Month: July 2019

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In this podcast recorded at Reasons to Believe in May 2019, Philosopher-Theologian Ken Samples and I discuss the nature of belief, pride, humility, and the life of the mind.

Topics:
-My personal journey from early atheism to Christian faith
Are people rational?
The role of emotions in belief formation
Intellectual pride and humility
The Intelligence Trap” by David Robson
The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins
Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII
Tenwek Hospital
As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.” Matthew Paris, The Sunday Times, December 27, 2008
-Responding to skeptics

Moral Hazards of the Creation Debate

July 17, 2019 | pride | No Comments

Many Christians are deeply engaged in the ongoing dispute over the interpretation of Genesis 1 and its concordance with scientific progress of the last 150 years. Participants run the gamut from geologists, astrophysicists, theologians, and scholars of ancient Hebrew to gym coaches and English majors. Arguments for and against various positions simmer endlessly – usually civil, sometimes not. For a moment, let’s set aside the merits of the various positions. What about the partisan in this affair? What moral hazards confront him or her? How one approaches this matter could be of greater moral significance than which position one embraces.

Let’s stipulate the obvious. We are commanded to love one another. Intentional deceit or willful misrepresentation of the other’s position is lying, and always wrong. But suppose we faithfully honor those principles. Might we still be morally culpable? Possibly. Let’s consider four moral pitfalls of partisanship. In fact, these principles apply to any hot topic: denominational divisions, eschatology, even [especially] politics. So they are well worth examining.

Pride

We cannot choose not to be wrong. We can choose not to be arrogant.

Pride is thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. (Romans 12:3) It does not merely spill into the intellectual realm; it pervades the intellectual realm. Fields like geology, astrophysics, and ancient Hebrew are rarefied complex domains in which few can legitimately speak with authority. The number who profess expertise vastly exceeds the number of actual experts (the Dunning-Kruger effect). Outside our own field, we all do the only thing we can – we choose which experts to believe. But then, in whom is our faith? The expert? Or the one who picks the expert?

One thing worse than being wrong is being both wrong and supremely certain. No one can be right 100% of the time. For a host of reasons, it is humanly impossible. We cannot choose not to be wrong. We can choose not to be arrogant.

The solution to pride is intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is nothing more profound than accepting the obvious: our knowledge is limited, we are all biased, and we are all capable of being wrong about almost anything.

Grandstanding

Moral grandstanding is a form of self-promotion through which we try to assert our “superior” virtue to impress others. (“Who cares what other dogs think?” – the Spaniel) The imagined virtue may be our love of truth, faithfulness to Scripture, integrity, or courage. It can lead to the phenomenon of “ramping up”, where we try to outdo one another in our devotion and commitment. This was a defining trait of the Pharisees in Jesus’s day, and is explicitly sinful. (Matthew 6:1-4) In the Christian community, grandstanding is a far greater danger among passionate followers than among the apathetic and disengaged. When the disciples engaged in it, they were rebuked by Jesus (Matthew 26:6-13).

Manipulation

Pride creates in us a desire to rule over others, along with the conceit that we can and should. External force is an obvious example, but emotional manipulation violates the same principle and is far more common. We may feel our position is so obviously right that our means are justified. Well, so does the other side. Suppression of dissent, intimidation, shaming, or simply ignoring the other side are various forms of controlling behavior that erupt from our reservoir of pride. Equally pernicious is the practice of advertising one’s position as the more virtuous, encouraging yet others to grandstand.

How do you respond to others with an opposing viewpoint? Do you inquire why they believe the way they do? Do you seek to understand their strongest arguments? Are you listening for the purpose of understanding, or are you mentally planning your counterattack? Do you address their argument or do you impugn their character? If you are a church leader, do you foster an environment where people are free to express disagreement, or where they are intimidated into silence? Do you take it for granted that everyone present shares your opinion (false consensus effect)? False consensus plus enforced silence are mutually reinforcing. The appearance of agreement is merely an illusion when opposing voices are silenced, but leads to greater certainty among those in power.

Judgmentalism

Some exceptionally intelligent individuals embrace a young-earth position. Many devout believers with unimpeachable Biblical credentials do not.

Creationists of various flavors are quick to judge secular evolutionists. Theistic evolutionists and old-earth creationists may perceive young-earth creationists as ignorant, naive, or foolish, while the latter may view the former as sell-outs, heretics, or traitors. Both may judge the other as obstinate, though the distinction between stubbornness and conviction depends largely on one’s point of view.  Having been on both sides, I guess that makes me all of the above. However, I really don’t feel like a stubborn, ignorant, foolish heretic. In fact, I rather resent the accusation. Some exceptionally intelligent individuals embrace a young-earth position. Many devout believers with unimpeachable Biblical credentials do not.

We could equally apply this in the political realm. Republicans and Democrats are not stupid and [most] are not evil. (“Well, actually Bassetts really are pretty stupid.” – the Spaniel) There’s actually good evidence that too much intelligence leads to polarization and inability to compromise.

