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Gilson, Tom, and Carson Weitnauer, editors. True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8254-4338-1.
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- General Comments and Recommendation
- Specific Comments: Remarks On All Chapters
- Foreword, by John Stonestreet (start page 11)
- One: The Party of Reason?, by Tom Gilson (start page 15)
- Two: The Irony of Atheism, by Carson Weitnauer (start page 25)
- Three: Dawkins’s Delusion, by William Lane Craig (start page 37)
- Four: Richard Dawkins’s Illusions, by Chuck Edwards (start page 42)
- Five: Unreason at the Head of Project Reason, by Tom Gilson (start page 60)
- Six: John Loftus and the Insider-Outsider Test for Faith, by David Marshall (start page 75)
- Seven: Atheism and the Argument from Reason, by Lenny Esposito (start page 97)
- Eight: The Explanatory Emptiness of Naturalism, by David Wood (start page 108)
- Nine: Reason in a Christian Context, by Peter Grice (start page 121)
- Ten: The Marriage of Faith and Reason, by David Marshall (start page 137)
- Eleven: Faith and Reason in Historical Perspective, by David Marshall and Timothy McGrew (start page 148)
- Twelve: A Sun to See By—Christianity, Meaning, and Morality, by Samuel J. Youngs (start page 166)
- Thirteen: Are Science and Christianity at Odds?, by Sean McDowell (start page 190)
- Fourteen: God and Science Do Mix, by Tom Gilson (start page 201)
- Fifteen: The Problem of Evil and Reasonable Christian Responses, by John M. DePoe (start page 206)
- Sixteen: Historical Evidences for the Gospels, by Randall Hardman (start page 225)
- Seventeen: Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?, by Matthew Flannagan (start page 255)
- Eighteen: Christianity and Slavery, by Glenn Sunshine (start page 287)
- End of Review
General Comments and Recommendation
Associated with such high-profile names in Christian apologetics as the Christian Apologetics Alliance and Ratio Christi, True Reason originated as an e-book response to the New Atheists’ 24 March 2012 Reason Rally and is now reissued (with modifications) as a Kregel print edition. The text endeavors to show that naturalism/atheism in general, and the New Atheism in particular, are not nearly so reasonable as proponents claim, whereas theism in general, and Christianity in particular, are far more reasonable than New Atheist propagandists would have you believe.
The book comprises essays editor Tom Gilson divides into four categories: “ Atheism and reason,  Christianity and reason,  reasonable responses, and  Christianity’s reasonability.” Category 1 comprises chapters 1 through 8. These essays seek to demonstrate how the New Atheism (as represented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and John Loftus) and naturalism break down under rational analysis. Contributors to category 1 include Gilson himself, Gilson’s co-editor Carson Weitnauer, William Lane Craig, Chuck Edwards, David Marshall, Lenny Esposito, and David Wood. One thing learned from these chapters (which I would probably rate the best in the volume, or at least the most appealing to my philosophical temperament) is why Christian apologists love the New Atheists: they make an easy target. Whereas one often has to construct a misleadingly weak “straw man” to make an opponent look silly and irrational, the New Atheism presents Christian apologists with a viewpoint too weak to require or permit a still weaker straw man. Here, the straw man presented is no fallacy or Christian bias; it is the unbelievers’ real viewpoint. Though naturalism in general has been taken quite seriously by persons other than the New Atheists, it too proves upon analysis not to merit the assent of anyone professing rationality. I do admit to not being entirely satisfied with David Marshall’s contribution to this category, since its effort to show wide agreement in non-Christian religions with Christian truths is phrased in such a way as to risk suggesting that Christianity is less exclusively “the true faith” than it is, or suggesting that false religions are not the culpable efforts to evade the whole (Christian) truth that Scripture seems (notable in Romans 1) to say they are. My difficulty with Marshall’s piece is more rhetorical than substantive, though of course bad rhetoric can lead to substantive errors if left uncorrected.
Category 2, comprising chapters 9-14, seeks to show the compatibility of Christianity with reason and science. Contributors include Peter Grice, David Marshall (again), Timothy McGrew, Samuel J. Youngs, Sean McDowell, and (once more) Tom Gilson. Though I might have enjoyed these chapters slightly less than those in category 1, they are generally well argued and persuasive and will reward studious readers. Youngs’ chapter, “A Sun To See By—Christianity, Meaning, and Morality” is especially good.
Category 3, spanning chapters 15-16, offers a “solution” to the “problem of evil” (chapter 15, by John M. DePoe) and makes a case for the reliability of the Synoptic gospels (chapter 16, by Randall Hardman). The first of these chapters relies in part on a version of the popular “free will” explanation of evil, expressing that explanation in a way I am not sure comports with Scripture’s depiction of God’s comprehensive sovereignty (that explanation requiring, for example, that human free will be the sole “ultimate” cause of human choices/actions). The second of these provides useful and interesting information, to be sure, but does not please me in all respects. In particular, the authors’ opening remarks suggest a weak concept of biblical authority that does not sit well with me; they also show an evident bias against persons whose concept of biblical authority is not so “moderate” as Hardman’s. As I’ve said, however, the rest of the material in the chapter is interesting and useful, so the chapter is still worth reading.
Category 4 suggests in its first chapter (chapter 17, by Matthew Flannagan) that harmonizing Joshua with the book of Judges requires reading the apparently “genocidal” passages of Joshua as hyperbolic and figurative (whereas Judges should be read more literally), which in turn favors similarly reinterpreting the apparently “genocidal” commands of Deuteronomy (while taking Exodus more literally). The chapter also suggests that similar (though uninspired) war accounts by other (pagan) nations of the Ancient Near East (ANE) favor the non-literal understanding of the “genocidal” passages. In the category’s second and final chapter (chapter 18, by Glenn Sunshine), the accusation that Scripture “supports slavery” is shown in error in terms both of the biblical materials and Christian history. The second of these chapters is excellent; the first is interesting and probably plausible, but did leave me a bit uncomfortable.
Since my primary goal as a Christian believer is to obey Scripture’s directive to bring every thought, including my apologetical reflections, into obedience to Christ (and so to the full counsel of God set forth in authoritative, inerrant, sufficient, perspicuous Scripture), I focus much of my study and reflection on works by those in the presuppositional traditions of Cornelius Van Til and Gordon H. Clark. (This isn’t to say I’ve yet studied either tradition enough to be satisfied with my understanding of it.) A special value of True Reason to persons in my position (whose preferences may have, for example, resulted in their not having read a great deal by one writer cited repeatedly in the book, C. S. Lewis) may be as an up-to-date survey of prevalent attitudes and core arguments in the Christian apologetical mainstream, where classical apologetics (building up from the generic theism of natural theology) and evidential/historical arguments (such as the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection) reign, but where arguments of a more presuppositionalist flavor (albeit not of the “pure” Van Tilian or even Clarkian sort) are also found.
Admittedly, as “pure” presuppositionalists (Van Tilian especially) have observed, among those who “come to faith” upon such grounds as natural theology and historical evidences there is a tendency to never submit quite entirely to Scripture’s authority as the inerrant, sufficient, and perspicuous utterance of God. (Hence, for example, the wide popularity of readings of the Genesis account claiming to make that account compatible with what those who embrace such readings believe scientific investigations have “shown” about the age of the earth and human ancestry.) Nevertheless, such a lack of submission, it seems to me, needn’t necessarily follow a faith commitment that happens to originate in such exercises as formulation of theistic proofs and building of a historical case favoring the probability that Jesus of Nazareth really rose from the dead. While I agree with “pure” presuppositionalists that this elevation of one’s own autonomous thinking over the propositions of Scripture is not how mature Christians should organize their thinking about God and his written revelation, it does not seem to me that the sort of arguments and reflections one finds among mainstream apologists, and in multiple chapters of True Reason, are necessarily harmful as intellectual exercises. In fact, I think such exercises can be quite helpful, and that readers will find True Reason a quite helpful book. I recommend it.
For the benefit of readers with longer attention spans, I here append more detailed remarks on each of the chapters of Pure Reason, including fuller explanation of areas of discomfort or dissatisfaction noted above. (The Acknowledgments and contributor biographies are not discussed, nor is the Epilogue.)
Though I will not offer an extended analysis of what is just a brief introduction to the collected essays and their combined purpose (“This book shows theism in general and Christian theism in particular to be reasonable, and it exposes areas in which secularism is not at all reasonable” ), I would note some dissatisfaction with Stonestreet‘s references to “fundamentalism” and “atheists of the “fundamentalist kind” (11). Though Stonestreet objects to the failure of many to note distinctions between the various groups labeled “fundamentalist” (Ibid.), he does seem to grant that there is something bad about being a fundamentalist, and to see atheist fundamentalism as in some sense worse than generic atheism. The problem with this analogy between atheist fundamentalists (the New Atheists) and other fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim) is that Stonestreet nowhere provides a clear definition of “fundamentalist.” In popular usage, the term seems to mean something like, “persons more extreme and uncompromising in their views than I personally find acceptable.” The underlying assumption of this usage seems to be that being “moderate” in one’s convictions is always best, and that one should always be willing to compromise such convictions, no matter how subjectively certain one may be about them or how important one may believe it is to remain true to them. As an expression of personal distaste based on such underlying assumptions, “fundamentalist” doesn’t strike me as all that useful a term. If Stonestreet has some more objective, precise, and useful meaning in mind, he should provide it along with his analogy.
This chapter, by one of the book’s two editors, Tom Gilson, serves as introduction, including an overview and categorization of the chapters to follow (21-3). Though the American Atheists call their viewpoint one that “unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason” (15), Gilson finds this claim hard to credit. Ever since Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (1986) claimed that, because “Evolution provides a way for nature to have come about without design, therefore it came about without design” (16), the New Atheism (“essentially atheism with a militant strain” [Ibid.]), as the thinking of Dawkins and others (such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) would come to be called, has been promoting professedly “reasonable” atheism in ways rife with bad reasoning.
Central to the New Atheism’s irrationality is its failure to discuss or reflect upon “reason proper: the very act of reasoning, the rational process by which one draws proper deductive inferences from premises, or proper inductive inferences from evidences, or properly plausible explanations of observations and phenomena” (20). Leaving aside this most fundamental aspect of rationality, the New Atheists have elected to speak of reasoning solely as “confining belief to what can be supported empirically, and acting reasonably” (Ibid.), whatever “acting reasonably” precisely means (it is not clear that the New Atheists have defined this any more precisely than Stonestreet defines “fundamentalist”). This has made New Atheist thinking rationally weak, as Gilson believes (and as I agree) the essays in True Reason amply demonstrate.
