Tag Archives: Apologetics

How good are the atheistic arguments of Christopher Hitchens?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

I thought that I would go over an opening statement from a previous debate featuring Christopher Hitchens to find out what atheists are like in debates. I used his opening speech from his debate with Frank Turek. The audio from that debate is here, at Brian Auten’s Apologetics 315 site.

Now the important thing to remember about a generic debate on whether GOD EXISTS is that there should be no mention of any particular God, such as the Christian God, and no mention of the history of any particular religion. All arguments that assume specific theological or moral doctrines or specific religious history are irrelevant to a debate on generic theism.

The question being debated is: does a God who created and designed the universe, who has all the traditional properties of God, such as omniscience, omnipotence, omni-benevolence, etc. exist? That is the question being debated in a “Does God Exist?” debate.

Frank Turek’s case for theism:

Frank Turek made 4 relevant arguments for theism, each of which alone would support his conclusion, that God exists:

  • the origin of time, space, matter and energy out of nothing
  • the fine-tuning of the physical constants to support the minimum requirements for life of any kind
  • the origin of the biological information in the first self-replicating organism
  • objective, prescriptive moral rules need to be grounded by the designer of the universe

And he also listed 4 features of the universe that are more consistent with theism than atheism (= materialism).

  • non-material minds that allow rationality that would be impossible on materialism/determinism
  • the mathematical structure of the universe and its intelligibility to the scientific method
  • free will, which is required for moral responsibility and moral choices, requires a non-material mind/soul
  • our first person experience of consciousness is best explained by a non-material mind/soul

Hitchens’ case against theism

To counter, Hitchens has to argue against God using arguments in one of two forms:

  1. The concept of God is logically self-contradictory
  2. An objective feature of the world is inconsistent with the attributes of God

The claim that God does not exist is a claim to know something about God, namely, that he does not exist. This claim requires the speaker to bear a burden of proof. In a debate on “Does God Exist?”, Hitchens must deny that God exists. Let me be clear: Hitchens must defeat the arguments for the claim that God exists, and then defend the claim that God does not exist, and support that claim using arguments and evidence.

Hitchens makes 2 basic claims:

  • There are no good reasons to believe that theism is true
  • There are good reasons to believe atheism is true

So far so good. But what are his good reasons for atheism?

  1. I personally don’t like Christianity, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: I personally don’t like Catholicism getting rid of limbo
    – Premise: I personally don’t like Hell
    – Premise: I personally don’t like some episodes in church history
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  2. The plurality of religions means that no religious claims can be correct, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: There are lots of religions
    – Premise: The religions all disagree in their truth claims about the external world
    – Conclusion: No religion’s claims can be correct, therefore God doesn’t exist
  3. I believe in one less God than you, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: You disbelieve in every God I do, except one
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  4. Religious people are stupid and evil, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: Religious people are ignorant
    – Premise: Religious people are fearful
    – Premise: Religious people are servile
    – Premise: Religious people are masochistic
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  5. Evolution explains how life progressed from single cell to today’s bio-diversity, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: Modern theists like Turek believe in Paley’s argument, and argued it in this debate
    – Premise: Paley’s argument was refuted by evolution
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  6. God wouldn’t have made the universe this way, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: If God exists, then he would have made the universe my way
    – Premise: The heat death of the universe wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The extinction of species wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The size of the universe wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The amount of open space wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The large number of stars wasn’t done my way
    – Premise: The age of the universe wasn’t done my way
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  7. Religion makes people do things that I don’t like, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: Some religions do suicide bombing
    – Premise: Some religions do child abuse
    – Premise: Some religions do genital mutilation
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  8. If you speak a sentence, I can repeat the same words as you said, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: Anything that you say is good, I can say is good too
    – Premise: Anything that you say is bad, I can say is bad too
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  9. Atheists are morally superior to religious people, therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: I act in a way that is consistent with my personal, arbitrary moral preferences
    – Premise: You don’t act in a way that is consistent with my personal, arbitrary moral preferences
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  10. If I believe in God, I would have to submit to an authority
    – Premise: If I believe in God, then I can’t do whatever I want
    – Premise: But I want to do whatever I want
    – Conclusion: God doesn’t exist
  11. I don’t like certain Christian doctrines, therefore arguments for God from science fail and therefore God doesn’t exist
    – Premise: I don’t like the atonement
    – Premise: I don’t like the virgin birth
    – Premise: I don’t like the incarnation
    – Premise: I don’t like original sin
    – Premise: I don’t like the resurrection
    – Conclusion: Arguments that are built on recent discoveries from the progress of science like the big bang, fine-tuning, origin of life, etc. are incorrect, and therefore God doesn’t exist

