Stop worrying about new atheism, and start watching ‘woke’ atheism

I wrote a blog for Christianity magazine on the tenth anniversary of the ‘atheist bus’ campaign. This milestone made me think about how much has changed since then. While ‘new atheism’ seemed to be a threat to many Christians at the time, it’s since died down. But ‘woke’ atheism, or identity politics, that I’ve written about a few times recently, has surged in that time – and I think this is a trend that the church really needs to address.

Why we shouldn’t put all our faith in science

I did a talk about this subject recently, but some of the points are in this article in Christian Today.

Science is given an authority in our culture that often ignores its limitations – this is potentially dangerous. It’s also referred to by people who don’t understand it. Particularly in the social sciences, there are many opportunities for bias and misunderstanding. Take a look!

Bart Ehrman: has the Bible been changed, and does it matter?

Bart often tries to be fair to Christians, for example arguing with Jesus mythicists, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

However it’s his popular books, such as ‘Misquoting Jesus’, that bear a lot of responsibility for the widely-held beliefs that our Bibles have been changed so much that they can’t be trusted. He’s argued that the early Christians decided to make up a lot of things Jesus said, or that the ancient manuscripts are so different that we can’t know what the originals said. And a lot of people believe him.

It’s true that we don’t have the original manuscripts of the Biblical text, and the ancient manuscripts we have do vary somewhat. However these variants are nearly always very small and insignificant changes, such as ‘in’ and ‘into’, which don’t change the meaning. Modern Bibles such as the New Living Translation tell you all about this in their notes.

But behind the rhetoric Bart is a bit more fair. I’ve been reading ‘Misquoting Truth’ by Timothy Paul Jones, which summarises some of these points. For example, he says this:

“It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts was by and large a ‘conservative’ process. The scribes … were intent on ‘conserving’ the textual tradition they were passing on. Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them. Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited.”

In fact because of the technique of textual criticism, the fact that there are multiple later manuscripts with small errors in them actually gives us more confidence in what the original text said, because the changes act as clues to trace the original. Bart acknowledges this:

If there were only one manuscript of a work, there would be no textual variants. Once a second manuscript is located, however, it will differ from the first in a number of places. This is not a bad thing, however, as a number of these variant readings will show where the first manuscript has preserved an error. Add a third manuscript, and you will find additional variant readings, but also additional places, as a result, where the original text is preserved (i.e., where the first two manuscripts agree in an error). And so it goes—the more manuscripts one discovers, the more the variant readings; but also the more the likelihood that somewhere among those variant readings one will be able to uncover the original text. Therefore, the thirty thousand variants uncovered by [John] Mill do not detract from the integrity of the New Testament; they simply provide the data that scholars need to work on to establish the text, a text that is more amply documented than any other from the ancient world.

 

 

 

What can Christians learn from atheists?

I wrote this article for Christian Today a while back, but just about to post a few new articles on here, so thought I should catch up.

It’s done quite well – always interesting to observe which articles ‘do well’ now us journos have the internet hit rate as a guide – probably because it’d appeal to atheists as well as Christians.

I offer 7 ways in which Christians can learn from our unbelieving friends, so do check it out.

I like Richard Dawkins, and these are some reasons why

I’m a Christian, and so naturally, Richard Dawkins sometimes gets right up my nose. However, there is a lot that I really like and respect about him, even though I consider his arguments against Christianity to be false.

I also think that in many ways, he has been good for the church. So I wrote for Christianity magazine, on “10 reasons for Christians to thank Richard Dawkins”. Hope you enjoy it!

Did Jesus exist?

I read a piece of ‘journalism’ yesterday that was probably the best example I’ve seen of how to make total nonsense sound reasonable to people who know nothing about a subject. It said, “A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ existence’. Who are these people? Richard Carrier. Who he? He has a PhD. That’s it. That was her ‘growing number of scholars’. But he’s not even a scholar.
Carrier is a joke. Here’s agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman on this subject, he couldn’t be any clearer:
“There is a lot of evidence. There is so much evidence… I know in the crowds you hang around with, it’s commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. Let me tell you, once you get outside of your conclave, there’s nobody. This is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. There is no scholar in any college or university in the Western world, who teaches classics, ancient history, New Testament, early Christianity, any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed…
“The reason people think Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources… Early and independent sources indicated certainly that Jesus existed… I think atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because it makes you look foolish to the outside world.”

Why did Kenneth W Daniels lose his faith? A Christian response to his book

stjohnsashfield_stainedglass_goodshepherd_portrait_croppedKenneth is now an atheist, though once a Wycliffe missionary. He describes what happened at length in his memoir: ‘Why I believed: Reflections of a former missionary’. The book attempts to convince the reader of his arguments against Christianity, and claims that his deconversion was due to ‘weighing the evidence’. Though he says at various points that he is not trying to persuade believers to doubt, this doesn’t tally with his rather sinister invitation at the end of the book: “Consider taking a swim in the waters of unbelief. You won’t be struck by lightening…”

His analysis did not persuade me to doubt my faith. In fact it reminded me of the strength of the intellectual arguments for Christianity. Perhaps that is because of our very different backgrounds.

