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  • Archive for October, 2008

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XX

    Friday, October 24th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    I am continuing in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” examining Hitchens’ claim that the New Testament is more evil than Old.

    Hitchens first line of attack is to claim the Gospels are unhistorical and that they “cannot agree on anything of importance.” Now it is true that some scholars consider these accounts as mere fabrications, but it is also true that other scholars have examine these accounts, and as D.A. Carson points out in his commentary on Matthew, ” the stories have long been shown to be compatible, even mutually complementary.”

    But there is a further and deeper problem behind Hitchens claim, one that rest more with the liberal scholars he relies on then with him.  Scholars, in whatever field are assumed to be people who have studied all the relevant material in reaching their scholarly conclusions.  Yet when it come to biblical scholars critical of the Bible this is not always the case.

    This was noted by another biblical scholar, Craig Blomberg, when he wrote, ” it is strange how often the reliability of the gospels is impugned by scholars who believe them to be hopelessly contradictory yet who have never seriously interacted with the types of solutions proposed here.” (cited in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, pg 150)

    Most of the alleged problems raised by Hitchens have been dealt with and answered long ago,  and in fact I answer many of them in my two books,  Christianity and Secularism and   Evidence for the Bible.   

    As such Hitchens is simple wrong when he argues that “The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament… have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” (pg 115)  This error is followed immediately by another error, when Hitchens claims “This feebleness derives from the fact that until recently, Christians could simply burn or silence anybody who asked any inconvenient questions.” (pg 115)  While vague enough to find some support in history, this statement is really little more than a bigoted slander.   But then this, for Hitchens is what passes as rational argument.   He makes a claim, and then follow it by a slanderous accusation hoping to silence any reply.  It may be an effective debating tactic, but it does not substitute for a rational argument.

    From there Hitchens goes to what he calls the other “‘Gospels and narratives of marginal but significant figures”  such as Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Judas.  (pg 112).  His intent seems to be to cast doubt on the New Testament by pointing to the existence of these other writings.  He does argue that if these had been consider inspired rather than the four gospels in the Bible Christianity would have been far different.   True enough, but as the saying goes, if my grandmother had wheels, she would be a wagon.  

    This does, however,  reveal the different presupposition made by many critics such as Hitchens.  They start with the belief that all religions are equally false human creations.  Christianity can’t possibly be the result of God intervening into history, but rather,  it was one of many religious movements of the period, and it was just luck and chance that it happened to rise to dominance.

    Thus Hitchens probably does  see the Gospel of Judas, or Thomas, as supporting his assumption and in a small way they do.  His view requires many religions, and these other gospels do show that Gnosticism was a competitor to Christianity in the second century.  But while a minor support for his view, it is hardly a significant one, since in some of the later books of the New Testament one can see the apostles warning against other religious movements, including what appears to be a very early form of Gnosticism. 

    There is another key difference between the Gnostic Gospels and the New Testament Gospels. The Gnostic Gospels generally date from the 2nd century long after the apostles died.  The New Testament gospels were written in the first century and while there is some disagreement, there are scholars who argue they were written by the those they are named after.

    Some of Hitchens arguments are just plain silly, such as his claim that virgin birth was a man made account because “parthenogenesis is not possible for human mammals”  Of course it was not possible, that’s what made it a miracle of God.  But for Hitchens, by definition everything must be natural or it did not happen.  That the virgin birth could have been a miracle of God is not really even an option for him.

    Hitchens ends by pointing to Bart Ehrman’s views on the New Testament.  Ehrman has gained some notoriety by taking what was already known to anyone who looks at the footnotes in their bible and playing it up as if it were significant.  For a more in depth discussion of Ehrman’ views see my review of his book.

