Friday, April 18, 2014

Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter

What I wish I had had in my quiver for the conversation with the atheists at the U of O a couple of weeks ago.

Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter

Updated Fri 18 Apr 2014, 11:20am AEST
Atheists should drop their easily dismissed scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity, and instead quiz believers about Old Testament violence and hell, writes John Dickson.
As an intellectual movement, Christianity has a head start on atheism. So it's only natural that believers would find some of the current arguments against God less than satisfying.
In the interests of a more robust debate this Easter, I want to offer my tips for atheists wanting to make a dent in the Faith. I've got some advice on arguments that should be dropped and some admissions about where Christians are vulnerable.

Tip #1. Dip into Christianity's intellectual tradition

This is the 1,984th Easter since 7 April AD 30, the widely accepted date among historians for the crucifixion of Jesus (the 1,981st if you find the arguments for 3 April AD 33 persuasive). Christians have been pondering this stuff for a long time. They've faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith.
My first tip, then, is to gain some awareness of the church's vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that 'intellectual' and 'church' are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents - Pannenberg, Ward, MacIntrye, McGrath, Plantinga, Hart, Volf - popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, "Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!"

Tip #2. Notice how believers use the word 'faith'

One of the things that becomes apparent in serious Christian literature is that no one uses 'faith' in the sense of believing things without reasons. That might be Richard Dawkins' preferred definition - except when he was publicly asked by Oxford's Professor John Lennox whether he had 'faith' in his lovely wife - but it is important to know that in theology 'faith' always means personal trust in the God whose existence one accepts on other grounds. I think God is real for philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons. Only on the basis of my reasoned conviction can I then trust God - have faith in him - in the sense meant in theology.

Tip #3. Appreciate the status of 6-Day Creationism

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus have done a disservice to atheism by talking as though 6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction. But mainstream Christianities for decades have dismissed 6-Day Creationism as a misguided (if well-intentioned) project. Major conservative institutions like Sydney's Moore Theological College, which produces more full time ministers than any college in the country, have taught for years that Genesis 1 was never intended to be read concretely, let alone scientifically. This isn't Christians retreating before the troubling advances of science. From the earliest centuries many of the greats of Judaism (e.g., Philo and Maimonides) and Christianity (e.g., Clement, Ambrose, and Augustine) taught that the 'six days' of Genesis are a literary device, not a marker of time.

Tip #4. Repeat after me: no theologian claims a god-of-the-gaps

One slightly annoying feature of New Atheism is the constant claim that believers invoke God as an explanation of the 'gaps' in our knowledge of the universe: as we fill in the gaps with more science, God disappears. Even as thoughtful a man as Lawrence Kraus, a noted physicist, did this just last month on national radio following new evidence of the earliest moments of the Big Bang.
But the god-of-the-gaps is an invention of atheists. Serious theists have always welcomed explanations of the mechanics of the universe as further indications of the rational order of reality and therefore of the presence of a Mind behind reality. Kraus sounds like a clever mechanic who imagines that just because he can explain how a car works he has done away with the Manufacturer.

Tip #5. "Atheists just go one god more" is a joke, not an argument

I wish I had a dollar for every time an atheist insisted that I am an atheist with respect to Thor, Zeus, Krishna, and so on, and that atheists just go 'one god more'. As every trained philosopher knows, Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods. They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe. The disagreements concern how the deity has revealed itself in the world. Atheism is not just an extension of monotheism any more than celibacy is an extension of monogamy.

Tip #6. Claims that Christianity is social 'poison' backfire

Moving from science and philosophy to sociology, I regard New Atheism's "religion poisons everything" argument as perhaps its greatest faux pas. Not just because it is obviously untrue but because anyone who has entertained the idea and then bumped into an actual Christian community will quickly wonder what other fabrications Hitchens and Dawkins have spun.
I don't just mean that anyone who dips into Christian history will discover that the violence of Christendom is dwarfed by the bloodshed of non-religious and irreligious conflicts. I mean that those who find themselves, or their loved ones, in genuine need in this country are very, very likely to become the beneficiaries of direct and indirect Christian compassion. The faithful account for an inordinate amount of "volunteering hours" in Australia, they give blood at higher-than-normal rates, and 18 of the nation's 25 largest charities are Christian organisations. This doesn't make Christians better than atheists, but it puts the lie to the claim that they're worse.

Tip #7. Concede that Jesus lived, then argue about the details

Nearly 10 years after Richard Dawkins says that "a serious historical case" can be made that Jesus "never lived" (even if he admits that his existence is probable). It is astonishing to me that some atheists haven't caught up with the fact that this was always a nonsense statement. Even the man Dawkins cites at this point, GA Wells (a professor of German language, not a historian), published his own change of mind right about the time The God Delusion came out.
New Atheists should accept the academic reality that the vast majority of specialists in secular universities throughout the world consider it beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus lived, taught, gained a reputation as a healer, was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and was soon heralded by his followers as the resurrected Messiah. Unless sceptics can begin their arguments from this academic baseline, they are the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise - unwilling to accept the scholarly mainstream over their metaphysical commitments.

