CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Philosopher and author of C.S. Lewis' Dangerous Ideas offers some thoughts on why Christianity makes sense to him.

This relates to my Want a Good Marriage? post which was prompted by a commentor who argued that Christianity offered nothing based on his dubious representations of social science data, including the erroneous claim that Christians had the same divorce rate as everyone else. That is not the case, as Christians have lower divorce rates than the national average and Christians who attend church regularly have dramatically lower divorce rates.

Another social benefit of Christianity is its promotion of charitable giving. As Jonathan Haidt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, notes, “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.” (emphasis added).

Dr. Haidt is an atheist. As he states in this November 2007 interview, ”I'm an atheist, I don't believe that gods actually exist, but I part company with the New Atheists because I believe that religion is an adaptation that generally works quite well to supress [sic] selfishness, to create moral communities, to help people work together, trust each other and collaborate towards common ends.”

Unfortunately, other atheists and skeptics seem intent on ignoring the positive influence of religion. This can be a challenging task, because Hadit's conclusion that religion promotes charitable giving is backed up to large extent by data showing that American Christians out-give their Nonreligious counterparts by significant margins. The margins grow even more dramatic when you compare regular attending Christians with the Nonreligious.

Christians Are More Likely to Give and Give More


The following data comes from the General Social Survey, 1998. It is reported with analysis in Passing the Plate, by Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson, whose central argument is -- ironically -- that Christians do not give enough. The first percentage is by religious self-identification and the one in parenthesis is for regular attenders within their respective categories.

Percentage of persons giving nothing to charity in the previous year:

22.1 (4.5), Christian.
11.5 (5.6), Fundamentalist.
4.4 (less than 1), Evangelical.
12.6 (3.8), Mainline Protestant.
28.2 (7.8), Catholic.
50.5, Nonreligious.

Percentage of income donated by average giver:
2.9 (6.2), Christian.
6.2 (8.3), Fundamentalist.
8.2 (9.5), Evangelical.
4.6 (7.1), Mainline Protestant.
1.8 (3.7), Catholic.
0.7, Nonreligious.

Passing the Plate, page 30 (Source: General Social Survey, 1998).

Christians in the United States are far more likely to give to charity and give a far greater percentage of their income to charities than nonreligious Americans. But even among Christians the giving is not the same. Evangelicals are much more likely to give and will give far more than their fellow Christian Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and even Fundamentalists. For all categories of Christians, giving increases significantly for regular attenders.

Christians Give More Across the Board


I have heard atheists respond that this is an artificial measure of generosity because Christians are giving to their churches and religious organizations. This contention fails on its face because we are measuring a willingness to give one’s own money to foster the greater good. To an atheist, that may be “Americans United for the Separation of Church and States” and for the Christian it is more likely to be their own church or other religious institutions. Moreover, churches engage in direct charitable activities beyond Sunday sermons. Most churches provide counseling services and lend their facilities and resources to other charitable efforts, including facility use to organizations such as AA or the Boy Scouts. Here in LA, many churches provide the use of their facilities to shelter and feed the homeless.

Additionally, there are many charities whose focus is on providing material assistance to the poor and disadvantaged that are religious organizations, such as the Salvation Army. My wife and I for example try and make sure we give to poverty relief and disaster assistance efforts and the Salvation Army is our charity of choice for that purpose. The Salvation Army is the second largest charity in the United States. Other explicitly religious charities rounding out Forbe’s Top Ten list are Feed the Children, the YMCA, and Catholic Charities. There is no basis for excluding these and similar charities from the definition of charitable giving even if one is determined to exclude churches themselves.

Finally, even if we ignore all religious giving by the religious and measure giving only to secular charities we find that the religious are still significantly more likely to give, and will on average give more, than their Nonreligious counterparts.

In 2000, 68 percent of households gave money to charities having no religious affiliation. Fifty-one percent volunteered for secular causes.... But these high nonreligious giving levels were not the same for religious people and secularists. Although the charity gap between these groups was not as wide in secular giving as it was in all types of giving, religious people were still 10 points more likely than secularists to give money to nonreligious charities such as the United Way (71 to 61 percent), and 21 points more likely to volunteer for completely secular causes such as the local PTA (60 to 39) percent. In addition, the value of the average religious household’s donations to nonreligious charities was 14 percent higher than the average secular household’s.

Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares, page 39 (Source, Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, 2000).

Moving beyond religious identification we find that the higher the commitment to one’s religious faith the more one is likely to give to secular charities. As Brooks explains, people who regularly prayed were 16% more likely to give to secular charities than people who do not pray. Church members were 18% more likely than nonmembers. And people who “put a great deal of effort to their spirituality” were 28 % more likely to give to secular charities than people who made “no effort.” Brooks, op. cit., page 215, n. 14 (Source, Arts and Religious Survey 1999).

Christians Are More Charitable in Informal Ways

Another objection I have encountered is that the nonreligious are more skeptical of organized charities, but are more likely to help in informal ways, such as giving money to friends in need or other acts of generousity and kindness that do not register in these surveys. Not true. “People who give away their time and money to established charities are far more likely than nongivers to behave generously in informal ways as well. If we consider all forms of generosity, the difference between charitable and selfish people grows.” Brooks, op, cit., page 5.

First let’s examine gifts to family and friends.

Here, too secularists lag behind religious people. For example, data from 2000 on informal giving tell us that people belonging to religious congregations were 8 percent more likely to give money to family and friends than people who did not belong. Furthermore, the value of their informal gifts was, on average, 46 percent higher.

Brooks, op. cit., page 39 (Source, Giving and Volunteering in the U.S., 2000).

Second, how about other acts of charity or kindness that might not register in traditional surveys about giving.

The story is the same even when it comes to informal acts of kindness to others. In 2002, religious people were far more likely to donate blood than secularists, to give food or money to a homeless person, to return change mistakenly given them by a cashier, and to express empathy for less fortunate.

Brooks, op. cit., page 39 (Source, GSS 2000).

Whatever the measure of charity, apparently, the Christians and the Religious in the United States dramatically out give the Nonreligious.

Conclusion

Around 78% of Christians give to charity whereas around 49.5% of the Nonreligious do. Further, Christians give four times more to charity than the Nonreligious. Evangelicals are close to twice as likely to give, and give more than eleven times more, to charity than the Nonreligious. If we look at these groups by those who regularly attend church events, the disparity is even more dramatic. Almost all Evangelicals who attend church regularly give to charity, compared, again, with less than 50% of the Nonreligious. Regularly-attending Evangelicals give almost 10% of their income to charity, whereas the Nonreligious give around .7% of their income to charity.

Even when we focus only on giving to secular charities -- which is an artificially narrow constraint -- religious Americans (mostly Christians) outperform the Nonreligious in giving by at least 10 points. The disparity increases, again, once we look at levels of commitment, such as frequency of prayer or church membership. Religious Americans were also far more likely to give and give more to family and friends in need, to donate blood, and to volunteer their time.

These results are dramatic, but should not be surprising. Christianity is likely the single greatest factor in charitable giving in the West. The spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire fundamentally changed concepts of charity for the better. That shift is still with us today, as the above data demonstrates.

Just today I came across a fascinating website: Clean Flicks is an online movie rental store that provides movies without any graphic sex, graphic violence or graphic language of any kind. Apparently they used to actually edit certain movies for content but they cannot do this anymore for straightforward legal reasons. Their movie catalog is predictably quite bland and heavily skewed towards movies made before about 1950.

