Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Tim McGrew debates Peter Boghossian on the definition of faith

I have tried very hard to avoid writing about Peter Boghossian because I kept hoping that someone would speak to him and set him straight before he went too far.

Basically, when you listen to the debate below, you’ll find that Boghossian redefines the word faith so that it basically means “stupidity”, and then he tries to get people of faith to accept that they are stupid according to his new definition of faith. The new definition is not found in any dictionary, and it’s not used commonly, either.

Anyway, here are the details:

This Week on Unbelievable : Peter Boghossian vs Tim McGrew – debate on ‘A Manual For Creating Atheists”

Peter Boghossian teaches philosophy and is the author of ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’. He believes that faith is a ‘false epistemology’ (way of knowing things) and even describes it as a ‘virus of the mind’. Tim McGrew is a Christian philosophy professor specialising in epistemology. He contests Boghossian’s definition of faith and debates the merits of his recent book. To cast your vote on the definition of faith visit www.facebook.com/unbelievablejb.

The MP3 file is here.

Topics: (I reserve the right to satirize Boghossian in this. Listen to the audio if you want his exact words)

  • PB: My book tries to avoid the “obfuscations” of reputable, credentialed Christian scholars and discusses faith at my intellectual level
  • PB: The goal of the book is to help people abandon the dictionary definition of the word “faith” and accept the definition I invented
  • TM: Defining the word “faith” in the wrong way is not the right way to start an authentic, respectful conversation
  • TM: Faith does not mean “pretending to know things you don’t know” – that is not a standard definition
  • TM: the only people who accept your definition of faith are you and the people who follow you online
  • TM: your whole book is predicated on on a wrong definition of faith
  • PB: that is my definition of faith based on my experience of talking to lots of people
  • TM: He says this is how billions of people define faith – but not in my experience, maybe satirists like Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain do
  • TM: Your definition of faith is not in the Oxford English Dictionary and that definition is based on common usage of the word faith
  • TM: The New Testament definition of faith “pistis” means trust
  • PB: There are 50-100 people who use the term that way, and only in academia
  • TM: How about “The Good Atheist” who interviewed you? He is not an academic or a theist, but he didn’t accept your definition
  • PB: You are “extraordinarily isolated” from the real definition of faith
  • TM: Faith is not belief without evidence, it is trust based on at least some evidence
  • PB: Christian leaders use the word according my definition, I won’t name any or quote any, though
  • JB: So you are basically saying that Christians are lying when they express their faith, since they know what they are saying isn’t true but they say it anyway
  • PB: What percentage of Christians use the word faith to mean “belief without evidence”
  • TM: Well below 1%. It may be the case that their evidence is not very good, but they do rest their beliefs on evidence
  • TM: Faith is trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reasons to believe is true in the face of difficulties
  • PB: That’s not what people mean by faith, they mean my definition
  • JB: What do you mean when you say that faith is a “virus of the mind”, and a “mental illness”? School programs to remove faith?
  • PB: Think about how atheists feel when they are told they will go Hell
  • PB: Christians are hurting people, so that means they have a mental disorder that needs to be cured in a systematic way
  • PB: Faith is an epistemic virus that hijacks the reasoning process

At that point I quit summarizing, because I didn’t think he was worth listening to any more.

He is clearly not aware of how even basic Christian apologetics books that are bestsellers cover evidences like the Big Bang, the cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, galactic habitability, stellar habitability, New Testament reliability, historical Jesus, philosophical arguments for theism, and so on. This is the bottom-shelf of Christian apologetics, widely read by rank-and-file Christians, but Boghossian seems to be completely unaware of it. He needs to get out more and talk to people outside of radical atheist circles. Maybe he needs to pick up a serious book like “Debating Christian Theism” and read it before he opens his mouth on topics he knows nothing about.

But that’s not all. As, I explained before, the concept of faith presented in the Bible agrees with what Dr. McGrew said – faith is trust based on evidence. That is the Biblical view.

And finally, this:

John 10:37-38: [NASB]

37 If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me;

38 but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.”

The words of Jesus – he is saying: believe me because of the evidence I provide from miracles that you can see with your own eyes. Period. End of discussion.

