Coffeehouse apologetics

Paul Copan’s new book When God Goes to Starbucks has been been announced; with a release date set for August 1. Copan is a philosophy professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and also the President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He’s a penetrating writer (many of his published articles are available at his site) and the book looks to be an accessible and thoughtful response to the common intellectual snares put forward against the Christian worldview. Copan has particular expertise in dealing with ethical issues and from a glance at the chapter headings, his book seems to mirror that leaning with some attention to the relativistic morass that has engulfed our society. Coffee-imbibers or not, anyone who is wrestling with the deep moral quandaries bound up with Christianity should find When God Goes to Starbucks a good resource.

Part I: Slogans Related to Truth and Reality

1. Why Not Just Look Out for Yourself?
2. Do What You Want—Just as Long as You Don’t Hurt Anyone
3. Is It Okay to Lie to Nazis?

Part II: Slogans Related to Worldviews

4. Why Is God So Arrogant and Egotistical?
5. Miracles Are Unscientific
6. Only Gullible People Believe in Miracles
7. Don’t People from All Religions Experience God?
8. Does the Bible Condemn Loving, Committed Homosexual Relationships?
9. Aren’t People Born Gay?
10. What’s Wrong with Gay Marriage?

Part III: Slogans Related to Christianity

11. How Can the Psalmists Say Such Vindictive, Hateful Things?
12. Aren’t the Bible’s “Holy Wars” Just Like Islamic Jihad? Part One
13. Aren’t the Bible’s “Holy Wars” Just Like Islamic Jihad? Part Two
14. Aren’t the Bible’s “Holy Wars” Just Like Islamic Jihad? Part Three
15. Was Jesus Mistaken about an Early Second Coming? Part One
16. Was Jesus Mistaken about an Early Second Coming? Part Two
17. Why Are Christians So Divided? Why So Many Denominations?

(source – Parchment and Pen)

William Lane Craig in Tauranga

Last Wednesday, July 18, Thinking Matters Tauranga hosted Dr William Lane Craig at Bethlehem Community Church’s new meeting facility. Craig presented two lectures; the first on the importance of apologetics, and the second on whether belief in God is reasonable. For a mid-week, mid-afternoon event, the first lecture garnered more people than were expected; about 100. This was encouraging to see, especially as there were not a few teenagers and young adults in the crowd. The second lecture filled the meeting facility to capacity, with a little over 200 people (if I recall correctly). It was essentially a re-presentation of the same five arguments which Bill used in his debate in Auckland, so I won’t go into detail describing it, as Jason has already blogged the Auckland events.

In any case, the first lecture was by far the better one for me. Bill talked about whether or not apologetics is necessary for evangelism, arguing that although it is not strictly required, it is very frequently a means used by God to bring about conversions. He strongly criticized those Christians who say that apologetics is not needed, or even is not biblical, pointing out that although God doesn’t strictly need apologetics to convert people’s hearts, practicing it certainly is biblical, and it is one of the primary means that God does use. He further argued that evangelism is not conducted in a vacuum, and that apologetics is necessary to maintain Christianity’s place as an intellectually respectable position in the modern world—particularly in universities, where society’s movers and shakers are largely created.

Having talked about the importance of apologetics for affirming Christianity to non-Christians, he then went on to talk about its importance for affirming Christianity to Christians. This is something particularly close to my heart, as most of my own writing is directed toward believers—and not necessarily with the primary aim of equipping them to defeat non-Christians in argumentation. It is extremely important, to my mind, that Christians have rational, defensible, articulate reasons for their belief. It is tragic to hear about people who come to Christianity on an enormous emotional high, and then crash some time later because they have no more solid foundation for their faith than that emotion.