In this chapter, co-editor Carson Weitnauer notes some of the ironies of the New Atheism, such as how its promoters commonly “use..rhetoric, branding, and emotional triggers to advocate for reason” (25), how atheism undermines essential aspects of the rationality it claims to honor (28, 30), how it fails to underwrite such valued aspects of human life as morality (29), and how multiple atheists have admitted (even emphasized) the nonrational basis of their atheist commitments (30-2).
He also highlights ways in which Christianity (or perhaps just theism) lacks these ironies, at the same time correcting some common atheist misconstruals of Christian or theistic arguments. For instance, after briefly noting “the moral argument for the existence of God” (which “seeks to establish that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist” then concludes that “since objective moral values and duties do in fact exist, therefore, God exists”), he emphasizes that the issue addressed in this argument is the ability or inability of atheism and theism to justify or ground morality, not the actual character or moral behavior of persons who hold either view (29). The typical atheist response, that atheists are just as moral in their behavior as theists, therefore misses the point. Likewise, what later in the text will be identified as “the argument from reason”—that whereas the Christian (or just theistic) perspective provides a ground for reason, “atheism lacks a foundation for the existence and use of reason,” so that “From the Christian perspective, the atheist’s situation is akin to climbing the Empire State Building to broadcast the message that a belief in architects is a primitive fantasy”—in no way implies that being an atheist makes one incapable of reasoning (30). The point of both argument, Weitnauer wants to emphasize, is that atheism provides no ground for, does not comport with, belief in objective morality or trust in reason.
Though Weitnauer here only briefly mentions the moral argument and argument from reason, some comments seem merited. Concerning his statement of the moral argument, I would note that the “since objective moral values and duties do in fact exist” statement should perhaps be reworded “since we all assume or believe or take for granted that objective moral values and duties do in fact exist,” since the validity of our shared moral values is simply taken for granted (the Marquis de Sade and other philosophically astute sociopaths might plausibly object). I should perhaps also note that, despite common reference to these arguments as requiring or proving that “God exists” (or, in some wordings, that “a God exists”), a generic “theism” is not sufficient to ground reason and morality (that is, to ground trust in the former and belief in the objectivity of the latter). Reason requires an honest, truth-valuing God; morality requires a holy, goodness-valuing God. The natural theologian (whom I think would be cordially welcomed by most or all contributors to True Reason) suggests our innate tendency to trust our rational and moral faculties may be taken as evidence of just such a God as this trust requires if it is to be justified.
However, a stubbornly self-consistent atheist (who is willing to pursue his atheist presuppositions wherever they lead), or even a Christian theistic dogmatist (who sees special revelation, not as completing natural theology, but as the sole sufficient ground for any theology), might wonder whether this doesn’t beg the question: is the fact that we innately do trust our rational and moral faculties evidence (much less proof) that we should trust them? Is it not, rather, a covert emotional appeal? In other words: we fear to doubt that our reason leads us to truth; we fear to doubt that our moral sense reveals more to us than subjective preference and personal tastes. The terror that what our reason tells us, even when we use it rightly (so far as we can tell), cannot be trusted, and the terror that what we feel are objective moral truths are just our subjective “aesthetics” (not just “likes,” but “preferences” broadly construed, including our sense of order, proprietary, and so on) in disguise—these terrors cause us to recoil and to insist that reason and morality must be trustworthy. If this trust is (or might be) the product merely of our fear of the void, fear of nihilism and madness (insofar as madness and sanity have any meaning is this view of things), it seems illegitimate to infer from this trust that the ground it requires (a God with certain qualities) really exists. Of course, such a nihilistic reflection depends upon the very reasoning ability it suggests doubting, but perhaps one who has surrendered to the void needn’t be too concerned that his thinking contradicts itself.
Whatever a stubbornly self-consistent atheist (or a Christian theistic dogmatist) might think about natural theological inferences from reason and morality, New Atheists who wish to claim special allegiance to “the supremacy of reason,” and who wish to claim high morality can be justified absent any deity, do seem obligated to take the arguments seriously. Whether or not such arguments are entirely adequate for other purposes (overcoming nihilism, organizing the Bible-based thinking of committed believers), they do seem more than a match for New Atheist arguments.
Also, it is noteworthy that, though versions of “natural theological” arguments do appear in the chapter (as often in the book), Weitnauer opts to emphasize that it is “the coherent rationality of the Christian worldview” that he most wishes to contrast to the “unrecognized ironies of atheism” (35). Though I see no evidence that Weitnauer aspires to the pure, rigorous presuppositionalism of a Cornelius Van Til or Gregory Bahnsen (which I believe would insist on some of the sorts of reflections I’ve related above), it is clear that he operates in part from the sort of presuppositionalist stance that sees value in testing the coherence and explanatory power of competing belief systems as systems. While this presuppositionalism may not be “pure,” it does have persuasive power (against all but the most extreme and strange objections). The chapter, therefore, merits study.
In this chapter, Craig makes short work of the central argument of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). In what Craig says could most charitably (if not most plausibly) be interpreted as an attempt by Dawkins to offer a “cumulative case” for his conclusion that “God almost certainly does not exist,” Dawkins makes six interrelated assertions (that, to my eye, seems not to have advanced beyond The Blind Watchmaker argument Gilson found disappointing way back in 1986 ). Those six assertions are: (1) human intellect is challenged by the need to explain “how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises”; (2) construing this “appearance of design” as “actual design itself” is a “natural temptation”; (3) this natural temptation must be resisted because “the design hypothesis…raises the larger problem of who designed the designer”; (4) “Darwinian evolution by natural selection” is the “most ingenious and powerful explanation” of seeming design in nature (The Blind Watchmaker returns); (5) nothing like this Darwinian explanation has yet been developed for physics; but (6) “We should not give up hope” that such an explanation will arise in physics (37-8).
Rigorous thinker that he is, Craig is naturally taken aback by this strange non-argument, which Dawkins delusively identifies as “a very serious argument against God’s existence” (38). Even if one agreed with all six assertions, one could at most infer from them “that we should not infer God’s existence on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe” (38). “But that conclusion,” Craig notes, “is quite compatible with God’s existence and even with our justifiably believing in God’s existence,” since assorted other grounds for believing in God have been adduced, and since in fact “many Christian theologians have rejected arguments for the existence of God without thereby committing themselves to atheism” (38-9). Hence, Dawkins’ argument fails even if one endorses all its “steps.” “But, in fact,” Craig adds, “several of these steps are plausibly false,” such as assertions 3 (“who designed the designer”), which Craig finds invalid in that it (1) misses “an elementary point concerning inference to the best explanation as practiced in philosophy of science,” namely that “In order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t be able to explain the explanation,” since such a requirement would mean “an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed”; and (2) it (a) fails to recognize that not only simplicity but “other criteria like explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility, and the like” must be considered when selecting among proposed explanations of empirical data, and (b) fails to perceive how the “unembodied mind” of a divine designer is in fact simpler than the universe itself, apparently because Dawkins fails to distinguish between the (complex) set of thoughts within such a mind and the (simple) mind itself (39).
“Yes,” Chuck Edwards writes, “he is the founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. But his illogic in The God Delusion undermines both the Reason side and the Science side of his self-proclaimed identity. On a number of important topics, he is, to be blunt, as thoroughly prejudiced and antiscientific as one could be” (56). Such is the conclusion about Dawkins that Edwards (with some help from Tom Gilson) amply supports in this chapter. The chapter includes the following sections: (1) “Calling God Names,” (2) “Challenging Biblical Morality,” (3) “Dismissing Proofs for God’s Existence,” (4) “Skirting the Real Argument,” (5) “Imagining a ‘Sheer Luck’ Scenario,” and (6)(by Tom Gilson) “Does Religion Cause Child Abuse?”
Section 1 (43-4) relates how Dawkins’ name-calling (“The God of the Old Testament is…jealous and proud of it…petty, unjust…vindicative…homophobic, racist…” and so on), commits the logical fallacies of poisoning the well (creating an unreasoned emotional bias against an opponent) and setting up an easily refuted straw man in place of an opponent’s less easily refuted true position. (Here, a straw God replaces the true God.)
Section 2 (44-6) shows how Dawkins libels biblical morality by misreading historical recording of what persons did as though it were divine declaration of what, morally speaking, persons should do, when nothing in the passages concerned remotely suggests divine approval, but in fact the contrary.
Section 3 (46-8) notes how Dawkins ignores “the robust arguments [for God’s existence] from contemporary philosophers and theologians,” preferring instead to dismiss poorly understood classical arguments in an “offhand” manner that “makes many philosophers cringe.” His “refutation” of the cosmological argument, for instance, is that of the typical village (Junior High?) atheist: if everything needs a cause, what caused God? This, of course, misses the implications of the more generally preferred form of the cosmological argument today, the kalam cosmological argument (KCA): “In simplified form…: 1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. 2. The universe began to exist. 3. Therefore, the universe has a cause” (paragraph breaks removed). Since, of course, God by definition did not “begin to exist,” God does not require a cause; the universe, however, even in terms of Dawkins’ naturalistic understanding, did begin to exist.
Were I going to play atheists’ advocate at this point, I might note that, though Dawkins makes no attempt to grapple with KCA, it may be that other atheists/naturalists (hereafter, “atheists”) are at least subconsciously aware of the issue and stumbling toward what they hope is a solution. These atheists, as best I can determine, propose an unintelligent arising of our universe from a potential-laden, probability-ordered non-nothing “nothing” (referred to later in the present text as a “vacuum field seething with potential and subject to natural laws” , though in some atheist reflection perhaps only the “laws” of probability, since some of the other “natural laws” may in fact vary from one spontaneously-generated universe to the next). They make this odd proposal in order, it seems, to grant that “anything that begins to exist has a cause…the universe began to exist…therefore, the universe has a cause” while still denying that the required cause must be an intelligent creator God. They seem to want to hold that this non-nothing nothing is the eternally existent cause of all that ever begins to exist. It is even the cause of time, of space-time, so it is not threatened by the impossibility of a real infinite series as would be a really infinite (no beginning) temporal sequence.
So, those atheists grappling with the issue (as Dawkins fails to) seem to propose a supraspacial, supratemporal, self-existent, mindless yet mathematically lawful (probabilistic), originless (eternal) substrate or matrix (for want of better terms) out of which physical (and even logical?) laws and universes arise randomly and in infinite plenitude (countless universes in an unfathomable multiverse). Hmm….Well, this proposal does seem to strain the “naturalist” label, doesn’t it? Perhaps “atheistic supernaturalism” would be a more apt identifier, since the “natural” here seems stretched far beyond anything anyone has historically meant by the term. This proposal lurking beneath atheist talk of a “nothing” that isn’t really nothing may not be viable, seeming to hold that an ultimate irrationality and madness underlies our human belief in order and sense, making that belief delusional (though perhaps adaptive), but one can hardly see any better proposal possible so long as one remains an atheist. Were I an atheist myself, I would have to suspect that atheism/naturalism, like sociopathy and other dysfunctions, is simply a maladaptive rarity that only survives in the gene pool because it is not always manifested by those predisposed to it….
