Archive | Naturalism/Atheism

Has Secularization Made Us Smarter?

JCarrey-DumberHere is a common myth:  Intelligence has evolved over the centuries of recorded history, so we’re smarter than people were a thousand years ago. Just look at the remarkable advances in the sciences and especially technology, and it’s clear that our current generation is more intelligent than those of the past, right?  I hear it all the time, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, but hardly a day passes that I don’t detect it in the background of people’s presuppositions. Think of the frequency of comparisons with the past that run along these lines – “Well once upon a time people used to think that (insert any number of prevailing views from bygone eras), but now we know better.” And much of the time the thing “people used to think” isn’t even accurate. I continue to hear, for example, about how all of the Europeans thought the world was flat right up until Columbus’ voyage.

There’s no disputing that people across history held wrong beliefs about lots of specific things at various times. That’s as obvious as anything I could say about any time period, including our own. The myth is that we now are better than everyone in bygone generations because we have somehow ‘evolved’ past their ignorance and cognitive limitations. Their age was dark, ours is enlightened; their time was harsh and cruel, ours is nice and friendly; their intelligence was not quite up to the task, but now we’ve arrived and know what it’s all about. They had biases and blind spots they did not realize, but we have overcome that and replaced their shortcomings with openness, tolerance, unbiased neutrality and understanding.

This is an especially beloved part of the received wisdom among contemporary anti-religionists whose motivation for propagating the mantra is rather obvious. After all, if nearly everyone in Western history’s past generations was more spiritual and theological in orientation toward the world (including their ethics, politics, family life, etc.), and if those same people from the past were not as ‘evolved’ in their thinking as we are, then it must follow that having a more religious worldview equals being less evolved. Very simple and very tidy. To be truly intellectually advanced must mean to be distanced from the old traditional ways of thinking such that you are largely ignorant of the Scriptures, the arguments, the theological categories and even basic terminology that were so familiar and important for so long. Full secularization is the trademark of progress.

Just ask the ‘sheeple’ who sit in Bill Maher’s audiences and cheer when he describes as stupid and outdated the kinds of beliefs held by the majority of important thinkers whose ideas formed the foundation of our whole civilization. I suspect they haven’t paused to consider that so many of the great poets (like Milton, Wordsworth, etc.), philosophers (like Aquinas, Locke, etc.), scientists (like Copernicus, Newton, etc.), Renaissance humanists (like Erasmus, More, etc.), political leaders (like Washington, Adams, etc.) theologians (like Calvin, Edwards, etc.) and social reformers (like Wilberforce, MLK, Jr., etc.) were adherents and advocates of the very sorts of beliefs being scoffed at by a pretentious comedian whose clever cynicism apparently convinces his dimwitted viewers that he’s super-smart, when in fact he is hardly worthy, intellectually speaking, to clean the latrines of any of these men.

Worse yet, when I talk about the impressive legacy of those long since gone, so many people today still suppose, without any knowledge about it, of course, that all of those people – no matter their contributions in whatever fields – still must have been nevertheless hampered by the deficiency of living in a time before ours. If this seems like blind prejudice, that’s because it is. C. S. Lewis described in Surprised by Joy how his friend and Oxford colleague Owen Barfield helped to cure him of what he called “chronological snobbery,” which Lewis defined as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”  I’ve also heard it called “presentism” and “provincialism in time”, but I like the use of the word “snobbery.”

The thing people despise about snobs is that they look down their noses at other people for the shallowest of reasons. A snob, for example, will think himself better than other people on the basis of the clothes he wears. A snob will assume she should get preferential treatment in life on the basis of the zip code in which she resides. Lewis believed this to be at work in himself as a young, intellectually arrogant 20th Century man. He took it for granted that the prevailing attitudes of elite academics of his day were automatically to be favored above all who had gone before since, after all, those unfortunates did not live in contemporary (and thus superior) times.