In this vein, Bill told an anecdote of an evangelist he had met while studying for the final oral exams of his theology degree. She had a natural talent for bringing people to God, not through argumentation, but by her charisma and the earnestness of her belief. She was highly successful, and it disheartened him, since he was forced to wonder if all his hard work with intellectual study was necessary. Was he barking up the wrong tree? His conclusion, provided by a friend at the time, was that no—it was extremely necessary. All those people converted by this woman would be coming to people like Bill a few years down the line, because emotion doesn’t provide reasons to believe.

This lecture meshes very well with the first issue of our journal, which will be published soon. It was very encouraging to hear one of the leading Christian apologists in the world saying the same things that we are, and it made for a truly noteworthy and appropriate launch for Thinking Matters in Tauranga. My particular thanks to Rodney Lake for his excellent work getting the Tauranga group up and running, and for organizing the event.

Craig v Cooke: The God delusion debate

The Auckland debate between Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, and atheist historian, Bill Cooke is now up on YouTube (HT: MandM). Commentary has also been available from some of those that attended the debate: Ian Wishart, Dale Campbell, and organiser Matthew Flannagan have offered their reflections on the proceedings (I particularly recommend Matt’s excellent summary). The consensus of their thoughts (and even of those without theistic sympathies) accords with the reaction of most that I talked to on the night: Craig clearly emerged as the better. He offered and defended a more rigorous case for his negation of the moot – that belief in God is not a delusion but a reasonable conclusion from the evidence. Cooke is no stranger to debates and as vice-president of the NZ association of Rationalists and Humanists I expected more from him. On the night, however, he seemed sorely absent. Cooke disparaged the format and theme of the debate, displaying throughout an unwillingness to confront the substance of Craig’s arguments and strangely even refused to respond to some of Craig’s comments during the Q and A session.

Craig marshaled five solid arguments for his position that I thought enabled a good starting point for discussion. Cooke, in his opening address, on the other hand, presented social and political commentary on the consequences of dogmatic religious belief. This was an unnecessary derailment. Of course we should always try to understand and follow the social implications of what we believe, but this is not how we settle questions of truth. Whether dogma inhibits intellectual progress, moral understanding, or religious dialogue is completely beside the point; we need to first test our beliefs against reality. The only other significant argument Cooke raised was a similarly irrelevant discussion of the origin and evolution of monothestic belief. When Craig rightly pointed this out as an instance of the genetic fallacy and dismissed Cooke’s pragmatic notion of truth, the atheist historian retreated chiefly to moral posturing for the remainder of the debate.

However, articulations of moral outrage make for a poor substitute of actual arguments. Cooke’s indignation towards Christian doctrines seemed even more hollow when he equivocated on the objectivity of morality. He decried the anthropocentricity and arrogance of religious belief and affirmed that the true spirit of humanity rests in each of us crafting our own purpose. But Cooke never presented any real metaethical foundation for this view, apart from a discussion of evolution in his rendering of the concept of “reciprocal altruism”. This was simply question-begging. Why should our instincts be followed? And why should we trust natural processes to tell us what is moral or rational? According to the evolutionary framework, our knowledge is directed to what is most conducive to our survival, not necessarily to representing things as the way they are or morally ought to be.

This was further borne out in the Q and A session, when Cooke was asked how it was that morals actually bound him. His response was in the vein of postmodern pragmatist, Richard Rorty, suggesting that we determine our morality on the basis of the reactions we get from others. Craig incisively pointed out, in response, that this is a definition of prudence, not morality. If Cooke is right; that we invent our purpose and own set of principles – what then if we believe that we won’t get caught? What would stop us from changing our principles to suit us? For if we can bind ourselves, then we can free ourselves from those same restraints, because the capacity to create moral principles rests within the same self that crafted them.

In contrast to Cooke’s groundless “cosmic humility” theory of morality, the theistic worldview gives an adequate foundation for objective morality because it is rooted in God’s character and his essential and necessary nature. Christianity provides actual justification for addressing the goals that Cooke is quite right to raise – poverty, hunger and other social inequalities in the world can be tackled because, in Christianity, each human has intrinsic worth. Each bears the image of God, invested with dignity and value as we each reflect the intrinsic value and worth of God.

