CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Evil Motive and the US Supreme Court

Last month there was a terrific article in First Things about how theUS Supreme Court is using "evil motive" and "hate motivated"arguments in order to declare certain laws to be unconstitutional. The article is now available online at and it is a very sobering read.

To quote from the article:
"It seems evident that the Court's technique is not well calculatedto promote mutual understanding. Let's look first at its effect on the losing litigants is such cases. With its evil-motives discourse,the Court makes it clear to citizens who support an invalidated measure—such as the Colorado Amendment 2 struck down in Romer—not only that they have lost but also that they have masked andmisrepresented their real motive, which, as the Court has discovered,is hatred.

The expressed moral convictions and prudential concerns of these citizens are thus disparaged without any serious engagement or attempt at genuine understanding. Such understanding might jeopardize the ascription of merely hateful motives. It would be inconvenient, after all, to have to acknowledge that the people disfavored by ajudicial decision are not actually as bad as the Court for its beneficial purposes needs them to be.

The parties that prevail in such litigation will presumably be happier with the Court's explanation. But they will not thereby be induced to hold a more empathetic or magnanimous opinion of their adversaries. On the contrary, the human tendency to ascribe evil motives to those we oppose will be, for the prevailing parties, officially confirmed and rewarded. More generally, the Court's approach not only countenances but indeed mandates a discourse of demonization in which adversaries are required to litigate their differences by asserting and withstanding ascriptions of bigotry, intolerance, hatred, and "animus." In traditional logic and rhetoric, the so-called ad hominem argument is typically treated as a certifiable fallacy. But if evil motives become the test of constitutionality, then disputants are not merely authorized but indeed required to trade in just that sort of argument. Robert Nagel notes that a good deal of modern constitutional jurisprudence amounts to little more than thinly veiled exercises in name-calling, as the Justices peremptorily dismiss the positions they disfavor as products of "prejudice," "fear," "antipathy," "irrationality," or "abare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group." "[T]o a remarkable extent," Nagel observes, "our courts have become places where the name-calling and exaggeration that mark the lower depths ofour political debate are simply given a more acceptable, authoritative form."

Here in Canada we recently went through an election in which our Prime Minister (as well as most of the media, outside of the SunMedia Group) effectively stated that it was "un-Canadian" to opposeabortion or homosexual marriage, and that those who held these views did so from a motivation of hatred and malice. Considering these arenot only my particular beliefs, but also those of the Catholic Church(and quite a few other Christian churches as well), I found this assertion to be both astonishing, and offensive.

A Funky (Winkerbean) Discussion of ID
Comic Strip Investigates the Theory

Occasionally a comic strip takes on an issue with social/religious connotations. In the past, For Better or for Worst has taken up homosexuality, for example. Well, on Monday, August 29, 2004, the comic strip Funky Winkerbean commenced a series dealing with the mandated teaching of ID by the state science standards at the Ohio high school is central to the Funky Winkerbean strip. I have no idea if it will be a positive or negative light on ID, but I am sure it will be interesting.

If you don't get the script in your local paper, you can check out the comics here. Be aware that the strips available on the Internet run about two weeks behind the publication in the newspaper, so the strip from August 29 will probably not be available until September 13, 2004.

The Meaning and Misuse of "Fundamentalism" in the Press
Not every Christian is a Fundie

There is an interesting post on the Get Religion blog entitled "The Ancient Church Fathers and the AP Stylebook" about the use of the phrase "fundamentalists" in the press. As I have noted several million times, it is my view that anyone who takes their faith seriously is called a "fundamentalist" by the press, but the writer (Doug LeBlanc) points out that the term is both limited and misused.

So many people use this word as an all-purpose way of saying that someone is stupid. Fact is, I have met brilliant people who, accurately, could be described as Christian fundamentalists. And they don't handle snakes. Some of them hold doctrates from presitigious academic operations in Europe and other smart zip codes.

The bottom line: When used in a Christian context -- and you can make a case that this is the only context in which to use it -- the term "fundamentalist" has specific doctrinal and even historical content.

But, first, may the journalists in our midst draw swords (this is an evangelical or fundamentalist cultural reference) and open their copies of the bible of deadline journalism. I refer, of course, to the Associated Press Stylebook. There you will find the following passage of authoritative material:

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

In addition to that last sentence, it is important to note that AP takes the history of the word seriously.

The vague words in this reference are "strict, literal interpretations of Scripture." I get the impression these days that there are legions of journalists who think that applies to anyone who clings to all of the Ten Commandments. True "fundamentalism" is a product of the early 20th Century, which means it certainly is not a word to describe people who are defending basic Christian doctrines and sacraments. Someone is not a "fundamentalist" simply because they believe in a creedal doctrine such as the Second Coming of Christ or that salvation is through Jesus alone. It is bad journalism to use the term in such a context.

Of course, "fundamentalism" (or the more cute-sounding "fundie") are not the only terms used in the press for Christians who take their faith seriously. Try "extremists" as another example. If you are against abortion, it certainly cannot be because you believe that abortion kills an innocent human being and have a principled stand against it. No, you must be an "anti-family extremist" (at least according to Planned Parenthood). If you are against homosexual marriage, it cannot be because you have concerns about the decline of the family and the effect same-sex marriage may have on that decline. No, you must be a "conservative" or "right wing extremist" (at least according to the National Organization for Women) despite the fact a majority in this country oppose same sex marriage.

These phrases are all, in fact, ad hominems which should be eliminated from the discussion since they only serve to wrongly demonize the opposition. But then, I always hope for too much in this area.

Interesting Response to My Post on the Apologist
Is Craig Unreasonable?

Earlier, I prepared a short essay on the role of the Apologist. In it, I mentioned the writing of Christian Philosopher William Lane Craig, Ph.D., who I have heard speak on several occasions and who wrote the brilliant Reasonable Faith, and noted his statements in that book that it is the Holy Spirit who brings people to Christ. I believe his reasoning on this point to be accurate.

In response, an anonymous poster (I wish people wouldn't post anonymously--you can at least use a psuedonym) posted the following which I thought deserved a response: is an interesting page about how reasonable 'Reasonable Faith' is.

I quote :-

In my twenty minute discussion with him, in the process of getting his signature, I asked him about his views on evidence (which to me seem very close to self-induced insanity). In short, I set up the following scenario:

Dr. Craig, for the sake of argument let's pretend that a time machine gets built. You and I hop in it, and travel back to the day before Easter, 33 AD. We park it outside the tomb of Jesus. We wait. Easter morning rolls around, and nothing happens. We continue to wait. After several weeks of waiting, still nothing happens. There is no resurrection- Jesus is quietly rotting away in the tomb.

I asked him, given this scenario, would he then give up his Christianity? Having seen with his own eyes that there was no resurrection of Jesus, having been an eyewitness to the fact that Christianity has been based upon a fraud and a lie, would he NOW renounce Christianity? His answer was shocking, and quite unexpected.

He told me, face to face, that he would STILL believe in Jesus, he would STILL believe in the resurrection, and he would STILL remain a Christian. When asked, in light of his being a personal eyewitness to the fact that there WAS no resurrection, he replied that due to the witness of the "holy spirit" within him, he would assume a trick of some sort had been played on him while watching Jesus' tomb.

Surely this is not reasonable faith but the blindest fanaticism, blind because Craig tells people not to believe the evidence of their own eyes.

Craig wrote 'The fact is we can know the truth whether we have rational arguments or not.'

The man is beyond reason, and is happy to write books saying so.

I find this response interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is an ad hominem. I quoted Craig, who I still find to be an excellent speaker (his talks are not boring if you have the intellect to hang with them [sorry, Mr. Smith -- the ContraCraig writer]), writer and apologist. But I only pointed to a small part of his writings in my post. Anonymous' quote of the comment from ContraCraig does not, in any way, show that the argument that I pulled from Dr. Craig's book is incorrect. Instead, at best, it raises questions about whether Dr. Craig himself believes it.

Second, assuming that what ContraCraig had to say is relevant in some way, and assuming for the moment that he actually had such a conversation and that he is interested in reporting what was really said (both of which are, I believe, debatable), I really doubt that ContraCraig is giving an accurate--or at leastt, full--recital of the conversation of that day. A look at the remainder of his website shows that he has an incomplete understanding about what Dr. Craig is saying in his book. I strongly suspect that his prejudices colored his recollection of what Dr. Craig told him.

