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In last Saturday’s New York Times, Christian columnist Ross Douthat asks, “Can the Meritocracy Find God?”

“The secularization of America probably won’t reverse unless the intelligentsia gets religion,” writes Douthat. Nor is he sanguine for the prospects of that occurring. Douthat postulates two primary obstacles. First, “a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life.” Second, an entrenched anti-supernaturalism:

“The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.”


One eminent thinker and scholar who has pushed back against that anti-supernaturalism is Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, geophysicist, philosopher, professor, and author whose 1991 doctoral thesis at Cambridge University examined the status of origin-of-life research. Meyer is best known as the author of “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for intelligent design” (2009) and “Darwin’s Doubt: the explosive origin of animal life and the case for intelligent design” (2013). In 2002 he left his tenured position at Whitworth College to become full-time director of the Center for Science and Culture, part of the Discovery Institute.

Meyer’s newest contribution to the apologetic realm is “Return of the God Hypothesis: Three scientific discoveries that reveal the mind behind the Universe”, released on March 30, 2021.[1] In this extensively researched, meticulously documented 450-page tome, Dr. Meyer zeroes in on three of the most challenging questions in the science of origins:

1) If the “Big Bang” caused the universe, what caused the “Big Bang”?

2) What accounts for the incredible fine-tuning in physical laws and the parameters of early expansion necessary for matter, stars, planets, and life to even be possible?

3) What explains the origin of life and the information encoded within DNA necessary for any form of life, particularly the highly advanced forms which appeared “suddenly” (on a geological timescale) in the Cambrian explosion (ca. 540 Mya)?

In each case, Meyer demonstrates quite clearly – and accurately – that there is no viable natural explanation. After explaining the current state of science on these questions, Meyer frames them within the much broader context of epistemology, logic, metaphysics, Bayesian analysis, and information theory to conclude that among all possible options, Theism offers the most probable, coherent, and intellectually satisfying answer to otherwise intractable mysteries.

The science and doctrines of origins have been a hotbed of controversy for many decades. Both emotions and overconfidence run high and thoughtful dialogue is far too rare. Dr. Meyer is no hard-charging polemicist. Almost to a fault, he approaches his critics with gentleness and respect and takes their arguments seriously. Indeed, one might frame his new work as an extended response to the most salient criticisms of the last several years.

So what are those criticisms? Well, according to Wikipedia “Intelligent design (ID) is a pseudoscientific argument for the existence of God” – revealing mostly an intense, if unsophisticated, ideological bias among editors at Wikipedia who rule with an iron mouse. Nonetheless, Meyer thoroughly and effectively disassembles that characterization with chapter upon chapter of careful reasoning and irrefutable evidence.

More thoughtful criticisms come from the scientists affiliated with BioLogos, a group founded by Francis Collins who identify themselves as “evolutionary creationists”. They have been frequently critical of the Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design (ID) for reasons that are more philosophical than scientific.[2] To understand Meyer’s argument and why he frames it as he does, it helps to understand debates of the last decade in which Meyer has been a central figure. BioLogos figures prominently in that story.

In his autobiographical testimony, “The Language of God”, the current NIH director and former head of the human genome project describes his coming to faith after being deeply influenced by the “moral argument” for God, famously articulated by C. S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity”. Yet in Chapter 3, “The Origins of the Universe”, Dr. Collins specifically invokes Meyer’s first two arguments as convincing scientific evidence in favor of – if not completely proving – God.[3] BioLogos mostly takes issue when Meyer steps into biology, not surprising since that was the focus of Meyer’s first two books and they primarily identify as Christians who accept undirected evolution as sufficient to explain all of life’s complexity.

On the matter of design in biology, it is not as though Meyer and ID proponents have been formally refuted. That would be easy if the evidence exists. One must simply account for the assembly of cells out of inorganic precursors, and the origin of biological information encoded in DNA, and the case would be closed. (For anyone feeling up to the task, here is a $10,000,000 prize with your name on it). The ID movement is famous for emphasizing the presence of “irreducible complexity” in biological structures. This has been a source of much contention. In some instances, their examples have not been so compelling as initially thought, but those disputes amount to little more than quibbling over examples, not the underlying principles. BioLogos has been very critical of the idea of irreducible complexity, but in “Return of the God Hypothesis” it is conspicuous mostly for its absence apart from the origin-of-life discussion.

Another objection from the BioLogos community is that ID commits a “God of the gaps” fallacy in citing shortcomings of evolution as evidence for God. (More than one observer has noted that the same objection could be raised against the moral and cosmological arguments preferred by BioLogos). Obviously sensitive to that accusation, Meyer dedicates an entire chapter (“Acts of God or God of the Gaps?) to the challenge. In this Meyer acquits himself admirably, though more could be said. Given the current state of origin-of-life research, the word “gap” seems inadequate to describe a vast, impenetrable expanse of darkness. In “The End of Science” agnostic science writer John Horgan identified the origin of life as a problem that likely never would be solved.[4] Twenty years later, Horgan remains just as doubtful.

[This raises an interesting philosophical question, though. Suppose one had to choose theism versus atheism on the origin of life alone. Would you bet your eternal destiny, or that of someone you care for, on the possibility that someday, somehow, the origin of life will be explained? How do you prove a negative? How long would it take to prove it’s unsolvable? Another 20 years? One hundred years? A thousand years? Who can afford to wait? The only rational approach is to decide on what we know now, not what we might or might not know in the future.]

Now, BioLogos is concerned that the faith of some is shattered when it is based on particular “gaps” that ultimately are explained. Such would be a shallow faith indeed. They are quite correct that the faith of many has been shipwrecked on the rocks of science – sometimes by bad science, often just because they were taught very bad science. But there’s little or no evidence that anyone’s faith has been undermined by an approach resembling that of Meyer. (It was the design argument, especially in biology, that convinced me of God’s reality back when I was young. Obviously, telling me I was duped into my faith is going to be a hard sell).

In principle, BioLogos objects to seeing design in biology and invoking that as evidence for God, as Meyer consistently has done. Yet sometimes their own position doesn’t seem fully thought out. BioLogos scientists unabashedly declare themselves as believers in creation. While they explicitly reject Deism and affirm God’s subsequent intervention in human affairs and incarnation in Christ, their view of creation is such that undirected evolution is sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity of life – and ultimate appearance of humans:

“Once evolution got underway, no special supernatural intervention was required”

– Collins, Language of God

Meyer notes that this necessarily imposes teleology upon evolution – a principle decisively rejected by almost all secular evolutionary biologists and for which there is no compelling evidence. [Although many Christians think evolution is unacceptable in any form, in practice our disagreements are really more over the scope of evolution rather than its existence. Here, for example.]

Denis Lamoureux of St Joseph’s College in Alberta holds Ph.D.’s in both theology and evolutionary biology and is credited with coining the term “evolutionary creation” (EC) favored by BioLogos. Officially he is not a part of the organization, but there is a definite symbiosis and mutual respect. As Meyer notes, Lamoureux argued that God’s plan for creating life and humans was embedded within the design of the universe from the instant of creation.

Elsewhere, Lamoureux has written: “The Creator loaded into the Big Bang the plan and capability for the cosmos and living organisms, including humans, to evolve over 10-15 billion years.”[5] According to Lamoureux, “design is evident in the finely-tuned physical laws and initial conditions necessary for the evolution of the cosmos through the Big Bang, and design is also apparent in the biological processes necessary for life to evolve, including humans with their incredibly complex brains.” [italics added] Repeatedly, he affirms the principle (and terminology) of “intelligent design” in nature reflecting the handiwork of a Creator.

Meyer fairly points out the difficulty in framing this position as more scientifically sound or palatable than some other version of evolution in which God is actively involved. To postulate that the information for life up to and including humans was embedded in the original design of the cosmos goes far beyond anything within the realm of known science. There is no known natural mechanism by which that information could have been encoded or transmitted. Meyer is silent regarding the actual scope of evolution as he understands it. But the concept of progressive creation vigorously opposed by the BioLogos community seems no less scientific or more miraculous than their proposed alternative. A crude analogy would be firing a pistol and hitting a dime on the far side of the universe. In the BioLogos view, God takes one shot and hits the target, whereas a progressive view would allow for mid-trajectory adjustments. Either is possible. The latter is less demanding. (Of course, my analogy doesn’t account for the additional problem of how information was encoded and transmitted). Or, to look at it another way, a progressive view has God intervening in known scientific processes, whereas the EC view postulates unknown scientific processes for evolution to achieve its intended result without further intervention.

Coming from a different place on the continuum, the Old-Earth Creationist ministry Reasons to Believe has criticized Meyer and the Discovery Institute for failing to name the designer and consequently having little apologetic or evangelistic impact.[6] This objection seems to be resolved decisively in “Return of the God Hypothesis”, as the ultimate theme and purpose of the work is to show that the designer is a personal and benevolent deity who is actively involved in the course of nature and human affairs.

Dr. Meyer is an exemplary writer and scholar and his new volume is a masterwork of apologetics. It is not a light read and is definitely targeted to the scientific and scholarly crowd – Douthat’s “Meritocracy” referenced in the opening. The case should be compelling to agnostics and skeptics who are looking for honest arguments based on sound science and not emotionally predisposed against theism. We should all pray that this approach will lead to more cooperation and less conflict in the arena of creation apologetics.


  1. Stephen C. Meyer. Return of the God Hypothesis: Three scientific discoveries that reveal the mind behind the universe. HarperOne, 2021

  2. For background and further understanding, Biologos has multiple reviews of “Darwin’s Doubt”, as well as a response from Dr. Meyer, here. There are several exchanges between Dr. Meyer and Dr. Deborah Haarsma, current President of BioLogos, in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design Zondervan, 2017

  3. Francis Collins. The Language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief. Simon & Schuster, 2006.

  4. John Horgan. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Basic Books, 1996.

  5. Denis O. Lamoureux (2009) Evolutionary Creation: Moving Beyond the Evolution Versus Creation Debate, Christian Higher Education, 9:1, 28-48, DOI: 10.1080/15363750903018231

  6. Four Views, pp. 214-220

Screwtape’s Revenge

February 26, 2021 | apologetics, social issues, theology | No Comments

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

C. S. Lewis, Preface to The Screwtape Letters.
A personal journey

I almost thought I’d figured it all out. The whole belief thing, that is: why people believe the things they do.