Andwering Hitchens’ case

  • The form of all of these arguments is logically invalid. The conclusions do not follow from the premises using the laws of logic, such as modus ponens and modus tollens.
  • Hitchens cannot complain about morality because he has no foundation for objective moral facts. What he is really expressing is that he personally does not like such-and-such a state of affairs, based on his own arbitrary personal preferences, and the arbitrary social customs that evolved in the place and time that he finds himself in. On atheism, “morality” is just describing what people do – either individually or as groups living in different times and places. There is no objective right and wrong, and no objective way we ought to be. All statements are subjective. They describe what the speaker personally likes and dislikes. Just like taste in foods or taste in dress – which varies by individually, and is influenced by time and place ARBITRARILY.

Specific comments about each argument:

  • Argument 1 tries to disprove God by arguing from Hitchens’ personal preferences about specific Christian doctrines. Christian doctrines are irrelevant to a debate about generic theism. And there is no reason why God should be bound by the personal, subjective preferences of one man. In fact, the concept of God entails that his unchanging nature is the standard of good and evil. So, this argument doesn’t disprove God, it’s just a statement of personal, subjective preference.
  • Argument 2: Just because there are different truth claims made by different groups, doesn’t mean no one is correct. Mormons believe that matter existed eternally, and Jews believe it was created out of nothing. The big bang theory shows that the Mormons are wrong and the Jews are right.
  • Argument 3: First of all, the debate is a about a generic Creator and Designer, not any particular religious conception of God. So the argument is irrelevant. Moreover, Christians reject Zeus, for example, because Zeus is supposed to exist in time and space, and therefore could not be the cause of the beginning of time and space.
  • Argument 4: This is just the ad hominem fallacy. Hitchens is attacking the character of the theist, but that doesn’t show theism is false.
  • Argument 5: This argument can be granted for the sake of argument, even though it’s debatable. The point is that it is irrelevant, since it doesn’t refute any of Turek’s actual scientific arguments like the big bang, the fine-tuning of the physical constants, the origin of information in the simplest living cell.
  • Argument 6: Again, there is no reason to think that God should be bound by Hitchens’ personal opinion of how God should operate.
  • Argument 7: This is the ad hominem fallacy again. The good behavior of religious believers is not a premise in any of Turek’s FOUR arguments for theism. Therefore, Hitchens’ point is irrelevant to the debate.
  • Argument 8: The fact that the atheist can parrot moral claims is not the issue. Being able to speak English words is not what grounds objective, prescriptive morality. The issue is the ontology of moral rules, the requirement of free will in order to have moral responsibility and moral choices, ultimate significance of moral actions, and the rationality of self-sacrificial moral actions.
  • Argument 9: This is just the ad hominem fallacy again.
  • Argument 10: This is not argument so much as it reveals that the real reason Hitchens is an atheist is emotional. One might even say infantile.
  • Argument 11: Again, these specific Christian doctrines are irrelevant to a debate about generic theism. And Hitchen’s subjective, personal preferences about Christian doctrine certainly do not undermine the objective scientific support for the premises in Turek’s 3 scientific arguments.

So Frank Turek talked about facts in the external world, and Christopher Hitchens mistakenly thought that his opinions and preferences about what he would do if he were God were interesting to us. They might be interesting to his psychiatrist, but they are not interesting to us.

Gary Habermas and James Crossley discuss the minimal facts case for the resurrection

Two ninjas face off at sundown
Two ninjas face off at sundown

James Crossley is my favorite atheist ancient historian, such a straight shooter. He’s on the skeptical left, but he has a no-baloney way of talking that I really like. I was so excited to summarize this, and there’s not a speck of snark in this summary. Crossley dates the gospel of Mark 37-43 A.D., far earlier than most scholars. Justin Brierley does a great job as moderator. Gary Habermas is OK, but he is not familiar with any useful arguments for God’s existence, (kalam, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, etc.), and that is a problem in this debate.

