Tag Archives: skepticism

How Apologetics Builds a Tougher Faith

Question: would you rather find out the roof over your head was ready to collapse before it actually happened, or after? Afterward doesn’t really help, does it? Now, a question for the Christians out there: would you rather find out where your trust in God is weak before it gets put to the test, or afterward? Maybe for some of you, if you were honest, you might say, “I claim I trust that God is good, and that He is sovereign… but if I ever got cancer, or my child died, or something bad happened on a massive scale (like a tsunami), my trust in God would be destroyed.” Honesty is good; it’s hard to fix a problem if we ignore it or gloss over it. But would your sudden distrust in God, or even a change to disbelief in His very existence, change anything about Him? If He exists and is truly good, and omnipotent, and omniscient, and sovereign, would your changing belief about Him change anything about Him, or just about you? Just you, obviously. Someone can not believe I’m an engineer all they want, and it does nothing to my credentials or occupation. Likewise, God is independent of our changing views of Him. So the issue here isn’t really about God, but rather the frailty of our trust in Him. How do you toughen up a frail faith? Let’s work through that today.

I used to work as an engineer at a company that made steel roof joists – like what you see when you look up in any of the big box stores like Wal-Mart. One of the things we did was destructively test a sampling of our joists to make sure they behaved the way they were supposed to. The picture at the top of this post was one such test. You don’t want to design a roof for 30 pounds per square foot of snow load, and cut things so close that an extra inch of snow one year collapses the building. With that in mind, the Steel Joist Institute required us to have a factor of safety of 1.65: each joist needed to be able to handle an overload of 65% of its design capacity.  However, we didn’t want to be right at that minimum where everything had to go perfectly in production to meet it. Everyone involved in designing and building the joist are fallible, after all. So we liked to see tested joists not failing until loaded to twice what they were designed for. And those overload conditions did happen over the years. I remember a case where a roof drain got plugged on one building during a bad storm, and the roof collapsed under the weight of an unplanned rooftop swimming pool. Thankfully, it failed when nobody was in the building. As it turned out, that was several times what the roof was designed for, and even in failure, the joists performed amazingly well.

We began to look for ways to make our joists tougher – that is, able to handle more permanent deformation (i.e. overloading) without breaking. We found that highly-optimized open-web trusses tend to have common failure locations, like the 2nd web from each end that is noted in the picture. Under normal loading, that web has the highest compression load of any of the webs. Why does that matter? Have you ever stood on an empty soda can? If you stand on it carefully and evenly, you can put your full weight on the can without it flattening. But if you wiggle a little (adding some eccentricity to your compressive load), the can immediately crushes without any warning. That sudden buckling is what we wanted to avoid happening in our joists. Instead, we wanted the long, drawn-out failure mode of tensile yielding that gives lots of warning first (like how silly putty or the cheese on pizza stretches a long ways before it finally pulls apart). Getting back to our joists, since that second web will tend to fail first, strengthening that one member on each end can significantly increase the failure load, and the chance for people to evacuate an overloaded building. I personally got to repair a joist that had failed in testing at that web, and then watch the amazing performance as it was retested. Not only did it pass the test, it maxed out the test equipment! Such a small change for such dramatic results. That test convinced me of the value of thinking about how my designs react when taken outside their design envelope.

Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Christianity or apologetics? The Bible tells us that we are in a spiritual war, whether we realize it or not. Chances are good that at some point in the Christian journey, your trust in God will be severely challenged – overloaded, so to speak. How will you react? Are there weak links in your life that look solid until they’re actually put to the test? I’ve seen too many tragic cases of people claiming to be Christians and leaving the church after exposure to some event or some unforeseen objection “destroyed their faith”. Maybe they grew up insulated from any objections, or worse, were told that asking questions was bad. Their trust in God was just a house of cards waiting to collapse the minute someone brought up some of the objections of atheists like Richard Dawkins or Dan Barker (as answerable as those are). Or maybe they grew up thinking that Christian faith was some kind of charm against bad things happening to them (in spite of the overwhelming testimony of almost every book of the Bible, many of the early church fathers, and the long bloody history of martyrdom of Christians the world over up to the present day). That’s called being set up for failure. But apologetics helps us in the following ways:

  • It strengthens those weak links by forcing us to examine ourselves [2 Cor 13:5] and reinforce our areas of distrust with true biblical knowledge, supporting evidence, and sound reasoning rather than just gloss over them. For some, that self-examination may even make them aware that their faith is just a charade and that there is no actual relationship with Jesus as Lord supporting their “Christian” life. That’s an important oversight to correct!
  • In seeking to give an answer to those who ask for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15], apologetics forces us to look at our beliefs from an outside perspective, anticipate questions, and actively search for answers so that we might be prepared. Knowing why you believe what you believe will strengthen your trust in God even if nobody ever asks you about your beliefs.
  • Apologetics reminds us that we don’t have a “blind faith” but rather a very well-grounded faith in God. Even when we don’t know the answer to every question, we are reminded that we can trust God based on the positive answers we do have. That is the very opposite of the “blind faith” skeptics like to assume Christians rely on.

