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A Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion Part VII

Friday, October 12th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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Oct 12, 2007, Wausau, Wi —This week I return to my extended review of Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” In the prior parts of this review, I have shown how Dawkins’ simplistic approach to the subject of religion regularly leads him into trouble.  This is especially true when in chapter 3 he begins to deal with the arguments for God’s existence. 

Not too surprisingly Dawkins starts with the classical proofs for God set forth by Thomas Aquinas.  His view of Aquinas’ arguments is clearly set forth when he says, “The five ‘proofs’ asserted by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century don’t prove anything, and are easily – though I hesitate to say so, given his eminence – exposed as vacuous.” (pg 77) Reading his supposed refutation, it would seem that Dawkins should have hesitated a little longer. 

To understand the problem with Dawkins refutation, it is first necessary to know a little about Aquinas’ arguments.  It is impossible to fully cover details of these arguments here, but I hope to cover enough to show the serious flaw in Dawkins attempt at refutation. (For those seeking a more in depth discussion of some of these arguments and some of the objections raised by critics should see Chapter two of my book Christianity and Secularism).

Aquinas’ first three arguments all deal with the impossibility of an infinite regression of linked events.   For example an apple comes from a tree, and the tree grew from a seed, and the seed came from an earlier apple, and so on and so on, further and further into the past. Such a regression can either go on forever, with no beginning, or it can have a beginning.  Aquinas’ argument is based on the claim that it would be impossible for such regressions to go on forever, but there must have been a beginning to the sequence, a first cause, a first mover, etc.

Unfortunately for Dawkins, he seems too busy finding fault, to have actually have understood the argument.  Dawkins’ first attempt at an argument is to claim that Aquinas’ arguments “make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress… there is absolutely no reason to endow [a terminator of the sequence] with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins, and reading innermost thoughts.”  (pg 77)

Now it is true that these arguments do not give us a complete picture of God, but neither Aquinas, nor others defending these arguments claim that they did.  After all the main purpose of these arguments is to primarily demonstrate one attribute of God: his existence.  That these arguments do not give us a complete picture of God, is not an argument that they don’t succeed in the purpose for which they were intended.  That a scalpel cannot perform all the tasks needed in surgical operation, is not an argument that a scalpel is useless at the task for which it was intended.

Yet while these and other arguments for God’s existence don’t need to go beyond demonstrating the existence of god to be effective, often they do.  For example, the arguments based on the impossibility of infinite regression, not only demonstrates the existence of a first mover, first cause or creator, they also tell us more.  For example, for something to be the true beginning of a sequence, it cannot itself be part of a sequence, and therefore must be eternal, which is also an attribute of God. 

Since everything in the natural universe, is base on cause and effect, an eternal creator could not be part of the natural universe, and thus, must be beyond the natural, or in other words is supernatural in nature. Thus these arguments not only argue for existence, but the existence of an eternal supernatural creator.  While not by any means a complete description of God, it is at least a good start.

At this point Dawkins’ takes a bizarre side trail to expose what he claims is incompatibility in the out understanding of God.  According to Dawkins, since God is supposedly omniscient, he already knows “how h is going to intervene to change the course of history.”  But since he already knows, he cannot change his mind, and since he cannot change his mind he cannot be omnipotent. 

Like so many of the supposedly devastating critics of atheists, much of this argument turns on exactly how you define omnipotent.  If it is defined as the ability to do anything, then Dawkins is correct, God is not omnipotent. He cannot, to use another supposedly devastating critique, create a rock that is too heavy for him to move.  On the other hand, if omnipotent is defined as God being so powerful, that his desires are not limited by his ability; that his he can do whatever he desires to do, then there is no problem at all.

In fact, not only is there no problem, but Dawkins’ supposed refutation, simply demonstrates yet another characteristic of God: that he is unchanging.  So rather than a refutation, now we have these arguments show the existence of an eternal unchanging supernatural creator.

More next time.

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

A Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion Part VI

Friday, September 14th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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Sept 14, 2007, Wausau, Wi  Last time in my review of Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” I showed the superficiality of Dawkins’ view of God.   From there, Dawkins begins a discussion of the Founding Father, trying to claim that, “contrary to [The American right’s’] view, the fact that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation was early stated in the terms of the Treaty of Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797.” (pg 40)

Once again, the simplicity of Dawkins’ approach leads him into error.  United States is not a Christian nation in the sense that government has established Christianity as the official religion of the United States; which is basically what the Treaty of Tripoli says for it clearly refers to “The Government of the United States.”

The problem for Dawkins’ is that there is a difference between the government and the nation as a whole. A country is more than just its government.  This is true of all nations, and is particularly true of the United States where even within the government there is a difference between the federal and the states.  Nothing shows this clearer than at the very time Dawkins claims that the Treaty of Tripoli showed that the United States was not a Christian nation, many of the states still had established religions, all of which were Christian.

