Sunday, December 29, 2013

Agnostic Thomas Nagel on Why There is Anything

"The existence of our universe might be explained by scientific cosmology, but such an explanation would still have to refer to features of some larger reality that contained or gave rise to it. A scientific explanation of the Big Bang would not be an explanation of why there was something rather than nothing, because it would have to refer to something from which that event arose. This something, or anything else cited in a further scientific explanation of it, would then have to be included in the universe whose existence we are looking for an explanation of when we ask why there is anything at all.  This is a question that remains after all possible scientific questions have been answered."


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thoughts on the Big Bang

1)      If the universe has only been in existence for a finite amount of time, then it is rational to believe that the universe began to exist. If the big bang theory is true, it provides strong evidence that our universe has only existed for a finite amount of time and, therefore, that our universe began to exist.

2)      The universe is expanding and hence becoming less dense. This means that in the past it  was much more dense.  If we extrapolate back far enough, we reach a state when the universe was extremely dense and hot and finally a state of infinite density where the theory of general relativity breaks down (a state known as a singularity). The big bang theory describes the expansion of the universe from this early hot, dense phase. According the standard account , not just energy, but space and time came into existence at the singularity.

3)      The exact nature of such a singularity is far from clear, but if the universe had a beginning such a singularity would mark the beginning of the universe (or else the time immediately after which the universe began to exist). If we consider the timeline of the universe, the singularity would simply be the time t=0.

4)      We cannot appeal to the singularity as the cause of the universe. If the big bang singularity is precisely nothing, we are left with the question of how the universe then came into existence out of nothing. Others have argued that a big bang singularity would be a real physical state; but if so it would still just exist at the time t=0. In that case we have to ask “how did the singularity come into existence out of nothing?”

5)      Some speculate that future scientific research will provide strong evidence in favour of cosmologies that avoid a beginning of the universe. For example, in the oscillating universe model the universe expands, then collapses back on itself, then expands again, and so on. However, many such models turn out to be  incompatible with an infinite number of cycles and so do not avoid the beginning. Furthermore, our current evidence indicates that our universe will not collapse back in on itself.
6)      Research by Borde, Guth and Vilenkin has shown that, under reasonable assumptions, an expanding universe will have a finite past. [i]

7)      If a proposal is intended to undermine the idea that the universe had a beginning, there must be some good reason to think that the proposal is true or likely to be true. Merely appealing to the possibility that the universe might not have had a beginning would be a very weak response to the argument being proposed here.

8)      While there is no conclusive proof that the big bang theory is true or that the universe had a beginning, the scientific evidence does strongly point in that direction. Sir Martin Rees has written:
The empirical evidence for a Big Bang ten to fifteen billion years ago is as compelling as the evidence that geologists offer on Earth’s history … A few years ago, I already had ninety per cent confidence that there was indeed a Big Bang … The case now is far stronger: dramatic advances in observations and experiments have brought the broad cosmic picture into sharpfocus during the 1990s, and I would now raise my degree of certainty to ninety-nine per cent.[ii]
9)      The scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe provides evidence for theism and against materialistic atheism. Consider the following argument:
(A) Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
(B) The universe began to exist;
(C) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
There can be very little doubt about (A) and we have a good deal of scientific evidence for (B); therefore, there is not a great deal of uncertainty about the conclusion.

10)  The cause of the universe could not be physical and would exist outside our space and time. This is certainly much more consistent with belief in God than it is with  materialistic atheism.

[i] ‘Inflationary Spacetimes are Incomplete in Past Directions’, Physical Review Letters, 90(15) (2003), 151301.
[ii] Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers (London:Phoenix, 2000), 11.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Dozen Logical Fallacies in The God Delusion

NOTE: Richard Dawkins is a famous scientist from Oxford U. and a leading atheist.  He argues that there no more evidence for belief in God than for Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.  He says that “faith-heads” who believe in God are “ignorant, stupid, or insane.”  In this book, The God Delusion (Mariner ed., 2008), he claims to prove that religion is a “vice” based upon “indoctrination.”  Belief in God, according to Dawkins, is a “delusion”: “a persistent false belief held in the face of strong, contradictory evidence” (Preface, p. 28).  However, when his arguments are examined objectively, they prove to be riddled with fallacies.  A fallacy is an argument which appears plausible on the surface, but which is found to rest upon false or invalid assumptions.  As a single illness may involve many overlapping symptoms, the logical weaknesses in this book also involve many overlapping fallacies.  Rather than prove his point Mr. Dawkins instead provides an excellent teaching tool to demonstrate logical fallacies.

A. Fallacies of Irrelevance (Distraction)
    1. Ad baculum (veiled threat):  Mr. Dawkins threatens his opponents.  He implies that scientists who disagree with him can expect to pay a penalty from other atheists like him (e.g. to be scorned and shunned).  For example, he argues that no one who agrees with Mother Teresa about the sanctity of life should “be taken seriously on any topic, let alone be thought seriously worthy of a Nobel Prize” (p. 330).  This implied threat has been exposed as a real threat by Ben Stein in the documentary: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (  Stein interviews numerous scientists who have lost funding and even their jobs just for questioning Darwinism.  Such threats and intimidation have no place in logical argument or legitimate science.

