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Elgin’s Books


  • Christianity and Secularism

  • Evidence for the Bible
  • 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.

    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 XV

    Friday, September 19th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    I come to six chapter of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” where Hitchens addresses the  concept of design. He opens the chapter with one of his typical descriptions of religion, in this case the three monotheistic faiths, but a description which most in those faiths would see as at best distorted to the point of error. 

    For Hitchens, God is an “ill-tempered monarch” to whom we should be in continual submission, gratitude, and fear.” (p 73-4) One wonders if he has ever encountered passages such as Roman 8:21 which states, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, Abba, Father,” or how such passage would fit into his view.

    Hitchens then proceed to claim a paradox between this view of submission and slavery, with the claim that, according to Hitchens, “religion teaches people to be extremely self-centered and conceited.” (p 74)  This last statement is so stunningly wrongly that, while it tells us nothing about religion, tells us a great deal about Hitchens. 

    Oh sure, there are some believers who are self-centered and conceited. Yet, I don’t remember any verses in the Bible teaching that we should be self-centered or conceited. But I do know of many that teach we should be humble and serve others.

    In short, this error demonstrates clearly that Hitchens is not dealing with reality. He has some sort of artificial construct in his head, which he labels religion and which he then tries to refute.  But he labors in vain, for his artificial construct does not exist.  Thus, at it very core, his effort is Quixotic.

    From there, Hitchens begins an attack on superstition, either not realizing, or hoping his reader will not realize, that religion and superstition are two different things.  Either way, he no doubt hopes that the negative comments on superstition will redound against religion. Hitchens then jumps to an attack on astrology, but astrology is not a religion. If anything it is an early form of science.

    In all of this diversion, Hitchens does make a criticism valid of at least some Christians. Hitchens summarizes it as, “the human wish to credit good things as miraculous and to charge bad things to another account.”  Hitchens points to the West Virginia mine disaster where thirteen miners were trapped in an explosion. When it was announced that they had been found alive and safe it was proclaimed a miracle, an act of God. Yet a few minutes later when it was learned that only one was in fact alive, and he was seriously injured, the attribution was drop.

    This example goes to the heart of the problem of evil or why God allows such things to happen. The three simplest answers would be that these things happen because God is either not good or powerful enough to stop them, or does not exist at all. However all of these answers are incompatible with the Christian view of God and so if Christianity is correct, the answer is not going to be so simple.

    A partial answer can be found in the belief that we have freewill and that this includes not only the freedom to make choices, but to suffer the consequences.  We have freedom to dig a mine, but not to suspend the laws of nature that led to the explosion. But again, admittedly this is only a partial answer. A full discussion of this issue would take a book, as indeed many books have been written and a great place to start would be the book of Job.

    Given the complexities and difficulties of the issues, it is not surprising that Christians often get it wrong and often fall into our own simplistic answers. One of the most common is that God blesses the good and punishes the evil. Examples of this are numerous. Probably one of the more notable recent examples would be Jerry Falwell linking 911 to God being mad at America because of things like abortion and groups like the ACLU, a statement for which he later apologized.

    This view in not only wrong, it is spiritually very dangerous. This can be seen historically in the Lisbon earthquake of November 1st 1755 and accompanying fire and Tsunami.  Based on the damage and the range over which it was felt it has been estimated at a magnitude nine. Such a large quake in Europe was a watershed event in many ways, one of which was spiritual.

    At the time many Christians held the view that such natural disasters where an indication of God punishing the wicked. The problem was however that the Lisbon earthquake occurred in the morning on a religious holiday. As a result many of those killed were the faithful, when the churches in which they were worshipping that morning collapsed. On that morning it was safer to have been an atheist, a point noted by many such as Voltaire.  The earthquake became one of the factors in the rise of rationalism.

    While Hitchens does have a valid criticism of some Christians here, it is hardly an indictment of all of religion. Nor does it have much to do with Arguments from design, which Hitchens does not actually get to until the fifth page of the chapter. 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 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 VII

    Friday, July 25th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    In my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great,” we have finally reached chapter two. This is one of the problems with the Neo-atheists, as there are so many blatant errors and problems in their writings and with their arguments that even just picking out just some of the most obvious ones takes many posts. There were for example many more problems in Chapter one that I easily could have addressed, but I have decided to move one and will attempt to pick up the pace a bit with the hopes of one day finishing.

    Hitchens begins this chapter asking why the belief in “infinitely benign and all-powerful creator” (pg 15) who watches over and cares for us, and who has prepared eternity for those who obey him, does not make believers happy? He goes on to state that, “religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths.” (pg 17) His prime example for this was Mother Teresa actions against a change in Irish Law to allow divorce.

    To Hitchens and the other neo-atheists, no doubt this is a powerful and devastating indictment of religion. My reaction, on the other hand, is more along the lines of shaking my head and saying, so many errors, so little time.

