If Richard Dawkins Showed Up in Sunday School…

…would we be ready to respond?

My most recent column in Faith Today notes that the New Atheists raise Old Questions that can be answered well enough, but only by those who have studied well enough. So are we preparing ourselves to respond properly to such queries?

Here is the article. And I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Faith Today here.

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest of the Not-So-New Atheists continue to provoke believers and unbelievers alike. Little that they raise in their books and speeches is novel. Indeed, much of it seems to stem from difficulties they have encountered far in their respective pasts, rather than anything revealed in cutting-edge sciences or humanities. But this lack of newness should mean we Christians have had plenty of time to get ready to respond to their concerns. Are we?

The following list is a sampling of questions Dawkins or Hitchens asks in one or another of their bestselling books. These are not matters of highly specialized expertise, but instead are the sorts of issues that would arise in a Bible study, or a sermon, or simply a thoughtful conversation among people interested in religion. How well are you prepared to answer them?

• Christians claim that the origin of the universe lies in the creative work of God. But who or what made God? Where does God come from? And to reply that “God has no beginning” is not an answer, since everything comes from something previous.

• Christianity claims to make people moral; many Christians claim that only devout Christians can be good; and many Christians also claim that someone cannot be good without God. Yet many non-Christians are obviously good and many Christians are obviously not good—such as we witnessed in Rwanda, a country whose population was 80 per cent Christian.

•  The God of the Old Testament is a bloodthirsty, jealous, genocidal, misogynistic, bullying tyrant who obsesses about ritual purity and punishes not only individuals but their entire families, and not only their families but their descendants for several generations.

• The God of the New Testament isn’t any better. Bad enough that the God of the Old Testament wanted everyone who didn’t like him to be dead. Worse that the God of the New Testament, according to his main spokesmen—Jesus, Paul, and John—consigns God’s enemies to everlasting torture in hell.

•  The Bible itself is a mess of literary odds and ends, full of absurdities (e.g., Moses wrote Deuteronomy, which contains an account of his own death and burial), disgraces (e.g., laws calling for the stoning of disobedient children), and historical mistakes (e.g., Luke contradicting the archaeological facts in his introduction to the nativity of Jesus).

•  The Gospels in particular cannot be taken seriously as history. They were composed long after the events they purport to depict. They were written by highly biased authors. They contain obvious borrowings from other cults of the Roman imperial world. And they cannot agree with each other on detail after detail, from the correct chronological order of events to how many angels were supposed to have appeared at Jesus’ empty tomb.

None of these questions are new. And none of them are difficult to respond to, so long as you have a proper understanding of two subjects: theology and the history of the Bible’s composition. Yet how many of us feel prepared to answer them?

Yes, most of us will never tangle with a Dawkins or a Hitchens. But we will encounter intelligent friends or family members who struggle with one or more of these issues. We will raise children who ask such questions. And we ourselves, if we pause to search our hearts, will find that we, too, have been troubled by one or more of these matters.

Apologetics—the part of Christian thinking that helps people understand why Christians believe—helps draw seekers in, yes, and helps keep antagonists at bay. But apologetics also helps each of us to grow up in our faith: both in knowledge, yes, but also in assurance.

So let’s have sermons that tell us why we should believe as well as what we should believe.

Let’s have robust adult Christian education courses and conferences that lead us through the Big Questions and Christianity’s good answers.

Let’s read books that prepare us to help other people with their doubts—and to help ourselves with our own.

And let’s therefore be preaching, teaching, and discipling in such a way that the next generation’s Dawkinses and Hitchenses will have more and better to go on.

We had best not delay. That generation is in our homes, in our youth groups, and in our pews right now. And they won’t be with us much longer.


This article originally appeared in Faith Today (January 2011): 54.

0 Responses to “If Richard Dawkins Showed Up in Sunday School…”

  1. Steve Wilkinson

    Thanks for this post John! It is why I switched careers and headed to Regent College. The good news is that from what I have seen, interest in apologetics is picking up in some circles. The bad news is that those circles aren’t broad enough, and aren’t reaching to the average Christian enough. Most apologists end up ‘preaching to the choir’ of apologetics enthusiasts. So, my new life goal is to try and make a dent in reaching the average Christian and hopefully God will multiply that many times more.

    One of my favorite apologists (recently discovered), Jim Wallace, noted on one of his podcasts that while evangelist seems to be a gifting not all Christians might have, all Christians do seem to be called to be apologists (1 Pet 3:15). I don’t think we (the church) have done a very good job taking that seriously. (btw, I highly recommend Jim’s site and podcast – http://www.pleaseconvinceme.com/)

    Another incredible resource to get familiar with what atheists and non-Christians are really saying is Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable?” where he invites the Christians and non-Christians to a radio discussion / debate each week. He’s pretty much had all the well known folks from both sides on just about every apologetic topic imaginable on his show. (http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/) (one of his most recent special shows had William Lane Craig talking about the recent debate with Richard Dawkins in Mexico… and clips from that debate)

    A nice thing about both of the above is that they are available as podcasts. When I first started to dig into apologetics, I had very little time to do any book reading on the subject, but I did have about 2-2.5 hours of commuting each day to work. For several years before I came to Regent, I was able to listen to stuff like the White Horse Inn, Stand to Reason with Greg Koukl, The Dividing Line with James White, Apologetics.com, Reasons.org, etc. Even if you can’t take notes or pay 100% attention, you can’t help but pick up some theology and apologetics. I think most Christians could do stuff like that even if they didn’t have time to go to school or take many classes at church.

    I also agree that the young generation is crucial right now. It is a generation that will be facing church participation not being taking for granted in society (as in… they won’t be the oddballs if they don’t continue with church). They will be facing a strong anti-Christian sentiment once they leave the shelter of home and church. I think that because of this, not only do churches need to add some education in this area for the youth, but PARENTS also need to get up to speed on these things and have good conversation with their children on these topics (rather than shelter their children from them). An hour on Sunday or in youth group, unfortunately, isn’t going to suffice for what they will face.

  2. Steve Wilkinson

    Oh, I forgot the point I initially intended to make based on the title of your article. Apologists with youth experience, like Jim Wallace and Sean McDowell, recommend actually doing something similar to having Dawkins show up at Sunday School. They often invite either an atheist or a Christian role-playing as an atheist to come and talk to the class before starting into apologetics to shake them up a bit and get them focused.

    Something kind of like that really convicted me many years ago. I think it might have been on the White Horse Inn, where they said to think of someone who knows you, respects you, and is a friend… who comes to you and asks you why you are a Christian and what Christianity is all about. Could you give a good answer? Basically, think of the ideal situation. If you can’t do it there, you’re certainly not going to be able to in less ideal situations. I found myself not doing so well when I pondered that. That got me serious about figuring it out.

  3. ptet

    I think it’s a great post. It sums up why I am an atheist very well.

    Why would “God” create the universe knowing in advance he would damn the vast majority of people to eternal hell solely for having the wrong religion? Only by assuming that one’s interpretation of the Bible must be “true” no matter what the evidence and implications thereof, could one support the Christian faith.

    It is refreshing to see the arguments against Christianity laid out so honestly. I look forward to seeing if you have anything new to say about them.

    (My sincere condolences, Professor Stackhouse, on the recent passing of your mother).

    • Steve Wilkinson

      Your question would have been pretty good had you stayed on track with the first part. Christians don’t believe God damns people to hell for having the wrong religion. Also, as an apologist, I certainly believe there is a great deal of evidence to support the Christian faith both inside and outside of my interpretation of the Bible.

      If you are not simply a figment of my current brain chemistry (which I believe to be the case, and also conveniently fits my worldview), then I don’t think ‘passing the buck’ to God is going to be that helpful to you. God apparently decided it was better to create than not to. You’re kind of stuck with the consequences whether you like it or not.

      If you had asked why God would create the universe, knowing in advance that the creation was going to rebel, as well as the cost of justice, then I would be in a difficult position to answer. I could only then say God sees the overall calculation as positive. Everything else would be speculation as far as I know.

      • ptet

        Firstly, I certainly believe that the evidence is overwhelming that the Bible and Christianity are very human constructs.

        If I sincerely believed that God commanded me to bomb an abortion clinic, would it be moral of me to do so? What if I sincerely believed that God commanded me to fly an aeroplane into a building? Would that be moral?

        What if I was a Muslim, and I said to you that Allah apparently decided it was better to create than not to, and you were stuck with the consequences whether you like it or not, and that you would burn eternally in hell if you remained a Christian, and that your criticisms of the Koran all came from your false worldview? How would you answer that?

        • Steve Wilkinson

          1) I assume by ‘very human constructs’ you mean they were merely invented by humans. If so:

          re: Bible – First, I’d have to ask on what basis you make this assertion. I guess if you start with an atheistic presupposition, that is your only option. Hopefully it’s archeological track record would at least make you take it somewhat seriously historically. I should also think you would at least have to contend with the matter of prophecy and how well it matches reality, especially the sciences, so far in advance. I’d have to see how your evidence for mere human invention balances against this.

          re: Christianity – Are you intending to say that a small group of Jews decided to put themselves at odds with their own people, as well as the Roman empire, in order to invent a new religion for no real gain (motives)? Also, are you familiar with how conspiracies generally work? They don’t work well with groups larger than a few people, especially if those people are not able to be in good communication, and if they are facing severe consequences for their position. Again, I’d have to ask on what basis you make such a statement.

          2) No for you or I… though to draw out what you are inferring, I’ll say, it depends. If you had lived in ancient Israel while it was a theocracy, then the answer would be yes. However, since no other theocracy exists that I’m aware of, you would have to go with the Biblical command to obey your government unless they command you to do something which is in conflict with God’s moral commands.

          3) Well, if they provided a certain amount of evidence, I’d look into it and see if they were correct (ie: I’m not going to waste my time looking into things with no basis such as flying spaghetti monsters.) If they turned out to be right, I’d convert.
          I have… as far as I can see they aren’t… I haven’t.

          Remember, while Christianity has some hard questions to answer, the atheist does as well (as do all the religions, or at least the ones the ground themselves in reality). How about consciousness or morality? Why do atheists see design in the universe, yet going against all previous empirical evidence, say it is not design? etc.

          Ultimately, which worldview best fits ALL the data?

          • ptet


            [quote]re: Bible – First, I’d have to ask on what basis you make this assertion. I guess if you start with an atheistic presupposition, that is your only option. [/quote]

            No, but I do expect claims as to the historicity of the Bible to stand up to the same rigour as any other historical claim.

            Let’s try some “theistic presuppositions” shall we. When Muslims, Jews and Hindus at the New Testament, do they see it supporting Christian Claims? No they don’t. Only Christians do. What does that tell you? What without *Christian* presuppositions, the evidence does not support the New Testament.

            The same goes for Islam of course – only Islamic presuppositions “support” Islam, and only Hindu presuppositions “support” Hinduism.

            [quote]Hopefully it’s archeological track record would at least make you take it somewhat seriously historically.[/quote]

            Of course the Bible contains and is based on some history. But archeologists (including what you’d call “moderate Christians”) overwhelmingly agree it’s a biased, sometimes fictionalized history. The only archaeologists who see it as more? Wow – who would have thought – less “moderate” Christian archeologists…

            [quote]I should also think you would at least have to contend with the matter of prophecy and how well it matches reality, especially the science.[/quote]

            That is complete nonsense. Not one science discovery every in the history of the world came out of the Bible. Not in medicine, technology or science. It any case, Muslims make the same claim for the Koran. They are wrong too.