   2. Ad hominem (personal attack):  Personal ridicule is also out of order.  Nevertheless Dawkins shamelessly stigmatizes both individuals and organizations for their personal and religious convictions.   Several eminent scientists who have been open about their traditional Christian beliefs are ridiculed as “a subject of amused bafflement to their peers in the academic community” (p. 125).  In the same vein, Moody Bible Institute is mocked as the “rock bottom” in the “hierarchy of American universities;” Wheaton College is “a little bit higher on the scale, but still the Alma Mater of Billy Graham” (p. 121).  James Dobson is accused of “indoctrination” as the “founder of today’s infamous ‘Focus on the Family’ movement” (p. 206).  From a logical perspective, the expression of such personal biases is completely inappropriate.  Bigotry does not constitute logical argument or scientific evidence.  Behind these personal attacks and bigotry lies Dawkins’ repeated accusation that Christianity is a malignant and “corrosive force” which is fatal to the scientific enterprise (Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference: Feb., 2002; Posted: TED Archive: April, 2007).  

In an essay entitled “Viruses of the Mind” (Free Inquiry, 1993), Dawkins argued that religion is an “accident of birth” and a mental “virus.”  Religious beliefs are “mind-parasites” which breed upon “mystery.”  According to Dawkins, the religious virus is adverse to reason and evidence.  In the God Delusion Dawkins applies this theme to children.  Dawkins declares that religion is the greatest danger facing children.  “Christianity,” he asserts, “just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioning faith is a virtue.  “You don’t have to make the case for what you believe,” he says (p. 346; cf. pp. 323, 347, 379).  Apart from isolated personal attacks like those mentioned above, Dawkins presents no serious evidence or justification for that accusation.  His accusation is categorically false.  His own university was established as a Christian institution for the sake of pursuing the truth.  The motto of Oxford is Dominus illuminatio mea: “The Lord is my light.”  The Natural History Museum, where Dawkins has debated, and most of the oldest colleges and universities in the world were established by Christians.  Harvard, the oldest and most revered of American schools, bears the motto: “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” (“Truth for Christ and the Church”) on the official seal.  Students today may be surprised to learn that Harvard was originally established to train Christian ministers and that one of the founding “precepts” in 1646 was the belief that Jesus Christ is “the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”  Typical of other American universities is Duke in Durham, North Carolina.  Founded in 1924, there is a plaque in the center of the campus which states: “The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”  It’s not surprising.  Scripture exhorts Christians: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).  Dawkins’ ad hominems even extend to an astonishing assault upon the character of God as (among other things): “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak” (p. 51).  From a logical perspective, even if Dawkins’ outrageous comments were somehow true, it still wouldn’t address the issue of God’s existence.

    3. Ad ignorantium (appeal to ignorance): This fallacy assumes that because something is unknown or seems unlikely, that fact can be used as evidence against its existence.  One form of this fallacy is called the argument from personal incredulity.  It looks like this: “If I can’t (or refuse) to believe this, then it can’t be true.”  Dawkins commits this fallacy throughout the book.  In the opening chapter he asserts his “commitment to naturalism.”  This means that he “believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe” (p. 35).  In other words, he announces an unwillingness to believe evidence which might not support his view.  This is not logical argument or scientific evidence.  It’s a philosophical presupposition and statement of personal bias.

    4. Ad populum (popularity appeal):  The popularity of a belief isn’t relevant in science or logic.  Truth isn’t democratic.  It doesn’t depend on a majority vote.  Nevertheless, Dawkins implies that atheistic evolution must be true because of what he calls “the overwhelming preponderance of atheists” among Nobel Prize winners, and in the membership of prestigious groups like the Royal Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and Mensa (a group of people with high IQs) (p.126-130).  Even if Dawkins was right about intellectuals favoring atheism, it wouldn’t prove its truth.  One of Dawkins’ heroes, Bertrand Russell, confessed his own disillusionment with intellectuals: “I had supposed that intellectuals loved truth, but I found here again that not 10 per cent of them prefer truth to popularity” (Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: London, 1962; vol. 2, p.17; cited in Paul Johnson, Intellectuals: Harper, 1988, p. 202).  However, Dawkins’ statistics are questionable.  In 2003 the Pulitzer-prize winning sociologist, Rodney Stark, presented evidence that “levels of religiousness [among science professors] are relatively high” (p. 194).  After reviewing the current survey data, Stark concluded: ”But perhaps the most striking finding is that… faculty in the ‘hard’ sciences turn out to be far more likely to be religious than are their counterparts in the ‘softer’ social sciences: they attend church more regularly, are more likely to describe themselves as ‘deeply’ or ‘moderately’ religious [55-60 %] and to say they are ‘religiously conservative’” [34-40%], and are far more likely to claim religious affiliation” (For the Glory of God, Princeton U. Press: 2003, p. 195).  Dawkins doesn’t seem to have looked very far.  He omits many obvious names of eminent scientists who have been open about their religious convictions, including Henry Schaeffer III.  Dr. Schaeffer (Ph.D. Stanford) is one of the most distinguished chemists in the world (U.C. Berkeley, 1969-1987), a Fellow of the Royal Society (London, 2005), a five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize, and an out-spoken Christian (Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence, The Apollos Trust, 2003).  He is one of over five hundred doctoral-level scientists who have signed “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” which states: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life” (

