Untrumpable by Kevin Moore (Review)

I first heard of this book when the author was a guest on the radio show Unbelievable.  In that episode he debated an atheist on the merits of his updated version of Pascal’s wager.  I was not impressed.  Being a Christian  myself, it was somewhat uncomfortable to find myself agreeing with the atheist.  At times I thought the atheist guest was too nice in his criticism; he could have gone farther and really torn the argument down.

A few days later I saw that the book was on sale on Amazon and it was less than 100 pages.  I figured I’d read it to try to get a better grasp of his argument.  To my surprise, the more I read the more sympathetic I became to Moore’s argument.  Having read the book, I think he simply did not do a good job presenting the primary points on the radio show.

Taken as a whole, Moore is arguing that a wise person will choose the path that avoids the worst sort of end.  In other words, in a godless universe the worst end is simply death but in a universe with god there is the distinct possibility of life, and judgment, after death.  So the wise person ought to live as if there is a God in the hopes of avoiding this afterlife punishment.

One vital point in grasping Moore’s argument is that he is not talking about belief.  He is not saying that you ought to believe in God, or the Christian faith, to avoid hell.  Part of the reason for this is that Moore says changing your beliefs is not that easy.  You cannot simply choose to believe differently then you do, all of a sudden.  I think this is one common critique of Pascal – if you are told to believe in order to avoid hell, are you simply expecting to lie about what you believe?  Would any God accept such a fake belief anyway?

For Moore, the point is to live as if there is a God.  I recall the specifics of how this living might play out were left sort of vague.  The point is that while it is not easy to change what you believe, you can change the actions you take on a daily basis.  As your actions change and you build new habits, it seems Moore is confident in the idea that you will over time come to faith in God and change of belief.

Throughout most of the book Moore’s language remains vague, talking only about God.  Near the end he shares that he is a Christian, which is certainly not surprising to any reader.  I think this does reveal one flaw in the book.  Moore seems to desire to offer an objective argument, seemingly apart from his own personal faith commitments.  I do not think such a tactic is wise.  I could go on a whole tangent here, but I’d rather just point those interested to the works of people like Myron Penner and James K.A. Smith.

Moore is a professional philosopher and I am not even close.  But I have read Charles Taylor and I think what he says about this sort of objectivity is apt.  He talks about how Christian apologetics, in an attempt to appeal to skeptics, ends up giving us such a watered down God that rejection of this God is not difficult.  Smith, in his book on Taylor, summarizes Taylor’s position (Honestly, I do not have the book in front of me and I cannot recall if these are quotes from Taylor, or summaries by Smith):

“The scaled down God and preshrunk religion defended by the apologists turned out to be insignificant enough to reject without consequence” (53)

” The particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity – as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice” (51)

Another problem in the book, potentially, is that traditional Christianity would not give us a God who accepts the wise person who chooses to live as if there is a God. That person would appear to be pursuing salvation by works.  Moore’s version of Pascal’s wager is still not going to lead to salvation, on traditional terms, for the hypothetical person who takes the wager.  Moore might respond, as he did on Unbelievable, that he is not offering a “Christian” argument.  If so, tht is precisely the problem.  If we are Christians it does no one any good for us to hide that fact in hopes of slipping Jesus in the back door.

Along with that, a wise person may recognize that simply choosing to live as if there is a God is not enough.  Such a person may recognize this as merely Deism.  Why not go the next step and choose the religion whose hell is the worst, in order to avoid the worse punishment?  Perhaps Christianity gives a tame enough version of hell to reject in favor of some other religion?

Finally, like I said, I am no philosopher.  But I have read Pascal’s Pensees and I think there is an important order to how Pascal presents his arguments.  Pascal did not lead off with this argument.  Instead he brought it in at the end, after realizing that both a universe with god and a universe without god make equal sense.  In this quote Pascal says that both sides may be valid and reasonable:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 65-66). . Kindle Edition.

