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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.

Christians and Conspiracies

February 5, 2021 | pride, social issues, theology | No Comments

Hands on ears

“You can’t handle the truth!”

That classic line from Colonel Jessup in the witness stand became a waving flag for many. It is so enticing to think we own the truth, and that those who can’t “handle” it are naïve, weak, or cowardly. Delivered to perfection by Jack Nicholson, Jessup hammered a wedge between truth and fantasy, and of course we all know which side we’re on, don’t we?

What most overlook is that Colonel Jessup was fooling himself. Yes, the character was a courageous leader with a distinguished career, but he was also a vindictive bully who fought to suppress the truth about his own culpability in the death of private Santiago.

The fall of humanity commenced with an assault on truth, and it sometimes feels the battle against truth has never been more relentless. Among followers of Christ, this should be obvious. We witness in the secular culture a frequent denial of reality: whether the humanity of the unborn, the immutability of sex, or the facts of history. Our reaction might range from despair to compassion to mockery, but too often we forget these are lost souls under the dominion of dark spiritual forces. So, what’s our excuse?

Why do so many of our brothers and sisters in the Lord commit the same denial of reality they mock in unbelievers?

Christians and conspiracy theories

A disturbing number of professing Christians are entranced by dark QAnon conspiracies, anti-vaccination hysteria, unverifiable claims of stolen elections, or bizarre fantasies regarding the nefarious machinations of Bill Gates, like one recent commenter at The Gospel Coalition:

Note: James Corbett is a well-known internet provocateur who never met a conspiracy he couldn’t profit from.

Much digital “ink” has been spilt over the last 12 months on Christians and conspiracies, though it is difficult to tell whether this has had much impact. Those most inclined toward conspiracy theories are the least likely to benefit from the articles, or might read them only for the purpose of arguing. The articles have mostly focused on refuting the specific conspiracies or warning of the moral implications. Both are on point and send a valuable message. They might help protect fence-sitters from plunging into the abyss. Another category of articles will tell you how to avoid them. The problem is that people don’t care. Explaining to a conspiracy hound how to tell truth from fiction is like teaching my dog how to eat healthy: he doesn’t see the point, he’s sure it doesn’t apply to him, and the conversation’s going nowhere. [“Just give me what you’re having, and I’m good” – the Spaniel]

To make a real impact on true believers in false beliefs, we must look beyond what they believe to why they believe. Not every popular myth really qualifies as a conspiracy theory in a literal sense. For our purposes here, the distinction is unimportant.

The Gospels report that after the resurrection of Christ, the priests conspired with the Roman guards to report that the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15). So, conspiracy theories have been around as long as conspiracies, and in this case we have a twofer – a real conspiracy by the priests and guards to spread a false conspiracy theory concerning the disciples. But this historical example exhibits elements true for the 21st century as well as the first. Conspiracy theories don’t pop out of nowhere. Often, they are instigated by bad actors with ulterior motives who know they are untrue.

Why they resonate with us

This problem is far more nuanced than simply dismissing conspiracy theorists as gullible and uncritical thinkers. Indeed, many are. But forces in our own mental programming and our environment strongly drive us in that direction.

Humans are by nature curious. God designed us to seek understanding and explanations. With diligent effort, a broad fund of knowledge, and the wisdom of experience this often works. The blessing of a curious nature led to the spectacular technological progress of the last few centuries. We don’t just want to know how nature works. We want to understand how people work, why things happen, and why people do the things that they do. Serious sociology and psychology – there’s a lot of unserious work in both fields – are responsible and efficient means to satisfy this impulse. So are forensics and fields of legal investigation. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are a cheat – a short cut into a blind alley. They are cocaine for the curious mind. One hundred hours of watching YouTube videos is no substitute for years of education but can seem very persuasive and succeed in creating an unwarranted sense of certainty. They might be wildly off-base, but for the purpose of “solving” the puzzle are equally effective, and sometimes even more emotionally gratifying than the boring truth (for reasons considered below).

A second force is almost certainly the anchoring effect of entertainment. Over our lifetimes we consume thousands of hours of film and television drama, and more often than not some dark conspiracy is underfoot. If we pause to reflect (thinking with Kahnemen’s System 2), we might admit that these are rare in real life, but we do most of our thinking in System 1, which is heuristically driven and powerfully influenced by non-rational factors such as recency and ease of recall. So if day after day, week after week, year after year we are fed conspiracy stories, they are bound to seem more plausible. How do you think Hollywood changed public attitudes toward homosexuality in such a short period of time?

The third factor is the unprecedented availability of misinformation and disinformation enabled by the Internet. Old barriers to publication and distribution have been eliminated and everyone now has a platform. Engineers at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram developed systems that focus and amplify the impact of misinformation, though that was not their intent. We naturally want our opinions confirmed, and complicated algorithms are specifically designed to keep you engaged by telling you more and more of what you want to hear, while you are guaranteed to be surrounded and supported by like-minded company.

A fourth issue that must be acknowledged is that conspiracies really do happen. True conspiracies are rare. Many authors have explained why they are rare, seldom succeed, and how to spot the fake ones. Nonetheless, the simple fact that some have happened affords the true believer “moral license” to believe in one or more that are purely fictitious.

