Redefining Faith: Is Apologetics Rationalism?

I‘m often asked if apologetics, defending the reasonableness of the Christian faith, is really just a veiled form of rationalism. Rationalism is the view that reason is the supreme authority for knowing truth. I think this is an important question.

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Star Wars: A Modern Day Morality Play

Morality plays were kind of a big deal in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. They were one of three main forms of plays in the Middle Ages. The other two forms, miracle plays and mystery plays, focused on biblical characters or saints. The morality play focused on a particular hero, an everyman, whose character was tested, but who exhibited strength and achieved redemption.

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The Cult of Science

The cult of science is led, not by scientists quietly contributing to the discipline, but by popularizers and pamphleteers. Dare I suggest, by those like Bill Nye, who while smart and likable, want the general population to believe the myth that science is ultimate.

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Your Weekend Worldview Reader

Here’s your weekend worldview reader with links to articles, essays, reviews, and videos that I consider to be interesting or important from a biblical worldview perspective. Any work that I point to is not an endorsement, but rather an invitation for you to think deeply about your faith and the world around you.

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Reality Used to be a Friend of Mine

One of my favorite bands in high school was P.M. Dawn. They were pseudo-philosophers with an attraction to all things eastern. But as a teenager I thought songs like “Reality Used to be a Friend of Mine” were about acne and girls. It was theme music for the drive home from school on a bad day.

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Your Weekend Worldview Reader

Want to better understand the Christian worldview? Check out the four-part video study based on my new book Christ or Chaos. It’s like a worldview analysis crash course. You can download the study here. It’s available for use with small groups or for a discounted rate for individual use. The kit includes four teaching sessions, an outline of the material covered, discussion questions, and more.

Here’s your weekend worldview reader with links to articles, essays, reviews, and videos that I consider to be interesting or important from a biblical worldview perspective. Any work that I point to is not an endorsement, but rather an invitation for you to think deeply about your faith and the world around you.

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NEWWEEK

⊕  The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

⊕  The Elephant in the Room

⊕  Batman v. Superman & the Problem of Evil

⊕  Plausible Arguments, Deceptive Philosophy, & the Gospel

⊕  Why Mere Christianity Won’t Go Out of Style (Posted at The Gospel Coalition)

articles

  Can we trust robots to make moral decisions?, Quartz (Olivia Goldhill)

  Why a Christian Anthropology Matters for Liberty and Love, Letters to the Exiles (Charlie Self)

  Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on C. S. Lewis, Reasons (Kenneth Samples)

  The Darkness of Porn and the Hope of the Gospel, DennyBurk.com (Denny Burk)

  The ages of distraction, Aeon (Frank Furedi)

books

  Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Diversity, George B. Connell

  Review: Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

  You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K.A. Smith

  Review: Reformedish

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Your Weekend Worldview Reader

Want to go deeper in the Christian worldview? I’m excited about the four-part video study based on my new book Christ or Chaos. It’s like a worldview analysis crash course. You can download it for personal use or for small group study here. The kit includes nearly two hours of teaching, an outline of the material covered, discussion questions, and more.

Here’s your weekend worldview reader with links to articles, essays, reviews, and videos that I consider to be interesting or important from a biblical worldview perspective. Any work that I point to is not an endorsement, but rather an invitation for you to think deeply about your faith and the world around you.

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 NEWWEEK

⊕  Dive Into the Christian Worldview: Christ or Chaos

⊕  A Discussion on Apologetics

⊕  What is Man?

articles

⊕  Everything That is Solid Melts Into Air — The New Secular Worldviewalbertmohler.com (Albert Mohler)

  Worldview: An Annotated Reading of Your World, Comment Magazine (James K.A. Smith)

  The Cruelty of the Color-Blind Theory of Race in Evangelical Churches, Reformed African American Network (Jarvis Williams)

  C.S. Lewis: “You Have Never Talked to a Mere Mortal”, Gospel Coalition (Justin Taylor)

  10 Problems with the Jesus  Myth (And Why it Matters)jeffkclarke.com (Stephen Bedard)

books

⊕  What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an, James White

  Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today, Fourth Edition, John Jefferson Davis

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The Myth of Neutrality

You aren’t a neutral vacuum of intellectual possibilities. You’re not nearly as open-minded as you consider yourself to be. Sorry to burst your bias-free bubble. Yes, I’m talking to you.

