Accommodationist believer: Doing science is a Christian endeavor (?)

February 24, 2017 • 12:00 pm

By now we should be able to rebut all of the aruments of this short video sent to me by reader David. It features Andy Bannister,who describes himself like this:

Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and an Adjunct Speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, speaking and teaching regularly throughout the UK, Europe, Canada, the USA, and the wider world. From universities to churches, business forums to TV and radio, I regularly address audiences of both Christians and those of all faiths and none on issues relating to faith, culture, politics and society.

And YouTube describes the video like this:

Dr. Andy Bannister, Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity explores the question of whether or not science and Christianity are opposed to each other. For more “Short Answers” videos, visit or subscribe to our channel.

It’s accommodationist, of course—how could it be otherwise given that Bannister has already drunk the Kool-Aid. He argues these points to show why science is a thoroughly Christian endeavor, even in these days of atheistic scientists.

  •  Christianity is a “firm foundation from which you can do science”, because the founding fathers of science, who “first got the scientific method going” were all Christians. I don’t think so: what about the Arabs and the ancient Greeks? Now, it’s true that the modern protocols of science developed in the largely Christian West, but that’s because everyone was pretty much a Christian. That doesn’t say that science is founded on Christianity—any more than saying that printing is a Christian endeavor because the printing press arose in the Christian West.
  • Christianity explains “the stability of the universe” far better than does the “randomness of atheism.” But since when was “randomness” atheistic? If Bannister means, “How do we explain the laws of physics undergirding the Universe?”, well, then he has to explain the origin of God Him/Her/Xir/Itself, and give evidence for such a God.  His arguments don’t even make sense without evidence of such a God, and besides, there’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” as an answer to why physical laws are what they are, any more than saying “I don’t know” if asked if God created those laws. And then there’s the multiverse explanation. ..
  • Christianity is the only viable answer to the question, “Why should we do science in the first place?”  Atheists can say only, “because it works”, or “because it’s interesting.”  But these arguments, say Bannister, come from the Christian notion that finding truth is good in its own right. That is of course bogus: we seek truth because it produces answers that not only satisfy us, but because only truth will tell us how to effect scientific and technological improvements. We never understood how to cure black plague so long as we thought it was an expression of God’s displeasure. Saying “we seek the truth because that is what works” is a purely secular argument, and a perfectly sound one. Since, argues Bannister, God is truth, seeking truth becomes the same thing as seeking God.  My answer to this is, “show me your God, and then we’ll talk.” Besides, what is the motivation of the many, many atheist scientists who still continue to seek the truth? Are they merely acting out the vestigial Christianity that’s really motivating them?
  • “Science sits on the foundation that telling the truth about your results is a good thing.” Bannister says that this is a moral claim that science cannot prove, while of course Christianity can invoke the Ten Commandments. This too is a crock. It’s wrong to lie about your results because lying screws up the system and makes it hard on everybody, as well as impossible to effect progress. In other words, we have a practical rather than a moral justification—one that can be buttressed by outcomes

Whenever I see someone like this argue that God explains everything better than no God, I immediately want to ask the person what the evidence is for their God, and why the Christian God is the right god rather than, say Brahma or Allah. All they can do at this point is babble, referring to ancient texts that they claim are better than other ancient texts. Or they rely on revelation, which is contradictory among people and has no objective verification.  Bannister’s claims won’t convince anyone who isn’t already a believer; his video is a model of confirmation bias.

David added this comment, “Sadly this video featured in the ‘Recommended: Science’ category via YouTube (the rest of the channel looks like standard apologetics – naturally, comments are disabled on the channel.”

More “Something-of-the-gaps” arguments: Ross Douthat uses spiritual experiences to argue for God

December 26, 2016 • 10:30 am

Ross Douthat is, of course, a young (37) conservative op-ed writer for the New York Times, and a devout Catholic. In his Christmas column—which went along with Nicholas Kristof’s frenetic attempts to remain a card-carrying Christian in his interview with evangelical pastor Timothy Keller—Douthat makes his own pitch for God. In his short piece, “Varieties of Religious Experience” (named after William James’s book), Douthat gives a number of anecdotes about intense spiritual experiences of nonreligious people. His rationale is this:

One of my hobbies is collecting what you might call nonconversion stories — stories about secular moderns who have supernatural-seeming experiences without being propelled into any specific religious faith. In some ways these stories are more intriguing than mystical experiences that confirm or inspire strong religious belief, because they come to us unmediated by any theological apparatus. They are more like raw data, raw material, the stuff that shows how spiritual experiences would continue if every institutional faith disappeared tomorrow.