Sinful disposition

Unfortunately, not all internal factors inclining us toward conspiracy theories are so innocent and defensible. There is a dark element to many that appeals directly to the vilest of human impulses.

Conspiracy theories feed our ego. The sense of superiority that comes from being “in the know” can be intoxicating. Like Neo in “The Matrix”, proponents imagine themselves escaping the blinders of society by taking “the red pill” and becoming the hero of their own pathetic little fiction. The act of embracing a lie to become something greater was the offense of Adam, and in this we are truly his offspring.

Some anti-vaccination activists focus on past use of one or two fetal cell lines in vaccine development. (The morality of this has been fully addressed by a number of authorities including CMDA). There’s no clear boundary between having a sensitive conscience and overt moral grandstanding, and the feeling I get when engaging some of these activists is that they know they are morally superior to other Christians, and that they want everyone else to know it as well.

Conspiracy theories malign the innocent and justify our prejudice. Among all conspiracy theories, the bloodiest, most contemptible, and most enduring must be those surrounding the children of Abraham. From being blamed for the bubonic plague in the 14th century, to accusations of conspiring with the enemy in late 19th century France, to the wildest fantasies of an uber-rich and uber-powerful global cabal, the Jews have suffered the most from conspiracy thinking, and experienced the deadly power of lies with six million deaths under the Third Reich.

Anti-semitism appeals to some of the worst human impulses – to feel superior to those who are different, to justify our prejudices, to rationalize our own conduct, and to absolve us of personal responsibility for failure. Hitler rose to power blaming the Jews for every real and perceived shortcoming of early 20th century Germany, including their loss in World War I. A newly elected congresswomen from Georgia blamed the 2018 California wildfires on Jewish space lasers – rhetoric described as “inflammatory” by the Wall Street Journal in an apparently unintentional act of punnery.

Antivaccination activists presume almost all of the millions of worldwide physicians who both prescribe and use them are either stupid or malevolent. Righteous people do not believe such things.

Willful deception

For many, many reasons we are predisposed toward embracing conspiracy theories. We are the demand side of the marketplace. On the supply side is a vast industry of private and state actors competing for profit, fame, or influence and eager to provide.

There are bad actors out there with an intent to deceive and the means to do so.

The antivaccination movement traces its roots to the work of the former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who published a paper in Lancet in 1999 claiming to have found a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Later investigation established that the research was fraudulent, that Wakefield had to have known, and that he was motivated financially by the promise of riches from the plaintiff’s bar. Provocateur and shyster Alex Jones rose to notoriety after 9/11 peddling the crackpot notion that the terrorist attack was an inside job executed by the highest levels of government. He is now being sued – one hopes successfully – by the parents of schoolchildren murdered at Sandy Hook, after Jones carried on for months arguing the tragedy was a hoax and the bereaved parents were merely actors. Whether Jones believes such nonsense I neither know nor care, but peddling it to a gullible and willing audience has made him both rich and famous.

It’s spiritual warfare that must be fought with spiritual weapons. Jesus didn’t cast out demons with superior arguments.

Emerging evidence over the last several years has pointed to the involvement of hostile foreign states in manipulating American public opinion. The communist regime of China now exercises near-veto power over American film production, where profits speak louder than principles. (US social media are blocked in China, and the local versions are tightly controlled. They’re not stupid.) Russian activity on social media in the US and other western democracies is well documented. Far from the simplistic narrative that they attempted to promote the election of Donald Trump, Russian-promoted social media plays to all extremes of the political spectrum. Their presumed intent has been to promote civil strife, discord, resentment, and polarization. They must be thrilled with their apparent success.

Christians who believe Scripture must take seriously another source of deception – the spiritual realm. The spiritual entities at war against God are consistently characterized as both attractive and deceiving. If we believe Scripture, then the battle for truth is much more than an argument with our opponent. It’s spiritual warfare that must be fought with spiritual weapons. Jesus didn’t cast out demons with superior arguments or by instructing their victims in critical thinking.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Ephesians 6:11-12, NKJV

It requires much less effort to assert a claim than refute it.

Conspiracy fans and anti-vaxxers never really engage in serious research, though they routinely claim to have done so. “Research”, in this instance, amounts to watching hours of video and consuming large doses of polemics manufactured for and posted to fringe websites. Those never make one an expert, but can make someone feel like one. A little knowledge can seem like a lot when you have no idea how much you don’t know. It takes no real effort to blindly accept a list of 20 or 30 assertions and repost them on Facebook, as I’ve seen so much of in the last year. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to track down the source of each claim and spot the error. Organizations such as the Christian Medical & Dental Associations frequently post careful rebuttals on vaccination myths and health misinformation, but it’s a whack-a-mole game with newer and more ridiculous claims surfacing with depressing regularity.


Succumbing to such deceptions exacts a great cost for both individuals and the Church at large. They corrupt our character, demolish our credibility, lead us to sin against others, and place us in alignment with malevolent spiritual forces.

Corrupted character.

