Saturday, February 29, 2020

How Do You Stop a Bad Guy With a Gun?

A paradox of grief

The more precious the thing you lose, the more you suffer the loss. But it's better to lose something worthwhile then never having anything worthwhile to lose in the first place. And it's better to suffer the loss of a greater good than to suffer the loss of a lesser good. Even though you suffer less or hardly at all, you miss out on the experience of having had the greater good. Many people lead wretched lives from start to finish. They never had the blessing of something precious to begin with. 

41,000 denominations

My side of a recent Facebook exchange:

Why don't we drop the 41K denominations figure. That's highly misleading. Most Christians belong to handful of major denominations, viz. Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Pentecostal. You might say there are different Baptist or Presbyterian denominations, but these are families of denominations. They often have identical theology. The substantive distinction is between confessional/conservative and progressive Baptists, Presbyterians, &c. Most Christians belong to a handful of larger denominations that represent a historically stable package of theological beliefs. Even independent churches are apt to have a doctrinal stance identical to one of the standard denominations. These distinctions are necessary to correct a Catholic apologetic trope against sola scriptura and "pervasive interpretive pluralism".

This trades on equivocal usage regarding what constitutes a denomination. Do we count all Baptist denominations as separate denominations or as representatives of the same faith tradition? It's really a species/subspecies distinction.

Once again, I already anticipated the distinction between confessional/conservative denominations and progressive denominations, so you're objection is behind the curve. While local Baptist churches are technically autonomous, what makes them Baptist is affiliation with a particular faith-tradition.

I also don't know what you mean by "this is how chaos happens". Denominations that don't have autonomous local churches, denominations that are technically confessional and have a degree of hierarchy (e.g. Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian) can also liberalize. There's nothing about Baptist polity that makes it more susceptible to theological drift. That's easily paralleled in denominations with a more authoritarian polity.

Once more, the doctrinal requirements for elders are naturally stricter than for laymen since elders are the primary teachers and doctrinal enforcement officers. How is that germane to the rubbery 41K figure?

"I am not the one counting, I am simply using sources. So you will have to take it up with them."

I don't concede your fallacious argument from authority. We're discussing a substantive issue, and not how a reference work happens to list churches or denominations.

No denomination has a more elaborate authority structure and accountability system than Roman Catholicism, but that hasn't preserved it from "chaos" over the centuries.

You've now made clear that you have an antagonistic agenda regarding autonomous churches. That's your prerogative. You then use that to prop up a standard talking-point used by Catholic apologists. That may not be your intention but that's the effect.

But the attack on autonomous churches is invalid since there are parallel problems in churches with a more structured polity. So your objection is inconsistent. 

There is no "simple fact". There's no one criterion or set of criteria to classify denominations and faith traditions. You have chosen to focus on the most superficial. 

Yes, Baptists split. So do Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, &c. A particular polity is not a safeguard against schism or institutional apostasy. 

i) Your response is confused. I wasn't commenting on your post but your statement to Vlad about 41K denominations. You are undeniably antagonistic towards "autonomous" denominations.

ii) It's hardly frivolous to point out that your arguments in that regard are inconsistent. "Autonomous" denominations split and/or liberalize, but so do more hierarchal denominations. The UMC is about to split over homosexuality, and it split in the 19C over slavery. Yet it has bishops.

iii) It's not frivolous to point out that there are different ways to count Protestant affiliations. For instance, you can count them by faith traditions or denominations. Denominations typically exemplify particular faith traditions. It's a one-to-many relation. So do you count Baptists (or Methodists, or Presbyterians, or Lutherans, or Pentecostals, or Anglicans) as one each, according to the faith tradition they share in common, or do you count them as so many separate denominations? Likewise, if denominations group into theological families, do you count them as individuals or families?

That's not frivolous. Rather, that's a theologically and philosophically discriminating analysis. And it's not asking too much that an apologetics forum operate according to high standards of rational analysis.

"There are no unborn children in science"

1. Philosopher Kyle Blanchette responded to Gunter and her ilk months ago.

2. The basic issue is that

And yet, and yet...

Greg Koukl:

I was reading the L.A. Times today in the letters to the editor section and there was a letter written by a gentleman in Newport Beach that was a response to a tragic story that the Times had carried a few days ago. Maybe some of you had seen that story or have read about it in the local papers about not just the rank and file tragedy in Bosnia-Hertzegovena, not about the general tragedy of war. The article was about the problems of the refugees and also a women being victimized by soldiers.

This respondent writes, "Glancing at your April 10 paper my eyes fell upon the tragic story 'Ordeals Put Off Bosnia Rape Victim's Healing.' My heart ached for Amira, the 35 year old Muslim woman, mother of two children, suffering the loss of her husband, wandering about the countryside begging to survive. Placed in a detention camp, raped repeatedly by Serb soldiers acting as animal pigs rather than humans, the woman became another tragic victim of human wickedness. Where is mankind headed? My thoughts turn to God and ask, 'Why, God? Why did you create such monsters? God, are you for real?' If this is God's way of teaching or testing my faith", he continues, " then my beliefs and faith are being shattered with contempt instead. Having just lost my wife to cancer, maybe my feelings are more prone and fragile to be torn apart and my feelings turn more intensely to those who are suffering also." It's signed Victor Jashinski in Newport Beach.

Let's deconstruct a deconversion story

"Let’s Deconstruct a Deconversion Story: The Case of Rhett and Link" (Alisa Childers).

Were humans originally vegetarian?

The prooftext of original human vegetarianism is Gen 1:29. And it's possible that the traditional interpretation is correct. However:

i) The language is permissive rather than contrastive. It doesn't say they were granted vegetation as opposed to meat. Although the verse allowed for that distinction, it's not a logical implication of the verse. The verse isn't worded in terms of two antithetical sources of food, where one is verboten. 

ii) Explicitly stating that vegetation is generally permissible to eat might be theologically relevant insofar as it foreshadows the significance of two particular trees in Gen 2, one of which is forbidden. 

iii) Gen 1:24-26 includes a category of livestock. Normally, certain kinds of livestock are consumed. Indeed, that's one reason to domesticate them. It's easier than hunting. 

