Saturday, 19 July 2008

An atheist who gets it better than we do

Many Christians vastly overrate the importance of the politics of this present world. Don't get me wrong - I believe that bearing witness in the public square is an essential task; Jesus is Lord of all, not just of the holy huddle. Nevertheless, politics does not advance the kingdom of God one iota.

Christopher Hitchens is one of the more famous "new atheists", seeking to promote the argument that belief in God is not only mistaken, but positively dangerous.

Well, I find Hitchen's arguments spectacularly simplistic and inconsistent. All theists are lumped in together, and the worst examples he can trawl from history become reliable guides to the whole lot, no distinctions. The point that Jesus was as fierce, if not more, a critic of false religion as he is is one he never appears to have considered. He also whitewashes the history of the 20th century with its multiple attempts at building socities based upon the principle of the setting aside or utter denial of belief in God. Ridiculously, he lumps the atrocities of communist states, built by their own confession with atheism as a fundamentla principle, into the crimes of the religious, arguing that all totalitarianism is inherently religious and therefore these crimes actually support his argument against belief in God... go figure that one out!

Nevertheless, there is one thing in which Hitchens is dead right:

Hitchens told WND after the debate his purpose is simple.

"I do it because I think the essential argument that underlies all other arguments is the one between belief in the supernatural and repudiation of that," he said. "It cuts across all the left-right, libertarian-statist arguments."

Amen and amen. At heart, the issues of life boil down to one fundamental issue. Is man the ultimate standard, or not? Are we made under authority, or arbitrary accidents who can do as we please? Are values just personal preferences, or are their transcendent truths which are binding on us all? Can we re-engineer society in any way we please, or is there a divine order which, if disregarded, will cause our foundations to crumble? Are human beings masters of their own fate and destiny, or must we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God?

If only Christians would see the issue as clearly as this atheist...

Monday, 7 July 2008

Tom Wright, Paul and Empire

I've begun listening the very helpful "debate" (not so much direct interaction so far, but responding to each other with full length lectures) between John Barclay and Tom Wright on the theme "Paul and Empire".

I've not listened part two yet, but in part one some of Wright's mistakes are shown up very effectively. In fact it's one of the most comprehensive dismantlings I've ever heard in a debate since I listened to Professor Malcolm Stein utterly flummoxed in his debate on theism with Greg Bahnsen (here). Basically, Barclay explains clearly and cogently in his lecture as to why certain lines of argument are insufficient An embarassed and unprepared Tom Wright then steps up, realises what's just happened and makes a few comments about Barclay having given a "neat sidestep" and mutters a bit about "rhetoric", and then proceeds to make precisely the arguments that have just been exposed as insufficient.

I'm looking forward to see what happens in part two. You can get the links to the MP3s for download from here:

Saturday, 5 July 2008

An edifying debate

In the last few days I listened to a debate on the subject of infant baptism between two American Reformed pastors, Dr. James White (Baptist) and Dr. Bill Shisko.

It was edifying, and very useful for clarifying each's position. You can get the MP3s here I believe (I think I paid for them somewhere else but can't remember now):

I thought that Pastor Shisko applied an unworkable hermeneutic in his interpretation. His main argument was that the Old Testament required such-and-such, so that if we don't find this-and-that in the New Testament, then we should assume the infant baptism position by default. I thought that Dr. White's continual pointing out that this hermeneutic is not the one that Reformed believers consistently use in other areas was right on target. Listen to it yourself to see if you agree...

Friday, 4 July 2008

Atheism doesn't work

The goal of those who want to live their life without God is to find some justification for doing so. In general, they put their hopes in science. They hope that they will be able to reduce all of human life and experience ultimately to biology, reduce that biology to chemistry and then reduce that chemistry to physics. In other words, they hope to explain everything as the inevitable outworking of impersonal laws. Nothing transcendent or greater than the universe will be required to explain anything happening in the universe. Well, apart from the tricky question of the origin of the universe itself, for which as I pointed out atheologian Richard Dawkins gave us the amusing but ultimately tragic answer "we're working on that".

