Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Study explores whether atheism is rooted in reason or emotion

Navy SEAL Matthew "Axe" Axelson

Image of Navy SEAL Matthew “Axe” Axelson from the movie “Lone Survivor”

From First Things, based on research reported by CNN.

A new set of studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that atheists and agnostics report anger toward God either in the past or anger focused on a hypothetical image of what they imagine God must be like. Julie Exline, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University and the lead author of this recent study, has examined other data on this subject with identical results. Exline explains that her interest was first piqued when an early study of anger toward God revealed a counterintuitive finding: Those who reported no belief in God reported more grudges toward him than believers.

At first glance, this finding seemed to reflect an error. How could people be angry with God if they did not believe in God? Reanalyses of a second dataset revealed similar patterns: Those who endorsed their religious beliefs as “atheist/agnostic” or “none/unsure” reported more anger toward God than those who reported a religious affiliation.

Exline notes that the findings raised questions of whether anger might actually affect belief in God’s existence, an idea consistent with social science’s previous clinical findings on “emotional atheism.”

Studies in traumatic events suggest a possible link between suffering, anger toward God, and doubts about God’s existence. According to Cook and Wimberly (1983), 33% of parents who suffered the death of a child reported doubts about God in the first year of bereavement. In another study, 90% of mothers who had given birth to a profoundly retarded child voiced doubts about the existence of God (Childs, 1985). Our survey research with undergraduates has focused directly on the association between anger at God and self-reported drops in belief (Exline et al., 2004). In the wake of a negative life event, anger toward God predicted decreased belief in God’s existence.

The most striking finding was that when Exline looked only at subjects who reported a drop in religious belief, their faith was least likely to recover if anger toward God was the cause of their loss of belief. In other words, anger toward God may not only lead people to atheism but give them a reason to cling to their disbelief.

I think the best defense to this phenomena is for the church to not tell people that God’s job is to make them happy in this life on Earth. I think if we spent less time selling Christianity to young people as life enhancement, we would have much fewer apostates. If young people get into their minds that God is their boss, not their waiter, then that is a good preparation for the real world. And all of the challenges that Christians face – from poverty, to peer pressure, to health problems to persecution. Stop expecting happiness, that is not God’s goal for you.

I was blessed to have discovered apologetics at a very early age. This passage from C. S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” always stood out to me back then:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

When I was young, I shortened this quote into my motto, which lasted until just a few years  back when I finally started to feel some security because of my contingency fund’s size. And that motto was “nothing works”. Nothing works. That’s right, so get used to it. Everything sucks, nothing works. Nothing works.

Stop expecting God to make you happy. You are a soldier, and your job is to fight to the last breath in your body for the General. Hold until relieved. You’re damn right it’s unfair. Your whole life is unfair and then you die. Get used to it. When I was in college, my Christian friends and I used to joke that even if we fought our entire lives for God and he tossed us into Hell like firewood, we would still do the same things. We were happy to serve and we didn’t think about whether we were getting what we wanted.

Certainly, we did not take stupid chances to get ourselves into trouble deliberately. But we just didn’t care about being happy, that was not our goal. We felt that God was in the right, and sinful humans were in the wrong, and that it was enough for us to serve on the right side. We didn’t expect anyone to care how we felt, we just expected to serve. And if our first plan failed, we went on to the next plan, and the next, until we found a way to serve in spite of the unfairness of it all.

There is no way that you could read the New Testament and come out with the idea that Jesus wanted fun and thrills and good feelings. He never laughed. He was killed for his obedience to God. He desperately wanted to avoid punishment, but he did things that he did not feel like doing because it was for the benefit of others, in obedience to God his Father. And it’s that kind of realistic pessimism – downbeat practical resignation – that we ought to be striving for. This life is not a trip to the mall where everything is on sale and we grab what we like. At all.

Filed under: Commentary, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Melissa Cain Travis: motherhood and the life of the mind

Melissa Cain Travis

Melissa Cain Travis

Melissa Cain Travis explains how she transitioned from a career in biotechnology to motherhood, then integrated motherhood with a robust influence in Christian apologetics.

Excerpt:

My last day on the job was five days before I became a mother. BAM! The world shifted under my feet.

