The god that is failing

The above image is a screenshot of an article from  Yes, the title is completely accurate.  John Bohannon writes,

My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany.  We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes.  And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data.  It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research.  Which is to say:  It was terrible science.  The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

At first glance, to the non-scientist, Bohannon’s assertion may seem very strange.

I know what you’re thinking.  The study did show accelerated weight loss in the chocolate group—shouldn’t we trust it?  Isn’t that how science works?

That’s certainly how modern education has taught us to think.  The problem is, you can’t trust the results of a study if you only know the results.  You need to be able to see the process.  We might call this the Weasley Principle, following the words of J. K. Rowling’s character Arthur Weasley:  “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain!”  It’s quite easy to get whatever result you’re hoping to get if you let your results influence your process.  Read more

Faith and the “New Atheists”

I am—as anyone who spends any time poking around this blog can surely tell—a committed believer in Jesus Christ.  Some days, I can also call myself a committed disciple of Jesus Christ; some days, not so much.  As Andrew Peterson wrote in “The Chasing Song,”

Now and then these feet just take to wandering;
Now and then I prop them up at home.
Sometimes I think about the consequences—
Sometimes I don’t.

Still, for all my failures in living it out, I’m committed to the walk.  I’m committed because I believe Jesus spoke truly when he told his disciples he is the way, the truth, and the life.  I believe the people of God, from our founding in Abraham all the way through to the church of today, have been given the only true account of the existence of the material world, and the only true account of human existence.  I don’t think any one branch of the Christian tradition has a perfect or complete understanding of that truth, and still less any individual believer; the fact that each of us is both limited and sinful ensures that our best understanding will be both incomplete and flawed.  I believe God uses even those flaws to his own purposes.

I’m absolutely committed to Jesus because I believe that faith in him is true, even if my faith in him is only imperfectly true.  If anyone could prove to me that the Christian faith is false, I would abandon it.  That might seem like a hard right turn to some, but it isn’t; I want to believe what is true, not what is congenial.  That’s why I’m still a Christian after forty-plus years of life and twelve-plus years in the pastorate.Read more

Jesus victorious

Atheists often talk about “the problem of evil” as though it were primarily an intellectual issue requiring an explanation, and then they ding God for not providing an explanation they deem adequate.  The truth is, though, the philosophical problem of evil is secondary—the real problem is much more basic:  what are we going to do about it?  God doesn’t offer us an explanation for evil, but that doesn’t mean he has no answer for it.  Jesus is God’s answer to the problem of the evil and sin in this world; in him, God gave us, not the answer we thought we wanted, but the answer we actually needed: he offered us himself. He came down to live our life, to identify with us, to endure the darkness of our fallen world with us, and to defeat that darkness, not with its own weapons, but with light.

When people ask, “Where’s God when it hurts—in the tragedies we see so often, and the large-scale injustices of this world?” they often assume the answer must be “Nowhere”; after all, if there really is a God out there, and he actually heard our suffering, wouldn’t he do something about it? But the truth is, as Easter shows us, God has heard our suffering—he has heard every cry of anguish, felt every blow and every betrayal, and caught every tear in the palm of his hand—and in Jesus Christ, he has done everything about it.Read more

Debunking the myth of the “Dark Ages”

I have another book to put on my Christmas list.  I’m not sure how I missed the publication of James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, or why it’s taken me this long to discover it, but from the review I just read, it looks like a fascinating work.  Usually, you hope a book is as interesting as the review says it is; in this case, I hope it’s as interesting as the review, and for that matter the reviewer.  The reviewer in question is an Australian medievalist named Tim O’Neill who appears to specialize in the history of medieval science and technology.  He’s also an atheist who gets as irritated as I do at the ways atheists abuse and misuse history to smear Christianity.  (Rest assured, I get just as irritated at the ways Christians abuse and misuse history.  In this area, my first allegiance is to the discipline.)

