Honor the Lord with Your Amygdala

November 25, 2019 § 11 Comments

The Oatmeal, an online comic by Matthew Inman, published an amusing and illuminating illustrated treatise on the “backfire effect.” This is the natural, and often sinful, cognitive bias that causes some to resist evidence contrary to their beliefs. The amygdala (the emotional core of our brains) goes into defense mode when we’re presented with “facts” we don’t like. The sin (my observation, not The Oatmeal’s) comes in when we reject ideas without utilizing our God-given reason, or when we spiral into an emotional tirade at the presenter.

Oatmeal GWUsing one of the examples in the comic, the suggestion that our beloved George Washington wore false teeth made from the teeth of slaves may illicit such a response. (There is evidence that Washington purchased teeth from slaves for false teeth, but it’s rather slim and inconclusive despite being presented here as “fact.” Or is that just my amygdala talking? You can investigate the sources cited in the comic yourself on that.)

The author says that the backfire effect “makes sense from an evolutionary perspective” and follows that up with an archetypal caveman scenario. But it also makes sense from a Biblical perspective. We are created to hold firmly to personal convictions. To believe. As fallen creatures though, we often let emotions get the best of us and set aside reason when our beliefs are challenged.

Because “we’re all going in the same direction”, the author concludes with the assurance that he’s “not here to tell you what to believe” before telling us what to believe: that it’s okay to stop, listen, and change. I’m not sure if the “change” encouraged is a change in how we respond—now that we know how our brains often handle new and unwanted information—or a change in our worldview when presented with new ideas about the world or ourselves. Both are good and healthy responses, the latter depending of course on the ideas.

In any case, the only reason to believe anything at all is if we are convinced that it’s true. This includes foundational or presuppositional beliefs, like the existence of God, or the tenets of naturalism, that we ultimately must accept or reject on faith.

Matthew Inman is neither shy nor particularly clear about his brand of atheism, but in this video he masks a sad, nihilistic worldview with plenty of jokes—some either profane, throwing shade at religious belief, or profanely throwing shade at religious belief—all while professing faith in “Jibbers Crabst”.

The overall aim of his post about belief seems to be the awareness of what’s going on when we learn new things, and realization that we don’t have to blow up at others who challenge our deeply held beliefs. Atheism and sarcasm aside, that’s an earnest and respectable goal.Screen Shot 2019-11-25 at 9.54.06 AMSometimes the truth hurts. But the truth is meant to ultimately give us joy. The good news of the gospel—that Jesus Christ died to save sinners—begins with the bad news that we all are sinners who need a savior. There’s a classic example of new information that many an amygdala reject (1 John 1:9-10).

We should keep an open mind, even about our deeper convictions. But as G.K. Chesterton tells it, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Otherwise, it could end up like a city sewer, rejecting nothing.”

(The “classroom-friendly version” of The Oatmeal comic is linked above, but there is a “regular version” with some profanity that really isn’t a necessary or funnier way to make the point.)

An Open Bible is a Living and Active One

January 25, 2018 § Leave a comment

Note that the Bible in the photo chosen for this story(1) is in a glass case. In secular academia, Scripture rarely gets opened outside of a display. Even in the church, it’s opened far too seldom.

To a culture largely suffering from Biblical illiteracy, The Des Moines Register reports that a new “bill would add ‘Bible literacy’ class to Iowa public schools”. This would be an elective course that gives “students the opportunity to study the Bible from the perspective of its impact on history and culture,” and not a Bible study designed to preach or proselytize. Even so, the opponents are predicable, including the ACLU and the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, which calls the bill “an extreme piece of legislation.”

Honestly, any Christian should be excited for the possibility that even in an academic course on the Bible and its influence on the world, truth-seeking students might just find themselves among the influenced. We can play by the rules of American Pluralism and still have confidence that God can speak through any opportunity His Word is opened.

The Lord reminded His prophet of this long ago: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is My word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10,11)

1) https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/education/2018/01/18/bill-would-add-bible-literacy-class-iowa-public-schools/1044057001/

The Effects of a House Divided

September 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

“The children of divorced parents have grown up to be adults of no religion,” a new Pew Research Center study(1) says, according to the Washington Post. “People whose parents divorced when they were children are significantly more likely to grow up not to be religious as adults, the study found. Thirty-five percent of the children of divorced parents told pollsters they are now nonreligious, compared with 23 percent of people whose parents were married when they were children.”(2)

divorce

The correlation in this study seems pretty strong. Does it make sense that when an impressionable young person sees something as fundamental and life-shaping as a safe and sound family structure, where he placed his faith, divide, it can lead to the shaking of other foundational structures, like his understanding of God and faith? And maybe in particular faith in the community aspect of church life?