Let me give an example based upon one of the Dr. Craig quotes on ContraCraig, and Mr. Smith's response.

Dr. Craig: "Thus, although arguments and evidence may be used to support the believer's faith, they are never properly the basis of the faith."5

Mark Smith's Comment: In other words, evidence itself (remember the time machine?) is not even a proper basis for faith. In other words, EVEN IF the evidence were overwhelmingly against Jesus, even if they dug up his body tomorrow and via DNA testing proved beyond a shadow of doubt that it indeed was Jesus, or even if Jesus himself were to show up dancing naked on top of St. Peter's in Rome to denounce the whole thing as a fraud, NO MATTER WHAT evidence ever arose, evidence doesn't matter to Craig: Craig is still going to believe in Jesus. If any other religionist in the world, say a Mormon with two PhD's like Craig, had told Craig that regardless of the evidence to the contrary, he'd always believe in Joseph, Craig would denounce him, and rightly so, as being closed minded and irrational. That being the case, what does that make Craig?

Mr. Smith (ContraCraig) shows an incomplete understanding of Dr. Craig's point. To be fair to Mr. Smith, that is understandable because Dr. Craig's point is pretty difficult to grasp. But I will give it a try.

The quote comes from the opening chapter of the book in which Dr. Craig is discussing both faith and reason and their roles in belief in Jesus Christ. Being a rigorous thinker, Dr. Craig is clear throughout the book that he believes the truth claims of Christianity. He argues for the truth of the Existence of God based on the Kalam Cosmological Argument. He argues persuasively for the historical reliability of the New Testament and the Resurrection. These arguments are based largely on the fact that there exists accurate, truthful, eye-witness accounts in the Gospels to the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To suggest that the facts don't matter, ignores the entire context of the book.

Then what does Dr. Craig mean by the quote? At this particular point in the book, Dr. Craig is discussing "properly basic beliefs". Properly basic beliefs are beliefs that we can come to without any evidence whatsoever. As stated by Douglus Groothius in his on line Review of Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantiga:

Since his first book God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), Plantinga has argued, roughly put, that belief in God is epistemologically acceptable even apart from the success or failure of natural theology. One may legitimately believe in God apart from any specific positive arguments—whether inductive, deductive, or abductive—that establish the existence of God on the basic of certain features of the natural world. Theistic arguments may not be wrong in principle or entirely unsuccessful (as some, such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Barth have claimed), but they are not required for rational assent.

This is part of what Dr. Craig is talking about. How do I know? Because he spends four pages talking about Dr. Plantiga's ideas of warranted basic belief shortly prior to making the statement quoted. He notes his agreement with the Dr. Plantiga's argument that "God exists" is a basic warranted belief that needs no external evidence. The quote which ContraCraig cites on page 34 follows on Craig's argument that we know first that God is real not based upon the evidence, but upon the "self-authenticating witness of God's Holy Spirit" (Reasonable Faith p. 31) which is, to Dr. Craig, the basis for the basic belief that "God exists."

Having argued that "God exists" is properly basic (somewhat similar to a self-evident truth), he then notes that once a person knows that the Gospel to be true by means of the Spirit, the evidence can be used to support that belief. In other words, the evidence is used to support what we already know as the result of the working of the Holy Spirit. In such a case, the evidence does not take the place of the belief given by the Holy Spirit such that a person holds their faith by the evidence. Rather, the evidence is subsidiary to the belief since the first is the basis for the assurance in God which is faith, while the latter bolsters the assurance.

We do have to be careful here, because Dr. Craig then says something that may seem odd. It is this: "Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not visa versa." It appears here that Dr. Craig is saying that if the evidence demonstrates Christianity is not true, we should proceed on blind faith. Again, one must look at context. What he is saying throughout the book is that the evidence overwhelmingly supports Christian belief (hence, the chapters on evidence for the existence of God, reliability of the New Testament, evidence for the resurrection, etc.). What he is saying is that if a person comes across an argument or evidence that raises doubts about their Christianity, they should not let that argument or evidence control what they already know to be true from the witness of the Holy Spirit. Why not? To answer that, let's look at an example put forth by Dr. Plantiga and discussed by Dr. Craig in Reasonable Faith.

Suppose that a person is accused of committing a murder. He is shown to be on the scene of the crime near the time of the murder, he is shown to have a motive for the murder, and his fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. However, the accused knows, for a fact from his first hand experience, that he was walking alone in the woods at the time of the murder and that there are no witnesses or evidence to support what he knows to be true. The accused knows that he is innocent despite the evidence against him. Does the fact that the evidence is overwhelming for his guilt mean that he should agree that he is the murderer? Of course not. It is part of his knowledge that he did not kill the victim, and he is justified in refusing to accept as legitimate all of the evidence against him that seems to condemn him even though his own knowledge is not based on anything that he can prove.

What Dr. Craig says in his post is that he is justified in believing what he knows to be true from the indwelling of the Spirit over and above what any contrary evidence or arguments suggest even if he cannot personally answer or counter them because what he knows to be true from the revelation of the Holy Spirit trumps the arguments and evidence to the contrary. Thus, when a Christian encounters an argument against God's existence (such as the Problem of Evil), then to remain rational, the Christian must come up with a defeater for the argument. This defeater could be in the form of a well-reasoned apologetic (which there are many), but following Plantiga, Craig goes further. He makes the point that the belief itself may be so strong that the belief itself constitutes the defeater.

So here is what Dr. Craig is saying: A person who comes to a knowledge that Christianity is true as the result of the workings of the Holy Spirit is justified in holding that belief even if the evidence shows to the contrary because they know as surely as the accused man that the evidence to the contrary is false.

So, what did Dr. Craig mean if he said something like ContraCraig is suggesting? Well, I suspect he would have meant something like this: I know, really know, that Christianity is true. I have experienced it first hand, and nothing that you can show me could convince me it isn't true because you are presenting (at best) evidence and arguments which are insufficient to defeat what I know to be true. Thus, if you were to set up some type of time machine that could go back and we saw nothing, I would doubt the time machine more than I would doubt my knowledge of God. To the extent that ContraCraig suggests that no amount of evidence would ever be able to change Dr. Craig's mind, I don't agree that that is how he would answer. Rather, he would ask if the evidence were really sufficient to warrant a rejection of the strongly held belief that Christianity is true--this requires more than a mere argument or suggestion of facts to the contrary. Rather, it would require evidence or argument on a scale that would make maintaining a belief in Christiainty require that he live in a contradiction.

Finally, since it was my post to which he Anonymous poster was responding, I am happy to provide my answer to ContraCraig's question. As a refresher, here is the question:

for the sake of argument let's pretend that a time machine gets built. You and I hop in it, and travel back to the day before Easter, 33 AD. We park it outside the tomb of Jesus. We wait. Easter morning rolls around, and nothing happens. We continue to wait. After several weeks of waiting, still nothing happens. There is no resurrection- Jesus is quietly rotting away in the tomb.

I asked him, given this scenario, would he then give up his Christianity? Having seen with his own eyes that there was no resurrection of Jesus, having been an eyewitness to the fact that Christianity has been based upon a fraud and a lie, would he NOW renounce Christianity?

This is my answer:

A. First and foremost, it isn't going to happen. If we went back in time, I am very confident that such a trip would confirm the Biblical account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

B. If, for the sake of argument only, we went back in time in such a time machine and there was no showing of a resurrection, I would first question whether the time machine really worked. I would ask whether I had really been transported back in time or whether the time machine were some sort of trick and we really didn't go back in time. I would wonder whether we were at the right place or time. I would also ask whether the time machine couldn't have taken us back to some alternative time in an alternative universe or if the time machine itself changed time in its passing such that it changed the events of 2000 years ago.

C. Finally, assuming that the time machine worked and it really showed absolutely that Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, I would admit what ContraCraig suggests that Dr. Craig would not--I would stop believing in Christianity. Why, because Paul himself said that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christians are the ones most to be pitied.

So, now what? Regardless of whether Dr. Craig believes what I say he believes or what ContraCraig says he believes, we are still left with the question of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. We have no time machine to go back in time to look at the events 2000 years ago (and for various reasons I think one to be impossible), so we will take a rely on the records we do have. In all sincerity, I find in them a clear and convincing account (i.e., evidence) of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. So, rather than argue about what Dr. Craig believes, how about if we discuss whether belief in Christ is warranted by the evidence? I think you will find that it is.

Pro-Abortion Groups Make Me Sick
When did infanticide become an issue of women's rights?