These include near-death experiences (NDEs), like that of A. J. Ayer, cases of “spiritual rapture,” like that of Barbara Ehrenreich, and even being freaked out by an exorcism, like this person:

William Friedkin, the director of “The Exorcist,” had never seen an exorcism when he made his famous film. A professed agnostic, he decided recently to “complete the circle” and spent some time shadowing the Vatican exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, just before Amorth’s passing at the age of 91. Friedkin recounted his experience in Vanity Fair this fall; it did not make him a Catholic believer, but it did seem to scare the Hades out of him.

Now note that despite the largely secular nature of these experiences—others are given, too—Douthat still used the word “religious” in his title, for he wants to suggest that these experiences suggest that there’s Something Numinous Out there. That Something, of course, is his God.

The refutation of these experiences as evidence for the divine is that you can see all kinds of “spiritual” experiences induced by meditation, drugs, wonder at beauty, listening to lovely music, and so on, and these are simply what happens to some people’s brains when they’re transformed by chemicals or external stimuli. If you give someone LSD and they have a spiritual experience—and believe me, I had plenty of those in my twenties—nobody claims that’s evidence for God. As for NDEs, we still don’t understand what’s happening neurologically and physiologically in a person near death, but there are plenty of scientific alternatives to the God Hypothesis (see here, here, here, and here, for example). When faced with perceptual phenomena we don’t yet understand, what’s a better strategy—to argue that they prove God, or to study them scientifically? The history of science shows that the latter strategy is more productive, and in fact the links above show the kind of progress that’s being made.

Despite that, Douthat simply denies the naturalistic program and plumps for a theistic God, though at first he pretends that’s not what he’s doing:

Sometimes at Christmas I’ll write a column that gently tweaks the sterner sort of atheist, whose theories seem ill-matched with the empirics of the universe and the stuff of human life. (I suspect many of them know it; hence the zeal for ever-zanier God-substitutes. Yesterday, the multiverse; today, the universe-as-simulation; tomorrow, some terrifying omnicompetent A.I.)

But the implausibility of hard materialism doesn’t mean the cosmos obviously confirms a Judeo-Christian paradigm. And the supernatural experiences of the irreligious — cosmic beatitude, ghostly enigmas, unclassifiable encounters and straight-up demons — don’t point toward any single theology or world-picture.

First of all, hard materialism (I prefer “naturalism”) is not implausible; in fact, it’s the only research program that has led us to the truths about the Universe. Theology and religion, on the other hand, haven’t given us a single verifiable truth about reality. To see that, just consider the number of conflicting and irreconcilable claims made by different religions. How many gods are there? Is there a Trinity? Was Jesus the divine son of God? Or was Muhammad the true Prophet? Is there an afterlife? What morality does God want us to obey? Is evolution true? Can women be priests? Do you go to Heaven by works or by faith? The list is endless.

Further, although I don’t know many serious scientists who think we’re living in the Matrix, multiverse theory is far from zany. It remains a serious (albeit hard to test) possibility, and came not out of the desire of physicists to find a substitute for the religious “fine-tuning” argument, but out of the theories of physics itself.

It’s odd that someone who claims to be rational would consider materialism implausible but yet see the existence of God, pondered intellectually, as something about which one can be confident. Thus, Douthat’s uncertainty about what these experiences mean are inevitably built into a buttress for his theistic Catholicism (my emphasis):

. . . I might reach for polytheism or pantheism to explain the variety and diversity of what reaches through the veil.

And not necessarily comforting forms of polytheism or pantheism. As a strictly intellectual matter, I am very confident that God exists. In dark times, though — and this has been a dark year in many ways — I wonder if the Absolute relates to us in the way that my church teaches, if he will really wipe away every tear and make all things that we love new.

This is the wager that Christmas offers us, year in and year out. It isn’t Pascal’s famous bet on God’s very existence; rather, it’s a bet on God’s love for us, a wager that all the varieties of religious experience, wonderful and terrifying and inscrutable, should be interpreted in the light of one specific history-altering experience: a divine incarnation, a baby crying beneath a pulsing star.