Tip #8. Persuasion involves three factors

Aristotle was the first to point out that persuasion occurs through three factors: intellectual (logos), psychological (pathos), and social or ethical (ethos). People rarely change their minds merely on account of objective evidence. They usually need to feel the personal relevance and impact of a claim, and they also must feel that the source of the claim - whether a scientist or a priest - is trustworthy.
Christians frequently admit that their convictions developed under the influence of all three elements. When sceptics, however, insist that their unbelief is based solely on 'evidence', they appear one-dimensional and lacking in self-awareness. They would do better to figure out how to incorporate their evidence within the broader context of its personal relevance and credibility. I think this is why Alain de Botton is a far more persuasive atheist (for thoughtful folk) than Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Kraus. It is also why churches attract more enquirers than the local sceptics club.

Tip #9. Ask us about Old Testament violence

I promised to highlight vulnerabilities of the Christian Faith. Here are two.
Most thoughtful Christians find it difficult to reconcile the loving, self-sacrificial presentation of God in the New Testament with the seemingly harsh and violent portrayals of divinity in the Old Testament. I am not endorsing Richard Dawkins' attempts in chapter 7 of The God Delusion. There he mistakenly includes stories that the Old Testament itself holds up as counter examples of true piety. But there is a dissonance between Christ's "love your enemies" and Moses' "slay the wicked".
I am not sure this line of argument has the power to undo Christian convictions entirely. I, for one, feel that the lines of evidence pointing to God's self-disclosure in Christ are so robust that I am able to ponder the inconsistencies in the Old Testament without chucking in the Faith. Still, I reckon this is one line of scrutiny Christians haven't yet fully answered.

Tip #10. Press us on hell and judgment

Questions can also be raised about God's fairness with the world. I don't mean the problem of evil and suffering: philosophers seem to regard that argument as a 'draw'. I am talking about how Christians can, on the one hand, affirm God's costly love in Jesus Christ and, yet, on the other, maintain Christ's equally clear message that those who refuse the Creator will face eternal judgment. If God is so eager for our friendship that he would enter our world, share our humanity, and bear our punishment on the cross, how could he feel it is appropriate to send anyone to endless judgment?
This is a peculiar problem of the Christian gospel. If God were principally holy and righteous, and only occasionally magnanimous in special circumstances, we wouldn't be shocked by final judgment. But it is precisely because Jesus described God as a Father rushing to embrace and kiss the returning 'prodigal' that Christians wonder how to hold this in tension with warnings of hell and judgment.
Again, I'm not giving up on classical Christianity because of this internally generated dilemma, but I admit to feeling squeamish about it, and I secretly hope atheists in my audiences don't think to ask me about it.
I doubt there are any strong scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity. Most of those in current circulation are nowhere near as persuasive as New Atheism imagines. Contemporary sceptics would do well to drop them. Paradoxically, I do think Christianity is vulnerable at precisely the points of its own emphases. Its insistence on love, humility, and non-violence is what makes the Old Testament seem inconsistent. Its claim that God "loves us to death" (literally) creates the dilemma of its teaching about final judgment. Pressing Christians on this inner logic of the cross of Christ will make for a very interesting debate, I am sure. Believers may have decent answers, but at least you'll be touching a truly raw nerve of the Easter Faith.
Dr John Dickson is an author and historian, and a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity. View his full profile here.
First posted Fri 18 Apr 2014, 8:19am AEST

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Greed is Good: a 300-year history of a dangerous idea

Greed Is Good: A 300-Year History of a Dangerous Idea

Not long ago, the pursuit of commercial self-interest was largely reviled. How did we come to accept it?

Among MBA students, few words provoke greater consternation than “greed.” Wonder aloud in a classroom whether some practice might fairly be described as greedy, and students don’t know whether to stick up for the Invisible Hand or seek absolution. Most, by turns, do a little of both.
Such reactions shouldn’t be surprising. Greed has always been the hobgoblin of capitalism, the mischief it makes a canker on the faith of capitalists. These students' troubled consciences are not the result of doubts about the efficacy of free markets, but of the centuries of moral reform that was required to make those markets as free as they are.

We sometimes forget that the pursuit of commercial self-interest was largely reviled until just a few centuries ago. “A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God,” St. Jerome said, expressing the prevailing belief in Christendom about the relative worthiness of a life devoted to trade. The choice to enter business didn’t necessarily deprive one of salvation, but it certainly hazarded his soul. “If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way then drowning,” Iago tells a lovesick Rodrigo. “Make all the money thou canst.”

The problem of money-making was not only that it favored earthly delights over divine obligations. It also enflamed the tendency to prefer our own needs over those of the people around us and, more worrisome still, to recklessly trade their best interests for our own base satisfaction. St. Thomas Aquinas, who ranked greed among the seven deadly sins, warned that trade which aimed at no other purpose than expanding one’s wealth was “justly reprehensible” for “it serves the desire for profit which knows no limit.”

