Category Archives: Christianity
Embracing the Pedophile: What Secular Society Might Learn from Conservative Christianity
This article is worth a read. In fact, I’d read it first, though if you don’t have the time you can just go on reading this post. This post stands on its own.
Sexual attraction is something that I haven’t felt the need to talk about on this blog. It’s an awkward, contentious subject. One that’s seen a lot of upheaval in recent years. Particularly around homosexuality.
I was about 11 or 12 or so when I first heard the word “gay.” I didn’t really understand what it meant. My parents were talking about something with my older brother, and they sounded upset. Not at him, understand, but a kind of general “what is this world coming to” kind of upset. I still don’t know what prompted the discussion. I came in at the end of it. All I know is that it was at that point that I learned about the concept of homosexuality.
Well, that’s not quite accurate. It was more like I was collecting puzzle pieces, snippets of conversation here or there, odd references in books, bits of tv, and that being told what homosexuality was the final piece that put all the others into context. A lot of things are like that when you’re growing up. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. You just wander around absorbing everything and trying to sort it out on the fly as best you can.
I’m a Christian, and my family is Christian, so we definitely viewed homosexuality in a negative light. But the strange thing is how it seems that Christian reaction to homosexuality has changed over the years. In the beginning we were told that homosexuality is a choice, an idea I accepted without questioning because, hey, I didn’t know anything about it. Sure, sounds good to me. I just rolled with that idea until I ran into opposition in the form of a comic strip of all things. Doonesbury had a strip where people were calling into a radio station. One of the callers talked about the idea that homosexuality is a choice, and basically asked the obvious question: considering the prejudice, ostracization , and social ramifications of being openly homosexual, why would anyone choose that life? I had never thought about that before, and it gave me pause. Why would someone choose to be gay? What would inspire someone to choose their own gender over the opposite?
A year or so later I went to a local film festival with a friend of mine. One of the features was a documentary about…something. You know, I honestly can’t remember. What I do remember is that they interviewed several homosexual individuals and asked them about what it was like growing up. They all claimed that they developed same sex attraction around puberty and that they had no choice about it. That gave me even more pause. Why shouldn’t I believe them? It was their life, after all. I was picking up more pieces, and trying to make them fit together.
As time went on I tried to fit all the pieces I was gathering into a whole. I didn’t believe that homosexuality is genetic, a claim I still find suspicious to this day. But I eventually had to concede that the orientation was involuntary. The evidence kept mounting up, not in the form of any scientific study but in the testimony of those close to the subject. It seems to me that many conservative Christians have followed this same route. We still believe homosexual acts are sinful, but many of us acknowledge that the attraction itself is not a choice. We have to: we know too many homosexuals know, actually know and talk to them instead of hearing about them on TV.
All the pieces I collected came together again when I was reading something online. It was written by someone who very much did not come from my point of view. He was pro LGBT though not homosexual himself, and he wrote about how he didn’t understand what people meant when they said that homosexuality was a choice. He wrote on how he didn’t believe love was ever a choice, as far as attraction was concerned. We fall in love with the people we fall in love with. The only way it made sense to say that homosexuality was a choice, he wrote, was if you meant that choosing to pursue those you fall in love with is a choice. With that sentence things clicked for me once more. You could be homosexual without pursing the completion of those desires. You couldn’t choose the objects of your desire: but you can choose whether to pursue those objects, whether to feed that desire. So homosexuality isn’t a choice, and it is. Like everything in life, it’s complicated.
As a Christian I believe that following some desires is a sin, and will lead to harm towards yourself and others. We may feel the desire to cheat on our wife, commit suicide, sleep around, abandon our children, or pursue wealth and fame at the expense of others. But is homosexuality like that? As a Christian I believe that it is because I put a high value on orthodoxy. Christianity has held that homosexuality is a sin for almost 2,000 years; I won’t put that aside lightly. Still, just as my own thoughts on homosexuality have evolved over time I feel that the views of many American Christians have changed as well. We’re starting to get it now, get that we must separate the person from the act and must understand that some people, for reasons we do not understand and that are outside of their control, are burdened with a particular kind of temptation that they will likely carry for life. This dramatic change in how we understand homosexuality is perhaps best illustrated by Exodus International, an organization that was founded with the purpose of helping homosexuals become straight. They closed their doors a few years ago, stating in a long and detailed final address that they had been wrong about homosexuality, that it is not always and is possibly never possible to change your sexual orientation, and that they wished to apologize for the harm they had done over the years. That’s the kind of statement most would expect out of a liberal branch of Christianity, but Exodus was a conservative organization. We didn’t want to believe that there were people who were “born homosexual” but if we spent any time talking to homosexuals it quickly became impossible to keep that stance. These people didn’t want it. Many of them still don’t. Doesn’t change the fact that they’re stuck with those desires, probably for life.
So, overall, our culture has changed dramatically in our understanding of homosexuality. Young homosexuals are able to actually discuss what they’re going through and to “come out.” Churches are slowly learning how to show homosexuals grace and understanding, especially the ones in their own church bodies who have been terrified to reveal themselves. We’re learning together, growing our understanding and finding new ways to move forward in how we treat homosexuality. So it seems like America is at a very open and understanding point in time when it comes to sexual orientation.