How ironic, then, that Lewis went on to spend his entire Oxford and Cambridge career focused on past centuries, his favorite philosophers being long dead and his primary academic expertise centering on literature from the Middle Ages. He became convinced of the direct opposite view than the one he’d held in his younger days, for he came to value the treasures of wisdom and the depths of insight contained in the great volumes from the past. In his inaugural address to the Cambridge student body, he admitted to them that by that time in his life he belonged more to the old world than to theirs. He advised his readers regularly to live in the pages of history enough to gain perspective and not grow myopic and parochial. “It is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us,” he told the Cambridge students. In an introduction he wrote to an ancient work of Athanasius, Lewis advised, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. … Keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through your mind.”
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Billy Graham and Charles Templeton: A Sad Tale of Two Evangelists


As many of you know, Billy Graham and Charles Templeton were evangelists who rose to fame in the 40s (Graham, of course, is still an evangelist). Early in their careers they were friends – close friends. Many have said Templeton was the one that everyone thought was going to overturn the world with the Gospel. However, Templeton ended up leaving the Christian faith, eventually becoming an atheist.  In 1982, though still an atheist, he said of Billy Graham, “There is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust” (Anecdotal Memoir). Templeton died in 2001 at the age of 86, shortly after he wrote what I consider to be one of the most heart-breaking books ever published: Farewell to God.

Here is an excerpt from that book, about a pivotal conversation he had with Billy Graham as he was leaving the faith. The context is his desire to go to Princeton to study the Christian faith more critically. He wanted Graham to come with him. Please keep in mind, this is his account of the conversation:

“All our differences came to a head in a discussion which, better than anything I know, explains Billy Graham and his phenomenal success as an evangelist.

In the course of our conversation I said, ‘But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.’

‘I don’t accept that’ Billy said. ‘And there are reputable scholars who don’t.’

‘Who are these scholars?’ I said. ‘Men in conservative Christian colleges[?]’

‘Most of them, yes,’ he said. ‘But that is not the point. I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. I’ve discovered something in my ministry: When I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the word of God, my preaching has power. When I stand on the platform and say, ‘God says,’ or ‘The Bible says,’ the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results. Wiser men than you or I have been arguing questions like this for centuries. I don’t have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of the theological dispute, so I’ve decided once for all to stop questioning and accept the Bible as God’s word.’

‘But Billy,’ I protested, ‘You cannot do that. You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. Do it and you begin to die. It’s intellectual suicide.'”

‘I don’t know about anybody else,’ he said, ‘but I’ve decided that that’s the path for me.'”

(Farewell to God, 7-8)

For me, this represents one of the saddest encounters two people have ever had. It recounts a decisive breach in the friendship between two men as one left Christ, never to come back, and the other went on to, in my opinion, change the world. Continue Reading →

Ten Arguments for the Existence of God

1. Cosmological Argument: Also called the argument from universal causation or the argument from contingency, the cosmological argument is probably the most well-known and well-loved among theistic apologists. The basic argument is that all effects have an efficient cause. The universe, and all that is in it, due to its contingent (dependent) nature, is an effect. Therefore, the universe has a cause…but that  cause cannot be an effect, or one would have to explain its cause. Therefore, there must be an ultimate cause, an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause that began the process. This cause must transcend time and space in order to transcend the law of cause and effect. This transcendent entity must be personal in order to willfully cause the effect. This ultimate cause is God.

2. Teleological Argument: (Gr. telos, “end” or “purpose”) This is also known as the argument from design. This argument moves from complexity to a necessary explanatory cause for such complexity. The universe has definite design, order, and arrangement which cannot be sufficiently explained outside a theistic worldview. From the complexities of the human eye to the order and arrangement of the cosmology, the voice of God is heard. Therefore, God’s existence is the best explanation for such design. God is the undesigned designer.

3. Moral Argument: This argument argues from the reality of moral laws to the existence of a necessary moral law giver. The idea here is that if there are moral laws (murder is wrong, selfishness is wrong, self-sacrifice is noble, torturing innocent babies for fun is evil), then there must be a transcendent explanation and justification for such laws. Otherwise, they are merely conventions that are not morally binding on anyone. Since there are moral laws, then there must be a moral law giver who transcends space and time. This moral law giver is God.

