The Argument that Terrifies Pro-Lifers…Scared, Are You!?

I don’t normally fall for anything that sounds remotely like click-bait, but I was just too curious about this argument that pro-lifers are supposed to be terrified of. What was it? It came in the shape of a thought-experiment: if you found yourself in a burning lab and had time to save a baby in one room or 10 embryos in the other, which would you choose? The question is rhetorical: the pro-lifer – surely – will choose the baby. However, in doing so he or she is denying the full humanity of the embryos – the very thing on which their entire pro-life case rests! If the pro-lifer really believed embryos are fully human then they would save the embryos and let the baby die, an action which flies in the face of our moral intuition that tells us it is obviously right to save the baby.

So, there we have it: the “Terrifying Argument.”

I confess myself………..disappointed.

Firstly, it is patently false to suggest that the act of choosing the baby over the embryos amounts to a tacit denial of the humanity of the embryos. Allow me to use another thought experiment. Suppose the baby in one room is my own son and in the other room are other babies rather than embryos. Under these conditions – rightly or wrongly – I would choose to save my own son first. Now, whatever you make of this action –  whether it’s right or wrong, justifiable or unjustifiable, understandable or not – the point is that in saving my son first am I thereby somehow denying the full humanity of the other babies? Hardly! It’s simply my parental instinct that causes me to prioritise the life of my own son. You are free to think my actions are immoral, but you cannot rightly claim that they are driven by a denial of the humanity of the other babies.

I actually agree that our moral intuitions lead us to prioritise the baby, but this does not mean that the baby is more fully human than the embryo. It doesn’t even mean the baby is objectively more valuable than the embryos. All it means is that humans have certain moral intuitions (which, of course, can be completely wrong) in which babies are viewed as being of more value. After all, we can see babies, interact with them, hear them cry in pain, giggle when they fart, and smile at our funny faces. It isn’t difficult to see why we instinctively react to favour the life of the baby.

But of course, we must still face the deeper question: is it objectively wrong to save the baby over the embryos?

If you happen to be a certain breed of pro-life utilitarian then you might say that it is indeed morally wrong to save one life when you had it in your power to save ten. But why must a pro-life advocate – or anyone else for that matter – be a utilitarian of any stripe? The problems with utilitarianism are well-documented so there’s no need to expound them here. What we would need is some argument for the conclusion that it is morally wrong to save one life when it’s possible to save more than one. I’ll leave it to my readers if anyone wants to have a go at suggesting plausible candidates for such an argument or moral theory. However, I’ll note in passing that all the candidates I’ve ever been presented with cannot be maintained and are never applied consistently by their advocates. Take, for instance, charitable giving. We can give £10 to a charity that might save the sight of 2 people. But most of us who can give £10 could easily give, say, £15 and save the sight of 3 people. Are we morally wrong if we don’t live in borderline poverty and give all our money away to charity? Maybe we are, but no-one I know of lives consistently with that sort of principle.

Anyhow, there is nothing inconsistent with holding (1) that a baby is of much greater value than an embryo – such that we rightly save a baby over a bunch of embryos in a burning lab situation – and (2) that it would be wrong to intentionally kill a developing embryo in an abortion. So, not only is it the case that our moral intuitions lead us to prioritise the baby, but there are plausible reasons a pro-life advocate can offer in support of prioritising a baby over some embryos in the burning lab scenario. The baby has fundamental interests in staying alive; the death of a baby in a fire would be far more horrendous than what an embryo would experience; the baby has begun certain deep interpersonal relations of bonding with other human beings whilst the embryo has not. These are just a few of the grounds on which pro-life advocates could claim that a baby is more valuable than an embryo in a petri-dish without thereby denying that an embryo is fully human and worthy of protection from dismemberment or chemical destruction in utero.

In any event, the issue of abortion is not like the issue of choosing whether to save a baby or ten embryos. In the case of the fire in the lab we are trying to save at least one human life – and thus our actions are to some degree at least morally good. But, except in cases where a mother’s life is a stake, abortion is simply a matter of killing a human life, not of choosing to save one life over another.

It seems to me, therefore, that the Terrifying Argument is a failure on numerous fronts:

(1)    It fails to demonstrate that the embryo is not a human being worthy of protection.

(2)    It fails to demonstrate the pro-life advocate must deny his foundational belief that the embryo is a human being worthy of protection.

(3)    It fails as an analogy to abortion.

Even if we grant the Terrifying Argument in its entirety it doesn’t demonstrate that the pro-choice position is correct.

Stephen J. Graham

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Christian Anthropology: Are We ‘Worthless Worms?’

 

“What is man that thou art mindful of him.”

 

I recently took someone to task for referring to themselves (and, by implication, all humanity) as a “worthless worm who deserves hell.” This is a very common sentiment amongst evangelicals, inspired perhaps by the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. However, it’s one that has no substantial biblical warrant and which faces insurmountable contrary biblical testimony. I’m not referring to the “deserves Hell” part, but rather the attitude of conceiving any human being as a “worthless worm.”

What possible biblical warrant could such a label claim? There are a few verses to which defenders of this view appeal:

(1) Job 25:4-6: “How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of a woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot – a human being who is only a worm.”

