The Perils of Faith-Healing

My most recent article “The Peril of Faith Healing” is published at On Religion here:

In this article I respond to the claims of Gloria Copeland that Christians can and should refuse flu shots because they are provided with supernatural protection by Jesus. I also go on to make a number of critical comments on faith-healing generally, and lay out the dangers inherent in this theology.

Stephen J. Graham



Filed under Faith-Healing, Miracles

Miraculous Healing Claims and Medical Inexplicability

I’m currently wading through Craig Keener’s massive two volume work “Miracles.” The book relays healing anecdote after healing anecdote. Frankly it is largely boring, incredibly tedious reading, and should have been about a quarter of the size.

Keener tells us that his main thesis is to defend the claim that people all over the globe – past and present – have claimed to be eyewitnesses to miraculous events, and thus New Testament claims can’t be dismissed as later legends, but rather they were genuine claims by eyewitnesses. I honestly don’t know who Keener is aiming at here because I have never met a single person – past or present, in real life or in literature – who doesn’t already know that many people past and present make claims concerning supposed miraculous events they witnessed. Such miracle claims abound in practically every culture. No-one seriously disputes that. I suspect Keener is being rather disingenuous with us, telling us hundreds and hundreds of miracle stories in the hope that we too begin to believe in miracles, or if we already believe then he means to affirm our belief with all these stories. I simply do not believe him when he tells us that the point of his book is the far more modest claim that people claim to have witnessed miracles.

Keener frequently refers to some instance of recovery as “medically inexplicable.” This is a common emphasis in the miracle-touting literature. This stress on medical inexplicability fits well with the definition of miracle provided by Webster’s New Universal Encyclopedia: “an event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to divine intervention.” Now, admittedly Keener is at pains to stress that he does not regard all the cases he reports as miraculous, but he does seem to strongly imply that many – even most – of his cases are best explained in these terms. In fact, it seems to me that the main reason Keener presents hundreds of such claims, regardless of their quality (and most are little more than folk tales or hearsay) is to allow him to say something like “sure, some of these claims might be false but there so many of them such that they can’t all be false, and therefore some must be due to supernatural agency.” As part of his cumulative case Keener presents these medically inexplicable recoveries. But how significant is it that some recovery is “medically inexplicable?

That some healing or other is “medically inexplicable” is a woefully inadequate – albeit very common – reason for positing divine intervention. It relies not on any positive evidence but rather on the mere lack of an explanation. This amounts to little more than an argument from ignorance. It is not legitimate to argue: “Doctors cannot explain why Bob’s tumour has disappeared, therefore the tumour was taken away by God.” That’s classic god of the gaps reasoning. There are lots of good potential reasons why some recovery might be “medically inexplicable.” For instance, perhaps a patient was misdiagnosed with Serious Disease A when she in fact only had Temporary Disease B. That she recovered is inexplicable as long as we think she suffered Serious Disease A, but of course she might not have. Alternatively, a doctor might well be mistaken about some condition or other. Doctors, after all, do not know everything about every disease. They can also make mistakes, thinking a disease was incurable when it in fact isn’t. Such might be very common in impoverished countries with little or no decent healthcare. Doctors might well lack the equipment for making a sound diagnosis. It is noteworthy that most of the healing claims Keener relates originate in such countries. A doctor might also use the language of “miracle” simply to mean “highly unusual,” rather than “act of God.” Moreover, a patient might misunderstand or misreport what his doctor tells him about his condition and chances of recovery, and in many cases it is the patient – not the doctor – who reports the recovery as “medically inexplicable.” Lastly, even modern medicine is far from omniscient. There are many things we do not know, such as why certain diseases behave the way they do. Remember that what was “medically inexplicable” 400 years ago is routine to us, and the same will likely be the case 400 years from now.

