This category contains most of the information pages for Thinking Matters, such as contributor profiles, the about page, and so on.

Occam's Razor

Every now and again, some atheist will claim that Christianity is falsified by Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor is the principle of parsimony, which states that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. Basically, the Razor claims that the simplest explanation is the best. The argument forwarded by atheists is generally along the lines either that (i) God is unnecessary to explain the world as we know it, and therefore is unlikely to exist; or, more strongly, that (ii) since God is infinitely complex, the Christian explanation of reality is thus infinitely more complex than a non-theistic one, and so should be rejected by default.

It intrigues me that atheists use this as a foundation for “disproving” Christianity. Several obvious problems suggest themselves:

Question-begging

Firstly, how does (i) not beg the question against the Christian? If, in fact, the Christian is correct in asserting that God is not just necessary to explain reality, but is a necessary precondition for reality, then (i) is obviously false and doesn’t constitute an argument at all. Since the Christian has plenty of good arguments of his own which seek to prove his position, these should be evaluated on their own merits rather than dismissed on the dubious basis of parsimony.

Less obviously, (ii) also begs the question. Even if the Christian explanation is infinitely more complex by merit of entertaining an infinitely complex being, perhaps it is the case that, in this particular instance, such a being is a requirement of any rigorous and adequate explanation of reality. The atheist needs to make an argument which shows this is not the case, rather than merely asserting it.

Furthermore, what does the atheist mean by “infinitely complex being”, in reference to God? The term “infinite” is used very freely with relation to God, but is generally a qualitative term rather than a quantitative one. That is, when we say that God is “infinite”, we tend to be referring to some superlative characteristic of his, rather than to any actual number of things which inhere in him. So the atheist needs to clarify and argue for his view that God is infinitely complex.

On top of this, even if that argument is successful, he has still not shown that an infinitely complex God entails an infinitely complex explanation. In what sense is the quantitative infinity of God being imputed to the Christian’s explanation of reality? Again, clarification and argument, rather than mere assertion, are required to prove the point.

Complexity is better than simplicity

Secondly, and along similar lines to the question-begging problem, it is self-evidently the case that we can have such a thing as an explanation which is too simple, but not necessarily an explanation which is too complex. Imagine, for example, a detective trying to find an explanation for the death of a man who died from blunt trauma in a factory. It’s obvious to us that an explanation which includes a murderer is more complex than an explanation which doesn’t. According to Occam’s Razor, the detective should favor any explanation which does not needlessly multiply entities. If the death can be explained by an unfortunate mechanical accident, then there isn’t any reason to postulate a murderer. A murderer becomes a needless entity, and so the detective assumes that it was indeed an accident. That’s fair.

However, two obvious things need to be noted: firstly, an explanation which fails to include a necessary entity is too simple, and therefore is necessarily false. Imagine the dead man was 90 years old and had a heart condition. Ordinarily, natural causes would be the simplest and most likely cause of death. But there is evidence of blunt trauma; so if the detective posits a natural heart attack as the explanation for man’s death, his explanation is obviously too simple—and thus must be wrong. A blunt object is a necessary entity in the explanation.

Secondly, and on the other hand, a murderer could have killed the man in such a way as to make the death appear accidental. So the fact that the explanation without a murderer is more simple does not guarantee its truth; and the fact that the explanation with a murderer is more complex does not guarantee its falsehood. In fact, we can imagine a fantastic and highly unlikely explanation for the man’s death, involving any number of entities that the detective would never think of, which was nonetheless true.

So an over-simple theory must be wrong, but an “over”-complex theory might be right. There are plenty of good arguments to show that a non-theistic explanation of reality is over-simple in such a way that it must be false. I hope to discuss more of these in the Philosophy section of Thinking Matters Talk as time goes on.

Occam’s Razor has no grounds in a non-theistic worldview

The last and most convincingly troublesome problem for the atheist is that Occam’s Razor itself, on which his objection is based, really has no grounds whatsoever in a non-theistic worldview. The atheist wants to say that we should not multiply entities needlessly. A Christian may well agree with him, because he knows from revelation (both special and general) that God typically does not act in a needlessly complicated way. He has designed the universe to act consistently, and in a way which is fairly straightforward, even in its complexity. He has also designed our senses and intellects in such a way that we can apprehend the way the world works, and discover things about it. Most importantly, he has built into us certain expectations about the world, such that our intuitions generally match up to reality. Thus we have grounds for affirming Occam’s Razor.

But an atheist has no such grounds. In a non-rational universe, whether mechanistic or probabilistic, what possible reason could he have for asserting that simpler explanations are better? Why should they be? As a rule of thumb, at least fifty percent of the time we should expect the more complex explanations to true. There isn’t any physical law of parsimony such that the universe must operate in such a way that simpler explanations are better, is there? So on what basis does the atheist assert Occam’s Razor at all?

He could say that, historically, the simpler explanations have been true. And maybe this is so. But then why does he think that this will continue to be the case? After all, we know very little of the universe, and we haven’t been around very long in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps our history is an aberration, and in fact it is a general rule that the likelihood of an explanation being true tends to rise with its complexity. How can he know this isn’t the case?

In truth, he affirms Occam’s Razor because his God-given intuitions suggest very strongly to him that it’s true. Unfortunately, because his intuitions are indeed God-given, he is most certainly misapplying them in using them as a basis for objecting to God’s existence.

The purpose of Thinking Matters and apologetics

Darryl Burling recently asked the Thinking Matters Contributor mailing list,

What is the purpose of thinking matters? I know the answer that is here, but what I want to understand is what constitutes success? What is the purpose of “examin[ing] and explain[ing] the defense of the Christian faith”? I have my ideas but want to know what others think.