It was not until the mischievous moralist Bernard Mandeville that someone attempted to gloss greed as anything other than a shameful motive. A name now largely lost to history, Mandeville became a foil for 18th-century philosophy when, in 1705, he first proposed his infamous equation: Private vices yield public benefits. It came as part of The Fable of the Bees, an allegorical poem that described a thriving beehive where dark intentions keep the wheels of commerce turning. The outrage Mandeville stoked had less to do with this causal explanation than with the assertion that only by such means could a nation grow wealthy and strong. As he contended (with characteristic bluntness) in the conclusion to the Fable:

T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniences,
Be fam’d in War, yet live in Ease,
Without great Vices, is a vain
EUTOPIA seated in the Brain.

Philosophers lined up to take their shots at Mandeville, whose moral paradox seemed so appalling precisely because it could not be so easily dismissed. The most notable among them was Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, who struggled to distinguish the mainspring of his system from the one Mandeville proposed.

Consider how Smith describes the selfish landowner, of whom he says the “proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified.” Looking out over his fields, in his imagination, he “consumes himself the whole harvest.” The belly, however, is not so obliging. The greedy landlord may engorge himself without making a dent in his crop, and he is “obliged to distribute” the rest in payment to all those who help supply his “economy of greatness.”

This is Smith’s Invisible Hand at work. It is counterintuitive force for good that, on first glance, seems not especially different from Mandeville’s contention that private vices yield public benefits. Smith was sensitive to this fact—Bernard Mandeville did not exactly make for good company—and he struggled to create distance between them.

He did this in two ways. First, Smith emphasized the moral distinction between primary aims and secondary effects. The Fable of the Bees never explicitly claimed that vice was good in itself, merely that it was advantageous—a subtle distinction that created confusion for Mandeville’s readers which the author, a cynic through and through, made little effort to dispel.

Smith, by contrast, made abundantly clear that, as a matter of moral assessment, one should distinguish between the intentions of an actor and the broader effects of his actions. Recall the greedy landlord. Yes, the primary aims of his daily labors—vanity, sway, self-indulgence—are far from admirable. But in spite of this fact, his efforts still have the effect of distributing widely “the necessaries of life” such that, “without intending it, without knowing it,” he, and others like him, “advance the interest of society.” This is another way of saying, for Smith, the moral logic of free markets was a law of unintended consequences. The Invisible Hand gives what a greedy landlord takes.

The second move Smith made was to effectively redefine “Greed.” Mandeville—and for that matter, the Church Fathers before him—spoke in such a way that any self-interested pursuit seemed morally suspect. Smith, for his part, refused to go along. He acknowledged that pursuing our interests often entails getting what we want from other people, but he maintained that not all of these pursuits, morally speaking, were equal. We get what we want in a complex commercial society—indeed, we get to have a complex commercial society—not because we seize things outright, but because we pursue them in a way that acknowledges legal and cultural constraints. That is how we distinguish the merchant from the mugger. Both pursue their own interests, but only one does so in a manner that confers legitimacy on the gains.

Greed, as such, became an acquisitive exercise that fell on the wrong side of this divide. Some of these activities, like the mugger’s, were fairly prohibited, but those of, say, the mean-spirited merchant were checked by censure and disgrace. These forces did not eradicate selfishness, but by the moral distinction they maintained, they helped establish a new ideal of the upstanding businessman.

That ideal was famously embodied by Smith’s friend, Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, Franklin presented himself as the epitome of a new American Dream, a man who emerged from “Poverty & Obscurity” to attain “a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World.” Franklin found nothing to be ashamed of in riches and repute, provided they were turned toward some broader purpose. His success allowed him to retire from the printing business at 42 so that he might spend the balance of his life on initiatives—civic, scientific, philanthropic—that all enhanced the common good.

The example of Franklin, and those like him, gave reason for optimism to those who understood the mixed blessing of free -markets. “Whenever we get a glimpse of the economic man, he is not selfish,” the great English economist Alfred Marshall wrote toward the end of the 19th century. “On the contrary, he is generally hard at work saving capital chiefly for the benefit of others.” By “others,” Marshall principally meant the members of one’s family, but he was also making a larger point about how our “self-interest” can expand and evolve when we have achieved financial security. The “love of money,” he declared, encompasses “an infinite variety of motives,” which “include many of the highest, the most refined, and the most unselfish elements of our nature.”
Then again, they also include lesser elements. Andrew Carnegie might have proclaimed that it was the responsibility of a rich man to act as “agent and trustee for his poorer brethren,” but the steel magnate’s beneficence was backstopped by cheap labor, dangerous working conditions, and swift action to break strikes. Besides, the active redistribution of wealth was something of a side-story (and a subversive one at that) to the moral logic of free markets. The Invisible Hand worked not by appealing to the altruism of exceptionally rich men, but by turning an antisocial instinct like greed into an unwitting civil servant.