Consider the news report about the judge finding the misnamed Partial Birth Abortion ban unconstitutional:

A federal judge declared the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act unconstitutional because it does not contain an exception to protect a woman's health, something the Supreme Court said is required in laws prohibiting types of abortion.

U.S. District Judge Richard C. Casey issued his ruling Thursday _ the second such ruling in three months _ even as he called the procedure "gruesome, brutal, barbaric and uncivilized."

The law, signed last November, banned a procedure known to doctors as intact dilation and extraction and called partial-birth abortion by abortion foes. The fetus is partially removed from the womb, and the skull is punctured or crushed.
Judge Revokes Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, by Larry Neumeister.

Note that the judge calls the procedure "gruesome, brutal, barbaric and uncivilized". (I think it very, very telling that the judge should find that somehow such an action is protected by the United States Constitution.) Exactly why does he say that? Well, let's look at the procedure more closely:

I refer now to a description from Dr. Martin Haskell's own instruction manual, "Dilation and Extraction for Late Second Trimester Abortion." It was included in presentation materials of the National Abortion Federation (notice this is a powerful, pro-abortion organization), entitled "Second Trimester Abortion: From Every Angle," pages 30-31. This material was distributed at the NAF Fall Risk Management Seminar, held September 13-14, 1992, in Dallas, Texas.

"The surgeon introduces a large grasping forceps, such as a Bierer or Hern, through the vaginal and cervical canals into the corpus of the uterus.... When the instrument appears on the sonogram screen, the surgeon is able to open and close its jaws to firmly and reliably grasp a lower extremity. The surgeon then applies firm traction to the instrument causing aversion of the fetus (if necessary) and pulls the extremity into the vagina....

"With a lower extremity in the vagina, the surgeon uses his fingers to deliver the opposite lower extremity, then the torso, the shoulders and the upper extremities.

"The skull lodges at the internal cervical [opening]....The fetus is oriented dorsum or spine up. At this point, the right-handed surgeon slides the fingers of the left hand along the back of the fetus and 'hooks' the shoulders of the fetus with the index and ring fingers (palm down)....

"While maintaining this tension, lifting the cervix and applying traction to the shoulders with the fingers of the left hand, the surgeon takes a pair of blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors in the right hand. He carefully advances the tip, curved down, along the spine and under his middle finger until he feels it contact the base of the skull under the tip of his middle finger.

"...The surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into foramen magnum. Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening.

"The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents. With the catheter still in place, he applies traction to the fetus, removing it completely from the patient."

This procedure is almost never done before viability.[4] By Haskell's own admission, two thirds of the children are still alive when he "forces the scissors into the base of the skull." He adds, "When I do the instrumentation on the skull [thrusting the scissors into the cranium] destroys the brain sufficiently so that even if it (the fetus) falls out at that point, it's definitely not alive."[5]
Nothing Hidden in D&X by Gregory Koukl.

"Gruesome, brutal, barbaric and uncivilized" are unstatements. This procedure is as bad as any that has ever, ever been practiced in the name of medicine. Our Congress agreed and they passed a very, very sensible bill to try to ban this procedure. So, what do the pro-choice (actually, pro-abortion) advocates say?

Rebekah Warren, executive director MARAL Pro-Choice Michigan, said the ruling sets a good precedent for planned lawsuits that will challenge the Legal Birth Definition Act, which was passed this summer by the Michigan Legislature. "We're very pleased with the ruling, and we're gratified that the judge has ruled unconstitutional this ban, (which) did not protect women's health," Warren said.

But does it, in fact, not take the health of the woman into account? This question has already been decided by Congress. Here is the exact text of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 related to this issue:

Rather than being an abortion procedure that is embraced by the medical community, particularly among physicians who routinely perform other abortion procedures, partial-birth abortion remains a disfavored procedure that is not only unnecessary to preserve the health of the mother, but in fact poses serious risks to the long-term health of women and in some circumstances, their lives. As a result, at least 27 States banned the procedure as did the United States Congress which voted to ban the procedure during the 104th, 105th, and 106th Congresses.
Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

In other words, Congress had a series of Congressional hearings on this issue and has already decided the question of whether partial birth abortion is medically necessary. Answer: It isn't. Never. Not ever. No, no, no. Yet, this judge listens to some physician who has a different idea about the necessity of infanticide than the vast, vast majority of the physicians in this country who is brought in as an expert, and the judge finds that the law is unconstitutional on that basis. Unbelievable!

I am sickened by people who support this procedure. I am sickened by the lies that claim that the procedure is needed for the health of the mother when the overwhelming concensus of the medical community is that this procedure is not only unnecessary, but in most instances, is more likely to harm the mother. I am appalled at judges who find that a right to kill an infant is a Constitutional right that cannot be legistlated against. I am sickened by the whole thing.

God help us.

Spreading the Word

I recently finished reading the latest offering of Gary Habermas on the resurrection, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, and wrote a review for amazon. Co-authored with Michael Liconoa, the book received praise from the usual apologist suspects, such as Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and J.P. Moreland. But it also received praise from respected New Testament scholar Ben Witherington and historian Paul Maier.

At 384 pages, I expected this to be an in-depth discussion of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Having read it, I discovered that it is not. But it is something else. And something very helpful. It is a kind of manual for Christians about how to evangelize by using the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection. The actual presentation of the evidence is not nearly as in depth as N.T. Wright's exquisite The Resurrection of the Son of God or as forcefully structured as William L. Craig's many expressions of the argument (The Son Rises and Reasonable Faith), but is at least as vaulable.

Habermas and Licona effectively distill down five "minimal facts" that most historians and scholars would agree with.

1) Jesus' death by crucifixion;
2) Jesus' disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them;
3) Paul, a persecutor of the church, has suddenly changed to faith in Jesus;
4) James, skeptical of Jesus during his ministry, was suddenly changed to faith in Jesus; and,
5) The tomb of Jesus was empty.

Except for, perhaps, No. 4, these facts are agreed to by even moderate non-sectarian scholars. The Case for Jesus does a good job in distilling down the reasons scholarship has arrived at these conclusions. They use graphs and illustrations to track and organize the argument. Though I usually find such graphs somewhat annoying, these were helpful.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that it avoids the usual pitfalls of trying to prove too much. It advises readers to focus on the resurrection, just as the early church did. You may not be able to convince everyone that the Bible is inerrant, that Jesus fulfilled all OT prophecies, or that the resurrection accounts can be completely harmonized. Why waste the effort and drive off potential converts when the evidence for the resurrection itself is so strong? Sage advice. And there is more of it that I think will be helpful to those seeking to share their faith by presenting the case for one of its core beliefs.

Though it is sometimes hard for me to gauge how other Christian laypersons (who do not make a hobby of this kind of stuff) will absorb the material, I suspect they will find the evidence, as well as the practical suggestions offered on to how to share the material, very helpful.

Even if, as I am, you tend to shy away from popular apologetics, this book is worth a read.

Balaam's Ass
On Seeing Along and Not At

The account of Balaam's Ass (Numbers 22:28-34)is one of the most perplexing in the entire Bible for both the Bible-believing Christian and the skeptic. After all, how can we take a book seriously when it contains stories of talking donkeys? Doesn't this show that the Bible, as noted by the infamous anti-Christian Clarence Darrow, a fable not to be trusted?

The story points out the bifurcation in approaches to the Biblical text which can often lead to widely divergent views of its veracity. If one starts with some of the difficult stories like the account of Balaam's Donkey or the Serpent in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), one could to conclude that the entire Bible is nonsense because we all know from personal experience that donkeys and snakes can't talk. Isn't the only reasonable thing to do is to reject the Biblical account as unhistorical?

However, if one starts with the evidence for God's existence, reviews the evidence that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and understand that God can, and has, intervened in the world, the accounts like the one about Balaam's Donkey begin to take on a different light. Everyone knows that donkeys can't talk on their own. But, if there is a God who is real and cares about the world He created, and if there is evidence that God has acted in history, then God can speak through whatever he wishes: a donkey, a book, or even a blog like this.