1. The purpose of Thinking Matters is primarily to provide a “common area” for New Zealand apologists. Our aim is to give some focus to the various individuals and groups in New Zealand who would otherwise be doing their own thing without much awareness of the efforts of others. In that vein, I think we’ve been fairly successful already; although admittedly we need a new injection of enthusiasm to galvanize some further action.

2. Because of (1), the purpose of apologetics is not something that Thinking Matters, as an organization, has taken a specific position on. I think it has, so far, been sufficient simply that we all agree apologetics is necessary and important. The views of the individuals who contribute to TM may differ on the precise purpose of apologetics—some widely. Similarly, our views on apologetics methodology may differ. As you know, I’m strongly presuppositional. But to be a well-rounded apologetics organization, I think we also need some classical and evidential apologists filling out the mix.

3. For my own part, I believe that apologetics is an important pre-evangelical, and post-evangelical discipline.

(i) In terms of pre-evangelism, apologetics is often necessary to remove the epistemic defeaters to Christian belief. Since faith is rational, we cannot expect it to obtain in situations which would render it irrational; such as when people hold strong beliefs which contradict that faith. This is especially important given that we aren’t living in a Christian society any more, but a post-Christian one. People are increasingly skeptical of Christian faith-claims because they increasingly (a) fail to understand them, and (b) are influenced by scientism/modernism (I don’t believe post-modernism has actually had the societal effect some people think it has had). Apologetics in this context isn’t only or even perhaps primarily about laying the groundwork for evangelism itself; as you commented to me privately, the rational defense of the faith is a necessary condition for “ensuring ongoing freedom to be Christian in an increasingly hostile, left brained, rational and intellectual world.” Christianity needs champions in the academic arena to show that our faith is intellectually justified and defensible. This is very important in the universities in particular, since they are the breeding grounds for the upcoming movers and shakers in society—and they are largely secular.

(ii) In terms of post-evangelism, apologetics is extremely important for dealing with doubts, and for growing in faith. Again, faith is rational—so where defeaters exist for it, cognitive dissonance occurs. This can be really damaging; especially for people who are converted through more emotional and less intellectual means. A lot of people have powerful conversion experiences, but then later when they start to really think about their faith, and perhaps share it with others, they encounter a lot of objections and doubts. This is especially true online, where there are lots of New Atheists who are highly hostile to Christianity, and have prima facie reasonable objections to faith, backed up by a lot of attitude which replaces the work of actual reasoning and underwrites the appearance of a righteously indignant worldview which opposes Christianity because it is so irrational. Without apologetics, this can be fatal to faith. Christians need to know that (a) doubts are not sinful; and (b) that answers do exist. And currently, I don’t believe that most pastors in New Zealand are actually equipped to provide the sorts of answers that some Christians may need. A lot of questions are not really considered seriously and addressed, so much as dismissed and swept under the rug (particularly in less conservative churches; I think Pentecostalism has a lot to answer for with its generally anti-intellectual, emotion-based faith).

Note that none of this is to say that faith is only rational. Thinking Matters’ declaration of belief is thoroughly Reformed in its view (albeit implied) that faith is an actual ontological change caused by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the new believer. However, it’s important to still affirm that faith is rational; and that because it is rational, doubts will occur where certain presuppositions or beliefs conflict with it. Apologetics is a means God uses to defeat unbelief, and to then preserve the saints in faith.

That’s my view, at least. Other contributors are welcome to chip in with their own.

Five Questions Evolutionists Would Rather Dodge

imageBy William Dembski

Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski presents five questions evolutionists would rather dodge in this excellent quick resource for dealing with evolutionary theory.

This includes (i) the fossil record, (ii) natural selection, (iii) detecting design, (iv) molecular machines, and (v) testability.

Download the PDF here.

Enjoy.

Apologize to Charles Darwin?

A senior cleric of the Church of England wants his church to apologize to Charles Darwin in time for the observance of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth next year. The Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the church, made his case in an article entitled, “Good Religion Needs Good Science,” published in a special new section of the Church of England’s official Web site.

Apologize to Charles Darwin? On today’s program, Dr. Mohler says the Church of England may well need to apologize, but not to Charles Darwin. If anything, the church needs to apologize for its rightful embarrassment in considering an apology to Darwin.

MP3 is here.

Original here.

Calendar

Thinking Matters Events Calendar

Is Intelligent Design science? A response to Ken Perrott

I recently wrote on the question ‘Is intelligent design scientific?’ responding to some comments by Dale Campbell, attached to kiwi atheist Ken Perrott’s article ‘A new science bashing campaign?’ This generated a lot of feedback, and Ken has now posted a follow-up article titled, ‘Redefining science by inference’. I’d encourage you to read this before reading my response below. I’ll structure this response according to the headings Ken has used.

The arrogance of science-bashers

Firstly, I think it needs to be pointed out how Ken is framing this issue. He’s couching the question in terms of “science-bashing”, so that anyone who promotes ID is not only mistaken, but actually an anti-science zealot with an agenda to proselytize. Now, to a certain extent his defensive attitude is understandable. In my own opinion, many ID advocates have made a poor name for themselves in the public square precisely because of this sort of tactic. I tend to agree with Ken’s criticism that this is hypocritical, and with his concern that ID tends to be about tearing down evolution rather than building up any useful positive arguments of its own.

