Reflections on Derren Brown’s Interview with Premier Christianity

Premier Christianity magazine recently ran an interview with Derren Brown, exploring Brown’s conversion and loss of Christian faith, his view of miracles, and the purpose of Christian faith. See here: http://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2016/September-2016/Derren-Brown-The-miracle-maker-reveals-his-Christian-past

Brown was a leading voice in my own deconversion from Charismatic Christianity and it was interesting to see him interviewed by Justin Brierley, a charismatic. I wanted to offer some brief reflections on the interview.

Firstly, I think kudos to Premier Christianity for running the interview in the first place. Not too many Christian publications would give time and space to a critic of Christianity. Often the only time critics gets a mention in the popular Christian press is when their work, books, comments, or articles, are being critiqued. But Premier Christianity has done something quite radical for a Christian publication: allowed the sceptic his own voice.

Brierley remarked that when he went to watch Brown’s latest stage show, “Miracles,” he was concerned that the audience would walk away just as sceptical about the supernatural as Brown is. After all, the whole point of Brown’s stage show is to demonstrate how we are very easily fooled by the sorts of familiar displays put on by charismatic evangelists, healers, prophets, and pastors. Brierley writes: “prepare to be amazed, but also to encounter a very specific and uncomfortable challenge to charismatic Christianity.” And well he might worry about this because Brown and others – such as James Randi – have presented us with an absolutely devastating case against the claims and practices rampant in the world of Charismania. They’ve shown up the fraud, trickery, deceit, techniques, scams, delusion, gullibility, and other shenanigans that lie behind the staples of charismatic experience. What can Brierley – a charismatic – really say in the face of all this?

Now, Brierley is quite correct to point out that the sorts of scepticism-fuelled shows put on by Brown et al do not disprove Christianity. Nothing Brown does on stage pours doubt on the philosophical case for the existence of God or the historical case for the resurrection of Christ. In fact, I think Brown would agree. However, even though there may be a good intellectual case for believing in God or the central truths of Christianity, Brierley doesn’t directly address the damage that Brown’s performances do to their actual target: charismatic claims and practices. For instance, Brown can very easily “heal” people from various – typically pain related – ailments, using nothing other than the very same tools in the standard charismatic toolbox. He can speak in tongues (as can I!). He gets “words of knowledge” for members of the audience. He can perform the so-called “slaying in the Spirit” wonder. He does it all and explains exactly how it’s achieved.

Charismatic readers are probably screaming at me right now: “But that doesn’t prove these phenomena aren’t genuine!! It just means they can also be faked!” I agree. However, genuine or not, Brown has provided excellent reasons to remain doubtful about such phenomena. In other words, he presents the charismatic as well as the casual onlooker with massive epistemic problems: why believe that any of these phenomena are genuine when there’s a perfectly good natural explanation for them? Brierley never gets to answer that question but I would love him to address it some time.

Instead Brierley simply states that despite Brown’s spectacular displays he still believes in miracles, and cautions us against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But the question remains unanswered: is there a baby in the water in the first place? That’s what Brown and others are challenging. Maybe there is or maybe there isn’t, but there appears scant decent reason to think such phenomena are genuine; at the very least most are probably not. Faced with this evidential problem, Brierley says “I believe convincing evidence can be presented for many miraculous healings.” There was little space for Brierley to outline such a case, and to do so would get in the way of the point of the article, however, I found the comments he made rather telling. He writes, “I have heard many stories of miraculous physical change. In 2001, during a mission trip in Peru, a friend of mine, Alex, witnessed an eyeball grow back into the socket of a man that he and a woman prayed for. I don’t believe he’s lying. He’s generally a sceptical guy….what do you think of Alex’s story?”

One commentator accused Brown of clearly avoiding Brierley’s question, but that was an incredibly unfair comment. Firstly, Brown cannot be reasonably expected to refute a story that he has only just heard, involving people he doesn’t even know, 15 years ago, in Peru! In any event Brown actually does offer a pertinent observation. He briefly mentions that memory can be far from perfect when it comes to recalling events. In fact, he gives an example of a trick he witnessed years ago which – when he spoke to the magician in question years later – was actually a different trick than Brown himself swears he witnessed. (After a wedding I attended I was asked what colour the bridesmaids were wearing. To this day my memory tells me it was green. They were, in fact, in lilac!) As I have written elsewhere on this blog (see: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/modern-miracle-claims-the-limitations-of-eyewitness-testimony/) our memory does not operate like a video recorder, objectively gathering facts and occurrences. Our minds are actively engaged in the interpretation of events as they happen and our imaginations frequently fill out the gaps in events when we only have a partial recollection of them. This is particularly so when an event is sudden, shocking, unexpected, or bewildering. I think Brown’s response was a pretty fair comment on a miracle story he has not been able to investigate.

Anyhow, recall that Brierley claims that “convincing evidence can be presented for many miraculous healings.” Now, I would’ve thought he’d lead with his most convincing example. But is this it? A second-hand anecdote that occurred 15 years ago in Peru? This isn’t evidence of anything at all. The world is full of such stories and yet there’s scant evidence to corroborate any of them. What constantly astounds me is the charismatic insistence that miracles are happening all the time, and yet when challenged we get nothing but an unsubstantiated anecdote from half way across the world. Brierley’s friend might well have witnessed what he claims to have witnessed. This might indeed have been a miraculous intervention of God. However, looked at as evidence to believe it was such, it appears wafer thin to anyone but those who are predisposed to believe that miracles happen all the time.

