Ad Astra and a Privileged Planet Earth

What do you get if you mix “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Apocalypse Now,” and add a dash or two of “Event Horizon?” If you get the chance – see “Ad Astra” in an IMAX cinema. It looks and sounds beautiful. I thought the IMAX cinema format really let James Gray’s work shine.

In many ways, the film’s narrative is understated, mundane even. Yet all the while, Gray’s visual and audio spectacle pulls vigorously against a slower plot. This gives the film a slightly odd unbalanced feel. But – it’s not an unpleasant one. It elevates the experience, and – I think it works with the overall theme of the movie. Brad Pitt gives voice to this theme during the third act of the story, when he describes the choices and actions of another character. He says something like, “He had it all looking him in the face, but he missed the significance of it all.”

If you have picked up that “Ad Astra” is a father – son story, then you have heard right. It is. But there’s a bigger issue that is also raised here. I don’t think it spoils the movie to reveal this. Apologies if you’ve seen the film and you disagree with me. I’ll describe the issue this way:

What if the earth (our beautiful marble) and our human race is actually the only source of conscious life in the whole universe? What if we are alone in this vast expanse? What if we’ve got each other, and that’s it? The title of this movie is Latin for the phrase, “To the Stars.” Ad Astra. Well, once you’ve been to the stars and comprehended their beauty, what if you need to come home again to find someone to describe your experiences to? What if there is no extra-terrestrial life waiting out there for us to contact?

And someone groans at the thought. “How can this universe be so vast, and yet there NOT be life on many other planets? Are you saying we are somehow privileged, living here on this unremarkable spot in our galaxy? That doesn’t seem likely.” Really? Why don’t you think that’s likely?

Look at it this way. Imagine you have to bake a cake for your mother’s birthday. But, before you start, there’s a rule you must follow. You are not allowed to buy any ingredients at the store. None. Instead, you must grow everything from scratch that will eventually be used to make the cake! What might that mean? Well – as my wife will tell you, my presence in the kitchen is usually a sign that I’m hungry, not that I’m making anything. I’m no cook. But I do know that to make a cake, you need at the very least milk, eggs, flour, sugar and jam. Probably chocolate too. If you cannot buy your ingredients…how are you going to come upon them?

Well – milk comes from cows. So – you are going to have to set aside a substantial area of farm land to raise a heard of cows. You will need enough farm land to raise and nurture them. And you will also need to grow enough crops to feed them. You are doing all of this work so that they will eventually produce milk for you. How about the eggs? Well – you are going to need to raise chickens for eggs. Right? And flour? You get where I’m going now. You need to plant a field of wheat which you will eventually harvest so that you can process the resulting grain to produce the flour. You’re also going to have to grow sugar cane, fruit trees… and you need space to process and refine them all. The list of preparatory steps goes on….and must all be done before anything starts on the cake.

You will bake your cake in a small kitchen. But the production of the raw materials FOR your cake will take an extremely vast area of farmland dedicated to livestock, wheat and fruit production. And these raw materials won’t appear quickly. It’s going to take time to grow them to the appropriate stage of development, so that you can take more time in converting them into the raw materials for your cake. Little kitchen…massive farm land to produce your ingredients.

What has this to do with Ad Astra?

Well – this movie works hard to show us an artistic impression of the glorious and beautiful universe we inhabit. What if its that big and beautiful…just for us? As I’m watching the story unfold, I’m suddenly left feeling very alone. Like I’m watching our characters pick their way thru lonely farmland that exists to service a busy kitchen. What if our vast universe is actually that size and this composition, just so that life can be constructed and deposited on a particular planet which is specially prepared for it? What if the age of our universe is right for the production of life on the earth during this specific time period? That there are just enough stars that have cooked the elements…raw materials that human and animal bodies are composed of? Our universe is big and old…because it grew and prepared all the stuff that our world, and we are composed of. Like the farmland outside a small kitchen.

It’s a thought. And it doesn’t take away from the visual splendour of our universe, particularly as its depicted in Ad Astra. You could argue, it makes our universe all the more sweet. Because as we view it, we do so from the only place that is made specially for our protection and safety now. Home, planet earth. Surely, a privileged planet? James Gray does a masterful job of positing this idea, I think. Yet he does so thru the lens of an intensely personal story. One that I think may stay with you once your memory of this visual and audio feast has faded.


Is it Possible to Rebel Against Extinction?

First, let me ask you another question. What is the most important question facing us in life right now?

Is it:

  • The climate. How do we look after the planet for our kids and grandkids?
  • Should I go to University, and if so then which one?
  • Who I should spend my life with?
  • Should we have kids?
  • What school should my kids go to?
  • Which scientific area of study should I focus on expanding?


These are all important questions – very important. You can think of others that might qualify as important questions. But, I don’t think they are the MOST important question.


What is the most important question then? It’s this:

“Does God exist? Is there a God who created the Universe and who loves us?”


At which point – I may lose the “eye-rolling” atheists in the room. Well – hang on for one second. Before you check out – let me suggest something. If there is no God, then all our lives are absurd, with no meaning. You might reply, “You have no idea just how absurd my life is, mate.”