Conspiratorial thinking thrives on pride, and nourishes it in turn. It takes a considerable amount of arrogance to assert superior insight over legitimate experts in a field. I have, in turn, been accused of arrogance in dismissing their arguments. Pride exists within all of us to one degree or another, so I stand guilty as charged. However, in this instance humility is submitting to the judgment of an overwhelming consensus of experts, not standing in opposition to them. Genuine love and yearning for the truth, on the other hand, is a fruit of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:9).

Lost credibility.

When either individuals or large sections of the Body become known for embracing and promoting disinformation, we compromise our credibility on the more important issues. The secular community will reason that if we’re crazy on one score, the rest must be part of the package. We have a duty to them, and a responsibility to God, to preserve our reputation. (1 Peter 2:12)


Hurling false accusations against other groups or accusations is slander, and an explicit violation of the ninth commandment. Christians should never be known for such conduct, nor for tolerating it in their midst.

We become pawns to the Father of Lies

Scripture is abundantly clear that there is more to reality than what we perceive with our senses, and that a spiritual war has been raging since Creation. There is no DMZ in this conflict.

“You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.”

John 8:44 NKJV

If we are not on the side of truth, then we are on the side of the enemy. This belief, though, can become deadly when we begin to think we own the truth. The only path along this narrow ledge is to admit our personal limitations and exhibit humble submission toward those in authority – in this case, meaning those most qualified in the subject. We shouldn’t rely on pastors in matters of science, we shouldn’t rely on scientists in matters of theology, and we should seek health advice from our doctor, not the internet.

For those passionate about the truth, the ongoing struggle against misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy thinking can be daunting. The first concluding principle should be to check yourself. (Matthew 7:5) The second is that yes, we are our brother’s keeper. How the Church should deal with conspiracy theorists is a sensitive and complex matter, but it cannot remain faithful to Christ and passive in this regard. We must understand why people are drawn to them, so that the root causes might be addressed. Ultimately this is a spiritual battle, but thankfully we are not unarmed against such a challenge (Ephesians 6:10-18).

(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.”


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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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).

Weathering Climate Change, by Dr. Hugh Ross

You all know how this game is played. A well known author comes out with book on a controversial, divisive, politically charged subject. For some, the only thing they want to know is whether it takes their side. Hopefully, many more harbor a genuine desire to understand the issue better. Climate debate has been polarized for quite some time. It is a complicated subject that involves scientific observations, attempts to model future climate, and costly public policy. Hugh Ross’s “Weathering Climate Change” is not a battle manual for political partisans. For everyone else, it’s a gem.

What qualifies Dr. Ross to speak on this topic? He is not, after all, a climatologist. An obvious question warrants an obvious answer. For billions of years, our climate has mostly been driven by the environment of space in which our planet spins – something astrophysicist Ross is particularly well-qualified to evaluate.

The book is broken into roughly three sections. The first four chapters survey the present state of public and scientific opinion on the matter of earth’s climate and how it might be affected by global carbon emissions. Ross shares recent polling data showing how concern over the issue varies markedly from nation to nation, and within nations according to political loyalties. No surprises there.

Ross detachedly summarizes the projections of most climatologists involved in this arena.

The picture they paint is bleak. In addition to food scarcity, floods, and droughts, global warming will likely give rise to disease epidemics and destructive swarms of pests and parasites. Marine and aquatic environments will experience toxic algae blooms, acidification, and deprivation of dissolved oxygen, with consequent drops in fish stocks. (p44)

However, Ross is mindful of the political partisanship and grandstanding attached to this issue. Things don’t have to be this way, Ross hopes. It hinges on whether we’re more interested in addressing the problem than defeating our political opponents:

Do win-win solutions exist? If they exist, can they be implemented quickly enough to avert disastrous consequences and avoid unintended ones? I’m convinced the answer to both questions may well be yes. However, they require interdisciplinary collaboration and international cooperation, and these require a dose of humility and civility that seem increasingly short in supply. (p 50)

The next and most comprehensive section guides the reader into the fascinating realm of paleoclimatology. Here, we are particularly concerned with the conditions and events that led to a series of ice ages and the remarkably stable climate of our current interglacial period. In these chapters, Ross leads us on an adventure back in time. Only then can we fully appreciate the moment in which we live.

Beginning 2.5 million years ago, the earth entered a period of advancing and retreating glaciation known collectively as the ice ages. Since that time, the higher latitudes and elevations have been under ice far more often than not. This strange new era in Earth’s climate history began with an extraordinary cosmic event, the crash of a giant asteroid off the tip of South American known as the Eltanin impact.

Since then, the earth has passed through a series of ice ages, coming and going according to a complex choreography of earth’s orbital eccentricity, the precession of its axis, and the oscillations in the axial tilt collectively known as the Milankovitch cycles. Earth’s orbit, in turn, is precisely modulated by gravitational effects from the larger outer planets, particularly Jupiter.

Now you might think ice ages would be hard on human civilization, and you’d be right – if we were in the middle of one! Yet, somehow civilization arose and prospered at the most perfect time possible. Since the end of the last glaciation, we have enjoyed a level of unprecedented climate stability unseen in earlier millennia. Thanks to those ancient ice ages, earth’s soil has been greatly enriched along with an abundant supply of fresh water both above and below the ground. These have enabled us to feed a world population of over seven billion.