            [quote]re: Christianity – Are you intending to say that a small group of Jews decided to put themselves at odds with their own people, as well as the Roman empire, in order to invent a new religion for no real gain (motives)? Also, are you familiar with how conspiracies generally work? They don’t work well with groups larger than a few people…[/quote]

            More nonsense. We can explain the growth of Christianity the same we we explain the growth of Islam, Hindusim, Buddhism. That doesn’t involve assuming that they must be “true”.

            [quote]since no other theocracy exists that I’m aware of…[/quote]


            [quote]you would have to go with the Biblical command to obey your government unless they command you to do something which is in conflict with God’s moral commands.[/quote]

            So If you sincerely believed God commanded you to blow up an abortion clinic, you think that would be moral?

            [quote]Why do atheists see design in the universe, yet going against all previous empirical evidence, say it is not design? etc.[/quote]

            You don’t understand what is being said. Look at a snowflake under a microscope. It is intricate, beautiful and incredibly complex. It is the result of purely natural causes.

            [quote]Ultimately, which worldview best fits ALL the data?[/quote]

            Not yours, clearly since you don’t even begin to think about data which conflicts with your worldview.

            • Steve Wilkinson

              You are going to have to give me a bit more to go on than this. I could say that atheists must be wrong because, look, buddhists and atheists disagree. All sorts of people disagree on all sorts of things, but disagreement doesn’t make them true or false. I’m also unfamiliar with the ‘rigour’ Christians are lacking in their historical claims. Please elaborate.

              re: archeology – If you look at archeological discoveries in the last several decades, they in fact, have tended to confirm, not overturn, Biblical history against the presuppositions of the skeptics and liberal Christians from the past. I’m not saying this proves anything, but simply that you should at least take seriously something that is accurate in things that can be confirmed (in other words, if we found a bunch of archeological errors, it would be a good reason to reject it). I’m not aware of any discrepancy between archeological discovery and Biblical history.

              re: science – The Bible indicates a beginning to time and matter, a circular (rather than flat) earth, expanding universe, the earth being suspended on nothing, etc. Much of this is in what is probably the oldest book of the Bible, Job. (4th century B.C. by liberal scholarship to 2nd millennium B.C.). Or, things on earth like the water cycle, mountains and valleys in the oceans, the system of ocean currents, etc. If you want a really interesting one, check out Job 38:31-32 in light of what we know of these constellations now.

              re: explain the growth of Christianity – Ok, then give it a shot. BTW, that ‘nonsense’ is based in part on how police detectives determine, investigate, and consider the validity of testimony and conspiracy.

              re: Iran & theocracy – It isn’t, and to the extent that some might claim it is, is based on a crazy human figurehead, not God.

              re: God’s commands – If God commanded me to do so, then yes, it would be moral. God, being the creator, has the moral right to command His creation, as well as to create and take life. A couple of problems though. First, I’d have to be directly commanded, not just believe so (maybe, say, based on a misinterpretation of Bible where no such command to me exists). Second, since I don’t live under theocratic Israel, I’d have to check that command against Scripture to be sure it was really God doing the commanding, which would lead me to see the first point. Consequently, abortion clinics should be pretty safe from sane, thinking Christians. Though, hopefully, we will be able to win the hearts and minds of the people one day through showing them the inconsistency in their thinking on abortion, and possibly revoke Roe v. Wade; it being an unconstitutional decision.

              re: snowflake – there is a difference between: fogiwsjvmydhspzalthvk, abcdeabcdeabcdeabcdea, and thelunchtodaywasgreat. A snowflake is the second. Again, our only empirical experience is that designed things are designed. To go against that would seem rather silly.

              re: look at data which conflicts with your worldview – I, in good conscience, can say that I have to a good extent. From the tone and level of your responses, I sincerely question whether you can say the same. I encourage you to take a serious look. I think that is what John’s post is all about. He’s saying the list isn’t hard to answer for one who has done some study. . . not that the list is comprised of genuine good objections.

  4. Jeff Kimble

    These sorts of questions haunt a good many folks. I’ve wrestled with a number of them myself over the years and wished that church leaders focused more on helping their members think through them. Even as a young believer, I struggled to make sense of Christianity and, given some of the standard responses that I received to these questions, it took a long time before the intellectual fog lifted. Needless to say, I resonate with the need addressed in your post. May I also add that your books “Humble Apologetics” and “Can God be Trusted?” provide excellent examples of how we should undertake this sort of task. Though different in many respects, both of these books highlight the strengths of our tradition as we approach these questions: grace, clarity, evenhandedness and an underlying desire to serve others by offering a way to think about these hard questions. I would highly recommend them to readers of your blog who desire to help others work through some of these thorny issues–they point the way forward.

  5. Jonathan Friesen

    For me, apologetics is also tied closely with theology. The problem with theology though is that it has gotten a bit of a bad rap, although I think this comes from a misunderstanding of what theology is. Ken Radant, my first professor of theology, said it best: theology is the church’s attempt to answer questions about God. The problem occurs when theologians in the academy get confused about which questions people are asking. To be sure, there are people who asked questions around justification, spurring on the Wright/Piper debates. But honestly, most North American Christians would gain more benefit from learning how Jesus relates to the practice of yoga than getting more detail about the relationship between justification and sanctification.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      In the way you are speaking about, theology and apologetics seem quite tied. Theology is more ‘internal’ and apologetics more ‘external’ in operation I suppose. Apologetics is more focused on Christianity’s interaction with the world (thus, addressing yoga), while theology works on the inner-workings, like your example of justification and sanctification. If that is the case then without theology, apologetics would crumble and without apologetics, theology would simply become a relatively useless, inside academic debate.

      I’m very happy there are experts working out the theology, as well as all the various specialties like textual criticism or archeology. All these things build a foundation the apologist is constantly tapping into, but certainly wouldn’t have the time and skill to dig into personally.

  6. Vern Tompke

    Thank you for this entry John – I am a local pastor who has been having faith conversations with a son who has declared himself no longer a Christian – more of a consciencious objector. We have been talking and I have worked hard to listen to his struggles – many enunciated by the various authors mentioned. I offended him a few times when I tried to infer motives to him – like “you just want to life your own life without authority” etc. But he was patient with me and we still talk. I have had a number of his friends over to our house for discussions – a bit of a philosophers group – most have been heavily influenced by the Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris trinity.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      My own son is just a toddler at this point, but this situation has certainly crossed my mind already. A while back, I heard Sean McDowell share a situation where he and his father Josh had a conversation about his investigation outside Christianity. Hopefully this will be helpful… and I hope that I can one day be this calm and clear if I face this.

      “He looked me right back in the eyes and he goes, ‘Son, I think that is great. I know you want to know the truth. And, regardless of what you believe, your mom and I will love you anyway. Seek it with all your heart, I’ll help you along the way however I can. Don’t reject the things you have learned growing up just for the sake of rejecting them. And, I believe Jesus is truth and if you really seek it, you will be lead back to Jesus.” – Sean McDowell

      (Stand To Reason podcast – 6/14/2010 – Greg Koukl (Jim Wallace host) “Sean McDowell – The Unshakeable Truth”)

      To tie with the article… I think kids have always been rebellious and wanting to investigate. IMO, the difference today is that they will encounter a lot more people and pressures trying to pull them away instead of lead them back.

  7. Gary

    The thread above shows how pertinent this discussion is. People fairly galvanized in each polar position see a number of these points (and others) as integral to the positon they hold. Paraphrasing the Proverb – each person’s position is eminently reasonable and convincing until he’s compentently cross examined. Neither miracles nor reason will change a cynic but either can be substantive to a sincere contender. I believe each side hearing the reasoned points of the side opposite position is a great contribution to the spiritual climate in Canada’s next ten years. Thanks Dr. Stackhouse for pressing the issue.

  8. Keith Shields

    Thank you Professor Stackhouse. This is a great article that leaves the questions open and encourages us to be self-feeders, readers, apologists, and students. Some of the comments suggest further reading. I would also recommend Alister McGrath’s excellent book: Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Here are a couple of links to quotes from this book: http://hungerandthirst4.blogspot.com/2009/07/verdict-in-spite-of-evidence.html
    and http://hungerandthirst4.blogspot.com/2009/07/science-and-faith.html .

  9. JLBetts

    Good points – and a solid challenge for Christians. Thanks for putting it out there plainly. I’m supposing your books identified in one post (“Humble Apologetics” and “Can God be Trusted?”) do address most or all of the points?

    • John Stackhouse

      The former book is a guide to our apologetical situation and how to respond to it well. The latter book deals with the problem of evil and some attendant issues. So that does leave a few of those issues un- or under-discussed!

  10. If Richard Dawkins Showed Up in Sunday School… (via Prof. John Stackhouse's Weblog) | Enough Light

    […] A challenging post I wanted to share…. “Most of us will never tangle with a Dawkins or a Hitchens. But we will encounter intelligent friends or family members who struggle with one or more of these issues. We will raise children who ask such questions. And we ourselves, if we pause to search our hearts, will find that we, too, have been troubled by one or more of these matters.” – Are we prepared to help others with their doubts and questions? …would we be ready to respond? My most recent column in Faith Today notes that the New Atheists raise Old Questions that can be answered well enough, but only by those who have studied well enough. So are we preparing ourselves to respond properly to such queries? Here is the article. And I hope you'll consider subscribing to Faith Today here. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest of the Not-So-New Atheists continue to provoke bel … Read More […]

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  12. Estelle

    I have found Glenn Miller’s site http://www.christian-thinktank.com to deal extremely thoroughly with many of the difficult questions and apparent inconsistencies in Scripture. Plus, he does it all with warmth and gentle humour.

  13. Ben@TIC

    I have a question. Does anyone find that Christians are more open to questions from non-believers than from fellow Christians who are struggling to believe?

    • Steve Wilkinson

      Yes, I do sometimes find that is the case. It is unfortunate, and probably stems from a lack of most Christians’ contact with apologetics, theology, etc. I think many Christians just feel comfortable with how things are, and have been, and don’t want any challenge, as that would mean work. They will do a certain amount externally, because that is part of the mission.

      However, I don’t think this behavior is exclusive to Christians. I’ve experienced similar kinds of behavior within a large company, for example.

  14. Jeff K. Clarke

    Hi John,

    Thanks for this engaging post.

    As you have time, I think a great series of follow-up posts on each of the points you mentioned would be great. I realize the Faith Today article would not permit such a lengthy response, but maybe you could use your blog to elaborate on each point, outline a few of the central arguments, and provide a few good reading resources for our further reading.


    Many thanks,

  15. Eamon Knight

    Well, as an atheist I think the article gives a pretty good list of points (and as an ex-evangelical, I’m aware that there are rationalizations available for each of them). However, it leaves out what to my mind is the most important one of all: the lack of any really sound reasons for postulating the absurd structure of Christianity in the first place. (BTW: good reply from ptet).

    Re “New” Atheism: AFAIK, the appellation was not self-chosen, but coined by a writer in Slate(?), and many in my camp don’t like it (hence the whimsical coinage “Gnu Atheism”). Everyone agrees that there is little in the content of Dawkins’ et al critique that was not said decades ago by Russell, Ingersoll, et al. A significant exception is that more recent work in cognitive psych helps to elucidate the quirks that likely gave rise to religion in the first place. Dennett’s book is probably the best exposition of that side of things.

  16. Eamon Knight

    Bah, forgot a point:

    It’s “new” primarily in the social sense of being a resurgent movement responding to a decade of faith-based lunacy, primarily Islamic and Christian (and from previous posts, I have the impression that Prof. Stackhouse is not entirely unsympathetic to such concerns).

