Vacation plans

I’ll be out of town over the Thanksgiving weekend—I do have some posts lined up (including the next installment of On Guard, over at the other blog), so the place won’t be completely dead, but my Internet access is likely to be slim to none, so new commenters may have to wait a few days to get their comments approved.

Take care all.


Gospel Disproof #14: Sinning for a better tomorrow

Following up on yesterday’s post, have you ever noticed the weird co-dependency between God and evil? As I’ve said previously, if a good God were to exist, the consequences of His existence ought to be good rather than evil. Yet evil does exist, and is widespread. The Christian answer to this contradiction is to suggest that evil is somehow necessary in order to accomplish a greater good. But we don’t even need to look at the specific excuse of “free will” to see that there is something very fishy about this proposed explanation.

Think about it. God is supposedly the only self-existent being. That means the only constraints and necessities are those which are either inherent in His own nature, or else created by God Himself. If sin and evil are going to be necessary in order to do good, that’s a constraint that is either present in God’s nature—i.e. God’s nature is such that it makes sin and evil necessary!—or else God deliberately commanded that good cannot be achieved in the absence of evil. Either way, if evil is necessary, it’s because God makes it necessary.

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Gospel Disproof #13: Knowing Pi

The distinguishing characteristic of rationalization is that it attempts to obscure the difference between truth and falsehood so that we can no longer reliably distinguish between the two. For example, a common Christian apologetic claims that we can never know whether, say, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were inconsistent with the idea of a loving, omnipotent, and omniscient Heavenly Father. God is (supposedly) so much wiser than we are, and knows so much more than we do, that we can never question His wisdom in allowing evil things to happen. Even though it might seem obvious that a good Person would have acted to prevent it, we can never know that God was wrong/negligent to fail to intervene, because God might know something we don’t.

The argument, in other words, is that because of human limitations, we can never know what the right answer is, and therefore we can never say that anyone else’s answer is the wrong one. But that’s a false argument, as we can see by looking at the number pi.

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The problem of honesty

One of the biggest problems for Christian apologetics is what to do with the problem of evil. God is supposedly all-good, all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. What’s more, He is also supposed to be the only truly self-existent Being. Everything else that exists was either created directly by God, or by a chain of cause-and-effect whose First Cause is ultimately God.

That’s a problem, because the world abounds in what Christians refer to as sin and evil, which should not be there. If the only self-existent Being is a perfectly good and loving Almighty God, then only good things should result from His deliberate and sovereign actions, even indirectly. No necessity can constrain God except those which are inherent in His nature, and thus if God’s nature does not require evil, then there can be no necessity that evil exist. As an almighty God He should be capable of creating a world without evil, and as a loving God He should want to do so. Thus, the existence of such a God necessarily implies the absence of evil, which contradicts what we see in real life.

William Lane Craig attempts to address this problem with an approach that is both subtle and profoundly deceptive: instead of directly confronting the contradictions raised by the existence of evil, he re-frames the debate into one where the only question is whether God’s existence is incompatible with human suffering. Since there are at least some circumstances where “no pain, no gain” is a valid observation, this re-definition stacks the deck in his favor, and leaves him with an easy out. The uncritical reader is then left with the feeling that Craig has dealt with the ancient Problem of Evil, when in fact all he’s done is a simple bait-and-switch.

(Read the rest of this post at Evangelical Realism. We’ve started chapter 7, and it’s a doozy.)

Gospel Disproof #12: The FISH Symbol

One of the oldest symbols of the Christian faith is the fish, chosen both for its simplicity of design and for the fact that its Greek name happens to make a handy acronym for the Greek phrase meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” I think it’s time we re-purposed both the symbol and the acronym (in English) by using it to remind ourselves of the four all-too-human sources of information about God.

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“So why don’t you believe in God?”

“I just don’t see any evidence for it.”

“What are you looking for? What would it take to convince you that God was real?”

“I dunno. What would it take to convince you that the sun sets in the north?”

“The sun sets in the west.”

“I know. But what would it take to convince you that it sets in the north?”

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Investigating the Marian apparition at Zeitoun

[Originally published Feb. 9, 2009]

[A commenter named] Jayman brings up a fascinating subject in a comment on my post about the frequency of divine intervention.

Starting in 1968, and continuing over a 2-3 year period, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared over the Coptic Church of Saint Mary in Zeitoun, Egypt. It was witnessed by millions of people of different religious beliefs, it was photographed and videotaped. Miraculous cures were also experienced. Investigations into the matter found no natural explanation. Time to start moving the goal posts?

