October 16, 2009
There’s a great discussion going on in the comments section relating to Biblical contradictions; in light of that, I thought I’d clarify the point regarding those contradictions — at least to me.
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September 29, 2009
There’s an increasingly popular apologetic making the rounds these days: that Christianity provides the intellectual framework for our modern conception of individual rights. This is a popular David Barton conceit, for example, and Dinesh D’Souza relied on it extensively in his debate with Christopher Hitchens.
Unsurprisingly, the argument has always struck me as completely batty. Our modern conception of rights stems exclusively (and some would say axiomatically) from the concept of the social contract, made explicit in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and extended in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke and Hobbes articulate a theory of individual rights that is entirely secular; in fact, Hobbes puts it this way:
A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus and lex, right and law, yet they ought to be distinguished, because right consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear; whereas law determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.
I do concede that both Hobbes and Locke were (to varying degrees) theists, and both drew upon the Christian tradition in framing their arguments. That is, of course, to be expected. But — at least for me — the underyling contribution of social contractarianism to liberty is that it can be justified on exclusively secular grounds. Thus, I have long concluded that Christianity offers no sort of justification for the American scheme of individual rights we now enjoy.
This is readily confirmed by history; beginning in 380 AD and extending for more than a thousand years, Christians and Christian thought dominated Western Civilization, and nobody — not even indisputably brilliant theologians and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas — ever articulated a theory of individual rights (or anything that is even arguably a precursor). Rather, it was only once Christianity’s influence over Western Civilization began to subside in favor of the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment that we developed the theory of rights described above.
However, I stumbled across this interesting article by well-known atheist George H. Smith, author of Atheism: The Case Against God (which is a must-have for any skeptic’s bookshelf. Interestingly, Smith’s article was written for the Acton Institute, a Christian organization dedicated to, among other things, “promoting a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”
So the resulting article is, I think, about as “fair and balanced” as one can be on this topic. Smith forcefully articulates the positive role that Christian thought and institutions played throughout history in the development of the concept of liberty as we understand it today.
Of course, the apologist’s argument that Christianity provides an ontological justification for liberty remains patently false; there’s nothing in the Bible that suggests that individuals enjoy basic rights, and plenty to the contrary. But as a social institution and a force of history, Smith has persuaded me that the relationship between Christianity and individual rights is a bit more complicated than I initially thought.
September 28, 2009
In the comments section, “Who Cares” raises a number of issues related to the basic notion of whether we can “trust” the Bible. I think it’s worth unpacking some of those assumptions:
But, just touching on your point a) About the no agreement on any singular form of the bible. I mean, first, many people have many translations of works of Shakespeare, the Odyssey and the Iliad, and any non-english originated text we have, and the translations of those text into english, or some other language. And you assume we cannot agree on any of those text?
Here, “Who Cares” is eliding together three common atheist arguments that are, in fact, logically distinct. The first is the question of reliability; that is, how confident are we that what appears in our Bibles is a reliable transmission of what appeared in the original manuscripts. If the Gospel According to Mark we use today differs materially from the earliest circulating Gospel of Mark, for example, we would have questions about the reliability of our copy of Mark.
April 28, 2009
I thoroughly recommend John Loftus’s Why I Became An Atheist. In my mind it fills the gap nicely between pop-atheist works (like Dawkins) and specialized scholarship (such as Michael Martin). Of course, any well-read atheist or theist should have all three authors on their bookshelves, anyway.
John has rightly trumpeted his “Outsider Test for Faith” as a new and unique contribution to atheist counterapologetics (and I agree). But I wanted to focus in on a less-celebrated but still insightful passage. This is from page 152 of the paperback edition:
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April 27, 2009
I’m not enamored of Victor Reppert’s favorite apologetic argument, the so-called Argument from Reason, but I do appreciate his honesty and his willingness to tackle the strange and the unpalatable within his own belief system.