However, the push-back from the scientific community is no less prejudicial and no less ideologically-motivated. Since Ken is responding specifically to my own comments, I find his couching the matter in terms of “science-bashing” to be disappointing. I am not anti-science. True, my philosophical views about science hold it in a lower regard than most scientists would like. I hold the propositional revelation of God above the procedural revelation of his creation, and as the lens through which to interpret it. Science is not a means toward discovering ultimate truths. It is a tool for interacting with and manipulating the world. But by merit of this fact, I obviously do not deny its usefulness (on the contrary, I affirm it), and I am not shrilly paranoid about its ability to advance our understanding of the world in many ways. I am realistic about its shortcomings and limitations (such as its philosophical commitment to naturalism), and about how these will color and affect its conclusions and theories. But I am not anti-science.

It also needs to be said that Ken’s analogy is really poor. He likens ID advocates to people who criticize the methodology or philosophy of their plumbers and motor mechanics. But plumbers and motor mechanics fix relatively simple systems which have been designed. This is markedly different from scientists, who try to develop systematic explanations for highly complex systems which supposedly have not been designed. (Dentists, the third example, can at least be said to fix relatively simple systems, even if the origin of these is a matter of dispute.) The analogy might seem superficially persuasive, but in Ken’s own words there is an “abrupt discontinuity” between it and the reality it’s supposed to represent. It’s just not an equitable comparison.

Playing with words

Getting into the meat of the objections Ken raises, the accusation that proponents of ID “play with words” or try to “redefine science” is pretty common. In my view, the accusation says more about the ignorance or misunderstandings which scientists have of the philosophy behind their own discipline than about the intentions of those arguing for intelligent design. If ID proponents are arrogant, scientists have a certain superciliousness of their own as regards the relationship between science and philosophy. This is pretty well indicated in Ken’s post, when he talks about “the honest scientific process” as compared to the “word play” of ID supporters; one which has clear facts behind it, and one which clouds and confuses those facts.

The truth of the matter is that the process of science is not detached from the philosophy of science; yet the scientists themselves are detached from not only the philosophy of their field, but also its history. Perhaps this is understandable, but it’s still unfortunate, because it leads to a great deal of prejudice against any questions which can’t be tested in the lab (so to speak). ID is pretty much exclusively a philosophical issue—but it’s a philosophical issue regardless of which side you stand on. Scientists seem blind to this fact, however, because they hold to the side which asserts a naturalistic explanation. Since naturalistic explanations are scientific, they fail to notice that this one is still philosophically grounded. When you try to point this out, they treat it as “word play”.

Here’s what I mean. Consider the following inference which most scientists make:

  1. The commonly-recognized appearance of design in the universe is best explained by naturalistic, non-intelligent phenomena.

Making inference respectable

According to people like Ken, this is a perfectly acceptable scientific inference. Most scientists would probably take it for granted; they’d assume it implicitly—but an unstated inference is still an inference. Why is it so intrinsically acceptable that most scientists would take it for granted? Because science is concerned with natural causes, effects, and explanations. A natural explanation is a scientific explanation; and so the thesis that the appearance of design can be naturally explained seems, to the philosophically untrained, like a valid scientific conclusion. But then, consider its antithesis:

  1. The commonly-recognized appearance of design in the universe is best explained by the universe being designed by an intelligent agent.

Notice how this is exactly the same question—only with a different answer. Indeed, prima facie this is the better abductive inference, as opposed to (1). This doesn’t mean that it’s correct, necessarily, but it does seem intuitively better.

Is the question scientific at all?

Now, perhaps the question “What is the best explanation for the appearance of design in the universe?” is itself unscientific. Perhaps it’s something which scientists cannot answer, and so one for which any answer will be unscientific. I don’t think most scientists would agree with this, but if they did, then why are so many of them insisting on a naturalistic answer? Is it perhaps because they assume that naturalistic explanations should be accepted by default? Why? The fact that science, as a method of investigating reality, is naturalistic does not in any way imply that every explanation must be naturalistic. Scientists are conditioned to look for natural explanations—and that’s fair enough, because that is what science is all about. But that doesn’t mean that:

  • when we’re presented with the appearance of design, we should automatically exclude non-naturalistic explanations;
  • a naturalistic explanation is “scientific” by definition, while a non-naturalistic one isn’t. If the question itself is unscientific, then any answer to it will be unscientific as well;
  • if a non-naturalistic explanation is not scientific, it is therefore false. Being unable to investigate something scientifically does not imply its falsehood.

However, if the question is scientific, then—

Poverty of inference

If answer (1) is scientific, then answer (2) is as well

Notice how (1) and (2) above are addressing the exact same question. Yet (1) is dismissed as unscientific and even anti-scientific; while (2) is not. Why? Is it harder to falsify the thesis that the universe was designed than its antithesis, that it was not? I don’t see that it is. How might a scientist go about testing the assumption that the universe wasn’t designed? Probably in a similar way that he’d go about testing the assumption that it was. Yet the very complaint which scientists level at ID advocates is that we have not provided any falsifiable predictions to test. Okay, maybe that’s so—but why is the onus purely on us to falsify ID? Why is it not equally on secular scientists to falsify the antithesis? Isn’t that how honest scientists work? Once a question is raised, like, “Is the universe designed?” honest scientists don’t try to enforce a particular answer. They try to find one.

Conversely, if answer (2) is unscientific, then so is (1)

Most importantly, if intelligent design, as an explanation, is disqualified as unscientific, then its antithesis is disqualified as well, because they would both be falsified in the same way. The same test which could falsify intelligent design could (one would expect) falsify its denial. If we can make some prediction about some phenomenon which would occur if the universe is designed, and if we then test for that phenomenon, finding it would suggest that ID is right, while not finding it would suggest that ID is wrong. Similarly, if we can make some prediction about what we’d find if the universe is not designed, finding it would tend to prove ID wrong, while not finding it would tend to prove ID right.

