Tag Archives: Atheism

Ideas Have Consequences

The Desperate Man (self-portrait), by Gustave Courbet, 1845

Last week, we looked at some of the visible results of living out the Christian life, and how these are typically recognized as good things, despite the protests of atheists that “religion poisons everything”.  That was on a more pragmatic level of observable results. Today, though, I’d like to dig a little deeper into some philosophical foundations and how they work themselves out in practice.

How we see ourselves has real results in our lives. Being the product of random chemical reactions and natural selection will have different implications for how we live our lives compared to our being the result of deliberate creation by a loving Father. For example:

  • It will affect how you see others. Are you merely the result of a lot of unguided, directionless biological mutations added to a mixing bowl (Earth) that is itself only the blind chance result of a cosmic accident? This has led many over the years into the throes of apathy, depression, and nihilism, but worse than the self-destructive belief in a purposeless life devoid of any “big-picture” meaning, is the idea that those you meet are actually competitors in a brutal game of “survival of the fittest.” Yet in the atheistic worldview, that is the supreme law of the land; we are simply advanced animals who survived the “struggle for existence” by hook or by crook. After all, it’s “survival of the fittest”, not “survival of the kindest” or “survival of the most ethical”. Acts of benevolence often reduce one’s own odds of survival. Or… just maybe, are all the people you meet – friends and strangers alike – actually fellow creatures with eternal destinies, made in the image of God, valuable to Him, and loved by Him? Are they, as the Bible maintains, broken and flawed – but redeemable! – people that God so loved that He sent His only Son Jesus to give Himself as the sacrifice for their salvation? Do you think that last view would lead to more love, more compassion, more service for others? Could there be any other result for someone who understands the implications?
  • It will affect how you look at the environment. If we are cosmic accidents who have risen to the top by a ruthless struggle for existence, then why should anyone be environmentalists? Caring for weak and defenseless animals, and especially endangered animals, is to operate contrary to natural selection. The weak aren’t supposed to survive under natural selection. On the other hand, if our natural world is a stewardship entrusted to humanity to rule over well, then there is good reason to use it conscientiously, without abusing it. A biblical view seems to be that the environment is worthy of care as something God created a) “good” [Ge 1:25], and b) subservient to human needs [Ge 1:26], but not something more important than humans as some environmentalists proclaim. This leads to a more balanced approach to environmental care than what I’ve seen from much of the environmental movement.
  • It will affect how you look at the actual living of life. If this life is all you have (around 80 years on average in the US, around 120 at the upper limit), and there is nothing after death, then you need to get everything you want in now, while you still can. And you probably shouldn’t let anyone get in the way of you enjoying your brief moment of life. After all, a car accident, a heart attack, or a hundred other tragedies might befall you tomorrow and end your existence like a bug getting stepped on.  So “Carpe diem” and all that. Of course, that’s some bad luck if you’re the victim of a childhood disease, or a violent robbery, or some other untimely fatal event that takes you in what should be the prime of life. After all, even if the deadly disease is later cured, or the killer caught, it doesn’t do you much good, does it? Is life simply an unfair roll of the dice, where the scoundrel lives to a ripe old age enjoying the finest delicacies, while innocent children die every day from starvation, longing for a few grains of rice? Even the cynic that says “Life sucks and then you die – get over it” should be able to see that there are many things in life outside of our control that we instinctively recoil from as being not the way it ought to be. Why is that? Where do we get this notion of “ought”? We can’t ground it a secular worldview. Now, lest anyone think I’m a Christian simply from wishful thinking, I’m not saying that sense of “how things ought to be” justifies Christianity. Rather, I’m saying that Christianity justifies that innate sense we have. The Bible explains why we feel like that. What if your existence continues on beyond the death of your physical body? The Bible tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts [Ec 3:11], so it’s no surprise then that we feel like there’s more than this physical life. What if justice will be served after all, even if not in this life? The Bible tells us that there will be a final judgment, from which there is no escaping [Heb 9:27, Rev 20:12]. What if you were made for a bigger purpose? People sometimes get all they ever wanted in life, and yet are miserable. That’s because we were made to glorify God. As Augustine so aptly put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” But when we’ve found our rest in God, our life here on Earth – whether short or long, easy or hard, fair or unfair – takes on an eternal perspective that changes everything.

Can the atheist live differently from how I’ve described above? Of course, but I think he has to do it in contradiction to his underlying philosophy, just as a hateful, racist Christian would be undercutting his own philosophical foundations with his thoughts and actions. Our ideas have consequences – some pretty dramatic and obvious, while others only reveal themselves fully over many years or even generations. I urge you then, to examine the philosophy you are building your life on, and look for the logical consequences of it. Is it pointing you toward your Creator or away from Him? Choose wisely.

Where to Start?

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/Krista Johanson

I was reading some more of atheist Dan Barker’s book “godless”, and came across this passage:

“I have often heard Christians say we must ‘start with God.’ … Isn’t that interesting? Would they say we must ‘start with unicorns’ or must ‘start with UFOs?’ We can only start where we both agree, and proceed from there. We both agree that there is a natural universe – no argument there. It is the religious persons who maintain additional ‘supernatural’ or transcendent assertions that go beyond what we both accept. It is unreasonable and unfair for them simply to fold their arms and demand that I disprove their allegations. Any impartial investigator will agree that we should start with what we do know, and then proceed from there. We should start with nature. We should start with the nonexistence of God and then the believer should argue for God’s existence, not demand that atheists argue against it. The burden of proof in any argument is on the shoulders of the one who makes the affirmative claim, not the one who doubts it.” [1, emphasis in original]

What do you think? Does he have a legitimate point? Let’s work through that today.

