September 2008


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Christianity: The Basics

What is Wrong with Social Justice

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Archive for September, 2008

Hitchens – God Is Not Great XVI

Friday, September 26th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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Continuing in chapter six of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” Hitchens finally comes to the subject of the chapter: Arguments from design. He starts with the famous argument of William Paley about finding a watch on a beach. While we may not know who or what made the watch, its complexity and construction shows that it was not produced by natural forces, but was designed and made by some intelligence for some purpose.

Hitchens links in the first part of the chapter where he pointed to the tendency of some to attribute whatever is good to God and everything else to something other source, by claiming that believers only attribute to design what appears to be a good design.  Since not everything can be attributed to good design, we are wrong to attribute anything to it. However such an all-or-nothing argument really makes no  sense. To see why, consider for the moment that Paley’s mythical beachcomber had found the watch next to a plain old rock. According to Hitchens’ reasoning, since it does not appear that the rock was designed, there is no reason to conclude the watch was designed either.

Hitchens quickly moves on to talked about design in living things, which he of course then explains away by the atheistic catch all of evolution, ridiculing the very notion of creation.  One of the things about Hitchens, is that he makes what seem to him to be brilliant and unanswerable points, but which are really just slanted statements about which the only thing that is really puzzling is that he would actually consider them arguments in the first place.

Consider the following example.  When talking about death, Hitchens writes, “This of course raises the uncomfortable (for believers) idea of the built-in fault that no repairman can fix.  Should this be counted as part of the “design” as well?”   And just in case, it is not clear enough to the reader how brilliantly stunning this argument is, Hitchens then adds, “(As usual, those who take the credit for the one will fall silent and start shuffling when it comes to the other side of the ledger.)” (p 79)

Hitchens may call it shuffling, but I certainly see no reason to be silent on this.  If other Christians are silent, it probably more for puzzlement that anyone would see in this as a difficulty much less an argument against Christianity. In fact, the Bible it pretty clear on this point. Romans 6:23 says, “the wages of sin is death,”  and Hebrews 9:27 says “people are destined to die.”   Psalm 90 tells us that “We live for 70 years, or 80 years if we’re healthy” (ISV) Sure death is unpleasant, but it does seem to be built into to our present state. 

This is what make Hitchens’ smug argument that design must be false, because we have  a “built-in fault that no repairman can fix” to be so puzzling.  This is not a problem for Christianity, this a key teaching; though Christians would clarify this as no mere human repairman can fix, as that it can be fixed, that we can live forever, also a key teaching of Christianity.

This raises another key issue. Whenever arguing against a position, to be truly successful one must argue against the totality of the position, not some idealized subset.  Most atheists, including Hitchens here, address the issue of God as a designer, isolated from the rest of Christian teaching. In short they completely ignore that no longer live in the first two chapters of Genesis, where God created the world and it was good. We live in the fallen world of the rest of the Bible. Sin corrupted not only humanity but the rest of creation as well (Roman 8:18-22). Exactly how the rest of creation was affected is not stated in the Bible. But it is a part of the teaching of the Bible, and cannot be ignored when considering questions of design in the universe. 

From this puzzling argument, Hitchens goes to yet an even more puzzling argument. He writes, “when it comes to the whirling, howling, wilderness of outer space, with its red giants and white dwarfs and black holes, it titanic explosions and extinctions, we can only dimly and shiveringly conclude that the ‘design’ hasn’t been imposed quite yet.” (pg 79-80).

The only thing that would leave me speechless about such an argument is the utter ignorance of the natural laws that govern this and the evidence of design they show. Hitchens cites as additional evidence that the other planets in our solar system can’t support life and that our sun “is getting ready to explode.” (pg 80), as if these were somehow arguments against design.  The problem is that a key aspect of design is purpose. A watch may be more carefully designed than a hammer, but if you need something to drive a nail, the a watch is probably unless.   That the other planets can’t support life says nothing about their design, unless God wanted them to support life. That the sun will no longer support life in the distance future says nothing about design unless God needed it to support life in the distance future.