Overall, Craig was more persuasive; at least one of them showed up to actually debate. Nothing summed up the night more, I think, than Cooke’s complaint about Craig’s “rational edifices” and how the Christian philosopher had anchored his arguments to the “shifting sands of science”. It would have been more satisfying if Cooke had actually provided more of a challenge to Craig but it was still a great evening. It was really exciting to see such a great number students (during the middle of exams, no less) and many others interested in these important issues.

William Lane Craig in Auckland, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

The argument for God’s existence from design in the universe has a biography of vertiginous highs and lows. Its roots travel as far back as Socrates and the ruminations of ancient thinkers such as Cicero, who wrote in De Natura Deorum; ‘What could be more clear or obvious when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity of superior intelligence?’ Since its early forms in ancient philosophy, the argument held particular favour through the middle ages and the modern world before it fell victim to the metaphysical blade of David Hume and the evolutionary theory in the twentieth century. In more recent times, with deeper scientific insight into the elegance and reliability of the laws of nature and the finely tuned physical constants necessary for life, the argument has been recovered and even responsible for swaying some of its most ardent critics (I’m thinking particularly of the intellectual conversion of Anthony Flew, one of the twentieth centuries most esteemed atheists, well-known for popularising the invisible gardener challenge against the design argument).

Many opponents however remain unconvinced. Richard Dawkins, zoologist and chair at the university of Oxford, has expended significant effort to undermine the credibility of the design hypothesis. From his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker to his more recent writings, Dawkins has contended against the Intelligent Design movement and those that see a divine mind behind the beauty and regularities of the cosmos.

Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, at a public lecture at the Bible College of New Zealand, addressed Dawkins’ discussion of the design inference and his chief objection against belief in the existence of God. Craig demonstrated that this argument, found in Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, simply does not succeed in its aspirations; its form is invalid and its failure; catastrophic.

Craig extended his assessment further and, after considering some of the other weaknesses of the syllogism, narrowed his focus to Dawkins’ third premise (“the temptation [to view the appearance of design as actual design] is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer”). Craig saw this as the most problematic step in Dawkins’ reasoning. He argued that, first of all, it was false for Dawkins to claim that one must explain the designer in order to accept the design explanation. When assessing the strength of a theory, the only test is whether the explanation is the best one.

Craig was also critical of Dawkins’ claim that the design hypothesis offers no ‘explanatory advance’ because of the supposed need for greater complexity on the part of the designer. In theory assessment, Craig maintained that simplicity is only one criteria that is used to judge an explanation. Other considerations include: explanatory power, explanatory scope, degree of ad hoc-ness, and plausibility. In certain cases, simplicity can be jettisoned when these other criteria are satisfied to high degree.

Finally, Craig argued that Dawkins most fundamental mistake was his assumption that a divine designer is comparable in complexity to the design in the universe. Craig demonstrated that this, however, is an unwarranted assumption. As a non-physical mind, God is uniquely simple and not composed of parts. What might be considered parts: self-consciousness, volition, rationality, are all essential to what makes a mind a mind. Its very nature requires all its parts to be what it is (in comparison to features of the universe which are contingent).

Craig’s discussion of the argument went for no more than fifteen to twenty minutes. The rest of the evening (an additional hour and a half) was left open for questions, which drew out some useful comments.

Understandably, most of the discussion was on Dawkins and many of his other opinions about Christianity. One member of the audience asked how the Oxford professor is viewed by present atheistic philosophers of religion. Craig mentioned in response that, those atheists he had contact with, confessed that they do in fact see Dawkins’ arguments as weak but that they are attracted by the positions that the biologist defends. Such atheists view Dawkins as a catalyst for the discussion of religious issues in popular discourse, even if they are squeamish about the incredibly sloppy arguments he employs.

