November 2007
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  • Archive for November, 2007

    Historical Understanding

    Friday, November 30th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Nov 30, 2007, Wausau, Wi   One huge difference between Christians and their critics is the framework in which judgments are made. Often it is the differences in the framework which results in their vastly different conclusions, more than the actual evidence.  One key difference is over one’s view of history.

    Critics often see religion in general, and Christianity in specific, as a vastly negative force in history.  For example, they see the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages” where the former brilliance of Rome was suppressed by the Church. When the iron grip of the Church weakened, this former brilliance broke free again in the Renaissance.  In fact for them the Western History of the last 1500 years has been marked by a struggle to break free of the Church and its flat earth view of the world, so as to embrace a more rational view based on science. 

    Despite the popularity of such thinking is it nevertheless false and misleading.  For example, it never was church doctrine that the earth was flat, nor did even a large number of Christians believe in a flat earth.  This is a myth that originated among the critics of Christianity in the 18th century.  As for the so-called Dark Ages, historians have long since realized that this was a somewhat self-serving view of history spawned by those in the Renaissance who saw themselves as restoring the glories of Rome, and not an accurate depiction of the  period historians now refer to as the Middle Ages.  

    In reality the Middle Ages were a time or great intellectual development that, rather than suppressing inquiry, actually laid the intellectual foundations for the Renaissance and modern science.  It was from the so-called Dark Ages of Church repression that we see the origin of Universities, the beginning of experimental science, and many discoveries and innovations like the incorporation of things like the decimal system and gunpowder. It is from this period we see the invention of eyeglasses, pendulum clocks and the compass. Magna Carta comes from this period, as does the jury system and habeas corpus, along with the beginnings of representative government in the English Parliament, and the French Estates-General.   

    As the historian Will Durant summarized it “It would be unwise to look down with hybritic pride upon a period that produced so many great men and women.” Durant went on to add “we shall never do justice to the Middle Ages until we see the Italian Renaissance not as their repudiation but as their fulfillment.” (Age of Faith, pg  1082, 1085)

    To be sure, not everything was rosy. Like any period in history the complete picture was far more mixed. When compared with today’s standards, the Middle Ages often fall short.   But judging the Middle Ages by today’s standards about as valid as saying that Newton, Galileo, or other early scientist, didn’t even know what would now be called High School science, and therefore were stupid.  

    A more accurate standard would be to judge based on the historical norm up to the period in question.  This is why Newton and Galileo are seen as great. While they may not have passed a High School science test of today, they made discoveries and scientific advances unknown until then.  

    Unfortunately, history is so badly taught, and poorly understood, that the average person has little understanding of even recent history (or in some cases even current events outside of sports or music).  This lack of any historical understanding is why Britain and America are frequently condemned for having slaves.  Until recently, slavery was an almost universal institution, and one that still exists in some areas even today. Thus what was aberrational about Britain and America was not that they had slaves, but that they led the way in abolishing the slave trade and then slavery itself. 

    Significantly other notable exceptions to the historical norm of slavery were Ancient Israel, and the Middle Ages.  While the Bible allowed slavery, it regulated it to the point that slavery virtually disappeared from Ancient Israel. Likewise, during the Middle Ages, under the influence of the Church slavery disappeared from most of Western Europe, only to be reintroduced after the Middle Ages.

    Another example would be that, while we frequently hear of the atrocities committed by the early settlers of the Americas on the native inhabitants, one of the reasons we are able to do this is that the atrocities were documented by early churchmen seeking help in stopping them. Until then such atrocities were the norm, what was aberrational was the attempt to prevent them.

     So when judging the actions of those in the past, we must be careful to factor in what was historically the norm for their time.  What if in a couple of centuries from now, standards have change such that eating meat, driving your own car, watching football, or anything number of things we current do without a second thought, is then seen as barbaric and/or immoral? Would we consider ourselves fairly condemned for our failure to follow such future standards? 

    Instead of focusing on condemning those who followed the norm of their time, would it not be better to focus on those who broke from the norm to help bring us our modern understanding? But to do this would in many cases, be to acknowledge the positive impact of Christians, such as those in the forefront of the anti-Slavery movement.   