And so, in the end, despite the Doubts of Douthat, he finds refuge in the story of Baby Jesus. Douthat’s putting his money on the goodness of God, despite the absence of any evidence for Him.

Image processed by CodeCarvings Piczard ### FREE Community Edition ### on 2015-05-18 19:54:49Z | |
Douthat in the House of God

Nicholas Kristof, religious doubter, interviews a dead certain Christian pastor

December 25, 2016 • 11:15 am

We have to have at least one post about religion today, and here it is.

Oy! The New York Times, for its Sunday Christmas Review, features a long interview of Pastor Timothy Keller, an evangelical Christian whom the interviewer, Nicholas Kristof, characterizes as “among the most prominent evangelical thinkers today.” Keller is also the author of the best-selling books The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of SkepticismThe Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.

The interview, called “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?“, is characterized by Kristof expressing his doubts about Jesus’s divinity, the truth of the Resurrection, and the Christian doctrine that only acceptance of Jesus as savior will get you to Heaven. Keller slaps these doubts down one by one, assuring Kristof that yes, all these things are true, and that Christianity is certainly based on true statements about how the world is. (That’s a point I made in Faith Versus Fact, but one that many religionists still deny, claiming that much of the Bible is metaphorical, and yes, everyone has the chance to go to Heaven, be they Jew, Buddhist, or Muslim.

In the end, Keller tells Kristof that he, Kristof, is not really a Christian!

Here are a few bits of the Q&A that I’ve put under my own headings (bold). Kristof’s questions are in italics, Keller’s answers in Roman type.

Religion is based on truth statements, not just communality or moral sentiments. Absent those empirical truths, religion is worthless:

KRISTOF Tim, I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match?

KELLER If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.

Kristof then asks whether one can be properly skeptical of the Virgin Birth. Keller’s response:

If it were simply a legend that could be dismissed, it would damage the fabric of the Christian message. Luc Ferry, looking at the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ birth into the world, said this taught that the power behind the whole universe was not just an impersonal cosmic principle but a real person who could be known and loved. That scandalized Greek and Roman philosophers but was revolutionary in the history of human thought. It led to a new emphasis on the importance of the individual person and on love as the supreme virtue, because Jesus was not just a great human being, but the pre-existing Creator God, miraculously come to earth as a human being.

And that is that! Then Kristof, chastened, asks about the Resurrection: did it really happen? Keller, of course, says “yes”:

Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection. So his important ethical teaching only makes sense when you don’t separate it from these historic doctrines. If the Resurrection is a genuine reality, it explains why Jesus can say that the poor and the meek will “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). St. Paul said without a real resurrection, Christianity is useless (1 Corinthians 15:19).

. . . The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection.

They then go back and forth on the Resurrection, with Kristof, who knows his Scripture, pointing out the discrepancies in the different Gospels’ accounts of that miracle, with Keller proffering the usual apologetics, rationalizing these discrepancies and making the dumb claim that the Resurrection must have happened because women were the first eyewitnesses, and who would have believed women if the story wasn’t really true? QED

Can you be a Christian unless you buy the whole hog?

Kristof, then, wonders if he’s a real Christian. Keller dashes what hopes he had:

[Kristof] So where does that leave people like me? Am I a Christian? A Jesus follower? A secular Christian? Can I be a Christian while doubting the Resurrection?

[Keller] I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length. But, in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.

Faith, says Keller, is perfectly concordant with science, and, anyway, we have lots of faith-based beliefs.

When asked why would should suspend our skepticism when it comes to religion, and just take things on faith, Keller drags in Tom Nagel, a philosopher who is one of the doubters of materialism when it comes to evolution and consciousness—though Nagel is not a believer. (Read Allen Orr’s negative review of Nagel’s ideas.)

I agree. We should require evidence and good reasoning, and we should not write off other religions as ‘superstitious’ and then fail to question our more familiar Jewish or Christian faith tradition.

But I don’t want to contrast faith with skepticism so sharply that they are seen to be opposites. They aren’t. I think we all base our lives on both reason and faith. For example, my faith is to some degree based on reasoning that the existence of God makes the most sense of what we see in nature, history and experience. Thomas Nagel recently wrote that the thoroughly materialistic view of nature can’t account for human consciousness, cognition and moral values. That’s part of the reasoning behind my faith. So my faith is based on logic and argument.

