Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Can atheists be moral? Sean McDowell and James Corbett debate

I got the audio for this debate from Apologetics 315, linked below.

Here is the MP3 file.

Sean’s case is similar to the one I make, but he only has 3 minimal requirements for morality.

First, he explains the difference between objective and subjective truth claims, and points out that statements of a moral nature are meaningless unless morality is objective. Then he states 3 things that are needed in order to ground objective morality.

  1. an objective moral standard
  2. free will
  3. objective moral value of humans

The question of the foundations of morality is without a doubt the easiest issue for beginning apologists to discuss with their neighbor. If you’re new, then you need to at least listen to his opening speech. He’s an excellent speaker, and his rebuttals are very, very smooth. The citations of atheist philosophers like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, e.g. – to show that “religious” wars had nothing to do with religion, really hurt his opponent. He seems to cite prominent atheists like Thomas Nagel, Richard Taylor, Michael Shermer, etc., constantly in order to get support for his assertions. That took preparation. McDowell was very calm in this debate. It’s very hard to stay calm when someone is disagreeing with you in front of a crowd, but McDowell did a great job at that. He also seemed to be really prepared, because his rebuttals were crisp and concise.

For those of you who want to understand how these things work, listen to the debate. There is a period of cross-examination if you like that sort of thing. I do!

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

William Lane Craig lectures on naturalistic alternatives to the Big Bang

Here’s the lecture, which was given in 2004 at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

This lecture might be a little advanced for beginners, but if you stretch your mind first, you shouldn’t tear anything. (Note: standard disclaimers apply if you do tear something!)

The description of the video states:

This is quite simply one of the best lectures William Lane Craig (a philosopher of science) has given. Craig explores the origins of the universe. He argues for a beginning of the universe, while refuting scientific models like the Steady State Theory, the Oscillating Theory, Quantum Vacuum Fluctuation Model, Chaotic Inflationary Theory, Quantum Gravity Theory, String Theory, M-Theory and Cyclic Ekpyrotic Theory.

And here is the description of the lecture from Reasonable Faith:

A Templeton Foundation lecture at the University of Colorado, Boulder, laying out the case from contemporary cosmology for the beginning of the universe and its theological implications. Includes a lengthy Q & A period which features previous critics and debate opponents of Dr. Craig who were in attendance, including Michael Tooley, Victor Stenger, and Arnold Guminski.

Craig has previously debated famous atheists Stenger and Tooley previously. And they both asked him questions in the Q&A time of this lecture. Imagine – having laid out your entire case to two people who have debated you before and who know your arguments well. What did they ask Craig, and how did he respond?

The scientific evidence

The Big Bang cosmology that Dr. Craig presents is the standard model for how the universe came into being. It is a theory based on six lines of experimental evidence.

Scientific evidence:

  1. Einstein’s theory of general relativity (GTR)
  2. the red-shifting of light from distant galaxies implies an expanding universe
  3. the cosmic background radiation (which also disproves the oscillating model of the universe)
  4. the second law of thermodynamics applied to star formation theory
  5. hydrogen-helium abundance predictions
  6. radioactive element abundance predictions

If you are looking for some detail on these evidences, here’s a re-cap of the three main evidences for the Big Bang cosmology from Caltech. (Numbers 2, 3 and 5 from the list above)

Excerpt:

Until the early 1900s, most people had assumed that the universe was fixed in size. New possibilities opened up in 1915, when Einstein formulated his famous general relativity theory that describes the nature of space, time, and gravity. This theory allows for expansion or contraction of the fabric of space. In 1917, astronomer Willem de Sitter applied this theory to the entire universe and boldly went on to show that the universe could be expanding. Aleksandr Friedmann, a mathematician, reached the same conclusion in a more general way in 1922, as did Georges Lemaître, a cosmologist and a Jesuit, in 1927. This step was revolutionary since the accepted view at the time was that the universe was static in size. Tracing back this expanding universe, Lemaître imagined all matter initially contained in a tiny universe and then exploding. These thoughts introduced amazing new possibilities for the universe, but were independent of observation at that time.