Humans aren’t rational; I got that. The Bible has been telling us that for at least 3000 years. In recent decades, cognitive and social psychology put the final nail on that coffin, exposing human folly for all the world to behold. Humans are believing machines, disposed to accept almost anything – no matter how foolish – if it comes wrapped in a persuasive package. Our natural inclination is to trust people, and that’s a feature, not a bug. Without trust, societies cannot function.

Beliefs are like sausages. While we all think our beliefs are products of facts, reason, and experience, non-rational factors like social influences, tradition, self-interest, and emotions are far more powerful.

But something was still missing. What I belatedly came to realize is that there is a supernatural element to the insanity that surrounds us. A demonic influence. I now understand that Uncle Screwtape and his colleagues have been hard at work, and the followers of Jesus should beware.

It is the clear teaching of Scripture that dark spiritual forces have great power in this world.

Lewis spoke of two errors: to “disbelieve in their existence” and to be overly interested in them. Yet this is a false dichotomy, for there is yet a third possibility: to wholeheartedly believe in their existence but think, live and act as if they did not.

As I’ve surveyed current teaching in this area, I’ve encountered some common themes. Some people emphasize the dramatic and supernatural. Others focus on how the forces of darkness sow doubt and discouragement or tempt us to sin (usually meaning sexual – many Christians seem quite OK with pride, envy, or sloth).

Plenty will talk of demon possessions, infestations, exorcisms, and other supernatural manifestations of evil. I stand with the historic teaching of the church in believing those are real. I also believe they are extremely rare. Why should the evil ones expend the effort, when much more ordinary means are so powerfully effective? What gets rarely considered is so mundane it’s virtually invisible.

The primary weapon at the disposal of Satan and his legions is the power to deceive and manipulate.

Satan is the great deceiver (Revelation 12:9). Now, we should stipulate that not all demonic deception need be the work of one particular being. C. S. Lewis’s somewhat whimsical portrayal of a vast bureaucracy staffed by senior demons and interns shouldn’t be taken too literally, but is faithful enough.

It may not sound so threatening, but deceit is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. It was all the tempter in the garden needed to instigate the fall of humanity. In Chapter 20 of Revelation, deception is thrice declared the primary activity of Satan. Paul specifically warned the Corinthians that Satan and his team would look, act, and talk like ministers of the truth:

And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works”.

II Corinthians 11:14-15, NKJV
What power do they wield?

In Scripture, there are many ways that the demonic can influence particular individuals:

  1. They tempt:

    The Gospels reported that Satan led Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:27). In Acts we are told that Satan prompted Ananias to lie to the apostles (Acts 5:3). The most famous encounter concerns the temptations of Jesus recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Three specific temptations were placed before Jesus: 1) creaturely comfort, 2) placing demands upon God, and 3) raw political power. How often do we say “yes” to such temptations?
    _
  2. They have the power to plant ideas:

    I Chronicles 21:1 tells us that Satan prompted King David to take a census. In Matthew 16:21-23, Peter rebukes Jesus for prophesying His death. Jesus in turn rebukes not Peter, but Satan – unmasking the true source of Peter’s ill-chosen words. Peter was still focused on worldly political power and national restoration, an offer Jesus had already declined.
    _
  3. They recruit:

    Beyond temptations and the power to plant ideas, Satan’s legions have the means to recruit followers. I have no difficulty supposing the Nazis, the Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge, or the Imperial Japanese were on Team Satan, and most would probably agree. But in Scripture this was most explicitly declared of the devoutly religious Pharisees who opposed Jesus throughout His earthly ministry:

    You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.” John 8:44a, NIV

In these Biblical examples, nothing in the outward appearance would cause one to suspect the supernatural. There was no levitation, strange voices, or spinning heads. The behavior and actions were quite ordinary. Without the omniscient narrator, no one would likely suspect Satan was pulling the strings.

What are their techniques?

In his attempt to corrupt Jesus, Satan proved quite adept in his command of Scripture. In point of fact, he embraced a very literal interpretation of selected verses. This should be a warning to us all.

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul offered an explicit warning that sexual temptation was another weapon in Satan’s arsenal:


Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

I Corinthians 7:5, NKJV

If Satan is the great deceiver and the father of lies, then that must include the direct propagation of falsehood. He doesn’t even have to be the source. Humans are pretty good at erring without his aid. It is the spread of disinformation that inflicts the greatest harm, and Satan has many tools at his disposal, including one new to history. In this age of the internet, a single user anywhere on the planet commands a potential audience of almost 5 billion people. Social media employ complicated algorithms specifically designed to stimulate our interest, tell us what we want to hear, and ensure we are in the company of like-minded individuals. If some other force could override the algorithm, who would ever know? Never in history has there been greater potential to deceive on a mass scale.

Satan takes advantage of our pride – our weakest spot. There is no point at which we are more easily seduced than in our pride. Defined by Edwards as “thinking more highly” of ourselves than we ought, pride is that tendency to believe we are better, smarter, more powerful, and more important than we are – and it is universal. It was his appeal to pride that seduced Adam and Eve. We naturally want to feel righteous – but we shouldn’t. The prouder a man, the more vulnerable he is to demonic deception. The humbler he is, the more resistant. It’s really that simple.

What are their objectives?

We get that Satan attacks individual believers with temptation, discouragement, and doubt. But this ignores broader and more strategic objectives. He aims to impede the advance of God’s Kingdom on earth. This can be achieved by incapacitating God’s people through deception, division, and sin. Yet it goes beyond that. Because the demonic realm hates humanity, their intention is to inflict as much misery as they are able. In this, they are limited only by God’s restraining hand. In God’s mercy, death is offered as the ultimate and final relief from demonic oppression.

Because God’s plan for reclaiming the earth from the dominion of Satan is through His elect, God’s people are special targets for demonic attack. Anything that impedes the Church accomplishes their goal. This they attempt by turning people away from Christ, sowing discord, promoting false teaching, and luring believers into compromising their reputation intellectually or morally.

What are the signs?

If we expect to see supernatural manifestations, we will almost never recognize demonic deception. [“Wouldn’t that kinda give it away?” – the Spaniel] This, of course, presents a problem, because how then can we really know? Maybe we can’t know for certain. However, when we witnessthe following, we should seriously consider the involvement of dark spiritual forces:

  • Falsehood
  • Division
  • Pride
  • Judgmentalism
  • Strife
  • Self-destruction

Any of these sound familiar? Implicit in the “spiritual warfare” passage of Ephesians 6:12-18 is the principle that demonic forces are behind most of the evil we encounter in this world. How can we recognize its presence? By its fruits.

Is Satan a liberal?

Demonic does not equal liberal. The biblical accounts of Jesus’s engagements with the Pharisees offer a revealing and sobering account of Satanic deception. In the popular construct, Satan tempts us to disregard the law of God, indulge in wanton pleasures, mock Scripture, and have no regard for the opinions of “religious” people. While all of those serve his purposes quite adequately, he’s indifferent regarding what direction we err. After all, what sort of wayward thoughts are more likely to take root in the devout?

The Pharisees were hyper-religious, scrupulously moral, sanctimonious, and highly concerned with appearances. Far from denying the word of God, they were famous for their rigid, hyper-literal interpretations of God’s word, strict conformity to the Mosaic law, and ostentatious displays of religiosity, with tragic indifference to the virtues of grace, love, kindness, and humility. Jesus called them the children of Satan. There is no shortage of such persons in Christian history, or in the Christian present.

The deceived – which means all of us at some time or other – are not inherently bad people. The Pharisees hoped and believed that if Israel were to perfectly honor the law of God, that the sovereignty of Israel would be restored. While their greatest failure was pride, another of their errors was to emphasize worldly power over faith and virtue. Like Peter, they merely wanted to “Make Israel Great Again”.

What are we to do?
  • Recognize the nature of the battle (Ephesians 6:12)
    Simply acknowledging the reality of the situation is clearly the first step. Seldom if ever will we see or hear demons with our senses. We only know of their existence and methods through Scripture. People are not our enemies. Have we really internalized what Paul taught: “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers….”?
  • Study (Ephesians 6:14)
    True knowledge is a defense against deceit, but one must be extremely cautious about one’s sources. Jesus’s warning wasn’t just for Galileans (Matthew 7:15); there will always be wolves in sheep’s clothing among us. If that doesn’t mean they act devout and say the “right” things, then it doesn’t mean anything. By their fruits we should know them, as in the signs listed above.
  • Pray (Ephesians 6:18)
    The Lord’s prayer many of us learned – “deliver us from evil” – contains an article in the original Greek and should be translated “deliver us from the evil one”. In your church, public, and group prayers, how many times have people prayed for deliverance from Satan – which would imply, more than anything, deliverance from deceit? In my experience, hardly ever. Maybe we should be praying the way Jesus taught us?
  • Be humble
    When it comes to Satan, we may admit we are tempted, tried, and tormented – but not tricked. No, not me! Of course, by definition those who are deceived do not know they are deceived. To imagine we are above deception is where it first begins.

(Part 5 in a series on sexual apologetics)

What is the state of marriage in Western society? How did we get there? What are the implications for the worldwide body of believers?

We began this series in June discussing a report from a study committee of the Presbyterian Church in America calling for a Biblically based and scientifically valid sexual apologetic. Across a vast range of hot-button issues, beliefs about human sexuality create the greatest divide between Christianity and the secular community. Within the church there is persuasive evidence that sexual issues are a major contributing factor to declining church participation and membership. Let’s turn our attention now to the issue of marriage.

Around the world, the institution of marriage is in decline. A tiny sample of the immense dataset offers a reasonable picture. In 1970, 89% of American males had been married by age 35. By 2010, that number had dropped to 64%. Among women, in 1970 88% had been married by age 29, down to 51% in 2010. In the US currently, 42 out of 100 new marriages end in divorce. [Because some divorce and remarry multiple times, the odds of a first marriage succeeding are significantly better than 58%]. The mean age of first marriage is rising around the world and is now over 30 in many European states. Accompanying this sea change has been a worldwide decline in fertility, now below replacement levels across most of Asia and Europe, and more recently the US as well.

Is the drop in marriages a temporary disturbance due to increasing age of first marriage, or is marriage in permanent decline? The first would be a tempo effect. Perhaps marriage rates will return to normal once the age at first marriage stops rising. The second would be a quantum change in how civilization views marriage. Which is true?