This is not the only example of attempts to restrict access to movies with 'questionable' content, of course. We have come a long way since the days of the Hays Code which regulated not just distribution and ratings but the production of movies itself, but we still frequently hear outcries against movies which supposedly lower moral standards by desensitizing people to extreme violence and foul language. There are any number of ratings websites (many but not all of them religious) that discriminate between movies based not on the depth of characterization, quality of cinematography or realism but on the number of cuss words, the square inches of human skin that are exposed and/or the number of physical blows or bullets fired. Movies without graphic content are said to be 'wholesome' and 'decent' while those that feature it, although they include some of the best movies ever made in their number, are called 'vulgar' or 'repulsive' or 'insidious'.

Of course some of these groups have a point when it comes to the kind of movies children should be allowed to see. I wholeheartedly affirm that certain movies are clearly inappropriate for children under a certain level of psychological and moral maturity. I also accept that too many action movies portray violence and sex in a completely unrealistic way that does 'sear the conscience with a hot iron' when it shouldn't. I find it disturbing that one reviewer of the recent torture porn remake The Hills Have Eyes describes the movie as "sadistic, twisted and gruesome...just the way I like'em!" I wouldn't hesitate to call that person morally stunted, even if he/she would claim that in real life they would never endorse or engage in that kind of behavior.

What I do react against, however, is the idea that the only good movies are anodyne movies without any of the grittiness and ambiguity that characterize the real world. Movies, like all good art, should aspire to tell the truth about the world. A great movie is one which opens our eyes to a truth about ourselves or the world that we had forgotten or we never knew in the first place. Often this realization is uncomfortable. We may watch an explicit sex scene that forces us to acknowledge our own voyeuristic tendencies, or identify with a character struggling with lust or abuse. In my view the distinction between pornography, which is audiovisual content with the sole purpose of arousing lustful thoughts and feelings and explicit sex in the context of serious drama is pretty clear. With regard to violence, explicit content may be dramatically necessary in a war movie to really put us 'in there' with the characters, or in an action movie to show how high the stakes are. If done right, movie violence should be disturbing or at least indict us for our fascination with it (there is a great line in Gladiator where Maximus kills his opponents in a particularly gruesome and spectacular fashion and then yells out to the cheering crowd, "Are you not entertained??"). But that is not an excuse to forbid graphic violence in movies. On the contrary, we are supposed to be disturbed.

What these ratings groups miss is the wider narrative in which explicit content has its proper place: the story of a fallen, groaning world yearning for redemption and the appearance of the Sons of God. Many questions still puzzle me about the nature and origin of evil and what place it might have in God's plan. What is clear to me, though, is that this side of eternity conflict (in the dramatic as well as literal sense) is built into the fabric of our world and our psyche. The first lesson aspiring writers learn is that for a story to be interesting, there has to be conflict; something has to stand in the way of what the main character wants, and this something has to 'squeeze' him or her to the point where a fundamental decision has to be made and the character's true nature is revealed. Moral choice is only meaningful when the stakes are real: if nothing really bad could ever happen as a result of being selfish, untruthful, violent or unfaithful these choices would be meaningless. A story in which everyone gets along and gets what they want is a story that no one will read.

This brings me to an interesting observation about skeptics' reaction to the Bible: very often it resembles very much the reaction Christian ratings groups have to 'unwholesome' movies. How can the Bible be the sublime Word of God, they ask, when it has such unwholesome content as adultery, war, torture, cursing and plague? The answer has been hinted at above: the Bible features such content because it is God's message to a fallen world. The only reason it is relevant to so many people is that it rings true to our experience. A G-rated Bible is a Bible that cannot speak to fallen man where he is. No one could take it seriously if it laid out a drama in which nothing bad ever happens to good people, everyone always makes the right choices and God never has to judge those who disobey Him. Like the best movies with explicit content, the Bible tells the truth about the world, but thankfully it also offers hope for a better one even as it takes this one absolutely seriously.

I've been busy in recent months writing as an invited guest-author (on orthodox Christian universalism) over at the Evangelical Universalist forum; so I haven't had much time (or energy {g}) to contribute new articles here. But my friend Professor Victor Reppert has been posting up new and previous articles on arguments from evil (especially the deductive kind), for his students and readers, at DangIdea recently (as he tends to do about twice a year); and this reminded me that I've been meaning for some time to post up a deductive variation of the anti-theistic argument from suffering that I myself came up with a while ago. (A set of anti-theistic deductive arguments from evil, linked to by Victor during the discussion, can also be found collected by Jeff Lowder at the Secular Web here.)

This is an expanded, detailed and amplified form of an argument my sometime-previous-sparring partner, Richard Carrier, was attempting to make a couple of years ago in the opening statement of his side of the debate with Tom Wanchick on the Secular Web. (The contents page of which can be found here.)

To explain my involvement: Victor was asked to cooperate in formally judging the debate by his friends at the Secular Web; and along the way he invited several of his longtime respondents to informally comment on the debate so that he could cross-check his own evaluations. The following argument was part of my own commentary notes, sent to Victor. (For what it's worth, I considered both sides to have done so poorly in their respective opening presentations that I rescinded myself from commenting afterward.)

I won't go into the reasons why I thought Richard's attempt needed expansion, more detail, better synchronization, etc. But my goal was to try to do justice to the argument. I do not necessarily hold to all the included premises or observations; I only identify them as being necessary for the force of Richard's final conclusion in his argument. I have phrased them, however, with an eye toward being (where applicable) in as full agreement with them as I can, while still representing the strength of Richard's argument.

This particular form of deductive argument is designed to test for premise conflicts, where a conflict indicates that one or more of the relevant premises (or perhaps observations) is untrue and should be revised accordingly. If all premises and observations but one are in fact true, then the remaining premise or observation must be false (assuming proper validity in the argument has otherwise been established). A little more softly, if all premises and observations but one are considered by the thinker to be true (e.g. in principle; or having been properly established by previous argument as being true; or having been accurately observed, etc.), then the remaining premise or observation should be considered by the thinker to be false. (Which is why I call it a contra-positive deductive argument.)

So, to give an example relevant for Richard's attempt, if all other premises and observations are agreed to be true, and if the logic is valid, then P0 should be rejected as false.

(P)remises and (O)bservations are the data of the argument. Observations are typically inferential understandings from experience, or perhaps very obvious principles. Premises may be conclusions (inductive or deductive) arrived at previously to this argument, hypothetical assertions, or claimed-to-be-necessary presumptions. Generally speaking, Observations are expected to be more broadly acceptable and less debatable than Premises.

(C)onclusions are attempts at assessing the logical implications of accepting data points as true, including perhaps some immediately relevant corollaries.

(Con)flicts involve conflicting conclusions. Assuming the logic up to the identified conflict was valid, this necessarily implies at least one fault in the prior data leading to the conflicting conclusions.


Richard's topic (and target) was what he and Tom called Basic Theism. The agreed definition between them (which can be found in their joint introduction), was "a nonphysical, conscious mind having power, intelligence, and a morally good nature, all far beyond that of any human. This God is distinct from, and the creator of, the universe, and can act upon the universe by simply willing so." I consider the BT so defined to be not necessarily identical to supernaturalistic theism in its full ontological strength, as the definition does not include the detail that all potentially possible and actually existent reality depends upon this entity for existence. It is, however, very similar to the proposal of supernaturalistic theism, and may be considered a lesser type (since the entity is clearly posited as being supernatural to the natural universe. This would not exclude the entity being a demiurge, however, or something of that sort.) It seems probable, though, that both debators intended to be debating full ontological supernaturalistic theism.


