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Kategoria Journal Now Online

The Gospel Coalition has teamed up with Matthias Media to freely host all 31 issues of the acclaimed Christian journal kategoria online. A quarterly journal produced by the Matthias Center for the Study of Modern Beliefs, kategoria was created to provide Christians with tools for critical thinking and research.

In Greek, kategoria literally means “speaking against” and was used by poets and historians of the ancient world to describe the activity of bringing a charge against another party. With essays and reviews on topics such as euthanasia, spirituality, deconstruction, utilitarianism, the kategoria journal sought not just to establish Christianity in the world of ideas but to critically assess and challenge secular thought, its philosophies and ideas.

You can find the full archive at http://thegospelcoalition.org/kategoria

Auckland Event: Do ‘Private’ Christian Beliefs Have a Place in Public Life?

Every year the Christian campus groups at Auckland University host a week-long series of outreach events that focus on Jesus and Christianity. This year we’re pleased to be involved in an event examining the role of religious beliefs in the public arena. The event is open to the public, so if you’re in the Auckland area, you’re welcome to join us.

Here are the details:

A Godless Public Square: Do ‘Private’ Christian Beliefs Have a Place in Public Life?
A Jesus Week Panel Discussion
WHEN: 7-9pm Wednesday 3 August
WHERE: Lib B28

Christian theological convictions ought to impact the whole of life both in the private and public spheres; this is what the idea of an “undivided life” means, Jesus is Lord of all aspects of our lives.

Yet this consequence of Christian faith conflicts with a pervasive contemporary attitude: the view that that religion is fundamentally a private matter. It is accepted that a Christian is free to utilise theological convictions when they make decisions about their own life but in a pluralistic society it is increasingly deemed inappropriate to bring such convictions into public discussions about morality, law, politics, economics, education, scholarship and so on. The desire to influence society with Christian ideals or to convert others to the faith is viewed by many as an intolerant desire to impose one’s private views onto others.

It is widely accepted that theological convictions can govern churches and the private lives of believers yet we are told that the public square – government, public policy, the courts, the academy, education, business, arts, media, etc – should be secular only.

This event looks at this issue. The conversation will span Theology, Philosophy and Law led by a panel made up of Christian representatives from each discipline along with you the audience.

Up for discussion are issues like:

– Is it wrong for Christians to impose their ‘private’ religious beliefs onto others?
– Is secularism the neutral perspective it is claimed to be?
– Are public expressions of religion regulated by law?

Bring your own questions and ask them at the Q & A session.

This event is brought to you by the Evangelical Union and Thinking Matters as part of Jesus Week.

Panel:

Krauss on Craig: “disingenuous distortions, simplifications, and outright lies”

A couple of days ago, Lawrence Krauss released a statement on his recent debate with William Lane Craig over whether there is evidence for God. (If you haven’t watched it, ctrl-click here to view it on YouTube.)

His statement was posted on Pharyngula, the blog of infamous self-styled “godless liberal” PZ Myers, and was also circulated on Richard Dawkins’ forum (the self-styled “clear-thinking oasis”).

Let me make a couple o’ comments on it:

Firstly

It’s clear that the thing I found most embarrassing about Krauss’ part of the debate—his complete lack of understanding of the contingency argument—has in no sense changed.

This argument is about why is there something instead of nothing; it isn’t an argument about causes, as he characterizes it (apparently confusing it with the Kalam Cosmological Argument), but an argument about explanations or reasons. It invokes the Principle of Sufficient Reason: that everything that exists must have a sufficient reason for its existence. Obviously, most of the things we know exist could just as easily not exist; in which case, why do they exist? But we can also see that some things, like the laws of logic, must exist—they exist necessarily. God in the latter category; the universe is in the former. There is nothing about its nature that says it must exist, or that it must exist exactly as it does. This is really not disputed, to my knowledge, among either scientists or philosophers. In fact, the science seems to indicate that the universe could have existed in so many other different ways that we literally cannot conceive of the number. But in that case, we are back to asking why does it exist, and why does it exist as it does? Krauss has no answer.

Read more

Is religion in New Zealand headed for extinction?

A new study says yes. The BBC reports:

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Joe Carter provides some good perspective on what he wryly calls a “peculiar prediction”.