O’Neill writes,

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who hangs around on discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

Perhaps it’s because I can’t think of any parallel consolation, but I’ve had to accept that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is indeed so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.  I’d like to believe that atheists and secular humanists are worse than Christians in this respect—but, no.  Indeed, as O’Neill notes in passing, the myth of the Dark Ages is as much the creation of Protestants attacking the Roman church as it is of atheists attacking Christianity in general.

It’s an excellent review essay because O’Neill has a fine eye for nonsense, a firm command of his subject, and apparently no use for people who value scoring cheap rhetorical points over getting their facts right.

In the academic sphere, at least, the “Conflict Thesis” of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists cling so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent, objective, peer-reviewed historians. This is strange behavior for people who like to label themselves “rationalists”.

Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While writers like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along, claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine’s encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy, and Boethius’ translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the so-called Dark Ages. . . .

Hannam . . . gives an excellent precis of the Twelfth Century Renaissance which, contrary to popular perception and to “the Myth”, was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out among the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.

Read the whole thing—it’s well worth your time.

Atheism as dogmatic fundamentalism

This isn’t a new observation around here, of course, but it’s interesting to see an atheist come out and say it—in this case, conservative commentator S. E. Cupp; and in case you think it’s because she’s a conservative, in my observation, conservative atheists (such as the Denver Post‘s David Harsanyi) are no better about this than liberal ones.

Which brings me to the problem with modern atheism, embodied by the likes of Harris and Hitchens, authors of “The End of Faith” and “God Is Not Great,” respectively. So often it seems like a conversation ender, not a conversation starter. And the loudest voices of today’s militant atheism, for all their talk of rational thought, don’t seem to want to do too much thinking at all. As James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, “The new atheists do not speak to the millions of people whose form of religion is far from the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism. Indeed, it is a settled assumption of this kind of atheism that there are no intelligent religious believers.” . . .

Though more than 95% of the world finds some meaning in faith, God-hating comic Bill Maher shrugs this off as a “neurological disorder.” His version of a quest for knowledge was a series of scathing jokes at the faithful’s expense in the documentary “Religulous.” . . .

It’s these snarky and condescending rejections, not of faith itself but of those who profess it, that reflect a total unwillingness to learn something new about human nature, the world around us and even of science itself. While the neoatheists pay only cursory attention to dismantling arguments for God, they spend most of their time painting his followers as uncultured rubes. The fact that religion has inexplicably persisted, even despite Copernicus, Darwin and the Enlightenment, doesn’t seem to have much sociological meaning for them.

The truth is, folks like Maher and Silverman don’t want to know about actual belief—in fact, they are much more certain about the nature of the world than most actual believers, who understand that a measure of doubt is necessary for faith. They want to focus on the downfall of a gay pastor or the Nativity scene at a mall. . . .

When the esteemed theologian David Martyn Lloyd-Jones asked C.S. Lewis when he would write another book, Lewis responded, “When I understand the meaning of prayer.” It was an acknowledgment that he—a thinker with a much sharper mind than, say, Maher’s—didn’t know everything. I implore my fellow atheists to take this humility to heart. There’s still a lot to learn, but only if you’re not too busy being a know-it-all.

The uncomfortable open-mindedness of Penn Jillette

This is another remarkable video by Penn Jillette, who is I think one of the most remarkable figures of our time, musing over an occasion on which he was raked over the coals by Tommy Smothers.

(Update: At some point between October 2009 and October 2015, Penn took that video private.  The video below is of the occasion of Smothers’ verbal assault.)

The Anchoress, writing about Penn’s video, had some things to say that bear consideration. I particularly appreciated this:

Unchecked capitalism does have its drawbacks; it often so enthralls the capitalist with the material that he forgets the world around him, and lives an increasingly insular—and insulated—life.

But it is not only the greedy capitalist who can become insulated; the ideologue who will only speak with like-minded people is in the same walled-off compound, where it becomes easy to see label someone whose ideas are different than yours as “evil” and “lesser;” to ignore human commonalities in the quest to not simply disagree, but to destroy the other.