Let me first just agree with Dan on his last statement about the burden of proof. He is correct: anyone making positive propositional statements bears the burden of proof for those statements. With that in mind, let me quote the closing sentences of Dan’s previous paragraph: “…the probability for the existence of a supernatural being can be safely dropped to zero. In the name of honesty, it must be dropped to zero.” (emphasis in original) Dan, I’m afraid, took on a monumentally heavy burden of proof with that proposition. I’m no UFO hunter, but I’m not about to make the bold claim that the probability of UFOs are zero. To prove a universal negative requires either proving a self-contradiction that makes it deductively impossible, or observing all possibilities to verify inductively that the object in question does not exist in some unobserved state. However, the concept of God is not internally inconsistent, like speaking of a square circle would be, where we can truly say it cannot exist, by definition. Nor is Dan Barker omniscient, and able to search all time and space, and alternate dimensions, and so on, to verify the non-existence of God. I think I would reconsider that proposition if I were Dan.

Moving on, I agree that starting with common ground is a great place to start. That saves two opponents the trouble of arguing back and forth trying to establish such common ground. And we do both agree that a natural universe exists; we can both observe it, and we can both make rational inferences about it. So I’m perfectly OK starting with nature. But did you notice the switch Barker did? First he wrote that we should “start with nature”, but then in the very next sentence, he wrote that “we should start with the nonexistence of God….” Not so fast there, Dan. Those aren’t the same. If we start with nature, then we are starting with raw observational data of the world around us, working to establish probable causes for what we observe. One of those possible causes is God, no matter how small you personally feel that possibility is. Therefore, you can’t rule that out beforehand. This is actually the logical fallacy called “begging the question”, or “assuming what you set out to prove”. [2] Now, if he had eliminated God as a possible cause in the course of the investigation, that would be one thing that we’d have to look at more closely later to find where he went wrong. However, defining Him out of the investigation before you even begin is like deliberately putting blinders on before watching a lab experiment, and wondering why you can’t explain the results: you only saw half the experiment!

As a former pastor, Dan Barker should know that the Bible encourages us to look at nature. Passages like Psalm 19 tell us that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” [Ps19:1]  Paul tells us in the New Testament that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” [Ro 1:20] And when we look at nature, we find a lot of things that need explaining. We see an absolute beginning that requires a Beginner; we see an incredibly fine-tuned cosmos that requires a powerful super-intelligence beyond imagination; we see amazing code written in our every cell that points to a Master Programmer; and we see beauty that has inspired artists and poets in every generation to try to represent it to their audiences. In short, we see that nature speaks of something beyond nature, something supernatural. Contrary to what Dan Barker assumes, when we have an open mind as we “start with nature”, we are compelled toward God, not away from Him.


[1] Dan Barker, godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p. 92.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 94.

Hell vs Love

“Hell”, photograph by Robert Doisneau, 1952

Is the concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment incompatible with the concept of a loving God? I’m reading a couple of books right now written by atheists who both view hell not only as a moral outrage, but as contrary to the nature of God as loving. Are they right? Let’s dig in to that tonight.

Atheist David Madison wrote in 2016, “Hell and eternal punishment fall into the category of the cruel and unusual. Pain and torture that go on forever can’t be part of sound theology. ” [1] Eight years prior, Dan Barker wrote, “Love is not hatred or wrath, assigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your fragile ego or disobeyed your rules….” [2] Of course, Richard Dawkins gave his own sensational statement on hell back in 2006: “I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.” [3] But this opposition to hell is hardly limited to the so-called “new atheists.” Bertrand Russell, back in 1927, stated that “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” [4]

With that brief survey of some of the objections to hell, lets consider a couple of responses.

  • Is damnation an act of ego-driven hatred masquerading as love, as Barker alleges? Actually, this has nothing to do with ego or hatred, for it is justice, not love, that condemns people to hell. Too many people construct a very one-dimensional image of God they can feel justified in rejecting, and this is just such a case. Yes, God is loving; but He is also holy, righteous, just. One might be tempted to say that the love of God should override this harsh justice, yet people don’t seem to approve if a human judge lets an unrepentant criminal go unpunished. But in God’s solution at the cross, love actually satisfied the need for justice rather than ignoring it. While God’s justice condemns us to an eternal punishment we all deserve, His sacrificial love offers us freedom if we’ll accept it.
  • Is the duration of the punishment unloving or inhumane? These skeptics, and many others, specifically object to the “everlasting” part of hell. There are two responses here. First, this objection stems from a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of sin – any sin – from the view of a perfect judge. We tend to excuse “little sins” and “white lies” and such, but anything less than perfection is a failing grade before a perfect God. True justice, when perfection is the standard, requires any infraction, no matter how minor in the defendant’s eyes, to be a guilty sentence. Another response to this objection is that the sin and lack of repentance of those condemned to hell don’t seem to stop once they get there. I don’t want to read too much into a story, but it is worth noting that in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar [Lk 16:19-31], the rich man, while being tormented in hell, continued acting selfishly toward Lazarus, even as he asked favors of Lazarus. If one never repents of sin (i.e. turns from it), then one continues in sin, and therefore in condemnation. Thus, the eternal nature of the punishment may very well be due to the eternal continuation of the sin.

