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Elgin’s Books


  • Christianity and Secularism

  • Evidence for the Bible
  • Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXIII

    Friday, November 21st, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXII

    Friday, November 14th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XXI

    Friday, November 7th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XX

    Friday, October 24th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    I am continuing in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” examining Hitchens’ claim that the New Testament is more evil than Old.

    Hitchens first line of attack is to claim the Gospels are unhistorical and that they “cannot agree on anything of importance.” Now it is true that some scholars consider these accounts as mere fabrications, but it is also true that other scholars have examine these accounts, and as D.A. Carson points out in his commentary on Matthew, ” the stories have long been shown to be compatible, even mutually complementary.”

    But there is a further and deeper problem behind Hitchens claim, one that rest more with the liberal scholars he relies on then with him.  Scholars, in whatever field are assumed to be people who have studied all the relevant material in reaching their scholarly conclusions.  Yet when it come to biblical scholars critical of the Bible this is not always the case.

    This was noted by another biblical scholar, Craig Blomberg, when he wrote, ” it is strange how often the reliability of the gospels is impugned by scholars who believe them to be hopelessly contradictory yet who have never seriously interacted with the types of solutions proposed here.” (cited in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, pg 150)

    Most of the alleged problems raised by Hitchens have been dealt with and answered long ago,  and in fact I answer many of them in my two books,  Christianity and Secularism and   Evidence for the Bible.   

    As such Hitchens is simple wrong when he argues that “The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament… have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” (pg 115)  This error is followed immediately by another error, when Hitchens claims “This feebleness derives from the fact that until recently, Christians could simply burn or silence anybody who asked any inconvenient questions.” (pg 115)  While vague enough to find some support in history, this statement is really little more than a bigoted slander.   But then this, for Hitchens is what passes as rational argument.   He makes a claim, and then follow it by a slanderous accusation hoping to silence any reply.  It may be an effective debating tactic, but it does not substitute for a rational argument.

    From there Hitchens goes to what he calls the other “‘Gospels and narratives of marginal but significant figures”  such as Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Judas.  (pg 112).  His intent seems to be to cast doubt on the New Testament by pointing to the existence of these other writings.  He does argue that if these had been consider inspired rather than the four gospels in the Bible Christianity would have been far different.   True enough, but as the saying goes, if my grandmother had wheels, she would be a wagon.  

    This does, however,  reveal the different presupposition made by many critics such as Hitchens.  They start with the belief that all religions are equally false human creations.  Christianity can’t possibly be the result of God intervening into history, but rather,  it was one of many religious movements of the period, and it was just luck and chance that it happened to rise to dominance.

    Thus Hitchens probably does  see the Gospel of Judas, or Thomas, as supporting his assumption and in a small way they do.  His view requires many religions, and these other gospels do show that Gnosticism was a competitor to Christianity in the second century.  But while a minor support for his view, it is hardly a significant one, since in some of the later books of the New Testament one can see the apostles warning against other religious movements, including what appears to be a very early form of Gnosticism. 

    There is another key difference between the Gnostic Gospels and the New Testament Gospels. The Gnostic Gospels generally date from the 2nd century long after the apostles died.  The New Testament gospels were written in the first century and while there is some disagreement, there are scholars who argue they were written by the those they are named after.

    Some of Hitchens arguments are just plain silly, such as his claim that virgin birth was a man made account because “parthenogenesis is not possible for human mammals”  Of course it was not possible, that’s what made it a miracle of God.  But for Hitchens, by definition everything must be natural or it did not happen.  That the virgin birth could have been a miracle of God is not really even an option for him.

    Hitchens ends by pointing to Bart Ehrman’s views on the New Testament.  Ehrman has gained some notoriety by taking what was already known to anyone who looks at the footnotes in their bible and playing it up as if it were significant.  For a more in depth discussion of Ehrman’ views see my review of his book.