In a way, it’s a little like an extreme Islamist cutting out the tongue of the heretic, in order to silence his dissent. They fear allowing another point of view, because it threatens to unsettle; it might persuade others away from the fold. It is a threat to power, control and illusory “peace.” It does not submit. . . .

We see that behavior, of course, on both sides. My email has as many people telling me that this politician or that is “evil” from the right as people telling me I am evil, from the left. . . .

But what is interesting about these Jillette videos is that he seems determined not to be insulated in his life. He will meet with anyone, talk to anyone—engage in a respectful exchange of ideas. When I was being raised by blue-collar, union-loving Democrats, this is what I was taught was “liberal” behavior: a willingness to hear all sides, be respectful and open-minded.

And that would seem to be precisely the opposite of what Tommy Smothers was advocating to Jillette. For that matter, I cannot help but find an irony, there. Smothers was furious that Jillette would talk to “the enemy,” Glenn Beck, but he (and the left) were furious when President Bush would not talk to Iran. All Jillette is doing, really, is what Obama is now doing with Iran: talking to “the enemy” without preconditions. You’d think Smothers would admire that, after all. Yes, irony.

What we call “liberalism” today is something strikingly illiberal. As I twittered before turning in last night, when did “tolerance” become a demand for ideological purity above all else?

Read the whole post—there’s a lot more there, including a moving meditation on Penn’s naked honesty and introspection; you don’t see many people wrestle with things as openly, or indeed anywhere near as openly, as he does. I don’t agree with his politics, and I don’t agree with his atheism; but however wrong I may think his conclusions about what is true may be, he seems quite clearly to be a seeker after truth, rather than after winning the argument or pleasing a particular group of people or any of the other substitutes we human beings tend to find. Indeed, he seems committed to taking the hard questions head-on rather than ducking them or dismissing them, and to treating those who ask those questions with respect rather than defending himself by attacking them. This is a rare and honorable thing, and worthy of great respect.

Are you sure you’re looking for the right thing?

There are scientists who like to insist that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” At least, there are those who like to do so when the subject is the existence of God; I don’t know if they chant the same mantra with regard to SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Certainly, though, there are many outside the scientific community who consider SETI a waste of time and money, and who make essentially that argument against it—and not without scientific support (see for instance the Fermi paradox).

Against that, though, xkcd’s Randall Munroe raises an important question: are we looking for the right sort of evidence? Can we really say that the evidence for which we’re looking is sufficient to draw any conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial life? Put another way, do we know so much about extraterrestrial life that we can be certain that any such beings would necessarily produce evidence of their existence that meets our pre-determined criteria? Or are we, like these ants, looking for the wrong sort of thing?

This is a cluster of questions deserving serious consideration—and not only when it comes to the existence of extraterrestrial life, but also with regard to the existence of God. As the philosopher Edward Tingley has pointed out, much of the argument offered for atheism rests on the dogmatic insistence that if God exists, he must necessarily be subject to scientific proof based on evidence deemed acceptable by people who are philosophically and emotionally committed to atheism. The insistence is, essentially, “Prove yourself on our terms”; which is, essentially, a justification for the fixed intention to disbelieve. God didn’t take that from the Pharisees, and there’s no reason to think he has any interest in taking it from the scientific community, either. One suspects he probably has that in common with the aliens, if there are any.

Thought on atheism and the use of theology

John Stackhouse wrote a post a couple weeks ago responding to the following quote, attributed to Richard Dawkins:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels, work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

His response, “What Good Are Theologians?” is, if I understand him properly, an appeal to scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi’s concept of “personal knowledge,” and to the lesson of Basil Mitchell’s parable of the freedom fighter. (He doesn’t explicitly reference either, but he does quote Polanyi in one of his comments on the thread.) I say “if I understand him properly” because if I’m right about that, then a number of his respondents don’t understand him properly—my read appears to be a minority opinion.

