Monthly Archives: August 2012

Defining “Atheism”

A comment, though marked as spam, poses an interesting problem nonetheless:

Some of the ambiguity and controversy involved in defining atheism arises from difficulty in reaching a consensus for the definitions of words like deity and god. The plurality of wildly different conceptions of god and deities leads to differing ideas regarding atheism’s applicability. The ancient Romans accused Christians of being atheists for not worshiping the pagan deities. Gradually, this view fell into disfavor as theism came to be understood as encompassing belief in any divinity.

I had always meant to do a post on the difference, as I see it, between atheism and agnosticism.  This seems like as good a time as any.

First, does it matter that there are a plurality of conceptions of God?  And I would have to say, for all practical purposes, the answer is no.  Atheism, as I will show, isn’t a point of view (as supernaturalism is).

Supernatural is outside of nature.  Nature is your context: the container in which you find yourself.  Therefore, that which originates in this universe is natural to us.  However, that which originates outside the universe is supernatural.

Flip it, and that makes us supernatural to God, since we don’t reside on the same plane of existence.

Atheism is making a claim about how things are ordered, regardless of your particular perspective.

But who (or what) is God, then?  True, there have been a plurality of conceptions of God.  Accepting one over another doesn’t make all of those who reject your particular deity atheists.  Infidels, yes.  Atheists, no.

Think of it like this: in an election, I have several candidates to choose from.  The front runners are Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.  Or I can simply abstain and not vote.  The gray area is this: If I vote for Obama, does that mean I think Romney is unfit for the job?

Well, not necessarily.

There’s no meaningful way to vote against Romney without voting for Obama.  So if I want to afford Obama the chance to see his economic plan through but think that Romney would do an adequate job if elected, then I’m not anti-Romney per se.

On the other hand, I may think that Romney and Obama are equally wretched as leaders and statesmen, but vote for Obama because he’s currently more experienced.

Bottom line: a vote for one is not necessarily a vote against the other.

Which is an accurate description of agnosticismAgnostic literally means “without knowledge.”  Agnostics really don’t know whether there is a god, but they remain open to finding out.  While they don’t see adequate evidence for God, they find no reasons to deny the possibility of God’s existence.  They don’t know.

Finally, the burning question: what is atheism?  Atheism is the rejection of all God-belief.  In our election example, these guys are staying home from the ballot because the actively reject both candidates.

It is not simply “lacking belief in God.”  Lacking indicates they could be persuaded with the right evidence.  Nothing sways most atheists.  Read these comments if you don’t believe me.

Atheism is a rejection of the divine, no matter one’s conception of it.  It matters not whether that divine is supernatural (as monotheism posits), or within nature (as paganism posits), or in ourselves waiting to be unleashed (as New Age theology posits).  Atheism rejects it all in one fell swoop.

Tomorrow, atheism and the burden of proof.  That should both be interesting, and infuriating to my atheist readers.  Because, spoiler alert, you guys have a burden of proof!

Why I’m Not Roman Catholic (Redux)

A user at the CARM forums linked to the original version of this post.  While I’m happy for the traffic surge that produced, I disagree with a substantial portion of the post and I only addressed that in the comments.  So I should correct any misconceptions the original post might produce about my theology, since I’ve come to a much different conclusion about Roman Catholicism in recent months of study.

In fact, I flirted with becoming a Catholic again, chronicling my thought process here:

  1. The Temptation to Become Catholic Again
  2. The Centrality of the Church
  3. The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

The temptation centered around a major problem I have with Protestantism: disagreement and in-fighting.  Against classical Reformation theology, I reject sola scriptura and perspicuity of Scripture.  I also embrace a high church concept — though that isn’t against Protestant theology, it flies against sola scriptura and makes waves with the world.

So it was tempting to become Catholic.  It really wouldn’t be that big of a step, I thought.

But it turns out it is, for I can’t get on board with the Marian dogmas, veneration of saints, and universal primacy of the Pope (including papal infallibility).  As I detail in #3 above, the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is largely unsupported and is poorly argued — but is earlier than other dogmas which means it’s one of the best developed.

