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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.



Feeling blue? Tried therapy and medication? Here’s a radical thought: try visiting your local church next Sunday.

A new study adds further evidence to what we have known for quite some time: going to church is good for your mental health. Last Thursday, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing issued a press release announcing its latest findings. Following over 6000 adults aged 50 and over for six years, they found that regular church attendance (mostly Catholic in this group) was strongly associated with a lower incidence of depression.

“Although we did not find longitudinal evidence for a causal effect between religiosity and mental health, we found a robust association between religious attendance and lower depressive symptoms at baseline.”

The researchers found that this benefit could be partially, but not entirely, attributed to higher levels of social engagement. Religiously minded individuals who did not attend services were actually worse off. (The study design was unable to determine why that might have been so, leaving ample room for speculation but no evidence).

Human behavior and religious faith are both highly complex matters, making it nearly impossible to tease out the exact connection between religion and mental health. Is it merely the social engagement? In this study, that only partially explained the benefit. Would this apply to every church? Probably not, considering that many are admittedly dysfunctional. Should one “embrace a lie” just to enjoy the benefits? Be honest. There’s plenty of good evidence for God. To believe or not is a matter of choice. How about non-Christian faiths? A few studies show similar benefits; though again, it probably depends on the details.

Despite the complexity of the matter, the accumulated research is sufficiently compelling that psychologists can conclude:

“The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as “religiosity”) is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. “

Religious faith could even save your life. There is a powerful connection between church attendance and reduced risk of suicide. Writing in the July 2019 Wall Street Journal, Erika Andersen reported:

“A 2016 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that American women who attended a religious service at least once a week were five times less likely to commit suicide…. It’s true that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but there’s strong evidence that people who attend church or synagogue regularly are less inclined to take their own lives.”

Our most current understanding regarding the cause of depression offers further explanation why religious faith – particularly Christian faith – may be protective. The most effective and enduring treatment available is cognitive therapy. In its simplest terms, this means learning to break through mental habits of despair, self-absorption, and self-abasement. Strange as it may seem to some, this means thinking Biblically:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!

Philippians 4:4
  • Instead of despair we find hope. (Romans 5:2)
  • Instead of self-absorption, we are to embrace humility and concern for others. (Philippians 2:3)
  • Instead of self-abasement, we find unconditional forgiveness and can stop comparing ourselves to others. (Romans 4:7)

So, if you’re attending regularly, good for you! Look out for new visitors and make them feel welcome. Pay them a visit, or at least a phone call. Haven’t been in a while? It’s never too late to go back. Everyone will be happy to see you. Tried and it didn’t work? Try a different church. Never been and wouldn’t know where to start? Ask someone you know, or look for one with a lot of cars in the parking lot. Someone may greet you, or no one may, but fill out that little card and you may get a friendly call or visit.

[“Speaking of mental health, aren’t you forgetting someone?” – the Spaniel. “Never, little buddy” – me.]

The secret is out. Going to church is good for your health!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, is there a creator of this universe?

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

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

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

What does that make Professor Krauss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

[2] P49

[3] p111

[4] p123

[5] p79

[6] p9

[7] P5

[8] P8

[9] P18

[10] P21

[11] P22

[12] P22

[13] P2

[14] P17

[15] P99

[16] p131

[17] p130

Although it’s been out now for 13 years, The God Delusion  by Richard Dawkins still sets the standard for 21st century atheist polemics. Both lionized by atheists and demonized by some believers, he is deserving, I think, of neither.

I’ve followed Dawkins for a while, mostly because of his particular pronouncements on the “improbability” of God. This thought intrigued me, because as someone  who has studied advanced probability (all right, I took a senior level math course in college), I was curious how that improbability was determined, and the methodology behind it.

Dawkins’s argument appears in Chapter 4, and reduces to this:

  1. The origin of life is an extremely improbable event. (on that we all agree).
  2. The history of life has been an inexorable progression from simple to complex. (conceded by most, except for young earth creationists).
  3. Darwinian evolution is the one thing we know that builds increasing complexity over time. (highly tendentious).

And finally, in his own words:

4. “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.”

Elsewhere, he states (more clearly) that a cosmic designer would have to be more complex than life, so it seems [to him] illogical to explain complexity by postulating something even more complex. The latter is probably true, as far as it goes.

In a way, I was disappointed. I hoped he might have something interesting to offer on calculating the probability for or against God’s existence, but instead he merely offers a philosophical argument, and not a very good one.

In making his case, Dawkins commits three logical fallacies:

  1. Begging the question. Dawkins assumes what he sets out to prove. His thesis on Darwinian evolution assumes it happened without divine intervention. Even if we know evolution happened, which is almost certainly true on some scale, we don’t really understand how it happened. Natural selection, which Dawkins so reveres, is the black box, but inside is the biochemistry. Dawkins is no biochemist. (He’s no mathematician, either). If evolution was actively guided by the same designer, the case for improbability collapses. One has to assume it was not, which is begging the question.