Ha – I know what you mean. But by absurd, I don’t just mean crazy or out of control right now. (Brexit, anyone?)  By absurd I mean objectively and absolutely meaningless, having no objective point at all. Each and every day of life – absolutely pointless and futile.

So – why bother protesting about Brexit, the climate…or anything. Extinction rebellion? Don’t kid yourself. Extinction is INEVITABLE. Life – is pointless and futile, “a chasing after the wind,”[1] the Bible says. You cannot rebel against extinction on atheism.


“How insulting,” you might object. I’m sorry – I’m not trying to be rude here. I’m trying to explain the consequences of atheism. On atheism, we just make up what matters in our own heads. But – we are kidding ourselves on. These things don’t actually have any ultimate consequence what so ever.


“Nonsense,” you might say. “Many things matter.” That’s right. We think they do. I listed a bunch of them at the top of this blog. We think that some things DO objectively matter. But if there is no God, no ultimate reality, this cannot actually be true. Why? Because everything I care about is actually just in my head. It only matters to me. I make up what matters for myself, it is completely subjective to myself. I think in my head that my life matters, that the people I love matter to me, that events in the world matter…and that the sustainability of the planet matters. But none of it is true. It’s just a temporary illusion.

“But it matters to me,” you reply. Well – who are you? Apparently, a temporary biological mistake that doesn’t live for very long.

“Rubbish. I don’t live alone. I’m part of a community of people.” Right. People who all think that their thoughts matter. But their thoughts do not matter, they are pointless. It doesn’t matter how many futile people are in your group, and whether you think you belong or not. All your lives add up to one thing. Futility.

Why do I think that the ideas in my head about how to make the world better – are objectively true? They can’t be objectively true, because there is no objective truth. There is only what I personally think and feel. And I will not be here for very long to think it.

Because if there’s no God, then each of us and the planet we inhabit are eventually doomed to death and nothingness. So – lets look again at the list we started with:

  • The climate. How do we look after the planet for our kids and grandkids?


  • Should I go to University, and if so then which one?

It doesn’t matter whether I do further education or not. My life has no value and I won’t exist for long.

  • Who I should spend my life with?

It doesn’t matter. My life has no value. Singleness is equivalent to years of togetherness. Both are meaningless.

  • Should we have kids?

      It doesn’t matter because we will all cease to exist.

  • What school should my kids go to?

              Well – why do I think that their education is of any lasting value?

  • Which scientific area of study should I focus on expanding?

              Why bother? The Universe we are studying is running down. The achievement of knowledge I help humanity gain today will just blow away like grains of sand in the near future.



Do many atheists live with the implications of atheism…the unyielding despair of it? Perhaps they just put these implications to the back of their minds so they can try to live happily? No wonder Craig says, “The fundamental problem … is that it is impossible to live consistently and happily within such a worldview. If one lives consistently, he will not be happy; if one lives happily, it is only because he is not consistent.”[2] Consistency points to despair, happiness involves surrounding yourself with the illusion that life matters when it doesn’t. Which is inconsistent with the reality of despair.

You cannot rebel against extinction… on atheism.


The thing is – if atheists are wrong and there IS a God, then this desperate situation changes completely. And ironically, our opportunities for rebellion open up significantly!


First – people matter. We were created for an important purpose, they were crafted lovingly and they matter to the ultimate reality – God himself.

Second – there is objective right and wrong. God defines them, and we inherit this sense. We are right to challenge immoral behaviours, because what is good and right IS better than what is immoral.

Third – we all have a future. Death is not the end, it is a transition to the next stage of existence. So how we live today is significant, and is a precursor to what will happen next after we die.


But this isn’t just a more positive choice than atheism. It makes sense of our lives.

It seems to me that, the implications of atheism are completely at odds with how people normally live their lives. YET – the implications of theism (there IS a God) are completely explainable and justified and consistent with our assumptions about life. We live as if people matter, that there is objective right and wrong and we have a future that matters.

Is it possible to rebel against extinction? YES – when we recognise the importance of the place of God in our lives. Maybe we need to decide then to find out about the God who makes all of these assumptions of ours sensible and possible in the first place?



[1] Ecclesiastes 2:11, NIV.

[2] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Christian Truth and Apologetics, Third Edition (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 77.

Resurrection and the Reason for God

In his recent blog, Vince Vitale makes a provocative statement relating to the “God question.” He says –


Criticism without Alternative is Empty


What he is saying is, when someone criticises you for believing in God, then a legitimate response is as follows:

“Oh – okay. Well – what else have you got? Do you have a better reason for the universe around us, and the fact that you and I are sitting discussing these matters? Let’s hear it?”


In my experience, the skeptic is much more likely to attempt to poke holes in the claim of the Christian. They are less likely to posit a more likely alternative.

I’ve seen this happen many times when the topic of conversation is – the Resurrection of Jesus. Usually I will hear statements, but few arguments. Words like:

“You would be crazy to believe that.”

“There’s no evidence for it.”

“It’s just one of those unexplained phenomena, it means nothing.”

