Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of "God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens"

The important questions of whether or not God exists, whether or not morality is connected to the divine, and whether or not God (if he/she/it exists) is a personal being are very old questions. The Platonic Socrates in the dialogue Euthyphro poses the question of morality and the gods to the titular character, Epicurus declared that while gods existed they did not interfere with the affairs of humankind, and Aristotle gave several arguments in Metaphysics for what he called an "unmoved mover" and "first cause", which he identified with the gods.

However, in our modern age the so called "New Atheists" (a misleading appellation, there is nothing new about them) appear to have definitively answered these age old questions and assert that science is the pathway to answering this and all meaningful questions because science is the only thing that counts as evidence. This position, known as scientism, is of course itself not supported by science or experience, but the New Atheists seem to have missed the memo.

In his short book God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, theologian John F. Haught takes on the primary New Atheist writers and shows that they are neither new nor atheistic in a philosophical sense. His first critique of them is that they do not take on the arguments for God's existence or the proper definition of faith; rather they attack caricatures and straw-men and never seem to show that they have ever read a book of theology or philosophy of religion. The New Atheists would argue that the average religious person has probably not read Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Karl Barth, Blake Ostler, or Paul Tillich, and they likely would be right (which should make the average religious person feel intellectually lazy and have the desire to repent). However, the principle of charity demands that when trying to falsify a claim you attack the argument at its strongest rather than at its weakest point. But then, it is likely the New Atheists have not taken a course in logic either.

Two of the best points that Haught makes in his book are about whether or not belief in God is a scientific hypothesis and also whether we can be good without God. On the first question, he reminds readers that science is useful (but limited) in finding out about the material universe that we reside in, but God is a transcendent being (in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense) so we cannot use the scientific method to verify or falsify the proposition that God exists. Also, Haught talks abut the fact that meaning is not monistic as Richard Dawkins wants to imply, meaning that not all meaning is reducible to scientific inquiry. Rather, meaning can be pluralistic as Haught shows here:
This assumption [scientific naturalism] overlooks the fact that multiple layers of understanding or explanation can exist. Almost everything in our experience, after all, admits of a plurality of levels of explanation in which various accounts do not compete with one another. For example, one explanation of the page you are reading is that a printing press has stamped ink onto white paper. Another is that the author intends to put certain idea across. Still another explanation is that a publisher asked the author to write a critical response to the new atheism. Notice that these three layers all explain the page you are reading, but they are not competing with or contradicting one another. It makes no sense to argue, for example, that the page you are reading can be explained by the printing press rather than by the author's intention to write something. Nor does it make sense to say that this page exists because of the publishers request rather than because the author wants to record some ideas. The distinct levels are noncompetitive and mutually compatible. (God and the New Atheism, pg. 85)
Close quote. To simplify Haught's eloquence, religion and science are not in competition with each other because they are different ways of looking at things. Take for example the existence of humans. A scientific way of looking at this question is that humans exist because they evolved from simpler forms of life through natural selection and random mutation. A religious way of looking at the same question is that God created humans for the purpose of coming to know him and become like him. Both answers are explaining the same phenomena, and both are compatible.

Also, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens seem to think that people believe in God because he is the ultimate explanation of why anything at all exists. While it is true that this is an argument for God's existence, this is not why people worship God. A God who is merely a mechanic is not worthy of worship; notice Aristotle says nothing about worshiping God in Metaphysics.

The last point I want to make is about God and morality. For some reason, both New Atheists and some theists believe that the scriptures primary purpose is to teach us morality (something neither the Torah, New Testament, Book of Mormon, or Quran say), and since there are instances of murder, adultery, genocide, rape, and other moral atrocities, the scriptures cannot be the foundation of morality. In response to this, Haught makes the following points. First, it is a misuse of the text to try to learn something book that the book is not trying to teach. The scriptures are primarily about God's dealings with ancient people, not teaching ethics. Also, while the scriptures are not the foundation of morality, the New Atheists have not provided an adequate explanation of moral realism, which they all seem to espouse. Dawkins appeals to biology, but that is to rush from facts to values, something David Hume cautioned against. Harris, appeals to moral intuition, but he forgets A.J. Ayer's objection to moral intuitionism by stating that different cultures have different intuitions, so morality cannot be objective. In short, the New Atheist's have torn down the foundations of traditional morality (or so they think), but they have not given an adequate replacement.

