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  • Archive for August, 2008

    Hitchens – God is not Great XII

    Friday, August 29th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Continuing my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’, “God Is Not Great,” after the first two examples in chapter four, which, as I have show fail to make Hitchens’ claim that religion is hazardous to health, Hitchens proceeds on a tour of the strange and obscure; the practice of some Islamic clerics of issuing a package deal for marriage and divorce certificates permitting men to legally marry and then an hour later divorce a prostitute; the killing of cats in the Middle Ages because it was thought that the Black Death was linked to black magic, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal of blood transfusions, among others.  Hitchens sums up his view when he says, “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”  (46-47)

     

    This brings us to the second of the two fallacies mentioned in an earlier post, Hasty Generalization.  The fallacy of Hasty Generalization occurs when you try to derive general rules form what are inherently individual cases or very small samples. For example, when driving, a man or woman cuts you off, and based on that you claim that all men or all women are bad drivers. That is essentially what Hitchens is doing here.  Some religious people, or even some religious groups, have practices that are harmful to health; therefore religion in general is harmful to health.

     

    But there is an even deeper problem for Hitchens. Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning.  The do not necessarily mean that the conclusion is wrong, only that a particular way of justifying a conclusion does not work. More troublesome for Hitchens is his claim that religion must be hostile to medicine, for it is clearly false and easily demonstrated as such.

     

    While it is true that here have been some groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists who have been hostile to some or all of medicine, they are hardly the norm. In fact the norm at least within Judaism and Christianity has been the opposite.  If Hitchens were correct that religion’s attitude to medicine “is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile,” then why are there so many Christian hospitals? Why are there so many Christian and Jewish doctors and nurses? Why do so many churches sponsor trips to third world counties to provide health care, clean water, and basic sanitary practices?

     

    Hitchens points to the superstition that surrounded the Black Death, though he does concede that “We may make allowances for the orgies of stupidity and cruelty that were indulged in before humanity had a clear concept of the germ theory of disease.” (pg 47) But has the noted Historian Will Durant points out, while a few clergy hid in fear, “the great majority of them faced the ordeal manfully” (Will Durant, The Reformation, pg 64) and thousand gave their lives doing what little they could for the sick, for it would be over 500 years from the first outbreak before the cause was finally determined.

     

    Even with the germ theory of disease things are not quite so clear.  In school I was taught the germ theory was a clear victory of science over superstition the latter coming in the guise of spontaneous generation.  On more than one occasion I have been told by atheists that it was also a victory of atheism over religion. Nothing can be further from the truth.  In fact, as I recount in my book Christianity and Secularism, the view of those atheist has it backwards.

     

    The Germ theory was put forth by Pastor, and defended by Lister, both of whom were Christians, while the opposition to the germ theory came from secularist who needs spontaneous generation to explain the origin of life apart form religion.  It was only after Darwin’s theory of evolution was adapted to try and explain the origin of live that the opposition to the germ theory was finally dropped.  In this case it was the secular, not the religious, who were a hazard to health.

     

    To be clear, I do not use this example as an attack on secularism, but rather to show that the traits Hitchens is attacking in religion, are not inherently religious traits, but traits that extent to all of humanity, including even atheists.

     

    Towards the end of Chapter four, Hitchens summarizes his argument as, “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women, and coercive towards children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”  It is very true that far too many examples can be found of religious people who fit into these categories.

     

    But it is equally true that even more examples can be found of religious people who not only do not fit into these categories, but precisely because they were religious have argued and fought against these very things, some even giving their lives in the process.  Just to take the first one, violence, during the Middle Ages the Church sought to limit the violence in the wars between the European kingdoms, and it is just an historical fact that the weakening of the Church in the Renaissance, brought about a marked increase, not a decrease in violence. In short Hitchens’ claims are not only logically fallacious and at their core irrational, they are just wrong.