Supposing that this reduction could be carried out though, using as yet unfound explanations, what does that leave us with? We've got rid of not only God, but also all ultimately transcendent entities (such as love, hope and meaning) and all real responsibility. Ultimately all supposed human "achievements" become just the pre-determined outworking of physical laws, for which it would be foolish for us to offer praise or criticism - it just happened because the molecules made it happen. I suppose though that the molecules force us to evaluate and offer the praise or criticism too, so maybe it's foolish as well to point out that this is foolish. And so on...

Here's Professor Dawkins tying himself in knots trying to address this point:

Manzari: Dr. Dawkins thank you for your comments. The thing I have appreciated most about your comments is your consistency in the things I've seen you've written. One of the areas that I wanted to ask you about, and the place where I think there is an inconsistency, and I hoped you would clarify, is that in what I've read you seem to take a position of a strong determinist who says that what we see around us is the product of physical laws playing themselves out; but on the other hand it would seem that you would do things like taking credit for writing this book and things like that. But it would seem, and this isn't to be funny, that the consistent position would be that necessarily the authoring of this book, from the initial conditions of the big bang, it was set that this would be the product of what we see today. I would take it that that would be the consistent position but I wanted to know what you thought about that.

Dawkins: The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question. It's not one I discuss in this book, indeed in any other book that I've ever talked about. Now an extreme determinist, as the questioner says, might say that everything we do, everything we think, everything that we write has been determined from the beginning of time in which case the very idea of taking credit for anything doesn't seem to make any sense. Now I don't actually know what I actually think about that, I haven't taken up a position about that, it's not part of my remit to talk about the philosophical issue of determinism. What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don't feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do. We feel like admiring people for what they do. None of us ever actually as a matter of fact says, "Oh well he couldn't help doing it, he was determined by his molecules." Maybe we should… I sometimes… Um… You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won't start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that's what we all ought to... Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is "Oh they were just determined by their molecules." It's stupid to punish them. What we should do is say "This unit has a faulty motherboard which needs to be replaced." I can't bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit, or I might be more charitable and say this individual who has committed murders or child abuse of whatever it is was really abused in his own childhood. And so again I might take a …

Manzari: But do you personally see that as an inconsistency in your views?

Dawkins: I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable. But it has nothing to do with my views on religion it is an entirely separate issue.

Manzari: Thank you.


There we have Professor Dawkins' candid admission that whilst atheistic determinism is a nice idea which in his own head he believes to be true as the explanation for reality ...

... on the other hand, it's impossible to put into practice in the real world. It's an idea, and he believes it and writes and speaks plenty in its favour, but by his own confession it's not an idea that works once you leave your typewriter and actually try to do something.

Consistent atheism doesn't work. That's a bit of a clue to whether or not it's true.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Not afraid to die

The Daily Telegraph's website this morning has published a report on the story of Mike Campbell, a Zimbabwean farmer of South African and before that Dutch descent, who has fought bravely in the courts to have Robert Mugabe's land reform program (in which your land gets seized from you depending on the colour of your skin) declared illegal.

When Mugabe was re-elected in the recent sham election, thugs came to viciously attack Mr. Campbell and his son-in-law, Ben Freeth. Quote:

Mr Campbell has no memory of the assault, but Mr Freeth, 38, described how when the three were dumped tied up on the ground at a militia camp, there were "probably 50 or 60 people all singing Chimurenga songs and kicking us", referring to the war against Ian Smith's regime.

Over and over again, they were told they would be killed. "They seemed to be pretty serious about it," he said. "I was thinking, 'well if they are going to kill me then we all have to die at some stage. I know where I'm going, I'm a child of God and Jesus by His blood has saved me, so I will be with Him today'. So I wasn't actually fearful, the fear was taken out of me, amazingly.

"We just carried on praying though this whole thing. When they didn't kill me in some ways it was quite a relief, I have got three young children and a wife to look after."

The abysmal parody of Christian faith that is purveyed by atheist campaigners is that faith swaps earthly usefulness for fictitious "pie in the sky when you die". The reality is that authentic faith means maximum earthly usefulness, because life can then be lived looking to please our righteous and faithful God, not scrapping and scraping for every temporary and selfish advantage whilst our short lives last, anxious that unless we "look after number one" we'll lose out.

John Piper says something to the effect of, because our eternal risk is gone, we can now take every temporal risk we need to. When ultimate risk is reduced to zero, temporal risks effectively take that value too.