But of course Nagel is buying the “The Something of the Gaps” argument, one that is deeply flawed. We can alter consciousness (or remove it and then bring it back) by material intervention, which is pretty good evidence that consciousness is indeed a material phenomenon, even if we don’t yet understand how it works or how it evolved. Keller goes on:

In the end, however, no one can demonstrably prove the primary things human beings base their lives on, whether we are talking about the existence of God or the importance of human rights and equality. Nietzsche argued that the humanistic values of most secular people, such as the importance of the individual, human rights and responsibility for the poor, have no place in a completely materialistic universe. He even accused people holding humanistic values as being “covert Christians” because it required a leap of faith to hold to them. We must all live by faith.

Here Keller is conflating the religious view of faith (“believe these fairy tales without evidence”), with a confidence we have that if we treat people better, our society will wind up the way we want. Yes, it is a preference to favor human rights and equality over human non-rights and inequality, but you can at least see what kind of societies result from different interventions, finding out if what you wanted comports with what you do. Morality is also a preference (I don’t believe that moral values are objective), but I wouldn’t call it a “faith”, since it’s not belief without evidence. Your choice of a moral system is no more a “faith” than is your preference for steak over tilapia or chocolate ice cream over broccoli.

Keller’s non-Bayesian view of God.

Keller seems to think that because we don’t really know whether God exists, the odds must be about 50/50. But what about the priors: the lack of any evidence for a god, much less the Christian God? There are, after all, such things as likelihoods, and Keller’s embrace of Christianity seems no more rational than a Muslim’s embrace of the Qur’an as the literal truth:

I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.

. . . I’d also encourage doubters of religious teachings to doubt the faith assumptions that often drive their skepticism. While Christians should be open to questioning their faith assumptions, I would hope that secular skeptics would also question their own. Neither statement — “There is no supernatural reality beyond this world” and “There is a transcendent reality beyond this material world” — can be proven empirically, nor is either self-evident to most people. So they both entail faith. Secular people should be as open to questions and doubts about their positions as religious people.

Of course one can’t prove there is no god, but, as Victor Stenger used to say, “The absence of evidence is the evidence of absence—if there should have been evidence.” If God wants us to accept him and his son, why did he withhold the evidence from us, and in fact allow most of the world to believe in non-Christian faiths that Keller absolutely rejects? I’m sure Keller would reject all kinds of things (like Russell’s teapot) for which there’s as little evidence as there is for his Christianity. We simply have no evidence for a God, just like we have no evidence for a real Santa Claus. The sensible and parsimonious thing to do is provisionally reject a god.

Non-Christians don’t get saved. 

Sophisticated Theologians™ twist themselves in knots trying to show that yes, even Jews, Muslims, Hindus and—except for Edward Feser—even dogs can be saved. Keller slaps them all down, though he can’t really give a good reason why all those non-Christians will broil in Hell. In the end, Keller just punts and says salvation is reserved for Christians because the Bible says so. But of course the Qur’an is clear on the same issue, but with respect to Muslims. And, in the end, Keller punts again and says, well, God’s ways are mysterious (my emphasis in the following):

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

What a reprehensible and unempathic little toad Keller is! And why did Kristof and the NYT give his blatherings space in the Christmas issue. Where’s an atheist to talk about evidence?

Timothy Keller

h/t: Barry

Giles Fraser: Terrorists aren’t religious enough (!)

December 23, 2016 • 12:00 pm

Giles Fraser is described by the Guardian as “priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.” He writes regularly for the Guardian, but it’s nothing that is edifying. It’s apologetics, Jake! Fraser has appeared on this website several times before (e.g., here, here, and here), and never in a favorable light.

But his piece in yesterday’s Guardian (he has a column), may be the worst yet. You can tell that from its title, “How to defeat terrorists? True extremism.” Now what on Earth can he mean by that? He starts by talking about the truck that killed people in Berlin’s Christmas market. (The suspect, Anis Amri, has now been killed in Italy, and there’s a video of him pledging allegiance to ISIS.)  As a true apologist, Fraser argues that Amri, and other religious terrorists like him (at least Fraser admits religion was involved!) wasn’t a true believer, for a true believer would have trusted Allah to do his own work, rather than enlist a truck driver to do it for him.

