How do I know Bill Craig is like me?  'Bill Craig is not an ivory tower pontificator' (Just like Kreeft)
How forceful is Strobel in presenting the questions?  Very. 'He listened to my first question, which admittedly came with an edge of challenge [...] I pressed him [...] this wasn't enough for me [...] I wanted to get more personal [...] deep in your soul, do you know for a fact that Christianity is true?' 

Craig is a heavyweight among apologists, and it seems that Strobel may recognise this; the drama-queen language is toned down a touch, and while there are flaws in most, perhaps all, the points raised, they are largely less tooth-grindingly obvious than in the previous section.  Let us hope that this is something that will continue through the book.  In the meantime, and leaving aside as much as possible what I know of Craig from elsewhere (though that will not be totally possible), how does he fare under Strobel's treatment? 

Craig's central argument here is that belief in a creator makes it rational to believe in mircales.  However, this is a dangerous argument for him to persue, since the reverse is also true: if belief in God leads us to expect miracles to occur and we find they do not, that should make us strongly question whether God does, in fact, exist. So let us see how Craig does with his defence of miracles. 
My opinion is that science (and all rational-empirical thought) is in conflict with faith for two reasons.  Firstly, the underlying philosophies are different: science is tied to the assumption of naturalism (at least as far as its method goes), and if we drop that assumption science ceases to work properly.  Faith, in the sense that Craig means it, positively denies naturalism.  These two practical approaches seem completely opposed to me. 
Secondly, science is based on simple observation, and simple observation tells us to expect miracles to happen virtually never or actually never.  So if we encounter a claim of a miracle, we should be very sceptical and require some very good evidence before we accept it as true - extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, something that Craig rejects very early on in the interview. 
So let's see how Craig approaches the subject.  Firstly, he says that miracles do not contradict science, they simply lie outside it.  This is a pretty dubious claim - miraculous cures, for instance, should be firmly within the real of medical testing, yet seem not to happen.  But he justifies this claim (oddly) by saying that science and theism can be combined - and citing Intelligent Design as a good example!  ID is not science, not by any reasonable definition, and not in the opinion of the bulk of scientists, court verdicts, and even many non-literalist priests.  For Craig to claim that there is no conflict between science and faith and then cite pseudo-science as his best example kills his argument stone dead to start with. 

Craig offers us a definition of a miracle, which is a good place to start (so it's strange he had to make his bizarre ID-related claim first).  Indeed his defenition is entirely sensible: 'A miracle is an event which is not producible by the natural causes that are operative at the time and place that the event occurs.'  But almost immediately he declares that he is (in Strobel's words): 'disagreeing with the great skeptic David Hume, who defined miracles as being violations of the laws of nature.'  If there is some subtle difference between those definitions, it is lost on me.  Is 'not producible by natural causes' distinct in some way from 'violating the laws of nature'?  If so, Craig does not explain and Strobel does not ask.  Or perhaps Craig simply can't bring himself to admit that Hume is right about anything. 

From this tangential brush with the rarified heights of common sense, the conversation goes downhill again.  Craig's first and best example of miracles that are not (in his words) 'superstitious', 'an excuse for ignorance' or 'simplistic thinking' is - again - ID.  He specifically claims that Michael Behe's work is 'based on solid scientific analysis'.  The problem, of course, is that it is no such thing.  ID is pseudo-science, and that has been apparent to all neutral observers since the modern ID movement began.  The fact that Craig is speaking before Behe was forced to admit under oath that ID is no more scientific than astrology is a thin defence for Craig.  And I am not sure what Craig hopes to gain by this strange insistence that ID is credible - it can only undermine the case he is trying to make. 

Now Craig moves on to addressing probably the most famous general argument against miracles, that of David Hume.  Hume, of course, argues that since the observational evidence that the laws of nature cannot be violated is so overwhelming, it will always be more likely that an observer is mistaken than that they have seen a genuine miracle, and thus we can never have reasonable grounds for belief in miracles.  Rather than address this directly, Craig initially chooses to persue a similar but different issue; since he believes that God exists, he thinks that belief in miracles is rational.  Therefore, he contends, it is not irrational for him to believe accounts of miracles.  So a lot will rest on how convincing a case Craig can make for the existence of God. 