But even if we don't press that issue, some livestock are also used as a food supplement for milk and eggs. But even on that "vegetarian" interpretation, the intended scope of Gen 1:29 can't be confined to an exclusively plant-based diet (fruits, nuts, roots). Rather, it presumptively includes supplementary food provided by farm animals, even if, for the sake of argument, we don't insist that they were butchered for meat. But that means the licit original diet of man was already wider than Gen 1:29. 

The only alternative is to suppose the livestock were used as beasts of burden, rather than a food source of any kind. But that's highly artificial, and unlikely that the original audience would draw that dichotomy. 

iv) In addition, the tree of life wasn't give for food, but it was permissible to eat. So a food stuff isn't the only function of plants, in the creation account. 

v) Humans often prefer herbivores to carnivores for meat. (That depends in part on what's available for consumption.) So there's an indirect link between a meat diet for humans and a vegetarian diet for livestock and game animals. A vegetarian diet is foundational to a meat diet. 

vi) Another way of putting this is that Gen 1:29 is permissive rather than prohibitive. Although the wording is consistent with a ban on meat-eating, that's not entailed by the wording.

Moreover, given repeated references to livestock in the same account, it's implausible that a human diet consisting only of vegetation was originally allowed. The narrator couldn't reasonably expect the original audience to have such a restrictive view of what livestock is for. 

Even if, for the sake of argument, we think Gen 1:29 excludes the consumption of livestock, how could it also be understood to exclude the consumption of milk and eggs from livestock? 

What's the point of livestock? Other than a source of food, the only other function is beasts of burden, but God created Eden with an orchard, It already had fruit trees. So there was no pressing need farm the land with oxen. 

Of course, humans domesticated wolves for guarding and hunting, but that's not terribly consonant with the vegetarian interpretation. 

Mind you, the reference to livestock might seem anachronistic in a creation account. Did God directly create livestock? Are they not, by definition, domesticated wild animals?

So the reference might be proleptic. But even so, livestock are represented as part of the original goodness of creation, and not a natural evil due to the fall. 

Friday, February 28, 2020

When atheism crumbles

My father was the philosopher and political polemicist David Stove. During his undergraduate years, he fell under the spell of the militantly atheistic guru John Anderson of the University of Sydney's philosophy department.

Shortly before Christmas 1993, my mother—who for decades had drunk heavily, smoked compulsively, and eaten hardly at all—suffered a massive stroke. At first she was not expected to live. Gradually, the truth emerged: the stroke, while not powerful enough to have killed her, had robbed her of all speech and nearly all movement.

To watch an adult abruptly transformed before one's eyes into a paralyzed, whimpering vegetable, all too conscious (at least in a general fashion) of what had befallen her, yet as powerless to rectify anything as if she had been six months old, is in a way worse than losing a loved one to Alzheimer's. There, at least, the decay is gradual. This was as abrupt an assault on life as if it had been a homicide. But a homicide can instill in you justified wrath; how can you feel wrath against as impersonal a cutting-down as befell my mother?

From the day of her stroke to the day of her death, almost eight years afterwards, she was in twenty-four-hour-a-day nursing care. By that time my father had long since left the scene. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and convinced beyond all reason that his announcement of this diagnosis to Mum had brought about her stroke, Dad simply unraveled. So, to a lesser extent, did those watching him.

All Dad's elaborate atheist religion, with its sacred texts, its martyrs, its church militant; all his ostentatious tough-mindedness; all his intellectual machinery; all these things turned to dust. Convinced for decades of his stoicism, he now unwittingly demonstrated the truth of Clive James's cruel remark: "we would like to think we are stoic...but would prefer a version that didn't hurt."

Already an alcoholic, he now made a regular practice of threatening violence to himself and others. In hospital he wept like a child (I had never before seen him weep). He denounced the nurses for their insufficient knowledge of Socrates and Descartes. From time to time he wandered around the ward naked, in the pit of confused despair. The last time I visited him I found him, to my complete amazement, reading a small bedside Gideon Bible. I voiced surprise at this. He fixed on me the largest, most protuberant, most frightened, and most frightening pair of eyes I have ever seen: "I'll try anything now."

Eventually, through that gift for eloquence which seldom entirely deserted him, Dad convinced a psychiatrist that he should be released from the enforced hospital confinement which he had needed to endure ever since his threats had caused him to be scheduled. The psychiatrist defied the relevant magistrate's orders, and released my father.

Within twenty-four hours Dad had hanged himself in his own garden.

Chic apostates

It's striking to compare the Christians who persevere despite dispossession, imprisonment, torture, family separation, and martyrdom to chic celebrity apostates feted in social media who had all the advantages the suffering, faithful, persecuted Christians lack.

Earliest evidence for the Resurrection

The earliest evidence for the resurrection is not I Corinthians 15 but the Synoptic accounts of the resurrection. And we can have confidence that the info. in John's account, though written down later, was being told by Mary Magdalene and Peter and John from extremely early. Peter's sermon in Acts 2 is in the competition as well, since it would have been made public (to its original, hearing audience) earlier than any other account in the New Testament but published in written form a little later. Yes, yes, I know what is going to be said against this, but it's true nonetheless. If Luke is a good reporter of what was said (and I believe that we have good evidence that), then the first public proclamation of the resurrection was on the day of Pentecost, just six weeks after the event. And the Gospel accounts, needed for our justification and far more detailed than what Paul says in I Cor. 15, can be defended as coming from eyewitnesses who were backing up Peter's sermon with their accounts of this kind from earlier than the writing of I Corinthians.
We need to break free of the idea that the date of writing is the date of proclamation. And we need to break free of the minimalist attempt to do without the Gospel accounts. That the Gospel accounts represent what the witnesses claimed is no less historical bedrock than Paul's "creed" in I Corinthians 15 or than facts "admitted by a vast majority of scholars."

