Archive | Paul Copan

Theism, Atheism, and Rationality: Some Reflections

Alvin Plantinga was recently interviewed for an article that appeared in the New York Times on the question, “Is Atheism Irrational?”[1] The following Tuesday, a National Public Radio station in Los Angeles asked me to participate in a program (the next day), in which I would engage with an atheist on this topic and then address any questions from callers. I agreed and prepared some material to make the point in defending the plausibility of belief in God.

As is turns out, the person who had invited me to speak on the program informed me that her supervisor had also booked another Christian philosopher, but who happened to be in the Los Angeles area and so could possibly come to the studio. As it turns out, that theist was a fellow Christian philosopher and frequent collaborator, William Lane Craig. So I knew that theism would be very well-represented—and indeed it was![2]

Since I had typed out some notes, why not make use of them in some other way? So I thought I’d at least post some of my reflections on the topic of theism, atheism, and rationality.

1. Atheism makes a knowledge claim—“God does not exist”—and therefore stands in need of justification, as does as the theistic claim, “God exists.” The atheist is not off the hook. If the atheist claims that he simply does not believe in God, then he does not differ from an agnostic, who also doesn’t believe in God. The agnostic’s view is properly characterized as unbelief; the atheist’s is disbelief. Continue Reading →

“I Feel; Therefore, I Am”: Reflections on Cultural Emotivism

We’re familiar with relativism’s slogan, “That’s true for you but not for me.” Well, in the worldview neighborhood, emotivism is just around the corner.  This philosophy of life is centered on feelings or emotions, entirely or partially eclipsing truth from consideration.  In ethics, emotivism stresses that statements like “Murder is wrong” don’t express moral truths; they only express feelings: “I don’t like murder” or “Murder—yuck!”  With its emphasis on feelings, the Romantic movement in art, literature, and philosophy began in the early 1800s in response to the seemingly cold, sterile rationalism of the Enlightenment (1650-1800). And in our day, we are witnessing something of a renewed Romanticism and the widespread flight from reason.

We encounter emotivismin the moral claim “I feel that this is right” or “That makes me feel uncomfortable.”  In their research papers, university students with increasing frequency write “I feel” rather than “I think” to establish their point.  Some might ask, “Well, what’s the difference? Aren’t a person’s feelings and opinions (thinking) pretty much the same thing?”  No, they are not, and we should try to speak with greater precision—beyond the mere expression of feelings—with a view to actually reflecting on and assessing the truth-content of beliefs.[1]

First of all, to say “I think” sounds more argumentative than “I feel.” Also, our culture increasingly takes feelings to be self-justifying—as though no further argument or supporting reasons are necessary.  And how can you disagree with how someone feels?  Think of the person who says, “I like chocolate ice cream.”  That statement reflects a personal preference—someone’s inner state—and there’s no point in disagreeing with it. But what are we to do with it? It sounds authoritative, but are we to adopt chocolate ice cream as our own favorite?

Emotivism doesn’t express moral facts—only moral preferences. The problem, though, is that feelings are often misguided, and we need good thinking to direct our emotions and help bring them under control.  A person may get angry in a particular situation he has misjudged, but his anger may quickly subside when he hears reasons that explain the context.  And don’t we periodically change our moral perspective on certain issues, presumably because we think we have a good reason for doing so? But why should we take a person’s feelings, by themselves, as authoritative?  Continue Reading →

The Poor and Free Markets

You may not remember the Phil Donahue Show. I myself didn’t really pay attention to it. Besides having other things to do, I found Donahue’s political correctness too irritating when I did stumble across it. Last year, I saw an intriguing video clip of the show.  Donahue was hosting the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who advocated the benefits of free markets; Donahue took a more socialist, redistributionist, centralized-government approach to economics. (You can see a short exchange here:

Friedman said that the historical evidence is in, and it is quite clear: over the last 200 years, free markets, not government programs, have created wealth that has brought general worldwide benefit to the poor, lifting multitudes out of grinding poverty. He says that there is no system that holds a candle to the free market in terms of helping the poor around the world.

Just look at the Gapminder website ( Without exception (unless, say, interrupted by civil war or dictatorship), countries where (a) free markets exist and (b) governments reinforce the rule of law (e.g., to protect private property, honor contracts), personal income increases.  At Gapminder, just click on any country and see how personal income has increased where these two conditions prevail. The increase of wealth is not a zero-sum game—that if people get richer, others will necessarily become poorer.