Having made that claim, and apparently labouring under the misapprehension that Hume is basing his case on a naturalistic assumption, Craig now moves on to a slightly... novel attack on Hume:
'There is no contradiction between believing that men generally stay in their graves and that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.  In fact, Christians believe both of these.  The opposite of the statement that Jesus rose from the dead is not that all other men remained in their graves; it's that Jesus of Nazareth remained in his grave. 
'In order to argue against the evidence for the Resurrection, you have to present evidence against the Resurrection itself, not evidence that everybody else has always remained in their grave.  So I think [Hume's] argument is simply fallacious.' 

Got that?  In order to argue against something, you must present evidence against that specific example.  It is 'simply fallacious' to make a general case and extrapolate it to a specific example. 
Now this is really very surprising to hear from a professional, qualified philosopher.  There is a name for the line of reasoning that Craig is arguing against: 'inductive reasoning'.  Although it is notoriously difficult (even impossible) to justify from first principles, it underpins all human learning, and specifically it is central to the scientific method.  By Craig's argument, when I throw a ball in the air, I cannot know whether gravity will act on it.  Sure, gravity has acted on all other balls thrown in the air, but Craig's whole point is that 'in order to argue [X], you have to present evidence for [X] itself, not evidence that every other case has been similar', so I cannot extrapolate my experience with other balls to the specific ball in question. 

The last person I know of who seriously argued along the lines Craig proposes was a philosopher - I cannot now find a reference to back this up, but the point would stand even if the story were mythical - who refused to accept that inductive reasoning gave any reason to think that the sun would rise the next morning since, and bet a colleague a farthing that it would not.  Of course, he lost - but seeing no reason to extrapolate the general case of losing the bet in the past to the specific case of repeating the bet the next day, he continued to make the same bet (and lose it) every day until he died. 

This is the exalted philosophical company with which Craig chooses to align himself with this particular argument.  I would think that Craig is one of those philsophers who is so caught up in their pet theories that they lose touch a little with the real world, if only I didn't have Strobel's reassurances about Craig not being an 'ivory tower' dweller to reassure me.  In fact, it is so surprising that any serious philosopher would be unaware of what induction is or the practical problems in denying it that I find it very difficult to believe that even Craig takes this line of argument seriously. 

Applying induction to the case in hand: we know from observation that dead people don't come back to life (or at the very least, that it is fantastically rare that they do so), and this is true whether you believe in God or not; it is a simple observation of the world around us and not based on any philosophical predisposition.  Whilst this may not absolutely prove that Jesus is not the exception who did rise from the dead, it certainly means that this claim is extraordinary, and it does require extraordinary proof. 

Incidentally, I have an argument based on parsimony to support inductive reasoning, which I may give at some stage; for now, let me simply point out that this stance underlines the contradiction between reason and belief in miracles, it does not remove it.  Whatever the truth of it, science is based on inductive reasoning.  If Craig disputes it to support miracles, science and miracles are in conflict. 

Given the importance of this point, I will spend a little time covering of Craig's counter-example also.  He says that any given lottery result is highly improbable, yet we accept it without question because the unlikelihood of TV reports being wrong outweighs the unlikelihood of the result itself.  The basic premise is true, but Craig skips another important factor: all lottery results are equally probable.  If we are more likely to dispute a result of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 than a result of 4, 2, 9, 7, 8, 3, that is to do with our perceptions not the actual probability.  If someone tells me they have seen a unicorn, it is entirely reasonable for me to ask for more evidence than if they say they have seen a horse; and this is based on experience (I have seen plenty of horses but few unicorns), not a philosophical bias.  In contrast, we know from simple observation that the chances of someone coming back from the dead are very low (whether or not you believe in God).  Craig's response is that the unlikelihood of Jesus' Resurrection is counterbalanced by the unlikelihood of the lines of evidence in its favour being misleading - the empty tomb, post-Resurrection appearances, etc.  We will cover this later; for now, let us simply note that this essentially says that the New Testament is so reliable that we should simply accept it when it says a miracle has occurred even though our own experience tells us miracles occur vanishingly rarely or never at all.  You may or may not believe this, but it is certainly no basis for a serious philosophical argument. 

I would also like to raise a flag here.  Craig is very plainly - and at quite some length - saying that the existence of God makes miracles rationally plausible: 'If God really exists then in what sense is it improbable that he would raise Jesus from the dead?'  This is clearly bunk - you need large tracts of highly implausible Christian theology to explain the Resurrection of Jesus - but I want to come back to this point later. 