In conclusion

Scientists don’t have to regard the question of intelligent design as important. They may not care one way or the other. Or they might be agnostic about it because they think it can’t be falsified one way or the other. That would be appropriately scientific. But if secular scientists want to say that the question of whether the universe was designed or not is nonsense; if they want to say that intelligent design, as a thesis for explaining the appearance of design, is unscientific; if they want to say that we should reject non-naturalistic explanations by default, then I must ask them to explain themselves:

Do they think that the thesis that the universe was not designed is falsifiable? If so, how so? But if not, then why are they championing it as scientific, over and against the thesis of intelligent design?

Is it on the basis of philosophical naturalism—the view that the natural world is all that exists? If so, can philosophical naturalism be falsified? No? But then it is unscientific—so why do they use it as a basis for decrying ID so loudly? Are they hypocrites?

Or is it on the basis of some other evidence? If so, what is it, and why should we find it compelling?

Is intelligent design scientific?

In the comment stream of a recent post by Ken Perrott, ‘A new science-bashing campaign?’, some discussion has been taking place about whether intelligent design (ID) can be considered scientific. Typically, secular scientists are vocal in their assertion that ID is a philosophical idea, and not a scientific one. It’s inappropriate to treat ID as if it were a scientific theory, or as if there is real evidence to support it, they say. And there is the vocal minority of ID supporters who push back and say the opposite.

In the comments on Ken’s article, the editor of Christian News New Zealand cited an article on Opposing Views by Jay W Richards, titled ‘Is Intelligent Design Science?’. I encourage you to read this article; it argues simply, yet I think persuasively, that it is not unreasonable to consider ID science—and that wherever you stand on the issue, you’d be naive to dismiss ID as unscientific by trying to define science in such a way as to preclude it.

In response to this article, Christian blogger Dale Campbell, who is an evolutionist, said:

What Jay Richards and others need to realise is that ‘ID’ is a philosophical inference which attempts to be scientifically informed. It starts with an inference, and then tries to find/match it with science – or (re)interpret science to try and match it up with the inference. The inference is not scientific, but philosophical.

Now, I don’t think Dale is opposing ID per se; rather, he is expressing his view that it’s a philosophical, rather than scientific position. As a Christian, I’m sure he does believe in ID; and as a Christian, certainly ID is a philosophical position. But does this preclude it from being scientific as well?

I don’t believe it does. Firstly, ID does not necessarily start with the inference of design, and then look for data in support of it. In fact, I think manifestly the fact that ID is not a specifically religious view demonstrates that it is quite possible and reasonable for it to be an a postiori rather than an a priori inference. Certainly for the Christian it must be treated as a priori: we come to the study of science with the presupposition that the universe was designed and created by God. But ID is not confined to Christianity, nor to religion at all. ID is simply the thesis that the universe, or some part thereof, was designed. A non-religious scientist could come to this conclusion quite reasonably by studying empirical data, and deciding that the facts at his disposal are best explained by a designer.

Is this an unscientific conclusion? Is it merely philosophical? This question raises another in turn: What is the difference between a “philosophical” as opposed to a “scientific” inference? For my own part, I’m not sure I see a clear distinction between them. Scientific inferences have two defining characteristics that I can see: (i) they start from empirical data; (ii) they are by nature abductive (and/or inductive; but abduction really is what defines them). Abduction, however, is itself a philosophical process; so I don’t see how we can deny that scientific inference itself is intrinsically philosophical. It is simply a kind of philosophical inference. All inference is philosophical in one way or another; and abduction is arguably more influenced by philosophical concerns than straightforward deduction.

But if scientific inference is characterized by these two principal factors, then how is ID not a scientific inference? Empiricism and abduction seem to describe the inference of ID just as well as any uncontroversial scientific inference which comes to mind.

Typically, I’d expect a scientist to say that I’ve omitted a third factor: scientific inferences need to be falsifiable. But there are two obvious objections to this: (a) falsifiability is a relatively modern notion in the history of science, and as such can’t be used to define science qua science. But more importantly, (b) it’s transparently evident that not all scientific inferences—indeed, perhaps not even most scientific inferences—are falsifiable. It’s not inferences which scientists generally require to be falsifiable, but theories. But even then, a theory is just the conclusion of a number of inferences (ie, it is itself an inference), many of which might not be themselves falsifiable; so the demand of falsifiability seems rather arbitrary.

Whether or not ID is true, and whether or not anyone can or has come up with falsifiable hypotheses about it, it does seem to me that Jay Richards is correct in his evaluation that it is not intrinsically unscientific. As he explains, we can’t validly keyhole science to fit certain preconceived philosophical notions about the world. In fact, the attempt to define ID out of science is openly prejudiced and hypocritical, being the attempt to exclude philosophical views of the world from science, on the basis of a philosophical view of the world. The definition of science really is not as fixed, narrow, or agreed upon as anti-ID scientists and philosophers would like to say it is.

About

Our Mission

Thinking Matters is a ministry encouraging New Zealand Christians to explore WHAT they believe and WHY they believe it, so they can engage culture and present the Christian faith gracefully and persuasively. We do this through training in apologetics, worldview, culture, and evangelism.

DEFEND FAITH: Prepare Christians with the knowledge and understanding needed to make a compelling case for their faith.

NAVIGATE CULTURE: Help believers recognise and respond to the challenges of culture with confidence, love, wisdom, and grace.

REACH PEOPLE: Inspire and empower followers of Christ to persuasively and lovingly share God’s message of hope.

