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Rachel Held Evans vs. John Piper: Both Miss the Point

As a liberal, it isn’t too surprising that Rachel Held Evans repudiates the Reformed understanding of tragedies like the Moore tornadoes.  Essentially, we join Augustine in proclaiming that God feels it better to bring good from evil, than to eliminate all evil.

What started this is a tweet by John Piper (now removed) that quotes Job 1:19.  Here, a great wind topples Job’s house and kills his children.  Piper is, quite obviously, applying it to the recent tornado that ripped apart Moore, Oklahoma.

Is that insensitive, as Evans says? Read the rest of this entry

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More Dumb Tweets: Belief and Morality

Juan A. Raposo put up a fascinating tweet:

The implication being that theists are only moral because our belief in God keeps us moral.

So if not for that belief, we’d be vicious killing machines.  That thought misses a grand contradiction: Ask yourself, “What restrains the atheist from raping and pillaging?”  Belief that those things are wrong.

Is that belief fundamentally different from belief in God?

The atheist would say yes, but if he were consistent he’d be forced to admit that it differs very little.  After all, the Atheist Mantra is that there is “no evidence” for God and  God can’t be scientifically proven, right?

And that means that belief in God is worthless.  The underlying principle is a form of logical positivism, variously called empiricism or scientism.  It accepts only that which can be proven scientifically (scientism) or that which can be experienced by the senses (empiricism) as valid evidence.  Most atheists use this to disqualify evidence or argument that God exists.

The flip side is that morality can’t be scientifically proven, either.  So the belief that it is immoral to rape and pillage local towns is on the same grounds as God.  If one accepts the implied tenet that only that which can be scientifically proven is worth believing, then one cannot be consistent and also believe that raping and pillaging are morally wrong.  One has to prove that case.

So we both believe, without empirical evidence, that something restrains us from committing grievous harms against our fellow humans.  And that, by Raposo’s estimation, means neither of us are moral — but that’s the whole point of needing a Savior, isn’t it?

Surprise: Atheists Don’t Lack Morals!

Did I say atheists have no morals? I don’t THINK I said that…

Atheists really like to fight against us ignorant theists who say they have no morals.  We’re the backwards hicks who take instruction from a book written by ignorant goat-herders who believed the earth was flat and that the sky was a dome that contained the sun, moon, and stars (all of which circled the earth!).  What do we know about morality?

Atheists are so enlightened that they’ve thrown off the shackles of God-belief and are doing the right things because they’re the right things, not because some ancient patriarch shakes his finger at you from 1,000 years ago and says, “Do it or I’ll spank you!”

So of course they don’t lack morals!  In fact, they’re more moral than religious people — the vague statistics quoted above don’t lie!

Sensing the sarcasm yet?

I hope so.  Because I don’t know how to lay it on thicker than what I just did.

Atheists are not immoral.  They are amoral.

Difference?

Immoral means acting contrary to established morality.  It is a question of ethics, not ontology or epistemology.

Amoral means lacking morals.  It is a question either of ontology or epistemology, not ethics.

Morality represents the essence of good behavior.  Ethics represent the execution of good behavior — in other words, the pudding that the proof is in.

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates asks the good priest Euthyphro what piety is.  Euthyphro comes up with several examples, which Socrates says were good but that only covers pious acts.  Socrates wants to know what piety is.

By giving him extensive examples, Euthyphro wasn’t actually answering Socrates’ question.

The above graphic does the same thing — it only shows that atheists behave more ethically than religious people.  But why do they do that?

They can’t tell you — there is no ground for morality given atheistic naturalism.  That’s where the difficulty starts.  Ethics can change; sometimes dramatically.

It was once legal to bet on (or against) your own team in professional sports.  Professional sports also allowed the use of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs without batting an eyelash.  Now, both practices are deemed cheating in most professional sports.

What we need is something to ground our ethics in; something immutable that we can return to to see what goodness looks like.  That way, when we find something new, we can create a code of ethics for it patterned after that which gave us the example of good ethics in the first place.

