Monday, January 26, 2009

Do Our Values Come from God?

The title of my post is the title of Victor Stenger's seventh chapter in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis. I have been slow to finish blogging about this book, and I think I'll call it quits with this topic.

There is one other topic of interest in the book, and that is on the lack of achaeological evidence for the claims made in the Bible (chapter 6). I have very little expertise in this area, but I will say that I'm not as inclined as some to read the Bible as I would a modern history book. However, on the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have found N. T. Wright to be especially helpful.

Now to the topic at hand. Stenger wants to argue that morals do not come from religion:

The data... indicate that the majority of human beings from all cultures and all religions or no religion agree on a common set of moral standards. While specific differences can be found, universal norms do seem to exist. ...
The Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures contain many passages that teach noble ideals that the human race has done well to adopt as norms of behavior.... But without exception, the fact that these principles developed in earlier cultures and history indicates that they were adopted by--rather than learned from--religion. ...
Believers are guided by their consciences in deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, just as are nonbelievers. ... Psychological tests indicate that there are no significant differences in the moral sense between atheists and theists. ...
It seems likely that this is were we umans have learned our sense of right and wrong. We have taught it to ourselves. (pp. 195, 197, 208, 209)
Stenger's argument is growing more and more typical in the secular age. The problem is, he utterly fails to answer the appropriate question.

The question is not, "Where did we learn morals?" but rather, "What is the logical basis for having morals?" What is morality, anyway? Morality is in part a preference for one set of circumstances over another; we call one thing "good" and another "bad." The other part of morality is becoming trained to seek the good and reject the bad.

Theists like me argue that without God there is no logical basis for the first part of morality, i.e. there is no reason to prefer one circumstance over another. Think about a coin flip. The difference between heads and tails is totally meaningless until someone assigns some meaning. If you just keep flipping a coin and writing down "heads" or "tails," you aren't doing anything. But if you toss a coin to start the Super Bowl, now that's a big deal.

If everything is just coin flips, even the decisions humans make, then nothing is really a big deal. We're just kidding ourselves. Manmade morality is just an arbitrary preference. Some people like chocolate, others don't. Previous generations thought slavery was okay, we don't. It's just a coin toss.

Now if there is a God, then there is a logical reason to believe that some outcomes in life are good, while others are bad. There is a mandate from the very nature of reality to seek the good, which is part of what I perceive Jesus to be saying when he announces the coming of his kingdom. Because God exists, we can claim it is logical to be moral. It is not a matter of mere preference. We are not kidding ourselves.

Of course, Stenger wants to focus entirely on the empirical question, rather than dealing with the metaphysics. So he takes all kinds of cheap shots at Christians and a few at Muslims to ensure his reader knows how bad religion is, and how good atheists are.

According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Christians make up almost 80 percent of the prison population. Atheists make up about 0.2 percent. ...
Published studies do indicate that a child's risk of sexual abuse by a family member increases as the family's religious denomination becomes more conservative, that is, when the teachings of scriptures and other doctrines are taken more literally. Similarly, the probability of wife abuse increases with the rigidity of a church's teachings pertaining to gender roles and hierarchy. ...
The Old Testament is filled with atrocities committed in the name of God. ...
The history of Christendom abounds with violence sanctioned by the Church...
Of coure, the Muslim terrorists themselves felt they were obeying God's command to engage in jihad.

The Qur'an is as bloodthirsty as the Old Testament. ... (pp. 194,

Indeed, I think these are cheap shots, mostly because Stenger leaves a gaping hole in his empirical argument, failing to make a single reference to the atrocities committed by atheists such as Stalin in the 20th century, or the Darwinist principles motivating the Nazi holocaust.

Empirical questions about morality and religion are legitimate. Stenger is leaving out some useful insights. Here are two articles he should read:

First, the New York Times reports that those who are both sincere in their faith and devout in their religious practice have been shown to have better self-control. The study was done by a secular psychologist.

Second, Matthew Parris writing for the Times Online has opined that despite his atheist views, he believes that Christianity is making Africa a better place:

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

But in any case, the empirical question is not enough. We as humans need to know why we should do what we do. Atheists imply that morality is nothing more than getting along with people. The problem is, survival only depends on getting along with people in power. True morality is always based on something deeper.