Atheists’ advocate digression aside, even if Dawkins were to attempt this “argument,” it is unlikely advocates of natural theology would find it cogent. “Furthermore,” Edwards follows his simplified KCA presentation, “regarding the conclusion, William Lane Craig states, ‘philosophical analysis reveals that such a cause [of the universe] must have several of the principal theistic attributes.’ Therefore, not only must God exist, but he must have many of the qualities generally ascribed to God in the Bible” (bracketed clarification Edwards’). Though Edwards does not present Craig’s “philosophical analysis” in this section, if that analysis does in fact demonstrate what Craig says it does, the atheists’ advocate’s non-nothing nothing would seem to fall short of the requirements.
Section 4 (48-9) notes additional ways in which Dawkins fails to grapple with the best theistic arguments, instead “dismissing [each of] them by arguing against a weak form of the proof.” In sum (of this and preceding sections), what one finds in Dawkins’ arguments against theism is “a flurry of unsubstantiated assertions, straw man arguments, and a lack of scholarly interaction with the subject matter.”
Section 5 (49-53) analyzes Dawkins’ attempt to make sense of the origin and development of complex life in terms of his naturalistic presuppositions. This effort to “climb Mount Improbable” has Dawkins appealing again and again to “sheer luck” (variously worded). Amusingly, Edwards is able to point out that this “unabashed appeal to chance,” this “scientific ‘explanation’ that lacks any semblance of explanation, much less science,” appears in a book wherein earlier “Dawkins chastises people who claim that evolution is based on chance, writing that these people know nothing about the process of natural selection” (50). While Edwards does not take time to argue against Dawkins’ “standard Darwinian evolutionary biology” (“genetic mutations as the raw material for moving step by step up the mountain, from simple to more and more complex”), he does note that even granting enough “adaptively positive” mutations (by “sheer luck”), “the real question is, what is the origin of this unique molecular coding in the first place?” (50) (Some creationists, one notes, might not even grant that those rare “adaptively positive” mutations are ever “positive” in the sense of adding information and complexity, as required for “vertical” simple-to-complex evolution. So far as they would be willing to admit, so far as anyone can be verified to have observed, such mutations are only ever “positive” in the no-addition-of-useful-information sense that allows “horizontal” simple-to-simple, complex-to-complex variation.)
Section 6 (53-6), adapted from a 2007 bit of writing by Tom Gilson, considers Dawkins’ suggestion that the “psychological abuse” of raising a child religious (as a Roman Catholic, for instance) is possibly more damaging than sexual abuse. From research predating Dawkins’ book, Gilson demonstrates that the empirical data show, not just that being raised Christian (Roman Catholic or Protestant) leads to none of the dysfunctions that typically result from sexual abuse, but in fact yields demonstrably better mental health and functionality than found in persons raised without religious convictions.
As one finishes the chapter, one can only wonder whether Dawkins, highly educated man that he is (who certainly does not lack the resources, time, or mental ability to do better), might not just be pandering to less thoughtful atheist readers so he can keep making money from such “best sellers” as The God Delusion, all the while knowing as well as any shock radio host that thinking, reflective persons are not going to find his impassioned but intellectually shallow rants persuasive. Alas, those who find Dawkins entertaining are unlikely to have the patience to think their way through True Reason.
In this chapter, Gilson reviews an 07 April 2011 debate between Sam Harris, New Atheist chair of the Project Reason nonprofit, and William Lane Craig, Christian philosopher-apologist and contributor to this volume. Gilson’s review focuses, not upon who “won” the debate or which arguments strike him as true, but upon whether and to what extent each participant set forth his case rationally. Conclusion: “the one who focused on a reasoned approach to discourse was the theologian and philosopher, William Lane Craig. The one who appealed to emotion, whose arguments were choked with fallacies, was the man representing Project Reason, Sam Harris” (61). Such “weaknesses in…rational discourse” as are found in the debate, Gilson notes, “can also be readily found throughout [Harris’] published works” (61).
The debate, Gilson relates, addressed the question, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?” Craig’s reasoned approach began by making clear that “What counted in this debate was this: if naturalism is true, can it ground objective morality? And, if theism is true, can it ground objective morality?” and that these issues were to be debated independently of the question of whether naturalism or supernaturalism is in fact true (62). Though one could certainly object that the debate question does not require one to accept this framing of the debate (were I an atheist, I think I should be more comfortable construing the question to mean something like, “Do the beliefs and behaviors we identify as ‘morality’ find their basis in the natural or the supernatural?”), but “Harris did not object.” As well, both Craig and Harris accepted as given “that objective morality exists” (Ibid.).
Craig’s case against Harris’ position that objective morality has a natural grounding (“the well-being of sentient creatures”) comprised six arguments, all eminently rational, which Gilson summarizes (63-4). How did Harris respond? “One struggles to find any reasoned answer at all” in Harris’ response, Gilson observes. “He paid Craig’s deadliest arguments no attention whatsoever. Points 5 and especially 6 were knock-down blows,” but Harris failed to counter them in any way (65). These “knock-down blows” were (5) that Harris’ “denial of free will” (he is a naturalistic determinist who has written on “the illusion of free will”) means “there can be no moral duties” because “if humans cannot actually make choices as human agents, then it follows we cannot make morally significant choices,” and (6) that Harris’ identification of “moral goodness” and “maximizing sentient creatures’ well-being” cannot logically be maintained (63-4).
Interestingly, point 6 seems to gain its force from the definition of “well-being” implicit in one of Harris’ books. “Dr. Harris,” Craig noted, “makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his ‘moral landscape’ would no longer be a moral landscape. Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike” (64). Psychopaths (who “enjoy inflicting pain on other people”) apparently can “be just as happy as good people,” at least they could be in “a possible world” where they were sufficiently unhindered in there evil indulgence (Ibid.). Harris’ landscape of objective morality, thus, seems ungrounded. In the debate, a rational Harris might have drawn back from his printed admission, suggesting that he erred in equating well-being and happiness. He might then have suggested a definition of well-being independent of subjective happiness or enjoyment, thus diffusing or at least weakening Craig’s case. Instead, he failed to counter Craig’s argument at all.
When presenting the case for his own position, that objective morality has a natural foundation, Harris showed himself “incompetent in rational discourse,” by which Gilson means that in his arguments Harris “mixes the unsound with the sound in an excessive degree, or without apparent awareness of the difference” (67). More precisely, “One who is incompetent in rational discourse can be identified by his application of poor evidence and/or fallacious logic to support his beliefs, by his reliance upon emotion rather than evidence and logic, or by his empty rhetorical methods of persuasion.” Such a person also “will often refuse to acknowledge flaws in his use of evidence or reason, and will also refuse to adjust his beliefs when shown that they are based on fallacies” (Ibid.). In contrast, “One who is competent in rational discourse bases her beliefs, and her arguments on their behalf, on adequate evidence and sound logical processes” and who is “open to changing her beliefs when shown that her evidence is lacking or her reasoning is wrong” (Ibid.). Doubtless feminist readers will be pleased with Gilson’s decision to use feminine pronouns for his hypothetical competent reasoner and masculine pronouns for his incompetent reasoner. Does this echo a pattern Gilson himself has observed, one wonders? In any case, it is fairly common among atheists to assert that many (most? all?) human beliefs arise from nonrational causes, with rational arguments being formulated after-the-fact to justify beliefs already held (multiple such assertions by atheists can be found documented in True Reason). Perhaps suspicion that this is the case removes one’s motivation to master rational discourse, leading to the widespread rational shortcomings of the New Atheists.
The rational shortcomings of this particular New Atheist, Harris, Gilson finds displayed in Harris’ contribution to the debate. Gilson recounts seven ways in which Harris manifested rational incompetence. One of these, number 5, was confusing denial of a negative claim (“It is not unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality”) with assertion of a positive one (“it is scientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality”). Gilson comments: “It is not unscientific to say that I like blueberries on my breakfast cereal; it is not scientific to say so either” (70). Additionally, Harris simply took the truth of naturalism and atheism for granted in his arguments (numbers 2 and 3; 67-8), then used this presupposition to “justify” assertions that “minds are natural phenomena” (number 3) and, with help of the added assumption that objective morality does exist, that “naturalism provides adequate grounds for objective morality.” Trying to win a debate by (a) simply assuming all key components of one’s position are true and then (b) asserting their truth as though it’s been demonstrated is an interesting strategy, it must be granted; it must also be granted that it is anything but “reasonable.” Additionally, Harris, in lieu of his first rebuttal, engaged in a purely emotional tirade against a caricature of the Christian God (number 7; 70-1).
Though hardly necessary given how much irrationality he has already shown in Harris’ debate-manifested thinking, Gilson also makes note of examples of irrationality in Harris’ written work. One such example is his ongoing struggle (in The Moral Landscape  and Free Will ) to harmonize his naturalistic/materialistic determinism with references to humans “choosing” things, such as by saying that “Choices…influence our behavior—but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness…[so that] I cannot choose what I choose” (73). Gilson responds: “This does nothing to resolve the contradictions in The Moral Landscape. If our felt authorship of our thoughts is illusory, if we have no control over our intentions and reasoning, and if we cannot choose what we choose, then certainly it does mean that we have no mental freedom whatsoever” (73). Whereas a (Calvinist) Christian may posit a humanly inexplicable mystery that has God sovereignly foreordaining even the free choices of humans (on the basis that humans don’t know enough about divine foreordination to say this is impossible), materialist Harris, having accepted that physical causation (something about which humans know a good deal) lies aback all human choices and actions, has no such recourse. As (Calvinist) Greg Bahnsen once quipped in a taped lecture (I do not recall which one), this view of things makes all thought and argument “like grass growing.” On this view, a debate is no better than the planting of different grasses side-by-side for comparison, so that observers may then choose…whichever grass it has been determined they will pick by a chain of physical causes unknown to them. If Harris’ view is correct, then, I can only conclude that a chain of physical causes unknown to me has predetermined that I will find his arguments impossible to take seriously and that I will, further, find persuasive Gilson’s thesis that Harris is rationally incompetent, and that I will find this chapter worthy of recommendation to potential readers.
In this chapter, David Marshall discusses former pastor and New Atheist John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith” (OTF) (75). Quoting from Loftus’ The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True (2013), Marshall relates Loftus’ four point summary of the OTF (76-7; somewhat abridged, bracketed comments mine):
- The Religious Diversity Thesis: “People…in distinct geographic areas around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and justify a wide diversity of religious faiths due to [better: corresponding to; ‘due’ suggests a causal link it does not appear this first thesis intends to demonstrate] their particular upbringing and shared cultural heritage, and most of these faiths are mutually exclusive [that is, as whole systems].”