Does the existence of hell rule out the love of God? Not when understood in it’s context. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian chamber of horrors. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ…. Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God’s love…. This is a costly love, a bloody love that has no parallel in any of the world’s religions.”[5] The tragic fate awaiting so many is not something Christians relish. On the contrary, it is concern and love for our fellow humans that drives us to warn them of the disastrous path they are on. It is a love motivated by that costly love with which God first loved us. If you are one who has rejected God because of the offensiveness of hell, I ask – no, I plead – that you reconsider, and accept God’s free gift of salvation. For in the end, if you will not have His love, sadly, you will have His justice. Choose wisely, friend.


[1] David Madison, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p. 277. Kindle Edition.
[2] Dan Barker, godless (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p.89.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 358.
[4]  Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”,  a lecture given March 6, 1927, to the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[5] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), Appendix 1: “Hell on Trial”, p. 658,660.

Our Responsibility

Author’s personal photo.

I’m reading Dan Barker’s book “godless”, about his deconversion from a Christian preacher to a prominent atheist. It’s a rather heartbreaking tale of one person who should know better (but apparently didn’t) walking away from God for some bad reasons, and then proceeding to influence a lot of other impressionable people to do the same. If that isn’t a true tragedy, I don’t know what is. But what is worse is seeing how his friends and family couldn’t answer his questions/objections when he first “came out” as an atheist.  That deafening silence only strengthened his impression that Christianity had no answers. Sadly, Barker grew up in an environment that was  theologically, philosophically, and scientifically shallow, and mistakenly thought that represented Christianity, and no one he knew was able to correct those errant ideas. These were the people who had influence in his life and whose responses might’ve been meaningful early on before he hardened himself against any correction.

That brings up an important point. It’s not the job of your pastor or some famous evangelist/apologist/speaker/writer/blogger/etc to answer your friends’ or family members’ questions and objections. It’s yours. It’s mine. It’s every Christian’s responsibility – and a sacred one – to be able to answer those who ask us for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15 NIV].  My pastor, according to the apostle Paul, isn’t expected to do it all, but rather is to equip me for works of ministry or service [Eph 4:11-15]. There are a lot of places I go to as an engineer that my pastor will never go to, and the same is true for every Christian. We all serve on a mission field whether we recognize that fact or not.

Maybe that thought makes you nervous.  Good! Becoming aware that you’re not as prepared as you should be is the first step. So what’s the next step after recognizing the responsibility we have? Recognizing the gift we’ve been given. Even though we may often get nervous about what kind of unexpected questions someone may ask us, as Christians, we sit on the richest resources one could ever hope for. In my office, I have a whole bookcase of books on structural steel design, connection design, finite element analysis, seismic design, and on and on. I have an overclocked powerhouse of a computer sitting on my desk, loaded with advanced and rather expensive analysis and design software from multiple companies dedicated to engineering computing, with thousands of pages of user manuals on how to use this advanced software. And I have knowledgeable colleagues in my office, and attend a ridiculous number of continuing education seminars and webinars every year on a variety of engineering issues. Plus, I have access to various restricted online resources for engineers as a member of several technical organizations, besides the plethora of (somewhat reliable) design information freely available on the internet. Being a Christian, in America, and not being able to answer basic objections, is like an engineer sitting on the wealth of resources I just described and saying, “The client wants to know whether this beam will support this additional load, and I just can’t figure out how to analyze it. Oh well, guess I’ll just let that work itself out.” As an engineer obligated to protect the public health and safety first and foremost, that’s really not an option. Whether I can answer immediately because I’m familiar with the issue, or whether I have to spend the next week researching and talking to other engineers, I have to be able to answer one way or another. If I don’t know, the correct answer is not saying “I don’t know” and forgetting about it; the correct answer is saying “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out.”

As an engineer, people’s lives are on the line with my designs. And yet, if I’m in a building that collapses because another engineer made a mistake, I may die physically in the collapse, but I will simply be “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” [2Cor 5:8] On the other hand, when I choose to not answer someone’s questions about our eternal fate, I’m helping that person toward a fate worse than mere physical death. Of course, people like Dan Barker make their own choices and are responsible for them, but I surely don’t care to be an accomplice. So I desperately want to be prepared to explain both what I believe, and why I believe it. Opportunities to speak truth into someone’s life when they are willing to listen are often moving targets we don’t get a second shot at, so I’d rather be over-prepared than under-prepared. That said, I’ll leave you with something to chew on, regarding just what’s at stake, from performer (and atheist) Penn Jillette:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward — and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”[1]


[1] “Penn Says: A Gift of a Bible”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6md638smQd8, accessed 2017-10-02.