As Jesus said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to b first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mt 20:25-28, NRSV)

This violates the survival principles upon which Darwinist ethics are based, and yet Christians throughout the ages have found it compelling. Look at the ones who have truly done great things, from William Wilberforce to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Mother Teresa. Does that kind of virtue come from the idea that nice behavior will prolong the survival of the species? No; it comes from a much deeper since that there is a promised land, that there is a kingdom worth fighting for with the weapons of love and self-sacrifice.

To this day I have simply never found any coherent atheist argument why morality makes any sense. I guess it has a little bit to do with my personality. I tend not to care about "fitting in." I care more about principles. The people I respect and admire are the ones who give up everything for the sake of an ideal greater than themselves. Atheist ethics don't sound to me like any more than trying your best to get along.

Even if atheists are on average "nicer" than most religious people, that doesn't impress me at all. Just because you're nice doesn't mean you've convinced me that being nice is logical. More importantly, sometimes nice people just go through life never making a real difference in this world. Indeed, real moral advances are usually made by stepping on some toes.
So while Stenger's book has offered a bold scientific argument against God, he ultimately fails to explain what I know to be true. There is a compelling vision of how things should be that we can all sense. It is not made up; it is there, in reality. We know, deep down, the kingdom of God is coming, and it motivates us to act as becomes a citizen of that kingdom.
I recommend Stenger's book to everyone, because if you haven't dealt with the arguments he gives, now is the time. I don't think he succeeds in his goal, which is to disprove God's existence, but he does force us to take different views on some issues than we may be used to. But there's certainly nothing wrong with that.


So my frat brother Zaq Lawal (Phi Beta Sigma, Beta Beta Nu chapter) made this picture for me on, a web site that allows you to look like an Obama poster.
What do you think? Is this change we can believe in? :)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Just a shout-out to my bros

I'm just really proud of my fraternity (Phi Beta Sigma) brothers at Washington & Lee University for the service that they do, and for posting pictures on the Internet. Here are some pictures of them playing basketball at Natural Bridge juvenile detention center in Natural Bridge, VA.

Keep up the good work, Beta Beta Nu.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On Being Young, Male, Protestant, and Pro-life

So yesterday I attended the March for Life in Washington, D.C. in order to protest Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion on demand legal in the United States. I thought I'd write a few reflections I had on the pro-life movement.

This was my fourth year in a row marching for life. This year was much different from the last three. For one thing, the weather was way better--clear and sunny. For another, our new president is decidedly opposed to our cause, a complete turnaround from George Bush. It was a little sad this year not getting a nice address from the president.

If you haven't already heard, Obama has overturned the Mexico City Policy, which means our tax dollars will go to organizations around the world that promote abortion. Once again, Obama proves that he is not pro-"choice," but pro-abortion, since he thinks we who believe abortion is murder still ought to share our money with organizations that promote it.

But for now let me not dwell on how sickening Obama's position on this issue is. There are some fascinating sociological realities to confront whenever I engage in pro-life work as a young, Protestant male.

A vague sort of pro-choice argument is that old men shouldn't be deciding what a woman can do with her own body. I think this argument really stems from the fact that politics has for the most part always been dominated by older men. It really looks bad, in our cultural climate, for old guys to appear to be restricting young women's freedom.

However, the reality of the pro-life movement is that it's dominated by women, especially in younger age groups. Whenever I go to the Students for Life of America conference, it's attended by at least 75% women. The last time I went to a UVA "Hoos" for Life meeting, I was one of two men; there were eight women. When I graduated from Washington & Lee, I left W&L Students for Life with all female officers. I know this is all anecdotal evidence, but I doubt there's any sociologist out there interested enough in the pro-life movement to provide any rigorous study. But take it from me and anyone else in the pro-life movement: women are taking charge.

The trouble is, most guys I know really don't want to be caught telling women what to do, so they just ignore the issue. They see abortion as a women's issue that they can't get involved in. I do remember in high school hearing the phrase, "No ovaries, no opinion." So most guys just learn to keep quiet, even if they're pro-choice, but especially if they're pro-life.

If a man is pro-life, often he simply leaves it at voting pro-life, which is fine as far as it goes; but advocacy is what we need now more than ever. Really, seeing abortion as just a women's issue plays right into the hands of pro-choicers, who have always tried to frame the debate in terms of women's rights. In fact, abortion is a human rights issue, and as far as I know women and men are equally human (if feminism really is nothing more than this "radical notion," then I'm a feminist).

As awkward as it is for me to be a young man advocating a pro-life position, I feel really privileged to be in this position. First of all, that the movement is so full of young women is hardly a downside (*wink*). More importantly, I think it is critical for young men to make a show of standing alonside young women in defense of unborn children, making our cynical culture realize that men actually can think about something more than themselves.