Here are the details of the debate:

Christian Bible scholar Gary Habermas and agnostic New Testament scholar James Crossley return to answer questions sent in by Unbelievable? listeners.

They answer your questions on the Jewishness of Jesus, the dating of the New Testament documents and much more!

Note: this is the first of two shows they are doing together!!

The MP3 file is here. (If this disappears, tell me, I have a copy)

This non-snarky summary starts at 10:52.

Summary:

  • Habermas: the minimal facts are the facts that even the majority of skeptical scholars will accept

Habermas list of minimal facts: (near universal acceptance)

  1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion
  2. After his death, his disciples had experiences that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus
  3. The disciples were transformed by their experiences and proclaimed his resurrection and were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection
  4. The proclamation of his resurrection was early
  5. James was converted by a post-mortem experience
  6. Paul was converted by a post-mortem experience

Habermas list of widely-accepted facts:

  1. Burial for Jesus in a private tomb
  2. The private tomb found empty
  3. The disciples despaired after Jesus was crucified
  4. The proclamation of the resurrection started in Jerusalem
  5. Changing the worship day from Saturday to Sunday

Crossley’s views on the minimal and widely-accepted facts:

  • Crossley: I am in broad agreement with what Gary said
  • Crossley: “the resurrection appearances are some of the hardest, best evidence we have” because it’s in early 1 Cor 15:3-8 creed
  • Crossley: people were convinced that they had seen the risen Christ

The burial in a private tomb:

  • Crossley: I have my doubts about the private tomb burial and the empty tomb
  • Crossley: Mark’s gospel has the burial in a private tomb by Joseph of Arimethea, and Mark is the earliest gospel
  • Crossley: I don’t have a doubt, it’s just that there are other possible alternatives, and then the tradition was invented later – but that’s just a possibility
  • Crossley: there is not enough evidence to make a decision either way on the burial

The empty tomb:

  • Habermas: there are multiple lines of evidence for the empty tomb
  • Habermas: the reason it’s not one of my minimal facts is because a quarter to a third of skeptical scholars reject it

The transformation of the followers of Jesus:

  • Crossley: “yes, clearly, I don’t think you can argue with that, it’s fairly obvious”

The conversions of James and Paul:

  • Crossley: “yes, because it’s based on 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that report, that was handed on to him”

Where Habermas and Crossley agree:

  • Habermas: you agree with the 6 facts in the minimal facts list, and you have problems with 2 of 5 facts from the widely accepted list
  • Crossley: Yes

The empty tomb:

  • Crossley: Two problems: first, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 doesn’t mention it, but it “probably assumes the idea that Jesus left behind an empty tomb when resurrected, I am convinced by some of the conservative arguments on that one, but it’s not hard evidence for there actually being an empty tomb”
  • Crossley: Second, “the other early source we have ends with no resurrection appearances”, it makes him a bit skeptical of the empty tomb
  • Habermas: the empty tomb is not a minimal fact, I want 90% agreement by skeptical scholars for it to be a minimal fact
  • Habermas: I have never included the empty tomb in my list of minimal facts
  • Brierley: William Lane Craig puts it in his list of minimal facts
  • Habermas: It is very well attested, so if that’s what you mean, then it’s a minimal fact, but it doesn’t have the 90% agreement like the other minimal facts
  • Habermas: I have 21 arguments for the empty tomb, and none of them require early dating of sources or traditional authorship of the gospels, e.g. – the women discovered the empty tomb, the pre-Markan source, the implications of 1 Cor 15 has some force, the sermons summary in Acts 13 which Bart Ehrman dates to 31 or 32 A.D. has putting a body down and a body coming up without being corrupted

Why is 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 more respected as a source than the gospels?

  • Habermas: There is a unanimous New Testament conclusion, across the board, from conservative to liberal, that in 1 Cor 15:3-8 Paul is presenting creedal data, Richard Bauckham says that this goes back to the early 30s A.D., Paul got this from the eyewitnesses he mentions in Galatians 1 and 2
  • Crossley: [reads 1 Corinthians:3-8 out loud], now that’s a tradition that’s handed on, this is Paul, we know this is Paul, writing mid-50s, this is kind of gold, this is the evidence I wish we had across the board

Why doesn’t James accept the resurrection:

  • Crossley: Historians should not conclude that the supernatural is real, concluding the supernatural is outside of history
  • Crossley: I am more interested in what people believed at that time
  • Brierley: as a historian, are you required to give an explanation of the commonly-accepted facts
  • Crossley: yes, historians must give their explanation for the facts
  • Crossley: we know people have visions, and how the cultural context determines the content of visions, e.g. – the background of martyrdom
  • Brierley: so you would go for the hallucination hypothesis?
  • Crossley: yes, but I prefer not to use that word

Should historians rule out the supernatural?