This section is rich in detail on the wondrous “coincidences” that have led to our unique period of almost-perfect climate, far too many to summarize here. One of the most fascinating is the very recently discovered Hiawatha impact event in Greenland. This came at just the right point in our climate timeline to stabilize and prolong our current interglacial period, or today there might already be a mile of ice where Toronto now sits.

Most people assume that the greatest long term threat is runaway heating from greenhouse gases. Not so, contends Dr. Ross. Granted, the climate isn’t going to stay like this forever. However, while most scientists and writers focus on the short-term effects of global warming, Dr. Ross takes the long term perspective. Ice ages come and go and come back again. Now, you might think global warming would be great if it delays the next ice age. However, the past record shows that every new glaciation event was preceded by a rise in atmospheric CO2. While the science is still preliminary, there is a growing body of evidence that human-caused CO2 release could actually accelerate the next ice age, possibly on timespans of less than a few hundred years. The tundras of North America and northern Eurasia are cold but extremely arid. Melting of the north polar ice cap should result in increased precipitation in those northern latitudes, leading to a progressive accumulation of snow and ice. By the time the cycle begins, it may be far too late to slow or stop. Much of the evidence for this hypothesis has only been published in the last 2 years.

In Chapter 20, Dr. Ross describes many of the proposals being floated for mitigation of the CO2 induced greenhouse effect, along with their pros and cons. He objectively evaluates many proposed strategies in the categories of geoengineering, resource management, technology, and power production, without shutting down the world economy in the process. Any number of them show great promise. Ross expresses a hope, which I wholly share, that people of good will can lay down their partisan swords and work together to preserve and protect the amazing world God has given us.

This is a delightful and fascinating tour through earth’s recent climate history. Believers will be filled with awe at the marvelous handiwork of the Creator, with each new year of scientific discovery unfolding still greater wonders. Unbelievers and skeptics may at least appreciate how fortunate we are to be living in these times and might be challenged to consider just how many coincidences can one tolerate before one begins to suspect the deck is stacked. Whether or not we agree on matters of faith, we can still work together to protect this glorious planet we all call home.

Part 1: What have we learned?

For several weeks now, the Spaniel and I have been poring over charts, analyzing the data, and perusing commentary from multiple reliable sources (and occasional not-so-reliable ones) in order to provide you, our esteemed fan base, with trustworthy evidence-based guidance for what the future brings. Discretion is often the better part of valor, and those who strike first usually miss. We thought about issuing our predictions weeks ago. We were wise not to.

In mid-March, there was cause for optimism that COVID was “no worse than the flu”. Well, that rather depends on which flu one has in mind. The 1918 Spanish flu was devastating. Indeed, le Spaniel et moi were hopeful that COVID would follow a more benign course, comparable to a severe seasonal flu. One early indicator would be Italy. Annual flu deaths in Italy run about 8,000. By March 26, the total COVID deaths in Italy crossed that threshold and continued to rise. They are now slowly approaching 30,000. Could Italy be near the peak? Four times 8,000 would be 32,000. Interestingly, one writer inferred from an early German antibody screen that the fatality rate would be about four times deadlier than the seasonal flu.

COVID also differs from the flu in two key respects. First, it is much more contagious. It is transmitted more easily between persons, leading to a much more rapid spread. This was reflected in the speedy dissemination through nations and around the globe, with exponential growth rates in both infections and fatalities. The second difference has been the degree to which COVID can be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers.

One of the more curious aspects to this pandemic we have learned is the surprising frequency of asymptomatic infections. This is a double-edged sword. On the one side, it means the disease is not as lethal as raw numbers might suggest. On the other side, it means that containment is much more difficult.

After several months of study, we are closing in on answers to some of the most critical questions.

What is the real mortality rate?

Many casual observers have focused on the case fatality rate (CFR) a simple – and simplistic – ratio of recorded deaths to recorded cases. This results in a wide range of estimates, from 0.09% (Singapore) to 15.7% (Belgium). This number is wildly misleading for a host of reasons, but especially because most recorded cases and even more deaths were among the elderly. In Singapore, almost all of the cases have been among young migrant workers living in dormitories, among whom the fatality rate is exceedingly low. One thing that we knew early on was that the fatality rate was highly age-dependent, from nearly zero among those under 20 to 15% or higher among the most elderly:

It is important to emphasize that the CFR’s in the chart above are considering only diagnosed, symptomatic infections, who were more likely to be severely ill or hospitalized. Much more relevant is the infection fatality rate (IFR). This is the actual chance of someone dying from infection with the virus. This number allows us to predict the risk for an individual who is infected, but also can predict the impact on a large population. Even among diagnosed cases, the IFR varies wildly with age and is extremely low among those younger than 40. However, to get an accurate IFR, we need to know how many have actually been infected, so…

How many have been infected?

Officially, there are now over 3.6 million cases worldwide (May 4) and over 1.2 million in the US alone. This number is almost certainly low due to limited test availability, false negative test results, and – especially – the very high rate of asymptomatic infections.