P0. BT is true.

(Note that subsequent premises about the truth of BT require BT to be provisionally presumed true first. Where conflicts between argument elements become detected, resolution may involve denying a premise; including possibly P0.)

P1. If BT is true, it is possible for a brainless mind to exist outside of all natural systems. (ex. God Himself is a brainless mind existing outside of all natural systems)

P2. If BT is true, God could possibly have created brainless minds that exist outside of all natural systems.

(Note that P2 effectively includes P1.)

P3. If BT is true, no mind exists that was not deliberately created or allowed by God.

(Note that the universal negative of this premise is presented as a principle contingent on the understanding of BT--not as a claim of effectively omniscient experience, which could be easily refuted.)

P4. If BT is true, God will always behave in a fashion not discontinuous with (even if not precisely in identification with) the morality He expects His creations to follow (where they have the ability to do so), including in His choice of what to allow. (i.e. if BT is true, God will always behave in a not-immoral way; including logical variants thereof.)

P5. If BT is true, it is immoral for someone (by intentional omission or commission) to cause or allow suffering to happen, without fair reason.

P6. If BT is true, it is without fair reason to allow an unfairness at all, whether or not the unfairness can be removed and replaced with fairness later. (Or, if BT is true, it is without fair reason for a particular moral problem to be allowed at all, whether or not the problem can be mended later.)

P7. If BT is true, it is emphatically without fair reason to allow an unfairness that by choice will not be mended later.

P8. If BT is true, God has the ability to mend any unfairness.

P9. If BT is true, God has the ability to prevent any unfairness from happening.

O1. At least some humans exist within an evident natural system (Nature), and have a brain-embodied mind.

C1. (from P3, O1) If BT is true, God deliberately created or allowed the creation of the O1 humans.

C2. (from P2, P3, O1) If BT is true, God could have created or allowed the creation of these humans to exist outside of Nature with brainless minds.

C3. (from C1, C2) If BT is true, God deliberately chose to create or allow the creation of these humans according to O1 rather than according to P1 (to the extent that O1 is exclusive to P1).

C4. (from C3, P4) If BT is true, when God chose to do C3, He was not behaving in discontinuity with (even if not precisely in identification with) the morality He expects His creations to follow etc. (i.e. He was not behaving immorally)

O2. At least some O1 humans suffer.

P10. At least some of the suffering of O1 humans is unfair.

(Note that P10 includes an effective recognition of O2.)

C5. (from P9, P10) If BT is true, God has allowed P10 instead of preventing it.

C6. (from P6, C5) If BT is true, God has behaved without fair reason.

C7. (from P5, C6) If BT is true, God has behaved in an immoral way.

Con1. (from P4, C7) If BT is true, God always behaves in a not-immoral way; but if BT is true, God has behaved in an immoral way. (premise or logical error)

O3. At least some O2 humans experience disability (to any degree) due at least in part to the composition characteristics of their brain-embodied minds.

(Note that, due to the broadness of the O3 description, O3a may be supplied: at least the vast majority of O2 humans [etc.])

P11. At least some of the disability suffered by the O3 humans is unfair.

Con2. Equivalent to Con1 (where P11 is equivalent to P10, then C5, C6, C7 following.)

P12. At least some of the P11 unfair suffering would certainly not have happened had the condition of C2 happened to them instead.

C8. (from C4, P12) If BT is true, God chose to institute something resulting in an unfair suffering rather than instituting something that would have not resulted in that particular unfair suffering.

Con3. Equivalent to Con1 (where C8 is equivalent to C5, then C6, C7 following)

O4. It has been observed that at least some of the disability suffered by P11 humans is certainly never mended.

C9. Equivalent to emphatic C7 (from O4, P8, P7, P11 equivalent to P10, then C5, C6, C7 following)

Con4. Equivalent to emphatic Con1 (from P4, C9)


To this, may be added (at least) from Richard's presentation:

P13: regardless of what drawbacks a Brainless Mind may have, an Embodied Mind will always have more. (perhaps substituted by an Observation to the same effect?)

P14: (if BT is true?) the Golden Rule ("love thy neighbor as thyself") of morality applies to God.

O5: it has been observed (or, alternately, established as a premise) that God has chosen to not ever fulfill P14 by subjecting Himself to the same P13, P12 et al, as He chose to otherwise allow (or enact).

C10. equivalent to emphatic C7 (from P14, O5, P7, C5, C6, C7 following)

(Note that O5 would lead to requiring P7, not merely P4.)

Con5. equivalent to emphatic Con1 (see earlier examples.)


I have posted the same argument (with a slightly modified introduction, of course), at the EU forum, for comments there as well.

My commentary on this argument can be found in that thread, and also (in a relatively abbreviated form) in this Cadre Journal entry several weeks later.

In the comments of a recent post, a discussion arose about Christian divorce rates. One of the commentors insisted that Christian divorce rates were no different than anyone else’s divorce rates. I pointed to the recent, extensive polling data developed by Gallup and Baylor University on the issue, as presented by one of the leading sociologists in the United States, Rodney Stark, in the book What Americans Really Believe.

R. Stark does not provide data on divorce rates by belief, but he informs as to divorce rates correlated with attendance at religious services. “The average person is 50 percent less likely to be divorced or separated if he or she attends religious services at least twice a month.” Stark, Ch. 23, What Americans Really Believe. On the other hand, “[t]he divorce rate among those who never attend religious services is close to double that of weekly church-goers.” Id.

I have heard others refer to a study by The Barna Group showing that "born again" Christians have the same divorce rate as the rest of the country. Here is how one Christian news source describes Barna's study:


The Barna Group found in its latest study that born again Christians who are not evangelical were indistinguishable from the national average on the matter of divorce with 33 percent having married and divorced at least once. Among all born again Christians, which includes evangelicals, the divorce figure is 32 percent, which is statistically identical to the 33 percent figure among non-born again adults, the research group noted.

There are a number of reasons not to take this conclusion at face value. Even Barna's numbers show that "evangalicals" had a divorce rate of 26%, lower than the national average. Moreover, according to Barna, Catholics and social conservatives also have lower rates of divorce, at 28%. There is also data supported in other studies showing that those with higher income and college degrees are less likely to get divorces than those with lower income and no college degrees. Further, "born again" and evangelical Christians were significantly more likely to get married than those with no religion, who are more likely to live together outside of marriage.

In this post, I want to focus on two significant issues I have with how Barna's numbers have been used.

First, Barna compared the divorce rates of Christians with the divorce rate of other Christians. There are many observant mainline denominational Protestants and Catholics who may not embrace the "born again" language Barna used to distinguish "born again" Christians from others. Remember that Stark compared those attending "religious services" with those who do not.