Why I'm still a Christian

I mentioned a while back that there's an overemphasis on Christian conversion testimonies. Why these can be edifying to read, what's more useful is to read follow-up testimonies of why someone is still a Christian after 50 years, give or take. Recently I ran that question by some Christian thinkers who are approaching the end of their pilgrimage. The answers for interesting but off-the-record. Then one of them asked me how I'd answer my own question. So, for what it's worth, here's the question and my own answer:

Q. Have you written anything about why you're a Christian at this stage of life? As you know, there's a testimonial genre about how people became Christian in their teens/twenties or how they personally embraced the faith they were raised in at that time of life, but that's frozen in the past. At that age their reasons will be thinner. Over a lifetime, the reasons may evolve or change or be augmented or replaced with deeper reasons. Approaching the end of life, a Christian thinker has thicker reasons for his faith, due to all the life-experience under his belt, study, reflection, and interaction with others. 

A. There's why I became a Christian and then there's why I'm still a Christian. I've been a Christian for 44 years. I became a Christian at 16.

I grew up in a moderately Christian home. My father was intellectual, but agnostic and aloof. My mother was a P.K., pious, but religiously rootless when I was growing up. My grandmother, who lived in town until I started junior high, was the most devout. I adored her, but she wasn't intellectual, so her faith wasn't a reason for me to believe . My Aunt Grace was the best educated Christian I knew at that time, but she was more scholarly than analytical. And we didn't see her that often. My uncle Fred, who was Dean of Education at Anderson U, was a closet apostate. 

I never attended a fundamentalist church. We attended mainline denominations. No doctrinal preaching.

When I came of age around 13, I began to think about death. Not because I expected to die anytime soon, but I was beginning to think about what I'd do with the rest of my life as an adult. And since I was mortal, it made sense to mentally begin at the end and work back from there. At the time I was an atheist. However, it seemed to me that if we pass into oblivion when we die, then life is unimportant. It made me feel alienated from the world.

At that age I didn't have a philosophically astute argument for my intuition, but over the years I've definitely firmed up my view that atheism is a euphemism for moral and existential nihilism. Indeed, one of my pastimes is to collect atheists who admit that.

That didn't make me a Christian, but it did mean I've never been able to consider atheism as a viable fallback option. At one end, my Christianity begins with atheism. That's the backstop. That's just not a tenable alternative. 

I became a Christian at 16 simply by reading the Bible, beginning with Matthew. That was it. Apologetics came later. I backed into apologetics, not to answer my own questions, but to advise others.

As a new Christian it became quickly apparent that I could ask questions the people I knew couldn't answer, so I'd have to find my own answers.

Although I'm cerebral, I'm naturally an intellectual drifter. I coasted through public school on raw talent. I was never studious. 

Partly because I found public school boring. For instance, I was probably mathematically gifted, but they didn't know what to do with gifted students. They just taught techniques for solving problems, whereas I ignored the textbook and toyed with equations until they balanced out in my head. The teacher didn't approve.

Some guys excel academically because they have a competitive streak. I don't. I always thought living to beat the competition was a stupid goal in life. Until I became a Christian, I was an intellectually lazy, indifferent student. It took a sense of Christian duty to galvanize my abilities.

Theologically, I'm primarily interested in exegetical and philosophical theology. Intellectual challenges to Christianity have never been the chink in my armor. I've read all the best atheists. 

In addition, I've invested a great amount of  time in evidence for Christianity as well as evidence refuting naturalism, including neglected lines of evidence. 

As you know, Christian faith has several components. One is belief or conviction, grounded in evidence. My faith is pretty invulnerable in that respect, although I'm only human, so I don't claim to be indestructible.

Where I'm vulnerable is the emotional problem of evil. The way to harm me is through harming those I care about. My three closest, most devout relatives suffered the most. 

I think some Christians lose their faith, not because they cease to believe in God's existence, but God's benevolence. They feel God betrayed them or betrayed those they loved. If you doubt God's goodness, then his existence is secondary. 

However, I'm a presuppositional Christian and an existential Christian. I think God is the source of meaning, math, modality, morality, and logic, as well as creation. On that front alone, naturalism is not an option.

In addition, I've never been a truth for truth's sake, follow the evidence wherever it leads thinker. That bifurcates the good and the true. But both are necessary. Without truth, goodness is illusory; without goodness, truth is worthless. 

Watching what happened to my closest relatives was emotionally damaging to my faith, but damaged faith is worth clinging to. We can't live without hope.

So between the positive evidence for Christianity, as well as the evidence for the falsity of naturalism, I remain a Christian. Atheism is repellent, and the other religious offerings aren't serious rivals. 

I should add that I've had a number of uncanny experiences over the years (as well as witnessing like phenomena with some of my relatives), so it's not confined to abstract public evidence. 

Women, children, and Christianity

Between 31-38 minutes

Dr. Masson discusses how Christianity and the chivalric tradition transformed and upgraded the value of women and children compared to pagan cultures.

12 hard questions

Here's a list of questions from recent book. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion

I haven't read it, but it's supposed to reflect up-to-date sociological data regarding how many younger-generation unbelievers view Christianity. So I'll take my own stab at answering the questions:

Does God have desires?

This may seem like an odd question. For instance, does God desire the lost? Does God desire our obedience? 

The question is how the concept of divine desire relates to a timeless God. On the assumption that God is timeless, then we need to modify the concept of desire.

In the case of temporal agents, we begin with a desire or form a desire. Then there's a gap or interval between having the desire and having what we desire. A waiting period. Having a desire, we may take steps to achieve what we desire.