- The Religious Dependency Thesis: “To an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns.”
- Therefore, it is “highly likely that any given religious faith [that is, any entire religious system] is false….”
- In practice, one should hence test one’s religion “from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.”
Marshall doubts that 3 “really follows from the premises preceding it.” As he sees it, Loftus’ argument is essentially as follows: “(1) Ideas about X vary among cultures; (2) The beliefs one adopts about X originate in one’s culture, and in that sense depend on it; (3) Therefore, one’s beliefs are probably wrong. This seems,” he concludes, “guilty of the genetic fallacy….the idea that the origin of an idea disproves it,” making it an invalid argument (78). Now, as some of my bracketed comments above should suggest, I am not certain Marshall’s is the best possible reading of Loftus’ argument (at least not of the argument as I understand it from the summary). Loftus’ argument seems to be the following: since most religious (like other human) beliefs arise nonrationally, since most belief systems are incompatible (incompatible systems cannot both be true), and since there are many belief systems across the world to choose from, it stands to reason that most belief systems out there are probably wrong. If one is going to play the probabilities and not assume one simply “got lucky” in which belief systems one happened to be exposed to growing up, it is only reasonable for one to apply the same critical reasoning to one’s own belief system that one would apply to it if “the lottery of birth” had had you growing up where you were exposed to, and ended up embracing, some opposing belief system.
This understanding of Loftus’ perspective does not negate the central argument of Marshall’s text, which has some cogency. He makes the case that the principles Loftus sets forth allow us to do some useful comparative testing of religious belief systems. First, Loftus’ test should be used, not on the assumption that any of “tens of thousands” of belief systems merits equal treatment, but with the realization that the only systems meriting consideration are those “religions that have already passed the Outsider Test,” meaning they’ve acquired significant numbers of converts who were not raised in or around those religions. “Assuming a broad definition of religion, on the surface five faiths seems to have met that challenge: in historical order, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Marxism-Leninism, and Secular Humanism” (83-4). Digging beneath the surface, if we add the additional requirement that only religions whose outsider converts were acquired through non-forceful means, Islam and Marxism-Leninism might not merit consideration, since they “spread mostly by violent conquest,” though Marshall thinks their “success…does show there is credibility in their deepest claims” (84). The right of Secular Humanism to a hearing may also be in doubt since, Marshall “would argue,” I think rightly, “it is watered-down Christianity, a weed that grows in fields powered by the gospel” (Ibid.). Marshall’s analysis finds that, “if the OTF shows anything empirically, it shows that Christianity must possess remarkable reserves of plausibility to have convinced so many people, in so many cultures, to risk so much, to follow Jesus,” since “Christianity has attracted more believers from more ethnic and cultural groups than any other religion,” often at very great personal cost (92).
This finding is what Marshall labels “The test of history,” one of four tests he thinks qualify as proper extensions of a Christianized OTF. The other three are “The test of prophecy” (demonstrably fulfilled predictions of the gospel’s “spread to the ‘ends of the earth’”); “The test of transformation” (the truth of Christianity seeming favored by the positive transformational effect it has had on people and societies well outside its original context); and “the ‘Insider-Outsider’ Test.” This last caused me some concern as I read it. Marshall’s “Insider-Outsider” test is correct in its assertion that persons from a range of non-Christian belief systems have always held beliefs (moral beliefs, philosophical insights, etc.) compatible with, and in fact better and more fully answered to and explained by, the Christian system. It is also correct in seeing this fact as providing useful material, a “point of contact” or “basis for appeal,” to use in Christian outreach. I am not, however, entirely comfortable with all that Marshall says in support of this test.
The reader will recall that in my earlier reproduction of Loftus’ argument, I emphasized (through bracketed comments) that the focus is upon religious belief systems. Marshall wants to object to Loftus “’zero-sum’ understanding of religions,” his belief that “At best there can only be one true religion in what we observe to be a sea of hundreds of false ones” (86). Marshall wishes to assert, instead, that
World religions are not like so many fruits in the market, from which (having just one dollar) you must choose a single item, which is true, and leave the rest, which are totally false. It is a singularly ‘fundamentalist’ [there’s that terminology Stonestreet used, again undefined] way of thinking that insists one must choose one religion (or one version of secularism) and simply dismiss everything in the rest. (88, emphasis added)Marshall’s introduction of the modifiers “totally” (“totally false”) and “everything in” (“everything in the rest” of the religions out there), seem to set up a straw man. Did Loftus, or do any religious exclusivists anywhere, hold that when one labels a religion “false” what one means is that every proposition endorsed by those who embrace it is also false? I’m pretty sure neither Loftus nor anyone anywhere makes such an extreme claim.
Simply stated, when in comes to religions as whole systems, Loftus is correct and Marshall is incorrect (or, at least, his manner of expression in this essay is unfortunate, perhaps construable as syncretistic). There indeed can be only one true complete system of religious truth. This does not mean that religions other than the true one cannot contain true propositions—obviously any propositions which they hold in common with the true system will be correct.
Marshall also errs, I think, when he says that “the first premise of Christianity is that Judaism is true” (86). The biblical position, rather, is (as I understand it) that only one faith has ever been the true one: prior to Christ, that religion was one of the belief systems labeled “Judaism”; after Christ, only Christianity (including “Messianic Judaism”) is true. “Judaism” ceased to be true when its adherents rejected Jesus’ claim to be their Messiah and made such adjustments to their doctrines and reading of Scripture as that rejection made necessary. This speaks only of “Judaism” as an entire religious system, of course; in terms of the individual propositions that make up that system, it is doubtless true that it contains many propositions in common with the Christian system. Because of the close historical relationship between Judaism and Christianity, in fact, there are enough propositions shared between believers in these faiths for us to speak of “Judeo-Christian” convictions. Nevertheless, Bible-believing Christians remains obligated to identify non-Messianic Judaism as a false religion whose members must be called to repent and believe the gospel. Saying “Judaism is true” as Marshall does simply confuses matters; “Judaism, though false, contains many truths” better captures the biblical Christian perspective. Similar wording can be used of many non-Christian religions.
The way parts of Marshall’s article are worded, it would be easy for a reader to assume adherents of non-Christian religions needn’t (shouldn’t) be called to repent of their false religion, but only amend an incomplete and imperfect, but nevertheless true and sincere, faith: “part of the genius of Christian theology is that it has often proven, as Paul Tillich wrote, a ‘crystallization for all positive religious elements after they have been subjected to the criteria implied in this centre’” (87). This is a cordial approach to other religions, to be sure—but is it biblical? I have my doubts. Scripture’s portrayal of the origin of false religions (Romans 1) does not seem to support the idea that they are good-faith efforts by sincere seekers to “find God.” Rather, they seem portrayed as efforts by those who would escape the true God to use some of the truths they, as God’s image-bearers, cannot help believing to build an alternative system of belief they find plausible enough to justify their turning from the whole truth. Of course, the truth remnant in false religious traditions remains at the same time a witness to the fuller truth those traditions rejected at their origin, thus allowing missionaries such as Paul to find common ground for their initial appeals to persons raised within those traditions.
Again, God’s image-bearers, even in their corrupted/fallen state, can only find false belief systems plausible if those systems contain some significant number of truths. Certain moral truths seem especially necessary—hence the wide prevalence across belief systems of core moral truths, and hence (with that) the tendency of most to find something like the moral argument for theism persuasive. This need to retain truth in false systems does not make the systems less acts of creaturely rebellion, nor does it make those who embrace them innocent of suppressing truth in unrighteousness. It just means they aren’t guilty of suppressing all truth.
In sum, then, though Marshall’s arguments in this chapter are not without force, the way he speaks of non-Christian religions and the truths found in them strikes me as requiring revision before it will be fully consonant with the biblical picture of things. He is mostly right in substance, I think, and his essay certainly provides sufficient useful content to merit reading. Nevertheless, it does fail to give properly biblical emphasis to either the exclusive truth of the Christian system or the fundamental falsity of all religions that serve as alternatives to Christianity.
Whereas the Van Tilian form of “the argument from reason” (not typically identified by this label) holds that only the full-orbed Christian (Calvinist) system provides the necessary grounds for trust in our rational faculties, or in any other use of our minds or abilities (“Every man can count but only the Calvinist can account for counting”—Cornelius Van Til, “An Uncertain Sound: An Evaluation of the Philosophy of Hendrik Hart” [Westminster Theological Seminary mimeo, 1971], reproduced in Eric H. Sigward, ed., The Works of Cornelius Van Til 1895-1987, CD-ROM v. 1.0 ), Esposito opts for a less extreme, but still effective, form of the argument that he finds supported by C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and others.
Here is the argument’s bottom line (or one expression of it): “if naturalism is true, it means either that what we take to be rationality is…in no way grounded in external, objective truth (and as such cannot be called rational), or we’re fooling ourselves into thinking that rationality exists at all” (104-5). Such, at least, is the bottom line of that expression of the argument Esposito finds in Lewis, with support drawn from Plantinga. This bottom line, Esposito holds, can, “following Victor Reppert‘s lead,” be restated and extended as follows (105):
However, naturalism is a belief itself….[so, if naturalism is true,] to believe naturalism is true is itself nonrational!….[Next begins the extension drawn from Reppert]
- No belief is rationally inferred if it can be fully explained in terms of nonrational causes.
- If naturalism is true, then all beliefs can be fully explained in terms of nonrational causes.
- Therefore, if naturalism is true, then no belief is rationally inferred.
- If any thesis entails the conclusion that no belief is rationally inferred, then it should be rejected and its denial accepted.
Therefore, because the naturalist thesis leads to the denial of reason….
- Naturalism should be rejected and its denial accepted.
While such a “stubbornly self-consistent atheist” as I mentioned in an earlier section might reject points 4 and 5, believing fearless embrace of the mad irrationality of this nihilistic void we live in preferable to wish-fulfilling retention of a trust in reason naturalism shows groundless, anyone wishing to retain rationality should find them persuasive. Thus it is that even atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel “rejects the materialistic explanation for reason and says that some new explanation is needed” (104), though it is hard to imagine what sort of non-materialistic explanation would comport with atheism. Almost certainly, an atheist non-naturalism (atheist supernaturalism?) would be arbitrary and ad hoc, so presumptively undeserving of a rational person’s assent.
