Russell’s compiled responses to Chuck Colson

This message is part of a continuing discussion with Chuck Colson.  For my initial email to him, see this post.  For Chuck’s replies:

Chuck Colson’s post #1; Chuck Colson’s post #2; Chuck Colson’s post #3


To Chuck Colson:

It has taken me a while, but I’ve replied to the major points in the three letters you sent to me regarding my review of The Faith.  Please visit the following links to see this three part reply.

Part 1: Faith and certainty

“To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge.  But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason.”

Part 2: Prison Ministry statistics revisited

“It’s not the soundness of your methodology that I’ve questioned here; it’s the results.  The study looked fine to me, and I certainly can’t go back and try to reproduce the results myself.   But I don’t need to.  The study you referenced already demonstrates that the program was counter-productive.  In fact, if you look at page 18, it’s stated explicitly: ‘Simply stated, participation in the program is not related to recidivism reduction.'”

Part 3: Slavery and Christianity

“While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them.  We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery.  For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible.  The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves.”

Although I waited longer than I intended to get back to you, I want to say that I did appreciate your response, and continue to enjoy the opportunity to explore our differences.  I’ll make no promises that my next response will be speedier than this one, so feel free to take as much time as you need if you would like to get back to me.

Russell Glasser

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Slavery and Christianity


I’d like to turn back to your second message, and the question of slavery. I pointed out in my earlier post that, rather than taking it as a given that Christians have always been the natural opponents of slavery, you might acknowledge that the Bible has frequently been used in the past to justify slavery. As an example I brought up the 19th century Reverend Thornton Stringfellow, who wrote a persuasive sermon supporting slavery as a Biblical institution. Your response, in a nutshell, was this:

“There are 1.9 billion Christians in the world today. You cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of any one of them or any group of them, for that matter.”

Well, of course you can’t. I agree: you can’t judge the value of a philosophy based solely on the behavior of its adherents. But if that is the case, then certainly the reverse is also true: You can’t judge Christianity positively based on the good actions of its followers. Yet you do this continually throughout The Faith: you bring up actions taken by historical Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and you present them as if they were some kind of demonstration that Christianity is a good philosophy.

Here’s my problem with that. Either you can judge Christianity by its followers, or you can’t. I admire Bonhoeffer for his bravery, but I don’t regard his actions as a justification for Christianity in their own right. I admire Martin Luther King, Jr. for his work with civil rights, but the respect I have for Dr. King does not require me to accept his faith as correct. It is not that I oppose your pride in members of your faith who exhibited strong dedication to benefitting their fellow man. What concerns me is that your pride in these people is used in your book, as it is in many apologetic works, to implicitly claim that Christianity confers some virtue that is not present in secular individuals like me.

However, if you can judge Christianity by the actions of Bonhoeffer and King, then it is fair game to also judge it by the actions of Reverend Thornton Stringfellow. Stringfellow strongly argued that the Old Testament was explicitly pro-slavery, and having read both the Bible and the speech, I feel like his arguments do have merit. Why don’t we just make an agreement that you cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of his followers, good or bad? Likewise, why not agree that a person such as Joseph Stalin does not represent any kind of coherent atheistic philosophy, and refrain from saying (as you frequently do) that this is where atheism inevitably leads? I am an atheist, and I have no more interest in setting up political prisons or Gulags than you have in owning slaves.

You also write:

“I have made the argument in the book that the Christian church has opposed slavery from the beginning. In no way did I mean to imply that there haven’t been Christians who have been disobedient to the Scripture and the teachings of the church. There have been all through history. There are millions today who claim to be followers of Christ but who do not follow Christ’s commands. All of us, even the strongest believers, are under the effects of the Fall.”

While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them. We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery. For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible. The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves.

“I also cannot justify the words of the Old Testament. It was a recognition by God to His covenant people of a practice that was wide-spread at that time in every culture, that His people would encounter. But it is in no way carried forward into the New Testament. My argument, remember, turns on the teachings of the Christian church and the New Testament.”

Of course. I have to say I appreciate your honest recognition of some ethical failings in the teachings of the Old Testament; I think it’s very forthright of you.

Yet, the Christian Bible contains both the Old and New Testaments, and Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) Throughout the New Testament, Jesus never explicitly says that slavery is forbidden; on the contrary, he gives further instructions on how to treat one’s slaves rather than taking the opportunity to abolish this practice.

