What Makes Christianity Unique?

Did you know that it’s estimated that 4200 distinct world religions exist, and they all teach something different? Yet amongst all the world religions, Christianity is unique. Here are five important reasons why I think that.

 

First – Christianity is based on evidence that is open to scrutiny. For example, the New Testament says this:

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[1]

This evidence is of the historic variety. If Jesus’ resurrection can be shown to be historically false, if we can find a better explanation for the claims of the New Testament, then Christianity can be dismissed. Does it surprise you that Christianity could be so quickly disproven? With Christianity, if the historical basis can be dismissed, then the claims of Christianity can also be dismissed. So far – 2000 years in – no one has made a convincing attempt at doing this…the historical basis is simply very strong by ancient standards.

Notice that this is not the case with Islam, for example. There is nothing to the claims of Islam of a testable, historical nature. We must just embrace it as a worldview and hope for the best. We won’t know whether we backed the right horse until the other side of the grave. As Welch describes the life of a Muslim, “throughout life people are tested by their Maker, as the Qu’ran says in 21. 35/36: ‘And We try you with evil and good as a test; then unto Us you will be returned.’”[2] Islam is a long term experiment requiring all your eggs in its metaphorical basket and giving no option for a simple historical evidential test like Christianity does. It’s a similar story with Buddhism. Craig Hazen puts it this way, “you had better get yourself a Zen Master and you are going to be working at that thing for a long time until you ultimately experience enlightenment. You might want to put that on the back burner until you push Christianity out of the way.”[3] Christianity is an evidential belief system, so if you are shopping for a religion, it makes sense to start there first.

Secondly, Christianity is the only religion where God gives salvation to us as a free gift. Christians refer to this as grace. What is grace? Well, grace is sometimes described as “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense”. In other words, God generously gives us the richness of his love based not on anything we have done but based solely on what Jesus has done in his atoning death on the cross. Christianity offers a free gift of salvation and it’s the only religion to do this.

Islam doesn’t come close to this. Canon Andrew White, who has recently returned to the UK from leading the church in Iraq, is an expert on working with Muslims. He says this. “The trouble is a lack of forgiveness in Islam. I have looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any. If you find it, tell me.”[4] Further, some eastern religions place demands on us around meditation and walking over hot coals. Why put yourself through that first? Does it not make sense to check out something that is free first? Anyway, as Hazen suggests about salvation, “given that we are limited beings, it would make sense that God would have to give it to us.”[5] Christianity has a ring of truth about it.

Third, Christianity is a completely holistic life. In other words, Christian belief always holds in whichever sphere of life the Christian is currently in. We think the same way whether we are at Church, or our work or at home. We “get to live a non-compartmentalised life.”[6] Chan Buddhism, on the other hand, is about “cleansing of the mind from concepts and information by meditation and spontaneous action which can lead to natural illumination (tun-wu). This is sometimes provoked by riddles (koans) or questions such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”[7] The Buddhist may deny logic in his religious life, but in his financial dealings or even simply in caring for his family, logic is essential. Abandon logic in the real world, and the Buddhist risks going bankrupt or putting their family at risk. Yet a Christian can remain the same, whatever they are doing.

Fourth, Christianity just fits and makes sense of the world. The Buddhist claims that “Suffering exists, but there is no-one who suffers”[8]. But how can that be? Hinduism is just as confusing. Joseph Campbell recounts a visit to Indian teacher Sri Krishna Menon where he asks, “Since in Hindu thinking everything in the Universe is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to …brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness? And he answered, ‘For you and for me – the way is to say yes.’”[9] In other words, it is not for us to use judgement, the Hindu way is to accept everything however moral or immoral, reasonable or unreasonable, fair or unfair. This cuts across everything within us that cries out for reason and justice.

On the other hand, Christianity looks our broken world full in the face. Our world is full of suffering because mankind has rebelled against the God who created us, and so our world is, “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”[10] We look at the Universe around us, and study the exquisite complexity of nature. From our limbs to our organs to the cells of which they are composed, life looks designed. There’s a good reason for that. The God we see in the Bible claims responsibility for that job.

Fifth, Christianity has the person of Jesus right at the very centre. Strangely, other religions want Jesus in their boat too. There is something about this guy! The Qur’an mentions him in a way that puts him beyond even Mohammad when it says, “When God said, ‘Jesus I will take thee to Me and will raise thee to Me’”[11]. Further, Hazen reports that, “Hindus have him as an avatar incarnation of Vishnu, Buddhists call him the enlightened one.”[12] So it would be reasonable to ask if all the other religions mention Jesus respectfully in one form or another, does it not make sense to start with Christianity that has Jesus at the very centre of everything it believes?

 

 

Conclusion

Study the different world religions, and you will find that Christianity is unique in these five important ways. BUT – you don’t need to do all that hard studying. Instead, try and dismiss the compelling historical evidence of Jesus death and resurrection. Decide whether you want to reject God’s free offer of love and forgiveness in favour of a works-based religion instead. Consider the benefits of a life that is holistic and that fits with the world as it is observed today. And finally, consider the person of Jesus who is at the centre of the Christian message.

Makes sense – right?

 

 

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:4-6 NLT.

[2] John R. Hinnells, The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions Second Edition, (Penguin Books, 1997), 176.

[3] Craig J. Hazen, PH.D., Christianity and the Challenge of World Religions, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[4] The Vicar of Baghdad: ‘I’ve looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any’, The Spectator, accessed November 24th, 2015, http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/isis-bombs-have-exiled-the-vicar-of-baghdad-to-surrey-but-hes-itching-to-go-back-to-the-middle-east/.

[5] Hazen, disc 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spurgeon’s College, Exploring Other Faiths, (Spurgeon’s College, 2003), 9.4.