[…]Three main observational results over the past century led astronomers to become certain that the universe began with the big bang. First, they found out that the universe is expanding—meaning that the separations between galaxies are becoming larger and larger. This led them to deduce that everything used to be extremely close together before some kind of explosion. Second, the big bang perfectly explains the abundance of helium and other nuclei like deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) in the universe. A hot, dense, and expanding environment at the beginning could produce these nuclei in the abundance we observe today. Third, astronomers could actually observe the cosmic background radiation—the afterglow of the explosion—from every direction in the universe. This last evidence so conclusively confirmed the theory of the universe’s beginning that Stephen Hawking said, “It is the discovery of the century, if not of all time.”

It’s probably a good idea to be familiar with these if you are presenting this argument, because experimental science is a reliable way of knowing about reality.

Published research paper

This lecture by Dr. Craig is based on a research paper published in an astrophysics journal, and was delivered to an audience of students and faculty, including atheist physicist Victor Stenger and prominent atheist philosopher Michael Tooley, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Here’s the peer-reviewed article that the lecture is based on.

Here’s the abstract:

Both cosmology and philosophy trace their roots to the wonder felt by the ancient Greeks as they contemplated the universe. The ultimate question remains why the universe exists rather than nothing. This question led Leibniz to postulate the existence of a metaphysically necessary being, which he identified as God. Leibniz’s critics, however, disputed this identification, claiming that the space-time universe itself may be the metaphysically necessary being. The discovery during this century that the universe began to exist, however, calls into question the universe’s status as metaphysically necessary, since any necessary being must be eternal in its existence. Although various cosmogonic models claiming to avert the beginning of the universe predicted by the standard model have been and continue to be offered, no model involving an eternal universe has proved as plausible as the standard model. Unless we are to assert that the universe simply sprang into being uncaused out of nothing, we are thus led to Leibniz’s conclusion. Several objections to inferring a supernatural cause of the origin of the universe are considered and found to be unsound.

The whole text of the article is posted online here.

If you want something to post on your Twitter or Facebook that is much shorter than this lecture, then you should check out this quick 4-minute explanation of the kalam argument.

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Ryan Bell’s year of atheism testimony shows need for apologetics

// This is being re-posted because Bell has now completed his year living as an atheist, and has come out as an atheist, surprising no one.

Are you interested in knowing how to avoid losing your Christian faith? Well, an episode of the Unbelievable show will give you some clues.

But before we go to the podcast, I want to recap some reasons why people think that God exists.

In addition to these arguments for theism, Christians should be able to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection, one that leverages the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. And some sort of case for the belief that Jesus was divine using only the earliest sources.

In addition to those positive evidences, there would be informed defenses to other questions like the problem of evilthe problem of sufferingreligious pluralismthe hiddenness of Godmaterialist conceptions of mindconsciousness and neurosciencethe justice of eternal damnation,sovereignty and free will, the doctrine of the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Trinity, and so on.

I listed these out so that you can see how many of these positive arguments and defenses that he wrestles with in his deconversion testimony.

The podcast

Details:

Ryan J Bell is a former pastor who has decided to try being an atheist for a year. He explains why and interacts with New Zealand apologist Matt Flannagan.

The MP3 file is here. (We only care about the first 45 minutes)

Matt Flanagan and Justin Brierley do a great job in this debate getting the real issues on the table, although you have to wait until about 20 minutes in. Quick note about Bell. He has a BA in Pastoral Ministry, an MDiv, and a doctorate in Missional Organization. Now I have a suspicion of people with a background like that – my view is that they are more likely to be impractical and/or insulated from real life.

I also noticed that his politics are liberal, and that he is featured on the web site of GLAAD, a gay rights organization, for supporting gay marriage. Why do people support same-sex marriage? I think the most common reason is because they care more about the needs of adults than they care about the needs of children for a mother and a father. That’s where this guy is coming from – he is a people-pleaser, not someone who promotes the needs of children over the needs of adults.

Summary:

At the start of the podcast, we learn that Bell was in the Seventh Day Adventist church, which is strongly invested in young-Earth creationism. Depending on how strict his young Earth view was, this closes off many of the best arguments for theism from science, such as the cosmological argument, the cosmic fine-tuning argument, the stellar habitability argument, the galactic habitability argument, the Cambrian explosion argument, and even the origin of life argument (to a degree). These are the arguments that make theism non-negotiable.