Shortly after seeing the Friedman video clip, I came across a book by the Acton Institute’s Jay Wesley Richards—Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (HarperOne). The book offers an excellent, engaging, and accessible philosophy of economics. It also debunks many popular myths about free market economics:  that Jesus would support government redistribution of wealth, that capitalism encourages unfair competition, that capitalism is based on greed, that capitalism means the rich get rich at the expense of the poor, that good intentions are all that matter when it comes to helping the poor, and so on.  Richards defends free market economics as a chief—and empirically-proven—means of helping the poor break out of grinding poverty worldwide.  All benefit from free markets. So even if Bill Gates has far more material assets than I do, this doesn’t mean that I am therefore poorly off or should feel justifiably entitled to some of his wealth. Everyone is better off materially in a free market system, not simply the wealthy. This is not to say that government has no role to provide safety nets (not hammocks!) for the truly needy. Yet the government does not create wealth, but its policies can create equal opportunities for wealth creation.

If we consider whether governments or free markets best help the poor out of poverty, the economist Thomas Sowell tells us straight:

The lot of the poor improves through the ability to create wealth. If we compare the track record of socialism and capitalism, the latter wins hands-down in terms of improving the lot of the poor. Redistribution of trillions of dollars through welfare programs in the US and moneys sent abroad to non-Western nations has only bred dependence, corruption, and irresponsibility without ameliorating the problem of poverty.[1]

Continue Reading →

How (Not) To Help the Poor

In a First Things editorial entitled “What Should We Do About the Poor?”[1], the editors discuss alternatives to addressing poverty.  Though this essay is about twenty years old, it still offers sage advice for assisting the genuinely “disadvantaged poor.” The editors mention the traditional “conservative” approach—namely, to stop giving out money in order that the poor will become more responsible for themselves and less dependent on others. To the ears of many, this approach can sound calloused and lacking in compassion. As we’ll see, this has much to commend it, but we must do more than this.

By contrast, the “liberal” approach tends to measure compassion by dollars directed toward social programs. While we can commend the desire to assist the poor, the method has proven to be wasteful and deleterious. As far back as 1979, the noted black economist, Walter Williams, wrote in Newsweek that the government’s $250 billion spent that year on helping the “poor” was simply wasteful and mismanaged.  If it were just distributed directly (and equally) to the “poor,” each of them would have received an astonishing annual payment of $34,000.  A huge proportion of this welfare money never reaches the recipients since bureaucratic agencies siphon off most of it before it gets to them.[2] Besides wastefulness, this approach typically breeds long-term dependency—turning safety nets into hammocks—as well as creating a deepened and regularly reinforced sense of entitlement.  

Now, there is much to commend the “conservative” approach. This is borne out by the statistics. Taking persons off the government dole and trying to move them toward becoming productive contributors to society has proven effective. In fact, ten years after Bill Clinton worked with a majority Republican Congress to pass welfare reform legislation in 1996 (albeit reluctantly, you may remember), he wrote in the New York Times about the very positive results:

In the past decade, welfare rolls have dropped substantially, from 12.2 million in 1996 to 4.5 million today [in 2006]. At the same time, caseloads declined by 54 percent. Sixty percent of mothers who left welfare found work, far surpassing predictions of experts. Through the Welfare to Work Partnership, which my administration started to speed the transition to employment, more than 20,000 businesses hired 1.1 million former welfare recipients. Welfare reform has proved a great success, and I am grateful to the Democrats and Republicans who had the courage to work together to take bold action.[3] Continue Reading →

Top Books on Arminianism/Molinism

A while back, my Calvinist friend Michael Patton here at Parchment and Pen told me that he generally preferred the company of Arminians over Calvinists.  A well-known evangelical Christian statesman (who will go unnamed) related his negative experiences with what he called “the Reformed Mafia.”  Trevin Wax recently echoed this concern in a blog post as a plea to some of his fellow Calvinists.[1] That, I regret to say, has been my experience in the Calvinist-Arminian debate. So I hope that, in my posting this list, grace from my Reformed brothers and sisters will abound!