    Ultimately Hitchens critique of the New Testament is little more than a rehash of long refuted arguments,  with a generous sprinkling of invective. Certainly nothing to support his claim that it is evil.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XIX

    Friday, October 17th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Continuing in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” After having dealt with the Old Testament, in chapter seven, chapter eight takes on New, claim it “Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One.” Hitchens starts by claiming the New Testament is “a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events” and that this has been borne out by Biblical scholarship. (p 110)

    But not content to make this point, Hitchens follows it with a gratuitous insult claiming, ‘this arguments takes place over the heads of those to whom the ‘Good Book’ is all that is required.” and as an example, refers to a unnamed governor of Texas whom he quotes as saying “if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.” (p 110)

    The quote sounded to me like one of many smears spread by atheists and agnostics to attack believers. Such bigoted smears have a long history and are so entrenched into the culture that some are even taught in schools. For example, I was taught as a kid that Columbus had to battle the ignorance of Christians who believed that the earth was flat. This is a complete myth as was shown by the Historian Jeffery Burton Russell, in his book Inventing the Flat Earth. Still it is not at all uncommon to hear atheist and agnostics continue to perpetuate this and other anti-Christian myths.

    As for Hitchens’ quote, I checked the back of the book for a reference and found none. I then read a discussion that I found on snopes.com a great place to check out urban legends, which pointed out that this quote was questionable as it had been attributed to a number of different people. A person in another discussion I read claimed that they had found the exact quote at NewsPaperArchive.com in a article published in 1927, but the article attributed the quote to a person from Arkansas, not Texas, and it was said as a joke. I would have check out this article but NewsPaperArchive.com is a paid site that charges $99 to join. So lacking any specific citation, it would appear that this quote is just another in a long line of myths used to attack Christianity.

    As for his other insult that his argument concerning biblical scholarship was “over the heads of those to whom the ‘Good Book’ is all that is required.” (pg 110) there is a problem. If Hitchens qualification of “to whom the ‘Good Book’ is all that is required” refers to those who reject or ignore everything not in the Bible, then this refers to such a small faction of Christians as to be irrelevant. On the other hand if this is meant to refer to Christians in general, then it is simply false.

    This brings me to the main problem with Hitchens argument concerning biblical scholarship, it is one sided and outdated. As for being one-sided, it would appear that to Hitchens biblical scholarship consists only of those who are critical of the Bible. Though, in his defense, one of the problems with liberal scholarship, is that it is very insular, ignoring for the most part criticism, problems and issues raised by conservative scholars. As I point out in Chapter Two of my book, Evidence for the Bible, there are some serious problems with the claims of liberal scholars.

    More damaging to his claim is that, while earlier liberal scholarship was very critical of the NT, believing the books to have been dated long after the events as Hitchens claims, later scholarship has reversed this to some extent and more recent scholarship has been pushing the date of the writing back to, and in some cases even earlier than, the traditional dates. For example, liberal scholars of the 19th century dated the Gospel of John as late as 170 A.D., long after John had died. Then a fragment of the Gospel was found dating 125-130 destroying the later dates. More recent scholarship points to a date somewhat earlier than the traditional date in the 90s, with a few scholars even arguing for a date in the 50s or 60s.

    The simple fact is that, rather than being over their heads, scholarship plays and important role in many Christians’ understanding of the Bible, and contrary to the impression Hitchens gives, many scholars are believing Christians who see their scholarship as deepening their faith. Now I know that Hitchens is aware of these Conservative scholars as he has debated some of them. But rather than a reasoned discussion of the evidence for and against his position, we get one sided pronouncements that ignore any scholarly disagreements, followed by a few insults to try and stifle any debate.

    What makes this even more problematic is that Hitchens is claiming to be arguing for the rational over the irrational. But a one sided presentation filled with invective is not what one would call the epitome of rationality and in the end Hitchens comes off somewhat as parent vainly arguing do as I say, not what I do.

    After taking time to attack and ridicule Mel Gibson for making The Passion of The Christ, what follows is then a one sided rehash of many of the common objections raised by skeptics. And that is where I will pick up next time.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XVIII

    Friday, October 10th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    In my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” I considered a further discussion concerning the evidence that points strongly to design, but since I cover this in chapter four of my book  Evidence for the Bible, I have decided to move on.  Those interested, should see my discussion there.