[8] Spurgeon’s, 8.5.

[9] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (Anchor Books, 1988), 83.

[10] Romans 8:22 NLT.

[11] Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, (Oxford University Press, 1991), 53.

[12] Hazen, disc 2.

When the Pastor Lets Us Down

What do we do when the Pastor lets us down, maybe even wounds us? Where does that leave us as far as church is concerned? Do we decide to withdraw from church completely? Or is there a better way?

First – I have been a church pastor, and I am sure I have disappointed people in that role. And I’m sorry about that.

Second – I have known a number of church pastors during my life, and virtually all of them have let me down in one way or another. So – there is a pattern developing here. Church pastors are people, and people are imperfect. They let other people down, and they do things they are ashamed of.

Consequently, pastors just do not belong on the pedestal that so many in their congregations want to place them on. It’s tough when the pastor is a likeable, and gifted communicator. You want to hold them up there. But – it is never a good idea, and it does not reflect reality. It’s worse when the pastor seems to think they deserve to BE on a pedestal! Spoiler alert – church pastors get it wrong, just like the rest of us.

Perhaps you’ve been in a church setting and had a touch of this. Sometimes it can be more serious than that. Maybe you’ve experienced bullying, intimidation or manipulation. You’ve endured the pastor’s need to control and be the power person. Perhaps you’ve suffered gaslighting, being undermined and misrepresented in public and private, and this has been a horrible experience for you. Recently, various serious and heartbreaking stories have come to light about high profile church pastors and their unseemly behaviour. The latest report is of the late Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, who abused multiple women during his ministry.

So – what do we do with all that?

First – we recognise that Christianity is all about saving broken people. The church is there to rescue those who are lost. And the reality is that, when we respond to Christ and become a Christian, we are just at the start of a process of life change. We don’t become perfect right away. Rather, God starts the job of changing us from the inside out.

Pastors are also people who have been saved by Christ, and aren’t perfect. But crucially, they need to cooperate with Christ in the process of life change. Everyone is on that road, church pastors included.

Second – Christianity says clearly that the only perfect person that has lived – is Jesus. And so, he is the only one deserving of the pedestal that we may have mistakenly put the pastor on.[1]

Third – every person has weak spots. Maybe it’s how we use our tongue, or maybe it’s sexual temptation, or something else. What the pastor finds in the course of their job, that their weak spot is attacked when they are in their public position. Everyone has weaknesses – we might hide ours, but we might learn about the pastor’s weaknesses because they are a public figure.

Fourth – this does not minimise the seriousness of a leader’s sin. It was Jesus himself who encouraged little children to come to him, and warned that anyone who caused little vulnerable ones to fall, would be in serious trouble with God.[2] So, there is a warning here for leaders. We are given the responsibility to care for vulnerable people. We are heading into trouble if we abuse the very people we are supposed to care for.

 

If I’ve been wounded by a leader, does this undo all the good that leader did?

I like the way the Christian leader and Theologian N T Wright puts it. It doesn’t undo the good they have done but it casts a shadow on it.[3] The good messages they shared remain good, the positive arguments remain good arguments even if the person sharing them has a shadow in their life.

Actually, this leaves us as the wounded party to do some work to do in OUR lives.

First – we must remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”[4] So – we need to be looking at those words, accepting them and believing them and applying them to our situation as we pray them every day.

Second – our job is therefore to forgive the pastor who has hurt us. Why? Because if we are a Christian we enjoy God’s forgiveness, and so he expects us to share that with others who need it. Pastors included.

 

What do I do with feelings of betrayal?

Wright observes that our culture either wants people on pedestals, or it wants them crashing down to the ground, Harvey Weinstein style. There’s no “in-between” allowed. Yet the “in-between” is the reality because life and human beings are complex. Yet God’s big enough to deal with this complexity.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.”[5]

We enjoy God’s free acceptance even though we let people down. We need to give our feelings to him and allow God to make us into people who share the undeserved love we have ourselves received. Even to our betrayer.

 

But what if the pastor doesn’t think they have done anything wrong, yet I am still feeling hurt?

Well, sometimes the pastor needs to feel they have the moral high ground at all times. We may be sceptical of the truth of that, seeing it just as another lever of control. Yet the truth is, it is not our responsibility to police them in this. That’s God’s job. Our responsibility is to keep our side of the street clean, to ask God to help us forgive them…and walk God’s road of forgiveness for us towards them. It’s probably not going to be a short road!

 

What do I say to people who point to this situation and say, “All Christians are hypocrites.”

Well – frankly, everyone is guilty of hypocrisy in some way shape or form. When we take a position of judgement on someone else, we are probably conveniently forgetting everything we would rather keep hidden in our own lives.

But even tho Christians are as broken as everyone else, Christianity has always from the beginning focussed on developing some particular areas of virtue. N T Wright observes that these 1st-century virtues were distinctly Christian:[6]

  • Patience
  • Chastity
  • Forgiveness
  • Kindness

Christians just admit their need to grow in these and other virtues. And as we grow in virtue, we become ever more conscious of our weaknesses. As the old hymn says:

And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would serve Thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.[7]

I am not perfect. But – I’m painfully aware of my weak spots. And I’m pretty sure I’d be a whole lot worse if I was not a Christian.

Maybe you aren’t a Christian and you think that, “Well, I’m not a Christian and I’m doing just fine thanks.” Well – maybe you are doing better than me in your life. But what additional potential awaits you if you were to become a follower of Jesus? Lots!

 

But what if I’m wounded and I just don’t trust the church anymore?

Perhaps we need to heal, and to take the opportunity to do that.

But if we are a Christian who remains isolated from church family, we will lose a lot. And – we will struggle to hang on to our faith in Christ. As N T Wright says, find another good Christian church where you will receive kindness, affirmation and friendship.[8] That’s what the church is for, and it’s what all Christians need.