C.S. Lewis made an interesting point about the difference between looking at something and looking along something in his short essay "Meditations in a Woodshed." There he stated:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sun beam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust in it, was the most striking thing in place. Everything else was almost pitch black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, said that the been fell on my eyes. Instantly than a previous picture vanished. I saw no tool shed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of the tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

Such is the case of understanding the Bible. When one tries to look at if from the outside, beginning with the assumption that there is no God, one sees talking donkeys, talking snakes, bats misidentifed as birds, and other things that the skeptic sees as subjecting the Bible to ridicule. But if you are a believer and begin your investigation of the Biblical texts with the understanding that God is real and that He can act on and in the nature He created, then the idea of talking donkeys is not all that bizarre. After all, the Bible doesn't assume that donkeys can talk, but rather says that it was God who acted when the verse begins "And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey." Now, if it Bible assumed that all donkeys were talking, then I would side with the skeptic. But where there are isolated examples of animals talking, and the text explains why the animals were talking, I don't see why we should prefer the "at" view over the "along" view.

Defense of Marriage Act Upheld by Federal Court
Too Bad its only a Bankruptcy Court

According to Agape Press, a bankruptcy court situated in the State of Washington has upheld the provisions of DOMA over the effort of a couple of women who had married in Canada to file a joint bankruptcy. According to the news report:

The ruling on Thursday from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul Snyder in Tacoma said the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, is constitutional.

The case arose after two women, Ann and Lee Kandu, were "married" in British Columbia in August 2003. Several months later, they filed a joint petition for bankruptcy in Washington state. But federal law allows joint bankruptcy filings only by a debtor and his or her "spouse." According to DOMA, a "spouse" -- under federal law -- refers "only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."

The Kandus argued that the right to marry, without regard to the genders of the parties involved, is a fundamental right. But Judge Snyder rejected the Kandus' arguments and refused to expand the constitutional protections afforded to traditional marriage to same-sex marriage.

"No federal court...has explicitly recognized that this fundamental right to marry extends to persons of the same sex," the judge wrote, adding that the court must "be extremely cautious before creating on its own a new fundamental right based on what the Supreme Court might decide in the future." "Washington Bankruptcy Case Yields DOMA-Friendly Ruling", By Allie Martin, Jody Brown, and Rusty Pugh, August 20, 2004.

Before anyone gets too excited, it needs to be noted where the bankruptcy courts lie in the Constitutional scheme. You see, the bankruptcy courts are Article I courts, i.e., they are not part of the judicial branch (Article III). The decisions of the bankruptcy court are appealable to the Distict Court in the District where they are located (the lowest Article III court in the District). If you are unfamiliar with the position of the District Court, it is the federal version of the trial court. In other words, with all due respect to the Bankruptcy Court judges (many of whom are fine people), their decisions do not carry the same weight (and hence, their decisions do not have the same precedential effect) as the lowest courts in the judicial branch.

While I believe that the decision of this bankruptcy judge is both right and helpful, it is nothing that I am going to get overly excited about.

Another Review of The Twilight of Atheism

Earlier I posted a link to my review of The Twilight of Atheism over on Just wanted to give my Anglican and Episcopalian brothers out there a heads up that an anglican periodical has offered this review of the same book.

Flat Earth Thinking
Why does maintain their belief that "junk DNA" proves evolution?'s atheism and agnosticism pages has an article (or at least it did as of the time of the posting of this essay) in their section of Evolution FAQ entitled "Is Evolution Science? Junk DNA". It first describes "junk DNA" as follows:

Junk DNA are basically pieces of DNA that have no function (or in some cases, such as introns, they produce no protein but may be involved in regulation of the gene). When the DNA is transcribed, these pieces of DNA either do not get transcribed at all or are only partially transcribed, with no final result (i.e., a functional protein) being produced. You can cut out or modify most of this junk DNA without affecting the organism.

Supposing that it is true that "junk" DNA exists, what does it prove? Well, to's Atheism/Agnosticism editors, it must prove that evolution happened.

"It is hard enough to explain (if you don't accept evolution) why some functional pieces of DNA show great similarities. It is pretty much impossible to rationally explain why nonfunctional DNA, erroneous DNA, would be very similar between different species. Why would genetic code that doesn't do anything and which clearly appears to be the result of mutations be similar, or in many cases identical, between different organisms? The only explanation that makes any sense is if this DNA was inherited from a common ancestor. Homologies between junk DNA are probably the most powerful of the homology evidence for common descent, as common descent is the only rational explanation for them."

While I personally think that their logic falls well short of convincing, and while I certainly don't feel compelled to agree with the first sentence at all, there is another and greater problem with this approach: there may not be any "junk DNA" at all.

Consider, for example, the following from the BBC in an article entitled "'Junk' throws up precious secret" dated May 12, 2004:

"A collection of mystery DNA segments, which seem to be critical for the survival of many animals, are causing great interest among scientists. Researchers inspecting the genetic code of rats, mice and humans were surprised to find they shared many identical chunks of apparently 'junk' DNA. This implies the code is so vital that even 75 million years of evolution in these mammals could not tinker with it. But what the DNA does, and how, is a puzzle, the journal Science reports.

Before scientists began laboriously mapping several animal life-codes, they had a rather narrow opinion about which parts of the genome were important. According to the traditional viewpoint, the really crucial things were genes, which code for proteins - the 'building blocks of life'. A few other sections that regulate gene function were also considered useful. But the new findings suggest this interpretation was somewhat wanting.

* * *

Professor Chris Ponting, from the UK Medical Research Council's Functional Genetics Unit, told BBC News Online: 'Amazingly, there were calls from some sections to only map the bits of genome that coded for protein - mapping the rest was thought to be a waste of time. It is very lucky that entire genomes were mapped, as this work is showing.' He added: 'I think other bits of 'junk' DNA will turn out not to be junk. I think this is the tip of the iceberg, and that there will be many more similar findings.'"

Will there be similar findings? Consider the following from the Reasons to Believe e-Newsletter dated August 20, 2004:

Evolutionary biologists maintain that junk DNA provides incontrovertible evidence for evolution. This study demonstrates that one class of non-coding DNA, endogenous retroviruses, plays an important role in protecting the cell from retroviral infections. The functional importance of junk DNA indicates that careful planning by an Intelligent Designer, rather than undirected, random biochemical events, shaped the genomes of organisms.

Theodora Hatziioannou et al., “Retrovirus Resistance Factors Ref1 and Lv1are Species-Specific Variants of TRIM5,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 101 (2004): 10774-10779.

This study is not unique. An example of the scope of the recent discoveries regarding the use of DNA previously identified as "junk" can be found in "Junk DNA", By Jaan Suurkula M.D.:

In June 2004 a team at Harvard Medical School (HMS) reported, that they have, in a yeast, found a "Junk DNA" gene that regulates the activity of nearby genes. While common genes work by giving rise to proteins, this gene works by just being switched on. Then it blocks the activity of an adjacent gene.

* * *

Some studies have found that noncoding DNA plays a vital role in the regulation of gene expression during development (Ting SJ. 1995. A binary model of repetitive DNA sequence in Caenorhabditis elegans. DNA Cell Biol. 14: 83-85.). . . (List of studies omitted.)

Over 700 studies have demonstrated the role of non-coding DNA as enhancers for transcription of proximal genes. (List of studies omitted.)

Over 60 studies have demonstrated the role of non-coding DNA as silencers for suppression of transcription of proximal genes.(List of studies omitted.)

Some studies indicate that non-coding DNA regulate translation of proteins.(List of studies omitted.)

I took the liberty of removing the references that are found in the text of the webpage to some of the individual studies. Anyone interested is, of course, free to go to the webpage and peruse them.

What is Dr. Suurkula's conclusion?

The idea that a major part of our DNA is "garbage" ignored the fact that a key feature of biological organisms is optimal energy expenditure. To carry enormous amounts of unnecessary molecules is contrary to this fundamental energy saving feature of biological organisms. Increasing evidence are now indicating many important functions of this DNA, including various regulatory roles.

This means that this so-called non-coding DNA influences the behavior of the genes, the "coding DNA", in important ways. Still there is very little knowledge about the relationship between non-coding DNA and the DNA of genes.

Thus, there is a continuing progression of research that is determining more and more that "junk" DNA is far from junk--rather, it is a vital part of the DNA structure in many animals. What does this mean for's FAQ answer? Well, to begin with, they acknowledge in their definition of "junk" DNA that it may serve some function. To the extent that it does, that admission destroys the argument that "it is pretty much impossible to rationally explain why nonfunctional DNA, erroneous DNA, would be very similar between different species." Maybe, but since it has a function, the argument doesn't apply, does it? Of course not. And since it is appearing more and more likely that the DNA previously thought of as "junk" has some functions (even though we may not yet be able to identify them), the idea that "junk" DNA proves evolution is fading fast.