    5. Ad annis (chronological snobbery):  This fallacy assumes that the age of a belief determines its truth or falsity.  It can be argued in one of two ways: either that the antiquity of a belief (Appeal to Tradition) verifies its truth (since people have believed it for such a long time); or that the modernity of a belief (Appeal to Novelty) verifies its truth (since people today are so much more enlightened).  Dawkins employs the second version, the “appeal to novelty,” repeatedly.  For example, he dismisses the fact that Newton and most of the founders of science were “religious” as irrelevant because of the age in which they lived.  “There was,” he implies, “[more] social and judicial pressure … to profess religion” back then (p. 124).  Similarly, Dawkins asserts: “Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find through the twentieth century… they [now] stand out for their rarity” (p. 125).   In a more shameful example, Dawkins dismisses the religious conversion of Anthony Flew (a renowned  philosopher and famous atheist until 2004) as something which happened “in his old age” (Footnote, p. 106).  See: Anthony Flew’s There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperOne, 2007). 

   6. Ipse dixit (false authority):  This fallacy consists in claiming authority without justification or evidence.  For example, Dawkins consistently presents the views of like-minded atheists as serious, credible authorities, and belittles those of Christians as trivial, with no other reason than their religious affiliation (or lack of it).  For example, he subtly disparages Francis Collins, the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute simply because he is a Christian.  He understates his role and accomplishment in leading the successful multidisciplinary effort to map and sequence all human DNA and contrasts him with the “brilliant (and non-religious) ‘buccaneer’ of science, Craig Venter” (p. 125).  In the same fashion Dawkins routinely hurls assertions of momentous import, without serious evidence or argument, as when he asserts that: “blasphemy, as the witty bumper sticker puts it, is a victimless crime” (p. 16; Preface to the Paperback Ed., 2008).  “Witty bumper stickers” do not constitute a serious argument.

  7. Straw man (misrepresentation):  This fallacy misrepresents an opponent’s actual position through exaggeration or distortion.  A good precaution is to ask an opponent whether or not you have stated his viewpoint clearly and accurately.  Very few if any Christians will recognize themselves in Dawkins’ caricatures.   He repeatedly accuses religion of demanding credulity (mindless belief) and of discouraging science (rational inquiry).  For example, according to Dawkins, the great majority of Christians teach their children that: “unquestioning faith is a virtue” (p. 323) and that “truth comes from scripture rather than from evidence” (p. 379). Thus, he concludes: “Religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation… because it discourages questioning, by its very nature” (p. 346).   Thus, he concludes: “Religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation… because it discourages questioning, by its very nature” (p. 346).  Dawkins blandly assumes that all religions are basically the same in this regard.  While his characterization may apply to some cults and false religions, it is categorically false when applied to historic Christianity.   (For a more complete discussion see: False Dilemma)

B.  Fallacies of Ambiguity (Confusion)

     1. Composition (misapplication):  This fallacy assumes that what is true of the parts of something must also be true of the whole.  Dawkins commits this fallacy by treating evolution as a monolithic process, and refusing to distinguish between micro- and macro-evolution.  No one denies micro-evolution.  The evidence for adaptation and change within species is overwhelming.  However, there is no such evidence for change between species (transmutation), nor for the appearance of life from non-life by natural processes (abiogenesis).  

     2. Equivocation (obscurantism):  To equivocate is to mislead someone by confusing them.  When a debater equivocates the proper response is to call out: “Distinguo!” (“I distinguish!”).  Dawkins is guilty of equivocation on a grand scale.  He refuses to distinguish between religions as radically different as Christianity and Islam.  He insists on treating all religions as equally irrational, superstitious and unscientific.  This broad generalization is grossly unfair and misleading.  An equally unjustified tactic would be to treat alchemy and astrology as the equivalents of chemistry and astronomy.  The motivation and freedom for scientific inquiry did not happen by accident.  It came from a Biblical worldview towards which the Koran is suspicious and unfavorable.  As Islamic scholar Salman Rushdie has pointed out: “Islam has failed to create a free society anywhere on earth” (Columbia U.; Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991).  Freedom and encouragement for scientific study is unique to a Biblical worldview  (See: Straw Man).

C. Fallacies of Presumption (Faulty Form)

    1. False Dilemma (Either/Or):  Dawkins presents a false option between two extremes.  On the one hand he portrays science as the heroic, rational pursuit of facts.  On the other hand he portrays religion as the hypocritical, irrational pursuit of faith.  Some of his criticisms may apply to certain cults and false religions, but not to historic Christianity.  Faith and facts are not opposites.  There’s no necessary contradiction between the two.  In fact, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Rodney Stark, has argued: ”not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science" (For the Glory of God, Princeton & Oxford, 2003: p. 123).  Dawkins argument is clearly distorted and false.  For almost a millennium fides quaerens intellectum (“faith in search of understanding”) has been a Christian motto expressing the Christian motivation to seek the truth.  It was Anselm’s dictum, echoing Augustine, about the positive relationship between faith and reason.  All Biblically literate Christians know that they have been exhorted to use their minds to the best of their ability (Phil. 4:8); to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16); and to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).  The oldest universities in the world, including Oxford, were founded by Christians who shared that conviction.   Granted that Dawkins’ criticism may apply to some individuals or groups in the history of Christianity, but they have been the exception, not the rule. 

