Friday, December 12, 2008

Delusions that Kill

According to this article, Dawkin’s book The God Delusion is responsible for at least one suicide. In this instance, 22-year-old Jesse Kilgore was reading The God Delusion because a biology professor had challenged him to do so. Independent witnesses confirmed to Jesse’s father that the book had had a devastating effect on Jesse, causing him to question his faith, and led to him shooting himself in the woods near his home in October.

There are a couple of things to note from the story. First, Dawkins in no way intended that his book would cause people to commit suicide. Be that as it may, The God Delusion offers no reason for someone who deconverts from Christianity not to kill himself. That is, the philosophical justifications that Dawkins uses (poorly, I might add) logically lead to concepts of nihilism and despair. There is no reason, purpose, or value in life under Dawkins’ view. In fact, any humanistic worldview can only provide a useful fiction for atheists to pretend is real; nothing more. Reality itself does not contain these values or any purpose whatsoever. Therefore, whether you invent a God or invent a feeling of universal brotherhood, it’s still just your own mental invention. It doesn’t extend into reality at all, and as such Dawkins’ worldview is just as delusional as the religious worldview he abhors.

This is not as much of a danger to someone who is already a nonbeliever. Nonbelievers who read Dawkins’ books only gain reaffirmation of their beliefs. Since they’ve already suppressed the negative aspects of their worldview and blinded themselves to the nihilistic aspects of their presuppositions, reading Dawkins won’t affect them. A believer, however, who comes from a radically different worldview will be more prone to falling into that nihilistic despair if he deconverts because he has not yet deluded himself with false hope for a destitute world.

Since Jesse apparently did some apologetics work on-line, he may very well have been caught in such a quandary here. It could have been something as simple as the fact that Jesse couldn’t believe in Dawkins’ worldview because his apologetic was strong enough to show Dawkins’ false humanistic optimism to be bunk; but at the same time Jesse’s understanding of Christianity was weak to Dawkins’ attack. The result would be that Dawkins’ book would convince him Christianity is wrong, but not that Dawkins was right, and that left him with nowhere to turn to.

This brings us to the second point from the story. Christians need to have a strong understanding of Christian beliefs. One of the aspects I’ve found (and it is obvious from such folks as the Debunkers) is that most former Christians have no concept at all of Christian theism. Most apostates illustrate that they cannot even properly read a verse of Scripture at all; they have no understanding of basic exegesis; they do not even make an attempt to read the Bible in context. The former Christians that I run into, to a man (or woman), attack Fundamentalist caricatures of Christianity and assume that they are actually critiquing Christianity in that process! Look no further than those who complain about talking snakes and donkeys in the comments for evidence of this. (Granted, that’s personal experience, which is merely anecdotal evidence. But on this issue, I think the case is quite strong since it’s consistent anecdotal evidence and not only my experience on the matter.)

If atheists attack a straw man, it doesn’t affect Christianity. The God Delusion is nothing but burning straw and tilting at windmills. The unfortunate thing is that those types of errors can be very subtle and hard to spot. Fallacies are not always blatant; that’s why you need to study them. Sadly, Dawkins has been responded to by many people online and through books, yet Jesse apparently never discovered how shoddy Dawkins’ arguments are.

This brings us to a third point. I do think Keith (Jesse’s father) was a bit too hard on himself regarding how he should have been there for his son. Jesse wasn’t a ten-year-old; he was twenty-two years old. He was an adult. Keith didn’t put Jesse in danger by allowing Jesse to go off to college. Jesse should have been able to discover these resources by himself.

Keith’s other points regarding secular education are valid though. It is the case that public education is anti-Christian. Christians do need to take the effort to educate their children with this in mind. Public education is not an ally (even if they weren’t anti-Christian, public education is so dismal you still couldn’t consider it an ally). Parents need to teach their children the basics of logic so their children can spot logical fallacies. Parents need to ensure their children do understand what Christianity is so they can defend it against atheism.