The post is well worth reading; but it’s worth reading, in part, to set up the discussion in the comments, which I think is better than the original post. I particularly liked this contribution from one Ian:

As Stan Grenz and Roger Olson assert in their invitation to the study of God, Who Needs Theology, “Everyone is a theologian.” (IVP 1996) The only question remains are you a good theologian or a bad theologian. Of course Dawkins is referring to those of us who are or are becoming professional theologians.

Yet, one also has to wonder about his claims concerning the type of world we have. For the Glory of God by Rodney Stark suggests that we would not have many of the technological advances that Dawkins claims for science without Christian theology. Descartes himself found theological ideas significant for his method and science is indeed indebted to him for good or ill.

Finally, Dawkins has made a career out of theology by pitting himself against a theological worldview and its promoters. One wonders what we he would do without us? Who would read his books?

(At first I thought that was Iain Provan, but then I realized that the name was spelled differently.) Other commenters take on the ridiculously (and arrogantly) reductionistic position staked out by Dr. Dawkins, but I think Ian has hit the key point on the head: everyone is a theologian, in that everyone forms and articulates beliefs about the nature and existence or non-existence of God. The role of the theologian is to inform and critique those beliefs, and the reason for the violence of Dr. Dawkins’ response is not rational, but personal and visceral: he is categorically unwilling to have his beliefs (which are the foundation and justification for that reductionism) either critiqued or informed.

This is characteristic of Dr. Dawkins, as it is of his fellow “New Atheists”; I’ve laid out my views of them before, and I remain convinced that they are the mirror image of whom they imagine their opponents to be: dogmatic fundamentalists who have made their chosen god in their own image and will brook no contradiction of their dogma because it would threaten their chosen self-understanding and way of life. Though they make a great parade of their insistence on reason, their rationalism appears to be of the kind best captured by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography:

So convenient a thing it is to be a rational creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.

Or, one might add, “believe.” When Dr. Dawkins asks, “What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?” he’s defining “use” on his terms—terms which have already, by their narrowness, predetermined the answer, to ensure that he need not feel obliged to grapple with the answer.

A thought on worship and atheism

I haven’t put up any posts on atheism in a while, so it’s been some time since I’ve gotten into a wrangle with an atheist (for some reason, though, that always does seem to happen when I post on atheism; there always seems to be an atheist blogger or two who finds it and drops in to complain); there have been a couple things I’ve intended to post on, but neither was available online when I went looking for them. The last go-round that way was on my post on “The atheism of presumption and the case for God,” which was last July; that one was primarily with a chap going by the handle FVThinker (who also seems to be, inter alia, someone else who’s bought the phony media narrative about Sarah Palin). I looked back at that thread for something else and noticed he’d made a comment which I failed to register at the time, and also that I had planned a follow-up post which, in the business of last summer, I never finished. I need to put up a post soon to address those lapses on my part.

This, however, is not that post. Rather, I want to comment on another approach he took which I didn’t address at all in that comment thread.  : In that conversation, FVThinker tried to frame his argument against Christianity by comparing God to the ancient Greek and Norse gods. That comparison doesn’t really hold water (as I tried to point out to another interlocutor in an earlier comment thread), because Christianity operates in a fundamentally different way, on a profoundly different basis, than the old pagan religions.

In the ancient world, people believed in religion about the way they believed in magic: you do the ritual the god requires, and you get the results you want. Worship was essentially a form of manipulation; its purpose, as the Old Testament scholar John Oswalt puts it, was “to appease the gods and satisfy any claims they may have on us so that we may use the power of the gods to achieve our own goals.” That’s not the worship God wants. The rituals he had commanded were essentially symbolic; what mattered was the spirit in which they were performed. What he wanted was for his people to give him their lives and hearts so that he could have a true friendship with them.