Before and After September 11th

By Robert on Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been 16 years, but I still remember the shock of watching September 11, 2001 unfold as those of us out west awoke to two planes hitting the World Trade Center.  For Americans of my generation, it is “a day that will live in infamy,” just as December 7, 1941 was for my grandparents’ generation. It was a day that showed the depths of depravity and evil of which humans are capable in the attacks themselves, but also the virtuous heights of compassion, kindness, courage, integrity, and resilience we are capable of in the reactions to the attacks. For some, like Richard Dawkins, this attack by Islamic terrorists changed how they thought about religion. As he put it,

“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism.”[1]
— Richard Dawkins

Not that Richard didn’t have a low view of religion before September 11th, but afterwards, he was galvanized in his opposition, even if often misdirected. Now, for the record, some religions may do poorly in the area of evidence, and some may be taken up in desperation as a crutch, but  Richard has taken up an aggressive position against the existence of God in any conception, and in so doing has really overreached far beyond what his objections can support. In the case of my belief in the Christian religion, it is actually based on evidence and is definitely not a crutch for consolation. Though God has indeed comforted me in times of grief, I believe in His existence in general, and His revelation of Himself in the Bible specifically, not because of needing a crutch, but because I think it’s true. In fact, God makes for a rather frustrating “crutch” if that’s all one’s after, for crutches don’t normally convict you when you’re misbehaving. God is true, and oftentimes inconveniently so. But is Dawkins right about religion being dangerous?

For me, as a Christian, 9/11 didn’t change my worldview in the slightest. I know that humans are made in the image of God and are capable of truly great, beautiful things, like the heroism and selfless love displayed by first responders and ordinary civilians alike on that tragic day. But we are also corrupted, sin-enslaved creatures, fallen and capable of tremendous evil, like the meticulous planning, and carrying out, of a cowardly attack against unarmed, defenseless people. As Malcolm Muggeridge succinctly put it, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” And three centuries earlier, Blaise Pascal developed that idea in his Pensées  to show that only Christianity adequately explains this paradox of man’s goodness and wretchedness.

But there is another thing Dawkins overlooks in his rush to denigrate all religion: 9/11 didn’t change the fact that there are monumental differences between Christianity (what he really objects to) and Islam (the easier target). To lump them into the same class is to ignore the significant intrinsic differences in them (as well as the recorded effects of both religions, for good or bad, over the course of their respective histories, but that is another post). Why do some Islamic people choose to kill themselves and others in suicide attacks? Is it just that the “false courage to kill themselves” has removed a barrier to killing others like Dawkins suggests? No. The purpose is not primarily to kill themselves but to kill infidels. A Muslim who kills only himself in Jihad, and fails to kill any infidels, has utterly failed. It is the idea of physical war against unbelievers embedded in Islam, and the idea that you can gain Paradise at the expense of others that promotes these attacks. Islam is ultimately a works-based religion motivated from selfishness. And the idea that killing unbelievers will not just count in your favor, but will guarantee you entrance to Paradise when you die is powerful motivation, particularly if you’ve done a lot of stupid stuff to make up for. Now compare that to Christianity, where a supposed Christian who succeeded in murdering an unbeliever is the failure, for not only has he sinned against God in committing murder [Ex 20:13], and forfeited his own life per God’s command of capital punishment [Gen 9:6], but he has condemned that unbeliever to eternal hell when God says that He desires the wicked to repent and live [Ez 18:23,32]. Rather, Jesus confirmed that all of the Old Testament law is summed up in 2 commands: Love God, and love your neighbor (or fellow human) [Lk 10:26-28]. And just to make clear to the Jews to whom He was speaking that this really included anybody under the title of neighbor, He told them the story of the Good Samaritan, where the  hero of the story is a Samaritan, an ethnic group they despised [Lk 10:29-37]. Even more bluntly, He said to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us [Lk 6:27-36].  I don’t know that you can get any sharper contrast to the idea of Jihad.

Events often divide our lives into times of “before” and “after”. Maybe you’ve had this vague concept of “religion” that you felt was just bad, and events like 9/11 only solidified that feeling. But I’d ask you now to set a new dividing line in your life, where you say, “Eternity is too important to trust my feelings to. If there’s truth to be found in religion, I’m going to look at the evidence, and find the real deal amongst all the counterfeits.” Do that, and I assure you, it will lead you straight to Jesus Christ.


[1] “Has the World Changed?” The Guardian, October 11, 2001 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/11/afghanistan.terrorism2, accessed 2017-09-12).

On Suffering, Part 2 – Alternative Views

Leprosy in India – photo by Bruno Jehle

Last week, we looked at the tough topic of suffering, and how the Christian can view it. Just as for the Christian, other worldviews can also filter how we perceive suffering, and consequently our conclusions about it. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight a few alternatives to Christianity and how they address suffering (as best as I can tell).