From the Post article: “Everything in a divorce gets divided. Literally everything. Parents’ friends get divided. Relatives get divided. Everyone takes sides… Even religion takes sides. The church gets divided. Dad leaves Mom’s faith, or vice versa. Negotiating those worlds becomes difficult.”

From politics to family to church, Jesus’ words (also famously quoted by Lincoln) seem to have an increasingly wider application: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)

Maybe the lesson for the church is to strive in unity and love as an answer to those soured on it by broken families, if they will come.

1) Cooper, Betsy. “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back” Pew Research Center. PRRI, 22 Sep. 2016. Web. 29 Sep. 2016.
2) Zauzmer, Julie. “How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion” The Washington Post. WaqshingtonPost.com, 27 Sep. 2016. Web. 29 Sep. 2016

Science and Religion Bowing to the Trans-Agenda

August 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

Our culture is clearly trending transgender. But it’s interesting how society seems itchy to remake itself by blurring gender distinctions in other ways, specifically science and religion, to conform to the demands of the transgender revolution.

IN NEUROSCIENCE: “Eminent brain expert Professor Gina Rippon said the pop-psychology theory that the sexes are as different as alien races – Men from Mars and Women from Venus – is a delusion driven by sexist prejudice.” (From this Daily Mail article)

Despite scientific consensus that indicates boys and girls’ brains are different from birth, Professor Rippon argues such studies “are ‘neurotrash’ which simply reflect the bias of researchers.” Rather, boys and girls change their thinking by how they are raised, she says.

It’s certainly fine to challenge scientific consensus, as long as you do so scientifically (this article doesn’t describe her research enough to know if she does), and it’s certainly true that bias plays a part in our conclusions. But she also must challenge our common experience as parents, where we can observe boys and girls interacting with other kids a certain way, or playing a certain way, long before parents have a chance to buy them G.I. Joes or Barbie dolls or otherwise nurture them into a particular gender role. She must also challenge the Word of God, which explains that men and women are distinct and complimentary creatures with equal value but differing roles. We can’t expect a secular movement to regard Scripture, but it’s Scripture that corresponds with what we experience and what we’ve discovered through science, that is, up until the transgender revolution.

IN RELIGION: Here comes the question from a Rabbi, who claims to have figured out what we’ve all mistakenly thought for millennia, happily coinciding with the transgender revolution: Is God transgender? (From The New York Times)

Rabbi Mark Sameth explains that “the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender.” The term YHWH, he says, “was Hebrew for ‘He/She.’ Counter to everything we grew up believing, the God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.”

God refers to Himself as “Father” and refers to the second Person of the Trinity as His Son. However, God is spirit and therefore has no biological sex, and we can’t apply gender to Him the same way either. Scott Eric Alt provides a good response to Rabbi Sameth’s claim at Patheos:

“Not dual-gendered, Rabbi Sameth: non-gendered. God is not both male and female; he is neither male nor female. Pronouns, of course, do have gender—for gender, properly, is a grammatical construct—but it behooves us to not get excited and jiggly and read our agendas into the fact that some pronoun needs to be applied to God. That a pronoun has gender should not lead us to suspect that God has a gender, or multiple genders, or is transgendered, or is gender fluid, or whatever else your agenda compels you to want to say about God. God is transcendent.”

Alt also counters Sameth’s view of certain passages that to Sameth seem to support a transgender view. Alt’s post is a good apologetics resource, so read the whole thing.

IN THE END: Pandering to the transgender revolution means both scientists and religious leaders must abandon sound reasoning and long-held doctrine to do it, resulting in new definitions and a radical understanding of sex and gender (like this one from Slate, claiming that “there’s no such thing as a ‘male body’.”).

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (1 Timothy 4:3,4)

I think we’re there.

Get The Facts Straight: A Response to ‘Religious Constriction’, Part 2

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fact checkThis post is the second of a 2-part critique of the worldview revealed in Charles Blow’s recent New York Times opinion piece, Religious Constriction (June 8, 2014). The first highlighted his detached view of Biblical literalism, a detachment all too common in postmodern culture. This one centers on the latter half of Blow’s article, which reveals a gross misunderstanding of the concept of facts. He writes:

“What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist. Facts such as the idea that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved and some — like dinosaurs — became extinct. Facts like the proven warming of the world. Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise.”