Our Vision

Thinking Matters seeks an intellectually vibrant and lovingly engaged Church transformed by a renewing of the mind, confidently navigating and impacting culture with the truth of Christianity.

Our Audience

  • Church: We partner with Churches to run seminars, events, and conferences aimed at strengthening, inspiring, and mobilising the body of Christ to live out a confident, vibrant, and missional faith.
  • Youth & Next-Gen: We equip youth, young adults, and those who work with them with training events and resources.
  • Leaders: We facilitate training workshops and professional development for pastors, ministry leaders, speakers and influencers.
  • Educators: We offer speakers, programs, and material for Christian schools, colleges and tertiary providers.Conference Tauranga 2018

Our Values

  1. Humility: We equip Christians in leadership and the wider body and persuade non-believers with modesty and respect.
  2. Compassion: Live out The Great Commission in everyday life, seeking to love one another by sharing the truth in any setting and at any cost.
  3. Integrity: Being a follower of Christ who demonstrates character and a love for others – being willing to speak the truth clearly and with love.
  4. Enthusiasm: Having a passion to see Christians encouraged and equipped with training in apologetics and worldview.
  5. Connectedness: Being able to build trust and respect through healthy connections with others.
  6. Devotion: Acknowledges a dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit in all their efforts.

Our Story

Founded in 2008 and launched in Tauranga by William Lane Craig while on tour in New Zealand, we started as a loose network of like-minded people who wanted to help the Church meet the increasing need for apologetics and worldview thinking in our post-Christian culture.

Under the leadership of Rodney Lake we have partnered with churches, ministries and individuals to form a network of professional and lay apologists throughout New Zealand and now have over 60 volunteers working online, running events, speaking, teaching as well as staff specialising in the areas of Youth and Next-gen, Speaker Development and Leadership Development.

Our head office is in Tauranga and we have regional branches all over New Zealand running regular events in Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch, and soon Dunedin. We also have campus-based apologists at Auckland University, Waikato University, Victoria University and Canterbury University.

Thinking Matters Groups

Follow our activities by subscribing to our email list and following us on Instagram and Facebook.

If you have something to offer and want to join our growing team please contact us here.

We are a registered charitable trust so you can financially support our work here.

Our Statement of Faith can be found here and our board of directors are here.

Should Europe embrace the New Atheism? John Lennox v Christopher Hitchens

On the 9th of August, Dr John Lennox debated one of the leading advocates of the New Atheism movement: Christopher Hitchens. Simon Wenham, events manager at the Zacharias Trust, has a good summary of his impressions of the debate (HT: Wet Lenses):

The event was held in Usher Hall, one of Edinburgh’s largest indoor venues and the organisers estimated that there were around 1,400 people attending the debate. The motion to be discussed was: “The New Europe Should Prefer the New Atheism” and the debate was between Christopher Hitchens (Social commentator and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and John Lennox (Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and author of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?). An initial show of hands was taken at the start of the debate, so that they were able to see what standpoint members of the audience already held in order to compare what change there had been as a result of the debate. This vote showed that the audience was quite evenly split (with perhaps a very slight advantage to those opposing the motion) and that there was a good proportion (perhaps 20%) of people who were undecided.

The format of the debate was 15 minutes for opening statements (with Hitchens going first) followed by 5 minutes each for rebuttals. There was then 30 minutes of questions from the floor followed by a 5 minute concluding remark from each of the speakers (With Lennox going first this time). The debate was moderated expertly by James Naughtie, a well-known radio 4 presenter.

The final result was that Lennox won the debate (the motion was not passed) with a small, but discernible shift, in favour of his viewpoint from the previously undecided camp. To his credit, Hitchens conceded that there were more in favour of John, even though the moderator was initially unsure.

Opening Statements

Hitchens reminded the audience that Edinburgh was one the centres of the enlightenment and he warned that the secularism was under attack in the New Europe from a number of sources. These were:

1. The threat of Islam. He focused upon the demanding of special rights for Islam backed up by violence and used the example of the reaction to the Danish cartoons as showing that freedom of speech was being eroded through fear.
2. The revival of Russian imperialism, founded upon the Christian orthodox faith. He spoke of the conflict in Georgia, as well as the recent flexing of muscles against Poland (for agreeing to the missile defence shield) and the Ukraine (for being more pro-western).
3. The non-scientific ideas being propagated in some schools by Christian fundamentalist teaching.
4. The capitulation of the European churches to Islam (e.g. the pope retracting his comments about Mohammed after there was a backlash, the archbishop of Canterbury suggested sharia law should be recognised in Britain and Prince Charles saying he should be defender of the
“faiths” rather than of the “faith”). He concluded by saying secularism is at the core of our constitution and that he hoped that the fact back started here.

Lennox responded by saying that he agreed with much of what Hitchens had said. He continued that:

1. He too was appalled by extremists, but said that saying “religion poisons everything” is the same as saying “science poisons everything” – it is nonsensical. You can’t blame science for giving you pollution or napalm and therefore you have to distinguish use from abuse.
2. That Jesus spoke of rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and that you have to distinguish between the abuses of Christendom and the teachings of Christ.
3. That Christianity provided the educational establishments and the freedoms upon which new Europe is based, yet the atheist’s want to get rid of it (they are forgetting their history and they can’t have it both ways).
4. That atheists say the world would be better without religion, but the world would have been better without the communist regimes (and that Marxism is underpinned by atheism).
5. That science cannot explain everything (e.g. why are we here?) and that the discipline itself was only possible through the belief in a creator/law giving. He said that atheists have “faith” in the rational intelligibility of the universe, but their worldview gives no basis for believing this. He said it was a false dichotomy to speak of science or faith.
6. That if you do not believe in absolute morality and you think that we evolved from mindless processes then you cannot trust your own rationality (as rationality does not come from irrationality).
7. Likewise you have no grounds for saying something is right or wrong as you are merely “dancing” to your DNA (quoting Dawkins). DNA serves evolutionary pressures not the truth (quoting atheist John Gray). Therefore concepts of good and evil, right or wrong evaporate, as do any notions of justice. If you believe in a creator then you have grounds for saying people have innate morality as they are made in God’s image.