It is worth pointing out also that an event could be “miraculous” in some sense – as a special providence or intervention by God – even if it is completely medically explicable. For instance, suppose God heals Bob of cancer, such that had God not intervened Bob would’ve died. In this case Bob’s recovery might well be medically explicable (perhaps he had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery) and yet it is miraculous nonetheless. Or imagine a faith-healer who had an uncanny success rate in praying for people to be healed of cancer. It is possible to see that the case for miraculous intervention could be made despite the fact that each and every case is technically medically explicable (cancer often does remit, particularly with treatment).

It seems clear to me, therefore, that being medically inexplicable is neither necessary nor anywhere near sufficient to establish a miracle.

Stephen J. Graham

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Why I’m (Largely) Abandoning Philosophy of Religion

It’s been an obsession for over half my life – ever since I got into my first debate about the existence of God with an atheist friend. I studied philosophy at university, read widely – often compulsively – and devoured the literature. I began my own research and writing, some of which bore fruit in publications, but all of which was simply me trying to sort out what I thought about some problem or other. But I’ve decided to call time on most of my work in philosophy of religion, and the main reason I’m doing so is because it has become boring.

There are only so many times we can keep going over the same questions, problems, and disagreements, and I’ve come to the realisation that on most of the issues of any importance I’ve more or less settled my mind, and thus it’s time to just move on. Take the existence of God. I am absolutely convinced that God exists, it seems fairly obvious to me; though natural theology just feels tedious these days. I’ve little to say to atheists and they’ve little to say to me that I haven’t heard 101 times before. We’re at an impasse that philosophy cannot resolve, and continuing bickering is pointless. The same goes for what has been probably my biggest research interest for years: the problem of evil. I’ve nothing more to say about it and, to my mind anyway, it’s dead in the water as a serious intellectual objection to Christian theism. My third primary interest focused on the nature of God, and in particular God’s providence. This is an area in which I feel I’ve made the least progress, but it’s the area wherein perhaps there’s far less progress to be made. Trying to fathom the intricate detail of the nature and work of a being I can barely comprehend seems the height of futility. I’ve been reading some Calvinist works recently and it suddenly occurred to me that few of us really have any clue whatsoever how such a being governs the world, and yet our philosophical pretensions rumble on regardless. To some, that might sound like I’m on the slippery slope to agnosticism, and to some degree they’d be right. Fundamentally, it’s a recognition of my own inability to grasp the nature of God and my acceptance that that’s just the way it is and that’s OK. I’m happy not knowing, and refusing to speculate seems the least bad option. Nothing seems to hang on one’s view of divine omniscience, eternity or providence. It makes not a jot of difference.

Philosophical thinking is, of course, inescapable, and this is no abandoning of philosophy in general on my part. It’s a re-orientation and application of what philosophical ability I have to newer (at least to me) and more important questions. To that end my work on the problem of evil, natural theology, and the nature of God, will largely cease. I will continue to explore miracle claims as I still find these intriguing and I haven’t yet settled the matter to my own satisfaction. I also intend to engage more directly in matters of ethics and political philosophy, both of which have massive implications for human life and well-being, and I will continue my work in inter-faith relations. In short, I’m abandoning heaven in favour of earth in my philosophical ruminations.

I’ll be turning 40 this year, which means that the best part of my life is almost certainly behind me. Looking ahead I’d rather not waste any more time on the same old problems that intellects of far greater philosophical power than me struggle to make any progress on, or on areas I’ve already firmly decided. Some might interpret this move as something of a mid-life crisis. Perhaps they are right, though it’s a much cheaper way to do it than buying a motorbike.

I hope readers will continue to find my writings engaging despite the change of emphasis, and maybe even because of it.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article: 10 Christian Philosophers on Evil

I thought I’d do a quick fire article on what we can learn from 10 different Christian philosophers about the problem of evil. I’ll summarise the gist of each philosopher’s work, or a single key idea from their work, in a sentence or two. This obviously has limitations, so if you’re tempted to respond to any of these philosophers I suggest getting more familiar with their work than provided in these summaries!