On page 178 of The Faith, you do cite a verse on where Paul of Tarsus says “there is neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28) as an example of the New Testament’s opposition to slavery. I don’t see this as a very strong condemnation, however, considering that the same passage also says that there is neither male nor female. That would have interesting implications for our definition of marriage, don’t you think? 😉 I find it hard to believe that Paul was literally saying there are no genders; only that a person’s identity in life ultimately doesn’t matter. That isn’t much of a case to free your slaves, any more than it is a case to get a sex change.

You also mentioned 1 Timothy 1:10 as condemning slave traders. It’s hard to be sure that this is what is meant by the context. The King James Version of the Bible says “menstealers,” which is somewhat ambiguous. The New American Standard and several other versions simply say “kidnappers.” Since many of the Old Testament passages regarding slavery indicate that slaves were either sold by their parents or captured as prisoners of war, this also doesn’t seem to work as a blanket condemnation of the practice.

It certainly is not my intent to argue over what is the correct Biblical interpretation. Clearly you have a more vested interest in that than I do; to me, the Bible is just a book with some good things, some bad things, and some ambiguous things in it. My point here isn’t that the pro-slavery interpretation is right or not; it’s just that the Bible on its own really can’t, and hasn’t been, the final arbiter of moral truth. Reading the Bible, it’s clear that reasonable people can disagree, and their interpretation of which meaning is best will likely be colored by their social background. I have no doubt that before the civil war, a relatively large number of people believed the Bible to be pro-slavery, while today relatively few do.

What this says to me is that morality has an undeniable cultural component, and this worldly influence can be a force for positive as well as negative. I don’t think you’re comfortable with this claim, but I think the whole slavery issue should make it fairly clear that this is true even if the Bible is treated as one possible source of moral values. I would venture to say that we as a society and as a culture are better off now, in terms of quality of life, than we would have been if we had stuck to the old Biblical traditions — both those that turned a blind eye to slavery, and those that explicitly endorsed it.

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Faith and certainty


Hello again Chuck,

Thanks again for taking the time to compose thoughtful replies to my discussion of your book. This time I’ll have to echo your apology for taking so long to reply. I’ve had an extremely eventful year, and it took me a while to devote time to giving your three messages the attention that they deserved. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve chosen to break down my replies into a series of multiple posts, and I will be treating your posts out of sequence.

I’d like to start by discussing the position on faith that you revealed in your second and third messages. I have to say that your perspective surprised me a bit. As I had previously noted, throughout your book you chastised postmodernists for their position that there is no objective truth, only subjectivity. Yet in your recent message, you came out with an extraordinary pro-subjectivity statement:

“All thought begins with faith. All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions. These by necessity are made without evidence and have to be taken on faith. The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith.”

What I found particularly remarkable about this claim was that it almost perfectly echoes claims by the very same post-modernist movement that you have so often decried. Like you, post-modernists believe that reason is just another form of faith, and that there is no way to objectively determine the nature of reality outside your own mind, and the only thing that can be described as “true” is what is “true for me.” I disagree with post-modernists: I believe that reality exists, and that it is independent of individual minds or beliefs. While it is by necessity investigated and interpreted by fallible humans, the nature of “knowledge” is that it must be accurate; i.e., it must conform to a reality which is not dependent on belief.

When I read your statement above, it sounded to me as if you don’t really feel the same. When you say “faith,” you appear to be implying that knowledge is a subjective matter, which may be said to be entirely dependent on the observer. If I adopt a position of faith that, for instance, Allah is God, and I will be rewarded with 72 virgins if I die as a martyr, then that belief is “true for me.”

I thought I must be mistaken; this couldn’t possibly be your position. Perhaps you meant something different than I do when you use the word “faith.” After all, you had claimed that St. Augustine’s influence “gave Christians the liberty to use reason when interpreting their faith.” (Incidentally, I find this a curious statement. Why should they even need permission to use reason?) In any case, because of this nod to “reason,” I thought perhaps you were implying that faith is simply an application of justified belief; a corollary to reason.

However, reading your other statements about faith, it became clear to me that you DO in fact set the concept of faith as something separate and apart from reason. Let me highlight a few examples of other places where you applied the word:

“But if we could prove the existence of God, we wouldn’t have to have faith.”

(Clearly, you are setting faith in opposition to the notion of coming up with some kind of objective demonstration of the reality of God.)

“God is that which is greater than that which we can know. It’s almost by very definition what we mean when we say God. And if we could know Him, we wouldn’t love Him. Faith is required for a relationship between the Creator and His creatures.”

(In other words, by saying that if we have faith in God, we are explicitly ruling out the possibility that we can actually know God.)