For Pascal, at least as I understood in reading, it was when you came to this point, where reason seems to fail in offering a way forward, that you bring in the wager.  If both a world with god and one without can make sense, logically, then move beyond logic.

On Unbelievable the atheist guest was not at this point.  He found a universe without god unreasonable.  Moore plowed ahead with the updated wager argument.  The atheist had no problem ignoring it because he saw no evidence for a god.

Overall, I do appreciate this book and think arguments like Moore’s do have a place.  There are flaws in it, but applied in the right situation it may be helpful.

 

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Frustrations with Christian Apologetics – We Need to Do Better

When I had questions about my faith as a college student, reading Christian apologetic books was incredibly helpful.  Working with college students now, answering questions about Christian faith is a central part of the ministry.  Apologetics serves a good purpose: tearing down barriers to faith and providing positive reasons for Christian faith.

That said, I have become quite frustrated with some of what I have seen in various apologetic publications recently.

I am on an email list that each day gives me a list of five or so apologetic blog posts and articles.   The other day one of the articles was “Why I’m Not a Theistic Evolutionist.”  The author begins by saying, “there is one view of creation that I find difficult to accept. From my perspective, theistic evolution appears to be a contradiction in terms.”

My suggestion: try a new perspective.  Why not read and engage with other Christians who accept theistic evolution, who do not see it as a contradiction in terms?    Unfortunately, the author shows no indication of having done this.  He does not site, nor really show any indication, of having interacted with any of the many Christians who do hold the view of finds difficult: Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Karl Giberson, Peter Enns and the list goes on and on.

What argument does he provide for why he has trouble with theistic evolution?  Textbook definitions!  He gives textbook definitions (not with any links to which textbooks, by the way) of the two terms.  Since at a quick glance the definitions do not appear to fit together the conclusion is made almost as fast, they cannot fit together therefore theistic evolution is out.  This is incredibly simplistic.   It makes Christian apologetics seem anti-intellectual.  

Imagine someone turned such tactics on this apologist to argue against the Trinity, the doctrine that states one God exists as three persons.  

Its a contradiction in terms.  Just look at the textbook definitions.  One = 1.  Three = three ones.  One cannot equal three.  

I am sure he would not accept such an argument.

I am also sure that when it comes to using our brains, as Christians we need to do better.

(The aforementioned Peter Enns recently wrote a fantastic article which goes along with what I am saying here: the scandal of the evangelical mind is that we are not allowed to us it.  Instead all our conclusions had better fit into what is allowed to be believed.)

I don’t know anything else about this author.  From reading his website, he seems like a brilliant guy.  Maybe he just wrote a poor blog post (I am sure most of mine are!).  Yet what does this say to people who are truly interested in Jesus and truly believe in evolution?  What does this say to scientists who have spent their lives studying the world and are as certain of evolution as they are of anything else?  Do we really want to force them to choose?

After he is done familiarizing himself with his Christian brothers and sisters who are theistic evolutionists, he could read Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God where he will find this wise quote:

What can we conclude? Since Christian believers occupy different positions on boththe meaning of Genesis 1 and on the nature of evolution, those who are considering Christianity as a whole should not allow themselves to be distracted by this intramural debate. The skeptical inquirer does not need to accept any one of these positions in order to embrace the Christian faith. Rather, he or she should concentrate on and weigh the central claims of Christianity. Only after drawing conclusions about the person of Christ, the resurrection and the central tenets of the Christian message should one think through the various options with regard to creation and evolution” (Keller, 94)

The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (A Review)

I want to start this review off in a very cheesy way, so here we go: If you only read one book on Christian apologetics this year, maybe even in your life, read this one!

Yes, it is that good and I did enjoy it that much.  Come on, just reading the title of the book has you curious, doesn’t it?