  • Hinduism – Hinduism is difficult to classify because it encompasses a wide variety of different and often contradictory beliefs, but they do generally seem to agree on the existence of reincarnation and karma.  While American dabblers in the Eastern religions and their derivative  of New Age spirituality tend to have an overly optimistic view of reincarnation and karma, they are actually pretty oppressive concepts focused on suffering – a lot. There is a veil of ignorance (“maya”) in this life that hides from us what the true reality is, and getting beyond that to be liberated from the cycle of suffering (called “Samsara”) is the goal. This liberation is called “moksha”, and is the end of reincarnation, when your soul (“Atman”), is reunited with “Brahman”, a kind of divine, unchanging cosmic consciousness. Since maya hides or distorts true unchanging reality from us, suffering, as well as everything material, is illusory in a way. Also, suffering may just be your lot in life, especially if you’re in a lower caste. No matter how good you are, you may have to suffer in thousands of future reincarnations to pay for mistakes in past lives. Helping those suffering is sometimes discouraged because you are potentially interfering with the karmic “justice” due them for their behavior in past lives. So “suck it up, buttercup” – you likely have many more lifetimes of suffering ahead.
  • Buddhism – When Siddhartha Gautama left Hinduism to seek enlightenment and become the Buddha, he recognized the reality of suffering (dukkha) and made it a core component of his system: “To live is to suffer”.  Suffering is not illusion, is universal, and is the result of our selfish desires (the 1st and 2nd of his “four noble truths”). But he also held onto the Hindu concepts of reincarnation and karma, and proposed that it’s up to you to escape the tragic cycle of reincarnation and karma by living ethically (i.e. following Buddha’s eightfold path).  As in Hinduism, reincarnation is not something to be looking forward to, but something to be escaped. The Buddhist escape, however, is to be “blown out”, or “quenched”, as you reach “nirvana” (which means to be blown out, like a lamp) by realizing your “non-self”. This idea that there is no persistent soul, yet there is a continuing cycle of rebirth and suffering, is a primary (and somewhat puzzling) distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism.
  • Islam – Allah is sovereign, and suffering is the result of sin on the part of humans. Consider this response on the Muslim site IslamQA: “It is a Muslim’s belief that suffering of pain, hunger, tragic accidents etc, are due to one’s sins, for Allaah wants this suffering to erase these sins which were made by this Muslim. Allaah says in Sura 42 verse 30 interpreted means:   ‘Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought, and for many (of them) He grants forgiveness’.”[1] Whatever suffering befalls you is punishment that you deserve under Islam.
  • Christian Science” – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this most inappropriately named cult famous for their views on suffering. Really neither Christian or scientific, the cult of the “Church of Christ, Scientist”  believes that all is spiritual and the material world is only an illusion. Hence, the sickness and death and suffering readily observable in the world are problems of the mind and insufficient faith. Unfortunately, ideas have consequences, and anyone else that remembers Metallica’s “Black Album” might also remember that James Hetfield’s mother’s adherence to these ideas, and her subsequent death from untreated cancer were the impetus for him writing the song “The God That Failed”.  Sadly, many have have conflated this cult with Christianity and rejected the truth because of the counterfeit.
  • Atheism – We are essentially on our own. It’s a dog-eat-dog world of survival of the fittest. Nature is “red in tooth and claw“, as Tennyson would say. The weak will naturally suffer as they’re eventually weeded out. If you have an inordinate amount of suffering in your life, this whole universe is just a freak accident of nature, and your miserable life is just the way your dice rolled. “Life sucks and then you die.” Atheists often question why a good God would allow so much suffering, yet never stop to ask why a merciless, brutal, godless universe would allow so much goodness, beauty, and joy. Ultimately, atheism has no compelling answers regarding purpose, either bad or good, in anything.

I’ve highlighted five alternative worldviews here. There are others out there, and each, if it is to be a complete worldview has to address suffering, ether directly or indirectly. None of the views presented here can a) explain the origin and purpose of suffering like Christianity, or b) redeem suffering like Christianity. Suffering is either pointless like in atheism, or the result of something wrong with you (or a past version of you). Suffering is something to be escaped from in each system, but it’s never really redeemed and turned to good like it is in Christianity. If  you missed last week’s post on a Christian view of suffering, you can read it here. If you’re an adherent to one of these views I’ve described, and you think I’ve misrepresented your views, let’s talk about it. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s beliefs, but I do think each of these belief systems have intrinsic deficiencies that make Christianity the better explanation.


[1] https://islamqa.info/en/2850, Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid answering why Allah does not prevent suffering, accessed 2017-08-29.

Philosophy – Hiding in Plain Sight

“Philosophy”, by Raphael, 1511

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” [1] Those famous words of Mark Twain might also apply to the subject of philosophy. You may have heard about Stephen Hawking’s low opinion of philosophy [2], or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ramblings against the subject [3]. What many scientists today conveniently forget is that philosophy is inescapable; the only question is whether your philosophy is valid or not.  Because it forms the framework that supports your worldview, philosophy is often hidden in plain sight, so to speak.

Some areas of knowledge typically grouped under the umbrella of philosophy that are absolutely critical to successful science are logic (how we think rationally about anything), epistemology (the study of how we can know that we rightly know something, or how we justify our beliefs), and ethics (you know – that we shouldn’t fake the data, fudge our numbers, plagiarize, etc). Can you see why scientists who think the tree of philosophy is nothing more than so much firewood are really attacking what supports their own little treehouse? Science can provide us an amazing view of the world, but only when it’s supported by good sturdy philosophy. Data is little use without interpretation, and good philosophy provides that wisdom needed to interpret the data truly, consistently, fairly, without bias, and without going beyond what the data can support.

Because philosophy is so foundational to much of life, it remains behind the scenes for most of us. But sometimes you get reminded of its presence and effect in even the mundane tasks. I’m one that likes to read the commentaries in the backs of the various design standards and learn why various requirements or recommendations are instituted. And in the commentary for Chapter J of AISC’s Manual of Steel Construction [4], I came across an explanation for why a particular definition of cross sectional area in combination with a particular safety factor are used for one formula. In the body of the specification, you’re just given the formula and the safety factor for block shear strength, with no explanation. But the commentary points out that block shear is a rupture (or tearing) phenomenon rather than yielding, and therefore , the requirements shown are consistent with the design philosophy of  another chapter that deals with tensile rupture.  You see, our design philosophy may be behind the scenes, but it drives how we implement our specific designs. As engineers, our first duty is actually not to our employer or our customers, but always to protect the public safety. That’s actually part of our code of ethics.