     

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

    Christianity and Secularism

    Evidence for the Bible

     

    Hitchens – God is not Great XI

    Friday, August 22nd, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Last time in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great” I discussed the opening example in Hitchens’ Chapter on how religion can be hazardous to health.  Even if it did not have the problems that I pointed out last time, Hitchens admits that this is an isolated case.  So he attempts draw a more coherent link by pointing to “Cardinal Alfonso Lopez de Trujillo, the Vatican’s president of the Pontifical Council for the Family carefully warning his audience that all condoms are secretly made with many microscopic holes, through which the AIDS virus can pass.”

     

    When I tried to check this claim, I found many articles where the Cardinal said that the AIDS virus could pass through microscopic holes in condoms, however, nothing that supported the claim that these holes were secretly being made in condoms. 

     

    This example reveals two problems, one with Hitchens, and one with science. I had originally started to write this as three problems, the third being the Cardinal’s error and in fact I went back and forth several times as to whether or not there was an error on the part of Cardinal. 

     

    In an interview the Cardinal said, “In the case of the AIDS virus, which is around 450 times smaller than the sperm cell, the condom’s latex material obviously gives much less security.  Some studies reveal permeability of condoms in 15% or even up to 20% of cases. In a report he cites the evidence he believes backs up this claim.

     

    In one respect this whole controversy was much to do about nothing, as there is virtually universal agreement that condoms are not 100% effective. There is also broad agreement that failure rate is between 10 – 15 percent. This controversy was more over the reasons for the failure rate, not the failure rate itself.  Even here there are some semantic games going on, as one of the tests of condoms is a leak test, and again it is virtually universally agreed that not all condoms made can pass this test.

     

    To focus on minor points that do not materially affect the major points is called quibbling.   To focus on whether one of the reasons for the failure rate in condoms is microscopic holes, when there is general agreement on the failure rate itself, is quibbling at its finest.

     

    The problem with Hitchens is not only is he quibbling, he presents this as if there were no controversy at all and that Cardinal López Trujillo’s claims are on par with those who claim the US and UN are part of conspiracy to sterilize true believers in Islam by means of a polio vaccine.  One does not have to agree with the Cardinal’s position to see that this is at best a tremendous exaggeration, and that is being charitable.

     

    This is a common problem with atheist in general and neo-atheists in particular. They have a very black and white view of things and if you are religious and disagree with their view of the evidence, you are automatically in the realm of the superstition and irrationality.

     

    The problem with science is more complex.  In a perfect world, questions like this would simply be a matter of evidence. Experts could look at the evidence and render a verdict of yes, no, or inconclusive with the latter needing more research to resolve.  But one does not need to believe in Adam and Eve, to realize that we do not live in a perfect world. 

     

    It is not, as Hitchens claims, that religion that poisons everything, it is far more general: people poison everything. In this case, scientists are people, and thus science is tainted by all the problems possessed by all other human institutions.  In this case science has become politicized and thus cannot always be trusted.

     

    While organizations such as the CDC issue reports on the safety of condoms, others question their objectivity.  As the Cardinal pointed out in one interview, “groups representing 10,000 doctors” accused the CDC of covering up research on problems with condoms.

     

    The research that the group, the Physicians Consortium, claimed that CDC was suppressing showed that “condoms are 85 percent effective in helping prevent the spread of HIV” and even worst for other sexually transmitted diseases.

     

    The real problem here is that the dispute is not really even a scientific one, though it is often cast as such. Again there is general agreement that condoms have a 10-15 percent failure rate.  The dispute is over whether or not this failure rate constitutes safe sex.  That is inherently a judgment call not a scientific one. Granted some protection is better than no protection, but condoms are not recommended on this basis, but on the notion that sex with condoms is safe sex.

     

    To make matters worse, the problems in Africa, where most AIDS occurs, is much large and more complex than a lack of condom use. For example, one contributing factor is the myth in parts of Africa that unprotected sex with a virgin will cure AIDS.

     

    Thus Hitchens’ attempt to link Cardinal López Trujillo’s statement on condoms with the claims of a few Islamic clerics concerning the polio vaccine fails miserably.  Hitchens may not like Cardinal López Trujillo’s solution of abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage, but when practiced it has a much lower failure rate than his solution.