Playing atheists’ advocate after such a devastating argument (which the foregoing summary hardly does justice) is difficult to do, perhaps impossible to do effectively. Attempting the feat anyway, one would have to suggest, it seems, that a reason-maintaining atheism will have to posit something in nature that prompts or causes development of a reliable rational faculty. Perhaps one could imagine that the necessary, and so natural-selection-favored ability to distinguish between different objects, even when they are close together, very similar in appearance, or seen at different times, somehow requires brain structures that can’t help but also give rise to the more abstract laws of contradiction and identity. The difficulty, of course, would be to then present a persuasive argument that such an abstract extension (unintended side effect) of a faculty allowing survival in a physical environment full of objects must or most probably will permit trustworthy distinction between non-physical propositions. Perhaps one could posit some utility in reasoning for interacting in a social environment….But, it is far from clear this would require a truth-directed reasoning capacity. (As Esposito notes, “natural selection doesn’t care at all about truth, it only cares about survival” .) As well, none of this addresses the determinism problem: “the naturalist sees the development of the world as a successive string of cause and effect, like dominoes falling one after another,” which implies that “our reasoning is just another domino falling in the chain” (103). So, like those who have long found forms of the argument from reason strong support for theism, even for the entire Christian-theistic system, I presently see no way to make a plausible argument as atheists’ advocate and must abandon the attempt as futile, admitting that naturalism seems powerless to justify trust in any uses of reason that do not directly involve survival-relevant interactions with one’s physical or social environments. Since neither theorization about the development of complex life forms from simpler ones under the mindless “guidance” of natural selection, nor in fact any naturalistic theorization about the nature of things, involves survival-relevant interactions with one’s physical or social environments, my atheists’ advocate alter ego will, it seems, have to abandon all further reflection on these matters entirely and “just live” like the evolved animal he is.
Another strong chapter, this contribution by David Wood has the added benefit of a compact closing “Assessment” that will serve nicely in lieu of reviewer’s summary. Wood writes (120, paragraph breaks removed):
Putting all of this together, we see that naturalism is bankrupt as a worldview. Naturalism cannot explain the existence of our universe, the fine-tuning of the cosmos, complex biology, human consciousness, the reliability of our cognitive faculties, our access to logical laws, the uniformity of nature, or the values we hold. But since science presupposes and depends upon these features of our world, naturalism provides no foundation for science….[which] means that if science explains things, naturalism must be false….Hence, if science tells us anything, it tells us that naturalism is a dead option. Anyone looking for a worldview consistent with scientific discovery will have to look elsewhere.I will not here attempt any detailed analysis of the arguments Wood presents supporting this assessment, only note that I can see few places in the chapter where a naturalist could persuasively object. Could the reality that our universe has not existed forever, so that its origin must be explained (110), be evaded by suggesting (in line with such atheist reflection as I mentioned in an earlier section) that a “larger” unintelligent “matrix” of law (perhaps just probability) and potential “simply is,” having no beginning because itself the timeless “stuff” out of which the time-space and matter-energy of innumerable randomly-generated universes arise? Could this sort of weird “matrix” count as the “something beyond the [a given] natural world” that any existing “natural world must have been caused by” (111)? Naturalists may hope so, but Wood, at least, finds current suggestions leaning in that direction unpersuasive (110).
As well, allied suggestions that attempt to explain away the fine-tuning of our universe by proposing a multiverse, don’t strike Wood as persuasive either. He believes “this response merely pushes the problem up one level, for the laws governing the multiverse [the weird matrix mentioned earlier, as well as the sum total of all existing universes] would themselves need to be finely tuned (and on a much grander scale!)” (112). Though perhaps not plausible, I believe naturalists must hold that any laws governing the multiverse “just are” as they must be, that only one set of such laws (probability and whatever else) ever was or could be. I leave readers to reflect on whether such an arbitrary proposal permits one to evade any of Wood’s argument. I suspect they will decide not.
Whether or not naturalists can figure out ways to evade any of Wood’s arguments, the probability that they will evade all of them seems vanishingly small, and the possible evasions just mentioned suggest that any evasions naturalists come up with are going to require a greater “leap of faith” (in the pejorative sense of unreasoning willful commitment to groundless, arbitrary beliefs) than just about any non-naturalist alternative.
Grice begins the category 2 essays (those seeking “to show the compatibility of Christianity with reason and science”) with this effort “to understand reason as it is defined and understood within the Christian framework” (121). He begins by clarifying some terms. Reason and morality are alike “simply human proclivities, in various states of use and abuse” (122). Reason, in more detail,
has multiple aspects, but for our purposes here, it is fundamentally the act of engaging the mind—whether done intuitively or rigorously, poorly or flawlessly. It is, ideally, a process of careful thinking, always involving logic, and often drawing upon evidence. Some of its operations include sifting truth from error in making sense of the world, weighing probabilities and practicalities in evaluating courses of action, formulating moral judgments by comparing greater and lesser goods and ills, conceptualizing plans and designs, and constructing objects of technology. (121)As for faith, it is, importantly, always faith in something, such as in a certain God. It has an “objective nature”; it makes truth claims that reason can examine (and, one notes, which require reason in order to be understood). It should be emphasized that, as Grice adds, “Different faiths lead to different claims, which in principle can be confirmed or disconfirmed by reality itself. Taken as a whole, the claims of each religion necessarily exclude the others” (122). This reference to the mutually exclusivity of religious belief systems is, the reader will recall, just the reality that I judged the rhetoric of Marshall’s earlier essay to have obscured.
Additionally, as for virtue or moral goodness, in Grice’s opinion, “it is important to disentangle reason and virtue” (123). On the one hand, “morality requires rational activity in order to weigh possible courses of action”; on the other, it is possible to apply reason in “morally good [virtuous] ways” or, as did the Nazis, “in the service of unethical goals [goals that are not virtuous]” (Ibid.). One further clarification Grice might have added would be to note that, from a Christian perspective at least, in those constitutionally capable of reasoning, right (correct, proper, valid) use of reason is itself a morally praiseworthy virtue, as wrong (incorrect, fallacious) use is an immoral vice meriting not just intellectual but ethical censure. Persons who choose not to use their reason to the best of their ability err not only intellectually but morally. (Though I’m not certain Grice would endorse this added clarification, it does seem to me implied by much of the material in this and other chapters of True Reason, as well as in Scripture’s call to love God with all our minds [Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27].)
Terms clarified, Grice begins working through his exploration of the Christian understanding of reason. He organizes this exploration into two sections, each with multiple subsections (numbering mine): (1) “Christianity and Reason,” with subsections (1a) “Reason and Christianity in General,” (1b) “Reason and Christian Faith in Particular,” (1c) “Reason and the Resurrection,” and (1d) “Reason and Christian Practice”; and (2) “Reason and Justification,” with subsections (2a) “The Challenge of Naturalism,” and (2b) “The Problem of Reason.”
Section 2 (who says we have to look at them in order?), as one might guess from the section and subjection titles, addresses some of the same topics we’ve already seen addressed elsewhere in Pure Reason (the inability of naturalism to justify trust in our rational faculties, for example). Grice’s approach to the topics is his own, of course, and he does provide relevant information not addressed in other treatments. For instance, he notes how naturalism has birthed a movement among some thinkers (such as “evolutionary epistemologists”) to promote what they call “naturalized epistemology” (129). Traditional epistemology focuses on the grounds for justifying our beliefs, defines knowledge as (roughly speaking, setting aside certain technical issues) “justified true belief,” and is very much concerned with helping us as rational agents learn how best to order our thinking so as to acquire knowledge and avoid error (unjustified and/or erroneous beliefs). This sort of epistemology is, thus, not merely descriptive, but normative. Naturalized epistemology, in contrast, seems purely descriptive, shifting focus “from the logic of reasoning and belief formation to the neurological mechanics by which we form beliefs (irrespective of logic). It is,” Grice adds, “an empirical approach, based on the assumption that cognition is a purely physical, deterministic brain process” (Ibid.).
If one accepts this “profound redefinition” of the epistemological task, one’s “ability to use reason to justify…conclusions” seems threatened (129). If, say (my example), the test of whether a conclusion you’ve drawn is justified is whether or not that conclusion arose because some “proper” sequence of neurological activities took place in response to a given set of environmental stimuli, it is far from clear how you as a thinking agent are supposed to ensure you’re not just believing all sorts of things without justification. Worse, naturalistic rejection of purpose in nature (teleology) makes reference to any biological (such as neurological) function as “proper” nonsensical: “As Alvin Plantinga observed, ‘Naturalism…lacks room for the notion of proper function for non-artifacts, and hence lacks room for the notion of proper function for our cognitive faculties. It therefore has no room for the notion of knowledge’” (132).
As for section 1, “Christianity and Reason,” I wish to look more closely at just two of its four subjections: (1b) “Reason and Christian Faith in Particular” and (1c) “Reason and the Resurrection.” In these subsections Grice works to correct some common misconceptions about Christian faith and its connection to reason (or, to use the terminology Grice invariably uses in these subsections, faith and its connection to “evidence”). Such faith is, he believes, “an active, justified trust in God” that “follows upon sufficient evidence of trustworthiness” (124). Lest readers suggest that Hebrews 11:1 opposes this understanding, Grice states that “the things hoped for” in the passage are “the content of God’s promises,” and that the verse is “an introduction to an extended discourse on faithfully obeying God,” not (as some take it) a “definition of faith” making reference to “an invisible, evidence-free hope” (124). The remainder of Hebrews 11, in fact, “provides dozens of examples of the reasonableness of trusting God for the present and the future” (124-5). So, Grice concludes, “Properly understood, then, Hebrews 11:1 speaks of the scope of faith extending beyond present visible evidence and transient circumstances, resting upon prior evidence that things will indeed be better in the future” (125).
Another passage commonly used to set faith and reason against one another, most notably by Kierkegaard, is the account of Abraham’s obedience when called by God to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22). Citing Romans 4:21 and Hebrews 11:17-19, Grice explains what the combination of biblical passages actually indicates: Abraham knew, from God’s own past promises concerning Isaac, that Isaac would somehow have to come down from the mountain of sacrifice alive, even if the only way that could happen was for God to raise Isaac from the dead (126).
Summarizing his understanding of the relation between faith and reason (specifically, reason dealing with evidence), Grice writes:
The biblical pattern of coming to faith always begins with evidence. The first stage of evidence is the pervasive work of God discernible in creation (Rom. 1:20). Sometimes the evidence is the experience of personally encountering God….Sometimes the evidence is in the fulfillment of prophecy or in a miracle one observes. Following these experiences of God and his work, the believer rightly and reasonably continues to trust in God’s existence and good plan through other, more ambiguous, circumstances. (126)Of course, if you did not have some preexisting faith in the trustworthiness of whoever or whatever created you, your senses, and the rational faculties you use to interpret sensory input and to grapple with ideas, it is not clear just how you would do anything with evidence. It really does seem that anyone who responds positively (comes to faith in response) to evidence thereby shows that they already had (some sort) of faith beforehand, and that it was that faith that enabled their correctly rational response to evidence. The faith through which one is saved by grace is, after all, “the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesian 2:8-9). Is rationally assessing evidence a “work,” I wonder? It certainly seems so, especially given that being able to skillfully handle evidence is indeed a cause for boasting in some circles (among scholars or attorneys, for example). It might also be worth noting that in such cases as Abraham’s initial call (Genesis 12), Scripture mentions no “evidence” beyond God’s call itself (Grice would presumably include this under “personally encountering God”). One can of course assume other evidence (traditional knowledge of the true God passed down orally and known to Abraham, for instance), but the text makes no mention of this.