Kenneth grew up in a supportive but fundamentalist Christian environment, then began to have doubts while at university, which did not go away. Not an unusual story, as university is where we start to think independently from our parents. I think that’s why I was more convinced that God exists at the end of my science degree than when I began. My mind had been opened – though it took some time before I truly adopted Christian faith. But I grew up in a secular environment. Neither of my parents were practising Christians. I came to faith in my late 20s, after a lot of searching. It requires a lot of independent thought, as I’ve written elsewhere, to break out of the secular, atheistic worldview we are immersed in. It takes effort and courage. Becoming a Christian helped me to open my mind further. Though now, I absolutely, without hesitation, believe orthodox Christianity to be true.

Yet, Kenneth took the opposite path. Why? Well, he claims throughout the book that he didn’t want to lose his faith. One reason he cites, is that his family, wife and career are all devoutly Christian. (It’s worth pointing out that his doubts existed before he went to Wycliffe). Kenneth describes heartfelt prayers, spiritual experiences, earnest studying, that he hoped would bring him back to faith. He says that his deconversion was purely because he ‘weighed the evidence’ (p.56).

However, I do not see this careful ‘weighing’ in his book, which leaves me puzzled. He read fairly widely, yet often confidently makes assertions without apparently being aware of some of the counter-arguments. He seems to me, to be trying to convince himself that God’s not real. He also appears to be arguing against a particular kind of Christianity – fundamentalist, creationist etc – rather than the Christianity that I know, which is evangelical, but thoughtful and open. This leads to a whole load of straw men and red herrings for someone who does not identify with “fundamentalist” Christianity. (Though as I point out at the end of this piece, in some ways I think Christians should be more concerned about the fundamentals as Jesus described them).

The objections that Kenneth raises are nothing new. The violence and “un-Christian” commands of the OT, the “conflict” between evolution and creationism, the Biblical “contradictions” or “errors”, the existence of hell, suffering.

I was raised in British culture that sees such problems as insurmountable objections to Christianity, and rarely mentions the Christian point of view. This counter-Christian rhetoric is all over our TVs, in our most popular books, claimed as fact by many of our teachers. Most younger people in the UK now uncritically accept these ideas. For that reason, most committed Christians, especially adult converts, have thought through these objections carefully, and found them to be unfounded or secondary to their experience of Christ in their lives.

So how could these issues have been so devastating for Daniels? I don’t know, but I spot a few interesting possibilities. From a spiritual point of view, on the surface he had everything he needed. He grew up in an apparently loving Christian home, his experiences of Christian community seem to generally have been positive.  He must have been covered in prayer, because he was open about his doubts while a missionary.

As to intellectual issues – he appears to have read many of the great Christian apologists. He has definitely thought through the issues to a certain degree. This is too small a space to go into all his objections – reams and reams have been written about all of these things from apologists on both ‘sides’. Kenneth has read fairly widely, but what interests me more, is the underlying assumptions he was holding as he read them. On what basis was he evaluating these arguments, and why? He describes ‘weighing the evidence’, but what scales was he using, why, and what is his criteria for evidence? On page after page of his long book, I found many holes in his arguments, or at least valid critiques. The most common thought I had was: “But you could apply that criticism to atheism too”. (This is a crucial point that I’ll come to later, and it is picked up in the video ‘The Skeptic’s Dilemma’, posted below.)

So what’s the reason Kenneth lost his faith? My hunch is that ultimately, God gives us choices. We choose what we read, and we choose what criteria we will use to adopt our beliefs or reject them. Certainly during my faith journey, there have been a number of crossroads at which I think I could have chosen to turn away from God. I didn’t want to do so. For me, they were more emotional than intellectual. However, my intellectual searching and questioning has helped me to develop my theology and way of understanding my faith – I am a fully ‘intellectually satisfied Christian’ and I see many good rational arguments to believe. But my faith is something more fundamental than just a ‘belief’ or an ‘experience’.

Daniels sometimes expressed a passivity when he was a doubting believer – along the lines of ‘please God, show me that it is true because I want to believe’. I think this is a good prayer to pray. But was it honest? What choices did he make along the way that reflect his heart in the matter?

Daniels writes that he found his faith was on ‘sinking sand’. I suspect he is right. Let’s say that the OT does have errors, and evolution is true – both things I would be open-minded about, to a point. So what? Why does this make anyone doubt the existence of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God and died for us? Why does that lead one to think that the material world is all there is?

Most testimonies of coming to faith are not clear logical arguments from one intellectual position to another (though some do experience intellectually-driven conversions to Christianity). Neither is Daniels’ deconversion. For example, several times his doubts seemed to appear from nowhere and he doesn’t challenge them. If he had applied his ‘doubting’ to his own doubts, he may have had a more balanced rational journey. Yet he seems to accept his doubts as fact, in the same way that others would accept their faith as fact. If only skeptics would be as sceptical of their own beliefs as they are of religious ones.