First, Blow reveals that he isn’t sure what a fact is. A scientific fact, the type of fact he lists above, is “any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted.” Do the facts he uses as examples fit this definition? Let’s check.

“Facts such as the idea…” (Hold on. Are ideas facts, or in fact just ideas?) “…that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved…” Blow is making assumptions, not recalling observations, about the past. And widely disputable assumptions at that. He was not there to observe primordial origins of the earth, or evolution, and he cannot test, let alone repeatedly confirm, either. He continues, “and some — like dinosaurs — became extinct.” We can observe the presence of dinosaurs in the fossil record, and their absence in the present day (something we can test and confirm) makes their extinction a fact. Christians do not refute the existence or extinction of dinosaurs, so I’m not sure why Blow included this at all.

More scientific facts from the author: “Facts like the proven warming of the world.” There is plenty of debate about this, but there is little proof of “warming”, assuming this means the earth overall is heating up due to our carelessness. What is proven is that there have been warming trends and there have been cooling trends in earth’s history. What is not proven fact is the idea that we are responsible for an impending natural global disaster. It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere, and the phenomenon he is referring to is known as weather. Lastly, “Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise” is a letdown. The term fact begs for a bit more certainty than a “very real possibility” that global warming “could” cause the oceans to overflow. Remember, we are talking about something that is confirmed through observation and repeated testing. Catastrophic climate change doesn’t fit the bill either.

What folks like Blow and Christians all have is evidence, not scientific facts, about the earth’s ancient history or climate change. We also all have a worldview bias. Everyone interprets the same evidence differently based on their worldview, what they already believe to be true. Everything is filtered through it, including the way we decide what is factual.

While theories like the Big Bang and Darwinian Evolution cannot by definition be scientific fact, Christians can’t truthfully call Creation, Noah’s Flood, or Jesus’ resurrection scientifically factual either, because we did not observe those events and cannot test them in the present scientifically. Christians rely on the account of God in His Word for an explanation of truth.

It’s important to note that there is some difference in the definitions of scientific fact, and fact, something that is based on truth that occurs whether or not we can observe or test it. The criteria for a fact is not as rigorous as that for a scientific fact. Both atheists and devoutly religious theists believe in certain basic presuppositions that we can’t empirically observe or prove, but we are convinced that they are facts, that they correspond with reality.

While personally I don’t think it’s helpful in apologetics to call a Christian’s most deeply held beliefs facts, we can reason that, when we by faith consider them to be factual, i.e. the Bible’s account of origins, they make sense of life, humanity, and the world that we can observe and repeatedly test. If we by faith believe that the Big Bang and Materialistic Evolution are factual, it doesn’t make sense of our reality. Instead we are left with more unanswered questions: Without an eternal God, what was nature’s first cause? Nature? How do the laws of logic and morality derive from undirected natural processes, from nothing but matter and motion? If we are to consider something we think happened in the past as a fact, it ought to at least make sense of the present.

By “some Americans [who] seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist,” Charles Blow means Christians who read the Bible literally, who assume that it means what it actually says. His straw man is the portrayal of Christianity and other religious “fundamentalism” in direct conflict with the facts. Blow desires that “Americans, particularly political leaders, who choose religious piety must also create an intellectual framework in which things of faith that exist without proof can make space for truths for which there is proof.” As we can see, Blow did not and cannot prove what he considers to be truth. Christianity is indeed in conflict with what Blow assumes by faith to be facts, but we are by no means opposed to facts that we can observe and test, that actually fit with our experience of ourselves and the universe.

Misrepresenting someone’s position makes it easier to attack. In his conclusion we see Charles Blow’s classic straw man repeated and wrapped in a kind of patriotic concern for the intellectual progress of our nation: “Religious fundamentalism at the expense of basic scientific facts threatens to obscure America’s beacon of light with a bank of fog.” This is a tired misrepresentation of Christianity but we’ll see it again from secular worldviews. With such a poor understanding of “facts” from Charles Blow and the liberalism of the media elites, it’s clear where the “bank of fog” hangs.

Related post: Literal Confusion: A Response to ‘Religious Constriction’, Part 1

Literal Confusion: A Response to ‘Religious Constriction’, Part 1

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Illustration by John Atkinson

Illustration by John Atkinson, wronghands1.wordpress.com

Author and New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote (Religious Constriction, New York Times, June 8, 2014) that he is “both shocked and fascinated by Americans’ religious literalism.” There are a couple different worldview indicators in his article that are common in liberal circles, so I’m making two posts out of my critique. Part 1 involves Blow’s lament of Biblical literalism. He is alarmed that conservative Christians take the Bible literally, explaining, “It’s not only that Americans are more religious — Christian, in particular — but that for many, their beliefs in their religious text — the Bible, in particular — are literal.”