But this requires that the parents understand logic and Christianity too. And that requires the Church to understand what she teaches. But this takes hard working. Critical thinking isn’t easy. Weighing arguments takes effort. We, as Christians, must be willing to do that footwork. If nothing else, this story shows us that lives are on the line.


  1. Speechless.

    (And the words that do come to mind are unprintable).

  2. Well said, Peter. I've had many of the same thoughts in other contexts, such as the recent election. The neglect of intellectual development by parents, churches, and others in such positions of influence is bad in any historical context, but it's even worse in an age of the printing press, television, and the web, and it's even worse yet when done in a nation with as many opportunities as we have in the United States.

    Parents, pastors, and others in such positions of authority should be teaching those they're influencing how to think, how to do research, and how to debate. Parents and pastors should be bringing up issues like the ones Richard Dawkins writes about and should be teaching those they influence to think several steps ahead of people like Dawkins. Instead, the parents are watching "American Idol" with their children, discussing their son's football practice over the dinner table, and taking their children to Disney World, but they aren't doing much to mature their children's thinking on some of the most important issues in life. Churches are attended by people who are taught physics and American history by their non-Christian high school and people who are engineers, lawyers, and doctors, but many of the pastors of those churches think their people won't understand or pay attention to a sermon that goes much beyond a novice level.

    I think it would be good if churches would stop singing so many songs in their services, or make some other change, and devote something like five or ten minutes in every service to discussing a historical, philosophical, or moral issue, for example. Give a brief biography of a figure in church history one week. Devote the time this upcoming Sunday to a response to the recent Newsweek article on homosexuality, for example. Or discuss a philosophical argument for the existence of God. Give some time to that sort of intellectual development, with some recommended books, web sites, or other resources each week. I'd also like to see family ministries, like "Focus On The Family" and "Family Life Today", give a lot of attention to teaching children how to think, research, and debate, as well as teaching men how to provide intellectual leadership in the home.

    But though churches and Christian ministries are often blamed for their neglect in this sort of context, I blame parents even more. They're more responsible for their children and spend far more time with them. And even if a church or other Christian ministry isn't doing all that it ought to, they do much more than parents. A church that only gives children a bottle of spiritual milk each week is at least better than the parents who don't give any spiritual food at all or just a few drops.

    God isn't dependent on our intellects or our argumentation to accomplish His ends. He can save an individual apart from a philosophical argument for God's existence or a historical argument for Jesus' resurrection. But when people are intellectually slothful, He sometimes abandons them to the natural results of that sin.

    I'm not referring to the family discussed in the article Peter linked. I don't know much about their circumstances. I'm speaking in general terms, regardless of where the family in that story would fall on the spectrum.

  3. I have wondered why our churches don't teach some very basic things such as how we got the scriptures, early church history, historical evidences for the gospel, etc. We're great on studying the Bible, but the history behind it, not so much.

    I know when the Da Vinci Code came out our church had a course on it, most of the stuff of which I was already familiar, but it was clear that most people had no idea how to answer or find the answers to the issues raised by the movie.

    That said, an individual believer has to take some responsibility also, and I'll give myself as an example. I went to a secular university and took a course on the NT. As expected it was pretty liberal and gave all the normal liberal teachings about authorship, dating, historicity, etc. Stuff that would challenge any Christian's faith if he knew nothing else.

    But as I sat in class, I thought, "Ok, none of this stuff looks new, and I know a lot of very intelligent people are Christians. So there has to be answers to questions being raised here." So I set about doing some reading on my own and found a world of conservative scholarship out there. There were answers and many very good ones. So the believer has to take some responsibility also.

    As an aside I was pretty ticked when I found the "other side" of the story. I had thought that education was about giving people both sides of an issue, letting them assess the evidence, and then making a judgement. I can understand a professor have a individual POV and his course being taught from that perspective but fairness should require at least some presentation of the other POV. But I never heard a whisper of conservative POV in class - it was as if conservative scholarship never existed.