That's enough actual thought for a while, and now we have half a page of content-free anti-free-thought invective while we brace ourselves for the next real mental stimulation and to mark the break between two main sections of Craig's argument.  Since my readers may well also appreciate such a break, I will extend them the same courtest Strobel and Craig do, by giving a quick precis:
'I recently met a fellow who became a Christian out of the so-called 'free thought' movement [...] his free-thought colleagues bitterly railed against him [...] "Why are they so hostile?" [...] some 'free thought' folks aren't as free thinking as they would have people believe [...] many skeptics act in a close-minded way.' 

Got that?  Right, back to content-bearing arguments. 

Previously, on The Case For Faith: Craig is currently denying inductive reasoning, and claiming that belief in miracles is justified by belief in God.  He therefore needs to make a case that God exists in order to support his belief in miracles.  But there will be a little preamble before he gets to his main points. 

'Apart from some proof of atheism, there's no warrant for excluding supernatural explanations.'  Yes there is.  For a start, what's this with 'proof'?  Surely all we need is evidence 'beyond reasonable doubt' before it becomes reasonable to exclude the supernatural?  Furthermore, naturalistic explanations work.  They have explanatory and predictive powers; supernatural explanations have neither.  Naturalism allows us to build computers that work, planes that fly and spacecraft that hit their designated orbits (usually).  Supernaturalism does what?  Dousing for water?  Faith healing?  The greatest 'warrant' you could possibly want for excluding supernatural mechanisms is mankind's progress since the Enlightenment, compared to the stagnation before it.  To coin a phrase: science works, bitches. 

The next major chunk of Craig's argument is specific reasons to think that the miracles of Jesus are credible, and that they are more credible than those of other religious leaders.  Craig's major line of defence here is that miracles should be judged on whether they are in a 'religio-historical context.' 

This, frankly, is more blatant balderdash that I find it hard to believe that even Craig believes.  Is he saying that all claims of the supernatural should be investigated this way?  (Remember that his definition of 'miracle' makes no distinction between divine causation and any other form of supernatural event.)  We should investigate poltergeists, UFOs, milk-drinking statues and levitation by first and foremost looking to see what religious context they appear in?  It rather seems that Craig has chosen his criteria here because they will give the answer he wants, not because they are particularly good criteria.  But even if we accept them, there are examples that would meet them that Craig cannot accept, such as the Emperor Vespasian's healing of the blind and crippled, within the context of Vespasian's claims of divinity and Roman Emperor-worship. 

There is more reliance on the NT to 'prove' that Jesus' miracles are genuine, and thus to lend support to the NT version of the Resurrection, which is somewhat circular to my mind, to say the least.  This is combined with wild claims such as 'the historicity of [Jesus' miracles] is not in doubt.'  There are major and minor inaccuracies, such as describing Rudolf Bultmann (who accepts the literal truth of at least some of Jesus' miracles) as 'recognized as one of the most skeptical New Testament critics of this century'.  Perhaps this interview did indeed take place in the late 20th Century, but the book was published in the 21st; Bultmann was a 20th-Century theologian (and much of his work dating back to the first quarter of that century at that).  He may have been one of the most skeptical theologians of the 1920s; by the late 1990s there are many historians who have argued much more skeptical viewpoints (up to and including that Jesus did not exist at all). 

It is crucual to Craig's line of argument that the NT documents are from eye-witnesses.  Since this is not really defensible, he instead has to insist that they contain information that came from eye-witnesses.  The counter-argument, of course, is that they were built up over time, particularly where the miracles are concerned, around a kernel of true (but non-miraculous) information, such as the moral teachings of Jesus.  Craig deals with this by looking at a single, weak example, concerning the precise wording used to describe how many people were present at a healing.  He simply glosses over the fact that the main miracle in question - the Resurrection - is absent altogether (the Didache and Thomas, if these documents are as early as some suggest; bear in mind that Craig consistently implies very early dating for source materials) or is treated as purely spiritual (Paul) in the earliest sources, then becomes physical but unreported (short Mark), before reaching the 'well-attested' status he needs in the Gospels.  The claim that Jesus the miracle-worker is found in all the sources is likewise false; the Didache and Thomas pointedly do not mention a single miracle of Jesus between them, and I believe I am correct in saying that Paul does not either, aside from the Resurrection itself.  A similar case could be made for other aspects of the NT, such as portrayal of Jesus as divine or human. 