I wonder what skeptics who are surprised at this literalism would think if we stopped taking what they say literally. I’m guessing Blow intends for his editorial to be taken literally. If we don’t interpret his own words in their usual or most basic sense (what it means to read something literally), we could try to make him say something he didn’t intend to say, or it might not make sense at all.

What does it mean to take the Bible literally? First, we have to identify the literary style we are reading. The Bible is composed of various literary styles, or genres, including historical narrative, poetry, parables, prophecy, and personal letters. (Styles can be categorized various ways, but that’s one way to break them down.) You don’t read a poetic book like the Psalms, i.e. “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy,” (98:8) and take that to mean literal hands emerging from the rivers, or that mountains are producing audible voices. Poetry uses illustrative language to convey a literal meaning, in this case, that creation’s grandeur serves as a proclamation of God’s greatness. The literary genre of a particular work becomes fairly evident when we read it, and that helps inform our understanding of it. We should take the Bible literally where it was intended to be taken literally, and where it is not intended to be taken literally, we shouldn’t either. Regardless of what we read, we take the meaning from it the way it was clearly intended to be taken.

If someone asks you if you take the Bible literally, it’s wise to ask exactly what they mean by “literally.” Do they understand “literal meaning” to denote that words are in strict accordance to their original meaning, in their most basic sense without metaphor or exaggeration? Or is their thinking somewhere else? To take the Bible literally is to consider that there are places where it was not intended to be taken literally, and it’s usually clear where those places are when we are reading it. And reading it—as we should read anything else—considering context, historical background, and information about the language in which it was written.

Blow is worried about the fact that “nearly a third of Americans continue to believe that the Bible ‘is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.'” This shouldn’t be a surprise. I think most people approach a written text with the assumption that it should be taken literally, unless the text itself dictates otherwise—or there is some ulterior motive to read our own views into the text. Where there is this confusion over Biblical literalism, you will often find the fueling desire to change what Scripture says or undermine its authority, even to the point of subverting centuries-old historic understanding of Christian teaching. But the same folks who by default assume the Bible should not be taken literally generally expect their own words to be interpreted literally. Don’t be afraid to call them out on that. Then do more than just point out their inconsistency… preach. Literally.

Part 2 in this critique of Charlie Blow’s op-ed piece is up next: Get The Facts Straight: A Response to ‘Religious Constriction’, Part 2

 

Answering Humanists on Organized Religion and Morality

July 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

This religion debate was held at Cambridge University in early 2013. Arguing for the proposition that religion has no place in the 21st century is Andrew Copson, Richard Dawkins and Arif Ahmed. In opposition is the pro-religion team of Rowan Williams, Tariq Ramadan and Douglas Murray.

The entire debate is over an hour and a half long, but I want to focus on the first 12 or so minutes, on the specific arguments brought forth by Andrew Copson. He is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, an organization representing atheists in the UK. Copson proposes that organized religion does more harm than good, that the good in religion can be had by other means, and offers an alternative explanation for morality. How would you respond to Mr. Copson’s arguments?

To give away the ending of the full debate, the house voted overwhelming against the proposition, most people saying that organized religion does indeed have a place in society. And to clarify the statement, Copson clarifies (2:45) what is meant by “a place in society” (because it seems to have a place, right or wrong, because here it is): “When we say it has no place, we don’t mean that is should be banned, persecuted, wiped out or eliminated, but that the harm it does outweighs the good that it does, and that we’d be better off without it.”

I would hope that if he thinks something harmful, that he would also wish it to at least be banned, wiped out, or eliminated. But back to it.

As a Christian apologist, I would not generally seek to defend organized religion, since organized religion as a whole is a human construct, a context in which we practice what we believe about our ultimate convictions. I also view Atheism and Naturalism as religions too. But much of Copson’s argument against organized religion reflects a rejection of many of the ultimate convictions of orthodox Christianity as explained in the Bible, which I do seek to defend.

How does Copson define organized religion? He explains at the very start of his talk (2:00): “We’re not talking about individual men and women on their personal quest for values and meaning and purpose in life… We’re talking about… clearly defined groups which have in-out memberships… hierarchies—whether clergy or otherwise—and an “institutional existence above and beyond their individual members.”