For the first 18 months of my new life, I was surrounded by several close friends with new babies. I had an active mommy-social-life in addition to the demands of caring for an infant and a husband. My life was rather full. But one by one, those friends moved away, my son grew and became a bit lower-maintenance, and I found myself experiencing increasing restlessness. I knew I was called to be a stay-at-home mom, but I was becoming desperate for intellectual stimulation. For about five years, I tried to develop passions for things I saw other moms doing, but to little avail. I joined Bible study groups made up of young moms, but never quite fit in and often found the material shallow; I tried my hand at various visual arts but found out pretty quickly that I didn’t have much natural talent; I started writing a novel that never went beyond chapter 1. I felt discouraged, like a piece of me was missing, and my spiritual life was a bit crippled by that deficiency.

Then, through a series of very painful circumstances, God showed me, in no uncertain terms, that my intellectual fulfillment was inextricably linked to Him and to my ministry calling–a calling that He had been leading me towards since college, though I didn’t recognize it until that much later date. So, exactly 10 years after finishing my bachelor’s degree, I applied to graduate school and began working towards a master’s in science and religion (that science background had a much higher purpose than I ever expected!). Five years after that momentous event, here I am, about to begin doctoral work. I am overwhelmed just thinking about where I was spiritually and intellectually (stagnant) and where God has brought me–while I’ve remained a stay-at-home mother and the primary educator of my children. Sometimes my heart feels like it’s going to burst with the gratitude I feel for this transformative, enlightening,  joyful, no-turning-back journey I’ve been granted. The most wonderful thing about it, though, is not how my inner life has changed for the better; rather, it’s how much better equipped I have become to be the mother I should be.

And that’s not all. It’s not just that Melissa has become the mother she should be… she wants you to become the mother you should be, too:

Here’s what I want you to know. As mothers, our spiritual maturity depends in a major way on our intellectual development. We have to get beyond knowing WHAT we believe to be true about God and the world and be able to say WHY we believe it to be so. When one of our children approaches us with questions such as “Mom, how do you know God’s real, and not just made up?” or “How do you know the Bible is true?” we’d better have something more substantial than, “Oh honey, we just have faith!” if we want to train up warriors in this decaying, increasingly hostile culture. What’s more, we cannot underestimate the value of modelling for our children the value of lifelong learning.

There is a lot of advice in the rest of the post for how to adding some muscle to the motherhood role. I have to say that this is exactly what I need to hear from a woman in order for me to choose her for my marriage plan. If a woman has a desire for continuous improvement, then there is no limit to how far they can go intellectually, even as they honor that commitment to their children.

You can find more about her and her work on her blog. She is a homeschooling mom and has authored several books on apologetics for children.

Filed under: Commentary, , , , , , , , ,

Define biomimetics and give two examples from peer-reviewed science journals?

I'm baby octopus, and I approve this message

I’m baby octopus, and I approve this message

Today, I have two examples of biomimetics.

But first, here’s what that is:

Biomimetic refers to human-made processes, substances, devices, or systems that imitate nature. The art and science of designing and building biomimetic apparatus is called biomimetics, and is of special interest to researchers in nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the medical industry, and the military.

Here’s the first example from Science Daily.

A robotic arm that can bend, stretch and squeeze through cluttered environments has been created by a group of researchers from Italy.

Inspired by the eight arms of the octopus, the device has been specifically designed for surgical operations to enable surgeons to easily access remote, confined regions of the body and, once there, manipulate soft organs without damaging them.

It is believed the device could reduce the number of instruments, and thus entry incisions, necessary in surgical operations, with part of the arm being used to manipulate organs whilst another part of the arm operates.

The device, which has been presented 14 May, in IOP Publishing’s journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, holds a key advantage over traditional surgical tools due to its ability to quickly transform from a bending, flexible instrument into a stiff and rigid instrument.

It has been inspired by the eight highly flexible arms of the octopus which have no rigid skeletal support and can thus easily adapt to the surrounding environment by twisting, changing their length or bending in any direction at any point along the arm.

The octopus can, however, vary the stiffness of its arms, temporarily transforming the flexible limbs into stiffened segments to allow the octopus to move and interact with objects.

[…]The ability of the robotic arm to manipulate organs while surgical tasks are performed was successfully demonstrated in simulated scenarios where organs were represented by water-filled balloons.

‘Traditional surgical tasks often require the use of multiple specialized instruments such as graspers, retractors, vision systems and dissectors, to carry out a single procedure,’ Dr Ranzani continued.

‘We believe our device is the first step to creating an instrument that is able to perform all of these tasks, as well as reach remote areas of the body and safely support organs around the target site.’