I often wonder about men on the other side. Once I was standing in front of a Planned Parenthood alongside two female students from Washington & Lee (one was my girlfriend, incidentally). They held up signs saying, "Abortion Hurts Women." When you do this kind of thing, you usually get hecklers, but particularly poignant to me was seeing a young man, probably not much older than I am, drive by and stick up his middle finger.

What message did that man hope to send? Was he advocating for women's rights by making an ugly gesture at two twenty year-old women peacefully protesting abortion? What right did he have to be angry that these young women said abortion hurts?

Men should be pro-life, and pro-woman. We don't need men to think abortion is okay. We need men to take responsbility for our sexual choices, be good husbands, and be good fathers. We men can be part of the solution to the problems that keep abortion in demand. I'll try to do my part.

If women dominate the pro-life movement, Catholics almost consume it completely. I don't think that there are necessarily more pro-life Catholics than Protestants in this country. I just think Catholics are more organized. They have built up all the infrastructure of the movement, from the March for Life to American Life League to Students for Life of America.

One time at the Students for Life conference, there was a speaker from Stand to Reason, talking about apologetics. This speaker was a Presbyterian, and he asked if there were any other Presbyterians in the audience. I believe that out of a crowd of around 700 or so, I was one of two Presbyterians. The number of Catholics was easily over 90%.

To be honest, this lack of activism is the one thing I loathe about my denomination. Mainline Presbyterians tend to be liberal, so they don't even take a pro-life stance. My denomination, the PCA, is pro-life; yet it doesn't actively foster a sense that activism is a good thing. I think many evangelicals, no matter how they vote, are ultimately teaching themselves that the Lord loves potluck dinners more than protests, prayer and fasting more than advocacy.

How refreshing it is to run into the Catholic view of politics, a view which sees activism as a real service to the kingdom of God. And it's not as if Catholics are neglecting other forms of piety--at least not the kind of Catholics you meet at the March for Life.

Still, it is a little weird to be on a bus full of Catholics when they're praying the rosary. Gotta love those moments of Protestant awkwardness. I guess politics alone can't make me a Catholic.

Nor should it; there are plenty of non-religious people who still see reason on this issue. I felt sorry for the one guy at the March for Life holding up a sign that said, "Agnostics Against Abortion." Given that all the speeches at the march were full of religious rhetoric, this guy must've felt even more alone than us Protestants.

But the truth is, none of the marchers care what your religion is when you're marching. For that moment, we're all united against one single injustice--and it's not hard to understand. Your faith may be your primary motivation to be an activist, but believing abortion is wrong takes nothing more than a respect for all human lives, even the smallest ones!

Some day I honestly hope the pro-life movement can outgrow its fiery religious rhetoric, if only for the sake of being taken more seriously. The pro-life position really is a common-sense position, based not so much on scripture as on science. In fact, at our country's founding people believed life began at "quickening," that is, when you could feel the baby kick. Abortion wasn't outlawed in the U.S. until the 1800's, thanks largely to the American Medical Association. Anti-abortion legislation was actually a triumph of scientific progress, not Catholic theology. (You might want to read this and this.)

Still, a solid belief in God's justice has always motivated people to stand up for what is right. I do hope and pray that one day I will see and end to this battle. Not that we can ever completely stop battling against injustice, until the Messiah returns, but victories are won, and change really can happen.

Change. Hmmm. Where have I heard that before?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


So today Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America. He is the media's darling, an inspiraton to us all. My school, the University of Virginia, even suspended classes between 11 and 2 so that people could watch the event.

It's a funny feeling, hearing all this commotion about a president I didn't vote for, especially when the commotion is all about how finally after all this time we have a black president. I voted against him because I didn't agree with his ideas, but come to find out, it was the image that mattered more.

No doubt about it, Obama does inspire me. As a story, Obama is amazing. We all need a story to live by, and Obama's story is one that will add to America's already rich narrative about itself.

But the weird thing is, I can't say along with the many rabid fans out there, "Yes, we did!" I'm not on the right side of this great American tale. I'm one of the naysayers, one of those who opposed "Change," because I thought it just might be a bad idea.

The only kind of "change" I opposed was with a capital "C." I didn't vote against Obama on the basis of race, or image, or story. I voted against him on principle. Mostly I think he has completely sold himself to the wrong side of the biggest human rights issue in American politics: abortion.