Another question concerned the popularity of Dawkins and the New Atheists: given that their arguments could be refuted so easily, why were they so well received? Craig surveyed some socio-cultural considerations he believed were relevant to why the movement has had so much impact. He explained that Harris, Dawkins, and others appealed to a climate of anxiety that surrounded events of terrorism in the West. Through their exaggerated claims, the dangers of extremism and fundamentalism have became dangers that are associated with all forms of religion. And when all of religion has been cast as promoting violence, intolerance, and ignorance, the idea of eliminating religion not just from the public square, but from the private sphere becomes very attractive.

It was also asked: if Dawkins has not raised any original or particularly strong arguments against belief in God, does Christianity therefore face an even greater challenge? Must we now go beyond merely responding to individual arguments but addressing the climate the allows such opinions to flourish and find footing? This was a great question, and Craig answered it at great length, explicating the importance of apologetics and the pressing need for the church to recapture the life of the mind. This, he believed, was where the church had failed and marginalized itself.

He made the easily misinterpreted statement that the most important institution shaping society is not the church but the university. For Craig, the university is where future decision-makers and leaders are trained and taught. The university is where lawyers, journalists, and artists subsume and develop their understanding of reality, ethics, and truth. The church must see the university, therefore, as the beachhead of change. If the church truly wants to regain its influence on culture – it must first regain its influence at the university. He emphasized that Christians must look beyond mere piety and realise that the gospel will only be heard, understood and believed when the plausibility structures of society are open to Christianity as an intellectually viable option.

This led to questions about Christian engagement and the perceived conflict between science and Christianity. Craig handled these questions well, also devoting considerable time to queries surrounding evil and suffering, the land conquest of Israel in the Old Testament, and how best to mobilise the church to reverse the subculture of anti-intellectualism.

Craig’s discussion of postmodernism I also found interesting. He admitted the possibility that New Atheism was perhaps more than a challenge to the post-Enlightenment mood and could even be the early reverberations of its death knell. He argued that postmodernism has never in fact been the dominant view in society and that this is rather a “myth perpetuated by Christian youth leaders”. Scientism and verificationalism cast a long shadow over our society and Dawkins and others stand firmly within this tradition. If it was true that we live in a postmodern society, Craig argued, Dawkins’ book would never have had the positive reception that it has had.

Craig did not pull any punches on the night. His commentary on Dawkins was clinical and unsparing. He showed how the British zoologist has shirked any real investigation of the debates in the current literature and just how insubstantial his actual arguments are. Craig’s subsequent survey of the church and contemporary culture was equally sobering and really galvanized my own thinking. He is right: if the church listens to those commentators within it who say we should abandon rational presentations of the gospel, the witness and influence of the Christian community will become “utterly impotent”.

William Lane Craig in Auckland, Part 1

The perils of proximity always make it difficult to assess contemporary trends in society. However it seems difficult not to argue that, at least for the West, our age is increasingly a secular age. There has been a shift within most areas of society, such that religion has largely become irrelevant and marginalized. This transformation has not always been homogeneous. In fact, since the late 1960s, the field of philosophy has resisted this sweeping trend and exhibited a remarkable growth and influence of Christian philosophy. William Lane Craig, research professor at Talbot school of Theology, has been one of the intellectual luminaries apart of this minor resurgence.

Craig’s work on the arguments for God’s existence, understanding God’s knowledge of the future, the historicity of the resurrection and other issues have had a significant impact within the academic world (a good overview of some of his articles can be found here). He is not only a distinguished philosopher, but a renown evangelical theologian and apologist. While some of us here may disagree with a few of his peripheral theological positions, he is a fine thinker and a servant of Christ who deserves enormous respect. And given that New Zealand, very rarely, sees Christian thinkers of his depth of scholarship and experience on our shores, it is indeed exciting to have him here (for reports from earlier events of Craig’s NZ tour: Christian News New Zealand has a page set aside here).