When he started his journey to atheism, he says that he was reading a book called “Religion Without God” by Ronald Dworkin.I was curious to see what view of faith was embraced by this book. Would it be the Biblical view of faith, trust based on evidence? Or the atheist view of faith, belief without evidence? I found an excerpt from the book in the New York Times, which said this:

In the special case of value, however, faith means something more, because our convictions about value are emotional commitments as well and, whatever tests of coherence and internal support they survive, they must feel right in an emotional way as well. They must have a grip on one’s whole personality. Theologians often say that religious faith is a sui generis experience of conviction. Rudolf Otto, in his markedly influential book, The Idea of the Holy, called the experience “numinous” and said it was a kind of “faith-knowledge.” I mean to suggest that convictions of value are also complex, sui generis, emotional experiences. As we will see… when scientists confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles they have an emotional reaction that matches Otto’s description surprisingly well. Indeed many of them use the very term “numinous” to describe what they feel. They find the universe awe-inspiring and deserving of a kind of emotional response that at least borders on trembling.

The excerpt quotes William James, who reduces religion to non-rational emotional experiences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that view of faith is Biblical at all. Biblical faith is rooted in evidence. So clearly, what is important to this Dworkin is not objective evidence, it’s feelings. And this is what Bell was reading. He was not reading academic books like “Debating Christian Theism” to get the best arguments pro-and-con. He was looking for something that “resonated” with his feelings.

His journey was prompted by a female Episcopal priest friend who was asked by an atheist “what difference does religion make in my life?”. So, the framework of his investigation is set by a question that is not focused on truth, but is instead focused on emotions and life enhancement. Now Christianity might be a real stinker of a worldview for life enhancement, and the Bible warns us not to expect a bed of roses in this life. Christianity is not engineered to make you feel good or to make people like you, especially people like female Episcopal priests and GLAAD.

When talking about atheism, he is not concerned with whether atheism is logically consistent or consistent with objective evidence. He is concerned by whether atheists can have the experience of being moral without God. He sees an atheist who has moral preferences and seems like a good person by our arbitrary social standards, and he finds that as “valid” as religion. He is judging worldviews by whether people have their needs met, not by truth.

He says that as a pastor, his method of evangelizing atheists was to encourage them to “try on faith” “go through the motions” “participate in social justice outreach events”, etc. His goal was that they would “step into the stream of the Christian narrative and discover that it held value and meaning to them, and find that they actually believed it”. So his method of recommending Christianity to others has nothing to do with logic, evidence or truth. He is offering Christianity as life enhancement – not knowledge but a “narrative” – a story. If it makes you feel good, and it makes people like you, then you can “believe” it. He says that he was “a Christian by practice, a Christian by tradition”. Not a Christian by truth. Not a Christian by knowledge. He just picked a flavor of ice cream that tasted right to him, one that pleased his parents, friends and community. And now he has new friends and a new community, and he wants to please them and feel good about himself in this new situation.

He says that the Christian worldview is “a way of approaching reality” and “creating meaning” and “identifying meaning in the experiences we have”. And he says that there are “other ways of experiencing meaning”. He talks a lot about his correspondence with people and reading atheists, but nothing about reading Christian scholars who deal with evidence, like William Lane Craig, Stephen C. Meyer or Mike Licona.

Literal, literal quote: (23:35) “Well I think the only access we have to  the question of God’s existence or not is how we feel. I mean there’s no falsifiable data that says God either exists or doesn’t exist. It’s all within the realm of our personal experience”. “If living as though God exists makes you happy and comforts you, then by all means, go for it”. This attitude is so popular in our churches today, and where does it end? In atheism. I had a fundamentalist woman telling me just last night how this feelings mysticism approach was the right approach to faith, and that the head knowledge approach was bad and offensive.

I’m going to cut off my summary there, but the podcast goes on for 45 minutes. Matt Flannagan is brilliant, and went far beyond what I wanted to say to this guy, but in such a winsome way. I recommend listening to the whole thing, and be clear where this fideistic nonsense ends – in atheism.