Zeitoun is a great example to use as a typical “miraculous” apparition, but before we get to that, I’d like to say a little something about goal posts. There’s a psychological trick that apologists sometimes use in connection with claims of the miraculous, if the skeptic says there ought to be evidence of God showing up in real life. The trick is to show the skeptic some questionable evidence, and then insist that he believe, based on that evidence. If the skeptic admits that the evidence is genuine, then he must either admit that God showed up in real life, or he must admit that he is unwilling to look at the evidence. If he questions the quality and validity of the evidence, though, he gets accused of moving the goal posts. “Oh, you said you wanted evidence, but now that we’ve shown you evidence, you want something more. I seeeeee…”

We’re not really asking for anything more. When we ask for evidence, what we mean is we want genuine evidence of God genuinely showing up in real life. It has to be good evidence, valid evidence, evidence that can withstand cross-examination. That’s not asking for too much, surely? Once we have verified that we are indeed dealing with genuine facts and not misperceptions or intentional hoaxes, then we can move on to the question of what the evidence means. We haven’t moved any goal posts until we at least arrive at where the first set of posts stood. And that means having genuine evidence of a genuine appearance.

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Contextual gullibility

Following up on yesterday’s “Rabbit Math,” post, let’s look at the interesting question of why people revert to using rabbit math when they have a far superior math at their disposal. Granted, it’s harder than rabbit math, but still, you can do a lot better than rabbit math without getting into theoretical physics. People can do better, and in other contexts they do think more clearly. But somehow, in religious contexts, they become gullible to the point of actively participating in fooling themselves. Why is that?

I can think of 3 reasons. One is fear: fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of the unexpected, etc. We’re small creatures in a big world, after all, and therefore it’s appealing to adopt a mode of thinking that’s tuned in on reassuring us there’s some friendly Big Guy up there taking care of us. “Rabbit math” makes it easier to reach the desired conclusion, therefore it’s preferable to many people.

Another reason is laziness. It’s easier to jump to superstitious conclusions than to go through all the work of digging out all the facts, sorting the relevant from the irrelevant, analyzing the data, and drawing rigorously logical conclusions. In some ways it’s arguably a more efficient use of your time and resources: if you can tell when it’s going to rain by assessing “the mood of the sky god,” and if you’re right as often as you would be if you spent years charting barometric pressure, humidity, temperature, wind velocity, and so on (especially if you’re not terribly good at the latter), then maybe you are just as well off with the superstition. (Speaking as a devil’s advocate, that is).

I think there’s a reason that’s far more compelling than either of these two, however.

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Gospel Disproof #11: Rabbit math

In the world of Watership Down, the largest number in rabbit language is five, because rabbits can only count to four and thus anything more than that is “five.” The author doesn’t go into rabbit math in detail, but if we think about it, this is really a pretty simple mathematical system. The sum of anything more than 2+2 is five, the product of anything more than 2×2 is five, five minus anything is probably going to be five, and there is no division because rabbits can only multiply.

This strikes me as resembling certain modes of thinking. The whole appeal is its simplicity. Anyone can do it. Granted, there are some drawbacks: if all you know is rabbit math, most of real math will be incomprehensible to you. But rabbit math has a way of dealing with that incomprehensible complexity. It’s all just “five.” That’s all you can say, and in rabbit math that’s all you need to know. Much better than real math, which gets notoriously harder the farther you go. Even people who like math are going to have to do considerable work to master more than the basics. Rabbit math is easier.

You’re right, I’m thinking about religion. Granted, there are a lot of people who think religiously without going all the way to rabbit-math-level oversimplifications. But that’s the limit towards which religious thinking tends. Its appeal is that it simplifies things, and has a place to stick the incomprehensible. Magic (or miracles, if you prefer) covers everything beyond a certain level of understanding, and in religious thinking that’s all you need to know.

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Why evangelicals believe weird things

There’s an awesome article over at, with the irresistible title of “Why Evangelicals Believe Weird Things.”

Lay evangelicals evaluate the arguments made by “experts” in a manner different from many non-evangelicals. The latter will often ask: How prestigious is her academic pedigree? Is she representing the consensus of similarly credentialed experts? Insofar as I can understand her arguments, do they convince me? Lay evangelicals ask different questions: How good of a Christian is this guy? (Or, in evangelical parlance, “How is his walk with the LORD?”) How closely do his arguments line up with my understanding of the Bible? Is this guy one of us?

Evangelicals also tend to come under the sway of those with the biggest microphones, not the best arguments. Although many evangelical scholars are also capable of projecting piety, they rarely have the resources to flood the airwaves or the communication skills to connect with the average believer…

The evangelical community also keeps its scholars in check. When a college’s base of donors, prospective students, and even board of trustees are made up of lay evangelicals, this places severe limits on what its scholars can say publicly. This fact became apparent at my alma mater, Calvin College, when public outcry and the powers that be combined to silence two scholars advocating the acceptance of human evolution.

The comments are a pretty interesting read too.