There are numerous books out there on Christian apologetics.  These books seek to defend the faith, answering questions in defense and providing positive reasons for the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I’ve read a good many of these books during my own faith journey.  Like most who grow up in the church, I eventually had questions and I sought answers in books by the likes of Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, JP Moreland and others.  Through this I found answers, though nothing of the knock-down, full-proof variety.

To this day I still enjoy a good apologetic book.  But as the arguments have become familiar, I read now with a few questions in the back of my mind: would my students at PSU Berks read this?  Would people who may only read a few books a year read this?  Would Christians who are not pastors, who do not read many books, read this?

I think they would read and enjoy Randal Rauser’s book.  It is written as a dialogue between Rauser and a young atheist named Sheridan.  The two go back and forth having many of the usual arguments, though not always in the usual ways.  Rauser is not afraid to show vulnerability in places, admitting where the standard Christian answer is unsatisfying (such as in the case of God’s violence in the Old Testament).  Thankfully the book does not end with Sheridan’s conversion, instead he walks away with a lot to think about, but still an atheist.  Of course, this reflects real life where people are too complex and truth cannot be reduced to a simple formula that once presented will change people’s views quickly.  Instead Rauser sees the Christian apologist as joining others in pursuit of truth.

I read books like this because I am still searching for answers.  I have many beliefs, some I hold to more strongly then others.  Rauser offers us a great way to do apologetics, a way where we do not have to convert or change people, but where we can come alongside of others as we seek truth together.

Check this book out if you are at all interested in truth, apologetics and the like.

Once you finish it, and if you want to read more, I would say to check out The Loser Letters by Mary Eberstadt and then The Reason for God by Tim Keller.

The Mind and The Machine (Review)

Any book that combines a discussion of Raymond Kurzweil’s theory of the coming singularity with analysis of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is probably going to be a good read.  Matthew Dickerson’s The Mind and The Machine: What it Means to Be Human and Why it Matters does not disappoint.  Dickerson’s basic question in the book is to ask whether a human can be understood as just a complex biological machine.  This view he calls physicalism, where the physical world of matter is all there is.  Dickerson contrasts this with dualism, the view that a human consists not just of body, but of body and spirit.

The first half of the book is focused on showing the shortcomings of a physicalist view.  He argues that under physicalism, things like creativity and heroism cease to exist.  Creativity is defined as the bringing of something new into existence, something original.  Heroism is making virtuous choices.  The problem is that under physicalism there is no free will.  If humans are just biological machines, extremely complex computers, we can only do what we have been programmed to do by nature or nurture.

He also argues, suprisingly, that physicalism leads to a devaluing of nature.  This appears surprising because it is often religious people, at least of certain persuasions, who are seen as so valuing the spiritual that they care nothing for the world around them.  But Dickerson says that the views of Kurzweil and others devalue the body: if we’re going to merge with computers, what need is there for the natural world?  Further, if the only things that exist are physical things, Dickerson argues than everything humans do is “natural.”  Humans, as part of nature, do natural things, whether this is polluting rivers or cleaning them.  And if determinism is true, which it must be under this view, then it is inevitable that we will do whatever we do.  There is nothing “unnatural.”

Dickerson’s third argument may be even more surprising, as he argues that physicalism gives less reason to trust in reason or science than does dualism.  In this he turns some physicalist arguments back on themselves.  Many say that humans only believe in religion as part of our evolutionary programming, it was something helpful in the past.  Yet if all our beliefs only come about out of usefulness, then the same is true of our trust in reason.  If a mind outside the physical brain is illusion, then so to is reason.

The second part of the book then goes through the same subjects, showing how a dualist perspective better accounts for human creativity, heroism and the rest.  It should be noted that Dickerson argues for an integrative dualism where body and soul cannot be separated from each other, both are needed for a human to be fully human.  This differs from a “ghost in the machine” dualism where the soul is like an entity living in the body, pulling the levers and running the show.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.  It covers a lot of ground while engaging with a variety of fields from science to literature.  Dickerson does not claim to have a knock-down rational argument for or against naturalism or dualism.  Instead his point is to ask which view better explains our existence as humans: “What I have suggested was that if humans are spiritual beings, then we ought to have some spiritual compass” (206).

