‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post


‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post.

Read this book review by Michael Dirda and consider where the argument about original sin and the history of Christian doctrine errs.

Your observations are welcome. Feel free to share using the comments box below.

Rev. Giles Fraser Catches Out Richard Dawkins in Dispute about Christianity in Britain


On Tuesday, BBC 4 hosted an occasionally heated exchange between Richard Dawkins and Rev. Giles Fraser. In their exchange, Fraser takes exception to the design of a survey conducted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He suggests that the survey, which purports to establish that Christianity is rare in Britain, shows no such thing. The Dawkins survey revealed that nearly two out of three who consider themselves Christians were unable to name the first book of the New Testament. (The correct answer is supposed to be the Gospel According to St. Matthew, but that depends on what you mean by “first”!) Fraser put the Dawkins test to work on Dawkins himself and asked if he could name the full title of The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Though he said he could, Dawkins stumbled when trying to quote the full title of his own secular Bible. Some British journalists are having laugh at Dawkins’s expense.

For audio of the interview (less than 7 minutes) click here. The story is reported at the Huff Post, with a transcript of the embarrassing bit, here.

Many, no doubt, will remark with glee on the embarrassing incident. But this isn’t quite fair, in my opinion. True, Dawkins should know the full title of Darwin’s seminal work. Dawkins is, after all, a former Oxford University professor who has published extensively in defense of Darwinian evolution. He is also the author of a 23-page Introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of The Origin of Species and the Voyage of the Beagle, published by Alfred A. Knopf. But it surely is a sad commentary on the state of literacy in Britain that so few who call themselves Christians can name the book that appears first in most copies of the New Testament.

There is a larger point that should not be missed. There was a time when knowing that sort of thing was widespread among believers and non-believers alike. But the fund of “common knowledge” has been compressed to the dimensions of a thimble so that now what counts as literacy is up for grabs. Christian or not, shouldn’t a literate person know enough about the world’s great literature to be able to declare with confidence the name of the first Gospel of the New Testament?

Coincidences of Life – Ender’s Game and a UPS Truck


UPS Truck . . . without a driver

This afternoon I was waiting at a red light (northbound on Palm at Central in Brea, CA, if the coordinates matter) and listening to the audio-book for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Just as the light turned green, one character said to the other, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service.”

This struck me as odd, showing up in a work of science fiction. But stranger still, as I shifted my motorcycle into second, a UPS truck passed me in the intersection going south.

Was it a coincidence? Of course it was. It was quite literally the coinciding of an auditory reference from one source and a visual reference from another source to the same company, UPS. These sensory experiences occurred simultaneously. They each conveyed information, and the information conveyed referred to the same thing. I heard a guy say through my headset, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” just as I waved to a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. (Well, actually, I didn’t wave.)

Uncanny?

Sort of.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines “uncanny” in this way: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin,” or “being beyond what is normal or expected: suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers.”

The concurrence of two causally unrelated references to the same informational content attracts our attention. It is so incredibly unlikely that this would happen, it seems almost to have been planned. Was it planned? And if so, who arranged it? It might take superhuman or supernatural powers to make it happen just so. What other explanation could there be?

“Coincidence,” we say, with palpable matter-of-factness. But of course it’s a coincidence. Saying so merely reports an observation of fact. The real question is, what kind of coincidence is it? What is the explanation for this coincidence?

We do explain coincidences in various ways. Sometimes we say, “It was just a coincidence.” By this we mean that there’s nothing more to it than that, a mere coincidence, with no deep explanation. There is no intelligible cause, and no intelligent agent, involved. There is no meaningful answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”

But the question does present itself. It does to me, anyway. Trivial coincidences like this happen in my experience with remarkable frequency. I say “trivial” because I infer no special significance when they happen. And yet it is both remarkable each time it happens and remarkable that it happens as often as it does.