Brown is quite correct to insist that more is required. There must at the very least be some form of physical change demonstrable with the use of medical evidence such as X-rays. Sadly this is the sort of evidence we are almost never presented with. I suspect Brown is right on the money when he says that there is a strong subjective element involved in people labelling events as miraculous in the absence of any objective evidence. Human beings, Brown reminds us, are desperate to find meaning and a chief way of doing that is the very normal human act of telling stories. So, when a family prays for a relative with cancer and the cancer goes into remission, they interpret that event as miraculous. Doing so puts them into a story that gives them meaning and significance: God is working in their lives in an amazing way, and that can be a powerful and comforting thought. To such people seeking out hard data can be either unnecessary – because they already know that God has done an amazing work – or unwelcome, as it might contradict them and thus threaten the sense of meaning and significance their interpretation of the event has given them.

Brown has hit on what is the main reason for belief in things like healing miracles, tongues, and prophecy. It gives people a sense of story, meaning, identity, and significance that they so crave. The thought that the creator of the universe has an intimate relation with you and gives you all manner of supernatural gifts and blessings is certainly an alluring one. And that is why, I suspect, so few are susceptible to objective analysis. We are creatures of narrative, and if the evidence contradicts the stories we tell to give our short, humdrum lives significance they wouldn’t otherwise have, then so much the worse for the evidence.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Miracles

Special Treatment for Religion in the Workplace?

The reasonable accommodation of religion in the workplace has been a growing issue. There are two basic types of cases.

1. Cases which involve issues not directly related to the job performed by the employee.
i. Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker, was told she couldn’t wear a cross as a sign of her Christian faith. She was subsequently allowed to wear it and the European Court of Human Rights gave BA a slap on the wrists, judging that her right to manifest her religious belief under Article 9 of the European convention was being infringed without good reason.
ii. Shirley Chaplin, a hospital nurse, made a similar claim but unlike Eweida she lost her case as her employer pleaded reasonable grounds (health and safety) for forbidding jewellery.
iii. Victoria Wasteney was disciplined by her employer due to her efforts to convert a Muslim colleague. She lost her appeal for reasons I’ll mention below.

2. Cases which are directly related to the job performed by the employee.
i. Lillian Ladele, a civil servant who worked as a registrar of births, deaths and marriages was disciplined for refusing to do work in connection with registering civil partnerships of gay couples.
ii. Gary McFarlane was a counsellor working for Relate who lost his job for refusing to do counselling sessions for gay couples.
iii. Stephen Copsey was dismissed for the refusal to work on Sunday.

There is, I think, a decent case for a reasonable accommodation with respect to the first set of cases, but not the second, which call not for reasonable accommodation but for special treatment.

One of the strengths of our society is its pluralist nature. Who wants a society where everyone thinks, acts, and dresses the same? Or worse, where people are afraid to speak about issues of controversy lest they offend someone? Does anyone seriously think wearing a cross is a hindrance to performing one’s duty as an employee? If we didn’t have the right to express and practice beliefs the idea of freedom of religion would be a vacuous one. Unless there is good reason – as in case 1(ii) above – to forbid certain items of clothing or jewellery – then I suggest we err on the side of freedom and individualism, and defend individuals – in law – against infringements on their freedom when there is no good reason.

With respect to employee-employee conversion attempts I think that a hands-off approach should be the default policy. Two adults should be able to engage in whatever discussion they like – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of their work – without worrying if they are breaking some silly censorious rule. Of course, if behaviour becomes inappropriate or unwanted by one or other of the parties, then an employer should be able to interfere. In case 1(iii) above, Ms Wasteney was in a superior position to the Muslim in the organisation, and engaged in unwanted behaviour such as laying her hands on her Muslim colleague to pray for her. So, Wasteney was not being denied freedom to manifest her religion in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights, but rather she was being denied – quite rightly – the right to engage in unwanted, non-consensual conduct. The freedom to manifest one’s religion does not afford a right to encroach the rights of others in such ways, and Article 9(2) of the European Convention is explicit on this point.

Which brings me to the second set of cases. When a person takes a job the organisation in question has certain rights over them. Most jobs are governed by a contract of employment, and failure to fulfil the terms of that contract quite rightly brings consequences. Take case 2(ii) above. Upon taking the job Gary McFarlane signed an equal opportunities commitment and only afterwards wanted to be excused from counselling same-sex couples. There could have been no “reasonable accommodation” if the employer was to fulfil its purpose, and Mr McFarlane should not have taken this job any more than a vegan should take a job in a butcher’s shop. The same goes for any other case in this category. The beliefs we hold might well bring consequences for us, but that is our problem and not the problem of everyone else to accommodate it. Of course, it might be a nice thing for an employer to make adjustments to suit the whims of a religious believer. For example, it might well suit the employer to deploy a Muslim employee to a place they won’t have to sell alcohol. Alternatively it might suit non-Christian employees to work on a Sunday so the Christian doesn’t have to. But this does not mean the believers in question have a right to have their foibles accommodated and protected by the full force of the law. It might well be the case that the non-Christian values his Sundays off just as much, and why should he have to sacrifice them?

