Tag Archives: Philosophy of Religion

Why does talking about religion make people uncomfortable?

In a recent post, I argued against Christians who hide their faith in public. I said that although hiding your faith may make you happier and more popular, it is more loving to confront others as an informed Christian ambassador. Your goal should be to help your friends to be reconciled with God through Christ, by telling them the truth and answering their questions, if they are willing.

In this post, I want to survey a research paper by evangelical Christian philosopher Michael J. Murray. In a previous post, I surveyed his answer to the question “Why does God hide his existence from us?” in this post, the question is “Why are we afraid to discuss our faith in public?”

Murray begins with a distinction, as philosophers love to do:

…we would be perfectly happy to have a discussion of claims like…”Mahayana Buddhism emerged in the first century BCE with the appearance of the Mahayana sutras.” … It is OK to speak of religion… as a historical phenomenon or a socio-cultural influence. It is something altogether different to discuss religious commitments that one owns. That is the sort of religion that troubles us.

People who aren’t religious feel discomfort about hearing about the religious beliefs of others, because those beliefs influence public policy, but (they think) those beliefs are based non-rational factors, such as place of birth, parental beliefs, peer groups, emotions, prejudices, superstitions, etc. They are uncomfortable living in a government that was voted in by people whose views are based on irrational religious beliefs.

He has some illustrations of this “theo-phobia” here:

…think about the last time you heard a devoutly religious person argue, on explicitly religious grounds, that gay marriage should be banned, or that intelligent design should be taught in the public school biology curriculum, or that abortion is murder and thus should be outlawed.

And I agree with that. I feel uncomfortable when people argue for positions from faith-based premises. But do discussions of religious beliefs necessarily have to be about faith-based personal preferences? Or is there another way to discuss religion that doesn’t make non-religious people squirm with discomfort?

In the remainder of the paper, Murray explores five reasons why theo-phobia exists in academic settings:

  1. Religion supports oppression, violence, and tyranny and is thus best ignored, excluded or perhaps even actively opposed.
  2. Religion is a personal or subjective matter and as a result can’t be subjected to canonical standards of rational scrutiny.  It thus has no place in the academy.
  3. Religion can’t have a role in scholarly inquiry since it at best plays a balkanizing role in the scholarly world.
  4. If religion is allowed to have a role in the academy it will quickly intrude into domains where it does not belong.
  5. Reason #5 is kept secret until the end of the paper.

Regarding point 1, Murray argues that religious excesses can be controlled by falsifying the religion using reason and evidence, because religions make testable claims. So, if academics are afraid of the excesses of a dangerous religion, they should falsify it by arguing that its claims are false. There is no reason to be afraid of expressions of religious belief when you are free to argue against the testable truth claims of that religion.

I repeat: different religions make different claims about the external world. Either the universe had a beginning (Christianity) or it didn’t (Mormonism). Either Jesus died on the cross (Christianity) or he didn’t (Islam). If academics are worried about the effects of some religion, they can argue against it! If a religious person is not willing to defend the testable truth claims, then they are discredited anyway by refusing to engage.

For the remaining 4 points, especially the last one, I recommend you read the whole article. Give it to your friends, religious and non-religious, who believe that faith is fundamentally different from  other academic disciplines. Some truth claims of different religions can be tested. And Christians especially should help others to feel comfortable talking to them by sticking to testable truth claims and publicly accessible evidence.

I’ll give you a hint about reason #5, from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel of New York University. Nagel is quoted as follows:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
(“The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)

So we learn from Murray that religions stand or fall based on logical consistency and empirical validation against the external world, just like any other academic discipline. So long as you stick to discussing the public, testable claims of religions, there is no reason to be uncomfortable about discussing religions. Don’t discuss the parts of a religion that can’t be tested, only discuss the parts that can be tested.

(Note: Nagel isn’t all bad, he defends intelligent design as science in a research paper summarized here). To see how religion is debated in academia, (public debates held on university campuses, that leverage arguments from published research across academic fields), look here.

Answering Richard Dawkins’ question: “Who made God?”

UPDATE: Welcome visitors from Apologetics 315! Thanks for the link Brian!

Atheists are very uncomfortable with the progress of science in the areas of cosmic origins and cosmological constants. On my friend’s Rick Heller’s blog, he responded to my article on the 6 scientific discoveries that led to the theory that the universe, including all matter, time and space, was created out of nothing.

Here is an excerpt from Rick’s response:

The traditional rebuttal to the First Cause argument is, who created God? That makes a nice point, but I don’t find it entirely convincing, because it contains a complacent acceptance of an uncaused universe.

I think we humans find ourselves unable to resolve the logical paradox–things don’t come into existence without a cause, yet there is no explanation for the first cause. Neither the atheist nor theist views quite hang together.

Richard Dawkins asks a similar question in his book “The God Delusion”. My friend Canbuhay got there first and posted the correct answer. Here is what he said:

The First Cause argument is not simply about how the universe must have a cause because everything else we know about, does. Included in the argument is that whatever must have caused the universe must be unique. Why? Because if everything began at the Big Bang, including time, then whatever caused the Big Bang would have to be outside of time. It could literally have no beginning because there was no such thing as “before” or “beginning” when there was no time.

The atheistic response that there had to be something that caused the causer of the Big Bang cannot adequately account for the time factor.