    Ultimately Hitchens critique of the New Testament is little more than a rehash of long refuted arguments,  with a generous sprinkling of invective. Certainly nothing to support his claim that it is evil.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XIX

    Friday, October 17th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Continuing in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” After having dealt with the Old Testament, in chapter seven, chapter eight takes on New, claim it “Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One.” Hitchens starts by claiming the New Testament is “a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events” and that this has been borne out by Biblical scholarship. (p 110)

    But not content to make this point, Hitchens follows it with a gratuitous insult claiming, ‘this arguments takes place over the heads of those to whom the ‘Good Book’ is all that is required.” and as an example, refers to a unnamed governor of Texas whom he quotes as saying “if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.” (p 110)

    The quote sounded to me like one of many smears spread by atheists and agnostics to attack believers. Such bigoted smears have a long history and are so entrenched into the culture that some are even taught in schools. For example, I was taught as a kid that Columbus had to battle the ignorance of Christians who believed that the earth was flat. This is a complete myth as was shown by the Historian Jeffery Burton Russell, in his book Inventing the Flat Earth. Still it is not at all uncommon to hear atheist and agnostics continue to perpetuate this and other anti-Christian myths.

    As for Hitchens’ quote, I checked the back of the book for a reference and found none. I then read a discussion that I found on snopes.com a great place to check out urban legends, which pointed out that this quote was questionable as it had been attributed to a number of different people. A person in another discussion I read claimed that they had found the exact quote at NewsPaperArchive.com in a article published in 1927, but the article attributed the quote to a person from Arkansas, not Texas, and it was said as a joke. I would have check out this article but NewsPaperArchive.com is a paid site that charges $99 to join. So lacking any specific citation, it would appear that this quote is just another in a long line of myths used to attack Christianity.

    As for his other insult that his argument concerning biblical scholarship was “over the heads of those to whom the ‘Good Book’ is all that is required.” (pg 110) there is a problem. If Hitchens qualification of “to whom the ‘Good Book’ is all that is required” refers to those who reject or ignore everything not in the Bible, then this refers to such a small faction of Christians as to be irrelevant. On the other hand if this is meant to refer to Christians in general, then it is simply false.

    This brings me to the main problem with Hitchens argument concerning biblical scholarship, it is one sided and outdated. As for being one-sided, it would appear that to Hitchens biblical scholarship consists only of those who are critical of the Bible. Though, in his defense, one of the problems with liberal scholarship, is that it is very insular, ignoring for the most part criticism, problems and issues raised by conservative scholars. As I point out in Chapter Two of my book, Evidence for the Bible, there are some serious problems with the claims of liberal scholars.

    More damaging to his claim is that, while earlier liberal scholarship was very critical of the NT, believing the books to have been dated long after the events as Hitchens claims, later scholarship has reversed this to some extent and more recent scholarship has been pushing the date of the writing back to, and in some cases even earlier than, the traditional dates. For example, liberal scholars of the 19th century dated the Gospel of John as late as 170 A.D., long after John had died. Then a fragment of the Gospel was found dating 125-130 destroying the later dates. More recent scholarship points to a date somewhat earlier than the traditional date in the 90s, with a few scholars even arguing for a date in the 50s or 60s.

    The simple fact is that, rather than being over their heads, scholarship plays and important role in many Christians’ understanding of the Bible, and contrary to the impression Hitchens gives, many scholars are believing Christians who see their scholarship as deepening their faith. Now I know that Hitchens is aware of these Conservative scholars as he has debated some of them. But rather than a reasoned discussion of the evidence for and against his position, we get one sided pronouncements that ignore any scholarly disagreements, followed by a few insults to try and stifle any debate.

    What makes this even more problematic is that Hitchens is claiming to be arguing for the rational over the irrational. But a one sided presentation filled with invective is not what one would call the epitome of rationality and in the end Hitchens comes off somewhat as parent vainly arguing do as I say, not what I do.

    After taking time to attack and ridicule Mel Gibson for making The Passion of The Christ, what follows is then a one sided rehash of many of the common objections raised by skeptics. And that is where I will pick up next time.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XVIII

    Friday, October 10th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    In my extended review of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” I considered a further discussion concerning the evidence that points strongly to design, but since I cover this in chapter four of my book  Evidence for the Bible, I have decided to move on.  Those interested, should see my discussion there.

