Yet Another Conference …

Can Christianity stand to the atheists' super powers?I’m off to the Freethought Alliance Conference in Irvine, CA this weekend, so I’ll be a little slow with blog posts for a few days.

This should be an interesting event, with a Who’s Who of atheist speakers—Michael Shermer, Robert Price, Phil Zuckerman, Aron Ra, Richard Carrier, Brian Dunning, Mr. Deity, Dan Barker, Eddie Tabash, and others. I’d like to put copies of my book into the hands of some of these speakers. I’m sure that most won’t read it, but I want to add to my collection of positive reviews and hope that this increases the chance that someone will open doors for the book.

As an aside, has anyone noticed that there are more atheist/freethought conferences lately? I’m fairly new to this game—the first conference that I attended in this category was The Amazing Meeting 2 in 2004. But this could simply be my being more aware of them. Let me know if you sense that conferences have changed in the last decade, either on the freethought side or the Christian side.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Can Christian Scholars Be Objective?

Drawing of black handcuffs on an orange backgroundIn a 2010 book, New Testament scholar Michael Licona said that the zombie apocalypse of Matthew 27:52, where many of the dead came back to life after Jesus died, didn’t literally happen.  To many of us that’s an unsurprising observation, but this caused quite a controversy within the scholarly evangelical community.

According to Christianity Today:

[Norman] Geisler accused Licona of denying the full inerrancy of Scripture.  He also called for Licona to recant his interpretation, labeling it “unorthodox, non-evangelical, and a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism.”

“Recant”?  Is this the Inquisition?  Was Licona, like Galileo, shown the instruments of torture and encouraged to choose the correct path?

To be clear, the only objectionable item in Licona’s entire 700-page book was the reinterpretation of this one incident in Matthew, and yet he was pressured out of his job last month as professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES), and his position as apologetics coordinator for the North American Mission Board was eliminated.  A single question about biblical inerrancy was, for some, intolerable.

We can try to see this from the standpoint of SES.  They have a purpose statement, which says in part that the institution assumes “the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures.”  Licona was likely asked to commit to this statement, and his book could be seen as a breach of this commitment.

These kinds of statements of faith are common, and I found them for Bob Jones University, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and others.  I attended the International Academy of Apologetics this summer (admittedly an odd place for an atheist to be for two weeks, but that’s another story), and their statement of faith, binding on the faculty, said that the Academy “accepts the Holy Scriptures as the revealed and inerrant word of God.”

Let’s grant that a university can dismiss a professor for breaching a contract, even one so odd as this.  What’s rarely discussed is the consequence of these mandatory statements: they mean that Christian scholars at evangelical institutions are unable to be objective.  With their job on the line, their hands are tied.  They can’t always follow the facts where they lead.  The public pillorying of Licona shows the consequences of intellectual honesty.

This incident has opened my eyes.  Whenever I see or hear claims by Christian scholars, I will now wonder if a statement of faith applies.  The next time I read an article by William Lane Craig, for example, I will read it with the caveat that he’s bound by Biola University’s doctrinal statement that says, in part, “The Scriptures … are without error or defect of any kind.”  When he argues that the Bible is accurate, I won’t know if that’s really his honest conclusion or if that’s just his institution talking.

This even affects Norm Geisler, Licona’s chief accuser.  Geisler is a professor at Veritas Evangelical Seminary, whose statement of faith says, “We believe the Bible … is verbally inerrant in the original text.”

How can we take seriously anything said about Christianity by Craig, Geisler, or indeed any scholar who is intellectually constrained in this way?

Photo credit: Vectorportal

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Bobby Ross, Jr. “Interpretation Sparks a Grave Theology Debate,” Christianity Today, November 2011.
  • Jeffrey Jay Lowder, “Christian NT Scholar and Apologist Michael Licona Loses Job After Questioning Matthew 27,” The Secular Outpost blog, 11/8/11.
  • Chris Hallquist, “The Mike Licona kerfluffle, and what it tells us about Evangelicals and inerrancy,” Uncredible Hallq blog, 11/15/11.
  • “Michael R. Licona,” Wikipedia.

Word of the Day: Hoare’s Dictum

C.A.R. Hoare and his wife stand outside Buckingham Palace after he was knighted by the queenSir Charles Hoare was a pioneer in computer science.  He observed:

There are two methods in software design.  One is to make the program so simple, there are obviously no errors.  The other is to make it so complicated, there are no obvious errors.

This applies to logical arguments as well: you can make the argument so simple that there are obviously no errors.  Or you can make it so complicated that there are no obvious errors.