(2) Psalm 73:22: “I was senseless and ignorant, a brute beast before you.”

(3) Psalm 22:6: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.”

(4) Isaiah 40:17: “Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.”

Regarding (1), the general rule when it comes to the book of Job is “proof-text at your peril!” The words quoted are those of Bildad, one of Job’s “comforters,” whose theology takes one hell of a battering in the book. There is no indication that what Bildad says to Job is what the book is intending to teach. On the contrary, the words of Bildad are hardly a reliable guide, particularly given Job’s bitingly sarcastic response in the following verses. With respect to (2), there is nothing here concerning the Psalmist’s worthlessness. The contrast is between the Psalmist’s knowledge and understanding and that of God. The Psalmist – compared to God – is as stupid as a beast. (3) is clearly a case of hyperbole. The Psalmist is, in fact, a man – not a worm! The point is how lowly the Psalmist is in the eyes of other people. A similar term appears in Isaiah 41:14 in which the term refers to Israel’s weak and despised condition as a people in exile. What then of (4)? Again, there is no indication that human beings are themselves worthless. The power of nations is being contrasted with the power, glory, and splendour of God through a serious of poetic phrases, metaphors, and hyperbole.

None of these verses gives us any reason to think that the correct biblical view is that human beings are worthless. Moreover, there is substantial biblical testimony that human beings are, in fact, of immense value and dignity.

Firstly, human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the very image of God. Whilst there’s some debate as to precisely what that is, it seems to me to refer to the fact that human beings are rational, moral persons. Now, some will hold that the image of God was marred. I don’t wish to discuss that here, but I note simply that this does not mean the image of God has been utterly effaced. In fact, even the doctrine of total depravity doesn’t mean fallen humans are utterly depraved and lacking in any goodness or value. It means that there isn’t a single aspect of our lives that is untouched by sin, and thus that we cannot save ourselves. Secondly, it’s clear that God loves human beings. To love someone is to treat them as possessing immense value. Something that is worthless cannot be loved; to be worthless is to be unlovable. Thirdly, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The atonement itself shows us exactly the value that God ascribes to humanity. That the second person of the trinity took on human flesh, died, and rose again to save a fallen humanity suggests we are much more than “worthless worms.” Fourthly, we are capable of relating to God in prayer. The creator of the universe listens to us, engages with us, and draws us to Himself to share in His life. Fifthly, Christian faith holds that we are called to partner with God in world mission – the bring God’s love to other people whether or not they are Christians. That speaks very strongly against the doctrine of human worthlessness. On the contrary, God is actively pursuing people and commands us to share his love with them, such is the value of people in His eyes. Sixthly, human beings are endowed with eternal life and have the opportunity to share in the glory of God forever. All of this weighs heavily against the notion that humans are “worthless worms.”

I suggest we drop this kind of language. Word matter. They affect how we think, and how we think affects our attitude towards ourselves (and thus our self-esteem) and towards others. Sadly, Christian history is littered with examples of Christians treating other people as “worthless worms.” It’s not biblical language, and it’s not remotely psychologically healthy.

You are not a worthless worm. You are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.

 

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. 

 

Stephen J. Graham

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Should Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?

This debate has recently been taking place in Britain, and in fact Scotland has already made voting a right to be enjoyed from the age of 16 in elections to the Scottish parliament. Wales looks set to follow the example of the Scots, and there are calls for the main UK Westminster parliament to get with the program.

As is typically the case with public debates, the arguments for and against are rarely very good. In fact, they’re frustratingly poor. For instance, on the “anti” side we are told that voting should remain at 18 because 16 year olds lack the necessary life experience (whatever precisely that is). I’m not terribly sure that an 18 year old has vastly more “life experience” than a 16 year old. Moreover, my own 11 year old son has more experience (and educational achievement) than many of the people who are currently eligible to vote.

Not that the “pro” side has been doing much better. According to one popular argument, 16 year olds should be able to vote because they are affected by political decisions. In response I’ll simply trot out my 11 year old again: should he and his friends be entitled to vote because they too are affected by political decisions? And why then stop at 11 year olds? Or, again, apparently 16 year olds should get to vote because they can marry, pay taxes and even join the army! The vast majority of 16 year olds do none of these things, but even if they all did there’s no connection between being able to do these things and getting the right to vote. There are certain things 16 year olds are forbidden to do too. Moreover, perhaps this argument gives reasons for raising the age limit on these things rather than lowering the voting age.

To pop back over to the folks on the “anti” side we see claims that 16 year olds are not mature enough to hold such civic responsibility. The fact of the matter is that some are, and some aren’t – just like those who are 18 and older.

The problem isn’t really with the “pro” and “anti” sides. The problem is that we are using age as a criterion for voting rights, and no matter what age we choose there will be an element of arbitrariness to it. Why choose 16? Why not 17? or 18? or 19? or 20? or 21? There are people in all of those age groups who would be “good” voters and those who are ignorant, stupid, lazy, immature, and so on. Some 16 year olds contribute to society via taxation whilst many over 18 do not (and never have). Some 16 year olds are much smarter than many over 18, and yet some are mind-numbingly stupid. Some 16 year olds have the mental and emotional development of a pre-teen, whilst others have a wise head on young shoulders.