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.

    Zeitgeist – The Responses II

    Friday, November 16th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Nov 16, 2007, Wausau, Wi — Interest and discussion concerning Zeitgeist, The Movie and my three part review continues to grow, so this week I thought I would address a point that recently came up in a couple of relies to my review. These replies started out by agreeing with my review. One began, “this movie is based on incorrect facts.” Another said, “I am a Christian and I realize Zeitgeist part one was a complete total lie.”

    But after agreeing, they went on to claim other grand conspiracies. The first writer went on to claim that while Zeitgeist was based on incorrect facts, the same could be said for the Bible, and religion was simply a means to control the masses and enslave them. The other writer said, “I believe the rest of the movie is true and that the US government had everything to do with [911]” and that “most Christians now believe 911 was an inside job, Satan is in control of our government.”

    Both of these replies demonstrate in their own way the persistence of these grand conspiracy theories. Part of this is simply the flawed and often dishonest way in which they presented. We have a general, and somewhat necessary, view that people are honest. Even people who claim not to trust anyone still do a lot of trusting in their day to day lives. So when we hear someone telling something, there is a tendency to accept it unless we have a reason not to.

    For example, one of the reasons the Christian writer gave that Parts II and III of Zeitgeist should believed even though part one was flawed is that there is a “video of Larry Silverstein admitting he demoed building 7.” Now a video of the building’s owner admitting that he was the one responsible for bringing down the building, rather than the terrorist would be pretty powerful evidence. But the actual situation is a good example of how these grand conspiracy theories work.

    Now there is video of the owner, but what he says is “pull it.” The conspiracy theorists claim “pull it” is jargon which refers to bringing down a building by explosives, and thus their claim that the owner ordered the building brought down. So even when those who do check out this claim see the video, they will see just what the theorist have led them to see, Silverstein given the command to “pull it.” While this is conclusive evidence for the conspiracy theorists, and at first blush seems at least plausible, the problem is that there are other, and better, understandings of Silverstein’s statement.

    Frankly given that he was talking to the Fire Department commander and his stated purpose in the video was to not to risk further loss of life, I find Silverstein’s own explanation that this referred to stopping the effort to put out the fires to be far more likely. After all if the building were to be demolished by explosives, it is extremely unlikely that the NYFD would have been in on any such conspiracy, given the number of firefighters who heroically gave their lives that day.

    This is just one piece of evidence, and conspiracy theories are built upon a seaming endless stream of such claims. When people do take the time to refute them, they are often simply rejected, a part of the conspiracy. Thus when I pointed out some of  refutations of the 911 conspiracy to the Christian writer defending them I was told that they were done by organizations that were “all run by a secret society called FREE MASONS.” Not only do these theory slant evidence to support them, they have a built in way of rejecting any evidence against them as part of the conspiracy.

    Paul tells us that in the last days, people “will gather around them a great number of teachers, to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 tim 4:3-4)

    There is a very simply principle, that truth cannot be grounded in error. As we try to reach the world with the truth of the Gospel, we must be doubly careful not mix it with error. This is not a new problem. There is always a great temptation to having secret knowledge, to know what others do not; to be in on the secret. During the time of the early church, this desire expressed itself in the form of Gnosticism, a religious movement based on secret knowledge that competed with Christianity in the second century.

    The conspiracy theorists of today are the modern Gnostics. Laura Curtis summarized this nicely in her blog Suspending Disbelief, when she wrote “Like Gnostics, they are the Chosen Ones, privy to information the rest of us can’t comprehend. They’re special. Part of an elite few. We can’t handle the truth! They are the messiah, here to save us from our own dangerous ignorance.”

    One of the worst aspects of these conspiracy theories is that there is real evil in the world and these theories only divert our attention away from it. One does not need to be a Bush supporter to believe that Islamic terrorism is both real and evil. It existed long before Bush, and will exist long after he is out of office.

    As Paul said, “test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1 Thess 5:21-22)

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.