     

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

    Christianity and Secularism

    Evidence for the Bible

     

    Hitchens – God is not Great X

    Friday, August 15th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Continuing my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great” brings be to Chapter Four, which is called, “A Note on Health, to which Religion Can be Hazardous.”   In one sense is completely true. That some religious beliefs can be has hazardous to your health, is a statement few if any would disagree with.  After all, in those religions that practiced human sacrifice, there was a definite health hazard for the one chosen to be sacrifice. However, I suspect that is not what Hitchens is arguing, as he is seeking a much more universal condemnation of religion.

     

    The problem is that the evidence he present does not support anything more universal.  The evidence he presents is basically a stroll through, what even many believers in religion would considered the strange and bizarre. His initial offering is the account of how the attempt to eradicate polio from the world, where blocked by a few “Muslim die-hards” who claimed that that polio vaccine was really joint conspiracy between the United States and United Nation to sterilize true followers of Islam and thereby eradicate the faith. As a result of the ensuing fatwa against taking the vaccine, predictably polio, which had been on the verge of eradication, reemerged in Nigeria, and then to Mecca, from which pilgrims took it disease back to what had been polio free countries.

     

    While a sad and even maddening account, it is hardly an incitement of all of Islam, much less all religion. The reason Hitchens gives for these clerics issuing the fatwa against taking the vaccine had nothing to do with the teaching Islam concerning vaccines, or even medical care in general. It stemmed from a belief that the vaccine was part of a conspiracy. So if anything this is an indictment against that mode of thinking that tends to see grand conspiracies, and secret forces behind events, not an indictment of religion, accept that in this instance the conspiracy involved Islam.

     

    Now perhaps Hitchens would have a point if such conspiracy theories were uniquely tied to religion, but a glance through the currently popular conspiracy theories argues strongly against this.  Consider this partial list: That 9/11 was an inside job; The Federal Reserve is part of a secret plan control the United States; the Moon landing was faked; The government is hiding evidence on UFO’s; The Trilateral Commission is trying to take over the world; and of course the many and conflicting theories on the Kennedy Assassination. (I reject all of these as false.) All are secular conspiracies.  In fact the first two are two of the three conspiracies addressed in the Zeitgeist the movie, the third being that Christianity is itself a conspiracy to control society. When it comes to conspiracy theories that do involve Christianity some are defended by a few atheists such as the resurrection was really a conspiracy, by the early disciples.

     

    Rather than being an indictment against religion one could probably make a good case that these are an indictment against secularism, for as G. K. Chesterton observed, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.”  Still, I would write them off as a particular problem of the human species, one of many.  Such conspiracy thinking is certainly found among those who are religious, but it is hardly limited to the religious, nor is caused by religion.

     

    That Hitchens uses this as an indictment of religion in general reveals a very fundamental problem that pervades much of his book, and in fact is found in much of the writings of the neo-atheists.  The problem centers around two logical fallacies, the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and the fallacy of Hasty generalization. I will look at Hasty generalization next time, as it is not only a problem here, but indicative of the examples throughout the rest of the chapter. 

     

    As for the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, it is also called the fallacy of false cause, and refers to claiming a causal relationship between two things, because on preceded the other.  The fallacious reasoning behind this fallacy was clearly presented by one of my teachers by the following example. There is a definite relationship between the amount of concrete in an area, and the amount of rape, the more concrete per square mile, the more rape. Therefore concrete causes rape. Now even though the premises are correct, the conclusion is absurd. The reason for the relationship is that the more concrete, the more people, the more people the more rape. People cause rape, not concrete. 

     

    Yet Hitchens’ example is not much better.  The fatwa against the vaccine was issue by people who were religious, therefore religion must be the problem. In reality the problem was not religion, but conspiracy theories, which are not inherently religious.