So, what are we to do? If we lower the voting age we’ll have lots of mature and intelligent contributors fully included in civic life, but enfranchise many others who are indeed immature, selfish, undeveloped, short-sighted, and stupid. We could rethink the right to vote entirely and base it on some ground other than age. Perhaps upon reaching some level of educational achievement we might be granted the right to vote. Alternatively, we might link voting rights to one’s contribution to society – in the form of taxation, or perhaps meaningful and sustained charitable work. Both suggestions have problems of their own – neither seems to utterly remove the element of arbitrariness that afflicts the age criterion – and I doubt either will win much support any time soon. I think, therefore, that we are stuck with the age criterion for the long haul. So, which age do we pick? Is there a less arbitrary one?

I would tentatively suggest that the voting age should stay at 18. There are many factors that go into making up a “good voter.” Ideally the person should contribute in some positive way to society. They should be of a certain level of education. They should be a responsible person, well aware of the importance of political life. They should have reached a certain level of emotional and psychological maturity. Now, no matter what age we pick we will inevitably exclude some who meet such criteria and include some who do not. The question is, can we draw a line somewhere that seems to produce the best overall balance. I think that line is 18. At 18 our main education is behind us, we have finished growing up, and are deemed to be responsible adults. From this point on we increasingly have a stake in politics – we get jobs, buy houses and cars, raise children. Of course this will exclude some excellently politically astute 16 and 17 year olds, but we are simply asking them to wait a year or two, and of course they are still free to be politically engaged in many other (often more effective) ways besides casting a ballot every few years. Voting rights will be bestowed upon the reaching of adulthood, just as certain other rights are.

I think 18 years perhaps gets the balance right, so unless there are overriding reasons for reducing the voting age to 16 – and I’ve seen little to suggest that there are – then leaving things as they are is perhaps the most prudent and least arbitrary course.

Stephen J. Graham

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Why Skeptical Theists are Skeptical

Most modern arguments from evil are of the broadly “evidential” kind. Take the argument of William Rowe as a classic paradigm of such an argument type:

(1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(2) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(3) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Theists have several retorts open to them. Some propose theodicies to account for the kinds of evil Rowe discusses. Others argue that the evidence in favour of the existence of God outweighs the argument from evil. Whatever strategy they employ, Rowe reckons – quite rightly – that most theists will grant premise 2, directing their fire against premise 1.

In so doing, theists – myself included – will adhere to some version of what is commonly referred to as “skeptical theism:” the view that we simply cannot know that a premise like (1) is true or more probable than not.

Different theistic philosophers will focus of different reasons why we should be skeptical. In his version of skeptical theism, Wykstra emphasises how our intellectual capacities are greatly inferior to God’s, much greater than the gap that exists between a small child and his parents. In the latter case a small child is often unable to understand parental anger, discipline and punishment, or why they might make the child do things they find distasteful or arduous. By contrast, Ahern argues that our knowledge of good and evil and the interconnections between events is severely limited. Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, argues that our grasp of the divine nature is tenuous at best, such that judgments about what an omnipotent or wholly good being would or would not do are virtually worthless. Whilst agreeing with all this, (as do I, particularly with Ahern), Alston focuses on the extreme difficulties faced by the atheist in their attempt to provide adequate support for what Alston describes as “a certain very ambitious negative existential claim,” namely, in Rowe’s case, there is no morally sufficient reason for God to permit certain evils we see.

Here are just a few of the factors discussed by Alston which demonstrate that we aren’t in a position to deny that God has some morally significant reason or other for the suffering we find in the world:

1. Lack of data – including the secrets of the human heart, the constitution and structure of the universe, and the remote past and future, including an afterlife, if any. For example, Christian theism allows for the notion of suffering for character formation, discipline, or even punishment for sin. Since we do not know the secrets of the human heart it seems that any attempt to rule out such explanations for evil is impossible. How can we tell in the case of some person – Bob – that the suffering he is facing might well be caused for such a reason? Bob might seem like a decent bloke, but no-one can really tell what’s going on in his mind, or what types of experiences might work (or will be most likely to work, given Bob’s freedom) to bring him to a better way of life.

2. Complexity greater than we can handle. Here we face the difficulty of holding enormous complexes of fact – different possible worlds or different systems of natural laws – together in the mind sufficiently for comparative evaluation. Take our world – W – and compare it to some other world – W* – which differs from W in some way. How could we even begin to compare these two worlds in such a way as to justifiably conclude that W* would be a better world than W and that therefore God should have made it instead of the world we find ourselves with? We have little idea how particular evils affect later events in the world and even less of a notion as to what God might be up to in the world such that certain evils are permitted. Given our limited spatio-temporal position there is little reason to think we could come close to an accurate comparison.