That’s why it can be strange to realize that there is a not insignificant portion of the population who still cannot come out without facing intense societal pressure, often resulting in legal action. Stranger still is that this opposition is just as strong among secular and liberal Americans as it is among conservative and religious Americans. These individuals are almost universally reviled for their desires. The number of these individuals who are willing to come forward and be open about their sexuality can almost be counted on one hand. And if you clicked on the link at the beginning of this post (or read the title) you already know who I’m talking about: pedophiles.
Christians believe that when homosexuals follow their sexual desires and act on them they are committing sin. Many secular individuals think that there is nothing wrong with following such desires, and that the idea that there is anything wrong with it is a kind of bigotry. But almost everyone, everywhere, believes that when a pedophile acts on their sexual desires they are committing an abominable act. Their actions are condemned by both the left and the right. They have no community they can escape to when if their friends and family reject them after coming out. Most pedophiles are afraid to even talk to a therapist about their desires, and for good reason: most states have mandatory reporting laws that require therapists to report any suspected child abuse to the state. Most therapists are not equipped to help a pedophile who wants to control his or her desires, and most pedophiles are rightly afraid that coming out to a therapist may lead to them being put on a watch list or sent to jail. The media depicts pedophiles and monsters, creeps, abominations, and so most young pedophiles begin to think the same things of themselves. How then can they come out to someone? How can they reach out and seek help in controlling their desires? Who can they turn to? Who would understand that they are more than their sexual desires?
Strangely enough it seems that the secular world has to learn the hard and confusing lessons that conservative Christians have had to learn, and are still trying to learn, as homosexuality become more widely accepted. They will have to learn how to love and help the individual while forbidding them from following their sexual desires. Many people accepted homosexuality from the start because they didn’t believe there was anything wrong in homosexual sex. Christians believed that there was something wrong with it, so it took us decades to accept that homosexuality was not a choice, not something that someone could easily control. But everyone accepts that adults sleeping with children is wrong. The secular individual will have to learn the same lesson about pedophiles that the Christians have had to learn about homosexuals: that just because someone desires to do what is wrong doesn’t mean that they are a monster.
Perhaps the Christians will be able to accept pedophiles before the atheists and agnostics can. It doesn’t seem too likely to me now, but I want to hope. Someone needs to open their arms to the pedophile. They have nowhere to turn, and if they can’t get help, if they can’t learn to understand and master and accept the burden of their desires…well, can we be surprised when they eventually give in to them?
Giving up the House to Live in the Shed: One Reason Why I Am not an Atheist
Recently Debilis, who runs the blog Fide Dubitandum (which I have plugged in the past), announced that he was retiring from blogging. His reason for doing so (which you can read here) is perfectly understandable, and I wish him the best of luck going forward.
Though Debilis discussed many insightful and engaging topics on his blog there is one that has really stuck with me. Over the past year or so I’ve found myself reading blogs written by people who are passionately atheist. Some were once religious, and strongly so, and it is those individuals who give me the most pause about my own faith. I have often thought that there are few stronger arguments, at an emotional level, than the statement “I once thought just as you thought, yet here I am now and I know better.” It’s not blogs that are written by people who were once loosely or vaguely religious that bother me, but those written by individuals who held almost the same beliefs as myself, and held them with seemingly as much intelligence and passion. Strangely enough these individuals do not have to make much of an argument for me to find myself affected. I begin to wonder whether I will be where they are now someday. It makes me doubt my own faith more than most arguments. But, of course, they come bearing arguments as well. Arguments that I have answers for, but whose existence makes me wonder “Am I just fabricating justifications for my own faith?”
But when these thoughts and feelings come if I am wise I am reminded of what C. S. Lewis first taught me, before I had reason to doubt, and which Debilis has reminded me of, now in the midst of my doubt. What Debilis has reminded me of most is that atheism (specifically naturalism) raises many good questions but does not have many good answers. Most atheists are content to tear down religion and leave the debris where it lies rather than build anything of substance. Atheists often make very strong points about the problems with my own philosophy, but when I examine their philosophy it is in even worse shape. Atheists rail against the cruelty and immorality in the Old Testament, but when naturalism is examined we see that it claims that cruelty and immorality are relative concepts that have no objective value. In the morning they explain that no good god would require a sacrifice on the cross, and in the afternoon they solemnly teach that “good” is an irrational concept that only corresponds to societal behaviors which have been naturally selected as advantageous for the survival of the species. With one breath they implore us to rise up against the pastors and priests and free our minds, and with the next breath they point out that none of us are actually free to think anything at all. Atheists complain that the house of Christ is misshapen, that the beams are rotted by hypocrisy, that the foundation is built on a primitive superstitious ground, and that the floor plan does not leave enough room for tolerance and understanding. They count the flaws in construction and maintenance and present a list of defects that can be quite compelling. But when I come to visit the house of Atheism I find that it is a rough one room shanty, it’s roof full of the holes of determinism, it’s foundation was hastily constructed in the swamp of naturalism, and that it does not have enough room for any non-relativistic morality, much less tolerance.
Debilis was always ready to listen to atheists criticize religion; but he always demanded that they produce something of substance themselves. He would ask them to put forward their own metaphysic for critique as well. Most were either unwilling or unable. “I do not need to put forward my own home to show that yours in unlivable,” they seemed to say. And yet we find that if our home is unlivable than their’s should have been condemned long ago.
