Animated Video on the Problem of Evil

Image.People.Greg GanssleI’m pleased to direct your attention to a new series of videos on the problem of evil for Christian theism, narrated by my friend Greg Ganssle. Greg is a philosopher at Yale University and a Senior Fellow of the Rivendell Institute at Yale. These are effective animated videos that encapsulate a treatment of the problem of evil concisely and in an engaging format. Have a look. Then come back here and leave your comments!

Click here for a link to the first 5-minute video in the series. More about Greg can be found here.



Archbishop Worries That Atheism is “Cool,” and This Makes Atheists Happy

Recent statements by Britain’s Archbishop, Rowan Williams, have provoked some interesting discussion. Williams has said, “Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool.” He’s thinking of books like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

For news coverage, see the article by Jonathan Wynne-Jones, published in The Telegraph September 19, 2011.

Today I read a post about the Archbishop’s statement at an atheist blog hosted by Martin Pribble

Dr Rowan Williams PC, DPhil, DD, FBA the 104th...

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. I then left a comment in the comments stream, which otherwise appears to be uniformly atheistic in orientation.

Here’s my comment:

Hasty generalization is a blight on much thinking on all sides of most issues. (I hope that statement isn’t an example of hasty generalization!)

In this case, the good Archbishop surely over-generalizes if he claims that a recent bump in the popularity of atheism is due to its “cool” factor. The explanation is far more complex than that, and the weighing of evidence for and against the existence of God is surely a factor for many people.

On the other hand, I think that Martin is a bit hasty in his generalization about theistic responses to current atheism advocacy. To be sure, there are books that pass over evidence and argument in breezy fashion and simply attack the messenger. But Martin implies that this is true of all published responses to Dawkins. He can’t be serious. One might, as he suggests, do a simple Google search to turn up more sophisticated treatments, of Dawkins’ work, yes, but also of the atheistic or naturalistic position more generally. Some are published by prestigious presses that are careful to publish only the best serious and academic work on such topics: Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge, for example.

Also, I notice that ad hominem rhetoric is tossed about on both sides of this issue. In the comment stream for this post, for example, Rowan Williams is chided in uncharitable terms and William Lane Craig is said to be stupid.

I’m new to this website, so I don’t know about its general tenor or the tone of regular commentators. But if the byline is “Attempting to make sense,” then I urge Martin to admonish his readers to take greater care to marshal evidence in support of their claims rather than to make safe and provocative assertions and tender emotional arguments.

If this site seeks to engage readers in meaningful dialogue, I suspect it will attract more thoughtful responses, from a spectrum of positions, if it monitors the discussion and facilitates reasoned debate. A wise proverb says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” In other words, if sophistry prevails, find someone else to talk to.

Last I checked, my comment was “awaiting moderation.”

Update: My comment at Martin Pibble’s site has been approved, so it now appears there, as well. I should note that here at my own site comments “await moderation” until “approved.” I believe a process of screening to be good practice.

Christians Who Behave Like Atheists


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In my recent post Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?, I suggested that it may be common for atheists to entertain severe doubts about their atheism, and contemplate the possibility that God does exist and is worthy of belief and even worship.

It would be easy for Christians to explain atheistic belief in terms of rebellion against a God whose existence is only too obvious and personally offensive. But I would encourage Christians to consider that something resembling this may be found among believers, as well.

Any refusal to face the facts about God in the light of ample evidence is rebellion and idolatry. So one may believe that God exists, but refuse to believe certain things about God. Or one may believe certain things about God but then act in defiance of such a God. And one may assert the existence of God, even argue vehemently that God exists, and yet remain indifferent toward God on the personal level.

A believer, then, should be careful not to apply a double standard in comparing himself with nonbelievers. He should reflect on the possibility that he is like the typical skeptic in fundamental ways.

There are varieties of triumphalist apologetics. One form chastens nonbelievers for attitudes that one would find in oneself if one simply looked closely enough.

Are Atheists Haunted by the Possibility of Being Mistaken?

