Category Archives: Religion in America

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!

Are You For Real?

The best-selling non-fiction book of the year so far is Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. It purports to be the story of a four year-old boy’s near death experience during a harrowing appendectomy and a three-minute visit with Jesus in Heaven.

Before I started reading it, on a Hertz courtesy bus in Charlotte, North Carolina, with piped-in gospel music, I assumed little Burpo would bring back some wisdom from Jesus. I was wrong. The savior Burpo meets has little to say to the living beyond a few platitudes about loving children and how “nobody’s old in Heaven … and nobody wears glasses.”

No, the book’s real purpose – and, I suspect, its appeal – is deeply apologetic. It claims to provide nothing less than “documentary” evidence for the existence of God. Again and again, Burpo’s father is astounded by his son’s seeming omniscience while under the knife: “How could my little boy know this stuff?”

The elder Burpo is a pastor in what he describes as a “one-horse town” in Nebraska an hour from the nearest Wal-Mart. To a skeptic, little Colton Burpo’s “evidence” is underwhelming. For example, he describes Jesus as having beautiful eyes, a white robe, a sash, a gold crown and wounds. “How could my little boy know this stuff?” repeats his father. Perhaps he saw a picture — say — at church?

Colton Burpo comes back to life spouting the basic dogmas of Evangelical Protestantism. The Jesus he meets seems not to have read anything other than Daniel and the Book of Revelation. “There’s going to be a war,” the boy warns, “and it’s going to destroy this world.”

Make no mistake, the stakes are high for Evangelicals, as high as forever. It’s touching to witness how desperate they are to find conclusive proof they are right, after all.

No Man Knows the Day or the Hour (Except Me!)

Waiting for the Rapture?

Every tin-pot prophet who would predict the End of Days comes up against what would seem to be a highly problematic text:

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Jesus — the Big Banana, Jr. himself — makes this statement about the coming of the Kingdom in identical language in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32. (Such verbal identity, by the way, is used as evidence that Matthew had Mark in front of him when he wrote his Gospel.)

Since it comes from Jesus, Christian fortune-tellers who would like to predict the “day or hour” of the coming Kingdom need to explain it away.

And they do. But how?

Edgar Whisenant, author of the infamous bestseller “88 Reasons the Rapture Will Occur in 1988,” dealt with it directly. In fact, rebutting Jesus’ statement makes up Reasons #1 and #2.

Reason #1: There are 24 time zones on our planet and always “two days existing on the earth at the same time,” Whisenant points out. So any singular Rapture event will happen at 24 different times on two different days at once. But “the faithful,” he says, can know “the year, the month and the week of the Lord’s return.” Ah, of course. Jesus lets us know the week!

Reason #2: Quoting a Joe Civelli of Pensacola, Florida, Whisenant focuses on micro-parsing the Greek word “know,” which he and Joe claim has two different meanings. They convince themselves (if not us) that the passages use the word (“oida“) in such a way that “no one knows” actually means “no one knows easily but if you try hard you can know.” Thus is black, precisely understood, actually white.

Our old, old friend Harold Camping is less insulting, if rather more tortured. His free pamphlet “No Man Knows the Day or Hour?” takes this passage by the balls.

Camping takes the original position that, in fact, it was impossible for Christians to know the “day or hour” until the late 20th century. In Acts 1:8, Luke has Jesus say that “the Holy Ghost is coming upon you.” Camping takes this to mean that gradually, as the Kingdom nears, its dates emerge — but only to Camping and his followers.

His theology is complicated but essentially privileges his own sect. In fact, Camping believes the Church Age ended in 1988 and God stopped saving people. This fact is why he enrages so many other Evangelicals, whom he believes to be damned. (It does, however, confirm my theory that Millennials are Satanic.)

Sounding like any good 2nd century Gnostic or member of a Greco-Roman mystery cult, Camping concludes:

It is the true believers who know the time (the hour) and much about Judgment Day (the day).[!!!]

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Rapture-Ready Kitten

Last Monday, 86 year-old “humble Bible teacher” and millionaire failed Doomsday prophet Harold Camping emerged to say he wasn’t wrong, after all.

His cognitive dissonance lasted precisely one day (Sunday) — a “very difficult time,” he admitted, when he “was wondering, ‘What is going on?'”

Not, apparently, a mistake, blunder, faux pas, outrageous misreading of Scripture or insulting and irresponsible display of arrogance. No, “what is going on,” he concluded, was that “God brought Judgment Day to bear” — it’s just “we didn’t see any difference.”

Say what? What about all those earth-shattering catastrophes he’d predicted as recently at last Friday? A kind of technicality.

Camping dug into his Bible on Sunday and found a text that let him off the hook, for now.

Revelation 9:4 continues a sci-fi vision where “locusts” are said to appear out of a smoke cloud and:

“… they were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.”

And in 9:5, we are told these locusts “were not given power to kill them [people without the seal], but only to torture them for five months.” During which time we — the unelect — will suffer “agony” like the “sting of a scorpion.”

Now, this passage certainly contains the key phrase “five months.” No doubt. Camping takes his literally. But what about the rest?

No “locusts” I can see — so they’re symbolic. Of what? Unclear. Although recent bad weather was taken to be a sign of impending Rapture pre-5/21, this passage would seem to preclude it. But near my house in Northeast Minneapolis last week, a tornado most definitely DID “harm the grass” and a whole bunch of “plant[s]” and “tree[s],” in direct defiance of Scripture.

So the locusts are unruly. What about the “agony” of the unelect. Notice any more pain than usual, sinners?

And then there’s that crucial “five months.” Camping’s original Rapture date required interpreting Noah’s “seven days” of warning as 7,000 years. So those “five months” should be equivalent to at least 150,000 years, right?