Eminent historians and philosophers of science have acknowledged the unique formative role of Christianity in the origin of modern science.  French-born American historian, teacher and cultural critic (Columbia U.: 1927-67) Jacques Barzun wrote that the ‘so-called warfare between science and religion [could] be seen as the warfare between two philosophies and perhaps two faiths, [a] dispute between the believers in consciousness and the believers in mechanical action; the believers in purpose and the believers in pure chance’” (Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage; U. Chicago Press, 1941).  Dinesh D’Souza points out in his recent study, What’s So Great About Christianity, modern science relies upon an “unsupported belief” both in the rationality of the universe and of our own minds.  In a lecture at Harvard University in 1925 the eminent British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, asserted that “faith in the possibility of science… is an unconscious derivative of medieval theology” (Science and the Modern World: Free Press, p. 53). 

Herbert Schneidau, in his widely acclaimed study of mythical cultures, Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1977), concluded that the Biblical worldview led to the rise of science and technology.  By “desacralizing” nature, the Bible sanctioned critical, objective investigation of the world and a linear concept of time.  Loren Eiseley, the late distinguished professor ofAnthropology and the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania went so far as to suggest that science was an “invention” of Christianity: “it is the Christian world which finally gave birth in a clear, articulate fashion to the experimental method of science itself” (Darwin’s Century: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1961; cited in Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science, 1994; pp. 17-18).  John Lennox, a Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, has pointed out to Dawkins (in formal debates) that the Natural History Museum (where they have debated) was originally “dedicated to God and the investigation of divine design” 

    2. Begging the Question (circular reasoning):  Dawkins constantly assumes that which he purports to prove, namely, that a godless process of evolution is the cause of everything, including “apparent design.”  For example, he asserts that: “Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it” (p. 52).   Although Dawkins claims that he will “show” the reader evidence for this belief, he fails to deliver.  When the issue comes up again later, he simply repeats the assertion: “Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process” (p. 98).  Dawkins announces his “commitment to naturalism” in Chapter 1.  He explains that: “An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe” (p. 35; italics added).  He seems unaware that he is making the same kind of unsupported faith commitment which he otherwise finds so inimical.  In other words, Dawkins’ foundation is not facts or evidence, but a reductionistic faith in materialism.  Naturalism assumes that nothing exists besides matter and energy.  The end result of naturalism is self-contradiction.  If our thoughts are nothing more than a random, bio-chemical process (p. 34), then we have no basis to believe that our thoughts are true.  They are equivalent to the secretions of our kidneys and other physical organs.  In Darwin’s (and Dawkins’) world, our thoughts need not be “true,” only “useful” (p. 413).  But there’s no way to know which ideas are most useful at any given time.  Only later will it be revealed which ideas “survive.”   People are reduced to random metabolic units which receive and emit random sensory input.  Although others might find this view dismal and dehumanizing, Dawkins claims to find it “liberating” and “emancipating” (p. 419-420). 

When Dawkins is so transparent about his dislike for God, he opens himself to the charge of ‘theophobia,’ that is, a fear of (or revulsion against) God.  C. S. Lewis identified this phenomenon and applied it to Sigmund Freud.  As a result, Dr. Armand Nicholi, a professor at Harvard University has taught a course comparing the ideas of Freud and Lewis.  In 2002 he published his findings in a book entitled: The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (New York: The Free Press).  Lewis agreed with Freud on one basic thing, that human beings have a tendency to "suppress" unpleasant truths."  However, Lewis disagreed with Freud regarding which truths we find most unpleasant, and which truths we try hardest to suppress.  Like Dawkins, Freud asserted that we are most afraid of "being alone" (i.e. without God) and of "being unloved" (i.e. without God's love).  Lewis disagreed.  Lewis said that when he became a Christian he reaIized that for many years his greatest fear had been "not being alone" (i.e. not being free to do whatever he wanted) and afraid of "being judged" (i.e. accountable to God).  Similarly, whereas Freud argued that we "project" our "wishes" for moral order and life after death by "creating" (an imaginary) heaven, Lewis argued that we "project" our "wishes" for personal freedom and supremacy by "creating" (an imaginary) kingdom of our own.  (See Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.: The Question of God: The Free Press, 2002).  

    3. Post hoc ergo propter hoc (false cause):  This fallacy makes the unjustified assumption that when one thing precedes another, the first must cause the second.  Dawkins adds a peculiar twist to this fallacy by arguing that the ‘simple’ must always precede the ‘complex.’  He insists that in the history of the universe simple processes must always have preceded (and produced) more complex systems.  On the one hand, as mentioned earlier, Dawkins asserts the creative power of (simple) naturalistic evolution: “Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process“ (p. 98).  On the other hand, Dawkins denies the admissibility of (complex) divine creative agency: “Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a … universe would have to be even more improbable than [a universe]” (p. 146). 