The Myth of Religious Violence

Brad S. Gregory, writing in the First Things journal, reviews William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict:

“The “Myth” of religious violence? Is the head of this ivory tower academic (Cavanaugh teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota) buried in the sand? Cavanaugh has no interest in denying the obvious, that human beings are sometimes motivated by religion to act in violent ways. Nor does he seek to differentiate between “genuine” and “so-called” religion in an effort to keep the sincere and the devout free from the taint of violence.

Exposing the myth of religious violence means something else: the careful demolition of the variously argued idea that in ostensible contrast to rational, modern, secular ideologies, there is something distinctively disruptive, divisive, and dangerous about religion that makes it, across historical epochs and cultures and peoples, inherently prone to irrational, intractable violence. Because of this, the argument goes, religion must be resolutely corralled and controlled by the benign secularism of the liberal state, if necessary by justifiable, pacifying violence of the state’s own.

Cavanaugh rightly sees that, for this argument to work, there must be something identifiable about “religion” that makes it susceptible to violence and sets it apart from secular ideologies and commitments. But those who make this argument have offered no account of religion that can sustain the argument. Ignoring much scholarship about the historical and cultural variability of the concept of religion itself, they argue as if the differences are apparent. Hence they offer, in the guise of description and analysis, the myth of religious violence: the powerful and pervasive perpetuation of the false notion that because it is especially liable to violence, religion merits special attention by a secular state whose legitimacy is reaffirmed every time it performs its policing function, thereby reinforcing the myth and deflecting attention away from its own violence.

The Myth of Religious Violence begins with the arguments of nine leading scholars-including John Hick, Martin Marty, and Charles Kimball-who argue in their respective ways that religion tends especially to violence because it is absolutist, divisive, and/or not rational. Cavanaugh demonstrates that all such arguments founder: If they define religion in substantive terms, he shows with abundant evidence that “there is no reason to suppose that so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive, and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God,” and if they employ a functionalist definition of religion, they dissolve the analytical distinction between religious and secular, because “the term religion comes to cover virtually anything humans do that gives their lives order and meaning . . .”

. . . “But didn’t the “wars of religion” in the Reformation era show beyond any doubt that religion is absolutist, divisive, and irrational and therefore prone to violence? And, as a result, wasn’t the modern liberal state created and construed as a secular, privatizing, and individualizing religion in order to tame it?

This “creation myth of the wars of religion” Cavanaugh dismantles thoroughly. He rightly directs his analysis especially against contemporary liberal political theorists and legal scholars who construe the creation of the secular state as the creation of a peacemaking savior from the religious unrest of early modern Europe. The contemporary liberals’ story simply echoes the story’s self-serving creators, from Hobbes and Spinoza through Voltaire and Rousseau.

Against this narrative Cavanaugh marshals a wide range of evidence from historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that hopelessly complicates any construal of major European conflicts from the Schmalkaldic War (1546-1547) through the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as “wars of religion.” More fundamentally, he correctly notes the inseparability of religion from politics and society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hence, one cannot, for example, say that a Catholic Eucharistic procession was religious rather than political or social–unless one applies, anachronistically, a conception of religion that itself arose only as a rejection of the human realities it sought to refashion . . .”

“. . . In place of the myth of religious violence, Cavanaugh suggests leveling the playing field: Both secularist liberalism and religious traditions should be placed within the same analytical framework when it comes to answering without prejudice a straightforwardly functionalist question: “Do certain ideologies and practices have more of a tendency to produce violence than others?” In this endeavor, “the distinction between secular and religious violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and it should be avoided altogether.””

Read the whole article here.

The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, by William T. Cavanaugh (Oxford University Press, 2009), 296 pages is available for $39.96 on Amazon.

Hitchens and Haldane Debate Secularism and Faith in the Public Square

Last month, John Haldane and Christopher Hitchens participated in a discussion at Oxford University. The dialogue, organized by the Veritas Forum, considered whether secularism or religion provides a superior public philosophy.  The issue of whether the public square should be free of appeals to faith is fiercely contested today in the Western world. Both speakers give their opinions on this question, as well as examining which worldview can deliver a better foundation for human rights, liberties, and shared ideals. John Haldane is the Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and the Director of their Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs. Christopher Hitchens is a essayist, journalist and author several books, including God is Not Great.

The video from the exchange has just gone up on YouTube in ten parts (H/T: Edward Feser) and the audio can be found here. I’ve embedded the Vimeo video below (courtesy of the Veritas Forum).

