Friday, February 14, 2014

The Theist Prayer Experiment

Back in late 2012, Justin Brierley of the infamous Unbelievable? podcast presented an experiment in which, for a specific length of time, atheists would engage in some form of a prayer life on a daily basis. It was called the Atheist Prayer Experiment. The idea was to see if praying to God and asking him to reveal himself to them would set in motion a set of internal experiences that would result in atheists changing their minds about the existence of God. At the end of the day, the experiment resulted in 2 out of 71 participants moving from a lack of belief in God to some form of theism.

Not exactly a win for Justin and his crew, but interesting nonetheless. If nothing else, it was a refreshing break from the academically inclined nature of most interactions between the worlds of theism and atheism. After all, why shouldn't personal experience be brought into the conversational arena when the dialogue concerns belief in a being that supposedly has the ability to engage with his creation on the most personal level? I applaud Justin for his courage, and followed the experiment with eager anticipation.

Now that all is said and done, I figured I would make an attempt to issue my own challenge in a similar vein. But rather than challenging atheists to "try Jesus" and see what happens, I want to issue the challenge to theists this time. I begin, as the theists do, with a hypothetical truth claim - if God does not exist, one would expect experiential encounters with him to be a product of mental conditioning, illusion, and wishful thinking. What the believer interprets as genuine communication with the Divine would be nothing more than psychological self-stimulation, and could be potentially written off as such. If there is no God, or at least not one whom the believer has a "personal relationship" with, then all supposed indications of such a relationship should be capable of being called into question.

With that, I give you the Theist Prayer Experiment. There are three facets to it, and all three should be practiced in order to get the full effect of the test. They are as follows:


1. This one takes some work to get right. One needs to be very aware of the actual physiological impact of prayer in order to make it work. I will trust my audience to be rigorous. In prayer, one often experiences feelings of peace or tranquility, or alternatively, feelings of shame and guilt. But such feelings can often have a physiological component to them. Bear with me here. Pay very close attention to the physical (however subtle) changes that you experience while praying. Do you feel your spine tingling when the Holy Spirit is communing with you? Do your eyes tend to go back into your head? Does you engage in deeper breathing than normal? Does your chest tighten/loosen? What changes to you feel emotionally?

My challenge to you is this: Do not allow these physical symptoms to run their course. If the Holy Spirit is truly communicating with you on a spiritual level, such communication should not be impacted by a change in the physical aspects of the experience. In fact, if what you are feeling in your heart relies on what you feel physically, that is strong evidence that what you are experiencing may be purely physiological. Do you feel that tingle of the spine? Notice it, and refuse to feel it. Do you feel your breathing change? Notice it, and try to turn it off. Make the experience a fully spiritual one. See what happens. If you find that your communion with the Holy Spirit disappears without these physiological aspects in place, and you are left with nothing but your own mind looking back at you, it may be cause for question. It may be the case that your prayer life is purely a manipulation of your internal chemistry, and you may find that you have no basis for ascribing supernatural intervention to it.

2. This one is going to be unpleasant, and may in fact be impossible for some. I want to challenge you to "test every spirit" and see if you are actually communicating with a specific God, or are in fact communicating with your own mind. If you are a Christian, for example, the test works like this: prepare yourself for a serious session of prayer as you always would. Get on your knees, or into whatever position/location you usually prefer when you pray. Prepare your heart for God's presence. Now I want you to simply change the name of the Being in whose name you are praying. Instead of saying "God, I come before you in the name of Christ," say "God I come before you in the name of Muhammad your prophet." I know this will raise conscientious red flags, but if God knows your heart, he knows you don't believe in Islam and a simple experiment should not worry you. Simply pray the way you always do, but with the names changed. See if there is any difference besides your initial feeling of guilt. See if the spiritual communion with the Holy Spirit is any different. And be sincere. Don't hold back. Give yourself over to the God of Muhammad and see if there is any change whatsoever in how the experience plays out. Do you feel the same "spiritual" sensations when praying to a false god? If so, it may be the case that you have simply conditioned yourself to have particular feelings during a particular activity. It may be the case that you are simply playing emotional games with yourself.

3. A key aspect of one's prayer life is the feeling of satisfaction that comes with having laid a particular crises one is facing at the feet of Jesus. That feeling that "everything will be okay." Often this feeling comes with a sense that God has shown you a way out of your predicament. When praying, one's mind is often very clear of other distractions and can focus on the particular issue that one is being plagued by. One can pray for a fairly short amount of time and yet feel like the issue that drove them to pray in the first place has been completely resolved. The practical answer to the specific practical question will seem incredibly clear after it has been brought before the throne of God.

The challenge here is a bit different from the others. In this case, when you feel the need to ask for God's guidance on a particular problem, just take a few minutes that you would have spent praying and instead merely reflect on the problem and see if you can come up with an answer to it yourself. You will need to make sure you do this one several times in order to get the full effect. The thing you should focus on after having reflected on the issue is merely how you feel about it afterwards. Do you feel that you have come to the same peace about it that you would normally achieve after having prayed about it? Has merely applying reason to your current problem rather than asking for help from God made you feel the same internal satisfaction that you would usually get from prayer? If so, it may be time to ask yourself what the cause of your peace truly is.


These tests won't be easy, but you may find them to be quite illuminating. There is no harm in giving it a try. After all, if God is truly with you, you have nothing at all to worry about. He will vindicate your faith. Why not try it for a few weeks, and see how it goes? Be sure to leave feedback in the comments section below.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sye Ten Bruggencate and the Reliability of Scripture

I recently had a conversation with the notorious Christian apologist Sye Ten Bruggencate in the comment section of one of his videos on Youtube. The conversation ended rather abruptly, as he blocked me when I refused to take his standard bait and tell him how I know anything for certain given my worldview. I of course have no problem answering this, but anyone who has dealt with Sye before knows that once that conversation starts, there is no chance of him actually dealing with any other objections one might make against his worldview. So, I chose to ignore the question and ask my own. This lead to my being blocked and, curiously, to several of my comments being deleted.

The deleted comments contained my primary criticism of his position, and one that I feel is not emphasized enough by those who come into contact with Sye, so I thought I would go into it in more detail here. After all, at least here I won't risk being censored by my opponent.

One of Sye's most common claims is that the atheist, if he were being intellectually honest, would have to admit that God, if he exists, could reveal things to us in such a way that we could know them for certain. According to Sye, the Christian God does just that, and does it in several ways. He reveals some things to us through a sort of "inner knowledge," a kind of intuition. We know, even without learning anything about Christianity, that the True God exists. Now, Sye admits that he has no idea what sort of propositions are actually contained in this inner knowledge, but he assures us that such knowledge exists. When I pressed him about what the actual content of this knowledge was, he replied that "they know enough about him sufficient for their condemnation, but not sufficient for their salvation."

How exactly does Sye know this? As he puts it, he knows it because the bible tells him so. According to Sye, the bible is the means by which God reveals details about himself to us, and the knowledge that it imparts is knowledge that we can be absolutely certain is true. For Sye, revealed knowledge from God in the form of (primarily) scripture are the key to escaping the so-called "infinite regress" of non-Christian epistemology. While the unbeliever is forced to justify his reasoning by his reasoning, therefore reasoning in a "vicious" circle, the Christian can appeal to scripture which, as a "revelation from someone who knows everything," can guarantee certain knowledge.

This is just a rough sketch of Sye's position, but I think I have summed it up accurately. I encourage anyone who is curious about it to look him up. Refutations of his apologetic are not hard to come by. But I want to focus on one particular area that I think does get overlooked, and leave the rest in more capable hands.

The Problem of Appealing to Scripture for Absolute Certainty 

The problem that Sye has when he appeals to the bible is that he appeals to it as a means of obtaining knowledge that can be known with absolute certainty. This is much more dangerous for his position than appealing to something like a logical deduction, or some sort of argument that is rationally verified, because the bible is a material artifact that is subject to analysis in a very different way than philosophical argumentation. When we deal with the bible, we are dealing with a source of information that is, by it's very nature, imperfect in what it is capable of conveying to us.

Sye again would admit this, since he claims that the infallibility of our senses (and therefore, presumably, any information transmitter our senses come into contact with) is irrelevant when they are in the divine clutches of a being who is omniscient and omnipotent. Now, for the record, I don't even think we can go this far. I actually do not think an omniscient, omnipotent God could even do that, as I do not think certain knowledge of non self-attesting truths is possible. As Sye says, omnipotence only covers what is possible. Therefore, I have no reason to assume that a god of any sort could do something like this. But, for the sake of argument, I am willing to leave this aside for now.