So Hitchens’ macro arguments come to nothing. But having silenced the opposition in his own mind on these macro issues, Hitchens then proceeds to the micro arguments, which 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 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 XIV

Friday, September 12th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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This week, I am continuing in the fifth chapter of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” where Hitchens attempts to show that the metaphysical claims of religion are false.  After stating his claim that “All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule,” (pg 64-5) which I addressed last time, Hitchens briefly sketches the rise of secularism, lauding those who saw the light, ridiculing any who lagged behind.

Now there is no doubt that there has been a trend toward the secularization of society, but this is hardly an argument one way or the other, and to be fair, it is not completely clear if Hitchens intends this as an actual argument or if he is just using this as background, or perhaps filler, as it takes up most of the chapter. If he intends this as an argument, it fails because it commits one or both of the following fallacies, appeal to the people, and appeal to misplaced authority.

The fallacy of appeal to the people occurs when appeal is made to what the majority believe, instead of pointing to actual evidence. About the only place it can be somewhat acceptable, is when, after laying out the evidence, appeal is made to how many find the evidence convincing, but to be valid the emphasis must remain on the evidence.

Now at times the evidence is so complex as to require special training to evaluate, for example, when dealing complex medical issues one should seek out a doctor. Appealing to people who are authorities instead of the evidence in these cases is not fallacious. But if Hitchens is intending this, then he commits the other fallacy.  

The fallacy of appeal to misplace authority occurs when citing an authority who is not an authority in the particular field in question.  That someone is an authority on nuclear physic does not automatically mean they are an authority in other sciences such as botany, much less non-scientific areas like metaphysics.  But again, it is not completely clear that Hitchens is even intending this as an actual argument. 

It is the last two pages of the chapter before Hitchens finally gets around to clearly making an actual argument, one based on Ockham’s razor, which holds that answers should not be unnecessarily complex. Basically his argument is, “it cannot be strictly proved that God, if defined as a being who possesses the qualities of supremacy, perfection, uniqueness, and infinity exists at all” (p 70), and we don’t need God to explain the universe, therefore, using Ockham’s razor God does not exist. 

There are many problems with this argument.  The first is that Hitchens hides a lot in his carefully worded sentence. It is true that Ockham rejected that such a supremely absolute God could strictly be proved. This is because we only know about our universe. As such we can not say for sure that there are not other universes, and other gods for those universes.

Ockham did however believe that it could be shown that were was a creator God, or first cause, for this universe.  In addition he believed that probable arguments could be made for the existence of a Supreme God.  (See Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy III, pg 84) While atheists dismiss probable arguments when it comes to God and religion, they have no problem with them elsewhere.  This is because at some level virtually everything we know depends on probable arguments.

In logic this distinction between what can be strictly proved and what is an argument based on probability is what lies behind deductive logic and inductive logic.  The results of a sound deductive argument, where the premises are true and the reasoning valid, are strictly proved. Induction at best only yields results that are probably true for there always remains a chance however small that the conclusion might be incorrect; there always remains some doubt.

Atheists jump on this doubt as a reason to reject induction when talking about God. However, they are quick to use induction elsewhere. After all, virtually all of science is based on induction.  The theory of Gravity is based on induction, not deduction and thus there remains some doubt about it, though admittedly this doubt is more theoretical than anything else.  In other areas this doubt is larger.

Evolution is not even close to being strictly proved, and considerable doubts exists, but, this does not stop atheists from attacking and ridiculing those who point out problems and raise questions about the theory.  So when atheists reject probably arguments for the existence of God they are being extremely selective.

Hitchens seems to be aware that Ockham believes a first cause, if not a supreme God, could be demonstrated for he proceeds briefly attack the idea.  But it is a feeble attempt.  Those interested can find a more completely discussion of the argument from first cause in my book Christianity and Secularism chapter two.