My thoughts

This podcast is a great warning against two views: 1) faith is belief without evidence and 2) religion not about truth, but about life enhancement. Three other related stories might also help: the story of Dan Barker, the story of Nathan Pratt and the story of Katy Perry. I think the Christian life requires a commitment to truth above all. If you think that you can get by as a Christian relying on hymn singing, church attending, mysticism and emotional experiences, you have another thing coming. This is a different time and a different place than 50 years ago, when that sort of naivete and emotionalism might have been safe. Now we have many challenges – some intellectual and some not. To stand in this environment, it’s going to take a little more than piety and emotions. 

People today are very much looking for religion to meet their needs. And this is not just in terms of internal feelings, but also peer approval and mystical coincidences. They expect God to give them happy feelings. They expect God to give them peer approval. They expect God to make every crazy unBiblical, unwise selfish plan they invent “work out” by miracle. They feel very constrained by planning and moral boundaries, believing in a “God of love” who is primarily concerned with their desires and feelings, not with rules and duties. Nothing in the Bible supports the idea that a relationship with God is for the purpose of making us feel happy and comfortable. When people realize that they will be happier in this life without having to care what God thinks, they will drop their faith, and there are plenty of non-Christians to cheer them on when they do it.

I would say to all of you reading that if the opinions of others causes you to stumble then meditate on the following passage: 1 Cor 4:1-4 too. There is only one person’s opinion that matters, ultimately.

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

Do Christians have a higher divorce rate than atheists?

I’m traveling today, so I thought I would re-post this USA Today article from 2011 about that.

Excerpt:

It’s been proclaimed from pulpits and blogs for years — Christians divorce as much as everyone else in America.

But some scholars and family activists are questioning the oft-cited statistics, saying Christians who attend church regularly are more likely to remain wed.

“It’s a useful myth,” said Bradley Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist who recently wrote “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.”

“Because if a pastor wants to preach about how Christians should take their marriages more seriously, he or she can trot out this statistic to get them to listen to him or her.”

The various findings on religion and divorce hinge on what kind of Christians are being discussed.

Wright combed through the General Social Survey, a vast demographic study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and found that Christians, like adherents of other religions, have a divorce rate of about 42%. The rate among religiously unaffiliated Americans is 50%.

When Wright examined the statistics on evangelicals, he found worship attendance has a big influence on the numbers. Six in 10 evangelicals who never attend had been divorced or separated, compared to just 38% of weekly attendees.

[…]Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, agrees there’s been some confusion.

“You do hear, both in Christian and non-Christian circles, that Christians are no different from anyone else when it comes to divorce and that is not true if you are focusing on Christians who are regular church attendees,” he said.

Wilcox’s analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households has found that Americans who attend religious services several times a month were about 35% less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation.

Nominal conservative Protestants, on the other hand, were 20% more likely to divorce than the religiously unaffiliated.

“There’s something about being a nominal ‘Christian’ that is linked to a lot of negative outcomes when it comes to family life,” Wilcox said.

Here’s a quote from an Oklahoma State University study that confirms the Wright and Wilcox conclusions:

History of Divorce and Religious Involvement

Those who say they are more religious are less likely, not more, to have already experienced divorce. Likewise, those who report more frequent attendance at religious services were significantly less likely to have been divorced. This pattern of findings held using various analytic techniques that test which variables differentiate persons who have been divorced from persons who have not been divorced, while controlling for other variables that might affect the interpretation of the data, such as age, age of first marriage, income, and gender. When both the global rating of religiousness and the item assessing frequency of attendance at religious services are entered into the same analysis, the attendance item remains significantly associated with divorce history but the global religiousness item does not. This suggests that a key aspect of how religious faith affects marital relationships may be through involvement with a community of faith.

So, please do bookmark this information for the next time you hear an atheist make this argument. Obviously, you can’t expect people who are not serious about their religion to be bound by the moral duties imposed by that religion. People who attend church regularly are probably more serious about their religion, and also probably more informed about what their holy book says. If their holy book is the Bible, then there are few options for divorce.

An article from Focus on the Family by Amy Tracy explains when divorce is allowed according to the Bible.

God is very clear, however, that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). He also says, “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). According to the New Testament, there are two justifications for divorce: infidelity (Matthew 5:32) and desertion (1 Corinthians 7:15).