One way that works itself out in practice is by trying to control how our designs fail in a worst-case scenario. Failures due to tensile rupture,  shear rupture, or compressive buckling can be sudden and catastrophic. A sudden failure of the main roof framing of a large venue might kill hundreds or even thousands of people. A slow ductile yielding on the other hand, can result in massive amounts of noticeable sagging before the final collapse, allowing ample time for evacuating people and repairing the problem before it collapses. And so our design philosophy is twofold: to design a structure that safely supports its intended loads with some margin, and to steer any potential failure toward failure modes that are more predictable and controllable. This is especially done when designing for earthquakes where we fully expect massive damage in the design-level earthquake,  but we try to control where the damage occurs and how it fails so as to protect life at all costs. For example, we’ll design braced frames where the braces act as “fuses” (like a circuit breaker in your house) that will eventually fail only after many cycles of ground shaking, leaving the rest of the building (relatively) intact. A former boss of mine applied the idea of a tensile “fuse” – with that nice, slow,  predictable failure mode – to open-web steel joists like what you see in many retail stores [5].  So you see, one aspect of our philosophy  can can have far-reaching effects. Our philosophy also provides direction in new or uncertain conditions. Going back to the steel manual, there are some spots where the authors explain what the intent of certain provisions are, which is a significant help in applying those provisions to scenarios the authors possibly didn’t anticipate.  We can see that something may not violate the letter of the law, but it does the spirit, or intent, of the law (or vice versa). These are all cases where our philosophy helps guide us, and without some overarching framework, our endeavors are fractured and adrift.

Of course, I’ve mentioned “valid” and “good” philosophy throughout this post. Not all philosophy is created equal. The system Hawking and Tyson advocate is, or very nearly is, scientism, a self-refuting idea that trusts the methods of science to be applicable to all pursuits of true knowledge. but just as philosophy (in general) is a tree that supports science, it needs its roots in good soil to actually be able to support anything. That soil is the truth of God’s Word. In the end, it seems that the real beef against philosophy is that philosophy done right basically points out to us that ideas have consequences, and that it’s wise to foresee the good and bad consequences of our ideas and avoid the bad ones. This self-critique – this admonition to “know thyself” –  can get us out of our typical comfort zone in our narrow specialties and force us to ask the bigger questions of life. For some worldviews like atheism, there simply are no answers to those questions, and it can make people like Hawking and Tyson uncomfortable with the whole endeavor. But our comfort should never hinder our search for truth or our desire for wisdom, and philosophy simply means “love of wisdom.” So be wise and don’t fall in the trap of scientism; examine your own philosophical grounding and make sure it’s rooted in the only source of truth – God.


[1]This is apparently the actual quote, contrary to what most of us heard growing up: http://www.twainquotes.com/Death.html
[2]Here is one philosopher’s thoughtful response to Stephen Hawking’s cutting off of the branch he sits on: https://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Hawking_contra_Philosophy.
[3] Here are 2 interesting responses to Tyson’s comments, the first providing a good recap of the comments: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/massimo-pigliucci/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy_b_5330216.html, and http://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2014/05/22/why_does_neil_degrasse_tyson_hate_philosophy.html
[4] AISC 360-16, Commentary J4.3, Block Shear Strength”, p16.1-446. published by the American Institute of Steel Construction, 2016-07-07.
[5] For the geeks: https://www.aisc.org/Experimental-Investigation-of-Steel-Joist-Design-for-Ductile-Strength-Limit-State#.WXa4A1G1vcs. For everyone else: http://www.newmill.com/pdfs/flex-joist.pdf

What I Found

“Still Life with Bible” – Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Atheists will sometimes ask what it would take for a Christian to walk away from Christianity. I think Paul addressed that in his letter to the Corinthians when he stated that if Jesus was not raised from the dead (i.e. bodily, as an actual historical event occurring in space and time), then our faith is in vain, we are to be most pitied of all men, and we should abandon this then-false religion, for we would be false witnesses against God by saying God raised Jesus from the dead if He didn’t [1Cor 15:14-19]. This emphasis on actual, objective, historical events that could be investigated is a really bad way to start a false religion, but a great way to proclaim truth. Per the apostle Paul, Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection.However, an atheist probably would not be content with a Christian leaving Christianity simply to turn to Judaism.  For, of course, refuting Christianity would still not eliminate the need for God. But the desire, nonetheless, is still for us to leave all religion and join their atheist ranks. So that got me thinking: what have I found in Christianity that I would be leaving if I were to oblige the atheist missionary? Well….