When I look at your response from this perspective, what I get from your declaration of faith is the following: You think we cannot prove anything, even in a conventional sense; we cannot know anything; we cannot claim objective certainty of anything except through the subjective lens of our own fallible human minds. Therefore, we might as well just treat the things we fervently believe as “True.” So tell me, how is this not the essence of post-modernism boiled down to its purest form?

What’s interesting is that when it suits your purpose, you freely use the term “faith” as a pejorative, again in the sense of “belief without evidence,” as long as it can apply to those with whom you disagree. For instance, when you speak of Darwin, you say this:

“Yet on the basis of naturalistic presuppositions—a faith position—he had to make this argument, and scientists who share that faith position must also support it.”

So you ridicule Darwin’s scientific conclusions as “a faith position,” yet elsewhere you have repeatedly said that faith is the most important thing there is. I mean, really, it’s right there in the title of your book. This leads me to wonder: how do you, Chuck, go about disting
uishing which kind of faith is worth supporting, and which kind is ridiculous?

To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge. But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason. So again, if you’re going to take that point of view, I don’t see a useful way to distinguish your faith from the faith of a Muslim, a Mormon, a Wiccan, or a Jehovah’s Witness – all of whom stand on faith-based principles with which I am sure you disagree.

I wish to turn now to your third message, in which you attempted to justify this style of faith. You say:

“I started thinking about your comment about my being so certain in my convictions that I came across as somewhat arrogant. I think you’re probably right. And the reason, I realized as I was thinking about it, is that I have spent much time over the years pondering this question rationally.”

“I suddenly realized I did have a good ability to think. And ever since then I have really enjoyed the life of the mind. But I do apologize if I’ve come across as arrogant. I have nothing to be arrogant about; whatever good I have done is a gift from God.”

I don’t begrudge you the confidence in your own abilities. I too have spent a lot of time considering these issues, and I have a similar high opinion of myself – I’m confident that what I think is probably right because I’ve already given it a lot of thought. Both of us hold inherently subjective opinions, but we are basing them to some extent on our own past experience, which is certainly one component of reason, and hence a step in the direction of objectivity.

So if you are confident in your own mind that your position is the right one, then that’s great; enjoy your certainty. If your only goal in writing your book is to “preach to the choir,” then by all means, just tell your audience that you know you are right from experience, and they’ll probably believe you.

But I was under the impression that you wrote your book at least partly in order to persuade unbelievers like myself that your position is correct. I recognize that you would like to help me get saved from the fire and damnation that you feel certain is in store for me. Unfortunately, I need to point out that merely stating “I know it is true because I am thoughtful and intelligent” doesn’t really achieve that goal. Instead, it is an obvious effort to set yourself up as an authority by fiat: “You should believe this because I believe it, and I must be right.”

If I were to accept this sort of rhetorical tactic, I would be basing my beliefs on something truly subjective. Either I just agree to accept you (or somebody else) as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge, or I accept everybody’s beliefs as equally valid, even contradictory beliefs. Neither reaction strikes me as a satisfying approach to knowledge.

The long awaited reply to Chuck Colson (but not quite)

Okay, okay, okay.

Those of you who have been hanging around for a while will remember that I reviewed a free copy of Chuck Colson‘s The Faith many months ago; he took a couple of months to reply, and then he wrote three separate but very long posts over the next few weeks.  And you’ll also remember that I keep on making half-hearted promises to post a substantial reply to those posts, but I keep on not actually doing it.

Part of the reason has been personal life stuff, and part of it is because there are just so many things to criticize, single sentences that take hours to rebut.

I’m thinking of a new approach to get me moving.  I have a long commute with a carpool and a laptop now, so I’m able to write regularly, but I’m still swamped trying to think of how to organize the mega-response I was writing.  So here’s my proposal.  Since I’ve managed to get fired up writing so much about debate lately, I’m thinking I should make this a weekly installment.  I’ll post what I have written already, and then each week maybe identify one particular aspect of Chuck’s posts, write something during the week, and post something even if it’s short.

The question I have for you readers is: Should I send a message to Chuck’s liaison immediately after writing the first post, and keep updating him, thereby inviting more replies before I’m finished?

Or, should I do this for several weeks, and then gather up ALL the posts when I’ve finished having my say, and send a big list of links?

What do you say?

Chuck Colson responds (response #3)

Welcome back, Chuck.