Michael Patton asked if I would be willing to mention my top picks for Arminian books.[2]  Since Jacob Arminius was as good an Arminian as any, we should at least mention his works in passing: Work of Jacob Arminius.  (We could also mention the writings of John Wesley here.  However, my list will focus on more accessible, popular-level expositions of Arminianism. In addition, since Arminius was influenced by Molinism, I’ll include Molinist-related works as well.  (Note: I’m not including open theism, which I find philosophically and biblically problematic.)[3]

1. Arminian and (Gentle, But Frank) Anti-Calvinist Theology 

Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.  Olson here evenhandedly explores genuine points of overlap between Arminians and Calvinists, and there’s more than many in either camp may realize!  For example, consider this Calvinist-sounding description: “…the Free Will of man towards the True Good …is imprisoned, destroyed, and lost; and its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine Grace.”  These are the words of Jacob Arminius. And similar are the words of Arminian hymnwriter Charles Wesley:  “Long my imprisoned spirit lay / Fastbound in sin and nature’s night. / Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray. / I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. / My chains fell off; my heart was free. / I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”  Continue Reading →

Longings and Needs as Reasons for Belief in God

We’re familiar with the famous atheist psychologist Sigmund Freud, who claimed that human beings fabricate a father figure to get us through life’s difficulties.  In his Future of an Illusion, Freud viewed religion as weak-minded and pathetic: “Religious ideas have arisen from the same need as have all other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature.”[1] Religious beliefs are thus “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind…the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fears of the dangers of life.”[2]  Before Freud, Karl Marx had said that religion was like a drug—the opiate of the masses—and completely out of touch with reality.

More recently, this kind of anti-theistic argument has taken a new turn.  Cognitive science of religion researchers have observed that the brain’s activity is heightened when people—whether Buddhists or Christians, say—are in the middle of an intense religious experience. Some refer to this as “neurotheology.”  For some, this appears to be evidence against God’s existence.  Anthropologist Pascal Boyer believes the latest “scientific” developments reveal that our “central metaphysical urge” stands at the root of all religion—that humans have evolved to the point that they tend toward “superstition, myth and faith, or a special emotion that only religion provides.”[3] Another writer Matthew Alper considers humans to be religious animals whose brains are hard-wired for “God,” though no God exists. The “spiritual” is really “scientific.”[4]  God is nothing more than heightened brain function.

What’s the flaw in both the psychological and biological claims?  First, they commit the genetic fallacy—saying that a view is true or false because of how it happens to originate:  You may have had a mean second grade math teacher, but that doesn’t mean that what she taught you (2+2=4) is false.  Likewise, to say that God doesn’t exist because of how humans come to believe in God doesn’t follow logically.  Nor does it follow logically that because of increased brain activity during one’s religious experience, God doesn’t exist.

Second, these claims ignore the rationality of belief in God. We can ask: are there reasons independent of human longings and needs for taking God’s existence seriously?  After all, the universe began to exist a finite time ago and is amazingly finely-tuned, even if people come to believe in God out of a deep sense of need.  We could add to this list the existence of rationality, consciousness, and beauty, moral duties, human rights, and so on.

Third, what’s inherently wrong with seeking comfort and security?  We don’t denigrate people for appreciating family, friends, and hot soup on a cold day.  These are good things.  So it’s hard to see any clear argument here.

Fourth, we can turn these anti-theistic arguments on their head:  If God exists, then it wouldn’t be strange that we’ve been made to relate to him and to find comfort and security in him.  And, correspondingly, it would make sense that we’ve been biologically hard-wired to believe in God.  God is actually making it easier for us to believe in him, as CSR researcher Justin Barrett has argued.[5]

This final point gets important reinforcement in philosopher Clifford Williams’ excellent and accessible book Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith.[6]  I highly recommend it. Williams argues that we are right to emphasize existential human longings and needs, not simply “reason” or “evidence,” as traditionally understood. Indeed, it is easy for Christian apologists to overstress “reason” and underemphasize “need.”  Yet both are important and are part of a holistic gospel message; both are factors in unbelievers coming to faith.  According to Williams, need is a “triggering condition.”  So no wonder the Jesus’ words reach the very depths of our being when he calls himself the bread of life (Jn. 6:35); when he promises to give “water of life” so that we will never thirst again (Jn. 4:10; 7:38); when he tells those who are weary and burdened that, if they come to him, he will give them rest for their souls (Mt. 11:28-30); when he claims he has come to give the fullest life possible (Jn. 10:10).

Furthermore, as C.S. Lewis argued, it would seem strange that we would have hunger or thirst if no food or water were around to satisfy it.  Likewise, it would seem legitimate to consider our deepest inner needs as well.  What if our deepest needs actually point to an ultimate source of satisfaction beyond the this-worldly?  In the spirit of the philosopher Blaise Pascal (famed proponent of the “wager argument” for belief in God), Clifford Williams lays out the argument this way: Continue Reading →

Creation and Evolution: Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

(Paul Copan)

The former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca once said: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  This simple advice has wide-ranging application—whether we’re settling personal disagreements, planning our schedules, or trying to build bridges with non-Christians.