Let's just assume that God could actually reveal some things to us in such a way that we could know them with absolute certainty. I maintain that, even if that were the case, the bible cannot be appealed to as a source of such knowledge. The reason is quite simple. In order for the propositions in the bible to be known to be true with absolute certainty, we would have to know with absolute certainty that these propositions a) are based on correct interpretation and translation, and b) reliably reflect what was original to the text. Such knowledge is simply not possible, therefore one cannot know with absolute certainty that the propositions put forward in the bible are true.

Now, I need to make it quite clear that I am not arguing that the bible is totally unreliable or that no interpretation can be trusted. I think that we actually can be pretty sure about what the bible actually teaches in most cases. Good scholarship has been done, and is still being done, and it is safe to say that much of what is in our modern bibles, and even a good amount of our interpretations of the text, can be assumed to be correct. But, that does absolutely no good when we start talking about absolute certainty. In order to have absolute certainty that biblical propositions are true, we cannot rely on even the most uncontested data regarding the text's trustworthiness. Our ability to interpret, translate, or verify the original contents of the bible are themselves imperfect, so any absolute knowledge will be completely unreachable. The fact is, even if everything in the bible were absolutely true, and God had stamped his sign of approval on each of the 66 books therein, we would have no way of knowing with absolute certainty if we had grasped that knowledge.

Consider translation. How can we know with absolute certainty that the bible has been properly translated to  perfectly reflect the original intent of the author? As I said before, I think we can be fairly confident in most cases that we do have the correct translation, but how can we be absolutely certain? Without giving a full recap of Deconstruction, I will consider it sufficient to point out that we can not have absolute certainty that we have properly understood the information transmitted to us by someone with whom we are talking to face-to-face, even if we know the same language. We each approach linguistic interaction with baggage that heavily cripples our ability to know for sure what the other person really means to communicate to us. In every interaction, there will be imperfections in our understanding of what we hear, no matter how clearly we think we have understood.

This problem is, of course, compounded significantly when our source of information is two thousand years old and was not written in our native language. There is just no way to know that what we are reading when we open our bibles accurately reflects the original intent of the author. Again, I believe we can be pretty sure, in most cases, that we have a good grasp of the central point the author is conveying, but that is epistemically
worthless when we start talking about absolute certainty.

This is not meant to be taken as some sort of post-modern jargon about our inability to communicate in any meaningful way. I'm not claiming this at all. I've even heard biblical scholars admit these things. But they, like any reasonable person, are fine with it. So what if it is remotely possible that our interpretations are wrong? We all live with a certain level of uncertainty, and the biblical scholars that I heard talk about this issue simply weighed the evidence and put their bets in with the interpretation they found to be the most plausible. Again, it's the way we all live. But Sye's position destroys this. According to him, these scholars don't know shit about the bible, because they admit that they could be wrong about their interpretation.

This inability to be sure about what we read in the bible is illustrated perfectly by the seemingly infinite number of interpretations that are floating around in Christendom. Sye apparently considers the fact that no two Christians can agree on the proper interpretation of a passage of scripture "irrelevant." At least that's what he told me in our interaction. But it is not irrelevant to his position. If Sye wants to claim absolute certainty, he must be able to demonstrate (not just make empty claims about) how he knows his interpretation to be correct.

For example: Sye appeals to Paul's words in Romans 1 when he claims that everyone already knows that God exists and suppresses the truth about him. I would agree with Sye that this is almost definitely what Paul is saying here. But, I do not know that for sure, and in fact there are plenty of Christians who don't think that is what Paul is saying at all. Now, I would have no problem simply writing these Christians off as mistaken, deluded, or possibly ascribing to wishful thinking. But the fact is, I do not know that their interpretations are wrong with absolute certainty. And that level of certainty is what would be required if Sye is right.

Unless and until Sye can tell us how he knows his own interpretations are correct about scripture, his claim that the bible provides him with absolute certainty is meaningless. Now Sye does have a way out of this (or so he thinks), and it's the same sneaky tactic Greg Bahnsen (the Pope of Presuppositionalism) used. He simply shrugs off the question and says "that's a good question for a bible study." The implication is that debates aren't the place for digging into the technicalities of biblical interpretation, but rest assured he could provide you with the answer if he were in the proper forum. It's a good trick, but it doesn't fool me.

Now, I am sure Sye would still just write all this off as irrelevant. After all, if God can use our fallible senses to provide us with certain knowledge, he could use our fallible ability to overcome language barriers as well. Sye could simply presuppose that all is well, all is as it should be, and that there are at least some Christians who have interpreted the bible correctly. As big a dodge as that may be, I will leave it alone and move on to the more devastating problem that Sye faces.

The real clincher in this is the issue of biblical reliability. While we are lacking in data for the issues of translation and interpretation (which are relatively subjective anyway), we do know a thing or two about the reliability of the biblical texts. At this point, there are certain parts of the bible that we can be fairly sure (though not absolutely certain) were not in the original manuscripts. The best example is 1 John 5:7, "For there are three that bear witness in heaven, The Father, The Word, and The Holy Ghost: and these three are one." This passage, which is the clearest reference in the bible to anything even resembling a trinity, is not found in any Greek manuscript until the 1500s. Virtually all scholars agree that this verse is not original to the text of 1 John, though you can still find it in the KJV. Other major examples of texts which are most likely not original are the long ending of Mark (chapter 16:9-20) and the story of the woman caught in adultery in John (7:53-8:11).

My first question for Sye is, do these passages qualify as certain knowledge from God or not, and how does Sye evaluate them? Are they to be considered certain knowledge because they are in the bible? Or are they to be rejected outright because there are doubts about them? Maybe the 1 John passage, because it is accepted as a later addition by a larger number of scholars than the other two, doesn't qualify, while the others do (or... might?). How does Sye Ten Bruggencate decide for himself whether or not passages like these are known by him to be true with absolute certainty?

Most people would simply look at the data and decide for themselves whether or not they accept these texts as authentic, but any honest person would do so tentatively. There could always be more data in the future that could come along and help us come to a proper conclusion. But this demolishes the claim to absolute certainty. If the bible were a source of such certainty to those of us who have never read the original manuscripts (meaning the vast majority of Christians), it would not be able to have any such problems.

Think about it. What if Sye had been living in England in the 1600s, right after the King James Bible had been translated? What if he went around quoting 1 John 5:7 (the way he quotes Romans 1) and claimed that he knew it to be true because God had revealed it to him with absolute certainty? He would now be looked at by historians as a laughing stock. The fact is, we have very good reason to reject the reliability of this passage, and no qualified biblical scholar would defend it as being original to the text of 1 John.

So here is my challenge to Sye. Given the fact that we have manuscript evidence that certain parts of the bible which were, for a very long time, considered reliable are actually most likely later additions, how can you know with absolute certainty that the parts of the bible you appeal to to make your arguments will not be rejected as later additions tomorrow? After all, we could find another set of Dead Sea Scrolls that would change everything. We might find a hundred copies of the Epistle to the Romans that lack chapter 1*.  Every verse you appeal to could be called into question with one discovery.

I am not suggesting that this is at all likely to happen, but the fact is, as long as it is merely possible, you have no grounds for appealing to the bible for absolute certainty. You cannot claim that God would assure that this would not happen, because it has happened, and you cannot deny it.

Likewise, you cannot claim that this is irrelevant to your position. You may try to say that you don't need to know specifically which biblical propositions you have absolute certainty about, but only that you can have such certainty in your own worldview. But as long as your method of knowing things with certainty is itself uncertain, you don't know anything with absolute certainty. You might as well say, "God has revealed things such that I can know them for certain, but I do not know for certain what those things are, because a new discovery could call them into question in the next five minutes." The same tactics you use in your attempts to undermine the atheist's acceptance of the Uniformity of Nature come back to bite you when it comes to the reliability of the bible. But in your case, things are even worse, because we know that parts of the bible have been shown to be unreliable at least once, so you cannot say that you are absolutely certain it will not happen again.

I'll leave it at that. I imagine that Sye will not respond to this in any meaningful fashion. He'll probably just ask me how I can know anything at all, and so on. But, I will be happy to engage anyone who wants to have a more serious discussion.