I’m writing because, in church this morning (August 15), I started thinking about your comment about my being so certain in my convictions that I came across as somewhat arrogant. I think you’re probably right. And the reason, I realized as I was thinking about it, is that I have spent much time over the years pondering this question rationally. If you would have read my book Born Again you would know that my resistance to the gospel was exactly what yours is. I didn’t want to do something out of emotion; I wanted to be able to reason it through. I wanted evidence. That’s why reading C. S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity was such a help to me. I encountered in that book an intellect the match of anyone I’d known, and I found really solid reasons for believing.

(Previous messages: Kazim’s review of The Faith; Chuck Colson’s post #1; Chuck Colson’s post #2.)

I have to admit I wasn’t expecting another one; I figured part 2 was the final response. I realize I’ve been conspicuously silent in following up on the Chuck Colson posts, and as a result the previous responses have become something of a free-for-all where the commenters are concerned. I do want to take this opportunity to state that I’ve haltingly started my own comprehensive longer reply to both (and now all three) posts from Mr. Colson. At the moment, I’m feeling like I wish to start with the third post and work my way backward. It may take some time to finish, obviously, but then I’m sure this won’t be a problem since it has now been two and a half months from the time I first discussed Chuck’s book to the most recent post.

To you folks at Zondervan, thanks for keeping me notified on the new posts, and you’ll be hearing back from me sometime in the future.

Chuck Colson’s insecure little God

If you haven’t clicked over to the Zondervan blog to read Chuck Colson’s extended reply to Kazim, by all means do so. It’s really quite something, a rhetorical mishmash chock full of logical fallacies, false premises, and poor argument structure. One of Christianity’s bestselling apologists mounts some of the most amateurish defenses of the faith I’ve ever seen. Quite often — no doubt used to writing almost exclusively for a Christian readership who unquestioningly accepts all he says — he just asserts things without backing them up, or, if he does, with feeble sound bites that may seem like obvious conclusions to him, but won’t to anyone who thinks about them for longer than a picosecond.

I’ve been replying to a lot of points in the comments over there, but for this one specific passage, I’m posting my reply here, with only slight copy editing so it reads like a blog post and not a comment. I hope Zondervan has the integrity to leave my comments and those of other atheists up, and doesn’t do the Uncommon Descent insta-delete thing. Whatever they choose, I’m posting this one bit here, as I think it’s an important one. Because in this passage, Colson makes an embarrassing mistake in arguing for his God that, unfortunately, doesn’t paint God in a very flattering light. Indeed, he unwittingly makes his God into a rather pathetic and weak figure.

Colson starts:

You’re making the assumption that for God to be God, or for you to believe in Him, He must reveal Himself by giving us evidence which by reason would establish His existence. But why should the God who created everything that is explain Himself? What would compel such a God to do that?

Gosh, what about that crazy little thing called love? Over and over Christians try to tell us that God is love, that he loves us and wants a personal relationship with us, etc. etc. And yet when God is asked, entirely reasonably, to reveal his existence to us unambiguously, suddenly we’re the jerks! This is kind of hard to swallow in light of the fact this God purportedly sentences anyone who doesn’t believe in or worship him to his satisfaction to eternal torture in Hell!

Ironically, just a few paragraphs earlier, Mr. Colson asks rhetorically…

Is not the capacity for love, though you cannot see it, something which can be objectively (though not scientifically) measured?

Yes, it is (though Colson’s confused on his terms — the ways in which the emotions of love manifest in observable behavior are something science can study). And I would suggest that one measure of the capacity for love is that one does not deceive the object of one’s love, that one does not hide that which should not and does not need to be hidden, that one treats the object of one’s love with generosity, kindness and above all, respect.

It is not an act of respect — let alone love — to condemn someone to a horrible punishment simply for doubting your existence when you have categorically refused to reveal your existence. That you are a universe-creating deity is irrelevant to the issue. If your argument is that God, being God, doesn’t owe anybody anything, because HE’S GOD, SO SHUT UP, then why should human beings with reasoning capacity respond to that kind of arrogant disrespect with love and respect ourselves? To do so would only be a dishonest love borne out of fear. Mr. Colson is arguing for God as nothing more than a tyrant, an authoritarian thug and despot. Is this really the message he hopes will persuade atheists?

So in reply to Mr. Colson’s question, “But why should the God who created everything that is explain Himself?” my response is simple: If God really loved us, he would.

Yet Mr. Colson goes on with more arguments in favor of God’s authoritarianism and privilege, as if these were praiseworthy qualities.

A God great enough to create the heavens and earth, and all of life in it, is a God who has no obligation to explain why He created us. In fact, He has a good reason not to. I believe it was Aquinas who argued that if God could be known to us by reason, we would take Him for granted; He would be no different than the tree that one could see from one’s office.