     

    This is a peculiar problem with so many of the neo-atheist arguments.  They are purportedly arguing against religion because it is so irrational. And yet so many of their arguments are grounded in not only error, but irrationality.  Now this was just Hitchens opening example, but, as I will discuss next time, the rest of the chapter, does not do much better.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great IX

    Friday, August 8th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    This week I continue my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great.” In Chapter Three, Hitchens addresses the question of why Jews and Muslims will not eat pork.  This question does not directly concern Christianity, but the overall discussion deserves some comment.

     

    In this short chapter Hitchens quickly disposes of the normal justification for this law, which concerns health, a justification he calls, absurd. Hitchens is correct that the dietary dangers of eating pork, even in ancient times, are at best marginal.  In fact for some of the other prohibited foods, the dangers are non-existent, or at least no different than the dangers of acceptable kosher foods.  So while pointing to health reasons can provide some explanation in some cases, it is not a complete answer, and marginal at best for pork. 

     

    Yet Hitchens explanations is hardly any better.  Hitchens believes that the prohibition grew out of a “simultaneous attraction and repulsion” for the pig; that the pig had very human qualities, including taste, that set it apart from other animals.  Hitchens believes that the prohibition followed a night of human sacrifice and cannibalism in which the participants clearly saw the similarities.  As Hitchens puts it, “Nothing optional – from homosexuality to adultery – is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting…have a repressed desire to participate.” (pg 40)

     

    This statement is one of those generalized indictments that leaves me with more question than answers.  The claim that there must be a repressed desire to want to make something punishable is hardly any better than the health explanations, i.e. it might explain a few cases but hardly explains them all. Hitchens examples, homosexuality, adultery and then later prostitution, all involve sex, where his explanation is at least possible even if still questionable as this would not even be a good explanation for all sexual prohibitions. Does one really have to have a repressed sexual desire for children to want a child molestation prohibited? 

     

    When you move beyond the realm of sexuality, his explanation is even less satisfying. Must one have a repressed desire for theft or murder to want them prohibited?  My guess is that Hitchens would claim that these do not match is initial qualification of “Nothing optional” but this qualification is so vague as to be meaningless.

     

    In the end, natural justifications such as those pointing to health benefits or that given by Hitchens miss the point, though I believe that Hitchens unknowingly touches on a much more likely explanation. Hitchens defended the lack of a health hazard in pork, by pointing to those living around the ancient Jews who did eat it, for “ancient Jewish settlements in the land of Canaan can easily be distinguished by archaeologists by the absence of pig bones in their rubbish.”(p. 39) 

     

    The Deuteronomy 14, which specifics some of these laws, begin with “You are the children of the LORD…you are a people Holy to the LORD your God.” The ancient Jews were God’s people Holy or set apart from those around them. This was the primary reason for the dietary laws, which included the prohibition on eating pork.  Of course there is the secondary question as to why individual items such as pork were on the list or while beef was not. But we should keep clear that this is a secondary question. Sometimes we can see possible reasons why particular items were or were not prohibited in either health, or the religious practices of other groups. But we must be careful not to focus on these secondary reasons to the point that we neglect the primary reason. 

     

    There is a tendency when defending the Bible to fall into trap of accepting the assumptions of the critics, and thereby seeking natural explanation for things that are inherently spiritual, as if without a natural justification, a commandment must be nothing more than an irrational superstition. The dietary laws are then explained as health oriented for a time before modern medicine and refrigerators. As health oriented we can ignore them, since the need has passed.

     

    Such reasoning is very convenient for Christians, since because of the teaching of the New Testament, we don’t have to follow the dietary laws in any event. But again this is to focus only on the secondary reason, not the primary, which is to be set apart for God.

     

    Non-Jews may look at the distinctive aspects of Judaism, such as the dietary laws and say that they are old legalisms, or even superstitions, but they have performed a very important function: they have kept the Jewish people set apart for over 3000 years, which just happen to be exactly what God said they were for.

     

    As Christians we are children of God. While we do not need to follow the dietary laws, we are still called to be holy, to be set apart for God (1 Pet 1:15).  Today the church seems more aimed at fitting in and keeping up with the culture, and to some extent this is a good thing, for we have a living faith and worships a living God.  If we are Holy, that is set apart, for God, what is it that sets us apart? It cannot just be our eternal destination, for we are called to live Holy lives now. So what is it that sets you apart?

