Row over drinking and smoking Jesus picture

The BBC reports an interesting row in India, in fact in the 70% Christian state of Meghalaya, about school textbooks

showing pictures of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette and a can of beer.

The state government has seized the textbooks, which were found being used in a private school, and

legal action against the publishers was being contemplated.

The row is likely to spread beyond this one remote state, as the book was published in Delhi, and

The Catholic Church in India has banned all textbooks by [publishers of the book] Skyline Publications from all its schools.

One wonders what motivated the publishers to include in the book such a silly and gratuitously offensive picture (you can see it on the BBC site). It would hardly be the act of any genuinely religious Hindus or Muslims. It sounds more like the kind of stunt that would be pulled by militant secularist atheists.

But to me the most objectionable part of the picture is not the beer can or the cigarette but the way that an image of Jesus as a blond European (which of course he was not) is being used even in India.

An "Atheist" Perspective on Haiti

While I have been arguing that atheist arguments prompted by the Haiti earthquake are toothless, my friend and fellow blogger John Richardson, the Ugley Vicar, has been questioning whether they are really rational. John looks from the perspective of an atheist (although he is in fact a Christian minister) mainly at what Richard Dawkins has written about Haiti. He finds in Dawkins’ article anthropomorphic language and an anthropocentric perspective. He finishes by condemning Dawkins for irrationally calling for aid to be sent to Haiti, when the rational response from an evolutionary perspective is to let even more Haitians die, to reduce the world’s overpopulation which threatens the survival of our species. Read it all here.

Of course John’s tongue is firmly in his cheek here. And he is perhaps attacking a straw man version of atheism in response to the way atheists often attack straw man versions of Christianity. But he shows how the thinking of people like Dawkins is in fact firmly based in the Judeo-Christian morality whose roots they want to pull out. Do Dawkins et al really want human society to go where their rationalism seems to lead it? They may be playing with fire. Is it really rational for our society to pay a pension to Dawkins, who is no longer productive or (I presume) reproductive? Wouldn’t it be better in evolutionary terms to have him put to sleep?

It is interesting to see how atheists like Dawkins and John Loftus seems to have as a basic presupposition that human death is the ultimate evil. They use it as an argument that God cannot exist because otherwise he would not have allowed multiple human deaths. But what is their ethical basis for that judgment? It is not originally a Christian one, as Christians have always held, at least in theory, that it is better for them to die and be with God than to suffer in life. It is not an evolutionary one, for as the Nazis infamously argued the survival of the species is enhanced by the death of the less fit and of those past the age of childbearing. It is not even the ethics of a popular culture which is increasingly coming to the view that the terminally ill should be allowed to die. So why are today’s atheists still presupposing that human death is the ultimate evil?

In the Toothless Lions' Den

Their intentions were the best, but between them Joel Watts and Glenn Peoples have managed to throw me and my blog into a lions’ den, atheist John W. Loftus’ blog Debunking Christianity. I already reported on John’s first response to my post on Haiti. Since then he has responded twice more, here and here, with increasing length in each of his three posts.

In a comment on the second post John writes:

Peter, nice to see your comment but prepare to get fried. If the regular visitors here at DC don’t do this, I will later.

So he can hardly complain at me changing the imagery from a frying pan to a lions’ den. Or perhaps I should have gone for an earlier chapter of Daniel and the burning fiery furnace.

Now as a Christian I trust as Daniel did that God will protect me in the lions’ den. But I feel safe in this particular lions’ den not just because I trust in God but also because, as far as I can tell so far, there is only one lion in it, and perhaps a few cubs, and the lion and its cubs seem to have no teeth or claws. John Loftus is hitting me with childish arguments. He tries to pretend that they have some force, but they have none at all. I have already demolished most of them in my various comments on his posts.

As far as I can see, John’s main argument centres on a rather obscure point. He insists that God could have forced King Charles X of France to change his mind, about imposing reparations on Haiti, without violating that king’s free will. His evidence for this proposition is that some people in the Bible sometimes did what God asked them to do. He completely ignores my point that a lot of other people persistently refused to do what God wanted, and God did not force them to do it. So, John’s argument seems to run, since God did not force the king to repent, God cannot exist, QED. Or have I missed some step in the argument? Can he really not see how weak and full of holes this is? He doesn’t seem even to allow consideration of the possibility that God chooses to let people disobey him, that he has chosen to give us free will.

John claims on his profile page that

I have three master’s degrees in the area of the Philosophy of Religion along with some Ph.D. work. I majored under William Lane Craig and earned a Th.M. degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1985.

