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Archive for the 'Atheist' Category

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.  

 

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 X

Friday, August 15th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Hitchens – God Is Not Great IX

Friday, August 8th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Christianity and Secularism

Evidence for the Bible

 

Hitchens – God Is Not Great VIII

Friday, August 1st, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Hitchens – God Is Not Great V

Friday, May 23rd, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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Last time I discussed Christopher Hitchens’ contrasting of reason and religion in his book, “God Is Not Great. In addition to the problems mentioned last time, Hitchens premise that atrocities, religious or otherwise occur because people are not completely rational is itself flawed. Some evil can be very rational, as modern history has shown.

 

This is one of the core weaknesses in atheism and thus it is not too surprising that atheists try to avoid its implication, as Hitchens does later in the book. I will discuss Hitchens’ defense when we come to it, but here I want to lay out the problem and why it is so difficult for atheists.

 

In simple terms, atheists as a general rule see the conflict between atheism and religion as at its core one between the rational and the irrational, with atheism being on the side of reason.  If humanity would only abandon its irrational, that is religious, past, we could establish a sort of secular utopia grounded on the principles of science.

 

This all sounds very good and wonderful but in this sense atheists are sort of like use car salesmen selling an old clunker that will hardly make it off the lot, as if it were a new sport car.  It all sounds so nice as long as you don’t look too closely or ask too many questions.  The main difference would be that unlike a shady used car salesman, the atheist is being completely honest for they really believe what they are saying.

 

As we pointed out last time, reason is merely a tool, and is only as good as the data it has to work on and the framework in which it works. With the right data and the right framework, tremendous evil can be very rational. Atheists are often allowed to avoid this problem because making it involves pointing out how rational evil can be, and thus this often puts the theist in the position of seeming to argue for evil.

 

However, I believe that such arguments are important for two reasons. First, it shows the serious problems with relying only on reason as the atheist claim we should.  Second, and more important is that these argument are effectively being made today, even if not directly. In short as society is becoming more and more secular we are moving slowing and incrementally in this direction as each small step is justified with this reasoning, even if few are willing to point out where this line of reasoning will ultimately lead.

 

A key difference between the Judeo-Christian world view and the atheistic worldview is over the view of who we are. The Bible teaches that we are not only creations of God, but that we are created in his image. In fact it is from this view that the entire concept of human rights was developed for what right does anyone have to interfere with what God has given, even if they are the King?

 

The atheistic worldview, on the other hand, sees humanity as simply another animal, the result of a long series of random mutations and chance happenings that have resulted in human beings. In short we were the result of a process governed by the survival of the fittest.

 

From the time that Darwin published the Origin of the Species; the concept of evolution by natural selection was embraced by atheists. Not only did they immediately incorporate it into their attacks on Christianity, they also began to look at ways they could apply these new scientific principles to governing humanity. The result was the now discredited sciences of Eugenics and Social Darwinism. 

 

Where Christianity teaches we are to care for the poor, the weak and the infirmed, Social Darwinism taught that those that succeeded in life must be the fittest. Those that didn’t were being selected out and little or nothing should be done for them as that only weakened society.   The science of eugenics applied the principles of evolution to procreation arguing that by limiting procreate among those that were deemed inferior on the one hand, and the use of selective breeding on the other we could make better people.  In fact, it was the science of eugenics that spurred efforts for birth control and were a major factor in formation of groups such as Planned Parenthood.

 

Ultimately these new sciences were discredited when Hitler and the Nazi’s took them to their ultimate conclusions in the Holocaust.  While atheists frequently attempt to find a link between Hitler and religion, Hitler did not want to exterminate the Jews for religious reasons; he wanted them exterminated because he believed them to be inferior people who were contaminating the pure Arian or master race.

 

More importantly, his choices were not all that irrational, when seen in framework of Social Darwinism and Eugenics. After all people have selectively bred and or destroy animals for thousands of years so as to enhance certain traits and eliminate others. If the atheists are correct and we are just another type of animal, why not do the same with people?