Then we get an oft-repeated but demonstrably empty claim: 'There was nowhere near enough time for legend to have developed and wiped out a solid core of historical truth.'  I'm not quite sure how this minimum length of time is supposed to have been calculated but even taking Craig's claim of a 5-year period before the first claims of Jesus' divinity were recorded (which is a very debatable timescale for which he offers no supporting evidence), we can think of numerous modern examples that utterly falsify this claim.  How long between the death of Elvis and rumours he was alive?  Or rather implausible rumours about the Roswell crash?  JFK assassination conspiracy theories?  Osama bin Laden's death?  Princess Diana's death?  This unsupported claim, though central to Craig's argument, is very weak. 

He makes a relatively decent stab at pointing out that Muslim accounts of Mohammed's miracles were not written down until long after Mohammed's death (though note the double standard with the 'core of historical truth dating back to 5 years after the Resurrection' being so reliable but the oral tradition of the Hadiths being clearly bogus), though he does have to skip over the 'splitting of the Moon', a miracle mentioned in the Quran that would appear to violate Craig's claim that there are no miracles in the Quran (other interpretations are available, your Quran may vary).  He is markedly less successful with Mormonism, which clearly did catch on while there were witnesses alive to discredit Joseph Smith.  His attempt to shift the subject onto an archaeological disproof of Mormonism starts out as an irrelevant dodge, then becomes a spectacular own goal when he refers just lines later to the Exodus as a historical fact.  Should have stuck with the NT, which is at least based in a real time and place, unlike the Exodus - of course, without the OT, his claim that there are periods of 'great moments in salvation history' is looking a little threadbare of examples - it essentially means only the time of Jesus, which would seem to undermine rather than support his contention that miracles really happen. 

We have another break while Craig explains why God has not healed him personally (by keeping him physically weak, he has forced him to become an academic - so presumably all those sportsmen who think God has granted them physical gifts should be a little cautious that God might also have given them some academic challenges to help them along the way?  Hmm, Craig might actually be onto something there...) before we head into the 'home straight'. 

Now comes another clear example of (at best) a 'leading question' and at worst some post-interview editing by Strobel.  Craig is well-known for his five arguments for God's existence.  When he mentions Plantinga's 'dozen arguments', Strobel innocently asks, 'How about zeroing in on five main arguments?'.  Gosh, what a pleasing coincidence that Strobel should ask for just the number of examples that Craig invariably gives. 

Never mind.  Remember what is riding on this.  Having rejected inductive reasoning and instead placed his reliance on the Bible, and having distinguished between Biblical and non-Biblical miracles on entirely spurious grounds, Craig has relied upon the existence of God being reasonable in order to make belief in miracles reasonable.  So here are Craig's five reasons for belief in God. 

1) Nothing can come out of nothing, and the Kalam version of the Cosmological argument.  I have covered this elsewhere, but very briefly, quantum theory disproves the first premise (that nothing can come from nothing) and the cosmological argument in general does nothing to show that the cause of the universe was God.  Craig reiterates his frequently-made claim that 'atheists' (that homogenous bunch) claim that the universe is eternal and uncaused, and therefore cannot object to the idea of an eternal and uncaused God.  Of course, the reverse also applies, that theists cannot object to an eternal and uncaused universe, but Craig does not seem to notice this.  Nor does he seem to notice that the same logic would tie the beliefs of modern Christians (that equally homogenous bunch) to those of past Christians - so lightning must be God's divine vengeance, for instance. 

2) Fine Tuning.  This is the only time that I have seen Craig directly attack the 'Many Worlds' hypothesis.  His response is that this is merely a theory, since we cannot observe these other worlds.  But that is not the point; the fact that this is possible undermines Fine Tuning as an argument for God, since it's no longer true to say God is the only possible explanation for FT.  You might as well say that Fine Tuning is itself evidence for the existence of Many Worlds.  Nor does he mention the possibility of indirect evidence for Many Worlds, which is in fact the current situation.  His example of being dealt four aces consistently in poker fails - even if there are multiple universes, the chances of us being in one where this happens are just as remote as it happening by chance in a single universe.  It's possible, it's just not plausible.  This does not apply to Fine Tuning - if there are multiple universes, life must by definition exist only in those where it is possible for life to exist, no matter how rare they are.  We are looking at a biased sample of universes with respect to life - we can only see life-bearing universes, no matter how rare they are.  No such bias exists with respect to dealing out cards.  This is the anthropic principle, and once again I simply cannot believe that Craig is unaware of it, and again is entirely non-controversial.  Opinion pollsters use a variety of it, fer Chrissakes, bcause otherwise they get the wrong results in election forecasts.  This is, in fact, the one point in this chapter that I simply cannot, no matter how I look at it, believe that Craig is being entirely honest with his audience.  And once I accept that here, the integrity of a number of his other (previously mentioned) statements becomes equally dubious. 