So Boghossian’s view of faith is nowhere except in his own mind. Not in the apologetics literature. Not in the writings of any reputable Christian scholar. Not in the Bible. Not in the words of Jesus. It’s enough to make me think that this talk about “mental disorders” and “viruses of the mind” is just projection.

Vote in the poll

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Thank goodness we have debates like this so that we can find out where Christians really come down on faith.

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , ,

Neil Shenvi lectures on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus

The lecture was given to the Intervarsity group at Duke University.

Speaker bio:

As it says on the main page, my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science.

Here’s the lecture:

The MP3 file of the lecture is here for those who prefer audio.

For those who don’t have the bandwidth to watch or listen to the lecture, here’s a paper that has similar information that Neil wrote.

Excerpt:

The earliest followers of Jesus were emphatic about the centrality of the Resurrection to the gospel, the core message of Christianity.  To those in the city of Corinth who were questioning the necessity and perhaps even the factuality of the Resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote: ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1. Cor. 15:17).  The reason for this connection is clear if we understand the gospel itself.  The gospel of Jesus does not say: “Here are the rules; if you obey them, God will bless you.  Otherwise, God will curse you.”  Rather the gospel says: “You have broken God’s rules and deserve God’s curse.  But Jesus was crucified for your sins and raised to life as a declaration that payment was made in full.  You can now be accepted by God not on the basis of what you have done but on the basis of what Jesus has done for you.”  Without the Resurrection, says Paul, Christians would have no assurance that they are accepted by God or that Jesus has truly paid their debt in full.  Consequently, the factuality of the Resurrection is of utmost importance to Christians.

[…]Before we can examine the evidence, we must first assess the reliability of the New Testament documents since these provide us with the most accurate information we have about the life and ministry of Jesus.  One of the easiest ways to discount the historicity of the Resurrection and of Christianity in general is to claim that the records we have of Jesus’ life are legendary rather than historical.  The main problem with such claims is that they run counter to a massive amount of evidence that we have for the general historical reliability of the New Testament.

[…]Modern critical scholars –such as the participants of the widely known Jesus Seminar- assume that only a small fraction of the New Testament is historical and that the majority of the material is either fictional or only loosely based on historical facts.  To determine what material is historical, they use three major criteria 1) the criterion of multiple attestation 2) the criterion of embarrassment 3) the criterion of dissimilarity.  If a saying or action recorded in the New Testament gospels meets one or more of these criteria, it is considered more likely –though by no means certain- that this material is historical.  Obviously, as an evangelical Christian, I believe that there are serious flaws in the assumptions made by these scholars.  But as we will see below, the Resurrection accounts meet all three of these major criteria of historicity.

[…]Lastly, I think it is very important to consider what alternative, naturalistic explanations have been put forward to explain the Resurrection.  As I mentioned before, many skeptics assume that there must be some plausible, naturalistic explanation for the Resurrection without ever considering the evidence.

Previously, I’ve featured Neil’s defense of objective morality, his lecture on science and religion and his introduction to quantum mechanics, all of which were really popular. These are easy to understand, but substantive, too.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Should Christianity be open and inclusive to those who practice idolatry?

Why, oh why, did I not write this parody of gay activist Matthew Vines. It’s entitled “The Case for Idolatry“. It’s a parody of Matthew Vines’ case for compatibility between Christianity and the gay lifestyle.

Excerpt:

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to worship idols. It’s not that my parents raised me that way, because they didn’t; I was brought up in a loving, secure, Christian home. But from childhood until today, my heart has been drawn to idolatry. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the defining features of my identity has been my desire to put something else – popularity, money, influence, sex, success – in place of God.

That’s just who I am.

For many years, I was taught that idolatry was sinful. As a good Christian, I fought the desire to commit idolatry, and repented when I got it wrong. But the desire to worship idols never went away.

I wanted it to, but it didn’t.

So it has been such a blessing to discover that worshipping one God, and him alone, isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of Christians out there who have found faithful, loving ways of expressing worship both to God and to idols, without compromising either their faith or their view of Scripture. In recent years, I have finally summoned the courage to admit that I am one of them. Let me give you a few reasons why I believe that idolatry and Christianity are compatible.