3. Difficulty in determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary. Bruce Reichenbach appeals to the benefits of law-like natural order, and considers suffering as an inevitable by-product of any such order. Critics often ask: could God not have created a very different natural order, perhaps one that would not involve human and animal suffering either at all or to a much lesser extent? There are various responses to this, but here I wish to point out a significant problem: it is not at all clear what possibilities are actually open to God. We are concerned here with metaphysical possibilities rather than merely conceptual or logical possibilities. The critic points out that we can consistently and intelligibly conceive or imagine a world in which there are no diseases or natural disasters, while all or the vast majority of the goods we currently enjoy remain present. His mistake is in taking his ability to imagine such a world as demonstrating that it is possible for God to create such a world. However, conceivability is not sufficient for metaphysical possibility – what is possible given the metaphysical structure of reality. It is far more difficult to determine what is metaphysically possible or necessary than to determine what is conceptually possible or necessary. The latter requires nothing more than reflection on our concepts. When it comes to what is metaphysically possible, frankly we haven’t the foggiest idea as to what essential natures are within God’s creative repertoire, much less as to which combinations of these into total lawful systems are actualisable. Since we don’t even have the beginnings of a canvass of the possibilities here, we are in no position to make a sufficiently informed judgment as to what God could or not could not create by way of a natural order that contains the goods of this one without its disadvantages. Furthermore, we have no way to know what consequences would ensue by changing some aspect of the natural order. It is notoriously difficult to find any sufficient basis for claims as to what is metaphysically possible, given the essential natural of things, the exact character of which is often unknown to us and virtually always controversial. This difficulty is many times multiplied when we are dealing with total possible worlds or total systems of natural order.

4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities. This is always crippling when we are seeking to establish a negative conclusion. If we don’t know whether or not there are possibilities beyond the ones we have thought of, we are in a very bad position to show that there can be no divine reason for permitting evil.

5. Ignorance of the full range of values. When it’s a question of whether some good is related to E in such a way as to justify God in permitting E, we are, for the reason mentioned above, in a very poor position to answer the question if we don’t know the extent to which there are modes of value beyond those of which we are aware. For in that case, so far as we can know, E may be justified by its relation to one of those unknown goods. Moreover, just how valuable or worthwhile is something like free will or the ability/chance to show compassion? To what extent do such values justify evil or how much evil do they justify? It seems impossible for us to give an answer to such questions.

Alston therefore chastises such atheists insofar as they claim “that there isn’t something in a certain territory, while having a very sketchy idea of what is in that territory, and having no sufficient basis for an estimate of how much of the territory falls outside his knowledge.” I find myself in full agree with Alston, and thus it seems to me that the likelihood of a semi-decent atheistic argument from evil is, at best, bleak.

Stephen J. Graham

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Forthcoming Articles

I have a number of articles currently on my “to write” list. Forthcoming articles include:

  1. What are skeptical theists skeptical about? In this article I want to summarize the sorts of things us skeptical theists are skeptical about and why I think that the prospects of anyone developing a persuasive intellectual argument from evil against the existence of God are not bright.
  2. One of the assumptions behind certain classical arguments from evil is that if God can create perfect beings who always choose the right thing then he should. I want to challenge this assumption.
  3. Abortion & Bodily Rights. Here I want to argue why I think pro-choice arguments based on the “right to bodily autonomy” are not terribly good.
  4. The Argument Pro-Lifers are Terrified Of! I will discuss one argument which apparently should terrify me. It doesn’t, and I will say why.
  5. Why I’m not a Compatibilist – Part (1) Philosophy. In this article I want to discuss the differences between libertarian approaches to freedom and compatibilist ones, and why I think compatibilism is ultimately incoherent.
  6. Why I’m not a Compatibilist – Part (2) Theology. Here I want to add theological reasons for my rejection of compatibilism – particularly in light of the problem of evil and the sufferings of the damned in Hell.
  7. Why all the cool kids are molinists. I think a statement of my view on molinism is long overdue. In this article I want to state what molinism actually is and defend it from certain criticisms.

 

That should keep me busy for a while, particularly since some of these articles might break up into several pieces!

I am also starting to answer questions on my blog (see my previous article), so if anyone has any question to raise feel free to ask and if I’m interested enough in the topic I might well reply.

Stephen J. Graham

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Question: Why does Christian Apologetics Fail to Convert?

I’m asked questions from time to time and thought it might be fun to answer a few of them here on my blog, so here goes:

Questioner: Apparently only 5% of Christians became Christians at any age after school. So apparently very few mature, developed adults – among all the other rational decisions they make – choose Christianity. Is this a failure of rational arguments for the Christian God? Or some other deficit of the Christian message? Why is that message failing to land with rational adults? Why is Christian apologetics failing to create adult converts?

 

Trying to adress the relative strengths and weaknesses of various apologetic arguments isn’t possible in this short article. However, I sense something else beneath these questions: perhaps a challenge such as “if Christian apologetic arguments are so good, why do they fail to convince anyone?” Surely if the arguments are any good they would convince people.

By way of response, I would first like to challenge the assumption lurking behind these questions: namely, that rational adults have examined and found wanting the case for Christianity. Not only is this false with respect to Christianity, it’s false with respect to many other areas in which adults have a range of firm opinions: politics and ethics, for example. In my experience it’s exceedingly rare to find an adult who has arrived at their viewpoint on any of these matters as a result of anything even remotely resembling a process of patient and sustained rational reflection. Did the UK population arrive at its decision to leave the EU as a result of a careful study of the – often quite intricate – political, economic and social arguments for and against membership of the EU? Did the US population elect Donald Trump after reasoned political and social reflection? I suspect not. Popular opinion can be a fickle thing.