To Dickerson, and I think he’s right, it comes down to assumptions.  If you assume from the outset that humans are just physical creatures and nothing more, that the brain is just the matter you can see inside a skull, then no argument for a soul makes sense.  Dickerson asks us to question that assumption.  What if we leave open the possibility that there is more to the world than what science can find, then what is physical and material?  Does a spiritual sense better explain creativity and heroism, reason and a moral basis for ecological practice (i.e., polluting the planet is wrong).  If so, perhaps there is something out there beyond the natural world.

That said, questioning our assumptions is tough.  If Dickerson can get us to do that, he has succeeded.

Finally, I did think the book slowed down near the end.  Perhaps, and this will sound bad coming from a Christian pastor, it is because that while his defense of creativity and heroism relied on the work of Tolkien, his defense of reason and science rested on scripture.  I believe everything he said about scripture is true and that there is a strong motivation in there for trusting reason and doing science.  But using scripture to support the argument in one chapter and not another seemed uneven.  It would have been better either to add scripture to the heroism and creativity chapter, or to find examples (like Tolkien) for the science and reason chapter.

The Mind Matters (or, not everyone leaves Christianity because Christians are jerks)

Why do people leave the Christian faith?  The answer often given is that there is some fault in the Christian community:

Christians are judgmental.

Christians are old-fashioned.  

Christians are not nice.

Christians are anti-everything

Certainly it is true that many people become disillusioned with faith because of bad experiences with Christians.

But not everybody.

I am reading a very challenging book called Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary.  The author, Kenneth Daniels, grew up in a strict, fundamentalist Christian church and spent years on the mission field in Africa before leaving the faith and becoming an atheist (for the record, Daniels prefers the term humanist).

Early in the book Daniels says more or less what I just said above: many people fault the Christian community for why Christians leave the faith.  But he says that for him it was the Christian community which kept him in the faith for so long.  Long after he no longer believed in the claims of Christianity he hung on because the community was so vital to his life:

I must emphasize again I have no ax to grind against Christians as people, even if I do not accept their beliefs. The most wonderful people I know are Christians. I have often heard believers assert that ex-Christians leave the faith primarily because of disappointments with the Christian community and not because of any deficiency in the gospel itself. Precisely the opposite was true for me: my desire to stay in fellowship with believers long served as an obstacle to my decision to leave the faith” (9-10).

Eventually Daniels had to be true to what he had come to believe and he left the church.  For Daniels it was about nothing other than the pursuit of truth: he no longer believed in Jesus, the Bible or God.  This book is completely focused on why he no longer believes and covers a lot of ground from the reliability of the Bible, miracles, hell and much more.

Books like this and people like Daniels should remind us that the mind matters.  We cannot leave behind thinking through the hard issues of faith.  If we offer a surface-level, shallow faith to the world we run the risk of losing the deep thinkers among us.

Having great music and fun programs that appeal to people’s desire for community and emotional attachment is a good thing.  But it cannot be the only thing.  Because sooner or later people begin to ask the hard questions and if they get no answers, or worse if they get shallow answers with little thought, they will drift away.

In my opinion, Daniels book is more challenging then those of the “new atheists” like Dawkins and Harris.  Daniels writes with kindness and knowledge as a former insider.  He does not hesitate to challenge faith where he sees it as illogical, which is most of the book, but the tone throughout is much friendlier then the so-called angry atheists.   Perhaps the new atheists can be brushed off as some guys who are just angry, Daniels and those like him cannot be brushed off as easily.

I think Daniel’s book should be read by Christians, especially pastors.  No matter what happens, it can only be good for our soul to allow our faith to be stretched by engaging the works of those who have left it.  I have appreciated works by Christian apologists, but I believe my faith is made stronger by reading well-thought out attacks on the faith.