Archibald Alexander (1772-1851)

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Archibald Alexander, who was the first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in the 18th century:

Whatever may be the truth in regard to religion, it must be admitted to be the most important subject which can possibly occupy the thoughts of a rational creature. It cannot be wise to treat it, as many have done, with levity and ridicule: for even on the supposition that there is no true religion, it is a serious thing that it has got such a hold of the mind, that it cannot be shaken off; so that men of the noblest powers of intellect and the highest moral courage have been subdued and led captive by its impressions. And they who boast a complete exemption from its influence, and glory in the name of atheist or sceptic, do nevertheless often betray a mind ill at ease, and in the extremity of their distress are sometimes heard to call upon that God whose existence they have denied, and to implore that mercy which they have been accustomed to deride. . . . They seem to be haunted with a secret apprehension that the reality of religion will at some moment flash upon their conviction. It is with them a common saying, that ‘fear made the gods;’ but it would be much more true to assert, that fear made atheists; for what but the dread of a Supreme Being could be a motive strong enough to lead men to contend so earnestly against the existence of God? . . . . Indeed, a man should first take leave of his reason before he advocates an opinion demonstrated to be false by everything which we behold.

Alexander suggests that atheists and religious skeptics often are haunted by the possibility of being mistaken. One good reason for this is that there is good evidence for the existence of God.

I’ve noticed that some of the most public and argumentative atheists today deny that there is any good reason at all to believe there’s a God. This, surely, is over-stating the case, even if you think that, on balance, the case against the existence of God is stronger than the case for God’s existence.

Another feature of Alexander’s statement has continuing relevance. The atheist who campaigns for his worldview in a public way today attests to the importance of the question of God’s existence by his vigorous efforts in the marketplace of ideas. And this, too, confirms the claim that religious concern is, for all intents and purposes, a universal concern.

Some who are agnostic about God’s existence may be understandably reluctant to deride religious belief, lest it turn out that God does exist. But if it should turn out that God exists, will it be so much better to have been an agnostic than an atheist?

Are God’s Mental States All in Your Mind?

Where do we get our concept of God? I ask in the first person plural “we” because there is something pervasive and shared about “the concept of God” that we manage to think and talk about with each other.

This is illustrated by the Slate article of a week ago titled “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Brain.” The author, Jesse Bering, aims to explain “how our innate theory of mind gives rise to the divine creator.” Click here to read the article.

The article begins by noting the uniquely well-developed capacity we have to attribute mental states to others of our species, then present evidence that we also attribute mental states to inanimate entities. On this basis, Bering hopes to make a natural inference to the claim that in our thinking about God we are projecting a mental life onto an object that is neither animate nor inanimate, but unreal.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.

“What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?” Great question! I would say, “That sounds like wishful thinking on your part. Show me the evidence.”

Of course, Jesse Bering doesn’t present any evidence. Our capacity to ascribe mental lives to members of our species seems, from Bering’s point of view, to be legitimate. That much is a relief. But our tendency, as Bering would put it, to do the same for inanimate objects suggests that we are somehow hard-wired to err in doing this.

Now, it doesn’t really matter that the evidence Bering presents for our supposed projection of mental lives onto inanimate objects is very weak, because even if Bering is right about that, it doesn’t count as evidence that that’s more-or-less what we’re doing when we think about God. But the evidence that we routinely project mental lives onto the inanimate doesn’t bear the weight of Bering’s conclusion. There are plausible alternative explanations for our behavior toward physical objects when we’re angry and for our talk about objects as if they were personal entities. I don’t slam the car door because I hold my car personally responsible for “refusing” to start and “making” me late to work. But I do slam the door and I do speak this way. The action is expressive of my frustration, if only to myself, and the speech is metaphorical.

When I think and talk about God, my acting and speaking is completely unlike my acting and speaking when my car won’t start. I believe that God is real, is a person, hears and responds to me, and so forth. Unaccountably, Bering doesn’t acknowledge this difference in my so-called “intentional-state attributions.” I only appear, through my behavior, to attribute intentions to my stupid car. But I do not actually attribute intentions to the thing. My behavior does not tell the whole story, a story that I know from the inside, as the person engaged in that behavior. But I do attribute intentions to a divine creator. In fact, I see evidence all around me of a creator’s existence and intentions.