*ironically, there are some scholars who would not be surprised by this. It has often been suggested that the part of Romans 1 that Sye quotes from was not original to Paul at all.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reformed Theology in the Real World: An Examination of Beauty and Presuppositionalism

I recently came across a video by our old friend James White regarding a debate he had heard between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek. In this video, Dr. White gives some of his opinions on Professor Hitchens from the Reformed/Calvinist perspective. To sum it up loosely (watch the video, it's short), Dr. White believes that Hitchens is the "Poster Boy of the God Hater." Hitchens is not simply an atheist, or even a particularly aggressive one, but is in fact a glaring example of man as he is described in the first chapter of the book of Romans.

This particular section of scripture is a favorite of Dr. White, and he brings it up constantly when talking about unbelievers, both individually and as a culture. For the Calvinist, this passage is a sort of manifesto on man in his rebellion against God. It describes perfectly the state of the person who rejects the god of the bible, the motivations for that rejection, and the natural result of such a rejection on man's soul. At least that is what Calvinists interpret the passage as describing, and for the sake of argument I will go ahead and assume that they are correct.

Beyond Presuppositions

Generally speaking, when an apologist is engaging in dialogue with (or making a presentation to) unbelievers, these sorts of theological foundations are not brought out into the open. Even presuppositional apologists do not often lay it all on the table the way Dr. White does here. You may hear apologists make passing references to an unbeliever's supposed pre-commitment to the non-existence of God, or something along those lines, but rarely will they present their entire theological position with chapter and verse references like this. Granted, this video is not a debate, but Dr. White does reference "any atheists who may be watching," and there can be no doubt that he does not intend this video to be interpreted simply as an in-house discussion.

The interesting thing about the way Dr. White argues in this video is that he does not simply regurgitate Reformed presuppositions on the basis of the authority of scripture, as one would expect him to do. Instead, he actually points to people like Christopher Hitchens as living examples of man as the bible describes him. It's almost as if Dr. White is using those who seem to match the biblical description of man in his depraved state as evidence that such a description is correct. He even states that Christopher Hitchens is "described with almost eerie accuracy" in Romans 1 (13:32 in the video). If Dr. White wanted to make it clear that he was presenting Hitchens as a case in point, he could hardly have made it more obvious.

This puts people like myself in a strange position. If men like Hitchens are understood to be evidence of the truth of biblical doctrine, then it is entirely appropriate for an unbeliever like me to examine such evidence on its own grounds. These claims become fair game for analysis, as they have now left the realm of simply being "presuppositions of the Christian worldview" and can, at least in principle, be treated as potentially observable phenomenon. This is, quite frankly, an opportunity not to be missed.

What I want to do is go through some of the claims made by Dr. White regarding man as he is understood from the Reformed perspective. I intend to deal specifically with the following ideas at some length, as they are the ones that Dr. White seems to believe are evident, either in human behavior or in the world around us, and therefore, in my opinion at least, qualify as potentially observable data:

1. Man knows that God exists. God has revealed himself to man both in the natural world and in man's own heart, so that man has no excuse either for wickedness or for professed ignorance of the existence of God. Moreover, man knows more than just the fact that the world has been created by "something." Rather, the very character of God, his "eternal power and divine nature," is known to man. It is a knowledge that goes beyond the metaphysical realm ("there is a creator") and into the moral realm ("there is a creator, and he is good and requires my worship and obedience"). (Romans 1:18-20. NIV).

2. Man suppresses the truth about God. This he does through the aforementioned wickedness and professed ignorance of God's existence. Man wants to keep sinning, to continue in rebellion against God's righteous decrees. He wants to be his own god. Therefore, no amount of evidence can "convince" the unbeliever that the the God of the bible exists, because deep down he already knows that it is true. Man has to work very hard to keep this knowledge suppressed so that he may enjoy his sin in as guilt-free a way as possible.

3. Upon hearing God's word declared, the unbeliever will become at best flustered and incoherent in his objections, and at worst incredibly angry. Because he has to work so hard to suppress the truth of God, he simply cannot stand it when someone proclaims said truth. He does not want to hear it, and will say anything and everything in an attempt to counter it. This is the reason why so many atheists use "bad"' arguments against the truth of God's word. They are grasping at straws, wanting nothing more than to distance themselves from the truth, even if it costs them their integrity.

I think this is a pretty good summary of Dr. White's position. I'm sure there are things that need to be tweaked, but I hope it is clear that I have at least tried to be fair and comprehensive. My hope is that this summary can apply to Reformed theology in general, rather than only applying to the theology of Dr. White, but my main focus is getting his version right. I realize that there are as many theological positions as there are individual Christians, but I hope that this summary is broad enough to apply at least somewhat to the majority of Calvinists.

Common Grace: The Ace up the Sleeve

Before I go any further, I need to address the issue of Common Grace. As I understand it, Common Grace is the grace that God gives to man regardless of his position along the spectrum of salvation. It is called Common Grace because it is not limited to those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and because it does not necessarily lead one to salvation. It is Grace because, were God to exercise his Justice fully, everyone would simply be damned to hell upon being born. They would enjoy absolutely no benefits, pleasures, or joys. Again, this definition may not satisfy everyone, and I welcome corrections, but I think I got the gist of it.

The reason this is relevant to this discussion is that it is often played by the Calvinist as a sort of trump card. Whenever someone points to an exception to the rule of Total Depravity, the Calvinist simply appeals to Common Grace to explain it.

"Oh, you say so-and-so is a really good person? Well deep down he isn't, and if he appears to be, it is because of God's Common Grace restraining the sin that he would otherwise be committing."

Some of the things I write in the following pages may tempt the Reformed reader to counter with a claim about Common Grace. To do so, however, would be to misunderstand the nature of this discourse. I am fully aware of the fact that Common Grace is a presupposition of the Reformed worldview. I get that. You don't need to point that out to me. But my purpose here is not to examine the Reformed worldview for its internal consistency. My purpose is to examine specific claims made by a specific apologist regarding the observable manifestations of particular doctrinal ideas. If the Reformed reader wants to give me an example of Common Grace that fits this criteria, I will be more than happy to respond to it. I personally do not think that such an example is very likely to be forthcoming, but I welcome anyone to attempt it. In the meantime, if you feel that Common Grace is a good answer to one of my points, just go ahead and assume you got me. Enjoy your satisfaction. I can assure you that I will lose no sleep over it.

Man Knows that God Exists

What sort of evidence can there be for the claim that everyone actually knows that God exists? First we must ask how such knowledge would be imparted to man in the first place. I will let Dr. White give his explanation  of this phenomenon.

"Man knows about the existence of the One True God through what has been created. Some interpret that to mean through looking outward at the outward creation. Some see that as looking inward at our conscience. I think it's both." (15:28-47).

So there you go. The two avenues of general revelation of God to man are the natural world and the conscience. By the natural world, Dr. White means both the beauty of nature and the complexity of it. These he sees as "undeniable" proof of God's design and therefore as one of the means by which the inner knowledge of God's nature is given to man.

Natural Beauty as Proof of the God of Scripture

I am tempted to pass over the issue of beauty altogether, as Dr. White did not actually explain how beauty in nature points to the existence of God. But I think I'll take a stab at it anyway, as I think it is fairly easy to see where he is coming from.

In the case of beauty, we have to ask what the best explanation is for the beauty we find in nature. This means we must first understand why we find certain things beautiful at all, and why we even have such a concept of something called "beauty." One important thing to note is that we often mean very different things when we use the term "beautiful." A woman is beautiful to a man in a very different way than a sunset is beautiful to a man. Likewise, a jazz piano piece is beautiful in a very different way than an orchard is beautiful. We generally use the same word beautiful to describe the general desirability of a thing. If something is desirable to us in a way that is not immediately apparent, or if it produces certain recognizable emotional or (dare I say?) physical reactions within us, it is called beautiful, and the word will often stick long after we understand what made something "beautiful" to us in the first place.

If we really try to describe beauty, we find that such a description does not come easy. A beautiful thing is a thing which brings us pleasure to look at, hear, or experience in some way. In some cases, we do not seem to be able to point to any real reason why something brings us this pleasure, but in many cases I think that we can at least get started. We find beauty, for example, in the way colors work together in harmony. The sky is beautiful when it is blue or when it is red, and in very different ways. We also find beauty in a certain kind of order. People trim the hedges in front of their homes in order to make them look similar to one another, and this creates a harmony that is beautiful to us. So much of what we create exhibits this love of order, and we value it in the natural world as well. We also find beauty in the animal kingdom. When animals do what they are naturally programmed to do, they intrigue us. We are impressed by it, and find it beautiful. This goes across the board, from the lion chasing it's prey to the squirrel jumping through treetops. And of course we find beauty in the things that we do. The natural inclination to be artistic is universal among the human race.