Sociologist and blogger Bradley Wright provides some very helpful insights into Barna's numbers and uses other polling data (GSS and Midlife in the U.S. Study) to add further corrective. Using MIDUS data:

We find the following divorce rates by religious group:
1) Christians reporting a born-again experience: 36%
2) Christians not reporting a born-again experience: 34%
3) Members of other religions: 37%
4) Individuals with no religious beliefs: 52%

As B. Wright explains, what Barna did is compare No. 1 against Nos. 2, 3, and 4. Given the preponderance of Christians in the United States, this means that we have the divorce rates of one set of Christians being matched against the divorce rate of another set of Christians. This tells us little about Christian divorce rates overall. So, what happens if you compare all Christians against the rest of the U.S. population? The Christian divorce rate is 35% and the non-Christian divorce rate is 45%. That is a significant 10 point shift. Accordingly, Christians do not have the same rate of divorce as non-Christians.

Second, comparing R. Stark's conclusions to Barna's conclusions is comparing apples to oranges because Stark measures attendance at religious services rather than merely stated belief. R. Stark is thus using indicia of religious belief other than self reporting, is testing those who are more exposed to Christian teaching and doctrine, and is likely accounting for fervency of belief. As R. Stark points out, this results in an even greater shift in divorce rates, with regular attenders having half the divorce rate as non regular attenders.

B. Wright, using GSS data, reinforces this point. Here is the GSS data (2000-2004) comparing divorce rates by frequency of church attendance:

49% Never attend church
46% Less than once a year
46% About once or twice a year
42% Several times a year
42% About once a month
41% Two or three times a month
31% Nearly every week
27% Every week
28% Several times a week

Although a little older, the GSS data reinforces the Gallup/Baylor data reported by R. Stark. People that go to church more frequently have a much lower rate of divorce. The breaking point appears to be going "nearly every week" or more, with a ten point jump to the next lower level of attending, "two or three times a month."

B. Wright also provides useful GSS data about denominational and racial differences correlated with divorce rates.

Here are the divorce rates among ever-married respondents in the General Social Survey (GSS, 2000-2004)—one of the best known sources of sociological data. “Frequent” is attending church about once a week or more.

58%, non-frequent Black Protestants
54%, non-frequent Evangelicals
51%, no religion (e.g., atheists & agnostics)
48%, ALL NON-CHRISTIANS
48%, non-frequent, other religions
47%, frequent Black Protestants
42%, non-frequent, mainline Protestants
41%, ALL CHRISTIANS
41%, non-frequent Catholics
39%, Jews
38%, frequent other religions
34%, frequent Evangelicals
32%, ALL FREQUENT CHRISTIANS
32%, frequent mainline Protestants
23%, frequent Catholics

Once again we see that the key to a low divorce rate is frequency of church attendance. Unfortunately, there is a high rate of divorce among Black Protestants even if they frequently attend church (though the rate is 10 points lower than for non-frequent Black Protestants). Among likely candidates for explaining this result is higher rates of poverty, a history being discriminated against, and perhaps ill-conceived government assistant programs. What is interesting is that even factoring in a large subgroup with elevated levels of divorce, frequent church attending Christians have one of the lowest divorce rates in the United States. Indeed, their divorce rate is lower than those claiming "No religion" or who infrequently attend religious services.

Conclusion

Christians in the United States, whether describing themselves as "born again" or not, have significantly lower divorce rates than non-Christians in the United States. Those Christians who attend church frequently have even lower divorces rates; among the lowest in the United States.

(Special thanks to B. Wright for his work on this, especially the analysis of Barna's numbers. Check his blog out.).

On a whim, I decided to run down some information about references to God in U.S. mottos and state songs. Sources include Wikipedia, secretary of state websites, and other sites listing lyrics. Here are the results:

OFFICIAL MOTTOS

For the U.S. and the states/territories that have state mottos which reference God, I provide the motto for the respective state. If the motto is in Latin, I provide an English translation.

United States of America: In God We Trust

American Samoa: Let God be First

Arizona: Ditat Deus ("God Enriches")

Colorado: Nil sine numine ("Nothing without God's will")

Florida: In God We Trust

Kentucky: Deo gratiam habeamus ("Let us be grateful to God")

Ohio: With God, all things are possible

South Dakota: Under God the People Rule

STATE SONGS

Below I include only the relevant excerpts from the lyrics. If there is more than one state song, then I also identify the song from which the lyrics are taken.

Alabama: "Make us worthy, God in Heaven, Of this goodly land of Thine."

Arizona: "In the presence of our God!" and "Thank God, for Arizona."

Arkansas: "God bless the memories I keep recalling...." (You Run Deep in Me).

Colorado: "You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply." (Rocky Mountain High).

Massachusetts: "...gave their thanks to God." (All Hail to Massachusetts), "And by the grace of God." (State Folk Song).

New Hampshire: "God, in His great love and wisdom."

New Mexico: "Of beautiful colors, That God gave them." (Stage Bilingual Song).

North Dakota: "God of freedom, all victorious." (State Hymn).

Penn.: "Blessed by God's own hand...."

South Carolina
: "And I love this life I'm livin', And thank God for all He's givin'...."

Tenn.: "Where God has strewn with lavish hand...." (My Tennessee) and "And a feeling it’s all God’s will" (Tennessee).

Texas
: "God bless you Texas! And keep you brave and strong...."

Utah: "Godguarded evermore." (State Hymn).

Virgin Islands: "God bless our Virgin Islands...."

Washington: "This is my country; God gave it to me..."

Wisconsin: "God will give thee might!"

If there's one charge that keeps getting leveled by atheists against Christians (and religious believers in general), it is that they are so darn stubborn. They cling tenaciously to their quaint superstitions, apparently in the teeth of evidence. They seem impervious to the 'devastating' rational challenges to their belief systems. What's more, in their delusion they do not realize that the best proof of the falsity of their own belief system is the existence of other belief systems with adherents equally as intelligent and equally devoted.

The implicit criticism here is that a truly open-minded, critically thinking person should hold to something like Clifford's principle in deciding what to believe: one's beliefs should be strictly proportioned to the evidence for them. If there seem to be equally plausible arguments for and against a certain position, the only rational choice is agnosticism concerning that position. From this point of view it is not only cognitively misguided to hold to one's convictions in spite of serious challenges to it, but morally wrong as well, as Clifford illustrates with the example of a ship-builder who does not know how soundly his ship has been built, but lets people ride on it anyway. If the ship sinks, the blame lies entirely with the ship-builder for basing his decision on inadequate evidence. Applied to religion, this view implies that religious belief is unjustified in the face of evidence against it in the form of counter-arguments, less than convincing empirical or conceptual evidence and the existence of other belief systems with adherents equally as committed and intelligent.

Is this really what we should conclude, though, from religious disagreement? In his book Faith and Criticism, Basil Mitchell argues that, on the contrary, Clifford's principle is actually very bad advice when it comes to making cognitive choices about belief systems. There are two problems with it: first, since human cognition is egocentric (i.e. we can't jump outside our heads to take a 'view from nowhere') we cannot take a totally objective view of the evidence for and against a position. When it comes to applying Clifford's principle, the best one can do is proportion one's beliefs to one's perception of the significance of the available evidence. And here is where the first problem comes in: it will often be the case that one's perception of the evidence does not reflect its true weight. It could be that difficulties with one's belief system which seem at first glance to be fatal, are actually only apparent, or vice versa.