Still, by the early 20th century, some believed his services might safely be dismissed. Reflecting on the extraordinary rate of development in Europe and the United States, John Maynard Keynes suggested that “the economic problem” (which he classed as the “struggle for subsistence”) might actually be “solved” by 2030. Then, Keynes said, we might “dare” to assess the “love of money” at its “true value,” which, for those who couldn’t wait, he described as “a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.” In other words, at last, we could afford to shift our attention from the advantages of greed and to disadvantages of greedy people.
Keynes’s views were extreme, but only in expression. Substantively, everyone agreed with him that greed was still a vice and a rather vicious one at that. A. Lawrence Lowell, the President of Harvard University, called “a motive above personal profit” among businessmen a prerequisite for establishing Harvard Business School, while its first dean, Edwin Francis Gay, told a prospective faculty hire that the pedagogy of his institution did not include “teaching young men to be ‘moneymakers.’”

As a lingering distaste for the profit-motive combined with continued economic development, the assumption began to wane that self-interested pursuits were the organizing force of a modern economy. Keynes pointed to this when he extolled the “tendency of big enterprise to socialize itself,” a phenomenon by which enlightened middle-managers—guided by science, reason, and administrative esprit du corps—would at last supplant the animism of the Invisible Hand. If “the corporate system is to survive,” Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means wrote in the conclusion to their seminal study of the modern American corporation, “the ‘control’ of the great corporation should develop into a purely neutral technocracy, balancing a variety of claims by various groups in the community and assigning to each a portion of the income stream on the basis of public policy rather than private cupidity.”

Berle and Means wrote these lines in 1932. In hindsight, they don’t seem exactly prescient. As a matter of economic science, the revolt against managerial capitalism, and the reevaluation of greed, took shape after the Second World War, led by efforts of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter and, later on, the architects of Agency Theory. Against Keynes, Schumpeter presented a new vision of capitalism as “Creative Destruction.” The “relevant problem” for economists, he said, was not how capitalism “administers existing structures” (the purview of the middle-manager) but “how it creates and destroys them,” an anarchic activity undertaken by Schumpeter’s hero, the entrepreneur.
As an icon for capitalism, the pugnacious individualism of the entrepreneur was entirely at odds with the vision of Berle and Means. According to Schumpeter, what drove an economy was headlong innovation, not careful administration. This was the hallmark of entrepreneurial activity, the courageous effort of an inspired mind, not the fruit of corporate collaboration.

An appeal to “private cupidity” was not the only way of eliciting such inspiration, but it was certainly the most obvious. It was also favored by the enthusiasts of Agency Theory, who began filling the ranks of business schools and economics departments in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They eschewed the common cause of managerial capitalism as an endorsement of soft socialism, an inducement to fuzzy thinking, and a recipe for corporate decay. Instead, they portrayed the company as a collection of self-serving individuals whose interests could be aligned with those of shareholders only by appeals to Keynes’s semi-pathological propensity: the love of money. Thus, the rise of stock options, performance pay, and other compensatory strategies that aimed to spark innovation in the executive suite. For the most part, the moral arguments called upon to support these recommendations took a familiar form. Greedy behavior could be tolerated, even encouraged, but only if it eliminated worse offenses: starvation, exposure, idiocy.

But choosing a lesser evil at the expense of a greater one is merely an exercise in good judgment. It does nothing to change the nature of what is chosen, and when a nation no longer fears, first and foremost, the pangs of abject misery, it may be said that greed has largely served its social purpose. An affluent people might fairly turn their attention to the ugly behavior greed encourages and to the social and political perils of extreme inequality. They may have good reason, in short, to restrain the Invisible Hand.

Accordingly, in recent decades, a new line of argument has opened in the moral defense of greed, a change that was augured and embodied above all others by Ayn Rand. Rand understood that, when someone defended greed by an appeal to the common good, he was also conceding that greed could be checked by it. As the moral foundation for free markets, such an argument was entirely unacceptable to Rand, who took aim at it in her 1965 essay What is Capitalism?
“Implicitly, uncritically, and by default, political economy accepted as its axioms the fundamental tenets of collectivism,” she declared in a sweeping indictment of the Invisible Hand tradition. “The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve ‘the common good.’” That may be so, but it is “merely a secondary consequence.” Instead, capitalism is the only economic system in which “the exceptional men” are not “held down by the majority” and in which (as she said elsewhere) the “only good” that humans can do to one another and “the only statement of their proper relationship” are both acknowledged: “Hands off!”
A woman who titled a collection of essays The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand was given to brackish candor. Yet at a time when many people think that the common good is more often imperiled than empowered by unbridled greed, she provides an alternative defense of the acquisitive instinct by appealing to an ethics of gross achievement and a formulation of personal liberty that looks with suspicion and disdain on any talk of civic duty, moral obligation, or even prudential restraint. Her aim was simple: To relieve greed, once and for all, of any moral taint.