4. sensus divinitatus (“sense of the divine”): While this argument goes by many names, the sensus divinitatus argues for the existence of God from the innate sense of the divine that exists within humans. This sense of the divine, it can be argued, is the “God-shaped void” within all of us. This explains why people, societies, and cultures of all time have, by nature, sensed a need to worship something greater than themselves.

5. The Argument from Aesthetic Experience: This is the argument from universal beauty and pleasure. Beauty and pleasure are universally recognized as such. Even subjective variations in one’s definition of what is beautiful are not distinct enough to relativize this principle. From the beauty of the sunset over the Rockies to the pleasure of eating certain foods, there is a common aesthetic experience that transcends the individual. This transcendence must have a ultimate source. This ultimate source is God. Continue Reading →

Is God a Moral Monster Revisited: Preliminary Replies to Thom Stark

(by Paul Copan)

Thom Stark has offered a lengthy response to my book Is God a Moral Monster?  His online book is entitled:  Is God a Moral Compromiser? When a book is laden with sarcasm, distortions, and ad hominem attacks, genuine dialogue and cordial exchange—the stuff of genuine scholarship—become difficult, if not preempted.

My good friend Matt Flannagan, with whom I have collaborated on various projects, has extensively engaged with Stark in the past.  (Note: I have posted his response alongside my posting.)  I’ve held off on commenting on Stark for this very reason, as the experience of others shows that engaging with Stark on such topics tends to be unproductive.

Let me make some preliminary comments on Stark.  

First, Stark accuses me of ignoring the critical scholars.  Keep in mind that I am writing for a popular audience—a group that isn’t going to read at a scholarly level but who are reading the New Atheists.  Mentioning these critics is simply a springboard to launch into the topic of Old Testament ethical issues; these men are hardly legitimate sources of critique, even if they raise points discussed by critical scholars. 

Second, it’s disappointing that Stark simply writes off Old Testament scholars who have endorsed my book, calling them “Little Leaguers.”  These include Christopher Wright (Ph.D. Cambridge), Gordon Wenham (Ph.D. Cambridge), and Tremper Longman (Ph.D. Yale).  They have earned their stripes at leading academic institutions.  Stark’s demeaning talk strikes me as disrespectful and unprofessional.  One gets the impression from reading Stark that those who agree with him are the “real” scholars. 

Third , Stark assumes I have no background in biblical studies.  Not so.  I’d imagine that I’ve probably logged the same number formal academic hours (if not more) in biblical/theological studies than Stark—though Stark would no doubt dismiss such training as “Little League.”  I have a B.A. in Biblical Studies as well as an M.Div. (Having studied Greek and Hebrew)—in addition to an M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in philosophy (in which I also took courses in theology).  I’m also a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, and I have presented at SBL as well as the American Academy of Religion.  Furthermore, I am a Fellow of the Institute for Biblical Research.   Continue Reading →

Morality and Naturalism’s Counterintuitive Claims: Response to Dawkins, Part V

(by Paul Copan)

We’ve been engaging the thinking of Richard Dawkins, and more recently we’ve touched on the counterintuitive nature of (Dawkins’) naturalism.  I’ll be looking at the topic of naturalism’s counterintuitive claims regarding morality, but first the historical question of naturalism’s alleged link to human rights.

Dawkins, Human Rights, and Historical Connections

When Dawkins spoke Nova Southeastern relatively recently, he talked about how Enlightenment secularism gave rise to human rights.  This is a common claim made be naturalists, but it is simply false.  As human rights scholar Max Stackhouse of Princeton writes:  “intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as ‘secular,’ ‘Western’ principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically-rooted religion.”[1]   These rights are rooted in the biblical language of the “image of God”—and natural law (in the Middle Ages) and natural rights (in the modern world).  The two leading documents of the eighteenth century refer to God as the basis for human rights: the Declaration of Independence (which speaks of humans being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (affirming human rights “in the presence and under the auspices” of God, “the Supreme Being”). 