I’ve yet to hear a skeptic posit a more likely explanation for the claims of Jesus’ resurrection that beats the claims of the original Apostles. Namely – Jesus actually was raised by God from the dead. Oxford University professor Richard Swinburne cogently argues that “on the historical evidence alone, it is 97% probably that Jesus truly and miraculously rose from the dead.”[1] The earliest statement of this historical evidence is found both inside and outside of the Biblical texts.

In the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) we read that:

  • Christ’s death was predicted by the Old Testament long ago.
  • He was buried and raised as predicted.
  • He then appeared to the twelve apostles.
  • He then appeared to over five hundred people at the same time.
  • He also appeared to his brother James, and the other Christian apostles.
  • He appeared to the religious anti-Christian zealot named Saul.


Outside the Bible, we have various statements about Jesus. One from Roman Governor Pliny the Younger states clearly that the first believers were asked whether they were Christians up to three times. If they persisted in this belief, that was clearly grounded on the belief in Christ’s resurrection, they were killed. What would cause someone to remain fearless in the face of their own torture and death like that?  How about – many of them had actually seen the risen Christ. They weren’t dying for a lie. Rather – they were dying because they were unwilling to deny what they had seen and heard and experienced with their own senses. This is understood to be the path of Jesus’ twelve Apostles, who were martyred for their Christian convictions.

Do you dismiss the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead? Even in the light of this evidence? Okay. Then what else you got?

Here’s where resurrection becomes a reason for God.

It seems to me that if ancient Judaism points toward the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, then this builds a case and presents reasons for God. We don’t just have a random guy resurrecting one day in the past. No – we have an entire ancient culture building up to this event, which on occurring, succeeds in turning the world upside down. The resurrection of Jesus, and the historical and cultural setting it occurs in, provides reasons for God.

Still not on board? Well – okay. What else you got? Vitalle suggests a few alternatives:[2]

1 – The Resurrection was a legend that developed over time. The problem is, the historical setting and the timing of the reporting does not permit time for this. The documented reports of the Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament can be dated to within months of the event itself.

2 – Could the Resurrection have been a collective hallucination? Well – according to psychologists, such things do not exist. Not for two people, never mind five hundred or more. This alternative explanation is implausible.

3 – Was there a first century conspiracy? Well – in conspiracies, the people involved are there to get something out of the lie. What did the first Christians experience? Persecution and death. So – no. This alternative does not fly.


Criticism without Alternative is Empty

So. If we choose to reject the claims of Christianity around the Resurrection of Jesus, the question for us becomes this:

“what explanations for Jesus’ Resurrection have I considered, and why do I think it is a more cogent and convincing than the claims found in the existing historical evidence?”

[1] Vince Vitale, Reasons for God, Solas, published 23rd September, 2019,

[2] Ibid.


Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

How Serious is the Skynet Threat?

You know there’s a new Terminator movie coming…right? How vulnerable are we to Skynet and the threat of dangerous, killer robots? I don’t mean the characters in a movie. I mean us. In real life?

Jeff Bezos says we are in a golden age of AI.[1] Who are we to disagree with him? His company Amazon are using cool AI techniques to get orders placed, processed, packed and delivered to us more quickly than ever before. It’s not just Amazon. Netflix use AI techniques to improve video quality while we binge our telly, and Uber use AI techniques to find a driver quickly. Actually…our lives are increasingly affected by AI. And – we are always looking forward to the next new and cool application of AI that brings us our next dopamine hit!

But are we actually at risk from the rise of the machines? Some people think so. The Way of the Future Church is about respectfully handing control of the planet from “people to people + machines.”[2] Clearly these people think people are CURRENTLY in control of the planet. Wow. The average natural disaster or unexpected occurrence in life might suggest otherwise.

I studied Computer Science as an undergraduate, and I’ve worked in embedded software as a developer and applications engineer for thirty years. I’ve loved the stories about sentient machines, but I’ve never thought we were at risk of ever seeing one. I love the AI techniques that make life easier for us. But I’ve never expected machines to take over from the people coding their algorithms. Am I right to think so?

Bob Marks, Director of Walter Bradley Institute and Distinguished Professor of Computer Engineering at Baylor University would agree with me. He defines AI as “anything we can do that is gee whiz with a computer.”[3] Are there things that a human can do that AI cannot? Absolutely. AI is a technology that is coded for by humans, and there are vitally important characteristics of humans that AI cannot share.


1 – Humans are Creative, AI Isn’t

In order to write code, the engineer must engage his creativity. The human experiences qualia, they are conscious as they design the latest clever algorithm. But creativity is not a trait that is codable for.

All computers conform to the Church-Turing thesis. This effectively means that computers today cannot do any more than they could do in the 1930s. What they CAN do…is do the same thing many billions of times faster than before. Computers execute pre-coded algorithms increasingly quickly. That is all.

For Skynet to rise, AI must be capable of coding smarter AIs, which in turn code smarter AIs. Only humans are creative in this way. AI isn’t.

But couldn’t AI become creative?



2 – What is Computer Creativity?