“It’s quantum,” says Mark Regnerus, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas. In his new book The Future of Christian Marriage, Dr. Regnerus expands upon his previous work, and reports the results of a years-long study of Christian marriage in seven nations: Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Spain, and the United States. [1] While regional cultural differences still exist, there is an increasing trend toward a worldwide monoculture concerning marriage and sexuality that is ultimately detrimental to human flourishing in general, and the welfare of the church in particular.

Marriage: Foundation or Capstone?

Throughout most of history, couples tended to marry young and to proceed in building a life together. With only slight exaggeration, one could say it was the admission ticket to adulthood. Couples who married in their late teens/early 20’s (i.e., most) would complete their education, settle in their chosen location, buy a house, and raise children together. They would establish careers together, though far fewer women undertook one. This might be considered the “foundation view” of marriage.

In recent decades we have undergone a paradigm shift in how individuals across generations perceive the nature of the institution. The prevailing assumption now is that marriage is better postponed until education is complete, a career is established, and economic security is assured. Rather than the foundation of a life together, marriage is seen as a “capstone” gracing an edifice of individual achievement. “Marriage has become a trophy” wrote sociologist Andrew Cherlin in The Atlantic (2018).

Marriage Markets and Sexual Economics

To understand more fully why marriage is in decline, we must understand the forces that promote or undermine it. It’s a subject in which everyone has an opinion, but few have ever given much thought. Some, however, have spent careers studying its dynamics. In his landmark 1973 paper in the Journal of Political Economy, Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker introduced the concept of a “marriage market”. When each partner brought something to the relationship that the other lacked, both stood to benefit from partnering. Traditionally, the male brought a stable income while the female managed the household and cared for the children.

The traditional model has been turned upside down. In American higher education, females have outnumbered males for some time now, making it much more difficult for a woman to find a mate of comparable academic attainment. It has become the norm for single women throughout much of the globe to complete their education, establish careers, and achieve economic independence before marrying.

Over the last five decades marriage has become more “expensive” for the majority of men, while sex has become “cheaper”.

What impact does this have on marriage? The impact is profound, but to fully appreciate the impact it helps to understand the essential message of Regnerus’s prior opus, Cheap Sex. One can frame the current equilibrium as two “markets”: a market for marriage, dominated by women, and a market for sex, dominated by men.

By and large, most women still desire to marry. Their reasons, however, have changed. Whereas in the past women might have sought marriage for economic security (now rendered optional) or to bear and raise children (where marriage is increasingly optional), they now seek it for companionship. Women have always sought companionship in marriage, but with the other needs already met, they can afford to be more choosy. When women can be choosy, the “price” of marriage, if you’re a man, goes up. When marriage is treated as a “capstone” of educational and economic achievement, the price goes up considerably.

Most men also want to marry, just not as strongly as women. In the past men sought marriage for many reasons: social acceptance, companionship, having children, and help with household duties, but for many access to regular sex was a powerful driving factor. Sex also has a market, according to the theory of “sexual economics” introduced by Baumeister in 2004. Men dominate the “demand side” for sex, while women – having much more at stake and a weaker sex drive, are the “gatekeepers”. This has been more or less constant throughout history. The “cost” of sex can be measured by the ease with which it is obtained. At the risk of being too obvious, sex has become very easy to obtain for a large number of men (certainly not all). The cost has been driven downward by cheap and effective contraception, lower expectations from females, changing attitudes toward marriage, and relentless one-sided cultural messaging that frames premarital sex as normative.

Thus, over the last five decades marriage has become more “expensive” for the majority of men, while sex has become “cheaper”. Let us consider the ramifications.

So what?

The effect of these changes has been profound, and losers vastly outnumber winners. Women have gained much in the economic arena, to be sure. Despite that, there has been a measurable decline in women’s happiness over the last 40 years. Women are less likely to get married, less likely to marry “well”, and less likely to stay married whether they wish to or not. A later age at first marriage directly contributes to reduced fertility. Cohabiting relationships disadvantage women, as such arrangements demand sacrifice without commitment and are inherently less stable.

Men suffer too, though in different ways. Ironically, some who may desire to marry are less able because women can be more particular. That may seem fine if he has significant moral deficiencies or serious mental health issues, but less fine if he’s simply low on the economic or educational ladders. For other men – certainly not all – the requirement of marriage as a prerequisite to sex is the incentive they need to work hard and succeed. In the case of many males, cheap sex enables a state of acedia and underachievement:

“Giving young men easy access to abundant sexual satisfaction deprives society of one of its ways to motivate them to contribute valuable achievements to the culture.” (Baumeister, 2012)

An epidemic of loneliness among both men and women has swept across most of the developed world, and the decline of marriage is a major cause. It’s not merely the lack of a mate; it’s also the loss of the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins who provided so much social support in prior generations but today will never be born.

The new sexual marketplace is detrimental to the work and ministry of the church, as sexually active singles are far less likely to profess, to attend, or to support:

“When people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.”

Rod Dreher, “Sex after Christianity”, 2013

This is not to suggest there are no winners. Sadly, the decisive champions of the new sexual arena are attractive, extroverted, confident, powerful, and predatory males – who reliably serve up a new nationwide scandal on an almost weekly basis.

Should we do anything? Can we do anything?

In Chapter 6, Revitalizing Christian Marriage, Regnerus offers a number of prescriptions for pastors and leaders that the Church would do well to consider. For instance:

  • Tell stories. Never underestimate the power of a compelling testimony.
  • Create marriage-friendly subcultures. Identify and resist cultural trends like the capstone model and “cheap sex”. Separate, to whatever degree is possible and practical from the dominant pagan culture.
  • Make the home a haven (in a heartless world). Push back against the relentless intrusion of career and workplace into the home.
  • Effectively prepare people for marriage. There are a few good marriage preparation programs available to Churches, but they could be improved and expanded.
  • Help others navigate challenging marriages. For a variety of social and cultural reasons, adults are not only less likely to marry but less likely to have the skills required for success. Many marriages can be saved with good outside support.

With a worldwide trend toward unmarried cohabitation and the legally-sanctioned caricature called “gay marriage”, churches must decide how to respond when participants in such relationships seek active involvement. In this context, Regnerus introduces us to “moral communities theory”. In effect, this theory proposes that it is easier to keep one’s own behavior in check when one’s principles are shared by the broader community. Whether an illicit sexual relationship is public or private may make little difference from a theological perspective, but from a social perspective it makes a tangible difference:

“Living with someone you aren’t married to but are in a sexual relationship with is by definition public…. [thus] publicly corrosive to the conduct of fellow believers.”

[2]

With respect to same-sex marriage, Christians have not merely a right but a duty to uphold historic doctrine that any sex outside of heterosexual monogamy is immoral and in violation of natural law; hence the “married” same-sex couple by definition represents a publicly illicit relationship.

The dysfunctional anti-values of the sexual revolution deprive vast human populations of their best hope for success and happiness, and the global Christian community is not exempt. For the church to respond effectively requires more than reading a couple of books, sponsoring an occasional seminar, or issuing denominational pronouncements. Consider how pervasive is the propaganda machine of secularism, how much leisure time is invested in television, video, and social media. Every video, movie and television series, every online encounter communicates and reinforces a message that it is mostly detrimental. The crisis demands a vigorous, concerted, and intentional response from the global church. Are you prepared to take a stand for truth?


[1] Regnerus, Mark. The Future of Christian Marriage. Oxford University Press, 2020.

[2] Regnerus, p. 199

To hear an interview Dr. Regnerus by Dr. Mike Chupp of the Christian Medical & Dental Association, click here.

The Sexual Devolution

After millennia in which universal, heterosexual marriage and childbearing was the normative standard for human sexual activity, a counter-narrative swept the Western world in the mid-20th century. Like Godzilla from the ocean depths, the dragon wrought havoc and mayhem, not on the skyscrapers of Tokyo, but on that fragile social compact governing human sexuality which promoted the security and well-being of men, women, children, and societies.

According to the counter-narrative, sex was healthy, fun, harmless, liberating, and devoid of consequence beyond the momentary pleasure it afforded. (The “consequence-free” part, of course, was enabled by cheap and effective contraception). It promised a pathway to human flourishing superior to the old repressive, puritanical, neurosis-inducing schema of our forebears. What it delivered was open season for sexual predators and millions of innocent victims.

The Victims

The National Sexual Violence Research Center concludes one in five American women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape – and about one in forty men. Over 40% of female rape victims suffered their first attack before age 18.

A review by London’s Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse reports that the minimum overall incidence of child sexual abuse across western nations is 15-20% for girls and 7-8% for boys.

According to the International Labour Organization, worldwide sex trafficking enslaves almost five million adults and children annually, 99% of them female.

The torrent of scandals and exposés has been depressingly consistent. The Catholic church abuse scandal involved thousands of perpetrators and tens of thousands of victims, over 80% male. Over 12,000 boys were victimized as participants in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) – and that is according to the BSA’s own records. Over five thousand perpetrators within the BSA were identified by the LA Times in a public, online database. The scope of sexual abuse in public schools has never been investigated or documented, but reliable surveys suggest that the number of students abused by their educators number in the millions.

Is there a link between victimization and sexual revolution?

Few things are more guaranteed to provoke an uproar of protest than to assert there is a causal connection between the sexual revolution and sexual predation. For most outside the traditional Judeo-Christian tradition, the values of the sexual revolution are sacrosanct. Motivated cognition – the well-demonstrated principle that people generally believe what they want, no matter how smart or well informed they may be – runs deep in this area. And what could be more motivating than the promise of free, unconstrained sex whenever one wishes?

Casual sexual attitudes among males predict sexual aggression

If a connection exists between the sexual revolution and victimization, we must study the perpetrators. In 1991 Neil Malamuth introduced the “confluence model of sexual aggression”.[1] In its original version, factors predictive of sexual aggression were divided into two broad categories, “hostile masculinity” and “sexual promiscuity”. Attributes falling into either of these categories have proven to be powerful discriminators between males who do and do not engage in sexual aggression.

“Hostile masculinity” is self-explanatory: aggressive, bullying, misogynistic behavior that Christianity has always rejected. The original category of “sexual promiscuity” was revised to “impersonal sexual orientation” (not to be confounded with “attraction.”) “Impersonal sex” can be measured using the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory.[2] This brief questionnaire consists of nine questions, such as:

  • How many different partners have you had sex within the past 12 months?
  • Sex without love is OK (Agree-disagree)
  • I do not want to have sex with a person until I am sure that we will have a long-term, serious relationship (the value for this response is scored as a negative number)
  • How often do you have fantasies about having sex with someone you are not in a committed romantic relationship with?