Furthermore, if we decide that there should always be a reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs, what’s to stop an employee from pleading this in all manner of cases? Suppose I decide that it’s my firm religious belief that God forbids working before lunchtime. Should my employer be obliged to jump through all manner of hoops to accommodate me? In fact, on what grounds should religious beliefs be treated in this special way rather than ethical or political beliefs? Suppose I decide that obesity is a lifestyle I don’t want to support, can I rightly refuse to sell sweets and products high in fat to obese people? If religious beliefs concerning the sale of alcohol are to be accommodated, why aren’t these other beliefs? That way lies chaos. Surely if a person who works in a butchers shop decides to become a vegan he has only one choice: to leave his job. Part of what it means to be a mature and rational adult is the acceptance that one’s beliefs and lifestyle choices have consequences which must be accepted. Demanding the right to have everyone accommodate you betrays a staggeringly arrogant sense of entitlement.

Individuals are free to think and believe as they like, but in seeking to manifest those thoughts and beliefs in actions in the workplace they cannot rightly expect special treatment. No-one has a right to have one’s beliefs validated, particularly when the rights of others, the interests of the business, and fairness with respect to ones co-workers are also at stake; none of which are trumped by claimed religious rights. If all are to be treated equally then no one should expect preferential treatment or exemptions from certain jobs as of right: neither Christian, nor Jew, nor gay, nor straight. All are – and must be – equal under the law.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Drama of Evil

My most recent article in On Religion has been made freely available on their website:

http://www.onreligion.co.uk/the-drama-of-evil/

The argument looks at the so-called problem of gratuitous evil and in arguing that this argument is unsuccessful I discuss how atheists and Christians have very different approaches to the problem.

The article is written for a popular audience, not an academic one.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (5) – The Fall, Free Will & Heaven: a Thought Experiment

The so-called “problem of heaven” emerges in the context of solutions to the problem of evil which call upon the free will defense. Moral evil – and sometimes even natural evil – is often explained by the creaturely abuse of free will. However, there are problems lurking here. I once heard a philosopher make the following argument: Adam and Eve were created in a perfect paradise, had free will, and sinned. Since heaven is once again a perfect paradise, in which we have free will, won’t there be the high possibility of someone sinning?

This philosopher obviously had in mind the traditional Augustinian understanding of creation and the fall. The idea of an finite but perfect human pair created to live in a perfect paradise is not one that I adhere to. Not only does it face strong empirical difficulties, but it makes the origin of sin an utter mystery. How is it that a perfect being in a perfect environment freely chooses to sin? That suggests the beings in question weren’t perfect to begin with. Anyhow, since I accept that there is a large proportion of Christendom that embraces this notion, or at least something very similar to it, I’m going to grant it for the sake of argument and ask if there is any incoherence in the notion that we are free to sin in heaven but that no-one ever will despite the fact that the first humans did so in a similar perfect environment.

Imagine an island that to passing ships looks like a beautiful utopia. The island has an uncanny charm that seems to draw people to it. However, when smaller ships try to sail close the waves and the currents tear them to pieces and leave the sailors stranded on the island. What looks like a beautiful utopia from the sea is soon discovered to be anything but. The sailors must live on a diet of sour sea slugs and bitter berries, and at night time they must sleep in trees to avoid being eaten by the terrifying wild dogs which inhabit the island and hunt in packs at night. Sadly these trees are invested with mites which cause severe itching and boils, a plight which is only a little better than being torn apart by the dogs. One day a huge naval vessel spots smoke from a fire lit by the sailors and sends in a helicopter to rescue them. Suppose 5 years later one of these sailors is captaining a ship sailing in this same area. One of his shipmates points to the island and suggests a visit to it. It seems so incredibly alluring despite warnings the sailor has heard concerning it. Now, the captain is certainly free to visit the island, but there’s no way he will do so. He has lived experience which tells him to keep away at all costs. He has lived for the past 5 years in relative luxury and has no desire to return to that accursed island.

Might not something similar hold in heaven? Firstly, the inhabitants of heaven will experience what theologians have called the “beatific vision” – an intense and direct awareness of the loving presence of the almighty God to whom they owe everything. Secondly, it’s not implausible to think that the saints will retain a memory of this fallen world with all its sorrow, suffering, worry, death, and struggles. This contrast – or so it seems to me – would easily be enough to ensure that no-one in heaven ever sins, despite remaining free to do so. Just as the captain will never relinquish his comfortable life to visit the deadly island a second time, so the saints in heaven will never abandon their glorious life for the miseries they experienced during their fallen existence. They know too well from bitter experience the full consequences of rejecting God.

Interestingly, this means that only a fallen and redeemed person would be in the position of being free whilst not actually sinning. Adam and Eve – on the traditional understanding – had no knowledge of the fall, no experience of the misery it would cause; the fallen existence was not one they knew from bitter experience prior to their temptation and sin. In some ways they are like the captain of the ship when he sees the island for the first time, whereas redeemed sinners would be like the captain of the ship who had been rescued and sees the island sometime later.