  • Habermas: let’s not ask what caused the event, let’s just see if the disciples thought they saw him before he died, that he died on the cross, and then believed they saw him after he died, like you might see someone in the supermarket
  • Habermas: I’m not asking whether a miracle occurred, I just want to know whether Jesus was seen after he died on the cross
  • Crossley: that sounds like the angle I’m coming at this from
  • Crossley: the problem is that there is a supernatural element to some of the appearances, so it’s not a supermarket appearances
  • Brierley: it’s not angels and hallelujah in the sky
  • Habermas: nothing like that, no light in the early accounts, fairly mundane

Does James agree that people believed they saw Jesus after his death?

  • Crossley: yes,I think that’s fairly clear that we do
  • Crossley: but historians cannot prove claims that what happened to Jesus was supernatural
  • Brierley: your view is so far from what I see on Internet atheists sites, where they say it’s all legendary accumulation, fairy tales
  • Crossley: I’m perfect comfortable with the idea – and I think it happened – that people created stories, invented stories
  • Crossley: there are too many cases where people are sincerely professing that they thought they saw Jesus after his death

Would you expect the disciples to have visions of a resurrected Jesus if nothing happened to him?

  • Habermas: the dividing line is: did something happen to Jesus, or did something happen to his disciples?
  • Habermas: the view that people were seeing a kind of ghostly Jesus (non-bodily) – a Jedi Jesus – after his death is a resurrection view, but I hold to a bodily resurrection view
  • Brierley: N.T. Wright says a resurrected Jesus was contrary to expectations – should we expect the disciples to have a vision of Jesus as resurrected?
  • Crossley: Wright generalizes too much thinking that there was a single view of the resurrection (the general resurrection at the end of the age), there are a variety of views, some are contradictory
  • Crossley: Herod Antipas thought that Jesus might be John the Baptist returned from the dead, and he knew Jesus was flesh and blood, there is the story of the dead rising in the earthquake in Matthew, there are stories of the resurrection in Maccabees, and this would influence what people expected
  • Habermas: the earliest Christian view was *bodily* resurrection
  • Crossley: yes, I think that’s right
  • Crossley: In Mark 6, they thought Jesus was a ghost, so there is room for disagreement

Why should a historian not rule out a supernatural explanation?

  • Habermas: to get to supernatural, you have to go to philosophy – it’s a worldview problem
  • Habermas: he predicted his own death and resurrection
  • Habermas: one factor is the uniqueness of Jesus
  • Habermas: the early church had belief in the bodily resurrection, and a high Christology out of the gate
  • Habermas: you might look at evidence for corroborated near-death experiences that raise the possibility of an afterlife
  • Crossley: I’m content to leave it at the level of what people believe and not draw any larger conclusions
  • Crossley: regarding the predicting his own death, the gospels are written after, so it’s not clear that these predictions predate Jesus’ death
  • Crossley: it’s not surprising that Jesus would have predicted his own death, and that he might have foreseen God vindicating him

If you admit to the possibility of miracles, is the data sufficient to conclude that the best explanation of the facts is resurrection?

  • Crossley: If we assume that God exists, and that God intervenes in history, and that this was obvious to everyone, then “of course”
  • Brierley: Are you committed to a naturalistic view of history?
  • Crossley: Not quite, broadly, yes, I am saying this all I can do
  • Brierley: should James be open to a supernatural explanation?
  • Habermas: if you adopt methodological naturalism,it colors how look at the data is seen, just like supernaturalism does

William Lane Craig debates Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: evil, suffering and God

Two bears fight it out, and may the best bear win!
Two bears fight it out, and may the best bear win!

This is one of the top 4 best debates that William Lane Craig has done in my opinion. (The other three are Craig-Millican debate and the first and second Craig-Dacey debates).

Sinnott-Armstrong is very courteous, respectful and intelligent scholar and he is very good at defending his side. This is a very cordial and engaging debate, and because it was held in front of a church audience, it was targeted to laymen and not academics. So if you are looking for a good first debate to watch, this is it!