Across all nine questions, the lowest possible score would conform with Christian morality, the highest and worst possible score a full-throated embrace of the sexual counter-narrative. There is no overlap or ambiguity. Research into the confluence model has confirmed that initiating sex at a younger age and multiple sex partners are predictive of sexual violence perpetration by high-school and college-age men.[3],[4]

Pornography consumption predicts sexual aggression

More recently, pornography use has been established as a third category in the confluence model of sexual aggression. In 2020, Charlie Huntington et al, reporting in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, reported on a study of 935 heterosexual 10th grade boys.[5] Overall, 22.7% of the sample admitted to sexual aggression in the prior 6 months. Focusing on “violent” pornography, there was a strong positive correlation between pornography consumption and sexual aggression. An earlier study finding the same link further established that the pornography preceded the aggression.[6] Huntington et al helpfully review the state of research on pornography as of 2020:

  • “A recent meta-analysis indicates a robust association between pornography and sexual aggression in men”[7]
  • “Men who view more pornography, and violent pornography in particular, report more proclivity toward sexual aggression”[8]
  • “Pornography’s risky sexual scripts in turn predict sexual aggression in college-age men”[9]
  • “Pornography use is predictive of both sexual harassment and sexual assault by teenage boys”[10]
Liberal cultural trends led to child molestation

It was no mere coincidence that child molestation, particularly of boys, spiked in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Mary Eberstadt of the Hoover Institution documented the emergence of a subculture that actively sought wider acceptance of the euphemistically termed “intergenerational sex.”[11] To be quite clear, it was mostly the boundary between men and boys that was being challenged. As reported by Ross Douthat, the epidemic of abuse in the Catholic Church coincided with the emergence of a gay subculture within Catholic seminaries and an absolute increase in the proportion of gay priests. The strong correlation between gay priests and a rise in abuse was further documented and statistically validated in the Catholic University report of 2018.[12] [Many dismiss the possibility of a connection between homosexuality and child predation. Their arguments, whatever the merit or lack thereof, cannot exclude the superimposition of a transient cultural phenomenon].

Apologetic implications

It was predicted that the sexual revolution would leave a trail of victims. This has come to pass. It has taken decades to accumulate evidence, but the verdict is in: the Sexual Revolution is founded upon a discredited ideology that is both morally and scientifically bankrupt. Christian sexual morality is the most reliable bulwark against sexual predation.

Present and future victims of the sexual revolution are never to be blamed. Many are lost souls and all are in need of compassion. God alone can change a person’s heart – not us. Like the Christians of the first century who came the defense of the poor, defenseless, and oppressed, we too must follow the example of Christ by showing mercy. Crisis pregnancy centers have saved many lives and extended compassion to the frightened and desperate. Big Brother and other mentoring programs need to be expanded to train the feral young men of our culture in principles of virtue, self-restraint, respect for women, and healthy masculinity. Robert Uttaro has written eloquently on the unrecognized need for more men to volunteer in rape crisis support. Many victimized women have never had a positive encounter with an adult male. Are you, if you are man, brave and compassionate enough to accept that challenge?

The sexual apologetic must begin at home. Young Christians are succumbing to the grand deception on an unprecedented scale, many abandoning their faith in the process.

Society must be persuaded that we are in this battle because we care, and that we have their well-being at heart. Every one of us struggles with temptation and we often fail, so humility, as always, would be a very good place to begin.

[As always, if you find this important and meaningful, please share with others via Email, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.]

  1. Malamuth, Neil & Sockloskie, Robert & Tanaka, Jeffrey. (1991). Characteristics of Aggressors Against Women: Testing a Model Using a National Sample of College Students. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology. 59. 670-81. DOI: 10.1037//0022-006X.59.5.670.
  2. Penke, L., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2008). Beyond global sociosexual orientations: A more differentiated look at sociosexuality and its effects on courtship and romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1113-1135. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.5.1113
  3. Basile, K., Hamburger, M., Swahn, M., & Choi, C. (2013). Sexual violence perpetration by adolescents in dating versus same-sex peer relationships: Differences in associated risk and protective factors. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, 14(4), 329–340. DOI: 10.5811/westjem.2013.3.15684
  4. Pellegrini, A. D. (2001). A longitudinal study of heterosexual relationships, aggression, and sexual harassment during the transition from primary school through middle school. Applied Developmental Psychology, 22, 119–133. DOI: 10.1016/S0193-3973(01)00072-7
  5. Huntington C, Pearlman DN, Orchowski L. The Confluence Model of Sexual Aggression: An Application With Adolescent Males. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. April 2020. doi:10.1177/0886260520915550
  6. Ybarra, M. L., & Thompson, R. E. (2018). Predicting the emergence of sexual violence in adolescence. Prevention Science, 19, 403–415. DOI: 10.1007/s11121-017-0810-4
  7. Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2016). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183–205. DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12201
  8. Malamuth, N. M., Addison, T., & Koss, M. (2000). Pornography and sexual aggression: Are there reliable effects and can we understand them? Annual Review of Sexual Research, 11, 26–91. DOI: 10.1080/10532528.2000.10559784
  9. D’Abreu, L. C. F., & Krahé, B. (2014). Predicting sexual aggression in male college students in Brazil. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 15, 152–162. DOI: 10.1037/a0032789
  10. Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2009). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit Internet material and sexual satisfaction: A longitudinal study. Human Communication Research, 35(2), 171–194. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2009.01343.x
  11. Mary Eberstadt. Adam and Eve after the Pill. (Ignatius Press, 2012)
  12. D. Paul Sullins. Is Sexual Abuse by Catholic Clergy Related to Homosexuality? The National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2018.

The Great Omission

September 3, 2020 | apologetics, pride, social issues | No Comments

Has the church lost its focus?

Perhaps no other verse is so singularly preeminent in defining the Church’s mission to the world, and for good reason:

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

Matthew 28:18-20 (NKJV)

Known far and wide as “The Great Commission,” these are the last recorded words of the resurrected Christ from the gospel of Matthew. Denominations, churches, some of history’s greatest preachers, and countless parachurch organizations have embraced The Great Commission as their raison d’etre. As popularly understood, it is a call to “preach the gospel to all the nations” and summon the unconverted to a profession of faith in Christ. Trips to the altar, raised hands at a revival, or cards dropped in a basket are scored as “decisions for Christ”. Success is measured by counting up the “decisions”, and the higher the “score”, the more successful the ministry. Seems simple enough. It also completely misses the point.

Now, had Jesus merely said “go and make converts of all the nations”, we’ve done pretty well. About one-third of the world population identifies as Christian, well over 2 billion people. But He didn’t. The command of Jesus was to go out and “make disciples.” Conversion is merely the first, albeit a necessary, step. It’s the foundation, not the whole edifice. What’s a disciple, and what’s the difference? There are plenty of ways to define the term, all with some degree of validity. Rather than defining the term yet again, may I propose two essential hallmarks of a disciple. First, a disciple understands and embraces orthodox (small “O”) Christian theology. Second, a disciple lives in accordance with that theology. I mean “theology” in the broadest sense of the word: a congruent system of understanding God, the universe, reality, and morals that is grounded in Scripture and church tradition.

Success isn’t measured by converts; it’s measured by disciples. So how are we doing? Not very well. And the failure starts at home.

The lost generation

Consider the younger generations. While 84% of the “silent generation” and 76% of Baby Boomers identify as Christian, only 49% of Millennials do. In just one decade, from 2009 to 2019, there has been a 16-point decline in the percentage of Christian Millennials. In 2011, David Kinnaman from Barna Research reported that “59% of Millennials who grew up in the church have dropped out at some point.” Only two out of ten believed faith was any matter of importance. Where is the church failing? Mark his words:

“The dropout problem is, at its core, a faith-development problem; to use religious language, it’s a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.” [emphasis added]David Kinnaman. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith. Baker Books, 2011.

Not all traditions were failing equally. The declines have been steeper among Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant denominations than Evangelical denominations, but no group was spared.

There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.”

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, 2017, p8

Believing all the wrong things

Well, the least older generations are keeping the faith, right? Not so much, really. In his penetrating 2011 work Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat argued that much of western Christianity is suffused with heresy. Through social and historical analysis, Douthat examined four major currents:

  • Theological liberalism
    Theological liberalism emphasizes the rejection of Biblical authority, fraternity with far left politics and economics, and typically dismisses God’s supernatural intervention in the physical world. It describes most of the old mainline Protestant denominations and much of Roman Catholicism. (Douthat effectively documents how abandonment of sexual morality by the priesthood during the 60’s and 70’s led to the subsequent epidemic of sexual abuse).
  • Prosperity theology
    This stream is encountered mostly among Pentecostals and nondenominational Evangelicals, where many immensely successful preachers proclaim that health, success, and material prosperity is God’s will for all humanity and can (in fact, must) be claimed by faith.
  • New age mythology
    Some call this the “Oprah-fication” of Christianity, exemplified by Ms. Winfrey’s close relationship with New Age Guru Eckhart Tolle. It blends Christian terminology and scattered Bible verses with pantheism, fostering the belief that we are all gods or part of The God and possessed of divine insight, wisdom, and worth by our very nature – not as gifts bestowed by God on whom He chooses.
  • Christian nationalism
    More common in conservative Evangelical denominations, Douthat characterizes this as a fusion of Christianity with American triumphalism. His exemplar in this category was Glenn Beck, who is actually Mormon but commands a wide Evangelical following.

With due respect to Douthat, I nominate a fifth heresy for consideration:

  • Legalism
    The oldest and most enduring Christian heresy of them all (read Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians). Legalism has many facets. It might be the belief that eternal life is attained by obedience rather than grace, that Christians remain bound by Mosaic ordinances, or a fixation on rules and regulations rather than humility, mercy, and love. Even the most liberal groups have not escaped this trap. They merely substitute l’ancien regime with more onerous decrees of their own creation.

Considered in toto, a sizable proportion of Westerners who check “Christian” on the survey box would land in one of these five categories. They may be converts, but they are failing the discipleship test.

So, evangelism and discipleship are not at all synonymous, but they are connected. Only disciples will engage in evangelism, and bad disciples make poor evangelists. Even worse, some professing Christians unwittingly function as “anti-evangelists”. They so resemble the pagans that they drive them away, just as like charges repel.

What is the Church doing wrong?

What under heaven is happening? If the church is failing in its mission, there are only three possible places to lay the blame or look for a solution: God, the world, or the Church.