The second problem is a direct consequence of the first: if one concludes that certain difficulties are fatal to one's belief system when in reality they are only apparent, the belief system will be abandoned before its full implications and explanatory power can be laid out. People will propose deep and insightful ideas, only to have them shot down at the first sign of apparent counter-evidence. We see this many times even in the natural sciences, where it would seem Clifford's principle would be most applicable. In physics, chemistry, biology and everywhere else, the only way science progresses is as a result of scientists passionately clinging to their pet theories, trying to answer all possible objections, before eventually giving up when the difficulties really do become fatal, and a rival paradigm of greater explanatory scope (which also provides an account of why the other paradigms were unsuccessful) is widely accepted. Or, alternatively, the scientist sticking to his guns is vindicated by the course of events. This is what happened with Charles Darwin. In the Origin of Species he candidly admits that "A crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent; and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory." (quoted in Faith and Criticism, p.18) Think of that: Charles Darwin was staggered by the objections raised against his theory, but he obstinately clung to it, convinced that most of the difficulties were merely apparent. He would have been called a religious fundamentalist by some of the posters on DC and other supposed 'champions of reason'!

Obviously, if matters are this complicated in the natural sciences, the most empirical and precise of all disciplines with the most impartial mechanisms for weeding out error, how much more so is this case in the social sciences and humanities, where the discussion is much more qualitative, the criteria for success or failure much less clear and so much more being at stake for individual human beings. For example, think of the rivalry between Keynesians and classical or Austrian economists about the best kind of economic policy for increasing productivity and standards of living. Both are paradigms with eminent scholars, ingenious arguments and access to the same kinds of evidence. Who should one trust in this case? You can hear scholars in both camps calling those in the other 'hacks', 'ignoramuses' and other choice epithets, each denouncing the other for not properly interpreting evidence and allowing theory to influence facts instead of vice versa. But it is only through this kind of vigorous back-and-forth that positions can be refined, evaluated, and then either discarded or embraced. But in the mean-time, it takes obstinate people with courage to stick with the perspective to its ultimate limits.

Paradoxically, then, as John Stuart Mill suggested, "truth is better served by having a variety of systems of belief in vigorous competition with one another than by allowing the expression only of what is currently held to be the truth. This policy favors the optimal development of the rival systems by encouraging creativity and ensuring the exposure of each of them to the most determined criticism." (Faith and Criticism, p.29) So the existence of rival religious traditions, far from providing a reason for agnosticism, is actually a reason to commit oneself all the more passionately to one's own tradition, working out its implications and fearlessly testing it against the most formidable challenges from other traditions.

Of course there is a difference between the obstinacy proper to vigorous rational debate and the dogmatism that keeps the mind trapped in defunct ideologies. But this is a very fine line to draw, so in light of the above considerations it is better in general to err in being conservative with one's beliefs, especially if they come from a long tradition of brilliant thinkers who contributed much to Western civilization and faced many of the same challenges that are still brought up against that tradition. It is my judgment that people like Anthony at Debunking Christianity gave up far too soon, before they could become acquainted with the full richness of the Christian tradition and its resources for making sense of human experience.

My approach to apologetics starts with the idea that if given a fair hearing, Christianity is the most reasonable worldview both in its explanatory power and the satisfactory nature of its answers. As such, I have never found Blaise Pascal's Wager particularly useful in my own approach to apologetics. After all, Pascal's Wager (the "Wager") essentially attempts to argue that if a person were to bet wisely on whether or not Christian God exists and to live his life accordingly, the wise man would choose to bet that God exists. Since it begins with the implicit assumption that one cannot come to conclude that God exists in any absolute sense, it generally doesn't jive with my own apologetics approach. Still, I think that it has been unfairly labeled a failure.

Pascal's Wager Stated

The "Pascal's Wager" essay on the Philosophy of Religion site summarizes the wager as follows:

Premise 1: It is possible that the Christian God exists and it is possible that the Christian God does not exist.

Premise 2: If one believes in the Christian God then if he exists then one receives an infinitely great reward and if he does not exist then one loses little or nothing.

Premise 3: If one does not believe in the Christian God then if he exists then one receives an infinitely great punishment and if he does not exist then one gains little or nothing.

Premise 4: It is better to either receive an infinitely great reward or lose little or nothing than it is to either receive an infinitely great punishment or gain little or nothing.

Conclusion 1: Therefore, it is better to believe in the Christian God than it is not to believe in the Christian God.

Premise 5: If one course of action is better than another then it is rational to follow that course of action and irrational to follow the other.

Conclusion 2: Therefore, it is rational to believe in the Christian God and irrational not to believe in the Christian God.

Properly speaking, the Wager isn’t an argument for the existence of God. Instead, it begins with the premise that God may or may not exist (Premise 1). Thus, it assumes as one of its core assumptions that it is not possible to determine absolutely that there is or is not a god. Starting from this point, the Wager then argues that the person with wisdom should choose to believe in God because it is the only means by which one cannot lose.

A Quick Thought on "Losing" in the Original Wager

Many skeptics argue that the believer does lose something if he believes in a God that doesn’t exist: he loses the fun of sinning. (Sinning is fun, that’s why we have to fight against it.) Theists counter that the fun lost is not the type of fun that leads to true happiness. Thus, even though Christians lose some fun they are ultimately happier for following a more moral road.

Also, skeptics argue that there is something lost from believing in a God that doesn’t exist – truth. But the Wager begins with the proposition that it isn’t possible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist, so there is no way to rationally arrive at absolute proof one way or the other. So, there is no way to know that the Christian is not the one following truth -- at least until we die. But even when we die, if the skeptic is correct and there is no afterlife we still won't know it because we will not be consciously aware of not being alive.

The Wager Does Not Argue for a General Theism

Many have raised a "false choice" objection to the Wager. This objection basically contends that the Wager offers only two choices -- to choose between the God of the Bible or no god at all. Thus, it is argued, that the wager fails to account for a myriad of other possible gods might exist. This argument is made, for example, by About.com's irrepressible Austin Cline where he argues:

The first problem lies in the implicit yet unstated assumption that we already know which god we should believe in. That assumption, however, is not necessary to the argument, and thus the argument itself does not explain which religion a person should follow. This can be described as the "avoiding the wrong hell" dilemma. If you happen to follow the right religion, you may indeed "go to heaven and avoid hell." However, if you choose the wrong religion, you’ll still go to hell.

The thing missed by so many who use this argument is that you cannot "bet" on the general concept of "theism." You have to pick specific doctrines.

Surprisingly, I agree with Austin Cline on something. The argument does assume that we know which god we should believe in. The Philosophy of Religion syllogism makes that clear. After all, Blaise Pascal was a Christian writer whose entire arguments were clothed in Christian language. His concept of God was that of the God of the Bible. Thus, for someone to assert that Pascal's argument does not itself identify which religion a person should follow shows either a woeful ignorance of the context in which Pascal wrote or a total and complete disregard of that context to the point of being deceptive.

If Christians are using the argument to argue for a generic theism as Mr. Cline seems to suggest is happening, I find myself once again surprisingly in agreement with Mr. Cline. The argument does not hold up if a general concept of theism is the goal. After all, a general concept of theism does not necessarily require a view that "a god" would have a system of divine rewards or punishment as exist in the Wager. The clockmaker god of Deism, for example, if followed to its logical conclusions, shouldn't care in the slightest what type of people we are because He has done nothing to reveal any such concern to us. Therefore, the general concept of theism isn't that to which the wager is addressed or intended to be addressed.