    • Steve Wilkinson

      I’d agree that there isn’t much new in content. IMO, ‘new’ is basically that it is primarily an emotional response (in the light of things like 9/11), and unfortunately, not nearly as well though-out as with prior atheists.

      It is also unfortunate that it seems the general public is much more taken by this emotional response, than from the more sound argumentation of the past.

      And, we could probably agree that being taken in by emotional rants, while lacking thought-out lines of reasoning isn’t good for atheists or theists.

  17. ptet


    You say “in good conscience” you’ve studied data which conflicts with your worldview… But in reality you are completely ignorant of anything outside of evangelical apologetics.

    Compare the historical evidence for Jesus with that of Julius Caesar. We have contemporary writings from Caesar himself and his enemies, inscriptions, coins, bureaucratic documents. For Jesus, we have nothing at all from his lifetime. To pretend that the evidence for Jesus’s life is as good as that for Caesar is utterly absurd. And yet Christianity tells us that the life of Jesus is the most important event in all of human history.

    Re: Archeology, it is widely accepted by archeologists that the evidence shows that Exodus and the Conquest did not and could not have happened as the Bible describes. That you are “not aware” of this is ridiculous.

    Re Science: The ancient Greeks and Babylonians understood much of your list. Pleiades is a star cluster visible to the naked eye. According to the Bible, demons cause disease, birds are bats and the earth was formed before there was light.

    You are prepared to judge the sanity of a claimed command from God to bomb abortion clinics – but you say you would still do it if you were convinced God ordered you to. “God” orders and causes millions of deaths in the Old Testament, and he damns billions to eternal hell in the New Testament. How is these not acts of a “crazy human figurehead”?

    Re design: Biologists and scientists in general are much more likely than the general population not to believe in God. I rather think they know more about such things than you.

    Re Professor Stackhouse’s list. There are no answers to the objections he lists – other than assuming that Christianity must be true no matter what and (as you do) completely ignoring anything anyone has to say outside of evangelical apologetics.

    • John Stackhouse

      ptet, please keep it civil. Argue as strongly as you like–and I’ve been enjoying your exchange with Steve–but please cut out the overstatements and insults.

      Such a laundry list of concerns, furthermore, does not advance the conversation. It’s ‘way too easy to throw up a bunch of questions, well or badly put, accurately and well grounded or not. It’s much harder to pick one important subject and argue it through.

      I myself am completely weary of atheists doing exactly what you do in this post. Dawkins and even more Hitchens do this at great length and it’s simply intellectually irresponsible: raise a question in as clear and delimited a way as possible in order to investigate it thoroughly (that’s what serious people do) or admit that you’re just venting.

      I see Steve as trying seriously to engage you, so you might help him, and us, by picking the One Main Thing you want to talk about and then talk about it, and only it, until one or the other of you or both wants to quit.

      I say all this as a general principle, then. I’ve recently broken off just such a conversation with a well-educated skeptic precisely because, after thousands of words of e-mail, he still wants to argue six things at once–which means that I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to argue (seriously) at all, but merely keep Christians and Christianity (and Christ?) at bay.

      So if you’re going to champion rationality, evidence, logic, and the like, then great: act like a scholar. Clearly define a problem, consider all the pertinent evidence and alternative theories, and make a well-grounded decision.

      • ptet

        Thanks for your reply, Professor. I do think it’s Steve who’s brought out his laundry list here, and I do not take kindly to my sincerity being questioned by someone who is simply reading from a Josh McDowell workbook. (I kid, slightly).

        It might help if you could confirm to Steve that, whether it is right or wrong, the consensus in modern Biblical archeology is that the “Exodus” and “Conquest” are largely legendary and did not occur as the Old Testament narrates.

        If Steve wants to pick one topic to discuss I’d be happy to stick to that.

        • John Stackhouse

          “Consensus in modern Biblical archaeology” is, so far as I can tell, sorely lacking on such fundamental events as the Exodus, Conquest, and the Kingdom of David and Solomon. National Geographic ran a cover story recently on the last issue (the Davidic-Solomonic Kingdom) that illuminates the broader field, from conservative archaeologists such as the “Biblical archaeology school” to the “minimalists” such as Israel Finkelstein.

          Indeed, so little is assuredly known in this part of archaeology that Sir Colin J. Humphreys, a Cambridge physicist, feels free to wade in with scientific explanations for The Miracles of Exodus.

          My colleagues at Regent, Professors Iain Provan and V. Philips Long (who met as Ph.D. students at Cambridge), have co-authored (with Tremper Longman III) a textbook on ancient Israel’s history that seems to be truly faithful to both the best historiographical/archaeological standards and intelligent faith in the Bible’s veracity with appreciation for its “ancientness” and historical location: A Biblical History of Israel.

          • ptet

            “the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness. A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late13th century B.C., where many scholars think the biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose. But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite region.”

            “Leviticus and Numbers are clearly additions to the ‘pre-history’ by very late Priestly editorial hands, preoccupied with notions of ritual purity, themes of the ‘promised land,’ and other literary motifs that most modern readers will scarcely find edifying much less historical…. the whole ‘Exodus-Conquest’ cycle of stories must now be set aside as largely mythical, but in the proper sense of the term ‘myth’: perhaps ‘historical fiction,’ but tales told primarily to validate religious beliefs.”

            Those testifying for Dever’s book (on the back cover) are: Paul D. Hanson, Professor of Divinity and Old Testament at Harvard University; David Noel Freedman, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the University of Michigan; Philip M. King, Professor at Boston College and author of Jeremiah; William W. Hallo, Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature at Yale University; and Bernhard W. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament, Boston University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. Like Dever, these are not a bunch of radical revisionists… Among today’s scholar-archaeologists we can say that Dever is a moderate. From a review by Frank E. Smitha of What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? by William G Dever, Professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona

            No-one says the Old Testament is not a “historical document” – but to pretend that the existing archeological record supports it as a true, reliable and accurate history of the ancient near east, purported miracles and all, is just wrong.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      re: good conscience – OK, I’ve taken a couple world religions course, one at a graduate level. While this doesn’t make me any kind of expert, it does give me enough grounding to make worldview distinctions and decide which best matches what I see as reality. If you had read my first post in response to John, you’d have noticed I listen to Unbelievable?, which hosts well known atheists regularly. I’ve heard several lectures by each of the ‘four horsemen’ and have read some of their books (I’ve even had a brief e-mail exchange with Dennett over one of his radio interview.) That is to say, I’m no expert, but I’m certainly giving it a descent effort. How about you?

      re: Julius Caesar – I didn’t say that, did I? I don’t know much about Julius, but I’m not sure what that has to do with anything. We have plenty of evidence for the life of Jesus including eye-witness reports through hostile witnesses. We’ve got Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Thallus, Tacitus, Josephus, etc. The Jewish Talmud refers to Jesus several times. Let me state it this way. I know of no reputable historian who doubts the existence of Jesus.

      re: Exodus and the Conquest – I’m not sure what would make you believe I’m unaware of this. I would agree with you that many archeologists have interpreted the data, so as to question the scale, if not the existence of these events. There are problems with this though. The lack of conclusive evidence doesn’t prove it didn’t happen. There are a number of things, such as how early people were writing, or the domestication of camels, which the majority of scholars used to say overturned the Biblical record. With more recent data, the Bible has now been confirmed on these things. We’ll have to wait and see on the Exodus and Conquests.

      re science – You’ll have to give me some evidence for the Greeks and Babylonians. Yes, Pleiades is visible, but not what is happening with the stars in it, as well as the other examples. The Bible doesn’t teach that demons cause disease. I’m not sure what you are referring to with birds are bats. It certainly doesn’t teach that the earth was formed before light.

      re: bomb abortion clinics – re-read what I actually said please.

      re: O.T. and N.T. God – Slight correction. In the N.T., God comes directly to rescue people who are already damned. I like the word-picture (Dr. James White’s, I think) of people burning down the King’s castle. Yet, the King still goes in to rescue some of these treasonous people. Would some humans do this? Maybe. Crazy? I guess it depends on how much the king loves the people, even though they are treasonous. I suppose the less ‘crazy’ thing to do would just be to destroy them all and start over. I guess you and I are lucky he didn’t do that.

      re: design & biologists – They certainly do know much more than I do. That is why I read and listen to the best from each side, and then, as best as I’m able to understand, I make my own decisions. If you have some specific point, I’ll do my best to address it.

      re: John’s list – How about we pick one to discuss then? I’m kind of surprised you think the list is sound.

      BTW: I brought out a laundry list because you made broad sweeping statements that there was nothing I could present in a laundry list of areas. I also don’t even own a single Josh McDowell book, though I know who he is, while I do own a Richard Dawkins book. ;o)

      • ptet


        You do not have “evidence for the life of Jesus including eye-witness reports through hostile witnesses.” That is nonsense. You have reports from decades after Jesus lived talking about what Christians claimed. Accepting the *existence* of Jesus does not mean the miracles attributed to him actually happened.

        As for the Exodus & Conquest, see my post to Professor Stackhouse above.

        The “less crazy” thing would not be to create the world knowing in advance that billions of people would end their finite, short lives with infinite and eternal torment with no chance of reprieve.

        I find your callousness – and that of your fellow Christians – absolutely breathtaking.

        • Steve Wilkinson

          re: Jesus – I think you’re going to have to tell me what you are trying to argue then. I’m getting a bit lost. Do you believe Jesus existed? Or are the miracles the problem?

          re: Exodus – the jury is still out. – cf. camels above.

          re: less crazy – I’m not sure how you know that. Would it be better to have a universe where love is possible or deterministic one? In reality, are there consequences for actions?

          re: callousness – First, could you explain to me, from your worldview, why it would matter? Those same billions of people just live whatever lives they have, and it doesn’t really matter what I think (if indeed I’m really thinking, and am not just some particular alignment of molecules at the moment).

          I’m just trying to be real and true to my worldview. If I were callous, don’t you think I could find better things to do with my time? How is trying to help people see reality more clearly and guide them towards a proper relationship with God, callous? (even if you don’t believe any of it)

          • ptet

            re. Jesus – I am arguing that by the same standard you use to reject other religious claims, the Christian claims for the miracles attributed to Jesus do not stand up. There is no reason – beyond religious compulsion – to believe that Jesus is “God”.

            re Exodus. Baloney. First you argued that archeology supported the Bible. Now you say “the jury is still out”. Outside of Evangelical & Fundamentalist Apologetics, that is a flat-out lie. If more evidence comes to light (cf. camels) that should be taken into account – but the positive overwhelming evidence, even “moderate” archaeologists say, is that the Exodus-Conquest did not happen.

            re Less Crazy. Of course there are consequences for actions. Put your hand in the fire. Of course love is possible. I read a study recently which said that only 14.6% of professional philosophers believe in “God”. The rest have no problems finding grounds for existence, morality and epistemology. You can’t seem to imagine a Universe without your pretend “God”. Maybe you should read more.

            re Callousness. The notion that we require *your* “God” to care for anything is so brainless I don’t know where to begin. We are human beings in a very real, tangible, vast universe. We live. We care. Together we achieve astounding things. On our own we achieve nothing.

            re Your Worldview. According your your worldview, either God punishes non-Christians irrespective of how sincerely they try to find him (which appears to be your argument, and in which case God is indistinguishable from a tyrant), or these millions of people are somehow all so insincere they deserve nothing less than eternal damnation (for which see William Lane Craig).