What is Beauty?

It is not hard to see why human beings would develop an impulse to find things generally desirable. On the Darwinian model of human development, the desire to be close to something, to experience it in some way or another, makes perfect sense when doing so would provide us with a benefit of some kind. If something in nature is found to be beautiful by the majority of people, we can be fairly certain that there is a good reason for it, and that it likely has its ultimate origin in our evolutionary history.

Consider landscapes. Philosopher Denis Dutton points out in his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (here's the accompanying TED Talks presentation) that there is a certain type of landscape that appeals to virtually everyone, and it just so happens to be exactly the kind of environment our ancestors lived in during critical stages of their psychological evolution. Watch the video if you want a good description of it. Basically it is an open, grassy area between hills that is populated with a few trees with low hanging branches, and that has a stream or path running through it. We can picture it fairly easily, and the beauty of it does take our breath away. Even people who have never been to such an environment find it appealing. What makes it so appealing, on a practical level, is obvious. It is an ideal location for human flourishing if one is to live off the land as our ancestors did.

At bottom, our impulse to be attracted to certain types of natural environments has to do with their habitability. There is a good reason why people find a grassy meadow, or a peaceful forest, or a lake surrounded by greenery more desirable than an empty desert or a landscape covered in nothing but jagged rocks. Obviously some environments are more habitable than others. The Shire is always preferable to Mordor, and for good reason. Our ancient ancestors would have been in trouble if they found uninhabitable environments more generally desirable than inhabitable ones. It is actually shocking how easy it is to account for what we find desirable about our planet when you understand the way natural selection programmed our desires in the first place.

The same can be said about our love of order. The edge that humans had in evolution was the brain. We developed the ability to use our brains to solve problems, to use reason in our interactions with our world. The fact that we find order beautiful is exactly what we would expect on the evolutionary model. We are intrigued by order because it is useful to us as rational creatures. If our reasoning abilities developed over time through evolution, then the impulse to appreciate and be intrigued by order would have been absolutely essential. In fact it is hard to imagine an evolutionary model of the mind that could make sense without the assumption that such an impulse would be needed.

I'll try an analogy, but I'm not sure how far it will go. It is not enough that we be rational, just as it is not enough that we be sexual. We are aroused and intrigued by sex whether we are personally engaging in it or not. Pornography and erotic fiction are in high demand, as we all know. We desire to experience sexuality in a variety of ways, and it often matters little whether or not we are actually participating directly in a sexual act. It's nature's way of keeping our priorities in line, and it works the same for our reasoning abilities. We have an impulse to be attracted to things that display order, even if we are not personally involved in it in any way. With sexuality, the goal is more specific, so we are more easily able to understand our positive reactions to these more passive forms of sexual interaction (plus we have very telling physical responses). Our appreciation for order and for the rational does not have this obvious goal in mind, so we are simply left with an often mysterious sense that what we are experiencing is a positive thing. Again, on the evolutionary model, this is no mystery.

We know even more about the way color effects our brains. Pale greens have a relaxing effect on our mood.  Blue lowers blood pressure, while red increases it. Given the fact that color impacts us in this way, it is not surprising that certain arrangements of color intrigue us. If our brains developed over time, as evolution suggests, we should expect this. Is it strange that green should make us feel relaxed and secure when it is the most common color found in the most secure environments? Again, beauty is seen to be founded not in something mystical or transcendent, but within our own minds.

But what about the fact that beauty can often be found in places and things that do not seem to fit the mold? After all, an empty desert can be quite beautiful. This has to do with the way we categorize specific aspects of things we naturally find beautiful and then extend those categories to other things. Let's stick with the desert example. We have all seen the images of a vast ocean of sand sitting gently under a moonlit sky and covered in beautiful patterns carved out by the passing winds. I think it is safe to say that most people would find this beautiful. Why would it be? Well, the beaty of the night sky is not dependent on what is under it, so that is no problem. Furthermore, we know that humans have, for quite some time, found symmetrical, artistic patterns beautiful (as explained above), so it is no surprise that such patterns in the sand contribute to the general desirability of the desert landscape.

Once we have these general impulses to find beauty in certain things, and in certain combinations of things, we can find it virtually everywhere. There are artists who understand this, and produce works that leave us dumbfounded and unsure how to react. We have all seen paintings or heard musical arrangements that left us with mixed feelings. There may be joy, or dread, or confusion, or some combination of all of these. When it comes to the way we respond mentally or emotionally to things that we find beautiful or sublime or awe-inspiring, the possibilities seem to be endless.

Is this principle just a sneaky way out of a possible objection? Is the idea that beauty can be found in things that do not contribute to survival just a way of avoiding falsifiability? It this the Common Grace of Darwinian aesthetic theory? Not at all. This principle is useful because it just so happens to work with what we actually see in regards to degrees of general desirability. The desert may still be beautiful when the right features are present, but it will never be as beautiful to the vast majority of people as the grassy meadow with the stream running through the center. The fact of the matter is, the environments that are most beneficial to human flourishing are the ones that human beings find to be the most beautiful, and exceptions, once they are properly understood, simply prove the rule.

Now, is every single person on the planet going to agree on what aspects of nature are more beautiful than others? No, but that's the nature of Darwinian evolution. It is an imperfect system, and it there will always be inconsistencies. One cannot expect every person to experience beauty in the exact same way. But again, when you look at what is generally true of people in their opinions about beauty, it fits the Darwinian model very well. In fact, were everyone to agree perfectly on what is beautiful, we might have cause for suspicion. Evolutionary psychology cannot expect these kinds of absolute results, as evolution is a process that produces dynamic results.

Dutton has devoted much of his life to understanding beauty from the Darwinian perspective, and he has come to some fascinating conclusions regarding the ways in which human beings understand beauty, both in the natural world and in our own endeavors. In his video, he discusses the origins of artistic beauty in early human culture, even going as far back as our ancestors' use of stone tools over 2 million years ago. When we look at early stone hand axes, for example, we find that they were valued for more than their practical use. The fact that we have so many of them, and that they often have no signs of having been used, indicates that there was something else going on in the minds of those who made and valued these artifacts.

According to Dutton, these early tools are best understood as primitive works of art. They have a symmetry and beauty about them that is compelling even today. But why would our ancient ancestors have developed an inclination to create these tiny pieces of art? Dutton argues that they would have served as what evolutionists call "fitness signals" (11:54 in the video). The ability to create something, and to do a good job at it, would be a good indicator of fitness in the realm of reproductive competition. According to Dutton, "we find beauty in something done well." (14:23).

This is likely the reason we find animal behavior beautiful. Seeing animals do their job well reinforced our own desires to do the same thing. Why else would we find predatory animal behavior beautiful? If our sense of beauty comes from God, for example, we would have no reason to see the slaughter of an antelope by a lioness as a beautiful thing. But we do see beauty in it. It intrigues us. On the evolutionary model, this is exactly what we would expect. The most compellingly beautiful thing about the animal kingdom is not just the grace that animals exhibit, but the incredible "skills" that they display.

What we find beautiful in human activity, then, is often directly related to the way such activity reflects skill and talent. In his Authors@Google video, Dutton points out that part of what makes a piece of art beautiful is the amount of work it took to create it. And even when specific pieces of art take very little time to produce, they remain valuable if we see evidence of the hard work required to develop the skills needed for their production (here's a good example of what I'm talking about. Consider how different you would feel about it if it were simply a slideshow of images, rather than a process shown in real-time.). According to Dutton, this is the reason why art made by human hands will always be more beautiful to us than art made by a computer, even if the computer is able to exceed our abilities in things like symmetry, realism, etc. It is therefore easy to conclude, especially given the vast amount of time during which these values were able to develop (just think of how much longer hand axes were the peak of human artistic ability than were things like songwriting and movie making), that our understanding of artistic beauty has a firm foundation in our evolutionary heritage, right alongside our understanding of natural beauty.

Objective Beauty

Given that beauty can be understood very well from a naturalistic perspective, one has to wonder how it can be considered a source for the inner knowledge of God that all men supposedly have. Remember, the claim we are going up against is not simply that an aesthetic theory based on Christian theology is superior to an aesthetic theory based on naturalism. It goes much further than that. The claim is that the beauty we see in nature is part of the natural revelation that clearly reveals the "invisible qualities" of the Christian god (Romans 1:20. NIV).