    Hitchens leaves no doubt about where he is going in the title of chapter seven  “Revelation: The Nightmare of the ‘Old’ Testament.”  Hitchens once again starts by creating a strawman, which he then proceeds to knockdown, defining revelation as God giving “unalterable laws” to “randomly selected human beings.”  Even with such a strawman, Hitchens still misses the mark with his first objection, i.e., that “several such disclosures have been claimed to occur, at different times and places, to hugely discrepant prophets or mediums” (pg 97) They cannot all be true, and while one may be authentic, “this seems dubious… and appears to necessitate religious wars.”   As with so many of Hitchens’ claims, this is more commentary than argument.

    Hitchens argues that, “the syncretic tendency of monotheism, and the common ancestry of the tales, mean in effect that a rebuttal to one is a rebuttal to all.”  (pg 98)  This could only be true if all alleged revelation were equally true, or equally false.  Yet they cannot all be equally true, if for nothing else, one of the revelations is that there would be false prophets, and thus false revelation. On the other hand, if you start by assuming they are all equally false, then there would be no need to make a rebuttal in the first place. So once again Hitchens argument simply does not make sense.

    From here Hitchens quickly moves to a discussion of the Ten Commandments, which he believes are “proof that religion is man-made.” (pg 99) However his justifications for this claim are at best nonsensical, such as his claim, yet another he considers “unanswerable,” that for God to included a prohibition against murder would imply that before this murder was acceptable, as if God could only give moral laws that were otherwise unknown.

    Much of Hitchens analysis ignores that while grounded in universal principles, many of the laws given to Moses were for a particular  purpose, to a particular people, at a particular time and in a particular cultural setting. In fact that they show this characteristic is for Hitchens evidence that they are man-made. However, this is a much easier conclusion to reach for one living in a culture that has been shaped and molded by the Bible for 3000 years and thus where it is easy to overlook the revolutionary character of these laws and the huge moral advancement that they represented.

    Hitchens ignores, or is unaware of,  the advancement and complains that these laws don’t match his conception of perfect. As an example, he points to the Bible regulations of slavery. Granted in a perfect world God would have just banned slavery, but we don’t have a perfect world. While Hitchens complains about the regulations, at the time they were a marked step forward over having no regulation at all.

    Like it or not slavery was so completely entrenched in the societies of the time, that a total prohibition was likely to be ignored. However, more humane treatment was easier to follows and thus much more likely to actually improve things. Historically this is what happened.  In fact the rules governing slaves were so restrictive that over time it resulted in later rabbis concluding “He who buys a Hebrew slave buys a master” and slavery virtually disappeared over time.  Thus while in theory, one might argue that an outright ban would have better reflected a perfect moral code, the result of the Laws on slavery did effectively end the practice.

    Hitchens also cites one of the other common examples of alleged cruelty, the stoning of children for disobedience. Again he ignores the revolutionary improvement the law brought about. What was new about the law was not the killing of children. That a parent had the right of life and death over a child was common place. sWhat was new was this power was being taken away from the parents, and transferred to the community, where it seems never to have been exercised.  Contrast this with the honor killing that continues to be a problem in some parts of the world.

    This is not to say that there are not difficult passages in the Old Testament. There are, such as God’s command to kill all the Amalekites, and some of which only God has the answer. But, these are for isolated and special events under unique circumstances.  They are not general moral precepts to be followed.

    Much of the rest of the chapter is taken up with the claims that the Old Testament is unhistorical and a restatement of theory that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. Both subjects I deal with in my book Evidence for the Bible.