Why would I say such a thing? Well, for a few reasons. First, every intellectual position is built on some assumptions about reality that can’t be proved. Second, trying to separate out notions like “secular” and “religious” explanations is not as easy as you might think. And one more thing, to be completely free from bias might require something like not being human. In short, it can’t be done.

By the way, if you are uncertain what the word bias means the Merriam-Webster defines it as, “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especiallya personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.” Biases are like armpits. Everybody’s got ’em. Some of ’em stink.

I agree with Crispin Sartwell, an atheistic philosophy professor, who hit the intellectual nail squarely upon the head regarding biases when he said, “The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false.” Both parties, atheists and believers, are starting with certain inclinations, biases, or assumptions. It’s not that one group uses rationality and the other arbitrary emotional commitments. They both begin with something they cannot prove.

Unavoidable Starting Points

That’s illustrated by the fact that you make basic assumptions everyday that govern how you think about things and how you evaluate truth claims. For example, you assume that you are not the only person in the world. You can’t prove that, amazingly enough. Every proof you point to could simply be in your head, a projection of your private world. But in the face of this unprovable claim: you still believe you’re not alone.

Who knows, maybe you really are living in the Matrix. Are you? Prove that you’re not.

You also believe that you can trust your senses. But can you prove that your senses are reliable? Shockingly, you cannot. Every proof you give could be filtered through senses that aren’t trustworthy. All of humanity can be equipped with faulty sensory perception. If everyone’s senses were off we would never know it.

Consider this, if everyone was color blind we would never really know the difference between blue and green. That wouldn’t mean that there is no difference between blue and green. We just wouldn’t know it. Reality could be something other than what our senses allow us to perceive. This is not to mention the many ways that our senses often fail us, like when we waive franticly and run up to someone we see in public only to discover it’s not who we thought they were. Not that I’ve ever done that.

Whether it’s the belief that you are not the only person in the world, or a conviction that you are not living in the Matrix, or the trust you put in your senses, my point is simply that we all start with some fundamental assumptions that cannot themselves be proven to be true.

The Nebulous Sacred/Secular Divide

But religious people take this habit of presupposing something about reality to a whole new extreme, don’t they? Maybe. Maybe not.

Consider for a moment how really difficult it is, if not impossible, to reduce religious explanations to a universal definition. If the term “religious explanations” is to have any value it needs to be basic enough that it applies in general to most explanations that would fit into that category. And this is more difficult than you might imagine. As author and philosopher Roy Clouser points out in his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality published by University of Notre Dame Press, “Defining “religion” is notoriously difficult.”

For starters you could begin by saying that a religious explanation is something that implies the divine. But then you have to define what you mean by divine. If you mean something like “not dependent on anything else” then you’ve made it broad enough to include many secular understandings of the nature of reality. For example, the belief that the natural world is all that exists could fit easily into this category.

You might further define divine as involving worship. If you do this, you rule out many eastern religions which don’t always require worship of the absolute. Would you then not consider them religious? Or you could go a step further and add into your definition the use of holy books. But if you included only claims based on a divinely inspired text like the Bible or the Quran then you exclude most of the pagan religions and even Deism that don’t have sacred texts.

As you can see, it’s not as easy as you might think to call one thing secular and another religious. That’s all I’m saying. If you’re offended by this, just come up with a better definition that clears away the rubble that many scholars consider problematic in drawing a clear distinction between the two.

You might try to reduce your understanding of the issue to something like this, “I only believe things for which there is scientific evidence; anything less than this is a religious claim.” But the fact that you only value scientific truth is itself not a scientific fact. By that standard it it would be a religious claim. It is a philosophical belief about the nature of reality not a scientific one. And this type of scientism has a tendency of cutting its own legs out from under itself.

The Reality of Armpits (a.k.a. biases)

So, what should we do? Shall we throw in our lot with the radical skeptics and concede that truth is unknowable? Or, should we embrace a little humility and recognize this is more complicated than a Twitter update can summarize?

We have assumptions we cannot prove. Separating these assumptions into secular and religious categories can be difficult. And if we are really honest, we all have a bias that affects what assumptions we consider to be plausible. And biases pose the biggest problem when we ignore or deny them. The person most blinded by their biases is the very one, perhaps you, who denies that they have any biases at all.

