November 2008
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  • Archive for November, 2008

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXIII

    Friday, November 21st, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    I am continuing in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens book “God Is Not Great,” and the question of whether religion makes people behave.   There is of course, as Hitchens points out a long list of Christians, to use Hitchens term, misbehaving.  But as I said last time, there are deeper issues here, which while fairly complicated can be summarized by into two areas. The first is just who is a Christian.   The second, is when a Christian misbehaves, are they doing it because of or in spite of their religion.

    Concerning the first question, what does it mean to be a Christian.  From a theological point of view this is actually pretty easy, a Christian is anyone who has entered into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.  While easy theologically, is not very helpful here. Only God really knows the heart.  We might have pretty good guesses about some people in history as to whether or not they were actually in a saving relationship with Jesus, but we cannot know.

    While less theologically accurate a better definition for this question would be someone whose behavior was influenced by the teaching of Christ. While this initially sounds better, there are still many problems. 

    For example what level of influence is enough to be considered a Christian. If someone once heard of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:31 “Do to others as you would have them do to you”  and that sounded good to them so they decided it would govern how they lived their lives, would be enough to  count as Christian?

    On the other  hand what about someone who attends church regularly, but more out of convention or tradition then out of any deeply held belief, and the teaching of Christ have little if any actual impact on how they live their life? 

    Or what about someone who never attends Church and simply happens to have grown up in a Christian country and is influenced only to the extent that Christian teaching are pervasive in society?  Would a gang member who never attends church, but who wears a cross be considered a Christian?

    Even within the church, is a person who seeks and gets church office, not out of any real religious belief, but out of a desire for power, prestige, money, etc, a Christian?  This is an important question because this would describe much of the church hierarchy during the Middle Ages, and the corruption in the church they brought about led to the reformation. 

    To see the effect these questions have, lets consider one standard criticism of Christianity, all the atrocities committed by the Christians explorers of the New World.  Of these explores, who were the Christians?  Where they the ones who committed the atrocities frequently out of lust or greed, or were the priests, who wrote home complaining about how the native peoples were being abused and exploited, asking for the king or church or both, to end it. In fact the latter is one of the reasons these atrocities were so well documented.  Was it those seeking to exploit the native peoples, or those who resisted this exploitation, and who sometimes gave their lives trying to protect them?

    But none of this seems to matter very much to Hitchens. They can be considered religious, they misbehaved, and the enough for his argument.  In fact in his haste to condemn religion and cast dispersions, he at time drifts into error and confusion, if not counter argument.

    For example,  in writing about Islam and slavery, he references the comments of the ambassador of Tripoli to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, referring to the latter  two as “two slaveholders.”   Now it was true that Jefferson did own slaves, but Adams, being from Massachusetts didn’t. Even more confusing, Hitchens said earlier that Jefferson was a deist, which he labels the compromise position before Darwin and Einstein (pg 66) and elsewhere has argued that he may have been an atheist.  So just what was the point of calling these two men “slaveholders.”  Was it just a gratuitous slander?  Was it an attempt to show the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, or that American Christianity was no better than Islam?  This is one of the problem with Hitchens.  While it is clear he is attacking and smearing, often it is not always clear how those attacks and smears actually relate to his overall argument, at least in any rational way.

    What makes it even more mystifying, is after nearly twelve pages of these examples, he finally comes to his argument, which  he starts by saying that “The first thing to be said is that virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all of … the truth of his belief.”  (p. 184-5) This is all well and good and Hitchens is quite correct here. What is mystifying is his following point where he claims, “By the same token, I do not say this if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is thereby discredited.” (p. 185)  Oh, really?

    The vast majority of his book, is how religious people have acted badly and how this discredits religion.  Remove that component from his book, or the other Neo-Atheist books for that matter, and you are left with very little. We will look at the rest of his argument next time.      