I’ve found recently in two snippets from the news and the book Justification by Hans Kung that the Roman view of justification is essentially the same as the Reformed view.  I admit that I haven’t read Justification carefully enough, but I’m assured that that is the conclusion of the book.  Man is justified before God solely on the basis of grace through faith, plus nothing.  That is the Reformed view as well as the Catholic view.

However, Catholicism differs from the Reformed view of grace significantly.  Grace is dispensed through the sacraments in Catholicism.  In the Reformed view, it is God’s discretion upon whom grace is given; in other words, it is a free gift and not of works (Eph 2:8-10).  Since grace is unmerited favor, it makes no sense to work for it.  Ever.  God bestows grace upon whom he will (see Rom 9).

Worshiping anyone or anything other than God is idolatry; Scripture makes that clear (see, for example, this post from TurretinFan).  Therefore, I see no justification for the veneration of saints, angels, or the Virgin Mary.

The rubber justification is that latria is paid to God, while dulia is offered to the saints and Mary.  Latria is pure worship, while dulia is more like a deep reverence.  This is a distinction without a difference.  One should err on the side of caution, especially in light of the first commandment’s harsh penalty proscriptions for idolatry.

Consider the severe punishments that God pronounces on the entire nation of Israel for her disobedience and idolatry.  Consider the judgments of the pagan nations in the Promised Land due to their idolatry.  This is something that God takes very seriously.  So should we!

Finally, papal infallibility seems to make Roman Catholicism into a cult. The power of the pope to define doctrine ex cathedra, thus binding all Roman Catholics to that teaching for all time, is too much power to vest in one man.  This sort of behavior is seen in all of your finer cults — the power hungry, unquestioned leader.  What Velma once referred to as “the Papa Smurf figure” in the first Scooby Doo movie.

Let’s be clear.  I do not think Roman Catholicism is a cult.  I know that the Popes have all been very careful and reverent about their use of papal infallibility.  They ask the Cardinals for opinions.  And, since the authority of papal infallibility has been recognized almost 200 years ago, it has only been used twice.

Cults, by contrast, use this unquestionable leader mentality to their advantage.

We don’t see that here.

Also, I have come to respect the Catholic position of natural law and many of the arguments from Sacred Tradition.  Catholicism, I find, is closer to the Bible than 99% of modern Protestantism.  It deserves not the contempt of our brethren, but respect.

And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention excellent Catholic writers like Dave Armstrong (who I was really wrong about — Sorry, Dave!) and Jennifer Fulwiler.  And don’t forget one of my favorite Catholic bloggers (and fellow geek) Jimmy Akin.

I’m not a Protestant out of mere preference, as many are.  I understand the theological issues that divide us.  One day, I pray we are one body as Christ prayed in the garden.  But for now, there are many issues to be settled and I caution those who are Catholic out of preference or Protestant out of preference to study those issues and find out what you really believe.

I think I laughed quicker than the Thinking Theist did when I attempted to read The God Delusion years ago. This argument fails on many levels — the main one being that when one infers an explanation, it is NOT necessary to explain the explanation. We need only defend it as the best explanation.

thinkingtheist315

The ultimate Boeing 747 gambit is the central argument of Richard Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion.” I will be going through the premises he lays out and see if they stand up to scrutiny.

  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

I agree.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.

I agree.

3.The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining…

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The Indictment Among the Rhetoric

Yesterday, I spoke of the Blog for WWGHA totally messing up Christian doctrine.  Mere rabbit trails compared to what the author really wants us to answer for him.

Thomas is asking for a theodicy that makes sense of the events of the last few years:

How can anyone love a “God” who allows hundreds of thousands of people to die in a tsunami, or dozens of people to get shot innocently in a movie theater? What parent would allow you siblings to die while they looked on laughing.

Semantically, Thomas is actually asking for a personal reason Christians can love a God that passively allows tragedy to occur.  But I’m going to interpret him charitably here, assuming Thomas is asking for a theodicy: a logically argued resolution to the problem of evil in a world run by an omnipotent, omniscient God who could end evil but doesn’t.

Infinite wisdom, as the author of the target piece argues, isn’t really all that satisfying.  Neither is the related “mystery” of God.

