Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Debating Creationism

This is what passes for debate among those who cannot engage the actual claims made by Creationists. When your argument is weak it is easy to disparage your opponent instead of engaging his argument. I just hope that those who are in serious pursuit of the truth -- on either side -- don't resort to such sophomoric tactics ...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fool's Bones?

Hollywood film producer James Cameron may have resurrected the Titanic, but he wants to keep Jesus forever in the grave. Unless you've been in a coma for the past month you cannot help knowing that Cameron, along with director Simcha Jacobovici, has produced a documentary film about the 1980 discovery of an ossuary in Jerusalem that they say contains the remains of Jesus and his family:
New scientific evidence, including DNA analysis conducted at one of the world's foremost molecular genetics laboratories, as well as studies by leading scholars, suggests a 2,000-year-old Jerusalem tomb could have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The findings also suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have produced a son named Judah. The DNA findings, alongside statistical conclusions made about the artifacts — originally excavated in 1980 — open a potentially significant chapter in Biblical archaeological history.
You think?!

There are plenty of places to read expert critiques of the specific scientific and archaeological issues surrounding this story. The most notable (in my humble opinion) come from resurrection expert Dr. Gary Habermas and the legendary Western Michigan University Professor of History, Paul Maier, whose 1994 novel ,"A Skeleton in God's Closet," was based on a parallel premise.

Because I am no expert on these subjects I will refrain from attempting to add some lame analysis of my own to the mix. Having said that though, I cannot help but smile as I point out that it is the same type of Jesus-was-not-divine thought process that offered us the DaVinci Code "proof" that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who now gives us The Lost Tomb. I have to wonder how they reconcile the fact that The Code says Mary is buried under the Louvre in Paris, while The Lost Tomb has identified her bones in a 2000 year-old Jerusalem crypt?

Details, details ...

Instead, I want to focus on what the response of clear-thinking Christians should be to The Lost Tomb claims.

Should we ignore them? No.
Should we take them seriously? Yes.
Should they make us question our faith? Absolutely!

Before you dismiss me as a flaming heretic for that third assertion, please note that I think the actual evidence James Cameron and company have produced is not only lacking but silly. I actually think Cameron has seriously damaged his credibility by associating himself with such a ridiculously hollow case. But that's not the question I want to address. The question is this: How should we respond to this, or any future, claim against our faith? I think we have three choices ...

Ignore it

This is by far the easiest response -- because it is mindless. Anyone can be mindless. But we are not called to be mindless. We are called to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1Peter 3:15).) Ignoring the issue hardly seems appropriate since the core of the issue goes directly to the authenticity and trustworthiness of the hope we claim to have.

Proclaim a piously dismissive confidence in our faith

I have heard some respond to The Lost Tomb by essentially saying, "I don't care if they are the bones of Jesus. It wouldn't make a bit of difference in what I believe." Here's an example from a letter to the editor in the March 19th issue of Newsweek:
As a Christian who religiously reads Newsweek, I must admit to a little uneasiness when I came upon "Raiders of the Lost Tomb." Not because of the possibility of its shaking my faith, but because of the debate it will prompt in both the secular and Christian communities. I'm not looking forward to the media overcoverage or the emotionally charged emails from my fellow believers. It's all a waste of time. For those of us who believe, the physical cannot change the spiritual. For those who don't, they still won't believe.
First, maybe I'm weird but I do not think it a "waste of time" and I do look forward to the public debate on this subject. What better way is there to get people talking about the most important topics we could ever address?! Most of us -- partly because we insist on separating our "Christian community" from the "secular" one (and thereby relegate our faith to a matter of personal preference instead of Truth) -- never discuss such issues. We avoid them. I think our society is the worse for it and I don't understand why anyone wants to talk about anything else. But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong.

Second, I reject the passive acceptance of the notion that those who don't currently believe never will. Says who? I also reject the notion that the "physical" and the "spiritual" are mutually exclusive. This is modernist, humanist view, not a Biblical one.

While such a view sounds holy and confident, this kind of response amounts to nothing more than a more self-righteous way to ignore the claim. This is a retreat to a fideism that says, in effect, "don't bother me with facts, I already know what I believe." But this is not a demonstration of Biblical faith. As I have discussed elsewhere, a true Biblical faith is based on historically accurate and philosophically consistent reasoning. It is not only that, but it is grounded in that. It is a trust that comes from confidence in knowledge gained by observing the way the world works and a correspondence with the way the world is. This is what makes Christianity unique among the world religions. We have evidence to back up the truthfulness of our faith claims.