The problem with the person who drove a lorry into a crowded market of Christmas shoppers wasn’t that he was too religious, but that he wasn’t religious enough. It was the action of a half-believer, the sort of thing done by someone who doesn’t so much believe in God – but rather believes in the efficacy of human power exercised on God’s behalf, as if God needed his help. As Rowan Williams once put it: “For the person who resorts to random killing in order to promote the honour of God, it is clear that God is not to be trusted. God is too weak to look after his own honour and we are the strong ones who must step in to help him. Such is the underlying blasphemy at work.”

This is about as bogus an argument I can imagine. First of all, it ignores the fact that God, if He exists, allows horrible things to happen to innocent people—children killed by leukemia, tsunamis, and so on. If God was doing his own work, he would be holding back the tides and curing the kids, with no doctors required. The fact is that the whole basis of Christianity, which is clearly laid out in the Bible, is for people to do God’s work: to act in a Godly fashion. Jesus, after all, was setting about his Father’s work.

Christians and their missionaries regularly say they are “doing God’s work.” Nobody calls them “half-believers” despite their conviction that they’re doing what God wants. It’s only when God requires bad acts, as he did regularly in the Old Testament, that one who performs them is called a “half-believer.” Let God commit his own genocide. But in the Qur’an there are repeated calls by Allah (through Muhammad) to smite the unbelievers. Allah tells them to do that. And that is what Amri did.

“The great aim of all true religion,” wrote William Temple, “is to transfer the centre of interest from self to God.” Religious terrorists don’t get this because they still think it’s all about them, and what they can achieve. That’s the heresy. The man who shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey shouted “Allahu Akbar” – that God is great. The thing is, if he really thought that, he wouldn’t have shot the ambassador. His mistake was to think that God was somehow dependent on, and grateful for, his violent assistance.

Oh really? How does Fraser know that the guy who shot the ambassador didn’t think God was great? I suspect that Turkish policeman thought that he was acting as an extension of God.  And that’s not a mistake if you interpret the Qur’an in certain ways.

I don’t want to go on with this, as there is nothing a theologian can’t argue from scripture. But in this case Fraser ignores both the Old and New Testament’s call for believers to do God’s will.

Indeed, what Allahu Akbar surely means (and Arabic speaking Christians use the phrase too) is that God needs nothing from me in order to be God. And when this is recognised, I can (sometimes with quite considerable relief) drop all my desperate schemes and arguments that try and keep him going in the face of opposition and disbelief. Indeed, in order to seek to transfer the centre of interest from self to God, to achieve other-centredness, you can’t make it all about you, your spiritual struggle, your religious heroism.

. . . But as Jonathan Swift famously explained: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Which is why I want religious people to be more extreme in their faith, not less; to put aside their own boiling inadequacy and to trust in God’s greatness and that he knows what he is doing.

Moses and Jesus and Muhammad were all extremists. They trusted in God over their instincts. And the shorthand for this is Allahu Akbar – a phrase the terrorists will never understand.

Umm. . . . I think they understand it better than Fraser. And his call for Muslims to be more extremist is one not likely to have good results.

Here’s an exchange Matthew (who does Twi**er) sent me, along with the note, “Tom Holland – historian, Christian, and honest man – points out some problems to sophisticated theologian Giles Fraser.” That’s Tom Holland the author and historian, not Tom Holland the actor, and you might read his Wikipedia bio.



Time Magazine: Islam is dandy and egalitarian: the problems of terrorism are exacerbated by atheists and “Muslim reformers”

October 5, 2016 • 11:45 am

The title of a new article by Qasim Rashid in Time magazine tells the tale: “A strong Muslim identity is the best defense against extremism.” Rashid, who has a history of denying the influence of Islam on terrorism, describes himself as follows;

I’m the Director of Civil Rights and Policy for KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. Since the early 1990s KARAMAH has utilized authentic Islamic scholarship to advocate for worldwide gender equity from an Islamic lens. As a women-led organization, KARAMAH exemplifies a proven model of Islam by educating, training and inspiring a new generation of Muslim women leaders who have gone on to become prolific authors, journalists, academics and activists.

This is a bit confusing to me, because the only Qasim Rashid I can find on the internet is a man, but I’ve confirmed that it’s the same person. But no matter; the arguments are what matters. And his arguments are that neither New Atheism nor Muslim of ex-Muslim “moderates” like Maajid Nawaz or Ayaan Hirsi Ali can do anything to help end Islamic terrorism. Why?