    Of course, I'm much older and hopefully much wiser now :)

  4. Nicely done Mr. Pike hopefully other "Jesses" will find their way to this and take heed.

  5. "But I never heard a whisper of conservative POV in class - it was as if conservative scholarship never existed."

    I appreciate the remarks in this post and comment thread--this call for more intellectual development.

    I have an undergraduate degree from NYU in Religious Studies (graduated 2006). The only time I ever heard the conservative side of any issue during my years there was the study I did outside of the classroom. (Study I had to do during college because I had no training when I was younger.)

    I recall a discussion with a Navigators staff member where he said Christians were falling away from the faith at NYU because of their lack of apologetic training and knowledge. Given how many Christian students will eventual go on to a similar secular education, and will strive to get into "elite" (read "super secular") universities, the need for good intellectual development becomes all the more apparent.

    As a practical example of how this might be done, Jason Engwer provided critical edits to a short document I wrote for the Navigators group and other Christians at NYU explaining how to defend some basic Christian ideas and listing some useful resources to consult.

    While I'm very thankful for the help Jason provided, I am concerned that I was the one to write up something for the Christians at NYU. Were resources so limited that answers to some of the objections experienced at the undergraduate level came from a student with no training and limited knowledge and reasoning skills?

  6. You wrote, “First, Dawkins in no way intended that his book would cause people to commit suicide.”

    How would you respond to one who objected, “Perhaps Dawkins did not intend it, but God intended that the book would cause at least one person to commit suicide”?

  7. God intended to illustrate the evil consequences of taking a book like that seriously.

  8. In addition to what Steve responded to Fisherman, I'd add that God's intention (in the general sense) is no different from what it is any other time that evil occurs on Earth. Now God could still have specific intentions that go along with His more general ones, but in most cases we are left with only speculation on specifics.

    From Scripture we know that God works all things to the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. We know that God does all things for His glorification, and part of that is by showing to us the negative aspects of what happens when we reject the truth. I am again reminded of Hosea 4:6, which states:

    My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.

    The danger of our culture is that this passage is a perfect description of it. Most Christians lack knowledge of spiritual things. Most who sit in the Church on Sundays have not only never read the Bible, but have rejected the idea of trying to know anything about God in the first place.

    More specifically, our culture has largely decided that there is no such thing as actual knowledge. Again, one need look no further than the comments on the posts of this blog--in fact, you could almost just pick a post at random from the days when we were heavily engaged with the Debunkers and you'll see atheist after atheist challenge with, "How do you *know*?" questions. (And not so they could gain knowledge themselves, but rather the purpose is quite clear that they are challenging the possibility that you could actually know anything in the first place.)

    Postmodernism is an attack on knowledge. If you say that you know the answer to anything controversial, you are going to be called arrogant.

    God is clear that when His people are ignorant, they are destroyed. And when they wilfully reject knowledge, God rejects them as His people. And that's what happened in this instance. By all accounts, you have a believer who was challenged on his faith and could not respond to it. And then when he asked for help, a relative responded: "I told him it was my relationship with God, not my knowledge of Him that brought me back to my faith. No one convinced me with facts. ... it was a matter of the heart."

    In other words, the lack of knowledge extended beyond Jesse, and did lead to his destruction. (The article mentions that the relative, who's name was not given, spoke to Jesse an hour before Jesse's suicide, and I can fully understand the plight of someone who seeks for an objective fact to have only despair when he's told there's no such thing.)

    So to answer what I would say, I would start by saying that God intended this to happen because it's the direct result of what He SAID would happen if we reject His knowledge. It's a result of what happens when believer are too lazy to interact with non-believers in these arenas, made all the more ironic by the fact that those believer who DO interact find the non-believer's argument to be pathetically weak. For example, I maintain that the best way to defeat Darwinism would be to have someone actually teach the entire theory rather than only the parts that seem to work. The more you study the theory, the more faith it takes to swallow it.