[1] Hebrews 2:10.

[2] Matthew 18:1-6.

[3] Ask N T Wright Anything Podcast, 33. #31 Jean Vanier and when leaders let us down, February 28th, 2020.

[4] Matthew 6:12.

[5] Romans 3:23-24, NLT.

[6] N T Wright, podcast.

[7] At Even When the Sun Was Set, hymnal.net, https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/757.

[8] N. T. Wright, podcast.

Surviving Philosophy Class

So – it’s the first day of your new Philosophy 101 class. Now, this is not a subject you know too much about, so you are a bit nervous. But – at the same time – you want to learn as much as you can from this class. So – you select a seat on the front row, and you sit down.

The professor greets the class and he says, “Here are five common Philosophical statements that you’ll hear regularly in our culture.” He starts writing…

 

  1. There is no God.
  2. You do not have free will.
  3. You do not know that you exist.
  4. You do not know that other people exist.
  5. You will not escape the death of your body.

 

He turns to face the class. “Sound familiar?”

You review the list and, for sure, numbers 1, 2 and 5 ring a bell for you! But what about 3 and 4? Actually – he’s made an interesting point. How DO I know that I exist…not to mention the other students in the room…and the professor himself?

The professor speaks again. I’m going to show you in a couple of minutes now how we are going to address each of these common philosophical statements in this class. And – by the way – I think all five of these statements are WRONG. Here’s why:”

 

1. We can argue that GOD EXISTS.

The Kalam Cosmological argument points to the universe and says this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

 

2. You DO have Free Will

Studies on human consciousness and how we engage in the world as conscious beings give us overwhelming evidence that we do possess free will. And – frankly – we live each day of our lives assuming that fact. Besides – there is no good reason to suppose that you and I do not possess free will.

 

3. You DO Know that You Exist

Descartes in the 16th century said, “I think, therefore I am.” By this he meant that, because I am thinking, I can know that I exist. If I ponder my existence and attempt to convince myself that I do NOT exist, I am therefore engaging in conscious thought what proves that I do in fact exist.

 

4. You CAN Trust Your Senses and Know that Other People Exist

Think about the people that matter most to you. Now, it seems to me we have a choice of three actions we can take here:

  1. Truth neither our reason nor our senses and dismiss everything. But this seems pointless.
  2. Trust our reason but not our senses. But why would we do that? It seems wholly inconsistent.
  3. Trust our reason and our senses and believe in the external world, and therefore the people who live there.

Philosopher Thomas Reid concluded, our reasoning faculties as, “all fitted by Nature to produce belief in the human mind, some of them in the highest degree, which we call certainty, others in various degrees according to circumstances.”[1]

5. You Have A Soul

People all have a strong intuition that they are disembodiable. In other words, we sense that we could still exist even if our bodies did not. Now we may dismiss that intuition with our reason…but the intuition remains all the same. Well – this is the idea that we HAVE bodies, but we are not “one and the same” with out bodies.

There is evidence that this is how the world works. Consider your parents or grandparents. Their bodies have grown old, but they have the sense that they as persons have not. The professor scratches his head. “I can’t believe I’m 51,” he exclaims, “but you’re as old as you feel…right?

Also, your body is divisible, but you aren’t. Imagine you are involved in an accident and you lose one of your fingers. Are you any less a person as a result? Sure, your capacity for achieving intricate actions with your hands may be impaired, so your actions and your approaches to life might be affected. But have you lost a bit of yourself by losing a finger? How about a leg? No – you are still you. You just need to adjust to living life in a slightly different way.

What about your brain? Sure, brain states have physical properties. But you also have mental states that do not have physical properties. Areas of the brain fire when exposed to stimuli. But you can’t scan the brain and find evidence of the red unicorn you were just thinking about. This suggests two different things. Your brain states are caused by the firing of neurons in the brain. And this is linked in a mysterious way to mental states, experiences in your soul. Hey – there are many things in life that we know to exist, but cannot see. Is the soul that much different from those?

Conclusion

The professor puts down the pen and eyes the class. “Right,” he says. “Any questions?”

Adapted from Philosophy 101 You are Wrong About Everything, https://thedailyapologist.com/philosophy-101-you-are-wrong-about-everything/

[1] Cuneo, Terence, and René van Woudenberg. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 150.

Why Empathy Can’t Ground Morality

 Showing empathy to another person is a highly moral thing to do. But can empathy ground morality itself? Is the following meme right?

I think the point being made here is that human morality is actually best grounded on the ability of people to empathise with others, to put oneself in their shoes and to sense where they are coming from. So, differentiating right from wrong simply requires empathy. And – by the way – religion is irrelevant. (of course)

Here’s a more rigorous version of this kind of argument proposed by Michael Stolte:

  1. We can come to know the warmth or coldness of an agent’s motives by empathy.
  2. Moral goodness or virtue consists in being a warm-hearted person, a badness or vice in being cold-hearted toward others.
  3. So, we can come to know the virtue or vice of others by empathy.[1]

I’m totally a fan of empathy. We need more of it in the world today! There would be less conflict if we took time to understand the other’s position. I myself have made it a priority to practice empathy wherever and whenever I can. I’ve not been as good as I could have – I need to improve. But – I want to.

Here’s the problem, tho. To suggest that human morality can be defined as our ability to sense where the other person is warm or cold hearted? Or to choose our moral actions solely on the basis of the other person’s cold or warm heartedness? It just doesn’t make sense.

 

#1 – Behaving Morally is not about being Warm Hearted

I can very easily seem to be doing the right thing, when inside I am not. Look, to be honest I can leave the house and speak to people very warmly all evening, all the while knowing that before I left I had an argument with my wife and I said some pretty unkind things that will need to be apologized for. Warm heartedness is good for building relationships with people, but it says nothing about my own virtuous state.