So John concluded by opposing the motion and pointing out that the atheists couldn’t even use the word “should” anyhow (as they are unable to establish the grounds upon which to make a moral statement).

Rebuttals

Hitchens took John’s comment about the basis for morality in good humour. He said he understood the problem with getting an “ought” from an “is” and therefore said that he was changing the motion to the new Europe “must” adopt the new atheism (rather than “should”). His rebuttals were:

1. He didn’t need 5 minutes to rebut the resurrection (but then did not attempt to do so)
2. That Jesus said he came to bring the sword (not peace)
3. That European universities owed a lot to Islam initially (not Christianity)
4. That you used to have to be in a holy order to even study at Oxford
5. That historically many scientists have also held some very wacky superstitious beliefs
6. That religion is totalitarian and that this round-the-clock supervision included condemning you for thought-crimes and continuing to supervise even after you are dead.
7. There is no evidence to believe there is truth in Christianity
8. That Stalin’s regime was a religious one founded upon the previous quasi-religious reign of the tsars
9. That North Korea (thought to be secular) is actually a highly religious regime based upon leader worship
10. That there has been no atheistic regime based upon the teachings of Hume, Spinoza, Jefferson, Bertrand-Russell and others and if there were it wouldn’t be a violent one.

Lennox then responded to Hitchens’ rebuttals as such:
1. Jesus was not referring to a physical sword in that passage and his views on violence were demonstrated by the fact that he even resisted violence at his own arrest.
2. That the idea of a law-giver is not a wacky belief, but it is a serious intelligent theists (Whitehead’s thesis)
3. That the debate was not about certain beliefs about science, but it is about whole worldviews. This is why Francis Collins and Jim Watson (both of whom headed up the human genome project) have differing views. There are scientists on both sides of this debate and therefore it is not about God or science – it is about worldviews.
4. Your view of justice depends on which side of the fence you are on (i.e. the oppressed crave justice). He used the example of marriage to respond to Hitchens’ portrayal of a divine supervisor regulating your behaviour. He said that your wife is someone who watches over you and who regulates your behaviour, yet marriage is not seen as bad thing for that reason, because it is someone who loves you, etc.

Question and Answer Session

The question and answer session was quite mixed with various people (from both sides) making statements which were not questions (e.g. an elderly scot tried to evangelise to Hitchens in a long-winded manner and another person accused Lennox of consigning her to hell because of her beliefs – John responded to this by saying that we are all given a freedom to choose and that God does not want to consign anyone to hell).

One person highlighted the fact that Hitchens had commended secularism rather than new atheism to the audience. He asked how he could he say that the new atheism would not lead to the ramification of old atheism (e.g. the regimes of Stalin, etc). Hitchens responded to this by saying fascism was another name for the Catholic far right.

Someone asked about miracles and John responded by affirming the existence of a creator who had shown himself historically and that he was quite capable of feeding events into the laws of nature. He pointed out that although atheists like to attack the likelihood of the resurrection, he pointed out that some atheists prefer to propagate the “multiverse” theory, where there are supposedly many different parallel universes in which, for example, you and I don’t exist in some or where one of us has a green moustache in another. John pointed out that if you are willing to believe that, then you are willing to believe anything.

Another person asked about whether “Intelligent design” was associated with a “lunatic” fringe. John replied “not necessarily”, which prompted some gasps amongst the audience, but he went on to explain that the words “intelligent design” and “creationism” had been hijacked by some and caricatured by others, when in fact, the idea that there is a creator and that there is intelligence behind the design is a very credible scientific thesis (i.e. it is not one to be dismissed out of hand).

Another person asked whether in fact Christianity had been shaped by society (the prevailing zeitgeist) rather than the other way around (mentioning than Lucretius and Epicurus had not been influenced by Christianity). John responded by pointing out that Greece was not a wonderful utopian society when these ideas were being disseminated and it was Christianity that revolutionised Europe.

A number of people touched upon historical violence in the name of Christianity, which John rebuffed by pointing out that these instances were people disobeying the explicit teachings of Christ. Another person asserted that people were just products of their own religious upbringing and that religions contradicted one another so most of them must be wrong. John denied that people blindly followed their upbringing and he agreed that do of course religions contradict one another and that they couldn’t all be right.

Concluding Remarks

John started by pointing out the difference between the “soft” atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc) and the “hard” atheists (Sartre, Camus, etc). Whereas the soft atheists cling to the things that they cherish in society (morality, justice), the hard atheists were under no illusion as to where their views ultimately led (to the destruction of all values, morality and hope).