If, however, God is timeless, then there's a sense in which he has no desires because he was never in a state of unrealized desire. The object of his desire was always in his possession. It was always achieved.

In terms of world history, there may be a process by which that's achieved. But one the plane of God's existence, there is no interval between first having a desire (much less forming a desire) and then obtaining what he desired, later on. 

In another sense, there was never a time when he didn't have the desire in question. It's not like there was a point prior to his having a desire, then forming a desire, then taking actions to achieve the desired goal. 

The Last Battle

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Ash Wednesday

Every year, Ash Wednesday comes around. Every year, some Protestants take the occasion to take a swipe at Ash Wednesday, usually with Roman Catholicism in their sights. Every year I think about doing a little post on Ash Wednesday, and every year the occasion gets past me because I'm overtaken by other priorities. So here are some belated musings on Ash Wednesday:

1. If you take the Puritan view, then you oppose Ash Wednesday for the same reason you oppose manmade holy days in general. There are, however, Protestants who celebrate Christmas and Easter, but take issue with Ash Wednesday. So they're not opposed to manmade holy days in general.

2. There's a distinction between whether it's obligatory or optional. I think Ash Wednesday is permissible but hardly mandatory. Moreover, it's spiritually delusive to imagine a manmade custom compels God to confer a spiritual benefit on the observance. 

3. Ash Wednesday is somewhat different from Christmas or Easter. Those commemorate particular events in the life of Christ. 

By contrast, the significance of Ash Wednesday is more artificial, eclectic, and diffuse. It is based in part on an idea (human mortality) rather than an event. It's good to be mindful of our mortality, although an annual ceremony isn't much of a reminder. 

In addition, it commemorates Jesus in the desert, after his baptism. It's a lead-in to Lent, as a season of fasting and penitence. So unlike Christmas and Easter, the significance of Ash Wednesday seems to be more of a pastiche. As it evolved, disparate things became attached to it.

4. There's no particular season when Christians out to be especially penitent. They should be contrite whenever they sin. But presumably they don't sin according to a calendar. So they shouldn't be more penitent during one part of the year and less penitent during another part of the year.

5. And, of course, I reject the Catholic sacrament of Penance. 

6. The significance of Jesus in the wilderness is usually taken to be that that his baptism symbolically reenacts the Red Sea Crossing while his forty-day sojourn in the wilderness reenacts the time of testing and punitive wandering of Israel in the Sinai. Only that involves a point of contrast as well as comparison because Jesus succeeds where Israel failed.

In any case, that's not an experience which Christians can properly emulate. It figures in the unique work of Christ. We can commemorate the baptism and temptation of Christ, but we can't parallel his over experience. At best our efforts will recapitulate the failure of Israel.

7. Lenten fasting isn't analogous to the experience of Christ in the wilderness.  It's just token fasting.

8. Some Christians say they find fasting a useful spiritual exercise. It helps to concentrate the mind on prayer. Help take their mind of the world. 

I don't have a considered opinion on fasting. I don't practice fasting as a spiritual discipline. There may be the danger that fasting has a placebo effect: the perceived spiritual benefit is autosuggestive. It has that a certain result because you expect it to have that result. You think it's supposed to make a difference, and that in itself exerts a psychological influence. So the conditioning may be naturally self-induced.

9. Ash Wednesday also has a spiritually ostentatious potential. Having the sign of the cross in ashes on your forehead as you go out in public can be a form of virtue-signaling. 

10. If you regard the church calendar as optional, you can be selective. You might attend an Ash Wednesday service, but skip the Catholic rigamarole associated with Lent. 

I don't have a problem with a lead-in to Easter. Just depends on how that's structured.

11. I used to have an elderly relative who asked me to drive her to Ash Wednesday services. I remember the last time she asked. But then she'd suffered a medical breakdown. I told her that I didn't think she had the stamina for the service. She reluctantly agreed. She wanted to go but her body let her down. It was poignant. I associate Ash Wednesday less with the traditional ceremony than with my devout deceased relative. It reminds me of her more than anything else. 

"No country is going to escape [the coronavirus]"

Dr. Amesh Adalja offers his thoughts on the coronavirus in a video here. I've transcribed his remarks in the video below.

So my name is Amesh Adalja. I'm a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. I'm a board certified infectious disease and critical care physician based in Pittsburgh. I work on pandemic preparededness, emerging infectious disease, the intersection of infectious disease and national security, as well as hospital preparededness.

I think we are in the beginning stages of a pandemic. I think this pandemic will be mild. Maybe around the scale of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. It will likely not cause the virus to completely disappear from the world. I think it will become something that may become seasonal until we have a vaccine. And we may deal with this coronavirus in future winter respiratory virus seasons.

The biggest thing the United States needs to do right now is move from a mentality that's tried to contain this virus to one where they're starting to work on mitigating the impact of this virus. That means shifting away from travel bans, quarantines, isolation, and moving towards preparing our healthcare systems to be able to deal with the surge of patients they may have, increasing vaccine development, increasing antiviral clinical trials, scaling up diagnostic tests, improving public health communications. That's really what we need to be doing, and not squandering precious resources on travel bans and quarantining individuals.

We've been dealing with this virus at least since November. It's been spreading in China since November, unbeknownst to anybody. So if you think that a virus that has respiratory spread efficiently through human populations doesn't get around the world very quickly, you really don't know very much about viruses. Overly restrictive testing criteria is going to limit our ability to deal with this virus, and it's also going to panic the public because now the public has been told: "Oh, now there's community spread". But we knew community spread was likely occurring, but the restrictive testing policies that were in place made it very, very hard to test individuals who didn't have a strong link to the epicenter of the outbreak. And that epicenter is going to become less and less important as we see cases spreading all over the globe.

The only way that you can tell that this is a coronavirus caused illness vs. another virus for example, like influenza, is to do the diagnostic testing. The symptoms are clinically indistinguishable. You would not be able to tell the difference between somebody who had the flu and someone who had coronavirus without doing a specific test.