I have found Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover[1]; Aquinas’ First Cause[2]; the “Highest Good” that the ancient philosophers sought for; Anselm’s “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” [3]; the Necessary Being upon which all else depends for existence; the Fine-tuner of the universe that explains the Goldilocks dilemma we face when we examine the universe; the Enabler of abiogenesis, without whom life cannot come from non-life; the Source of all the information we find encoded in our own DNA; the Designer behind all the “apparent design” in biology that frustrates Richard Dawkins; the Mind that explains the consciousness of our minds that scientists can’t explain; the Truth that explains objective transcendent truth [Jn 14:6]; Love that explains how and why we love [1Jn 4:19]; the Grand Artist that explains aesthetics[4] in what should be a cold, cruel, survival-focused universe; and the Author of life [Acts 3:14-15 ESV]. It would be intellectual suicide for me to give up all that. But the atheist is asking me to do far more than just drop an intellectual stance.

I have also found the One who loved me from before the beginning of time [Rom 5:8, 2Tim 1:9, Eph 1:4, 1Jn 4:9-10]; a perfect Father [Rom 8:15-16]; the Savior of my soul [Lk 2:11, Jn 4:42]; my Redeemer who rescued me [Ps 19:14, Job 19:25]; the One who made me in His image and gives me intrinsic value [Gen 1:27, Gen 9:6, Matt 6:26]; my Mediator before a just and holy God whom I could never satisfy in my sinfulness [1Tim 2:5]; my Counselor, Advocate, and Intercessor [Jn 16:7-14, Rom 8:26-27]; my source of freedom – truly beautiful, joyous freedom! – [Jn 8:32,36]; my Comforter in times of trouble [2Cor 1:3-5]; the delight of my heart [Ps 35:9]; my Peace when all around me is turmoil [Jn 14:27, 2Thes 3:16]; my steadfast foundation in the tumultuous craziness of life [Lk 6:47-48]; my Hope of glory [Col 1:27];  and the Architect of my eternal home [Heb 11:10]. Yeah, I found all that, too.

Christianity is not simply a rational intellectual viewpoint, but a relationship with my Creator. It isn’t simply some sterile, isolated idea or opinion, but rather the very presence of my Creator. And you ask me to give up that relationship, and all those answers to life’s questions to boot, and be content with the loneliness and unanswered questions of atheism? Are you crazy?! Maybe, but I’m not!


[1] “Aristotle has an argument … which he makes in Book 8 of the Physics and uses again in Book 12 of the Metaphysics that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.” Sachs, Joe. “Aristotle: Metaphysics”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[2] “It is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.”  See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Vol. I, Question 2, Article 3, 2nd way.
[3] See this previous post for a refresher of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument, based on Plantinga’s reformulation of it last century.
[4] Or, “that best and most systematic Artisan of all”, as Nicolas Copernicus would say in his preface to “On the Revolutions”. See Nicolas Copernicus, Complete Works: On the Revolutions, translation and commentary by Edward Rosen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 4.

Atheist Objections: Occam’s Razor

William of Ockham, stained glass window in Surrey, England

I came across the following application of Occam’s Razor on the infidels.org site and thought this warranted a closer examination lest anyone be swayed by their example.

“The relevance to atheism is that we can look at two possible explanations for what we see around us:

  • There is an incredibly intricate and complex universe out there, which came into being as a result of natural processes.
  • There is an incredibly intricate and complex universe out there, and there is also a God who created the universe. Clearly this God must be of non-zero complexity.

Given that both explanations fit the facts, Occam’s Razor might suggest that we should take the simpler of the two–solution number one.”

Is this a legitimate use of Occam’s Razor? First, a refresher on Occam’s Razor. Infidels.org is correct when they say that William of Ockham (a priest, by the way) is the one commonly credited with the idea that we should “not multiply entities unnecessarily.” In other words, look for the minimum needed explanation for an event. Internet conspiracy theorists would do well to keep this principle in mind. When one sees the suspicious behavior of a couple of people,  a worldwide conspiracy should not be the first thing that comes to mind.  For instance, if an elaborate government conspiracy comprised of hundreds of people can explain the evidence, but so can two guys embezzling government funds on their own, don’t default to the giant conspiracy between the government, bankers, corporations, and space aliens unless you find further evidence that can’t be explained by just the two crooks.

Now, what is the difference between the 2 explanations for the origin of the universe above? Both accept as a given our observations of an “incredibly intricate and complex universe.” The first claims that this intricacy was the result of natural processes, while the second claims that God was added to the mix. Their conclusion is then that God is the “unnecessary entity” that Occam’s Razor advises against.  However, God is not an entity added to the natural processes of the first situation; in discussing the origin of the universe, God and natural processes are competing alternatives. Therefore, this is not a case of unnecessarily added entities. We have precisely one “entity” in each scenario: either nature alone, or an intelligent agent (i.e. God).  They are both proposed causal agents.

Let’s look at another example to explain this difference. I might observe a pot of water boiling on the stove. Is this the result of natural causes or intelligent agency? Which multiplies entities needlessly? The notion that my wife made a conscious choice to put a pot of water on the stove a finite time ago (for it hasn’t boiled dry yet) is a pretty straightforward explanation. We could step the explanation back farther to note that she first retrieved the pot from the cabinet and filled the pot with water, and at some prior point she bought the pot from the store.  But with an intelligent agent, those are hardly extraordinary possibilities.