Why is it remarkable if the coincidence is trivial? It’s remarkable because the concurrence is so improbable. The degree of improbability varies depending on the specific character of the information presented. But the improbability of the concurrence does not, as such, warrant attribution of some special significance.

Why not?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, we can think of no special reason why the elements in our experience have occurred together. (Note: No one else in the intersection, I believe, actually heard or thought of the words “United Parcel Service” at that moment.) Second, we can identify no  causal mechanism that would ensure that they did occur together. In other words, there is no apparent point in their concurrence, and no obvious causal account of their concurrence. If we thought their concurrence served some purpose, we would naturally be curious about the cause. And if nothing else will serve, we might say that the cause was superhuman and personal. Given a general reluctance to attribute causes to occult entities, we require that a coincidence be specially significant. Also, if the concurrence was caused for our benefit, then we should find some benefit in their concurrence. That is, if we who experience the coincidence were meant to experience it, then there was some reason why it happened and why it happened in our experience. And this suggests that we should be capable of discerning that purpose.

What purpose could possibly have been served by the coincidence I experienced on my way home this afternoon? Nothing comes to mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

But wait, now that I think that thought, I recall that there was a UPS package for me when I arrived home not two minutes later. Was the coincidence a warning, then? It certainly didn’t have that effect on me when it happened. In fact, when it happened, my thought was, This is something I could blog about. And in retrospect it doesn’t seem that a warning was required. The contents of the package were innocuous. Some clothing I had ordered. I don’t know if it matters, but the package wasn’t waiting on the front porch, as if it had just been delivered by the very same UPS truck. It had been carried in by another member of my household who wasn’t home. (I know she wasn’t home because no one was home. And I know it was a she because I’m the only he in the household. Aren’t you impressed with my awesome powers of deduction?)

I suppose now I might take care trying on the clothing that was delivered. But I can’t seriously entertain the notion that I’m in some kind of danger.

If there was a message, it was totally lost on me.

Could there be some other purpose, completely unrelated to my goals or interests, so that the purpose might be achieved quite apart from my cognizance of it?

(c) 2009 Katherine Gehl Donovan

Sure. A minor demon might have been taunting some innocent angel with her powers of manipulation, claiming to be able to cause me to hear “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” and, at the same precise moment, cause me to see a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

In that event, would it really matter whether I recognized the concurrence of the appearance of a UPS truck just as I was hearing that bit of fictional dialogue? I can imagine a neophyte angel thinking, How did you do that? What if the line I’ve quoted from the story isn’t actually in the novel?

And what if there wasn’t really a UPS truck crossing the intersection in the opposite direction? Maybe the demon’s game was to present me with visual and auditory data that did not correspond with objects matching the data. Who knows what minor demons are capable of?

The point is, if there was a purpose in the coincidence, I have no idea what it was, and this makes it less likely that, if there was a purpose, realization of that purpose depended on my discerning that purpose.

Now, what do I actually believe? Do I believe there was a purpose in the coincidence? I do not. But this is imprecise. Not believing that there was a purpose is not the same as believing there was no purpose. I might simply be agnostic about whether the coincidence served some purpose.

So am I agnostic? No. I believe that no purpose was served.

I should have a reason for believing this, shouldn’t I?

My chief reason for believing that no purpose was served by the event is that attributing a reason does not comport with my worldview. Or rather, my worldview provides no basis for attributing a reason for the coincidence.

What we make of coincidences often is a matter of worldview commitments. Some coincidences do, for me, invite an inference to the agency of some superhuman or supernatural agent. Apparent answers to prayer, for example.

Here’s a question for fellow theists who believe that God exists and is a personal being who created the universe and sustains it in existence, others like me who affirm a doctrine of meticulous divine providence:

How do you decided whether this or that ‘coincidence’ is the occurrence of an event serving some special purpose intended by a superhuman or supernatural being?

Bonus Question: Is the angel/demon image posted here too provocative? Is it poor judgment to use it here?