This is a virus that doesn't have a specific antiviral or a vaccine for it. So at an individual level you really have to use a lot of common sense. Some of the same types of principles you use during flu season. Wash your hands a lot. Avoid sick people. If you are sick yourself, stay away from other people - stay home. Cough into your elbow. Those types of measures are the best things you can do.

Specifically now with coronavirus it's important to be tuned into what your local public health department is doing, or your state health department if you don't have a local health department, so that you know what's going on in your community and in your area. You also might want to talk to your employers or maybe the schools that your children go to and ask them what are the policies that are going to be in place so that you know about them ahead of time. For example, maybe there's a telecommuting program. Maybe there is an alternative school childcare that you may need to use. Those types of actions, to do them now, to get some information now, is much better than doing it on the fly when you have community spread of this virus.

But we do know that this is going to be all over the world. And it's going to be really be hard to avoid eventually, this virus, no matter where you go, because it's a virus that spreads efficiently in human populations. Because of that, no country is going to escape it. It's going to be like 2009 H1N1 which infected over a billion people in six months. (People have also fogotten that statistic.)

The big mystery is really the case fatality ratio. How many cases are mild vs. how many are severe or fatal. We have a very skewed sample from China because we're hearing mostly about the severe cases that end up in the hospital or healthcare facilities. We don't know about all the cases that are out in the community that have very mild symptoms - maybe just a runny nose - that aren't qualifying for testing. The biggest question is what's the denominator? How big of a population is affected by this virus? Is it already out there causing lots of mild illnesses? That will really bring down the case fatality ratio because so many people are infected it's only a small number of people that have severe disease or fatal disease.

We also want to know who's at most risk for having severe complications. We know that it's elderly people with immunocompromised conditions, other medical conditions. We want to be able to get very good clarity on that and understand who is at most risk. Especially when we get into the time when we have a vaccine and we want to prioritize who we vaccinate first, who we give antivirals to first, who needs more closer monitoring, who needs less closer monitoring. All of those questions need to be answered. And that will help when we get better diagnostic testing and more time with this virus and the clinical care of patients with this virus.

Revisiting the unforgivable sin

i) The unforgivable sin is much discussed in pastoral ministry. In terms of the immediate context, the nature of the sin is clear enough. 

ii) What makes it a topic of ongoing dispute is whether the particular example is just a special case of a general principle, over and above the immediate context. Can that be extrapolated to analogous cases?

iii) Other questions include whether a Christian can commit it. 

iv) Whether, if an unbeliever commits it, he is doomed. Repentance is futile. No point attempting to become a Christian once you cross that line of no return. 

v) And what makes it uniquely unforgivable? Why is it unforgivable to blaspheme the Spirit but not the Son?

The unforgivable sin is endlessly discussed because it raises a number of issues without clear-cut answers. There's no general agreement, although there are cliche responses, which may be correct. 

However, I'd like to suggest a different angle. I'm not proposing that this explanation is necessarily correct. I haven't run across it before. But given the fumbling, flailing, somewhat ad hoc explanations we usually run across, given the lack of theological consensus, it might be worth considering a fresh approach.

The unquestioned assumption is that the unforgivable sin is a damnable sin. Indeed, that's what makes it unforgivable. If it's damnable, then it's unforgivable, and if it's unforgivable, that must mean it's damnable. It will not be forgiven in this life or the afterlife (Mt 12:32). They committed an "eternal sin".

I'm simply point out that there's a possible fallacy lurking in this inference. The basic contrast between forgiveness and the alternative isn't forgiveness or damnation but forgiveness or punishment. Offenders either experience pardon or punishment, forgiveness or judgment. 

However, while damnation is punitive, the principle of punishment is not intrinsically damnatory. Many punishments, including divine punishments, fall short of damnation. Retributive punishment isn't inherently damnatory, although damnation is a type of retribution. And remedial punishment is restorative rather than damnatory (e.g. Heb 12:8). 

What makes it seem damnatory is the statement that it won't be forgiven in the afterlife. And that would be consistent with a damnatory sin. But that's equally consistent with a temporary postmortem punishment. The punishment is held over or postponed for the afterlife. But the contrast doesn't logically entail damnation. Someone who commits this sin might be punished in the afterlife, rather than forgiven in the afterlife, but that doesn't necessarily imply that the punishment is never-ending, but that the offender faces punishment or judgment rather than forgiveness regarding this particular sin. 

In general, biblical punishments don't mean you're doomed. The fact that you weren't forgiven just means you will experience judgment or punitive justice instead. But in many biblical instances, there's life after punishment. Punishment isn't always how the story ends. Sometimes punishment has a refining effect. Sometimes punishment is followed by amendment of life. 

The traditional interpretation of the unforgivable sin as damnatory may be correct. I don't rule that out. I'm proposing an original interpretation for consideration, due both to the potential fallacy of the standard inference, as well as unresolved confusion regarding the unforgivable sin. 

And I don't dent everlasting punishment. I'm not a universalist. I'm just raising questions about the interpretation of this particular transgression. 

Artificially isolating the problem of evil

In order to have a specific example before us, consider the case of Dominick Calhoun, a four-year-old boy from Michigan who died after days of being beaten and burned by his mother's boyfriend. "I've been doing this a long time, and this is the worst case of child abuse I've ever seen," said the local police chief about Dominick's case: "in all respects, he was tortured." Dominick's body was found covered with bruises and with all of his teeth knocked out. His grandmother reported that "burns covered his body" and that his brain was "bashed out of his skull." A neighbor told police he heard Dominick screaming over and over again, "Mommy, make him stop." The allegation is that God, being perfect, would have prevented Dominick's torture. Stephen Maitzen, "Normative Objections to Theism," G. Oppy, ed. A Companion to Atheism and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell 2019), 205.  