Dawkins goes on to claim that, “the genie of religious fanaticism is rampant in present-day America, and the founding fathers would have been horrified…  the founders most certainly were secularists who believe in keeping religion out of politics, and that is enough to place them firmly on the side of those who object, for example, to ostentatious displays in the Ten Commandments in government-owned public places.” (pg 41-2)

Dawkins’ view is common among secularists, but it conflicts with the actual history.  In fact, as I detail in my book, Christianity and Secularism, the phase  “Separation of Church and State” which is the defining phrase for secularists is not only absent from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it did not even enter into Constitutional law until 1947, when it was inserted by the Supreme Court.

While secularist do mention it very often, the very first clause of the First Amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” Perhaps the only thing that secularist mention even less, would be the second clause, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The founding father thought that religion was important enough to make this the very first part of the First Amendment.

Dawkins’ view is even further called into question by the fact that Congress, the day after approving the First Amendment passed a resolution calling for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.  If the founding fathers were so intent on getting religion out of politics as Dawkins’ claims, how could the very same people who approved the First Amendment the very next day pass such a resolution?  The simple fact is that if Dawkins’ view of their goals were correct, they couldn’t have.

Rather than being horrified by rampant religious fanaticism as Dawkins’ claims, the British historian Paul Johnson has a much more actuate view when he pointed out that the current dominance of secularism “would have astonished and angered the founding father.” (see Christianity and Secularism, pg 19)

 While it is true the founding fathers did not want an established religion, it was because they saw religion as extremely important, so important that it needed to be the very first thing protected in the Bill of Rights. 

The founding fathers believed in checks and balances.  The reason they saw religion as so important, is that it was the one thing strong enough to check the growth of government.  They did not fear religion, what they feared was that one group would gain power and use its position to dominate and suppress opposing points of view. In short, that a single view of religion would become a tool of government and used to suppress differing religious views.

The founding fathers’ view of religion dominated until the middle part of the 20th century.  By then secularism’s distain for religion had grown to the point that religion came to be seen, not as something so important it needed to be protected from government, but something so dangerous that government  it need to be protected from it.

Thus, starting with the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education ruling, the Supreme Court has effectively rewritten the constitution, allowing the court to reshape American society.  What we have now is what the founding fathers’ feared most, that one religious view, in this case secularism, has gained power and has used that power to reinterpret the First Amendment, and is using the new interpretation to dominate and suppress all competing religious views.

Thus in the name of freedom, prayer in public schools was prohibited. In the name of freedom, Bible reading in public schools was prohibited.  In the name of freedom, prayer at graduations was prohibited, even if voluntary and done by students.   In the name of freedom, the Ten Commandments were banned from public schools.  In the name of freedom, Christians are routinely told that their values and beliefs are illegitimate in the political process because they are “religious.”  Thus on many issues such as abortion or definition of marriage or family, secularists say you are free to have whatever views you want, just as long as you keep them to yourselves, as only their views can be represented and promoted by government.  That is hardly view of freedom and democracy the founding fathers wanted.

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

A Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion Part V

Friday, September 7th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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Sept 7, 2007, Wausau, Wi  So far, in my review of Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” I have showed how Dawkins’ arguments in the first chapter of his book concerning religion in general and Christianity in particular are seriously flawed. In chapter two Dawkins turns to the more specific question of God. 

He starts the chapter with what can at best be characterized as a stereotypical rant, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all the fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, and unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniac, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

The main justification that Dawkins’ gives for this statement is that Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, came to a similar conclusion when he read the Old Testament for the first time while in the army. 

As a result, his views were not based on any serious in depth understanding of the text.  No attempt was made to put any of the books into an historical context.  No attempt was made to put the books into any cultural context.  There was simply a superficial reading.

Dawkins goes on to write that, “It is unfair to attack such an easy target.” The reason it is so easy is that what Dawkins has done here is to create a strawman view of god that he can then easily knock down, not an accurate depiction of God based on any scholarly analysis of the text.

Dawkins goes on from this to state his alternative to god, “any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.” His alternative is a little confusing because it seems to be, not an alternative to god, but a reason why a god could not exist.  But even as a reason why a god could not exist, it still does not make very much sense because it is based on the premise that a god would be a part of the universe and therefore that would need to evolve.  But a god who created the universe could not be part of the created universe without falling into the absurdity of self creation.