From each of these thinkers, we learn a number of things.

(1) Alvin Plantinga: Argues that the existence of evil is, in fact, logically compatible with the existence of God since it’s possible that God create free beings who choose to do evil things.

(2) Stephen Wykstra: Points out that God’s intellect is exceedingly greater than ours, such that if He has a purpose in evil there’s no reason to suppose we would be aware of it.

(3) William Alston: From Alston we learn that the hope of establishing negative existential claims such as “There are (probably) no morally sufficient reasons for many of the evils we are confronted with in the world” are far from promising, and thus all such arguments face a massive uphill battle.

(4) Peter Van Inwagen: Whilst most theists deny that there are gratuitous evils (and implicitly assume the atheist is right that such evils are incompatible with God’s existence), Van Inwagen claims that due to the Fall we now live in a world which contains gratuitous evils, and thus there is no tension between the existence of God and the existence even of such gratuitous evils.

(5) Richard Swinburne: Argues that natural evils are necessary in a world in which humans can have morally significant free will.

(6) John Hick: Tells us that the evils of our world are part of the necessary environment for humans to grow towards a God-centred life through developing certain character traits that they could not otherwise develop.

(7) Eleonore Stump: Reminds us that many other Christian beliefs are relevant to the proper Christian response to evil, and that the world we live in – with the evils it contains – is the necessary environment for God to fix our wills and make us fit for eternity of union with God.

(8) William Lane Craig: Tells us that the highest good is not happiness or earthly pleasure, but rather the knowledge of God, which is an incommensurable good.

(9) MB Ahern: Reminds us that our knowledge of the goods and evils in the world and the interconnections between things and events is very limited.

(10) William Fitzpatrick: Points out that our grasp of the divine nature and purposes is riddled with enormous deficiencies.

Whether you agree with these authors or not, each of them is worth reading in more detail by anyone interested in arguments from evil.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Problem of Evil

Short Article: Fetuses, Lemons, and Survivability

The Author Jennifer Wright has been sounding off a fair bit about abortion lately, and most of it is ill-conceived nonsense. Take one of her recent tweetings:

For fucks sakes, fetuses aren’t babies. Pretending they are is wishful thinking. They’re the size of lemons and can’t survive on their own. You don’t know any humans who are lemon sized.”

Now, granted Wright isn’t an ethicist or an academic, so why then do I target her? Simply because her tweetings beautifully illustrate much that is wrong with the abortion debate at the popular level. It’s so full of misconceptions and poor reasoning that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The debate seems so poisoned by ill-conceived ramblings that one is tempted to despair at the chances of the quality of conversation rising above bar-room brawl level.

Let’s say no more about the stroppy start to the tweet, and focus on three assumptions or claims that Wright makes.

(1)    Wright opens with the observation that “fetuses aren’t babies,” as if she’s establishing some sort of crucial point. She is, of course, completely correct. Humans develop through various stages, and whilst these aren’t always easy to clearly demarcate, we do tend to distinguish between: zygote, fetus, baby, toddler, child, teenager, adult, etc. However, Wright’s observation is trivial and utterly irrelevant. The issue of abortion has nothing to do with whether or not fetuses are babies. Teenagers, pensions, and the middle-aged aren’t babies either. The issue is whether a fetus is a human organism deserving of the same kind of protections enjoyed by other human organisms. Of course, Wright appears to deny that fetuses are human organisms at all, which brings us to her second point.

(2)    Her second point is that fetuses are only the size of lemons. Now, this is rather perplexing. What exactly is the relevance of being lemon-sized? Wright appears to be arguing thus:

(i)                 Whatever is the size of a lemon cannot be a human being.

(ii)               A fetus is the size of a lemon.

(iii)             Therefore, a fetus is not a human being.