The atheists, says Rashid, are useless because they are a) ignorant of “real” Islam, b) have promoted anti-Muslim acts like the Iraq War (he refers to Hitchens) and c) promote the destruction of Islam itself (Rashid quotes Hirsi Ali here, apparently not realizing that she’s backed off the “destruction” idea in her latest book Heretic).  And, of course, there are plenty of atheists who opposed the Iraq war, and plenty of moderate Muslims or ex-Muslims, like Asra Nomani, Maajid Nawaz, Eiynah, and now Hirsi Ali, who are not calling for the destruction of Islam but for its “reformation.”

So Rashid gets that all wrong. Further, he sees parallels between atheists and moderate Muslims that make them doubly ineffective as a way to curb terrorism:

New Atheists, the Islamophobia industry, and so-called “Muslim reformers” (who meritlessly seek to change the Qur’an altogether) all share three significant characteristics. First, each is wholly ignorant of Islam as exemplified by their myopic insistence to ignore events like the Iraq War and instead claim that ISIS’s existence and approximately 30,000 members are a more valid example of Islam than Islam’s 1.6 billion Muslims and 1,400 years of non-ISIS existence. Second, each offers only an empty theory of Islamic “reformation.” Third, and perhaps most significant, each refuses to acknowledge the practical and proven models from Muslim organizations that have long existed well before 9/11 that analyze Islam from a position of honesty and scholarship, and demonstrate that it is not Islam that needs reformation—but Muslims themselves.

I seriously doubt that people like Hirsi Ali and Nawaz are “wholly ignorant of Islam”. What a thing to say! Further, that their own models of reformation, relying on leverage from moderate Muslims, are “empty” remains to be seen. In fact, to me that (Hirsi Ali, for example, calls for the Qur’an to be read less literally) seems a more rational way to defang fundamentalist Islam than, say, by going along with the “strong Muslim” position that the Qur’an must be read literally, word for word. When you do that, watch out, because the Qur’an, like the Old Testament (but worse) is a document filled with bloodshed and hatred of nonbelievers.

And what is Rashid’s “practical and proven model” for Islamic reformation? Just this:

Indeed, a stronger Muslim identity derived from a proven model is the best defense against extremism. This shouldn’t be surprising. A 2016 analysis on American Muslims from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding reports that “Muslims who regularly attend mosques are more likely to work with their neighbors to solve community problems, be registered to vote, and are more likely to plan to vote.” This echoes a 2008 British intelligence MI5 analysis that concluded: “[a] well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

Moreover, for more than a century and across 209 nations, tens of millions of Muslims belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community have stood united under an Islamic Caliphate. This Community of Muslims cites authentic Islamic scholarship—the Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadith—to exemplify a proven model of True Islam that teaches secular governance, gender equity, universal human rights and a categorical condemnation of terrorism.

I seriously doubt whether the “community problems” solved by American Muslims have anything to do with organizations like ISIS or other terrorist groups. And seriously: going to mosques helps you register to vote? Maybe, but is that going to stop terrorism?

As for the notion of the Caliphate and that of “authentic Islamic scholarship,” well, ISIS wants a Caliphate, too, and avows that it’s adhering to authentic Islamic scholarship, a claim that has more credibility than that of other Muslims who promulgate less violent forms of Islam as “authentic”. (Read the Qur’an!). Remember, too, that even many moderate Muslims, as in the recent Pew report, see sharia law as what they’d favor for everyone in their country. Rashid, in his insistence that he and his group are the only promulgators “true” Islam, is bucking considerable data showing otherwise.

h/t: Grania

C. S. Lewis’s puerile theology

September 14, 2016 • 9:30 am

As I noted last night, I’m reading C. S. Lewis’s  Mere Christianity, which, I hope, will be the last theology book I ever read. And I’m doing it not because it has knockdown arguments for God—those don’t exist—but because it’s surely the most popular and influential work of Christian apologetics in the 20th century. I’m 40 pages in, and don’t really want to finish it and then write a full review, as that would be a lot of time spent for no good purpose. But I will comment from time to time.

I can see how this book influenced Francis Collins in his conversion from atheist to evangelical Christian. (The tripartite frozen waterfalls helped, too.) As Wikipedia notes in Collins’s bio:

Collins has described his parents as “only nominally Christian” and by graduate school he considered himself an atheist. However, dealing with dying patients led him to question his religious views, and he investigated various faiths. He familiarized himself with the evidence for and against God in cosmology, and used Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis as a foundation to re-examine his religious view. He eventually came to a conclusion, and became a Christian during a hike on a fall afternoon. [JAC: Frozen waterfall!] He has described himself as a “serious Christian”.