Well, I would argue that God does have such an obligation, especially if the penalty for not being a member of his fan club is eternity in the lake of fire. If God did not want to have any obligations to us, then he should have left us as mindless as amoebas, and not given us the capacity to think and reason, which naturally tends to instill in us feelings of self-worth.

But I cannot imagine who would consider this silly point of Aquinas’s to be a “good reason” for God’s not revealing himself. It is hardly the case that any person alive holds all of the things they know to exist on some sort of even plateau of worth. Any parent knows that their own children exist; unless they are really horrible parents, that fact certainly does not mean they are as indifferent to their children as they are to a tree.

And doesn’t it seem curiously insecure of God to worry about being “taken for granted,” when, just a moment ago, Colson was arguing for God’s being so magnificent and so glorious and so divinely important and powerful and magisterial in his universe-creating awesomeness that the very idea of revealing himself to us puny humans was simply too far beneath his notice to be anything but absurd? Haven’t I seen this before? Oz the Great and Terrible, was it? Bluster, bluster, bluster…but pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

I’d suggest in future, Colson should consider amending his apologetics so that he doesn’t make the rather devastating mistake of following up a bout of “God’s too big and awesome and important to reveal himself to mere mortals,” with, “But really…he’s scared you’ll ignore him!”

PS: If you’re inclined to leave comments of your own at the Zondervan blog, do remember these basics, please, about which I shouldn’t have to ask. Be civil and polite. Keep your language clean. And restrict yourself simply to refuting the points you think need refuting, in detail, without telling Colson you think he must be “some kind of fucking idiot for believing all that crap!” (Civility! From me! Russell must be beaming with pride!)

Chuck Colson responds (response #1)

Chuck Colson has posted a response to my critique of his book at the Zondervan blog. I haven’t read the whole thing in depth yet, but he seems to be polite and respectful, and take at least some of my points seriously. On cursory reading, he appears to have focused on my analysis of his prison group, with an impromptu lecture on how scientific studies are supposed to be done. This should be interesting.

Everyone is welcome to read the entry and comment right here, but I will repeat my request that you remain equally respectful and refrain from trash-talk. I’ll take your comments into consideration when I get around to my own reply. It looks like Chuck is not done yet, so I may not write another response until after he’s finished his reaction to me.

Thanks, Chuck and Mike, for getting back to me.

Say, where is that Chuck Colson guy, anyway?

I’m really not one to trash talk most of the time — I’ll leave that to Martin 😉 — or keep score. But I have to observe that it has been a bit over a month since I posted a message to Chuck Colson, and almost three weeks since my last correspondence with Mike, who wrote: “They have seen your post, so it is hopefully just a matter of scheduling time for Chuck to reply to it.”

I don’t want to keep pestering Mike, it’s certainly not his fault. It’s not that there’s any big hurry, I’m just wondering if he still intends to respond. I’m keeping an eye on the Zondervan blog on my feed reader, just in case anything pops up and I don’t hear about it. So far, no comment.

I sure hope this means that Chuck felt he had to devote a lot of time and attention so he could appropriately address the reply that I worked so hard on. If that’s what it means, then I’ll be flattered. Certainly I would never stoop to suggesting that he decided that this whole “talking to atheist bloggers” thing was a bad idea to begin with, or that he’d rather sweep my post under the rug than publicize it.

Update, 7/10: Mike writes that

We’re getting close to having a response from Chuck. I just received an email from his assistant today that he has responded and I should have something soon from him. Once I do I’ll get it posted on the Zondervan blog. I’ll email you again once I get it posted on the Zondervan blog, just so you know it’s up. Thanks much.

Zondervan blog

Mike writes:

Great post! I’ll get this off to Chuck today and hopefully we’ll hear back from him shortly. It depends on his schedule, but I’ll keep you posted as I get word from him. I’ll probably post up Chuck’s reply on the Zondervan blog I’m thinking and link over to your post, etc. Thanks again.

Since I wasn’t aware of the existence of a Zondervan blog, I went looking for it and thought you might like to take a look too. Here is the section dedicated to Chuck Colson.

I looked over what was previously written, and it looks as though Chuck’s “blog tour” has already been in progress for a while, since around March. He appears to be dropping by apologetics-friendly blogs first to answer brief questions.

I haven’t read all the others yet. As far as I can see, mine is the first atheist response (although I don’t know whether others are still waiting on their response). Perhaps unsurprisingly, I also appear to be the only one who has written a long critique rather than a short set of basic questions.