For example, once Kenneth describes doubts came from observing the evolution of language and then thinking that this is plausibly how species evolution occurred (p.29). I’m at a loss to understand how this could have damaged his faith, it just doesn’t seem logical to me. But then, before my conversion, I read a degree in Molecular Biology, so I understood evolution pretty well to start with. I came to faith with the presumption that evolution was entirely true – it didn’t stop me believing in Christ. Other logical leaps are described in the book that suggest to me that this can’t have been a purely intellectual deconversion, though this is what Kenneth experienced it to be.

There is the odd almighty clanger in the supposed ‘evidence’ against Christianity. It would take a book in itself to challenge all of Kenneth’s arguments in detail, but I choose a select few here:

Clanger 1: “As long as moral behaviour is grounded in the relational consequences of our actions and we can ask ourselves, “what kind of society would result if everyone behaved like me? then no holy text or divine design is necessary to explain or support morality.” (p.164) He spends a long time arguing that you don’t need religion in order to be good. No, he says, we only “need to decide what’s ultimately in our best interest in the long term.” Goodness, as if every terrible act in history hasn’t been done with that in mind! A motivation to stop doing evil because “if everyone did it it would damage society” has not prevented the evils of the world. He’s also assuming quasi-Christian morals. But what about a community in which murder, or rape, or cannibalism, was seen as morally acceptable and pleasing to society? Is that OK because they’ve decided that such behaviour was ‘in their best interest?!’ This naivety at how human beings have decided and enacted their moral codes is worrying. As William Lane Craig simplifies, morality on naturalism is a matter of, “Who says?”

Kenneth also betrays a very legalistic understanding of Christianity. His understanding of how Christianity might help society is to restrain people’s worst instincts by fear or motivation. He says that he regularly prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide him, but says there was no difference to his moral behaviour after he lost his faith. He seems not to have experienced the increases in love, patience etc that the Holy Spirit can bring. (Note, I’m NOT saying he doesn’t have love, patience etc, but I do say that the Holy Spirit can bring breakthroughs in those areas that are not found otherwise – that is my personal experience and that of countless others). It’s not the rules that help real Christians to be moral, it’s the Holy Spirit and a change of heart. Obviously there are lots of half-hearted Christians in the world, as Kenneth is keen to point out. He says that the similar (or worse!) divorce rates among Christian groups compared to outside show this. Yet he’s talking about the US, again, and there are so many confounding variables in these kinds of studies, that make such conclusions are not empirically valid. In my culture, where Christians are in the minority, I can say that though there is much lukewarmness and bad behaviour by Christians – regularly I see, experience and hear about moral breakthroughs that have come from prayer.

Most importantly, he’s missed the real point of the moral argument that he claims to be refuting. The question is, does objective morality exist? Kenneth seems to believe so, as he’s very sure that atheists can be moral, and that his behaviour as an atheist is just as moral as when he was a Christian. So presumably he is happy to define morality as something beyond just what he thinks to be true. If objective morality exists, then how and why? Is it on some metaphysical moral plane that science can’t currently detect? If not, than who says Kenneth’s understanding of what is moral is correct?  I suspect that Kenneth has not wrestled with the real dilemma that he faces. Atheistic moral philosophers are very aware of this problem, and are trying to find ways of getting around it, but it is not easily done.

Clanger 2: Prophecies. Warning bells should ring when he recommends to the reader a book written in 1807 on Jesus’s fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. His chapter on this subject begins by arguing Daniel’s apocalypse in chapter 10-12 is not prophecy, but written after the events in the second century BC. He cites the ‘Oxford Companion to the Bible’. He says that there’s no evidence that the book wasn’t written afterwards. Well, maybe not, but using secular assumptions that a genuine prophesy is impossible probably won’t help. It’s a strange place to start, as I don’t know many Christians who find this prophecy to be foundational to their faith.

The really important prophecies to Christians have clear evidence that they were written well before the events prophesied, and Kenneth barely mentions them. As for the most convincing prophesy, tellingly Kenneth limits his comments: “Perhaps… Isaiah 53 was not presented primarily as a prophesy but a series of past events.” (p. 210) and “most of what it refers to is spiritual in nature, so it was possible to apply it to Jesus or any other righteous person who was unjustly executed.” I’ll leave this to readers’ own conclusions – though it’s fair to say that people who are not well acquainted with the life of Jesus will not realise how astonishing Isaiah 53 really is.

Clanger 3: “There is no evidence that any of the authors of these five sources [of the gospels] witnessed any of the events they described.” As Kenneth’s book was written three years later than Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the eyewitnesses’, the claim there is ‘no evidence’ was, and is, patently incorrect.

These are three examples, but there are more problems with the ‘evidence’ cited in the book.

So, why did Kenneth lose his faith? I can only speculate. I would never attribute it to some great moral failing – everyone suffers from great moral failings of some kind. I did observe some interesting themes throughout the book that might offer some possible routes to understanding.