So where does that put me in the story of America? Wouldn't it be nice if we could simplify everything into good and evil? Wouldn't it be nice if we could just tell a story about how the people who really believed America was a land of opportunity finally achieved that vision in electing Barack Obama, no matter what their backward opponents said? That's the story I'm sure many would like to tell.

I'm 23 years old. I have no memory of segregated schools, or Jim Crow laws, or the March on Washington.

I am, however, acutely aware that I am young enough to have been legally aborted. The pictures of aborted fetuses are vividly etched in my memory forever. The stories of women who regret their abortions, the stories women who feel they have no other options, the stories of men who regret not doing anything about it--these are the stories that move me here and now.

On Thursday I will go to Washington, D.C., not for Obama's inauguration, but for the 36th annual March for Life. That means the 36th anniversary of Roe v Wade. That means 36 years of a legalized practice that very well could've killed me long before I had a voice to oppose it.

There are many stories in America's history. This is the story I want to be a part of--a story of faithful opposition to a practice that devalues human life. It is the modern day abolition movement.

In one thread in America's great story, Obama is at the pinnacle of our success. The first black president represents the victory of Martin Luther King's dream; he embodies the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans.

But in another thread, Obama is just another example of the status quo that has given us no relief from the destruction of human lives. Much as he and others try to spin abortion into a victory for the women's rights movement, the truth, as Feminists for Life can attest, is that abortion does women no good in the grand scheme of things. Hiding our problems behind closed doors is not progress; "choice" is not liberating when it devalues human life.

I want so badly to like Barack Obama. I like the way he talks. I like the way he carries himself. I like the American values he often espouses.

But as long as Obama remains on the wrong side of this critical issue, I will not waver in my opposition to him. Not that I will oppose him in every way; just on the issues that matter most.

Perhaps the day will come when our story--the story of those who remained steadfast in the defense of human life--will be as inspirational as Obama's is today. Yet standing up for what is right is its own reward, whether or not the media throws a party for us.

Today one great American narrative has reached a climax. Mine is just beginning.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Scientific Progress Goes "Moo"

I couldn't help but post a link to this article:

Cows can't detect earthquakes: Official

I guess as a scientist, sometimes you just have to deal with disappointments like these.

George W. Bush and Conservatives

George W. Bush is about to leave office. I've read several opinion pieces recently evaluating his presidency. You might be surprised how divided conservative opinion is on the subject. Personally, I'm divided within myself.
Just take a look at's opinion pieces, and you'll find at least two rather scathing reviews of Bush's presidency, one by Pat Buchanan, and another by Steve Chapman, which you can read here and here. On both of their lists for Bush screw-ups: the war and the economy. These are conservatives talking.
The reality is that arguably Bush isnot a conservative, nor ever was. His policy on the economy is conservative only in the sense that he has a strangely unwavering commitment to tax cuts. In every other respect, he has abandoned conservative principles by continuing to spend more and more while accumulating more and more executive power for the sake of his war on terror.
Conservatives can even wonder about his foreign policy. While conservatives are all about national defense, and traditionally believe that a strong military is the only way to deter our opponents from attacking us, Bush's war in Iraq was in many ways an innovation. The concept of "pre-emptive strike" is anything but traditional.
In the end, I think Bush is his own person--he acted according to his own particular vision in response to very unique circumstances (9/11 and so on). Call him arrogant or call him principled; in either case, he's really not traditional.
Where does that leave conservatism, I wonder? I used to consider myself a conservative, but these days I feel that the word "conservative" utterly fails to name any one particular worldview. Of course, I suppose that's what politics is all about, anyway--gathering coalitions of various interests into one party or another. Still, I used to think there was such a logical coherence tying together fiscal conservatism, pragmatic foreign policy, and traditional moral values.
That coherence has all but evaporated in my mind. Perhaps it was enough for me just to discover the diversity of conservative/libertarian thought, but the presidency of George Bush was certainly a catalyst for making me rethink the system I was used to. Bush is an enigma, a radical conservative who is not conservative, a visionary who is not progressive, and for those of us who are generous enough not to just hate him, he is quite a mystery to ponder.
Bush's character is indeed mysterious. I read a transcript of his final press conference. He does seem to have this odd contentment about him, like he's completely satisfied with what he did in office because he thought it was the right thing. You know, for most people we consider that okay, but for the President of the United States there does seem to be something wrong with it. I mean, a whole country's fate was on the line. Still, the man followed his conscience from start to finish. Such people are usually called visionaries when the majority actually agrees with them.
But Bush's approval ratings are just about the lowest they've ever been for an American president, so rather than seeing him as a visionary, many Americans have outright hatred for him. I suppose that's the risk he was willing to take, and he's paying for it. I wonder if, behind the face he wears in public, any of that hatred matters to him.
In any case, he acted on what he thought was right in a time when something had to be done. A new era of global terror has come upon us, and George Bush was the one given the task of deciding how we should approach it. Like it or not, we have to live with the consequences of his bold agenda. I'm not sure I like it.
In the meantime, Democrats will soon gain full control of the government, and conservatives are left wondering what to do next. Personally, I think this is a good thing for conservatives. Maybe this will cause them to think more about political philosophy than about retaining power. Probably not, but hey, it could happen.
As for me, I feel I'm looking at the political landscape from a bit of a distance. I wonder if there's something better on the horizon, perhaps a visionary who has all the idealism of Barack Obama with none of the gross moral errors (such as his views on abortion). I wonder if there is someone who combines a passion for justice with keen economic wisdom and political restraint.
(See, I think I'm too idealistic these days to be truly conservative.)
Anyway, goodbye George W. Bush. You've certainly made your mark.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Pains of Blogging