How does Dr. White explain this? In his debate with Dan Barker in 2009 ("The Triune God of Scripture Lives." It can be purchased on Dr. White's website), he gives us a taste of what this little piece of natural revelation looks like. Unfortunately I will not be able to give exact quotes, as I no longer have the audio file and have no intention of dropping $3.75 on another one. But I have listened to it multiple times and I think I can sum it up fairly accurately. Again, I welcome corrections.

In the cross-examination portion of the debate, Dr. White asked Barker a very simple question: "Will jazz piano cease to be beautiful when you die?" The implied alternative seems to be that the beauty of music is somehow objective in nature. It is not dependent on human opinion, but is really beautiful, pointing creatures to the beauty of God. Barker attempted to give the naturalistic answer by pointing out that, as long as there are human beings who enjoy the sound of jazz piano, it will be beautiful to someone. This is, of course, completely accurate from the naturalistic perspective. But just in case Dr. White wants an answer that's a bit more to the point, here it is. Yes, Dr.White. Yes it will cease to be beautiful once there are no longer any humans left to hear it.

And this is not at all surprising, nor does it invalidate the beauty of jazz piano for those who enjoy it. The things that make jazz piano beautiful are entirely dependent on the way humans think. We respond emotionally to the patterns of the music, to harmony and dissonance. Musicians know what chord formations to use in order to stimulate certain emotional reactions. I am a musician myself, and am very familiar with how this works.

One can see this displayed very well in modern mega-churches. I used to play in a band in one of these churches when I was young, and I have seen first hand how things work. Music is used to guide the emotions of the congregation. The goal is to push their thoughts in certain directions, to create a "spirit of worship" or a "sense of God's presence." But in reality it is all emotional manipulation. Have you ever noticed how the piano or guitar starts playing at just the right moment when the preacher is speaking? It's a very effective performance, and it is no surprise that so many people feel "spiritually fed" after Sunday worship. I'm sure Dr. White would hardly contest these criticisms.

There could hardly be a better example of something that is not objectively beautiful than jazz piano. I am living proof of this, because I personally don't enjoy it. It's too random and dissonant, and often just sounds like noise. But of course, there are exceptions. And that is really what the whole problem here is. The things that I find beautiful in jazz piano are things that resonate with my musical tastes, which are themselves dependent on a whole host of factors, as described above. I may not be a fan of the genre in general, but there are some pieces that I enjoy, and I do appreciate the skill involved in making the music.

It simply will not do to claim that jazz piano is objectively beautiful. I'll assume that "objectively beautiful" is meant to be understood as beautiful whether there is anyone there to hear it or not. One must wonder what would make it beautiful in such a circumstance. Are the sounds waves bouncing around the room beautiful? Are vibrations objectively beautiful in themselves? Perhaps we are to understand that it is beautiful because God thinks it is beautiful. But what about jazz piano appeals to God exactly? Do the rhythms and harmonies impact his mind the way they impact ours? Furthermore, if God thinks things like music are beautiful, would that not make God the objective standard by which beauty is measured? If so, how do we apply that standard to making music? What sort of inferences can we make from God's nature to aid in the process of producing music that is objectively beautiful? And if God does find jazz piano beautiful, am I in rebellion because I do not agree with him?

Perhaps one could argue that what makes music beautiful is the fact that it is a creation by a person who has creativity within him as part his nature due to him being made in the "image of God." Therefore, anything that man uses his natural creativity to produce is objectively beautiful by default. Dan Barker's music is beautiful because he is a creature made in God's image, and he reflects that image in his creativity. If a thing that is created by man is not beautiful, for one reason or another, we can blame it on the corruption of man's nature due to sin. The problem with this is that it begs the question. If an outside standard is applied to determine the distinction between created things that are beautiful (due to the image of God) and things that are not (due to sin), then the standard cannot be man's creativity. This is only a problem, of course, if one insists that beauty is objective.

Another way that theists argue for objective beauty is by arguing that human beings naturally interpret beauty as something that transcends the both the natural world and ourselves. They tend to use the same tactic to argue for objective morality. William Lane Craig often makes the claim that objective morality exists, and that "deep down we all know it." The idea is that human beings, when we have intense experiences of beauty, do not naturally interpret such encounters as being subjective experiences based only on our evolved nature. Instead, we have a natural inclination to see beauty as something greater than us, or as pointing to something beyond ourselves.

This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the way our evolved psychology works. We should not expect our evolved desires and inclinations to have developed with the understanding of how they work built in. In fact, we should expect the exact opposite. Just think of the way instinct works in the animal kingdom. Animals do not know why they do what they do, and they are no worse off because of that ignorance. If our sense of beauty, the feelings a beautiful landscape produces in us or the desire we have to be around it, is something that we developed through evolution, then it makes perfect sense that it would seem to be somehow transcendent. When we experience beauty, we know that we get a sense of pleasure out of it, but we cannot quite put our finger on why. Once we do have a good explanation for it, we will not suddenly lose this sense of awe, because it is not a reaction that depends on our understanding. It's a part of our evolved psychology, and cannot simply be switched off once we comprehend it.

Experiences that seem to take us beyond ourselves but actually do not are quite common. When you listen to the way people describe drug trips, you will hear a lot of talk about what a transcendent experience it is. There have been religious cults throughout history that used mind-altering substances in their rituals, and who actually believed that they were having experiences of the divine. But we know how drugs work. We know why they do what they do to our brains. No matter how powerful the experience is or how convinced a person becomes that they are going beyond themselves, there is no reason to assume that anything other than chemistry is at work. That's the power of the brain.

It is not at all surprising, then, that people of the past saw natural beauty as God's handiwork. They knew comparatively little about the nature of man's desires and preferences. All they knew was that particular aspects of nature left them with a sense of awe, and that such a sense must have an explanation. Once you add human artistic development into the equation, it becomes even easier to conclude that God must be the great artist of the natural world. Our ancestors found beauty in things that were created, and projecting that idea into nature is a short leap of reasoning.

It seems that the theist is left with nothing more than the simple assertion that beauty, however it developed as a concept or whether or not it is objective, points to the existence of God simply because God wanted it to be his calling card. God wanted us to know that he exists, so he made us in such a way that we would find nature beautiful and therefore see the proof of his existence. Therefore he can assert that we are "without excuse" for our disbelief.  Even if the reasons for our concept of beauty have a natural explanation, beauty still serves its purpose in pointing us to God.

This idea, however, means that God has actually made himself untraceable. Once we do look below the surface of our understanding of beauty and see that there is no good reason to assume that a god had any part to play, the purpose that God created beauty to serve disappears. The fact is, even if a god did design beauty in this way, we have no way to track it once we understand how it works. Far from being "without excuse," we actually have no good reason at all to believe in the God of the bible on the basis of natural beauty. The only way out of this seems to be to appeal to special revelation, but then the idea of natural revelation actually becomes meaningless, because it is insufficient to serve any purpose whatsoever.

The ease with which the concept of objective beauty falls apart makes me worry that I may be shooting a straw man. If I am, someone please correct me. As I said before, I do not want to misrepresent anyone's position. As it stands, however, the concept appears to be complete nonsense.


If beauty can be understood perfectly well as something developed naturally through human evolution, and if the concept of objective beauty is seen to be nonsensical, is there any precedence left for claiming that the beauty we see in the natural world is proof of God's "invisible qualities?" One can hardly see how. In the end, the Reformed apologist is left with little more than his presuppositions. Natural beauty is evidence of the God of the bible because the bible says so. Once the apologist starts trying to appeal to any external evidence, his claims are seen to be without merit. If someone wants to claim that natural beauty, to use Dr. White's terminology and emphasis, clearly reveals the existence of a creator, he had better be able to back up such a claim, and not simply retreat back behind the presuppositionalist line.

I'll be dealing with the issue of design as evidence for God in another post, and a few of the same ideas I have discussed here will be brought up. In the meantime, I welcome anyone to correct my understanding of Dr. White's position, or of the Reformed position in general.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apologetics Unmasked

When I first gave up my faith in the Christian religion, I became very frustrated with the way debates between Christians and non-Christians usually went. I could not believe that people who held such a silly set of beliefs could actually hold their own against the educated people who were criticizing them. Why was it that no atheist ever took the time to learn a little bit about the methods used by apologists before debating them? It is not as if their methods are hard to discover. Apologists usually do not keep them secret, as they want other Christians to understand and adopt them. There really is no excuse for the ignorance of apologetical method that seems to be prevalent among even the most educated defenders of secularism. One cannot help but think, when they hear apologists twist and turn their way through a debate, that there is something fishy going on. Well, there is, and the sooner the unbelieving community recognizes it, the sooner we can call them out on their little charade.