‘We Don’t Do God’? Secularism and Faith in the Public Square from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

Secularism’s Ongoing Debt to Christianity?

We have a right to expect worldviews to correspond to human experience. Worldviews should fit with our experiences easily and naturally. They should address and cohere with what we know about the world and ourselves. Of course, this is not the only test of worldviews. And it is not the primary test. But it is nontheless an important question to ask – can my worldview be lived out in the real world? What are the consequences to the ideas I hold? Can I consistently live the system I profess or do I find that I am forced to live according to beliefs borrowed from a contrary system?

One of the reasons why many reject Christianity is because of the real world consequences they believe lead from it. For example, Christopher Hitchens is popular for arguing that religion poisons everything – creating fanaticism, multiplying tribal suspicion, and causing violence and war.

John D. Steinrucken, however, has recently written an provocative article in the American Thinker arguing for the social benefits of religion. He makes the bold claim that:

“religious faith has made possible the advancement of Western civilization. That is, the glue that has held Western civilization together over the centuries is the Judeo-Christian tradition. To the extent that the West loses its religious faith in favor of non-judgmental secularism, then to the same extent, it loses that which holds all else together.

Succinctly put: Western civilization’s survival, including the survival of open secular thought, depends on the continuance within our society of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Steinrucken suggests that secularism “has never offered the people a practical substitute for religion” and that, in fact, “secularists should recognize that we owe much to the religionists”:

“The fact is, we secularists gain much from living in a world in which excesses are held in check by religion. Religion gives society a secure and orderly environment within which we secularists can safely play out our creativities. Free and creative secularism seems to me to function best when within the stable milieu provided by Christianity.

To the extent that Western elites distance themselves from their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage in favor of secular constructs, and as they give deference to a multicultural acceptance that all beliefs are of equal validity, they lose their will to defend against a determined attack from another culture, such as from militant Islam. For having destroyed the ancient faith of their people, they will have found themselves with nothing to defend. For the culture above which they had fancied themselves to have risen, the culture which had given them their material sustenance, will by then have become but a hollow shell.

An elite must, by definition, have a much larger base upon which to stand. For Western civilization, that base has over the centuries been the great mass of commoners who have looked to Christianity for their moral guidance and for strength to weather adversity. The elitists delude themselves if they think the common people will look to them for guidance once their religious beliefs have been eroded away.”

Interesting stuff.  Read the whole thing here.

Both the Contestant and the Referee: A Review of The End of Secularism

Harold Kildow, of the Evangelical Political Scholars Association, reviews Hunter Baker’s new book The End of Secularism:

“the political liberalism that perhaps marked a climax run in the history of liberty, had as one of its pillars religious toleration. A corollary is that government is not in the business of caring for souls—and thus a salutary separation of church and state is called for. It is but a short rhetorical step from there to the default understanding regnant to this day, to wit: toleration, liberty, and all the good things of our Western political patrimony depend upon a strict neutrality in government when it comes to religion. Thus secularism is the sine qua non of a well-ordered, and peaceful, democratic nation. Of course, Baker’s title announces the end of secularism, not its ascendancy; his brief but thorough treatment (194 pages not including notes and a very valuable bibliography) belongs in the hands of students and their professors, parishioners and their pastors, and everyone concerned that the referee has entered the game as a contestant.

Elite opinion, at least since the French Enlightenment, has tended to secularism and outright atheism. But the baleful effects of elite belief are less pronounced in societies or eras where government does not imagine itself to have authority over all or most of the public’s life. The era of Big Government is, sadly, still with us; and as its power and authority have increased, the number of perches for self styled elites has increased, and like the branches of a well watered tree, offers refuge and sustenance for many an obnoxious bird. What makes secularism especially obnoxious in Baker’s telling is its deceptive posture as morally neutral—and its concomitant assertion that the threat to social comity is solely from religion. Remove religion and its entirely unwarranted moral certainty from the public square, and, voilà!, problem solved, the era of life and light can begin in earnest.

But secularism, to bring another metaphor, has its hand on the scale while selling us the goods.”

Read the whole thing here.

Arriving on shelves late last year, The End of Secularism challenges the notion that religion must be kept a private matter and therefore prevented from informing public life and policy decisions. Baker argues that secularism itself not only fails to be neutral, but does not solve the problem of religious difference.

For more details about the book, you can listen to an excellent interview with Hunter Baker on the White Horse Inn or download the book’s introduction here.