One area of bridge-building has to do with the creation-evolution “debate.”  In my book “That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Baker, 2001), I deal with a variety of philosophical and apologetical questions such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Eastern monism and reincarnation, foreknowledge and free will, predestination, and the like. One question I address has to do with the Genesis-science issue.  I note that the fundamental question is not how old the earth is (although I do believe it is billions of years old); nor is the issue how long God took to create the universe (if we insist that God’s creating in six 24-hour days as more miraculous than a process of billions of years, this still wouldn’t be as miraculous as God’s creating in six nanoseconds…or just one!).  I also mention in the book that the fundamental issue to discuss with scientifically-minded non-Christians—the main thing—is not “creation vs. evolution”; rather, it is the question of “God vs. no God.”  There are, after all, evangelical theistic evolutionists such as theologian Henri Blocher and the late Christian statesman John Stott, and the theologian J.I. Packer seems quite open to theistic evolution (consider his endorsement of theistic evolutionist Denis Alexander’s book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?).

Now I have my questions about evolution, but then again, a number of naturalists do too!  For example, the biochemist Franklin Harold writes: “We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity….but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”[1] Hmmm…interesting.  At any rate, if evolution turns out to be true, then the Christian should embrace it as one dedicated to following the truth wherever it leads. This might mean reworking his interpretation of Genesis on the subject—much like Christians have had to rework their interpretation of biblical passages referring to the sun rising and setting, the earth not moving, or the earth resting on foundations.[2]

As I speak to secular audiences on university campuses and elsewhere, I don’t raise the creation vs. evolution issue.  Rather, for the sake of argument, I grant evolution and begin the discussion there. I don’t want people turned off to the gospel because I’ve lost sight of the main thing—the centrality of Jesus; unfortunately, a lot of well-meaning Christians do just that and end up running down this or that rabbit trail and never getting back to the main thing. Evolution is a secondary concern; we Christians should remember this when engaging with unbelievers rather than getting side-tracked.  Keep the main thing the main thing.

I typically highlight the following two points when speaking with naturalists.

1. If humans evolved from a single-celled organism over hundreds of millions of years, this is a remarkable argument from design!  Indeed, a lot of naturalists themselves utilize design language when referring to biological organisms—“machines,” “computer-like,” “appears designed” (a point I’ll address in a future blog posting). As believers, we shouldn’t be surprised to see God’s sustaining and providential hand operating through natural processes—though unfortunately even some believing scientists are reluctant to acknowledge this.  Alvin Plantinga’s recent book on God and science, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford), points out that the conflict is between naturalism and science, not God and science, even if this involves guided (not unguided) evolution.  Continue Reading →

The First Christmas: Myths and Realities

I. A Reality Check

Here’s a true-false quiz:

1. Mary and Joseph had to travel as quickly as possible to Bethlehem because Mary could have given birth at any moment.
2. The Bethlehem innkeeper was fully booked, and so Mary had to give birth to Jesus in the barn/stall nearby/behind the inn.
3. Initially, this experience must have been frightening and lonely for Mary and Joseph.
4. “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”
5. The angels who appeared to the shepherds had wings.

How’d you do on the quiz? Check your answers below. (Some of these thoughts are taken from a talk I gave on what really happened that first Christmas.)

Marcus Borg, a member of the liberal Jesus Seminar, claims that the Gospels are in serious conflict: Jesus was born “in a stable” in Luke but in a home in Matthew (Marcus Borg [and N.T. Wright], The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions [San Francisco: HarperSF, 1999], 180). As it turns out, this isn’t really a conflict at all. Contrary to the traditional Christmas story, Jesus was indeed born in a home! Borg’s claim is based on the notable King James Version’s mistranslation of Luke 2:7: “there was no room for them in the inn.” But the KJV rendering goes against Luke’s in(n)tention.

Over the centuries, the Christmas story has been re-cast and romanticized into a kind of Christian “mythology.” But what do the Scriptures really tell us about Jesus’ birth?

1. There would have been no inns in a backwater town like Bethlehem. They would be found along main roads or in cities.

2. The word for inn (katalyma) is the same one as the “guest room (of a private home)” mentioned in Mk. 14:14 and Lk. 22:11—the room where the last supper was eaten.

Mark 14:13-15: “Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him; and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is My *guest room* [katalyma] in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”’ And he himself will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; prepare for us there.” Continue Reading →