The Horse-Race Scenario

But what about other religions? If we are dealing only with possibilities, it is also possible that another god or gods exist, isn't it? Skeptics point out that this wasn’t a bad decision when there were only two choices: Christianity versus non-Christianity. But today’s world is much more cosmopolitan with a wide variety of choices in the religious deli. We can choose to be Hindus or Mormons or Pagans or Zoroastrians or Jews etc., etc. Thus, rather than being like a flip of the coin, it is more like a horse race. The skeptic argues that if you choose the wrong God in the deity horse-race, you are just as likely to lose as the skeptic so there is no benefit from belief. In truth, that is a flaw in Pascal's statement of the Wager, but Mr. Cline (as most atheists) simply points out the flaw but doesn't follow through on the effect of the flaw.

No Logical Flaw in Focusing on the Christian God

Pascal's version of the Wager starts with the statement that "it is possible" that the Christian God exists and it is also possible that He doesn't exist. If the Christian God exists then certain consequences follow. If the Christian God does not exist than other consequences follow. There is nothing unsound in starting with this point. This is not flawed logic any more than saying, "It is possible that Hawaii exists and it is possible that Hawaii does not exist." If it does exist, then we have a really nice place to vacation. If it doesn't exist, then we may have to go the the Bahamas for our island vacation. But there is no logical flaw in starting from the question of whether a particular island exists and asking what the consequences are which follow from that point. Likewise, there is no logical flaw in starting with examining the consequences that follow from whether a particular conception of God is true or not.

The Problem of the Possibility of Other Gods

But, Mr. Cline objects, the Wager fails to take the possible existence of other gods into account. These other gods make the wager useless. He says,

If you are going to really believe in a god, you have to believe in something — which means picking something. If you pick nothing, then your “belief” is literally empty and you remain an atheist. So, a person who picks risks picking the wrong god and avoiding the wrong hell.

A second problem is that it isn’t actually true that the person who bets loses nothing. If a person bets on the wrong god, then the True God (tm) just might punish them for their foolish behavior. What’s more, the True God (tm) might not mind that people don’t bother believing in it when they use rational reasons — thus, not picking at all might be the safest bet. You just cannot know.

This is a most common argument against the Wager. And, as I said before, Mr. Cline's objection has some, minimal merit. After all, if the Christian God does not exist then other gods who actually may exist could send the well-meaning follower of Christ to their religion's version of hell for not believing in that god. Thus, for the person who chooses to follow the Christian God, it would be untrue that "if he does not exist then one loses little or nothing" as Pascal's wager asserts.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it really is raised as an objection without really considering what it means (especially to the atheists) in light of the Wager. Basically, all this objection does is add more variables to the argument. But what exactly is the effect of this additional variable?

Adding the Additional Category

When the possibility of another god or gods is added to the equation, it creates three categories of possibilities that need to be considered: (1) The Christian God exists, (2) another god or other gods exist while the Christian God does not, and (3) no God or gods exist. The person to whom the wager is proposed now has three possible choices: (1) they can believe in the Christian God, (2) they can believe in another god or other gods, or (3) they can believe in no God or gods. How do these relate?

A. Believers in the Christian God

If one believes in the Christian God then if he exists then one receives an infinitely great reward. In this case, the people who believes in another god, other gods or no God or gods loses. If one believes in the Christian God and no God or gods exist, then the original wager holds: the believer who follows the Christian morality loses little or nothing.

The stickier question arises when one believes in Christianity but another god/gods exist. If one believes in the Christian God and He doesn't exist but another god or other gods exist, then the Christian might lose, but there is no certainty. Consider the possibilities: (A) The other god or gods may not have a heaven or hell. One may simply be returned to another cycle of reincarnation. One may simply be annihilated. (B) The god or gods may reward good behaviour and be a works oriented religion in which case, a truly devoted Christian who truly follows the teaching of Jesus to loves one's neighbor may even possibly win. (C) The god or gods may reward the person who honestly seeks him, her or them even if they choose wrongly. Most Christians follow God because they honestly believe they are following the one true God. Such a god or gods would probably reward the Christian. (D) As Mr. Cline suggests, "the True God (tm) might not mind that people don’t bother believing in it when they use rational reasons." If that is the case, again many Christians would win. (E) The other god/gods may insist upon following him/her/them or following a set of rituals to get into his/her/their heaven. If this is the case, the Christian will lose.

So which is it? There is no way to answer generally. There are simply too many variables to say that the Christian will either lose or win in this eventuality. However it is clear that even in this eventuality the only way the Christian clearly loses is if the other god/gods may insist upon following him/her/them or following a set of rituals to get into his/her/their heaven. In all other cases, the Christian could win (or at least lose little or nothing).

B. Believers in Another God or Other Gods

What about the person who believes in another god or gods in this modified Wager? Well, if the Christian God exists then that believer loses. If the other god or gods do exist, then there is no way to know whether the believer wins. Certainly, he doesn't lose if he has chosen the correct alternate deity, but this believer may not have lived his life in a way that is pleasing to a works-based god. There may be no reward for believers. Finally, if no god or gods exist, then the believer could still lose if the religion does not call on its adherents to be moral people because then he may not have lived a good life anyway.

C. Believers in No God or Gods

The poor atheist, however, finds himself in the worst possible situation. If the Christian God exists the atheist loses. If the Christian god doesn't exist but another god or gods exist, then the atheist is in the same boat as the Christian -- there are simply too many variables to say that the atheist will either lose in this eventuality. However, the situation is very much like the problem as originally stated by Pascal for when no god exists, the atheist gains gains little or nothing.(Two possible exceptions exist to this rule: (1) the atheist who lives by a good moral code without rational justification for doing so and the god/gods' rewards are good behavior, and (2) the god/gods exist(s) who doesn't mind those who "don’t bother believing in it when they use rational reasons" even when those reasons are obviously flawed because the rejected god/gods exist. These are the only two places the atheist might win.)

Summing Up the Results

So, looking at the Wager with this new middle ground added, the only way that the Christian really loses is if another god or gods exist who punishes people who don't believe in him. In all other situations the Christians either wins or loses little or nothing. The believer in another god or other gods may win if he has bet on the right god or gods, but in most cases is very much like the Christian in that most alternatives will leave him or her losing little or nothing. The skeptic, however, either loses or gains little or nothing most of the time.

It seems that if the possibility of another god or gods are added into the equation, Pascal's Wager, while not affording no chance of losing to the Christian, still provides the best odds of winning or losing nothing to the Christian. Atheism, however, remains the worst choice because there is almost no chance of winning. In most cases, the atheist is in no better position than the Christian, and in many cases he is worst off in virtually every scenario. Going back to the horse race analogy: Skeptics are the only group who, no matter which horse wins, still gain little or nothing regardless of the outcome and risk losing everything. Every other religious group has at least the chance of winning and regardless of whether they are wrong, the moral obligations that accompany the belief give them a benefit. Skeptics cannot win no matter what.

ON Atheist Watch I have taken on Loftus' thing about "Faith is not an Acceptable Answer." it's called "don't' let Atheists steal Your faith." This is a special appeal to John as a friend, not an attack, not intended to humiliate him.

I feel that Loftus is wasting his talents. This is related to the same reason why I am considering quitting Internet blogging or any kind of posting.

The same stuff over and over and over and over and over and over. Knock down their silly childish arguments based largely upon arguing with the weakest representatives of Christianity, and they just keep saying the same stuff over and over and over. These are all argumetns John knows better than to make. He know there aer theologians who will knock you off your you know what with sharp analysis about the atonement, and there he is doing the same ol same ol atheist game "it's the atonement silly, how can we understand it."