  • He describes not being exposed to secular or atheistic ways of thinking until adulthood, and feeling afraid of reading non-evangelical authors or having his fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity questioned. Obviously, this does not help someone to really explore what they believe and why. Someone who comes from a non-Christian background such as myself, will have had exposure to all these things, and analysed them without ‘fear’. Though I think it would be better for a child to be brought up in the Christian faith, clearly there can be a downside, if they do not encounter the problems that ‘outsiders’ have with the faith, and so consider such ‘doubts’ to be more significant than they really are.
  • Often he described being persuaded by a book, just by reading it – whether the author was Christian or atheist. This suggests to me that he tends to take things at face value and accept them, perhaps because of his fundamentalist roots? Though he has clearly thought a lot about the subjects – his childhood non-critical acceptance of what he is told does reveal itself in the adult Kenneth. Mind you, many atheists and Christians are also like this – we all have blind spots of some kind. Lack of critical thinking is as much a problem in atheism as it is in Christianity, and Kenneth displays a lot of rigid thinking.
  • He does not fully understand many of the Christian arguments for God. Eg, he is confused re the moral argument, as explained above. He also doesn’t engage with a lot of good Christian arguments for the existence of God, such as the argument from consciousness, and the excellent Christian challenges to atheistic naturalism, such as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.
  • He says he had been brought up with the idea “Christian = good, non-Christian = bad”. This is so easy to refute (and begs questions of what is good, how can we label something Christian etc) that I’m not surprised he was confused.
  • Regularly, he cites a potential alternative to the Christian viewpoint, as if it is a damning indictment. Perhaps again, this is a reaction to his upbringing, but to me such possibilities do not undermine my faith. Reasonable atheists and Christians acknowledge the strong points and weaknesses of their own and the other ‘side’ in terms of the rational debate. But I didn’t read Kenneth – once – acknowledging some of the very real problems with atheism and naturalism. He appears to find the unanswered questions or uncertainties of Christianity to be devastating for belief, yet doesn’t see the massive rational problems with his adopted worldview. Yet plenty of atheists are willing to acknowledge, along with Christians, that atheism has many difficulties intellectually.
  • To whom do we listen, and why? It’s worth examining our motives and emotions about our choices of what we read and what we believe. On what basis are we evaluating something, and how have we chosen this criteria? And why? Kenneth said: “I came to my present perspective initially against my will, and I persevere in it only because it is genuinely where I believe the evidence leads.” This begs an awful lot of questions. What kind of evidence is he talking about? Why choose that kind of evidence? Isn’t that choice culturally constructed? On atheism and naturalism, how can we trust the cognitive reasoning of our brains in any case? And, is there any such thing as a ‘choice’ as the world has to be scientifically determined? And, the biggie… to the next point
  • There is often a blatant inconsistency by which atheists pick holes in arguments for theism or Christianity, yet ignore the holes of the atheistic arguments. This phenomenon is well articulated by David Wood in this talk: The Skeptic’s Dilemma. This summarises what I believe Kenneth does so often in his book.
  • We are not just passive accepters of faith. Unless Calvinism is true (I don’t believe so), faith requires decisions of our own making.
  • He seems to have picked up quite a lot of rigid assumptions, such as ‘if the Bible is not inerrant, it is worthless’ and ‘if I feel uncertain or doubtful about one area of Christian belief, all other areas are in doubt too’. Having such absolute beliefs without any notion of a ‘middle way’ may not be helpful. I can testify to the fact that it is possible to be a passionate believer, holding to the basics of faith, while still being open-minded about certain issues. Our faith shouldn’t rest on whether or not it’s possible to prove that every piece of our theological system is infallible. Surely, it should rest on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ and His love and sacrifice for us.
  • A significant factor preventing Kenneth from rejecting Christianity was the fear of hell if it was true, and the rejection of his family (though they have not rejected him). This reveals quite a legalistic ‘faith’, once again. This kind of fear-based adherence to God can’t be a good thing. Did he really, genuinely, know that God loves him, before his deconversion? It doesn’t sound like it, sadly.
  • Very early on in his doubting, he said he didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, I noticed a surprising lack of discussion about Jesus – the book was much more about the religious trappings of the faith. Did he actually know and love Jesus, before he lost his faith? I suspect he would say yes, but the lack of mention does intrigue me. If he had a more Christ-centred hermeneutic to his Bible reading, would this help him to know God?

I once listened to a talk by Michael Ramsden about the ‘ontological grounding’ of the gospel, which I thought was a good way to articulate the reality of a Christian. Essentially, he said that his faith was more than just a belief, more than just a feeling – that it was a way of being, something much more fundamental. Did Kenneth ever experience this? I wonder whether this internal “being” influences our emotions, beliefs and choices – though the influence can go the other direction too? I’ve known a number of people who have converted to Christianity through intellectual means, as well as emotional, spiritual, and other routes. Likewise, people appear to make the trip the other way through these same means. How can we trust our own thoughts, our own logic? If we are nothing but dust, atoms and molecules, material objects – nothing can be trusted. As Plantinga has persuasively argued, atheism is a philosophy that refutes itself. But faith is something more than just matter, thoughts or emotion.