Craig also claims that the Many Worlds theory was created only to discredit the Fine Tuning argument: 'the very fact that skeptics have to come up with such an outlandish theory is because the fine-tuning of the universe points powerfully toward an Intelligent Designer - and some people will hypothesise anything to avoid reaching that conclusion.'  This is simply untrue, and slanderous to boot.  In light of the above, I am not even certain whether Craig may know it is untrue - if he knows enough about (say) M-Theory to comment on it intelligently, he must at least know that it falls naturally out of the mathematics of string theory, and the fact that it discredits one of his favourite arguments (two actually; it also bears on first cause and the KCA) is neither here nor there.  In a recent debate, Craig argued that we have to accept the most current scientific evidence and theories; yet he cannot do that here without immediately writing off two fifths of his case.  So he resorts to throwing dirt and hoping some sticks. 

3) Moral values.  Again, I have covered this at length elsewhere.  In addition, he here explicitely equates biologically-based morality with moral relativism, which is simply untrue.  I note also his position on genocide, which he does not consider objectively wrong.  This rather undermines his initial assumptions that there are objective moral values that all humans have access to via God, since most people would tend to believe that genocide is morally wrong. 

4) The Resurrection.  Now a very strange thing happens.  Do you remember how I flagged up earlier that Craig was arguing that the existence of God makes belief in the Resurrection more plausible?  Well, it turns out that he also argues exactly the reverse, that the Resurrection makes the existence of God more plausible: 'Miracles can be part of the cumulative case for God.' This is only true if you'll accept a circular argument or discard Craig's whole case in favour of the Resurrection as historical truth. 

Anyway, he lists four events (Jesus' burial in a tomb of known location; the discovery of the empty tomb by the women; Jesus' post-Resurrection appearances; and the continuing belief of the disciples after Jesus' death) that he claims are 'widely accepted by New Testament historians'.  (Notice, incidentally, that being 'widely accepted' by experts is such a good case where it supports Craig's views, but so irrelevant when it does not, such as the positions of cosmologists or philosophers on some of his more controversial claims.)  I promised we would return to this.  The first three of these rely heavily on the accuracy of the New Testament, and as I have already pointed out, we have decent evidence to at least suspect that the Bible is not a neutral and strictly factual historical account.  Despite Craig's insistence to the contrary, these are extraordinary claims and we should therefore be looking for extraordinary evidence, and indeed many NT historians consider them very questionable.  Instead, we have some highly biased ('prejudiced', in Craig's terms), anonymous accounts with no referenced sources.  This would be nowhere near enough to support such claims if they were not related to Christian belief, therefore there is nowhere near enough evidence to support them just because they are about Christianity.  To argue otherwise would be just a variation of 'this is true because I believe it is true'.  Which, strangely, brings me to:

5) Personal Experience.  Like the first two claims, this can be dismissed out of hand.  Craig does not accept the 'personal experience' of Muslims, his own 'personal experience' of a fixed, motionless Earth, or any of a multitude of other similar arguments.  So this is not so much an argument from 'personal experience of the divine' as an argument from William Craig's own personal opinions. 

In defence, Craig gets into some very technical philosophy very quickly, presumably in an attempt to dazzle his audience into thinking he must be too smart to be wrong.  He claims that belief in God is 'properly basic'.  (Although he doesn't mention it, this is essentially Plantinga's 'Reformed Epistemology')  The trouble is that belief in God isn't nearly as 'basic' as other 'properly basic' beliefs (which he does not stoop to describe), and is therefore special pleading.  Properly basic beliefs are usually restricted to descriptions of one's own mental state: 'I believe I am looking at something red'; 'I believe I am in pain'.  These are accepted as basic because there is really no other option without denying that we can perceive the outside world, or without rendering concepts like 'pain' meaningless.  It would be quite proper to say 'I believe I feel God's presence', and that would indeed be convincing reason to accept that you do feel as though you are in God's presence; but it would not be good reason to think you actually are in God's presence, any more than feeling that Justin Bieber is a musical genius or that Megan Fox is madly in love with me are good evidence that those things are true outside of my own head. 