How would a purely naturalistic explanation proceed? If there’s no agent to put the pot on the stove,  maybe an earthquake  shook it into place there, and a conveniently placed roof leak filled it full of water. A falling ceiling tile could potentially hit the switch just right to turn on the stove to heat  the water. But then where did this stove and pot and water even come from in a world where we ignore the possibility of free agents to procure these components? Well, maybe the stove is actually the result of erosion of a metal-rich piece of rock, and what appears to be copper wiring is really just the remnants of veins of copper ore. And the house it’s in is just an accumulation of storm debris. And the pot is actually a hollowed-out remnant of a meteorite. In fact, maybe a meteorite impact is why the roof leaks and the ceiling tile fell on the stove switch! Explaining the actions of free agents, even fairly simple actions, gets outlandish pretty quick when we don’t allow free agency as an explanation. But that’s nothing compared to trying to explain how everything that exists came to be by purely natural causes. But if we ignore the possibility of an agent who can choose to cause chains of events, and can choose between different options along the way, and can direct those processes through to their planned end, then we have to multiply entities needlessly, and endlessly, to compensate. And after all of our manipulation of freak accidents in just-right orders to explain what we want to have happened, we are left with a tale that smacks of ad-hoc, contrived wish fulfillment.

Does Occam’s Razor favor the naturalistic origin of the universe? No, in the end, Occam’s Razor shaves off the proposed natural causes and reveals the real cause: the intelligent, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe. Only a volitional being that existed eternally and transcended space and time could choose to bring those into existence, thus allowing any natural processes to even be possible. For natural processes are not possible without a nature to occur in, and if we’re talking about the origin of nature, then that cause must be outside of nature. Nothing can cause itself. Therefore, the most reasonable cause is a free agent outside of nature. But you can call Him God.


 

Source: https://infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/arguments.html#occam

Rejecting Counterfeits

A fake Rolex bought in NYC.

I was listening to an old Everclear album the other day at work, which had the song “Why I Don’t Believe in God” on it. Instead of skipping over it, I thought, “That’s a rather significant thesis to fit in under 5 minutes. Let’s hear his reasons.” After all, philosophical heavyweights like Bertrand Russell took a fair bit more than 5 minutes to make that case, and didn’t have a repeating chorus to fit in. So I listened, looked up the lyrics, and came across some interesting things.

The song [1] is about singer Art Alexakis’ mentally troubled mother hearing voices and having a nervous breakdown. But what I found most interesting was his mention in the song of “strange talk of Edgar Cayce”, a supposedly Christian mystic that his mother apparently was influenced by. This reminds me of James Hetfield of Metallica writing the song “The God that Failed” [2] about his mother, who was a follower of the “Christian Science” movement. Due to that cult’s disapproval of any medical aid, his mother would not pursue medical treatment and died of cancer in 1979 when James was 16. One can see, with that childhood experience, where he got the name for that song. But both these songwriters’ tragic childhood experiences with the religion of their mothers have something in common: they both rejected true Christianity after being exposed to a parody of it.

Consider this analogy: You are walking down the street and a man is selling watches at the corner.  The watches are quite impressive, and you recognize the luxury name immediately. You decide to buy one because this is just “too good of a deal to pass up.” Sadly, after a few days, the watch breaks. Angrily, you decide that these Rolex watches are nothing but overpriced  junk. You tell all of your friends about your bad experience with Rolex, and try to save them the same frustration. You even write a nasty review on Rolex’s website. But… then they respond and ask you for some more information about the defective product that is reflecting so poorly on them. You describe it and their representative dutifully informs you that your “Rollex” is not a genuine “Rolex”. The representative compassionately explains that you’ve been scammed, and while there’s only one true Rolex watchmaker, there are many, many counterfeits [3].  Embarrassed, you realize the deal really was too good to be true, and you’ve maligned a company for a bad product they didn’t even make. You’ve rejected the real thing based on a counterfeit.

Saying you reject Rolex watches and will never buy one because of your experience with a counterfeit is like rejecting God because of your experience with false gods. With Everclear’s Alexakis, his mother’s problems do indeed reflect poorly on Edgar Cayce, but only provided good reason to reject Cayce, not God! While Edgar Cayce may have sincerely thought he was being guided by angels, a review of his story [4] sounds more like fallen angels (i.e. demons) would be a better explanation of any supernatural influence there might have been.  Sadly, for Hetfield’s parents, they had fallen into one of several cults started in the 1800’s. But the Bible never discourages medical efforts. In fact, Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, 2 books of the New Testament, was himself a physician. Our concept of hospitals was birthed in the 4th century by the Christian church decreeing at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 that any city with a cathedral should have a place set aside for caring for the sick and poor, as well as sheltering travelers [5]. Of course, caring for the sick was a prominent part of Christian service from the beginning, often at the cost of one’s own life from contagious diseases. But before the 4th century, it had to done more secretively due to the intense persecution of Christians. So, you see, the sadly mistaken beliefs of James Hetfield’s parents run contrary to the entire history of Christianity, and really aren’t a reason for rejecting God.

Alexakis thought describing his mother’s sad condition was equivalent to providing actual reasons for not believing in God. Yet, this never even touches on the many good reasons why, like it or not, God is necessary, and therefore, should be accepted as existing. Hetfield thought that God had failed because his mother didn’t seek out those who try to use their God-given gifts of compassion, mercy, medical knowledge, and surgical skill to heal those who are sick, like his mother. Don’t let good reasons for rejecting counterfeits become your bad reasons for rejecting your Creator.


[1] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/everclear/whyidontbelieveingod.html
[2] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/metallica/thegodthatfailed.html
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterfeit_watch
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Cayce
[5] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.155.