Personal morality is about showing virtue.

Surely a virtuous person is someone who shows courage. When they face undeserved accusation or persecution, they seek to courageously find a solution to the problem. They don’t just run away or hit back randomly. They exercise courage…and add to that patience and wisdom too. These are measures of virtue.

What about honesty? You don’t need to be particularly warm hearted to be honest. If you are the Finance Director of your company, honesty will pay dividends and may ensure the survival of the company, while empathy may help whilst chatting with your colleagues over lunch. Honesty is a truly virtuous character trait.

So – warm heartedness is great, but it doesn’t get you to becoming a moral, virtuous person.

 

#2 – Being Too Empathic Could Lead to Immoral Decisions

I think there are scenarios where relying too much on empathy could lead us to make immoral choices. What do I mean?

Here’s a terrible and extreme example. Imagine there is another 9-11 style terror attack. You, as a commander in the US Air Force, suddenly find yourself with two F19’s tailing a full Boeing 777 which is heading towards Manhattan. On board, the terrorists have stated their intention to recreate the horrific events of that previous tragedy. Also on board are over 460 passengers and crew members. Looking at the manifest – you have families on board. What do you do?

Well, if the moral action is dictated solely by empathy, you are going to be in a pickle. You will feel for all the thousands of people and fire crews working in Manhattan. But you will also feel for all the innocent people on board the plane! So, on empathy alone, are you going to make the tough and tragic call to shoot down the plane? You’ll probably be left stumbling over the right thing to do. And surely waiting too long, will result in bad consequences that could have been avoided. Surely an immoral choice?

You might say, well we need to consider the number of people involved here in this situation. There are fewer people on the plane…so fewer lives would be lost and many more would be saved. In this case, you are making a moral argument for the action based on practical factors, a sort of utilitarian approach. Well – that is fine, but you may have had to detach yourself from your empathy to make that clear headed decision? At the very least, empathy has failed in allowing you to choose right from wrong. So you’ve had to switch to something else – utility.

 

#3 Morality Isn’t About How Anyone Feels

What I mean is that, while people’s feelings are important, morality is about something different. One way of defining morality is like this. Acting morally is about being disposed to actively praise or blame someone based on a baseline expectation that everyone shares the same disposition you do.[2]

So, as a shop keeper, when you see the young kid come in, pick up a 6 pack of beer, and walk out of the shop, you are justified in actively responding to this situation. You run after him. You expect that everyone knows you should NOT steal. It is immoral. Sure, it’s also illegal. But first, its morally wrong. And knowing that everyone is on board with that perspective, you don’t just wave at him as he leaves. You chase him to get the beers back. Even if no human beings existed to steal beers from your shop…stealing would still be morally wrong.

Now – if you are a moral relativist you will have some issues with me there. (!) But my main point here is that empathy played no part at all in the situation I described. An overly empathic shop keeper might have let the kid get away with it. But he would not be doing that kid any good – he would be harming him morally. That kid needs to know there are consequences, right? If he doesn’t learn consequences, he might sear the moral capacity within him so badly that he grows up to think he can do whatever he likes.

Morality isn’t about how people feel. Rather, it’s about knowing that everyone knows there’s just some things that you don’t do, and others that you can do.

 

#4 There Is a Grounding for Objective Morality – God

To determine what is objectively right from wrong – you need an absolute standard to measure against. We do this all the time in many walks of life, and also in moral issues. When someone steals my beer, they are doing something that’s objectively wrong. And so – I will rightly challenge them. When something is objectively wrong or objectively right, it means that the moral status of that action is independent of people. Even if there are no people, the moral law stands.

So – if there are no people to ground this moral law on, where is it grounded from? It’s not religion, because religions are a human expression. Religions involve humans, if there are no humans then no religion. So how do we ground this moral law?

The Moral Law sure has power over us in life. People are always taking moral stands on one thing or another, whether it’s racism, the rights of the unborn child or poverty. Where does this powerful law that affects everyone – come from? It can’t come from people? Surely the only one capable of grounding such a thing is the creator of the universe?

[1] M. Slote, Moral Sentimentalism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), quoted in Antii Kauppinen, “Empathy as the Moral Sense,” Philosophia (2017) 45:867-879.

[2] Antii Kauppinen, Empathy as the Moral Sense, Philosophia (2017) 45:867-879.

Are Atheists More Intelligent?

Showing your Christian convictions online leads to some people assuming you are probably irrational and so unable to think critically and logically. Now, as someone with an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and two post graduate degrees in other fields (and a career in the development and application of embedded software) I’ve always scratched my head at this state of affairs. Why would anyone I don’t know, automatically assume that I am not an analytical or critical thinker? That I’m stupid? This feels like … bias. And maybe even raw prejudice. But is it generally true? Are atheists just generally smarter people?

One helpful person on Twitter assured me that the majority of Christians today are “poor and ignorant” souls. Well, a very recent study was done by Zuckerman and Miron, and their conclusion may bear out this Twitter opinion. The study says that “our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational.”[1] Atheists are more rational that believers.

This is a fascinating conclusion. I think it struggles to account for a broad range of contemporary evidence suggesting atheists are generally no smarter than believers.

Let me explain.

First – because recent history is full of influential critical, scientific thinkers who were professing Christians.

Did you know that in the twentieth century, over 65% of Nobel Prize winners in science believed in God? That’s between 1901 and 2000. The majority were Christians, receiving awards for advancements in physics and medicine. Surely these fields require analytical, critical and logical thinking, and these individuals were at the very top of this game?[2]

Throw the net further afield, and the most recent study that explored the relationship between scientists and religious faith shows that over 51% of currently active professional scientists in the last 10 years have a religious belief.[3]

Clearly this data makes a compelling case that it is not a disadvantage to have a religious belief when it comes to an analytical job like a field of science. Actually – as an aside – I would argue that ALL people have a faith position. Everyone. We just disagree on the identity of the real God.