    A Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion Part XI

    Friday, November 9th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Nov 9, 2007, Wausau, Wi   Last time in my review of Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” I looked at the flaws in the first three point of what Dawkins calls “the central argument of my book.”  Again, he summarizes this argument in the following six points:

    1 – The appearance of design is one of the greatest challenges to the human intellect.

    2 – The temptation is to attribute design to a designer.

    3 – The designer hypothesis is false because it does not explain who designed the designer. 

    4 – Evolution, the best explanation so far, shows that design at least for biology is an illusion.

    5 – Since in evolution, apparent design is an illusion, it could be an illusion in other areas such as physics.

    6 – We should not give up hope of finding better explanations elsewhere and the weak explanations we do have are better than the explanations that rely on God.

    When we come to point four, that evolution shows that design in biology is an illusion; this of course assumes that not only is evolution a valid theory for the origin of new life forms and biological structures, but that it is a completely explanation.

    Space here does not permit a discussion of all the problems with evolutionary theory, and in any event, these are well discussed elsewhere. So I will just mention two points that cast serious doubt on Dawkins argument. The first is that the problems with evolutionary theory have not decreased over the years, as our understanding has grown, but rather have increased to the point that, as I discuss in my book Evidence for the Bible, even the definition of evolution itself is now unclear, as supporters keep shifting the definition to avoid these problems, frequently in contradictory ways. 

    The second is that, contrary to the claims of evolutionists like Dawkins, evolution is not questioned simply for theological reasons, and not are all of those who question it are even theists. In fact, evolutionists have increasingly had to resort to the suppression of differing views, in order to maintain their dominance, as the evidence contrary to evolution and in support of intelligent design has grown.  In short, the claim that evolution has shown design to be false is simply untrue despite how much evolutionist like Dawkins might want to believe in it.

    Point five, which claims that the apparent design in areas other than biology might also be an illusion, correspondingly falls apart. Yet even if this was not the case, point 5 would still have a huge problem as it is fallacious. It simply does not follow that even if evolution shows design to be an illusion in biology, that it was therefore an illusion elsewhere.  This would be like claiming that just because some apparent suicides turn out to be murder, all apparent suicides could be murder, and therefore we can reject the concept of suicide itself.

    This brings us to last point. It can hardly be called a conclusion.  Rather it is a plea to “not give up hope.”(158)  I must commend Dawkins for his honesty.  Most atheists strongly deny that hope, and it counterpart faith, play any role in their thinking, and in fact are highly critical of theists when they express hope or faith.  But at least theists do not confuse expressions of hope, with logical arguments that make opposing views untenable.

    Dawkins’ does acknowledges that there are problems in the view he defends, but see hope in an old argument frequently employed by atheists.  Chance + enough tries = certainty.  Such reasoning has another name: The Gambler’s fallacy, and the error of such reasoning can be clearly seen in the lavish displays of wealth in such places as Las Vegas.

    Based on Dawkins estimates, where concerning the number of planets he even knocks off a few zeros “for reasons of ordinary prudence”, and where he assumes that life is a one in a billion chance, there would still be billion planet with life, and ours would only be one of them.

    This is at least better that Carl Sagan’s famous estimate of billons and billons of planets.  Yet like Sagan’s it is seriously flawed. Sagan only considered a few of the factors needed for life. Far more rigorous looks at these numbers have shown that if all of them are considered the chance of having even one planet in the entire universe that would support life, are less than 1 in 100, odds that even Dawkins says are to be laughed at. And this is just for a planet that could support life. It does not begin explain how life itself could start. The odds against life starting by chance are so incredibly huge that they are truly beyond comprehension, odds so large that even other atheists have compared them to a miracle.  (For a more complete discussion of these odds, see chapter four in Evidence for the Bible)

    So Dawkins’ hope is based on an off the cuff estimate that are not even close.  Where he estimate billions of planets with life, serious estimates of all the relevant factors show that there should not even be one planet that could support life, much less actually have life.