If morality is an immovable anchor and ethics are a boat on the rough, unforgiving seas of our culture, the boat is free to move about within the radius of the anchor.  It might go adrift, it might even do something unacceptable, but it will remain in the range of the anchor.  Conversely, without the anchor, the ship is free to be tossed around the sea of possibilities, moving unflinchingly into uncharted, dangerous waters with nothing to bring it back to safety.

The nature of God is that immutable ground of ethical behavior for the theist.  The atheist has none.  We are the boat that will return to safe waters, they are the one that will be tossed out to sea without a guide.

I have no problem with considering atheists ethical; the above examples show they are.  However, they have no ultimate ground for the morality that informs their ethics and that means they will go seriously adrift.

Randomness from Yahoo! Answers, part 3

To let people know that I’m here and still blogging, I have taken on the top three results from Yahoo! Answers on the search phrase “Does God exist?”  The third question, from user Iason Ouabache, “How does the fact that I exist prove that there is a God?”

In another question someone said “the fact that you exist proves that there is a God”. And then he called me silly. How does my existence prove that God exists? And how does this prove that the specific Christian god exists? Doesn’t my existence just prove that I exist?

Right, Iason, the fact that you exist proves only that you exist.  However, it raises the question of why you exist.

Think of reality as a box that contains us.  We can’t see beyond the borders of the box.  We can only see what’s inside the box.  However, outside the box is a whole world of possibilities that we can’t see with our eyes, but can perceive with our mind by looking at what we see in the box.

We can know what is outside the box by looking at what is inside the box.

Put another way, we are imprisoned in Plato’s Cave.  We are chained, looking at a cold, gray wall that has dancing shadows on it.  We can figure out a lot about the shadows, and a little bit about what causes the shadows, by studying the shadows.

Now let’s say that someone breaks his chains and is able to walk outside Plato’s Cave.  Suddenly, he sees for himself the majesty of reality.  He sees what was causing the shadows on the wall, those imperfect copies of reality, as reality.  His first instinct is to go back in the cave and free as many people as possible.

Alas, most people are content to stare at the wall.

I call those people “naturalists.”  They don’t think anything is casting the shadows; they think that the shadows are all that exist.

Naturalists are only looking inside that box we talked about earlier.  They do not consider that which we cannot prove — the elements outside the box that are hinted (copied or shadowed) by items we find in the box.  They don’t even think that these “shadows” hint at anything.

Surmising what is outside the box by looking at what is inside the box is the branch of philosophy known as metaphysicsOur thoughts on metaphysics shape our thoughts on the natural world.

You, as a human being, and your inherent worth and intricate design flow from God.  You are not evidence of God, but you are a hint that he is there — one hint among many in the created world.

What happens without God?  Since our metaphysics shape our thoughts of the natural world, the thoughts of the theist differ wildly from the thoughts of the atheist.  And, I might add, the thoughts of the atheist (though perfectly logical based on his metaphysics, or lack thereof) are outright disturbing.

  1. The notion of “inherent worth as a human being” is tossed out the window.  We are one animal among many, we just so happen to be smart and self-aware.  But, there’s no reason that we shouldn’t behave as animals.  Sexuality, therefore, shouldn’t be a slave to morality.  The animals have sex with whomever they want, whenever they want.
  2. Building on the first, morality itself is invalid.  Morality is a universal idea, abstract in nature, and that would exist outside the box.  Nothing exists outside the box.  All we have are particulars — the ever-changing ethics of various societies.  When the theist refers to rape or torture or abortion as issues of morality, that’s nonsense.  There are no morals, for nothing exists outside the box.  Therefore, any of those things (yes, even rape) could be considered ethically valid in the right circumstances.  [Don’t believe me?  Peter Singer justifies cold-blooded murder here.]
  3. The idea of design becomes ludicrous.  If there were a designer, there would be no design flaws like an appendix or a tail bone or a hanging scrotum that incapacitates the person kicked in it.  Offensive body odor?  Gone.  Hair and toenails?  Not necessary.  These “flaws” are not viewed as the best possible trade-offs, rather as evidence of evolution by natural selection.