  9. You wrote, "So to answer what I would say, I would start by saying that God intended this to happen because it's the direct result of what He SAID would happen if we reject His knowledge. It's a result of what happens when believer are too lazy to interact with non-believers in these arenas..."

    How would you respond to one who perhaps objected to your answer by saying: "If a person rejects His knowledge and is too lazy to interact with non-believers in these arenas, it is because God intended for that person to reject His knowledge and to be too lazy to interact with non-believers in those arenas."

  10. I'd call him a fatalist.

    BTW: just because God intends X for reason Y doesn't mean another person is incapable of intending X for reason Z.

    That is, suppose God intends someone to be unknowledgeable so that He demonstrates His justice. That doesn't mean the person who is unknowledgeable intends to be ignorant so that God can demonstrate His justice; indeed, the person is most likely not going to intend that at all. Instead, he's going to intend to not hurt his brain or whatever.

    Two different moral agents can will the same event, while one wills it righteously and one wills it unrighteously. So someone who'd try to be fatalistic to avoid responsibility doesn't get off the hook.

    And for the record, Calvinists do not believe in fatalism. There are means to ends, not just ends that will happen no matter what you try to do.

  11. Is the following statement true or false?: "If a person rejects His knowledge and is too lazy to interact with non-believers in these arenas, it is because God intended for that person to reject His knowledge and to be too lazy to interact with non-believers in those arenas."

    If it is true, why shouldn’t a person believe that it is true?

  12. Hi Peter,

    I wouldn't say that Dawkin's arguments are shoddy and have been responded to.

    Every argument generates a response, and so on, and so forth. It doesn't really end. The dialect continues ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

    What killed that poor kid was not being introduced to the whole dialect itself, how it continues to go round and round, deeper and deeper throughout the history of philosophy, science and religion. Sure he was surprised at arguments presented by Dawkins which were deeper than one's he'd heard before, and then as you suggested, if he'd lived longer he could have read someone's critque of them, and then if he'd continued along that road, he'd also have run across arguments that critique the critique, or arguments that introduce new questions entirely, ad infinitum.

    Maybe the kid had other things going on as well, maybe physiological depression, maybe additional stresses from school, home, friends. Maybe what he needed was some quiet time away from his absolutistic Christian family life and Christian church friends, just to be himself, read more and think more without being judged. I don't know. Lot's of people leave the fold and some experience elation, others suffer depression, while others feel a return to like they felt before they converted, maybe just a life filled with questions.

    Also note that two people can look at the same thing two different ways as in this example:

    "On this particular morning, my wife and I are seated next to a young girl in her early twenties. According to my wife, this young girl loves Jesus with all her heart, she was the valedictorian of her high school; she had 'everything going for her.' Just one problem... and it's a whopper!

    "After high school, she was involved in a terrible car accident due the negligence of a drunk driver and was left in a wheelchair, paralyzed, unable to speak, in need of a respirator to breath, etc. A terrible tragedy, and I dislike having to use this poor woman as an example, but as the pastor's words flowed over my ears that "If you trust God, he will make your paths straight" I was suddenly hit with the mother of all contradictions... "Really? Like this poor young woman?

    "I asked my wife if she could see a contradiction between what what we consistently hearing in Church and the reality of this poor girl's situation. She replied, "No, you don't know the number of people that came to Christ because of that car accident and how God is using her." Frankly, I was appalled. God was using this woman? This was God's plan for her? Personally, I would rather be resting in peace in my grave if that was presented as an alternative. But the interesting thing I wish to point out was the incredible difference in the thought process between my wife and I; between one who still had the ability to question what the Church and a 2000-year-old book written by a bunch of prophets told him to believe and one who had lost that ability.

    "I saw a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided except for man's negligence; my wife saw an opportunity for God to spread His word and advance his Kingdom.

  13. "I saw a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided except for man's negligence; my wife saw an opportunity for God to spread His word and advance his Kingdom."

    And this apostate's point is... what exactly?