What Copson may not realize is that this definition fits his own organization. Visit the British Humanist Association web site to read about this clearly defined group and their in-out memberships, hierarchies, and an institutional existence above and beyond their individual members. If Copson, as most atheists do, seeks to separate his own beliefs from religious beliefs, he’ll need to do a better job of that. Let’s see if he does.

Copson then posits, “In a world like this, where do we best get our ethics? It is not from organized religion.” He correctly notes that both religious and non-religious groups do charitable work (5:00). Everyone can do good.

The Christian explanation as to why all people are capable of good is because we are all made in the image of God and innately aware of the moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:14-15). We don’t get morality from any religion; we get it by simply being God’s creation.

His main point follows: “Shared values of altruism and care for others on the common heritage of all human beings, organized religion adds nothing to plain human compassion and empathy. (5:50)… We need fellow feeling with all people rather than just with members of our own in-group.” (6:15) On social morality, Copson says, “Organized religion is not a particular good. Good done in its name is incidental to it… can be secured by other forms of organizations.” The harm it does outweighs the good it does, and it “adds great barriers and divisions that we do not need in our age.” (7:00)

Copson again tries to distance his own philosophy from other religions. He says socially organized religion differs from political ideologies “in that they give a reason over and above and beyond human beings to sanctify their commandments.” (7:20) In other words, religious principals provide an external authority that people are subject to, whereas in political ideologies, the BHA, or whatever principals of Atheism or Humanism he follows, such principals are man-made. But are our ultimate principals man-made?

Copson says he bases his morality “solely on human compassion” (7:40). Is this not “a reason over and above and beyond” human beings? When human beings can’t provide a rational basis for the principal, it is presupposed. He says this view of morality is “harmful” and “out of kilter with our modern needs,” however he appeals to the same external type of moral principals that religions do.

What is morality? Copson defines morality (8:00) as “something that has its foundations in biology, in the social instincts that we can see that we share with the animals that are most closely related to us. Morality is an organized attempt to reinforce those social instincts. It’s generated from human beings ourselves in our interactions with each other, both originally at its source and in an ongoing way.”

This is a typical Humanist attempt at a explaining ethics, but it contradicts how morality is always talked about and lived out. Copson assumes morality’s foundation is in biology, but of course doesn’t and cannot on his own worldview pinpoint it’s ultimate source, since everything about morality reveals it as our discovery, not our convention. It’s merely a faith proposition. He goes on to say that morality is an attempt to organize social instincts (i.e. survival of the species is a good thing) but doesn’t explain the morality behind that assumption (why is survival morally good?).

Here is a true statement (9:00): “Genuinely believing that the source of value is located outside humanity and not within it inevitably dehumanizes human ethics.” Of course it does! Morality is dehumanized if it isn’t of human origin. This is not a bad thing, because human ideas of morality are corrupt and in constant flux. We badly need it to be something other than human.

Atheistic presuppositions show up in Cospon’s remarks about blasphemy being too severe in religious circles (9:15). If he doesn’t believe there is a God, we wouldn’t expect him to find the slandering of Him a problem at all. There is no one there to blaspheme in his mind.

Copson speaks of the harm done by organized religion by citing “attempts to limit abortions by American evangelicals. No one outside an organized religion could possibly deem that activity moral.”

Isn’t it amazing how upside-down a godless philosophy can become? The “attempts to limit” the slaying of innocent children in the womb is labeled “massive human suffering” and does greater harm to the living than to the those who are murdered by the procedure. No one outside of atheism could be so blind as to think we follow our own moral laws, that blasphemy slanders no one, and that unborn human beings are of no real value.

Copson notes that nowadays “people are less automatically deferential to authority,” (10:25) following that up with typical platitudes of freedom and democracy. But the things for which he favors freedom are things like abortion and autonomous moral relativism that leads to such tragedy. “Immediate access to knowledge through social media” is what Copson credits for the advancement of freedom, as if religions (“totalitarian ideologies”) are estranged or opposed to knowledge.

As he begins to sum up his argument around 11:30, Copson suggests that we ought to proceed, without organized religion, toward goals of human welfare, with a “commitment to make our moral decisions in the here and now, based on evidence…” (a commitment he makes without evidence) and “organize our affairs globally, in a way that will increase freedom and fulfillment in the one life we know we have.” If one life is all we have, some of what Copson says would make sense.

The opposition lost the full debate because they were unable to present a convincing argument that religion has no place in society. Andrew Copson lost the debate in the first 12 minutes by demonstrating a basic misunderstanding of morality and that his own belief system is itself an organized religion.

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