No, I think that there is something much more fundamental going on. The ultimate point of our existence is the acceptance or rejection of God. This is something more than a belief, an experience. It is who we really are.

 

 

 

Is religion to blame for war and other evils?

I wrote a piece for Christian Today that challenges the idea that ‘religion’ as a category can be blamed for war, oppression and other ills of the world.

Take a look.

I’m not arguing that different religions can’t influence for positive or negative in the world. But that’s one of the problems – religions are so diverse, it’s impossible to group them all together and judge as one.

Why I want Christian schools to stay

I really hope to respect y’all in your opinions and beliefs, but just to try to explain why it would be important for me for my child to go to a Christian school – still taught with tolerance towards  people of other beliefs, but ultimately coming from the worldview that Jesus and God are real, alive and central to life.

I grew up in a culture that provided lots of barriers to believing in God (though am grateful to have been taught the Lord’s prayer and a few hymns at primary school, which not all children get nowadays). It was only when I sought and explored the subject in depth that I found faith – and I was obstinate enough to pursue this despite all the cultural pressure against Christianity. And I’m so incredibly glad that I did.

Raising children is such an awesome responsibility. We’d all, I’m sure, share the value that it’s vital that our children know the love of their parents and family. But for me also, one of the most precious things I could give a child is the knowledge and experience of God’s very real and present love for them – and confidence that it is real. If they choose to reject that I would absolutely want to respect their decision and love them regardless. But I wouldn’t want to give them the barriers that I had to overcome in my own faith journey.

However, while I think that would be my responsibility as a parent, I would definitely want to respect other people’s choices and how they choose to exercise their own responsibility. So, I think there should be a range of schools to choose from – faith schools and secular ones. I do not want to disrespect anyone – just explain why this would be so important to me, and why I am passionate that we should give schools the freedom to be ‘faith schools’ if there are people in the area who want this.

Nowadays, many people believe that religion shouldn’t be taught in school, or only as a distant, impassionate observer of different faiths. I disagree. I grew up in a secular home that held a similar viewpoint, coming to faith in my late 20s. I don’t think it is possible to create a neutral space where you really let kids choose for themselves. I think that we all teach, and raise children, from within a particular worldview, and there is no ‘neutral’ position. Personally, I wish I had grown up with a more Christian worldview.

And for those who consider religion to be negative, which is why they want it out of schools… I ask that they would be tolerant and respect my beliefs and opinions on how I would want to raise a child. I would hope to do that to them. The idea that we should force other people to have their children raised in a different worldview from their own does not seem fair to me. I think that atheists should be able to send their children to schools that teach this, if they so wish. I might disagree with their decision, but I wouldn’t want to force them to accept my views. I am concerned that increasingly a section of the population want to inflict theirs on me. As I’m a taxpayer, there should be no reason why I can’t get the kind of school I want, but atheists get their kind of school. And vice versa.

We live in a culture in which it is acceptable to make absolute statements such as “faith schools are harmful”. But if I expressed my beliefs in such an absolute fashion, almost certainly I would be called a bigot. In some ways that’s good for me because it causes me to question myself. But it seems to me unfair – and is one of the reasons why I think the idea of this ‘neutral’ space is a myth and not possible.

Some would point to faith schools that take a more extreme position. I consider extremism within religion to be a separate matter, and a very complex one at that, in our multicultural society. I don’t have the answers. I just don’t think a version of secular totalitarianism is the answer.

In summary, I would want a Christian school for my kids, because I think the ‘secular neutral space’ idea is a myth. You have to teach from within one particular worldview, imo. As I would want your choices to be available, I would hope others would respect my choices. We should do what we think is best – an naturally that will be different for different people, and different faiths. Though, those who want a Christian school aren’t always Christians – I know Muslims who would prefer it to a more secular school – and some people of faith would prefer a secular space. And lots of Christians would prefer something more neutral. But I don’t think one group’s preferences should be imposed on others.

Are religious children less altruistic? Bad science and anti-faith propaganda in The Guardian

I am on a bit of a writing break at the moment – but felt I should very quickly respond to this report of a recently published scientific article. The Guardian’s headline is “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds” and it’s been published elsewhere, including the Daily Mail, Time and other esteemed outlets.

This is rubbish, and worthy of The Guardian’s excellent former ‘Bad Science’ columnist Ben Goldacre. Why?