It would be radically inconsistent for me to call on the Darwinian Evolutionists (for instance) to examine their theory in light of the actual evidence if I am not willing to do the same. It would be hypocritical for me to dismiss the denial of reality inherent in a New Age or Hindu worldview while I avoid defending the reality of my own view. My faith rests on my confidence that I believe what I claim to believe because it is true and corresponds to the "real" world.

Engage it

This is the only appropriate response to any challenge to our faith. We are told to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God ..." and I believe we should each be prepared and poised to do just that. In this specific case the stakes are clearly defined. The Lost Tomb calls into question the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is not just some tangential, anti-religious mudslinging. This goes to the core of Christian belief. In fact, if James Cameron and company prove to be correct in the assertions they make in this documentary, I will reject Christianity tomorrow. I would be a fool not to.

That may sound like a radical and extravagant statement coming from someone who claims to be so enamored with Christians apologetics. And it is. But I am dead serious when I make it because I am in good company in doing so ...

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile ... If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men (1 Corinthians 15:14-17)

Like the Apostle Paul, I have no use for a useless faith. I have no desire to engage in an activity so futile as to follow an imposter to deity whose bones really sit in a Jerusalem burial ossuary. I have no penchant for reaping the pity I would deserve if my only reward for following Christ was the empty promise of feeling good about myself in this life.

I will engage this issue and all others like it with a spirit of humility and an intellectually honest dedication to the pursuit of the truth. Anything less is a waste of my time -- and His.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Classroom: No Place For Questions

The world is flat; Marxism works; the Earth is at the physical center of the universe; man was not meant to fly, and Darwinian Evolution explains the origination and diversity of all life.

Some day all these ideas will be relegated to the same dustbin of history -- but it won't be today. No, today Kris Helphinstine, a part-time high school biology teacher was fired. Why?

Helphinstine, 27, said in a phone interview with The Bulletin newspaper of Bend that he included supplemental material to teach students about bias in [biology text book] sources, and his only agenda was to teach critical thinking.

That was enough for the Sisters, Oregon School Board, which fired the teacher Monday night for deviating from the curriculum on the theory of evolution.

You'll notice that Helphinstine was not doing anything illegal or immoral. He wasn't selling crack cocaine to students. He wasn't having sex with his students. He didn't bring guns and ammo to school. Those kind of offenses just get you put on "administrative leave" while an investigation is launched regarding your "alleged" conduct.

No, Helphinstine was fired on the spot for having the audacity to suggest that students should learn to investigate truth claims for themselves.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Engaging The Belief Police

Two recent books on the NY Times Best Seller list share a common thesis -- that religion in general, and Christianity specifically, is not just wrong, or off-base, or a subject worth debating -- but evil, deluded, dangerous, and the righteous target of the thinking man's scorn. Sam Harris', "Letter To A Christian Nation," (# 31 on the list) and Richard Dawkins, "The God Delusion," (# 14 and on the list for 24 weeks) don't just want to appeal to their atheistic brethren, but want to question the sanity of religious belief itself and suggest that we would all be more safe if religion were forcibly banished from the public square.

This view of religion is nothing new to Dawkins who, blasting the intolerance of Creationists in his 1986 book, "The Blind Watchmaker," claimed that ...

It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).

With an incredibly ironic inability to see the intolerance of those two ideas existing in parallel, Dawkins denies any respect to those who happen to disagree with him -- and instead offers them nothing but contempt. Disgusted by the proselytizing of religious folk, he engages in a little proselytizing of his own when, on the fifth page of his most recent book he claims that, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down."

For all the bluster these two claim about their own "healthy" and "vigorous" minds as compared to the mental midgets who oppose them, it is a little too convenient that they fail to even mention the significant input to science and philosophy that has been contributed by theists throughout history. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the fact that most of the greatest scientific minds -- Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler -- were all devout men who studied the physical universe because they believed it was ordered and a reflection of the mind of God. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the great philosophers throughout history -- Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, C.S. Lewis -- who were not only Christian theists, but that began as atheists and reasoned their way to faith. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the fact that the Bible itself challenges us to "test everything" and that the scientific revolution began with Christian scientists who did just that.

