Thursday, July 22, 2010

What's Going On?

The Saudis have apparently given Israel permission to use bases on their soil for an attack on Iran.

The U.S. has moved a war fleet into the seas near Iran.

A U.A.E. diplomat endorses an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

What's going on here? It looks like the U.S. and Israel are preparing for a joint effort against Iran's nuclear facilities and they've managed to get the support of at least some of Iran's Arab neighbors.

The Arabs fear a nuclear Iran and they know that if nothing is done to prevent the mullahs from getting these devastating weapons several very bad things will happen in the near term. Iran will use nuclear blackmail to bully it's way around the Middle East; a lot of other countries in the region will rush to procure their own nuclear weapons; Iran will use it's power to bring about the destruction of Israel either through the direct use of nuclear warheads or through the action of surrogates.

Moreover, down the road, it's almost a certainty that these weapons will fall into the hands of those who want to smuggle them into European and U.S. cities.

So here's the question confronting Mr. Obama: Is it better to attack the Iranian facilities now and face the uncertain consequences of such an attack, or is it better to let Iran build their nukes and face the certain consequences of a Middle East embroiled in a nuclear arms race and probable nuclear war?


Debunking Christianity

John Loftus is an interesting fellow. He holds several degrees in philosophy of religion including a ThM from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and studied under one of the foremost Christian apologist/philosophers, William Lane Craig. Nevertheless, Loftus has renounced his faith and written a book titled Why I Became an Atheist. He also manages a blog titled Debunking Christianity on which he once posted an essay titled What Would Convince Me Christianity Is True? In that post he raises a number of objections to belief, and I'd like to consider some of them here.

Loftus writes:

I have been asked what would convince me Christianity is true. Let me answer this question.

I could just as easily ask Christians what it would take to convince them that atheism is true. Given the Christian responses I see at DC (Debunking Christianity), I dare say probably nothing would convince them otherwise. Atheism is outside of that which Christians consider real possibilities. It would take a great deal to change our minds across this great debate, no matter what side we are on. Although, since people convert and deconvert to and away from Christianity there are circumstances and reasons for changing one's mind. Here at DC we have changed our minds, and we offer reasons why.

Loftus seems to be contrasting Christianity and atheism, implying that if Christianity is false atheism must be true, but surely this is not correct. Everything that makes Christianity unique among the world's religions could be false and it would have no bearing at all on the question of whether God exists. Even so, Loftus is probably correct that most people who really want Christianity to be true are highly resistant to evidence that it's not. Likewise, despite what Loftus says, people who don't want Christianity to be true are not likely to be persuaded that it is. We cling to beliefs we want to be the case even when the evidence goes against them, because evidence is rarely dispositive. As Thomas Kuhn says in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, anomalies in a belief system simply do not cause us to overthrow the paradigm. We learn to accommodate them or ignore them as long as this can be done. Belief is more a matter of the heart than of the head.

In the second place, Christianity would have to be revised for me to believe that Jesus arose from the dead, since if Jesus arose from the dead then the whole Bible is probably true as well. But many Biblical beliefs are outside of that which I consider real possibilities for the many reasons I offer on this Blog. I see no reason why a triune eternal God is a solution to any of our questions. I see no reason why God should test Adam & Eve, or punish them and their children and their children's children with such horrific consequences for such a mistake. I see no good reason for the animal pain caused by the law of predation in the natural world if a good God exists, either. Nor do I see why God should send a flood to kill practically all human beings. I can no longer believe in the bloodthirsty God of the Bible. He's a barbaric God. I no longer see the Bible as an inspired book, since it contains absurdities and contradictions, being as it were, written by an ancient superstitious people before the rise of modern science.

Loftus is pulling a bit of a switcheroo here. Logically speaking, one can believe that the New Testament, or the Gospels, are reliable history without holding that the Old Testament is. In other words, suppose we resolve all of the above objections by agreeing with Loftus that the Old Testament misrepresents the nature of God at certain key points. What does that have to do with the heart of Christianity? The claim that Jesus was the self-revelation of God, God incarnate, who died to redeem us from our estrangement from Him and who demonstrated His supernatural provenience through a literal and physical resurrection from the dead could all be true even if the Old Testament contains factual errors and contradictions. Whether it really does contain historical mistakes is a separate question from the matter of the reliability of the Gospel accounts.