We knew from the outset that many infections were asymptomatic. This is important for several reasons. First, the disease is not as lethal on a percentage basis if there is a significantly large cohort that gets infected without falling ill. Second, the disease is extremely difficult to contain if it can be transmitted by apparently healthy people. Third, it raises the tantalizing prospect that so-called “herd immunity” could some sooner than many expect. “Herd immunity” is a poor choice of words, since we cannot yet prove that recovering from the disease actually confers immunity. Nonetheless, every epidemic eventually burns out or we’d have gone extinct eons ago.

The first clues of asymptomatic infection came from studies in China and the cruise ship Diamond Princess, resulting in estimates of 25-50%. That would mean for every 100 known infections, there were 33 to 100 unknown ones.

Later studies using a variety of methods pointed to even higher rates. In late March, a multinational team of researchers applied mathematical modeling to internet usage to trace the spread of COVID in China. Its spread could only be explained if 86% of the early cases were “undocumented” – meaning, unsuspected and undiagnosed. The best explanation would be that that were minimally or asymptomatic. If true, there might be 7 asymptomatic infections for every symptomatic one.

This was mirrored by a second study in early April that used a completely different approach. In a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, some New York obstetricians reported on the testing of 215 consecutive inpatients tested for coronavirus. Thirty-three tested positive; only four (12%) were symptomatic. Asymptomatics outnumbered symptomatics again, by seven to one.

By late April, several sites were reporting initial results of random antibody testing that could indicate how many had been infected. While there have been legitimate concerns about both the accuracy of the tests and the methodology of the studies, they again point to many asymptomatic infections. On the day the results were released (April 23), Governor Cuomo surmised that as many as 2.7 million New Yorkers had already been infected. That was over 10 times the number of confirmed cases on that date – and antibodies are a lagging indicator. It takes up to two weeks for the antibodies to become detectable. The actual ratio of asymptomatic to symptomatic could be even higher.

Take the age-adjusted case fatality rates from the prior illustration and apply them to the US population. If no cases were asymptomatic and everyone fell obviously ill – an impossible 100% – we would expect an overall IFR of 1.15% and a staggering 3.8 million deaths. But if seven out of eight are asymptomatic, the IFR drops to 0.14% causing 474,000 deaths, still assuming 100% get infected. A more realistic assumption would be an infection rate of around 60%, bringing the total mortality down to about 284,000. That’s with no effective treatment and no public precautions. We’re now a quarter of the way there nationally. The state-wide death rate in NY is closing in on 0.14%. It could end up exceeding that but appears quite unlikely to go much higher.

What has been the disease trajectory in the US and other countries?

The European states that were hit earliest and hardest showed a rapid rise in cases that peaked in a few weeks but then steadily declined. This was most notable in Spain, Netherlands, and Italy, where the nationwide death rates reached around 500 per million. France and Belgium followed similar trajectories shortly afterwards.

Because of this, most expected the US to follow a similar path. We appeared to hit a peak of 34,517 cases on April 4 and that record stood for 20 days, with slowly declining numbers. However, daily deaths hit a new high of 2683 on April 21 and on April 24 new cases rebounded with a new daily record of 38,598:

Why did the US not behave like Europe? Perhaps because the United States is more like 50 individual countries, with profound local disparities. When cases in the US were rising rapidly, most of those were concentrated in the regions around New York City, Detroit, and New Orleans. These regions actually did follow the expected trajectory. However, as cases began to fall in these areas, they began to rise in others. As a result, total US cases and deaths have remained virtually flat for three weeks.

A second compelling fact to consider is that the death rates in Europe only began to show marked declines after per capita mortality hit a certain level. The per capita mortality in the US remains less than 1/3 that of Belgium, less than ½ that of Spain, Italy, and the UK, and almost ½ that of France. Yet on a local level, the statewide mortality of New York (0.13%) is higher than any European state. After hitting such a high level, the daily death rate in New York City has been dropping even faster:

There has been surprisingly little correlation between public containment strategies and the local course of the epidemic. In Illinois – among the first to issue a stay-at-home decree (March 21) – cases are increasing at an increasing rate.

In Florida, one of the last (April 3) to issue a state-wide decree, new cases have trended downward for a month:

Most cities and states never saw the surge in patients that had been expected. While personal protective equipment has been in short supply – truly a serious problem – there was never a ventilator shortage. The one metropolitan area that saw huge volumes of patients over a very short period of time – New York City – never came close to exhausting the reserve capacity that had been mobilized.


In summary, we have learned that COVID is highly infectious, and moderately lethal with an infection fatality rate that may be about four times worse than the common flu, or a little higher. All signs point to a very high rate of asymptomatic infections. The upside to that is that it remains much less deadly than predicted initially. The downside is that makes it much more difficult to track and contain.

In our next installment, what does all this signify for the future and what’s the endgame? Some of the nation’s most experienced analysts are beginning to reach a consensus on this. Stay tuned, sign up for our notifications (top right) and we’ll take a look in the coming weeks. In the meantime, go take your dog for another walk.

(Part 1 of a three-part series.)