You see, apologists are sneaky. They know that there are certain things that they should not debate with non-Christians, things that will be very difficult to handle if they are brought up, so they approach debates in very specific and formulaic ways. What I want to do here is give a rough outline of these methods, and hopefully shed some light on what is really going on in these debates. I am not going to engage in any serious defense of naturalism, atheism, or any other non-Christian worldview, nor will I devote a lot of space to refuting arguments for Christianity. That would simply give any apologist who reads this an excuse to focus on something besides my main points. As you read on, you will begin to see why I would worry about this.

There are two primary approaches that apologists take when defending their faith, and each is has its own way of dealing with the challenge of keeping the more embarrassing aspects of Christian theology out of the debate. One is a sort of "minimal facts" approach, and is championed by people like William Lane Craig, the great Classical Apologist of our day. This approach attempts to lock down the focus of the debate onto a specific group of arguments. These arguments usually seek to do nothing more than make the existence of a supernatural being seem more likely than his non-existence. They do not seek to prove the existence of the Christian god specifically, nor are they at all reliant on divine revelation or on the specifics of Christian theology.

This puts the apologist in a great position if his opponent does not see through the smokescreen. As long as he keeps the focus of the debate on these arguments, he has a chance of making his beliefs seem less ridiculous than they are. This is the kind of thing I used to do when I was a "junior apologist." When people would challenge the things in the bible that were obviously mythical, or clearly based on a primitive mindset, or just plain silly, I would respond by accusing them of hiding behind their childish criticisms and refusing to deal with the sophisticated arguments I was offering them. "Are you just going to make jokes about floods and talking snakes all day, or are you going to grow up and deal with the issue of the foundations of morality?" This is not a direct quote from me, but it sums up the attitude I had.

This approach, then, is one that hides the deeper aspects of theology behind a sophisticated exterior of serious argumentation. But it's all just a smokescreen. It's almost as if they are admitting that their religion is actually ridiculous when you look at the details. If they do not feel this way, why do they try so hard to divert our attention from them? The sophisticated arguments, though not always terrible in themselves, are seen to be nothing more than tools. They are used by the apologist as a means to an end. Just as the modern mega-church uses media, performing arts, and emotional manipulation as a way to win souls (which in turn justifies any hiding of the true agenda), the apologist uses these arguments as a way to get the unbeliever in the door. Once converted and safely inside, they'll have to accept the silly stuff without question, but at that point their conscience will have taken over (a.k.a. it will be between them and god) and their intellect won't get in the way quite so much.

The second approach that apologists take to prevent any discussion of the uncomfortable details of Christian theology is the presuppositional approach. This method, championed by Cornelius val Til and Greg Bahnsen, is the preferred method of the Calvinist apologist, and it leaves even less room to engage in genuine debate than the classical method. Presuppositional apologists only argue for the truth of the Christian faith insomuch as they argue against the possibility of it being false. Basically, any worldview other than Christianity fails to account for reality as we experience it, and therefore cannot be true. Sounds fishy, I know, and it is. But, it works very well when you want to shield your belief system from any criticism. The presuppositional apologist does not even attempt to make an actual case for his beliefs. Rather, he simply discusses what he feels to be the greatest shortcomings of his opponent's worldview and leaves it to the opponent to account for them. Traditionally, these accusations involve things like the existence of logical laws or objective moral facts. If the opponent challenges the presuppositionalist in return, the presuppositionalist simply says "Oh no you don't! You haven't answered my challenges against your worldview. Until you do that, you have no rational or moral ground on which to stand while making accusations against my worldview!"

As you can see, there is some brilliance in this approach. Law students should all take a course in presuppositional apologetics. Perhaps used-car salesmen should as well. But unfortunately, the effectiveness of this method depends solely on the way the opponent reacts to it. If the non-believer takes the bait, the debate is pretty much over. The presuppositionalist can simply sit back and shake his head at anything his opponent says in defense of the non-Christian worldview, and no challenges to the Christian worldview will ever be able to get off the ground. But if the unbeliever does not take the bait, the presuppositionalist has no leg to stand on. All the unbeliever has to do is say something like this: "Whether or not I am able to answer to your satisfaction the challenges presented against my worldview, what reasons do I have to accept the truth of yours?" That's it. The debate is immediately in the hands of the unbeliever once he utters those words.

This is due to the fact that the presuppositionalist simply refuses to default to the aforementioned "minimal facts" approach if his initial offensive assault fails. This is admirable, in a sense, but it is really just a product of the Calvinist mindset. Calvinists do not believe that the unbeliever is genuinely an unbeliever. They are convinced (by the bible, not by evidence. See how it works now?) that anyone who denies the truth of Christianity is intentionally self-deceived. Everyone, they believe, actually has an inner knowledge of god and is constantly suppressing that knowledge in order to carry on in rebellion against him. Furthermore, they are incapable of actually turning to god and becoming true Christians on their own. Only god can change their hearts, because they are too evil to do it themselves.

As can be expected, this brand of theology has a profound impact on the way one does apologetics. The presuppositionalist will never take the minimal facts approach because he believes it to be pointless. No amount of evidence can convince the unbeliever to become a believer, because the unbeliever secretly knows the truth already and is suppressing it. Therefore, any argument made on behalf of the Christian position is a waste of time.

Why does this put the debate into the hands of the unbeliever? Because as long as he rejects the presuppositionalist's demands (that he give a full and satisfactory account of the foundations of his worldview before attempting to challenge the Christian worldview), he can take the presuppositionalist's theological position apart piece by piece with no challenge whatsoever. You see, the presuppositionalist knows that the Calvinist worldview cannot be defended against criticism by unbelievers. It is a worldview that nobody would accept on any grounds other than the presupposition that whatever the bible says is true. That is why it is the presuppositionalist, and not the classical apologist, who argues that the Christian has no business using "worldly philosophy" as a source of truth alongside scripture. No, all philosophy must be rejected as a foundation of knowledge. It is scripture alone that can be turned to for truth. Therefore, the presuppositionalist will simply assert that, according to his presuppositions, his worldview makes perfect sense and is immune to criticism (the presupposition being that the bible is completely true and right about everything, despite any evidence to the contrary). He will not go any further than that, because the unbeliever still has not defended his worldview against the initial accusations brought against it. But as I said, the unbeliever simply has to reject such absurd standards and move on.

How does this look in practice? Here's an example. An unbeliever could point out that the Christian god cannot be a foundation for moral truths because he created the majority of human beings purely for the purpose of having them rebel against him and then burn in hell for eternity. This he did for his own glory. It does not matter how the presuppositionalist tries to justify this (Trust me, I've heard them all), he will never be able to make it appear as something that is not wholly evil. But he never gets that far. If the unbeliever makes this accusation, the presuppositionalist simply asserts that the unbeliever has no objective moral standard to appeal to in order to make such judgments and therefore cannot accuse the Christian god of being a moral anything, much less a moral monster.

What should the unbeliever say in response to this? "Even if I was a totally amoral person in a totally amoral universe, how would that keep me from being able to criticize your moral system on its own terms?" This one sentence would blow the smokescreen away, and the believer would be forced to face the music. It really is that simple.

This is not to say, of course, that the unbeliever should not answer the challenges of the presuppositionalist. Nor should we ignore the arguments of the sneaky classical apologist. And of course we should be able to explain the foundations of things like morality and logic from our perspective. But, this does not mean that a) we have to do so in a way that will satisfy our opponent (who will always refuse to be satisfied) or b) that we cannot challenge the Christian worldview on it's own terms. Remember, they are arguing for a whole worldview, and it just so happens to be falling apart at almost every hinge.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Response to James White

Dr. James White was kind enough to respond to my Open Letter (see previous blog post) on the July 31st episode of his Internet radio show/Podcast "The Dividing Line." I'll place a link to the program at the end of this post. I want to first of all express my gratitude to Dr. White for doing this. He is certainly a busy man, and if you listen to this program you will get a taste of just how busy he really is. It is certainly a point in his favor that he was willing to do this. The response I am writing now is not directed at Dr. White in the same way. I am not asking for another response from him (though I will not object to one). I simply feel that it is appropriate to share my thoughts on what he said.