Alarmingly, Craig seems to regard this as his best 'argument': 'when we've met God, so to speak, face-to-face, all of the arguments and evidence for his existence - though still perfectly valid - take a secondary role.'

The clincher for me comes right at the end.  Craig states outright that: 'immediate experience of God is available to anyone who seeks it' (with a Biblical quote to support it, no less).  Well, I can absolutely guarantee to Craig that this is false.  I have made the most genuine effort I can to 'open myself' to God in response to exactly this point from another Christian, and simply felt no response.  Now, of course I cannot prove this, and no doubt Strobel's response (and perhaps Craig's too) would be some sort of personal attack on my sincerity, or perhaps to rapidly backtrack and start adding extra hurdles to what is required.  Nevertheless, I for one know for a fact that Craig's beliefs are wrong.

Friday, 11 November 2011


"Having forcibly – and understandably – rectified the Versailles-type injustices and humiliations foisted on the homosexual community, the UK's victorious Gaystapo are now on a roll. Their gay-rights stormtroopers take no prisoners as they annex our wider culture, and hotel owners, registrars, magistrates, doctors, counsellors, and foster parents … find themselves crushed under the pink jackboot."- Alan Craig, Church of England Newspaper

Yes, thank you for your contribution to civil rights, Church of England Newspaper.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Theological Car Crash

A well-meaning friend-of-a-friend has given me a copy of Lee Strobel's The Case For Faith to read.  Having already read the precursor, The Case For Christ, I was expecting very little of this book.  Nevertheless, the standards of thought in Christian apologetics always astound me, so I felt the need to share. 

The book takes the form of a series of interviews with theologians, ostensibly in response to an interview with former fundamentalist preacher Charles Templeton, each of which attempts to answer one of Strobel's 'Big Eight' objections to Christianity (NB: lack of evidence for Jesus is not among them; presumably Strobel is under the illusion that he has covered this satisfactorily in his previous pamphlet). 

Firstly, the book is very poorly written.  Strobel's 'homely asides' are repetitive and filled with invective against atheists and praise for Christians.  In each of these interviews, Strobel's role is to unconvincingly play the sceptic, while posing questions that so obviously play to what the interviewee was about to say anyway that it is tempting to think they were written in afterwards.  A typical example from Chapter One:
'Are there any other ways in which you believe [the problem of] evil works against atheism?'
'Yes there are...' 

But philosophy does not stand or fall on the quality of the writing (or at least, it should not), so let's look at the actual points Strobel makes in his first interview. 

Objections One: Since Evil And Suffering Exist, A Loving God Cannot; Peter John Kreeft, PhD.  

CS Lewis quotes: 3
Mentions of 'former atheists': 1 ('agnostic-turned-Christian Sheldon Vanauken)
How do I know John Kreeft is like me?  Because Strobel tells me he does't reside 'in the cloistered ivory towers of academia'. 
How forceful is Strobel in presenting the question?  Very.  He decides to 'hit Kreeft head-on with Templeton's blunt objections [...] confronting Kreeft with the same emotional intensity that Templeton had displayed [...] the professor's eyes were riveted on me.  Facing him squarely, leaning forward in my chair for emphasis, [...] in a rather accusatory tone [...] I thumped my hand on his desk [...] with a mock air of triumph [...] we were clearly moving toward the climax of our discussion. [...]' etc. 
To give Strobel his due, this is the one question that I think everyone would include in their 'Big Eight'.  So how does Kreeft deal with it? 

Firstly, we need to get the anti-atheist venom out of the way.  Being certain that God does not exist, Kreeft confidently assures us, is 'intellectually arrogant'.  (I am reminded that Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion points out that Christians are far more likely to claim certain knowledge of God's existence than atheists are to claim certain knowledge of God's non-existence, so I wonder who is being 'arrogant' here.) 

There's plenty more in this vein later on too.  Take this, for instance:
'Atheism is cheap on people, because it snobbishly says nine out of ten people through history have been wrong about God and have had a lie at the core of their hearts.' 

So have nine out of ten people through history been Christian?  Or is exactly the same true of all religions, as well as atheism?  

Anyway, back to Kreeft's points.  First, out comes the 'mystery card'.  We can't know what God intends, therefore we can't know that suffering doesn't serve some greater good.  We're told that God cannot make the world too easy to understand or we wouldn't need faith (we're not told what's so great about faith as opposed to rational or empirical knowledge).  Of course, Kreeft then spends the remainder of the interview telling us with certainty (but not 'intellectual arrogance', of course) exactly what God does intend by suffering.  Apparently, mystery serves as a smokescreen only when Kreeft wants it to. 