I start with my own story, and the stories of many others like me. I am an evangelical, and I have a very high view of the Bible – I am currently studying for a PhD in biblical studies at King’s College London, which will be my third theology degree – as well as knowing both the ancient languages and the state of scholarly research. Yet, after much prayerful study, I have discovered the liberating truth that it is possible to be an idolatrous Christian. That, at least, is evidence that you can be an evangelical and an idolater.

Not only that, but a number of evangelical writers have been challenging the monolatrous narrative in a series of scholarly books. A number of these provide a powerful case for listening to the diversity of the ancient witnesses in their original contexts, and call for a Christlike approach of humility, openness and inclusion towards our idolatrous brothers and sisters.

Some, on hearing this, will of course want to rush straight to the “clobber passages” in Paul’s letters (which we will consider in a moment), in a bid to secure the fundamentalist ramparts and shut down future dialogue. But as we consider the scriptural material, two things stand out. Firstly, the vast majority of references to idols and idolatry in the Bible come in the Old Testament – the same Old Testament that tells us we can’t eat shellfish or gather sticks on Saturdays. When advocates of monolatry eat bacon sandwiches and drive cars at the weekend, they indicate that we should move beyond Old Testament commandments in the new covenant, and rightly so.

Secondly, and even more significantly, we need to read the whole Bible with reference to the approach of Jesus. To be a Christian is to be a Jesus-person: one whose life is based on his priorities, not on the priorities of subsequent theologians. And when we look at Jesus, we notice that he welcomed everyone who came to him, including those people that the (one-God worshipping) religious leaders rejected – and that Jesus said absolutely nothing about idols in any of the four Gospels.

Skip forward a bit:

We should also remember that, as we have discovered more about the human brain, we have found out all sorts of things about idolatry that the biblical writers simply did not know. The prophets and apostles knew nothing of cortexes and neurons, and had no idea that some people are pre-wired to commit idolatry, so they never talked about it. But as we have learned more about genetics, neural pathways, hormones and so on, we have come to realise that some tendencies – alcoholism, for example – scientifically result from the way we are made, and therefore cannot be the basis for moral disapproval or condemnation. To disregard the findings of science on this point is like continuing to insist that the world is flat.

With all of these preliminary ideas in place, we can finally turn to Paul, who has sadly been used as a judgmental battering ram by monolaters for centuries. When we do, what immediately strikes us is that in the ultimate “clobber passage”, namely Romans 1, the problem isn’t really idol-worship at all! The problem, as Paul puts it, is not that people worship idols, but that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23). Paul isn’t talking about people who are idolatrous by nature. He is talking about people who were naturally worshippers of Israel’s God, and exchanged it for the worship of idols. What else could the word “exchange” here possibly mean?

Not only that, but none of his references apply to idolatry as we know it today: putting something above God in our affections. Paul, as a Hellenistic Roman citizen, simply would not have had a category for that kind of thing. In his world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities – statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone – and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions.

Read the whole thing. You might recognize these arguments from Matthew Vines’ debate with Michael Brown about whether you can be a practicing gay person and a Christian at the same time. I I summarized the debate in this post.

I wrote this in reaction to the debate:

Even heterosexuals who have not married are called upon to embrace lifelong celibacy. I am in my 30s and am a virgin because I have not married. I wouldn’t seek to reinrepret the Bible to allow premarital sex just because what I am doing is difficult. I would rather just do what the Bible says than reinterpret it to suit me. And it’s just as hard for me to be chaste as it would be for him to be. In short, it’s a character issue. He takes his right to recreational sex as non-negotiable, and reinterprets the Bible to suit. I take the Bible as non-negotiable, and comply with it regardless of whether it seems to make me less happy. With respect to the purposes of God for me in this world, my happiness is expendable. If I don’t find someone to marry, I’m going to be “afflicted” with the lifelong celibacy that Vines seems to think is torture, but let me tell you – God is happy with the contributions I am making for him, and if I have to be chaste through my whole life, I am 100% fine with that. I serve the King. And not the reverse.

So back to the parody. Apparently, Matthew Vines is saying that he doesn’t really use arguments like the ones above, so thankfully Samuel James has gone through Vines’ book and listed out exact quotes where he uses the arguments in the parody. This is worth a read as well – it’s really first class work, because a lot of people who think Christianity is supposed to be about us being happy and fulfilled buy into these reinterpretations of the Bible. We need to be ready with an answer.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The importance of Christian men setting an example of benevolent authority

I think that children are more likely to accept theism if they have a father who is able to lead them in a loving, caring way. And I also think that children who grow up with an authoritiarian or absent or defective father are more likely to reject theism. The father needs to be strong. The father needs to be good. Otherwise, it’s harder for the kids to believe in God.