From there Dawkins goes on to expand the view of religion that sees progress from “primitive tribal animisms, and, through Polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans and Norsemen, to monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam.” (pg 32) While this seems like a nice neat theory that fits Dawkins bias to see evolution everywhere, as I discuss in my book, Evidence for the Bible, if anything the opposite is true.  Monotheism seems to devolve into polytheism, and the tendency would seem to be to create more gods, not fewer. Even in modern times, as Western civilization as moved away from Christianity, God has been replaced by many other things, wealth, fame, country, science, nature. Now even in science there are those pushing the concept of Gaia or mother earth.

While Dawkins purports to discuss polytheism at this point, instead, he quickly switches to ridiculing the Trinity.  That his discussion of the Trinity occurs in the section on polytheism shows once again the superficiality with which Dawkins approach religion.  After quoting a passage from St. Gregory, Dawkins takes one of his characteristic swipes at religion, saying “his words convey a characteristically obscurantist flavor of theology, which – unlike science or most other branches of human scholarship – has not moved on in 18 centuries.”

The first problem with this is that there was nothing particularly obscure in St. Gregory’s discussion of the Trinity.  That Dawkins finds it obscured is simply more evidence of his superficiality.  Anyone, reading a technical discussion in a field of study where they are not familiar with the key issues, problems, or terminology, is likely to find that discussion obscure.

Dawkins’ claim that theology has not “moved on in 18 centuries” is equally as false.  Sure the basic doctrines such as God, Jesus Christ, and salvation, have not changed.  But why should they?  If scientists 18 centuries from now still believe in gravity will that be a reason to reject science because it is not moved on?  On the other hand, to say there has been no development in theology in the last 18 centuries is simply false. 

In fact, just in the last hundred years there’s been tremendous development in our understanding of the Bible, as our understanding of Biblical languages, archaeology, and history have improved.  Granted, these have not challenged the foundations of our faith, and in fact if anything, have strengthened them, has they have demonstrated the reliability of the Bible, and have refuted most of the arguments put forth by critics such as Dawkins, which is perhaps why Dawkins ignores these developments.

Dawkins’ closes the section on polytheism by attempting to forestall the criticism that the god Dawkins is attacking is not the God that Christians believe in.  His response is that all notions of god are silly and that he is “attacking god, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.”

While this is a bold and sweeping claim, it does not match the actual arguments in the book.  It would be like claiming you are refuting all of science, when all of your argument relate to alchemy.  Likewise Dawkins’ arguments fall short.

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

Part I     Part II     Part III    Part IV 

A Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion Part IV

Friday, August 31st, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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August 31, 2007, Wausau, Wi  I ended part III of my review of Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” by pointing out that atheism, like all world views, involves a component of faith.  It is not the completely reason and evidence based system that it claims to be.  This time I want to look at what is at best a strange line of argument made by Dawkins, but it is an argument which is increasingly common among atheists.

On page 20, Dawkins writes, “A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – non-religious included – is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to another.”

To anyone even remotely familiar with the assaults to which Christians and Christianity are routinely subjected, Dawkins statement will come as somewhat of a surprise. To justify this strange claim, Dawkins points that “In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are euphemized to ‘Nationalists’ and ‘Loyalists’ respectively.”  Yet this hardly is showing any deference to religion. What Dawkins’ neglects is the historical fact that the conflict in Ireland existed long before there was any difference in religion.  In fact it is more likely that the difference in religion was caused by the conflict rather than the conflict caused by the difference in religion.

Another way Dawkins’ attempts to show that religion has some sort of preference is that religious leaders are sought out for their opinions on moral issues.  While he says he does not want them excluded from such discussions as he puts it “why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise compare to that of, say, the moral philosopher, a family lawyer or a doctor?”

One reason perhaps is that, while Dawkins may not like it, religion is a source of moral teachings. So why wouldn’t we seek the opinions of those trained in a moral teaching for their advice on morality?  A lawyer is trained in the law, so that might make a lawyer a good source of legal advice, but what is legal and what is moral are two different things.  There are many things that are legal and yet immoral.  For example, most everyone, including atheists, would agree that adultery is immoral. Yet it is legal. In fact one of the big problems I see is that we, as a society are thinking more in legal terms and less in moral terms. In fact one of the universities I was associated with, required its instructors of ethics to be lawyers. Thus a common defense we frequently hear for questionable actions is, “but there was nothing illegal” as if that makes everything ok.   Much the same can be said about doctors. They are trained to give medical treatment, not moral advice.  ‘Practices safe sex, and everything is ok.’

While the moral philosopher has at least studied morality, one could just as easily ask, what makes them automatically more qualified than a theologian? Moral philosophers may be trained to think about moral issues, but what are they using as a basis for their moral view?   At least for a theologian, the basis for their moral beliefs is pretty clear. With many moral philosophers, it is not clear at all. The situation is sort of like having two doctors, one who was trained at a school you know well, and another whom you have no idea where or how they were trained. Which would you trust with your life?