Marks says computers can’t become creative, and he appeals to the Lovelace test to explain why.[4]

If a computer program responds with an output that cannot be explained by the original actions of the computer programmer, then we can say the computer is displaying creativity. Studies have shown that computer programs can make surprising actions, but they always stick to the bounds of their programming. They don’t creatively develop new capabilities in the course of their operation. Computers follow the algorithms they have been coded to follow. You cannot code for creativity or consciousness.


3 – But What About Advanced Deep Learning, Neural Networks?

It sounds pretty short sighted to say AI can never be creative. Or is it?

We need move beyond fun fantasy and start to understand what it is the computers can and cannot do. I knew someone once who called computers “very fast idiots.” The most advanced deep learning neural networks that are being developed today are an example of his judgement.

By allowing a deep learning network to go over the game of GO again…and again…and again, it can get to the point of being able to soundly beat the GO world champion. Google’s AlphaGo did this convincingly, soundly winning a three match series.[5] But does that mean that AlphaGo is smarter than the human its playing? No – it means AlphaGo can play Go better than the human. That is all.

Think about it this way.

AlphaGo made surprising moves when playing Go…and these moves allowed it to win the matches. So – it was just doing what it was coded – and trained – to do. But is AlphaGo truly creative? If it asked for a drink, or made an insightful observation about its opponent’s financial situation between moves – these would be instances of AI creativity. But AlphaGo cannot do this.

Neural networks are not creative. They are good at dealing with specific tasks that display high levels of ergodicity. It’s trained to do a very specific task – to play Go. Nothing else.

For example, studies have been done around training them to recognise tanks. But you would never use them on a real battlefield. Why? Bob Marks explains that it turns out the networks spent more cycles learning about the landscape behind the tank than the tank itself! Also, the use is so very specific – that you could not trust it in constantly changing battlefield conditions. The computer algorithm is not conscious and it cannot explain what it is doing. Rather – it is following very specific, repeatable rules. When the situation changes and no longer matches the conditions trained for, the computer lacks any creativity to deal with this situation. Battlefields are all about changing situations! Neural networks would be instantly vulnerable to making bad decisions.

So much for Terminators.


4 – What About Quantum Computing?

These computers also obey the Church-Turing thesis. There’s no magic leap into conscious AI here.


5 – Will I Lose My Job?

Marks thinks this is possible for some people. But he also thinks this will give humans increased time to enjoy life and do more creative jobs that AIs are incapable of doing.



In summary, Marks reasonably concludes that while AIs will improve the quality of our lives, they will not pose any threat to us. Unless, of course, someone applies one of these dumb, non-creative machines in inappropriate ways! But then there’s nothing new there. It’s not Skynet that threatens us…its actually other people and ourselves.



[1] Jeff Bezos is Launching…, The Verge, updated Jan 17th, 2019,

[2] Way of the Future Church,

[3] Computer Engineer Bob Marks Discusses the Perils and Promise of AI, Discovery Institute, September 4th, 2019,

[4] Ibid.

[5] AlphaGo Takes the series title, Wired, Thursday 25th May, 2017,

Weighing the Validity of the Crusades

He narrowed his eyes threateningly and the tone of his voice took on an unpleasant chill. “Christianity is dangerous, and you are just part of the problem. Don’t you see that? Don’t the Crusades show you that?”

I cleared my throat. “If you are rejecting Christianity based on the Crusades, then I think you are making a mistake. Many Christian leaders at that time were deeply unhappy with these military campaigns, feeling they did not reflect the life and teachings of Christ. And I would agree with them. You say you don’t like the Crusades? I also don’t like what happened! But you also seem to assume the Crusades reflect Biblical Christianity, and this assumption is simply false. If you want to reject Christianity, then please do so based on the life and teachings of Christ, not the flawed choices of the Medieval Church.”

A strong argument could be made that the Crusades were a period of moral failure in the Medieval Church. At the very least, they show a lack of love for one’s fellow man, particularly one’s enemy.

It always amazes me that people become quick to moralize when moral failures are revealed within the church. “If Christianity were true,” they claim, “the church would be different.” Well – perhaps the human condition IS the very problem you are judging. We are ALL broken and fallen people, and the church reflects this brokenness. It’s not that religions are the problem. People are.

In this series of blogs I’ve attempted to argue that:

1 – The Crusades were a defensive war, fought be people who were promised by the Church that their enlistment would absolve them of all their sins. Our modern sensibilities do not understand how violence can reflect piety. Yet many during this Medieval period were convinced by this.

2 – While the Crusades were defensive, the violence that ensued does not reflect the nature of Christianity as shown by Christ himself. Just check the record of Christ’s life. Worse – I would argue it wasn’t even the Church’s right to embark on a war in the first place. That was the purview of Kings of leaders of state, not spiritual leaders.

3 – Yet by and large, the people who went to war did so in good faith based on what they were taught. They were not fighting to gain personal wealth or power. Crusading cost them. The fact they volunteered is testament to their perceived obedience to God and their piety.


Any examination of the Crusades would be incomplete if it did not include the appalling atrocities committed by the Crusaders during this period. As Crusading fatigue set in, and failures mounted, the fourth and fifth Crusades became a particularly black stain on the already misguided actions of the Medieval Church.