            As John Hick, Theologian and Philosopher of Religion, says of Craig: “this is manifestly an a priori dogma, condemning hundreds of millions of people without any knowledge of them; and even many other very conservative Christian philosophers have found it repugnant. For on any reasonable view exclusivism, practiced within any religion, is incompatible with the existence of a God whose grace and mercy extends to the entire human race.”

            I am not saying that your worldview is wrong because its conclusions are absurd and repellant (which they clearly are). I am saying that Evangelical Christianity fails to stand up to the same tests you use to reject other religious beliefs.

            I once read that within the Anglican Church of England, Evangelicals are known as “the idiot wing”. I can see why.

            • John Stackhouse

              Okay, ptet. Take a deep breath. Your passion is getting the best of you and you’re often failing to argue and resorting instead to insult. There are so many problems in this comment that it would take a dozen comments to point them out and put them right, and no one has time for that–even the apparently indefatigable and unflappable Steve Wilkinson.

              Examples? Quoting John Hick, of all people, who has spent his career chasing the chimera of the one true essence of religion and embarrassed himself thoroughly in the process–he is hardly an arbiter of what counts as good philosophy.

              As for evangelical Anglicans being idiots, I would be very glad to be as idiotic as N. T. Wright or Alister McGrath or Larry Hurtado or Nigel Biggar….

              So please, once more, stick to conversation that at least sounds like you might actually want to learn something. If you’re intent simply on doing battle with ideas you currently don’t hold, there’s a word for that: fanaticism. And I’m not interested in fostering it here.

            • ptet

              Steve asked me for my position and I repeated what I have been arguing throughout my posts here. I rather put his “unflappability” down to his doing battle with (or rather inability to process) ideas he does not currently hold – but of course I could be wrong 🙂

              Just to be sure, Professor, could you please confirm for me that non-Christians are damned whether or not they are aware of the “evidence” for the miracles of Jesus?

              Also… Is it your position that outside of Evangelical circles there is no archaeological consensus that the Exodus-Conquest accounts did not occur as the Bible claims?

              I see John Hicks is spoken of very highly by Keith Ward and many other Christian philosophers… But of course we both know what can happen to Evangelical Scholars who fail to adequately hold the party line.

            • Steve Wilkinson


              re: Jesus – I’m glad we agreed Jesus existed, or I’d have pulled out my Bart Ehrman quotes. 😉 You are going to have to let me know what that standard is that I’m not abiding by. I believe Jesus is who he said he was because he backup up his claims. So, if there is a God and Jesus is God, then the various miracles aren’t problematic for me. At least one reason to believe Jesus is God is that he was resurrected, as he predicted. Out of curiosity, what do you see that is similar in other religions?

              re: Exodus – I said archeological EVIDENCE supports the Bible. I never said that every part of the Bible has archeological evidence to prove it. Those are two quite different things. They don’t have evidence that proves the Exodus didn’t happen.

              re: consequences for actions – If that is the case, then what would the consequences be for separating yourself from the God who created you and is upholding you? While I know you can’t answer that definitively, wouldn’t you at least agree it wouldn’t be pretty?

              re: morality, epistemology – I’d have to see that study, but do you want try to ground them? I’ve yet to see a good grounding for morality in a materialistic system. And, yes, actually I CAN imagine a universe without God, which is the problem (in multiple ways).

              re: So, you ‘care’ simply out of pure pragmatism? Wouldn’t the human race be better off if only the strongest and smartest survived? It seems all this ‘caring’ is kind of thwarting human evolution.

              re: worldview – I don’t think there are any who are sincerely seeking God who are not saved. But, I also don’t believe there are any sincerely seeking God in their natural state. You must have missed the ‘people burning down the king’s castle’ word-picture earlier.

  18. carl shura

    On its surface this is a very facile and smarmy point to make, but i think Eddie Izzard made an excellent point (at least a starting point for discussion, if nothing else) in saying (somewhat paraphrased):
    If the whole God business and Bible truth is in fact the reality of things, wouldn’t it have made sense to start it off like this? ‘In the Beginning, God created the Earth. It looks flat, but it’s round.’ …

    It’s not TOO much scientific information such that early mesopotamia wouldn’t understand, nor is it vague poetry that could mean anything; furthermore, why not a fleeting shout out from an all-knowing creator of the universe something like: ‘By the way, always wash your hands – there are small things that you can’t see which will make you and other people very sick, but it’s as simple as rushing water and a little detergent to stave off plague and death.’ …Instead, millenia pass until a doctor institutes handwashing as a practise in hospitals and death rates by infection drop dramatically… couldn’t a wee nugget of basic information be helpful to human societies who over the past 5000 or so years of biblical record have suffered greatly otherwise?

    I started by saying this is facile and smarmy – but as a former evangelical, now atheist – i should say that it’s also worth investigating. Yes I know there are answers to these questions – but simply making an answer is not the same as being right – or even being on the right track. What else can we say about a powerful all-knowing god who refrains from offering basic facts about germ theory, or the true nature of our solar system, in favour of instead massive human suffering and ideological wars? … the christian answer comes in the form of incredible theological acrobatics: suffering serves God’s purpose is the basic gist of it, really (also toss in that the bible isn’t a science text). But what can that mean?!

    If we’re going to have a straightforward talk to make sense of things (in particular here, between atheists and theists), we don’t have to make water into wine – no need for huge aspirations – let’s just at the very least start off by finding some real water, pure and elemental.
    On that note, these questions are big. Too big really: in 300 words or less, please explain and defend a workable Theodicy. GO! no, no…
    But what about that aspect of God being all knowing and inspiring the creation of writings which we now have as the Bible? An all-knowing creator might have relevant things to say that wouldn’t terribly impede on the salvific work He’s undertaking, no? A minor footnote about germ theory or the solar system would do wonders for His credibility. Perhaps it would set it apart from the other competing All-Knowing Creator Gods and their otherwise equally subjective points of view (as noted above by many posts eg) the Hindu will tend to a Hindu interpretation of texts).

    Does it make more sense to say about God’s withholding of relevant and fantastically simple information (eg. handwashing) that in due course renders unimaginable pain and suffering across the globe, that it’s too complex for us humans to understand but ultimately serves His saving purpose; OR that the absence of something points to the high probablility of its absence, ie) that God wasn’t there in the first place, so let’s re-examine?…When an outcome can be observed without the necessity of a precluded premise, shouldn’t we examine whether anything else can still stand without the underlying assumption now irrelevant?… It seems sensible now to me, in spite of a lengthy double BA at Tyndale in Theology & Philosophy, that the latter holds a little more water.

    And thank Goodness, because i’ve been thirsty for a long time.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      It is a good point, but I don’t think the purpose of the writing was to correct this kind of thing. It would be like watching a football game and hearing the commentator say, ‘he’s going to have a hard time making that field goal into such a strong wind.’ Some science can be gleaned from that statement, but the point of it isn’t to be a scientific statement.

      re: wee nugget of basic information – I think, again, that this isn’t the point of the Bible. Though, I also wouldn’t argue that there aren’t wee nuggets in there. For example, if we heeded the Biblical instruction, there would be no AIDs epidemic.

      Also, I think you need to take a step back. The Bible isn’t primarily an instruction book, but a story of rescue, after humanity had ALREADY said ‘no thanks’ to God’s instruction to keep us all safe and well. The Bible gives us enough evidence to verify it’s supernatural credentials, but it was never intended to give us an answer to all our possible questions.

      And, you have to presume that God owes us such info to infer that from the absence of such info, God doesn’t exist.

      • carl shura

        I don’t mean to imply that the collected writings compiled between the bronze age and the first century should be scientific or instructive; surely, it’s a narrative journey – as should be proper for human minds. narrative is how we understand – it’s how we develop relationships between disparate points and it’s our fundamental impetus for communication at all.
        Analogy is the base form of understanding the world around us and is the mode of transferring information; and incidentally, it served as a form of ‘proto-science’ if we can call it that. The pursuit of knowledge (or true beliefs) has been integral to us since the beginning; it’s not new, and i don’t think we’re prepared to stop that pursuit any time soon. BUT as our methods of acquiring knowledge has progressed, there are times where previously held beliefs have to be discarded because they are found to be lacking.
        My point leans more to the sense that every culture that ever was has developed its own way to understand what’s going on around them: eg. lightning strikes and kills their animals. Why? Is there anything we can do to stop this? There must be something up there (by analogy we know that effects have causes) – so perhaps the hypothesis of a sky god bearing fire is posited.. and so to appease him a dance is done or whatever… LO AND BEHOLD! there is no more lightning… but this is a false positive. And our collective history is full of false positives and we’ve had to weed those out with better modes of interpretation and with higher standards of reason.

        So at this time in our collective history, we can look back (don’t misunderstand me, we’re not at some peak of enlightenment – but here is where we are , and we have the best information we’ve had yet; and tomorrow it will be more; and tomorrow..) upon a document purported to be transcribed about and with the help of the all-knowing creator of everything that ever was, and Who has a personal interest in us. In it we should find something with a particularly credible foresight, or at the very least that contemporary information of the time would be accurate (1 Kings 7:23) : An approximation of Pi is found in this passage, and as a young man in college i was overwhelmed and impressed at the accuracy of God’s word – but I didn’t know that at the same moment in history, there were much better mathematics happening – in Egypt, Pi had been approximated beyond 3.16. Not too shabby. Perhaps Ra had a hand in it?

        The thing is this: looking to the books of vague poetry and wonderfully colourful analogy and clever narratives of human relationships and struggles, we find what we should expect from writers of the bronze and iron ages: a suitably narrow and limited view of their place in the world and a not terribly flattering picture of a tribe of people in the context of their time (the Indian continent was already engaged in high level mathematics at the time of Abraham..). Could this just be a primitive understanding doing their best, sincerely believing their hypotheses?
        My tipping point is that we have both scenarios: (1) that god exists and actually interacted with and directed the transcription of those words , and (2) that iron age folks did their best to interpret the world around them with whatever analogies seemed to fit: AND if both of these can produce the same effects, then it is more reasonable to take the simpler, more reasonable and defensible scenario as the probable reality.

        I believe that any thoughtful nontheist has a similiar starting point in that if spiritual beliefs have the markings of being created and developed over times, there will be evidence of that; and that we have this evidence before us, we are left with only one HONEST set of beliefs.

        When I finally made the words audible, “There is no god,” i thought it would be a traumatic experience – but i felt the same peace and comfort and certainty that I’d felt when i first uttered “Jesus, walk with me.” i suppose that experience lent me some extra confidence as well – that such experiences are not holy spirit moments but wholly naturalistic.
        What made me so scared and hesitant to (what amounts to giving myself permission to) even THINK that there was no god was that I always had God as the primary cause. As a non-negotiable part of the truth table, a predetermined assumption without cause. And so, always thoughts of “God doesn’t OWE you any special sign,” “Who are WE to demand anything of the Lord?!”, “God does things according to God’s plan,” “It’s just a part of God’s plan”…
        BUT this is the discussion stopper- This is what needs to be discussed with atheists. The discussion of “tough” questions will ultimately fall back on “it’s because God exists and did x this way and has a plan for y..” These are simply not answers – and they are not helpful when we face two possibilities (1) god and everything god created exists, and (2) everything exists that exists. (1) looks exactly like (2) because without a concept of god, nothing in our reality changes – when we encounter scenarios like these it has to be the more simple and reasonable one that we heed.