Several of the other examples of the supposed “unparalleled presumption of respect for religion”, involve Islam, and actually argue more for a special status for Islam than for religion.  For example, Dawkins points to the recent incidence of the Danish cartoons that caused riots in the Muslim world, and how newspapers “expressed ‘respect’ and ‘sympathy’ for the deep ‘offence’ and ‘hurt’ that Muslims had ‘suffered.’” (pg 27) I know that here in the United States, many news organization refused to even show the cartoons.

The main problem with Dawkins’ argument is that his examples are not representative of religion in general.  For example, with the Danish cartoons, while deference and respect was clearly paid to Islam, there is no such similar deference paid to Christianity.  When Andre Seranno  received a grant from the government to place  a crucifix in a jar of his own urine in the name of art, most of the complaints were that it was government funded. More importantly the newspapers were not sympathizing with the hurt felt by Christians, but instead attacking them for being intolerant and trying to stifle artistic freedom.  There was much the same reaction when, again in the name of art, a picture of the Virgin Mary was smeared in Elephant dung.  Then there was the play that depicted Jesus has a homosexual.  When Christians complained, and justifiably so, about these and many other affronts, there were no calls to understand there hurt, but rather they were label intolerant and were accused of censorship.

In fact, the affronts against Christianity and Christians are now so common, that even many Christians accept them as a normal part of life in 21st century America.  Thus like so many of Dawkins’ claims, the claim that there is some sort of deference paid to Christianity, is simply false, and shows a massive misunderstanding of the actual situation.

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

Part I     Part II   Part III   Part V 

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part VI

Friday, June 1st, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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June 1, 2007, Wausau, Wi— I will conclude my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by looking at the alternative that Harris presents.  Harris fundamentally argues for a view of life that seeks happiness through the process of reason and evidence.  In his attacks on religion, Harris is not arguing for secularism per se but for reason.  This is how he attempts to avoid the charge that the greatest evils in human history ( the holocaust, the massacres in communist countries, of Russia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc) have been the result of secular regimes not religious one.  As we saw in part one Harris’ claim that religion is at the root of most conflicts in human history is false. Still religion has been responsible for evil.  Yet secularism made up any gap and far surpassed religion in just one century. 

Harris seeks to avoid this problem by claiming that  the evils caused by secular governments were because of secular dogmas  and thus similar to the religious dogmas he condemns.  The problem is that while hindsight is always 20-20 and thus allows a small fig leaf to avoid such culpability, this is really no different than the Christian who tries to claim that those who did evil in the name of Christ are not really following the true teachings of Christ.  Frankly, I think that Harris’ view is even worse off for at least the Christians can point to clear a foundation (the Bible) about which we can discuss. Harris has no foundation other than happiness, and no means to pursue clarifying what this means than science.

But the history of science is full of problem, wrong turns and downright errors. This is not really a criticism of science; this is just part of the nature of discovery. But it is hardly a firm basis for morality.  For example Harris tries to lay the blame for the holocaust on religious anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that many of Christianity’s strongest critics were extremely anti-Semitic showing that anti-Semitism is not simply an Christian or even religious phenomena. Still if the holocaust had been lead by Christians had been limited to the six million Jews, Harris might have had a point.  But 12 million died in the holocaust.  What about the other six million others who died along with the six million Jews, or the fact that Hitler was not religious? While religious anti-Semitism sadly did play a role, it pales in regards to the role played by science and “reason.”

Both Fascism and Communism saw themselves as scientific alternatives to religion. In particular for the Holocaust there was the science of eugenics and others theories that trace themselves back to Darwin and the theory of evolution and its survival of the fittest.   While justly rejected now, in the early part of the 20th century this was the “scientific” view of the day.  Hitler did not seek to exterminate the Jews because of the false religious view that they were Christ-killers, but because of the false scientific view that they were inferior people who were corrupting the purity of master race.  Harris rejects this view now as just another false “dogma” but that is the nice thing about hindsight, it is always 20-20.  Someday I hope that the current ban on DDT will also be seen as a false dogma, but it is still in effect and still defended, and is resulting in the deaths of between one and two million people each year for a total in excess of 40 million people since it went into effect.

The key problem with Harris’ view is that his choice of happiness both vague and subjective. For example, China argues that the group is more  important than the individual, and thus individual rights can be superseded by the state as it seeks to better the whole.  Someone else might see that acquisition of power as the key to their morality, or as Hitler, the building of a master race through selective breeding and the elimination of the mentally ill etc, to make the best people possible.   Without an objective standard by which to measure,  it would simple be a matter of personal preference which of these to choose.  Nor would one be able to say, for example,  that building of a master race was wrong and therefore not a valid option,  as what is being chosen is the foundation for morality, that it, the basis by which we would decide was right and wrong.  This is how those secular regimes in the 20th century were able to kill hundreds of millions of people, for as strange as it sounds they lived in a moral systems that said it was good.