  1. Social science experiments such as this have limited application to the wider population, for a number of reasons. Psychological experiments often test issues in artificial ways that can’t be extrapolated to real life.
  2. This particular study seems to have a serious design flaw: the use of the ‘dictator game’ as a measure of altruism, when it has been critiqued to be more a measure of susceptibility to peer pressure. See this post from John Baskette for details. Even if it was a good measure of altruism, the other problems with such experiments still apply, and experimenter demand effects are common confounding variables.
  3. The fact that this study is in a biology journal, when it is a social science study, makes me wonder if it was rejected from journals where a rigorous and learned peer review would have taken place. Biology and psychology are very different disciplines, with very different experimental designs.
  4. The children being tested were from USA, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. Are these countries representative of people as a whole? How did they select the religious children, from which kind of religious communities were they? As anyone who has faith will know, even within one particular religion, there is wide diversity of practice and belief. There is very little information on sampling – how the researchers chose the schools and children involved, which seems as though it would have a crucial effect. For example, if their USA school was one run by the Westboro Baptist Church, it’s likely that Christian children would not be representative of Christian children as a whole!
  5. The researchers appear to have a particular axe to grind. They say at the end: “More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.” To make such a politically loaded statement in the conclusion of a research article indicates a degree of experimenter bias.
  6. The fact that the experimenters claim their findings ‘robustly demonstrate’ less altruism in religious children, and omit all the usual qualifications about generalising from experiments that are in good quality social science papers, again suggests experimenter bias and poor interpretation.
  7. There are other experiments that could suggest that religious people are more altruistic. These are barely mentioned in the paper. Of course, such experiments also have limitations in how they can be generalised and should have lots of qualifications too. But they should surely be given more weight and discussion in a report that finds the opposite?

[Update] Since I wrote this, more learned souls have been pointing out other problems. George Yancey points out the lack of control variables, along with other similar criticisms; and William M Briggs points out problems with the statistical analysis. And atheists who have understanding of the social sciences are pointing out the problems with this study.

This article is so poor, that I’m sure I could find more flaws if I spent more time on it, but I’ve just whizzed through. It’s a shame that it is being taken seriously by media and public alike. Please add any other flaws you see in the experiment in the comments below.

Is Christian faith a triumph of heart over head? No. For me, both win.

I’ve just written a piece for Christian Today, reflecting on a recent article by Brandon Withrow. He was brought up in an evangelical home, and had worked in a Christian university. But after what he describes as an ‘intellectual journey’, he has publicly declared he does not believe, and is now a secular humanist. He sounds genuinely heartbroken over this, which I find really sad – even more so as I don’t think it’s necessary.

I’ve probably said all I’d want to say in the piece, so please do go and have a read. But I think it’s really important that those of us who have a ‘thinking’ faith articulate very clearly why we believe – the ‘heart’ reasons and the ‘head’ reasons. There’s no intellectual reason to abandon Christian faith. The only reason to do so is to conform to the dogmatic secularist worldview that most of us are absorbed without even being aware of it.

The limits of science and the necessity of humility

Why Us? / How Science Rediscoveerd The Mystery Of Ourselves

One of my favourite books I’ve read recently is “Why Us: How science discovered the mystery of ourselves,” by Telegraph columnist and doctor, James le Fanu. It’s said to “reunite science with sense of wonder” and it’s well worth a read. Essentially it’s a critique of Darwinism or materialism as an explanation for living phenomena, though not from the perspective of religion. The author seems to have spiritual beliefs but of an unknown variety.

Personally I find it lacking some depth in terms of its critique of Darwinism – and there were facts that were not taken account of. However the book neatly summarises one of my biggest problems with the New Atheist arguments that use science to attempt to disprove the existence of God. Science is presented as if it has already answered all the questions of life, or at least the big ones. But nothing could be further from the truth. As we unravel the complexities of molecular biology – more problems arise. What seemed to be a simple explanation for phenomena becomes much more complex, or even untenable.

I agree with atheists that this is not a reason to therefore decide “ah well, God did it then”, the infamous “God of the gaps.” The book has a tendency to do this (though it is with a “life force” rather than God, in keeping with the author’s beliefs) But it is a reason to generate humility and awe for the world around us. It’s important to acknowledge that despite all the efforts, all the research, all the great minds working hard on their subject, to the end that now, no one person could possibly know and understand all of the scientific discoveries and results we’ve achieved, at least in one lifetime – we still just don’t know. There is so much to learn, to understand. it is a mind-bending and humbling truth. Anyone who says we know it all, just exposes their total ignorance of all that we know.

It’s a well-written and interesting book, and a great place to start exploring this topic. Don’t let the anti-Darwinism put you off, it does make interesting points and it’s not anti-science.

Stephen Fry, it’s not God that’s the problem with the world, it’s you and I

I write this knowing that there’ll be very few who read my opinion, compared to the millions for your recent tirade against God. Apart from the Pope, or perhaps Bono… even learned and accomplished believers get little coverage compared to you and Dawkins and all of the other famous celebrity atheists. You have an awful lot of power. Somehow The Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t seem to go viral, he seems a nice man but he’s just not got the street cred I suppose. Most of the believers who get the headlines are the nasties like Westboro Baptist Church, and they’re about as representative of Christians as Stalin and his cronies are of atheists.