Less than four weeks ago I was looking forward to a week in Colorado for some late-season skiing and to check up on our summer home, about to be vacated by six Latin American ski-season guests. [Lacking a Real-ID, the Spaniel wasn’t going to be able to make this trip]. Within a few days, the COVID really hit the fan. On March 16, I flew from Atlanta to Vail on a Boeing 757 with three passengers on board. The service was amazing.

Suddenly, our nation was in panic, its people hunkered down, the economy in free fall. The ski resorts closed for the season, public assemblies were banned, meetings were cancelled, restaurants restricted to take-out service – all soon followed by state-wide “stay-at-home” orders. (Bizarrely, as of this writing eight US states have decreed that marijuana dispensaries are an “essential business” and have permitted them to stay open. Because, you know, this is a perfect time to be dropping our inhibitions).

Predictions are hard, especially about the future.

Cynics commonly remark that financial experts have predicted thirty of the last three recessions. One might also say thirty of the last three pandemics have been similarly predicted. There is an observable tendency to overpredict disaster that is deeply rooted in human personality and yet not exactly irrational. People are risk-averse and instinctively choose minimizing loss over maximizing gain across a variety of situations. When an unknown number of lives are at stake, it is perfectly reasonable to err on the side of caution. Medical people in particular possess a mindset oriented toward doing “whatever it takes” to save a life (within the realm of possibility). That is probably what you hope for when your number comes up.

In rapid succession we went from a mysterious new virus showing up in Wuhan in December, to a deadly epidemic in China in January, to global spread in February, to economic shutdown in March. The only data we had were the numbers from China, coupled with a concern that, if allowed to proceed unchecked, hundreds of millions might die.

The Number Games

Just how many could die from COVID? Everything depended on the numbers, particularly the mortality rate. Would COVID be just another flu-type pandemic, with an average mortality rate of 0.1% and an estimated 650,000 annual deaths worldwide? We don’t shut down the global economy for the flu. The initial numbers for COVID looked much worse. As recently as February 24, Chinese health officials and the WHO were estimating a mortality rate of 3-4%. By early March, terrifying reports from Italy described an exponential rise in cases, overwhelmed hospital systems, and overflowing morgues. This didn’t look anything like flu, which fells an estimated 8,000 Italians each year over a period of many months. It was probably the situation in Italy more than any other factor that galvanized America into action.

On March 16, the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team predicted that without active suppression, the US should expect deaths approaching 2.2 million or more. To avoid a similar fate, we had to “flatten the curve”. It might never keep you from catching it, but at least when you did there might be room in the hospital.

Just one day later, internationally renowned researcher John Ioannidis of Stanford says “hold on, there.” Is this a once-in-a-century pandemic? Or a “once-in-a-century fiasco”? Ioannidis was concerned that – based on current data – the mortality rate might be much lower, on par with a bad flu outbreak. While death rates among the elderly were quite high, death rates among the young were very low. Ioannidis suspected the overall fatality rate might lie between 0.05 and 1.0%. At the upper range, it would still be ten times deadlier than the flu. He speculated that the death toll could even be as low as 10,000. Drastic measures might be truly necessary, but we needed better data to know for sure.

Needless to say, there’s quite a difference between 10,000 – fewer than a typical flu season – and 2.2 million. Well, that was three weeks ago. Most developed countries instituted strict social distancing and business closures. New COVID cases in Italy peaked on March 21 and have been declining since. Deaths in Italy peaked 6 days later – March 27 – and have since dropped by almost half. Spain followed a similar trajectory about one week later.

On March 29 Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted, on a somewhat more positive note, that US deaths could be limited to the range of 100,000 to 200,000 if restrictive policies were successfully implemented. At that time, the total US death count remained below 3,000. He was using projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

In subsequent weeks, both deaths and total cases have fallen at the low end of projections. The total US death count was revised downward to 82,000 on April 5, then 60,000 (real-time projection on April 7). COVID remains primarily a threat to the elderly. Worldwide, 95% of deaths are in persons over 60 years of age. More than half are over 80. In New York, 83% of deaths have been in persons over 60, and 37% were over 80.

So what is the case fatality rate?

The case-fatality rate (CFR) is a simple ratio of deaths divided by the number of people who catch it. We have a pretty good grasp of the deaths. Some may go uncounted while others may be falsely counted, but we have to go with what we’ve got. The real problem is knowing the denominator – how many people have or have had the disease. It is universally acknowledged that many have been infected with the virus and have little or even no symptoms. We call those “subclinical infections”, and this is a known phenomenon for many infectious diseases. One of the most famous cases concerned the notorious “Typhoid Mary”, a cook and asymptomatic typhoid carrier who moved from household to household in the early 20th century infecting every family in her wake. There have been many reports of COVID transmission by asymptomatic carriers.

Untold others may have mild symptoms but either didn’t seek testing or couldn’t get it. The estimated proportions of undiagnosed cases have ranged from as low as 25% to as high as 94% worldwide. Meaning, for every 100 who get sick, there might be as few as 33 or as many as 1,600 who have been infected but are not reflected in the data. Anything approaching the high end of that range would mean a CFR far below 1.0%.