Perhaps October 21st won’t be so bad after all.

Name That Failed Doomsayer!

Welcome back, sinners! It’s Memorial Day weekend — so let’s play “Name That Failed Doomsayer!

Match the Pseudo-Prophecies below to their Pseudo-Prophets and win valuable (spiritual) prizes!

Here are three actual calculations for the END TIMES that were widely believed by tens of thousands of credulous Americans:

  1. Daniel 8:14 says the “sanctuary” will be “cleansed” after “two thousand and three hundred days.” This cleansing is the Second Coming of Christ. 2,300 days = 2,300 years. When do we start our clocks? When the Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt. Ezra tells us this happened in the 7th year of the reign of King Artaxerxes I of Persia, which was 457 B.C. Add 2,300 years to 457 B.C. and you get: 1843! (Later revised to 1844! because this prophet — like so many — forgot there was no calendar Year 0.)
  2. In Matthew 24:32-34, Jesus says that a fig tree “puts forth its leaves” in summer. Then he makes his famous apocalyptic statement that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Now, the “fig tree” = Israel. The modern state of Israel put forth its leaves (= was founded) in 1948. One generation = 40 years. 1948 + 40 years = 1988! (Later revised to 1989! because this prophet forgot there was no Year 0, apparently not noticing the error does not affect this particular calculation.)
  3. Jesus was crucified on April 1, 33 A.D. The Bible has three highly symbolic numbers — namely, 5, 10 and 17. Number 5 = atonement, demonstrated by the phrase “five shekels” in Numbers 3:47. Number 10 = completeness, shown by Revelation 20:2 where Satan is described as being “bound 1,000 years” (10-cubed is apparently even more “complete” than plain 10). And 17 = “Heaven” as revealed by the 1980’s New Wave power trio Heaven 17, I mean, by Jeremiah 32:9 where the prophet is told to buy a field for “17 shekels.” And of course, the Bible often repeats things for emphasis. So we see that (5x10x17) x (5x10x17) = 722,500. Add 722,500 days to the date of the crucifixion and you get … May 21, 2011! (Later revised to October 21, 2011! for reasons we’ll get into tomorrow.)

These publicly failed prophets are:

  1. William Miller, founder of the Millerites, a sect whose direct offshoots include Seventh Day Adventists and Branch Davidians.
  2. Edgar Whisenant, NASA engineer and million-selling author of the pamphlet “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Occur in 1988“.
  3. Howard Camping, unrepentant Doomsayer who has reached millions through his long-running radio ministry.

Camping in the Wild

Now that Harold Camping has pushed out the date for the Rapture until 10/21, we can pause for a Satanic second here and ask ourselves: Just who is Harold Camping? How can he singlehandedly turn America into a country where some polls showed 10% of us seriously considering the world might end last Saturday?

Camping is a radio evangelist and founder of Family Radio, a 300-person 501(c)-3 non-profit based in Oakland, California. It has 66 stations in its network but does not appear to own most of them. As Christian radio goes, the network is middle-of-the-road rather than righty or lefty.

A few years ago, Camping’s network seems to have been worth about $150 million and be fishing donations of $15-20 million per year, according to MinistryWatch.com. An employee ratted to the Christian Post this week that Camping raised most of his $100 million Doomsday ad budget by selling off two stations. So it’s possible Family Radio is down to about $50 million net worth.

Funny aside: Camping’s Doomsday billboards directed people to a website called WeCanKnow.com which asked for donations. For what? The world’s going to end! The link was disabled about a week before 5/21, perhaps by someone who connected these dots (or an overloaded server). It’s back up this morning — still proclaiming “Judgment Day-May 21, 2011” and offering free downloads of terrifying eBooks such as “Woe to the Bloody City” and “I Hope God Will Save Me!” (p.s. He won’t).

Clinically speaking, Camping is older than dirt. A teenager in the Great Depression, he grew up in Colorado and became a Civil Engineer, married, had seven children. Devout all his life in that old-fashioned Reformed American way. He started a construction business in California and was a popular volunteer Bible Studies teacher at the First Christian Reformed Church of Alameda for years.

By the late 1950’s, he had a non-profit radio ministry on the side and in the 1960’s started his live “Open Forum” radio broadcast on weekends. Camping sold his construction business in the ’70s and “Open Forum” became a very, very long-running call-in show where he handled Biblical questions unrehearsed Monday-Friday for 90 minutes in the evening. It’s still on the air with the 89 year-old Camping as a one-man show.

“Open Forum” is a wonder. Truly. Camping is an absolute master of the Biblical texts and the conservative Protestant tradition. I used to listen to it on my way back into the City from consulting engagements in New Jersey — by accident, really, since I was not then a practicing Christian. He took any question at all from anyone, paged through to the relevant text, and gave intricate, plausible, cross-referenced responses in his extraordinarily deep, almost God-like voice.

Rarely have I heard such intellectual mastery of a single topic from anyone. It doesn’t happen. He knew the Bible’s million words all but by heart. He stressed “humility” in listening to “God’s Word.” And in his non-apology to listeners last Monday, Camping continued to insist he was just a “humble Bible teacher” with no responsibility for anything he says.

People can delude themselves, of course, but it takes a very special person to delude thousands of others. Having been in construction during the California real estate boom and sold at the peak, Camping is undoubtedly a multi-millionaire. How can someone so smart be so wrong?

I recently ran across a very good definition of “cognitive dissonance” in the Washington Post, quoting Mark Vrankovich, head of Cultwatch, a pro-Christian anti-cult group:

“You invest a lot of your emotional energy or put money into it. So no matter what the evidence you want to keep on believing. The alternative is that you’ve wasted your time and money, you’ve wasted friendships and burned bridges — people don’t want to face up to that.”