While Christianity has nowhere near a perfect record, I believe that any objective review of the evidence would show thatven with its faults and missteps, Christianity has been and continues to be a very positive force in human history. In the last 150 years since science has attempted to separate itself from religion and replace it as a guide for society, the results have often been disastrous. In effect Harris is asking us to abandon what has a proven track record, what has for example provided the intellectual and moral back ground for countries like the United States, and instead embrace what had never worked and when tried as lead to the greatest evils in history.   Now that is a real leap of faith.

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

Part I     Part II    Part III     Part IV   Part V

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part V

Friday, May 25th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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May 25, 2007, Wausau, Wi— The previous parts (I, II, III, IV ) of my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, focused on how distorted Harris’s view of religion was, and pointed out that his critique does not really apply to Christianity.  In part IV we looked at how Harris tried to support his erroneous views with an erroneous understanding of scripture.  But Harris not only has problems with his views of religion and the Bible, he also has problems when it come to the alternative he is supporting.

Towards the end of his book Harris says that “it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed.” He then charges that “The problem with religion is that it blends this truth so thoroughly with the venom of unreason.”  As an example of unreason, he cites that Jesus was “the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory.”  (pg. 204) But why are these beliefs unreasonable? We saw in part IV of this review, that it was Harris’ use of the Bible in an attempt to discredit the belief in the virgin birth that was itself grounded in error and irrationality. Earlier in his book he simply dismisses the virgin birth as “an untestable proposition.” What he means by untestable is not clear.

It is certainly is untestable in the sense that we cannot duplicate the virgin birth in a laboratory, as by definition are all miracles untestable in this sense. They are unique acts of God, not repeatable events governed by natural law.  In a similar fashion all of history is made up of a series of unique acts of men. We cannot put the holocaust into a laboratory and run experiments on it to see if we can duplicate it, nor would we want to if we could. But to deny the holocaust is correctly seen as itself irrational.  Some believe in the Holocaust because the suffered through it. Most believe in the holocaust because of the historical evidence, i.e. the records and sources which because of examination are deem to be reliable and trustworthy. When the last holocaust survivor dies this will be the only way.

This is normally how we get all of our history. It is the same for the virgin birth, Christians deem the writers of the Bible to be not only reliable and trustworthy, but inspired by God.  Not only is this proposition testable, as I show in my book, Evidence for the Bible, it is the rational conclusion to reach. And despite Harris, testing is not a concept foreign to the Bible.  After all Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 “Test everything, hold on to the good.” In 1 Corinthians 15, writing about some who rejected the resurrection, he pointed out that Jesus “appeared to over five hundred of the brother at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” Paul clearly saw the resurrection, not as some abstract theological belief, but as a testable historical event, and there was a implicit challenge in his reference to “most of whom are still alive” that if you do not believe it, you should go and talk to the hundreds who saw it.  Of course with the passing of the first century, and the death of the last eyewitness, all that we have left are the sources, but the fact is that there are more sources for Jesus than we have for most events in antiquity and with the discoveries made during the twentieth century, once again it has been the critics that have had to revise their view of the Bible, and believers who were supported.

In fact, when you look at the arguments for and against the reliability of the Bible critically, as I point out in my books, the critics have a huge problem for at best their arguments are based on an a priori rejection of the supernatural and at worst are circular.  When you get past all the blustering, and boil it down, they start with the belief that there is no supernatural. Since there is no supernatural, there can be no real miracles. Since the Bible contains descriptions of miracles, either the writers did not know what really happened or they lied. Either way they are unreliable, and thus we cannot trust anything they say unless it shown to be true by other means. This is a nice and neat little package and everything flows from the initial premise, but notice that no actual evidence is required.  Sure evidence is often thrown in, often haphazardly as we saw in part IV with Harris’ attempt to refute the virgin birth from scripture, but it is really just window dressing and not really needed to reach their conclusion.

What Harris neglects is that all worldviews have fundamental propositions that must to some extent be based on faith.  Within the confines of his worldview, the automatic rejection of things like Jesus really being “the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory.”  (pg. 204) may seem unreasonable leaps of faith.  But that does not change that fact that Harris also must have faith in his fundamental premises.  As such, in many respects, is argument is self-refuting.

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

Part I     Part II    Part III     Part IV    Part VI 

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part IV

Friday, May 18th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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May 18, 2007, Wausau, Wi— So far, in our review (I, II, III)  Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, we have seen how Harris’s irrational view of religion has lead him to many false conclusions and beliefs.  Harris attempts to back up some of his claims by pointing to scripture. Not too surprisingly his use of scriptures is just as uncritical as the claims he is trying to support.