“I think greed is healthy,” an apparent acolyte told the graduating class at Berkeley’s business school in 1986. “You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” The speaker was Ivan Boesky, who shortly thereafter would be fined $100 million, and later go to prison, for insider trading. His address was adapted by Oliver Stone as the basis for Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in Wall Street. An exhortation to shareholders of a sagging company, it reads like a corporate raider’s war cry, with Gekko the grinning avatar of Agency Theory.

Such a blunt endorsement of greed today remains far beyond the mainstream. If we tolerate greed, it is because we accept the hard bargain of the Invisible Hand. We believe that greed can do good, not that it is good. That, we are unwilling to say.

But for the most part, I don’t think we don’t say very much about greed, not comfortably at least. Perhaps that is the inevitable price of an economic system that relies on the vigor of self-interested pursuits, that it instills a kind of moral quietism in the face of avarice, for whether out of a desire to appear non-judgmental or for reasons of moral expediency, unless some action verges on the criminal, we hesitate to call it greed, much less evidence of someone greedy. We don’t deny the existence of such individuals, but like Bigfoot, they tend to be more rumored than seen.
Moral revolutions come about in different ways. If we reject some conduct but rarely admit an example, we enjoy the benefit of being high-minded without the burden of moral restraint. We also embolden that behavior, which proceeds with a presumptive blessing. As a matter of public discourse and polite conversation, “Greed” is unlikely to be “Good” anytime soon, but a vice need not become a virtue for the end result to look the same.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

On Re-evangalizing the Neo-Pagans around us

This time will not be the same

J. Budziszewski

od willing, the new evangelization will happen, but let us not imagine that this time will be like the first time. The old evangelization proclaimed the Good News among pagan, pre-Christian peoples to whom it came as something new. Nothing like that had been done before. But nothing like our task has been done before either.

Re-evangelizing is not evangelizing as though for the first time again; the very fact of past proclamation makes re-proclamation different. For we proclaim the Gospel to a neo-pagan, post-Christian people to whom it does not come as new. The old world had not yet felt the caress of grace; our world, once brushed, now flinches from its touch.

Is re-evangelization completely and radically different from evangelization? No. The same Christ knocks at the door of the same human heart, though a heart with a different history. Is it more difficult? In some ways. Easier? In some ways. But different.

Here is one great difference: The pagan made excuses for transgressing the moral law. By contrast, the neo-pagan pretends, when it suits him, that there is no morality, or perhaps that each of us has a morality of his own. Since they had the Law and the Prophets, it comes as no surprise that the Jews took morality for granted. But to a great degree, and despite their sordid transgressions, so did the pagans.

Not that skepticism was unknown among them: “What is truth?” Pilate asked, not waiting for the answer. Yet consider all the pagan errors to which St. Paul alludes in his epistles: Was relativism one of them? No. He could omit it then; he could not have omitted it today.

Related to that first great difference is another. The pagan wanted to be forgiven, but he did not know how to find absolution. To him the Gospel came as a message of release. But the neo-pagan does not want to hear that he needs to be forgiven, and so to him the Gospel comes as a message of guilt.
This inversion seems incredible, because the neo-pagan certainly feels the weight of his sins. But he thinks the way to have peace is not to have the weight lifted but to learn not to take it seriously. Hearing Christ’s promise of forgiveness, he thinks, “All those guilty Christians!” Having chosen to view the freest people as the most burdened, he naturally views the most burdened as the freest. “Everyone has done things he regrets. Everyone lies. Get over it!”

The pagan was raised differently. He was brought up in the ways and the atmosphere of paganism, and in order to be converted, he had to be removed from both. By contrast, though the neo-pagan has probably also been taught pagan ways, he may have been brought up in an atmosphere of Christian sentiment. Consequently, he regards the Gospel not as the story of true God become man but as a sentimental fable for children. Even Christian sentiments are difficult to take seriously apart from the actual life of grace.

Then too, the pagan was likely to be exposed to the Gospel either all at once or not at all. The neo-pagan has been exposed to just enough spores to develop an allergic reaction. Perhaps he was baptized as a child but never seriously taught the faith. Perhaps his parents became angry with the Church and stopped taking him.

The pagan suffered the burden of a pagan childhood, but he was spared the burden of an interrupted Christian childhood. Whereas he had never been immersed in the waters of faith, all too often the neo-pagan has been dipped in them but then pulled out.
Not only was the pagan devoid of nostalgia for a Christian past, he was also unencumbered by the anger of guilt for rejecting it. The neo-pagan is susceptible to both nostalgia and the anger, and he may even feel both at once.

I once met an atheist with a chip on his shoulder who boasted of the “fun” he had “ruining all the Catholic kids” at the Catholic college where he had taught. Yet after a few glasses of wine he said that he was “very religious” and that he had recently joined a church choir from sheer love for the great old hymns. At turns, he was nostalgic for something good he had left behind and belligerent because he had no good reason for having left it.