     

    Christianity and Secularism

    Evidence for the Bible

     

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great VIII

    Friday, August 1st, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    This week I continue my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great.” Following his comments on happiness and Mother Teresa that I discussed last week, the bulk of the second chapter consists of a response to an argument made by Dennis Prager. As presented by Hitchens, “I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Towards me I was to imagine I saw a large group of men approaching. Now would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting?”  Hitchens’ answer was that he had personal experience in places where he would not feel safe, such as Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad, just to stay in the letter ‘B.’ The bulk of the chapter then recounts the conflict in these areas.

    When Hitchens appeared on Dennis Prager’s show, an interesting discussion occurred concerning the details of this argument. Prager claimed that instead of a prayer meeting, he had specified a Bible study, and that he has restricted it to the United States.  While I was not at the panel discussion mentioned by Hitchens, this is an argument I have heard Prager make many times, and in fact I cited this argument in my book, Christianity and Secularism (pg 180). Both my memory, and the version in my book, supports Prager.

     

    These are not trivial details. All of Hitchens examples cite areas of active conflict, split along religious lines, and which, except for Belfast, all involve Islam.  In such places the primary source of fear would come, not so much because they had come from a prayer meeting or Bible class, but rather that they were a group of partisans in an ongoing violent conflict. In such a conflict of course you would fear a group from the side of the conflict, or where you might be mistaken as the enemy.

     

    This is vastly different than the situation presented by Prager.  The United States has no such ongoing violent conflict. Here crime is the main concern. With the exception of extremist Islam, few if any of those who become religious, are worst people for it, and in fact there are many examples of those who turn their lives around and become significantly better people.  So unless one was driven by some bigotry against Christianity or Judaism of course one would feel safer. So as a rebuttal to Prager’s argument, the chapter fails.

     

    There remains the culpability of religion in the conflicts Hitchens mentions, which is his broader point.  As I have discussed many times in the past, this is not the clear cut indictment on religion that the neo-atheists claim.  

     

    There is nothing inherent in the claims of Christianity or Judaism that says all religions are good. Quite the opposite, in the Bible God strongly condemns some other religions, such as the practice of the Canaanites to sacrifice their children.  Finally, it is simply irrational to claim that because some, or even most religions are bad, therefore all religions must be bad.

     

    In terms of the list given by Hitchens, remove the conflicts involving Islam and you are left with just Belfast. While this conflict is split along Catholic and Protestant lines, that is not the reason for the conflict. The conflict existed well before Henry VIII decided that England should become protestant, and if for some reason one side suddenly converted to the religion of the other side, that would not resolve the conflict, which is far more historical and political than religious.  So again Hitchens’ argument fails, at least in relation to Christianity.  

     

    But there are a few things we can learn from Hitchens. For one, Hitchens misunderstanding of Prager’s argument is something we all should be on guard against. When we hear an argument that challenges something we believe, there is a natural tendency to seek flaws in the argument, and in that process, unless we are careful, we will distort the argument so as to more easily answer it.  If we are going to correct the flaw in our own thinking we must listen carefully to the criticism of others.

     

    More importantly, as Christians, we must remember that we represent God. To use God’s name to justify our own personal beliefs and actions imputes our errors and folly to God. This is, I believe, the true meaning behind of the Commandment to not take the name of God in vain. (Ex 20).  It is not just to use the name of God as if it were nothing more than a verbal punctuation mark, or worst as an explicative, though this is wrong. Rather, we must not justify our beliefs and actions by claiming we are acting in the name of God, unless we are very certain that we are.

     

    It is one thing to be mistaken and wrong, to act in ways that we later regret.  We are human and we all do this. But when we attempt to justify ourselves by appealing to God or the Bible, we in effect make God responsible for our errors.

     

    To see the damage done, just look at the crusades.  So while Hitchens’ argument is false, the there is nevertheless something we as Christians can learn from the fact that it is so easy for him to make this argument.

     

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