Now, I don’t wish to slam “average Joe” for this failure to engage in serious intellectual spadework. The simple fact of the matter is that adults tend to be caught up in the business of life. We work, have hobbies, watch TV, play sports, watch our kids play sport, do housework, go shopping, plan holidays, meet friends in the pub, and volunteer for charities. We’re busy. Very few people have the time to engage in the serious intellectual effort that philosophical arguments require. Many might also lack the talent required for doing so. Moreover, after working all day and entertaining the kids all evening, philosophical spadework is the last thing on most people’s minds; and besides, Game of Thrones in on.

As a result, most people simply absorb their worldview and basic assumptions from their socio-cultural milieu. It’s not that people in Saudi Arabia conclude, after rigourous rational reflection, that Islam is true, whilst people in the secular West do the same and just happen to conclude differently. We might easily imagine a Muslim in Saudi Arabia running an identical challenge to atheism as the one we see in the question above with respect to Christianity. Further, these worldviews and basic assumptions that we imbibe from an early age from our surroundings come to form the framework against which we measure and evaluate various claims. If a socio-cultural milieu is heavily secular, it will be incredibly difficult for religious ideas to gain a fair hearing or be taken seriously, no matter how good the arguments may be. The question, I think, fails to appreciate the massive influence that our socio-cultural context has in the formation of our beliefs.

Further, it is well known amongst educators that young people are far more malleble in their view of the world. Their opinions are still forming. They tend to be more open to change and new ideas. By contrast, adults tend to harden, and rarely change their minds with respect to their fundamental belief system. Don’t challenge us with ideological change that threatens to turn our world upside down! We’re too settled and don’t value the upheaval that such changes inevitably bring. This provides fairly good motivation to avoid or resist those things that threaten our equilibrium. The philosopher William James argued for the importance of the will in the formation of our beliefs. I think he’s fundamentally correct to point out that if our will doesn’t want to believe something, our mind will find a way to resist it.

But what about those rational adults whose job it is to reflect on these issues: professional philosophers, and philosophers of religion in particular? Sure enough, they too are affected by their will and their socio-cultural context, but aren’t they at least less affected than Average Joe? Maybe, maybe not; who knows? Let’s grant they are indeed more “objective.” What we find when we look at professional philosophers is a group of people more likely to be theistic than faculty in many other disciplines. In fact, in the philosophy of religion, theistic – and explicitly Christian – philosophy has undergone a renaissance in the past generation, with many of the leading influential figures being Christian theists. Consider one such philosopher – Peter Van Inwagen – who was an adult convert to Christianity, and who is one of the most respected philosophical academics, and arguably the best metaphysician writing today. Or perhaps we might think of Antony Flew – the poster boy of intellectual atheism for half a century – who converted to a form of deism late in his life due to a number of philosophical arguments which were outlined in his final book. In passing we might also note CS Lewis, who was converted due to certain arguments and went on to have an enormous influence.

In any event, though, we’re being naive if we persist with the concept of professional philosophers objectively pursuing the evidence wherever it leads. There are reputations to be upheld, careers to protect, and egos to be stoked. Alas very few academics drastically change their opinion about anything major once they’ve committed themselves in print.

Lastly, we need to have a proper idea of what apologetics can reasonably achieve. Very few apologists would be naive enough to think a person will fall on his or her knees and get gloriously saved upon hearing an apologetic case for Christian theism. It does seem to be the case for some, of course. William Lane Craig regularly receives testimonies from people who have embraced or returned to Christianity upon hearing a debate or reading an article. However, Craig himself doesn’t believe that apologetic arguments save anyone. Conversion occurs only in response to the work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life, and sometimes (albeit rarely) that work is achieved through theistic arguments. An argument might simply be the initial eye-opener, or the thing that gives a person intellectual permission to follow their heart when they find themselves moved by the Holy Spirit. As a result, Craig (amongst others) expects apologetic arguments to be rejected by most people most of the time. One of the reasons why he persists in apologetics is because he claims that the success rate amongst certain influential people or “culture formers” is higher than average: doctors, engineers, lawyers, and so on. So, whilst apologetic arguments are rejected by most, they are more successful with those who are more culturally influential. These persons in turn help to change the cultural mileau to one in which Christianity is more likely to be viewed as a live option for intelligent people.

Moreover, apologetics can play an important role in the life of the believer. It assists them during periods of doubt. It provides confidence that their beliefs hold up intellectually. It also challenges defeaters of theistic beliefs – such as the problem of evil, divine hiddennes, or the coherence of theism. So, even if Christian apologetics has limited ability in convincing people, it might still have a crucial role to play in the maintaining of Christian belief in the lives of many others.

The central point here though is that just because an argument fails to convince most people doesn’t mean the argument itself is a bad one or a “failure,” (of course they might well be bad arguments, but I’m not addressing that point here. The issue here is whether an argument is poor because it fails to convince most people). Arguments for any philosophically significant conclusion are failures if judged against the number of people who accept them upon hearing them expounded.

It seems clear enough to me that there is no good reason to think apologetic arguments are failures simply because they fail to convince the vast majority of rational adults.