So I started writing my last blog post, which you can read here, about a week ago, and so my blog posted it under that date! I wish it would have posted it under Jan. 14, the day it was actually finished, rather than Jan. 6, the day it was started. Oh well. Hopefully if I have any regular readers, they won't get confused. I'm sure it's my fault.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

World's First Flying Car

Thanks to Sarah Keckler for the link. Check it out! I'm really excited about it.
On the other hand, it is just a plane old car. :)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Obama Chooses Private School--Well, Duh

So I've heard that Barack Obama is sending his two daughters to Sidwell Friends School, a private school where Chelsea Clinton also received part of her education. And why wouldn't he? He didn't send them to public schools in Chicago, so why would he try out the failing public schools in Washington, D.C.?

Since school choice is one of the most important political issues to me, I thought I'd mention this article by Ed Feulner. In it Feulner rightly points out the irony of Obama's decision.

During his campaign, he vowed, “We cannot be satisfied until every child in America -- I mean every child -- has the same chance for a good education that we want for our own children.” And the best way to give students that chance is to give their parents a choice. If parents were allowed to pick their children’s school (as the Obamas have now done twice), they’d pick the best available school, not merely the one that happens to be in their neighborhood.

...Sadly, candidate Obama seemed to be leaning in the wrong direction. “What I do oppose,” he told the American Federation of Teachers, “is spending public money for private school vouchers. We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools, not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”

Giving parents and students a choice is not "throwing our hands up and walking away from" public schools. Rather, school vouchers put power in the hands of common people, rather than giving it directly to a corrupt and inefficient public education system.

What we have now, as this site makes clear, is a system in which teachers' unions work politically to maintain the status quo, which is that teachers get public money for doing less than our money is worth. So Barack Obama is really in favor of a system that favors the powerful over the powerless.

School vouchers, however, would still use public money to pay for education, but they would give power to the powerless, choice to those who have no choice. This would create a system in which schools actually have to compete for the money they make, and that would be in the public's best interest.

I do recall a commercial campaign by Lending Tree that said, "When banks compete, you win." When it comes to education, it's just as simple. When schools compete, students win. It frustrates me that Barack Obama would put the interests of teachers' unions before the interests of America's youth, despite what his rhetoric may say.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Prayers of Lab Rats

It's about time I got back to my reflections on God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger. In my last post, I talked about Stenger's arguments against design of the universe. In this post, I turn to perhaps a more concrete topic: prayer.

In Chapter 3 of Stenger's book, entitled "Searching for a World Beyond Matter," Stenger argues against the existence of any non-physical part of the human being and against the effectiveness of prayer. I just want to briefly address his comments on the soul.

I am not sure why Stenger, supposedly arguing against the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, bothers to refute such things as ESP and qi (chi). However, most Christians do believe in some sort of non-physical soul, which supposedly houses the will, certain emotions, and other abstract qualities of a human being.

I just wanted to make the point that this isn't the only possible Christian view. I found a wonderful article by Greg Bahnsen, which you can read here, in which he argues that a Christian can believe that a human is one substance, not two. This is currently the view I hold. I tend not to believe that the soul is a separate substance that exists outside of space and time. I could probably write a whole other post on this subject, but I will let it rest for now.