So divorce is not something a Bible believing Christian can do for frivolous reasons, unless he wants to be in rebellion against God.

The future of marriage in the church

In my own case, I learned about chastity and sobriety and courting outside the church, and in my case that means that I am still a virgin, that I don’t drink more than a beer a year, and that when I like a girl, I court her. I do think that people in the church are generally more moral than people outside the church, but that’s more because of convention rather than conviction. I don’t think it’s going to last, in other words – it’s more like a hangover. Church is not the place where reasons and evidence are given that help people to resist peer pressure when they enter hostile environments, like the university. And often, parents are too busy working to understand the issues and communicate them to their children.

I’ve never been in a church where they explained the hormones that are released during sex that cause you to bond to the person you’re having sex with. You would have to look in books or listen to lectures in order to understand the problem with having sex with someone you are not committed to – how it causes you to hold back your emotions for fear of a break-up. The church doesn’t have much to say about the social effects of single motherhood by choice or the effects of gay parenting on children. Nor do they have any positive vision to offer men about how they can serve God by marrying carefully.

Christians who participate in a church community will adopt some of these values, especially if they stay clear of popular culture, the university, etc. Especially if they don’t work in a very secular environment, like a high-tech company or in Hollywood. But unless Christian communities get serious about grounding their values in evidence, I wouldn’t expect this situation to go on, and you can already see young people falling away from church in record numbers when they get to university as a result of this refusal to engage. We’re doing well now, but we should move to secure our gains.

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

Is asking “Am I going to Hell?” a good response to scientific arguments for theism?

I want to use this woman’s story to show how sensible atheists reach a belief in God.

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.

So, I want to point out the progression of her beliefs from atheist to deist to Christian. First, she listened to the scientific arguments for God’s existence, which took her to deism, which is a variety of theism where God just creates the universe and then doesn’t interfere with it after. Those arguments, the Big Bang and the cosmic fine-tuning, were enough for her to falsify atheism and prove some sort of theism. After that, she remained open to the evidence for Christian theism, and finally got there after looking at other evidence.

But this makes me think of how some of the atheists that I talk to do the exact opposite of what she did. I start off by explaining to them scientific evidence for a Creator and Designer. I explain the mainstream discoveries that confirm an origin of the universe (e.g. – light element abundance predictions and observations), and I cite specific examples of fine-tuning, (e.g. – the gravitational constant). I explain protein sequencing and folding, and calculate the probabilities of getting a protein by chance. I explain the sudden origin of the phyla in the Cambrian explosion, and show why naturalistic explanations fail. I talk about the fine-tuning needed to get galaxies, solar systems and planets to support life. But many of these atheists don’t become deists like the honest atheist in the story. Why not?

Well, the reason why not is because they interrupt the stream of scientific evidence coming out of my mouth and they start to ask me questions that have nothing to do with what we can know through science. See, evangelism is like building a house. You have to start with the foundation, the walls, the plumbing, the electricity, etc., but you can’t know all the specific details about furniture and decorations at the beginning. But militant atheists don’t care that you are able to establish the foundations of Christian theism – they want to jump right to the very fine-grained details, and use that to justify not not building anything at all. Just as you are proving all the main planks of a theistic worldview with science, they start asking “am I going to Hell?” and telling you “God is immoral for killing Canaanite children”, etc. They want to stop the construction of the house by demanding that you build everything at once. But, it is much easier to accept miracles like the virgin birth if you have a God who created the universe first. The foundation comes first, it makes the later stuff easier to do.

So rather than adjust their worldview to the strong scientific evidence, and then leave the puzzling about Hell and Old Testament history for later, they want to refute the good scientific arguments with “Am I going to Hell?”. How does complaining about Hell and unanswered prayer a response to scientific evidence? It’s not! But I think that this does explain why atheists remain atheists in the face of all the scientific evidence against naturalism. They insulate their worldview from the progress of science by focusing on their emotional disappointment that they are not God and that God isn’t doing what they want him to do. That’s the real issue. Authority and autonomy. In my experience, they are usually not accountable to science, although there are, thank God, exceptions to that rule.

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