So, what are we to do here?  As Schaeffer pointed out, nothing finite is of value without an infinite reference point.  We are finite, and therefore have no inherent worth or value unless we have something infinite to point at.  That means starting with God is the only valid starting point.  Starting with naturalism in the absence of God leads to chaos and immorality.

On Originality and Divine Revelation

Peter Breitbart’s short film A Madman or Something Worse is the latest in a line of criticisms of Jesus’ teachings to carry an unspoken, but integral, underlying assumption that divine revelation must somehow be original in order to truly be divine.

So, I would like to pose the following question: Why must something be original in order to be considered divine revelation?

This criticism isn’t unique to Breitbart.  When I mention a teaching of Jesus or the Bible, the skeptic counters that said teaching predates the Bible or Jesus by centuries.  I see this especially in connection to Jesus’ ethic of reciprocity, the so-called Golden Rule.  This little gem predated Jesus by quite a bit; centuries in fact.

The implication seems to be that if the Bible were truly God’s word, that it would be 100% original.  Or, that if Jesus were the Son of God, he’d say things that no mortal teacher had ever said.

So pointing out that things like the Golden Rule existed well before Jesus is somehow supposed to mean that Jesus isn’t divine.  Or that the Mosaic Law isn’t divinely inspired because similar legal strictures existed 500 or so years earlier in the Code of Hammurabi.

So what?

We humans are made in the image of God.  While every fiber of our being is tainted by sin, the fact of the matter is that we still retain part of this identity as God’s special creation.  And that means that it is possible for us to know morality when we see it, and that means that moral teachings might come from places other than the divinely inspired texts or the words of Jesus.  It is possible that some enlightened individuals, though not divinely inspired in the strictest sense of the term, may have found part of the divine truths by means other than a word from God.  Moreover, they might have discovered them before God revealed them in a divinely inspired teaching.

Given that humans are made in God’s image, this isn’t really unexpected.

Morality is absolute and objective.  Our knowledge of morality can change, but what is right is always right and what is wrong is always wrong.  Child sacrifice is just wrong, whether or not Canaanite society believed it was right and just.  The Holocaust was wrong, whether or not 1930s-1940s German society was overwhelmingly in favor of it.

Morality, therefore, is something that we discover as our knowledge increases; not something subjective that we put to a vote.  Being made in the image of God means that this morality is written on our hearts and that we can gain a greater understanding of it as time passes.  We can find a better path than even the morality on display right now.

And we probably will.

Two thousand years from now, an enlightened society will probably look at America 2011 and think that we are as backwards and as barbaric as we in America 2011 view the ancient Israelites and their Canaanite opposition.

The Bible is the divinely-inspired and objective guidebook to finding this higher morality, but no one is claiming that it is the only source of morality or even the first source of any particular moral teaching.

Now, some folks do claim that the Bible is the source of certain teachings, like the Golden Rule, but they’re misinformed.  Since, however, there’s no reason (given that humans are made in the image of God) to believe that a teaching must be unique to the Bible or to Jesus to be true and divinely inspired, let’s just educate the misinformed person and move on.  Unless the skeptic is prepared to explain why a teaching must be unique in order to be divinely inspired.

Ethical Pain

It never fails to amaze me that people deny objective morality.  Morality isn’t mere opinion.  Right now, somewhere in this world, there is someone who is doing something that, regardless of his or her personal opinion (or the opinion of the society in which he lives), is just plain wrong.

For example, in certain Islamic traditions, it is a sin for the woman to enjoy sex.  So, her genitals are mutilated in a way that will preclude any sort of enjoyment from sex.  That society, even its women, approve of this practice and celebrate it.  But it’s just objectively wrong, even though it is allowed to proceed even with the blessing of those affected the most adversely by it.

CAA member Sam Harper has a really interesting way of knowing that we have objective moral values.  It borders on the fallacy of appeal to motive, so I’m not presenting it as an argument.  It’s some really good food for thought.  Sam writes:

A divorced girl once confessed to me that she had cheated on her husband with his best friend just to get revenge. Then she tried to justify herself by saying, “After what he did to me, I didn’t feel married.” Of course marriage is not a feeling, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and even the most absurd excuse will do if it’s all you’ve got to avoid admitting that you’ve done something so wrong.