Now, I hope no one seriously blames God for our failures, so let’s consider the second. Is it the fault of corrupt Western society? Now you could make a strong argument there, and many have, but consider: fallen people are dead in their sin. We can’t (and oughtn’t) control them. They walk in darkness and their eyes are blinded to the truth until God opens them. So, if you blame them, you’re back to blaming God.

So we’re down to option #3: Us. Face it. That’s the only option under our control. What might we be doing wrong, and what could we do differently? On this matter, opinions abound:

  • More prayer. Pray for what? For God to change more hearts? To put better people in government? Isn’t that just putting the blame back on Him? People are praying. Just how much does it take? [I actually do believe prayer has a role, but in a very different manner]
  • More Preaching of the Word. There are a couple problems here. First, thousands of congregations honor this principle and have for decades. Second, far too much sound Biblical preaching amounts to superficial rehashing of the same general principles and offers little or no relevance to the challenges faced by most believers in present-day society. Those congregations are bored with repetition, yet still not learning what it takes to be a disciple in the early 21st century.
  • Seeker-friendly services. Morning worship services, particularly in some of the more successful megachurches, have morphed into entertainment extravaganzas. Results are elusive. Some megachurches I have visited offer outstanding, relevant, and timely preaching of God’s word in a culturally relevant context. Certain others figure prominently in Douthat’s Bad Religion.
  • More strenuous indoctrination in Young Earth Creationism. This one would be funny if it weren’t so sad. But it is the rallying cry for one influential organization and its solution to every problem. Said organization commands the loyalty of many white conservative Evangelical pastors and laity. [For the record, it’s far easier to show young-earthism is a cause, not a cure, for young people leaving the faith. I’ve met some].

What we’ve been trying isn’t working, a least not on a large enough scale to make a difference. They say the definition of insanity is to keep trying the same thing over again and expecting a different result. And the First Rule of Holes? When you’re in one, stop digging. Is there anything we haven’t tried? Maybe.

When all else fails, read the instructions.


I propose there is a much simpler explanation for our failure in disciple-making. And it’s nothing I thought up; I’m just an old retired doc who has conversations with his dog. It’s the same sickness identified throughout church history, by: Andrew Murray. Jonathan Edwards. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine of Hippo. Paul. Moses…..God. The great news is that there is something we can do about and it that will cost us nothing. Except our egos. (And how much are egos fetching on the open market these days, anyway?)

Many Evangelicals are enamored with II Chronicles 7:14:

If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

New King James Version

I see it quoted regularly and have for decades. I always had a gnawing sense that we really meant those people. You know, the ones who aren’t humble like we are. But perhaps we’re not quite as humble as we imagine. What would pride in the church look like, if it were a problem? (speaking hypothetically, of course). Divisions? Conflict? Superficiality? Self-satisfaction? Ineffectiveness? Irrelevance? Decline? Failure? Hmm.

The Sin of Pride.

Andrew Murray restated a solid Biblical principle when he wrote over 100 years ago:

“There is nothing so natural to man, nothing so insidious and hidden from our sight, nothing so difficult and dangerous as pride.”

“The lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure.”

Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness (public domain, New York, 1895)

The “explanation of every failure?” Even ours? Maybe we have overlooked something.

Could it be that the global Church has a pride problem? That would explain everything. You’ve heard it before: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble”. (James 4:6) He still means it. Would you prefer to be at the receiving end of God’s resistance or His grace? Looks like the choice is ours.

We’re just getting started.

So, let’s approach this “scientifically”. My working hypothesis is that there is a causal connection between pride and human failure, and specifically the current failures of the church. The burden of proving my hypothesis remains. First, we must define pride and understand its Biblical context. [Like eating mushrooms in the wild, first you’ve got to know what to look for]. Then, we can offer predictions to test the validity of this hypothesis. One prediction is all of the heresies listed earlier will reveal, on closer inspection, that pride is consistently at the core. Our hypothesis predicts that Biblical principles concerning pride and its consequences will be empirically validated in secular research, which is, after all, no more than the study of reality, or God’s General Revelation. Since the Bible prescribes humility as an antidote to pride, we predict that humility is a positive predictor of personal and corporate success, and that this also can be empirically validated.

If pride is our problem, then humility is the only cure. Our last hope after all other solutions have failed. The Virtue that has seldom been tried. This principle is thoroughly grounded in Biblical and historic Christianity. God only works through humble people. Yet, this message is also one of great hope. Just as Pride can never succeed, Humility can never fail. It was the humility of Christ that unleashed the power of God upon the world. Satan offered him total world domination. Jesus held out for something still greater. The world has never been the same.

Key points:

  • The Great Commission is to make disciples
  • We observe a systemic failure in the making of disciples
  • Biblically, most failure is a consequence of pride, and humility is the solution

In our next installment: A Theory of Everything: Explaining human dysfunction in one easy step.

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In Part 1 of this series, we looked at two common objections to a traditional Christian view of sexuality: “What about other Old Testament rules we don’t keep?” and, “The New Testament teaching on sexuality was socially constructed and not intended for universal application.” In Part 2, we will examine two more recent arguments that have become quite popular and to some, deceptively persuasive.

Objection 3: “Later churches added the doctrine. “Porneia” is being mistranslated as fornication.”

Some now contend that there never was an explicit prohibition against extramarital intercourse in either Old or New Testaments. They argue that the word “porneia”, translated as “fornication” and appearing 26 times in the Greek New Testament , refers to other sexual sins, not premarital (or homosexual) sex. Maybe it was pederasty, or sex with temple prostitutes, or adultery, they counter. The odd thing is that this is nearly the opposite of the “cultural bias” argument. While the other argued that the prohibition was a mere social construction; this argues that the prohibition never existed, and the original Christians leaned the other way. Many excellent resources review all the exegetical grounds for rejecting this argument, but two points are in order. First, it embraces the error of the Pharisees by reducing Eternal Law to a game of legal semantics. Second, it is fatally inconsistent with the internal evidence of Scripture and external evidence of historic interpretation.

A compelling internal refutation is found in I Corinthians 7, where Paul writes concerning the unmarried:

“’Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (vs 1-2).

Again, in verses 8-9:

“So let me say to the unmarried and those who have lost their spouses, it is fine for you to remain single as I am. But if you have no power over your passions, then you should go ahead and marry, for marriage is far better than a continual battle with lust.”

Twice, Paul urges believers to marry if they cannot restrain their sexual impulses. These instructions are rendered incoherent if there were any other legitimate outlets for sexual activity. If the critics were correct, Paul ought to have told the Corinthians to “quit worrying and have fun”. The critics also must reckon with the words of our Lord Himself, who declared the intent of adultery as sinful as the act. Are we to suppose that while merely thinking about “doing it” with a married person is a sin, actually doing it with an unmarried person is not?

What did porneia convey to the New Testament authors and readers? Clearly, Jesus and the Apostles were communicating with fellow Jews and Gentile converts on the basis of shared assumptions. On this, the historical record is quite clear.

Although the Old Testament law did not explicitly proscribe premarital intercourse, there was a clear expectation that wives would be virgins at the time of marriage. If that bridge were crossed, it was commanded that they would be married. (Deuteronomy 22:13-29) Abstinence until marriage (or at the least, betrothal) was universally assumed.

The Mishnah – a compendium of rabbinic sources compiled between the 2nd century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D, is unequivocal on the subject:

“Rabbi Eleazar says, even an unmarried man who has intercourse with an unmarried woman not for the sake of marriage engages in bi-ilat znut [forbidden sexual practice].” [1]

Jacob Neuser, possibly the most noted Jewish scholar of the last century, wrote:

“It is beyond the Mishnah’s imagination for a man and a woman to live together without the benefit of a betrothal, a marriage contract, and a consummation of marriage.” [2]

In New Testament times, there were two noteworthy Jewish authors whose works are well-known and well-preserved, Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus. Philo (15-10 BC – 45-50 AD) was the philosopher and his lifetime would have overlapped with Jesus. Josephus the historian came a little latter (37 AD – c 100) but overlapped the later Apostolic period. The writings of both illuminate what the contemporary Jewish culture would have thought about sexual matters at the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and thus what shared assumptions would have been implicit in the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

Philo Judaeus:

“Of the second table, the first commandment is that against adulterers, under which many other commands are conveyed by implication, such as that against seducers, that against practicers of unnatural crimes, that against all who live in debauchery, that against all men who indulge in illicit and incontinent connections”

The Decalogue, 168-169

Josephus:

“But, then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children.”

Against Apion Book II

The Didache is considered the earliest Christian document that is not part of the New Testament canon, and dates from 65-80 AD:

“My child, be not lustful, for lust leadeth unto fornication; be not a filthy talker; be not a lifter up of the eye, for from all these things come adulteries.’

The Didache 3:3

This consistent refrain continues through the earliest writings of the Church Fathers:

Origen (184-253 AD):

“Fornication in the strict sense is consorting with prostitutes. Impurity is the generic name, in the maelstrom of our bodily existence, not only for adultery and pederasty but also all the other inventions of sexual licentiousness in all the many and diverse practices.”

Commentary on Ephesians 5:3

Severian of Gabala 380-408? AD

“This is Paul’s reply to those who had written to him about this subject. He forbade fornication because it was against the law, but he allowed marriage as being holy and an antidote to fornication. However, he praised chastity as more perfect still.”

Commentary on I Corinthians 7:1

Chrysostom 347-407 AD

“Paul states that continence is better, but he does not attempt to pressure whose who cannot attain to it. He recognizes how strong the pull of concupiscence is and says that if it leads to a lot of violence and burning desire, then it is better to put an end to that, rather than be corrupted by immorality.”

Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 19.3, commenting on I Corinthians 7:8-9

In short, spanning a period of over one thousand years with the New Testament in the middle, there is no evidence that extramarital sex was ever acceptable within Judeo-Christian culture, and overwhelming evidence that it was not.

[For a much more extensive review of the usage of “porneia” in New Testament times, see Harper, Kyle, Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm, The Journal of Biblical Literature, (2012) 131:363-383]

Objection 4: “Christian sexual morality has been refuted by modern science”.

The trendiest objection today is to invoke the mantle of “Science”. The obvious riposte to such a claim should be “how, where, and when?” For four hundred years, there has been a quest to redefine morality within a naturalistic, scientific framework. That effort has failed. While philosophers and researchers have made great headway in describing morality (and finding it surprisingly consistent across cultures), the mission of prescribing morality never quite made it to shore. The problem, defined by David Hume in the 18th century, was summed up by the so-called “Hume’s law”: One cannot derive an ought from an is.