May you be ever-growing in the knowledge of the truth of God, knowing with certainty in whom you have believed, understanding more each day how trustworthy God is, never failing to persevere through the trials that must surely come. Grace to you 🙂

Content to Doubt?

face-questions-1567164-639x373Last week, in sketching a portrait of scientific giant (and devout Christian) James Clerk Maxwell, I ended by asking if you are content to doubt. I’d like to expand on that question a little bit before continuing with that series.

What is doubt?

Doubt can be defined as disbelief, uncertainty, or lack of confidence in something.[1] One could also describe it as a condition of being unpersuaded or unconvinced of the truth of a statement.[2] Something each of these have in common is the idea of negation; doubt rarely expresses itself as a clear, positive assertion, but rather acts like a virus on other positive statements, parasitically draining them of their perceived strength. Suppose, for instance, that you say you think it will rain tomorrow, and your friend says that they doubt it. They haven’t come out and made a direct counterclaim that it won’t rain, but… they’ve still conveyed the idea that your statement may be wrong. Do you find yourself doubting now too? Do they know something you don’t? Like a virus, doubt, too, is often contagious.

Why do we doubt?

Let me give you the best reason to doubt before I give the more common one. Discovering contradictory evidence is a great reason to doubt a proposition. We know from logic that two contradictory statements can’t both be true at the same time in the same way. So when we find a legitimate contradiction, that should cause us to doubt our previous belief. However, contradictions are often only apparent ones, and we have to be willing to dig deeper before automatically assuming we found a contradiction in those cases. But there is a much more common reason for doubt, and that is emotion. Often, we don’t like the implications of a belief, particularly if they go against our own self-interest, and so we hope for a contradiction to find a way out of the obligation. We fuel our doubts out of selfishness. Other times, it is peer pressure and the fear of being an outsider that makes us wonder if our beliefs are wrong. But in any case, emotions are fickle things, and not a good reason to doubt our beliefs.

How do we overcome doubt?

  1. Examine it. Your doubt will typically be the conclusion of an unexamined syllogism (a logical argument, typically 2 premises and a conclusion). So first, supply what the missing premises would need to be to arrive at that conclusion.  Hidden premises are the bane of sound reasoning; so expose them here! A lot of times, this step will reveal the supposed reasons are completely unrelated to the conclusion. For instance, someone may doubt the existence of God, and come up with alleged contradictions in the Bible as the source of their doubt. Sorry, but the Bible could be completely made up, and God might still exist. Keep digging.
  2. Face it head-on. I said earlier that doubts tend to leech off of actual positive statements. To face doubt head-on, first express it as a positive assertion. Bring it out into the light and make it boldly say what it really is. If you have doubts about the existence of God, then don’t cover it up by saying you have “doubts” or “reservations”. Say “I think the proposition ‘God exists’ is more likely false than true.” Now you’ve actually made a claim, and he who makes the claim bears the burden of proof. A lot of time is spent trying to get out of the burden of proof these days, but this is a good thing to make your doubt into a claim with a burden of proof. Really! That forces you to recognize the need to justify your doubts just as much as the previous beliefs you’re now doubting.
  3. Don’t stop short. Think like an opposing debater looking at your argument for weaknesses. Recognize that while a weak link in your beliefs may have caused your doubts to begin with, your doubts also likely have some weak links. And yet, remember that weak links don’t necessarily refute a conclusion (on either side of the issue); they just show where you’ve failed to justify that conclusion, either in your initial belief or in your current doubt. You’ll likely need to keep repeating Step 1, forming a syllogism out of each premise, making it a conclusion needing supporting premises, and so on, until you get down to either some bedrock that will support your doubts, or shifting sand that shows your doubts to be unreasonable. Apply logic at each step. Are your terms clear, or are you equivocating on the meanings of words? Are your premises true? Does your conclusion at this particular level of your digging necessarily follow from your supporting premises under it?
  4. Recognize your own limitations. Get input from other perspectives, not just those that confirm your doubt. When you have doubts, you’re leaning toward a particular contrary position, and it’s all too easy to look for support in the direction you’re already leaning. Debates are great resources for expanding your perspective and thinking outside the box. A book author (or blogger) can get on a soapbox and conveniently ignore things, whether out of deceit or simply out of enthusiasm for his view. But a debate, and especially those in the form of published, written dialogues between opponents, can show you the best, fairest look at both sides of an issue because each side has to at least try to respond to an opponent critiquing their views.
  5. Finally, be honest and follow the evidence where it leads. In the Bible, Ezekiel tells us that God does not desire that anyone should perish[3], and Paul tells us that God has appointed our times and places that we might find Him, though He is not far from any of us.[4] One of Jesus’ disciples earned the notorious nickname “Doubting Thomas” because of his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, but it’s good to remember that Jesus didn’t strike him dead for doubting; instead, He appeared to Thomas, showed him the evidence that it was really Him, and told him to “stop doubting and believe.”[5] As Matthew Henry says in his commentary on this passage, “There is not an unbelieving word in our tongues, nor thought in our minds, but it is known to the Lord Jesus; and he was pleased to accommodate himself even to Thomas, rather than leave him in his unbelief.”[6] Friend, He can do that for you today also. “Seek, and ye shall find.”[7] But don’t let doubt stop your seeking.