A simple, straightforward argument for God’s existence might be, “Of course God exists.  He’s sitting right over there!”  Many arguments claim to be simple and straightforward—“the Bible is obviously correct” or “God obviously exists” for example—but are mere assertions rather than arguments backed with evidence.

Lots of apologetic arguments fall on the wrong side of this Hoare’s Dictum.  The Transcendental Argument, for example, is often a five-minute dissertation about what grounds logic and whether a mind must exist to hold it.

The Ontological Argument goes like this.  First we define “God” as the greatest possible being that we can imagine.  Two: consider existence only in someone’s mind versus existence in reality—the latter is obviously greater.  Three: since “God” must be the greatest possible being, he must exist in reality.  If he didn’t, he wouldn’t meet his definition as the greatest possible being.

When hit with an argument like this for the first time, you’re left scratching your head, unsure what to conclude.  These arguments are effective not because they’re correct (in fact, they fall apart under examination) but because they’re confusing.

The colloquial version of the argument is:

If you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, then baffle ’em with bullshit.

Photo credit: Microsoft

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Hoare’s Dictum” has been defined in computer science as, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil,” so perhaps this use should be Hoare’s Second Dictum.

Comments on a Robert Price vs. James White Debate

Video for the Robert Price James White debate "Is the Bible True?"I recently listened to a May 7, 2010 debate between Robert Price, “The Bible Geek,” and James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries.

(I wish you could, too, but YouTube reports that the video has been removed.  Dr. White is now charging for it.)

The topic was “Is the Bible True?”  If you don’t know the players, Dr. Price, of whom I’m a big fan, took the negative position.

A couple of points stood out for me. Continue reading

Burden of Proof

Do you believe in unicorns?  I’m guessing not.  But how do you know that unicorns are fiction?  Or leprechauns?  How do you know that aliens from distant planets aren’t on earth, dissecting cows and probing humans?

Of course, we don’t know with certainty.  But that is where the evidence points, which is our best alternative.

Suppose someone makes a claim.  You don’t believe it, but you’re willing to listen to the argument.  There are three possible outcomes at the end of this discussion:

  1. Right.  The other person is right, and you change your mind.
  2. Wrong.  Nope—you’re still right.  You’ve heard nothing new, and this conversation might as well not even have happened for the effect it had on you.
  3. Middle Ground.  You’re not convinced, but you’ve now heard evidence that you can’t simply dismiss.

Let’s consider another area of argumentation, the courtroom.  Legal cases don’t end in ties.  There are only two options—guilty or not guilty.  The law handles option 3, the domain of some evidence but not enough to be compelling, by giving it to the defendant.

Suppose the prosecuting attorney and defense attorney did nothing more constructive than use their time to talk about favorite movies.  The arguments are equally bad.  Does the judge declare a tie?  No—the prosecution didn’t uphold its burden of proof, so the defense wins.

When someone shows you evidence for unicorns (perhaps references to unicorns in historical documents), you might agree that it is evidence but not sufficient evidence to convince you.  The other person didn’t uphold the burden of proof.

On a related issue, if you say, “unicorns exist” and I respond, “No, unicorns don’t exist,” then I have now made a claim that I need to defend.  If I make no such claim, the burden of proof remains yours.

Greg Kokul and his Stand to Reason blog say that it’s a “ploy” for the atheist to put the burden of proof on the Christian who claims that God exists.  The atheist isn’t playing fair.

Nope, “God exists” is a claim.  In fact, the claim that a supernatural being exists and created the universe is about the boldest claim possible.  If you make that claim, you shoulder the burden of proof.  If the evidence you provide isn’t compelling, I’m logically obliged to reject your claim.

Photo credit: stock.xchng

Related posts:

We Have an Admirer!

Well, not really an admirer—more like an antagonist.  But I say that in a good way.

Matt Slick runs the CARM (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) web site.  He interviewed me on his radio show about a dozen times in 2007.  We reconnected recently, and he responded to my Science Answers the Big Questions post.

His reply is here.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to respond to.  Matt seems mostly concerned about sloppy thinking, making sure we put materialistic thinking into the “science” bin and philosophical thinking into the “philosophy” bin, making sure words are used correctly, and so on.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I didn’t find anything interesting enough to respond to.

But let me sharpen one point.  I said that science answers the Big Questions of Life.  It would probably be better to say that what science tells us about reality means that we don’t need religion’s answers.  Science’s natural answers show that looking for a transcendental purpose or an ultimate mind are unnecessary.