Bury the Suicide at the Crossroads: Why the Medieval Church Was More Enlightened Than They Appeared
I recently discovered the popular podcast Freakonomics. It’s a kind of educational program in the same vein as Radiolab or This American Life where interesting stories and ideas are shared in an entertaining format. One of the first episodes I listened to was called “The Suicide Paradox” and what I heard there inspired a line of thought that spread through my mind until it was filled to the point where I knew I would have to make a post out of it.
The episode dealt, as the name suggests, with suicide, and they used a fascinating hook in order to draw the listener in. They interviewed a professor who had spent much of his life living with and studying an Amazonian tribe. Early on, when he first came to the tribe, he shared with them a story that had affected his life deeply: the story of his stepmother’s suicide. However, when he was finished, he found that the entire tribe was laughing. When he asked them why they were laughing at such a tragic story they replied that it was because she had killed herself. They found the idea of someone killing themselves as ridiculous. Who had ever heard of such a crazy thing? People kill animals and sometimes kill each other, but what kind of clown would try to kill themselves? No one in the tribe had ever committed suicide. To this day none of them have. I was, of course, very interested in discovering why this tribe was in such a favorable position. Unfortunately this opening story was merely a hook; they never came back to give a satisfying answer to that question. However what they did have to say has given me a theory.
You see the episode also featured interviews with experts in suicide, and those experts, among other things, talked about the Werther Effect. The Werther Effect is named after the character in an 18th century popular book who committed suicide after his love became engaged to another. This book supposedly started a rash of copycat suicides, with young men all over Europe offing themselves in a manner similar to the book. The Werther Effect was shown to be a real phenomenon after a series of sociological studies which showed that the suicide rate goes up after a famous suicide occurs. For example, it is estimated that Marylyn Monroe’s suicide may have led to 200 more suicides in the months to come than would normally have occurred. Because of this many media outlets have a policy of not reporting on suicides, or to do their best not to glorify the act if they do report on it.
The podcast ended by discussing Hungary, a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. They interviewed an old Hungarian man who has spent most of his life fighting against suicide, setting up hotlines and doing research and trying to bring the rate of suicides down to a normal level. One thing he mentioned stuck with me: he said that in Hungary suicide is considered a brave act, something courageous even.
All of this led me to think about a subject that used to trouble me about the history of the Christianity. That subject was the treatment of suicides by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. In medieval times suicide was not just frowned upon: suicide was a crime. Medieval suicides typically could not be buried in the church graveyard, or in any other consecrated ground. Sometimes their bodies were flung ignobly into a ditch. Others were decapitated before burial, or their bodies were staked to the ground. On occasion suicides were buried under a crossroad so that they would be symbolically stepped on by all who passed by. These punishments were even harsher then than they would be if instituted today: in a medieval village, where practically everyone knows each other and where weddings and funerals are truly communal events, the lack of a proper funeral and the public shame that would bring would be powerful. Everyone in town would know about the suicide, and everyone would know that it brought shame and disgrace.
When I had first learned of these practices they struck me as very barbaric and cruel. After all the person who commits suicide is typically someone who is in deep depression or sorrow. To take a person who was so troubled and sad that they took their own life and then cast such shame and disgrace on them for doing so seemed uncompassionate, liking kicking them while they’re down.
But while reflecting on the Werther Effect, it occurred to me that the Church did everything in their power to make suicide appear as unattractive as possible. To a medieval peasant suicide was never brave, courageous, or glamorous. Though suicides occurred they were not performed for the public eye. Suicide was an act that was best kept secret. Those who committed suicide typically did what they could to make it look like an accident. There was a kind of social taboo against discussing suicide, and if a great or powerful individual committed suicide it was usually glossed over in historical accounts. It was only with men who were considered evil or disgraced that suicide was stated clearly as the probable reason for their deaths.
All of this is to say that what seemed at first to me to be cruel and unenlightened practices by the church now seems to me to be terribly enlightened. We know now that suicide is a dangerous idea, and that it can spread from community to community. Every suicide that is publicized strengthens the idea that suicide is an acceptable option for those who are desperate. Even worse are the suicides that are romanticized, where those who slay themselves are considered brave or tragic or poetic. It is a proven scientific fact that communities that romanticize suicide have far greater rates of suicide than normal, and almost every movie star or hit musician that kills themselves has the potential to inspire hundreds to follow their example. And they do not have to be famous: in countries such as Micronesia or Hungary, where suicide is epidemic, things have reached the point where almost everyone knows someone who has committed suicide, and because of that suicide has become more and more accepted as a common occurrence. The Amazonian tribesman who finds suicide such a novel and unheard of ideal that it inspires laughter is capable of the same amount of depression, frustration, and despair as the man from Hungary for whom suicide has become a reality of day to day life; and we see that the Hungarian is far more likely to do the deed. Once suicide is considered normal than far more people will take their lives into their own hands and end them.
So what did the Church do in medieval times? They made it clear that suicide was an aberration and a crime against God and man alike. They gave the suicide nothing but shame and disgrace. If their actions seem cruel to us then it is only because we do not understand the danger suicide represents to the entire community. Superstitious peasants in Eastern Europe occasionally staked a corpse to his coffin in order to prevent him from rising from his grave to slay the living: the Catholic Church staked the bodies of suicides to the crossroads for the same reason. They needed to prevent this person from killing others with his action. Today we look on suicide as a very personal decision: but if a despairing person decided to kill themselves with a bomb, while sitting in a public square, we would be less sympathetic of their plight. To the church, and to the modern sociologist, every suicide is a suicide bomber, casting their shrapnel to all who hear of their death. A suicide does not simply take their own lives into their hands, but the lives of those around them. In that light the actions of the Church seem perfectly justified.