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/doubt, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/doubt, accessed 2016-06-28.
[2] Though not defined as “unpersuaded” in most dictionaries, it still seems to apply here and has a basis in New Testament Greek. When Jesus told Thomas to “stop doubting and believe” the evidence standing before him, the word translated as doubting is ἄπιστος (apistos), which is the negation of the Greek word for faithful or believing, πιστος (pistos). The Greek root for faith is the word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to be persuaded of what is trustworthy”.[http://biblehub.com/greek/3982.htm] Hence, doubt can be seen as being “not faithful because unpersuaded, i.e. not convinced (persuaded by God)”[http://biblehub.com/greek/571.htm]
[3] Ezekiel 33:11, NASB.
[4] Acts 17:26-27, NASB.
[5] John 20:27, NIV.
[6] Matthew Henry’s Commentary, John 20:26-29.
[7] Matthew 7:7, KJV.

Interpreting the Evidence

bloody-thumbprintThe last couple of months here have been devoted to chronicling the appeals to a faith grounded in evidence and reason in the Bible, rather than the “blind faith” many assume to be there. While I’ve highlighted miracles that Jesus performed to testify to His power and authority and deity, the Bible also records some skeptical responses that are worth examining. In John 12, Jesus has come to Jerusalem, ushered in with much fanfare as the people assumed He would be the conquering Messiah that would save them from Roman rule. But His plan wasn’t as shortsighted as that, so He proceeded to deliver some of His last public teaching before the Passover celebration where He would be crucified and resurrected to save people everywhere from their sin. John records that Jesus was troubled at this point, and asks, “What shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Thy name.” Then John writes that “There came therefore a voice out of heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.'” [John 12:27-28]

Now, I have heard some skeptics say that if God really wanted them – if He truly loved them – He would prove Himself by doing something extravagantly, unquestionably beyond any shadow of a doubt as to its miraculous origins. I’ve heard examples of making the clouds form the words “I am God” every day, or finding the equivalent of a “made by God” tag sewn into our DNA, or Jesus appearing on the capitol steps to perform on national TV whatever miracle a skeptic wants to see, like some call-in magic act. But here we have recorded a voice from out of thin air, in a time before recorded sound and loudspeakers, speaking not just a single random word, but a coherent compound sentence. And this isn’t just an isolated incident. The multitudes that had made a parade out of His entrance to the city and were listening to His teaching now are described as “the multitude who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb, and raised him from the dead [and] were bearing Him witness.” [John 12:17] They already had significant positive evidence to support His claims of deity. Now they were actually hearing a confirmation from heaven. But how did people respond? John records that “The multitude therefore, who stood by and heard it, were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, ‘An angel has spoken to Him.'” [John 12:29] As someone that’s always enjoyed watching storms, I can tell you that I’ve heard thunder in a lot of different variations, but never any that could be confused with a coherent, spoken sentence. And despite knowing people with some very deep, “booming” voices, I would not ever confuse their voice with actual thunder.