Grice’s description of the “evidence” noted in Romans 1:20 also merits comment. He identifies this evidence as “the pervasive work of God discernible in creation.” I’m not certain this wording is quite strong enough. Rather than just “discernible,” things about God (“his eternal power and Godhead”) are said to be “clearly seen,” so clearly seen as to make persons who encounter God’s creation “without excuse.” The verse seems to assert that the proof of God in his creation is more blatant, patent, obvious than just “discernible.” The implication seems to be that anyone who encounters God’s creation and fails to apprehend from it his existence and something of his nature is guilty of some sort of purposeful evasion, intentional self-deception, or such. Put another way, “The heavens [do not merely suggest, they] declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1, emphasis added). None of this is to say that, given that everyone in God’s creation would already believe if not for their sinful rebelliousness, we should dispense with evidence and arguments. Considering people “innocent” in their unbelief is not a prerequisite to apologetical outreach. My only point is that, in common with other evidentially-oriented apologists I know, Grice writes in a way easily construed as a message to unbelievers that, if they claim that they’ve yet to be given enough evidence to satisfy them, then it’s okay that they put off answering God’s call to repent and believe the gospel until their evidential demands have been satisfied. God freely provides abundant evidence as a gracious bonus, yes, but everyone presented with the gospel is already without excuse, even if from a this-worldly perspective their evidential demands seem reasonable.
In any case, such is Grice’s assessment of “The biblical pattern of coming to faith.” (I’m disappointed Grice did not include in his list of evidences innate ideas within the God-imaging constitution of humans, which ideas require suppression or distortion if one is to avoid apprehending that the Christian God is indeed real and one stands guilty before him, and even, upon encountering the Bible that it is his Word. Alas, ours is an empiricist age, and “innate ideas” don’t strike people as “experiences,” though one could call them, or at least the rising of them to conscious awareness, “cognitive experiences.”) My discomforts notwithstanding, Grice is certainly correct that God in Scripture is seen graciously providing an abundances of evidence to those he is calling to faith, and that reality is certainly sufficient to justify appeal to evidence by believers promoting and defending the faith.
Grice also addresses the matter of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Thomas (John 20:24-9). Grice shows that Jesus’ evident dissatisfaction with Thomas for failing to believe until Jesus appeared to him personally (v.29: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”) cannot be taken as a general call to persons to believe without any evidence whatsoever, since Thomas had already received lots of evidence (proof of fulfilled prophecy during Jesus’ ministry, testimony of others to his having risen, etc.). While one cannot make these facts about Thomas’ background basis for saying that unbelievers have “a right” to demand evidence (existing as God’s image-bearers in this God-created universe with a God-inspired book God’s own Spirit confirms is true already condemns them if they do not believe), the episode does show that God graciously provides extra evidence to which those he is calling can claim no right, even to the point of Jesus personally appearing to someone who had stubbornly refused to believe in spite of already abundant evidence.
Though I will not attempt a comprehensive summary of this chapter, I would like to comment on one central aspect of it, Marshall’s “levels of faith” proposal. As Marshall understands matters, “faith is simply one of two faculties (along with the faculty of reason) by which we know all that we know” (138). Further, faith, Marshall holds, means “holding firmly to and acting on what you have good reason to think is true, in the face of difficulties” (139). Those basics stated, Marshall goes on to describe the interaction of faith and reason and to outline his “levels of faith”:
In Jesus and the Religions of Man, I compared faith and reason to two chopsticks, with which the human mind feeds on truth. Faith must be tested by reason. But reason relies on four levels of faith for all the facts it holds dear:  faith in the mind,  senses,  other people, and (the question at issue between theists and atheists)  in God. Notice that these four levels of faith are intrinsic to our ability to reason. Each level allows new perspectives that are not attainable at the previous level. (139)Sure to please Thomists and displease Van Tilians, the ordering notably makes the forms of “faith” that underwrite reasoning about things other than God more basic or fundamental than the faith at issue when theists and atheists debate. Marshall makes this point more explicit by stating that “Generally speaking, ‘lower’ levels of faith involve more immediate knowing (self-awareness, logic, math) of limited empirical scope.” In contrast, “Higher levels (sociology, study of wolves…) tell us most of all about the world, but that knowledge extends the ‘supply train’ of inference furthest from the base of direct awareness” (139).
On Marshall’s account, then, belief in God is top level, level 4, faith. It “allows new perspectives that are not attainable at the previous level[s]”—but, it is strongly implied, faith and related reasoning on levels 1 through 3 moves along perfectly well without level 4. Belief in God (in the true God), readers would naturally assume (whether or not Marshall intends for them to make this assumption), is not a necessary ground or justification for levels 1-3. Faith in one’s own mind and its faculties, faith in the deliverances of one’s senses, and faith in the testimony (etc.) of other people, all can be justifiably embraced even if one rejects belief in God. Faith in God is, then, only required if one wishes to acquire knowledge about matters beyond what one can learn through reasoning supported by faith in one’s own mind, senses, and other people.
Most, perhaps, will not see this ordering of the faiths upon which reason depends as at all problematic. Certainly it is good to see someone acknowledging the need for faith in all use of reason (something the New Atheists seem oblivious to, so far as one can judge from True Reason). It does seem, however, that even the lowest level faiths in fact depend on faith in the true God, albeit not “saving faith,” not faith that is consciously acknowledged or embraced. If one lacks some deep, even if unacknowledged, acceptance that the truth-valuing and goodness-valuing God who created oneself and the other persons with whom one deals really exists, faith in one’s mind, senses, and other people doesn’t seem so strongly grounded. With his deceiving demon thought experiment, Descartes seemed to show awareness of the need for level 4 faith to justify level 1, for example. (And I doubt anyone could be said to have had a stronger faith in his own mind than Descartes.)
Really, Marshall’s ordering of faiths seems odd given the suggestion in other chapters that lack of belief in God deprives all reasoning of justification (one still reasons, it just isn’t clear why one should think that reasoning leads to truth). Really, absent trust in a truth-valuing God, trust in that faculty-of-unknown origin, reason, seems arbitrary rather than well founded (back to “the argument from reason”). Similarly, absent trust in a goodness-valuing God, trust in one’s moral awareness, another faculty-of-unknown-origin, seems similarly arbitrary (back to “the moral argument”). One wonders, then, if Marshall has not placed at the top level what should properly be at the foundation. Then again, perhaps placing everything in a circle would be the best option, since this could permit trust in God to be not just the starting point of all interdependent faith and reasoning, but an end point finding ongoing confirmation and support from all the faith and reasoning it makes possible.
It should also be noted, before moving to the next chapter, that Marshall helpfully corrects the mistaken impression some have of Pascal’s Wager, that it is a call to believe what you have no good reason to believe solely on prudential grounds (you’ve everything to gain, nothing to lose) (144-5). Marshall corrects this by showing Pascal’s own belief in the importance of fulfilled prophecy. To add my own thought, I note that many of Pascal’s most persuasive statements calling one to faith (or, if one already believes, to the practice of piety) are of a sort meant to help someone who senses they should believe but is encountering difficulties actively doing so. Pascal’s Wager, which was of some help to me in my return (or first true turn) to faith (along with the Van Tilians), is, like many other of Pascal’s remarks, meant for persons who have basically already reached the point of mental assent but are hindered making an actual commitment to Christian faith and life.
Eleven: Faith and Reason in Historical Perspective, by David Marshall and Timothy McGrew (start page 148)
The burden of this chapter is to demonstrate from Christian history (using quotations from church fathers, for example) that the definition of faith set forth in the preceding chapter and again here (“trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true, in the face of difficulties” ) is soundly within the historical Christian mainstream, and that “for nearly two millennia many of the greatest names in the Christian tradition have grounded faith in reason and evidence” (149). If you doubt that past Christian leaders whose writings have reached us thought rigorous reasoning and use of evidence were good things to use when promoting and defending the faith, this chapter should help you past that doubt.
Though the chapter is worthwhile reading, as is every chapter of this text to at least some degree (and most to a considerable degree), I would comment on a couple items. the first is the above-quoted reference to faith being “grounded…in reason and evidence” (149). Since trust in reason (including rationally interpreted evidence) is itself grounded in faith (as shown in more than one place above and in parts of True Reason), we are dealing here (it seems) with mutual or reciprocal grounding. The faith in (the living and true) God that is ground of “all human predication” (to borrow Van Til’s favorite way of putting it) is in turn confirmed and supported (made more clear and evident) by the very reasoning that depends upon it. (This ultimate grounding faith, I should reiterate, may not be consciously owned by the person benefiting from the reason it makes possible, so that this faith is not saving. It is there in all God’s image-bearers, nonetheless.)
One additional item. In their discussion of Justin Martyr (151-153), Marshall and McGrew point out how “Justin also argues from facts that can be checked on with extrabiblical sources….[For instance], he cites Genesis 49:10 and urges pagan readers to check the subsequent historical facts for themselves” (153). Without doubt, using extrabiblical evidences when available to confirm and support the Christian case is legitimate; this should not be controversial.
I do have some questions, however: If there are no extrabiblical checks available to confirm what Scripture says, should Christians still believe it? Should they still hold that unbelievers should believe what Scripture says, and that those unbelievers are accountable to God if they fail to do so? Finally, if extrabiblical evidence seems to contradict what Scripture says, and review of what Scripture says (within itself, on its own terms as an inspired, authoritative, inerrant, sufficient, perspicuous closed canon) does not suggest that we have been misreading it, should Christians still believe what Scripture says and seek to reinterpret the extrabiblical evidence accordingly, or should they give up their commitment to read the Bible on its own terms (see prior parenthetical) and search out ways to interpret it differently?
“Rather than beginning from epistemological distinctions, categorical evidential argumentation, or classical apologetics strategies,” as do other chapters of True Reason, “we will here be exploring what it means to live in light of one’s beliefs. What do our beliefs—specifically, the belief options of naturalism or Christianity—look like ‘on the ground,’ practically, relationally?” (168) So Youngs sets forth the purpose of this chapter. Youngs notes how “questions of ultimate concern” (“Where did everything come from?…What is the meaning of life?” etc. [166, emphasis removed]) are “questions without which we would have no foundation from which to answer anything” (166). (This wording calls to my mind a statement by Van Til that “unless you believe in God you can logically believe in nothing else” [Why I Believe in God, rev. ed. (1976)]. “Is the God revealed in the Bible real?” would seem to be the question of ultimate concern here.)