“Oughts” can only be assumed. It is here that natural law comes to the rescue. If we accept as a first principle that human flourishing is a morally worthy objective, then we can develop a system of ethics in support of that cause. In that regard, science can be of immense value in identifying what methods and behaviors contribute to, or detract from, human welfare. Science cannot define morality, but it can inform it. Science cannot refute morality; to imagine otherwise is a category error.

We may be born with any number of proclivities conducive neither to our own welfare nor that of others.

A common variant of this argument is that “since same-sex attracted people are born that way, it should not be considered immoral. To think otherwise is cruel.” The premise of the argument is, of course, unproven, and the American Psychiatric Association continues to hold that “the causes of sexual orientation (whether homosexual or heterosexual) are not known at this time and likely are multifactorial.” [3] The implicit claim is not merely that they were born with those impulses but should act upon them, an obvious non sequitur. Many defenders of Christian morality allow themselves to get trapped in an argument over the causes of same-sex attraction, failing to see that etiology is irrelevant to the question of morality. We may be born with any number of proclivities conducive neither to our own welfare nor that of others. More specifically, Scripture has always held that we are born with an innate disposition toward sin. We are all “born that way.” Such proclivities are to be tamed, not indulged.

The accumulated body of scientific knowledge through the second decade of the twentieth century is no challenge to Christian morality. Science cannot prove that lying, adultery, racism, and murder are wrong, or that telling the truth and faithfulness are right. These things must be assumed. As it happens, we find them quite easy to assume because Natural Law is imprinted upon our psyche – and this can be empirically validated.

Conclusion

Over the course of this discussion we have zeroed in on objections to Christian morality that may arise within the congregation of believers and exposed the underlying errors. For the sake of young believers, these need to be taught and understood. There is no back door for the “sexual revolution” within Christian orthodoxy. We should not expect these arguments to have much purchase with unbelievers and others who reject Scripture. For them, we must begin elsewhere. But the foundation has been laid. We are not finished with Natural Law.

__________________________________

  1. Sifra Emor 1:7 (94b) quoted in: Machael L Satlow, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality (Brown Judaic Studies, 2020) 122.
  2. Jacob Neuser, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Women (5 vols; Leiden: Brill, 1980) 5. 266.
  3. David Scasta and Philip Bialer, American Psychiatric Association, Position Statement on Issues Related to Homosexuality, Approved by the Assembly November 2013.

Discerning right from wrong.

What is the foundation of your moral principles?

If you consider that a simple question, you’ve never really thought about it much.

The gut reaction of most Protestants would be “Scripture” – certainly a fitting place to begin – but when one drills down into the details things get complicated rather quickly. For decades, theological liberals have dismissed Biblical teaching on sexuality because they dismiss the Bible. In more recent years, a newer contingent rejects traditional Christian teaching on sexuality arguing that the Bible never taught it in the first place.

One purpose of apologetics is to defend Christian teaching before a skeptical, hostile world that cares nothing about what the Bible does or does not say. But discipleship begins at home, and by all measures the Western Church is failing. Sex has a great deal to do with it. On one hand, unmarried adults who are sexually active are far less likely to attend services. On the other, many young people raised in the church experience a crisis of faith when, on embracing the secular narrative, they come to see Christianity as not merely anachronistic but immoral.

“It’s not science that’s secularizing Americans — it’s sex.” Mark Regnerus

The Washington Post, September 5, 2017

A comprehensive sexual apologetic must begin with the church family. Let us begin by considering two traditional objections against Biblical teaching on sexuality.

Objection 1: “What about the Old Testament prohibition against _____[fill in the blank]?”

Many Christians, perhaps most, view Biblical Law as one might understand the US and State criminal codes: an exhaustive attempt to define and categorize every important wrong one can commit against others or the state. Yet if we assume that is the case, we immediately run into problems. Where was the law prior to Moses? What was the law outside of ancient Israel? Why were there no prohibitions against slavery or polygamy? And what about all the weird ones? These questions may seem quite challenging, but the answer is simpler than you think. For that we should begin with how the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas explained the matter.

Aquinas divided Law into four categories. The first, Eternal law, reflects the mind and desire of God concerning the behavior of humankind and the universe. The universe, of course, obeys. Humanity, not so much. Eternal law is what all believers should aspire to obey but is beyond our apprehension.

The second, Natural law, is the will of God imprinted upon the minds of all people in all places in all times. It is manifested in a universal God-consciousness, the universality of conscience, and the general consistency of moral principles across most human civilizations. As history attests, Natural Law can easily be resisted, suppressed, or ignored.

The third, Divine Law, can also be called the Revealed law and we will refer to it as such. The Revealed law, as found in the Old Testament, expresses Eternal Law (the mind of God) and codifies Natural Law, but with some major caveats. Importantly, Mosaic Law included much that was clearly of ceremonial or civil intent pertaining to the worship and governance of ancient Israel. Those elements did not overlap with Natural Law, and merely expressed Eternal Law as it applied to the nation of Israel.

The fourth category of Aquinas, Human Law, would consist of ordinances created by human agents. Theologically, we predict that it would reflect the existence of Natural Law, which in fact it does.

If one imagines the Mosaic Law as a comprehensive code, it had significant shortcomings. The Old Testament never specifically proscribed prostitution* or slavery – but every time they are mentioned, it is in a disparaging way. Is that not sufficient to know they are wrong? The Old Testament never explicitly proscribed premarital sexual intercourse. If it happened, the law simply demanded that the man must pay the bride-price and marry her (Exodus 22:16). Mosaic Law never proscribed polygamy. Adultery was a one-way street: if a married woman slept with another man, it was adultery. If a married man slept with another women, it was permitted if she were not married or betrothed to another, though he would still have to marry her. [By New Testament times, after polygamy ended, the definition of adultery became more symmetric and inclusive]. These examples demonstrate that the Mosaic Law was never intended to be comprehensive; not that such things were acceptable because they were not prohibited.

Christians are privileged to receive clarification on the Law through the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. When Jesus spoke of the Law, He judged the Pharisees not for their lack of conformity to the Mosaic Law, but to Eternal Law. Hence, on the one hand He could judge them for being too literal in its interpretation (their rules on the Sabbath or divorce), and on the other for thinking mere outward compliance was good enough (declaring lust as equivalent to adultery). At the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, the Apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, ruled that Gentile converts were not subject to the Mosaic Law, but:

“Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”

Acts 15:20

Without an understanding of Natural Law, this appears to make no sense. Other than refraining from sexual immorality [funny how that keeps popping up] and three dietary restrictions [probably to maintain peace between Jews and Gentile converts], the entire Law was just abolished? Of course not. While Christians were no longer under the Mosaic Law, they remained bound by Eternal Law and Natural Law. Lest there be any uncertainty concerning those obligations, the New Testament reaffirms and elaborates on the demands of Eternal Law through the commandments of Jesus and the instruction of the apostles (establishing a new Revealed Law for future generations). Many believe that the Ten Commandments remained in effect. This approach, however, is not without its problems. According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, the Jesus Film would be in flagrant violation of the Second Commandment, and any sort of recreation on Sunday violates the Fourth (questions 109 and 119).

When we understand the various forms of Law, it makes complete sense to declare that “love is the fulfillment of the law” – without the ludicrous inference that love is the only law.

Christian moral principles are based upon the Eternal Law of God as understood through Natural Law and explicitly affirmed by Jesus and the Apostles. The Mosaic Law is not relevant to this discussion, and the Christian apologist should not rely on it in evidence. While this may seem controversial, it is consistent with the historic teaching of most major Christian traditions. We are not “throwing out” the Old Testament, as some might charge. Old Testament wisdom and historical narrative, as well as prophecy and Psalms, remain an integral part of Christian theology and experience. The crucial moral elements of Mosaic Law are subsumed under Natural Law and the Revealed Law of the New Testament.

Objection 2: “On matters of sex, the New Testament writers were merely accommodating the cultural biases of first century Palestine.”

This argument sounds plausible enough except for the word “accommodating”. That word reverses the flow of information in a fundamental way. It implies, without evidence, that moral teaching was not delivered to the “masses”, but derived from them. According to this narrative, God really would have liked to liberate those early Christians from their sexual hang-ups, but they were just too primitive and barbaric.

Of course, that is all complete nonsense. The early Christians (and Jews) were hardly different from those in the West today – a devoutly religious minority surrounded by a licentious, pagan majority. Christian sexual teaching was certainly in conformity with Jewish tradition, and Jesus and the Apostles all assumed a common acceptance of these principles. But in the broader society, Christian teaching was decidedly countercultural.

In the broader society, Christian teaching was decidedly countercultural .

Now, there are legitimate instances in which certain New Testament instructions – I hesitate to call them commands – are socially constructed. A traditional example of this would be Paul’s extended riff on head coverings in I Corinthians 11:1-16. This has been almost universally understood as a specific application of a much more general principle: when gathering in worship, men and women should attire themselves in a manner appropriate to their sex as understood in their own culture. As explained by R. C. Sproul, “Principles are those commands of God that apply to all people at all times in every culture….Customs are local applications of those principles.”

Many such minor matters come up in the writings of Paul, who was busily occupied with teaching early Christians how to behave and get along. We can infer their moral significance by the degree to which they are, or are not, framed in moral terms. In Matthew, Jesus warned “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matthew 15:19-20). In Romans 1:28-32, Paul describes the reprobate as “filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful.” Nowhere will one find Paul’s instructions regarding the conduct of worship or church governance couched in such language. They are altogether in a different category. All commands of the Law are instructions, but not all instructions are commands of the law. Hopefully, the passages we have considered here help to illumine the distinction.

In our next post, we will look at two more contemporary objections raised to Christian sexual morality. Is it all based on a mistranslation of New Testament Greek? Has Christian sexual morality been refuted by modern science??

Stay tuned. And subscribe now (upper right) if you would like to receive the next post in your inbox!

*Leviticus 19:29 says “do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute” – but it didn’t prohibit her from entering voluntarily.


For a concise, easily accessible introduction to Natural Law from a Protestant perspective, see: David Haines & Andrew A Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (The Davenant Trust, 2017).

Are Religious People Dumber? Not quite.