Because the Gospel was new to him, the pagan needed to learn it from the beginning. The neo-pagan is in a very different position; he needs to unlearn things he has learned about the Gospel that happen to be untrue. We see a trivial symptom of the problem in the great number of people who think a little drummer boy was supposed to have accompanied the shepherds, a notion that makes the Christmas narrative seem most implausible to anyone more than ten years of age.

But nonexistent drummer boys are the least of the problems. The neo-pagan is likely to have entirely mistaken views of what Christians believe about creation, the Fall, and redemption—about God, man, and the relation between God and man.

One thing may seem to be unchanged: Now as then, the nonbeliever hails Caesar, not Christ, as Lord. But whereas the pagan reproached Christians for doubting distinctively ancient illusions, for example the eternal destiny of the Empire of Rome, the neo-pagan is more likely to reproach them for doubting distinctively modern illusions, for example the idea that by technology and social engineering we can devise a world in which nobody needs to be good.

In one way the pagan was less deluded, for he could hardly fail to know that he was an idolater. His idols were visible and tangible. They were carved from physical substances like wood and stone. The neo-pagan is much less likely to know that he is an idolater; if faith concerns things not seen, then in a sense he is more faithful, for his idols are invisible and intangible. They are woven of sensations, wishes, and ideas, like pleasure, success, and the future. Even his magazines have names like Self. Perhaps visible idols were always masks for invisible idols, but in our day the masks have come off.
The pagan world was unfamiliar with Christian ideas. By contrast, the neo-pagan world is brimming with them. The makers of that world have even appropriated some of them—but have emptied them of Christian meaning.

For example, the neo-pagan may have a high view of what he calls faith, hope, and love—virtues undreamt among the pagans—yet he is likely to use the term “faith” for clinging to the illusions of a barren life, “hope” for sheer worldly optimism, and “love” for desire or sentiment without sacrifice or commitment of the will. Another example of such emptying is the way some neo-pagans accept the Christian view that history has meaning and direction, but purge God from the story so that it becomes a bland tale of “progress” toward whatever they want the world to have more of. Pagans believed not in progress but in endlessly repeated recurrence.

Nor must we overlook another profound difference. If the pagan was at all inclined to admit that his nation had ever done wrong, he had no one else to blame. But the neo-pagan can blame his culture’s sins on Christianity. The trial of Galileo, the plunder of the American indigenes, the Spanish Inquisition—they were all the Christians’ fault.

Surely these things were gravely evil, though if neo-pagans were consistent, they would set the thousands killed by Christian inquisitions against the millions killed by atheistic inquisitions. Yet it is easy to see why they don’t. Christian offenses are easier to invoke, because the Church admits them, and they are also more scandalous, just because of the Gospel of love.
In spite of the sins of Christians, one might expect the memory of the influence of the gospel to favor its re-proclamation. After all, the pagan world had never experienced the revivifying effect of grace, but the neo-pagan world has. Consider just the gospel’s high views of conscience and of the dignity of the human person and how these have transformed western culture. Surely all this cannot be overlooked!

No, but the neo-pagan takes for granted all the good that his culture has inherited from Christendom. In his view, certain things simply got better: That is just how history goes, or at least how it went. If he assigns anything the credit, he assigns it not to grace but to such things as science, capitalism, and “enlightenment.”

He expects the stream to keep on flowing without the spring. When it does begin to dry up, he may be vaguely uneasy, but he does not fully grasp what he is seeing. Why doesn’t he? Because his ideas of dry and wet are changing too. It isn’t just that the neo-pagan world around him is losing respect for the sacredness of the conscience and the dignity of the human person; he is a part of that world, and he is losing respect for them too. They seem so unimportant. Why do Christians obsess over them?
Finally, the pagan knew he was not a Christian. By contrast, a certain kind of neo-pagan may think that he is one. This oddity is perhaps the most challenging difference between evangelization and re-evangelization. In the ancient world, the people who needed to be evangelized were outside the walls of the Church; today they include thousands who are inside but who think just like those who are outside. When the Gospel is proclaimed, they complain.

A pew is a difficult mission field. It is hard for the shepherds to bring home the sheep if they think they are already in the fold. But that is a story for another day.

J. Budziszewski is professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. His Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on Law is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, and he blogs at

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Tim Keller on John 1

"We can’t live without absolutes but we can’t live without oppressive absolutes, we need a non-oppressive absolute.
Here it is: a man dying on the cross for your sins. A man of strength becoming week for your sake. A man with life losing his life becoming the ultimate sacrifice.
If you see a man dying for his enemies that can’t make you into an oppressor.
  • I’m saved by grace, that won’t crush me on the inside.
  • If I am saved by grace I don’t deserve it so that can’t make me an oppressor to others.
Haven’t Christians been oppressors in the past? Yes, but only if they didn’t comprehend this.
The early Christians invented orphanages, hospitals, they stopped the infanticide of girls. Now get a love relationship based on grace and go out and continue to change history until he comes again."