As many of my learned friends have pointed out, your anger against God assumes that this world is the way he designed it to be. But it’s not, if we take a Christian view on the subject. It doesn’t take much reading of the Bible to see that the God described in those pages is not very happy with the world as it is. In fact when he’s most angry, in the much maligned Old Testament, then God’s raging about the lack of compassion for people in poverty, the murdering of children in pagan blood sacrifices or just plain selfishness and hate. Most clearly in Jesus’ teachings, you can see clearly that God wants people to care for one another, not to be greedy etc. Yet, we ignore him.

The problems you cite in your rant on RTE – as with most of the suffering of the world – could be alleviated, if not eradicated, if human beings chose to love. (Not the fickle, randy, romantic kind of love that is usually what’s counted as ‘love’ these days, but the agape, compassionate, caring kind of love that Jesus talks about.) How? Well, we could be giving our money to the care of those children turned blind by worms, rather than spending it on nice meals out, posh clothes or sunny holidays. We could be adopting the orphans and tending to the sick kids – spending all our time caring for them rather than all the ‘leisure’ activities that us Westerners love so much. We could be studying for the ultimate purpose of relieving suffering and treating illness rather than just the learning for enjoyment’s sake that we tend to do – or the learning we do to make ourselves sound clever and be admired, even worse. We could be spending as little money as possible on ourselves, in order that we can give it to others. In short, we could be living lives of pure love, and focusing all of our time and energy on relieving the suffering of others. But, we don’t. You and I, Stephen Fry, do not do that. Even the people I know who do a much better at it than I do, still obviously fail at it on a regular basis.

This, according to the Bible, is why God is angry. He doesn’t want it to be this way, because he loves us. He created a world that was meant to be good, where humans were meant to love one another. But, we were given free will. We have many choices that we make each day, that could make the world a better place. They involve more than just giving a fraction of our handsome surplus or of our time to our favourite charity – it involves genuine sacrifice of our whole lives for the sake of others.

We’ve been given that responsibility. And most of us have it in our power to do something about it, however small that something is. If everyone used their little bit of power for love’s sake, then most of the evil in the world would either be stopped at source, or at least alleviated. It’s no use shouting at God for the evil we claim he is responsible for. He’s given us the power and the free will, to make things different. And we choose not to do that. Heaven is the place where what God wants is done perfectly, not here. He’s given us the reins while we’re on Earth, and we’re doing a hopeless job of being in charge.

Jesus was pretty clear, when he was asked by a rich young man how to be good enough get to heaven. He said, we’re to give all our money up for the poor – to the people who are genuinely suffering. The rich young man was sad, as I suppose we would be too, if told we had to give up our comfortable, Western lives, to help those who are suffering today.

His disciples were too. But thankfully, Jesus had more to say – “nothing is impossible with God”. Christianity is not about us being good enough, but instead recognising that God is good enough. That’s pretty good news given the very clear reality that there’s no-one who’s perfect in this world – no-one who is giving up everything for the sole purpose of genuine self-sacrificial love of others. It says that Jesus saw this problem, and decided to take on the negative consequences of all our selfishness so that we can be free of it. If we choose to, we can accept this free gift, accept our own responsibility for the problems of the world and say sorry to God for this – and then learn from Him how to love better, love more, and relieve suffering. But we have to recognise that we can only do this, by turning to God, for his leadership and his love. On our own, we just don’t manage it.

Now you might say, with good reason, that the church is not presenting this utopia to the world. We’re not the perfect houses of love that we’re meant to be. That’s very true. There are some pretty irritating and occasionally nasty people within church walls – such as myself, I would say. But I came from a very typical liberal, secular culture and then moved into the church after I became a Christian as an adult. No, it’s not perfect, but when you find a genuine church that is truly seeking to follow Christ, then you do start to see something a little bit different. You see glimpses of the way the world is meant to be. Not a window, but just glimpses. A drug addict who has been healed and now has a happy family and is holding down a job. A church rallying round a mum whose disabled daughter and poorly husband have left her exhausted. People who give up well paid and powerful jobs in order to go and practically help the suffering in other countries. Those who suffered terrible abuse as a child who find peace through faith, and start to give their lives to help others. These are glimpses of heaven, and of the way the world is meant to be. Sometimes those glimpses are seen outside the church, it’s true, but in my lifetime I’ve most often seen self-sacrificial love within the church. It’s not a wishy-washy, State-dependent, ranty, political kind of ‘love’, either (though there is quite a bit of that too, to be fair, it not being perfect). There’s a ‘taking on of responsibility’ kind of love, making things happen with our own hands and not blaming the government or whoever else for the problems. It’s recognising the massive responsibility that has been given to humans to choose. To choose whether to obey God’s commands for genuine love and to avoid greed and suchlike – or not. To choose his way, his redemption, or not.

So, when you get to the Pearly Gates, you rage to God all you want to. I suspect what he might say to you or I, or anyone who chooses to start wagging their fingers at him: “And what about you? What did YOU do with the money, time, gifts and relationships that you had? Did you love others or did you love yourself and your own desires? Did you follow Jesus’s instructions for making the world a better place, or not?”