The MP3 file is here.

The video is here:

There is also a book based on this debate, published by Oxford University Press. I was actually able to find a PDF of it online. I should also remind people that you can get the wonderful Craig-Hitchens debate DVD from Amazon.com if you are looking for a debate to watch, or show in your church, this is the one to start with.

The debaters:

The format:

  • WSA: 15 minutes
  • WLC: 15 minutes
  • Debaters discussion: 6 minutes
  • Moderated discussion: 10 minutes
  • Audience Q&A: 18 minutes
  • WSA: 5 minutes
  • WLC: 5 minutes

SUMMARY:

WSA opening speech:

Evil is incompatible with the concept of God (three features all-powerful, all-god, all-knowing)

God’s additional attributes: eternal, effective and personal (a person)

He will be debating against the Christian God in this debate, specifically

Contention: no being has all of the three features of the concept of God

His argument: is not a deductive argument, but an inductive/probabilistic argument

Examples of pointless, unjustified suffering: a sick child who dies, earthquakes, famines

The inductive argument from evil:

  1.  If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  2.  There is evil in the world.
  3.  Some of that evil is not logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  4. Therefore, there can’t be a God who is all-powerful and all-good.

Defining terms:

  • Evil: anything that all rational people avoid for themselves, unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil for themselves (e.g. – pain, disability, death)
  • Adequate reason: some evils do have an adequate reason, like going to the dentist – you avoid a worse evil by having a filling

God could prevent tooth decay with no pain

God can even change the laws of physics in order to make people not suffer

Responses by Christians:

  • Evil as a punishment for sin: but evil is not distributed in accordance with sin, like babies
  • Children who suffer will go straight to Heaven: but it would be better to go to Heaven and not suffer
  • Free will: this response doesn’t account for natural evil, like disease, earthquakes, lightning
  • Character formation theodicy: there are other ways for God to form character, by showing movies
  • Character formation theodicy: it’s not fair to let X suffer so that Y will know God
  • God allows evil to turn people towards him: God would be an egomaniac to do that
  • We are not in a position to know that any particular evil is pointless: if we don’t see a reason then there is no reason
  • Inductive evil is minor compared to the evidences for God: arguments for a Creator do not prove that God is good

WLC opening speech:

Summarizing Walter’s argument

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Gratuitous evil means evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit. WSA doesn’t think that all evil is incompatible with God’s existence, just gratuitous evil.

Everyone admits that there are instances of evil and suffering such that we cannot see the morally sufficient reason why God would allow it to occur.

The claim of the atheist is that if they cannot see that there is a moral justification for allowing some instance evil, then there is no moral justification for that instance of evil.

Here are three reasons why we should not expect to know the morally sufficient reasons why God permits apparently pointless evil.

  1. the ripple effect: the morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil may only be seen in another place or another time
  2. Three Christian doctrines undermine the claim that specific evils really are gratuitous
  3. Walter’s own premise 1 allows us to argue for God’s existence, which means that evil is not gratuitous

Christian doctrines from 2.:

  • The purpose of life is not happiness, and it is not God’s job to make us happy – we are here to know God. Many evils are gratuitous if we are concerned about being happy, but they are not gratuitous for producing the knowledge of God. What WSA has to show is that God could reduce the amount of suffering in the world while still retaining the same amount of knowledge of God’s existence and character.
  • Man is in rebellion, and many of the evils we see are caused by humans misusing their free will to harm others and cause suffering
  • For those who accept Christ, suffering is redeemed by eternal life with God, which is a benefit that far outweighs any sufferings and evils we experience in our earthly lives

Arguing for God in 3.

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. God exists
  3. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Four reasons to think that God exists (premise 2 from above):

  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the fine-tuning argument
  • the moral argument
  • the argument from evil

Are all religions basically the same?

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

So, everyone knows that there a huge number of different religions in the world. This is called religious pluralism. Some people infer from the large number of different religions that there must be no religion that is correct. After all, they say, there are people in many different religions who are sincere, so that must mean that they are not wrong. (Sincerity = not mistaken) Or, some say that because different religions disagree, then that must mean that no religion is correct. (Disagreement = no right answer) Or, some say that because different religions make different groups of people feel happy, then no religion is wrong. (Makes you happy = not mistaken) Or, one I see among Hindus a lot: “my family and my nation are Hindu, so it cannot be wrong or else my family and nation would be wrong”. (family pride and national pride = can’t be mistaken). There are probably other variants, but the common factor is this – religion is not like math or science or engineering or technology, where we do have right answers and wrong answers. Religion is something else – it’s more like clothing conventions, or culinary preferences, or taste in art or music. It’s more about a person’s likes and dislikes, not about claims being made about reality.