Instead they offer false dichotomies and accusations like the one Harris offered in a Newsweek column promoting his book:

Despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the Earth, more than half the American population believes that the entire cosmos was created 6,000 years ago.

While this statistic may in fact be true, it is a complete evasion of the reality that there are differing views among those Harris is quick to lump together under the "creationist" label. I find it hard to believe he doesn't know this. It is much easier, and more convenient, to generalize that Creationist = young earth creationist. But its is a false equation. There are plenty of intellectually rigorous defenses of the notion that accepting the age of the universe to be 14 Billion years (as I assume Harris does) is perfectly compatible with the Biblical creation account. This is notable -- especially for someone who claims intellectual superiority as the high ground from which he chastises religious belief. A fair and confident debater will always take on his opponent's best argument. Harris is apparently unwilling, or unable, to do that.

Harris goes on to say that ...

... much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable and incompatible with genuine morality. One of the worst things about religion is that it tends to separate questions of right and wrong from the living reality of human and animal suffering.

It doesn't occur to Harris that lumping all his opponents together under a single, generalized umbrella, calling them closed-minded, stupid, deluded, and dangerous, or suggesting that they are evil for holding their beliefs -- none of that should be considered "divisive." But what is really astounding is his claim that "religion ... is incompatible with genuine morality."

I wonder how Harris goes about determining what is "genuinely" moral? On his view, there is no rational basis for morality. We (and our animal friends) are nothing but a more highly evolved outcome of an irrational, deterministic process. We, and our brains, just "are." What is, is what is. There is no basis for saying what "ought" to be. Though he would never admit it, Harris' notion of morality is vacuous -- unless he borrows it from theism. Without an objective moral standard Harris can make no claim about good or bad, right or wrong, nice or evil. As for his claim that "religion ... tends to separate questions of right and wrong from the living reality of human and animal suffering," this is just plain false.

Some religions do this. Hinduism in particular denies the existence of evil and suffering as being a simple ignorance about human separation from the divine Maya. But all religions are not created equal. In fact, Christianity is the only religion that takes this admitted problem head-on and offers an explanation for the existence, reality and solution to the problem of evil in the world. We Christian theists call it the "problem" of evil for a reason. We don't like it. We admit that the explanation we offer has difficulties that make us uncomfortable. But to say that we separate this issue from "living reality" is utter nonsense. It is a question that Christian theologians and philosophers have been conscientiously struggling with for centuries.

On this topic Harris also fails to acknowledge or account for the tens (100s?) of millions executed at the hands of the totalitarian regimes built on an the atheistic philosophy (Mao, Stalin, Pol-Pot etc.) during the twentieth century alone.

Next, Harris chastises Christians (and President Bush directly) for their narrow-minded opposition to Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) for no other reason than that "religious dogmatism impedes genuine wisdom and compassion." We Christians apparently thrive on the notion that others will suffer while we stand on our idiotic "unjustified religious belief." So what is Harris' justified argument to the contrary? He is glad to tell us:

A case in point: embryonic-stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. It could offer therapeutic breakthroughs for every human ailment … A 3-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all.

Here Harris parrots the demagogic claims of those who prey on the hopes of the sick and dying. There is not a shred of evidence that ESCR will be successful in curing any disease, let alone the horrific ones for which Harris promises a cure. There are expense, rejection, tumor-forming, and uncontrollability issues that combine to make ESCR seem more hollow every day. At the same time, adult stem cell research has shown enormous potential for success yet Harris never mentions it at all. He never mentions that President Bush (nor any other religious zealot for that matter) has no ethical or moral objection to it. His only goal it seems, is to construct a straw man to bolster his personal case against religion.

Along the same lines, Harris informs us that a "3-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly." Perhaps Harris is not as bright as he claims. Perhaps he is uninformed. Perhaps he believes he is enlightening all the religious morons about the extent of his vocabulary regarding a blastocyst. But his regurgitation of the same old argument surrounding stem cell research is so lame and so overused it almost seems like a parody. Yes, Mr. Harris, a blastocyst is small. Yes, at three days it has fewer cells than the brain of a fly. But what does that prove?

Nothing.