The renowned philosopher, Anthony Flew, has called Dawkins’ argument “bizarre.”  Dawkins offers no evidence in support of these assertions other than his admitted preference for any viewpoint which precludes divine activity.  The logic of Dawkins’ argument (‘simple-always-precedes-complex’) is disproved by all human artistry and engineering as well as all forms of biological reproduction.  The artist always precedes the work of art; the chicken always comes before the egg.  If Dawkins’ logic was valid, then any human agency capable of designing something as improbable as a watch, a cathedral, or a spaceship would have to be considered “improbable.”  There’s obviously something wrong with that.  It is an accepted practice in logic to “infer to the most sufficient explanation.”  In the debate about human origins, a strong argument can be made that only divine agency can account for human life and reason.  By refusing to consider the possibility of divine creativity and causation, Dawkins ends up by threatening human creativity and causation as well.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Zealot Part 2

The second review by Craig Evans

Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth resurrects the theory that Jesus’ ministry and death are best explained against the background of Jewish zealot movements at the turn of the era. There is little here that is new. The ablest presentation of this line of interpretation was argued by S. G. F. Brandon in 1967. Few followed Brandon then; virtually no one does today. I doubt very much Aslan’s fresh take on it will win a following—at least not among scholars.
Aslan, who is writing for non-experts, describes Jewish zealotry (largely in terms of zeal for the temple and for Israel’s Law of Moses) and surveys some of Israel’s history between the Testaments. He reviews the attempts of a number of men who attempted in one way or another to throw off either the Herodian or Roman yoke and win freedom for Israel. He places Jesus of Nazareth and his following squarely into this history and social setting. Jesus’ proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was a call for regime change, for an end of Roman hegemony over Israel and an end of a corrupt and oppressive aristocratic priesthood.
The regime change that Jesus and his followers anticipated did not take place. Jesus was arrested and executed, along with two other rebels. Not long after—however it happened—Jesus’ followers became convinced that their master had been raised from the dead and that his mission had not been a failure after all. Unlike other zealot movements that ceased after the deaths of their respective founders, the Jesus movement not only continued, even in the face of severe opposition, it flourished, soon reaching large numbers of non-Jews.
This is where it gets interesting. With the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (who becomes the well known Paul the apostle of New Testament letters and the book of Acts), the Jesus movement began to be pulled in two directions. One camp remained loyal to the very Jewish roots of Jesus and his family, while the other increasingly came to view Jesus as a divine figure, a figure very attractive to non-Jews who otherwise had little interest in traditional Jewish thinking and living. It was the latter wing of the Jewish movement that eventually won out, thus creating a new religion, one destined to have the most followers around the world. Ironically, what it became was not what its founder proclaimed or intended. So Aslan contends.
There are numerous problems with Zealot, not least the fact that it heavily relies on an outdated and discredited thesis. But it also introduces a number of its own novel oddities and implausibilities. Aslan has canvassed much of the responsible scholarship in the field, but he does not always choose his options prudently. He often opts for extreme views and sometimes makes breathtaking assertions. I cannot help but wonder if Aslan’s penchant for creative writing is part of the explanation. Indeed, Zealot often reads more like a novel than a work of historical analysis.
Aslan assumes the latest dates for the Gospels and Acts, dating Mark after 70, Matthew and Luke-Acts in the 90s (perhaps later), and John somewhere between 100 and 120. After assigning such late dates he declares that there is no eyewitness tradition (without any engagement with Richard Bauckham’s important work on this subject). The circularity of this reasoning is hard to miss.
Zealot is riddled with errors, probable errors, and exaggerations. Aslan tells us a builder (Greek: tekton) in Nazareth had “little to do” (p. 34). Excavations at Nazareth and nearby Sepphoris suggest otherwise. Being a builder (or “carpenter”) mean that “Jesus would have belonged to the lowest class of peasants in first-century Palestine” (p. 34). Where does this come from? Sepphoris, a major city of Galilee, is said to be “a day’s walk” from Nazareth. Actually, it takes a jogger about 45 minutes. Scholars will be surprised to learn that Jesus ben Ananias (d. 70 CE), mentioned by Josephus, prophesied the “imminent return of the messiah” (p. 53). He did no such thing.
Aslan would have us believe that in an interval of one or two years (the time Jesus spent with John the Baptist) Galilee had become “urbanized, Hellenized, iniquitous” (p. 93). Previously it had been a place of family farms and open fields and blooming orchards. Excavations at Sepphoris indicate that even this large, somewhat Hellenized city had not adopted foods and customs contrary to Jewish law and traditions in the time of Jesus. In fact, excavations throughout Galilee have revealed how faithful to the Law of Moses the people were. When Jesus commands the cleansed leper to show himself to the village priest and do as Moses commanded, Aslan thinks “Jesus is joking” (p. 112). The discussion of magic and miracles (pp. 105–9) is confusing and inconsistent.
When transliterating the Greek for the nominative plural “apostles” Aslan gives us the genitive singular apostolou, instead of the expected apostoloi. Aslan assigns Eusebius to the third century, but the Christian apologist and historian flourished in the fourth century (p. 149). Aslan assumes throughout that Jesus and his disciples were illiterate (e.g., p. 171: “they could neither read nor write”; 178: “illiterate peasants from the backwoods of Galilee”). There is no engagement with scholarship that suggests otherwise. We are also told that James the brother of Jesus wore “simple garments made of linen, not wool” (p. 197). But linen was worn by the wealthy (see Luke 16:19), not the poor and simple.
The real problem of Zealot is seen in its exaggeration of the differences between Paul and the original apostles. There is no question that Paul sharply disagreed with Peter and other leaders over the question of the role of the Law of Moses in the lives of non-Jewish converts. But Aslan would have his readers believe that the debate centered on Christology, the divinity of Jesus, rather than on Ecclesiology, life in the Church. But the debate as described in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters (see esp. Galatians) centers on food laws, sabbath observance, and circumcision, not on the divinity of Jesus (pp. 180–81). Aslan would have done well to consult David Wenham and others who show that claims to the effect that Paul invented Christianity are misguided.
Recent media coverage has drawn attention to Aslan’s Muslim heritage. As he himself explains, he was raised as a nominal Muslim, became a fundamentalist Christian as a teenager, then later abandoned his new faith after being exposed to biblical and historical criticism in his later education. Aslan earned a PhD in sociology and is now a professor of creative writing. I see nothing in his book that reflects distinctive Islamic beliefs about Jesus. The Quran, for example, explicitly asserts that Jesus was not executed but rather one like him (i.e., Simon of Cyrene, who assisted Jesus with the cross) died (see 4:157–58). Aslan contradicts this strange teaching (which apparently originated with the second-century heretic Basilides), rightly emphasizing the reality and brutality of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross.
At points Aslan’s book is informative; it is often entertaining. But it is also rife with questionable assertions. Let the reader beware.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reza Aslan - Zealot