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXII

    Friday, November 14th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    At the end of chapter ten of his book “God Is Not Great,” Christopher Hitchens has a summation more fitting of his book as a whole, then of the chapter.  He writes of the lost of belief in what he labels as his “secular faith.”  “Thus,” he writes, “dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined… I know what you are going through.”  It is almost as if his main argument spent Hitchens was running out of steam.   As I noted last time, the argument in this chapter were particularly weak, even for Hitchens.

    The arguments in the next chapter on the origin of religion, are likewise feeble.  At its core Hitchens argument is that the some religions have dubious origins, therefore all religions are false.   His examples are the Melanesian “cargo cult,” describing how religious beliefs came out of contact with more advance cultures,  Marjoe Gortner, self-professed evangelical huckster, and finally the origin of Mormonism.  At its core Hitchens argument is irrational for it commits the fallacy of hasty generalization.  But there are further problems from a Christian point of view.  The Bible is clear that there are false beliefs and false prophets.  Thus when Hitchens points to the problems of other religions, it is, if anything, a minor confirmation of the Bible on this point.

    This is also no doubt the reason for the inclusion of Gortner in this list. But when we consider Gortner, immediately there is the impression of one of those IQ tests where you are asked ‘which one of these things is not like the other.’   Hitchens’ discussion of the cargo cult, and Mormonism deals with the origin of religions, which is the subject of the chapter.   Gortner is a 20th century figure taking advantage of a religion that is already thousands of years old.

    The example of Gortner demonstrates nothing about the truth of actual Christianity, any more than the existence of huckster and con-artist demonstrates anything about the truth of actual medicine or science.  Does Hitchens seriously believe that we should denounce all of medicine because some snake-oil salesman is able to convince people to part with their money for some supposed cure?  If not then why should we denounce all religion, because Gortner can do the same in the guise of a preacher?

    Hitchens then has  a few comments on  the end of religion in chapter 12, which even for him, are more “useful and instructive” (p 169) than any actual argument. But these have no bearing on anything other than the small sect he discusses, so we will move on.  In chapter 13 Hitchens comes to the question of whether religion make people better? Hitchens knows he has a difficult task, and in fact this is in some respects an issue he has already dealt with in chapter two, where he argued that religion kills.  But there is a difference in the focus of the chapters, for while chapter two dealt with those who kill in the name of religion, this chapter start with those such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi, who argued for peaceful resistance in the face of injustice.

    For the most part the chapter starts with Hitchens dancing along a very narrow line, granting the positive contributions of King while downplaying any religious motivations.  This is difficult, for not only was King a minister, but he frequently used the Bible in his call for non-violent resistance to racial injustice and bigotry. Nor was King an aberration, for Christians played a long and key role in the this movement going back to the abolitionists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and even earlier.  

    While Hitchens does give brief mention to this role, he understandably downplays it,  preferring to mention a few against whom he can use ad hominem attacks so as to discredit on other grounds. At the same time he points to secular people who also argued for abolition.  His basic argument seems to be that while “a few” (pg 177)  religious people did argue for racial justice, their calls for abolition were mixed in with other wild idea and thus could not be trusted. Nor were they needed as there were secularists who also called for abolition.

    In addition to the fallacious nature of such reasoning, and special pleading involved, Hitchens’ argument suffers two additional fatal flaws.  First, even if everything Hitchens says was true, he is granting that these people were motivated by religion for the good, thus undermining his own argument.  Second, his argument completely neglects the difficulties of the struggle, and the key role in that struggle played by Christians and other of religious faith.  Abolition in the 18th and 19th century, and civil rights in the 20th were not just abstract ideas to be accepted or rejected in a gentlemanly debate. They were huge social struggles with strong opposition in which people battled for decades, and for which some gave their lives, motivated by religious teachings of the Bible.

    Looking back the best Hitchens can really claim is that perhaps these movements did not really need their religious motivations after all, and secular motivations might have worked just as well, but this is somewhat like the disgruntled Monday morning quarterback whose team did not make it to the play offs trying to claim that his team could have done better than those who actually played.