The real issue I wanted to address is prayer. Stenger wants to argue that prayer is ineffective. In his words, "Surely, with the millions of prayers being submitted daily, totaling billions in recorded history, some obvioulsy verifiable (not just anecdotal) positive evidence should have been found by now!" (p. 94)

Stenger submits as evidence against God's existence some scientific studies on the efficacy of prayer. Let's look at the methodology being used here.
In a three-year clinical trial led by Duke University physicians, the effects of intercessory prayer and other so-called noetic therapies such as music, imagery, and touch therapy were examined for 748 patients in 9 hospitals in the United States. Twelve prayer groups from around the world were involved, including lay and monastic Christians, Sufi Muslims, and Buddhist monks. Prayers were even e-mailed to Jerusalem and placed on the Wailing Wall.
Patients awaiting angioplasty for coronary artery obstruction were selected at random by computer and sent to the twelve prayer groups. The groups prayed for complete recovery of the patients. The clinical trials were double blind: neither the hospital staff nor the patients knew who was being prayed for.
The findings, reported in the journal Lancet, showed no significant differences in the recovery and health between the two groups. (p.99-100)

Apparently, the prayer of a lab rat availeth little.

Now it is important to analyze this critically. Let me just make a brief first pass at these results. First of all, why in the world would God answer prayers that were randomly distributed, healing some patients, and not others, who were involved in the experiment, merely on the basis of a computer's random choice? That hardly seems logical for a loving God to do.

Second, if you're going to study prayer scientifically, don't you have to come up with some definition of prayer? Maybe the people praying in this experiment didn't do it right, even according to their own faith traditions. (I've often wondered if Catholics ever space out during the rosary and do one too many Hail Mary's. No offense to you Catholics out there.)

The point may seem trivial, but then again, if trivial points like this can be made, it throws a wrench in the whole idea of experimenting on prayer. Still, I suppose Christians like me ought to have some sort of explanation of prayer that makes sense in the real wold. What is prayer, anyway, and what does it do?

I am not a theologian, and I can only give an amateur's opinion. However, let me start by saying what I think prayer is not. Prayer is not magic. Now magic can be tested scientifically (and is pretty much always found to be fake), because it is supposed to be pretty mechanical. You speak the right incantations, mix the right weird ingredients, and poof! You get a door that you can paint onto a wall to get inside the castle and save the princess. Or whatever.

Prayer is not magic. In Matthew 6:7-8, Jesus teaches, "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." Indeed, it appears that Jesus explicitly denies any sort of superstitious understanding of prayer.

What Jesus says next is also of critical importance. It is an outline for true prayer according to Jesus, and we Christians have come to call it "the Lord's Prayer." N. T. Wright has written a beautiful article on "The Lord's Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer." Wright emphasizes something that I think is absolutely crucial: "the Lord’s Prayer is not so much a command as an invitation: an invitation to share in the prayer-life of Jesus himself."

When we pray as Jesus taught us, we are not simply asking for things we want. We are becoming more and more servants in his kingdom, a kingdom that will save the world. We would all like to have some magical prayer formula to make everything perfect right now, but Jesus never said he had such a thing.

Here's a mystery to chew on for a while: Jesus himself prayed a prayer that was not answered. According to Matthew, he prayed three times in Gethsemane, "My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want." Jesus didn't get what he wanted, but he did get what his Father wanted.

So what is the point of prayer, after all? If it can't really sway God, then why pray?

Perhaps the best answer is that we can only discover the true purpose of prayer by praying. I think it is one of those activities which becomes clearer the more it is done. I believe prayer is a transforming experience, designed to make us more like Christ, which means more like the kind of person God intends us to be. But I know prayer is also more than that; prayers are sometimes answered, and those answers sometimes give us clues about God's purposes.

As with my last post in response to Stenger, for me it all comes down to meaning and purpose. We offer up prayers to God because we are convinced that things in this world matter, and not just to us, but in a very real, cosmic sense. People, events, and the natural world all matter, not just because we experience them, but because God created them.

In Stenger's world, things just happen according to physical laws that have nothing to do with God. The human race as well as the entire world we live in is the product of chance. Events that happen can only teach us to learn the laws of physics better.

But in God's world, events that happen can tell us something about His purposes. Answered prayer is not meant to assure a person that he can control the natural world with his voice. Rather, it is meant to assure a person that history has meaning, and there is hope in sight not just for us, but for the whole world.