2. Category error. Truly, I’ve been surprised that theologians would try to refute his argument by insisting that God is simple, not complex. How about neither? The words “simple” and “complex” as we apply them in the physical realm have no meaning with regard to an immaterial being that exists outside of space, matter, energy, and time. It’s as meaningless as talking about the “color” of God. Drop the assumption of material complexity, and the case collapses.

3. Equivocation fallacy. All Theists define God as uncreated, self-existing, and the first cause. Dawkins brushes right past by asking “who designed the designer?”This is just an unimaginative restatement of the old “who made God?” argument. A God that was “made” would not, by definition, be God. Dawkins own twist is to try and add a patina of authority by reframing it in scientific verbiage. The argument is purely a philosophical one. There is no way in the realm of science or mathematics to assign a probability to the solution.

This little discussion is neither intended as proof of theism nor a refutation of atheism. There is but one point to conclude. Dawkins’s many references to the extreme “improbability” of God amount to nothing more than an expression of personal feeling, not mathematics or science.

By U.S. Army, Post-Work: User:W.wolny - Archivesnormandie 1939-45, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=765569

It is early spring of 1943. The Axis powers are beginning to crumble against the massive and unrelenting Allied onslaught. Plans for the imminent invasion of Sicily are underway, establishing a base for the invasion and liberation of continental Europe.

Meanwhile, back at US military intelligence, a tightly knit group of outliers have been poring over captured Nazi military communications. They conclude that Berlin is a Potemkin facade – the entire brain trust of the Nazi war machine is hiding away in the Canary Islands. “That is their true vulnerability,” they determine. “Capture the Canaries, and victory is assured.”
 
The Allied command views the minority report as pure nonsense, but a third of the officer corps is persuaded and defects. Soldiers, seaman, and marines are transferred to the Canary Islands and commence their assault. Strangely, the beaches are deserted except for driftwood, dead starfish, and a noisy flock of seagulls. The befuddled Germans sense an opportunity too great to pass up, and begin to airdrop a few unfortunate paratroopers to keep the Allies distracted.
 
Meanwhile, with a third of Allied forces diverted, the Germans retake North Africa. The Japanese overrun India, then Australia. With the British Empire in full collapse, German warships and troop carriers begin to amass at Cherbourg for the final amphibious assault upon the British Isles.
 
In this counterfactual scenario, faulty intelligence led to a commitment of resources to fight the wrong battle in the wrong location, snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. In other words, kind of like Christians fighting over the age of the earth.
 
This should be the golden era of science apologetics. Never has there been more evidence in support of a Divine Creator and the wisdom of His plan for humanity. Astronomy and physics have established beyond doubt that our universe of space, time, matter, and energy had a beginning. There is nothing in our realm of understanding to explain it. The universe and our planet are exquisitely designed for human civilization, with nearly a thousand specific parameters tuned in perfect alignment. In the realm of theoretical physics, the nature of fundamental physical reality looks too complex for comfort.
 
Biology, biochemistry, and genetics have revealed unfathomable complexity in the nature of life and reproduction. There is no working model for the origin of life. The problem of human consciousness remains so intractable we don’t even know where to start.
 
Medical research confirms beyond any doubt that the Biblical model of heterosexual monogamy is uniquely conducive to the mental and physical health of adults and their children and to social stability. Psychology and the social sciences corroborate the Biblical view of human nature as naturally proud and self-serving, with a propensity toward evil.
 
Every year more scientists and intellectuals come to embrace Christianity as the only adequate explanation for all they know and see.
 
With overwhelming firepower at our command, what do we do? A tiny contingent  with quasiscientific credentials insists that the Earth is really only six thousand years old (faulty intelligence). Their strategy has engaged a large proportion of the Christian community (diversion of resources). They make that hill the one upon which the Truly Faithful must stand or die (wrong battle in the wrong location). Opponents of Christianity are gleeful to engage, knowing full well their real vulnerabilities lie far from that battlefront. Young people raised in the Church are losing their faith in college, being persuaded over this one peripheral issue that Christianity is anti-scientific. Non-Christians simply roll their eyes and groan. And no one seems to get why.
 
To the apostle Paul, the Truth of Christianity stood on the resurrection of Christ. He penned those words when eyewitnesses to the risen Christ still walked the Earth, of whom Paul was one. For some Christians today, the Truth of Christianity stands or falls on a six thousand year old Earth. There’s only one way to lose this war, and we’re making great headway. The seagulls are getting nervous.