Interesting.  People do go to great lengths to justify incorrect behavior.  In my years as a manager, I’ve seen people rationalize the most bizarre behavior.  Everyone is the exception to the rule.  Like the divorced girl, we find reasons (however thin) to commit immoral acts because we know they’re wrong and it hurts us to do them.

Yet, the pull to commit them is stronger than the potential consequences.  So what is a person to do?  Sam responds:

There’s another way to avoid ethical pain that few people seem to ever try. Instead of getting rid of the rules or looking for loopholes to let yourself off the hook, why not just obey the moral laws? Why not just do right and avoid wrong? Why don’t more people try this?

Reminds me of the old adage “Christianity is not tried and found wanting.  It is found difficult and left untried.”  When I was growing up and going to Catholic school, I used to hate the song “Amazing Grace” mainly because I knew I wasn’t a wretch.  Except that I was:

Why is being moral so hard? It’s because of the kind of people we are. It’s easy for somebody with nothing but good intentions, good motives, and good dispositions to be good. Being moral is almost impossible for us, though, because that’s not the kind of people we are. We do bad things because we have bad intentions, motives, and dispositions. Christianity is unpopular, because Christianity is realistic about this. Embracing the Christian worldview requires people to admit things they don’t want to admit.

That’s what was so amazing about God’s grace in the first place!  It took me much of my life to realize that I was a wretch and that I hurt a lot of people.  When I finally admitted that to myself, I was ready for Christianity.  Most people don’t want to go there.  As Sam closes:

The reason Christianity is so hard for people to except is because before you can accept it, you have to first drop all the excuses and admit that you really have violated the moral law. You really have done wrong. There are no loopholes to let you off the hook. You’re guilty. Once you admit your guilt, you are left to face yourself in all your moral failure. That’s not easy.

No it’s not.  But when our sinful nature is confronted and we no longer make excuses for ourselves, this is the most freedom anyone can experience in life.  This is what it means to know the truth, and the truth makes you free.

I HATE Cutesy Christian Slogans

Not that long ago, I was driving by a local church and the marquee, appallingly, told passers-by to pray for whatever they wanted, and God would provide it for them. It said this in a cutsey, easy-to-remember slogan. Ironically, I can’t remember the slogan. I had meant not only to blog about it, but to send the pastor a protest letter explaining why that was a bad slogan, and why such propaganda may draw people in for the short term but is very damaging for the long term.

The primary reason for this is simple: what is the pastor of that church going to tell someone who didn’t get what they prayed for? The congregant was “lured” into this church with the promise that God affirmatively answers all prayers, which any student of Bible and/or common sense can tell you is not the case. Any answer given by the pastor is damaging at this point.

If the pastor fesses up to the truth, which is that God will occasionally say “No,” given that God is an agent with a plan of his own that comes before the individual desires of his worshipers rather than an impersonal, wish-granting force, then it appears as though the church is using half-truths to fill pews and get tithe money for its own ends.

If the pastor says that the congregant doesn’t have enough faith in God, that raises the question of how much faith one really needs to receive effective answers to prayer. The congregant immediately concludes he doesn’t have enough faith, wonders what he can do to get more faith, and feels like a failure as a Christian. All the congregant needs to do now is pick up a copy of The God Delusion and guess what happens next.

But I never got around to either the post or the letter. What reminded me is a blog post from No Forbidden Questions about a Christian meme that has been making its way around the e-mail circuit, which is pictured to the right. As with all cutesy Christian slogans, I hate this graphic. It only tells a half-truth.

NFQ says this makes it seem as though unbelievers experience these things regularly, while believers are immune to it. Or, as commenter Andrew puts it, “The grass is always browner on the other side of our beliefs.” Read the rest of this entry

Can Atheists be Moral Without God?

A few days back, I promised that I would discuss the answer to a question that has been raging in the atheist-theist dialogue for a long time. It stirs up controversy wherever it goes. The question: Can atheists be moral without God?

The short answer: NO, absolutely, unequivocally, not. It is impossible to be moral without God.