So in the wake of Reza Aslan's interview on Fox I read a couple interesting articles responding to his book Zealot. Here is the first article and I will post the second one tomorrow.

Response 1 by Gary Manning Jr.

Reza Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), is in most ways a typical attempt to paint a new picture of Jesus. Because so many hundreds of books of this type have been published, Aslan’s book would most likely not have received significant attention at all, except for two factors. First, a botched interview of the author on Fox News caused a huge surge of interest, making his book an overnight best seller. And second, Aslan is a very good writer. His primary teaching role, after all, is as a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. Aslan is able to take a lot of important historical background and present it in a riveting manner, accessible to most readers.
Since Aslan is a Muslim, some have responded to Zealot as if it is a Muslim look at Jesus. This is simply not the case; Zealot does not present traditional Muslim views of Jesus at all.  Zealot is instead typical of other modern skeptical approaches to Jesus. Aslan is strongly influenced by (among others) John Dominic Crossan, the Jesus Seminar author who has written a number of books presenting Jesus as a peasant social revolutionary.
The central argument of Zealot is this: Jesus, like other messianic figures of his day, called for the violent expulsion of Rome from Israel. Driven by religious zeal, Jesus believed that God would empower him to become the king of Israel and overturn the hierarchical social order. Jesus believed that God would honor the zeal of his lightly armed disciples and give them victory. Instead, Jesus was crucified as a revolutionary. Early Christians changed the story of Jesus to make him into a peaceful shepherd. They did this for two reasons: because Jesus’ actual prediction had failed, and because the Roman destruction of rebellious Jerusalem in AD 70 made Jesus’ real teachings both dangerous and unpopular. Paul radically changed the identity of Jesus from human rebel to divine Son of God, against the wishes of other leaders like Peter and James.
To be fair to Aslan, there are several strengths to his book. He explains well the multifaceted economic, political and religious setting of first-century Palestine (with some exceptions pointed out below). While heavily influenced by Crossan, he abandons some of Crossan’s more bizarre claims. Interestingly, Aslan points out what strong eyewitness evidence there is for the resurrection, although ultimately he says that the resurrection is the sort of thing that historians simply cannot evaluate. He points out that Jesus’ contemporaries fully believed that Jesus performed healing miracles. Aslan also explains some things that most Christians are not aware of, but are widely accepted by both believing and non-believing scholars of the gospels. For example, Aslan correctly writes that Jews before Jesus were not expecting the messiah to be divine or for him to die and rise from the dead. He correctly explains the original significance of some of Jesus’ titles such as “Son of God” and “Son of Man,” both of which had kingly connotations before Jesus.  
However, Zealot is seriously flawed in many ways. There are many factual errors (some of which I will highlight below), but more importantly, Aslan’s approach matches the flawed approach of Jesus Seminar scholars, which is almost guaranteed to produce a skewed picture of Jesus.
Zealot’s claim is essentially a conspiracy theory: Jesus was really a proclaimer of violent revolution, but the gospels and Paul covered up the evidence. Aslan then has a typical conspiracy-theory approach: any time the gospels present evidence against Aslan’s theory, they were making it up; any time the gospels present evidence in favor of Aslan’s theory, they were telling the truth. This is found countless times in Zealot, but a few examples will suffice.
Aslan is certain that Jesus never said “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), because of course that would be evidence against Aslan’s theory. The idea that Jesus was “an inveterate peacemaker” is a “complete fabrication” by the evangelists.1 Apparently, according to Aslan, Jesus never said “If anyone compels you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matt 5:41, talking about submission to soldiers who demand labor) or “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt 5:39). Although Aslan does not deny the historicity of Jesus’ parables, he dismisses them as impossible to understand - a claim that would surprise most modern scholars of the gospels. Aslan needs to dismiss the parables because the Kingdom of God described in the parables is mostly incompatible with violent revolution.
But Aslan is perfectly willing to accept the gospels’ testimony whenever it helps him. He accepts the historicity of sayings from Jesus such as “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34) and “the kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12).  Of course, Aslan ignores the clear context of those sayings, which has nothing to do with violent revolution. Aslan mostly dismisses the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest as entirely fictional, so he does not accept that Jesus stopped Peter from using a sword: “Put back your sword… For all who take up the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:51-52). But Aslan is quite willing to accept that Luke is correct when he records Jesus saying, earlier that evening, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). This pattern is repeated over and over in Zealot. It is simply an unfair and extremely biased treatment of the historical evidence. It presents Aslan as somehow having secret knowledge that allows him to correctly identify when the four evangelists were accurate and when they were fabricating. In reality, Aslan is simply ignoring most of the evidence against his theory.