Whether one is a theist, atheist, or agnostic, one should read carefully Haught's book.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Brief Introduction to the New Testament: Chapter 4 Questions

1. Did you find anything unexpected, surprising, or disturbing in this chapter? If so, explain what it was and why you found it that way.

Because I have listened to a number of lectures by Bart Ehrman and because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I did not find it surprising that we do not have early copies of the New Testament gospels, that the gospels were written anonymously, and that they have contradictions with each other. Such was prophesied by Nephi in the early chapters of the Book of Mormon.

2. Can you think of a way that the eyewitnesses to Jesus' life may have controlled how the stories about him were told and retold in the oral traditions? If so, explain how you think it might have worked. If you don't think so, explain why not.

Eyewitnesses to Jesus life, like witnesses to anyone's life, can control the stories by telling certain aspects of a persons life while limiting or not discussing others. So, it is possible the eyewitnesses could have talked just about the good and miraculous side of Jesus' life, but left out the parts where Jesus is angry or would contradict the picture of the simple, humble man that the gospel writers wanted to portray.

Early copy of the Gospel of Luke

3. What kind of evidence would you look for to show that the stories about Jesus probably were passed along without changing them significantly? What kind of evidence would you look for to show that they were changed? Where do you stand on the matter?

To answer the first two questions, I would examine all of the stories and see where they agreed and where they disagreed. Then, I would analyze whether the disagreements were of a fundamental nature or of a minor nature. I think that the Bible is an inspired but corrupted text, so it does not surprise me that there exists textual variations among the sources. For this reason, when doing theology, you need to interpret the Bible in light of what the Church teaches rather than just trying to build a case from the text.

4. Based on what you have seen so far, do you thin the Gospel writers were themselves eyewitnesses to what Jesus said and did? Why or why not?

It is impossible to tell for sure whether the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses or not because we do not know for sure who wrote the Gospels. We can be sure, since the author attributed to the Gospel of Luke says this, that he was not an eyewitness because he says he used other sources and conducted interviews. The Gospel of Matthew uses Mark as a source so it is unlikely that the author was an eyewitness. The Gospel of Mark may be an eyewitness account, but it also borrows from the Q source, so it is inconclusive. The Gospel of John is a theological narrative and does not pretend to be a biography, and includes things an eyewitness could not know (such as that Jesus existed before the world was).

Friday Traditio: Stephen H. Webb

As many of my readers know, I have maintained and still maintain that Mormons are not Christians; rather they are a separate religion who uses a shared vocabulary. I plan to talk about this in a book with my friend Robert Boylan, who is perhaps Mormonism's best unheard of theologian and writer.

However, I do maintain that Mormons have much to learn from Christians, particularly the Ante-Nicene Fathers and and also Christian philosophers and theologians such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and others. Also, Christians have much that they can learn from us.

A person who shared this view was the late Stephen H. Webb, a Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian who wrote books such as Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints, Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation, and Jesus Christ, Eternal God:Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter. He also authored the influential article Mormonism Obsessed with Christ. Per friends of Webb, I also know that he was taking the missionary discussions and it was probable that he might have converted before his untimely death.

In this weeks traditio, I invite my readers to listen to Webb as he discusses some central themes of Mormon Christianity at BYU. 


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Brief Introduction to the New Testament: Chapter 3 questions

1. Explain the various ways that Judaism was different from the pagan religions in its environment.

Judaism was different from the pagan religions of its surrounding environment because they believe in and worshiped only one god while the surrounding nations worshiped many gods. Jews also thought that their god alone was worth of worship, and when building a temple to his name did not place a statue in it to represent the image of god because their god was not humanoid like the other deities worshiped by the surrounding cultures.