Dr. White did exactly what I requested of him. I asked him a specific question, and he gave me a fairly specific answer. My original concern was with the issue of gay marriage as a legal right, and why he saw fit to oppose it by force rather than just hold to his opinions and let others do the same. I wanted to know why he would personally vote against it. I was not, in my original question, concerned with his thoughts on how sinful homosexuality itself is, as that is fairly obvious given his religious convictions. I wanted to know why he thought it was the government's responsibility to enforce his convictions in this case, as I did not think he was being consistent. Why should gay marriage be singled out as something that should be illegal, given that there are so many other disagreements between Christians and non-Christians that never see one side demanding government intervention?

This was apparently based on a misunderstanding on my part, if not a twofold misunderstanding. I say twofold because, though I am not completely sure of this, I believe Dr. White would actually support a much more strenuous overhaul to the concept of marriage in our legal system. This would mean that I was operating under a misunderstanding when I said that gay marriage was somehow singled out by him. Dr. White made his position very clear when he said that homosexual couples should not receive the same benefits as heterosexual married couples because they do not contribute to a stable family structure that produces and raises children. According to Dr. White, the primary (if not only) reason the government should give any benefits to married couples at all is to promote the production of citizens and their care. Basically the idea is to protect and promote the family unit.

Presumably, then, Dr. White would support a denial of the rights of marriage to any couple of any gender who resolutely decided not to have any children. Judging by his statements in the show, he would consider this "personal hedonism," a lifestyle of selfishness.

Well, fair enough. I should have considered this before I jumped to conclusions. I actually am willing to let this go, as it is at least consistent with his presuppositions. There is one problem I have though. For the sake of argument, let's leave aside Dr. White's other objections to gay marriage for the time being. I wonder what his argument would be against heterosexual couples who wanted to adopt children rather than have any of their own, either because they couldn't or because they simply chose not to. Like it or not, orphans will always be around, for one reason or another. If Dr. White thinks that these heterosexual couples should be allowed to marry and adopt, why would he argue against a homosexual couple who had exactly the same intention? Again, I understand that he probably has a million other objections to this, but I want to know what the argument would be based on his beliefs, stated on the show, about why the government gives these benefits in the first place. 

I also wonder what Dr. White would say about benefits to homosexual couples that aren't based on the infamous "tax-payer dollars." Does Dr. White oppose the rights of homosexuals to be present in hospital rooms with their partners while they are dying? What about things like next-of-kin rights, or the right to claim an inheritance, or custodial rights of various kinds? What about the ability to make decisions in case of a medical emergency? Are these to be denied them as well, or only the ones he resents paying for?

The reason I am harping on this issue so much is that it is one of the few things he said that is relevant outside of the Christian worldview. Much of what he said was simply a reaffirmation of the Christian position on homosexuality, or on the world in general (I found the line "to be the land of the free and home of the brave requires morality and ethics that came from the Judeo-Christian worldview" to be especially entertaining). This was not unexpected, especially given the audience he was speaking to. I should not expect a presentation on the Dividing Line to be like one given during a debate. One is for an audience who already shares his worldview, and the other is not. Quite frankly, I think it's a little refreshing to see someone who is so strong and unapologetic in his convictions.

My other major misunderstanding was assuming that Dr. White considers gay marriage to be bad for the world only because God does not condone it. This is apparently not the case. He believes, rather, that there are observable, traceable negative consequences of the redefinition of marriage. He believes that once we allow homosexuals to marry, we will be well on our way to a collapse of society. I don't think that he believes, as some Christians do, that gay marriage will destroy the entire nation all by itself, but rather he considers it a link in a larger chain of sin and corruption that will, together, bring this nation crashing to the ground.

He seems to think that it all starts with the destruction of traditional marriage. All I can really say in response to this is that I find very little actual objectivity here. Isn't it true that everything Dr. White said about what happens when gay marriage is made legal in a nation are things that are already happening in this country, and have been for quite some time? We are already seeing people take marriage less seriously. It has already lost its place, in the minds of most, as a lifelong contract. Does Dr. White really expect us to believe that gay marriage can and will be the straw that breaks the camel's back? I understand that he thinks that this redefinition of marriage does not help to move things in the right direction (meaning a direction that is consistent with the Christian view of marriage), but I do not see how it is big and bad enough to warrant the kind of legal resistance he is proposing. Should we legally redefine marriage as a bond between one man and one woman for life, therefore making divorce a breach of contract and therefore an offense punishable by law? The point is, you need to be pretty damn sure that gay marriage is going to cause the enormous problems you think it is going to cause if you want to justify making it illegal.

This is why I doubt that we have any real objectivity going on here. What I am about to say may be off track a little, and it may seem like total speculation, but remember that I used to be a believer, and one who made a lot of the same claims that Dr. White makes. At the very least, I know how I used to think. You see, it does not really matter what the cause and effect relationship is between gay marriage and the collapse of society. There will always be Christians who claim that such a relationship exists. In fact, it does not matter how or why a nation falls. There will always be some Christians who will say it is because that nation turned away from God. It is really no different than the man who claims that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for the licentiousness behavior on display at Mardi Gras. There is no falsifiability possible here.

Dr. White has openly said on multiple occasions that all of human history reveals the plan of God, and even that entire nations have been risen up to be made examples of, either as receivers of God's grace or as receivers of his justice. Don't you see what's going on here? If you are a Christian, I beg you to hear me out on this and at least give it some thought. There is absolutely no way to verify or falsify this. Dr. White can look at absolutely anything that has happened in human history and see God's hand in it. Could you give me one single example of a case where he could not? Give me one example, factual or hypothetical, of an historic event that could not be made, in some form or another, to illustrate the hand of God. If you give this enough thought, you will begin to see the problem.

Think about it:

"All nations who reject Judeo-Christian ethics will collapse."
"Well, what about those that haven't?"
"Well, they will, they just have inertia."
"Okay, so Japan must have a whole heck of a lot of inertia, then."
"Well, yeah, but they've had all these other problems, which are caused by the fact that they don't follow God."
"Well what about the fact that secular societies have lower crime rates?"
"Well, maybe they do, but they have more hedonistic sin, so the evil is balanced out, plus ours is bad only because God is chastising us because we are supposed to be his nation and therefore he is pulling the plug on common grace, plus the inertia of those other nations will burn out eventually...."

....and on and on and on. I'm not suggesting that Dr. White himself would use all of these arguments, but I can assure you he will think of something in every single case.

He gives himself away when he brings up the health issues surrounding homosexuality. This is an argument I would never, ever have used when I was a believer. It's just too dangerous to go around claiming that the prevalence of disease is an indicator of moral wrongness. That's a slippery slope I don't want to go down. But, it does make my point about objectivity. Dr. White does not feel obligated to be consistent on this point. What if I were to challenge him by pointing out that breast cancer is more common among black women than it is among Asian women? Do you honestly think he would bat an eye at that consideration? Of course not. All he would have to say is that, in the case of those women, we are simply seeing the impact of original sin on our bodies in one way or another. But when it comes to homosexuality, it's clearly the direct result of a sinful lifestyle. Again, it's unfalsifiable.

So, I do understand where Dr. White is coming from when he expresses his fear that gay marriage is one more pound of dirt on the grave of civilization as we know it. According to the Christian worldview, anything that is condemned in the Bible but condoned by a nation will be just that. And honestly, there is not really much I can say about it, since there is no data that he would accept as evidence to the contrary. If gay marriage becomes legal and problems arise, he will say "I told you so," no matter what the nature of those problems might be. If no problems arise and things are just business as usual, he will simply sit back and say "just you wait. It's coming."

There is no way to reason with someone like this, and I for one am concerned about it. This kind of thinking is dangerous because it prevents one from honestly looking at the issues. It's an almost childish lack of seriousness that is being portrayed here. Yes, we do have to take a look at what we are going to allow to be placed under the banner of "marriage." Yes we do have to find some way to deal with unplanned pregnancies and the financial burdens placed on single mothers. These are tough issue that require tough consideration. The Judeo-Christian worldview has simple answers for everything. Everything is either in harmony with God's character or it isn't. From a secular perspective, these things take deliberation and discussion and reasoning and attempts to find consensus. Christians may criticize us because our answers aren't as readily available as theirs are, but in all honesty, is that really a mark in their favor? I don't think so.

This is all I really have to say in response. Like I said, much of what Dr. White had to say was simply a reaffirmation of the Christian position on the issue, so I don't have a lot to say about it. But I do appreciate him taking the time to answer my questions. Rest assured that "The Dividing Line" has at least one (though presumably many more) devoted fan who is not a believer.