I’ve never really been that big a fan of the “free will defense,” since the Bible shows God quashing free will.  However, the instances of God upholding free will vastly outnumber the instances of him preventing sin.  So I think that free will, while not the answer, is a component of the bigger picture.

Greater good isn’t all that great by itself.   Strobel’s Case for Faith has a great analogy about a bear trap.  Suppose a bear is caught in a trap and you decide to free it.  You can’t possibly do so without causing the animal more pain than he’s in, and there’s no possible way to explain to the animal that his increased pain will actually lead to total freedom.  And so he’ll lash out at you while you try to free him in a misplaced effort to defend himself.

We lash out at God for people dying in tsunamis and for innocents getting shot in a movie theater.  But what if all this is just part of the ultimate plan designed to free us from this bear trap?  What if the pains we see and the suffering we endure are really leading up to the day when none of this pain and strife will be necessary?  When the metaphorical hunter finally releases our leg and we can scamper pain-free into the woods?

I don’t think it’s the whole picture, but I think that the greater good defense has some merit to it.

This means I see merit to both free will and the greater good.  And I think a synthesis of the two is the answer to all questions related to theodicy.  Which leads me toward something I might call the Education Defense for Evil — it is necessary to have evil in this world to reveal God’s full character (wrath, love, and mercy), bring full glory to God at the culmination of history, and to reveal our own nature.

Evil serves a purpose (greater good) without being God’s purpose (free will).

I confess that while I’ve thought about this for a while now, I have little in the way of previous theodicy by any great thinker to back it up.  The idea needs more development, but it is something I foresee I will be writing and researching more in the future.  This seemed as good a time as any to introduce it, since I could scarcely criticize Thomas from WWGHA in the previous post without actually answering the one conundrum that was worthwhile.

Does WWGHA Even Understand Christianity?

If one is going to criticize the viewpoint of another, then one had best understand the opposing view thoroughly.  As an example, you will note that I do not enter into Creationism/Evolution/ID debates.  I don’t know enough about the three camps to participate intelligently, save for being able to articulate the difference between pure Creationism and ID.

Over at the Blog for WWGHA, in response to this article from a Christian pastor, Thomas opines:

It’s the “infinite wisdom” rationalization. God is too huge and awesome for pipsqueak humans to understand. Never mind that Christians claim to understand God all the time, for example by demanding that homosexuals be discriminated against or even stoned to death, or that foreskins need to be cut off baby’s penises, etc. Christians claim knowledge of all sorts of God’s thoughts, but strangely, the explanation for the atrocities and horrors that we see every day are just too complicated. (source)

It’s simply absurd to suggest that anyone is being inconsistent to say that we know some things about God, but not other things.  It is absolutely possible to say you know a person, but not understand everything that they do.

With God, some of his commands are clear, while others aren’t.  But to suggest I’m inconsistent when I say that we humans aren’t going to understand some things about God while being able to understand other things is asinine.

Second, let’s set two things straight with the Christian (mis)treatment of homosexuals.  We are not “denying” anyone the right to marry.  The very makeup of marriage excludes homosexuals.  It is a divinely ordered institution of a man joining to a woman, and they become one flesh.  Polygamy isn’t specifically prohibited in this fashion, but men can’t marry men and women can’t marry women under this paradigm.

It would be like me saying “My goal is to be the next Pope.”  I’m not a practicing Catholic; therefore I’m excluded from consideration for that office.

Or, if I tried to win a Hispanic scholarship.  I’m white.  I can’t win a scholarship oriented to Hispanic students.  It defies the intent of the scholarship and the rules of those who created it and put up the money.

Marriage is a joining of a man to a woman.  Period.  We can’t deny someone a right that does not exist.

On a personal note to the blog author:  Thomas, please find me a Christian who, in the last 20 years, actually called for a gay man to be stoned to death.  If you can’t, then please withdraw that ridiculous claim.

On the foreskin question, Christians actually were not circumcised.  Christians are exempt from all practices under the Jewish law.  Paul makes it explicit:

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom 2:25-29)

Though there is a clear advantage to circumcision in knowing the oracles of God (Rom 3:2), one shouldn’t seek it:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. (1 Cor 7:17-20)

What if someone does get circumcised despite the warning?  Then:

. . . Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Gal 5:2-6)

Circumcision is not a Christian phenomenon.