A group of Pharisees and Sadducee's

2. Summarize the differences among the ancient Jewish groups, such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.

The Pharisees were the most numerous of the three groups mentioned, numbering some 6,000 according to Josephus. They were strict to keep the law of Moses, very pious, and made up numerous rules and customs so that by keeping these customs they were unlikely to break the actual written law. Unlike the Sadducee's, the Pharisees believed in a literal Resurrection and an afterlife.

The Sadducee's were the chief priests and Levites. They conformed to the law of Moses to the letter, and did not accept any other beliefs outside of what Moses had taught. Thus they did not believe in an afterlife or a Resurrection of the dead. While there were not as many Sadducee's as there were Pharisees, the Sadducee's were the more influential group because they were the ones who governed the temple and the synagogues, and since the high priest was a Sadducee they were likely the most influential of the three groups.

The Essenes were a fringe group, similar to end times groups in our day who await the end of the world. They lived apart from most people and had their own unique customs. Luckily, because they were highly literate, they copied many texts of the Old Testament which are still available for study and that give us insight into ancient Judaism.

3. In your view, was ancient Judaism one kind of thing, or were there many kinds of Judaism? Should we speak of Judaism or Judaisms in antiquity?

Like Christianity, there were different slants in ancient Judaism, but there was a set of core beliefs that united them, such as monotheism, adherence to the law of Moses, reverence for the temple, and so forth. However, there were obviously some fundamentally different beliefs among the ancient Jews, such as the Pharisees believing in the resurrection and the Sadducee's denying it. So, it is fair to say that while Judaism was one religion, it had various competing sects as Christianity and Islam do today.

Review of "Every Man's Battle"

Having read Every Young Man's Battle as a teenager and again as a young adult, I had seen the book Every Man's Battle mentioned and had planned to read it after I married since I knew that it was addressed to married men. Since I thought the likelihood that I would get married was quite low (at age 25 I had never had a girlfriend), I thought I would never get the book. Luckily, I found the love of my life and married her on February 11, 2017. However, as mentioned in Every Young Man's Battle, just because you get married does not mean that the bad habits you developed before your nuptials will suddenly vanish (I add my own testimony that this is true). In order to be the husband that God has called you to be, you will have to make some real and perhaps drastic changes.

The main praise I have of this book is its talk about how we as men get visual satisfaction from our eyes, which at first glance doesn't seem that interesting since we know that many men enjoy pornography, which is based on visual stimulation. However, I did not think that this eye stimulation also came from just looking at women you pass by in your day-to-day life. I noticed that I often looked at women who walked by lustfully, which is easy to do considering that I am a college student and am on a college campus five days a week. However, this does not give me the right to scope out other women lustfully; the only woman I am permitted by scripture to think about in a sexual manner is my wife. So, how do we as married men avoid this problem?

The authors point out a method that I have found useful as I have tried it over the last few days: Bouncing your eyes. The method is simply that when you encounter attractive women or pictures of them, you look at something else immediately since you have no right to look at women in lustful manner. This not to say you cannot talk to attractive women other than your wife, but you need to maintain eye contact and not allow your eyes to wander. I have found it useful also when thoughts enter my mind to twist my wedding band, which changes the focus of my thoughts and reminds me of the person that I have committed myself to.

Like I said in my review for the former book, the authors tend to go overboard at times. At one point, Fred (one of the authors) mentions that you cannot even be attracted to other women if you are married (yes, he really said that). This is nonsense and dangerous. In life you will meet other women who are attractive, just as your wife will meet other attractive men. It is simply a brute fact that attraction is something that occurs which you have little if any causal control over. While you can control your lusts, you cannot control your attractions. I mention this because the authors can get a little out there at times, and this can cloud their important message.

I recommend this book to every married man, with the caution that he is a Christian of some sort. It will help put you on the road to being the man your wife envisioned when she married you.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday Traditio: William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ronald Reagan

If you are a political junkie as I am, you have probably noticed that it is nearly impossible to find commentators and interviewers (particularly in the main stream) who know what they are talking about, yet alone those who ask substantive questions of those they interview. It is often infuriating to me to watch hosts such as Bill O'Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity and others not only not behave in a way unbecoming of journalists, but also not showing proper respect for their guests. Constantly there is interruptions, insults, and bickering and hardly ever any noteworthy conversation. 