How should truth-seekers respond to religious pluralism?

The law of non-contradiction

To start with, we all need to be familiar with the law of non-contradiction. This is the stuff that software engineers all learned in undergraduate computer science courses. Computer science is a lot like analytical philosophy because both study symbolic logic. Analytical philosophy is as rigorous as mathematics.

The law says that for any proposition P, P cannot be true and not true at the same time, and in the same context. For example, let P be the statement “it is raining outside my window right now”. It is impossible that the reality of the world be that it is raining outside my window right now, and not raining outside my window right now.

The external world is shared by all of us, and it is objective (it is not affected by what we think about it). When we make propositional claims, it is the external, mind-independent world that makes claims true or false. And by “world” I mean all of reality, past, present and future.

Similarities between religions

On a superficial level, religions are similar because they all try to answer the same kinds of questions:

  • what is the nature of the ultimate reality in the universe?
  • what is the fundamental problem faced by human beings?
  • what should human beings do to solve this problem?

These questions are shared by all religions, but on a more fundamental level, religions are all completely different because they give mutually exclusive answers to these questions. Therefore, according to the law of non-contradiction, they cannot all be true at the same time and in the same context.

Differences between religions

In this post, blogger Neil explains how the Christian Bible claims that Jesus died on a cross, but the Koran claims he did not die on a cross. How do we understand these two contradictory claims? Are they propositional truth claims about the external world, or something else? There are two answers.

Postmodernism: Treating religious claims as subjective nonsense

We could say that all religious claims are just nonsense, and are not intended to apply to the external world, but are just personal preference claims about each believer – they are neither true nor false. The problem is that the postmodernist is then being condescending to the religious adherent by redefining their own words.

Rationality: Treating religions claims as genuine claims about reality

We could instead avoid insulting believers by being condescending about their claims. We could say that all religious claims are exactly what the believers claim they are: real claims about the external world. We could then resolve the conflicts using the same tools we use in our everyday lives: the laws of logic and empirical evidence.

How do postmodernists reinterpret religious claims as non-propositional?

Here are a few ways that postmodernists reinterpret the conflicting claims of different religions:

  1. relativism: you reinterpret truth claims of the different religions so that they are claims of personal preference, which express the deluded myths that each individual religious person finds “fetching”
  2. pragmatism: you reinterpret truth claims of the different religions so that they are claims of personal selfishness, so that each religious believer chooses the delusion that is personally satisfying to them
  3. syncretism: you re-interpret truth claims of the different religions so that claims that are absolutely central, such as “was Jesus God?” are reinterpreted as being peripheral issues, and then the religions can all agree on the core of religious belief, such as advocacy of socialism, global warming and abortion

Why would postmodernists want to treat religious claims as nonsense?

In addition to the desperate desire to keep God from having authority over our moral decision-making (i.e. – sin, rebellion, etc.), there are 3 reasons why people try to treat religious claims as non-propositional nonsense.

  1. Ignorance: people do not know the conflicting truth claims that different religions make
  2. Laziness: people do not want to have to spend time evaluating the competing truth claims
  3. Cowardice: people do not want to investigate and debate truth claims: it makes them unpopular

Postmodernists have decided that the purpose of life is to be hedonistic, and not to worry about the world really is. They think that trying to find out the truth about our origins, our purpose, and our ultimate fate is hard work, and talking about it makes them unpopular. So they don’t want to do it.

But that is not what they say when you ask them. Instead, they say that disagreements about religion has caused a lot of wars, and so it’s better if we just reduce the question of truth in religion to personal preference. That way, everyone can choose the delusion that makes them happy, (although religions are all actually false).

But postmodernists are arrogant to redefine the claims of all religions as nonsense. And it is self-refuting because they are substituting their own view of religion as objectively true, which is just what they deny everyone else. And if disagreeing about religion causes wars, then why are they disagreeing with us about religion?

So then how do we deal with the plurality of religions?