My first reaction to this is to despair of the quality of American education, including at TEDS, if they give master’s degrees to someone who has apparently failed to master even the basics of the philosophy of religion, who does not demonstrate any understanding of metaphysical libertarianism or compatibilism – I link to Wikipedia articles which could help to introduce John to these subjects. Or perhaps he is not really ignorant of these things, only feigning ignorance as a debating tactic. Either way, that means it is a waste of time to debate with John, so I won’t do so any more.

magnumdb, commenting on John’s blog, linked to an interesting piece Why It’s So Tricky for Atheists to Debate with Believers, which describes

a pattern. Believers put atheists in no-win situations, so that no matter what atheists do, we’ll be seen as either acting like jerks or conceding defeat. … these “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” tactics aren’t really valid criticisms of atheism.

It seems to me that John Loftus has found a way to respond to these tactics: if you can’t beat them, join them by copying them. I already noted that by him I would be “damned whatever I write”. It seems he wants me to “be seen as either acting like [a] jerk[] or conceding defeat.” Well, I am not going to play his little game. I am getting out of the lions’ den unharmed by his childish arguments and without conceding any measure of defeat.

Haiti: damned whatever I write

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am happy that atheist propagandist (and #2 biblioblogger) John W. Loftus has linked to my post about Haiti, and has in fact quoted a large chunk of it. I am pleased that, in his own comment, he endorses the Avaaz.org appeal which I also endorsed, for the relief of Haiti’s debts.

But I get the impression from what John writes that I would be damned by him just because I am a Christian, whatever I might choose to say about Haiti. In my post I explicitly denied any intention of explaining why God allowed the earthquake to happen:

That is not an attempt to answer the question of why God allowed this natural disaster.

That is the only place in the post where I even mention God. John quoted these words, but then immediately wrote:

Yet, Christians still try to open any window to show their God is not to be blamed for anything.

Well, some Christians may do this, but I quite explicitly denied making any attempt in this post to show anything of the sort. I can’t help thinking that John would have taken anything I wrote about Haiti as an attempt “to show [my] God is not to be blamed for anything”?

But perhaps I should blame not John but Christian blogger (and #5 biblioblogger) Glenn Peoples for this misunderstanding. In a comment which John quotes Glenn describes my post as

a better representation of a Christian response to Pat Robertson’s unChristian comments.

Well, thanks, Glenn, but it was not really intended to be a Christian response. Apart from that one sentence mentioning God, I wrote nothing in the post which couldn’t have been written by an atheist. Indeed I challenged John to find anything in the post that he actually disagreed with.

In fact, here is my entire comment on John’s post, to which I have now been awaiting any reply for nine hours:

Thanks for the link to my post at Gentle Wisdom. But I can’t help thinking that I would be damned for anything I wrote about Haiti (and you happened to read), just because I am a Christian. After all, I didn’t mention God in this post except to say “That is not an attempt to answer the question of why God allowed this natural disaster.” Is there actually anything in this post that you disagree with?

But in answer to some of your questions, yes, God could have for example spoken to King Charles X (or for that matter to today’s bankers) and asked him to forgive Haiti’s debts. Very likely he did speak to him. But the king, as a selfish and sinful man (like all of us), didn’t do what God asked him, or would have asked him. God could have forced him to do it, but only by turning people into robots.

And he did show the Haitians that their country was an earthquake zone, through devastating earthquakes in the 18th century. But they went ahead and built unstable buildings there anyway.

How about this argument: Suppose you have a teenage child who goes out, with your permission, and commits some minor offence. Are you to blame? Well, you could have locked the young person up at home 24 hours a day, so yes, by the standards you apply to God, that anything you could have stopped is your fault, you are to blame. But is that responsible parenting? No, it is child abuse. Similarly God could lock us up 24 hours a day so we are unable to sin, but that would be to abuse us, not to be a responsible and loving Father.

If atheists like John Loftus and Richard Dawkins want their arguments to be taken seriously, they need to make an effort to understand and interact with what thoughtful Christians write, rather than offering only ad hominem responses to them and directing their only attempts at proper argumentation at extremists and straw men.

The danger of worshipping Darwin

One might expect Christian authors to write articles condemning attempts to turn Darwinism into a religion. But this BBC article is interesting because its author, Andrew Marr, is apparently an atheist. After comparing how Darwin’s theories are presented today with religion, he finishes:

So where is the danger?

I believe Darwin was right and that as science advances, he is proved more prescient, not less.