1. He challenged the new atheists to justify how they were able to say humans were more significant than just slime, when their views give no basis for this (e.g. Peter Singer saying a human baby has no more value than a piglet).
2. He also reiterated the importance on being able to debate these issues in the public sphere, but that he wasn’t sure that the atheists shared this notion of freedom of expression (given Sam Harris saying that there are some circumstances where you maybe justified in killing someone because of their beliefs).
3. He questioned whether the new atheists should be allowed to decide for everyone what was right and he pointed out that atheism nurtures a need for meaning (and therefore religion).
4. He said the atheists lose their pretension of intellectual credibility when they lump all religion in together.
5. He then pointed out that Christianity played a major role in the creation of the new Europe in the first place (e.g. in helping to overthrow the old atheism in communist East Germany) and he finished by quoting the recently deceased literary nobel prize winner Solzhenitsyn: “if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God”.
6. John said he wished they hadn’t forgotten God and finished by saying Christianity helped pull the wall down in Europe, do we really want to build another one?

Christopher Hitchens responded by asking how we know all this and where John was getting all of his information from.
1. He said he didn’t need to call upon an invisible means of support from a totalitarian God who provides divine assurance.
2. He criticised the idea of “vicarious redemption” and said that you shouldn’t want someone else paying your debts for you (as he said it cancels your responsibility).
3. He said that this offer is then backed up by a threat of hell.
4. He asked how we even know about hell when all the religions contradict each other and therefore by definition that most religious thinkers throughout history must have been wrong (assuming that one religion is right). He says this causes moral chaos (as people can’t agree).
5. Finally he concluded with a challenge to name a moral action done by a religious person that couldn’t be done by a non-religious person and then said to think of an evil action done in the name of religion. [He meant to finish by saying that would not be done by a non-religious person, but he didn’t say this, which meant his final point wasn’t quite as he had intended).

General comments about the debate

Debating style:

The debate was an interesting clash of styles, with Hitchens favouring less points, but made very forcefully with humour and quips to strengthen his argument. He did make a couple of isolated “low blows” by interrupting one of Lennox’s points during the rebuttal (by dismissing it as a weak point), as well as saying “he didn’t need 5 minutes to dispel the resurrection” without then attempting to do so.

Lennox by contrast had a huge number of points and quotes (many from atheists) and therefore if you transcribed the debate he would have been the overwhelming victor. However, because of Hitchens’ strong oratory skills, he was able to reduce the gap, in spite of Lennox’s great charisma.

Format:

It seemed that Hitchens going first turned out to be fortuitous because his opening statement focused upon politics and religion and it included much that Lennox could agree with. Lennox was then able to attack the ideas underpinning new atheism, which left Hitchens with only the rebuttal and concluding remarks to reply in kind. However, the format did at least allow Hicthens to have the last say, when it would have been nice to have been able to respond to some of his final comments, particularly those concerning the cross.

Atmosphere:

The other interesting thing to note was the palpable level of aggression and derision from atheists in the audience towards Christianity (e.g. people were vigorously nodding and muttering in agreement with Hitchens’ points, irrespective of whether it was a stronger or weaker point that was made). I found the level of this to be quite surprising and it seemed to me that this refusal to concede any ground to the opposition greatly weakened their case, as this dismissive attitude (possibly based on a perceived intellectual superiority) suggested that they weren’t prepared to engage with the evidence at hand. This also highlighted how important it is for Christian to be different to this (as John was) by being fair with the evidence at hand, in order to properly engage with those who disagree with us (rather than being immediately dismissive). Likewise, it also demonstrated the important challenge of attempting to communicate the gospel effectively and positively to those who – for whatever reason – already have very negative picture of what the Christianfaith is all about.

____

For those interested, the DVD of the debate can be pre-ordered from the Fixed-Point Foundation website.

Yet Another Update

Things have been happening in the New Zealand apologetics community. A couple of weeks ago Jason and I met with the editor of Christian News, and also with some members of the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society. We spent a lot of time talking about the state of apologetics in New Zealand, and the various groups and individuals around the country. We specifically focused on our concerns over the feeble and fragmented nature of, and lack of communication within, the New Zealand apologetics community.

To cut a long story fairly short, we all agreed that, if we could draw as many people as possible under a single banner, it would go a long way toward empowering the apologetics community. The Thinking Matters ministry presents itself as an obvious locus for connecting people in this way. Subsequently, Christian News and the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society will be joining us under the Thinking Matters banner. They will, like Thinking Matters Tauranga, remain autonomous in their functioning; but we’ll share the same name and resources. This means that Thinking Matters will subsume and expand on the role of the New Zealand Christian Apologetics Society.

What this means for you

Three main things need to be said:

1. The Thinking Matters website is going to change a lot

Since Christian News is being conglomerated into the Thinking Matters domain (thinkingmatters.org.nz), but remaining separate in terms of operation, we’re having to be fairly creative from a technical perspective. Christian News will still be accessible from http://christiannews.co.nz, but will change its primary address to http://news.thinkingmatters.org.nz. News will be aggregated on the main Thinking Matters site, here. This means that a lot of cosmetic changes must take place as well. Fortunately, both sites run WordPress, so we’ll be adopting a new, commercial WordPress theme so as to ensure that we have a consistent image, and also to reduce the amount of work required of myself and other Thinking Matters contributors in developing and maintaining the various sites.

2. The Engage New Zealand forums will be shut down

We made this decision because we don’t feel that the forums contribute positively to the purpose of Thinking Matters. While we do want discussion to take place, it seems much more sensible to have it take place here on the main site, in the comment streams of the various articles which are posted. This is a more dynamic and accessible way of having discussions than the monolithic forum structure allows. We want to ensure that this discussion contrasts with and complements Thinking Matters News, so we’ll be rebranding the blog to take on the “Engage” moniker, thus specifically encouraging the view that articles are springboards for discussion.

3. The Thinking Matters Journal will be delayed

The journal is still a strong part of our purpose for Thinking Matters, and our first issue is in fact ready to go. However, to accommodate the changes we’re making to the website, we felt it better to delay publication until things are properly re-organized. The journal will be published at journal.thinkingmatters.org.nz as soon as everything has settled down.