Next we get the argument from morality.  Kreeft sees no difference between suffering and evil (so earthquakes are evil?), and if evil exists then God must exist.  Kreeft offers no support for either his claim that Evil exists as a force, or that only God could explain it if it does (there are, of course, numerous secular explanations of objective morality even if you choose to reject my own favoured explanation; even the possibility of one of these being true falsifies Kreeft's point here).  Instead, we're treated to discourse of this level of understanding:
'If there is no creator and therefore no moment of creation, then everything is the result of evolution.  If there was no begining or first cause, then the universe must have always existed.  That means the universe has been evolving for an infinite period of time - and, by now, everything should already be perfect.  There would have been plenty of time for evolution to have finished and evil to have been vanquished.

It takes a special kind of genius to be able to pack quite so much drivel into so small a space.  I gave up trying to count the number of fundamental misconceptions packed into that one paragraph, and instead leave it as an exercise for the interested reader. 

Things get no better as Kreeft assures us we will know the truth when we meet God after we die.  'When the atheist dies and encouters God [...] he'll recognise that atheism was a cheap answer.'  I concede that there is a cheap answer in there somewhere.  I don't think it's where our theologically-inclined friend claims it is. 

Next Kreefs tells us that God doesn't actully create evil; God created the potentiality for evil, but humans actualise it.  In other words, God made evil possible, but it's humans who actually commit it.  Aside from being a dubious moral distinction, this is plainly inapplicable to, say, eathquakes and other... well, 'acts of God'. 

Now Kreeft rolls out the theological 'big guns'; the free will defence.  'It's a self-contradiction - a meaningless nothing - to have a world where there's real choice while at the same time no possibility of choosing evil', he assures us, apparently oblivious to the fact that he has just consigned Heaven and a free God to the theological dustbin.  It is far from obvious that the only possibilities are complete free will or no free will at all - any decent parent tries to influence their child's behaviour, but we rarely accuse them of 'destroying free will in a way worse than genocide'.  I mean, is Kreeft really saying that appearing in front of Hitler and commanding him to be nice to people would have been worse than the Holocaust?  Besides, as any first-year philosophy undergraduate knows (but apparently neither Kreeft nor Strobel notices), free will is irrelevant to much of the suffering in the world, which is caused by natural disasters.  Did I mention earthquakes yet? 

Now Kreeft simply denies the apparent facts: 'The evidence is that God is all-powerful'.  Of course, he cannot give any example of such evidence; at best he has explained away evidence to the reverse. 

Back to the philosophical backwaters - perhaps there are 'hidden goods'.  Now Professor Kreef, you're repeating yourself, you've played the mystery card already.  But never mind, just give me an example of what could possibly justify genocide, and... oh, you're off on another track. 

Perhaps pain teaches us and 'builds character'.  In what way does dying painfully teach us anything?  And why do Christians seem just as prone to pain and suffering as others?  Surely once you're in a relationship with God, pain is more likely to convince you God does not exist? 

No response, so on with the soundbites.  Suffering produces 'second order goods' like perseverance.  Yes it does, but it also produces 'second order evils' like sadism and fear.  Is there any particular reason to think the former outweigh the latter? 

A world without suffering is pointless.  Yes, possibly - but that doesn't address the question of why there is quite so much suffering does it? 

Now here, at last, Kreeft thinks he has me, and wheels out his 'Aha!  Gotcha!' play. There is no dividing line where we can stop preventing suffering, he says.  If God prevents genocide, he would have to prevent slander too, and then he would have to abolish free will altogether.  This is, of course, nonsense.  Unless Kreeft is complaining that the world contains exactly the perfect amount of suffering to bring the maximum number of people into relationship with God, God could easily prevent a few people from suffering.  And as Kreeft himself points out, to those few people that would be really very important indeed.  What parent would shrug off the death of their own child as neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things?  And Kreeft is telling us that God feels every individual's pain just as much as they do themselves.  Having lost five children, what parent would say there is no point in saving a sixth?  Only Kreeft's God, it would seem.  To say nothing of the natural disasters like earthquakes that are clearly not caused by free will at all. 