But it’s so common to hear that it is only religious people, believers, who are guilty of having biases. I do think this allegation works at a really popular level but breaks down badly when considered at a deeper level. Consider what the aforementioned Crispin Sartwell said in his controversial piece “Irrational Atheism” published in The Atlantic:

It [Atheism] pictures the universe as a natural system, a system not guided by intelligent design and not traversed by spirits; a universe that can be explained by science, because it consists of material objects operating according to physical laws. In this sense, atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.

Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.

Then there’s that stubborn quote that Christian apologists love to use, for good reason, to make this very point taken from a 1997 New York Times review of a book by Carl Sagan written by Harvard Professor Richard Lewontin:

“It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

The same year that Lewontin made his shocking admission, a New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel offered a similar concession in his book The Last Word:

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Well, enough of that. Time to wrap up.

G.K. Chesterton once likened an open mind to an open mouth. An open mouth is intended to close shut on something solid. So is an open mind. You can’t indefinitely avoid making some assumptions about reality, whether you realize it or not. You’re not as neutral as you like to think. Neutrality is a modern myth. You bring your biases to the table of intellectual options.

The real question is “What is truth?” The road test for your answer is not an ivory tower, or a scientific laboratory, but real life. Which assumptions about reality best explain the human condition?

These are questions with an expiration date. You have a limited amount of time to find the answers. There are voices on both sides vying for your attention. The way is littered with intellectual roadblocks. A wise teacher once said something to this effect, “There is a broad road that leads to destruction with lots of people on it. And there is a narrow road that leads to life with far fewer travelers.” Choose your path carefully.

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Happy Darwin Day

Charles Darwin, it is said by Richard Dawkins, made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. He’s right, you know. Darwin provided a framework for life having a natural explanation. For a naturalist—an atheist—natural explanations rule the day. They are, after all, the only kind of explanations that should be taken seriously.

Except for the fact that we still don’t have natural explanations for where life came from, as Darwin’s theory begins with the assumption of the existence of a self-replicating organism. Or, to mention another minor problem, we don’t have a natural explanation as to where the entire universe came from. But don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm for the day.

February 12th is set aside to remember the man responsible for intellectually satisfied atheism. His famous book The Origin of Species was published the same year the school where I teach was founded. In fact, the first professor to be relieved of his faculty post due to teaching outside of our founding doctrinal statement was Crawford Toy, who had fully imbibed an evolutionary view of humanity. He boarded a train in Louisville and left for Boston, Massachusetts, where he would end his career teaching at Harvard University.

Darwin is still an intellectual lightening rod over a century and a half later. If not a foreseen possibility by the bearded scientist, it has become a certain reality by his contemporary devotees. The neo-Darwinian disciples are quick to tell us how brilliant evolution is, how absolutely clever this mindless process turns out to be in the end, how fully capable it was to have led us out of a prebiotic puddle and into the prestigious ivory towers from which they pen their pronouncements.

But Darwin is not without his dissenters. Public intellectuals like the philosopher David Berlinski, a secular Jew, or the late New York Times best-selling author Vincent Bugliosi, an agnostic, both call for an exaggerated yawn in the face of contemporary evolutionary campaigning. In the words of the nobel-prize winning scientist Flavor Flav (okay he’s not a scientist), “Don’t believe the hype.”

So, happy Darwin Day, however you might take that. Go and watch some finches, I suppose. But if we are to celebrate the day right, I think it is fitting to offer a hymn written by the late, great C.S. Lewis that was originally set to the tune of “Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us.”

The Evolutionary Hymn

Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future’s endless stair;
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.

Wrong or justice, joy or sorrow,
In the present what are they
while there’s always jam-tomorrow,
While we tread the onward way?
Never knowing where we’re going,
We can never go astray.

To whatever variation
Our posterity may turn
Hairy, squashy, or crustacean,
Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,T
owards that unknown god we yearn.

Ask not if it’s god or devil,
Brethren, lest your words imply
Static norms of good and evil
(As in Plato) throned on high;
Such scholastic, inelastic,
Abstract yardsticks we deny.

Far too long have sages vainly
Glossed great Nature’s simple text;
He who runs can read it plainly,’
Goodness = what comes next.’
By evolving, Life is solving
All the questions we perplexed.

Oh then! Value means survival-
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity
(Far from pleasant, by our present,
Standards, though it may well be).

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