The idea that the cell contains "junk" DNA that is being copied only because it is evolutionary in nature is day-by-day being proven to be overstated. As more and more evidence comes in, it appears that the amount of "junk" DNA has been greatly overstated. The argument that 97% of the DNA in the cell is "junk" and therefore proves evolution ought to be discarded as "flat earth" thinking.

For more on this issue, I recommend reading "When Junk DNA isn't Junk," from the author of (and CADRE member) Evidence for God from Science.

The Job of the Apologist
The Stone in the Path

I have been engaged in debating Christianity with atheists, agnostics and skeptics on the Internet since 1997. I have participated in hundreds of discussions, and have incurred the slings and arrows of those who disagree with me. One might suppose that I would be able to regale everyone with stories of how I have managed to "save" many people in all that time, or to talk at length about the people who I know who, through the results of my arguments, have gotten on their knees and "come to Christ" in my presence. Alas, I cannot say I have had any such experience. Does that mean that I am a failure as an apologist or that apologetics are useless. Not at all.

In the course of discussing Christianity with the many Internet skeptics, I have never, ever expected that someone would suddenly say "wow, you're right!" My expectations are shaped, in part, by my belief that people don't reject God because they have true intellectual objections to the faith. I think that Apologetics and the various arguments that can be found for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible are sufficiently clear and convincing that anyone with an open mind will ultimately agree that there is good evidence for believing that God is there and He is not silent (to borrow from the late, great Francis Schaeffer). There is actually something else that keeps that person from becoming Christian--something deeper that even they may not recognize.

William Lane Craig, Ph.D., one of my favorite Christian philosophers, puts it this way in his book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics:

"According to Paul, natural man left to himself does not even seek God: 'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God' (Rom. 3:10-11). Man in himself cannot understand spiritual things: 'The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned' (1 Cor. 2:14). And he is hostile to God: 'For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot' (Rom. 8:7). As Jesus said, men love darkness rather than light, left to himself, natural man would never come to God.

* * *

"Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God." Craig, Reasonable Faith, p. 35.

Dr. Craig is correct. Even though the person who is an atheist claims that there is no ulterior motive and though they continue to contend that their lack of belief is solely intellectual, it really is not. The intellectual objections are a facade set up to justify their love of the dark.

Try this as a test: Ask a skeptic for their biggest problem with Christianity. They will come up with some objection like the Problem of Evil, the Problem of Non-belief, the lack of historical support for the person of Jesus, errors in the Bible, whatever. Now, I have yet to come across an objection that cannot be countered, and in most cases, countered quite effectively. (I am not saying that all of these objections can all be countered beyond a reasonable doubt, but there are good, solid answers to every single objection that I have ever seen.) But if you find a skeptic who is reasonable enough to agree that you have a legitimate argument, they will always have a fall back position that now becomes their reason for disbelieving. I don't think it their arguments are contrived. They honestly believe that their objections are real, but they are like the store front on a Hollywood set. What is really behind them is not shown.

In these cases, I remember three things that I always take into these encounters with me. I want to share those three things with you.

First, I have not, and cannot, convert anyone to Christianity. That is the job of the Spirit, and only the Spirit can change the heart. That does not mean that apologetics does not have a role, but I must remember at all times that if a person does not "come to Jesus" following any discussion I may have, it is not because I have not been effective or done my best to do the will of God. I can only do what I can do, and it is for the Spirit to do the rest.

Second, the job of the apologist is to try to knock down the walls that the non-believer has erected which he or she uses as an excuse to not believe. As stated by J.P. Moreland, Ph.D. (another of my favorite Christian philosophers) in his book Scaling the Secular City:

"[A]pologetics can help remove obstacles to faith and thus aid unbelievers in embracing the gospel. Certainly the Holy Spirit must be involved in drawing men to Christ. But a preacher is not absolved of the responsibility of preparing his sermon just because the Spirit must apply the Word of God to the lives of his listeners. In the same way, ambassadors for Christ are not excused from the responsibility of defending the gospel. The Spirit can use evidence to convict men of the truth of the proclamation." Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, p. 12.

Gregory Koukl, President of Stand to Reason and one of the greatest popular apologist on the Internet, puts it this way in his on-line resource "Through the Doors of Opportunity", February 2002:

"Usually, though, the fruit is not ripe; the nonbeliever is simply not ready. He may not even have begun to think about Christianity. Dropping a message on him that, from his point of view, is meaningless or simply unbelievable doesn’t accomplish anything. In fact, it may be the worst thing you can do. He rejects a message he doesn’t understand and then he’s harder to reach next time.

Now here is my own more modest goal. I want to put a stone in his shoe. All I want to do is give him something worth thinking about. I want him to hobble away on a nugget of truth he can’t simply ignore because it continues to poke at him."

My goal, is always modest. I want to try to knock down an intellectual barrier that the nonbeliever has constructed to coming to a true knowledge of Christ. If I cannot knock it down, I at least want to make a chip in his intellectual dam because a chip can become a crack, and once the dam is cracked, the living water is freer to flow through and fill the valley of his life. (Poetic, no?)

By the same token, Jesus himself said, "For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it." Matthew 7:14. Have you ever seen one of those old stone paths made up of a series of large interconnecting stones? I try to think of myself as a stone in the path leading to life. I may not be the final stone, but I am want to be one of the stones (not one of the Rolling Stones, of course). I want to be one of the stones in the path that God is stretching before him on that narrow way. That would be the greatest thing I can do.

Finally, I always recall that God says that those who stand up for Him will be hated by the world. Whenever I get abused by an skeptic who (wrongly) makes fun of my arguments or of me personally, I gain great comfort in knowing that I am doing what I am convicted to do. I truly believe that I will bear those insults and hurts when I eventually join Jesus in heaven, and God will look at what I have done and say: "Well done, good and faithful servant."

God, may it be so.

P.S. Thanks once again to The Dawn Treader for maintaining a truly great blog which inspired this post.

Lessons Learned from The Twilight of Atheism

I recently finished reading Allister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism. McGrath is a professor at Oxford and was himself an atheist through his college years.

The book has caused something of a stir among atheists, as evidenced by their responses to the book over on (for my own amazon review go here). I am not sure how many critics have actually read the book, but it is hardly the polemic some suggest. Indeed, it is a thought provoking book no matter what your background.

McGrath spends little time discussing arguments for or against the existence of God. When he does it mostly has to do with setting the historical stage. Instead, The Twilight of Atheism follows the rise and fall of a philosophical movement -- atheism. By atheism McGrath means what many call "hard atheism." The deliberate, supposedly informed, affirmative belief that there is no God.

The strength of the book is that it examines atheism as a cultural and philosophical movement, not just as a set of arguments about God. Though some atheists naively believe that atheism is simply a matter of applying logic and reason to see the obvious, this is an inadequate basis for explaining its origins and development as a philosophical movement. This does not deny the possible truth of atheism any more than examining the cultural and historical factors that facilitated the rise of Christianity necessarily negates the truth of Christianity -- something that far more people are willing to do.

Among the factors that gave rise to philosophical atheism was the revolutionary attitude of the time. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was growing revolutionary attitudes against authority in Europe. And since Christianity was a strong part of the establishment, it too was the target of much philosophical zeal. Atheism, as the strongest possible attack on Christianity, was a weapon against the establishment. It was a liberator from the oppressor. McGrath effectively uses the French Revolution as an example. Motivated by a strong element of atheism, not only were the nobility and royals targeted, but so were the clergy and the churches. Churches were pillaged and many converted to secular uses. Priests and nuns were persecuted and some forced to marry and leave their callings. Eventually the atheists were reigned in an a soft form of deism was encouraged. But the joining of political and atheistic revolution against the perceived oppressive forces of the royalty and the church is clear.

But what is more interesting is McGrath's discussion about the failure of atheism to prevail as a philosophical movement. Through communism atheism spread itself, with the sanction of the state, through a third of the world. Even in the west, religion appeared to be on the decline. Symbolized by Time Magazine's famous cover page asking, "Is God Dead?" The answer seemed to be yes, or almost nearly so. Some scientists were claiming science had left no place for God, and advocated "steady state universe" models that sought to prove the universe was eternal and had no need for a creator. There were even mainline clergy who were discussing the form Christianity should take without a belief in God.