    So Dawkins argument has serious problems with each of his six points.  It ends with a hope that could only reasonably be called misplaced.  Rather than showing that God is untenable, the evidence points to the existence of God, and this conclusion as grown stronger over the years, not weaker, as we have learned more about life.

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.

    A Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion Part X

    Friday, November 2nd, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Nov 2, 2007, Wausau, Wi—In this installment of my review of Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” I come to what Dawkins calls “the central argument” of his book. About this argument he claims that if it “is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God Hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist.” (pp 157, 8) This central argument centers around the apparent design we see in the natural world around us. He summarizes his argument in the following six points:

    1 – The appearance of design is one of the greatest challenged to the human intellect.

    2 – The “temptation” is to attribute design to a designer.

    3 – The designer hypothesis is false because it does not explain who designed the designer.

    4 – Evolution, the best explanation so far, shows that design at least for biology is an illusion.

    5 – Since in evolution, apparent design is an illusion, it could be an illusion in other areas such as physics.

    6 – We should not give up hope of finding better explanations elsewhere and the weak explanations we do have are better than explanations that rely on God.

    I have to admit that when it became clear to me what his actual argument was, I was both shocked and disappointed. I was disappointed because, despite his simplistic approach to the whole subject of religion up to this point, I was still expecting something a little more substantial. This was particularly the case when, in a section on Irreducible Complexity, he spends several pages refuting the claims made in a Jehovah Witness’s track.

    This again reveals a major flaw in Dawkins thinking and his approach, though in his defense, it is one common to all groups. All groups of any size, be they political, religious, or whatever, have those who are on the fringe. By their very nature of being on the fringe they often make arguments that are not representative of the whole, but despite this, opponents often see refuting the fringe to be the same as refuting the whole.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are a small group that are not orthodox Christians and thus not even representative of Christianity, much less theism in general. They are also marked by strong tendency towards anti-intellectualism. Yet Dawkins still spends several pages on one of their tracts, refuting a source that even most theists would not take seriously.

    Not only was I disappointed, I was shocked as to just how bad his argument actually was. In fact, given point six, it is more an expression of hope than an actual rational argument.

    If taken as an argument, there are problems with each of his six points. At first blush, point one may seem reasonable, particularly since it claims the problem of apparent design is only “one of the greatest challenges.” Yet it has a hidden assumption that is very much a problem. In short, apparent design would only be a problem if there wasn’t a designer.

    To be clear, it may be a very great challenge to discover the identity of the designer and perhaps how they executed their design, but the design itself would not be. To see this, imagine that that the first explorers to Mars were to find a watch laying on the ground. While it might be a very difficult problem to discover how the watch came to be there, the fact that the watch had been designed would probably not be an issue at all. As such, apparent design in the natural world around us is only a great problem if design is something that needs to be explained away without resorting to a designer. Thus Dawkins argument falls victim to circular reasoning right off the bat, as his initial premise assumes his conclusion.

    This circular reasoning probably underlies the slanting found in point two when Dawkins talks about the “temptation” to attribute apparent design to a designer as if it this were somehow inherently a false choice to be resisted. While no doubt this is Dawkins’ view, to build it into his argument in this fashion is illegitimate and perhaps shows that even he sees the weakness of his argument and feels a need to push the reader with his choice of words, rather than relying on the strength of his reasoning.

    The problem in point three, who designed the designer, again results from Dawkins’ simplistic approach to the entire subject. The key problem for Dawkins is that whether something was designed or not designed, only comes into play for things that had a beginning. The issue of design is inherently linked with the question of how something came into existence. It is therefore meaningless when discussing things that have always existed. By definition design must precede existence. As such, when talking about an eternal God, the question of who designed God is an irrational question, akin to asking ‘What is the difference between a duck?’ It may at first sounds like a question, but the more you think about it the less sense it makes.

    So, Dawkins third points, is simply false, at least if one is referring to a God such as the eternal God of the Bible. I will look at the problems in the remaining points next time, but it is important to remember that if the premises of an argument are flawed, the argument itself is unsound. Based on the first three points, Dawkins argument already fails.

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.