But that is the power of rationalization that the skeptic downplays. They can lament God not proving His existence to them (on their terms, at least), but they take an overly optimistic view of their own ability to look at evidence objectively when they do that. Just as the two groups described by John both heard the same sound, but interpreted it differently based on their presuppositions and biases, we also filter the evidence around us. If your views are founded on the idea that there is nothing, and can be nothing, beyond the natural world around us – that there can be nothing “above nature”, or supernatural – then you will necessarily explain away any contrary evidence with more and more ad hoc explanations.

Astronomers of Copernicus’s day had to come up with more and more convoluted explanations for such things as the observed retrograde motion of the planets in order to hold on to their model of the cosmos with the earth at the center. As long as they held on to that, they could never see how the evidence was better explained by the sun being at the center of the solar system. Likewise, as long as the skeptic  denies even the possibility of the supernatural, the evidence he asks for will always be labeled as simply thunder, or strangely coincidental cloud formations, or mysteriously well-designed but self-forming genetic code, or a magician’s illusions, no matter how unlikely these explanations may be. In science, this is called observer bias; there’s nothing wrong with the experimental procedure, or the equipment, or the measuring instruments, just the scientist interpreting the results. And that link in the observational chain is the most problematic. You can fix a faulty microscope, you can change the steps in an experiment; but if you don’t really want to know the truth, if “ignorance is bliss” in those areas of your life you guard closest, then that is a supremely difficult problem to overcome.

Maybe you’re a skeptic reading this. Maybe you think you just can’t believe any of the testimony recorded in the Bible. But one question you must ask yourself first is this: If Christianity were true, would I believe it?” [1] If the answer is “no,” then you have a case of observer bias, and it will always skew your interpretations of the evidence and keep you from ever finding the truth. If the answer is “yes,” then I want to encourage you that you’ve taken an important step, but only one step. Don’t be content to stop there.


[1] A hat tip to Frank Turek at CrossExamined for pointing out the significance of this simple question. Read more in his book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.

Of Video Games and Miracles

Super MarioI suppose I grew up in the “Nintendo generation”, having graduated from Pac-Man and Donkey Kong  to spending hours squashing “goombas” to save the princess in Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Then there was Link, always working to save Princess Zelda. But regardless of which game I was playing or even which genre of game I played, each video game had its own consistent laws of what was possible. Mario and Luigi may be able to jump several times their own height, which is impossible in our world, but that was perfectly normal in the Mushroom Kingdom of Super Mario Brothers. And those laws had to apply equally to each player for the game to be fair. But… as any gamer knows, there are “cheat codes” – those little hidden combinations of movements, game actions, sequences of pushed buttons on the controllers, and so on, that allow a user to sidestep the rules of that game’s reality. A cheat code may let the player get more lives, become invincible, get abilities beyond what’s normal in that game’s world, access new weapons or levels, or bypass difficult levels or enemies to finish the game faster.

But what does all this have to do with miracles? Well, consider where cheat codes came from, and why they’re called cheat codes. These have historically been programming “back doors” for the game developer to test different parts of the game without having to play through the entire game at the intended rate.[1] If I’m developing the game, and I need to test game play in level 37, I don’t want to have to play through the first 36 levels that I know work well just to repeatedly test out small changes in level 37. An easy way to handle this is for me to write in a hidden jump to the higher levels, or a code for superpowers that would let me go through the tedious parts quickly. As the creator of the game, I’m outside the game, while the players are immersed in the game. I’m not limited by the rules of that game world (unless I choose to be), while the players are limited by the rules in a fair contest. With that in mind, it’s not cheating for the game creator to bypass levels or grant himself superpowers to accomplish his work. However, if a player learns of the programmer’s secret, and uses it unfairly, then it is cheating.

Now, this leads me to a few observations.
1) We are open to the possibility of miracles (i.e. bypassing or circumventing a world’s observed physical laws) in a game world.
2) We recognize that the game’s programmer isn’t violating any actual real-world constraints when he alters physics inside his game – the code he’s writing in his dimension is functioning perfectly in accordance with whatever programming language he used whether he writes a “normal” game scenario, or one with a secret invincibility switch in the game’s dimension.
3) We recognize that these “miracles” (from an in-game perspective) tend to be the work of the game’s developer as a means of accomplishing his work outside of normal game play.
4) We have an expectation that these events are not the norm, and are supposed to be used judiciously by the right person (i.e. the developer) to make the game better.
5) We recognize the right of the game developer to exercise privileges beyond our own as players.