The second big thrust of Zealot’s claim is that the peaceful, divine Jesus was made up primarily by Paul. According to Zealot, Peter and James sharply opposed Paul’s claim that Jesus was divine. The New Testament on several occasions does describe conflict: between Paul and Barnabas, between Paul and Peter, and between Paul and men from James. Aslan tries to pretend that all these arguments were about the identity of Jesus, and that Barnabas, Peter and James believed in Jesus as a human messiah against Paul’s view of a divine Christ. But this is simply nonsense. The disagreement between Paul and Barnabas is over the inclusion of Mark in their mission team, and Paul’s disagreement with James and Peter is over whether Gentiles need to keep Jewish laws such as circumcision and food laws.
Here again, Aslan is very selective in his use of evidence. He accepts the letter of James as being authorized by James, because it helps him emphasize (and exaggerate) differences between James and Paul. But he never even mentions the epistles of Peter, because of course they show that Peter is in agreement with Paul about who Jesus is. While pointing out the difference between James’ and Paul’s theology, Aslan doesn’t mention that James has an equally high view of Jesus: he is “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1) who will return to judge (James 5:7). Aslan also ignores all of the evidence in the New Testament for agreement and harmony between the apostles, such as Paul's collection of money for poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
Aslan’s conspiracy approach continues in this section of his book. Why does Paul make a sacrifice in Jerusalem? It must be that James forced him to recant his heretical views, not (as Luke claims) to complete a Nazirite vow that Paul voluntarily began before arriving in Jerusalem. Why does Luke end the book of Acts with Paul’s imprisonment, not his death? It must be to cover up some damning evidence against Paul! (No mention of the idea that Luke ended Acts then because that’s when he wrote Acts).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the claims in Zealot come with a fair degree of scholarly arrogance (which I acknowledge many scholars are prone to!). Aslan says that his goal is to “purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history… Everything else is a matter of faith.” In other words, when Aslan accepts some information from the gospels and rejects the rest, that is scholarly and historical; but if someone accepts other information from the gospels, their view is not scholarly or historical, but "a matter of faith." The parts of the gospels that Aslan agrees with are historical; the parts that he doesn’t agree with are “literary and theological flourishes.” Of course, Aslan often tries to explain why he thinks that some claim in the gospels is unhistorical, but taken as a whole, it is impossible to ignore the essential arbitrariness of his choices.
This scholarly hubris is also apparent in Zealot's determination to point out contradictions in the New Testament accounts. For example, Aslan wants to make sure that we know that Luke is mistaken when he says that the seven Hellenistic deacons (Acts 6) were primarily in charge of distributing food. They also engaged in preaching and evangelism, Aslan tells us. How does Aslan know that Luke is wrong? By reading the rest of Acts 6 and 7. In other words, Luke was not wrong – he just had more to say on the next page. Aslan is convinced that Pilate’s trial of Jesus is “a complete fabrication” by the evangelists, because Aslan is certain that he knows how Pilate thinks. Pilate, in Aslan’s telling, would have absolutely no problem sending someone to the cross without any trial at all. He bases this on a single line from the Jewish philosopher Philo, exaggerated out of proportion.
Finally, despite his generally good understanding of the field, Aslan makes a number of significant errors. I took pages of notes just on historical and linguistic errors in Zealot. Here are only a few examples of significant scholarly errors: use of Greek definitions not found in any standard Greek lexicon; using the wrong Greek lexicon for the New Testament; incorrect definition of the targumim; unawareness of the evidence for high literacy in ancient Israel; unawareness of literary approaches to the gospels; claims that violence against foreigners was the only faithful Jewish response; claims that Pilate crucified “thousands upon thousands” without trial; very late, unlikely dates for the writing of the four gospels; claims that ancient people did not understand the concept of history; claims that Luke was knowingly writing fiction, not history; claims that Mark does not describe Jesus’ resurrection; and on and on. In many cases, I had to come to the conclusion that Aslan was just not familiar enough with modern scholarship related to the New Testament.
There are numerous other problems with Zealot, too numerous to address in an already-too-long blog post. Aslan repeatedly presents highly unlikely interpretations of passages in the New Testament, makes little effort to defend those interpretations, then moves on as if he has made his case. Suffice to say this, as others have said before: there is something a little bizarre about using our only historical documents about Jesus (the New Testament) to come to conclusions quite in opposition to those documents. There is a good reason to believe that Jesus claimed to be a divine king and savior who would die and rise again, and would one day return to judge the world: All four gospels, and indeed the entire New Testament make this claim. You can deny that this claim is true, but it is scholarly folly to deny that Jesus and the early Christians believed it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

God and Reason

"…fictional gods may well be enemies of reason: the God of the Bible certainly is not. The very first of the biblical Ten Commandments contains the instruction to 'love the Lord your God with all your mind'. This should be enough to tell us that God is not to be regarded as an enemy of reason. After all, as Creator he is responsible for the very existence of the human mind; the biblical view is that human beings are the pinnacle of creation. They alone are created as rational beings in the image of God, capable of a relationship with God and given by him the capacity to understand the universe in which they live."