Monday, February 10, 2014

I heartily agree with a friend who said one shouldn't introduce discussion of such things into ordinary conversations. I also believe one shouldn't introduce discussions of Greek grammar into sermons. But that doesn't mean that discussions of Greek grammar are not worthwhile. ; )

God gives us all different gifts, and has us employ them with different groups. I thank God for persons of faith like Alvin Plantinga and persons who are still searching like Gary Gutting (and not just because I am an alumna of Notre Dame!)

What Plantinga is doing here is a kind of spiritual battle. The Kingdom doesn't end at the doors of academia. Philosophers like Plantinga are showing some of us one of the ways we can worship God with our minds, and clearing the way for those who find their path into the Kingdom blocked by seemingly strong arguments and intellectual arrogance.

"We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." 2 Cor. 2:5

IsAtheism Irrational?

This is the first in a series of interviews about religion that I will conduct for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Alvin Plantinga, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, a former president of both the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Philosophical Association, and the author, most recently, of “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.”
Gary Gutting: A recent survey by PhilPapers, the online philosophy index, says that 62 percent of philosophers are atheists (with another 11 percent “inclined” to the view). Do you think the philosophical literature provides critiques of theism strong enough to warrant their views? Or do you think philosophers’ atheism is due to factors other than rational analysis?
Alvin Plantinga: If 62 percent of philosophers are atheists, then the proportion of atheists among philosophers is much greater than (indeed, is nearly twice as great as) the proportion of atheists among academics generally. (I take atheism to be the belief that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions.) Do philosophers know something here that these other academics don’t know? What could it be? Philosophers, as opposed to other academics, are often professionally concerned with the theistic arguments — arguments for the existence of God. My guess is that a considerable majority of philosophers, both believers and unbelievers, reject these arguments as unsound.
Still, that’s not nearly sufficient for atheism. In the British newspaper The Independent, the scientist Richard Dawkins was recently asked the following question: “If you died and arrived at the gates of heaven, what would you say to God to justify your lifelong atheism?” His response: “I’d quote Bertrand Russell: ‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’” But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.
In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism. Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.
G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?
A.P.: Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.
I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.
G.G.: But isn’t there also plenty of evidence against theism — above all, the amount of evil in a world allegedly made by an all-good, all-powerful God?
A.P.: The so-called “problem of evil” would presumably be the strongest (and maybe the only) evidence against theism. It does indeed have some strength; it makes sense to think that the probability of theism, given the existence of all the suffering and evil our world contains, is fairly low. But of course there are also arguments for theism. Indeed, there are at least a couple of dozen good theistic arguments. So the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism.
G.G.: But when you say “good theistic arguments,” you don’t mean arguments that are decisive — for example, good enough to convince any rational person who understands them.
A.P.: I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.
Nevertheless, I think there are a large number — maybe a couple of dozen — of pretty good theistic arguments. None is conclusive, but each, or at any rate the whole bunch taken together, is about as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get.
G.G.: Could you give an example of such an argument?
AP: One presently rather popular argument: fine-tuning. Scientists tell us that there are many properties our universe displays such that if they were even slightly different from what they are in fact, life, or at least our kind of life, would not be possible. The universe seems to be fine-tuned for life. For example, if the force of the Big Bang had been different by one part in 10 to the 60th, life of our sort would not have been possible. The same goes for the ratio of the gravitational force to the force driving the expansion of the universe: If it had been even slightly different, our kind of life would not have been possible. In fact the universe seems to be fine-tuned, not just for life, but for intelligent life. This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.
G.G.: But even if this fine-tuning argument (or some similar argument) convinces someone that God exists, doesn’t it fall far short of what at least Christian theism asserts, namely the existence of an all-perfect God? Since the world isn’t perfect, why would we need a perfect being to explain the world or any feature of it?
A.P.: I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.
Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.
I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.
G.G.: O.K., but in any case, isn’t the theist on thin ice in suggesting the need for God as an explanation of the universe? There’s always the possibility that we’ll find a scientific account that explains what we claimed only God could explain. After all, that’s what happened when Darwin developed his theory of evolution. In fact, isn’t a major support for atheism the very fact that we no longer need God to explain the world?
A.P.: Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact (as they say) that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena — lightning and thunder for example. We now have science.
As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy. (And even so, the justified attitude would be agnosticism with respect to the moon, not a-moonism.) The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.
G.G.: So, what are the further grounds for believing in God, the reasons that make atheism unjustified?