        • Steve Wilkinson

          I agree, when previously found beliefs are found to be lacking, toss them out.

          re: Pi – I’ve heard of 1 Kings 7:23 being used by skeptics to say the Bible isn’t accurate enough, but I’ve never heard of that being used to prove the Bible correct. I don’t think they were trying to describe Pi there. Now, if the common worldview at the time had been that Pi was 7, and the Egyptians, knowing nothing about geometry just happened to write that Pi was 3.14 in one of their religious writings, I’d say it could be one small piece in building some credibility for the text, and consequently for Ra.

          re: tipping point – If all we had was an iron age religious text of people describing their experience, then I’d probably agree with you. Obviously, that is at least in a large part, what I’d say about other religious texts (though I’d also say the supernatural played parts in those at point). I think we have a lot more than that.

          The problem is that in the other religious texts, I don’t see the world being described accurately and/or with accurate prophecy. Even if you don’t think these things give the Bible credibility, you should at least agree that being clearly wrong should help rule something out.

          re: show stopper – saying there is no God so it must have happened naturally, we’ll just have to wait till we figure it out, is equally a show stopper. Both the Christian and Atheist are likely to keep searching unless they intend to stop the show.

          Also, why would it have to be the more simple one we heed? And, why would ‘naturalistic’ be the more simple?

          The problem is that reality does change if there is no God. Why is there a universe to be in? How is it that the universe meets specific criteria that enables life to exist? Why is it that Earth is in such a perfect spot in the universe to be able to observe it? How did life begin? How is it that you and I are typing messages to one another, and are aware that each other exist? Is it simply a coincidence that the molecules in your brain cause you to believe you are an atheist and me a theist? Given that we’re rational, conscious beings, is there a reason science can be thought to produce true results? Is there such a thing as morality? Considering this and much more, is naturalism or atheism really the more simple explanation?

    • Mark

      Carl, one might argue that the Ten Commandments were an example of a “shout out” from God. Or that the covenant law code, in its softening of many of the ritualistic practices in the cultures roundabout (i.e. in limiting sacrifices to animals and doing away with child sacrifice), was an example of God’s (soft) self-introduction to the world. These are examples of God’s incarnational way of dealing with his fallen creation, which is emphatically the biblical picture of things. There may be aspects of that picture that seem dissatisfying, but it’s your choice to view it that way.

      You argue that God should have tipped humankind off about certain scientific ideas, or germ awareness, or whatever. There are two problems (that I can identify) with that standpoint. Firstly, it fundamentally contradicts the incarnational model I referred to above. Science is a human discipline, and I think God likes it that way. There’s something beautiful about human beings imitating the Father in exploring their world and making new discoveries; especially as their imitation of God leads them to help make shalom in the world by finding cures for diseases, developing indoor plumbing (which helps a lot with regular handwashing, by the way!), etc.

      Secondly, and more basically, if we were to follow your logic to its conclusions (i.e. that God’s loving character and desire to be known should have required him to reveal some more helpful information to people in the first place), we would never be satisfied with God’s chosen level of specificity. Suppose for a second that Genesis 1:1 read like this: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, the latter of which appears flat but is actually round; and by the way, you should wash your hands to avoid being contaminated by tiny little germs that future generations will discover through the use of microscopes”. Well, that’s great. Now we have one bit of information (the former) that is totally useless to us (except perhaps in providing humankind with a rather spooky religious text to have to explain!), and a second bit of information (the latter) that may help a bit, but not a whole lot in the arid climates where water isn’t as readily available for constant daily use as it is in 21st-century North America, and where serious disinfectants were, as of yet, nonexistent.

      The atheist worldview still has to account for life to begin with, which turns your argument (“When an outcome can be observed without the necessity of a precluded premise, shouldn’t we examine whether anything else can still stand without the underlying assumption now irrelevant?”) on its head. Science can’t demonstrate that life itself can exist without the premise of God’s existence. Life itself isn’t proof for God’s existence, but it sure does help make a strong case for it. And nothing you’ve said above disproves the biblical narrative of God’s existence and character. Nor do such observations make God necessarily callous or indifferent to the human condition (demonstrated in the ultimate example of incarnation in Christ; but also in the biblical hope of resurrection, etc.).

      • Eamon Knight

        Science can’t demonstrate that life itself can exist without the premise of God’s existence. Life itself isn’t proof for God’s existence, but it sure does help make a strong case for it.

        I sense an appeal to God of the Gaps re. abiogenesis here. Science does not have to demonstrate that life can exist without the premise of God in order for atheism to be tenable. The fact that there is currently no accepted, reasonably complete account of the origin of life does not warrant recourse to claims of Divine intervention, still less to attempting to parlay that into evidence in favour of that God. Basically, it’s saying: “This looks like a hard problem. Therefore the best explanation is that it was done by magic, by the God I just happen to have in my back pocket….”

        • Mark

          Yeah, I can see how that statement (without more nuance) might have looked like a “God of the gaps” kind of appeal. However, my broader argument about God’s “incarnational” approach to human affairs should have tipped you off that that isn’t the way I approach this at all. Carl was suggesting that God should have made himself more obvious in his self-revelation (in order for the Christian worldview to be considered tenable). I was arguing that God works with people in more subtle ways than this. As for the statement about science not offering an account for how life itself is possible, I’m not arguing that one should therefore believe in God. Rather, I’m trying to suggest that whatever worldview one chooses has to take all of the data into account. The atheist worldview says life exists, but God does not. Atheists’ primary epistemological tool, science, fails (at this stage) to give an account for how life itself can possibly exist (let alone love, beauty, goodness, etc.). Therefore, whether one believes in God comes down to choice.

          And, in fact, my view of how God works in the world is so rigorously incarnational that I can honestly say, “the more questions re: ‘natural’ origins that science answers, the better.”

        • Steve Wilkinson

          Also, keep in mind that one can have ‘naturalism of the gaps’ just as easily as ‘god of the gaps’. If you just say, I don’t know, but X explains it, you have something of the gaps… take your pick.

          However, if you say, based on the evidence we have at hand, while realizing we do not yet have the full answer, X seems to be the most likely answer… now we’ll keep searching and see on which side the chips fall…. that’s not x of the gaps. That is a proper search for truth, of which science plays one part of the role.

          • Eamon Knight

            I have to reject the false equivalence you (and Mark, if I understand him correctly) imply between naturalistic and God-full explanations. The honest response to a gap in knowledge about the universe is naturalism, per se, it’s: “I don’t know — how can we investigate it?” Science may not have the answer on the schedule we wish, but that is the investigative tool we have, and until someone figures out how to make God a coherent and testable part of that process, methodological naturalism is the paradigm in use. That some phenomenon is caused by an invisible incorporeal mind of immense power should not be seen as a simple and obvious hypothesis you can invoke any time you like. I submit that it only seems that way because 1) our psychology as social animals makes us prone to look for conscious agents and 2) the immense cultural weight the god-meme carries.

            • Eamon Knight

              Oops, that should read:

              The honest response to a gap in knowledge about the universe is not naturalism, per se,

            • Mark

              I would argue that naturalistic explanations for origins have no bearing on the question of God’s existence. Why? Because God’s creational processes are observably “natural”. It would be tough to imagine science coming to a point where it excludes the possibility of God’s existence. (Although the discovery that aliens in fact created the human species would cause some major havoc in theology world!) To date, science does not exclude the possibility of the Christian God’s existence or love.

              However, my argument isn’t that out of the current void the “God hypothesis” is the only acceptable solution. That would indeed be a “God of the gaps” appeal. Rather, my argument is that there are a number of worldviews on offer, and people have the right to choose which one suits them best; which one provides the most intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically satisfying explanation for life, love, goodness, beauty, and the rest of it.

              The various epistemological tools on offer should certainly be made use of in coming to the best possible decision; and science is one of the foremost of these tools. But as of yet, there is no givenness to the notion that atheistic materialism is the best paradigm within which to do good science and wrestle with questions of human life and meaning. And so, it is within this current paradigm of knowledge available to us that Christianity still makes sense to me … more so than atheistic materialism.

            • Mark

              My first sentence there might have been a misuse of terms. What I mean is.. “…scientific explanations for origins have no bearing on the question of God’s existence.” (the term “naturalistic” might have implied materialistic in the atheistic sense… anyway, hopefully that was clear).

            • Eamon Knight

              Argh, I hate the right-margin squishy-thing WordPress does.

              Mark: I found your previous post confusing, but it seems you aren’t trying to make evidential arguments from the facts of nature so much as wrapping theological narratives around them in a mythopoeic sort of way that gives you a sense of existential meaning. Fair enough, and I even have some sympathy for that approach having done it a bit myself, back in the day. However, in the end my goal — my “choice” to put it in your terms — is to understand the universe as it actually is, to have as accurate and complete a picture as possible. (Looking back — I am now in my 50s — I can see that this has been a life-long drive). And the only way to pursue that is by demanding a rigorous standard of evidence and reason. Story-telling — however comforting — doesn’t cut it.

            • Steve Wilkinson

              re: methodological naturalism – is based on a philosophical presupposition to begin with. There are other definitions of science (I suggest something more like Lakatos’ progressive research program), but also, science isn’t the only game in town.

              Of course if you say science is the only tool, and science is metaphysically limited to the material, what other outcome can you possibly reach?

              re: conscious agents – maybe that is because in our experience, certain kinds of things are indeed caused by conscious agents. Where would a CSI investigator be based on your definition? They would walk in a room with a man lying in a pool of blood on the floor and say, ‘well, remember, conscious agents are simply part of our bias as social animals, so be sure to find a natural cause.’

              With that kind of a definition, it would be impossible to reach the truth, unless you presuppose the truth to be naturalistic.

            • Mark


              Hmm.. the way this conversation is going, it seems like it’s starting to (prematurely) collapse into subjectivity. While I definitely feel (and the real world constantly reaffirms the feeling) that religious beliefs come down to choice, that doesn’t mean that I have given up on trying to engage important issues in the public domain. For instance, the conversation (above) re: the archeological investigation of biblical history is worth having, and the results of such investigation should have important ramifications for one’s beliefs about those events. But I personally am not suspending judgment on the whole “God thing” until archeology provides every last answer to questions like this.

              I certainly don’t view what I said above as me “telling myself a story”. I was just laying out my general epistemological framework – a way of understanding the world, approaching disciplines like science, accounting for things like beauty and love, etc., from a Christian perspective. If the space program some day proves that aliens created the human species in labs, I will certainly allow that information to mess with my Christian perspective. So my point is that public knowledge is deeply integral to my beliefs; I’m not living out some supra- (or sub-) rational spiritual life that finds peace and contentment in the thought that behind all of this mess there is indeed a God who loves me.

              Which nicely segues into my final point. I can understand the standpoint of wanting to only make assertions about the universe and reality that are demonstrable in some scientific way. However, what I also know is that we are not epistemologically-obliged to think and live that way. And one thing that I can say from experience is that it is equally spiritually impoverishing to live purely in your head as a Christian as I’m sure it can be to live purely in your head as an atheist. Different worldviews have within them the raw materials for spiritual complexions specific to those worldviews. These spiritual complexions are determined by things like (1) what that worldview says about what it means to be human, ((2) what that worldview says about how I should view myself and others, (3) what that worldview says about the future of the world and humanity, (4) what that worldview says about how one should treat friends, enemies, and so on. Atheism (and the “raw materials” available to the worldview it provides) strikes me as rather mute if not harmful in the answers it offers for each of those.