Youngs’ approach in this excellent chapter draws upon an observation by philosopher Charles S. Pierce, which observation Youngs restates this way: “a conviction’s existence is most clearly indicated by the actions and habits of people who claim to hold that conviction” (172). In light of this observation, one seems justified questioning the viability (not to mention what seems to the primary focus of Pierce’s observation, the sincerity) of any belief system whose adherents find that, in the practical matters of everyday life, they must act contrary to if they are to function. This chapter nicely demonstrates that the belief system of naturalism, unlike Christianity, fails in just this way. As Youngs summarizes (with some clarification of my own),
The question to be asked…is, what view of the world makes the most sense of this reality in our experience? Is it a philosophy that cannot articulate a basis for evaluating other beliefs, formulating moral norms, or describing the relationship between beliefs and actions? Or is it a belief system [Christianity] founded on an ultimate and external-to-self source for truth, goodness, and action? Naturalism offers the former [hence the failure of anyone to live according to its full implications, in either their thinking or their actions]….Christianity, and philosophy based upon it, offers the latter: a sun to see by [and that one can genuinely live according to].
This chapter corrects the popular misconception, much promoted by the New Atheists, that Christianity and science are at odds. On the historical side, in addition to noting the importance of Christian belief to the work of assorted scientists (191), it corrects the popular historical myth that Galileo was severely punished by a superstitious church because the Copernican model he favored (with the sun replacing earth in the center of things) conflicted with church dogma. In fact, it appears Galileo’s main problems were arrogance, poor social skills, and willingness to violate agreements; and, in any case, “house arrest” with a church pension and freedom to conduct scientific work not related to heliocentrism hardly qualifies as inhumane, tortuous punishment (193-4).
On the philosophical side, the chapter displays how Christianity coheres with (justifies, supports, ratifies, and, historically speaking, inclined persons in the West to believe and act upon) presuppositions essential to the scientific enterprise, as well as how naturalism in fact undermines these science-essential presuppositions. Though much of this material is reminiscent of other chapters, it still merits separate study for its persuasive coverage of some additional aspects of the issue (and, of course, as reinforcement).
A minor flaw near the end of the paper might be noted, however. “It’s not Christianity that is at odds with science—it’s naturalism” (197-8, emphasis added). So far, so good. Then McDowell quotes Alvin Plantinga, prefacing his quotation (which I’ll reproduce here) with the opinion that in it “Plantinga sets the record straight”:
People like Dawkins believe there is a conflict between science and religion because they think there is a conflict between evolution and theism; the truth of the matter, however, is that the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and belief in God. (198; emphasis on “theism” and “belief in God” added)Now, “theism” is not precisely the same thing as “Christianity.” There are some among us who have never been persuaded that the Genesis creation account can legitimately be made to accommodate evolution, no matter how successfully clever and creative accommodators are winning converts among professing Christians. Evolution, then, is incompatible with at least one school of Christianity, and that school holds that “Christianity as it should be” is that faith that embraces the entire body of truth taught by Scripture. This Christianity, at least, is in conflict with evolution. As it also considers evolution bad science, it does not consider itself in conflict with science, one should note.
On the positive side, an interesting implication of Plantinga’s observation, in combination with content in other chapters of Pure Reason, is that the evolutionary tale of life’s origin and development, so central to the New Atheists’ (and others’) rejection of “the God hypothesis,” in fact can only be made to seem rational on theistic grounds. However distasteful we creationists may find theistic evolution, it amuses us to observe that it is in fact the only sort of evolution that can ostensibly claim viability.
This chapter continues defense of the compatibility of the Christian system with scientific endeavor. Importantly, it refutes the atheist accusation that belief in a God who interacts with his creation would confound belief in the uniformity of nature, one of the presuppositions essential to science. Three parts of that refutation are these (my numbering, combining two of Gilson’s points into one): (1) Noting that the God of the Bible is one who communicates with (reveals himself to) his creatures, Gilson draws upon communication theory’s concepts of noise and signal. Briefly stated, if too much noise makes its way into a transmitted signal, whoever received the signal is unable to interpret it: communication fails. Were God to too frequently disrupt the otherwise orderly processes of nature, his disruptions would become noise, so that neither they nor nature itself would any longer serve as his means of communicating (202). (2) An orderly cosmos only reveals a rational God if the order is maintained almost all of the time; miraculous interventions only reveal God if they remain rare. (3) Additionally, too frequent divine intervention would work against humans becoming responsible moral agents or learning from experience in any way, as one can hardly make responsible decisions if one cannot reliably predict the result of one’s actions, and one cannot learn from experience if the future cannot be depended upon to be like the past (202-3).
Additionally, the chapter points out that, among the world’s creation stories, “the Judeo-Christian view of creation is unique” in comporting with the scientific enterprise: “Only in the first chapters of Genesis do we have an account of creation that is fully ruled by its Creator’s mind, yet remains separate from it: rationally ordered, but not animized” (204). This view enabled science to arise in the West. Compare the view of origins in modern science, which “removes mind from origins completely” (Ibid.). Gilson wonders: “What early natural philosopher, looking at nature as such an essentially mindless thing and never having seen science succeeding, would have even thought to look for a rational order in nature?” (Ibid.) Excellent question.
Atheists will often argue that the existence of a good and all-powerful God is shown impossible or unlikely by the existence of evil (evil human actions, natural events with evil consequences for guiltless persons, etc.). DePoe seeks in this chapter to show this is not the case because there exist “morally sufficient reasons” for a good and all-powerful God to have allowed the evil we find in the world. The reasons DePoe offers are (1) “Evil Is Necessary for Character Development” (208-212) and (2) “Evil Is Necessary for Free Will” (212-221). I leave detailed study of DePoe’s overall arguments to the reader. What I want to do here is specifically address aspects of DePoe’s presentation of reason 2 (“…Free Will”) that I find questionable or objectionable.
“Reasonable Christian Responses” should be soundly biblical ones, I should think, not generically theistic ones. The “a universe with creatures who have free will is better than one where they do not; but, alas, not even God can prevent evil choices and consequences by creatures exercising their free wills” argument has never impressed me as particularly biblical, appealing though it may be to the broadly theistic. Scripture seems very strongly to teach that everything that happens, including evil decisions for which those making them are nevertheless morally culpable, happens according to God’s sovereign decree (Acts 2:23; Romans 9; Ephesian 1:11; Proverbs 16:9; Isaiah 46:10; and so on). The assumption that DePoe seems to make is that moral culpability can only exists where one is “free” in a way that lets one act against the decree of one’s creator. “When a person is free,” DePoe insists, “the person is the ultimate cause of his own actions. If an omnipotent Being brought free agents into existence….if these creatures are truly free, then, not even God can causally determine the outcome of their free choices. Therefore, an omnipotent being cannot create free agents and causally determine them to choose to do good all the time [or, presumably, to make any specific choices]” (216, emphasis added). (DePoe’s reference to God’s powerlessness to foreordain specifically good choices arises from the context, where DePoe is attempting to refute an atheist argument that a good and omnipotent God cannot or is unlikely to exist given that human beings have not been created such that they always choose good. DePoe apparently grants that, if God could foreordain “free” human choices and actions, he certainly would have foreordained only good choices and actions.) DePoe’s position does indeed have great intuitive appeal; but where precisely does Scripture support it?
If one is going to argue that “not even God can” predetermine actions for which actors are nevertheless morally responsible, one really ought to show biblical warrant for this “Christian” argument, not simply work from an autonomous assumption that divine predetermination (foreordination) and moral responsibility are incompatible because the only persons who can be morally responsible for their actions are those who are “genuinely free” in the sense that they exercise a will beyond the “causal” control of even God (so that one’s own will, not God’s decree, is “ultimate”). Our mortal inability to think of any way “free moral agents” could be subject to certain predetermination without being mere “automata with no ability to freely govern their own actions” (214) does not justify using our understanding of the causation we’ve observed in the created world (such as that governing “Trees, comets, and robots” ) to limit what sorts of causation we deem possible for the One who created and transcends that world. Can we say that however God predetermines the free choices and actions of humans (free in a way sufficient for moral responsibility, though not “free” in the arbitrary “ultimate” sense DePoe demands), he must do so in a way wholly unlike any type of predetermination (causation) we have observed in our creaturely experience? I do not doubt this. “The Calvinist [biblical] notion of divine sovereignty” after all, “has nothing to do with the philosopher’s notion of physical, causal determination” (Cornelius Van Til, “My Credo,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til , 16.) Can we use the understanding of “freedom” and “determination” we’ve inferred from our limited creaturely experience, or from our creaturely intuition (or sense of “the self-evident”), to declare what God can and cannot do, what qualifies as “genuine freedom,” and the like, as DePoe does? If we wish to behave as Bible-believing Christians for whom Scripture, not creaturely experience and intuition, is the ultimate authority, I do not think we can.
Though “free will” of a non-ultimate sort does exist within the biblical (Calvinist) context, so that much of DePoe’s argument might be adapted to fit the biblical position (committed Calvinists do use versions of this “free will defense,” just not worded quite the way DePoe words his version), my own inclination is to simply note that human inability to identify with certainty God’s “morally sufficient” reasons for allowing (in fact, foreordaining) evil in no way proves that God lacks such reasons. (After all, are humans really qualified to say what God “could” and “could not” foreordain consistent with non-ultimate but morally responsible human freedom? Does the approach of the book of Job suggest that the pious should make pronouncements about hows and whys that God has not chosen to address in his written revelation?) The “problem of evil” needn’t present an insuperable difficulty for the believing Christian, even the Christian who holds without compromise to a fully biblical (Calvinist) understanding of God’s comprehensive sovereignty; it is simply an enigma that human minds may not be able to solve given the limited information God has provided in Scripture. The difficulty facing atheists who would appeal to “evil” as disproof of God is more serious, however, since it is unclear how the Christian-theistic concepts of “good” and “evil” maintain their objective quality when retained by atheists who reject the believing heritage that ensured there was more really to these concepts than prevalent sentiment and personal preference. So far as I can see, if God (that is, the biblical God who has actually revealed moral truths to humans) did not exist, both “good” and “evil” would simply be varieties of “things that happen to be,” and the worst sociopaths would be the persons most wholly “in tune” with the real world of nature, with all generally “good, decent” people (theists, atheists, and agnostics) simply being instinctively and/or by training “out of touch” with the amoral cosmos.