If you’ve read Collin’s account of his religion in The Language of God, or heard his talks on faith, you’ll see that he leans heavily on what he calls “The Moral Law”: the instinctive feeling of right and wrong that, he says, is ingrained in all humans. Collins sees that as a knockdown argument for God, since he can’t envision how such a feeling could be installed in our neurons by natural selection. And if it couldn’t have evolved, well, God did it.

Of course he’s wrong: one can envision how rudiments of morality could have been selected for in our small-group-living ancestors, and we see such rudiments in our primate relatives, where it could have evolved independently. On top of an evolved morality, however, lies a veneer of culturally inculcated morality that might feel inborn but is actually indoctrinated. And that could come from aeons of experience on how to behave so our society functions well (which, after all, gives us personal well being).

It’s clear that Collins gets this argument for God from Lewis, for it’s a major argument in the first part of Mere Christianity. Not only is the Moral Law seen as evidence for God, but, in a masterpiece of sloppy thinking, Lewis argues that it was one of the few ways that God could actually give evidence to humans of His existence (my emphasis):

“The position of the question, then, is like this. We want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason or whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. Since that power, if it exists, would be not one of the observed facts [in the Universe] but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it. There is only one case in which we can know whether there is anything more. namely our own case. And in that one case we find there is. Or put the other way round. If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house.  The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to around our suspicions? In the only case where you can expect to get an answer, the answer turns out to be Yes; and in the other cases, where you do not get an answer, you see why you do not.” (p. 19)

Here you see two things about Lewis’s book: the extraordinarily clear prose, with no equivocation or evasion, and the easily shredded arguments for God. Lewis’s arguments here are the same as Collins’s: the “Moral Law” we feel inside ourselves must have come from God. And, more than that, Lewis makes a virtue of necessity: the only way God could reveal Himself to us is through our feelings—our realization that some behaviors are “right” and others “wrong. Ergo the dubious “architect” simile, which falls apart with a moment’s thought.

Two obvious problems immediately appear. First, why couldn’t God show himself to us by performing miracles, or by giving us other external signs of His existence? After all, He Who Is Outside the Universe managed not only to produce a virgin birth (something that Lewis accepted), but also a resurrection (ditto). It is as if, to Lewis, God, being “outside the universe”—whatever that means—entails his inability to do anything inside the universe. But of course Lewis doesn’t think that’s the case, although he pretends so here to make his argument. In fact, if God can perform miracles, he could, as the Universe’s architect, rearrange the stars to say “I am that I am” in Hebrew, bring Jesus back to Earth again, or give any number of signs right now that would evince his Being.

Second, both Lewis and his spiritual descendant Collins simply can’t see how morality could have any origin other than God. Why, then, are lifelong nonbelievers imbued with the same feelings of right and wrong? I suppose Lewis would reply that even atheists are creatures of God and have the same Moral Module installed, but he fails to consider alternative secular hypotheses like reason and evolution. Unless I miss my guess, evolution was already widely accepted at Oxford by the 1950s!

Finally, Lewis does finesse the Euthyphro argument: the argument of Plato (sort of) that morality must be antecedent to God because if God commanded us to do bad things, we’d have to do them simply because that’s what God wants. But since we wouldn’t obey those commands (unless you’re William Lane Craig), we must have an idea of right and wrong that doesn’t involve God’s will. One way of getting around that is saying that God is simply good by nature, but that presupposes some standard of goodness that is independent of God, and to which God decided to adhere. His innate goodness, so the rebuttal goes, was manifested in Scripture, from whence we derive our morals.  Or, as in Lewis’s case, God actually imbues humans with our notion of good and bad, so that we don’t need scripture to learn how to be good. Both arguments, however, still suffer from the problem that there must be external standards of good to which god adheres.

Enough for now. This book will drive me mad.

For a glimpse of Lewis, here is the only existing recording of Lewis’s BBC broadcasts that he turned into Mere Christianity. I can’t find a recording of his voice anywhere else. Pure “received pronounciation”!