    Let’s start with Hitchens’ question about happiness. The simple fact is that believers are, as a general rule happier, as many polls have demonstrated. For example, an extensive survey of teenagers and young adults last year found that those who said that religion or spirituality was the most important thing in their lives were a third more likely to be happy than those for whom it was not important. So the premise of Hitchens argument is just false and the question we should be asking is why are so many of those who reject God unhappy? But I suspect the answer to this question would not support Hitchens as well.

    Hitchens’ broader claim about interfering with the lives of nonbelievers is not so clear cut, though his prime example reveals some significant problems with his reasoning. Now it is certainly true, that Christians have at times interfered with the lives of non-believers. But this is not the black and white question implied by Hitchens.

    While Hitchens points to negative examples of such interference to bolster his case, what about the positive examples? What about those Christians who felt compelled to interfere in the slave trade because they believed it to be immoral? What about those Christians today who feel compelled to interfere for the poor, the sick, and the persecuted around the world? Would the world really be a better place if Christians just closed their eyes to such suffering, as not any of their business? Would the world really be a better place if, instead of vigorously fighting to end the slave trade, William Wilberforce had adopted the secular motto of “who am I to judge”?

    Just as Christians tend to be happier than atheists, numerous polls also show that Christians are more charitable as well. For example, the United States is not only more religious than Europe; it is the most charitable country in the world; and not only in total dollars, but in percentage of Gross National Product as well. In fact, the US gave more than twice as much as percentage of GNP than its closest competitor, England, and more than ten times than the far more secular France.

    Even if you factor in Government “contributions,” in addition charitable giving by individuals, the US still gives nearly 50 percent more than England, and over twice as much as France. This difference between secular vs. religious giving continues within the United States as well, as states where religion is strong and important tend to out give the more secular states.

    So while Hitchens bemoans interference, it is often good and to be commended rather than attacked. Even his example of Mother Teresa opposing a change in divorce law is problematic, though not surprising. I have frequently been told by secular opponents that my position on this or that political issue is invalid because it is “religious.” Carried to its logical conclusion such reasoning would make Christians and other people of faith second class citizens, whose very participation in the democratic process was suspect.

    It would seem that for many secularists in democracy people are free to enact the social policies they want, just as long as those social policies cannot in any way be considered religious. Hitchens suggest that the Catholics could continue to follow their church’s teaching on divorce without “imposing them on all other citizens.” In other words, do what you want, but keep your religious noses out of social policy, that is for us secularist to determine based on what we think our reason tells us at any given moment.

    Of course if the secularist were correct, one could just as easily ask why even have a Government policy on divorce or marriage at all. Just let everyone do whatever they want, for as soon as you have any policy at all, someone will not like it. While secularist I have talked to object to such counterarguments, when you look at the social trends and recent court rulings, that seems to be exactly where we are headed.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great VI

    Friday, July 11th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    This week I return to my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great,” Hitchens concludes his first chapter, describing his father’s funeral where he spoke on Philippians 4:8

    Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

    For Hitchens, this is a “Secular injunction” that shines “out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it.” (p 12)

    The last part of Hitchens’ comment can only be seen as at best hyperbole.  In fact, what immediately precede this passage are injunctions to: rejoice, be gracious, don’t worry, pray, and be thankful, though I guess that these were corrupted by the “rant” about prayer. On the other side, what follows this supposedly “secular injunction” is an encouragement to not only think about these things, but to put them into practice.

    Ultimately Hitchens comments make no sense.  The immediate context does not support his description of a “wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying,” nor does the broader context of the letter, the New Testament, or even the Bible as a whole.   Such distorted hyperbole may be as red meat to his fellow atheists, to be uncritically swallowed, but it hardly supports his claim that he is representing the rational position.

    His description of this as a secular injunction is likewise problematic.  Why is this injunction secular? Is it because the word God does not appear in the passage? The context is certainly not secular. This injunction comes as at the conclusion of the letter, in the passage Paul is summing up what it means to live as true Christians.

    As a side note, I can’t help but wonder if Christians down through the ages had really taken these words to heart, how different the writings of the neo-atheists would have been, as a great deal of their critiques involve Christians who did not live up to the teachings of Bible.

    Still, there are two main problems with Hitchens claim that this is a secular injunction. The first is that some of these words lose their meaning apart from a context that involves God. Granted terms like true and honest have secular meanings, thought it is worth noting that as society has become increasingly secular both of these terms have  suffered. For example, it now common among those strongly influenced by secularism to believe that truth is relative, and thus is different from person to person. There is no such thing as absolute truth.

    Terms such as lovely and good report are even more problematic.  It would be very difficult to claim that as society has become more secular it has become lovelier, or that it has even exulted the lovely.  A survey of modern art would quickly show the opposite.  In fact noted the historian Jacques Barzum summed up the last 500 years of the cultural life in Western Civilization in the title of his book as From Dawn To Decadence

    Finally, terms such as pure and virtue are inherently moral and thus require a moral context before they have any meaning at all.  For example, pure in the context Paul meant is something vastly different that pure in a racial context. In fact I would argue, based on the teachings of the Bible that pure in a racial context is irrelevant and to advocate it is evil.