So, even though I don’t ascribe to the traditional Augustinian understanding of the fall, I think that view can survive the criticism that is made of it in this case. Whether it can stand up to other problems is a question for another time.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Creation, Free Will, Heaven, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine

Short Article (4) – Atheism & The Moral Argument

I’m just thinking out loud here………

I believe morality is objective. Further, it seems to me that theism provides a much better framework for grounding objective moral values and duties than naturalism. Some apologists use this as a springboard for formulating moral arguments for the existence of God, such as that espoused by William Lane Craig:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

Defenders of atheism typically attack premise 1, and attempt to provide a framework for how objective moral values and duties obtain in a godless universe. Few of these attempts are impressive. But why aren’t atheists more inclined to dispute premise 2? Is it really such a terrible bullet to bite? If I were an atheist I think I would do just that.

Let’s suppose that premise 1 is right, that God does not exist, and that therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist. What follows from that? Does it follow that we cannot justifiably condemn murder? Does it follow that rapists should be let out of prison? Does it mean we cannot reasonably critique racism or homophobia? Does it mean that it’s OK to torture babies for fun? Apologists who use some version of the moral argument often suggest that this is exactly what follows if we deny that objective moral values and duties exist. But why need that be the case at all? Of course, it is indeed correct to say that if objective morals do not exist then we cannot morally critique such things, but it is incorrect to say that we cannot therefore oppose them on other grounds? Take, for example, a murderer. Even if it is the case that he has not done anything morally bad, we still justifiably oppose his behaviour and take action against him accordingly. After all, he represents a danger to the rest of us and punishing him helps deter others from engaging in actions which threaten our safety and well-being, two things which we desire in order to live happy lives. When a lion escapes from a zoo and kills people, it isn’t engaging in immoral behaviour, but we are quite right to kill or capture it because it represents such a danger to our lives.

What of racism and homophobia? Are these to be tolerated because they aren’t morally wrong? Again, I fail to see why. Human beings desire to live and thrive and enjoy their lives. Most of us recognise that our own fate in this regard is bound up with the life of a wider social group. It is in our own interests to work towards a society that is open and tolerant of differences, in which we can all live together peacefully as far as possible. Moreover, normally functioning human beings tend to have some degree of natural compassion and empathy for others (whether due to evolution or social engineering). We therefore hate to see someone beaten up because they are black, or harassed because they are gay. But what about societies in which such things are tolerated or even admired? Can we effectively critique them if there are no objective moral values and duties? I think we can. Firstly, even if objective moral values and duties exist (and of course I think they do) it isn’t obvious that this makes our critique of such cultures any more effective, since our morals – even if correct – will obviously be rejected by the societies we seek to critique. Secondly, it seems to me that we can appeal to people on other – non-moral – grounds. We can try to persuade them that own lives will be better if they ditched some bigoted social policy. We might also appeal to a sense of humanity within them and try to make them see that a black person or a gay person is fully human human, with similar loves and desires for living, and that there is scant rational basis for discrimination or harassment. Of course our best efforts might fall on deaf ears, which leaves us no alternative but to shun those who engage in behaviour we find undesirable, which offends our sense of humanity, and which we do not wish to tolerate in the sort of world in which we wish to live. Even when our words do not fall on deaf ears, it might still take a long time and a lot of work to change mindsets and cultural norms. But I don’t see how appealing to objective moral rules is any more effective.

Responding to the moral argument by disputing premise 2 is a strategy that I think deserves to be explored further. The atheist might still insist in defending some account of objective morality in a naturalist or materialist universe, but if previous accounts are anything to go by we are rightly sceptical as to their chances of success. Is it not therefore time to try a different approach?

Stephen J. Graham

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Will the Ancient Greeks be Saved?

I love ancient Greece. I adore the stories they told about heroes and gods, and delight in how they displayed these stories in stone works and painted objects. My desktop background on my computer is an image of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt. Admittedly I am far more fascinated by ancient Greece than ancient Israel, my religious forebears.

I should point out that I’m using the phrase “ancient Greeks” rather loosely – to refer to everything from the Mycenaean empire to the classical Greece of the philosophers. What has happened to these people? Where are they now? For atheists the answer is simple: they have gone the way of all flesh; dead and decomposed, leaving only a selection of artworks and old ruins to testify that they ever existed. They have been, as we one day will be, gnawed away by the savage teeth of time.

However, for theists – and Christians in particular – the answer is not so simple. Christians traditionally believe that when we die our soul will (prior to the final resurrection) abide either in the presence of God – Heaven – or a place of punishment – Hell. Some might hold to a belief in some form of purgatory, and others might adhere to the notion of “soul sleep,” whereby the dead unconsciously rest awaiting the final resurrection and judgement at the end of time. Regardless, even if we can’t answer the question “heaven or hell?” now, most Christians would agree that the ultimate fate of every person is either heaven or hell – the presence of God, or His absence (sometimes thought to be annihilation, but more commonly conceived as conscious torment). And so the question remains: what of my beloved Greeks? The Greeks lived long before Christ, so knew nothing of the gospel. Moreover, they knew nothing of Yahweh or the Old Testament covenants. Their world was much smaller than ours. Greeks believed that most people went to Hades after death – a ghostly shadowy existence. If you were a particularly great hero you might make it to the Elysian Fields, or even get promoted to Olympian immortality, a la Heracles. But what should Christians think? Will the ancient Greeks go to heaven or hell?