Stephen J. Graham

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Reflections on Suffering & the Time I Could’ve Died

And now for something completely different. Well, a little bit different. I thought I’d write this piece as a personal reflection on the value of suffering, rather than a philosophical piece. It was inspired by a question I was asked recently: rather than allow someone to go through suffering and then deliver them from it, wouldn’t it be better if God had kept them from the suffering in the first place? It made me think of the worst moment of my life.

About 20 years ago I was part of an adventure group on a “coastal walk” at the North coast of Northern Ireland. Don’t be deceived by that description. This was no leisurely stroll along the beach. This involved rock climbing, jumping off small cliffs into the sea, bouldering, and swimming. At one particular point in our journey we had to swim from one side of a bay to another. In the middle there was a small rocky island which we had to swim to first to get a short rest before continuing on.

Some rough weather had been stirring and as we were making our first swim we soon became aware that the conditions were much worse than we had thought. We had to get to safety pretty quickly, so we all made for the little rocky island. The sea had become so rough that the edges of the island were being pounded, so we had to wait until the last wave crashed and then swim in and climb up the rocks before the next wave hit. I timed my swim OK but as I attempted to climb up my foot caught on some seaweed and I slid. I was left half-lying and half-clinging to the rocks hoping that I might be able to bear the hit of the wave. I’ve never felt a force like it. Trying to hang onto the rocks was utterly futile (in fact the skin of my hands got badly torn in a few places). I was washed straight across the rocks and into a huge swell of water. Had I not been wearing a helmet my head would, in all probability, have been crushed. I was swept into a huge swell of water, unable to breathe, and too stunned to help myself. One of the others in my group was a trained lifeguard and I was fortunate enough that he was able to get me out and (with a huge effort on the part of the group) onto the island. I was in shock for some time afterwards and couldn’t believe how fortunate I was. I still remember the lifeguard’s words to me: “When things like that happen you realise just how fragile we are and that your life is really quite a precious thing.”

How easy it would have been for some small detail to have been different that would have left my family in mourning. If my helmet had been too loose. If the winds had been just a little bit different and sent me straight onto rock instead of into the sea. If we hadn’t had an experienced lifeguard with us. So many things could’ve been different, and had they been different my life may well have ended that day. Imagine two worlds: the current world and another possible world in which events conspired to kill me off that day. If we compare those worlds as they each look at 9am on 14th September 2017 there will be certain big differences. Consider all the people I have interacted with – for good or ill – in the last 20 years. Many of their lives would be quite different, some hugely so. My son wouldn’t exist. My wife would’ve married someone else and different children might exist who are missing from our actual world. Over time these children might have children, and so on. It’s mind-boggling how even one small event which could have so easily turned out differently can send a wave through time and have such massive consequences, and that’s before we think of the billions of events in billions of lives every single day. This fact is the main reason why I think arguments from suffering fail: they under-appreciate this feature of reality that even small events can have huge and unforeseen consequences that can radically change the future in ways we can barely comprehend.

But what about me? Why would God allow me to go through such an experience rather than prevent it in the first place? Admittedly, my experience on this day was (and remains) the worst experience of my life. At the time, I would’ve preferred that it didn’t happen at all. But on reflection it did change me a lot and taught me a few things I wouldn’t have learnt or appreciated except for having gone through the experience. And thus it seems to me that it might indeed make sense for God to sometimes save us from the midst suffering rather than spare us from it in the first place. In other words, whilst God might have good reason for causing or permitting suffering in the first place, He could also have good reason for saving a person from the midst of it.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 14: Prayer, Providence, and Natural Disasters

As hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Caribbean, Cuba, and the US, many religious people took to prayer. The typical internet atheist retort went something like: “Really? You’re praying to the God who didn’t see fit to stop the hurricane in the first place?” Or, “If hurricanes are part of God’s providential ordering of things, why bother to pray for those caught up in one?” The point appears to be that it’s stupid or pointless to pray for God to help people, since if God really wanted to He could easily have swept the hurricane from existence altogether.

To my mind there is little substance to this complaint. The atheist here appears to be operating under some assumption such as:

 

(A) If a being – S – causes some event – C – then S cannot rightly or rationally or justifiably be appealed to for help by those affected by C.

 

The problem with this assumption is that it is flat-out false and we can easily think of a whole host of cases where it fails to apply. For instance, suppose my son goes to school one day to join his class. When seated the teacher presents them with an incredibly difficult sheet of mathematics problems, invites them to work through it, and then sits at her desk reading some Bertrand Russell. In this scenario, would it be silly or pointless for one of the pupils to approach the teacher for assistance, despite the fact that the teacher is wholly responsible for the pupils’ predicament? Not only would it not be unjustifiable or silly, but it would make winsome sense to do so, and in fact might be part of the reason for the exercise in the first place. Perhaps the teacher is seeking to illustrate a more general lesson to the class beyond pure mathematics. Perhaps she is testing their ability to cope in the face of a seemingly intractable problem. Or perhaps she wants to teach them the importance of seeking assistance from those who can offer it. It matters not what the purpose is – and I’m not trying to say God sends hurricanes to teach us things – I’m simply illustrating that just because S causes C doesn’t mean those affected by C cannot rightly appeal to S for assistance – in other words, that the hidden assumption in the atheist’s complaint does not hold.