—John Lennox
Gunning for God (p. 28).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Chronological Snobbery and the Resurrection of Jesus

When discussing the historical basis for the resurrection, one often encounters a popular misconception that the ancient world was far more gullible about claims of resurrection than people are today. This common presumption amounts to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” People imagine that, while our post-enlightenment modern world treats claims of resurrection with doubt and skepticism, the ancient world — being full of superstition and credulity about the supernatural — would have been poised to accept such a claim.
This discredited notion is addressed by N.T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, in which he surveys the (Jewish and non-Jewish) ideas concerning resurrection and the afterlife in the first-century Mediterranean world. He shows that the unanimous view in both the Jewish and non-Jewish cultures was that bodily resurrection wasn’t possible. From the point of view of Greco-Roman ideas, the physical world is seen as being defiling and corrupt, while the spirit or soul was considered good. Within Judaism, there were two major sects — the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The former rejected all notions of an afterlife and resurrection, while the latter believed that there would one day come a general resurrection at the end of the world — but this precluded the possibility of someone rising bodily from the dead to glory and immortality in the middle of history, before this general resurrection at the end of time. As Timothy Keller explains in his book The Reason for God (p. 205),
”The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay and death, was inconceivable. If someone had said to any first-century Jew, ‘So-and-so has been resurrected from the dead!’ the response would be, ‘Are you crazy? How could that be? Has disease and death ended? Is true justice established in the world? Has the wolf lain down with the lamb? Ridiculous!’ The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek.”
We can also show historically from a number of sources that people in the ancient world had a hard time buying the resurrection story. Consider the late second century Christian writer Theophilus of Antioch. In book 1 (chapter 13) of his apology to Autolycus, he addresses this skepticism:
“Then, as to your denying that the dead are raised — for you say, “Show me even one who has been raised from the dead, that seeing I may believe,” [...] But, suppose I should show you a dead man raised and alive, even this you would disbelieve. God indeed exhibits to you many proofs that you may believe Him. For consider, if you please, the dying of seasons and days and nights, how these also die and rise again. And what? Is there not a resurrection going on of seeds and fruits, and this, too, for the use of men? A seed of wheat, for example, or of the other grains, when it is cast into the earth, first dies and rots away, then is raised and becomes a stalk of corn. And the nature of trees and fruit-trees, — is it not that according to the appointment of God they produce their fruits in their seasons out of what has been unseen and invisible?”
There is a similar passage in Clement of Rome’s epistle to the church of Corinth (1st Clement 24), written most likely in the mid-90′s A.D.:
“Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He has made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. My friends, look how regularly there are processes of resurrection going on at this very moment. The days and the night show us an example of it; for night sinks to rest, and day arises; day passes away, and night comes again. Or take the fruits of the earth; how, and in what way, does a crop come into being? When the sower goes out and drops each seed into the ground, it falls to the earth shriveled and bare, and decays; but presently the power of the Lord’s providence raises it from decay, and from that single grain a host of others spring up and yield their fruit.”
Finally, the second century apologist Justin Martyr, in his first apology (chapter 19), also addresses the believability of the resurrection. He writes thus:
“And to any thoughtful person would anything appear more incredible, than, if we were not in the body, and some one were to say that it was possible that from a small drop of human seed bones and sinews and flesh be formed into a shape such as we see? For let this now be said hypothetically: if you yourselves were not such as you now are, and born of such parents [and causes], and one were to show you human seed and a picture of a man, and were to say with confidence that from such a substance such a being could be produced, would you believe before you saw the actual production? No one will dare to deny [that such a statement would surpass belief]. In the same way, then, you are now incredulous because you have never seen a dead man rise again. But as at first you would not have believed it possible that such persons could be produced, so also judge ye that it is not impossible that the bodies of men, after they have been dissolved, and like seeds resolved into earth, should in God’s appointed time rise again and put on incorruption.”
Such statements should give us cause to reconsider whether the ancient world was as gullible and credulous as we are often led to think.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

New Study: Belief in God May Significantly Improve Mental Health Outcomes

I am currently on an Adult Psychiatric rotation and I stumbled upon this study from the Journal of Affective Disorders and thought it was worth sharing:
From Psych Central. (H/T Rob P.)
A new study suggests belief in God may significantly improve the outcome of those receiving short-term treatment for psychiatric illness.
Researchers followed patients receiving care from a hospital-based behavioral health program to investigate the relationship between patients’ level of belief in God, expectations for treatment and actual treatment outcomes.
In the study, published in the current issue of Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers comment that people with a moderate to high level of belief in a higher power do significantly better in short-term psychiatric treatment than those without.
“Belief was associated with not only improved psychological well-being, but decreases in depression and intention to self-harm,” says David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
The study looked at 159 patients, recruited over a one-year period. Each participant was asked to gauge their belief in God as well as their expectations for treatment outcome and emotion regulation, each on a five-point scale.
Levels of depression, well-being, and self-harm were assessed at the beginning and end of their treatment program.
Obviously, the issue of God’s existence is a matter to be decided based on what is true and false, but this kind of study is at least interesting to note.