Crusader Atrocities[1]

  • People mistakenly believed that Crusading resulted in their receiving the ultimate indulgence (complete absolution of all sin by the church), so they thought this war led to their own complete forgiveness. This resulted in some later Crusaders going to actual war with Christian heretics within the church itself, killing them.
  • Tragically, Crusaders eventually attacked the Eastern city of Constantinople. These were the very Eastern Christian peoples who called for help back in the first Crusade days. Now, their Western helpers were coming after them too. Even though Constantinople surrendered to them, the Crusaders massacred the people and sacked the city to pay the financial cost of their brutal, criminal and illegitimate war against a peaceful Christian people. There are various events that mirror this tragedy during the later Crusades.
  • The Crusades may have begun with the aim of ejecting an occupying aggressor. And the first Crusade succeeded in doing so for a time. But successive campaigns became less and less successful. Some of the later battles were a poorly managed, out-of-control stream of illegitimate and criminal violence. If the root of the tree is bad, the fruit is not going to taste nice. The Crusades were clearly not a just war, and became an appalling example of bad roots leading to bitter fruit for the Medieval Church.

The original aim of the first Crusade, that of rescuing the Holy Land from Islamic invaders, was never truly achieved. By the time of the seventh Crusade – Islamic armies had retaken Jerusalem, killed everyone there and burned the churches. Everyone was back to square one.

And – to this day, evidence of the Crusaders’ failure is found at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. At this place of deep historical significance for both Judaism and Christianity, the Muslims display their fundamentally anti-Christian message:

“God is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son.”[2]


Were the Crusades a Complete Failure?

So – the Crusaders lost the battle. But were their actions a complete failure? Well – it is worth considering the following questions:

1 – Wasn’t it legitimate that they pushed back those Islamic invaders? After all, the invaders oppressed peaceful people and had to be challenged. Right? Perhaps the Western countries would all be Islamic today, were it not for the way that the Crusaders drew a line in the sand – and challenged their aggressiveness in Medieval times?

2 – Could it be that God has purposes in the Medieval Church’s failure? Perhaps he allows us to face defeat because he has a bigger plan in play? Perhaps we see this principle working out in the Crusades. God sometimes brings us into storms to shipwreck, because ultimately he needs us to look to him for our rescue. Not our own strength and wisdom, not religion or human authority, but him.

Am I saying God is able to even use an unjust war, such as the Crusades, for good purposes? Absolutely. Don’t we all reach the end of our lives for one reason or another? What if – this life is NOT all we’ve got? What if much more is awaiting us after we die? And God’s purposes are being worked out both here and there?

3 – Perhaps Christianity is right, that there is a human mess, but it CAN be cleaned up? Could it be that at its core, the original message of Christianity speaks loud and clear to the mess of the Crusades, and also the mess of our contemporary world. God came in the person of Jesus, he entered the mess with the aim of clearing it up. And his plan for clearing up the mess is being worked out day by day.

The Crusaders thought that fighting for the Church earned them forgiveness of their sins. They were wrong. Actually – the Bible has always taught that it’s belief in Jesus and surrendering one’s life to Him that makes his sacrifice count for us. Belief in Christ is the ultimate, lasting solution to guilt and pain in our lives. Forgiveness was bought for us at a high price by Christ, yet it is available to all who truly believe.

If you ultimately choose to reject Christianity, then you are rejecting that offer, not the actions of the Crusaders.

[1] The Crusades Boot Camp, Credo Courses,

[2] The Arabic Islamic Inscriptions On The Dome Of The Rock In Jerusalem, 72 AH / 692 CE, Islamic Awareness, last modified 12th November, 2005,

Were the Crusades Motivated By Financial Greed?

Sometimes people assume that, when the Church launched the Crusades in the Middle Ages, there was a self-serving reason behind it. It wasn’t the result of piety or the desire to rescue the oppressed. Rather, it was about the Church’s greed and the desire to control foreign lands and expand a power base.

These cynical claims certainly have a ring of modern suspicion about them. There’s always a conspiracy somewhere, right? But do these claims actually fit with the surviving historical data?


The Crusaders Became Financially Challenged, that Doesn’t Mean they Were Greedy

There is a cynical claim that “the crusading impulse rescued many serfs and landowners from desperate economic straits,”[1] and that “the Crusades fused … Medieval impulses: piety, pugnacity and greed. All three were essential.”[2]

However the evidence would suggest this cannot be the motivation behind the Crusades. The data shows that “crusading was a very expensive undertaking … a few financed their participation by selling property, and some huge sales were involved.”[3] The Crusades were simply “ruinously expensive,”[4] for the volunteers.

What’s more, we know that the church latterly imposed a very unpopular taxation to fund future Crusades.[5] If even the medieval Church was unable to meet the financial burden of the war, how can we reasonably claim that the Crusades lined anyone’s pockets?


The Church Was Not Seeking to Dominate and Grow an Empire Through Crusading

Did “an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalize, loot and colonize a tolerant and peaceful Islam,”[6] during the crusades?

I have already made the point here and here that the Papal aim wasn’t colonization but liberation of the people and Christian relics in Jerusalem. And the historical data supports this claim. The majority of the Crusaders returned home to Western Europe after the first Crusade when they believed their liberation mission was complete.