Okay, now that we’re done with rabbit trails, is there actually an argument or an indictment here worth answering?

Sort of.  We’ll talk tomorrow.

I love when people make sweeping generalizations like, “… the epistles of Paul … mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.” Richard Dawkins should stick to biology, as my good buddy Eric Chabot points out in this fine post.

THINKAPOLOGETICS.COM

File:Richard dawkins.jpg

Well, hopefully we all know that Richard Dawkins is not an expert in New Testament studies. His speciality is biology. So he stepped way out of his arena when he made these comments about sources for the life of Jesus:

“[T]he gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.” “Nobody knows who the four evangelists were, but they almost certainly never met Jesus personally.”-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006)

At this point, I am not going to spend a ton of time going over the dating of the four Gospels again. There are enough posts/article on this site that cover the topic. See here and here for a couple of places to look at some sources that deal with…

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Hanging on to Faith, But Not Liking It

Rachel Held Evans appears to be toying with the notion of dropping the label of “Christian” altogether as she writes with tortured keystrokes:

I am hanging by the tips of sweaty fingers on this ledge of faith, wondering if letting go will bring freedom or death. I’ve hung on before—through the science wars, the gender wars, the Christmas wars, the culture wars—but I’m just so tired of fighting, so tired of feeling out of place. (source)

What’s the cause of this?

The Chik-fil-A controversy.

Rachel, like most in the liberal Christianity camp, rejects the notion that homosexuality is a sin.  She even says it is a “right” that we conservatives aim to deny:

I too believe marriage is a civil right in this country, and I too get frustrated when Christians appeal to their faith  to withhold this right from their neighbors. (source)

Rachel is clearly agonizing over her fellow Christians with the issue of homosexual marriage.  She not only wants to stop praying, but she thinks it might be better for some to be separated from grace:

Suddenly, my religion is alien to me—small, petty, reactive.  My faith has lost its bearings. I don’t feel like praying anymore, not even for the mom who begged me to pray for her gay son who vowed yesterday never to return to church again.

Can I blame him?  Perhaps it is better if he stays away. (source)

I want to seize just a moment on one statement, which I think is the key to Rachel’s problem: “My faith has lost its bearings.”

Yes, it has.  Now let’s examine why that’s the case.

Nick Peters argues, in part, that homosexuality isn’t part of special revelation (the Bible), but a part of general revelation:

. . . [I]n Leviticus 18 and 20, the verses following the list of sins tells us that it is for committing these sins that other nations are being cast out. Other nations were never punished for not following the dietary restrictions or wearing mixed fabrics. Those were practices that set Israel apart from the other nations as a sign they were in covenant with God. The other nations were commanded by Israel to live moral lives, but they were never commanded to follow Jewish practices. Jews could be condemned for trading with other nations on the Sabbath, but the other nations were not condemned for working on the Sabbath.

Note also that this places homosexuality in the category of general revelation. Other nations were cast out because of doing things that we can say that they should have known better. It would not make sense for God to punish a people when they could not have known that they were doing anything wrong. Since this is in general revelation then, you don’t need the Bible. (source)

So that means if you never pick up a Bible, you should still understand that homosexuality violates the natural order of things  (see Dave Armstrong and Jennifer Fulwiler for more on this “natural order” argument).  If you don’t see a violation of the natural order, then we have a bigger problem.

Why?

In committing any sin, you are essentially suppressing the truth of God through unrighteousness (Rom 1:18).  And acting on such evil inclinations without a second thought is a judgment from God:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Rom 1:26-32)

Rachel gives approval to those who practice homosexuality, campaigning for their right to legally marry.

Well, no wonder her faith has lost its ground!

She has suppressed the natural law through unrighteous support of sin.  Therefore, God is giving her over to these desires — and her faith is slipping because she feels the distance.

There are only two ways to end her cycles of uncertainty.  She can let go of the cliff, and therefore fall into the abyss.  Or, she can recommit to understanding God in his glory, on his terms (even the decrees she doesn’t like), thus hauling herself back onto the safety of the ledge.

Either option will settle her mind, but only one leads to life.  And it’s easier to let go rather than muster the strength to climb back up (Mt 7:13-14).