We have no solid statistics for the suicide rate during the Middle Ages, as record keeping was not always accurate and most records that were kept have not survived. However Dr. Alexander Murray of Oxford found, from his study of official records from the time, that the recorded suicide rate in Essex in the 13th century was .88 occurrences per 100,000 people (though he admits that this number assumes that all suicides were discovered and recorded and is almost certainly low in that respect). In comparison the suicide rate in the United States today is around 10 per 100,000, and in countries such as Hungary it is more than 20 per 100,000. Even if the medieval record keepers of Essex recorded only 1/5 of all suicides then they would still have less than half of the suicide rate of the US. I do not think it is controversial to claim that the Middle Ages had a lower suicide rate than the modern world. I believe we have the Church to thank for that.
You can’t always tell a book by its cover.
A Defence of Patriotism
There is a topic that I have seen inspire arguments and flamewars on the internet from time to time. Everyone who has spent time in forum or comment threads knows that some topics are sure to cause a fight. Even mentioning religion, or abortion, or politics is very likely to result in a protracted fight, though the topic I’m thinking of is not nearly so volatile: patriotism. If someone expresses their love for their country, or even pride for their state or hometown, they risk starting an internet brushfire. There are some people who consider “patriot” to be a synonym for “bigot,” and who will make a loud argument about the foolishness of having pride for any particular segment of this earth. They will point out that where we are born or raised are purely arbitrary and accidental. How then can we discriminate against other places and other peoples over an accident of birth/
Whenever I encounter someone with this attitude I typically find myself at a loss for words. No adequate response comes easily to mind because it never occurred to me that anyone would fail to understand why a man might love his home. That is strange enough in itself, but to then accuse the man of being irrational or morally deficient simply because he is proud of his home is something that seems beyond belief. Has this person never felt relief at the first sight of home after a long journey? Has he never thought that his furniture and his silverware and his pots and pans were preferable to those in other houses simply because they were his? Has he never traveled far away and been homesick?
Perhaps he has, or perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he would say that none of those things make a difference. He might say that pride and patriotism and rubbish. The world is so big, perhaps, that only a fool or a madman could claim that any part of it was superior to the rest. To that my only reply is that it is a noble sentiment to say that we should love the entire world, true; but it is foolishness to try to create love for places you do not know by destroying your love for the places you know best.
It brings to mind a quote I recently read by G. K. Chesterton. “Bloch, and the old prophets of pacifism by panic, preached that war would become too horrible for patriots to endure. It sounded to me like saying that an instrument of torture was being prepared by my dentist, that would finally cure me of loving my dog.” The context is a little different, but thinking of the quote made me realize why the flat rejection of all forms of patriotism or home-pride is ridiculous. I love the state of Washington, where I was born and raised, similarly to how I love my dog. I love my dog, but I don’t for a second believe that she is the finest and best canine specimen in the entire world. And if you asked me whether I thought Washington was superior to all other 50 states I would say that I couldn’t make such a judgment: after all, I haven’t been to even half of the states. If you asked me if the little valley I grew up in was the greatest valley in all existence I would have to confess my ignorance of all valleys. And if you asked me to choose the greatest and best of all countries in the world I would have to ask you what metric you were using to measure greatness. However none of that changes that fact that I love my country, I love Washington State, and I positively adore the valley I grew up in. Just as I love my dog, even though I am aware that finer examples of the breed exist in droves.
I am reminded of a sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell And Webb Look. The sketch featured a wedding reception where the best man gives his speech. However during the speech he does point out that the bride is most certainly not the most beautiful woman in the world, as her new husband had described, but was instead simply high-average as far as looks are concerned. As people began to boo him he started protesting that it’s the truth, and that the groom isn’t perfect either. The joke was, of course, that the best man was being totally honest and accurate, but that he was missing the point. Yes, the bride was not in fact the most beautiful woman in the world, or the smartest, or the nicest, or the hardest working: but she is still the bride. She is still loved. I love my wife, and I am proud of my wife. I am downright patriotic about my wife! If you want to say that your wife is better than mine then you’re in for a debate! To an untrained eye perhaps my wife is not as beautiful as some: but if you knew her as I do you would know that she is the most beautiful of all. In the same way, the place where I was born may seem ordinary or even ugly to an outsider, but to my own eyes there is no place I love more.
Some will respond by pointing out that our homes are completely arbitrary. It was only by chance that I was born in Washington: why should I be proud of having been born there? I agree that it was a kind of accident, in that I had no hand in it. It was also an accident of chance that led to one particular Labrador becoming my dog. Should I love her less for that? You can even argue that meeting my wife was just as much an accident: if we had gone to different schools or had different friends we never would have met. Yet I still love my wife. It may be an accident of genetics that I was born an American, but I see no reason for that to prevent me from being proud that I am one. I do not begrudge someone born and raised in China for being proud of China: there is much about China that is deserving of pride. There is much about America that is deserving of pride as well, and since I am an American I will gladly take pride in them. We must all play the cards we are dealt, after all.