Wright’s logic is flawless (if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows), but sadly her argument is unsound and hardly the most cogent. Why think that something that is the size of a lemon cannot be a human being, particularly since the science of embryology tells us otherwise? Wright is wholly incorrect: the evidence that a fetus is a member of the species homo sapiens is incontrovertible, and is rarely disputed, certainly not by ethicists. Anyhow, why is being the size of a lemon relevant for considering whether some entity is human or not? Why not choose a different standard: a sesame seed, a marble, a watermelon, a pumpkin, or perhaps a golden retriever?

(3)    The final point Wright makes is an incredibly common one: that fetuses cannot survive on their own. Sadly, the rational force of this claim is utterly out of proportion to its popularity. Wright seems to argue:

(i)                 Whatever cannot survive on its own is not a human being.

(ii)               A fetus cannot survive on its own.

(iii)             Therefore, a fetus is not a human being.

As with (2) the logic is flawless, but the argument is otherwise about as successful as young earth creationist attempts at geology. In this case we have at least one false premise and a vague term. The vague term is “survive on its own.” What does it mean to be able to survive on one’s own? A 15-week-old fetus could not survive on its own, but then again neither can a full-term baby. It requires feeding, cleaning, changing, and strenuous efforts to look after it to keep it healthy and alive. Moreover, many elderly people cannot survive on their own. Some require heavy medication just to make it through the day without their heart stopping. Other people require dialysis several times a week. Even fully fit and healthy humans wouldn’t survive for long without reliance on others. I wonder, if someone took Wright and abandoned her in the middle of the Sahara just how great would her own survivability be? Moreover, as science progresses fetuses are increasingly capable of being kept alive from an earlier stage. So, in short, neither premise (1) nor (2) has much going for it.

The abortion debate is certainly a complex one, and people will make mistakes. However, if you barely understand the issues at stake, and struggle to formulate even a prima facie non-silly argument, perhaps it’s best to close your mouth and open an ethics text.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Abortion

Abortion and the Right to Bodily Autonomy

Most pro-choice arguments beg the question concerning the status of the unborn, and thus are only good arguments if we already assume that the unborn are not human beings. But one argument – probably the most popular one – does not make this assumption. Instead, this argument holds that even if the unborn are human beings, abortion is justifiable because a woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy. In this article I want to say why I don’t think this pro-choice argument is a good one. My attack will be double-pronged: firstly, the language of “moral rights” that appears in the argument is misleading; rights are legal constructs, not abstract moral entities, and secondly, there is no good reason to think the legal right to bodily autonomy should be absolute.

Firstly, then, what sort of thing actually is a right? The concept of rights is equivocal, and can be used with either a legal meaning or a moral one. Take the pro-choice claim that abortion is a fundamental right. What sort of language is this? There are two ways to construe the claim: (1) abortion is a legal right, or, (2) abortion is a moral right. If the pro-choice defender is talking of legal rights there would be no point in claiming abortion is a “right” in a State in which it is forbidden. That would simply be factually incorrect. Rather, what pro-choice advocates mean when they talk of “rights to bodily autonomy” or the “right to an abortion” is moral rights – things which exist independently of the State, and upon which the State should not infringe. But where does such a right come from if not from the State? Perhaps we are to take this as some sort of natural right that springs from our nature as human beings. But if so then it’s a right we possess simply in virtue of our being human, and thus from conception. This would lead to the rather odd outcome that an unborn human has a moral right to an abortion but not to life.

The idea of rights as abstract moral entities which all humans somehow naturally possess (or which somehow pop into existence once a certain level of biological complexity is reached) isn’t clearly a coherent one. Unless the right to an abortion is enshrined in law then it isn’t clearly a right at all. What the pro-choice advocate must do is to either provide and defend some plausible theory of “moral rights,” whereby humans have a right to an abortion but not to life (good luck with that!), or to present adequate reason why our law should provide such a legal right.