As he opens this chapter, Hardman laments the New Atheism’s “poor understanding of the interplay between the New Testament and history,” adding that “the number of times I have heard atheists say Jesus of Nazareth probably didn’t even exist…suggests that the term ‘dogmatic’ may apply to certain militant atheists as well as it does to certain militant evangelicals (from whom, I suspect, the trait often originates…). Despite,” he adds, “what either fundamentalist group may popularize, the relationship between Scripture and history is often much more dynamic than they would wish to admit” (225). Though I groaned when I read this, and still groan when I reread it, it does at least get closer to defining “fundamentalist” than usages of the term elsewhere in True Reason. Judging from what Hardman says here, fundamentalists, whether evangelicals or atheists, are “dogmatic” and “militant.” To be “dogmatic” means, apparently, not just to be firm and uncompromising, but to reject in an obscurant way historical facts widely agreed upon by “scholars.” While I’m glad to finally get some further indication of what True Reason‘s intermittent references to presumed-bad “fundamentalism” are about, I must note that this paralleling of “dogmatic” evangelicals, also known by Hardman as “militants” and ”fundamentalists,” with “dogmatic” New Atheists (“militant” or “fundamentalist” atheists), misses at least one very important distinction. Persons having as their guiding authority an infallible, sufficient, perspicuous, God-breathed verbal revelation are, however much persons who always find themselves “drifting more toward a middle-ground perspective on things” (226) may find such “dogmatism” distasteful, being perfectly self-consistent when they refuse to compromise what they have concluded, after careful and prayerful study, are the teachings of that revelation. Uncompromising adherence to a God-breathed authority makes perfect sense, provided one believes in God-breathed authority. Dogmatic atheists, on the other hand, are not being consistent, since atheists have no God-breathed authority, only whatever opinions their own minds, interacting with (on their account) a merely material universe, happen to have formed.
Of course, someone who publishes on The BioLogos Forum (248 note 2)—which has as a driving project (if I recall correctly) the promotion of belief in evolution among Christians, including (naturally enough) promotion of all the hermeneutical gymnastics required to ostensibly justify simultaneous acceptance of evolutionary theory and profession of “a high view of Scripture”—could hardly be expected to show great respect for persons still committed to “The overly literalist framework in which [Hardman himself] was taught to read [but presumably no longer reads] the Bible,” a framework Hardman says “has often proved insufficient and unsatisfying to me as an interpreter and historian” (225). In Hardman’s view, New Atheist criticisms of the gospel records miss the point because they are often crafted in response to “popular misconceptions [about the nature of the gospels as history, apparently] harbored on the extreme [Christian] right,” meaning (I presume) among the “overly literalistic” and “militant” sorts Hardman finds so distasteful (226). Apparently as a corrective to this perceived problem, Hardman does not wish “to argue for biblical inerrancy,” but only for “the general reliability of the Synoptic gospels in what they tell us about Jesus of Nazareth” (Ibid.). He also stresses that “there is no need to sacrifice higher biblical criticism on the altar of evangelicalism,” whatever that means, apparently because, in Hardman’s opinion, “critical scholarship has done much to benefit our knowledge of Scripture” (Ibid.).
Bible-believers, I suspect, will not at this point be particularly enthusiastic about reading Hardman’s essay. And, I admit, the soft-and-squishy opening material makes this the chapter I would least recommend of all the chapters in True Reason. Nevertheless, once you get past this stuff at the beginning, you will find some useful materials. Those materials cover three topics: (1) the question of miracles and of supernaturalism versus naturalism in historical investigation; (2) the question of oral tradition (to what extent were the gospels transmitted orally and is that cause for concern?); and (3) the question of whether and to what extent the gospel writers intended to write true-to-what-really-happened accounts, and whether and to what extent they succeeded in doing so. Topic 1 presents a case that, in historical investigation, “True objectivity must allow for all options to be present on the table,” including non-naturalistic (supernatural) explanations (229). While by no means the best treatment of this topic I’ve seen, it is sufficiently informative to merit review.
Topic 2 is a fairly interesting exploration of critical questions about oral tradition and the gospels. The basic idea, in a discussion where the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the gospel writers is not discussed, is that the nature of oral cultures, customary practices in the transmission of materials orally (particularly as seen in the transmission of teaching from rabbis to their disciples), and the fact that the Synoptics appear to have been committed to final written form because eyewitnesses, who had been present throughout the years of dominantly (not exclusively) oral transmission (making free community invention of material wholly implausible), were dying out, making a fixed record important in a way it had not been previously.
Topic 3 makes a case that, indeed, the Synoptic writers intended to write true-to-what-really-happened accounts, Luke “intending to write a historically reliable account…within the framework of Greek historiography” (245), and Mark and Matthew writing “Greco-Roman biographies” (247). As for how well they succeeded, beyond the fact that they had what they needed to make success possible (for example, Luke “was writing within a time frame that would have allowed him to know and interview the eyewitnesses” ), the test-case of Luke is promising: “Where we can test him, Luke has turned out to have a keen and critical eye toward both the rise of the early church and Jesus’ ministry” (Ibid.).
As Robert Reymond has observed, commitment to the Bible as God’s own word does indeed obligate us to read all its parts in a way that harmonizes with all its other parts and with its entirety (Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2 ed. , 49-52). Flannagan’s insistence, following Wolterstorff, that the accounts of Joshua and Judges must be understood in a way that finds them in agreement about what “really happened” is thus not objectionable. While “the plain sense” of scriptures should never be overturned to accommodate ideas imported from outside Scripture (moral, scientific, philosophical), the reality that Scripture as a whole is an infallible semantic unity, all parts of which must be understood in a harmonious sense, does permit (even require) understanding some passages in other than what would seem their “plain sense” if read in isolation. This chapter’s argument is that the conquest accounts in Joshua, read in light of the rest of Scripture (specifically, in light of the book of Judges, part of Joshua’s most immediate canonical context), are among those passages where such an “other than [when read in isolation] plain sense” reading is required. The chapter similarly argues that seemingly “genocidal” commands in Deuteronomy (commands that appear fulfilled in a literally-read Joshua) should also be interpreted figuratively in order to harmonize them with the figurative reading of Joshua and with more literal readings of Judges and Exodus.
Granted that this exercise is hermeneutically permissible on the Bible-believing grounds just outlined, I confess to some discomfort with the Wolterstorff-Flannagan solution. Is there, I wonder, no harmonization of the various accounts that reads all of them in more nearly “the plain sense” than does this harmonization? How were these tensions dealt with before Wolterstorff made his proposal? Were they dealt with at all? Flannagan’s appeals to Ancient Near East (ANE) parallels to bolster the argument increases my discomfort, since an implicit suggestion in his presentation of them seems to be that God’s inspired words in Joshua are no more trustworthy or true-to-reality than the similarly expressed accounts of pagan writers of the time. This discomfort may be unwarranted, but I can’t help but wonder if there is a point at which Bible-believing readers must resist suggestions that words inspired by God be interpreted in terms of similarly expressed pagan (uninspired) accounts of the time. For instance, the clear implication of part of Flannagan’s discussion (264) seems to be that we should not believe that the walls of Jericho really fell as described (Joshua 6:1-20), since such falling-of-walls was among the figurative conventions of pagan ANE accounts that resemble Joshua. (Apparently, the writer of Hebrews was unaware of this: Hebrews 11:30.) Nor, it seems, should we believe that “Joshua’s long day” (Joshua 10:13-14) occurred, since such was also an ANE convention for war histories, “part of the common hyperbolic rhetoric of warfare rather than descriptions of what actually occurred” (264). Should Bible-believers be comfortable with these suggestions (and others like them)? (Can the inspired use of the story of Jericho in Hebrews be squared with an approach to Joshua that makes the account literally untrue?) How, if at all, should the divine inspiration of Joshua be taken into account when deciding the relevance of similar-seeming uninspired pagan writings? Doesn’t the fact that, from the believing perspective, Old Testament scriptures are breathed out by God, whereas “parallel” writings of ANE pagan peoples are purely human creations, suggest that the Old Testament scriptures must be read somewhat differently from the ANE pagan writings?
Whether further reflection and study will allay or increase my discomfort with aspects of Flannagan’s argument remains to be seen; overall, however, that argument does not seem radically at odds with the sort of harmonization Bible-believers are obligated to pursue when dealing with seemingly incompatible passages. It is an interesting argument which, I think, merits one’s reading and reflection, though probably not rapid, uncritical adoption as one’s own viewpoint.
In order to correct a belief prevalent among the New Atheists, that the Bible sanctions the sort of slavery once practiced in our nation, this chapter first surveys what the Bible actually says about slavery, then surveys Christian history to see how those who believe the Bible have responded to slavery.
Sunshine’s survey of the biblical material demonstrates that, in the case of the Old Testament (288-9), a number of things contradict the prevalent misconception. (1) The laws of Israel provided protections and helps for the poor lacking in other nations, so that one common cause for people ending up in slavery (lack of means to feed themselves and their families) was made less prevalent. (2) If Israelites still ended up having to sell themselves into slavery to survive, this slavery was not permanent, making “slavery” in Israel “closer to indentured servitude than to the slavery of other nations or the American South” (288-9). (3) Slaves in Israel did not surrender their personhood or become mere property masters could abuse with impunity; rather, their rights were protected by God’s law. (4) Though the law did permit holding foreigners as slaves permanently, it appears their rights were otherwise protected in the same way as those of Israelite slaves. (5) God’s law required the Israelites to protect escaped slaves from foreign countries and imposed the death penalty on anyone who kidnapped others to sell them into slavery.
As for the New Testament, Sunshine points out the important fact that, had “the New Testament authors called for abolition,” it is certain “The Roman government would have interpreted it as incitement to insurrection, and the slaves might have taken it that way themselves,” resulting not in “freedom for the slaves, but rather a bloody crackdown and slaughter as had happened in several other slave rebellions” (291). The New Testament does, of course, instruct slaves to be obedient to their masters, but (I note) this no more indicates approval of slavery than Scripture’s instruction to obey the laws of the land suggests that all the laws of Rome had God’s approval. As well, The New Testament identifies slaves as the spiritual and moral equals of their masters, encourages slaves to take advantage of opportunities to become free should they arise, and condemns slave traders in 1 Timothy 1:10 (290).
In the historical survey (291-299), one learns that from the beginning Christians made efforts to free slaves in ways that would not disrupt the societies they lived in, such as by buying slaves for the purpose of freeing them. As well, from the beginning, slaves were treated as persons and permitted in positions of church leadership. During the Middle Ages, slavery was virtually eliminated, replaced by much less oppressive (though hardly ideal) feudal arrangements. The West turned again to slavery in the mid- to late-1400s because there was money to be made, ignoring papal bulls demanding those enslaved be freed. Eventually, the distaste for slavery that large numbers of Christians had always felt was joined to a growing realization that complete elimination of slavery was a goal that could be pursued without causing social or economic collapse. Though some Christians in the American South argued for retention of slavery on what they thought plausible biblical grounds, contemporaneous opponents of slavery also offered biblical arguments, and the abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly a movement of Christian activists. In the end, it was Christians, not atheists or other “freethinkers,” who freed the slaves.
Of all the chapters in Pure Reason, this is the only one where I can think of no criticisms to offer. It is edifying reading.
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