In the end this chapter strikes me more as filler that could better have been summarized as the opening paragraph or two of the next chapter, where Hitchens discusses arguments from design.

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

Hitchens – God is not Great XIII

Friday, September 5th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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Continuing my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’, “God Is Not Great,” I come to Chapter Five where Hitchens asserts that the Metaphysical claims of Religion are False.  He begins the chapter with one of his typically broad attacks, that a Faith that can stand up to reason, “is now plainly impossible.”  In very limited way there is some truth in Hitchens’ claim. Christianity, as a rational system of thought, does have some problems; there are questions for which we do not have completely satisfactory answers.


Now while the atheist may pounce on this as evidence that Christianity can’t stand up to reason, it is in reality little more than an admission that Christians do not have all the answers, which is hardly surprising, for nobody has all the answers.  It is just a fact that all major systems of thought have some problems for which they do not have the answer.


This is why the atheist’s frequent demands for proof are at their core irrational. There are many problems with the atheist’s demands for proofs, but one is that when comparing major systems of thought to demand proof is absurd for nobody has it.


Atheists attempt to avoid this little problem by declaring that they are the default view, and as such don’t need to provide proof, but this is at best a little self-serving. After all a Christian could just as easily declare that Christianity was the default view, and demand that atheist prove their claims.


A much more rational approach is to realize that demands for proof are out of place when contrasting world views. Instead of who can prove what, a much better approach is to compare the evidenced pro and con. Instead of who can prove their system, which system of thought has the best explanation.  When this is done Christianity comes off quite well, and in fact I believe, though this is hardly surprising, does the best. This may perhaps be why atheists I have talked to so dogmatically insist on proof.


From there Hitchens begins to savage and ridicule believers in the past in his typical fashion which seems founded more in hatred that in reason.  The best that can be said of it is that it is distorted slanting, that is, when it is not straying into the irrational fallacy of ad hominem attack.  It may please the atheist choir, but argues against Hitchens for those seeking a serious rational discussion.


But Hitchens does eventually finish his rant and come to a coherent point, which in this case is “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody … had the smallest idea what was going on.”  From which he concludes “All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.” (pg 64-5)


Well in terms of a scientific understanding of the physical laws of the universe, Hitchens premise is correct. And for those religions with a large and significant focus on the problems of nature, the advancement of science is a significant problem and reconciliation is impossible. 


However neither Judaism nor Christianity are focused on these natural problems but on the human condition, how it is broken and particularly in the case of Christianity, how it can be fixed. These are spiritual issues about which science is as silent as the Bible is on quantum mechanics.


Some atheists claim that the behavioral sciences have shown that religion is not needed to explain human behavior, but such arguments are based more in the philosophical/religious view call scientism, and on writing off all problems as either not important, or with the atheistic catch all, we figure it out some day.


For example, naturalistic science cannot even explain the phenomena of consciousness, or explain how we have free will and some have written these off as illusions. But real problems remain. For example, why are atheists trying to encourage people to abandon their belief in God, if people don’t even have a choice in the matter?  


And while Hitchens can point to the absurd beliefs held by Christians in the past, did these beliefs come from Christianity, or from accepting what was the science of their day? Then again, Christians can point to the absurdities of secular belief today, such as the belief that there is no real difference between men and women which is behind much of current secular thought.


One of the problems with science is that it frequently confuses ignorance of a subject with a lack of evidence.  For example, science saw no reason for biblical view of sex, therefore it must be false and based on superstition, something Hitchens frequently claims.  This despite all the visible problems of unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, broken homes and the other problems that are conveniently just ignored.   But now recent studies on the brain are showing the casual sex with multiple partners does have detrimental impact on brain development. (See Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children).

Science may have the best answer for how an apple falls when dropped, but when it comes to issue of good and evil or how we should live our lives, Christianity still have the best answers. Perhaps this is why in studies, religious people are happier.

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