But religions are absolute. They bring their truth and then repel all boarders. They divide mankind into the saved and the ignorant damned.

In this story, there is no us and them. Darwinism, as I take it, is a creed of observation, fact, a deep modesty about conclusions and lifelong readiness to be proved wrong.

I don’t say it offers everything that religion can. But I do say that, in this respect, it is better.

However we celebrate the old man, we mustn’t let his work crust into creed or harden to dogma.

Apparently this article is a trailer for a BBC2 TV series starting later tonight. You might like to watch it, at least in the UK. I am going out, so will miss the chance, although I could catch up on iPlayer.

Most British people still believe in God the Creator, but why?

Another post relevant to Darwin’s bicentenary …

The Christian think tank Theos has carried out a survey of public opinion in Britain on creation and evolution. Thanks to Doug Chaplin for the link to Andrew Brown of the Guardian’s article about this. The results are extraordinary, considering that this is not a survey of Christians, but of the full spectrum of the population of the highly secularised UK. Here are the questions and some of the answers (extracted from the results, averaged over age groups and regions):

Q1. Young Earth Creationism is the idea that God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years. In your opinion is Young Earth Creationism:

Definitely true: 11% Probably true: 21%.

Q2. Theistic evolution is the idea that evolution is the means that God used for the creation of all living things on earth. In your opinion is Theistic evolution:

Definitely true: 12% Probably true: 32%.

Q3. Atheistic evolution is the idea that evolution makes belief in God unnecessary and absurd. In your opinion is Atheistic evolution:

Definitely true: 13% Probably true: 21%.

Q4. Intelligent Design is the idea that evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages. In your opinion is Intelligent Design:

Definitely true: 14% Probably true: 37%.

These results raise several questions, not least that quite a lot of people must have said that two contradictory positions are definitely or probably true. The survey must have found many disciples of Alice’s White Queen, who practice believing impossible things before breakfast. Indeed the questions themselves raise questions, about the definitions used, as the British Humanist Association has rightly pointed out, but the research is still valid as long as the wording of the questions is kept in mind.

So, even in this highly secular country, the two most popular of these four positions explicitly involve the activity of a creator or designer, in other words of God or a god. The atheistic position comes in third place. More than half the population accepts the Intelligent Design position. This is perhaps good news for Christians, that despite the collapse of organised churchgoing in the UK there is still a strong residual belief in God. According to the detailed figures, this belief does not seem to tail off among younger respondents.

As for Young Earth Creationism, although this is the least popular of the four positions, it is only a little behind atheistic evolution, with nearly a third of the population considering it definitely or probably true. This is far more than the total adherents of any kind of religion which would teach this position. This may reflect in part widespread ignorance of anything to do with science, although only 8% admitted to “Don’t know” on this question. So Andrew Brown is surely right in his suggestion that this is a matter of “Science vs superstition, not science vs religion”. As Doug points out:

This has some echoes of Chesterton: when people stop believing in God they will believe in anything.

Personally I have serious issues with Intelligent Design at least as presented here, and also with Young Earth Creationism. But I would have answered “Definitely true” to this question about theistic evolution.

The Church of England's apology to, or for, Darwin

The Church of England has marked the Darwin bicentenary by launching a new website about the great scientist. (Thanks to Ruth Gledhill for the link.) The front page links to several articles about Darwin. One of them shows how he began his life as a good Anglican. Another charts in his own words his loss of Christian faith:

disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.

Yet another page shows how despite this he remained an active member of his village church in Downe, Kent.

The most interesting article on this site is Good religion needs good science, by Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs of the Church of England. Brown seems to accept that Darwin’s description of evolution was good science, but is rightly concerned about the philosophcal “Darwinism” which has been built up around it. The whole essay is all worth reading and cannot be summarised briefly, but here is a taster:

It is hard to avoid the thought that the reaction against Darwin was largely based on what we would now call the ‘yuk factor’ (an emotional not an intellectual response) when he proposed a lineage from apes to humans.