In the face of natural disasters, Christians (and presumably those of many other faiths) will resort to the spiritual discipline of prayer, despite knowing that such an event has occurred only within the providence of God who either directly caused it or permitted it to occur. However, I can’t see any reason to suppose that praying is therefore pointless, (though someone could think it is pointless on totally different grounds). The critic seems to understand God’s providence in fatalistic terms: God has ordained everything to happen as it does, therefore there is nothing we can do about it by prayer or any other means. This is a common understanding of providence at the popular level, but it’s wholly lacking in nuance, (not to mention involving an overly narrow view of prayer).

It isn’t my intention to explicate a doctrine of divine providence here, but rather to point out that since the assumption behind this complaint is false, the atheist owes us an argument as to why it’s unjustifiable or absurd to say that although God causes or permits some event He can still be appealed to by those affected by it. To put it another way: what reason is there for thinking that if God has some purpose in allowing C to occur then He cannot also have a purpose in assisting someone in C in response to prayer?

Stephen J. Graham

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Ten Prophetic Techniques to Amaze Your Friends

When it comes to so-called “prophetic people,” I’ve seen and heard pretty much everything. I used to believe in it myself and I know loads of incredibly intelligent people who still do. The problem is prophets are incredibly convincing people. They are in the same category as psychics, magicians, and mentalists. Not that I want to label all such people as frauds, of course. Magicians are playing make-believe with us: we all know that it’s an illusion but we are delighted at how the magician leaves us wondering “how the hell did they do that?!” Others – perhaps some psychics – are simply deluded, thinking they have some otherworldly power when in fact they’ve just picked up a few techniques. Many are, of course, frauds. I’ve witnessed “prophets” who (I think) genuinely believed in their ministry, and others who seemed quite clearly to be scam artists.

When I’m engaged in a debate about modern prophecy, I’m typically presented with some scenario in which the person witnessed a prophet give an uncannily accurate prophetic word, and then I’m challenged with “so, how do you explain that?!” The correct answer is always: “I don’t know because I never witnessed the phenomenon and I don’t know anything about the so-called prophet in question.” In fact, as a theist, I have no a priori commitment to the notion that God cannot give supernatural knowledge to a person. However, before we jump to the idea that some prophet has a hot line to heaven, we do well to remind ourselves of the many techniques and tricks that deluded and false prophets are known to use.

(1)    Hot Reading

Hot reading takes many different forms but fundamentally it involves the prophet finding out information beforehand or using information he or she already knows about someone and passing it off as prophetically bestowed. Sometimes the prophet will have a number of people travelling with them and during proceedings they will call them out in front of the gathering and “reveal” all manner of things about the person. To the congregation it looks like an amazing case of divinely bestowed knowledge. Others have used assistants who mingle with a congregation beforehand to glean information that can be used during the service. Sometimes it’s more blatant: people are asked to fill out a “prayer card” before the service which provides the prophet with a wealth of information that he or she can use to amaze. In these days of the internet people put a crazy amount of personal information online, such that if a prophet is going to some church it won’t be difficult to find out who the regular attenders are and what’s currently going on in their lives.

(2)    Warm Reading

A prophet who lacks information about a person beforehand can still engage in warm reading. Warm reading is when the prophet tailors their pronouncements to a person on the basis of the demographic to which that person belongs. One well-known charismatic author speaks of a prophecy in which he was told that he had issues with his father, and that he had unrealised athletic ability. Of course, these kinds of things would be pretty common amongst middle-aged men, and provide a good illustration of warm reading. Warm reading can also involve what psychologists refer to as “Barnum statements” – phrases that sound incredibly specific but could apply to loads of people. We might like to think we are unique, but in reality we are very much like others, and prophets can exploit that fact to deceive.

(3)    Cold Reading

Cold reading is a much subtler technique and involves a person being responsive to the prophet’s words by feeding information back to the prophet, often without even knowing. A prophet who has mastered this technique can make it look like the information was in fact supernaturally revealed. The information given to the prophet is often unnoticed by most other members of the congregation – a simple nod or shake of the head, for example.

(4)    Scattergunning

Churches tend to be medium-large gatherings of people. The chances of there being someone called John, or someone with arthritis, or someone who has recently experienced a bereavement, is high enough that a prophet can address a prophecy to the entire congregation and manage to get a hit. It looks impressive, especially to the average person who has little grasp of probability.

(5)    Vagueness

The more vague a prophecy the less chance of its being proven false. “God’s going to bless you this year with a wonderful gift,” could be interpreted to mean many different things. Being precise ties a prophet down. It’s really quite rare to hear a prophet give a future prophecy that is so specific it could be conclusively proven or falsified.

(6)    Infallible Questions

 This technique involves asking questions of people in such a way that no matter how they respond it can be presented as supernatural knowledge on the part of the prophet. Suppose he or she says “I don’t suppose you’re interested in mission trips?” No matter what the reply is the prophet can pass it off as supernatural knowledge: “no, because I felt God saying you had a heart for your local community,” or “yes, the Spirit was testifying to me that you have a heart to win the lost in distant places.”