 

The answer initially was that people have rights. But human rights are an inherently religious concept grounded in the belief that we are created in the image of God. As that foundation has been weakened the evolutionary rational of Eugenics and Social Darwinism is reemerging and next time I look at this in more detail.

 

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.

Hitchens – God Is Not Great III

Friday, May 9th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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This week I return to my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great,” Similar to Dawkins and Harris, serious problems abound in the early pages of the Hitchens’ book. Many are simply statements of personal opinion with at best questionable background or support, such as his claims that “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble, or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism.” (p 7)

 

Other statements go straight to the heart of Hitchens critique. An example of the latter can be found in his claim that “the believer still claims to know! Not just to know, but to know everything.”(Author’s emphasis) This would be a valid criticism if it were true.  But it is not. In fact not only does this fail as an accurate description of religion in general, or even of Christianity in specific, it would be hard to find believers who would actually make this claim.

 

Now a few paragraphs later, Hitchens does qualify this statement somewhat, by restating this criticism as “the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have the essential information we need.” 

 

While this is a somewhat more defendable statement, its open ended nature, and the general context of the discussion leads to the conclusion that Hitchens is still referring to essential information about everything. 

 

One problem with this restatement is that “essential” is a somewhat relative term as there are many degrees of essential.  Ask someone what essential knowledge is to live in the United States, and you will likely get completely different answers than if you ask someone who lives in a third world country. Essential knowledge for one, such as how to grow food or find it in the wild, may be completely irrelevant for someone who buys their food at a market.

 

Yet, if one tries to provide some definition to Hitchens’ use of “essential knowledge” either his argument disappears, or the definition is invalid.  If “essential knowledge” is defined as the knowledge needed for our relationship with God, then I would say that this not only applies to Christianity, but that it has a biblical warrant.  Jude 3 speaks of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”  In the Bible we have all the knowledge that we need for our relationship with God. But even here, there are few Christians that would say that we know everything there is to know about the Bible.

 

But a view of “essential knowledge” limited to our relationship with God renders Hitchens’ argument somewhat empty, has he spends a great deal of time contrasting this belief in “essential knowledge” with all that we have learned in science.  While we have learned a lot with science, Hitchens would hardly argue that a more detailed understanding of Gravity or knowledge of quantum mechanics is needed for salvation. Thus an understanding of “essential knowledge” limited to our relationship with God renders his argument a non-sequitur.

 

Hitchens needs believers claiming to know everything about everything because it justifies what would otherwise be a major inconsistency in his argument.  Hitchens is highly critical of the pre-scientific beliefs of early believers and he sees this as a reason why religion as a whole is to be rejected today.  For example he says “Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman [may have] been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and will be no more of them tomorrow.”(p 7)

 

Yet when it comes to atheists, such erroneous beliefs are explained away by Hitchens, for earlier atheists were “great and fallible imaginative essayists.”  Atheists don’t claim to know everything about everything, so it is ok if they made mistakes in the past, as that is part of the learning process.

 

This distorted view of religion can be seen in much of Hitchens’ criticisms, such as when he asks “How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to ‘fit’ with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities?” (p 7) 

 

Though I would drop the slanting found in words such as “needless” and “contortion,” pretty much the same could be asked of atheism. Just look at the assumptions and efforts they go through trying to explain how life started, some even going to the point of arguing that life was brought to earth by aliens from another planet. 

 

The history of Christianity can be seen as a people striving to come to a better understanding of, and relationship with, God.  This journey has been full of missteps and even back steps, of wrong turns and dead ends, but on the whole has been marked by a better understanding; and the fruits of this have been seen in what I would argue have been great advancement made by society that came out of Christianity, from the birth of modern science, to the origin of Human Rights, from end of slavery, to the advancement of civil rights.

 

Throughout the world Christians working through their churches are ministering to those in need, not only in their local communities, but around the world. They have been, and continue to be a tremendous force for good.

 

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