Its' not as though he's debating Ogden's Point of Christology. It's not as though he's trying to debunk Jurgen Moltmann or Hung Kung in their understandings of the atonement. He knows these guys are out there but he's working on the level of what in literature would be the Theodore Tugboat of theology. It's the height of dishonesty really, to pretend that the only answers to the atonement that anyone has are on the par with Jerry Fallwell or someone of that ilk, and not even bother to inform his readers that there are some very profound answers out there. He only attacks the financial transactions of public execution concepts instead of even mentioning the participatory view of of atonement. see the pice on atheist watch.

He presents several simplistic problems with temporal paradox and the incarnation. I'm just sick of dealing with people who think or pretend that these are really tough one's for christian theologians. To me a tough theological question would be "is experience of God mediated or pure?" The questions John presents as some form of ultimate destruction of Christianity because no one can answer them are basically nothing more than just matters of reading. find a good theology that's through in dealing with these problems and that's really all there is to it. They are actually pretty plentiful.

I don't mean to brag but I think my approach solves everyone one of them in its sleep.

Why are we wasting our time just spinning our wheals and repeating the same stuff? I wish I could hear something new from the atheists. i would love to have a challenge some time. I don't mean be arrogant, but almost nothing I see atheists saying on the net is at all challenging. That doesn't mean there are no challenging atheists. I think Proudfoot is pretty challenging. I've spend 60 pages on him in the book I'm writing. Most of these internet atheists don't even know he exists.

I am sure i'm going to get a lot of nasty comments in saying this. But I don't mean to be insulting. I'm not trying to put down John or anyone. But I am just sick of the same stuff all the time and the atheist pretenses that no one every answers it.

I have answers to John Loftus' arguments made in the latest comment section to this blog.

These are published on Atheist watch.

I especially want to direct your attention to the one about Christians going to prison so much more than atheists (some estimate as high as 60x more). This is nothing but a lie and it's based upon reading the tables wrong. It's totally hilarious because I find this bit of sheer propaganda repeated ad infinitum. I disproved it twice on two different websites. The first time it was gone for over three years. It was truly killed because the mistake so blaring. Now they make the same mistake again and change the tables so it's less obvious.

I will also be presenting more arguments on different issues raised by Loftus here later this evening.

I am realy sick of this atheist mythology that won't die because it's so obviously based upon someone who is not hip to statitistics or the way you read a table. They never catch on because it's become an actual watchword of the atheist movement and it's based on just an obvious mistake.

Bulverism, which C.S. Lewis defined as the art of explaining away dissent from one's own views via psychological mechanisms, has been a mainstay of atheist apologetics for hundreds of years. In the face of what Lewis also aptly called the obstinacy of belief, atheists scramble to find psychological rationales for the persistence of this strange neurosis. John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity has been ramping up his bulverism. In recent posts he claims to have 'figured out' Christianity and attributes the lack of interest among Christians in reading the 'best' atheist apologetics (which, of course, includes his own at or near the top of the list) to fear that it will undermine their beliefs. The fact that people familiar with apologetics on both sides tend not to be too impressed with his arguments, a few positive reviews notwithstanding, must be puzzling to him.

For the most part I've been content to ignore these increasingly belligerent provocations (in a recent post he claims simply, "Christian, you are ignorant"). I've got better things to do with my time, including a senior thesis, researching post-graduation options, working on a screenplay, etc. But I'm getting kind of fed up with his arrogance. He claims to know why I believe what I do better than I myself, despite the fact that I've been trained at a secular liberal arts university in critical thinking, academic research and argumentative rhetoric and have been exposed to countless challenges to my faith from many sources.

I'd just like to take a moment to set the record straight about the psychology of an intelligent, educated Christian believer. I will try to give an honest description of my attitudes and dispositions towards the objects of my faith. I won't develop the arguments I believe justify my faith stance in detail. Here I will just describe what goes through my mind as I think about Christian doctrines, events in my everyday life which I think are significant for interpreting my faith and my reactions to reading posts like his and other skeptical challenges.

The first thing you would probably notice about me is that my behavior does not generally differ noticeably from those of other students on campus. This is not because I don't think my beliefs should make a difference in my daily life, it's just that at college the routines of everyday life are shared by everyone. There is no Christian way to walk to classes or check my mail, although I will bow my head and close my eyes at mealtime to express my gratitude that, in a time when so many are suffering from the economic downturn, I have abundant, healthy food to eat. I do not think this is because I'm more righteous than others or because I'm one of the elect. It is a simple acknowledgment of the truth that in this life, there will be times of plenty and times of want, and that as Ecclesiastes declares, "time and chance happen to all." I don't think this undermines God's providence, because this life was never meant to be our final destination. It is a vale of soul-making, an arena for moral decisions, with trials designed to test us and comforts designed to delight us. With the apostle Paul I hope I can declare that I have learned to be happy and content in whatever state I'm in.

When my mind turns to theological issues, as it often does, my most common reaction is awe at the insight and wisdom which can be gleaned from the great theologians about every aspect of human experience. Reinhold Niebuhr in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture gave me a model for making sense of people's seemingly blind adherence to ideology in exchange for peace and safety. William Cavanaugh in Being Consumed illuminated the economic behaviors encouraged by modern corporate capitalism and what can be done to make it more humane, ensuring abundance for all people, not just the lucky few who made it to the top. It turns out that the Augustinian theory of desires is immensely relevant to diagnosing and correcting the pathology of modern consumerism. From James Gustafson I am learning how to think theocentrically about the place of human beings in the natural order. The list goes on and on.

Just from these insights alone I would conclude that Christian theology makes best sense of human experience, in dialog and interaction with other disciplines and theologies. But I continue to be impressed by the strength of certain arguments of natural theology, from history, science and philosophy, for the existence and nature of God. Especially after reading Edward Feser's The Last Superstition, I have much more confidence in the classic philosophical arguments. Kantian skepticism does not have a solid foundation. And I say this as someone who up until fairly recently was part of the chorus of naysayers about natural theology, who insisted that God can only be known through faith and that the arguments are at best inconclusive. New work by Mark Wynn, Holmes Rolston, Rodney Holder, Brad Monton and others have greatly strengthened my Christian faith, along with Greg Boyd, James Dunn and Michael Bird, among others, in biblical studies.

Aside from the positive evidence, which is admittedly tentative and subject to revision, the thing that does most to keep my faith stable is my meta-perspective on the formation and procedures for criticism of religious beliefs. Coming to understand how people actually form their beliefs, what roles affectivity and tradition play in all rational deliberation and when it might be reasonable to abandon a particular belief system enable me to keep calm in the face of apparent challenges, because they often turn out to be just that: apparent and not actual. The best book on this whole subject by far is Basil Mitchell's Faith and Criticism.

I have been a member of Princeton Evangelical Fellowship for the past four years. In all that time, though I have sometimes been challenged about some of my more unorthodox (at least to evangelicals) opinions on certain issues like inerrancy or the problem of evil, I have never, ever been 'shut down' by the ministers or been in fear of being ostracized or condemned for my doubts. On the contrary, they have encouraged my questions, patiently heard me out as I wrestled with my fears and worries and always been there for me. I go there every Friday night and on various retreats not because I fear hell or retribution if I don't, but because my soul is nourished there. Just tonight I heard an astonishing, moving sermon on the power and challenge of radical forgiveness. The minister laid out his talk calmly and rationally, never once intimidating the students or ignoring hard questions. In short, PEF is the most spiritually and intellectually stimulating environment I've ever been in. I can't wait for Friday to come around again so I can partake of more biblical wisdom and fellowship.