Doug Interviewed by the Religious News Service about God’s Role in Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami


Tuesday, March 22, I was interviewed by Nicole Neroulias about God’s role in Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. Neroulias blogs for Beliefnet and writes for Religion News Service. She is a graduate of Cornell University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and she has written for The New York Times and other media.

Our conversation of about 40 minutes focused on a poll just conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service. The institute and news service polled Americans for beliefs about God’s role in natural disasters. Neroulias recounted the results of the poll for me and asked for my reaction. Today her story went online here. Portions of our interview are summarized near the end of her article.

We discussed far more than could be included in her story. So I may be posting further about this interesting and important topic.

I welcome your reaction to the poll and comments on the article by Neroulias.

Notes & Updates:

  • Nicole Neroulias can be followed on twitter here.
  • The Religion News Service claims to be “the only secular news and photo service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics.”
  • The poll has also been noticed by CNN here.
  • Neroulias has also posted at Beliefnet here.
  • The Huffington Post is carrying the story by Neroulias here.

Radio Interview: The Janet Mefferd Show


Beginning at 11:00 a.m. CT today, Doug will be interviewed on the Janet Mefferd Show.

400th Anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible


The first page of the Book of Genesis from the...

Image via Wikipedia

The world’s best-selling book of all time, the King James Version of the Bible, is 400 years old this year. Introduced in 1611, this elegant English translation has a storied history, and an influence on Western culture beyond that of any person or object.

Today, a friend and colleague of mine gave a brief presentation on the history and influence of the KJV to the faculty at my university. Dr. Clinton Arnold is a New Testament scholar with numerous books to his credit. For a beautiful book that surveys the history of the English Bible, I recommend his neatly organized and amply illustrated book How We Got Our Bible.

If you want to read up on the King James Bible, I recommend two books:

The general topic matters for two basic reasons:

  1. Some uninformed critics think that the existence of diverse English translations counts against the divine origin of the original manuscripts of the Bible.
  2. Many, believers and nonbelievers, are not familiar with the history of the “canon” of the Bible. They do not know how the various books of the Bible, written by many individuals over a period of centuries, came to be regarded together as the written word of God.

Whether or not you use the King James Version, whether or not you read the Bible, I encourage you to commemorate this anniversary of the KJV with a little study of the history of the Bible. Here are some sources for that purpose:

Related:

Scripture Memory Made Easy


Scripture Memory Made Easy is the title of a little book by Mark Waters. The method resembles the approach I was taught by Garry Friesen as a college student in the late 1970s. The 64-page booklet, dubbed an “easy-to-understand pocket reference guide,” is both a guide to Scripture memorization and “a plan for learning one hundred Bible verses in fifty-two weeks.”

The author stresses the importance of review and has built this crucial element into the method. He also advises the excellent practice of memorizing verses topically. Both of these components of a sound Scripture memory plan were part of the Navigator’s “Topical Memory System” that I used when I was a teenager.

I have always believed in the value of Scripture memorization. It’s never too early to begin. Nor is it ever too late. For all the enthusiasm we see today for new techniques of “spiritual formation,” there is almost no emphasis on the memorization of carefully selected passages from the Bible.

Scripture Memory Made Easy, by Mark Waters, is a useful remedy.

Order at Amazon

Happily, the Topical Memory System, by the Navigators, continues to be published. Today’s kit includes 60 verses cards with passages from several familiar English translations, a workbook, and a verse card holder.

If Scripture memorization is new to you, I urge you to begin now. God will reward your efforts with the supply of wisdom for life’s small and major moments.

Note: I welcome your response to this post. Other readers may be encouraged to know of how your own experience with Scripture memory has increased your faith, enabled you to follow God’s will, and fostered greater boldness as a believer living in a secular society.

This website is read by people of differing beliefs. This particular post is primarily for those who believe the Bible is the greatest source for wise living. Anyone who believes this should be especially open to the value of Scripture memorization.

Again, I look forward to hearing from you!

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