Sep 20 2011

Does atheism’s concept of morality have a Biblical basis?

Today, Tom Gilson reviews a couple of books that make the argument that the concept of morality that we have today, which is shared by Christians and non-Christians alike, including atheists, originates from teachings found in the Bible.

If you’ve paid any attention at all to the writings (and speakings) of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, you’re probably aware of their claims that morality has its source—as does everything—in the natural world. Harris’ latest book specifically argues for a naturalistic/scientific basis for morality.  They, and other of the so-called “new atheists” go further and claim that religion—and often Christianity in particular— is actually a source of evil. While many Christians know right off the bat that this is mere foolishness, and believe theologically that morality originates with God, most of us are unequipped to respond intelligently to the atheists’ [often unintelligent] claims. Hopefully these books will help to remedy that.

Gilson writes:

To grant full humanity: what Mangalwadi called the West’s greatest discovery. It was not to be found in Plato or Aristotle, not even in the Stoics. It came from the One who died for all equally, declaring all equally worthy of life, all equally significant, all fully human. Some complain (for example) that Christianity denigrates the status of women, but the charge is both historically and geo-culturally laughable, for it is only Christianity that has brought a real sensitivity to women into world culture. A great many other claims of Christianity’s faults are in the same category. Not all of them, to be sure: both of these authors acknowledge the human error that has always afflicted the Church. Still, as Hart has pointed out, the conscience by which we name those errors is a uniquely Christian conscience.

As we all know, the mere fact that there is a Judeo-Christian moral standard doesn’t mean that all Jews and Christians can live up to it. In fact, as we know, the gospel reveals that we can’t—that’s the point of the gospel. And, of course, neither can the atheists live up to any standard they set, even the broadly-interpreted “Do no harm.” “Harm” is, of course, open to interpretation. From a Christian perspective, any promotion of atheism or naturalism is doing harm in a spiritual sense.

I don’t know that I will run out and buy either of these books soon; my stack of unread books is already too high (including one really poor excuse for a book that I’m supposed to have reviewed already). But, I tend to have a soft spot when it comes to these kinds of topics… Now that I’ve blogged about them, if I find myself wanting to read more on this topic, I at least know where to find them.

Sep 11 2011

David Berlinski: Exposing the Emperor

As some of you may know, one of my many tangential interests is the philosophical tension that exists between science and religion (in general terms).  Over the last few years, there have arisen a loose band of very outspoken quasi-scientists who have taken it upon themselves to rid the world of religion, or at least make anyone holding any kind of religious beliefs appear completely foolish.

In reality, it is a retelling of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Those wanting to be accepted by the quasi-scientific community walk around proudly displaying their “knowledge,” not realizing that they are only exposing their ignorance. The emperor—dressed in his belief in materialism or naturalism and it’s Darwinian mythology—has no clothes.

One of the more interesting figures in this debate is David Berlinski, an agnostic writer, mathematician and philosopher who is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He is also an American in Paris, which is just kind of cool.

Berlinski is one of those guys who makes you feel smarter just listening to him. And, he has a particular knack for exposing the nakedness of the naturalists (an interesting double entendre). Below is a video of an interview with Berlinski, which is worth giving some time to (I watched it in several installments).  In the interview he describes evolution as “an exercise in conditional plausibility” and says that it is “lacking all forms of analytical sufficiency.”

And, interesting for an agnostic, he believes that the universe as we have it is perfectly aligned with what we’d expect from the Old Testament. He does not, however, claim that the universe is proof that there is a God; it is just consistent with the existence of such a being.  Like I said, he’s an interesting individual.

And, sorry about the formatting—the video is a touch oversized for the column width.

Thanks to Poweline for the video.

Sep 8 2011

Einstein and God: It doesn’t take a genius

EinsteinOver the past few years I repeatedly run into to arguments between Theists and atheists over Einstein’s belief in God, as if it makes any difference to anyone but him. The atheist view is that Einstein’s use of the label “God” (as in “God does not play dice with the universe.”) simply referred to whatever mechanism originated the universe and/or holds it together.  A quote often cited is, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings” (in response to Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein’s question about Einstein’s beliefs).

Einstein actually said a number of things about God, some of which seem to conflict others. It’s not that surprising, as we all have thoughts about things—even about God—that change over time.

A couple of things are pretty certain: He was never a Christian (he was Jewish by birth), and he was not an atheist. At times he referred to himself as agnostic, meaning that he didn’t claim to know. He did, however, at least believe at one point that there was an intelligence behind the universe:

I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist.

We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written these books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

– Albert Einstein (Time Magazine Interview, cited in Einstein and Religion,
Max Jammer [Princeton: 1999] p. 48.)

Personally, I don’t think it takes a genius to come to this conclusion. Without God revealing himself in more specific ways (Heb. 1:1-2), this is about all we can know. But, as the writer of Hebrews states, we do have more specific revelation (thank God). It doesn’t take a genius to recognize this—but it does take wisdom (He who has ears to hear, let him hear).

(Thanks to The Poached Egg for this quote)

Sep 5 2011

The Slavery Issue: Did Paul support slavery?

Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.  For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.  (1 Cor. 7:20-24 NIV)

While I have never met a Christian who taught or believed (to my knowledge, anyway) that the Bible supported slavery, this is a common point of contention for many anti-Christian folks who claim that Christianity is an evil religion for supporting slavery.

Certainly there are those Christians in the past who used this passage to justify slavery, such as in the American South. This is, of course, unfortunate, to say the least—especially since this seems to be based on a mistranslation of the Greek, combined with another of Augustine’s heresies.

I recently read a paper by S. Scott Bartchy of the UCLA Dept. of History that builds a pretty good case for the position that the Greek word translated as “situation” or “condition” had no such meaning until Martin Luther mistranslated it into German. According to Bartchy and others he mentions, the word’s only meaning is “calling,” in the context of being called by God.  Bartchy claims that Luther’s mistranslation was intentional, to defend against a popular notion that God’s call meant a call to become a monk or priest (which is how Luther ended up a monk—he was studying to e a lawyer). Luther wanted to reinforce that we can be called to serve in whatever our current occupation happens to be.

While the context certainly seems consistent with Luther’s alleged mistranslation, Paul clearly encourages slaves to become free if given the opportunity, consistent with “owe no many anything.” Bartchy believes that rather than supporting slavery, Paul is making the point that you don’t have to become anything else in order to accept God’s call. You don’t have to become free, although it’s a good thing if you can obtain your freedom in a non-rebellious manner. You can be a good Christian slave (consider the impact Joseph had in Egypt); so accept God’s call, even though your circumstances aren’t ideal:

24. To be sure, Paul along with almost all of his contemporaries apparently did not imagine that slavery as such could be eliminated from his world. Nevertheless, Paul did not want any enslaved persons who had become Christ-followers to think that their legal-social status could influence negatively their relationship to God or their warm welcome into the “body of Christ.” The key question was: who did they think they were? It is a question of their primary identity. For Paul, being “in Christ” trumps all other definers.

Bartchy also points out that while Paul didn’t support slavery, Augustine did:

26. Augustine explained that God instituted slavery as punishment for the offense of Adam‟s original sin. In sharp contrast, Paul never connected this institution either with the will of God as punishment for sin…or with the orders of creation.

Augustine’s thoughts on slavery are, again, unfortunate, as are the consequences of Luther’s translation error, especially since so few people think for themselves—including, it seems, Bible translators.

Of course, I am not an expert in NT Greek, and I haven’t researched this issue. Bartchy could be stark, raving mad, for all I know.  If he’s correct, that at least removes one more excuse for people to write off Christianity.