For example, Harris writes, “Anyone who imagines that no justification for the Inquisition can be found in scripture need only consult the Bible to have his view of the matter clarified.” (p 82)He then goes on to cite Deuteronomy 13:12-16 which calls for the total destruction of any town that turns to worship other Gods.  For Harris, this is evidence enough that the Church was following the “Good Book.”  For Harris, there are no questions of historical setting or context.  That these were instructions to the Jewish nation, given before they entered Israel, and thus, might not be applicable Christians in the Middle Ages seem to be irrelevant. The Bible said it, and that is good enough for Harris to use for his attack. 

Not too surprisingly Harris not only ignores questions about context, he also ignores all the passages that conflict with his views.  Passages such as 1 Peter 3:15-16 which says we should treat unbelievers with “Gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” because “Christ died once for all.” Romans 12:14 which says we are to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” or 1 Corinthians 6:12 where Paul asks “What business is it of mine to judge those outside… God will judge those outside” and of judging those inside the church Paul said “Expel the wicked man from among you.” Based on this it is far more likely that it was Pope Leo the IX who was following the teaching of the Bible, when he said the maximum penalty for heresy should be excommunication, while later Popes took the inquisition, not from the Bible, but from a revival of Roman law, as mentioned in Part I.

While this scriptural error completely undermines one of Harris’ key claims, it is hardly the only one he makes.  In his attempt to discredit the virgin birth, Harris incorrectly claims that the Greek word parthenos (virgin) was an “erroneous translation” of the Hebrews word alma which simply means “‘young woman’, without any implications of virginity.” (pg 95) While it may be in today’s culture that there is no connection to being a young woman and a virgin, that is hardly the case of the time of Isaiah, and in fact every use of alma in the Old Testament refers to a woman who was a virgin. Nor was it Matthew and Luke who were first to translate this as parthenos, as this is how the Septuagint, a Greek translation made several hundred years before Christ,  translates Isaiah 7:14.

Harris’ further compounds his error by claiming that Mark and John “seem to know nothing about [the virgin birth]” because they do not mention it. Yet just because they do not mentioned it  hardly means they don’t know about it. To claim that it does, commits the logic fallacy called argumentum ad silentio or an argument from silence. Then Harris finishes with yet two more errors. First he cites Romans 1:3 “born of the seed of David” and tries to claim that Paul meant by this that Joseph was Jesus’ father.  The problem with this is that Joseph is not even mentioned in the passage, David is. Thus the two options would be that Paul was attempting to say that David was the father, or that Jesus was a descendant of David. Given the context, and the fact that David had been dead for about 1000 years, it is pretty easy to conclude that the latter was Paul’s point.

Harris concludes this comedy of errors with the truly bizarre claim that Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:4 and its reference to “born of a woman” also shows that Paul knows nothing of the virgin birth because he does not mention Mary’s virginity, which is again the irrational argument from silence. 

Much the same could be said for his discussion of the verses that are supposed to teach anti-Semitism, though sadly here he can cite many examples of Christians throughout European history to support him.   It is significant however, the many Popes taught against anti-Semitism, and the papal states were one of the safest places for Jews during this period.  Nor is it insignificant that American Christianity looks to the Bible to justify their support of the Jews, in particular the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 to “bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.”

Harris is correct, that Christians have during their history done great evil.  But I would argue that it was not caused by following the Bible but was more from disobedience to God and his word.  If Harris wants us to use reason over religion, perhaps he should start by taking a more rational approach to understanding what the Bible actually teaches.

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

Part I     Part II    Part III  Part V    Part VI

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part III

Friday, May 11th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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May 11, 2007, Wausau, Wi— I ended part II of my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.  , by pointing out that the view of religion which Harris was refuting was entirely artificial and that it did not represent any actual religion, much less Christianity.  It was also on display in his fundamental belief that religion is at the root of most wars, a false claim we exposed in Part I. 

In fact,  it would seem according to Harris, that while virtually any evil attributed any religious group can be taken as an example of the core problem with religion in general, nothing good done by any religious group can be legitimately  used to counter this.  In fact he says “Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance and has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism.” (p 21).  Fundamentalism, for Harris being the use of violent against those who disagree.  In short, this boils down to if it is bad, it is the result of religion, if it is good, it is the result of something else. In Harris’ world view this something else is often the use of reason, which he sees as the alternative to religion.