This is a standard strategy in framing the argument from evil. Illustrate the problem with a paradigm example of horrific evil. It can be quantitative or qualitative. The amount of evil or kind of evil. And this is a well-chosen case to illustrate the point Maitzen is laboring to make. 

Consider, though, how much Maitzen takes for granted. He jumps right into the problem of evil. But think about how he's isolated this particular example from other preliminary considerations:

• He presumes that the universe can exist without a Creator and designer

• He presumes that mathematical structures can  exist apart from God (inasmuch as the universe exemplifies mathematical structures)

• He presumes that human beings can exist without a Creator and designer

• He presumes that human beings are the kind of organisms that can be wronged–unlike, say, prey animals that are naturally temporary and replaceable. 

• He presumes that moral realism is true apart from God's existence. He seems to regard the ordeal of Dominick as objectively evil, and not an example for the sake of argument to illustrate that Christian theism is internally inconsistent. 

From the standpoint of Christian ethics, sin was a factor. The mother had a live-in boyfriend who didn't have the natural bond with her son that a biological father normally has. And where was the biological father? Does Maitzen disapprove of domestic arrangements that violate Christian ethics?

The Bible, the Koran, and Jesus

Should we worry about the coronavirus?

As people know, the coronavirus (i.e. SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19) is running rampant in China. It's an epidemic in China, but the question is whether it'll become a pandemic that will hit our shores too.

  1. The coronavirus effectively already is a pandemic (e.g. China, Italy), but it hasn't been officially announced that it is, as far as I'm aware. So what does that mean? At the most basic level the term "pandemic" refers to how widespread a disease is (e.g. sustained transmission). For example, the common cold and the flu are technically pandemics each cold or flu season. However, we don't typically worry about them. So a pandemic alone doesn't necessarily mean it'll be horrible news for humanity, though of course it's not as if a pandemic is a good thing.

  2. We'd have to consider additional factors in order to figure out how bad it'll be for us. For starters, and as I've mentioned in the past, we'd have to consider a disease's infection (i.e. R0) rate and its fatality rate. If these are high enough, and if the disease is also a pandemic, then that's potentially quite disconcerting. These rates are based on the empirical data; more on the data in a moment.

  3. Still, there are limitations. I don't think the coronavirus is going to wipe out humanity. Christians in particular should trust God's sovereignty here.

    Also, at least based on the data so far, I doubt even in a worst case scenario the coronavirus will be as bad as the Spanish flu in 1918 which on most estimates infected about 500 million people (~25% of the world's population at the time) and killed between 50 million to 100 million people (including ~650,000 Americans), making the Spanish influenza one of the deadliest diseases in history.

    For one thing, infectious disease experts have been expecting and warning about an eventual coronavirus to emerge, which it did. Likewise medical care has advanced by leaps and bounds since 1918 (e.g. vastly improved sterilization techniques, hygiene education, antibiotics and antivirals, the very idea of an intensive care unit involving intubation, vents, hemodynamic monitoring, etc.). And we're not coming out of a world war.

  4. That said, most Western medical experts are highly skeptical of the data coming out of China. We don't know how reliable the numbers are. Sure, China has been more trustworthy than in the past, but that's not saying much, I don't think. To be fair, the data from developed nations is likely more reliable (e.g. Japan, S. Korea).

    In addition, though it seems we're prepared, there may be some cracks beneath the surface. A recent concern is what UC Davis reported.

    Also, it wouldn't necessarily take much for our medical facilities to be overwhelmed. We may be well-prepared, but even the most well-prepared place could easily become overwhelmed if enough people in an area need their services. Some places are better than others.

    And in general I don't trust mainstream media, nor international organizations like the WHO (e.g. see here). At best, there are a lot of people out there who don't know what they don't know.

  5. In short, on the one hand, I don't think we should panic about the coronavirus. I don't think it's generally helpful to panic even when something might be worth panicking about.

    On the other hand, I don't think we should have little or no concern about the coronavirus. It's not implausible that the coronavirus becomes overwhelming even for developed nations.

  6. Instead I think we should be realistically prepared.

    One thing I'd think is a good idea is if people buy basic supplies now rather than later. That's because if the coronavirus situation does worsen considerably, then it's possible there will be a supply shortage (e.g. Senator Josh Hawley's remarks).

    I'm referring to items like food and water. If someone has dependents, then make sure their needs are provided for (e.g. diapers for babies, drug prescriptions refilled for the elderly). That sort of thing.

    Likewise basic medical supplies (e.g. adult and infant medications like ibuprofen, cough syrups, hand sanitizers, band-aids, gauze, gloves, injection needles, surgical masks).

    Anyway, no need to panic, but prepare.

  7. I think it'd be best to follow physicians and other relevant experts for news about the coronavirus. For example, consider following Roger Seheult who is a pulmonary and critical care physician (as well as a 7th Day Adventist in Loma Linda, California). Another pulmonologist and critical care physician is Michael Hansen. A person I only recently heard about is the virologist Ian Mackay, but he seems reliable so far. Eric Strong is a hospitalist at Stanford University, though he's quite liberal and sometimes unduly critical of Trump, but I just ignore the politics and focus on the medicine. Amesh Adalja is solid.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Our errant brains

Of course we well know people believe, and have believed, tons of obviously false supernatural nonsense, and done so because our brains were not intelligently designed and make countless errors in evaluating reality, unless we tame our errant brains with more reliable methods. 

How do defective brains retrain themselves? How do defective brains fix themselves? How does an errant brain recognize its errant wiring and rewire itself? 

According to Carrier, our brains are how we perceive reality. If the organ we use misperceives reality because it wasn't intelligently designed, how is that brain in a position to devise more reliable methods? 

Take a defective industrial robot. It keeps manufacturing defective products. It is unable to self-correct. 