On March 30, a team of researchers publishing in Lancet calculated a CFR of 0.66% – near the middle of the range suggested by Ioannidis. (While the US total death count has already exceeded his lowest estimate of 10,000, that was assuming only 1% of the US population got infected, with a CFR of 0.3%. We may already be well past 1% of the population).

In any case, it is well-established that the case fatality rate is very high in the most elderly, but also extremely low in individuals under 40.

Where are we now?

Looking back three weeks at the wildly divergent projections of IHME and Ioannidis, we’ve seen a convergence of estimates and are probably at or very close to peak infection. The daily new cases in the US topped 34,000 on April 4 and have fluctuated within a narrow range since April 2. US deaths are currently just below 2,000 per day and the IHME projects we are at or near a peak.

The US health care system has not experienced the disastrous overload experienced in Italy. Many hospitals in New York City were swamped, but we were able to scale up very quickly. This revealed one pitfall behind some of the sunnier forecasts – even if the death rate were low, it could still be disastrous if the illness spread very quickly and everyone fell ill at once. And COVID certainly spreads quickly. By one recent analysis, it may be five times more infectious – and spread that much more quickly – than the common flu.

Fortunately, the worst predictions were unrealized. Much yet depends on what the next week or two bring us. No one is quite sure how or when the economy can resume. Only now has it been possible to undertake antibody testing, which may ultimately give a more accurate picture of the total scope of infection and reveal who may be immune and thus able to safely circulate in public. [The Spaniel wishes to remind you that you can’t catch COVID from your dog, but cats are bad news]. 

In the next post, we’ll look at some important lessons to be learned, and how Christians should – and should not – respond to crisis.


Whatever happened to the Boy Scouts of America?

On Tuesday, February 18, 2020 a once-great American institution filed for bankruptcy; a casualty, according to some, of western cultural wars. In “A Badge of Disgrace”, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council blames their demise entirely on policy changes of the last seven years.. It was, he declared, “an unhappy ending we all warned was coming.” Except nobody could have, really. Because the seeds of demise were planted decades earlier.

Growing up

Scouting was one of the formative influences in my youth. I didn’t exactly jump in with both feet; there was certainly some parental “guidance” at work. I was a geek long before it became both fashionable – and lucrative! I would far rather stay indoors building a shortwave radio or reading good sci-fi than catch and clean a fish or crawl through mud. (Fires were always fun, though. Still are.) But with the maturity of age, I came to appreciate what Scouting gave me. Scouting pushed me out of my comfort zone – exactly the sort of “snowflake prevention” we need more of today.

Grammar school and junior high were not a happy time. After two weeks of first grade I was promoted directly to second, leaving me much younger than peers and much smaller. The bullying began in earnest around grade 5 and continued until the eighth grade, when a perceptive and merciful science teacher rescued me from that outer ring of hell known as junior high PE (aka “Lord of the Flies Redux”) and got me transferred to choir. My attitudes, grades, and personal safety rebounded promptly, but I preferred being alone. I could have become permanently isolated, but Scouts kept me engaged. In Scouts, I genuinely enjoyed time with peers closer to my age and we were well supervised. Bullying was rare, and never long tolerated.

Through Scouting I grew to love and respect the majesty of God’s Creation, even – somehow – in central Texas. En route to Eagle Scout, I naturally pursued merit badges in the things I loved – electronics, computers, space exploration – but the required badges brought me proficiency in valuable skills I would not ordinarily have sought –swimming, lifesaving, cooking, citizenship, physical fitness.

After I became a dad, I introduced my first son to Scouting. He grew to appreciate it, and like his father ultimately attained the rank of Eagle. He grew into a highly self-sufficient and responsible adult with great love and respect for the wilderness. My second son came several years later, and we started him in Cub Scouts where he rose to Webelo. During the final two years I served as Cubmaster for his Pack. However, by that time changes were afoot.

In the crossfire of the culture wars

Pressure had been building upon the Boy Scouts to conform to society’s shifting standards. In 2013 the Boy Scouts announced they would accept homosexual youth as members, driving an instant wedge between the Scouts and the many Christian churches that sponsored troops. Personally, I regarded the administrators’ decision as cowardly but of little practical significance. Having been a boy, having raised boys, and having been around many more, it was obvious that for normal, healthy eight to eleven-year-olds sexuality was the remotest thing from their minds. As for the scant few who might be struggling with such issues, perhaps they needed Scouting most of all. Keeping the door open for them seemed to be the compassionate thing to do. But in the aftermath of that decision, the church that sponsored our Pack began pressuring me to find another chartering organization. They wanted a divorce. I stalled them until my tenure ended, figuring it was their problem, not mine.

The next domino fell with the BSA’s 2016 decision to accept homosexual adults in leadership. This was much more problematic. For the preceding two decades the Boy Scouts had been besieged by lawsuits claiming sexual abuse of charges by their leaders, paying out millions in compensation. Essentially all were same-sex assaults, and most victims were pubescent or post-pubescent. It is a matter of heated dispute whether same-sex attracted males are more likely to seek unwilling underage partners, but that assumption is unnecessary. Even if the inclination is exactly equal to heterosexuals, logic would favor prudence. The sex drive is intense in all young men. It would be foolish and naïve to put teenage girls under the unsupervised care of a 22-year-old heterosexual man. How could putting young gay men in charge of teenage boys be any less imprudent? (Years ago, the Girl Scouts began accepting young males as leaders. The consequences were predictable, of course).