I had best get to the long answer before I get flamed by my atheist readership, which actually amounts to 99% (if not 100%) of my overall readership. First, I must explain an important, and oft overlooked, distinction that will bring this entire question into focus: the difference between ethics and morals.

When he was learning the art of the psychological autopsy, NCIS’s Ducky was asked by Mr. Palmer to explain the difference between ethics and morals. Ducky said something akin to “The ethical man knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife, while the moral man would not.” In other words, ethics govern solely the behavior of an individual, where morals begin with the heart and proceed out, modifying the behavior as a result.

It is quite possible for a man to watch rape porn, read erotica featuring rape or non-consensual scenes, constantly fantasize about raping women, and even request that his consensual partners fight him, beg him to stop, and cry real tears during sex. He literally views women as objects that exist solely for his enjoyment. What holds this individual back from actually raping a woman is the threat of jail time, the looming possibility of having to register as a sex offender, and the associated shame and loss of status all of that would bring.

This person actually quite ethical. He doesn’t act on his impulses. He obeys the law. By all outward appearances, he’s a fine, upstanding citizen. But his hidden dark side poses a problem with calling him  “moral.”

Ethics are solely concerned with behavior. A person can be ethical and even appear to bear the good fruit associated with the Kingdom of God, but essentially be a “whitewashed tomb full of dead man’s bones.” If you take care to wash only the parts that people can see, while continuing to live a robust life of mental evils, are you really moral?

If my neighbor, the guy with the really hot wife, the awesome job that I could never get in a million years, who paid off his house because he’s a millionaire in his twenties, and owns three fancy sports cars suddenly got divorced, fired from his awesome job, and totaled two of the three sports cars (in one day), how should I react to that?

Externally, if I offered a shoulder to cry on anytime he needed one and offered to help him financially if he needed to pay some debts or bills (no millionaire is completely without debt), and tried to help him get a job; would I still be good if in my mind I kept thinking silently, “I’m so happy! I want to see this S.O.B. fall further into despair. I’m going to nickname him ‘Job.’ May he total the other sports car, too!”

I’m thinking, “NO.”

That example is perfectly within our fallen natures. It isn’t that we can’t do good. We, in our fallen nature, can’t will good. We may do some (relative) good, but privately, we still entertain impure (or even evil) thoughts. Our behavior conforms to the good, but our minds do not.

Contrast this with a Christian, who is a Christian in both word and deed. I hate to say a “true” Christian, so let’s say a “sincere” Christian. Once his faith has been placed in Christ, a transformation occurs. He is a new creation. His inward thoughts are taken captive, to conform even those to Christ. Our carnal minds, after all, aren’t subject to God’s law (nor indeed can be).

Ethics are external. Those are what people see. However, morals work from the inside out. Instead of just doing good, we are good. That’s a far cry from simply acting ethical. Instead of not stealing thousands of dollars from the bank at which I work, the capability of that theft is no longer in my person. That, in a nutshell, is what it means to be conformed to Christ.

That, however, isn’t something that just happens the day of my altar call. It is part of sanctification, which is a life-long process where I work with God to conform both my actions and my thoughts to Christ’s example.

This is hard. But no one ever said Christianity was supposed to be easy.

The Bondage of the Will

Read the entire article here.

Michelangelo's painting of the sin of Adam and...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s obvious from looking at the current state of the world that the human condition is broken. Wars, invasions, suicide bombers using women and children. The mayor of one the largest cities in the country is facing charges ranging from perjury to obstruction of justice–all while his city is crumbling economically around him. What is going on in the world today? Is this all we have to look forward to? More of the same?

Left to our own devices, we humans sin. The effects of sin are all around us, and can be seen daily simply by picking up a newspaper, watching the news on TV, or reading the RSS newsfeeds. Why the propensity to sin?

Mankind simply has it in his heart to sin. God has a perfect plan for our lives, and we can only have it by perfect obedience to his Law. Not the Mosaic Law, mind you, but the Law of God that is written in the hearts of all mankind, that which we instinctively know is right and wrong morally. The Mosaic Law is often points to the standard, but it is far from the standard. We know the standard. Read the rest of this entry