So taking Kreeft's point rather more seriously than it deserves, perhaps humans are actually far too nice to each other?  Perhaps we're not causing the requisite amount of suffering by freely choosing to do evil, so God in His wisdom needs to throw in the occasional earthquake or tsunami to keep up at the optimum level of suffering.  (Just like he will in Heaven.)

It was at around this point that I needed to take a break to clear my head of the stupid.   

Kreeft defends his bizarre position as best he can.  'Every time you use force to take away evil, you prevent freedom'.  Still wondering why a quiet word with Hitler is worse than a Holocaust.  Or an earthquake.  I'm a little aware we're running out of pages in this chapter, and Kreeft has not even mentioned natural disasters.  But let's stick with his example.  Is a parent who prevents a child from hurting a helpless baby so utterly destroying the freedom of the first child that the parent should not have intervened?  Kreeft seems to think so.  If I see a woman knifed to death in the street in front of me, should I be pleased that the world is a better place for the fear and suffering created, even if I can't see how?  Again, it would appear that under Kreeft's bizarre morality, this is the only rational reaction. 

But never fear!  There will (Kreeft confidently assures us 'intellectually arrogant' atheists) be restitution in Heaven.  God will reward and punish in the afterlife.  So then it's actions, not belief, that get people to Heaven?  Oops, sorry St Paul, sounds like you were wrong after all.  Besides, I thought this was all a big mystery - how can Kreeft now suddenly be so sure of the details of what God wants?  Perhaps God sees some great good that we mere humans cannot in sending good people to Hell? 

Kreeft continues to trot out the unconvincing homespun theology, while Strobel eggs him on with exaggerated shows of emotion ('it was time to cut to the core of the issue [...] I challenged Kreeft with a question that crystallised the controversy').  Suffering brings us to repentance, Kreeft tells us, which is all part of God's plan.  So why did God make it that way?  Kreeft is happy to claim that joy also brings people closer to God, so his consistency seems seriously dented.  'There are no good people', he declaims.  Well, Kreeft may think that, but then again all his friends and Christians.  Is he seriously saying that God made not just a free race but an evil one?  That deciding to be good is actually impossible?  'We're ontologically good, but morally we're not'.  We're 'good' in some way other than morally?  What is non-moral goodness?  We are - as Hitchens put it - created sick and commanded to be well?  Doesn't say much for God either as a designer or as a moral guide, does it? 

Having run through this sub-standard presentation of very standard (and long discredited) theodicies, Strobel blithely assures me that 'At least [Kreeft] wasn't offering canned explanations'.  I would love to know what Strobel would consider a 'canned explanation'. 

I can, however, end on a (comparative) high note, though I have to say I feel rather like someone standing on a molehill at the bottom of the Grand Canyon when I talk about 'comparatively high'.  Finally, Kreeft says something that might be vaguely true.  God cannot explain suffering, but he offers us companionship when we suffer.  Here, at last, I can very slightly come alongside him.  We have to strip away all the unfounded assertions (Jesus took all the suffering that has ever existed onto himself) and the theological accretions (only a God that has suffered can offer redemption), but we are left with the claim that religion offers some people solace - which is true.  But it doesn't really explain why there has to be quite so much suffering in the world, or why the devout suffer just as much as the rest of us even when it destroys their faith. 

Strobel started out by quoting Sheldon Vanuaken: 'If only villains got broken backs or cancers, if only cheaters and crooks got Parkinson's disease, we should see a sort of celestial justice in the universe.'  Kreeft never comes close to answering this, and Strobel seems not even to notice. 

And he never mentions earthquakes once.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

h2g2, WLC and Book Club

It is pleasing to see that my spiritual home is now back up and running. 

While it has been away, I have found a new play-site: the Reasonable Faith forum, run by William Lane Craig, a frequent subject in these last few posts.  I have to say that you get a better quality of Christian there, rather more thoughtful than on some other sites.  They are, of course, committed to Craig's five arguments for the existence of God, and my claim that Craig rejects the Nicene Creed was met with blunt disbelief until I quoted him.  A few thought-provoking discussions on morality, and some rather yes-it-it, no-it-isn't ones on whether the Universe is caused. 

In unrelated news, a well-meaning friend-of-a-friend (and parishoner of the local fundagelical church) has bought me a copy of Lee Strobel's 'The Case For Faith'.  I shall duly read and digest; if it is anything like his first book, 'The Case For Christ', I wouldn't expect too much from it. I shall also dig out the Craig/Grayling debate to watch at some stage, to see if Grayling fared as badly as the Cragites would have me believe.