In summary then, I feel the assumption that atheists are smarter than Christians is not borne out in the field of science. In fact, the data might suggest the opposite conclusion, as more religious believers are Nobel Laureates.

Second – because there is evidence that the conclusions of the Zuckerman study were driven by skewed data and (ironically) incorrect correlations between data and their conclusion.

The problems with this recent study are discussed in the video, “Are Atheists More Intelligent”[4] and they make a rational, analytical and critical case. They argue that there is evidence that:

  1. The higher our IQ, the more likely we are to have a blind spot on our personal biases.
  2. The Zuckerman study defines religiosity in a confusing way, focussing on extreme viewpoints rather than the mainstream and conflating different viewpoints. On mainstream religiosity the data does not suggest Christians are disadvantaged regarding intelligence.
  3. The study does not quantify how much more intelligent atheists are compared to religious believers.
  4. Believers outnumber atheists in this study by 9 to 1. The equations they use does not work on this sort of skew in the data, so it generates misleading results that suggests atheists IQ was significantly higher. Yet this is not seen in the data they used. This renders the study results meaningless.
  5. Their measure of intelligence was completely non-standard, and ignored the gold standard measurements – Wechslier Adult Scale of Intelligence (WAIS) and Stanford Binet Test. They didn’t properly correlate religiosity to these gold standards.
  6. When they included university GPA scores, the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers was virtually non-existent and too small to have any practical significance. Did they choose not to include this measure because it adversely affected their misleading conclusions to the study? I wonder.

The folks analysing this study suggest that what is happening here is that Zuckerman et al are actually shoe-horning their own anti-Christian biases into this data.

Third – because there is mounting evidence that Christians in post Christian cultures are smart people.

Inspiring Philosophy also cite another recent study which makes an interesting observation about Christians in post-Christian cultures. In countries like England (where I happen to live), the link between analytical thinking and religiosity reverses. Here, it’s the atheists who tend towards less analytical thought. Why? Because for most people, there is a desire to conform to the mainstream, which may be atheism. The deeper thinkers are the ones who choose a different view on religiosity.

“In cultures where institutional religion is waning and where acceptance of atheism arises from tendencies to conform, it is possible that cognitive reflection may predict the rejection of atheism, a matter for future investigation.”[5]

This seems to suggest that people with low analytic intelligence tend to confirm to the majority view, whatever that is. This study suggests that to be a Christian believer in post-Christian England clearly takes work and the application of intelligence.

Conclusion

Atheists aren’t smarter than Christians. Contrary to the bullying and intimidation that happens online, and the prejudice that is sometimes shown against Christian believers, there is no convincing reason to suggest that higher levels of analytical thinking lead to atheism. So Christians should not feel any need to feel intimidated by those who are simply going along with the crowd, and repeating old atheistic ideas. When you take a good look at them, these ideas really do not hold up to scrutiny.

 

[1] Zuckerman, Miron, et al, The Negative Intelligence-Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2019, 10, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[2] John Lennox, How Many Nobel Prize Winners Believed in God, 23rd January 2019, accessed 26th January 2020, https://www.johnlennox.org/resources/145/how-many-nobel-prize-winners.

[3] Scientists and Belief, Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life, November 5th, 2009, accessed 26th January, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/.

[4] “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[5] Gervais, Will M. et al, Analytical Atheism: A Cross-Culturally Weak and Fickle Phenomenon?, 2017, 272, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

Evolution and the Origin of Information Problem

My smartphone pings and the screen lights up. What do you do when you notice a message? Well, if I know the language it’s written in, I can’t help but read the message so I can understand what it is saying to me. What do I assume about this message? “Someone wrote it for a reason.” What thought NEVER crosses my mind? “This message arrived out of the ether without someone having written it first.” I’ve never ever considered that as a possibility. Even automated messages from my phone carrier company Vodaphone…were originally conceived by a person, even if they were sent automatically.

The message was from my wife. “What time are you home tonight for tea?”

It seems to me we make consistent assumptions about the personal source of messages, and this holds in virtually every area of life … except maybe one. Biology.

I was having a conversation with someone recently about the Darwinian theory of evolution and I brought up the problem of the origin of the information that is embedded in life’s biological structures. “Where does this information come from? Doesn’t this matter?” These questions seemed to be no barrier to believing that life occurred in a naturalistic evolutionary way for my friend. The origin of the information did not seem an issue, biological change and adaption of different species was the important thing to him. He seemed happy to accept that life developed naturally, simple single celled organisms all the way up to complex animals with skeletal structures and body plans.

One of my big problems with naturalistic evolutionary models is the origin of information problem. We know so much more than Darwin did in the 1860s. We’ve discovered that life carries a staggering amount of digital information around within it. Instructions like DNA, managing the production of proteins, systems to correct the errors that occur in the copying of the genetic code through natural means, and the hardwired instructions for building a particular animal body plan. This is a problem for evolutionary theory.

I’m not alone in being sceptical about naturalistic evolution as an explanation for the presence of life on this planet. Stephen Meyer puts it like this:

“Whenever we find functional information – whether embedded in a radio signal, carved in a stone monument, etched on a magnetic disc, or produced by an origin-of-life scientist attempting to engineer a self-replicating molecule – and we trace that information back to its ultimate source, invariably we come to a mind, not merely a material process. For this reason, the discovery of digital information in even the simplest living cells indicates the prior activity of a designing intelligence at work in the origin of the first life.”[1]

It seems to me that the issue is not whether genetic mutations and natural selection both occur. They certainly do. There is much natural evidence of both of these phenomena, although mutations tend to have a negative influence on particular beings (one dreads a cancer diagnosis in a family member). No – the question is, can random mutation and natural selection account for the rich volumes of digital information that scientists read and interpret in the various genome projects underway today?