In conclusion

Regardless of your position, it would be wise to take a moment and reflect on your own stake in the subject. Are you able to admit you could be wrong? (Intellectual humility). Do you advertise your position to impress your peers? (Moral grandstanding). Do you pressure others into agreement or silence? (Manipulation). Do you struggle to respect those with whom you disagree? Do you impugn their motives? (Judgmentalism)

Have you witnessed any of these behaviors? Let us know in the comment section below!

Recently, the Spaniel and I sat down for a two-on-one [imaginary] conversation with renowned atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins. The following is a transcript of our conversation.*

*The answers come from his essay and the accompanying transcript in The Four Horsemen, Random House, 2019.[1] Of course they’re taken out of context – that’s the nature of this genre – but not in such a way as to alter the meaning.


Professor, it is such an honor for us to be with you here today. The Spaniel and I have heard so much about you – but we don’t believe all of it. Dr. Dawkins, are you a spiritual man?

“Religion is not the only game in town when it comes to being spiritual.” [2]

It may surprise some people that you are actually a great fan of the Bible. Why is that?

“Because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible. You can’t understand art, you can’t understand music, there are all sorts of things you can’t understand, for historical reasons – but those historical reasons you can’t wipe out.”[3]

You seem quite focused on the idea that religion is bad. Is that why you are an atheist?

“My concern is actually not so much with the evils of religion as with whether it’s true. And I really do care passionately about the fact of the matter: is there, as a matter of fact, a supernatural creator of this universe?”[4]

Well, is there a creator of this universe?

 “The fundamental constants of the universe are too good to be true. And that does seem to me to need some kind of explanation.”[5]

As you are aware, we have no idea what could have caused the Big Bang singularity. In your essay, you mentioned Lawrence Krauss’s idea that Nothing is unstable so it must produce Something. What do you think of his approach?

“Ignorance is something to be washed away by shamelessly making something up.”[6]

What does that make Professor Krauss?

“It is characteristic of theologians that they just make stuff up. Make it up with liberal abandon and force it, with a presumed limitless authority, upon others.”[7]

I guess we don’t know how the universe got started, do we? How about life? How did life get started?

“How did life begin? I don’t know, nobody knows, we wish we did.”[8]

Well, the biology textbooks suggest it just happened. Isn’t DNA the secret to it all?

“Almost all biology textbooks are seriously wrong when they describe DNA as a “blueprint” for life. DNA may be a blueprint for protein, but it is not a blueprint for a baby. It’s more like a recipe or a computer program.”[9]

Wow. Recipes and computer programs don’t just happen themselves into existence, do they? What else? Are there any other great mysteries that science cannot explain?

“How does brain physiology produce subjective consciousness? Where do the laws of physics come from? What set the fundamental physical constants, and why do they appear fine-tuned to produce us? And why is there something rather than nothing? Science can’t answer these questions.”[10]

With all these unexplained fundamental questions, it must be hard maintaining one’s faith as an atheist….

 “The human mind, including my own, rebels emotionally against the idea that something as complex as life, and the rest of the expanding universe, could have ‘just happened’.[11]

Emotions can throw us, for sure. So you’re sticking with the ‘just happened’ bit for now?

It takes intellectual courage to kick yourself out of your emotional incredulity and persuade yourself that there is no other rational choice.”[12]

You’re a brave man, Prof Dawkins. It must have been very risky to come out as an atheist at Oxford. (About as risky as licking yourself when nobody can see you” – the Spaniel). Now, you’ve clearly gone on record that no one can disprove God’s existence. You just think it’s improbable. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

“A creative intelligence capable of designing a universe would have to be supremely improbable… However improbable the naturalistic answer to the riddle of existence, the theistic alternative is even more so.”[13]

Could you explain to us how you calculated the improbability of God?

“To my regret I am not among the mathematically gifted of my species.” [14] (“Gimme four!” – the Spaniel).

That’s OK, professor. We all have our limits. So, with all those questions that science cannot answer, what’s your advice to people? Should we accept on faith that consciousness, life, and the universe came into existence out of nothing?

“Whether it’s astrology or religion or anything else, I want to live in a world where people think skeptically for themselves, look at evidence….if you go through the world thinking that it’s OK to just believe things because you believe them without evidence, then you’re missing so much.”[15]

I couldn’t agree more. Dr. Dawkins, this has been a very enlightening conversation.

“I think we’ve had a wonderful discussion.”[16]

Before we close, the Spaniel has a few questions he’d like to ask…

 “Unfortunately, we’re running out of time”[17]


Do you have any questions for “Dr. Dawkins” or the Spaniel? Please enter them in the comments section below. And don’t forget to subscribe so you’ll be automatically notified of future postings!


[1] The Four Horsemen: the conversation that sparked an atheist revolution Random House, 2019

[2] P49

[3] p111

[4] p123

[5] p79

[6] p9

[7] P5

[8] P8

[9] P18

[10] P21

[11] P22

[12] P22

[13] P2

[14] P17

[15] P99

[16] p131

[17] p130