I thought in today's traditio we could go back in time a little to when things were different. William F. Buckley was a conservative after my own heart, founder of the National Review, possessor of a magnificent voice and outstanding vocabulary, as well as perhaps the best interviewer I have ever seen. His show Firing Line was a masterpiece for many years, and Buckley was always a gracious host who never interrupted his guest (whether he agreed with them or not) and allowed them time to fully articulate their respective views. 

In this interview,  Buckley interviews Ronald Reagan, who at the time was the former governor of California and a candidate for the Republican nomination for the United States presidency. I hope you all enjoy listening to these two great men.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Brief Introduction to the New Testament: Chapter Two Questions

1) Summarize the ways religion in the Greco-Roman world was different from religion today.

Today when we think of religion, especially in the western hemisphere, we think of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the three great monotheism's. All three of these religions believe in one God, in an afterlife, and see their religion as the one way to reconciliation with God and the one way to true happiness. None of this applies to Greco-Roman Religions. These religions were polytheistic, and the central focus of these religions was happiness in the present life, not in the afterlife. In addition, none of these religions regarded themselves as being the one true religion, so there was a high level of tolerance for those who had different beliefs. In addition, each family worshiped its own set of subsidiary deities, so it was drastically different from what we consider to be religion today.

2) In your opinion, if religions in antiquity were so very different from religion as most of us know it today, how can we even define religion? How would you define it?

Defining words is a major problem in the philosophy of language, and Ludwig Wittgenstein's "language game" theory comes to mind when thinking about who gets to define terms, especially those relating to religion. Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher who wrote the book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" explained that since people and ideas evolve, religion evolves also and becomes more sophisticated than it was in the past. This is probably the best way to define religion, a phenomenon that is natural that evolves over time and whose emphasis will be different depending on the culture it arises out of. However, I think that Ehrman is right that it is probably impossible to define all religion under one heading because they are so radically different.

Alexander the Great

3)What about the social, political, and historical background of the New Testament strikes you as especially important? Does knowing something about Alexander the Great or Octavius matter?

When we here the term "Son of God" today, whether we are Christian or not, assume that some is talking about Jesus of Nazareth. However, I did find it fascinating to note that Caesar Augustus (Octavius) was also considered the Son of God as historically important. This makes the Gospel narratives even more radical in my view because when they call Jesus the Son of God they are sticking their fingers in the face of Rome and saying "No, the person who deserves this title is not the person in this palace, but the babe of Bethlehem." It is important to understand also that in the New Testament times most people could not read or write, so what was written down was of prime importance. Through this lens, we should see the New Testament as a valuable set of documents indeed because it could have easily not existed.

4) Pretend you're a pagan in the Roman world and you want to show why Christianity is an inferior religion. Make your case. Now pretend you're a Christian in the Roman world and you want to show that paganism is inferior. Make your case.

The fundamental difference it seems between the Roman religions and the Christian religion is their emphasis on what ultimately mattered. In the former case it was the world and life in which we currently live, in the latter case it was the afterlife.

In making the case for pagans, I would point out that there is no way to know for sure whether or not there is an afterlife, and if there is such an afterlife we also cannot know what rituals and beliefs will help us there. We do, however, know that we live in this world and the gods that we worship are involved in the life we have here. It makes no sense to worry about what might not be when we know that hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes will be a problem in our everyday lives.

In making the case for Christianity, I would argue that while it is true that what happens in this life matters, Christianity accounts for that. One of the central messages of Jesus was to love your neighbor as yourself and to make the best use of your time while here on the Earth. So saying that Christianity is solely focused on the afterlife is simply false. In addition, whether there is an afterlife is of great importance because if there is one it provides direction for what is important in the current world. If there is no afterlife, survival is of prime importance. If there is an afterlife, and the afterlife is the one taught by Jesus and his followers, then preparation is of prime importance. Remember, you will be dead far longer than you could ever possibly live.