Information theorist Henry Quastler observed this – “The creation of information is habitually associated with conscious activity.”[2] Information can’t find it origin in naturalistic processes. This is simply a category error. There are multiple categories of explanation available to us when explaining anything. Something may happen as a result of natural causes – or an agent may cause the event to occur. When it comes to explaining the origin of information, the rational way to go here – is to assume the originating influence of a conscious agent.

Lennox is fond of explaining it this way. To explain the car engine, we might discuss the physics of internal combustion, or we might talk about Henry Ford. Both are rational explanations and both are necessary for accounting for an engine. In terms of life origins, we can therefore expand out the analogy to say this. God no more competes with science as an explanation of life than Henry Ford competes with science as an explanation of the car engine. God’s an Agent-Creator explanation of the universe, not a scientific explanation.[3]

Evolutionary theory has great influence on how people think about and understand the world and its history. There are many different forms of this theory, and not all struggle with the problem I am pointing to in this blog – the origin of information. But naturalistic evolutionary theories – the ones that want to render God unnecessary in nature – certainly do. It’s a headscratcher for sure.

[1] Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (London:Harper Collins, 2013), 72

[2] Quastler, “The Emergence of Biological Organization,” 16, quoted in Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (London:Harper Collins, 2013), 72.

[3] John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything, (The Good Book Company, 2019), 384.

The “Faith” of Dracula

In their new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have said they continued to respect the Christian themes that run through the original novel. The Count still cringes at the sight of the cross, and the church is central.  By the way – if you are thinking of watching the new Dracula series – be warned that it is not for the feint hearted. There are some very gruesome scenes in there.

I am a fan of Gatiss and Moffat. But I must say, while I agree that they have included Christian characters and situations, I don’t think they really understand what Christianity is. They may claim they are building on Christian history in this story. I’m skeptical. Tho I agree they absolutely are building on the tradition of horror cinema from the past 40 years.

One of their most interesting characters is Sister Agatha, played by Dolly Wells. She appears to be a snarky and disillusioned Catholic Nun with an analytic mind. I enjoyed the way she worked to outwit the infamous Count. The story, particularly in the first episode, is masterfully crafted by Moffat and Gatiss. BUT- I was bemused by their understanding of the word “faith.”

At one point in the first episode, Sister Agatha rolls her eyes at the seeming naivety of the other sisters in her religious order. “Have faith,” they encouraged her. Agatha’s reply is piercing.

“Faith is a sleeping draft for children and simpletons. What we must have is a plan.”

The phrase “sleeping draught” comes from Stoker’s original novel, and I think it refers to the shot of whisky or strong spirit that people may take to help them fall sleep at night. What Agatha is saying is that faith is dangerous because it lulls us to sleep. Faith causes us to lose our creative edge, and that is dangerous for intelligent people who are true problem solvers. If we are wise, we will avoid religious faith.

I would suggest that this shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Christian faith. While it’s dramatically powerful to show Sister Agatha as a disillusioned Nun, to hear her confusion about Christianity is – well – rather odd. It’s the current post-Christian cultural confusion about the roots of Western society … placed into a devout character in a historical setting. That’s weird and anachronistic to me.

 

What’s Faith?

Well – it’s not a complicated or even a particularly religious idea. Faith simply means – confidence, trust and reliance.

 

What’s the Misunderstanding Today?

The problem is, our culture has swallowed the idea that there is a disconnect between faith and evidence and reason. In fact, people today (including the writers of Dracula) think faith is the OPPOSITE of reason. We get that from Sister Agatha. When we learn about something, the need for faith vanishes. But more than that, our culture dismisses Christianity because it they don’t think it contains anything knowable…the need of faith betrays the pointlessness of religion. “One needs faith in religious or moral claims because there is no knowledge that these claims are true, no evidence either way for them.”[1] If that’s the sort of religion that Sister Agatha is embroiled in, then no wonder she is disillusioned and wants to run from it. It’s pointless and, in the face of a cunning enemy, highly dangerous. But you need to know – this is not – and never has been – what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite. If “faith” is really about confidence, trust and reliance then in those terms, knowledge is absolutely crucial. Why? Because we cannot trust something or someone we do not know anything about. Knowledge is essential in the building of that trust! Do you see the misunderstanding about faith in the words of Sister Agatha?

 

Replying to Sister Agatha

Is faith about being simple, and not knowing?

Not at all. Faith is about knowledge. The Greek word “notitia” refers to the CONTENT of faith. This is learning about how to develop a Christian understanding of the world, and what the Bible teaches. I’ve spent many years on this task, and there is so MUCH to know and contend for. In fact, it inspired this blog. The Jude in the New Testament wrote:

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”[2]

Clearly there is much to KNOW and apply in life. And more than that, we must proactively stand up for this in culture around us.

Is faith about turning off our rational faculties?

In my experience, the opposite is involved when growing in faith. Why? Partly because of “notitia,” the knowing element. But it is also because of a second element.

Faith is about agreement, or “assensus.” Personal agreement to live this way. This means that its not enough to rationally grasp and know the contents of Christianity. We also have to ACCEPT this teaching as true.

There may be very good reasons why we may not want to do that. Maybe the teaching is hard! Why? Because it challenges some deeply held patterns of behaviour in my life that are wrong, but I do not want to give up. I know its right to change. I just don’t want to. Or, maybe my prior experience has left me struggling to accept what Christianity says. If I grew up in an abusive home environment, accepting God as father may be really hard for me!

Is faith is about becoming passive and not acting?