It is hard to take such simplistic Black and White thinking seriously; especially when it is being cloaked in the guise of reason and runs so contrary to the evidence.  The problem with Harris’ approach can be seen in the following passage when he writes, “The only reason anyone is ‘moderate’ in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights and end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc). “ (p 19)

What makes this claim so strange from Harris’ point of view is that this period when religious moderates were doing this assimilation is the Christian era.  Now we must be careful not to fall into the opposite error of Harris and assume that everything good during this period resulted from Christianity and everything bad resulted from something else. The record is much more mixed.  But as I argue in my book Christianity and Secularism,  any objective look at the historical evidence will show that Christianity has on the whole been a very positive force.

For example, the claim of earlier historians that Christianity caused the downfall of Rome, is now rejected by most. In fact the secular historian Will Durant argues that Christianity played an important role in preserving the culture from the onslaught of barbarism. The church maintained order as civilization crumbled around it.  He goes on point out that as Rome fell leaving the Church to fill the vacuum,  for the first time in European history, “the teachers of mankind preached an ethic of kindliness, obedience, humility, patience, mercy, purity, chastity, and tenderness.”  (cited in Christianity and Secularism, pp 100-101)

Again as I document in my book, the earlier view that the Church took civilization into the Dark Ages, and it was only when people began to break free of the Church’s hold that we had the Renaissance is a distorted view of history that is no longer accepted by historians.  Even in areas where the church clearly did great evil such as the inquisition, things are not quite so clear cut as Harris would have us believe. According to Harris, the Inquisition resulted because “the medieval church was quick” to follow the “Good Book.” (p 81) Yet reality is not quite so simple. In the eleventh century, Pope Leo IX held that maximum penalty for heresy was excommunication.  Then came the early parts of the renaissance and a revival of Roman Law that started in the city of Bologna in the 12th century. It was from the Roman legal concept of an inquisiti, that the Church developed Inquisition.

Much of the same can be said for the items in Harris list of thing moderates supposedly assimilated.  Many have noted that science grew out of the Christian world view with most early scientists being Christians.  As for the concern for Human Right, the whole concept of human rights was born out of the idea that we are created in the image of God with certain abilities given by God, and that what God has given, no man, not even the King is in a position arbitrarily take away. This religious foundation can be seen in the Declaration of Independence when it says “All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”   It is no coincidence that the recent attempts to remove God as a foundation for rights have thrown the whole concept into turmoil, as no other suitable foundation has yet been found.

Given Harris’ view that sees only bad in religion, and tries to attribute any good to some other sources, it is no wonder he reaches the conclusions that he does. But such an irrational approach cannot be the foundation for a claim that is trying to contrast religion and reason. 

Part I     Part II   Part IV   Part V    Part VI

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part II

Friday, May 4th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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May 4, 2007, Wausau, Wi— I pointed out in Part I of my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, that rarely have I encountered a book which starts out with so many errors in so few pages.  Further reading has not changed my opinion. In fact the detailed analysis and review I had intended will have to be abandoned as there are simply too many errors (often several per page) and it would take far too long to catalogue them all.

 One of the problems is that Harris’ style leads him to make frequent bold and clearly false statements with very little justification. For example in one paragraph Harris claims that “The idea that any one of our religions represents the infallible word of the One True God requires an encyclopedic ignorance of history, mythology, and art even to be entertained.” (p16)   To support this Harris simple points to evidence of “cross-pollination” among religious beliefs.  There are numerous problems with this claim, but the simple fact is that there are many people who do not have encyclopedic ignorance in these areas, but to the contrary are quite well informed, and yet who not only entertain, but believe that the One True God has given us his infallible word in the Bible.

Harris then closes this paragraph by making the claim that “There is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh, and Satan, than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning the seas.” (p 16)   Again, the facts are contrary to Harris’ claim.  Skeptics have for hundreds of years attempted to undermine Christianity, and as I detail in my books, contrary to Harris claims, the evidence for Christianity has grown stronger, and it has in fact been the claims of the early skeptics that have been show to be lacking, and have often been refuted by more recently discovered evidence.  For example, given the strength of the evidence, few would now argue that Jesus never existed.  Where is all the similar evidence for Poseidon, or Zeus?  Such false, but bold claims may be music to the ears of Harris’ fellow skeptics who love to see religion bashed and ridiculed, but it hardly make for the sound reasoning that Harris claims is the alternative to religion.

So rather than a detailed refutation of Harris’ errors, perhaps of more interest would be to apply one of Harris questions to him. Harris asks “How is it that, in this one area of our lives, we have convinced ourselves that our beliefs about the world can float entirely free from reason and evidence?” (p 17)  To apply this question to Harris, just how is it that he, while claiming to uphold reason can become so irrational and detached from the evidence when it comes to religion?