The problem is, they were taking their cues from the nations around them, and they thought all they needed to do was to do the ritual correctly, and they were fine. That didn’t work because it wasn’t the point at all, and so they complained that God was wearing them out with all his pointless demands. To that, God says, “No, I’m not burdening you, you’re burdening me, because you aren’t really doing this for me at all! You’re doing this for yourself. All you’re giving me is your sins and offenses—and I’m sick to death of them.”

Israel didn’t get it because they’d bought into the idea that worship is just a way to manipulate God—you do the thing, you pull the lever, and you get the treat. They’d bought the idea that our worship is all about us, and what we want, and what we can get out of it. They didn’t understand that worship begins with submission—with laying aside our pride, and our independence, and our own desires, and our own ideas of what we need and what we deserve. They’re not alone; too often, we don’t get it either. This is a universal human problem, because it’s a universal human tendency; it’s just another reflection of the desire to be in control of our own lives that drove our first ancestors into sin to begin with. This is the primal human error, that declares in the smuggest tones Frank Sinatra could possibly manage, “I did it my way.”

This is the reason, I think, that so many atheists really don’t understand Christianity; there are exceptions, of course, but most of the atheists I know or have had dialogues with have an essentially pagan understanding of religion, and don’t get that Christianity doesn’t fit that (or isn’t supposed to, anyway). I don’t blame them for that; all too often, the church in this country doesn’t give them any reason to think otherwise. Having people like Joel Osteen out there on the airwaves certainly doesn’t help. This is fundamentally not a problem with atheism, or with the arguments for atheism, but with Christianity and Christians: we can’t expect atheists to be open to believing in God if we only show them a version of God that isn’t worth believing in.

(Partly excerpted from “No Other Redeemer”)

Disproving Beethoven, and other failures of thought

My lovely wife has been sitting at her computer and intermittently reading me bits from an essay by Dorothy L. Sayers titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Like most Sayers, it’s thoughtful, incisive, pungent, and frequently funny. She identifies the problem with education in her time (a problem which I don’t think has changed all that much in the 62 years since she wrote this piece) this way:

Another quotation from the same issue of the TLS comes in fittingly here to wind up this random collection of disquieting thoughts—this time from a review of Sir Richard Livingstone’s “Some Tasks for Education”: “More than once the reader is reminded of the value of an intensive study of at least one subject, so as to learn ‘the meaning of knowledge’ and what precision and persistence is needed to attain it. Yet there is elsewhere full recognition of the distressing fact that a man may be master in one field and show no better judgement than his neighbor anywhere else; he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it.”

I would draw your attention particularly to that last sentence, which offers an explanation of what the writer rightly calls the “distressing fact” that the intellectual skills bestowed upon us by our education are not readily transferable to subjects other than those in which we acquired them: “he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it.

“Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.” Why do I say, “as though”? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to “give himself the feel of the tool.”

This is, I think, very much to the point even today—and that despite a great deal of talk from educators about “teaching children how to think, not what to think.” The reasons for that, and her proposed solution, she lays out in the body of the essay. As to the evidence of the continuing accuracy of her diagnosis, I offer the utter familiarity of this episode from over six decades ago:

We find a well-known biologist writing in a weekly paper to the effect that: “It is an argument against the existence of a Creator” (I think he put it more strongly; but since I have, most unfortunately, mislaid the reference, I will put his claim at its lowest)—”an argument against the existence of a Creator that the same kind of variations which are produced by natural selection can be produced at will by stock breeders.” One might feel tempted to say that it is rather an argument for the existence of a Creator. Actually, of course, it is neither; all it proves is that the same material causes (recombination of the chromosomes, by crossbreeding, and so forth) are sufficient to account for all observed variations—just as the various combinations of the same dozen tones are materially sufficient to account for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and the noise the cat makes by walking on the keys. But the cat’s performance neither proves nor disproves the existence of Beethoven; and all that is proved by the biologist’s argument is that he was unable to distinguish between a material and a final cause.

You could replace “well-known biologist” with “Richard Dawkins” in that paragraph, and nobody would bat an eye.