(7)    Ambiguous Pictures

Here the prophet presents a person – or group of people – with a picture, maybe even an incredibly surreal one. Such pictures invite the listener to run all manner of searches through their past experiences to see if they can find a match for the picture that the prophet has presented. I once heard a prophet claim to have been given the picture of a racing car going gradually faster round and round a track. The picture was then interpreted to mean the church and it’s four elders. Just as the car needs its 4 tires, so this church would need its 4 elders working together to help it drive forward on its mission. But, really, with a bit of imagination we could interpret it to mean 101 other things if we wanted it to.

(8)    Punt to the Future

Often a prophet gets it wrong. Sometimes he addresses the wrong person with information meant for someone else. Sometimes he misreads someone entirely, perhaps taking them for being wealthy when they are in fact poor, and gives a prophetic word to them that seems a million miles away from where they are. No problem here: just say something like, “This sounds crazy to you now, but God will bring this about in your life. Nothing is impossible with God. Just keep trusting him.” It’s fool-proof.

(9)    Stories of Past Glories

Here the prophet spends a considerable amount of time telling stories of amazing feats that God worked in their ministry somewhere else in the world. If he or she tells enough of these stories then people will talk about the events as if they actually witnessed them first-hand. It all helps to build the reputation of the prophet, and of course encourages people to dig deep in their pockets to support such a God-anointed global ministry.

(10) Thees and Thous

At a certain Pentecostal church I used to attend there was a point in the services when a prophet would stand up and deliver a message directly from God – in the first person: “And I, your God, sayest unto thee…” Speaking directly from God is a risky business, but it can lend a certain gravitas and authority to your words, such that even if you say something way off people are less likely to question it because “God said.”

So, next time you hear a charismatic prophet in full swing, keep in mind that it might well be little more than smoke and mirrors.

 Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 13: Can God Change His Mind?

In Christendom God has typically been regarded as “immutable.” Sometimes this is defined as “unchangeable,” other times as “unchanging.” The former conception is a much stronger one than the latter, for the former means that God cannot change in some respect, not just that he simply doesn’t change. Of course, those who adhere to the stronger conception of immutability are careful to nuance the definition. They don’t think God is frozen into immobility and unable to act in the world. Instead, they typically mean that God doesn’t change in a number of crucial ways. For example, God’s existence doesn’t change: he has always and will always exist (“From everlasting to everlasting thou art God,” as the Biblical writer puts it). Further, God is considered to be unchangeable with respect to His character. His moral character of loving-kindness, grace, faithfulness and mercy never changes, and thus He can be relied upon by all who trust Him.

In a recent Twitter poll I asked “Can God Change His Mind?” 53% of respondents said “No, and I think they are right.

Many Christians might be tempted to think God does indeed change His mind, since salvation history includes a number of episodes in which it seems that God does precisely that. In fact, He is even said to “repent” of some action and change his course. If we are to take these passages at face value then it seems that we must affirm that God changes His mind.

However, I think we have good grounds for resisting that conclusion. One of the best-attested attributes of God through the Bible is His omniscience, and it is this attribute that should give pause for thought with respect to how we think of God’s immutability. God’s omniscience means that He is all-knowing. He has complete knowledge of the past, present, and future. There isn’t a true proposition He fails to believe, and He believes no false proposition. Now, think of what happens when we change our mind about something. We change our mind whenever we come to be in some new epistemic situation. Perhaps we come to learn some new fact. Or perhaps upon reflecting on the things we do know we come to see certain connections between them that we didn’t see before. Further, our depth of moral insight might develop in such a way that we come see some action as wrong or not as good as some other action. This is fairly typical for beings such as we are, limited in intelligence, depth of insight, and moral development. However, it seems to me that an omniscient being wouldn’t have any cause to change His mind. He already knows all the facts. He already knows how things will pan out in the future. There’s nothing lacking in His cognitive situation that could bring about a change of mind. If a being knows that X is going to happen, then the being will have taken X into account already.

Passages describing God as changing His mind are anthropomorphic: human ways of describing relations to God and attempts to make sense of what He is doing. These passages are not theological treatises and we shouldn’t expect rigorous philosophical precision from them. They are stories of people as they wrestle with and attempt to understand their experiences of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As such the stories simply give a human perspective on what God is doing. Take, for example, the classic case of Hezekiah, in which it seems on the face of it that God changed His mind in response to prayer to allow Hezekiah to live for a while longer. It only seems this way from our point of view. God always knew Hezekiah would pray for his life to be extended, and already knew what He was going to do. From God’s point of view there isn’t any change at all, though from Hezekiah’s standpoint it seems that God relents and give him 15 more years.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with my saying that such passages do not mean to describe God literally. However, God is regularly described (particularly in the Old Testament) in ways that clearly aren’t meant to be taken at face value. He doesn’t really have eyes, ears, legs; nor does He breathe out smoke while riding on clouds. Biblical literalism would lead us to an incredibly distorted concept of God indeed, and we should resist it where necessary (and it’s often necessary!).

In this case, literalism should be resisted, unless we are prepared to sacrifice God’s omniscience.

Stephen J. Graham

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