The final coup came in October 2017 when the Boy Scouts announced the end of 108 years of gender exclusivity. The Boy Scouts would now just be Scouts. The details were complicated. Troops wouldn’t be technically coed, and it would be a great opportunity for the young ladies, but it would no longer be the Boy Scouts. Perhaps it was a desperate effort to reverse the membership decline. If so, it failed.

Why decline and bankruptcy?

Organizations that endeavor to be ‘inclusive’ somehow always end up excluding many more.

Could the decline and bankruptcy have been prevented? Only by going back several decades. From its peak in the early 1970’s, membership in Scouting has plunged by over half. Much, if not most, of this could be attributed to more general social and cultural changes and increased competition from other activities. The more recent drop, however, might have been slowed or reversed. Membership had been falling for decades but the decline accelerated significantly after the 2013 policy changes. In kowtowing to contemporary sexual mores, the national leadership thumbed its collective nose at the ethics of its major American chartering organizations: Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon churches. (As so often happens, organizations that endeavor to be “inclusive” somehow always end up excluding many more). The most acute hemorrhage occurred at the end of December, 2019 when the Mormon Church (400,000 Scouts, approximately 20% of the remaining membership) terminated its chartering arrangements. Many departing Churches switched to alternative scouting programs like Trail Life but the disadvantages are considerable. Options like summer camp require a critical mass of participants and considerable capital investment. The substitutes usually lack these advantages, nor are all of them specifically for boys. Furthermore, fragmentation by denomination results in more in-group isolation in an era of intense polarization. There is a positive social good achieved by bringing people from differing backgrounds into a common community.

Sexual predators exist and always have. They will always find their prey and they know where to look.

As far as the bankruptcy is concerned, it seems that die was cast decades ago. The so-called sexual revolution of the 1960’s resulted in profound changes in American sexual behavior. Traditional sexual boundaries were increasingly mocked, and by most available measures there was an increase in promiscuity of all types. A monster was unleashed. Sexual predators exist and always have. They will always find their prey and they know where to look. The Boy Scouts became a prime target in an era when background checks were hard to get, legal reporting requirements had not been widely adopted, and a national database of sex offenders would have been inconceivable. Beginning in the late 1960’s there was a notable increase in abuse that persisted into the late 1980’s. It has since declined for a multitude of reasons, but increased vigilance on the part of the Boy Scouts played a crucial role.

The BSA was now at the mercy of the American tort system, which knows no mercy. Once the litigation dreadnought has locked on a target, few institutions can survive the onslaught.

Data compiled by the LA Times and others indicate that charges against Scout leaders rose rapidly in the late 1980’s, peaking around 1990 when expulsions from leadership also peaked. The alleged abuses would have been still earlier, when no one was sounding alarms for the demise of Scouting. The BSA was now at the mercy of the American tort system, which knows no mercy. Once the litigation dreadnought has locked on a target, few institutions can survive the onslaught.

In retrospect, the Scouts probably handled the situation as well as anyone of that era, and almost certainly better than the Catholic Church. Thousands of perpetrators were exposed and permanently banned. A national blacklist was maintained to prevent them from reapplying elsewhere. Sure, there were cases where the Scouts reacted too slowly or cautiously, but that is inescapable in any organization. Predators do not come with labels and are eerily gifted at concealing their nature and intent. Humans by nature are biased toward trusting one another. This is essential to the functioning of society. Trust no one and the system collapses. Trust everyone and you will sometimes be fooled. Maintaining that balance is tricky. A perfect balance is impossible.

Our boys are the losers

The appropriate response from conservatives and Christians should be one of mourning, not “I told you so.” America is failing its young men tragically. While radical mobs with their torches and pitchforks agitate for revolution against the “patriarchy”, reports from the ground indicate it’s been vanquished for some time and is clinging to life support. Compared to women, men are:

  • Less likely to take honors classes, go to college, graduate from college, or earn a graduate degree
  • 2.4 times more likely to be homeless
  • 4.5 times more likely to commit suicide
  • 7.7 times more likely to be in jail
  • 13 times more likely to die on the job
  • And the list goes on

America’s young men are hurting. The causes are well-known. For a multitude of reasons, historic numbers of children are growing up without a father. The disastrous social consequences are irrefutable, and boys suffer disproportionately. Now, more than ever before, boys and young men need long term steady relationships with responsible mature male figures – exactly what the Boy Scouts could, and did, provide. No, it’s not the only solution. Sports provides that outlet for many, but sports aren’t for everyone, and never offered the broad training in life skills. Of all civil institutions, America’s churches offer the best hope for filling this void.

We should all pray for the success of offshoot organizations and revival of the Boy Scouts of America.

Scouting alternatives:

Trail Life, USA: Protestant

Columbian Squires: Catholic

Children and Youth: LDS

For more complete lists, visit:

Non-aligned Scouting and Scout-like organisations (Wikipedia)

Scout-like and Scouting Alternative Organizations (Troop 97, Colorado)