Finally we must remember that love is not a zero sum game. If I love America it does not mean that I hate Canada. My love for the State of Washington does not negate any love for the city of Washington. My love for my dog does not spell hate for all other dogs. If you wish to remove a man’s patriotism then you wish to remove his love. We cannot make this world a brighter place by snuffing out candles.
Spock’s Creed: Dissecting the Vulcan Ethic
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Star Trek. My father is a bit of a fan and we had some of the old movies lying around as I grew up (not to mention regularly watching Voyager and Deep Space Nine on TV). Because of this I don’t know the first time I watched Wrath of Khan. However I can remember the first time I heard Spock say that famous line:
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. “
In many respects this is an extremely noble and admirable creed. It is noble when it reminds us that our own comforts must sometimes be sacrificed for others. It is noble when it drives a man to give to the poor, help his fellow neighbor, and build up his community. It is perhaps best of all when it inspires someone to risk their very life in order to rescue others: when it sends soldiers running back into the firefight to carry back the wounded, inspires doctors to travel to outbreaks of deadly and contagious diseases in order to help the sick, or even that iconic moment of heroism where Spock sacrifices his life in the warp core in order to save the lives of everyone aboard the Enterprise.
Yet the same idea can also be deadlier than any radiation that Spock received. It can reduce moral obligation to a calculus of needs, and with that calculus those in power can excuse a mountain of evil. The Romans may or may not have enjoyed the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD, where legionaries put every man woman and child they could catch to the sword; but in their minds the Jews were rebels and troublemakers, and the needs of the many (the Roman Empire) outweighed the need of the few (Jerusalem). The hangman at Salem may or may not have enjoyed killing the 20 who were executed for witchcraft; but he and all the judges and magistrates involved knew that the needs of the many in Salem outweighed the needs of a few old men and women. The slave owners of the American South may or may not have enjoyed beating their slaves and denying them education, opportunity, and basic human rights; but the South ran on King Cotton and without the slaves their economy would collapse. The needs of the 10 million free Southerners outweighed the needs of the 4 million slaves. In all of these cases the oppressive, cruel, and destructive actions of those in power are justified by Spock’s creed.
So how can we rescue what is good in Spock’s creed without also accepting its capacity to rationalize great evil? Notice what sets apart the good from the bad in the examples above: when we use Spock’s creed for good we consider ourselves as part of the few, while those who use it to justify evil consider themselves as part of the many. We can see this distinction clearly with another example: let’s say that four men are trapped in a cave in, and they have deduced that there is only enough oxygen for three men to survive until the rescuers can save them. If one of the men chose to kill himself so that the others would live then he would be a hero: but if no man were so willing and three of them ganged up on another and killed him then they would be committing an act of evil. Spock’s creed justifies both scenarios, but one is an act of heroism and the other an act of murder.
So perhaps the creed should be modified to say that the needs of the many outweigh my own needs. But this is also lacking. This is the kind of philosophy that totalitarian states try to indoctrinate their citizens in. I am nothing; the State (or the organization, or the empire, or the family, or any other form of “the many”) is everything. Our modified creed could still be used to justify atrocities on a mass scale. Most of the Nazis directly involved in the holocaust did not enjoy exterminating fellow humans, but they were willing to put any personal objections aside: the needs of the many outweighed their own needs, and they were told that the many would be better off if the Jews did not exist.
The problem appears to be in the phrase “the many.” Let’s make the creed more specific then: the needs of other humans outweigh my own needs. This is better, but still isn’t quite right. Such a creed would have me be a complete slave to the needs of others. It puts a heavy burden of obligation on a man. Everywhere there are people with needs, and it would be impossible to ever fulfill them all. Worse it diminishes the person who follows it. Can it really be true that my own needs are less important than the needs of any other human being?
So let’s modify it again: the needs of others should be treated the same as my own needs.
With this I find something surprising: I started with Spock, but I have ended with Jesus. For he said it better and more concisely: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Dr. Ehrman’s Improbable Objection to the Empty Tomb
I was wandering about the internet, as is my custom, when I suddenly came across an article on the Daily Beast titled “Do We Know if There Was Really An Empty Tomb?” by Bart Ehrman. The article began by listing the many objections apologists have towards the idea that there was no empty tomb. Ehrman even concedes that they are excellent objections. However, despite admitting that all of the alternative explanations for the empty tomb are improbable; he rejects the idea of the empty tomb all the same. Why? Well for one simple reason, as he explains below:
“But simply looking at the matter from a historical point of view, any of these views is more plausible than the claim that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. A resurrection would be a miracle and as such would defy all ‘probability.’ Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a miracle. To say that an event that defies probability is more probable than something that is simply improbable is to fly in the face of anything that involves probability.”
This passage contained so much objective wrongness in its argument that I was driven to internally rant about it for about an hour. And thus this post was born.
To be sure, the idea that a dead body could spontaneously resurrect itself is massively improbable. I agree wholeheartedly that almost any other explanation for a resurrection should be preferred over the idea that a body just happened to bring itself back to life. What is often forgotten is that God resurrecting the body is one of those preferable explanations.