February 14, 2020 | apologetics, theology | No Comments

There is a particular narrative, popular among skeptics, that occasionally erupts into the public forum. It happened in 1990 when Ted Turner famously (and clumsily) declared that “Christianity is a religion for losers”. (The muddled nuance of his actual intent was drowned in the ensuing indignation). Or in 1993 when Washington Post writer Michael Weisskopf derided conservative Christians as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command”. (Clearly, a single stint at trying to command them would have quickly disavowed him of this conceit).

However, such gaffes have minimal effect compared to the dishonest portrayal of religious people in general, and conservative Christians in particular, in culture and entertainment. Recall the buffoonish, and wildly inaccurate, caricature of William Jennings Bryan in the classic drama of the Scopes evolution trial, “Inherit the Wind”. Bill Maher, an entertainer who some regard as a comedian, released Religulous in 2008. “Religulous” was a widely panned cinematic undertaking that spotlighted the the most foolish and outrageous religious beliefs and represented them as normative. Gentler criticism arises even from within the ranks, to wit “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, Mark Noll’s 1994 opus. (Of all the feedback Noll received, the one he most embraced was that the scandal was less specifically the Evangelical mind, than the American mind).

Are religious people really dumber? In 2013 research psychologist Miron Zuckerman endeavored to prove just that in a meta-analysis of 63 studies. The data seemed to confirm a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity, i.e. more intelligent people are less religious. The original review faced serious criticisms, so in 2019 Zuckerman[1] published a second meta-analysis of 83 studies backing up his original claim. Meanwhile, in a large national survey Pew Research found that college graduates are slightly more likely to be atheist or agnostic (11% college grads versus 4% High School or less) and less likely to consider religion very important (46% of college grads versus 58% High School or less).

The many criticisms directed toward Zuckerman’s research tend to emphasize methodological shortcomings that might undermine his central premise. The most damning could be that it merely represents a snapshot of postmodern western civilization and university culture, excluding all of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Most critics tend to overlook the more salient question: assuming the correlation is correct, does it matter? Professor Zuckerman seems to think so. Clearly, he believes that intelligent people should reject religion because they are more rational:

“our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational” p10

“We suspect that a primary reason why intelligent people find religion irrational…” p11

Of course, Zuckerman’s data supports no such conclusion. The only way to show that anything is irrational is to prove it is irrational through logical argument, something far beyond the limits of mere data analysis. But let’s allow that his finding of a weak correlation between intelligence and lower religious belief is valid. Is it meaningful? I would argue not. It may even confirm an important Biblical precept. Here are four reasons why it should not matter.

1. The correlation is weak, and intelligent people who are religious considerably outnumber equally intelligent people who are non-religious

Opponents of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, may naively interpret Zuckerman’s finding as support for the narrative that intelligent people, because they are more rational, naturally reject irrational religious belief. In doing so, they succumb to base rate neglect. Abundant data confirms that even among the intelligent and highly educated, the overwhelming majority continue to profess religious faith. This holds true worldwide. Even in highly secular Europe the percentage of professing atheists ranges from less than 1% in Bosnia and Romania to a high of 25% in the Czech republic. Conversely, across western Europe 71% still identify as Christian, though only a minority actively attend services. The percentage of atheists or agnostics in Africa and Latin America remains minuscule.

A correlation of around -.20 between intelligence and religious belief is very weak. To help the reader understand, the absence of any correlation would be 0.0. If the upper 50% entirely rejected religion and the lower 50% completely embraced religion, the correlation should be -1.0. A correlation of -0.2 is enough to be statistically significant, but as a practical matter is meaningless when religious people vastly outnumber the nonreligious.

2. Smart people are no more likely to be right, and tend toward excessive confidence in their own opinions.

In his clever, insightful, and thoroughly researched work “The Intelligence Trap”, British science writer David Robson exposes the dark side of intelligence. Among the higher ranks of intelligentsia, we learn that:

  • College graduates are more likely to believe in ESP and “psychic healing.”
  • People with IQ’s over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit.
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs.

By way of explanation, research has shown that highly intelligent and educated people are much more confident, and this confidence makes them less likely to doubt their opinions or change their minds. Rather than pursuing truth wherever it may be found, smarter people channel their energy toward arguing and reinforcing their preexisting opinions. Furthermore, they are just as susceptible to the social pressures and cognitive biases that impair good decision-making throughout the human species.

Hence, intelligence alone confers no particular authority to one’s religious opinions, one way or the other.

3. Religious people often believe dumb things. So does everyone else. It is a universal human frailty.

A 2017 survey from Pew Research found that Christians were less likely to believe in psychics, reincarnation, and astrology than those identifying as “nothing in particular”. Those who embraced such paranormal beliefs were also younger, less educated, less white, more feminine, and more politically liberal. Atheists fared better in this survey, but their historic link with the brutal and flawed ideology of communism gives them much to be humble about. As fewer millennials embrace or practice history-based Christianity, they are turning to….astrology and witchcraft. Correlation may not prove causality, but it does prove correlation.

We shouldn’t infer too much from these associations. Christians, nonChristians, agnostics, and atheists are all highly diverse groups who deserve not to be stereotyped, but any objection on that basis also applies to the religion-intelligence link.

4. The gospel message offers grace and hope to the poor, meek, and humble more than the proud and privileged. Intelligent people have a hard time being humble.


The actual subject of intelligence receives little notice in Scripture. The closest Greek word synetos, translated below as “prudent”, appears only four times in the New Testament. Out of the four, two are parallel verses in the synoptic gospels and one is a quote from Isaiah:

In that hour Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.”

Luke 10:21, NKJV

For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”

1 Corinthians 1:19 NKJV

The Greek word sophos, translated “wise”, appears much more often and is frequently used in an ironic sense. Such passages reflect a consistent theme of Scripture, that God favors the poor, weak, and powerless over the rich, strong, and mighty. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to assert that Scripture actually endorses Zuckerman’s finding:

“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”

(1 Corinthians 1:26-31, NKJV)

Intelligence can be a wonderful gift but is also a double-edged sword. Let us not think too highly of ourselves (Romans 12:3), for “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, NKJV)

(“So what I’m hearing is: Maybe your dog doesn’t do quantum mechanics, but his faith in you is devout, sincere, submissive, and trusting. Be more like your dog.” –the Spaniel)

  1. Zuckerman, M., Li, C., Lin, S., & Hall, J. A. (2019). The Negative Intelligence–Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219879122

America remains in the grip of an opiate* epidemic. Over 70,000 Americans died from legal and illegal drug overdose in 2017 alone, more than four times higher than in 1999.

The tragic history of this crisis was carefully documented by investigative journalist Sam Quinones in his 2015 work, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.1 Cast members in this drama represent a cross section of human society, from Mexican laborers to executives of multinational corporations. A sobering element of this story is that the American medical community bears much responsibility for the crisis. This example serves as both a lesson and a reminder that sometimes the scientific community can err en masse. In previous posts we examined pitfalls in belief formation and the perils of overconfidence from a theoretical perspective. This story underscores the dire consequences of ignoring these principles—in this case by highly educated professionals. We will focus on two salient biases: information cascade and confirmation/disconfirmation; and two nonrational contributors to belief formation: moral grandstanding and economic self-interest

Information Cascade

Experts once widely accepted the notion that opiate narcotics were highly addictive. However, some people questioned the idea in the early 1990s as a movement gained traction to treat pain with aggressive medication. A powerful new belief ignited and sustained the boom in narcotics; namely, that addiction from prescribed opiates was actually quite rare. Yet, there was never any evidence for this belief, and considerable evidence to the contrary.

The wildfire was unwittingly sparked by an innocuous five-sentence letter to the editor in the 1980 New England Journal of Medicine.2 The authors commented that new addictions seemed to be rare in hospitalized patients receiving low doses under direct supervision with no prior history of addiction. In ensuing years, this source was repeatedly cited, then those sources were cited, snowballing into a widespread false consensus regarding the low risk of addiction.

By early 2017, over 400 scientific papers had cited the letter as evidence that addiction from prescribed opiates was rare.3 It was a classic information cascade. Physicians were not basing their opinion on the evidence but on what other experts said, who were themselves biased by earlier opinions. Almost no one, it seemed, knew or gave much thought to what the original citation actually said. (And it was a letter, not a clinical investigation!)

As a consequence, almost 218,000 Americans died from prescription opioids between 1999 and 2017, while the annual fatality rate rose 400% over the same period.

Confirmation/Disconfirmation Bias

Throughout my medical training and early years in practice, physicians generally agreed that narcotics were potentially addictive and should be used with restraint. This belief wasn’t necessarily based on hard data, but the stream of addicts passing through the healthcare system left little room for doubt. That was anecdotal evidence, but it was evidence, nonetheless.

But physicians were not emotionally invested in withholding narcotics; in fact, quite the opposite. Restraint was the path of greater resistance. Liberal prescribing took less time, gratified patients, and left one with a sense of accomplishment. The new paradigm—we could dispense without concern—was liberating. But how could we justify it scientifically?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor evidence in support of one’s own position. If a doctor wanted to prescribe opiates freely, scientific papers in support of that position were proliferating due to the previously mentioned information cascade. As we noted, it was faulty yet adequate evidence if someone really wanted to believe it.  

Disconfirmation bias is the tendency to dismiss evidence against one’s belief. What about all the addicts? In the case of opiate addiction, physicians began to argue that opiates didn’t cause the addiction; rather, those who were already addicts sought out the opiates. That was a false dilemma between two partial truths, which is why the deception was so persuasive.

Moral Grandstanding

A powerful driving force behind the rise in prescription narcotics emerged from the belief that too many patients suffered unnecessary, easily treatable pain. Convinced that the risk of addiction was low, there was no downside to liberal use of narcotics. If narcotics were safe, it was virtuous to prescribe them and heartless to withhold them.