I want to look briefly at four common Christian answers, (though please note this is far from an exhaustive list).

1. The Strict Calvinist Answer

God has preordained the lives of all people. Some are preordained to everlasting life, others to everlasting damnation. Since the ancient Greeks were not part of God’s elect or his chosen people, they are condemned to Hell. God has chosen, in his sovereignty, not to disclose Himself to them and save them. He has chosen to leave them in their wickedness, their fallen human state, a state we see clearly from the poverty of their religious ideas. This is not unjust, on the contrary God is right to punish them as sinners. I confess I have a difficult time with Calvinist explanations such as this one. That God creates millions of people without any hope of salvation and destined for eternal conscious torment is a rather disgusting doctrine that every fibre of my moral sense resists. Of course, it might turn out to be true, but given how the doctrine flies in the face of our sense of morality and justice I think we are justified in looking at other answers.

2. The Qualified Universalist Answer

This view holds that whilst everyone who hears the gospel and rejects it is hellbound, those who have never heard it – such as the ancient Greeks – get a free pass through the pearly gates by dint of ignorance. This view can be heard often enough at the popular level, but it isn’t one I’ve heard from any Christian theologian, since it suffers from one fatal problem: If it’s the case that ignorance of the gospel gives a free pass to heaven then there seems fairly strong moral case against evangelism. Preaching to those who have never heard the gospel puts them at serious risk. The way to populate heaven would be to keep the gospel to yourself, hide all the Bibles, close the churches, and suppress the gospel message as far as possible.

3. The Liberal Universalist Answer

On this view people such as the ancient Greeks will go to heaven because ultimately everyone does anyway. This obviously avoids the problem with qualified universalism by dispensing with the eternal punishments of Hell, but does it threaten the importance of preaching and mission? Many Christian theologians think it does, but I think that might be hasty. Admittedly, if all religions are equally good paths to God, then the importance of preaching and mission with a view to conversion is unnecessary. However, that idea is not essential to universalism. Perhaps a universalist could hold that whilst everyone ultimately goes to heaven, there are different ways of getting there and some are better than others. Perhaps Christianity is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation to the world, and perhaps those who embrace it get further along on the journey. This, however, strikes me as speculative and with little basis in Christian tradition, despite the best efforts of excellent thinkers – such as John Hick – to give it a theological basis.

4. The Standard Answer

Here the notion is that those who have never received the gospel are simply judged by the light that they do have, and thus some of the ancient Greeks are bound for heaven, whilst others bound for hell. What is it to be judged by the light one has? Well, it means that each person is held to a standard suitable for their moral and spiritual knowledge and awareness. Has some given person done well with the knowledge he or she had available? Take some ancient Greek – perhaps a priest of Apollo. He believes in the gods, has a sense of right and wrong which he seeks to live by, desires to worship the gods in the way he sees as proper and fitting, and in particular wishes to see Apollo exalted and honoured and the people who come to worship him blessed. He does not know Yahweh, but he does have some religious or moral awareness which he seeks to follow as well as he can. Is it not plausible that such a man will be saved? I cannot of course say that he will or he won’t – humans are poorly placed indeed – morally and epistemologically – to make such judgments, but I don’t see that we can rule it out and it strikes me as a solution to the problem which should satisfy most believers.

Perhaps then one day I might just shoot the breeze with Plato or have a good laugh with Aristophanes.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Calvinism, Eternal Life, Heaven, Hell, Salvation, Universalism

What Would Convince You to Abandon Theism?

In his essay “Theology and Falsification”, Antony Flew asks: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?” The context of the question is Flew’s contention that no matter what evidence comes their way theists will perform all manner of theological gymnastics rather than give up their belief. This, reckoned Flew, meant that their assertions concerning God were meaningless – they suffer “death by a thousand qualifications.” I’ve always thought Flew quite unfair to theists in this essay, but I find his question a fascinating one and so thought I’d give my own brief answer to it.

Firstly, it’s important to ask why a person believes in God in the first place. Someone might well believe God exists because of, say, a combination of the fine-tuning argument and the Kalam cosmological argument. Presumably if such a person was persuaded by good reason that both arguments are unsound then they would give up their theism. If they didn’t then it would seem that their belief wasn’t really based on such arguments after all. In any event, in cases like this there seems to be a fairly clear answer to Flew’s question. However, if theism isn’t so clearly based on some particular argument or group of arguments then the situation is much more complicated.