The answer is to treat religion the exact same way as any other area of knowledge. We can tolerate people’s right to disagree, disagree while still being polite, and resolving disputes using logic, and evidence supplied from disciplines such as analytical philosophy, scientific investigation, and historical analysis.

People who want to involve emotion and intuition in the process of testing the conflicting religious claims can just butt out of the conversation. The search for truth should proceed irrespective of what you think about the truth claims of religion. Yes, the doctrine of Hell offends people, but that doesn’t make it false.

Acknowledgement: I owe some of the thoughts in this post to the work of Douglas Groothuis, who is an expert on thinking about postmodernism and religious pluralism. You can hear his thoughts in a lecture posted at Apologetics 315.

Tim Keller explains basic Christian doctrines to Nick Kristof in the New York Times

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

My friend Neil Shenvi posted this New York Times on Facebook, and I had to blog about it. Although I am more conservative than Tim Keller on many issues (economics, race issues, intelligent design), he does a pretty good job of explaining and defending basic Christian doctrines to Nicholas Kristof. Kristof one the secular leftist columnists who writes for the New York Times, which is one the most secular and most leftist media sources.

The format of the article is question and answer, and I’ll choose a few that I really liked. (The questions were all good, by the way)

Excerpt:

But let me push back. As you know better than I, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut. Mary Magdalene didn’t initially recognize the risen Jesus, nor did some disciples, and the gospels are fuzzy about Jesus’ literal presence — especially Mark, the first gospel to be written. So if you take these passages as meaning that Jesus literally rose from the dead, why the fuzziness?

I wouldn’t characterize the New Testament descriptions of the risen Jesus as fuzzy. They are very concrete in their details. Yes, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first, but then she does. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) also don’t recognize Jesus at first. Their experience was analogous to meeting someone you last saw as a child 20 years ago. Many historians have argued that this has the ring of eyewitness authenticity. If you were making up a story about the Resurrection, would you have imagined that Jesus was altered enough to not be identified immediately but not so much that he couldn’t be recognized after a few moments? As for Mark’s gospel, yes, it ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us.

Skeptics should consider another surprising aspect of these accounts. Mary Magdalene is named as the first eyewitness of the risen Christ, and other women are mentioned as the earliest eyewitnesses in the other gospels, too. This was a time in which the testimony of women was not admissible evidence in courts because of their low social status. The early pagan critics of Christianity latched on to this and dismissed the Resurrection as the word of “hysterical females.” If the gospel writers were inventing these narratives, they would never have put women in them. So they didn’t invent them.

The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection. N.T. Wright has argued in “The Resurrection of the Son of God” that it is difficult to come up with any historically plausible alternate explanation for the birth of the Christian movement. It is hard to account for thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshiping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical. The best explanation for the change was that many hundreds of them had actually seen Jesus with their own eyes.

The part in bold is what distinguishes a person who has studied apologetics from the average Jesus-hollering Bible thumper who cannot speak except in Bible verses. We have too few people who can argue historical analysis (e.g. – the criterion of embarassment) and quote authorities on the historical Jesus (e.g. – N.T. Wright). I really think that we need to start shaming people who argue for Christianity by quoting the Bible, as if non-Christians accept the Bible without any kind of historical analysis.

Here’s another:

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell?

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

As you can see from the article, Christians can and should prepare themselves to answer these basic questions, because there are a lot of people on the secular left who can’t find anyone who can answer them. We lose a lot of young people because we focus too much on feeling good and being liked, not enough on giving other people’s questions the respect they deserve. Keller quotes historians like Wright and philosophers like Plantinga. He defends the Bible verses he cites using the criteria of embarrassment. He defends the existence of God by appealing the creation (Big Bang cosmology) and design of the universe (cosmic fine-tuning). If questioned, I know from his writings that Keller is able to put scientific meat on his assertions. It is very important that Christians understand that Christianity is a religion that from the beginning was started by a man who appealed to evidence (miracles) to ground his claims.

As you can see from Keller’s responses, there is a lot more to defending the faith than simply quoting the Bible as if non-Christians all believed it. Some pastors do that – citing the Bible as if just saying the words will have a magical effect on people’s views. I call this the “magic words” approach to apologetics, and it’s not Biblical. The right way to defend the faith is to put more effort into it – crafting responses that are persuasive and effective with your intended audience.