Really there is no point in judging whether or not a miracle is probable until we have settled the question of whether or not God exists. If God does not exist then miracles are the most singularly improbable things imaginable. If God does exist then miracles are just as probable as any other action we can imagine an individual taking. There is a pen lying on the desk next to me. There would be very little point in me asking you “What is the probability that I will pick up that pen in the next five minutes?” The answer is that it depends on whether or not I decide to. If I decide to pick up the pen then it is an almost 100% probability that I will do so (“almost” because I may suffer a freak heart attack, or an earthquake might strike, or some similar improbable event will prevent me from doing so). If I decide to leave it alone then the probability is almost 0% that I’ll pick up the pen (though again, freak incidents could cause me to do so, such as a madman bursting in and forcing me to pick it up at gunpoint). Thus it is with the resurrection of Jesus: if God exists and chose to raise Jesus from the dead then the probability of that resurrection is 100%. If God does not exist, or exists but chose not to resurrect Jesus, then the probability of God raising Jesus from the dead is 0%. The question, naturally, is whether or not God exists, and whether he is the Christian God if he does.
This being the case I am greatly dismayed when I see individuals dismiss any and all historical evidence that seems to indicate that Jesus was resurrected out of hand because they believe that “Any explanation is more probable than a resurrection actually occurring.” This assumes that God does not exist: and how can we determine the probability of the existence of God? Probabilities are only useful for events that occur in patterns or with defined odds. There are no odds on whether God exists, and God is not an event that occurs in patterns. Better to be honest instead and say that “I believe that it is more probable that very improbable things (such as mass hallucinations, for instance) actually occurred then that God might exist and be active in our world.” At this point we can have a real conversation about why you believe God’s existence is so improbable, and why I believe otherwise. But no more of this nonsense of defining miracles as the most improbable thing imaginable and then crowing that you win the fight be default. I might as well define miracles as the most probable thing imaginable and leave it at that: it does as much good for the discussion.
But wait, you might say. Even Christians agree that miracles are something out of the ordinary and unusual. Surely if you asked most educated Christians about whether an event is likely to be a miracle (say, for instance, the image of Jesus appearing on some toast) they are likely to agree that a natural explanation is more likely. This is true, but it misses the point. I believe that it is extremely improbable that a piece of toast emblazoned with Jesus’s image is a miracle not because miracles are by definition improbable but because I think it’s highly improbable that God would decide to put his mark a random piece of burnt bread. Similarly, if I found a piece of toast that looked uncannily like my cousin Haley I would think it improbable that she deliberately messed with the wiring of my toaster and think it far more probable that it was a simple chance occurrence.
When an event occurs that has many possible natural explanations the probability that it was a miracle seems lower, such as my example with toast. Just the other day I was run off the road by a careless driver. I slammed on my brakes, steered out of the way as best I could, and ended by fishtailing out of control until I came to a stop. Somehow, though I had lost all control over the vehicle by the end, I had managed to weave between two signs and come to a stop inches from a steel fence pole. As I got back on the road and continued on my way (the car that caused the incident had sped away without a moment’s hesitation) I thanked God that I was unharmed. I began to wonder: could this have been a miracle? Could God’s hand or an angel’s wings have brought my car to a stop just in time? I considered the possibility. I have no doubt that God is capable of intervening in such a fashion, but I also know that good people get in bad car accidents every day, accidents that God could have prevented. I also know that it is very possible that I avoided danger by purely natural means: my own quick reflexes and pure luck. With that being the case I am very hesitant to ascribe my good fortune as a miracle. It seems possible, but not necessarily probable.
The resurrection is another story altogether. There are not many plausible natural explanations for a crucified man who was stabbed with a spear, proclaimed dead, embalmed, and left in a tomb for three days suddenly showing up and walking around again. If the thing happened at all then it is certainly a far more probable candidate for a miracle than my own traffic incident, and exponentially more probable than Jesus shaped toast. The question then becomes “Did this thing happen?” This is an important question to ask, and I’ll happily discuss it with anyone. Just remember not to dismiss the possibility of miraculous resurrection out of hand due to “probability.”
The Argument From Reason: Something Has to Go
So far we’ve seen that materialism necessitates determinism, and that determinism necessitates that reason is an illusion. Thus, if reason exists as something more than an illusion then determinism is not true: and if determinism is not true then materialism must be false as well. This brings us to the next part of the argument from reason:
3. Reasoning is not an illusion.
I don’t think this is a terribly controversial stance to hold. The evidence for the existence of reason is everywhere. We reason about things, and those reasoning processes seem to match up with external reality. When Einstein reasoned that, against all common sense and the prevailing scientific theories of the time, time was relative he did so through a long process of reasoning. In the years since we’ve made observations that prove that his theory was accurate. If reasoning is an illusion then how does it give us such accurate and often non-intuitive knowledge about reality? C.S. Lewis once remarked that believing that our scientific knowledge is the result of a chain reaction of atoms instead of reasoning is like expecting a jug of milk that is thrown against the floor to produce a spill that creates a working map of London. If reason was merely an illusion then we would expect it to have similar odds of being correct as a flipped coin; yet, in our actual experience we find that people who reason through problems have a far greater ability to predict actual reality than a coin. If you disagree, then I would simply ask you why we would need to waste so much time educating and training scientists when we could have done just as well by asking random questions and flipping a coin to decide the result.
On a more fundamental level reason is something that we directly experience. We reason through things every day, whether it’s trying to figure out the best way get around road construction or simply trying to figure out the culprit was while watching a crime procedural on TV. Reasoning is such an immediate and undeniable observation that it would require some pretty striking evidence for us to believe that it is actually an illusion. It seems presumptive to abandon reason, which we have direct evidence of, in favor of keeping a belief in materialism, whose truth cannot be directly observed.