I do have some things to say about Dr. White's comments regarding apologetics and the dangers of getting into it without a proper spiritual foundation. Quite a lot, actually. But, I want to save that for another post I'm working on that deals more specifically with presuppositionalism. Be on the lookout for that in the coming days.

The Program -

Monday, July 30, 2012

An Open Letter to James White

Dr. White,

When I was a believer, I considered you one of my most important role models. Back then, I wanted to pursue apologetics and spend my life defending the faith. Now, as an unbeliever, I still have the highest level of respect for you as an intellectual and as a very articulate defender of your beliefs.

I am writing you now because I am having trouble understanding your current mindset regarding the issue of gay marriage, and I hope that you can enlighten me. First of all, I want to commend you on recognizing the blatant hypocrisy that people on "my side" (I am a supporter of gay marriage, as I am sure you have guessed) of the argument consistently portray. It is the very definition of intolerance to attempt to prevent a company from establishing a place of business in a city because of beliefs that they defend. I could not agree with you more on this. Likewise, the amount of verbal abuse that is directed against those who express any disagreement whatsoever with gay marriage is appalling to me. Hate speech, as far as I can see it, is much more common on my side of the fence, at least in the public sphere. It is very disturbing to see people, no matter who they are or whose side they are on, attempt to coerce, intimidate, or otherwise require others to accept their point of view as dogma.

You will undoubtedly agree here. I have heard you in debates over the years continually join with your opponents in condemning the Crusades, or the Salem Witch trials, or whatever example your opponent might bring up of evils done in the name of Christianity. I have even heard you defend the rights of Muslims to display billboards with borderline violent images on them. I agree with you on this too. My point is, you recognize that people have the right to choose to follow the truth. They are not to be forced to do it.

The problem I am having, Dr. White, is with your insistence that gay marriage is somehow an exception. Why is it that, in this one case, you insist that the government enforce the Christian perspective? Why will you not allow people the right to make these choices for themselves? You say you are a defender of traditional marriage. Is it your opinion that heterosexual marriage is somehow made invalid by the addition of homosexual marriage? I suppose you would consider the term "homosexual marriage" to be an oxymoron.

The way I see it, this is either a matter of specific benefits, or it is a matter of vocabulary. What I mean is this: Is your problem that you do not think homosexuals should receive the same legal benefits that married couples receive? That seems like a very strange position to take, from a Christian perspective. I'm not quite sure what would motivate you to take that position. My hunch is that this is, for you, a matter of vocabulary. You do not mind civil unions that are, for all practical purposes, marriages, just so long as they are not called marriages.

If this is the case, I can totally understand your perspective. From a Christian point of view, they are not marriages. I have no problem granting you that (though there are plenty on "my side" who would call you a bigot even for that. I would disagree with them). It would be sort of like a heretical cult that denies the deity of Christ calling themselves "Christian." You would reject that, and rightfully so. But you would presumably not want legal action taken to force them not to use that name. I mean, you wouldn't, would you? Why is it that, in this one case, you support such action?

Maybe you feel that those on my side won't be satisfied with simply being allowed access to marriage from a legal perspective, but would demand that all religious people affirm their marriage as legitimate. Perhaps you feel that this would be intolerant on their part. Again, I would agree with you. They have no right to demand that you affirm their lifestyle.  Your worldview does not allow you to do that. But this is my whole point. Neither side has any right to DEMAND anything! They cannot legally force you to accept their marriage as valid, but neither do you have the right to force them to accept your limits on marriage. Your limits are a product of your worldview. Your insistence that marriage remain traditionally defined is a product of your worldview. I don't understand why you cannot seem to grasp this. It does not matter what you think about what beliefs our founding fathers held, or how many people in this country agree with you. What matters, when it comes to recognized legal rights, is that people have the freedom to make these decisions for themselves, rather than having it made for them on religious grounds.

You have every right to preach against homosexuality. You have every right to deny that these marriages are valid in God's eyes. Indeed, as a Christian, you are obligated to do so. But were it to come down to a vote, you would not be able to justify a vote against the legal rights of homosexuals to be married. Even when I was a Christian, I supported gay marriage, though I believed homosexuality to be a sin. I just couldn't get past this one issue. Is it my place to enforce my definition of marriage, even if it IS the "traditional" one, on anybody else?

Where am I missing the ball, Dr. White? I assume you have a logically cogent reason for your position, but I simply cannot see it. I consider myself to be inclusive and tolerant. Why? Because I support the rights of Christians to believe whatever they want to believe, and to tell those beliefs to whomever they want to tell them to. You have the right to your opinion on gay marriage, and those who want to silence people like you are being intolerant. I'll say it a hundred times. I'll come on the Dividing Line and say it. I am a skeptic, a supporter of gay marriage, and I am appalled at those on my side who want to force others to agree with them.

But the fact of the matter is, if you take legal action to prevent homosexuals from getting married, you are just as bad as they are. You are saying to the world, "My worldview says that your marriage is invalid, and I'm going to use my vote to make sure that my worldview is the only option for anyone to follow." Don't you see the problem here, Dr. White? It seems to me that you, by constantly pointing out the hypocrisy of the Left in this, are hiding your own intolerance. The pot calling the kettle black does not make the kettle white.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On Chick-fil-A and Tolerance

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, you have heard the latest report from the front lines of the culture war regarding gay rights. I am of course referring to the business with the good people at Chick-fil-A and their controversial (but not at all surprising) comments on the issue of marriage equality. I won't bother repeating the whole story for you, as the relevant parts will be summed up naturally anyway, and like I said I am sure you have heard plenty already. What I do want to do is give my thoughts on the matter, as I think the perspective I provide is not the perspective one is likely to encounter in most of the public dialogue on the issue.

First of all, I want to point out that I myself am a strong supporter of gay marriage. To me, the fact that we are still debating about it is astounding. Even when I was a fundamentalist Christian (I am now an agnostic) and believed that homosexuality was a sin, I did not oppose the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. I just did not see why the government should impose upon other people my particular religious beliefs. And this is a religious question. It is perhaps the only American civil rights issue that I have heard discussed in my lifetime in which one side takes the position they do for purely religious reasons. Yes, I am aware that other reasons are sometimes offered (like the argument about how children are healthier in a household containing two heterosexual parents. Are we supposed to outlaw divorce now, too?), but I consider them to be nothing more than a smokescreen, a desperate attempt to gain some credulity among those who do not care what a particular religion says about the issue. Even those who skip the smokescreen and argue from a purely religious angle cannot seem to explain what exactly they dislike about gay marriage in such a way that the rest of us will consider valid. The fact of the matter is, there is nothing about homosexuals getting married that has any impact whatsoever on traditional marriage. None. If I am missing something here, please enlighten me.

Now it should be perfectly clear where I stand in this whole debate. I do not support Dan Cathy (president of Chick-fil-A)'s stance as a supporter of the "traditional family." That being the case, I also want it to be perfectly clear that I find the response to Mr. Cathy's statements by many on my side of the debate to be absolutely appalling. It is one thing to refuse to give the company business because you disagree with them. That is your right. But that is not all we are getting here. There are those who are taking things a step further -  a step way too far.

Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, a strong supporter of gay rights, has declared that Chick-fil-A restaurants are no longer welcome in the city. He wants to deny them any possibility of a business licence. This is not because of any illegal or immoral activity on the part of the company. They have not actively discriminated against anyone as far as we know. All they did was state their official position on a political question. In other words, they exercised their freedom of speech.

It cannot be overemphasized how inappropriate this is. Nobody has the right to refuse a business licence to a company for simply stating their political opinion and financially supporting those who share that opinion. Imagine what would happen if it were not Chick-fil-A, but was instead a company that supported gay marriage. Imagine if Oreo had been the victim here. There would be millions demanding Menino's arrest (and worse). He would never in a million years get away with it. He would be labeled a criminal, and rightfully so. I say he should be labelled that now. This man is not standing up for tolerance. Menino and those who think like him are promoting a totalitarian rule over the whole of the political arena.

This is hypocrisy, and it cannot be allowed to continue. We who support civil rights for the LGBT community must preach a message of tolerance. The other side never will, but we absolutely have to. This is a battle that we can and will win, but we will not win it by forcing our opponents into submission. I for one refuse to identify with those who attempt to stifle the rights of free speech via this kind of pressure, no matter whose side they are on.