Category Archives: Charles Darwin

Probably No Dawkins?

The most dramatic plenary at the recent 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics hosted by the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, was delivered by William Lane Craig, a noted — some might say, notorious — apologist who had just returned from a 10-day tour debating prominent atheists in the U.K. Craig is an avuncular philosopher in his sixties somewhat like the Eugene Levy character in “A Mighty Wind.” Well-prepped and seemingly impervious to insult, Craig was described once by Sam Harris as “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.”

Craig’s hope on his tour was to debate — see this coming? — Richard Dawkins. After Dawkins declined, Craig found a benefactor to underwrite thirty buses that drove around Oxford proclaiming: “THERE’S PROBABLY NO DAWKINS” (a parody of the British Humanist Association’s own bus campaign: “THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE”).

Craig’s bus stunt so enflamed Dawkins that he shot an editorial to the Guardian accusing Craig of being “an apologist for genocide.” Granted, the “genocide” he refers to was in ancient Canaan and may never have happened, but Craig spent over an hour at the conference teasing out Dawkins’ implicit question, one summarized by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Bart Ehrman in the subtitle to his book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.

“When I ponder the depth and extent of all the evil and suffering in the world,” said Craig, “I find it pretty hard to believe in God.”

But that doesn’t stop him. Craig’s main line of defense (the one Dawkins decried) is that life is a “blip drowned out by eternity,” what Paul called a “momentary affliction,” and “those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.”

This is an uncomfortable argument, to say the least. But it is the logical equivalent to Pascal’s Wager, which holds that it’s safer to have faith than not because the pay-off if you’re right is infinite and if you’re wrong is finite. Infinity is a very, very big number. Craig is merely being explicit about the Christian belief that salvation is eternal while life clearly is not. In mathematical terms, our lives don’t even count.

As I said, it’s an uncomfortable argument. Why seek to remedy any injustice in such a context of eternity? Why get out of bed? A lot of the seeming social inertia we find in Paul — who told married people to stay married, slaves to stay slaves, people to keep the status quo — comes from such a mindset: the end is coming soon, so why bother?

This attitude may well be a prescription for contentment, but it’s disappointing as a life philosophy.

Apologize This!

In a country where 37% of people describe themselves as “born again” and presidential candidates kick off campaigns with prayer rallies, one might assume Evangelical Christians would feel secure. But they don’t – they are arming for a siege.

There was a bunker-like atmosphere during a crisp and overcast weekend in late October as over 2,000 Evangelical academics and students gathered for the 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics sponsored by the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Their redoubt was the Northside Christian Academy (motto: “Preparing Students for Eternity”) in a leafy northern suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I used to believe Christians had two brains — one was lost and the other was out looking for it,” thundered Josh McDowell, one of a parade of electrifying, Baptist preacher-style thought leaders who relied more on rhetorical razzle than PowerPoint slides. “The problem with many Christians,” he complained, “is you can’t give me an intelligent reason why you believe what you believe.”

Like many of the conference keynotes, McDowell is absurdly media-savvy, a prolific presenter, author or co-author of 120 books including the 15 million-selling More Than a Carpenter, about you-know-who. Other far-right erudites on the agenda included Gary Habermas (36 books, half of which attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection), William Dembski (20 books, including the first on Intelligent Design published by a university press), and Michael Brown (20 books, popular radio host).

Apologetics is the opposite of an apology. The mission of the conference was to equip academic Evangelicals with talking points to defend their position on topics such as “The Nature of God,” “The Best Objection to Evolution,” “Refuting the New Atheism,” and “Philosophical Foibles of Modern Physics.” A discipline as old as religion itself, apologetics basically means “explaining our beliefs to outsiders.”

Outsiders were not much in evidence among the well-behaved crowd of believers, but they hovered in the skies like a metaphorical Death Star. Indeed, among the 120 sessions wedged into two endless 12-hour days, one by S.E.S. professor Richard Howe was called “The Religion of the Force: A Look at Star Wars.” After betraying a mastery of minutiae as impressive as that of any Star Warrior in a wookie suit, Howe concluded: “The Force in Star Wars is very much like what you find in witchcraft and the occult.”

More seriously, the assembled apologists feared what they ominously call “The Culture,” which they see as an almost overwhelming Force of God-denying moral wafflers, evolutionists and sexual predators. The most chilling presentation was Josh McDowell’s “One Click Away” about the horrors of — believe it or not — internet pornography. McDowell spewed a torrent of statistics that I can only pray are not true: 67% of 12-25 year olds go to porn sites; 56% of divorces are caused by porn; one-third of eight year-olds “regularly” view sex acts online.

Yikes. Of course, the 70-ish McDowell is a professional yarn-spinner who claims to have delivered 24,000 talks over 51 years, which at an average of 1.3 per day makes one wonder. But his point is clear: Our kids are being podnapped by a liberal culture that is the moral equivalent of a pack of wild boars. This might seem beside the apologetic point until you realize the #1 Evangelical “proof” for the existence of God is the so-called “moral argument,” i.e., that there is an obvious universal standard of right and wrong that would not exist were there not a universal creator. Anyone who denies this standard – or that it comes from God – is guilty of “relativism,” about as close to a curse word as you’ll get from this crowd.

McDowell’s talk was an outlier in that he didn’t mention the Darth Vader of the conference, a man potentially more famous in Evangelical circles than in his own family: evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. Moreso than the other members of the so-called New Atheist anti-God squad of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins is seen as a deadly adversary because of his mastery of the evidence for evolution.

Why are Evangelicals so obsessed by evolution? In the words of William Dembski, a floppy-haired academic and Intelligent Design apologist with impressive credentials (Ph.D.’s in math and philosophy), “They [i.e., evolutionists] really think this makes a case for atheism.” He’s troubled by the so-called “theistic evolution” movement championed by scientist-Christians such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, who believe in God without rejecting evolution.

Next time: The most dramatic plenary!

A Brief History of Skepticism, Backwards (Part I)

There’s the New Atheists and the Evangelicals and you and me. God dies on the cover of Time magazine in 1966. Liberation theologians and feminists. Existentialists, who seem to turn people into God; who give people the power to control their own fates through their decisions. Of course, I’m misunderstanding. Right?

Monkey pondersAnd the great Karl Barth. Enraged by the breathtaking spinelessness of his former theological idols in Germany, who supported World War I, Barth makes a riveting, very Protestant case that God is unfathomably, utterly Other than us; that the so-called reasonable, liberal theology that had us all in its monkey paw from Schleiermacher in 1805 until well into the 20th century – that it trivializes God into an intuition.

Just like the Book of Job: Barth says it’s not our, um, job to understand God or to get it – our, ahem, job is to submit with faith to the grace that God bestows. And this is not passivity; it’s reality.

And then Karl Marx calls religion a Machiavellian smokescreen obscuring the boot-heel-grinding tactics of the ultrarich, an “opiate” about as real as any drug-induced hallucination. And Freud, on the other flank, saying faith is an immature adaptation to conflict of no use whatever in the process of growth.

We come to the 19th century – and Zionism, and some unbelievably reactionary Popes, such as Pius IX, who not only declares himself infallible in some circumstances, but issues a proclamation stating that modernity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, none of it happened.

Nietzsche announces “God is dead – and we have killed him.” Could not have been talking about Charles Darwin, whose The Origin of Species is not about how men descended from apes. Darwin’s just observing that individuals who are more suited to their environment are more likely to breed. What’s so deadly about that?

There’s the beginnings of the critical study of the Hebrew Bible, the identification of four or five different sources for the Pentateuch, which may not have been written by Moses after all.