But for all that the reaction now seems misjudged, it may just be that Wilberforce and others glimpsed a murky image of how Darwin’s theories might be misappropriated and the harm they could do …

Natural selection, as a way of understanding physical evolutionary processes over thousands of years, makes sense. Translate that into a half-understood notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ and imagine the processes working on a day-to-day basis, and evolution gets mixed up with a social theory in which the weak perish – the very opposite of the Christian vision in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). This ‘Social Darwinism’, in which the strong flourish and losers go to the wall is, moreover, the complete converse of what Darwin himself believed about human relationships. From this social misapplication of Darwin’s theories has sprung insidious forms of racism and other forms of discrimination which are more horribly potent for having the appearance of scientific “truth” behind them. …

Christians will want to stress, instead, the human capacity for love, for altruism, and for self-sacrifice. There is nothing here which, in principle, contradicts Darwin’s theory. … But the point of natural selection is that it is precisely by being most fully human that we demonstrate our fitness. And being fully human means refusing to abdicate our ability to act selflessly or lovingly and to challenge thin concepts of rationality which equate “being rational” to material self interest. …

The problem for all Christians is discerning where the surrounding culture is really a threat and where it is compatible with our understanding of God. …

Brown ends with these interesting words of apology:

Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well.

God is alive & well, and on the side of a bus

Everyone (at least among Church of England clergy) is getting into it using this site, or so it seems from the examples of Bishop Alan, Sam Norton, Maggi Dawn, Doug Chaplin, and my old friend Martin Jackson, plus a whole competition from Madpriest. So, not being one to miss a blogging bandwagon, I must show off my own example of this, and not just in an edit to an old post which hardly anyone will notice. To mark the day when the real Agnostibuses are off the road at least in London, here is the slogan written by a friend of mine for our church, as it would appear on the side of a bus:

bus-god-is-alive-well

God is alive & well …

From the latest presentation on my church‘s electronic noticeboard (a plasma screen inside the foyer but visible from the street), which we had long before digital picture frames became the latest in gadget:

God is alive & well

If you don’t understand the context here, or recognise the bus in the top right insert, see this post by David Keen, and his first and second roundups of reaction.

Personally I think the “Agnostibus” campaign is great because, just like the Alpha campaign with its questions like “Is this it?” and “What am I doing here?”, it makes people think. But I doubt if it will stop anyone worrying.

The Agnostibuses are not only in London; I saw some a few days ago in Dawkins’ home town of Oxford. But there are none in my home town of Chelmsford, only buses asking those Alpha questions.

UPDATE 2nd February: This slogan can now be seen on the side of a real bus, courtesy of this site:

bus-god-is-alive-well

Dawkins abandons atheism!

Shock news of the week: one of the world’s reputed leading apostles of atheism, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, is no longer an atheist!

Doubts about this were first raised a few days ago in the responses by several bloggers to a story reported by the BBC: Dawkins has put £5,500 of his own money towards the costs of an advertising campaign with the slogan “There’s probably no God”. “Probably”? That doesn’t sound like the statement of the true believer atheist Dawkins that we Christians have come to know, love, and vilify. OK, the word is an allusion to the “Probably the best lager in the world” advertising campaign and so is mocking the advertising rules which allow unverifiable claims to be made if this word is added. But I think it left many people puzzled that he is prepared to endorse and support such an ambiguous campaign – one even welcomed by the Methodist Church, and indeed by myself for making people think about God.

But now Melanie Phillips, writing in The Spectator (thanks to Damian for putting a link to this on David Ker’s Bible Behemoth feed), gives confirmation that Dawkins is no longer an atheist. She quotes him as saying, in a debate in Oxford this week which she attended,

A serious case could be made for a deistic God.

She continues:

This was surely remarkable. Here was the arch-apostle of atheism, whose whole case is based on the assertion that believing in a creator of the universe is no different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, saying that a serious case can be made for the idea that the universe was brought into being by some kind of purposeful force. A creator. True, he was not saying he was now a deist; on the contrary, he still didn’t believe in such a purposeful founding intelligence, and he was certainly still saying that belief in the personal God of the Bible was just like believing in fairies. Nevertheless, to acknowledge that ‘a serious case could be made for a deistic god’ is to undermine his previous categorical assertion that

…all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection…Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.

In Oxford on Tuesday night, however, virtually the first thing he said was that a serious case could be made for believing that it could.

In other words, Dawkins is not an atheist but an agnostic, one who is not sure whether there is a God or not. Melanie suggests that his thinking may be following the same path as that of the formerly atheistic professor Anthony Flew. Dawkins previously ridiculed Flew’s arguments for the existence of God, but now he seems to be accepting that there is a serious case for Flew’s position.

Meanwhile Dawkins is continuing his virulent attack on the divinity of Jesus. So there is some way to go before we can welcome him into the evangelical Christian camp. But he does seem to have taken the first step on that path by recognising the weakness of some of his famous atheistic arguments.

Update: David Keen, John Richardson and Mark Meynell got to this subject first, but I hadn’t seen their posts when I wrote mine.