Today, it’s the long-standing Christian tradition (expressed here by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica and here by Puritan — and all-around jerk — Jonathan Edwards) that those in Heaven will have their eternal enjoyment magnified through the knowledge that the damned are suffering eternal torment in hell. Here’s how Aquinas puts it:
Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.
And here’s Edwards:
When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the damned, how will this heighten their sense of the blessedness of their own state, so exceedingly different from it! When they shall see how miserable others of their fellow creatures are, who were naturally in the same circumstances with themselves; when they shall see the smoke of their torment, and the raging of the flames of their burning, and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the mean time are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it to all eternity; how will they rejoice!
I know that some Christians try to mitigate the implications of this line of analysis by becoming annihiliationists (which Theopedia describes as heretical), but other than that, I don’t know how Christians can answer the common-sense objection that for many people, it simply wouldn’t be heaven to know that others are suffering for an eternity in Hell.
April 19, 2009
Rev. Jeremy Smith seems to think so. His argument stems from (1) John’s omission of the prayer at Gethsemene followed by (2) John 18, in which Rev. Smith claims that Jesus quotes from, and ridicules, the prayer account contained in the other Gospels.
HT: James McGrath.
April 17, 2009
Christian Science Fiction fan (and author?) Jessica Thomas, in the comments to a previous post, references a post she made elsewhere that responds to my basic question as to why God doesn’t prohibit slavery in the Bible, as well as makes some original points. I think it’s worth reproducing here and responding.
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April 15, 2009
Over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, Becky LuElla Miller has two posts up on “How Do We Know The Bible Is True?” In part 1, Becky argues that internal fulfilled prophecies prove that the Bible is true; in part 2, she suggests that external archaeological corroboration of some Biblical events means that “it is logical to accept as true the Bible’s record of events not yet corroborated independently.” I responded on Ms. Miller’s blog but will repeat those responses here:
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April 13, 2009
Nathaniel argues, in part, that:
According to Herodotus, when Zalmoxis reappeared, nobody thought he had risen from the dead, since it was explained that he had just been hiding. According to the gospels, everyone who came to believe that Jesus was alive realized that this meant he had risen from the dead.
In a coincidence of timing, religion professor (and Christian) James McGrath has an excellent post up at his blog entitled “Celebrating Easter with the Doubting Disciples, detailing just who “came to believe that Jesus was alive,” even assuming that the Biblical accounts record actual events. The money quote:
Be that as it may, the point remains that Easter is not about historical certainty. In Matthew, it even explicitly includes doubt. And by making the day a day for celebrating certainty, we risk losing one of the most important steps that may help us to experience the “resurrection power” that drove early Christianity and has continued to transform lives down the ages.
February 23, 2009
A serious question for my Christian readers: can you tell me if this little vignette is a parody or not? I certainly read it that way, until I dug into the parent directory, which appears to be an in-all-seriousness online manual for youth ministry.
Jesus: Wait a minute, didn’t I heal ten lepers? Why didn’t the other nine come back to thank me? The only one who came back to give praise to God was the Samaritan.
Disciple 1: Hum, maybe we were wrong about Samaritans.
Now I know how I read Luke 17:11-19, which is the passage of Scripture on which this little vignette is based. I think about those other nine lepers for a moment — but only a moment, because they’re not real. We know that even the worst ingrates are incapable of behaving like this; if you get magically cured of one of the worst diseases known to man, you’re going to at least stick around and figure out what just happened, right?
And that’s why it only takes a moment. As the reader, you can instantly recognize this passage as a badly-written bit of fiction. (That’s not to indict the whole Bible; there’s a lot of well-written fiction in there, too.) The nine ingrate lepers aren’t real people; they’re cartoon extras who exist for the sole purpose of providing the Samaritan leper some sharp relief. He gets to behave sensibly, and then Jesus can make his point. It’s a morality play, not a work of history. And the more you read the Bible, more and more of it reads the same way.
That’s why on first reading, I thought “Ten Lepers” had to be a clever parody. But now I’m not so sure, and that’s Poe’s Law in a nutshell.