In case Mr. Harris is not aware, a blastocyst is not a thing -- it is a stage in the development of a thing. And that "thing" is what he himself labeled a "human embryo." Not a fly embryo, or the embryo of a horse. A human embryo. In other words, that thing he so callously wants to destroy is a fully integrated, complex, self-replicating human person who just happens to be in the earliest stages of its development. Someone just you or me, or Mr. Harris. Surely we cannot claim that the worth of a human person is dependent on their level of development, their size, their location, or their degree of dependency. And though Harris claims that a person cannot "suffer their destruction in any way at all" I would like to know how he rationalizes the destruction of a human person as not inflicting moral harm upon their personhood.

The difference between Mr. Harris' view and the views of the religious folks he vilifies is that the religious folks value human persons for what they are intrinsically, not for what they can do. To the religious among us, ontology trumps function.

All these points stem from a central belief that Harris and Dawkins share:

Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs.(Harris)

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.(Dawkins)

I cannot blame either of these men for understanding faith as an "excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence." Frankly, that view is shared by many in the church. The problem with such a view where it affects Christians in particular is that it has no basis in Scripture. Nowhere is there an example of someone demonstrating faith without evidence to support it. As Greg Koukl points out, "faith is not wishing" in Biblical Christianity. The Biblical model for faith starts with evidence which leads to knowledge, which in turn leads to an active trust that is faith. Faith is always built on evidence. The Bible gives no indication that claiming faith gives us license to disengage our brains. Quite the contrary.

Though I had never noticed it before, Michael Novak, in his review of these two books, gives brilliant historical evidence that this understanding is not new and that it is demonstrated in Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel's ceiling where the "cloud behind the Creator's head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed."



So while I understand the underpinning of Harris' and Dawkins' inaccurate picture of faith, I do not accept their conclusion that:

In a world brimming with increasingly destructive technology, our infatuation with religious myths now poses a tremendous danger. And it is not a danger for which more religious faith is a remedy.

History has proven that atheism poses the greatest tangible danger to humanity. The remedy is faith -- a faith that is properly understood. A faith that engages its brain before it opens its mouth. A faith that is not afraid to face any issue, whether it is scientific, philosophical, political or otherwise, because it knows that the fountainhead of faith is Truth. None of us should be afraid of the Truth. The question that faces us is whether or not we, and those like Msrs. Harris and Dawkins, have minds big enough, and open enough, to engage the Truth head on.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

What Does Christa Think?

Today it is being reported that a Colorado woman, who suffered a heart attack and stroke in 2000, suddenly awoke after almost 7 years in a coma. Today Christa Lilly conducted an interview with CBS affiliate KKTV in Colorado Springs.

Recently British scientists also reported that another woman in a “vegetative state” shows signs of awareness by her apparent ability to respond to speech commands. When told to “imagine herself playing tennis and walking through her house ... motor-control regions of her brain lit up like they did in the healthy people to whom she was compared.” Though researchers were quick to point out that…
"This is just one patient. The result in one patient does not tell us whether any other patient will show similar results, nor whether this result will have any bearing on her"

"It raises the questions of ethics and experience of these patients, I think, to a new level," said neuroscientist Joy Hirsch of New York's Columbia University Medical Center. "It raises the tension about how we treat these patients."

But, "making medical decisions based on this information at this point in time we say is not appropriate.”
“Not appropriate?” It seems to me it is very appropriate; especially in light of the ongoing debate in both Europe and New Jersey regarding easing restrictions on brain death criteria to allow for increased organ donations.

It seems appropriate in light of the Australian issue regarding patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). There, bioethicists are debating "the potential use of patients with non-responsive brain function for such medical experiments as animal organ transplants—to bypass ethic prohibitions against using a living human being for medical experimentation, some even suggested designating such patients as "dead," saying their cognitive impairments justified treating them as cadavers."
Those in a PVS will not ever wake up, they feel no pain or discomfort and have no continuing interest in their own survival…”

While making the argument that PVS patients have no right to mental autonomy since they have no apparent functioning mental capacity, Dr. Curry excused the medical “use” of their bodies by suggesting such patients should be allowed to choose to donate their bodies for the good of science, saying, “…these patients must also have a right to risk that life for the common good.”

On this view, Christa Lilly could have been designated a "cadaver" and her body used for experimentation just minutes before she granted her interview in Colorado Springs.

Serge can shed more technical/medical light on this subject but the fact that similar stories pop up from time to time is a reminder that the value of human persons is not just in question at the beginning of life – and that it still centers on the most vulnerable in our society.

To those who would deem medical decisions surrounding these issues as being “inappropriate,” I suggest they ask Christa Lilly for her opinion on the matter.