Of take someone high on acid. As long as he is tripping out, he's in no position to distinguish reality from hallucination. The organ he uses to interpret reality misinterprets reality, so he has no standard of comparison to fall back on. 

Carrier bungles the argument from miracles

Living gods don’t need ancient poorly attested miracles as evidence of their creeds. Living gods can work living miracles. The reliance, therefore, on long dead tales to support the existence of living gods, is a fallacy of the first order. It would only be necessary in a world without gods. Which is why we can know such is the world we live in.

i) There's a grain of truth to his statement. However, a chronic weakness of Carrier is that he's addicted to hyperbole, so his statement is, at best, a half-truth.

ii) I myself have said that when it comes to the argument from miracles, many Christian apologists are stuck in a rut. There's an overemphasis on the Resurrection, and overemphasis on ancient documentary evidence for miracles in the distant past. There's nothing wrong with including that in your case for miracles. But it should be augmented by evidence for modern miracles. 

iii) I don't agree that biblical miracles are poorly attested. 

iv) A living God is a God who acts in the past as well as the present and the future. If he performs miracles, then he performs them in the past as well as the present. So there's nothing sneaky or untoward about appealing to past miracles, anymore than we appeal to past evidence for past events generally. 

v) Ancient history is Carrier's specialty, so it's duplicitous for him to automatically discount "long dead tales". 

If he performed miracles anciently, he should be doing so presently, indeed all the more, as the population in need of them is now a thousand times in size—so miracles should be thousands of times more frequent. 

i) It may well be the case that the number of miracles has increased over time. But according to Scripture, God never performed miracles just to meet the need for a miracle. There was never a miracle for every problem that only a miracle could solve. Jesus healed people who came to him. He healed people who were brought to him, or brought to his attention. But the Gospels don't record him healing people in general. In the OT, God doesn't perform miracles for pagans generally. Indeed, God doesn't perform miracles for individual Jews generally. In Scripture, God never performs a miracle for everyone in need. Not remotely. 

ii) For that matter, not all biblical miracles are beneficial. Some are quite destructive. They may help some humans by harming others. 

You can explain your way out of that with a bunch of made-up “assumptions” about how God would behave differently than any other person in the same circumstances; but such “gerrymandering” your theory would only reduce the probability of that God existing, not rescue it from disproof as you might irrationally have thought.

Actually, there's a good reason why God would behave differently than any other person in the same circumstances. Unlike shortsighted human agents, God has foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. Just about every miracle has a snowball effect. Every miracle alters the future. So the miracles that God performs must be consistent with his plan for world history. Performing additional miracles results in a different world history. 

What remains is scenario one: God performed tons of miracles in antiquity—parted seas, rained fire from heaven, turned people into salt, transformed sticks into snakes, raised the dead, turned water into wine, became incarnate, flew into space, mystically murdered thousands of pigs, erased the sun. On and on. But now he doesn’t.

i) Yet another example of Carrier's penchant for hyperbole. Despite the fact that the Bible is a very long book, the number of recorded miracles is about 150+. So the ratio of miracles to the span of Bible history and the number of individuals is quite scant, percentage-wise. 

ii) The sun was never erased. 

iii) Jesus never flew into outer space. At the Ascension he levitated, and was then enveloped by the Shekinah. 

iv) It isn't possible to murder pigs. And Jesus didn't consign thousands of pigs to drowning. It was just a herd of domesticated pigs. 20? 50?

iii) The Red Sea crossing happened once. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah happened once. The fate of Lot's wife was a one-time event. Jesus raised three people from the dead. 

And that’s why miracles are never believable. If the world were the sort of place miracles really occurred, we’d have tons of solid evidence of that fact by now. Yet we have accumulated no solid evidence of it. None. 

That raises a nest of epistemological issues:

i) Miracles aren't like tree rings, where you have permanent cumulative evidence. Rather, miracles are more like fruit trees producing cumulative perishable fruit. Every year the tree bears fruit. Over the course of a productive lifetime, it may bear a lot of fruit. But while there's a cumulative total, that's not the same thing as cumulative evidence, because most of the fruit perishes. It rots or is eaten. There's no permanent record of the total produce. Like so many other things, miracles are cumulative, but the direct evidence is usually ephemeral rather than enduring.

ii) Take someone who undergoes miraculous healing. In a sense, that individual is evidence for a miracle. Yet the evidence may be indirect. It may not be apparent that the individual ever had a medical condition requiring a miraculous cure. Just looking at them, you can't tell. So you'd need some before and after evidence to provide a basis of comparison.

iii) In addition, the individual will eventually die, so in that sense the evidence will die with them. 

iv) Most miracles, if they happen, are basically private underreported affairs. They happen to nobodies. They are known to handful of confidants. 

v) Some people are reluctant to talk about uncanny experiences they had for fear people will say they are crazy. Indeed, the sneering attitude of atheists like Carrier is a disincentive. People don't like to be ridiculed, so they're selective about who they share things with. 

vi) Because miracles are discontinuous with the past, they don't leave a long chain of evidence. The trail goes cold. There's the situation before the miracle. Then the miracle marks a new start. A reset. So we're limited in our ability to trace a miracle, unlike linear cause and event which extend back indefinitely to antecedent conditions leading up to a particular event as well conditions leading away from the event. 

How Frame became a Christian

Viruses have rights too!

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss'd to me!

Philip Pullman: siding with Satan

Why I Believe the Bible - Darrell L. Bock

Lecture series on the Psalter

Weeding evil

Here's a thoughtful response to facile charges of OT "genocide" by Iain Provan:

Dear RJS:

I've been following with great interest your posts on Seriously Dangerous Religion for the last several months, and all the comments they have generated. I want to thank you very much for your thorough and accurate reporting on the content of the book – I feel very well represented!