With that in mind, I have to ask why we turn around and deny even the possibility of miracles in our physical world. Why think that it is impossible that our world had a developer – a Creator – who is not bound by our reality’s constraints? Why think that such interactions between our Creator and His creation – ones that appear miraculous from our “inside-the-game” perspective – are impossible if He’s simply not limited like we are? Why think that our Creator doesn’t have a right to alter our world’s “game” as He sees fit to make it better? When we look at the miracle of God entering the game He created at a specific point in this game’s time and space, and becoming a player like one of us, but still retaining His title of Sovereign Programmer, using His power to beat what we never could, we see a move of unfathomable love and mercy that made the game immeasurably better. Imagine playing an unwinnable level, with the deck stacked against you, and suddenly, the game creator appears in the game next to you and says, “You can’t beat this on your own, but I’ve got this – just follow me.” That’s what Jesus did when He physically appeared almost 2,000 years ago and conquered death. Will you turn away and keep playing on your own? Please don’t. There’s a better way.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheating_in_video_games#Cheat_codes, accessed 9/7/2015.

Skeptical of Skepticism

Scale smallAs an engineer, I realize that we can sometimes be a pretty skeptical – even cynical – lot. We are to put the safety of the public first, and so our job often requires us to be critical of whatever we’re reviewing, looking for anything deficient that might endanger future occupants or users of our designs. We are always under pressure to develop more efficient, optimized solutions to save time, money, labor, space, etc. And so we have to be critical of even our successful designs. Sometimes we are called to peer review another engineer to critique their design. Forensic investigations may require us to specifically look for what went wrong with another engineer’s design. As Scott Adams has pointed out in his funny, but often cynical, “Dilbert” comic strip, every engineer wants to retire without any major catastrophes being tied to his name. So skepticism often comes with the territory in engineering, and often serves us well as we seek out the best course of action among many mediocre choices, and more than a few really dangerous choices.

Because of that, I understand why a lot of my colleagues are skeptical of Christianity, and I don’t fault them for it (to an extent). A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. In fact, Jesus told His disciples to be “as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). A healthy skepticism makes us look carefully at what’s before us and not get taken in by every half-baked idea that comes along. The word skeptic actually comes from the Latin “scepticus” meaning “thoughtful, inquiring” and the earlier Greek “skeptikos” meaning “to consider or examine”. Thoughtful examination is certainly not a bad thing. But one thing I’ve noticed is a tendency to a one-sided skepticism (e.g. skepticism of Christianity without any corresponding skepticism of atheism). That is where I think we do ourselves a disservice. Our design codes often describe particular accepted methods, and then allow a catch-all case like “… or alternative generally accepted methods based on rational engineering analysis”. We engineers take pride in our openness to alternatives as long as they can be backed up with proof. Yet if we don’t give one side of a debate a chance to prove itself, and give the other side a free pass, are we really exercising  “thoughtful examination” of the issue? I don’t think so. We need to thoughtfully consider both sides of the debate to draw our conclusion.

One thing I’ve found in looking at atheistic arguments is that they often employ circular reasoning by assuming that the supernatural is impossible as they argue that there is nothing supernatural. I can’t assume what I’m trying to prove, and neither can they. It’s a logical fallacy for both of us. I’ve seen several cases of atheist forums referencing Biblical “absurdities” where the Bible doesn’t even say what they considered absurd. And yet many won’t look up the reference for themselves to verify the truthfulness of the atheist claim. Folks, that just won’t fly. I don’t ask for a free pass for Christianity, but I’m not giving one out to atheists, agnostics, or anyone else either. If you have a case, then know it, make it, support it, defend it. It takes more work to do your own research instead of just forwarding a link from a blog or web page supporting your view, but it’s worth it. In engineering, we often hand-verify the output from new unfamiliar software. It’s tedious and time-consuming, but once we understand how the program arrived at it’s answer, once we have confirmed the truthfulness of the output, we can use it with confidence; and if something changes, we’re more likely to recognize false output. Similarly, studying my own side and the opposing view with fairness takes time, but I want the truth, and I know it’s worth it. Consider this, whether Christian or not: if Christianity is true, and there is something beyond this physical life and our status in that later stage is determined by choices we make here and now, wouldn’t it be of the utmost importance to determine if that were true? I could die in a car crash tomorrow, so I’d better not put off that decision. If atheism is true, then that’s the end of me. It seems a little unfair that I didn’t live very long, but that’s the way it is (possibly). If Christianity is true though, then that’s a total game-changer, and I better know the answer to that question for myself and not just rely on others to determine my fate.