Let’s start proving this with a lecture from psychologist Paul Vitz:

Here’s an article by Paul Copan (related to the lecture) which points out how father presence/absence and father quality affects belief and disbelief in God.

Excerpt:

Seventh, the attempt to psychologize believers applies more readily to the hardened atheist.It is interesting that while atheists and skeptics often psychoanalyze the religious believer, they regularly fail to psychoanalyze their own rejection of God. Why are believers subject to such scrutiny and not atheists? Remember another feature of Freud’s psychoanalysis — namely, an underlying resentment that desires to kill the father figure.

Why presume atheism is the rational, psychologically sound, and default position while theism is somehow psychologically deficient? New York University psychology professor Paul Vitz turns the tables on such thinking. He essentially says, “Let’s look into the lives of leading atheists and skeptics in the past. What do they have in common?” The result is interesting: virtually all of these leading figures lacked a positive fatherly role model — or had no father at all.11

Let’s look at some of them.

  • Voltaire(1694–1778): This biting critic of religion, though not an atheist, strongly rejected his father and rejected his birth name of Francois-Marie Arouet.
  • David Hume(1711–76): The father of this Scottish skeptic died when Hume was only 2 years old. Hume’s biographers mention no relatives or family friends who could have served as father figures.
  • Baron d’Holbach(1723–89): This French atheist became an orphan at age 13 and lived with his uncle.
  • Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72): At age 13, his father left his family and took up living with another woman in a different town.
  • Karl Marx(1818–83): Marx’s father, a Jew, converted to being a Lutheran under pressure — not out of any religious conviction. Marx, therefore, did not respect his father.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche(1844–1900): He was 4 when he lost his father.
  • Sigmund Freud(1856–1939): His father, Jacob, was a great disappointment to him; his father was passive and weak. Freud also mentioned that his father was a sexual pervert and that his children suffered for it.
  • Bertrand Russell(1872–1970): His father died when he was 4.
  • Albert Camus(1913–60): His father died when he was 1 year old, and in his autobiographical novel The First Man, his father is the central figure preoccupation of his work.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre(1905–80): The famous existentialist’s father died before he was born.12
  • Madeleine Murray-O’Hair (1919–95): She hated her father and even tried to kill him with a butcher knife.

We could throw in a few more prominent contemporary atheists not mentioned by Vitz with similar childhood challenges:

  • Daniel Dennett (1942–): His father died when he was 5 years of age and had little influence on Dennett.13
  • Christopher Hitchens (1949–): His father (“the Commander”) was a good man, according to Hitchens, but he and Hitchens “didn’t hold much converse.” Once having “a respectful distance,” their relationship took on a “definite coolness” with an “occasional thaw.” Hitchens adds: “I am rather barren of paternal recollections.”14
  • Richard Dawkins (1941–): Though encouraged by his parents to study science, he mentions being molested as a child — no insignificant event, though Dawkins dismisses it as merely embarrassing.15

Moreover, Vitz’s study notes how many prominent theists in the past — such as Blaise Pascal, G.K. Chesterton, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer — have had in common a loving, caring father in their lives.16

Not only is there that anecdotal evidence of a psychological explanation for atheism, but there is also statistical evidence.

Excerpt:

In 1994 the Swiss carried out an extra survey that the researchers for our masters in Europe (I write from England) were happy to record. The question was asked to determine whether a person’s religion carried through to the next generation, and if so, why, or if not, why not. The result is dynamite. There is one critical factor. It is overwhelming, and it is this: It is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.

If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost.

If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshippers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church.

Let us look at the figures the other way round. What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goesupfrom 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing, as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility.

[…]In short, if a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). If a father goes but irregularly to church, regardless of his wife’s devotion, between a half and two-thirds of their offspring will find themselves coming to church regularly or occasionally.

A non-practicing mother with a regular father will see a minimum of two-thirds of her children ending up at church. In contrast, a non-practicing father with a regular mother will see two-thirds of his children never darken the church door. If his wife is similarly negligent that figure rises to 80 percent!