Now that your posts are concluded, I wonder if I could enter the discussion on the point that is the focus of the final one? In this post, you say that "a valid case can be made that The Old Story is intrinsically dangerous if it actively teaches and encourages violence and warfare." I do agree with this sentiment. So the question is: does the Old Testament do such things? It certainly describes violence and warfare in the ancient world – but does it actively teach and encourage us to engage in these activities? After all, there are many actions described in the Old Testament that cannot reasonably be taken by the alert reader of Scripture as intended for our imitation (e.g. David's adulterous actions with respect to Bathsheba). This includes many actions commanded by God – since the alert Scripture reader knows that God commanded ancient Israelites to do many things that are not required of the Church (e.g. to engage in animal sacrifice). So we need to be discriminating in our judgments when it comes to questions of "teaching" and "encouragement." My own judgment with respect to herem warfare very much agrees with your own: "We are not called to purify the land or to establish a holy kingdom by force." That is absolutely correct, in my opinion.

The question of whether ancient Israel was ever called by God to do such a thing is another matter, and I think that it will help with clarity if we consider it separately. My conviction here is that our biblical authors certainly thought that ancient Israel was called to do such a thing at one point in its history. But here it is very important to read carefully and to note what these authors do say about this, and what they do not. In spite of what modern readers quite often claim (and this includes some of your respondents), the biblical authors evidently do not think that Israel was called to conquer and settle Canaan because of the race or ethnicity of the previous inhabitants, or because Israel had some kind of right to the land and the previous inhabitants were simply and inconveniently "there," in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Our authors explicitly tell us, to the contrary, that in the events of the conquest and settlement, the Canaanite peoples were experiencing the justice of God, on account of their longstanding wickedness (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24-26; Deuteronomy 9:4-5) – just as the Israelites themselves in the period of the later monarchy are also driven out of the land on account of their longstanding wickedness. For the biblical authors, the war in Canaan was God's (and not the Israelites') war. The Israelites are only God's vassals, summoned to help him fight against wickedness (e.g. Amos 2:9; Psalm 78:53-55).

Perhaps we should like to argue with our biblical authors about these claims; but at least we should recognize that this, and not something else, is indeed what they propose. It will not help the conversation if we begin by misunderstanding them. If we then advance to the argument itself, it interests me to know how we shall establish that, in fact, these claims are false – that, in fact, God was not bringing justice on the Canaanites for their long-term wickedness, but that something else was happening instead. What is the argument to be, on this point? That God cannot bring justice on wicked cultures in the here-and-now, but must wait until the eschaton? Or what? We need to be clear on this point. It will not do just to say that "this idea is dangerous because it has, in the past, and might in the future, encourage some people-groups to attack others." The biblical authors do not tell us about these events in order that we can generalize from them about how we can recruit God to our own bloodthirsty schemes. Indeed, Scripture as a whole never does generalize from them, as it does from the Exodus, about the ways of God in the world. They are understood, within Scripture itself, as highly unusual events (which is indeed why I did not spend much time discussing them in my book – they are not considered in Scripture to be "normative"). Yet the question remains: did God (unusually) once bring these people-groups to justice in this way or not? The biblical authors claim that God did. What are the grounds for dismissing this claim?

And then, thirdly, there is the question of what, exactly, ancient Israel was called by God to do with respect to the Canaanites – not the "whether" question, but the "what" question. This is an important question that has not received as much consideration as it deserves and needs. Modern readerly attention tends to be drawn quickly to the herem language in answering this question, and to passages like Joshua 10:40-42 that give the impression that the conquest of the land of Canaan was complete, and that all the original inhabitants were wiped out. Yet the predominant way of referring to the conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament is in terms of expulsion, not killing (e.g. Leviticus 18:24-28; Numbers 33:51-56; 2 Kings 16:3)— just as the Israelites, later, are said to have been expelled from the land because they sinned in the same way as the Canaanites (2 Kings 17:7-23). Further, there are clearly many Canaanites still living in the land in the aftermath of Joshua's victories – people who are not ultimately even expelled from the land, much less killed (e.g. Judges 1:1-3:6; 2 Samuel 24:7; 1 Kings 9:15-23). Clearly, then, there is something very strange about the language of Joshua 10 (and associated passages). Indeed, as Lawson Younger has helped us to see (Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing, 1990), we are likely dealing here with the kind of hyperbolic language that is fairly typical of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts in general – with ancient literary conventions governing descriptions of conquest and battle that should not be pressed in a literalistic manner. To press them in such a manner is immediately, in fact, to create enormous tension between what they apparently say, and what other Old Testament passages say about such important matters as distinguishing combatants from non-combatants in warfare (e.g., Exodus 22:24; Numbers 14:3), and not holding children, in particular, morally accountable for wrongdoing, or allowing them to be caught up in the consequences of their parents' wrongdoing (Deuteronomy 1:39; 24:16—in the very book of Deuteronomy that speaks about the Canaanite wars). A particular absurdity that arises from such a literalistic approach is that Deuteronomy 7:1-3 must then be read as speaking of God "driving out" the current inhabitants of the land, then urging the Israelites to "destroy them totally" (herem), and then prohibiting intermarriage with them!

We are dealing with very important matters here. I hope that this short response has at least clarified what I think about them, and what it is that I read the biblical authors as thinking about them. I am very grateful to have had the chance to write. I shall also be grateful, however, if readers of both the Old Testament and my own humble attempt to explicate it in Seriously Dangerous Religion do not so dwell on these things that they neglect the many matters that our biblical authors consider to be much more centrally important. People like Richard Dawkins display a purpose in such a focused neglect. Perhaps the only thing worse than this is neglect with no purpose at all. There are many other aspects of the OT tradition that deserve our attention, and which RJS herself has done an admirable job of articulating over the last few months.

HT: Hawk

In general a good response. A potential weakness of this explanation is that because humans are social creatures, the innocent are sometime caught in the dragnet of collective punishment, so a separation between innocent and guilty isn 't always feasible in this life.