And, courtesy of Pliny the in Between, Meerkat Christianity:


Ceiling Cat help me: I’m reading more theology

September 13, 2016 • 6:33 pm

Under duress, since Grania told me that this was one of the most influential works of Christian apologetics of our time, I am reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. One of the reasons for its popularity, of course, was that Lewis wrote in a simple and straightforward fashion, addressing his arguments to the public rather than other theologians.

I suppose it’s not considered One of the Best Arguments for God, nor is it Sophisticated Theology™, but it surely brought more people to God, and strengthened the Christian faith of others, than all the torturous lucubrations of Plantinga, Haught, Feser, and William Lane Craig combined.

I was told it was an easy read. I was told I could finish it in one night (it’s 177 pages). But I find I can’t read more than 20-30 pages in one go, as it nauseates me. The writing is clear, of course, but the man is so painfully sincere, so blissfully unaware of counterarguments, and above all so insane to embrace this piffle as an Oxford don, that I want to throw the book across the room. I have to stop after a while. It’s a great waste of intelligence.

Still, I shall persist. And then I’m done with theology.


p.s. I am also reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is far more engrossing.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Plantinga

August 31, 2016 • 8:48 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo, a strip called “son,” is pretty clever, as the barmaid doesn’t mean what Jesus and Mo think she does!

I have to say that one of the most compelling arguments against a religionists’ belief is that, to defend it, they must explicitly argue, and give reasons why, everybody else’s belief is wrong. This is no simple matter since, as Jesus and Mo state above, the claims of different religions are often flatly contradictory. The example of Jesus is perhaps the best one.

Just ask a Christian this: “How do you know that your religion is right—that Jesus is the route to salvation—and Islam is wrong in saying that accepting Jesus as God’s son sends you to hell?”

One theologian who’s attempted an answer is Alvin Plantinga, whose apologetics are always good for a few laughs. His answer is that the reasonableness of one’s faith comes from a sensus divinitatis—a “divine sense”—vouchsafed us by God.  And his sensus divinitatis tells him that Christianity is right.

But, you’ll be asking yourself, everyone has that sensus, so how come it’s gone awry in some people? As I note on pp. 180-181 of Faith Versus Fact (available in fine bookstores everywhere), Plantinga’s answer is laughable:

Of course Plantinga has an answer for why there are so many atheists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and pre-Christian believers, like the Aztecs and ancient Egyptians, who were somehow unable to form true belief in the Christian God. The answer is that in those individuals the sensus divinitatis is or was “broken,” dismantled by the effects of sin. Curiously, Plantinga argues that your broken sensus need not stem from your own sin:

[Plantinga, from Warranted Christian Belief]“Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects and the past. Like any cognitive process, however, the sensus divinitatis can malfunction; as a result of sin, it has been damaged. . . . It is no part of the model to say that damage to the sensus divinitatis on the part of a person is due to sin on the part of the same person. Such damage is like other disease and handicaps: due ultimately to the ravages of sin, but not necessarily sin on the part of the person with the disease.”

Here we have an untestable explanation for an insupportable thesis.

Isn’t Plantinga’s answer funny? Yet this was the guy chosen to be head of the Western division of the American Philosophical Association.  According to Wikipedia (the original reference is behind a paywall), Time magazine described him as being “widely regarded as the world’s most important living Christian philosopher.

I’d be delighted if readers could report other answers they’ve received to the question, “What makes you so sure that your religion is right and all the others are wrong?”


Heather Hastie on Reza Aslan’s apologetics and Islamic terrorism

August 24, 2016 • 11:13 am

I call your attention to a new post on Heather’s site, one that deals partly with Reza Aslan’s pathetic apologetics for Islamic violence. In her post, “Reza Aslan is still excusing Islam,” Heather points out Aslan’s curious assertion of a disconnect between religious beliefs and behavior—something that Maarten Boudry and I have also written about (paper available on request).

I’ll avoid excerpting Heather’s post, as it deserves to be read on her site, but she deals with one comment that Aslan made when asked about regressive Islamic beliefs like killing gays and apostates. This is what he said:

I mean, we may be appalled by certain regressive beliefs, but they are just beliefs. The issue is people’s actions.

I needn’t say more; it’s a ludicrous and dangerous claim Aslan’s making here. Heather goes on to show an absorbing 40-minute video from CNN, “Why they hate us,” narrated by writer Fareed Zakaria. I watched it in its entirety, and recommend that you do, too.  It’s in that video that Aslan appears, and, mirabile dictu, Heather actually agrees with something that he says.