Whilst I believe that there are several arguments which clearly and strongly favour theism over atheism (in particular the contingency cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the anthropological argument from the nature of human beings as free, moral, conscious, rational persons), I can’t honestly say my theism rests on any of them. Should each of these arguments be defeated my theism wouldn’t necessarily crumble, (though it might weaken to the extent that these arguments offer some degree of confirmation). So, why do I believe in God? What does ground my theism? To be honest, I don’t really know. The common wisdom is that human beings arrive at their beliefs after a process of rational thought. Each of us, so the story goes, examines the various live options vying for our assent and weigh the evidence, discarding what doesn’t measure up, and accepting what does. It’s like a man wandering around a supermarket. He picks up various items and, after making a decision, either puts them back on the shelf or puts them into the trolley for the check-out. I don’t think belief primarily works this way. Believing this or that is typically a more passive exercise than the supermarket model. To a great extent we simply find ourselves with certain beliefs, or forming certain beliefs under specific circumstances. Our minds – the beliefs we hold as well as the processes we go through to arrive at them – are conditioned by many factors largely beyond our direct control: culture, society, upbringing, peer pressure, psychological make-up, character, temperament, desires, and all manner of accidents of life. These processes are whizzing away in our minds forming beliefs, and removing others, and often quite apart from our rational awareness. We thus find ourselves with all manner of beliefs without trying: I had boiled eggs for breakfast, my son is 9 years old, the earth is round, the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, Leibniz believed the world was the best possible, trafficking of human beings for sex against their will is immoral, Jupiter has 67 moons. Some beliefs are based on memory, some on testimony; others are based on perceptual experience or a sense of right and wrong that is difficult to define. We can of course challenge these beliefs. My friend might tell me that he remembers an astronomer telling him Jupiter has 63 moons. This might prompt me to check the matter out and adjust my belief if necessary.

Let’s then apply this to my theism. For whatever reason, I find myself with belief in God. The existence of God seems obvious to me as I contemplate the universe and reflect on life. Perhaps this is due to what Calvin called a “sensus divinitatis,” or perhaps it is due to the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Atheists might prefer to think of it as little more than a psychological quirk at best, or at worst a delusion. Whatever the cause, my theism is there as a fundamental part of my noetic structure, and a crucial part of how I make sense of the world around me. It isn’t very easy to spell out the circumstances under which I might give up my theism. However, there are a few candidates for defeaters.

Firstly, if someone produced a convincing argument that the concept of God was incoherent, then that would be the most likely case which would cause me to abandon theism. There have been a few attempts in the history of philosophy to produce such an argument, but none has as yet come close. However, if anyone succeeded then I suspect my noetic apparatus would respond by abandoning theism.

Secondly, and particularly in relation to my theism being specifically Christian, should historians ever show that Jesus did not in fact exist, or that the resurrection was a cooked up myth (perhaps by finding conclusive historical documents of some sort) then I would abandon specifically Christian theism. Since Christianity makes a number of unique historical claims, it is always open to historical disproof.

These two are the surest cases under which my beliefs about God would not survive, but there are other instances which might well threaten my theism. For instance, suppose I suffer a catastrophic illness, or witness a close family relative going through such trauma. This could well dissolve my theism. I don’t mean that I would give up my belief in such circumstances because I think that under them the problem of evil would suddenly appear cogent. I’m simply observing that under such circumstances many people have lost their belief in God, and that it isn’t implausible to think that the same could happen to me. Of course, it could equally happen that under such circumstances my belief would end up much more steadfast and sure. How could we ever know how our minds would respond under such life-changing circumstances?

I have already alluded to the fact that beliefs can be modified or ditched in the light of evidence and rational scrutiny. However, this is easier with respect to some beliefs than others. Let’s compare belief in God with the belief that Jupiter has 67 moons. Belief in God has a certain feature that beliefs such as “Jupiter has 67 moons” do not have. Philosophers call this feature the “depth of ingression.” This is the degree to which a belief can be given up without significant reverberations throughout the rest of our noetic structure. Some beliefs are central, others peripheral. Whether or not Jupiter has 67 moons doesn’t matter much. I could give it up without any further noetic consequences. Belief in God is not typically like that. It occupies a far more central place. My theism colours – or even determines – what I believe about many other (incredibly important) things: moral value, freedom, the nature of humankind, or what a good life is, to name just a few. In fact, belief in God can occupy such a central place that it becomes a normative belief – part of the standard by which we measure other beliefs. So, take the following anti-theistic argument from evil:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

A theist who entertains this argument might very well doubt premise (2) simply because “God exists” + (1) have so much warrant for them that (2) cannot be seriously considered. Of course, this doesn’t mean belief in God can never be overturned, for it could be by an argument which contains premises with at least as much warrant as theism. What it does mean is that it’s very easy to see why giving up one belief is a more complex affair than giving up another, and that it isn’t always easy to spell out the circumstances under which we would reject a belief the origin of which is exceedingly complex, and which occupies a central place in our noetic structure. Those who lose their belief in God tend to undergo a “paradigm shift,” a huge change in their noetic structure that often takes either a life-changing event (like a catastrophic illness), or a long time (as we see from deconversion stories) to take effect.

In my case, whilst there are circumstances in which I can imagine losing my belief in God, I suspect it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Antony Flew, Belief, God, Theism

Short Article (3): The Clear Teaching of Scripture – A Response to Michael L Brown

Christian author and radio host Michael L Brown recently remarked: “The ultimate reason I’m not a Calvinist is the overwhelming testimony of scripture, carefully exegeted, from Genesis to Revelation. I understand my Calvinist friends have come to the opposite conclusion based on their study of Scripture. The question is: Why?” Brown is making the sort of statement I’ve seen time and time again from theologians on any side of some controversial question: “X is the clear teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood.” Now, the problem with that sort of statement is that when you ask why people disagree with X, you are asking why they disagree with the plain teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood, and to that question there is typically one of two answers: said person is not intelligent enough to properly understand or interpret scripture, or else they are wickedly disobeying it. With this point made – either implicitly or explicitly – the pinching and eye poking soon follows.