Yet you might disagree with me here.

“Why,” you might ask, “were the Latin States established after the first Crusade? Cities like Antioch and Edessa were established under Crusading rule. Doesn’t this PROVE there was imperialistic tendencies behind the war?” No. I would say the opposite is true. Most Crusaders returned home, while a minority remained because they anticipated a counter-attack by the Muslim armies. They stayed to defend the liberty of those they successfully freed during the first Crusade.

But why couldn’t the Eastern Church defend these lands themselves? Earlier, I explained that the first Crusade began because the Eastern Emperor Alexis had requested help from Roman Pope Urban. So – why couldn’t Alexis’ forces have guarded these lands themselves after the Muslims left?

Unfortunately the fragile alliance between Eastern and Western forces during the first Crusade did not hold and there was a big falling out between them.[7] The Western forces decided, therefore, not to return control of the freed city of Edessa to Emperor Alexis. Given that Western forces controlled this land, they could not therefore also then ask Alexis for help defending their city! The Western forces had to do this themselves, and their strategy had some initial success, “lead[ing] to the Muslim backing off after the first Crusade.”[8] Sadly the peace did not last, and the Muslim armies regrouped and attacked again.

In order to protect the Latin States and the Christian pilgrims who travelled through them, the Knights Templars and the Order of the Hospitaliers were both instituted. They were both about “chivalry and protection … an oasis for those on Christian pilgrimage.”[9] These groups were not borne out of imperialistic tendencies. Rather, they were a defensive measure against an Islamic aggressor.

Many people will scoff at such an idea today, assuming the truth to be far less pious and much darker. Yet surely this cynicism isn’t borne out by the evidence, rather it is simply the result of modern people reading their contemporary ideas into this period of Medieval history. Today, we are incredulous that, “religious belief [could be] the real motivator for … activity … [so must be] a pretext for economic or political motives.”[10] No – this is simply modern people behaving anachronistically. We are forcing our ideas into history. Namely, that we are unwilling to believe religious piety could be a motivator for any action. Yet the historical evidence suggests it was piety, not imperialism, that drove the Crusader.

Surely the problem is therefore with us today, not them then?

[1] Yosef Eisen, “The Bloody Crusades,”, accessed October 24th, 2018,

[2] Paul F. Crawford, “Four Myths about the Crusades,” Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2011, accessed October 24th, 2018,

[3] Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2009), kindle edition, 111.

[4] Crawford, “Four Myths About the Crusades.”

[5] Stark, God’s Battalions, 234, summarised.

[6] Stark, God’s Battalions, 7.

[7] C. Michael Patton, The Second Crusade The Crusades Bootcamp, Credo Courses,, summarised.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Robinson, “Three Myths,” 30.

Were the Crusades Xenophobic?

Previously, I introduced the Crusades and explained the historical background to these Medieval military campaigns. I also challenged the notion that they were triggered by Western imperialism. Actually – these were campaigns initiated by the church to rescue people who were being oppressed.

Of course, atheists are quick to find fault. The late Christopher Hitchens refers to the Crusades as “tempests of hatred, and bigotry and blood lust.”[1] But – does the historical evidence support this idea that the Crusades are examples of Christian hatred and xenophobia (or prejudice against foreigners)?

The quick answer to this question – is to ask a follow on question. When did the Crusaders ever attack the Islamic cities of Mecca or Medina during any of the military campaigns? The answer is – NEVER.[2]

This fact demonstrates the Crusades were NEVER about the West attacking the peaceful Muslim nations. Rather – these Crusades were about mounting a rescue attempt for peaceful Christian inhabitants of the holy land who were being dominated by Islamic aggressors.

The longer answer to the xenophobia question is:

1 – Christians weren’t violent people. Most Christians of the time lived peacefully and coexisted with people of other religious outlooks. In fact, “during … the Crusades … large indigenous Christian populations liv[ed] under Muslim rule.”[3]

2 – The Crusades weren’t the result of hatred. Rather, they were about showing love for Christian brothers and sisters, to rescue fellow Christians and the holy land, “expressing love through … participation in acts of armed force.”[4]

3 – Not everyone in the church at the time agreed that military campaigns were the right response to Muslim aggression. For example:

  • Saint Francis of Assisi, during the 5th Crusade, visited the front lines in an attempt to dialog with the Muslim leaders to bring peace.[5]
  • Isaac of Stella challenged the idea of “fighting monks,” which was the label given to the Knights Templars who were created to protect Christian pilgrims.[6]


If the Crusades were controversial in the Church at the time, how did the Pope (who called for most of the official Crusades) justify them? He appealed to Augustine’s just war theory. Augustine was an influential 5th century Christian leader who viewed violence as an evil which, in certain intolerable conditions, became something justifiable as the lesser of evils. However – a just war could only be mounted under the authority of the national leader.[7] The Pope viewed Christian suffering at the hands of Muslims as intolerable, and so he decided war was the lesser of two evils and so just.

But were the Crusades just?