The first Auckland event, on Monday the 16th, was at the Bible College of New Zealand on a wintry, beclouded evening. The attendance numbered at around eighty, in my estimation, which was somewhat disappointing. On the basis of both the topic and the speaker, I would have expected more. That topic was zoologist Richard Dawkins. The event, organised by Matthew Flannagan, was set up with the purpose of allowing Craig to address Dawkins’ recent claims.

Dawkins originally cut his teeth in the field of evolutionary biology but in the last few years has become popular for his assault on belief in God. His 2006 book, The God Delusion, has sold well over 1.5 million copies and has helped to crystallize the emergence of the “New Atheism” movement. In Craig’s radio interview with Kim Hill on Saturday (which can be heard here), it was interesting to hear Craig describe his lack of concern for the torrent of literature that the New Atheists have recently published – namely because of their insufficient academic roots. Clearly, however, as Christians who believe that the Biblical truth claims are intellectually justified and that faith is neither one of the world’s great evils nor that it qualifies as a mental illness (as Dawkins both suggests), we should then be ready to be able to challenge such criticism. Craig’s analysis of The God Delusion was brief but trenchant. He focused on what is the centerpiece of the The God Delusion – Dawkins’ main argument for atheism (found on pages 157 and 158):

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.
3. The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.
4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
5. We don’t have an equivalent explanation for physics.
6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.
Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

The first thing that Craig underscored was that the argument is invalid. There is no logical way for Dawkins to deduce this conclusion from the six premises. Even if charitably interpreted – not as premises of an argument but as summary statements – the argument fails to (“almost certainly”) disprove God. Craig pointed out that the design argument is only one argument for God and that a Christian has available many more for God’s existence (such as, from morals or from the resurrection of Christ) quite apart from the design hypothesis. Belief in the existence of God does not stand or fall with the design argument.

(continued in Part 2)

First Post!

As of 10.30 pm on Saturday, June 14 (New Zealand Daylight Savings Time of course), Thinking Matters is officially up and running. Although there are still tweaks to be made with the look of the site, all the major coding and design is done, and all the most troublesome kinks have been ironed out. All that remains now is to flesh out some of the navigation pages, and start posting. With any luck we’ll have a few blog articles coming in shortly, and by month’s end you can expect to see issue 1 of volume 1 of the Thinking Matters Journal.

We had hoped to have the journal ready for full publication on June 18 to coincide with the launch of Thinking Matters Tauranga, but we really wanted to include an interview with William Lane Craig in the first issue, and we’ll only be catching up with him at the Tauranga launch. So we’ve decided to take a bit of extra time to polish everything up nice and shiny, and release it at the end of the month. (I expect this will be the trend for the journal—month’s end somehow just seems like a good time to bring out new issues.)

My grateful thanks to everyone who has helped to get Thinking Matters up and running. Although it has been rather grueling, it has also been very heartening to see how God has directed what was originally a neat idea between two friends to become something real and useful. It has been particularly gratifying to see how Rodney in Tauranga has developed and initiated the study group over there. This has given us something to focus around in the future, and we eventually hope to have many such groups running throughout New Zealand.

With that in mind, let me reiterate that we’re always looking for contributors. You don’t necessarily need to write; there are many ways in which you can help. If you’re interested in lending a hand, please do email myself or Jason Kumar by clicking the ‘Contact’ link up the top.

Thinking Matters volume 1, issue 1

The first issue of the Thinking Matters Journal will be published at the end of June. The theme for our inaugural edition is “Introducing Apologetics”. We’ll focus on what apologetics is, what it involves, and why it’s important. We’ll also briefly cover the various apologetic approaches, and expand on these in the next issue.

You can subscribe to the journal RSS feed so as to receive the first issue as soon as it’s released. Each issue will also be available in PDF format, and at the end of every June from 2009 we’ll be releasing a hardcopy compendium of the year’s articles, which can be purchased through Lulu.

If you’re interested in contributing to Thinking Matters, don’t be shy. Check out our information page for prospective contributors, and if it sounds like you, contact us.