Whereas, the theistic one can: the causer of the Big Bang is a Deity who lives outside of time.

I got there next and I posted this comment:

There is no physical universe, and no time, causally prior to the Big Bang. That means that whatever causes the universe to exist is not in time, it is outside of time. It is eternal and exists necessarily. It does not “come into being” because that is a time-bound notion. It exists timelessly, and brings the entire universe into being.

Now, you may well ask, “Wintery! What immaterial thing can bring an entire physical universe into being?”. Well the only two non-physical realities that we are aquainted with are abstract objects, such as numbers, or minds. And that is what caused the universe. A big M I N D. Dawkins’ objection of “who made God?” is thus defeated. The universe is contingent, the cause of the universe is not.

Yes, I stole “big M I N D” quote from J.P. Moreland. If you haven’t read his book “Love Your God With All Your Mind”, then you should. My friend Andrew affectionately calls JP’s book LYGWYM (“lig-wim”). JP seems to be going soft lately, just like Ravi Zacharias, who hasn’t written anything useful since “Can Man Live Without God?”. Look how tough JP used to be.

If you don’t like my answer to “Who made God?”, check out Perry Marshall’s answer. He recently debated on the origin of life. I like his ideas, because he is a software engineer, and not a squishyhead. Yes, I stole “squishyhead” from Henry F. Schaefer. Have you ever read his paper on the big bang and who made God? The video is here: part1, part2.

Did God create evil?

Over at Tough Questions Answered, I found an answer to a question I get all the time:

Now here is a question that many people struggle with.  Here is how the argument generally goes:

  1. God is the Author of everything.
  2. Evil is something.
  3. Therefore, God is the Author of evil.

This is a valid syllogism, meaning that if premises 1 and 2 are correct, then the conclusion follows.

Looking at premise 1, is God the author of everything?  Well, if he isn’t, then we don’t have a sovereign creator, but that’s what the Bible teaches.  We can’t reject this premise.

Looking at premise 2, if we deny that evil exists, then we deny a basic truth about reality.  There clearly is evil in the world and we all know it.  To deny the existence of evil would be to deny a fundamental aspect of life.

Are we stuck?  Not exactly.

Well, go on over there and see what the answer is, I’m not going to tell you.

Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?

Over at Tough Questions Answered, I notice they are putting out a lot of quality work. But they also have some answers for beginners. I am going to be posting two of their beginner answers today, just to make sure we can all answer them. Here is the first question they answered: “Why can’t God make a rock so big he can’t lift it”

This is a common question that is asked by those who misunderstand the nature of God’s omnipotence.  Another humorous way of asking this question is: Can God make a sandwich so big he can’t eat it?  (I owe that jewel to my friend Greg).

You’ll have to go over there for the answer, I’m not telling!

UPDATE: My answer is actually a little different than their answer. My answer would be that a rock that can’t be lifted is self-contradictory. All objects that have mass can be lifted, by definition. So what the questioner is really asking is something like this: “Can God make a married bachelor?” or “Can God make a round square?”. God’s power does not allow him to perform self-contradictory things. That is not a limit on his power – self-contradictory things are nonsense, and no one can do nonsense.

Can atheists on the Richard Dawkins forum justify morality on atheism?

Check out this thread where I am debating atheists on whether moral rules, moral choices, moral accountability, human dignity, human rights, and ultimate significance of moral actions are rationally grounded on the atheist worldview.Warning, the thread contains swearing!

Here is the original starting post for the thread:

I noticed that a tension between two positions taken by certain atheists. First, they say that morality is an illusion fobbed on us by our genes. Second, they say that the God of the Bible is immoral, or that the Christian church is immoral.

I have a question about this, and maybe you can help me to understand the apparent contradiction. If moral behavior evolved over time, then it seems to me that it varies by time and place. This means that the standards we have today in the place where we live now are not really better or worse than at any other time and any other place. The evolved moral standards are just arbitrary conventions.

If this is true, then in what sense can atheists consistently press the problem of evil, the immoral behavior of God, and the immorality of Christian church in history?

Here is what I have come up with so far:
1. The atheist is expressing his personal preferences (I wouldn’t do it that way)
2. The atheist is using the arbitrary standard of his time and place to judge God and the church (we in this time and place wouldn’t do it that way)

Here is one of their comments, which I thought was about as good as an atheist can do on atheism:

The morality we all appeal to when we make moral judgments is at least 90% the result of the social conditioning we have all received. Where that conditioning contains a strong religious component (most places throughout history), religious values will have a high place. In the modern West, the religious component is weaker, and we now condemn slavery, crusades, inquisitions, and wars between Catholics and Protestants, all of which were once firmly believed to be sanctified by God. (There is a whole thread on this subject just now under “Faith and Religion” above. So far only the person who started the thread and I have posted on it.)

The other 10% consists of personal views arrived at by reflective people on the kind of world they’d like to live in. That portion of it is personal preference. It differs from a personal preference for chocolate over broccoli in only two ways: (1) Its object involves the behavior of other people and their interactions rather than that of the individual alone; (2) when two people have different preferences, they cannot both have their way, and so they are in conflict.

If you want to learn about these issues at a deeper level, there is also a good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally-grounding prescriptive morality here. My previous posts on this blog on this topic are here and here. The first post is about whether atheists can use a made-up standard to judge God for his perceived moral failures, the second one is on whether meaningful morality is rational on atheism.