I do not think so. I have two big problems with the Pope’s justification for the Crusades:

1 – The Crusades don’t qualify under Augustine’s just war theory. It wasn’t the national leader who initiated the Crusade, it was the Pope. The Pope had authority over the church, yet at this time he also interfered in temporal affairs too. He was calling for a war that was not his to call to make, and offering spiritual rewards for those who volunteered. This seems like a gross misuse of spiritual power and position. “The church should not be … deciding when to go to war and who the enemy is, not to mention promising spiritual rewards to those who fight.”[8]

2 – The Christian love shown by the Crusaders is substandard. They claimed to be loving fellow Christians. They forgot Christ’s command to love their enemies too.[9] Two of the leaders who spoke out against the Crusades were:

  • Peter Lombard, who agreed that the safety of Christian brothers and sisters must be considered, but added “enemies must be included in our love for all men … it is more virtuous to love enemies than friends.”[10]
  • Thomas Aquinas, who said that “Christ only gave the apostles … power to authorize punishment by means of force after he had taught them to love their neighbours absolutely.”[11]


In conclusion, the Crusades were not the result of xenophobia and hatred of Islam. Rather, they occurred because going to war to protect Christians and the holy land was (for the Crusaders) an act of love for Christ and his church. Unfortunately, the charity the Crusaders showed lacks Jesus Christ’s understanding of love. It is substandard as far as Christian love is concerned.

I am convinced these military campaigns initiated by the Church, referred to as the Crusades, were a misguided reaction by the Church to Muslim invasion of the holy land.



[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, (London: Atlantic Books, 2007), kindle edition, 39.

[2] Paul F. Crawford, “Four Myths about the Crusades,” Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2011, accessed October 24th, 2018,

[3] Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion What The Old Testament Really Says And Why It Matters (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014), kindle edition, loc 7305.

[4] Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Crusading As An Act Of Love,” in Medieval Religion New Approaches Rewriting Histories, ed. Constance Hoffman Berman (New York: Routledge, 2005), 45.

[5] C. Michael Patton, The Fifth Crusade The Crusades Bootcamp, Credo Courses,, summarised.

[6] Paul Robinson, “Three Myths about the Crusades What they Mean for Christian Witness,” Concordia Journal 42, no. 1 (Winter 2016):28-40, accessed October 24th, 2018,, summarised.

[7] Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades, 4th ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), kindle edition, 6.

[8] Robinson, “Three Myths,” 33.

[9] Matthew 5:43-48.

[10] Peter Lombard, “Sententiarum libri quatuor,” PL, vol. 192, iii, D. xxvii, c 4, DD. Xxix-xxx, quoted in Riley-Smith, “Crusading As An Act Of Love”, 52.

[11] Thomas Aquinas, “Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem,” Opera omnia iussu Leonis XIII P.M. edita, 41 (Rome: Ex typographia Polyglotta, 1948, 1970), cap. xvi, esp. 4, quoted in Riley-Smith, “Crusading As An Act Of Love”, 55.


Photo by Slejven Djurakovic on Unsplash

Why Do the Crusades Still Matter?

The Crusades are a time in medieval history that both fascinates and angers people.

In the History Channel show Knightfall, myth and storytelling combines with history to recount interesting tales about the Crusades and who was involved in them. Yet this period isn’t just about stories, it is also a time that many people regret. Two US Presidents in the last 20 years have publicly regretted the Crusades and what they stood for.

I first tasted the angry backlash when someone once barked at me, “How can you be a Christian, Stuart, following the Crusades? What the church did then was awful.”

This criticism has been stated and restated in many ways, and its often used by sceptics to point to the barbarism of Christians and to justify their unbelief. Loftus says of the medieval church –

“[they] sanction[ed] the slaughtering of various people … in the name of their God … the deeds done in the name of Jesus are atrocious.”[1]

So – what were the Crusades? In a short series of blog posts, I’m going to explain my understanding of what the Crusades were, and I’ll also respond to three common myths about them.

What Were the Crusades?

By the 11th century, two thirds of the lands previously under Roman Christian rule were conquered by Muslim invaders. The Christian inhabitants were treated brutally, as there were “gruesome tortures of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and vile desecrations of churches … should Constantinople fall … ‘the most holy relics of the Saviour,’ … would be lost.”[2]

In medieval times, Christian believers would very often make the trip to visit the Holy Land. At this time, travel was dangerous. But the Muslim authorities persecuted those pilgrims mercilessly, and worked to destroy the culture of the peaceful Christian inhabitants there.

So, the leader of the Eastern church, Pope Urban, called for the Western Pope to send help to fight off the invading Muslim armies. This wasn’t a message from secular government, rather it was a message from the church. Here’s how it was put to people in the West:

  • this is a defensive war, to protect Christian brothers and sisters under siege, and to rescue religious relics in the Middle East.
  • those who go will have all their sins forgiven for life. This was the ultimate Catholic indulgence that secured one’s eternal destiny.[3]

While many professional Knights embarked on the perilous journey across land, and later sea, to the Holy Land, many civilians went too. These people saw this task as a duty for pious Christians, and they wanted to help the people who were suffering in those lands. For around two hundred years, a cycle of these events occurred and multiple military campaigns – or Crusades – occurred.