Fascinating, and useful. If we are reverse engineering these designs, should we assume that they were designed in the first place? Especially when there is zero evidence for macroevolution either in the lab or in the fossil record.

The shorebird's beak is more interesting than you might think

The shorebird’s beak is more interesting than you might think

My second example of biomimetics is also from Science Daily.

Excerpt:

A UT Arlington engineering professor and his doctoral student have designed a device based on a shorebird’s beak that can accumulate water collected from fog and dew.

The device could provide water in drought-stricken areas of the world or deserts around the globe.

Xin Heng… a doctoral student in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Cheng Luo, MAE professor, have made a device that can use fog and dew to collect water.

Cheng Luo, professor in the Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department, and Xin Heng, PhD candidate in the same College of Engineering department, published “Bioinspired Plate-Based Fog Collectors” in the Aug. 25 edition of ACS’ (American Chemical Society) Applied Materials & Interfaces journal.

The idea began when Heng saw an article that explained the physical mechanism shorebirds use to collect their food — driving food sources into their throats by opening and closing their beaks. Luo said that inspired the team to try to replicate the natural beak in the lab.

“We wanted to see if we could do that first,” Luo said. “When we made the artificial beaks, we saw that multiple water drops were transported by narrow, beak-like glass plates. That made us think of whether we could harvest the water from fog and dew.”

Their experiments were successful. They found out they could harvest about four tablespoons of water in a couple of hours from glass plates that were about 26 centimeters long by 10 centimeters wide.

Now, if we are lifting designs out of nature, then shouldn’t we give honor to God for putting the designs in there in the first place? I really think it’s important to give God credit where due for his clever designs, even if you’re not a big fan of the shorebird. I also think it’s interesting that it’s engineers who made this application of something in nature, not biologists.  Also, I feel I have to mention that the birdy is also cute, which is not insignificant, if you like birds as much as I do. I blog about birds a lot on this blog. And dragonflies too! Because wings are awesome!

Filed under: Commentary, , , , , , , , ,

A Harvard University student explains how evidence changed her mind about God

Harvard University student discovers apologetics

Harvard University student discovers apologetics

Here’s a must-read article  about the effectiveness of apologetics on college campuses in Christianity Today.

Excerpt:

I don’t know when I first became a skeptic. It must have been around age 4, when my mother found me arguing with another child at a birthday party: “But how do you know what the Bible says is true?” By age 11, my atheism was so widely known in my middle school that a Christian boy threatened to come to my house and “shoot all the atheists.” My Christian friends in high school avoided talking to me about religion because they anticipated that I would tear down their poorly constructed arguments. And I did.

As I set off in 2008 to begin my freshman year studying government at Harvard (whose motto is Veritas, “Truth”), I could never have expected the change that awaited me.

It was a brisk November when I met John Joseph Porter. Our conversations initially revolved around conservative politics, but soon gravitated toward religion. He wrote an essay for the Ichthus, Harvard’s Christian journal, defending God’s existence. I critiqued it. On campus, we’d argue into the wee hours; when apart, we’d take our arguments to e-mail. Never before had I met a Christian who could respond to my most basic philosophical questions: How does one understand the Bible’s contradictions? Could an omnipotent God make a stone he could not lift? What about the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God declared it so, or does God merely identify the good? To someone like me, with no Christian background, resorting to an answer like “It takes faith” could only be intellectual cowardice. Joseph didn’t do that.

And he did something else: He prodded me on how inconsistent I was as an atheist who nonetheless believed in right and wrong as objective, universal categories. Defenseless, I decided to take a seminar on meta-ethics. After all, atheists had been developing ethical systems for 200-some years. In what I now see as providential, my atheist professor assigned a paper by C. S. Lewis that resolved the Euthyphro dilemma, declaring, “God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.”

Joseph also pushed me on the origins of the universe. I had always believed in the Big Bang. But I was blissfully unaware that the man who first proposed it, Georges Lemaître, was a Catholic priest. And I’d happily ignored the rabbit trail of a problem of what caused the Big Bang, and what caused that cause, and so on.

By Valentine’s Day, I began to believe in God. There was no intellectual shame in being a deist, after all, as I joined the respectable ranks of Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers.

I wouldn’t stay a deist for long. A Catholic friend gave me J. Budziszewski’s book Ask Me Anything, which included the Christian teaching that “love is a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person.” This theme—of love as sacrifice for true good—struck me. The Cross no longer seemed a grotesque symbol of divine sadism, but a remarkable act of love. And Christianity began to look less strangely mythical and more cosmically beautiful.