  19. Mark

    Oh, forgot to finish my point about the “chosen level of specificity” thing. The basic biblical picture that I’ve been describing is “incarnational”. God gets into the dirtiness of human existence to redeem it. As mentioned, the picture may be dissatisfying in some ways, but it only if viewed from a position of hostility. On the other hand, what you are suggesting is that God should have been more obvious about certain things – given us clearer signs, etc. (i.e. tip-offs about future scientific discoveries; health advice, etc.). My point is that he could have done so… but even if he accommodated us on the two points you raised (round earth and handwashing), it would not have been enough to (1) stave off numerous natural disasters, pandemics, terrorist attacks, and other death-dealing tragedies, or to (2) prove the existence of the Christian God.

    In fact, the logical conclusion of your argument is that God himself should have prevented every earthquake, every terrorist attack, and every pandemic, in order to lovingly care for his creation. So, it’s just the problem of evil all over again. My point is that, yes, it’s a problem, but that many great people (spiritually and intellectually) have worked through the problem and have found a loving God in the midst of it.

  20. Sohrab

    A few days ago you gave a talk on the presence of God in Science and I was the first person with whom you spoke during the Q&A session.

    I`ll start my comment by saying that I don`t think that science has no room for a creator, but that most people have no room for science.

    I also wanted to say that you are the most intelligent Christian speaker I have heard thus far. However, I wanted to ask that you refrain from playing to people’s ignorance regarding science. At the very start of your presentation you gave a list of things which science shows to be true but are ‘strange’ and compared this to the strange beliefs of Christians. This is not an appropriate comparison and this type of talk is not conducive to keeping your argument legitimate.

    I believe the first ‘strange’ claim you discussed was that science maintains that our solar system is a heliocentric one.

    Is that actually strange?

    Then you mentioned that science believes that, in vacuum, a bowling ball and a feather will accelerate at the same rate.

    Is that actually strange? People have difficulty differentiating force from acceleration. It`s also a bad point because people will consider the different drag forces that affect a bowling ball and a feather, then fail to realize that those forces disappear in vacuum.

    To call the resurrection of someone whom you’ve never met who is actually the creator of the universe recast as a human strange, to me, is quite alright.

    All this comparison does is delegitimise science to those who know no science. I know that you know that it’s all a jest, but this kind of comparison makes people immediately feel that science is one big joke. You are priming people to disregard science’s answers. Being well educated, you might think that its a funny comparison, but it’s an irresponsible one. You are a guide for many other Christians. You had said that science provides no good answers for beauty, truth, and morality, but game theory and evolutionary biology do have some answers and will have ones that are based on the physical world, not solely on the bible. Even if science does not have the complete answers yet, it does not mean that it never will. Whenever you mentioned a scientific explaination for these concepts you instantly cast it off as though it were foolish.

    You implied that because current science cannot answer certain questions, they must not have scientific answers. The evolution of life, the stresses that influenced that development, and the subsequent consequences of those influences are so complicated that it is very difficult to give an answer, but does that mean that we should resort to making up an answer in the form of religion? And does that mean that there are no scientific answers?

    If you are going to talk about the gaps of knowledge that science will probably never fill, you should talk about the fundamental nature of the universe, not morality, not beauty, and not truth. Science is the quest for truth. It is probably impossible for science to explain why gravity exists because it seems to be a fundamental property of our universe, but science seems able to explain everything derived from those fundamental properties. The human brain and all its enormous complexity is one such object.

    Thank you for your talk. I enjoyed it and I hope to hear you speak again. I hope you get in touch with the Freethinkers Club of UBC. The last debate they had between a medical doctor (atheist) and a PhD biochemist (christian) was an interesting one.

    • John Stackhouse

      Dear Sohrab,

      I was glad for your participation in the Q&A after my talk at UBC.

      As for your criticism of my approach in terms of “strange” things that scientists believe alongside “strange” things that Christians believe, I wonder whether you might have asked me why I would take that approach rather than simply denounce it as entirely wrongheaded. Might someone of my experience and training have a good reason to proceed that way?

      Indeed, you don’t actually refute the point I was making, so much as retort with rhetorical questions along the line of “Is that strange?” I would respond easily enough, “Yes, it is; that’s why I said it.” And that would be that, wouldn’t it? But it wouldn’t be terribly satisfying!

      I made it quite clear, I think (although in everyday language that everyone could grasp quickly), that the theory of a heliocentric universe is strange precisely because it defies almost all of our phenomenological experience. Indeed, one has to be taught that the earth revolves around the sun: No one would intuit that that is the case, and no one did. It had to be inferred from data.

      And I did indeed refer to wind resistance and vacuums in my remarks about bowling balls and feathers.

      So my point was a simple, but important, one: To some or many or all of us, some propositions about the world seem strange, but we come to believe them because we conclude that those propositions explain the relevant data best among the available options. And that is exactly what Christians do when they believe that the one true God was in Jesus Christ saving the world: They believe that this is the best way to construe the available evidence.

      As for the main thesis raised in the last part of my talk, that you refer to at length in your comment, I simply reply, Well, if you think that truth, beauty, and goodness are adequately explained without reference to God, then fine. But I don’t. I think, in fact, that epistemologies not based in belief in God have real trouble grounding science; I think that ethics not based in belief in God are positively incoherent and hence merely arbitrary; and I think that aesthetics not based in belief in God are also incoherent and hence also merely arbitrary. I quickly sketched why I think that is so, but I certainly didn’t expect to persuade anyone of the Christian alternative (!) since I offered no grounds to believe that Christianity (or any other religion) does a better job. All I was trying to do was to show that there might well be a job needing doing that science cannot itself do.

      But if you’re perfectly happy thinking that science can provide you with an adequate and coherent epistemology, ethic, and aesthetic, then what else can I say? Lucky you!

      One last point: I did not say that because science cannot currently answer a question we should resort reflexively to a God of the gaps. In the Q&A time, I said, in fact, that I was NOT saying that. Do you remember?

      I said that we should resort to a “God hypothesis,” so to speak, only when the problem to be solved is “God-shaped,” when the model of (this particular) God acting in such-and-such a way would make better sense of the particulars of this situation than any other hypothesis. And if one thinks that the situation is better explained by natural causes alone–as even a Christian might, in any given instance–then by all means may the appropriate science proceed. But if not, then why bother? If you believe, as I do, that the best explanation for the apostles’ preaching that God raised Jesus from the dead is that God raised Jesus from the dead, then what sense would it make to pursue a naturalistic explanation instead (e.g., that they were delusional, or deceptive, or whatever)? It would be a waste of valuable intellectual energy to do so.

      You raise more questions than I can answer fully in this situation, however, so I hope these brief responses will indicate the direction in which I think better answers lie. Thanks for the dialogue, and I would indeed welcome an opportunity to interact with those of other outlooks at UBC, as it has been my privilege to do at Stanford, Yale, and other universities.

      • Sohrab

        “But if you’re perfectly happy thinking that science can provide you with an adequate and coherent epistemology, ethic, and aesthetic, then what else can I say? Lucky you!”

        I think that showing respect to those with whom you speak is extremely important when discussing a subject like this one. Disagreeing with someone’s position does not need to be paired with condescension.

        “And that is exactly what Christians do when they believe that the one true God was in Jesus Christ saving the world: They believe that this is the best way to construe the available evidence.”

        There is nothing outside of the bible (or other similar holy works) which suggests that Jesus was resurrected or that he is a form of God. Any claim that there is other real evidence pointing towards Jesus’ resurrection is just wrong. You have repeatedly stated that God and Jesus fit the data. There is no data pointing toward God and Jesus. There is only the bible and all literary works derived from it. This does not amount to evidence. Unlike a scientific description of the world, which is based on real fact, your world view is based on nothing but faith in the validity of an old text. Though your fellow Christians might praise your faith, academia does not.

        “If you believe, as I do, that the best explanation for the apostles’ preaching that God raised Jesus from the dead is that God raised Jesus from the dead, then what sense would it make to pursue a naturalistic explanation instead (e.g., that they were delusional, or deceptive, or whatever)? It would be a waste of valuable intellectual energy to do so.”

        I don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected, but I’m still willing to spend ‘intellectual energy’ talking about the supernatural explanation for the apostles’ work because that is how people grow and learn. By talking to people whose beliefs differ from our own we can learn a thing or two.

        Thanks for the dialogue Professor.

        • Mark

          Hi Sohrab,

          Re: your statement: “There is nothing outside of the bible (or other similar holy works) which suggests that Jesus was resurrected or that he is a form of God. Any claim that there is other real evidence pointing towards Jesus’ resurrection is just wrong.”

          The historical data around Jesus’ alleged resurrection is actually quite complex, and amounts to far more than simply a few religious texts jointly claiming that he was resurrected. For instance, historians have a very difficult time explaining the following:

          (1) The phenomenon of first-century (fiercely monotheistic) Jews worshiping Jesus as if he were a god. (2) The excitement and devotion of Jesus’ disciples to their Lord, who they claimed to have seen resurrected (a claim they asserted in the face of martyrdom). (3) The fact that the story of Jesus’ empty tomb (and resurrection) spread soon enough after his death that someone should have managed to snuff the “lie” out by producing a dead body (explanations like the “swoon theory”, “stolen body”, etc. fail miserably at accounting for data such as #2). And, most importantly, (4) The fact that there was no expectation within Jewish messianism that the messiah would die and then rise again. In fact, many would-be messiahs before and after Jesus had managed to gain a significant following before being invalidated by a premature death. The messiah was never expected to die, but rather to bring about the reversal of the Jews’ political fortunes and the reestablishment of an independent theocracy in the “promised land”. There was no scriptural pretext for a crucified and resurrected messiah, and no reason at all for a great number of Jews to believe and propagate such a messiah and then do theological gymnastics to synthesize this resurrected messiah with the symbols of Torah. Add to this the incredible success of the disciples in propagating their story, and you have quite the historical conundrum.

          So why, firstly, would the disciples invent this story to begin with (without any scriptural background, and when the more likely response to a crucified “messiah” would be shame and embarrassment)? And secondly, why would they die for something that they knew to be a lie; but not just any lie, but a lie that alienated them religiously from their “home base” of Judaism, as well politically from the Roman authorities (who took exception to the Christians’ fearless claims to Jesus’ lordship, which excluded Caesar’s lordship)? (In other words, a lie with absolutely no upside, but only an extreme and terminal downside.)

          Such historical data is most naturally explained by the hypothesis that Jesus was in fact resurrected from the dead. And it’s a heck of a lot more than simply a bunch of old religious texts that make such a claim.

          • John Stackhouse

            I’ll just add an item or two, Sohrab.

            1. Substituting arrogance (I don’t recognize any rationally acceptable grounds for your beliefs; therefore there are no rationally acceptable grounds for your beliefs) for what you touchily take to be condescension doesn’t improve the conversation much, does it?

            2. Nor does telling a professor that he has no academically respectable grounds for his belief strengthen your case. If you think my views have no place in the academy, you’ll have to take that up with, inter alia, the University of Chicago that granted my last degree; the Oxford University Press that published three of my books (and signed me to write another next year); Edinburgh, Yale, Stanford, and Fudan universities, among the many others that have invited me to lecture; and, yes, your own university, UBC, that appointed me to guide a Ph.D. dissertation on Christian historiography (as did McGill University previously). To be sure, all of those universities might not be able to recognize a completely ungrounded position such as mine while you can, but what are the odds that that’s so? And why would an apparently smart fellow like you make such a patently silly claim?