This is not to say that I am insulated from the 'outside' world and surround myself only with people who think as I do. I often have very stimulating, fascinating interactions with atheists, believers from other religions and agnostics, some of whom are my best friends. In my experience religious disagreement is healthy and I don't think it should lead to agnosticism about the truth claims of one's own tradition, but rather a deeper understanding of that tradition and the issues at stake. Conversion from one paradigm to another is never a step-by-step, linear affair anyway. There is no algorithm for worldview change.

This is also not to say that I don't occasionally suffer doubt or worry that some arguments aren't actually as strong as I thought. I do not fear this doubt, although it is uncomfortable. I see it as a healthy thing for a religious believer, as long as it does not escalate into isolation, self-doubt or depression. When I face a challenge I hadn't encountered before or new information comes to light which could have significant bearing on my beliefs (like the Jesus Family Tomb two years ago or the Bloodline tomb this year), I throw myself into research. I am generally very skeptical in my use of sources, generally avoiding popular apologetics on both sides in favor of the most up-to-date, comprehensive scholarly literature. I try to get in touch with the people who can give me a helpful way of framing the problem. I generally find that the challenge wasn't as strong as I feared it was going to be, as a rule. To give just one example, I approached John Beversluis' critique of C.S. Lewis with considerable trepidation, worrying that he was going to debunk one of my favorite writers and show him to be nothing but a fraud and intellectual welterweight. When I actually read the book, I was surprised by how unsophisticated were his reconstructions of Lewis' arguments, despite extensive citations and obvious familiarity with the secondary literature. In discussing Lewis' moral argument, for example, he completely ignores a whole batch of pages from The Abolition of Man which anticipate and refute several objections he lodges against it in that chapter. After my thesis is done I plan to do a thorough critique of Beversluis. I wonder why I was ever quaking in my boots about it.

I wholeheartedly admit that I have an emotional investment in my Christian faith. Belief in a God who is active in this world, who raised Jesus from the dead and will bring about a new heavens and new earth is the only solid basis for hope I have found in a world torn by strife, corruption, violence and decay. Of course I'd rather go to be with God when I die, rather than sinking into oblivion (that desire is particularly strong now when I'm so young, and there are so many experiences I still want to have). I also admit that sometimes wishful thinking has clouded my judgment of certain arguments. Despite my commitment to the Way of Jesus I often act selfishly and intentionally so. I find myself objectifying women in Swimsuit Illustrated or looking down on poor people. I often catch myself telling little 'white' lies, either to impress someone or shirk a responsibility. I feel the influence of the powers of sin and death in my own life, and far too often do not take up arms against them.

But despite all this, when all is said and done I can reflect on my faith with satisfaction at its firmness, not a result of ignorance but precisely its opposite, a deeper understanding of my tradition and the disciplines which Loftus claims lead people away from faith (as Francis Bacon remarked long ago, a little learning inclines people to atheism, but more learning brings them back to theism). I do not defer to authority except when I deem it warranted. My faith is my own, forged in crises, interaction with other people and scholarly exploration. That is why I have to chuckle when I read Loftus's bulverisms. They are so far from applying to me it's almost comical. And I have no doubt that the same can be said for many other educated Christians.

A couple of years ago, the Telegraph ran a story entitled Church's 'Jesus loves Osama' sign criticised. Apparently, some Baptist churches in Sydney, Australia, put up signs which read simply, "Jesus Loves Osama." Smaller print at the bottom contained the Biblical reference supporting that assertion: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44).

The signs were apparently not well received. Even the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, commented on the sign, noting the church "should have chosen a less offensive way of spreading its message."

"I understand the Christian motivation of the Baptist church," [Prime Minister Howard] said.

"But I hope they will understand that a lot of Australians, including many Australian Christians, will think that the prayer priority of the church on this occasion could have been elsewhere."

Peter Jensen, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney, said that the sign - which has been put up outside several churches in the city - was confusing and potentially offensive.

"There is a truth in it," he said. "But, "what we've got to say is, 'Jesus doesn't approve of Osama.' It makes it sounds like, 'Oh, Osama's doing the right thing'."

Have we really come to the point where every statement needs a disclaimer? After all, the New Testament is absolutely clear that God calls on Christians to love everyone -- not just those whom we favor. For example, Luke 6:27-28 states:

But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.

Their quotes reveal that the Prime Minister and the Archbishop both implicitly understand that this is part of the message of the Bible. Who doesn't know that? I mean, I doubt that even the so-called New Atheists are so totally ignorant that they don't understand that the central message of the New Testament can be found in John 3:16-17 which teaches:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

There is no discrimination in this act. This gift of love is available to every single person, including those in the world who are most despicable -- Osama bin Laden, Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, Margaret Sanger. The love and forgiveness of God is open and available to anyone who will freely accept the gift of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross.

At the same time, the Bible doesn't teach that Osama bin Laden or any other person who society understands is truly a bad person is somehow deserving of that love. Just the opposite. The Bible teaches that none are deserving of that love. "[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...." (Romans 3:23) That's part of what makes this gift so utterly great and astounding. We don't deserve it. Neither the best among us nor the worst among us deserve the love that God has freely given to us. But God has given us that love anyway. It is given freely to all.

And by giving this love, God is not saying that what Osama bin Laden has done is okay in His eyes. Rather, as with the woman at the well, God is saying, "Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:11)

So, what's so shocking about the "Jesus Loves Osama" sign? It isn't that someone might understand that the church is saying that a human being's killing of thousands of people is somehow morally acceptable as the Archbishop seems to suggest. No one who has the most basic understanding of Christian teaching would arrive at that conclusion. It isn't that the church's priority is wrongly focused as the Prime Minister suggests. The "Jesus Loves Osama" sign is a statement of straightforward Biblical truth.

The problem is this: we don't want God to love Osama bin Laden. We want there to be people who do such awful things that God's love doesn't extend to them. We want some people -- a very select few -- to burn in hell. Our skin crawls to hear that some people like Osama bin Laden who have done great crimes may not pay for those crimes in the great hereafter. "Where's the justice in that?" we cry.

It isn't justice. It's compassion. It's mercy. It's forgiveness.

And it's that same compassion, mercy and forgiveness that makes it possible for each and every one of us to avoid having to suffer for out own personal (albeit, less serious) crimes in the hereafter.

Our dislike of the "Jesus Loves Osama" sign is truly rooted in our own failure to truly embrace the command to love one another, including our enemies, and our own failure to truly understand the work of the cross. Yes, Jesus loves Osama bin Laden, but he obviously does not love what Osama has done. But then, he doesn't always love what we do either. In the words of the old Mel Tillis hymn, "He":

Saint or sinner calls and always finds him there.
Though it makes him sad to see the way we live,
He'll always say, "I forgive."

Use of Content

The contents of this blog may be reproduced or forwarded via e-mail without change and in its entirety for non-commercial purposes without prior permission from the Christian CADRE provided that the copyright information is included. We would appreciate notification of the use of our content. Please e-mail us at christiancadre@yahoo.com.