More recently, the chief movers establishing a Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 (which speaks of humans being “endowed with reason and conscience”) were primarily church coalitions and individual Christian leaders who worked closely with some Jewish rabbis to create a “new world order” of human rights.[2]

Jürgen Habermas is one of Europe’s most prominent philosophers today.  Another fact about Habermas: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool atheist.  Yet he highlights the inescapable historical fact that the biblical faith has had a profound influence in shaping civilization.  Consider carefully his assessment:

“Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.  This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation.  To this day, there is no alternative to it.  And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage.  Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”[3]

Even non-Westerners have come recognized the remarkable impact of the Christian faith in the West.  TIME magazine’s well-respected correspondent David Aikman reported the summary of one Chinese scholar’s lecture to a group of eighteen American tourists: 

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world,” he said.  “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.  At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.  Then we thought it was because you had the best political system.  Next we focused on your economic system.  But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion:  Christianity.  That is why the West has been so powerful.  The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.  We don’t have any doubt about this.”[4] Continue Reading →

Why is There Something Rather than Nothing? The Only Six Options

Someone has once rightly said that this is the most basic philosophical question that there is: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

As far as I can tell, there are only six options:

1. The universe is eternal and everything has always existed.

Everything has existed for eternity. As far back as  one can go into the past, there is still an infinite amount of time which preceded it. The sum total of the universe is inclusive of an infinite succession of events and moments going backward.

Why this is wrong

An infinite number of temporal events going into the past is a formal absurdity. Going backward, no matter how far you travel in time, you would always have an infinity to go. Going forward, we would never get to the present moment because we would have an infinite amount of time and causes and effects to traverse to get here. It would be like asking of a man who is jumping out of an infinitely deep hole, when would he get out? The answer is never. There is no starting point from which to jump.  Or, better, it would be like someone walking down the street and you heard him counting down… “negative 5, negative 4, negative 3, negative 2, negative 1, zero!” And you said, “What are you doing?” And he responds, “I just got done counting to zero from negative infinity!” That would be a logical absurdity.

Even most atheists, since the early 20th century, now believe that there was a singular moment when all things came into existence called the big bang. Some have even proposed a multi-verse theory where our universe came out of another universe. But this only pushes it back one level. Where did that universe come from unless it is transcendent?

2. Nothing exists and all is an illusion

Everything you hear, see, do, or think does not really exist. There is no reality. There is not something. There is only nothing. 

Why this is wrong

This proposition, it should be obvious, is completely self-defeating. In order to even make such a proposition, the subject has to exist in some sense. If all is an illusion, where did the illusion come from? If another illusion produced the illusion, then where did that illusion come from. In other words, there is something, namely the illusion.

Even the solipsist, who does not believe in the existence of other minds, has to explain the genesis of his own mind.

3. The universe created itself

This is the idea that the universe and all that is in it did not have its origin in something outside itself, but from within. The universe did come into being, but it came from itself. It is self-created. Here, we may suppose that while we don’t understand how this could happen, advancements in scientific theory will eventually produce an answer. Continue Reading →

My Recent Interaction with Richard Dawkins

by Paul Copan

Last week, Richard Dawkins spoke here in Ft. Lauderdale at Nova Southeastern University on “The Fact of Evolution.” The following week, I spoke on “The Fact of God”—also delivered at Nova Southeastern. It was a direct response to Dawkins’s naturalistic worldview as well as a number of the comments he made at his lecture. My talk was followed by a very spirited discussion with a number of atheists in attendance. Well, “spirited” is euphemistic. One atheist who attended wrote to me, apologizing for the rude behavior of his fellow-atheists as they engaged with me!

Next week I’ll begin posting my response to Dawkins at Parchment and Pen. I’ll do so in a short series rather than giving my entire talk in one large chunk. But what I want to do here is discuss the question I posed to Richard Dawkins during the Q&A and then comment on his response to it. After all, since I couldn’t offer a rebuttal when I was on campus, I do so here!

One observation before I comment: During the Q&A time, when someone identified himself as a believer in God (or could be suspected of it), Dawkins at times sidestepped questions, ending with a quick jab at “religious” people being terrorists and or ignoramuses. For example, he called any advocate of old-earth creation “the not-completely stupid creationist.” His anti-religious quip to me was another such instance. So give a listen to the brief audio clip here—and then you can read my comments….