Therein lies the simple reason why you can't test prayer in a lab. Science looks for outcomes, but religion looks for meaning in outcomes.

In my mind, the question of whether God exists remains largely a question of whether events in the world have any objective meaning--that is, meaning in a cosmic sense, and not just to us. This is a metaphysical question, and that's part of the reason I disagree with Stenger each time he says science proves there is no God.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Designed or Undesigned--that is the question

As promised several days ago, I'm going to respond to Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis, one piece at a time. In this post, I'll take on chapter 2, 4, and 5, which talk about the issues of evolution, cosmology, and order in the universe.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all share in common the idea that the universe was created and is sustained by God, even though all three religions define God differently. Stenger, in looking for evidence of God, thinks that if God exists, we should be able to find some physical signs that God was involved in creating the universe, and that he is involved in sustaining it. The evidence that he thinks he should see is a place in the development of the universe (especially the development of human life) where natural descriptions are not enough.

Here's one criterion he uses. "In principle," he says, "the creation hypothesis could be confirmed by the direct observation or theoretical requirement that conversation of energy was violated 13.7 billion years ago at the start of the big bang." He goes on:
However, neither observations nor theory indicates this to be have been the case. ... Remarkably, the total energy of the universe appears to be zero. As famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking said in his 1988 best seller, A Brief History of Time, "In the case of a universe that is approximately uniform in space, one can show that the negative gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero."

So the universe actually just cancels out, and is really nothing after all. But not, as Francis Schaeffer might put it, nothing nothing. Just nothing with some amazing properties.

Which is a very key point in all of this. In his explanation on why there is something rather than nothing, Stenger fumbles around with the idea that nothingness is less stable than, I suppose, somethingness:
[M]any simple systems of particles are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. Since "nothing" is as simple as it gets, we cannot expect it to be very stable. It would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter. The transition of nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any agent. (emphasis mine)

This is one of those points where I think Stenger can't ignore metaphysics. Indeed, he tries to shrug it off, but it's actually rather painful to watch:
Clearly many conceptual problems are associated with this question. How do we define "nothing"? What are its properties? If it has properties, doesn't that make it something? The theist claims that God is the answer. But, then, why is there God rather than nothing? Assuming we can define "nothing," why should nothing be a more natural state of affairs than something?

Stenger's use of the word natural is basically consistent, referring to things that follow the same basic laws of physics. The problem, of course, is that he sets this at odds with the concept of a creator God, without bothering to delve into any of the relevant metaphysical questions.

Although he uses the word natural consistently, he does not use the word nothing consistently. Indeed, if "nothing" has properties, doesn't that make it something? He asks the question, but never answers it. The kind of nothingness that he claims will spontaneously become something is not, as I mentioned earlier, nothing nothing. To illustrate what I mean, I'll use Schaeffer's words (from He Is There and He Is Not Silent):
Suppose we had a very black blackboard which had never been used. On this blackboard we drew a circle, and inside that circle there was everything that was--and there was nothing within the circle. Then we erase the circle. This is nothing nothing.

In other words, no laws under which it is likely that "nothing" will spontaneously "decay" into "something." No symmetries to say that "nothingness" is perfectly uniform throughout. Nothing nothing has no symmetries, and no asymmetries. There is nothing measurable about it. That is what, I think, you get without a creator. Schaeffer was wise to dwell on this.

Stenger wants to say that the universe came into existence because it had to, and I agree. That is because I don't think God is a piece of the universe that might, in theory, be cut off from it. God is as inescapable as are the laws of the universe and the truths of mathematics. But here we are getting into metaphysics, and I know Stenger hates that. The point I want to stress, though, is that the God of the Bible need not create a universe from "nothing." Rather, in my view, he created the universe from "nothing nothing," that is, He is the source of all reality, not just matter and energy.

The fact that matter and energy always seem to behave themselves is a testament to the divine act of creation. Of course, when we overly anthropomorphize God, it seems silly to think of a guy like you or me trying to keep all those particles in check; but when we shed all of our childish visions of God, we see that the incredible uniformity that underlies all the diversity of the universe is a symptom of there being only one God, a being so other it is literally breathtaking for me to contemplate.

To say that diversity comes from uniformity naturally is not an argument against God, as Stenger thinks it is. Rather, the fact that meaningful diversity comes from beautiful uniformity is a stroke of divine genius (although intelligence, after all, is hard to actually define).