A.P.: The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience. Many people of very many different cultures have thought themselves in experiential touch with a being worthy of worship. They believe that there is such a person, but not because of the explanatory prowess of such belief. Or maybe there is something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis. Indeed, if theism is true, then very likely there is something like the sensus divinitatis. So claiming that the only sensible ground for belief in God is the explanatory quality of such belief is substantially equivalent to assuming atheism.
G.G.: If, then, there isn’t evidence to support atheism, why do you think so many philosophers — presumably highly rational people — are atheists?
AP: I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t have any special knowledge here. Still, there are some possible explanations. Thomas Nagel, a terrific philosopher and an unusually perceptive atheist, says he simply doesn’t want there to be any such person as God. And it isn’t hard to see why. For one thing, there would be what some would think was an intolerable invasion of privacy: God would know my every thought long before I thought it. For another, my actions and even my thoughts would be a constant subject of judgment and evaluation.
Basically, these come down to the serious limitation of human autonomy posed by theism. This desire for autonomy can reach very substantial proportions, as with the German philosopher Heidegger, who, according to Richard Rorty, felt guilty for living in a universe he had not himself created. Now there’s a tender conscience! But even a less monumental desire for autonomy can perhaps also motivate atheism.
GG: Especially among today’s atheists, materialism seems to be a primary motive. They think there’s nothing beyond the material entities open to scientific inquiry, so there there’s no place for immaterial beings such as God.
AP: Well, if there are only material entities, then atheism certainly follows. But there is a really serious problem for materialism: It can’t be sensibly believed, at least if, like most materialists, you also believe that humans are the product of evolution.
GG: Why is that?
 AP: I can’t give a complete statement of the argument here — for that see Chapter 10 of “Where the Conflict Really Lies.” But, roughly, here’s why. First, if materialism is true, human beings, naturally enough, are material objects. Now what, from this point of view, would a belief be? My belief that Marcel Proust is more subtle that Louis L’Amour, for example? Presumably this belief would have to be a material structure in my brain, say a collection of neurons that sends electrical impulses to other such structures as well as to nerves and muscles, and receives electrical impulses from other structures.
But in addition to such neurophysiological properties, this structure, if it is a belief, would also have to have a content: It would have, say, to be the belief that Proust is more subtle than L’Amour.
GG: So is your suggestion that a neurophysiological structure can’t be a belief? That a belief has to be somehow immaterial?
AP: That may be, but it’s not my point here. I’m interested in the fact that beliefs cause (or at least partly cause) actions. For example, my belief that there is a beer in the fridge (together with my desire to have a beer) can cause me to heave myself out of my comfortable armchair and lumber over to the fridge.
But here’s the important point: It’s by virtue of its material, neurophysiological properties that a belief causes the action. It’s in virtue of those electrical signals sent via efferent nerves to the relevant muscles, that the belief about the beer in the fridge causes me to go to the fridge. It is not by virtue of the content (there is a beer in the fridge) the belief has.
GG: Why do you say that?
AP: Because if this belief — this structure — had a totally different content (even, say, if it was a belief that there is no beer in the fridge) but had the same neurophysiological properties, it would still have caused that same action of going to the fridge. This means that the content of the belief isn’t a cause of the behavior. As far as causing the behavior goes, the content of the belief doesn’t matter.
GG: That does seem to be a hard conclusion to accept. But won’t evolution get the materialist out of this difficulty? For our species to have survived, presumably many, if not most, of our beliefs must be true — otherwise, we wouldn’t be functional in a dangerous world.
AP: Evolution will have resulted in our having beliefs that are adaptive; that is, beliefs that cause adaptive actions. But as we’ve seen, if materialism is true, the belief does not cause the adaptive action by way of its content: It causes that action by way of its neurophysiological properties. Hence it doesn’t matter what the content of the belief is, and it doesn’t matter whether that content is true or false. All that’s required is that the belief have the right neurophysiological properties. If it’s also true, that’s fine; but if false, that’s equally fine.
Evolution will select for belief-producing processes that produce beliefs with adaptive neurophysiological properties, but not for belief-producing processes that produce true beliefs. Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.
GG: So your claim is that if materialism is true, evolution doesn’t lead to most of our beliefs being true.
AP: Right. In fact, given materialism and evolution, it follows that our belief-producing faculties are not reliable.
Here’s why. If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.
But to believe that is to fall into a total skepticism, which leaves you with no reason to accept any of your beliefs (including your beliefs in materialism and evolution!). The only sensible course is to give up the claim leading to this conclusion: that both materialism and evolution are true. Maybe you can hold one or the other, but not both.
So if you’re an atheist simply because you accept materialism, maintaining your atheism means you have to give up your belief that evolution is true. Another way to put it: The belief that both materialism and evolution are true is self-refuting. It shoots itself in the foot. Therefore it can’t rationally be held.
This interview was conducted by email and edited.

Gary Gutting
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960″ and writes regularly for The Stone.


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

My facebook movie

My facebook movie:

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Superbowl Carol (To the Tune of "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus")

 Come thou long expected bowl game
Come and hear thy people cheer
As they down their chips and pizza
Place their bets and drink their beer.

Our land's strength and consolation,
Hope of Madison Avenue!
Dear desire of our whole nation
Joy to every fan that's true.

By thine yardage and thy touchdowns
Rule in all our hearts alone
Streaming online, watching, tweeting,
'Til we reach the Great End Zone!

(c) 2014 Beth Bilynskyj