            (Perhaps it is because you follow in Richard Dawkins’s footsteps, the person you quoted to me in our public exchange, who is another person with an astonishing lack of insight into how people can be both intelligent and religious.)

            3. You simply misunderstand the last point of mine you refer to. I’m not talking about learning about, or from, other points of view by engaging them. I’m talking about whether one ought to mount a certain research program or not.

            4. And your final sentence seems out of keeping with the entire tone of your conversation with me. I have learned from Richard Dawkins–and more from older and greater atheists than he, whether Epicurus, Hume, or Nietzsche. But what would you list as even a “thing or two” you have learned from your exchange with me or with other Christians? You seem instead to be completely unmoved by what you’re encountering, simply repeating your certainty that you are entirely right and we are entirely wrong.

            • Sohrab

              To Mark:
              None of the points you made actually suggest Jesus dying then coming back from the grave. I don`t count `not understanding why people behaved a certain way and why a religion happened to be successful` as proof for the resurrection of a person. The mental jump is enormous.

              As to why the disciples would invent the story: I don`t know, but a naturalistic explanation makes much more sense than a supernatural one when there is no physical evidence for a supernatural explanation.

              Your argument is not rigorous and it needs to be when your claim is as outlandish as this one.

              To Prof. Stackhouse:
              (1): Your tone was indeed condescending throughout your entire reply. I was right to bring it up.

              (2): I guess I should write emails to these institutions telling them to abandon their age old divinity schools. That would not amount to much.

              However, there is nothing un-scholarly about studying the history of Christianity. I think the topic is quite interesting after watching these Professors (who teach at Harvard, Yale, UT: Austin, etc.) be interviewed in the following FRONTLINE documentary:
              (I hope the link works. It does for me.)

              The documentary provides evidence (the manner in and the purpose for which the gospels were written) which indicates that a literal interpretation of the gospels is misguided.

              (3) No professor, it is you who has missed my point. I understood you just fine. I was highlighting your statement because it was frightening. You have a self-protecting belief. Your beliefs are immune to attack because they stop you from examining the validity of alternative explanations.
              Your reasoning would have been fine for something like Old Earth vs. Young Earth (Old Earth is backed up by tons of science so we don`t need to look at the alternatives), but it is very flawed for this case (Jesus` resurrection has no evidence outside of the bible so the disciples should indeed be studied under a naturalistic light).

              (4) I have gained an admiration for your value scheme and even an admiration for the historical Jesus. I think it’s wonderful to have this social setup in which people look out for one another and take care of one another, but I have also realised that this social setup can be put in place without a God backdrop.

              You said I follow in Dawkins footsteps and that he does not believe that being intelligent and being religious can go hand in hand.

              I don`t know if being intelligent innately results in atheism. One study on top scientists ultimately concludes that the best predictor of religiosity is the religiosity of one’s parents. However, you should still notice that the religious do not go into the upper echelons of science as much as the irreligious. Maybe the religious don`t like to examine alternative naturalistic explanations for phenomena as much as the irreligious like to.

              This will be my last comment here for 2 reasons: 1. your blog posts get narrower and narrower as you reply and 2. I think this conversation is becoming less and less productive.


        • Steve Wilkinson

          Sohrab notes above that there is no external evidence….

          I just wanted to add a bit of info for people so inclined to look into this a bit further.

          Jim Wallace @ PleaseConvinceMe.com has done a nice job of pulling together extra-Biblical material on Jesus and early Christianity.


          Also, he has an article “What Do the “Non-Canonical” Documents Tell Us About Jesus?” which might be of interest.

          Of special note, he writes:
          1. There are amazingly few manuscripts of ANY text written during Jesus’ time
          2. Historians of this period wrote amazingly little about religious figures anyway
          3. Jesus was active for an amazingly short period of time (just three years)
          4. Jesus ministered in an amazingly remote corner of the Roman Empire

          And, then summarizes what we can put together completely from sources OTHER than the Bible.

          “Jesus was born and lived in Palestine. He was born, supposedly, to a virgin and had an earthly father who was a carpenter. He was a teacher who taught that by repentance and belief, all followers would become brothers and sisters. He led the Jews away from their beliefs. He was a wise man who claimed to be God and the Messiah. He had unusual magical powers and performed miraculous deeds. He healed the lame. He accurately predicted the future. He was persecuted by the Jews for what he said, betrayed by Judah Iskarioto. He was beaten with rods, forced to drink vinegar and wear a crown of thorns and crucified on the eve of the Passover. His crucifixion occurred under the direction of Pontius Pilate, during the time of Tiberius. On the day of his crucifixion, the sky grew dark and there was an earthquake. Afterward, he was buried in a tomb and the tomb was later found to be empty. He appeared to his disciples resurrected from the grave and showed them his wounds. These disciples then told others that Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven. Jesus’ disciples and followers upheld a high moral code. One of them was named Matthai. The disciples were also persecuted for their faith but were martyred without changing their claims. They met regularly to worship Jesus, even after his death.”

          • Mark

            Interesting data, Steve. And my main point revolved around the historical reconstruction of the birth of the church, from which the NT documents themselves were birthed. N.T. Wright in particular has a lot to say about that (as well as having a lot to say about the naturalistic epistemological presuppositions that Sohrab takes for granted), and the evidence Wright presents requires a more thoughtful rebuttal than what Sohrab offers above.

  21. Eamon Knight

    Time to rebel against the tyranny of WP. Commenters of the blogosphere: un-squish! 😉

    In reply to Steve Wilkinson @12:03 above:

    I’ve probably made a hash of the methodological naturalism thing. I’m aware there are a number of views on philosophy of science, and I’ll confess I’m getting out of my depth — studying all that stuff properly is a retirement project, but I’m not retired yet….

    Re the CSI analogy: In my view, it fails. We know that humans exist, and further know a great deal about their motivations and actions, so homicide is a very reasonable item to go on our initial list of hypotheses (though in the end, it might turn out the poor guy just stumbled and stabbed himself with his utility knife). But in this argument, the existence of gods is the very thing under debate, so you can’t just invoke them in the same way as an explanation without peril of begging the question.

    (BTW: your wording is confusing. Read strictly, it looks like you defined humans as being non-natural, which I don’t think is what you meant. It seems to me the relevant distinction in your analogy is not natural/supernatural but non-intelligent/intelligent causation — the fact that gods are supernatural as well as intelligent agents is tangential here. If I’ve missed the point, please clarify).

    • Steve Wilkinson


      re: un-squish – Yes, I agree. I think you made the right decision to start a new post.

      re: philosophy of science – I was just making sure. I don’t think a lot of people (including, sadly, scientists) actually do realize that, or at least take it into account in their thinking. I’ve seen some pretty bad definitions of science in recent years.

      re: CSI analogy – I don’t think I would use it as a proof for God’s existence. I was more speaking about the problem with defining science narrowly to a materialistic view. Also, it is a good analogy in that we humans seem to be able to look at something and see the involvement of agency. I’m not sure why we would automatically throw out this ability when it comes to science.

      re: supernatural vs intelligent – I’d have to think about the distinction more I suppose. However, I think I am actually saying what you don’t think I meant (though I’m not exactly sure where I said it). I don’t think we can get intelligent in the sense we’re talking about, without the supernatural as well. Agency requires the supernatural because I don’t see any way to get agency from the purely natural (material). The human mind is an excellent example. (BTW, I’m currently reading “Self Comes to Mind” by Antonio Damasio, so I’ll soon know if one of the best on the topic can convince me otherwise.)

      • Eamon Knight

        Re phil. of sci: Let me attempt to rescue something from the shambles of my previous without invoking the shades of Popper, Hull et al. My basic position is something like this: Whether you call it “science” or just “figuring stuff out” (the former being, as I see it, essentially just a rigorized and institutionalized form of the latter), I want to know how you propose to invoke God as a causal explanation (for eg. the origin of life), in a way that can be meaningfully distinguished from “It happened by magic” — ie, basically a label slapped over our current ignorance.

        re: CSI analogy – I don’t think I would use it as a proof for God’s existence.I was more speaking about the problem with defining science narrowly to a materialistic view. Also, it is a good analogy in that we humans seem to be able to look at something and see the involvement of agency. I’m not sure why we would automatically throw out this ability when it comes to science.

        I didn’t think you were using it as a proof of the existence of God; only as a way of pointing out that science should not rule out the action of conscious agents (including God). But science does not rule out conscious agents as such — obviously archeologists deal with the artifacts of conscious agents all the time. But those agents (ie. ancient humans) are conceptually well-behaved: we know a lot about the capabilities and motivations of humans, even ancient ones. So when we see, say, a megalithic monument, we start working out how they might have done it using a lot of levers and ramps, and also something about why they bothered. When people like Erich von Daniken come along and suggest it was done by space aliens, we dismiss them as cranks, partly because ETs of arbitrarily large powers and mysterious motivations are just too darned convenient — IOW it’s another “happened-by-magic” explanation, lacking in other evidence.

        Now, I would argue that we are hard-wired to see agency because we evolved as a social species, and a big chunk of our neurology is devoted to figuring out what the other guy is thinking and doing (just like I’m — despite being borderline Aspergers — trying to anticipate your reaction to my argument, and you are no doubt trying to get inside my head as you read this). However, this tends to produce false positives — an example which, um, shifted my paradigms when it occurred to me a few years ago: have you ever noticed the way people sometimes talk about their cars or computers as if they were conscious agents? “It doesn’t like starting on cold mornings…”. Google “overactive agent detection” for more on the concept.

        re: supernatural vs intelligent – I’d have to think about the distinction more I suppose….I don’t think we can get intelligent in the sense we’re talking about, without the supernatural as well. Agency requires the supernatural because I don’t see any way to get agency from the purely natural (material).

        When I wrote that, I wondered if you were going to go there next ;-). Yes, of course Christian theology sees humans as (partially) supernatural (a claim I obviously do not accept). At any rate, for the purposes of mundane science, humans are a natural phenomenon: we exist in nature, we accomplish stuff using nothing but material means — whatever your ultimate account of Mind may be. Gods, though? Who knows what they can do, or would?

        I’m also intrigued by how far you might take your linkage between agency and the supernatural — my cats seem to me to exercise conscious agency. Their minds are obviously different than mine, and less capable of abstract thought, but they obviously have goals, and methods of pursuing them, and solving problems in the way. IIRC, attributing ethereal souls to non-human animals is not entirely in accord with Christian orthodoxy (though possibly not requiring a major revision to it, either).

        • Steve Wilkinson

          re: phil. of sci.:
          I agree with your idea of science being a formalized form of figuring stuff out. Unfortunately, if one gets it wrong here (as some modern definitions of science do, IMO), it can result in progress being stifled, to whole disciplines being rejected as not being science. Some definitions often bandied about, such as the necessity of materialistic results or falsification, etc. don’t quite cut it. I think we’re probably in agreement here.

          The implications of this, however, is that a supernatural result could very well be the result of a science program. As long as God has some kind of interaction with the material universe, then it is possible for that interaction to be detected through scientific means. In other words, science is limited to analysis of material data, but the hypothesis being explored may not be. Other disciplines, such as mathematics or philosophy can test with other tool sets and from different ‘angles’ than science can. A great example would be the multiverse. By definition, it isn’t directly testable by scientific method. However, by using mathematics and philosophy, along with possible data where a multiverse might interact with our universe (WMAP and cosmic geometry), it is at least theoretically possible to get enough data from various angles to come to a reasonable conclusion.