The problem isn’t that anyone is too stupid or too wicked (OK, sure, some theologians are one or the other, or both), the problem is that much that is pronounced as the “clear teaching of scripture” is anything but clear. Take this particular issue: Calvinist versus Arminian interpretations of scripture (we’ll leave aside for now the eminently more sensible secret option three: molinism). For either side to claim that the Bible clearly teaches their position is to vastly overstate the case. There are verses which seem to support a “Calvinist” view of providence and others which clearly support an “Arminian” one. This presents a difficulty for claiming either view is the “clear teaching” of Scripture carefully exegeted. Proponents of each position are typically adept at taking those verses which are claimed by the other side in support, and showing how they are consistent with their own position after all. Seemingly there isn’t a verse supporting Calvinism or Arminianism that can’t be interpreted differently by those with the contrary persuasion.

What is assumed more often than not in these debates is the idea that theologians – or regular church Joes – go to scripture as objective interpreters and allow it to speak to them as it actually is. But that strikes me as flat out false. We all come laden with baggage. Brown overlooks that when people approach scripture they typically do so from within a certain theological tradition and with an interpretative framework in place. Moreover, a person’s control over such things is fairly limited. Someone born and raised in a Presbyterian church is far more likely to operate from within that church’s interpretative parameters, and thus adopt a Calvinistic hermeneutic, and typically without even realising it. He’s absorbed it with his mother’s milk, as it were. It isn’t that he is less careful or less intelligent or more sinful than Michael Brown, it’s simply that his interpretative presuppositions and theological tradition differs.

This principle holds in many areas of our intellectual life. None of us – not even those brilliant internet freethinkers – arrive at our beliefs from some neutral view from nowhere after rationally and systematically following some prescribed objective method. I suspect our believing this or that is a much more passive process than we appreciate. Often, for a whole host of reasons, we simply find ourselves with the beliefs we have. Of course we can (and should) critically reflect on our beliefs, and may even effect some noetic change or other – but, by and large, the judgments we make, particularly on matters of controversy, are coloured by a multitude of factors largely beyond our direct and significant control: culture, upbringing, psychological makeup and 101 other contingencies of life. And all this before we acknowledge the all too human tendency to read one’s views into the Bible, with the result that eisegesis regularly masquerades as “careful exegesis.”

So, why does a Calvinist see the “clear teaching of scripture” differently from Michael Brown? Because they aren’t Michael Brown, and because no-one reads the Bible without some interpretative lens in place.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Arminianism, Belief, Bible, Calvinism

Short Article (2): Abortion & Public Discourse

Is the general public now just incapable of having an intelligent discussion about an emotive subject like abortion? I rarely enter the abortion debate these days, and not because I’m a man who has no right to an opinion – I do – but because the level of public debate is now so juvenile that rarely can any good come from being involved in it. What is a critically important issue – a matter of life and death – deserves to be approached carefully, and perhaps with a certain level of gravitas. Instead the public debate is a noxious mix of cheap sloganeering, crass commentary, and venomous vitriol against anyone with a contrary opinion.

Abortion was one of the big issues discussed during the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections, largely due to a criminal case in which a woman received a suspended sentence for procuring abortion pills to administer her own abortion because she couldn’t afford to travel to mainland Britain where abortion – under certain circumstances – is freely and legally available on the NHS. However, rarely has public ignorance been so stark than when it came to discussing abortion. On a political debate programme one audience member claimed that a baby “shouldn’t be considered human” until it’s born. Another remarked that it’s irrelevant that a foetus has human DNA because, after all, “a banana has human DNA.” Sadly such mindless and uninformed comments were not isolated. They reflect the general level of the public debate recently.

Catchy slogans have replaced carefully nuanced argument. Prolife people are told to “get your rosaries off my ovaries,” as if everyone who opposes abortion is a practicing Roman Catholic. When two evangelicals appeared on TV as part of panel discussion the comments aimed at them were hideously ugly. There was next to no engagement with any of their points, as critics were over-focused on the fact that they held a religious faith. Consider also the well worn “my body my rights” slogan, used to silence those who disagree, when the fact of the matter is abortion is an ethical issue precisely because it isn’t just a woman’s body that is at stake. Perhaps the most ridiculous slogan touted was: “If abortion is murder then a blowjob is cannibalism,” because pro-life people argue for the full humanity of sperm cells, right? A classic case of trying to be smart and witty, but instead sounding silly and classlessly vulgar.

Nor can we let the so-called “prolife” movement off the hook here. Sadly many vulnerable young women are verbally abused by “prolife” activists simply for entering the premises of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. They are often called sluts or murderers. A friend of mine received abuse at the hands of these zealots, who mistakenly thought she too was entering the clinic when in fact she was going to the offices next door. Additionally, we have the rather disgusting spectacle of placards bearing the mangled bodies of foetuses, images which don’t belong in a public place, and from which I’ve had to shield a young child.