    The simple historical fact is that religious motives did play a significant role in these movements. To deny that fact is to deny history. But there are even deeper problems with Hitchens argument and I will look at those next time.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXI

    Friday, November 7th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    In Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” after dealing with the Old and New Testaments, Hitchens, takes on the Koran, but I will leave it to Muslims to respond, and move on to chapter ten, where Hitchens deals with the dual subjects of Miracles and Hell.  Or at least that is what the title claims, as the chapter really only deals with miracles, and even here the arguments are particularly weak, even for Hitchens.

    At its core, his argument seems to be that Hume, who he claims wrote “the last word on the subject” (pg 141), argued that we have free will to decide if we will believe in miracles or not, at which point Hitchens calls upon “the trusty Ockham” (pg 141) and his razor to decide that we should not.  Hitchens then has a very feeble, at best,  attack on the resurrection which never really rises above attempts at ridicule, then supports this with a few examples of false miracles, primarily related to Mother Teresa.

    That we have the free will to decide about miracle was hardly new with Hume, nor even a fair summary of his thought. Nor did Hume write the last word on the subject, as many words have been written pointing out the problems with Hume’s critique, including a few of my own.  Still, Hitchens’ arguments, weak as they are, suffer from the two main problems common to atheist’s arguments in this area and these center around the nature of miracles and concept of free will.

    For Hitchens and other atheists, miracles are suspect because by definition natural explanations of some sort are always going to be more likely. This is bolstered by the fact that many alleged miracles have been shown to be the result of natural forces or fraud.  Yet error and fraud exist in all areas of human experience. So that there is error and fraud in some miracles is not a reputation of all miracles, and in fact the Bible warns us to be careful about this, a warning that Christians have not always taken as seriously as they should.

    Miracles, at least in the Christian view, are the acts of a personal God.  They are not forces of nature that can be measured and studied in a laboratory.  That one person prayed and was healed does not mean that everyone who prays will be healed, even though there are some Christians who believe this.  Such personal acts do not lend themselves to the type of evidence atheists demand, especially since the purpose of a miracle is normally not to show the existence of miracles or God.  Of course the atheist often asks why doesn’t God just perform a miracle and prove that he exists ?

    That bring us to free will.  Hitchens main argument is that we have free will to choose whether or not to believe in miracles. Free will is a good way to understand this issue, and the problem with atheistic reasoning, as it ultimately argues against, not for, free will. 

    The issues and complexities of election aside, we do at least at some level have free will.   As Jesus said of Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37 “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  Now it is true that that God does not prove he exists in some undeniable way, and from this the atheist concludes that that he does not exist.  I believe, however, he does not because that would conflict with our freedom to choose.    

    Do we, for example, have the freedom to choose whether or not we will accept gravity or if the Moon exists? Not in any meaningful sense, and if God met the atheist’s demands, neither would we have any meaningful choice to believe in God.  Rather than proof, God has given us evidence. Evidence that points to his existence, and evidence for miracles.  As I argue in Christianity and Secularism  the resurrection is not only the best explanation for the events surrounding the death of Jesus Christ, it is the only explanation that explains both the empty tomb and that the disciples really believed that had seen the risen Christ, two things that even some skeptic and critics of the resurrection believe need explanations.   Yet, while strong evidence, it is not proof.  God has left us the freedom to ignore the evidence and to reject the resurrection despite the evidence.

    The atheist view does not, despite Hitchens claim, allow such freedom.  In the atheist view,  barring absolute proof,  the miraculous must be rejected in favor of the natural.  For the atheist there is no weighing of evidence pro and con, a miracle is either proved or rejected, with a standard of proof so high that if met it would eliminate any meaningful freedom to reject God.

    So ultimately, this is a matter of how you frame the question.  If, as the atheists see it, this is a question of proved or rejected, then miracles, and belief in God will be rejected.  If however this is seen as a question of evidence pro and con, then the  evidence supports the belief in miracles such as the resurrection, and the belief in God.   God has given us the freedom to choose. What we do with that freedom is up to us.

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