There I was—the first one in line during the Q&A. I asked Dawkins how he could claim that the naturalist id rationally superior to the theist since, according to his book River Out of Eden, all of us are dancing to the music of our DNA. Our beliefs are the product of non-rational, deterministic physical forces beyond our control—whether we’re theists or naturalists. In fact, if the naturalist is right, it’s only by accident—not because he’s more intellectually virtuous than the theist. That is, the naturalist has accidental true belief (which is not knowledge) rather than warranted true belief (which is knowledge).

Dawkins gave the odd reply that it’s kind of like Republicans and Democrats—with each group thinking they’re right and the other group wrong. But on what grounds could either side think they are more rational than the other? Dawkins then added that he supposed that whatever view “works” the correct one to hold. But here’s the problem: what “works” is logically distinct from “true” or “matching up with reality”—since we may hold to a lot of false beliefs that help us survive and reproduce, even if they are false. Indeed, naturalistic evolution is interested in survival and reproduction—the “four F’s” (fighting, feeding, fleeing, and reproducing). Truth, the naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland argues, is secondary to these pursuits According to another such naturalist, the late Richard Rorty, truth is “utterly unDarwinian.”

To top off his answer to me (without addressing how to ground rationality), Dawkins dismissively quipped that science flies rockets to the moon while religion flies planes into buildings. Many in the audience applauded his rhetorical flourish. (How could a guy with a charming British accent be mistaken, right?!) His “bumper sticker argumentation” [1] reminded me of what St. Augustine said about the dismissive “Christian” answer to the sincere (Manichean) question: “What did God do before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine disliked the mocking answer that North African Catholics would give back to this heretical sect: “He was preparing hell…for those prying into such deep subjects.” (This actually reminds me of the unthinking dismissiveness of Dawkins here!) Yet Augustine refused to evade “by a joke the force of the objection.” He wrote: Continue Reading →

Is the New Atheism Really Affecting People’s Belief in God?

As of 2005, according to a Cambridge study, 88 percent of the world’s population believes in God. This is down from around 90 percent in 2000. Ninety-five percent of Americans still believe in God. Whether these polls are off a slight bit or not, most people would agree that somewhere around 9/10 people have always believed in some sort of deity.

Some may credit the advent of the so-called “new atheism” for the number creeping down in recent years. The “new atheism” is interesting in so many ways. I suppose the fundamental reason why it is called “new” is not because of any new evidence that has been found that profoundly militates against traditional theism, but in the attitude and zeal of the “new atheists.” In essence, whereas the “old atheists” were content to keep their disbelief in God to themselves, not being too concerned about what others believed, these “new atheists” seem intent on converting as many people as possible to their faith. What is “new” is that they are evangelists of unbelief. They truly believe that the world would be better off without a belief in God. Therefore, they want us to be atheist too. In fact, I just saw that The American Humanist Association just launched the largest evangelistic anti-God campaign in history.

However, the fluctuation in the numbers (90 to 88 percent) may not be a very good indicator of the true effect that the “new atheism” is having on people’s beliefs. With the proliferation of atheistic “evidences” among the general public brought about by the “new atheism,” we have something very different. While people are not giving up their confession of belief that God exists and becoming outright atheists, I find that they are more prepared to suspend their belief in God for a sort of accommodating agnosticism. This could be just as problematic for the Christian cause as full-blow atheism itself.

Let me explain.

Belief is not black and white. In fact, the anatomy of belief is very complicated. There are various degrees and ways which people believe things. When it comes to a belief in God, people can lose their conviction without completely losing their faith. When you ask someone whether they believe in God and require a yes/no response, you are assuming that belief in God is either something that you have or you don’t, with little regard for the complexities and variations in between. To put it in a very elementary way: some people kinda believe in God. Others just believe in him. Still, others really believe in him. And some really believe in him. You see the difference?

But, it is even more complex than this. In fact, there is a fundamental difference between believing in God and believing that God exists. You cannot have the former without the latter, but you can have the latter without the former. One can also have varying beliefs about God. Confused?

How about some Patton graphics to confuse things more (don’t pay attention to where the dials are at on the first one here)?

 This meter represents faith. There are three individual meters that contribute. Continue Reading →