Even the terms “prolife” and “prochoice” create a false dichotomy and contribute to a general lack of nuance in the public arena. Bernadette Smyth, the leader of Precious Life – a rather extreme anti-abortion group who would outlaw abortion under any circumstances – makes much of the fact that Northern Ireland is “prolife,” claiming the majority agree with her. The truth is a tad more complicated. Whilst Northern Irish people are perhaps more reserved about abortion than the rest of the United Kingdom, to say they agree with the staunch “no abortion in any circumstances” position of Precious Life is wildly inaccurate. There’s an entire spectrum of views. A majority would agree with abortion when the mother’s life is at serious risk. A large portion of this group would also agree with abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and perhaps slightly fewer would allow abortion in cases of rape or incest. And of course people will disagree about the time limit for abortions – 12 weeks, 20 weeks, 24 weeks. Very few people are either utterly against abortion or in favour of it under any circumstances right up to 9 months of pregnancy (despite the fact that many of the standard “pro-choice” slogans logically support abortion on demand for any reason at any stage of pregnancy).

Everyone has a right to an opinion, but too few want to do the difficult spade-work of serious moral reflection. What features of human life make it valuable? When does a human being become conscious? What is personhood and when does a being possess it? Does abortion cause pain to a sentient being? At what stage does a being deserve to be protected from being killed? Is there a moral difference between a being inside the womb and one outside, and if so why? What are human rights, where do they come from, and when can a human be said to possess them?

These are just a few of the difficult questions we must face with abortion. Unless you are willing to seriously reflect on them your opinion will be little more than a clanging cymbal.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article (1): Healing & Disobedience

*****
Readers tell me they would like fewer long articles and more shorter pieces, so here’s my first.
*****

Alan Scott, the leader of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland has me blocked on Twitter (for having the audacity to question him), but one of his tweets was retweeted by John Dickinson – a Presbyterian minister in Carnmoney, Northern Ireland – who I follow. The tweet – aimed at a Christian audience – said “The call to heal the sick is inescapable. If you don’t have the gift of healing, try out the gift of obedience.” A little perplexed by this notion I asked is it really the case that failure to heal the sick amounts to disobedience on our part. Unsurprisingly I got nothing from Scott, but Dickinson responded with: “Matthew 10:8.”

I looked it up:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Frankly I was even more baffled than before. First of all, if this verse means we are disobedient to a command of Christ by failing to heal the sick then we are equally disobedient for failing to raise the dead. In any event, Dickinson appears to have taken little or no notice of the context of this verse: a narrative in which Jesus sends out his disciples on an evangelistic mission. There is no indication whatsoever that this is a divine injunction for all believers everywhere for all of time. I made the point to Dickinson – asking him, perhaps a little cheekily, when he had last raised the dead – but sadly he didn’t respond.

I confess I feel sorry for the people who choose to sit under the teaching of those who would place such a burden on their backs. You don’t heal the sick? Then suffer the guilt of being disobedient to Christ. When I read the tweet to my wife she asked, “what about people like me? I don’t know how to heal the sick. How am I supposed to obey a command to do something I can’t do?” Despite not being philosophical astute, my wife had hit upon the ethical principle of “ought implies can:” if it is the case that I ought to do something, then the thing in question must be something I am indeed capable of doing. My wife can of course pray for the sick, but as for actually healing them, that’s beyond her power. Is she therefore disobedient? On the theological ruminations of Scott – seconded, seemingly, by John Dickinson – the answer is “yes.” But isn’t that simply a reductio ad absurdum of their position?

I wonder how this wonderful “gift of obedience” works out for Scott (or Dickinson). In practical terms how does one obey Christ by healing the sick? Scott’s friend Mark Marx regularly performs the “leg growing” wonder which I’ve written about numerous times before. He simply commands legs to grow – he commands muscle and sinew and bone to grow in the name of Jesus. Is this what we should be doing to obey Christ, commanding body parts to normalise, diseases to leave, and tumours to shrink? Does Scott (or Dickinson, if he agrees with this theology) do this or is there some other method available? Do they regularly see the lame walk? The blind see? The dead rise? I doubt it, though if they wish to present evidence to the contrary I’ll gladly consider it.

As well as putting a burden of guilt on the backs of other believers, such theology achieves another purpose: the elevation of the leader in the eyes of the congregation. This kind of theology creates the illusion that the leader sees much more success in healing people – because, unlike regular believers like you and I, these guys really really obey Jesus. This mix of guilt and admiration is a bewitching brew used as a form of social control over the lives of often vulnerable and impressionable people. It keeps the flock in check, and helps create and maintain the sort of spiritual hierarchy in which a certain breed of modern – typically charismatic – church leader thrives. However, it’s fundamentally abusive and leaves people emotionally and spiritually shipwrecked. My wife and I have suffered our fair share of abuse at the hands of such theology and the men and women who preach it. It was most liberating to leave it behind and come to realise that despite all the hype the preachers of such theology don’t have much success themselves. They certainly do, however, possess the gift of beguilement.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Charismatic Movement, Faith-Healing