Again – absolutely not. The Greek word “fiducia” is used to describe this in faith terms. We have to wilfully choose to commit to, and partner with God in every aspect of our lives. Christianity isn’t a set of abstract terms. Its actually an engagement with a God who we can know. And its about actually having a life that reflects what Christianity is.

 

So – does faith involve an absence of rationality, engagement and action? Absolutely not – it requires the most from us in all three areas!

 

How would I reply to Sister Agatha? “We don’t need faith … we need a plan,” she said. Can you see now that a proper understanding of faith involves gathering all the resources for approaching life and its challenges? (I’m assuming this also applies to the undead but I’ve not tried it) And even more than that, it is about facing these challenges together with God, not on our own.

 

“To trust Him is not a leap in the dark, but it is a venture none the less. It is a venture of courage and not of despair, of insight and not of bewilderment.”

P. T. Forsyth, The Creative Theology of P. T. Forsyth

 

[1] J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2008), 18.

[2] Jude 3.

 

Best of 2019

Hope you had a great holiday period, and I warmly wish you all the best for 2020. May this be a decade that is full of exciting new opportunities for you.

 

This year, I continued submitting content and my readership grew. Thanks to everyone who helped me there! I also further refined the purpose of Respond blog.

 

The Purpose of Respond blog

My aim is to present compelling arguments that support the Christian worldview. In as much as people wish to discuss aspects of these arguments, I’m very happy and willing to do so. It is one of the reasons I invest my time in this blog, in fact.

For those who simply wish to “shout down” my blog, then my response is – “Okay. God bless you. Feel free to move along now.” My goal is absolutely not to shout louder than these folks. Quite the opposite. I am confident in the cogency of these arguments. I do not need to shout louder.

Please feel free to discuss the arguments and associated conclusions in a congenial manner … I wish to talk in this way, thank you.

 

The Top Four Blogs

Of the 67 blogs I published this year, my most popular posts are:

#1 DNA and an Argument for God

I’m arguing that biology isn’t simply like highly engineered artifacts of engineering, biology really is a highly engineered artefact in its own right.

 

#2 Couldn’t God Create a World Where Evil Doesn’t Exist?

I’m arguing that God cannot create a world of genuinely freely willed creatures, where there is no evil present in that world.

 

#3 Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

Apart from the story of my own one time – seemingly miraculous rescue, here I’m arguing that it would not do us any good if God miraculously rescued everyone all the time.

 

#4 “Evolution” Doesn’t Get You to Human Morality

Despite what many people think, I’m furthering the argument that evolutionary arguments don’t get you to human morality. They don’t even get us to truth, because they are only about survival.

 

Most Influential Books

I’ve read lots this year. And I’ve grown as a Christian believer. Here’s are my top four. I heartily recommend all of them to you.

Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis

I used to view C S Lewis as a distant and brilliant academic. He is still both of these things. But, he’s also a man after my own heart. His journey from childhood belief to hardened and cynical atheism thru to full devotion to Christ and the life of the Christian mind…is truly breath taking to me. I am so grateful to Lewis for writing his autobiography. And I’m also grateful to Jerry Root for opening it up to me this year in a fresh and compelling way.

Pierced for Our Transgressions, Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach

Often, I find people’s understanding of how the Bible presents the crucifixion of Christ to be simplistic and one dimensional. I’m aware that often I treat it in simplistic ways myself. But in Pierced, I’ve seen a wonderful treatment of the issues and the implications of the death of the Son of God, his punishment in our place.

The Soul, J. P. Moreland

I have made further advances in understanding “substance dualism” this year. And I am indebted to the beautiful soul who is J. P. Moreland for teaching me. Both in the classroom at BIOLA University, and this glorious yet accessible treatment.

Scientism and Secularism, J. P. Moreland

It is – quite simply – a myth that Christianity is at war with 21st century science. It isn’t. They are complementary. My thumb and my forefinger might point in different directions. But used together, I can grasp things. Well, J. P. lays out the real enemy of the Christian faith today. It’s called scientism, the idea that only the application of the scientific method is capable of attaining real truth and truthful discovery. Apart from the fact that this statement is self-contradictory, it is also highly noxious and dangerous for people. Whether we realise this or not!

Why Does God Let a Child Die?

When my wife miscarried our first child, we did not know why it happened. When I sat with my parents as my sister died of cancer, I saw in their eyes the same question, “Why?” This week, I gave some financial support to a family whose young daughter is currently fighting cancer. I want them to experience a happy ending to this horrendous roller coaster of cancer. But I have no control over their outcome.

The singer songwriter Gary Barlow put the devastating experience of the still birth of his daughter Poppy like this:

A head full of madness
And no where safe
When tears aren’t big enough,
And love turns into hate[1]

I don’t know why God allows particular children to die. I would not presume to give you an answer to that question. And in the rawness of this loss, there are no answers to give, only love and support. If that is where you are at right now – please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you, and my hope is that you have people around you that can grieve with you.

But as I’ve lived in the aftermath of my own loss, as the years have passed for me, I have come to make some important general observations that could help those who are further down the road with loss. I do not think the death of children somehow represents evidence that there is no God. Actually – quite the reverse is true. I think these losses speak of God’s good character.

What do I mean?

Well – I’m guessing that you, like me, value your free will? Ultimately, you don’t want to be forced into going along with anything, right? You make up your own mind, and you have a will that you intend to use. Also – presumably you, like me, put a lot of respect onto the observations of science. You notice how scientific methods have allowed us to work out how the physical laws work in our universe?

Here’s the thing. When children tragically die, it is usually the result of some form of natural event. Perhaps it is neglect. Maybe the result of natural law. For example, the law of gravity means that our planet orbits the sun. But it also means that if a child falls far enough, they will die. Disease is something we often cannot predict, but its relentlessly natural. It’s a destructive process that wreaks havoc on the child’s young body, and doctors can often observe the process unfolding. Natural law in motion.