If time allowed, I would show how the reality of our mental lives—acknowledged by Bering—is itself evidence for the reality of God, a supreme being with a real mental life. That will have to be for another time. Meanwhile, I encourage you to read the charming but misguided article by Jesse Bering. It neatly exhibits a pervasive confusion—one that nurtures a very real illusion about God.

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Henry Boynton Smith (1815-1876)

February 7

On this date in 1877, Henry Boynton Smith died in New York City, age 61. This theologian, who was born in Portland, Maine, studied at Bowdoin College and at Andover and Bangor theological seminaries. Later, he studied in Germany, getting to know Friedrich Tholuck and Hermann Ulrici at Halle, and August Neander and Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg at Berlin.

I have long had an interest in Tholuck (1799-1877) for his work in Christian apologetics as a German evangelical. Henry B. Smith lectured in apologetics at Union Theological Seminary during the academic years 1874-1875 and 1875-1876. His course of lectures was published in 1882 by A. C. Armstrong & Son.

Smith adopted a three-fold division of Christian apologetics:

  1. Fundamental Apologetics
  2. Historical Apologetics
  3. Philosophical Apologetics

His system is sophisticated and worthy of close study. He begins with the question whether the supernatural can be known (considering first general questions of epistemology) then moves on to “the proof of the Being of God” (p. 46).

Here is how he begins to address the question, “How can we know God?”

The very question implies some knowledge. Unless we had some conception of God we could and would nevermore ask, How can and do we know God? Unless man had some belief in God he would not ask, any more than an animal, Can you prove His being—can you demonstrate His existence?

The questions implies a need, a craving—seeks for an answer to a demand of our rational and moral being. This is the very least that can be said. There is a strong subjective belief—that is the starting-point; and the question is, Is there a corresponding objective reality? Are there sufficient grounds for full belief, binding on all rational and moral beings?

Hence the question is not at all about knowing some unknown thing, about proving the existence of a mere abstraction—as a theorem in geometry. It is as to the proving the existence of a being in whom, somehow, in some wise, we already believe. It is not going from the known to the unknown—but showing that there are valid and final reasons for a strong, universal, native, human belief.

—Smith, Apologetics: A Course of Lectures (1882), pp. 71-72

Later, Smith writes:

  1. As the starting-point show that man’s whole nature and man’s whole history prove the need to him of a God; that man by nature and reason is irresistibly prompted to seek for Deity, and cannot else be satisfied. This is not the proof of God’s being, but the basis of proof.
  2. That all the phenomena and facts of the universe (so far as known) demand the recognition of a God as their source and unity—a personal God, the necessary complement of the world.
  3. That man’s reason (a priori) demonstrates the existence of a real, infinite, absolute being.
  4. The combination of 2 and 3 gives is the result and proof.

In its ultimate philosophical principles the proof for the being of God consists of three arguments resting upon three ideas:

(a) The ontological argument, on the idea of being.

(b) The cosmological argument, on the idea of cause.

(c) The teleological argument, on the idea of design.

—Smith, Apologetics, p. 87

In chapter 4, Smith distinguishes between “the Supernatural” and “the Miraculous.” He develops the case for Christian miracles against pantheism and materialism, which both consider the impossibility of miracles to be an axiom. Not only are miracles possible, but on sufficient evidence, it is reasonable to believe that miracles have happened.

Smith says, “Besides having an adequate cause, miracles have also a sufficient end or object, and are never to be considered apart from, or dissociated from that” (p. 102).

Miracles are:

possible, if there is a God;

probable, if a positive revelation is needed; and

they have been [i.e., they have happened], if Christ and his apostles can be believed.

(p. 104)

Smith held that “Christian Apologetics is essentially Vindication. It seeks to vindicate, and in vindicating to establish, the value and authority of the Christian faith” (p. 118). His published lectures are a credit to his effort to do just that.

Note: It was also on this date, in 1664, that Gottfried Leibniz completed his master’s degree in philosophy.


Gottfried Leibniz

Do Miracles Happen Today?

In the comments section of a post I made some months ago, I was recently asked if I believe that a severely damaged eye could be restored immediately following a Christian prayer meeting.

Here’s my reply, made more accessible with a separate and exclusive post. Read more of this post

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