The results are shocking, but they should not be surprising. They are about as politically incorrect as it is possible to be; but they simply confirm what psychologists, criminologists, educationalists, and traditional Christians know. You cannot buck the biology of the created order. Father’s influence, from the determination of a child’s sex by the implantation of his seed to the funerary rites surrounding his passing, is out of all proportion to his allotted, and severely diminished role, in Western liberal society.

So, I think we can make a case that anyone who doesn’t have a benevolent, involved father is going to have a more difficult time believing that moral boundaries set by an authority are for the benefit of the person who is being bounded. They may not see the value of a relationship with someone who uses their power for to grow them and guide them. They may view the leadership of a powerful person skeptically, because they have been disappointed by father figures in their own lives.

I think the best way for a Christian man to to lead someone who is less powerful, is to explain why they want the person to grow in a particular dimension. Why are the moral boundaries there? Why is one course of action more practical than another? Why is it worth it to give up pleasure and do hard things? The experience of trusting male leadership as a child, and seeing it work out, helps a person keep their belief in God. In my own case, I trusted my Dad on things like saving and investing, studying computer science instead of English, living at home instead of going away to college, and many other things, and because I have seen that leadership produce dividends, it’s much easier for me to accept that I can be a disciple of Jesus and trust him when things don’t go my way. I am used to not getting my way right now, but having it work out well later. I have experienced it with my Dad.

I also think, however, that we need to be cautious about letting children roll over us – because then they will get the idea that God is their cosmic butler, and that’s not going to stand up to the rigors of life. We can’t let them take advantage of us, they have to understand that being led means that they are going somewhere – that life isn’t all about them and their feelings.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

NHS appeals decision allowing midwives to conscientiously object to performing abortions

What happens when you let a secular government take over health care provisioning?

Here is a story from the BBC about the state-run health care system in the UK.

Excerpt:

The UK’s highest court will hear legal arguments on whether midwives have a right to refuse to take any part in abortion procedures on moral grounds.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde appealed to the Supreme Court after judges in Scotland said Roman Catholic midwives had a right to conscientious objection.

[…]Five judges in London will hear the case. A ruling is expected next year.

Ms Doogan, from Garrowhill in Glasgow, and Mrs Wood, from Clarkston in East Renfrewshire, were employed as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.

[…]This landmark case tests the balance between those whose religious beliefs do not allow them to play any part whatsoever in abortion, and the health authorities’ duty under the law to enable women to have an abortion. Many Christian groups back the midwives’ position.

The midwives’ counsel, Gerry Moynihan QC, told the court in the women’s earlier successful appeal that the law was clear that the right to conscientious objection contained in the Abortion Act was intended to apply to the whole team whose involvement was necessary to achieve the procedure.

If the Supreme Court upholds the midwives’ earlier successful appeal, it could set a legal precedent, allowing other midwives who object to abortion to take the same stance.

The Royal College of Midwives and the women’s charity British Pregnancy Advisory Service have both warned that any such ruling could have severe implications for the care of women choosing to terminate their pregnancy.

The BPAS is the largest abortion provider in the UK. I blogged before about their leader, Ann Furedi, who supports sex-selection abortions. I thought then that sex-selection abortions was the worst thing about abortion, but now I see that she would actually force her moral views on other people, compelling them by the power of government to act against their beliefs. There is something deep inside me that just recoils from making a person do something that they think is morally wrong. But I guess pro-abortion people don’t share my concern.

When I blogged before about these two midwives when they won their appeal case, I wrote this:

If the health care system were private, then it would be easy for midwives to find another company to work for that did not violate their consciences. But when the government runs the whole health care system, where are you supposed to go? They are a monopoly and they make the rules. Yet another reasons for Christians to vote for smaller government. In a free market, if you don’t want to buy something from one store, you can go to another store. There is competition. But where are these nurses supposed to go? They are midwives, and the government and the courts make the rules in a government-run health care system.

This is why we need to keep the government OUT of health care. When you work for a government monopoly, and they want you to do something that you don’t want to do, you have two choices – do what they want or leave the country. If the only health care system is government-run, then if you want to practice health care, you have to leave. That seems unfair to me.

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