Now, I’m going to get into a lot of trouble for saying this, but I think that if you are a Christian and you are in a secular university, then you really need to have put in the effort to study the areas of science, history and philosophy that are relevant to the Christian faith. This is regardless of your personal abilities or field of study. We must all make an effort regardless of how comfortable we are with things that are hard for us to learn.

Granted, most people today are not interested in truth, because we just have this cultural preoccupation with having fun and feeling good and doing whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it. Most atheists I’ve met are like that, but some are more honest, open-minded, and they just have never encountered any good reasons or evidence to think that God exists and that Jesus is anything other than a man. There are a lot of atheists like that who are just waiting to hear some decent evidence. Our job is to prepare for them and then engage them, if they are willing to be engaged.

I think that definition of love she cited – self-sacrifice for the true good of another person – is important. I don’t think that ordinary Christians like you or me spends time on apologetics because we “like” it. I know lots of Christians who are in tough, expensive academic programs trying to get the skills they need to defend truth in areas that matter. They do this because they know that there are people out there who are interested in truth, and who are willing to re-prioritize their lives if the truth is made clear to them. We need to be willing to serve God by doing hard things that work.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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Are Christians more concerned about social issues than they are about the poor?

I saw this editorial on the leftist Washington Post and thought it was useful in case you get this question.

It says:

Broadly speaking, American churches are incredibly generous to the needs of a hurting world.

As noted by The Philanthropy Roundtable:

“In 2009, overseas relief and development supported by American churches exceeded $13 billion, according to path-breaking calculations by the Hudson Center for Global Prosperity. (This includes not just evangelical churches but also Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations, and covers both direct missions work and donations to private relief groups.) That compares to $5 billion sent abroad by foundations in the same year, $6 billion from private and voluntary relief organizations apart from church support, and $9 billion donated internationally by corporations. The $13 billion in religious overseas philanthropy also compares impressively to the $29 billion of official development aid handed out by the federal government in 2009.”

[…]In 2012 alone, the evangelical relief group World Vision spent “roughly $2.8 billion annually to care for the poor,” according to World Vision U.S. President Richard Stearns. “That would rank World Vision about 12th within the G-20 nations in terms of overseas development assistance.”

World Vision is only one such major evangelical ministry. Groups such as Samaritan’s Purse, Food for the Hungry, World Relief and many others provide hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-poverty programs at home and abroad.

The gold-standard accountability group for evangelical ministries, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, represents groups that provide food, medical care, education, adoption services, orphan care, post-prison assistance, substance abuse help and other critical services at home and abroad. In aggregate, the more than 600 evangelical ministries represented in the ECFA provide more than $9.2 billion in relief assistance.

Catholic ministries, too, here and abroad are vibrant: How many Americans, of every faith and every economic status, have received world-class health care in Catholic hospitals? In total, The Economist magazine’s assessment of the Catholic Church’s estimated $170 billion total U.S. income finds that about 57 percent (roughly $97 billion) goes to “health-care networks, followed by 28 percent on colleges, with parish and diocesan day-to-day operations accounting for just 6 percent, with the remaining $4.6 billion going to ‘national charitable activities.’”

[…]What about some hard numbers? Of the major national conservative Christian groups that are involved in the political arena, here is a representative sampling of various financial reports:

  • Susan B. Anthony List: $7 million
  • Americans United for Life: $4.5 million
  • Family Research Council: $15.2 million
  • National Right to Life: $6.4 million
  • National Organization for Marriage: $1.7 million
  • Focus on the Family: $94.5 million
  • Alliance Defending Freedom: $38.2 million

For the sake of argument, let’s add in the roughly 40 state Family Policy Councils and, generously, surmise their budgets, together, total $100 million.

[…]If you want to be generous, the national/state combo is about $270 million.

I am actually not in favor of Christians focusing so much on alleviating poverty through these massive organizations. This is especially true now, when it’s pretty clear that religious liberty is at stake, even to the degree that our schools, universities and churches are going to lose their tax-exempt status. I think now, we should probably thinking a lot more about apologetics in the churches, better schools and universities, raising influential kids, and political action. This is a crisis situation, survival is more important to me than helping others. We can get back to helping others if we are still here in 25 years.

Filed under: Commentary, , , ,

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