    In short the injunction itself is meaningless unless given a context or framework in which these terms can be understood. Christians have a clear framework in which to understand this injunction. Secularism has no such clear framework. Secularists are free to fill in the blanks however they see fit.  Most do this from the culture in which they live, which in Western cultures means one strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian values.

    As such it is very possible that Hitchens and I would have a great deal of agreement as to what this injunction is saying, but where we agreed, it is not because I am adopting a secular framework, but rather because Hitchens views overlap those derived from the Bible.  But even if we assume that these terms had some universal meaning apart from Christianity, that would still not make this a secular injunction, for there is the problem why should it be enjoined.  What is the secular imperative to embody these attributes? There isn’t any.

    Sure a secular rational in favor could be constructed. But a secular rational against could likewise be constructed. This is because secularism itself is neutral. In fact in the context of evolution, the key imperative would be to survive, and so whenever lying or injustice served the aim of survival, then it should be done. In the Christian context, truth and justice are attributes of God. Since we are created in his image, we should likewise embody these attributes. Not just when it serves our personal interest, but at all times.  For as Paul said in the next verse,

    Likewise, keep practicing these things: what you have learned, received, heard, and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great IV

    Friday, May 16th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    This week I continue my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great,” At the core of much of Hitchens’ problems with religion is that he sees it in opposition to reason. This core can be seen in many of his statements, such as when he writes, “Past and present religious atrocities have occurred not because we are evil, but because it is a fact of nature that the human species is, biologically, only partly rational.” (pg 8 ) For Hitchens’ religion comes from the irrational part of our nature and is to be resisted.

    There are many problems with Hitchens’ view. For one the idea that “evil” comes from a lack of reason is an overly simplistic one that simply will not stand any serious scrutiny. Reason is a tool of learning, a process or a way of thinking that helps us organize data into meaningful conclusions. But like any tool, such as a hammer, or a gun, whether is it is good or bad, depends on how it is used. Reason can be either good or bad, because intrinsically it is neither. A hammer can be use to build a house, or murder someone. A gun can be used to protect innocent life or take it. Likewise reason is neither moral nor immoral. Reason is amoral.

    Another problem is that the results of reason, the conclusions that are reached using it, are only as good as the raw data used and the framework in which it is applied. To use a phrase common in computers: ‘garbage in garbage out.’

    A recent and visible example of this problem can be seen in the conclusion reached concerning WMD’s in the run up to Iraq war. While critics of the war charge Bush lied, the simple fact is that the conclusion that Iraq had WMD’s was the rational conclusion given the information that was available at the time.

    This is demonstrated by the fact that this conclusion was reached, not just by Bush, or even just by those who supported the war, but was also reached by many who opposed the war. The conclusion was also reached by intelligent services around the world, again even in countries that opposed the war. In fact many of Iraq’s own general’s though they had WMDs. The problem was not that the conclusion was irrational; rather the problem was that data upon which the conclusion was based was flawed.

    Now some would argue that this is not a problem with reason itself, but a problem with the data reason had to work with. Perhaps; and if reason is seen merely as a tool, then there would be little problem. But if reason is seen as a comprehensive worldview in competition with other worldviews, such as those found in religion, then this remains a serious problem for we will never have all the data we would like.

    An even a more serious problem is that if reason is just a tool and requires a framework in which to work, how can the framework be chosen? Hitchens seems to ignore this problem and simply assume the atheistic worldview is the only rational worldview and as such religious worldviews are inherently irrational. Yet reason can function just as well using a Christian worldview as an atheistic worldview. The difference in the conclusions is not because, one is being irrational and the other rational, but rather is driven more by the different fundamental assumptions built in to the respective frameworks.

    For example, Christians look at all the evidence that points to the existence of a god who created the universe. As a result of all this evidence, the conclusion that there is a God who created the world is a rational and easy conclusion to reach. The evidence is pretty clear that the natural universe is not eternal, but rather had a beginning. Since self-creation is a logical absurdity, something else had to cause the universe to come into existence. When one begins to explore what could create the universe as it is, the conclusion that it was God is not at all hard to reach.

    Yet one of the fundamental assumptions of the atheistic worldview is that the material world is the only thing that exists. Given this belief, the only valid evidence would be evidence of the material, which is why atheists so frequently claim there is no evidence for the existence of God. In their worldview the only valid evidence would be direct material evidence sufficient to constitute proof that God exists. Anything else, is deemed insufficient and not really evidence. Thus their claim, that there is no evidence. For the atheist there cannot be, their worldview precludes it.

    How do they explain the origin of the universe? Despite the evidence to the contrary, they believe that it must have been by natural means, as that is the only thing their worldview allows, and any problems are simply explained away as a lack of sufficient knowledge.

    But there are still more problems with Hitchens’ view for as I will point out next time, evil is not always the result of a lack of reason. When unguided by morality, at time evil can be quite rational.

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