The upshot

The upshot of all this is that we’re going to be under construction for a while. Please bear with us as we go through this transition. We’re confident that it will be for the best.

"God is Not Dead Yet": Natural Theology and New Atheism

This months issue of Christianity Today ran a cover article by Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, entitled “God is Not Dead Yet” (an online version is available on their website), assessing the recent trends within natural theology (the attempt to acquire knowledge about God using only commonly available cognitive resources). Craig addresses the current myths about the perceived intellectual inferiority of belief in God and that contrary to the shrill clamour of the New Atheists, there is a revolution of thought quietly occurring in the academy:

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless—actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified! The collapse of verificationism was the most important philosophical event of the 20th century. Its downfall meant that philosophers were free once again to tackle traditional problems of philosophy that verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence of interest in traditional philosophical questions came something altogether unanticipated: a renaissance of Christian philosophy.

Since it was published, Craig’s article has provoked a fair amount of discussion. Among those in disagreement was Nathan Schneider, a freelance writer and blogger. Writing in Religion Dispatches, an online magazine devoted to religious commentary, Schneider was critical of Craig’s assessment of the health of natural theology and particularly New Atheism:

Whispering to his coreligionists in Christianity Today, to his subculture, Craig does not do justice to what the revolution is up against. His bygone atheism is a straw man. A quick look at the religion section in any major chain bookstore shows a whole crop of habitable sequels to the New Atheists’ opening salvos. There are atheism readers, atheist spiritualities, and all the chicken soup an atheist soul could need. Rather than lacking “intellectual muscle,” as Craig puts it, the online community formed around Edge.org shows that some of today’s most dynamic scientific minds all but assume atheism.

Today, on the blog for the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Craig responds:

…Mr. Schneider misunderstands me when he says that my “bygone atheism” is a straw man. What I characterized as “bygone” was not atheism, but the past generation dominated by the sort of scientism and verificationism that still lingers in the so-called New Atheism. The fact that such popularistic drivel continues to pour forth from the presses and to fill our bookstores at the mall does nothing to refute my claim that the New Atheism is in general predicated upon epistemological assumptions that are no longer viable.

You can read the rest of the reply, including Craig’s appraisal of Schneider’s interaction with some of the arguments of natural theology, on the Society’s website here.

Colbert, Ehrman and the textual transmission of the New Testament

An old interview but worth dusting off, if only to see how not to do apologetics. Stephen Colbert, on his show The Colbert Report, engages the agnostic Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman. Colbert replicates the fundamentalist timbre, retreading the familiar rhetoric and arguments that many Christians can often fall back on too easily. This is Colbert, of course, at his inimitable best – imitating a subculture for deliberate comedic effect. Ehrman however, is not trying to be funny, he actually wants us to take him seriously.

The book he is promoting in the clip went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Misquoting Jesus narrates Ehrman’s own intellectual recourse from Christianity, after encountering problems in the Gospels during his PhD program. In the wake of the Jesus Seminar and the Dan Brown frenzy, Ehrman’s conclusions have captured the attention of the media and popular consciousness. It’s no wonder; questions about the trustworthiness of the Gospels assail at the heart of the Christian faith. If the New Testament documents are inaccurate and an unreliable guide of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – our Christian footing is infirm, our hope misplaced.

Colbert aside, there have been compelling scholarly responses to Ehrman. While the Biblical self-witness must not be robbed of its place and power in determining its own authority, Christians can confidently argue for the historical reliability of the New Testament documents. Many critics have shown that Ehrman handles the data in a way that exaggerates the significance of the discrepancies in the textual streams. At the Greer-Heard Forum with Dan Wallace in April this year, Ehrman tellingly admitted that no essential belief of the New Testament was compromised by the textual variants. Yet a more controversial side of Ehrman seems to persist and, along with the Jesus Seminar, portray a skewed, idiosyncratic representation of the scholarly world. Such a segment stands in contrast to what has been called the third quest for the historical Jesus. A movement that is substantially more optimistic about reconciling the Jesus of history with the Jesus of the New Testament.

For those interested in a primer on Textual Criticism Paul D. Wegner’s A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bibe is a good start. To keep up with the contemporary discussion from the evangelical perspective, the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog has a fine grouping of contributing scholars.

Some actual reviews of Ehrman’s book (I recommend reading their full appraisals):

Dan Wallace: “He still sees things without sufficient nuancing, he overstates his case, and he is entrenched in the security that his own views are right. Bart Ehrman is one of the most brilliant and creative textual critics I’ve ever known, and yet his biases are so strong that, at times, he cannot even acknowledge them.”

Craig Bloomberg: “What most distinguishes the work are the spins Ehrman puts on some of the data at numerous junctures and his propensity for focusing on the most drastic of all the changes in the history of the text, leaving the uninitiated likely to think there are numerous additional examples of various phenomena he discusses when there are not.”

Ben Witherington: “Time and time again in the book, highly charged statements are put forth that the untrained person simply cannot sift through. And that approach resembles more an alarmist mentality than what a mature, master teacher is able to offer. Regarding the evidence, suffice it to say that significant textual variants that alter core doctrines of the NT have not yet been produced.”

Thomas Howe: “A 92% average stability of the text does not seem to support the idea that the text has been “radically altered.” There is no question that the manuscripts differ from each other … but there is a big difference between saying that the variants make a difference in the theological conclusions we draw from these particular texts, and to claim that the multitude of variants call into question the validity of our theology.”