          The difference between ‘magic’ (as in ignorance or illusion) and God is evidence. I have a lot of evidence which indicates God exists and evidence about the nature of that God. When I look at something which has every appearance of design by an agent, and there seems to be an agent that fits the description, when the data for it happening ‘naturally’ is a long-shot at best with many holes in it . . . I’ll take the most reasonable conclusion until further data comes in to correct my view. Making such assumptions, and then investigating the data to see what conforms and does not conform, is science at least in part (along with all the other disciplines which use other metrics of measurement not included in the material sciences). These other disciplines are also sciences, btw, just not material science.

          re: CSI analogy – I see your point. Hopefully the above answered that.

          re: Erich von Daniken – Is Richard Dawkins a crank as well? I don’t think positing aliens is outlandish IF we had any evidence for aliens. Seeing design, I’d have to say God or aliens are a better explanation than naturalistic evolution at this point. However, other than a few questionable testimonies, there is barely little more evidence for aliens than there is for the flying spaghetti monster. There is far more evidence for the Christian God.

          Convenience doesn’t rule out an explanation. e=mc^2 is pretty darn convenient compared to what it could be, no?

          re: hard-wired to see agency – are we hard-wired, or just recognizing reality? I don’t see your example, as though we might speak in anthropomorphic ways, we know it about the car or computer.

          re: supernatural – we’re natural in what our senses can ‘see’, yes. I’d agree with you on God except for we have revelation, witness, and experience with God. Otherwise, we’d know little more than God exists. I’d also say that supernatural maybe often paints a wrong picture in the mind. How about natural (as in what we can measure with our senses) and extra-natural, what is beyond our senses to directly measure. When you look at it that way, it doesn’t seem odd at all. Why should we think our senses have the ability to completely and directly observe every aspect of reality?

          re: your cat – I think most Christians would say that there are more than 2 or 3 levels at work. There is ‘dumb’ matter, like a rock. There are animals that, if they are conscious, it is hard to tell. There are ‘soul-ish’ animals that are certainly conscious and able to relate to humans at various levels. Then there are humans, which adds ‘image of God’ (which I think is more of a set of qualities unique to humans). BTW, I would agree that in the past, many (including Christians) tried to draw too hard of a line between animal and human or, maybe more accurate in the case of Christians, improperly marked out what ‘image of God’ entailed. What is orthodox regarding animals at this point? Good question, though it probably isn’t a core area of discussion.

  22. ptet


    re. Jesus: You are assuming that Christianity must be true. You don’t judge the claims of Islam or Hinduism by judging that _they_ must be true.

    re. Exodus: The evidence is that Israel grew out of the existing Canaanite population and that the Exodus-Conquest cycle did not happen as the Bible narrates. It’s rather unedifying to watch Professor Stackhouse squirming to avoid admitting what archeologists – rather than apologists – say what the evidence says.

    re. Consequences: Your theology damns billions to eternal torment in hell with no reprieve, no matter how well they live their lives and no matter how sincere their attempts to find meaning in the Universe. If they aren’t Christian, they are damned. The crimes of Stalin deserve the same punishment as those of a devout Muslim who has dedicated his life to the care of others. That isn’t “love” and that isn’t “justice”. You description of “God” is that of a psychopathic bully.

    re. Epistemology. Are you real incapable of googling “philosophers 14.6%”? No wonder you know nothing outside of Apologetics.

    re. Caring. Without “caring” there would be no families and no society. We wouldn’t have walked on the moon or discovered medicine or built the internet. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation. You don’t need your “God” to see the benefits of caring. Amongst all the stupid arguments you’ve laid before me, this is probably the stupidest.

    I’ll say it again. The “answers” Apologetics give to the questions Atheists ask depend entirely on assuming that Christianity is “true” and ignoring everything which challenges that. That is circular reasoning. It is completely and utterly absurd.

    Goodbye, Steve. I wish I could say it’s been nice talking to you.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      re: Jesus – That isn’t how I judge the claims of Christianity either. Got anything else, or should I just chalk this up to a disguised Ad Hominem? I suppose only atheists are objective, huh?

      re: Exodus – No, that isn’t the evidence, but a naturalistic development of religion based assumption. I’m not expert on this topic, and you’ve convinced me that I need to research and write up an article on this when I get time. I’ve looked at a couple resources I have on hand. First, from the ABD (Anchor Bible Dictionary) (hardly an Evangelical source). From the intro: “The extent to which the existing book of Exodus may be held to mirror those possible events closely and accurately, or else distantly with later elaboration, is still a question of mere opinion, not of formal proof.” (vII, p700) From the conclusion regarding the data, “None of it can prove that the Exodus took place, or as narrated. But it does carry some clear indications. The Egyptian elements suggest a direct knowledge of how Egyptian labor functioned; the magical practices and the plagues are closely tied to specially Egyptian conditions, not readily inventible in exilic Babylon. . . . The lack of any explicit Egyptian mention of an Exodus is of no historical import, given its unfavorable role in Egypt, and the near total loss of all relevant records in any case. . . . The sudden increase in settlement in 12th-century Canaan is best explained by an influx of new people . . . That they had ultimately come from Egypt is not proven but (in light of the long and pervasive biblical tradition and good comparative data) it is by far the most logical and sensible solution.” (vII, p707)

      Most scholars tend to go with a later date than the Bible because they think they have identified the cities the Bible speaks of. However, this is highly in debate and question. Thus, much of the research effort has been for a time-frame that doesn’t match the Bible. There is debate over the translation of the Biblically indicated number of people (ie: 600 families or 600,000 men). The majority of the archaeologic evidence is based on work by Nelson Glueck in the 1930s, and is of questionable technique compared to modern archeological methods (which contributed to the late date hypothesis). (Longman & Dillard, Intro to O.T., p68)

      I guess we’re not going to agree on this, and I don’t have time at the moment to research it properly. With just the bit of digging I have done, it seems far from conclusive to me. I doubt John is squirming that much (as he is probably way more familiar with what I’ve said above than me), but is probably equally too busy to lay out all the details for you here.

      re: Consequences – It isn’t about their being Christian, but in ceasing their hostility towards the God they are rebelling against. Your summary, even if it were theologically accurate (which is isn’t), is worded in such a negative way, rhetorically, I have a hard time taking you seriously on this point. It is loving for God to ensure a just universe. IF salvation were based on how one lived their life, with some kind of midpoint between Mao and Jesus, then you might have a point. That isn’t how it works. (BTW, you still haven’t shown how an atheist grounds this ability to accuse God of being just or not. I think Turek put it well in a debate with Hitchens, “He has to sit in God’s lap to slap Him in the face.”)

      re: Epistemology – Nope, I was just asking (I don’t commonly google philosophers with various percentages, do you?). So, I did now, and turned up some interesting stuff about the study. First, some noted that the survey didn’t include an agnostic option. Second, “the thing, though, is that though theism is 4:1 minority in most relevant populations and less so in general, among those who specialize in Philosophy of Religion it’s much, much more popular. 68.3% for all respondents and 72.3% among Target Faculty.” http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2009/12/statistical-spe.html

      Still, I’m not all that surprised and am not sure what your point is.

      re: Caring – I don’t agree. The Nazis were quite caring for the German people. If they had succeeded, they no doubt would have done great things. The Egyptians built the pyramids. Given the technology difference, that is probably as good as walking the moon. Yes, you don’t need God to see some benefits of caring, but you do to ground the concept for humanity as a whole. Atheism supports eugenics, not the equal value of all humans. That most atheists don’t live this way is fortunate, but not consistent with the worldview.

  23. ptet


    re Jesus. /facepalm. You don’t need religious presuppositions to say that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or that Tutankhamun was Pharoah of Egypt. You need specifically _Islamic_ presuppositions to say that Mohammed was Allah’s prophet and specifically _Christian_ presuppositions to that Jesus was “is who he said he was because he backup up his claims.” Seriously, how many times do I have to say the same thing?

    re Exodus. The Anchor Bible Dictionary? ZOMFG. Try reading what archaeologists actually say. Of course it’s there is no “formal proof” that the Exodus-Conquest didn’t happen – that is a completely moronic thing to expect. The fact is, Steve, you have been systematically lied to by apologists who claim archeology supports the Bible. The overwhelming evidence, say even “moderate” archeologists, is that the Exodus-Conquest didn’t happen.

    re The Study. The study did include options for agnostics. The options were “lean towards atheism”, “lean toward theism” and “other”. Note the categories are grey and not black-and-white. It appears as if you misread the page you linked to, hilariously.

    re Consequences. My point is that professional philosophers have no problems discussing “justice” and “ethics” without collapsing every question down to “what would jesus do”. You do not need “God” to discuss “morality”, “ethics”” or “love”.

    re Caring. Evangelicals were amongst the most vehement supporters of the vile, repugnant Eugenics movement.

    Seriously, Steve, go and read something – anything – other than apologetics. It’s rotting your brain.

    • John Stackhouse

      And now we bid farewell to ptet, who is being blocked for an incorrigible bad temper, discourtesy, and unwillingness to consider any source, argument, or even idea not already his own. We like conversation here, even vigorous conversation, but a steady stream of gainsaying and insults contributes nothing to anyone. I’ve warned him before, twice, and to no avail. So the rest of us will have to carry on without him.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      re: Jesus – If you start with atheistic presuppositions, I guess that does narrow down the options more quickly. I don’t agree that you need a particular religion’s presuppositions to evaluate its claims. I can evaluate the history, the claims, testimony, etc. and compare them with other evidence.

      I know you keep saying the same thing, but I don’t agree. What you are basically saying is that religious claims are purely subjective and just have to believe. That simply isn’t true of for several of the major religions. (for example: what is the quality of the textual transmission for each of their scriptures? if you do forensic statement analysis on the recorded testimony, what does that show? what did the prophets predict and what resulted? how specific were those prophecies? what was the character of the prophets? what miracles were claimed of them and how good is the witness testimony to them? what do hostile witnesses confirm or deny? what about motives like power, money, and sex? does it matter that one was a successful military leader while the other was crucified? are there miracles or events which are hard to explain any other way than what is claimed? how well do the claims about life and the world match what we experience? etc.)

      re: Exodus – I’m pretty sure your claim was that only Evangelical Apologetic sources would say the Exodus / Conquest weren’t fiction. ABD certainly isn’t that! Are you familiar with it? BTW, let’s keep in mind that a) I didn’t claim that mainstream archeologists believed the Exodus account to be 100% accurate as it reads in the Bible. b) I never said that every aspect of the Bible is 100% backed up by archeology. I said that the Bible is supported by archeological evidence, in that I’m unaware of archeological evidence which would overturn a Biblical claim with a reasonable amount of certainty.

      re: Study – I saw that, but I still think that is kind of sneaky. Also, I didn’t see a breakdown of those categories, they just lumped the 4 options to atheism or theism. Also, note that if you add theism and other (what the heck is ‘other’ with only those 2 options?!) you end up close to 30%.

      re: Consequences – OK, thanks for clearing that up. I still argue they have a grounding problem. I know lots of them discuss it. Here is a good Science Friday episode where some of these folks try. http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201011055 I’ll let the reader listen to that and see how well grounded they think it is. I found it scary to be honest!

      re: read something but apologetics – I do. For example, I’m currently reading “Self Comes To Mind” by neurologist Antonio Damasio, as I want to know what one of the best in the field has to say about the origins of the mind from a naturalistic point of view.

      I just urge you to take an honest look at all the data. Thanks for pushing me in a couple areas I need more work in. Should we meet again, I hope it can be a better conversation.


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