    In the end, Hitchens exegesis of the Old Testament leaves a lot to be desired and his argument that it is a nightmare stands in stark contrast to what the Old Testament has actually produce.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XVII

    Friday, October 3rd, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Continuing in chapter six of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” I come to his discussion of the specific arguments for design.  Again there is a great deal of hyperbole and ridicule that one must wade through, and given the subject matter, a great deal of it is somewhat ironic.  Hitchens attempts to claim that it is theists that have been forced into this argument “with great reluctance,” and that atheists “have to improve our minds by the laborious exercise of refuting the latest foolishness contrived by the faithful. (pg 80-81)

    Hitchens would do to well to seriously read Jonathan Wells’ book Icons of Evolution in which Wells exposes a number of not only foolish arguments, but distortions, errors and in many cases outright fraud that has been and continues to be used to defend evolution.  The many examples documented by Wells are not obscure pieces of evidence, but well known and commonly cited examples,  such as that evolution is mirrored in the development of an embryo, or the Pepper moths that changed from white to dark because of pollution, both of which are in fraud category.   Yet, despite the fact some of these have been known to be false for decades, and in the case of the embryos for over a century,  these and the other examples in the book were still being used in standard biology textbooks at least as late as 1998.

    Nor is this simply a problem of the past. Hitchens, himself falls victim to one more recent examples is this string of myths used to support evolution, a supposed computer model that proved the evolution of the eye.  The simple fact is that there was no such program, nor, more importantly, could there be, at least any time soon, for reasons we will come to in a moment.

    In Hitchens defense, apparently he was relying on Richard Dawkins here who popularized this error.  Once the error was pointed out, atheists were quick to claim that Dawkins was only partially in error, for he was referring to a mathematical model develop by Nilsson and Pelger which he merely confused as a computer program.

    The differences between the study and a computer program aside, the problem with Nilsson and Pelger’s paper as a proof for evolution is the same that would plague any computer model; it is based on a whole series of assumptions which go to the core of the theory of evolution. If you accept all of the assumptions, that is, if you already accept evolution, then the paper will make a plausible case. But in the end, the conclusion of the paper is only as valid as the assumptions that are behind it.  It can at best only say how the eye might have evolved if all the assumptions were correct. It is hardly a proof of evolution as Hitchens was falsely led to believe.

    Unfortunately this is how much of evolution is defended. Pieces of information are distorted, expanded, or in some cases even created, and then strung together as so called proofs of evolution.  Anyone who dares questions this alleged evidence is ridiculed, attacked and rejected.  If they persist and expose the error, then we are told the error really doesn’t matter anyway.

    To further compound his problem, one of the points Hitchens makes against design, apparently unbeknownst to him,  is a major problem for evolution.  Hitchens quite correctly states that, “a theory that is unfalsifiable is to that extent a weak one.” (pg 81)   

    The problem of Hitchens is that evolution is unfalsifiable for two reasons.  The first is that it depend heavily on imagination.  A great deal, if not the vast majority, of what we think of as evolution, is not based on what we actually know happened, but on what scientist imagine might have happened.  Since we have a great capacity for imagination, evolution has a rich texture of what might have been, especially given how little we really know about the prehistoric past.

    Hitchens might object to this by claiming that evolution is science, and therefore must pass peer review and conform to the evidence. But modern science is not the open-minded investigation atheists like to claim. It is a narrow-mind and oppressive system that will severely punish any who question the current orthodoxy, as Pamela Winnick shows in her book A Jealous God.  One of the quickest ways to lose funding for your research, your job, and your livelihood is to raise a question about evolution.

    As for the evidence, there is in reality very little, and more importantly any potential problems are brushed aside with the claim that future research will resolve them. Even worst is the often used argument that we are here therefore evolution must have happened. The bottom line is that evolution is unfalsifiable.

    Sure if you interpret all evidence to fit your theory, let your imagination fill in any blanks, strenuously ignore any problems, and suppress any criticism so that only believers of evolution, or at least those who will not voice any doubts, can be considered scientists, then evolution will seem to be firmly established.  And yet, despite this the evidence for design grows stronger, not weaker, the more we know.

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