Finally, we must remember that the only reason we might come to doubt that our reasoning is real is because we have reasoned that if materialism is true then it must be so. The only way to get to the statement “reason is an illusion” is by using reason. But if reasoning is an illusion then it is ridiculous to imagine that our reasoning about materialism is accurate. Arguing that reason isn’t real is to argue against trusting arguments. By destroying reason materialism cuts off the branch that it is sitting on. It is an attempt to make a proof that there are no proofs, which is self-contradictory madness.
Surely any line of reasoning that would lead us to disbelieve in reasoning itself must be abandoned as futile. If reasoning is not real then the materialist has no advantage over the theist. He cannot say “Look, it’s irrational to believe in a god,” as the theist would merely reply “If materialism is true than it’s just as irrational to believe there isn’t one.” Of course the theist needn’t merely say that; for the theist has no trouble believing that reasoning actually exists. The theist believes that the foundation of all reality is not non-rational matter and energy, but rather a supreme rationality, a great mind that has produced all other minds. The theist thus has no trouble believing that abstract reasoning can discover truth; the materialist, on the other hand, must hold that reasoning is merely a convincing illusion.
Thus we come to the end of the first section of the argument from reason. If materialism is true then determinism must be true as well. If determinism is true then reason must be an illusion. Since reason is not an illusion, we know that determinism is not true. If determinism is not true then materialism is false as well. There is at least one thing that exists apart from combinations of matter and energy: the mind.
As for why we should believe that God is the best explanation for the mind, I’ll get to that in my next post.
The Argument From Reason: Inductive Reasoning, Determinism, and You
Let’s begin with a quick lesson on the two primary types of reasoning: deductive and inductive.
Deductive reasoning is about starting with premises and following those premises to a conclusion. As long as the premises are true, and the logic is sound, then the conclusion must be true as well. Perhaps the most well-known example of a deductive proof is as follows:
- All men are mortal.
- Socrates is a man.
- Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
As long as premises 1 and 2 are true then 3 is logically true as well. You might have noticed that I started this series with what amounts to a long deductive proof. What sets deductive reasoning apart from inductive reasoning is that the deductive reasoning gives us conclusions which must necessarily be true, while inductive proofs give us conclusions that are only probably true.
Inductive reasoning works by taking certain facts, which we will here call grounds, and from them reasoning to probable conclusions. To better understand this let’s look at a hypothetical process of inductive reasoning. Let’s say I come home expecting to eat some leftover pad Thai that I put in the fridge last night. When I get to the fridge I find that the pad Thai is gone, and that the little blue Tupperware container it was in is now in the dishwasher. These are my grounds: the pad Thai is gone, the container it was in is in the dishwasher. From those grounds I can reason that something disposed of my pad Thai There are other grounds too: I know that animals don’t put containers away, so it must have been a human. I know that the apartment has been locked all day, so it was probably my wife who got rid of the pad Thai. I know that my wife does not typically throw away food that isn’t spoiled, so I can reason that she probably ate the pad Thai. Different grounds will lead to different conclusions: for example, I know that my wife doesn’t like my pad Thai so it seems unlikely that she would have eaten it. From there I might reason that my wife may have had a friend over and she might have offered them the pad Thai, or perhaps it was another family member. Now it is certainly possible that someone else might have eaten the pad Thai, but reason tells me that that is unlikely. Why? Because I have other grounds as well to consider, such as the fact that burglars don’t typically break into houses for the purpose of stealing leftovers, and probably wouldn’t put the container away if they did. From all this I conclude that a friend or family member ate my pad Thai.
To recap, deductive reasoning starts with base principles and comes to a sure conclusion. Inductive reasoning starts with grounds and ends with probable conclusions. Inductive reasoning cannot tell us what certainly is, but only what is probable (in the example above it is certainly possible that the family cat found a way to open the fridge, dispose of the pad Thai, and knock the container into the dishwasher, but it is very improbable that it did so). Most scientific theories come from acts of inductive reasoning, and we use inductive reasoning often in our everyday lives. This is because the premises of a deductive argument are usually up for debate, and can often only be reached by inductive means. Arguably the only deductive argument that begins with premises that aren’t reached through induction is “I think, therefore I am.” With all that in mind we must recognize the importance of inductive reasoning. Without inductive reasoning there is no science, very little philosophy, no industry, no agriculture, and no civilization as we know it.
This is where we run into a conflict with determinism. The conflict is a matter of questioning how inductive reasoning actually works. Take my example above: I would say that I came to the conclusion I did because it was the conclusion best supported by the grounds. However if determinism is true then that is not the reason I came to my conclusion; rather, I came to my conclusion because a series of cause and effect relationships in my brain were determined to result in the answer “a friend or family member ate my pad Thai.” I did not begin with a collection of evidence and reason my way to the conclusion, but was rather compelled to come to that conclusion by the laws of physics. And this undermines my conclusion. After all, one of the way’s we recognize bad reasoning from good is the extent to which we can explain someone’s conclusions with non-rational means. If a millionaire tells me that reducing taxes for the rich is the most rational thing to do, I will naturally be suspicious of his conclusion: after all, he might simply believe so because he’s rich and not because he reasoned it out properly. If a Senator makes a speech claiming that a certain oil pipeline is the most rational answer to our energy problems an opponent might try to invalidate that argument by pointing out that oil companies contributed large amounts of money towards his election. A commenter on this on blog made a similar argument against myself, essentially stating that my arguments couldn’t be trusted because I was a Christian. Now in all three of these examples the arguments made may still be valid: perhaps it is good fiscal policy to reduce taxes on the rich, or to build an oil pipeline. However if someone’s reasoning can be shown to be entirely based on non-rational causes then we can safely dismiss their conclusions.