I think that we’re living in this world where God’s will is not done, to see whether we want to live in the world where his will IS done – heaven. There, is pure joy and pure love, with no greed or selfishness at all. If you don’t want to follow his way of love – loving God, loving people, and recognising that the world’s problems are our fault and saying sorry for that – it’s your choice. But you might find out that who you should really be angry with, is not God, but yourself, myself, and everyone else.

Ten quick responses to atheist claims

I attended the Evangelists’ Conference in London on Tuesday, with the view to reporting it for Christian Today. Professor John Lennox was the main speaker, and very good he was too.

He took queries from the audience, of questions they’d been asked by atheists or skeptics. I collated ten of these into a short article for Christian Today – click here. Those who like to discuss their faith will find the atheist claims very familiar.

Of course, most of these touch on subjects that could take books and weeks of discussion before they’re even partially resolved. However some of the atheist claims are a bit daft and illogical, so can be answered pretty quickly. Anyway, I hope the article stimulates some thinking and seeking in whoever happens to be reading it.

Why are New Atheists so offensive?

It’s been an interesting spectacle, to watch the fame of the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins rise in the last decade, and then a little sad to observe that in recent years they have become increasingly offensive. It’s no longer just believers who are offended, it’s women, people with disabilities, and many others.

I wrote an article for Christian Today yesterday about the latest offence from Sam Harris: that women’s “Estrogen Vibe” led them to be less interested in his books. It didn’t go down very well and feminists expressed their irritation on the hashtag #EstrogenVibe. The article contains a short summary of offensive comments from the New Atheists.

Of course there are plenty of Christians out there who cause offence, too. But those people generally are not put on pedestals, at least in the UK. I am starting to feel sorry for the atheists. They seem genuinely unaware of why what they say is offensive, and really believe that their approach is the rational and right one.

Perhaps that is the problem: that when we become proud of how intelligent we are (or we think we are), then it naturally lends itself to being insensitive to others. The mark of a humble person is often their soft and non-judgemental attitude, and they’re the least likely to cause offence. It’s a virtue that is valued in some religious circles, and perhaps it needs more popularity outside, too.

 

Are Christians ‘desperate’ to believe & can science explain everything?

This is a great clip from a good debate between Christian William Lane Craig and atheist Peter Atkins, with a wonderful short answer to the question, ‘Does science tell us everything’.

Watching it led me to reflect on why some people are desperate to believe what they believe. What’s the underlying motivation? It’s a charge most often levelled at Christians, as Atkins does here. Yet I think it’s as likely to be on any ‘side’ in a God debate. Such desperation likely to lead us to think irrational thoughts that can’t be backed up – Atkins demonstrates this in this video, I think. So, why are people so desperate to believe what they do?

The 8 silliest myths about Christianity

When you look into a subject, sometimes you’re shocked to find that the perceived wisdom of our day is totally and completely wrong. Totally. When I became a Christian, I discovered lots of these on the subject of my faith.

From Hitler being a Christian, to Jesus not existing, to the Bible being created at the Council of Nicaea, there really is a lot of misinformation out there. Here’s a short list of 8 of the daftest myths I’ve come across, written for Christian Today.

An atheist denies that Jesus was a myth

Atheists sometimes like to claim that Jesus didn’t exist – even Richard Dawkins has tried to do this. But it’s not just Christians that defend the evidence for the existence of Jesus. Professor Bart Ehrman, who isn’t a believer, and often criticises Christian beliefs and the claims in the Bible, states very clearly that the idea that Jesus didn’t exist, or was a mixture of several people, is not taken seriously by any reputable scholar. He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in this interview above, he gives the atheist interviewer a bit of a telling off.

“We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody in his time period… I’m not a believer, but as a historian, you can’t just dismiss it, and say ‘We don’t know’. You have to look at the evidence. But there is hard evidence. For example, we have one author who knew Jesus’ relatives and his disciples – Paul.”

Ehrman’s argument is that the nature of the what Paul says in his letters about Jesus, gives strong evidence for Jesus’ existence.

“Why would he lie about it? Paul says things about Jesus as off the cuff comments, where he’s not making a point. That’s very important to historians. Historians look for disinterested comments. He says things, for example, like ‘James, the brother of the Lord’. That’s very important information… you have a disinterested comment.”

Then the atheist fella tries to argue that Paul didn’t write Galatians, but Ehrman states very clearly, that no serious historians have doubted that Paul wrote Galatians (a letter that contains evidence that Jesus existed).

“You have to do the serious historical work and work out what is an embellishment and what is not… you have to approach it sceptically. I’ve spent 30 years studying this… I can tell you, that everyone who has looked at this thing seriously, there’s nobody that doubts this.

“You can systematically doubt everything, sure, but that’s not how you do history. You do history by looking at evidence.”

Later, in part 2 of the interview, Ehrman talks about the reality that for all ancient historical figures, we don’t have the original documents (it’s very common to hear atheists state that because we don’t have the original copies of the New Testament books, that we can’t trust them).