With many voices today claiming that Christianity poses a threat to freedom, this book looks to be a timely and persuasive call to reexamine secularism’s status as the “super rational public philosophy to trump all the rest”.

Tiger Woods, Brit Hume and Religious Discourse

Brit Hume made headlines and ignited a firestorm on the blogosphere when he urged Tiger Woods to embrace the Christian faith. About a week ago, at a panel on the Fox network, Hume was asked what advice he’d give the scandal-struck golfer. He responded:

“Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person, I think, is a very open question. And it’s a tragic situation. . . . But the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal, the extent to which he can recover, seems to me to depend on his faith.

“He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’ “

Outrage quickly followed. Many declared Hume’s remarks to be intolerant, arrogant and worse. At the Huffington Post, Eve Tahmincioglu in her column, “Beware the Brit Humes in Your Office,” wrote:

“The fact that a journalist — and I use that term loosely as it pertains to Hume — would go on a national news show and put down another high-profile individual’s faith should tell all of us that religious bigotry, and bigotry as a whole, is a growing problem in this country.”

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, suggesting that Hume had attempted to “threaten Tiger Woods into becoming a Christian”, also said:

“This crosses that principle [of keeping] religious advocacy out of public life, since, you know, the worst examples of that are jihadists, not to mention, you know, guys who don’t know their own religions or somebody else’s religion, like Brit Hume.”

The anger over Hume’s comments says a lot about religious discourse, pluralism, and the new tolerance. Ross Douthat, writing for the New York Times, has written a good op-ed piece about why it is important that we’re able to talk about religion:

When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.

Douthat is right: “If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all.” He continues:

This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.

In fact, Hume’s comments about Buddhism are well supported. Boston University professor on Buddhism, Stephen Prothero, told Tamara Lush of the Associated Press: “You have the law of karma, so no matter what Woods says or does, he is going to have to pay for whatever wrongs he’s done. There’s no accountant in the sky wiping sins off your balance sheet, like there is in Christianity.” Professor of Buddhist studies at Cal Polytechnic State University, James William Coleman,  also agreed. “If you do what [Tiger Woods] has done, it comes back and hurts you.”

Of course, the problem is proselytization and how this offends the new tolerance.  Michael Gerson, writing for the Washington Post, rightly puts his finger on the root of this anger over proselytization: Brit Hume’s belief in religious exclusivity. But Gerson, responding to Tom Shales‘ call for Hume to apologize, argues that the idea of religious liberty does not forbid proselytization; but presupposes it:

” Free, autonomous individuals not only have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, they also have the right to change those beliefs and to persuade others to change as well. Just as there is no political liberty without the right to change one’s convictions and publicly argue for them, there is no religious liberty without the possibility of conversion and persuasion.”

The new referrees of discourse no longer see tolerance as exhibited by the person who argues that position A is correct and position B is incorrect, but who still defends anyone’s right to defend position B. Instead, advocates now think that tolerance is only exhibited by those who say that there is no one right position (except for the position of new tolerance). Gerson’s comments hit the mark:

Hume’s critics hold a strange view of pluralism. For religion to be tolerated, it must be privatized — not, apparently, just in governmental settings but also on television networks. We must have not only a secular state but also a secular public discourse. And so tolerance, conveniently, is defined as shutting up people with whom secularists disagree. Many commentators have been offering Woods advice in his travails. But religious advice, apparently and uniquely, should be forbidden. In a discussion of sex, morality and betrayed vows, wouldn’t religious issues naturally arise? How is our public discourse improved by narrowing it — removing references to the most essential element in countless lives?

True tolerance consists in engaging deep disagreements respectfully — through persuasion — not in banning certain categories of argument and belief from public debate.

In this controversy, we are presented with two models of discourse. Hume, in an angry sea of loss and tragedy — his son’s death in 1998 — found a life preserver in faith. He offered that life preserver to another drowning man. Whatever your view of Hume’s beliefs, he could have no motive other than concern for Woods himself.

The other model has come from critics such as Shales, in a spittle-flinging rage at the mention of religion in public, comparing Hume to “Mary Poppins on the joys of a tidy room, or Ron Popeil on the glories of some amazing potato peeler.” Shales, of course, is engaged in proselytism of his own — for a secular fundamentalism that trivializes and banishes all other faiths. He distributes the sacrament of the sneer.

Who in this picture is more intolerant?