Interns and residents were taught that these drugs were now not addictive, that doctors thus had a mission, a duty, to use them.4

Once framed in moral terms, the stage was set for moral grandstanding and ramping up. Consequently, physicians and health care organizations competed in expressing their zeal for pain remediation. By 1998, over 1000 multidisciplinary pain clinics had been established. They vanished almost as rapidly, as the increasing use of narcotics effectively eliminated the need for multiple disciplines.5 Other social influences kicked in. As the epidemic unfolded, physicians faced increasing pressure from patients while accreditation agencies demanded proof that they were relieving pain—and that meant more narcotics.6

Economic self-interest

One particular drug occupied the epicenter of the prescription drug crisis: OxyContin, a slow-release preparation of oxycodone. This was a proprietary product of Purdue Pharma, privately held by the Sackler family. Upon the release of OxyContin in 1996, Purdue unleashed a sales and marketing juggernaut to aggressively promote it. According to Quinones:

Purdue set about promoting OxyContin as virtually risk-free and a solution to the problems patients presented doctors with every day.7

Eleven years later, Purdue Pharma pled guilty for, among other things, misrepresenting OxyContin’s abuse potential, for which it was fined over $600 million.8

Complicit physicians, driven by greed, began and continue to run prescription mills in some of our most vulnerable communities. Many have been caught, convicted, and sent to prison. But it’s a lucrative business and demand is virtually unlimited. In April of 2019, the biggest crackdown to date charged 60 healthcare providers in rural Appalachia with the illegal distribution of narcotics.9 As many as 32 million pain pills were distributed, and at least five patients died.

Inside each of us runs a highly tuned excuse factory, efficiently manufacturing plausible beliefs to justify our own behavior.

At this point, some may object, “What does belief have to do with it? They knew they were doing wrong and did it just for the money.” This may indeed be true for genuine psychopaths but is otherwise a one-dimensional view of human nature that overlooks our compelling need and skill for self-rationalization. Inside each of us runs a highly tuned excuse factory, efficiently manufacturing plausible beliefs to justify our own behavior. According to the science of human nature—and ancient scripture (“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” Proverbs 21:2, KJV)—most perpetrators probably believed they were not doing wrong.

A lesson for us all

While science is our best source for understanding the physical world, physicians and scientists are subject to the same cognitive pitfalls as everyone else. In certain circumstances, they err communally with potentially disastrous consequences. Familiarity with the science of belief can help us to discern when a prevailing consensus should be questioned. Is there emotional investment? Moral grandstanding and ramping up? Peer pressure? Information cascade? Economic self-interest? We all must endeavor to avoid these traps.

In this case, silence was complicity. Had more people been willing to speak up and challenge the paradigm, the false consensus surrounding opiates might have been thwarted, sparing thousands of lives. It takes courage to stand against the crowd—after clearing the logs from our own eyes—but sometimes it is morally necessary.

Beliefs have consequences. False beliefs have worse consequences. Intellectual humility is the first line of defense. After all, just because we think doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

*Note: for purposes of this article, “opiate,” “opioid,” and “narcotics” are basically synonymous. For precise definitions, click here.

Endnotes

[1]. Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015).

2. Jane Porter and Hershel Jick, “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics,” New England Journal of Medicine 302 no. 123 (January 10, 1980): doi:10.1056/NEJM198001103020221.

3. Pamela T. M. Leung et al., “A 1980 Letter on the Risk of Opioid Addiction,” New England Journal of Medicine 376 (June 1, 2017): 2194–95, doi:10.1056/NEJMc1700150.

4. Quinones, Dreamland, 95.

5. Quinones, 109.

6. Quinones, 98.

7. Quinones, 127.

8. Barry Meier, “Origins of an Epidemic: Purdue Pharma Knew Its Opioids Were Widely Abused,” New York Times, May 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/health/purdue-opioids-oxycontin.html.

9. Terry DeMio, Dan Horn, and Kevin Grasha, “Ohio, Kentucky Doctors among 60 Charged in Pain Pill Bust Acted ‘Like Drug Dealers,’” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 17, 2019, https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/04/17/opioid-pain-pill-federal-prescription-bust/3482202002/.

Most of us think we’re smarter than most of us! In a recent large survey, 65% of Americans rated themselves more intelligent than average.[1] [Sounds of unrestrained laughter, barking, and howling – the Spaniel and pals]. Believing we’re very smart, we assume we’re usually right. But is that confidence warranted?

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Proverbs 26:12

In the course of my medical career, I have known brilliant physicians of many different faiths. Among the most committed adherents, it is safe to say that all were quite sure regarding the truth of their particular faith. But each tradition contradicts all others in one or more matters. They could all be wrong in part or in whole; they cannot all be right. Logically, we must conclude that not only is it possible to be brilliant, certain, and wrong, but that it is common.

In the previous post, we looked at several nonrational factors that can lead to false beliefs: heuristics and biases, emotions, and social influences. We noted that education and intelligence are unreliable predictors of rational thinking.

Yet false beliefs comprise but one side of the coin. The other side, of equal or even greater importance, is the level of certainty attached to those beliefs. Confidence is our estimate of the probability that we are correct. It is a belief concerning our belief—metacognition, in psychological parlance.

The Illusion of Certainty

Ideally, our confidence should be roughly proportional to the mathematical probability that we are correct. In other words, if we are 90% certain, we should be right 90% of the time. But studies repeatedly show that our degree of certainty consistently exceeds our accuracy. For example, people who are “99% sure” are wrong 50% of the time. This disparity both defines and demonstrates the phenomenon of overconfidence. Our unwarranted certainty could be blamed on misplaced trust; that is, by placing too much credence in an unreliable source. However, since we tend to favor sources we already agree with (confirmation bias), excess certainty usually reflects an excessive faith in ourselves (pride).

In his 2009 tome On Being Certain, neuroscientist Robert Burton argued that certainty is not a state of reason but of feeling, influenced by unconscious physiologic processes.[2] Certainty is mostly illusion, Burton argues, and there is considerable evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Overconfidence has been demonstrated and measured in many domains besides intelligence: driving ability, economic forecasting, and medicine, for example. In almost every domain studied to date, significant majorities express a confidence in their abilities far beyond what is warranted, or even mathematically possible. [“Like my distant cousin who somehow still thinks he can catch a car” – the Spaniel].

Sometimes, the least competent people are the most confident, whereas the most skilled and knowledgeable people slightly underestimate their ability. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Dunning-Kruger” effect, after the original researchers whose landmark paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” not only opened a new avenue of research but has prompted many a smile from those who sensed its ring of truth.[3]

The Intelligence Trap

Highly intelligent people constitute another group with an elevated risk of overconfidence. Intelligent people know they are intelligent, making them less likely to doubt themselves, respect other opinions, or change their minds. They are also every bit as attuned, if not more so, to social influences that motivate belief.[4]

Highly intelligent people can and do believe crazy things. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ruthlessly logical Sherlock Holmes, was a devout believer in spiritualism and fairies. [“I once knew a Border Collie who claimed he’d been abducted by penguins” – the Spaniel]. Albert Einstein expressed a naïve and unshakeable optimism concerning Lenin, Stalin, and the Soviet Union:

I honor Lenin as a man who completely sacrificed himself and devoted all his energy to the realization of social justice. I do not consider his methods practical, but one thing is certain: men of his type are the guardians and restorers of humanity.[5]

In The Intelligence Trap, science writer David Robson informs us that:

  • College graduates are more likely than nongraduates to believe in ESP and psychic healing
  • People with IQ’s over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs[6]

While the popular perception is that intelligent people are naturally skeptical, in fact all humans are believing machines. We drift with the cultural tides, embracing popular ideas on the flimsiest of evidence, then clutch those beliefs tenaciously to protect our egos, strut our virtue, justify our actions, and advertise loyalty to our in-group. This view may seem cynical, but it is well-validated.

There are many strategies for overcoming the “intelligence trap.” They include cognitive reflection, actively open-minded thinking, curiosity, emotional awareness and regulation, having a growth mindset, distrusting the herd, and consistent skepticism. However one habit of mind undergirds all others: an attitude of intellectual humility.

Knowing Our Limits

Intellectual humility could be defined as merely having a realistic view of our mental processing; viz., that our knowledge is inevitably limited, our thinking is unavoidably biased, and that even the smartest among us are prone to error.[7]

In recent decades, psychology has embraced a model of personality based on the “big five”: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The more recent version adds a sixth measure: HH, for honesty-humility. Researchers have demonstrated that HH shows a consistent negative correlation with all three elements of the “dark triad”: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.[8] [“We just call that ‘being a cat’” – the Spaniel]. On the other hand, HH correlates positively with healthier traits such as cooperation and self-control.

In a 2018 paper from UC Davis, researchers showed that intellectual humility is associated with openness during disagreement, and that promoting a growth mindset served to enhance intellectual humility.[9] Intellectual humility also helps to reduce polarization and conflict.[10] In one study, it was even superior to general intelligence in predicting academic achievement.[11]

Research Affirms Scripture

According to most theologians in the Judeo-Christian tradition, pride is the deadliest sin. Humility is its opposite. It may be tempting to assume this peril concerns only the skeptic, but it’s not just about “them.” It’s about all of us. And the greater the visibility or the higher one’s position in Christian circles, the greater the problem is likely to be.

“Do not be wise in your own conceits.”

romans 12:16, KJV

Scripture repeatedly warns against unwarranted confidence in our own wisdom. Decades of research in cognitive science shows this to be a common human problem that only worsens with intelligence. The antidote begins with intellectual humility, an ancient virtue whose wisdom has been validated by the latest empirical data.

Article also posted (without canine commentary) at Reasons to Believe on August 9, 2018

Endnotes

[1]. Patrick R. Heck, Daniel J. Simons, and Christopher F. Chabris, “65% of Americans Believe They Are above Average in Intelligence: Results of Two Nationally Representative Surveys,” PLoS ONE 13, no. 7 (July 3, 2018): e0200103, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0200103.

2. Robert Burton, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

3. Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 6 (January 2000): 1121–34, doi:10.1037//0022-3514.77.6.1121.

4. Dan M. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” Judgment and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (July 2013): 407–24.

5. Lewis Samuel Feuer, Einstein and the Generations of Science 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 25. [JA10] [SW11] 

6. David Robson, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).

7. Peter C. Hill et al., “A Few Good Measures: Colonel Jessup and Humility,” in Everett L. Worthington Jr., Don E. Davis, and Joshua N. Hook, eds., Handbook of Humility: Theory, Research, and Implications (New York: Routledge, 2017).

8. Joseph Leman et al., “Personality Predictors and Correlates of Humility,” in Worthington, Davis, and Hook, eds., Handbook of Humility.

9. Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann, “Intellectual Humility and Openness to the Opposing View,” Self and Identity 17, issue 2 (August 9, 2017): 139–62, doi:10.1080/15298868.2017.1361861.

10. Porter and Schumann, “Intellectual Humility.”

11. Bradley P. Owens, Michael D. Johnson, and Terence R. Mitchell, “Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership,” Organization Science 24, no. 5 (February 12, 2013): 1517–38, doi:10.1287/orsc.1120.0795.