Children do die in our world. Often it is preventable. But not always.

How are we going to change that? Well – let me ask the question another way. If children are not going to die for these reasons, then how long should they be indestructible for? Because that’s what we would be asking for. Right? If children must not die – they must necessarily be indestructible. Natural law is still law. Falling would still be a possibility, neglect and disease a risk. If children were not to die as a result, then none of these things would harm them. Perhaps because their bodies are impregnable, or because God miraculously intervenes every time to rescue them. So – the question is – how long should children stay indestructible? To what age?

It’s an absurd question, right? Here are some more significant problems with a world filled with indestructible children:[2]

1 – People would fail to learn that irresponsible actions towards children result in tragic consequences. We would not learn to act responsible towards children if they could not be harmed. The vulnerability of the young must be a constant reminder of our need to care for them properly.

2 – We would have unmistakable evidence that God absolutely does exist. Because kids would be supernaturally saved. And what would that do? It would be an onslaught on our own, personal free will. We would not be free to choose whether or not to believe in God because his reality would be staring us in the face. Yet that’s not how God wants it to be. He wants things so that we can choose whether or not to believe, and so that we are not coerced in any way.

3 – Tragedy like the death of a child teaches and moulds us as people. And while it can make some people very bitter indeed, if we respond to it in the right way, it can form courage and compassion for others within us. It can make us people who patiently support other people who are suffering the pain of loss.

 

You know, I love my children and my grandchildren deeply. I will do everything in my power to fight for their health, their safety, and I want to enable them to grow and flourish in their lives. But none of these kids can be my ultimate source of happiness. Because I do not know what the future holds. There must be a firmer place to locate my security and my happiness. And this is God’s call to me, I think. To find it primarily in relationship with him.

Barlow goes on in his song to say:

Fly high and let me go
That sky will save your soul
When you pass by then you’ll know
That this gonna take a bit of getting used to
But I know what’s right for you
Let me go[3]

In a sense, I agree with him. The time must come when we must let that lost little one go. But it’s not the sky that’ll save your soul. Rather, it’s the God who might not be answering your “why?” question, but offers security and happiness in the midst of this loss.

And what of the children that I, and my friends and family have lost? What of them? Well, Christians observe evidence from the Bible that suggests that young ones go straight to the wonder and safety of God’s presence if they die before they have had a chance to really live.[4] Whether they die inside or outside the womb…these little ones are safe in God’s hands. That’s the Christian’s hope for the child that has been lost. A firm hand under us as we grieve.

[1] Let Me Go (Gary Barlow Song), accessed 27th November, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_Me_Go_(Gary_Barlow_song).

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers to Life’s Toughest Questions, (Harvest House Publishers, 2017).

[3] Barlow.

[4] For example, 2 Samuel 12:22.

 

Rise of the Machines?

This summer, I had lunch with Doctor Mihretu Guta at Biola University. Mihretu specialises in the areas of metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. That particular day over lunch, he was speaking to us about his assessment of the field of artificial intelligence. And he has some fascinating observations to make here. You can listen to Mihretu talk about AI on Sean McDowell’s recent podcast.[1]

I would summarise his important points like this:

 

First – today we enjoy the benefits of weak AI.

We’ve got very useful computer based tools available to us today. Our phones incorporate facial recognition technology, self-driving cars are coming on line, we use SIRI to help us talk to and locate people, and we can order products from Amazon that get to us incredibly quickly. These are partly to do with computer tools, or weak AI.

What is weak AI? It is a machine which is fed an algorithm, a set of instructions that we gave it. It follows those instructions correctly, quickly and hopefully reliably!

By convention, we call these things AI. But these technologies are not thinking machines. They are not engaging in conscious thought. They are simply doing what we told them to do, and triggering on certain events to achieve certain tasks.

 

Second – strong AI is what some people are trying to get to.

In strong AI, people are talking about a conscious machine. Something that becomes creative and begins to spawn its own machines. But it is hard to see how you can get from a machine following an algorithm to a machine creating brand new algorithms out of its own creativity.

 

Third – we sometimes speak of weak AI like it is strong AI.

A confusion occurs in culture.

The AI we are talking about today is purely functional. It is doing tasks within a very specific context. It is not a thinking, creative machine that decides what it wants to do and works out its own way to do it. But – we begin to talk like it is. We import ideas from books and movies we like, and sometimes we fool ourselves that our cool gadgets are strong AI.

We may talk of strong AI, but there are issues to face when trying to create it:

1 – We are the thinking beings here, and we are the ones inventing machines. Thinking always requires a thinker to be somewhere. We therefore have ONTOLOGICIAL SUPERIORITY over machines. We are always the ones that built them.

2 – However clever our machines appear to be, they cannot take away from us our ontological superiority over them.

3 – Miharetu does not think people have a metaphysical property as rational beings to bring about a conscious being that is similar in kind to us.

4 – Miharetu is joined in this scepticism toward strong AI by John Searle, who is a naturalistic philosopher of mind. Searle also rejects the notion that we can invent a strong AI.

 

Fourth – an important step to strong AI is an understanding of consciousness.

We have to understand what consciousness is before we can create machines that are conscious. Yet no one is even thinking about this. He observes that the AI researchers today usually dismiss the subject of consciousness in 3 lines. They haven’t even tried to grapple with this area.

Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

Machines aren’t conscious. We cannot even articulate what our consciousness is, never mind imbue some machine with it.

 

Five – we are simply of a different order from our machines.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

[1] Artificial Intelligence and Our View of Human Persons, Think Biblically Podcast, accessed 19th November 2019, https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/artificial-intelligence-our-view-human-persons-mihretu/id1300837524?i=1000453915653.