We can begin to see this process at work in his classification of religion.  Harris first states that people of faith fall onto a continuum, from those who accept diversity to those who would “burn the world to a cinder” to destroy heresy.  But Harris immediately proceeds to ignore this and present religious belief as just two groups, moderates (those who accept diversity) and extremists (those who would presumably burn the world to a cinder).  Though a highly artificial division, this by itself, this would not necessarily be a problem, except that Harris then goes on to describe moderates in ways that do not fit his previous classification, and herein lays a major error.

Harris claims that 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God. The problem is that clearly 35 percent of the American people do not fall into his category of extremists. In fact very few if any Christians would. Harris tries to justify this, by claiming most Christians and Jews do not read their Bible enough.  While it is undoubtedly true, that still does not explain the millions who do read and study their Bible do not fall into Harris category of extremists.  In Short Harris’s categories simply are not an accurate description of reality.

This is the first of several key problems with Harris’ attack on religion.  Harris treats religion as if it were, fundamentally, a single entity, centered around a belief in God.  In my book “Christianity and Secularism” I go into detail about want is a religion and the errors with views such as Harris.  There are simply too many different religions with too many different views to treat them all as a single whole. And yet this is what Harris does as he links extremist suicide bombers to tolerant faithful believers as if they were at the core one.  So while Harris’ arguments may seem devastating to skeptics, they are not refuting anything any one person actually beliefs in.  

A refutation of some abstract construction called religion is not a refutation of what Christians actually believe. A refutation of some abstract construction call “God’s word” is not a refutation of the actual word of God found in the Old and New Testaments.  In short Harris’ arguments are aimed at something that “can float entirely free from reason and evidence” and not at Christianity.

Part I   Part III     Part IV   Part V    Part VI

A Review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part 1

Friday, April 20th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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April 20, 2007, Wausau, Wi— I recently began reading  Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.  It is billed on the back cover as a “sustained nuclear assault” on religious belief by one reviewer, while another reviewer claims “Even Mr Harris’s critics will have to concede the force of an analysis which roams far and wide.” While I have only started the book and may yet to have encountered this analysis, rarely have I encountered a book which starts out with so many errors in so few pages.

For example, after opening his first chapter with the story of a suicide bomber, Harris begins by claiming that “A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion.” (p 12)   Perhaps Harris is stressing the word “Glance” because any real consideration of the historical evidence show that throughout history people have kill their fellow human being for any number of reasons, greed, power, land, glory, food, self-defense, and others in addition to religion. Even many of conflict attributed to religion have many other and often more important roots.

For example the conflict between the English and Irish in Northern Ireland is often portrayed as a conflict between catholic and protestants. Yet this ignores that the conflict preceded the Reformation which gave rise to this religious split.  In fact the conflict, rather than being caused by religion difference, is more likely a cause of the religious difference in that the Irish remained Catholic when England became protestants so as to be different from the English. 

So to claim that most killing has its roots in religion is simply false. Then there are all the efforts of religion to stop or at least limit wars and conflicts, such as the effort of the church during the middle ages to resolve the conflicts that arose between rulers and limit the killings, particularly of civilians. Such efforts makes matters even worse for Harris’s claim. So while religion sadly has nowhere near a spotless record in this area, but instead has much to answer for, it hardly comes close to playing the central role Harris claims.

From this false claim, Harris immediately goes to what is at best a misleading claim, when he writes, “Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book.” While there is some dispute about the actual statistic,  it is probably true that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the only major religions about which such a claim would be considered true) together make up a slight majority of the world population.  However, given the variety of religious beliefs in the world, and the related history of the three monotheistic faiths, it really is a distortion to classify this as the norm for all religions, nor is it correct to classify a slight majority as if it were a general rule.   

Harris then further compounds his error when he builds on this to further claim that  all religions  are in “‘perverse agreement’” that God does not endorse respect for unbelievers.”  What one wonders, would Harris say about 1 Peter 3:15 which says Christians are to give “The reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.”  

Strangely Harris then proceeds attack the “intolerance” of religious believers  against those with differing views on religion, which presents the interesting paradox in that Harris also shows little tolerance against those with views on religion that differ from his.

In fact to him “an immediate problem” is not that religions are attack too much, but that they are not attacked enough, making the claim that “criticizing a person’s faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture.”  One can only assume that Harris does not get to too many corners of our culture, as Christianity, in particular conservative Christians and Catholics are routinely criticized and disparate in most of the mainstream culture. In fact a very good case could be made that conservative Christians and Catholics are among the very few groups that are “open season” in our culture when it comes to criticism.

As these errors form the foundation for the argument that Harris is going to make, they do not make for a very promising start.  But then this type of straw man argument is very typical of those who criticize Christianity.  It hardly makes for the “sustained nuclear assault” the cover of the book promised.  We will see if Harris does any better as he attempts to develop this argument.

 Part II    Part III     Part IV   Part V    Part VI