But just when atheism seemed on the verge of victory, it collapsed. Communism failed and was widely discredited by the realization that it was an oppressive, not liberating force. Though atheism had been brutally imposed on the people of Russia and Eastern Europe for decades, it faded fast once the state vehicle of oppression was lifted. Atheist numbers have dropped dramatically throughout former communist nations, and Christian numbers have surged.

In the West, atheism stumbled as well. Christianity adapted and revised itself into a potent and popular new movement. In the third world nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, this movement -- especially in its spirit-filled form -- supplanted Marxism in offering hope to the poor and oppressed. Even in Western Europe, atheism lots its potency and transformed into a more complacent nonreligious attitude. Even among western scientists, many have no reservations about expressing belief in a Supreme Being or God, and those that may be atheists generally give at least lip service to the idea that "religion is a separate field of study than science, and therefore science cannot say whether God exists or not."

What happened?

McGrath provides a number of answers, but the one that I focus on here is his original theme of atheism as a weapon against the oppressor. This is the liberator/oppressor perspective. As a reaction to the establishment, atheism was destined to lose potency once Christianity was no longer part of the establishment. There is much to commend this argument. This explains why atheism was never as popular in the United States -- where religion was a matter of personal preference rather than state sanction. If there was no oppressor, there was no need for a liberator. Though unbelief is stronger in Western Europe, even here atheism has not carried the day. Though Christianity has in many ways been vanquished there, atheism is not the dominant philosophy. Instead there is more complacency about religion and agnosticism. In some ways, atheism is a victim of its own success in Western Europe. Having dethroned the perceived oppressor, atheism was no longer a weapon of liberation. Thus, it lost much of its potency and its appeal.

What does this tell us about atheism?

That irrespective of its merits, atheism as a belief system is often motivated by emotion and factors other than sheer intellect. The attractiveness of atheism rises when it can be used as a weapon against the establishment. Against the perceived oppressor. I notice this in many of my personal dealings with atheism. Many are very militant. They do not just disagree with religion, they loathe and fear it. To them, even though they are free of any religious coercion whatsoever, they still see Christianity as an oppressive force. Indeed, many of them appear to have felt this oppressive force in a very personal way -- having been hurt by Christians or the Church or overly religious family members. Atheism is the ultimate weapon against this oppressive force. It strikes at the very heart of Christianity and eliminates all of its legitimacy. There need be no talk of reform or shared responsibility. Christianity is a lie and nothing it does to affect a person's life need be tolerated.

Because Christianity is an oppressive force, it should not be tolerated. It should be rolled back. People who believe in Christianity are either oppressors taking advantage of others, or oppressed themselves. Thus, they should either be exposed as frauds and exploiters or be "liberated" from Christianity. Perhaps this explains the special hatred that so many atheists have against Christian apologists. The poor kid who was raised in the South and sent to Sunday School by his parents may not know better. He simply needs to be enlightened. But militant atheists cannot conceive of informed and seemingly intelligent people sincerely choosing Christianity (choosing to be oppressed), so apologists must be oppressors. They are not victims of the system, but its guardians.

Just some thoughts stirred by a provocative book.

Disclaimer: Of course, I have met some atheists who were not so motivated. But they tended towards agnosticism or a "live and let live" attitude towards religion. Some even think that religion serves a useful purpose. I have also met brilliant atheists and stupid atheists. Just like Chrsitains, come to think of it.

Why Can't God be a Creative Creator?
Another angle on the "bad design" argument.

Over the past few weeks I have been focusing on the Argument from Design, and will shortly be adding more responses for detractors. However, I have also found that the argument from design has been, at least in part, the subject of discussion at other excellent blogs. I have previously pointed out that Prothesis Blogspot wrote on the subject of "bad design", i.e., the idea that imperfections in the universe suggests that there is no designer. It's akin to saying: "If I were God, I wouldn't have done it this way."

Imago_Dei blog has also taken up the same "bad design" issue (apparently, it was the blog that led Prothesis Blog to take up the argument). His initial thoughts are found at Perils of Bad Design which sets forth some very interesting thoughts on the topic. But more interesting to me is his latest post on the topic entitled Tiny Engineer or Creative Artist? Consider the following:

"The Naturalist's argument is based on the assertion that if God exists, and if he designed biological organisms, he would have designed them (and us) in ways in which optimized all aspects of our physical bodies. That would be his main and most important consideration. If there exists characteristics in biologic organisms that are consistent with sub-optimal design, that would indicate that God did not do the designing.

"A problem with this argument is that is completely ignores the fact that optimal design may not be the goal of a creative designer. We see that constantly in human design. The design of the VW bug is very sub-optimal. It sacrifices certain things (like passenger room) for esthetics, and was very popular. Human beings actually freely choose to purchase a car because of its beauty and 'cuteness' (a term used by a staff member of mine who drives one) than by its optimal engineering efficiency."

"Why shouldn't a benevolent, transcendent designer choose to sacrifice some design characteristics to increase the beauty of his design? Where is the room for creativity? Why should we believe that we know his mind enough to know how he should design us?"

Right on. This is a great insight into this issue. Why can't God, if He is the creator, be a creative creator? Why can't He choose beauty over function? Why can't He decide that between efficiency and aesthetics that the aesthetic shouldn't be control the design? Why should we assume that if He makes such a choice that God is a bad designer?

Have Archeologists Found John the Baptist's Cave?

The Associated Press is reporting about an archeological find outside of Jerusalem. It is a cave with 28 steps leading down to a large pool believed to be used for baptism, located near John the Baptist' reputed hometown. There are also various drawings in the cave depicting a man holding a staff and wearing animal skins, as well as pottery shards likely used in baptismal ceremonies. The drawings were likely drawn in the fourth of fifth century.

One set of archeologists seem convinced these drawings accurately represent a local tradition dating back to John the Baptist's activities in the area. Another set see no clear evidence linking the location to John the Baptist. Apparently a book will be forthcoming soon. Given the roller coaster ride of the recent "James the brother of Jesus Ossuary" caused, this could be interesting. Although unlike that controversy, there seems to be no doubt about the legitamacy of the site itself, only with the conclusions based on it.

Polygamy is a Constitutional Right?
Gosh, I didn't see this one coming.

From the Dallas Voice: The Community Newspaper for Gays and Lesbians in Dallas:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — If Texas cannot criminalize sodomy, Utah should not be able to criminalize polygamy, argued the attorney for three adults who want to live together as husband and wives.

The three filed a lawsuit after they were denied a marriage license by the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office in December.

They ask that the county clerk be required to issue the marriage license, and they seek a declaration that the state’s criminal and civil bans of polygamy are unconstitutional.

“What my clients want is to be able to enter into that relationship without the stigma of being branded as criminals,” civil-rights attorney Brian Barnard argued Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart, who took the case under advisement.
Assistant Attorney General Jerrold Jensen argued that the group lacks legal standing to challenge the statutory prohibition against polygamy because they have not been charged with violating it. He conceded they have standing to challenge civil bans on plural marriage.

Jensen cited an 1878 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the polygamy conviction of George Reynolds, personal secretary to Mormon pioneer leader Brigham Young.
“Those concepts and that holding in that case have not been overturned,” Jensen said.

However, Barnard said the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a ban on private same-sex activities provides a basis for striking down the polygamy ban.

Is this true? Does the Lawrence v. Texas case decided by the United States Supreme Court in June 2003 provide a basis for making this argument? You bet it did.

For those not familiar with the case, Lawrence v. Texas was the case which concerned the Sodomy laws in the State of Texas (but obviously affects the sodomy laws of every other state). It was essentially a revisiting of the case of Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U. S. 186 (1986) which held that states had the right to make sodomy illegal in their respective jurisdictions. Of course, that was in the 1980s, and there was talk that Justice Powell had said after the 5-4 decision in Bowers that he believed that he had made a mistake and would have voted (if given another opportunity) to strike down such statutes. Of course, Powell has not been on the court for more than 10 years, but the fact that he questioned his own vote and the changing morays of our society made it certain that the Bowers v. Hardwick case would be revisited.

Between Bowers and Lawrence, however, the court took the opportunity to expand on the meaning of the "right to privacy" (which appeared miraculously in the 1965 Supreme Court case of Griswold v. Connecticut) in a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey. While I don't want to take the time here to go through the entire details of the evolution of the right to privacy from its single celled infancy in Griswold to its full-grown quadriped status in Casey, it is sufficient to note here that the "right to privacy" has continually expanded since its inception in 1965. In Casey, it reached a new zenith in both scope and power when the court described the right to privacy in broad, sweeping terms that transmuted the right into one of "personal autonomy."

Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S., at 685 . Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. Eisenstadt v. Baird, supra, 405 U.S., at 453 (emphasis in original). Our precedents "have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter." Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944). These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State. [505 U.S. 833, 852]

If you have never read this language before, take a moment to read it closely. Consider its implications. The right to privacy becomes, under this language, not merely a right preserving the bedroom from the bedroom police. It is not merely a right preserving the right to take contraceptives so as to decide whether one should have children and when. It has evolved into an all-encompassing right that gives individuals a great deal of say in many, many areas that are at the center of the culture wars: euthanasia, abortion, homosexuality, etc. etc. This extension of rights to the individuals must, necessarily, limit the rights of societies to regulate those activities. By analogy, if we have the right to free speech (which we do), the times and ways in which the government can regulate those rights is necessarily limited. Legally, the government may limit that speech only if it can show a compelling state interest and no lesser intrusive alternative. Likewise, if we have the right to personal autonomy (which Casey announces we do), then the right of the government to regulate the activities encompassed in that right is necessarily limited in the same way.

With that background, consider what Lawrence says. The court decided to use the case to continue with its expansive reading of the liberty interest of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion, tries to be careful not to overstep the bounds, but the principles he states are certainly more broad than the exceptions he paints. Note, for example, the echoing of the language from Casey in the following quote from Justice Kennedy in the Lawrence case.

The laws involved in Bowers and here are, to be sure, statutes that purport to do no more than prohibit a particular sexual act. Their penalties and purposes, though, have more far-reaching consequences, touching upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home. The statutes do seek to control a personal relationship that, whether or not entitled to formal recognition in the law, is within the liberty of persons to choose without being punished as criminals.

This, as a general rule, should counsel against attempts by the State, or a court, to define the meaning of the relationship or to set its boundaries absent injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects. It suffices for us to acknowledge that adults may choose to enter upon this relationship in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons. When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring. The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice.

Consider what he is saying here, as opposed to what must necessarily follow from the language. While he suggests that there are limits to the protections provided by the right to personal autonomy (echoed in the first paragraph, but certainly precedent for the decision) in that the State can regulate a relationship where it "abuse[s] an institution that the law protects", the language surrounding that limitation is much, much broader. So much so, that it all but swallows up the exception he notes. The state is restricted in its attempt to regulate the "personal relations" between people. The state cannot try to define the "meaning of the relationship or set its boundaries . . . ." Adults are free to "choose to enter upon this relationship in their homes and their own private lives . . . ." If a person expresses their sexuality in "intimate contact with another person," that contact is part of a personal bond that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. And if the Fourteenth Amendment extends to "intimate contact with another person", why not intimate contact with other "persons"?

Justice O'Connor, in her concurring opinion, chimes in:

Moral disapproval of a group cannot be a legitimate governmental interest under the Equal Protection Clause because legal classifications must not be “drawn for the purpose of disadvantaging the group burdened by the law.” [Citation omitted.] Texas’ invocation of moral disapproval as a legitimate state interest proves nothing more than Texas’ desire to criminalize homosexual sodomy. But the Equal Protection Clause prevents a State from creating “a classification of persons undertaken for its own sake.”

Thus, moral disapproval of actions by the majority is an insufficient basis for the state to ban a particular activity. Like polygamy, perhaps? Maybe, but Justice O'Connor identifies protecting the institution of marriage as, perhaps, a Constitutionally valid reason to ban marriages outside of tradition.

Texas cannot assert any legitimate state interest here, such as national security or preserving the traditional institution of marriage. Unlike the moral disapproval of same-sex relations—the asserted state interest in this case—other reasons exist to promote the institution of marriage beyond mere moral disapproval of an excluded group.

That is, it appears to until you consider Justice Scalian's response to her statement in his dissenting opinion:

But “preserving the traditional institution of marriage” is just a kinder way of describing the State’s moral disapproval of same-sex couples. Texas’s interest in §21.06 could be recast in similarly euphemistic terms: “preserving the traditional sexual mores of our society.” In the jurispru-dence JUSTICE O’CONNOR has seemingly created, judges can validate laws by characterizing them as “preserving the traditions of society” (good); or invalidate them by characterizing them as “expressing moral disapproval” (bad).

I think that Justice Scalia is correct. In fact, Justice Scalia's scathing dissent (of course, all of Justice Scalia's dissents are scathing, so I suppose "scathing dissent" is rather superfluous) shows that the extension of the right to personal autonomy is not only foreseen, it should be expected.

State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity are likewise sustainable only in light of Bowers’ validation of laws based on moral choices. Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision; the Court makes no effort to cabin the scope of its decision to exclude them from its holding. See ante, at 11 (noting “an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex” (emphasis added)). The impossibility of distinguishing homosexuality from other traditional “morals” offenses is precisely why Bowers rejected the rational-basis challenge. “The law,” it said, “is constantly based on notions of morality, and if all laws representing essentially moral choices are to be invalidated under the Due Process Clause, the courts will be very busy indeed.” 478 U. S., at 196.2

He also later states:

The Texas statute undeniably seeks to further the belief of its citizens that certain forms of sexual behavior are “immoral and unacceptable,” Bowers, supra, at 196the same interest furthered by criminal laws against fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity. Bowers held that this was a legitimate state interest. The Court today reaches the opposite conclusion. The Texas statute, it says, “furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual,” ante, at 18 (emphasis addded). The Court embraces instead JUSTICE STEVENS’ declaration in his Bowers dissent, that “the fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice,” ante, at 17. This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation. If, as the Court asserts, the promotion of majoritarian sexual morality is not even a legitimate state interest, none of the above-mentioned laws can survive rational-basis review.

So, does the attorney arguing under Lawrence, when coupled with Casey, have a case? Unfortunately, I think so. At least enough to require the court to discover some nuances in these decisions that it has so far failed to voice if it decides to reject the practice of polygamy. I find it hard to believe that this court with its present mix of justices will be inclined to discover any such nuances.

Nothing New Under the Sun

The old adage that there is nothing new under the sun applies even to the Jesus Myth. Though popularized on the internet, the notion has been around for a long time.

The origins of the modern Jesus Myth may be traced back to 19th century historian Bruno Bauer. As he became more and more sceptical of the historical worth of the New Testament, he finally reached the point of denying the historicity of Jesus himself. Few scholars paid him much heed at the time. Eventually the scholarly community responded with various tracts and articles and speeches (many of which were put forth in German). This opposition was diverse including Jewish, liberal, conservative, Catholic, and Protestant scholars. Eventually, in the early 20th century, some leading scholars published book-length treatments of the Jesus Myth. These scholarly responses seem to have resolved the question as far as historians and New Testament scholars were concerned. I have discussed their treatements of the Jesus Myth here:

bullet Shirley J. Case The Historicity of Jesus
bullet Fred C. Conybeare The Historical Christ
bullet Maurice Goguel Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History
bullet Herbert Wood Did Christ Really Live?

Since then, most Mythologists -- like mathematician William B. Smith and professor of German George A. Wells -- were learned in their respective field but untrained in historical studies. They have solicited few scholarly responses, some of which I mentioned below. Today, the question of Jesus' historicity is effectively dead in the scholarly community.

In his book Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels, classical historian Michael Grant accurately describes the state of the question.

This sceptical way of thinking reached its culmination in the argument that Jesus as a human being never existed at all and is a myth.... But above all, if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. Certainly, there are all those discrepancies between one Gospel and another. But we do not deny that an event ever took place just because some pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms.... To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.' In recent years, 'no serous scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.
I have discussed some of the few responses to the Jesus Myth by more contemporary scholars here:

bullet I. Howard Marshall I Believe in the Historical Jesus
bullet R.T. France The Evidence for Jesus
bullet Morton Smith "The Historical Jesus," in Jesus in Myth and History
bullet Robert Van Voorst Jesus Outside the New Testament (Chapter 1)

The most recent development in this arena of fringe theories is the popularity of Early Doherty and his minions of intenet disciples. Earl Doherty has been unable to get any traction in the scholarly community, so he and his apostles have been making good use of the internet to evangalize their mythicism. Because historians and New Testament scholars generally cannot be bothered to respond to internet popularizers, it has fallen largely to internet-based laypeople to respond to them. For the convenience of the reader, I include a few links to these responses:

-Bede's Library devotes a section to the question of whether Jesus existed or not. In the interest of full disclosure, I am the principal contributor to it. (Also see my discussion of Josephus' references to Jesus, which respond to Doherty's arguments on the subject). also devotes a full section to responding directly to Earl Doherty. Elsewhere on J.P. Holding's site you can find articles relevant to the Jesus Myth. You can start here.