    Hitchens leaves no doubt about where he is going in the title of chapter seven  “Revelation: The Nightmare of the ‘Old’ Testament.”  Hitchens once again starts by creating a strawman, which he then proceeds to knockdown, defining revelation as God giving “unalterable laws” to “randomly selected human beings.”  Even with such a strawman, Hitchens still misses the mark with his first objection, i.e., that “several such disclosures have been claimed to occur, at different times and places, to hugely discrepant prophets or mediums” (pg 97) They cannot all be true, and while one may be authentic, “this seems dubious… and appears to necessitate religious wars.”   As with so many of Hitchens’ claims, this is more commentary than argument.

    Hitchens argues that, “the syncretic tendency of monotheism, and the common ancestry of the tales, mean in effect that a rebuttal to one is a rebuttal to all.”  (pg 98)  This could only be true if all alleged revelation were equally true, or equally false.  Yet they cannot all be equally true, if for nothing else, one of the revelations is that there would be false prophets, and thus false revelation. On the other hand, if you start by assuming they are all equally false, then there would be no need to make a rebuttal in the first place. So once again Hitchens argument simply does not make sense.

    From here Hitchens quickly moves to a discussion of the Ten Commandments, which he believes are “proof that religion is man-made.” (pg 99) However his justifications for this claim are at best nonsensical, such as his claim, yet another he considers “unanswerable,” that for God to included a prohibition against murder would imply that before this murder was acceptable, as if God could only give moral laws that were otherwise unknown.

    Much of Hitchens analysis ignores that while grounded in universal principles, many of the laws given to Moses were for a particular  purpose, to a particular people, at a particular time and in a particular cultural setting. In fact that they show this characteristic is for Hitchens evidence that they are man-made. However, this is a much easier conclusion to reach for one living in a culture that has been shaped and molded by the Bible for 3000 years and thus where it is easy to overlook the revolutionary character of these laws and the huge moral advancement that they represented.

    Hitchens ignores, or is unaware of,  the advancement and complains that these laws don’t match his conception of perfect. As an example, he points to the Bible regulations of slavery. Granted in a perfect world God would have just banned slavery, but we don’t have a perfect world. While Hitchens complains about the regulations, at the time they were a marked step forward over having no regulation at all.

    Like it or not slavery was so completely entrenched in the societies of the time, that a total prohibition was likely to be ignored. However, more humane treatment was easier to follows and thus much more likely to actually improve things. Historically this is what happened.  In fact the rules governing slaves were so restrictive that over time it resulted in later rabbis concluding “He who buys a Hebrew slave buys a master” and slavery virtually disappeared over time.  Thus while in theory, one might argue that an outright ban would have better reflected a perfect moral code, the result of the Laws on slavery did effectively end the practice.

    Hitchens also cites one of the other common examples of alleged cruelty, the stoning of children for disobedience. Again he ignores the revolutionary improvement the law brought about. What was new about the law was not the killing of children. That a parent had the right of life and death over a child was common place. sWhat was new was this power was being taken away from the parents, and transferred to the community, where it seems never to have been exercised.  Contrast this with the honor killing that continues to be a problem in some parts of the world.

    This is not to say that there are not difficult passages in the Old Testament. There are, such as God’s command to kill all the Amalekites, and some of which only God has the answer. But, these are for isolated and special events under unique circumstances.  They are not general moral precepts to be followed.

    Much of the rest of the chapter is taken up with the claims that the Old Testament is unhistorical and a restatement of theory that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. Both subjects I deal with in my book Evidence for the Bible.