Well, I have already spent a great many words on cosmology. There is more that Stenger has to say about the design of the universe.

In Chapter 2, Stenger talks about evolution, and I really won't go there. I will simply say that I am with Francis Collins on this one, and my comments on cosmology should also apply to evolution. (I've already blogged a little about evolution here.) However, I noticed something in this chapter that Stenger picks up full force in Chapter 5, which is titled, "The Uncongenial Universe."

Basically the argument goes like this. If there were a God who created this world and human beings in his image, then the universe would be well-suited to human life. By empirical evidence, it is not. Therefore, there is no God.

Here is some of the empirical evidence he cites:
  1. Our bodies are not as efficient as they could be if they were designed by an engineer (p. 69)
  2. The universe is really big, and there is "an awfully large amount of space where humanity will never make an appearance." (p. 156)
  3. The universe is really old. (p. 156-7)
  4. It would be practically impossible for us to travel to another planet congenial to our form of life. (p. 158-9)
  5. Complex organisms such as humans evolve "by famliar, purely reductive physical processes without the aid of any overarching holistic guiding principle." (p. 162)
  6. The portion of the universe that is "structured" is very small (p. 162-3)

Point number 5 can be addressed, I think, in the manner I have already dealt with cosmology. All other points are merely statements of the form, "This certainly isn't how I would've designed the universe." Indeed, the idea that God "wasted" space and time (as implied in a subheading of Chapter 5) presupposes that one already has a good idea of how God should have created the universe. Yet that is exactly how Stenger argues; it is more metaphysics than physics, though he doesn't think it is.

Which leads me to one point I can't stress enough to both theists and atheists. Whether or not you see design in the universe is, in some sense, irrelevant. In order to see or not see design in the universe, you have to anthropomorphize God in some way. Either God created the world as you would have (though perhaps more skillfully), or he created it in a way that you don't like, and in either case you're making God in your image. Note that theists can be just as guilty of this as atheists.

Rather, what we really learn from the fact that God created the universe is that matter is intrinsicaly good. Scripture does not teach us how matter behaves, how far it extends into the universe, or even really what it is in the first place. However, it does teach us that matter is intrinsically good, and thus it makes sense to study it eagerly as scientists.

I think a quote from Robert Wilken's The Spirit of Early Christian Thought will bring my point home:

But early Christian thinkers offer no philosohpical argument for the existence of God drawn from the world of nature. ... They did not argue that there is a God because there is order; rather, they saw design in the universe because they knew the one God. God was not a principle of explanation. In seeking God they sought to understand the God they already knew. (p. 16)

The knowledge of God provides a framework in which all sorts of other knowledge can be properly integrated. Real knowledge about the universe amounts to personal growth within the context of knowing God. Stenger makes the mistake of thinking that science can work outside of this framework.

Ultimately, I get back to my very first point about Stenger from my last post about his book. He fails to give necessary attention to the metaphysical questions that we must answer. If we are the product of chance in a universe where matter is not intrinsically good, then what can we say? Are humans better off alive or dead? Is science worth doing in the first place?

However you choose to answer those questions, if there is no God, then there is no way to justify your choice outside of yourself. It is merely your personal, private truth. A full pursuit of knowledge demands that we have some framework in which to integrate both a description of the universe and an evaluation of our role in it, and its role in our lives. Such a pursuit cannot even begin without the knowledge of God on some level.

I think these chapters contain Stenger's strongest arguments in the whole book, and that is probably because he knows that most about these subjects, from evolution to cosmology. I have argued that he is lacking in his metaphysical interpretation of the science he presents. However, I have not disputed any of his science, and I do not think it is necessary to do so. I understand many Christians feel it is necessary, and I respect that, but I must say I think that is a losing battle. When scientists say, for example, that they have confirmed Darwinism and the big bang through extensive testing, I am inclined to believe them. They can have nothing to gain by falsifying the evidence.

However, scientists can have many reasons to make metaphysical claims and try to back them up with their science. While science may be relevant to metaphysical questions, I think Stenger fails to actually deal with the metaphysics, and therefore his empirical claims don't do all that he wants them to do. There is more that I could say, but I think I'll stop for now.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Little Update on "Pro-life Atheists"

Thanks to my friend Melissa Rupp for this article about Nat Hentoff, who recently got laid off by the Village Voice, a left-wing magazine.

You can take a look for yourself. It's just another example of how weird and sad the whole abortion debate has been for the past 35 years.