I see absolutely no way to understand what it means to say Jesus is "God in the flesh", nor how his death on the cross does anything for us, nor where the human side of the incarnation in Jesus is right now. I see no intelligent reason why God revealed himself exclusively in the ancient superstitious past, since it was an age of tall tales among the masses at a time when they didn't understand nature through the laws of physics.

With all due respect to Mr. Loftus, I think these objections are just smokescreens. If they're not then he's saying that it's a sufficient reason for not believing God exists if a full understanding of God is beyond his ken. This strikes me as extraordinarily presumptuous. It also strikes me as inconsistent with how we normally form our beliefs. We may not understand how the universe could consist of eleven dimensions or how light could be both a wave and a particle, or how a photon would not exist in a particular spot until it is observed there, but we don't disbelieve these things just because our comprehension is not up to the task. Indeed, a god that we could understand would not be much of a god. It'd be more like the gods of the ancient pagans, and people like Loftus would be saying that they can't believe in a god so paltry that our puny understanding is sufficient to encompass him.

I see no reason why this God cares about what we believe, either, since people have honest and sincere disagreements on everything from politics to which diet helps us lose the most weight.

Of course people have sincere disagreements and it could be that religions have historically put too much weight on believing the right thing as a condition of eternal life. Let us suppose they have. Let us suppose that eternal life is primarily a matter of one's attitude toward God and only secondarily a matter of believing the correct things about God. Whether you think this is right or not, it could be right, so why doesn't Loftus embrace this possibility rather than letting what could be a misleading dogma keep him from belief in God?

More on Loftus' essay later.


Biggest Failing

Joe Carter at First Things argues that American sex education is not education at all:

Unless the middle school in Shenandoah, Iowa, is training junior gynecologists, it is unclear why its eighth-graders need to be taught how to perform female exams and to put a condom on a 3-D, anatomically correct, male sex organ.

The representative from Planned Parenthood, which provided the instruction, justified the curriculum by saying, "All information we use is medically accurate and science based." For them, sexual education can be denuded of all moral content as long as research studies and reams of statistics back up their claims.

The advocates of "comprehensive sex education" want teenagers to "just wear a condom." Planned Parenthood's amoral appeal to "science" shows why that fails: medically accurate and science-based information doesn't give children any idea how to use that information, while it makes them think they can do what they want if only they practice the "safe sex" techniques they've been taught. But I don't think the abstinence advocates' "Just say no" is always an improvement.

Both types of programs are equally flawed and flawed in the same way. Each indoctrinates the children in a particular viewpoint and tries to inoculate them against the negative results of sexual behavior. Neither school of sex educators is primarily concerned with providing an education.

Carter goes on to argue that sex education should include three broad themes. The first is the purpose of sex. Carter writes:

Is sex mainly for pleasure? For bonding? For procreation? For all three, and if so in what proportion? Which is primary? Is sex a gift from a benevolent Creator or merely blind evolution's way of tricking us into passing on our genetic material? Students must be helped to ask these types of questions before they begin the other discussions.

If, for example, we are nothing but gene transmitters, do we have a reason to value monogamy? Do other evolutionary imperatives, like the maintenance of a stable community, require certain restrictions on sexual behavior? If one of the main purposes of sex is procreation, must we accept responsibility for any children that might be conceived as a result of our behavior, and are we limited in the number of people with whom we can bear children?

The rest of his piece is equally good. Check it out.

It's my opinion that one of the biggest failings of the contemporary church is it's failure to tackle this issue head on. I am mystified as to how we can put our children through confirmation classes and teach them all about church doctrine and history but ignore what may be the single most important aspect of growing up in today's society: the nature of love and the proper purpose of their sexuality. It is for many young people the single toughest issue with which they struggle, and we often leave it to the culture to instill in them the assumptions and attitudes they hold about it.

That seems to me to be gross irresponsibility.

It's also a major reason, perhaps, why the church is often considered irrelevant by young people. It doesn't come to grips with the questions of deepest importance to their lives, it largely ignores the cultural waters they swim in, and if it should assay to dip a toe into those waters it often does so in a very tentative and superficial way.

It may be the biggest failing of the church in the last sixty years.