Why Is This Important Today?

Because there is a myth that Western Crusader colonialism is to blame for the horrors of the crusades. US Presidents Clinton and Obama have fed this myth in recent years, and the myth has led to a confusion about the Crusades and what caused them. I think the myth is highly destructive to us in the West, and the Christian church.

First – the aim of the Crusades was the recovery of what had been Christian territory before it had been invaded by Muslim armies. It is destructive to the historical method to suggest that the crusaders were the aggressors.

Second – the Crusades have become a historical stick to beat the church with. Yet this caricatures what was going on back then, we can’t logically reject Christianity today for what Crusaders did then.

For example, while Medieval battles were fierce, it was how things were for all armies of the time. There was nothing singling out the crusader armies, except maybe the original motivation for engaging in the crusade.

Also – the battles were not inevitable. A surrendering Muslim army would have avoided the bloodshed that occurred on both sides.

Third – the crusading myths have been proposed by the West, not the Muslim nations, but certain Muslims have taken advantage of our myth and used it against the West. Before the 20th century, Muslim’s didn’t even have a word for the crusades! It wasn’t till 1899 that Islamic writers picked up the Western caricature. How interesting that Islamic terrorists have subsequently used our myth against us as part of the justification for their actions.[4]

[1] John Loftus, “Why I Am Not a Christian: A Summary of My Case Against Christianity (2008),” The Secular Web, accessed October 24th, 2018,

[2] Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2009), 2.

[3] Stark, 108.

[4] “Text: Osama bin Laden’s 1998 interview,” The Guardian, October 8th 2001, accessed October 25th 2018,, summarised.


Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash


Are We Just Star Dust?

He rolled his eyes at me. “How sad that you need approval from some external deity. I am happy with my life as it is. I make meaning for my own life, thank you very much. I need approval from no mythological deity.”

I nodded. “Well – I’m glad you are happy with your life. I’m also happy with mine – so that makes two of us! But the issue here isn’t how we FEEL about our lives. Rather, the question is how we make sense of our lives. You say there is no meaning beyond the natural world. We are physical beings and nothing more. Is that what you are saying?

“Yes,” he announced.

“Well,” I continued, “I’m sorry but – there’s a problem with your statement. The problem has nothing to do with whether or not we are open to receiving approval from God or anyone else. Rather – the problem is about the assumptions you are making around the truth and the importance of your words.”

He raised his hand and replied abruptly. “Enough of your talk about God and absolute meaning. I am happy with subjective meaning…I give my own life its purpose. This is important…everyone needs to grow up and do this, particularly religious people.”

I laughed. “Okay. I hear that you think this is important. My question to you is why? Why is it important? And to whom?”

He stopped, a quizzical expression on his face.

I pressed on.

“I hear from many people that we are just physical beings in a physical universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson announces that we are star dust, and we should be happy about that. If all we are is physical stuff…then Neil’s words are meaningless. And – so are yours.”

“Why?” he retorted? Perhaps because Neil says them after Carl Sagan before him, my friend thinks that gives them more meaning. But – if Neil and Carl Sagan are right, their words have no meaning.

I continued. “Because what you are saying is – we are ONLY brains, constructed of biochemistry, composed of atoms that were cooked in the stars. There is no human soul. No God. Right? In that case, I don’t see why the words and thoughts of any of our minds are any more significant than other natural events…like the sound of the wind blowing in the trees.”[1]

Do you see the point I am making to my friend?

1 – if all we are is physical, then everything we do and say and think is ultimately physical.

2 – if everything we do is simply physical, then nothing we do is any more significant than other physical effects in the world. Trees swaying in the wind, for example.

Conclusion: we might think we are profoundly creating our own subjective, personal purpose for our lives. We may write and produce a TV series like Cosmos, even.  But actually nothing we do or say or believe actually matters. It’s not true or false, profound or pedestrian. It simply is. We simply are. Like swaying tree branches.

If that is the case – then what we say to each other does not matter, and has no consequence when it comes to truth or significance.


What does this mean? Well, my friend is kidding himself about subjective meaning for his life. He doesn’t even manage subjective meaning for his thoughts!


YET – if there IS objective meaning and purpose, and a God who has constructed reality to make it so? Well, that’s a whole different thing! Then, a human being’s words DO matter, because they either point towards or away from that ultimate, objective reality that created us. They either help us to get closer to it, or further away. They help or hinder. Words become more than just physical motions and sounds. They become pointers to the objectively real.


If something in the Universe ultimately matters, then we can do science, we can understand morality, and art moves us for a reason.


How interesting that everyone talks as if their words matter, and their thoughts are significant. Perhaps this fact about how we speak – and the assumptions we make about the importance of our words and thoughts – undermines the whole enterprise of atheism and shows it to be self-refuting? Because unless there is a God … our lives are meaningless. But if there is nothing but physical matter – whatever I believe about anything (God included) doesn’t matter and isn’t true or false. So atheism becomes a self-refuting and pointless exercise.

That doesn’t sound like the world we actually live in…

[1] C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory, (New York: Harper One), 139.