Now if determinism is true then ultimately everything is based on non-rational cause and effect relationships. Atoms do not reason: they react, and they react in ways that are entirely predictable with sufficient knowledge. If, when I reason, the result is based not on grounds, conclusion, and logic but rather on the outcome of a complicated physical reaction then I have no reason to trust that my conclusions are accurate. If determinism is true then human reasoning has nothing to do with facts and logic and everything to do with the architecture of our brains.
Back in my series on the moral argument I mentioned a mad scientist who experimented with pills that changed people’s moral perceptions. Let’s return to this madman now. He’s just developed a new pill: this one changes the architecture of a subject’s brain so that a chemical reaction will occur that will cause the subject to believe that the moon is made of cheese. Those who take the pill soon come to believe with certainty that the moon is solid mozzarella. They know this to be true based, they believe, on solid reasoning. If you ask one of them they’ll even explain it to you: the moon is white, mozzarella is white, and if it was made of rocks then it would fall out of the sky. You might shake your head. You know that the moon isn’t made of cheese because cheese comes from milk that is tended to carefully by humans, and where in the world would you get enough milk to make the moon, and who would turn that milk into cheese? You feel certain that the moon is not made of cheese because of these grounds, and many others besides. However the mad scientist’s subjects feel just as certain as you about their own conclusion.
Now why do I bring up this crazy hypothesis? Simply to illustrate this point: if determinism is true then our own reasoning processes are exactly as valid as the test subject’s! Both (according to determinism) are the result of a series of cause and effect physical processes. Neither have anything to do with actual induction. The only difference is that the reasoning of the subject was caused primarily by the mad scientist’s pill, while your own reasoning is caused by your genetic makeup, the architecture of your brain, and ultimately the pattern that your atoms are currently in.
The Argument From Reason: Determinism and Free Will
Now that we’ve gotten the connection between materialism and determinism out of the way we can move on to the next point in the argument from reason:
2. If determinism is true then the process of reasoning is an illusion.
However, looking at it now, I can see that to explain this properly it would be better to split this into three separate points, as follows:
1. If determinism is true then free will is an illusion.
2. Reason requires free will.
3. Therefore, if determinism is true then reason is an illusion.
I’ll cover part 1 of that syllogism today.
As we learned earlier, determinism states that everything exists in a cause-effect relationship in which every effect is necessary given the causes that preceded it. In other words, this world is one big chain reaction, the largest physics equation that ever existed, and there is only one possible outcome to any particular reaction within that chain. What’s important to note here is that we as individuals are a part of this chain reaction. Who we are and what we do are just as much a cause and effect reaction as a billiard ball knocking another ball into a corner pocket. If a physicist had enough information about you and the circumstances around you he could predict your every thought and action. He could tell exactly where you were going to go and what was going to happen to you long before you know yourself: indeed, with enough information the physicist could have known it thousands of years before you were born, or even from the Big Bang itself.
But wait a moment. This seems to go directly against our own experiences. After all, if I go to the dry cleaners I go there because I decided to, and I could theoretically have gone a number of other places. I could have decided to go to the beach instead, or stay home and read a book, or even rob a gun store and go on a shooting spree. Now granted, I’m not going to go on a shooting spree because there are ethical and practical reasons which would make that a very bad idea. Still I feel like I could if I wanted to.
However if determinism is true then the fact is that I couldn’t do any of those things. If I go to the dry cleaners then that was the only thing I could have done. After all I am only a complicated collection of matter and energy (according to the materialist point of view) and matter and energy does not get to make choices. Matter and energy follows the laws of physics exactly. Just as a billiard ball does not get to decide which way it will be knocked by a cue stick so I do not get to decide whether I will go to the dry cleaners or not. I feel like I have free will, but that feeling is actually an illusion.
Strangely enough I’ve encountered many self-described materialists who reject this conclusion. They claim that they do have free will to make their own decisions. Many of them appear to believe this is possible because brains are terribly complicated. However no matter how complicated a brain is it is still made of matter and energy, and matter and energy do not get to decide how they will react to things. All the complexity of the brain could do is obscure this fact from us. While the neurons in my mind are reacting to the impulses the senses provide them it feels as if I’m deciding whether to do one thing or the other. However neuroscientist with a perfect understanding of how the brain works could measure each electrical impulse in my mind, calculate the results, and then know exactly what “decision” I was going to come to. Whatever I decide is an inevitable result of the chain reaction that is occurring in my brain.
If a materialist still doesn’t accept that determinism destroys the concept of free will, all I can suggest is that they do some research. A vast majority of philosophers who believe in materialism do not believe in free will. Dr. Alex Rosenberg wrote in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality that there is “no chance” that free will exists. Simply googling “materialism and free will” or “naturalism and free will” or even “determinism” is bound to give you some helpful links for studying the issue.
So if materialism is true, then determinism is true, and if determinism is true then free will is an illusion. What does this have to do with reason?
We’ll look at that in my next post.