-A newcomer to the field, Liberal Christian Research, has several articles relating to the historicity of Jesus.

-There is another promsing website, The Jesus Jigsaw, here.

-Seasoned internet veteran Metacrock has a series of articles on the historical Jesus and a series of articles evaluating the Jesus Myth.

For those interested in pursuing this subject, I recommend that you not neglect the earlier resources discussed above. You'll be surprised to learn that many of the arguments have not changed much over the decades. The scant contemporary scholarly comments are also very helpful, as is the lay responses provided on the internet.

But perhaps the best advice is that you not neglect the bigger picture. Though not directly responding to the Jesus Myth, modern scholarship has a lot of resources to offer in refuting it. Since the Jesus Myth' defeat in the early 20th century, modern scholarship has provided even more reasons for rejecting it. For a list of scholarly resources useful in refuting the Jesus Myth, check out my Listmania List on that subject.

Bad Design
A quick response from Prosthesis Blogspot

CADRE friend, the author of Prosthesis Blogspot, has (apparently independently) written a short piece pointing out problems with the "Bad Design" response to the Argument from Design. He describes the problem this way:

The "bad design" objection is basically the idea that humans can think of "better" ways to design things in nature (e.g., the human knee), therefore to say that an infinitely wise, perfect God designed these less-than-perfect things makes no sense.
His response is short, concise and worth the time to read. It can be found here.

The Argument from Design
Answering Objections, Part IV

Continuing my series responding to the objections set forth to the Argument from Design.

A false alternative which is normally presented by the theist is that if the universe has not been created by a master designer, then it must be controlled by "chance." But what is this thing called "chance" that is being referred to? I'm not really sure - there are different conceptions of chance, and I don't think that theists who are using this term are actually using it properly. Genuine "random chance" - which might be defined as an unpredicable [sic] outcome not determined by the workings of natural law - is exceptionally difficult to achieve: even a good shuffling of a deck of cards does not achieve true randomness, although repeated shuffles can manage a decent imitation. In metaphysical terms, "random chance" does not appear to exist in the universe, at least above the quantum level - after all, what in the universe is not affected by natural law? Things do not happen inexplicably and without causes - we simply attribute events to "chance" when we do not know enough of the details to assign a specific cause. Causal conditions are always in effect. Thus, it may be invalid to assert that if a god is not responsible for the universe, then "random chance" is. A third option exists: that we simply don't know what might have caused it. Austin Cline, Argument from Design
Have you ever run into a statement that, at first blush, seems to say something worthwhile or profound only to have it seem quite silly later? "You can never know anything absolutely," is an example of this kind of statement. At first blush, it makes sense because there really is very little in this world that you can come to know with any assurance, and it is easy to thereafter extend this uncertainty to everything. Of course, as any student of rationality should immediately recognize, the statement fails its own test. It is a statement which is itself a statement of "absolutes" in that it suggests an absolute truth, i.e., that you can never know anything absolutely.

I got the same feeling reviewing Mr. Cline's next objection. When a person speaks of "design v. chance," are we making unwarranted assumptions regarding chance? In order to see whether this is truly a profound observation of merely a rhetorical slight of hand will require a closer review of what Mr. Cline says.

First, is there an ambiguity in the meaning of "chance" in the Design Argument? I don't think so. As a general rule, when the meaning of a term is in question, it is best to begin with the use of the definition generally, and its use in the specific field to see whether there is any reason to give a specialized definition beyond its general understanding. "Chance", according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, has several definitions, of which definitions 1 and 4 seem most probably applicable.

1 a : something that happens unpredictably without discernible human intention or observable cause b : the assumed impersonal purposeless determiner of unaccountable happenings : LUCK c : the fortuitous or incalculable element in existence : CONTINGENCY

4 a : the possibility of a particular outcome in an uncertain situation; also : the degree of likelihood of such an outcome (a small chance of success) b plural : the more likely indications (chances are he's already gone) Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary.
I suggest beginning with definition 1 which, at first blush, appears to adequately define the meaning of the term "chance" (except that I would refine sub-definition 1a to say that chance is "something that happens unpredictably without discernible intelligent intervention or observable cause"--the sub-definition as written presumes that the only intelligence that can act on something is "human" intelligence). Does this fit or do we need to find a more specialized definition?

The Design Argument, as stated in part I, is quite simple. It can be broken down into the following steps:

Premise 1: If something is designed, it requires a designer.
Premise 2: The universe appears designed.
Premise 3: The universe appears designed because it is designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe requires a designer.

The argument about "chance" is actually an attack on Premise 3. It reasons that Premise 3 is actually the result of an unstated dilemma that would read like this:

Subpremise 2: The universe appears designed.
Subpremise 2A: Things that appear designed are either actually designed or arise by chance.
Subpremise 2B: The universe could not have arisen by chance.
Conclusion (which = Premise 3): The universe appears designed because it is designed.

Now, let's substitute the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition into the equation to see if it works.

Premise 1: If something is designed, it requires a designer.
Premise 2: The universe appears designed.
Subpremise 2A: Things that appear designed are either actually designed or arise unpredictably without discernible intelligent intervention or observable cause.
Subpremise 2B: The universe could not have arisen unpredictably without discernible intelligent intervention or observable cause.
Premise 3: The universe appears designed because it is designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe requires a designer.

Unless I am missing something that Mr. Cline intends, I don't see where there is any real confusion about the term "chance." The general definition fills in the equation nicely. Mr. Cline gives his own effort to fill in the definition of "chance": "Genuine 'random chance' - which might be defined as an unpredicable [sic] outcome not determined by the workings of natural law . . . ." It should be noted that his definition is not markedly different from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition, but it should also be noted that Mr. Cline's definition leaves out "discernible intelligent intervention." So, with this one omission (which is important, but not for purposes of this part of the discussion), Mr. Cline's own definition actually confirms that the term "chance" is generally understood.

Mr. Cline then points out that the shuffling of cards does not result in true randomness but only a good imitation thereof. He then states: "In metaphysical terms, 'random chance' does not appear to exist in the universe, at least above the quantum level - after all, what in the universe is not affected by natural law?" With all due respect, this is metaphysical double-talk. If I flip a coin ten times, isn't it true that each flip will result in a random outcome? The entire science of Chaos is based on the belief that there is a certain amount of randomness built into the universe. Maybe it isn't a "true randomness" (not that I think that such a statement is necessarily true), but it is close enough to be considered "random" for all practical purposes. Additionally, the Design Argument is, at least in part, a discussion about the creation of the universe. Exactly what natural law existed prior to the creation of the universe that would have effected the randomness by which the universe would have had to spring into existence out of nothing. If the universe actually did come into existence out of nothing (which is the basis of the big bang), then there were no natural laws acting on the nothing which could have caused it because there was no nature there to give rise to any natural laws.

Mr. Cline then makes a stunning admission: "Things do not happen inexplicably and without causes - we simply attribute events to 'chance' when we do not know enough of the details to assign a specific cause. Causal conditions are always in effect." I have debated on too many discussion boards where skeptics have refused to concede this simple truth. I thank Mr. Cline for his openness and honesty on this simple point that is so obvious that it is even stated in a song from The Sound of Music: "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could."

In his last sentence, Mr. Cline attacks Subpremise 2A, questioning whether it may be a false dilemma. He says: "Thus, it may be invalid to assert that if a god is not responsible for the universe, then 'random chance' is. A third option exists: that we simply don't know what might have caused it." I certainly concede there may be yet other, unknown causes for the universe to spring into existence. I acknowledge that the dilemma is not a perfect dilemma because a perfect dilemma would say "chance or not chance" with design being the only possible candidate for "not chance." But here is the problem: It appears less and less likely that the universe arose by chance (and Mr. Cline all but admits it). So, if chance is ruled out then we must turn to "not chance." What are the possibilities here? The answers are (a) a designer the identity of which is not certain but which some people claim to be able to identify, or (b) a yet-unidentified natural cause that we have no clue what it is but we trust will someday be discovered.

Can you say "naturalism of the gaps"?

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