    In the end, Hitchens exegesis of the Old Testament leaves a lot to be desired and his argument that it is a nightmare stands in stark contrast to what the Old Testament has actually produce.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XVII

    Friday, October 3rd, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Continuing in chapter six of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great,” I come to his discussion of the specific arguments for design.  Again there is a great deal of hyperbole and ridicule that one must wade through, and given the subject matter, a great deal of it is somewhat ironic.  Hitchens attempts to claim that it is theists that have been forced into this argument “with great reluctance,” and that atheists “have to improve our minds by the laborious exercise of refuting the latest foolishness contrived by the faithful. (pg 80-81)

    Hitchens would do to well to seriously read Jonathan Wells’ book Icons of Evolution in which Wells exposes a number of not only foolish arguments, but distortions, errors and in many cases outright fraud that has been and continues to be used to defend evolution.  The many examples documented by Wells are not obscure pieces of evidence, but well known and commonly cited examples,  such as that evolution is mirrored in the development of an embryo, or the Pepper moths that changed from white to dark because of pollution, both of which are in fraud category.   Yet, despite the fact some of these have been known to be false for decades, and in the case of the embryos for over a century,  these and the other examples in the book were still being used in standard biology textbooks at least as late as 1998.

    Nor is this simply a problem of the past. Hitchens, himself falls victim to one more recent examples is this string of myths used to support evolution, a supposed computer model that proved the evolution of the eye.  The simple fact is that there was no such program, nor, more importantly, could there be, at least any time soon, for reasons we will come to in a moment.

    In Hitchens defense, apparently he was relying on Richard Dawkins here who popularized this error.  Once the error was pointed out, atheists were quick to claim that Dawkins was only partially in error, for he was referring to a mathematical model develop by Nilsson and Pelger which he merely confused as a computer program.

    The differences between the study and a computer program aside, the problem with Nilsson and Pelger’s paper as a proof for evolution is the same that would plague any computer model; it is based on a whole series of assumptions which go to the core of the theory of evolution. If you accept all of the assumptions, that is, if you already accept evolution, then the paper will make a plausible case. But in the end, the conclusion of the paper is only as valid as the assumptions that are behind it.  It can at best only say how the eye might have evolved if all the assumptions were correct. It is hardly a proof of evolution as Hitchens was falsely led to believe.

    Unfortunately this is how much of evolution is defended. Pieces of information are distorted, expanded, or in some cases even created, and then strung together as so called proofs of evolution.  Anyone who dares questions this alleged evidence is ridiculed, attacked and rejected.  If they persist and expose the error, then we are told the error really doesn’t matter anyway.

    To further compound his problem, one of the points Hitchens makes against design, apparently unbeknownst to him,  is a major problem for evolution.  Hitchens quite correctly states that, “a theory that is unfalsifiable is to that extent a weak one.” (pg 81)   

    The problem of Hitchens is that evolution is unfalsifiable for two reasons.  The first is that it depend heavily on imagination.  A great deal, if not the vast majority, of what we think of as evolution, is not based on what we actually know happened, but on what scientist imagine might have happened.  Since we have a great capacity for imagination, evolution has a rich texture of what might have been, especially given how little we really know about the prehistoric past.

    Hitchens might object to this by claiming that evolution is science, and therefore must pass peer review and conform to the evidence. But modern science is not the open-minded investigation atheists like to claim. It is a narrow-mind and oppressive system that will severely punish any who question the current orthodoxy, as Pamela Winnick shows in her book A Jealous God.  One of the quickest ways to lose funding for your research, your job, and your livelihood is to raise a question about evolution.

    As for the evidence, there is in reality very little, and more importantly any potential problems are brushed aside with the claim that future research will resolve them. Even worst is the often used argument that we are here therefore evolution must have happened. The bottom line is that evolution is unfalsifiable.

    Sure if you interpret all evidence to fit your theory, let your imagination fill in any blanks, strenuously ignore any problems, and suppress any criticism so that only believers of evolution, or at least those who will not voice any doubts, can be considered scientists, then evolution will seem to be firmly established.  And yet, despite this the evidence for design grows stronger, not weaker, the more we know.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XVI

    Friday, September 26th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    So Hitchens’ macro arguments come to nothing. But having silenced the opposition in his own mind on these macro issues, Hitchens then proceeds to the micro arguments, which is where I will pick up next time.

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XV

    Friday, September 19th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hitchens – God Is Not Great XIV

    Friday, September 12th, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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