Since the law attempts to balance competing desires, wants, and needs, legal rights are rarely absolute. What then of rights to bodily autonomy? There is already an implied legal right to bodily autonomy. You are free to choose your job, your food, your sports, and much else besides. But should such a right be absolute, such that it trumps all other rights? Consider this thought-experiment, proposed by Dr Rich Poupard. A pregnant woman suffering from a chronic sickness insists on taking thalidomide to counteract her symptoms. Her doctor tells her of the high risks of horrible birth defects but still she insists on using thalidomide because her right to bodily autonomy is absolute, and thus the foetus has no rights whilst in her body. Her doctor refuses to provide thalidomide, but she manages to acquire it nonetheless, and as a result, her child is born without arms.

Alternatively, imagine a woman has just had a baby and is leaving the hospital to go home. She doesn’t want the baby and is planning on having it adopted. It’s a long drive and the weather is very cold. It soon begins to snow heavily, and the woman finds herself driving through a forest where her car breaks down. Spotting a wooden cabin, she makes her way over to it. She finds the cabin deserted, lights the fire, and sits down to wait out the storm. However, the baby is getting hungry, and the only way to feed it is with breast milk. But the woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy and therefore she has no obligation to feed the baby at all. She lets the baby cry. Soon she hears a scraping noise at the door and discovers a small kitten that has got lost in the woods. She likes this kitten and decides to help it survive. Rather than feed her baby she decides to give her breast milk to the kitten. The baby dies, but at least the kitten survives.

If human beings have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, then these women will have acted perfectly legally, and yet there seems something very wrong here in thinking their actions morally excusable to the point of being legally permissible.

Regardless, many pro-choice defenders defiantly maintain that women should not be forced to use their bodies to sustain the life of another human being. I have no right to demand the use of my neighbour’s kidney should mine fail; and likewise, the unborn should have no legal right to use the body of the woman if she chooses to withhold her support.

But is it really the case that because we have no obligation to, say, provide a kidney to a neighbour that we shouldn’t have any legal obligation or duty towards our own offspring? There’s a shaky assumption here that a parent should have no more duty towards their own offspring than they do to a neighbour. Moreover, portraying abortion as the mere cutting off of life support or the refusal to donate an organ is quite incorrect. The baby in utero is killed through either dismemberment, poisoning, or crushing. (As an aside, there is controversy concerning the perception of pain by babies in utero, with the consensus being that babies can feel pain at least by the 3rd trimester, and arguably even earlier. Abortion practices in light of this growing evidence are nothing short of monstrous). So, even if withholding support is morally justified in some cases, actively killing is something else entirely. Suppose I come across a starving man in my house who will die unless I feed him. Now, suppose also I have no obligation to feed him. Should I be permitted to bludgeon him to death with a baseball bat?

The bodily rights argument succeeds if and only if the woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy, allowing her to do what she wants with her body regardless of the impact on the unborn child. As shown earlier, that assumption is false on two fronts: (1) There are no moral rights, and (2) The legal right to bodily autonomy cannot rightly be absolute. Whilst a woman’s claim to bodily autonomy is important, it doesn’t supersede her obligation to the unborn child, which includes – at minimum – a level of care to ensure the child’s health and survival. Parents have sometimes burdensome responsibilities and obligations towards their offspring that make demands on their personal freedom. Such obligations are ours whether we consent or not. That’s why fathers have an obligation to pay support for children even if they never consented to raise them. It’s why parents are rightly prosecuted for abandoning children even if they no longer “consent” to raise them.

The fact of the matter is that when a woman is pregnant we are now dealing with two human beings, two bodies; not one. This is why the matter isn’t, contrary to popular pro-choice opinion, merely private. The law needs to balance the well-being of two humans, and since the legal right to life is as important as any other protection, it must (in most cases) be given preference over bodily autonomy. The legal right to bodily autonomy is not more important than the right to life, and thus whilst abortion may be permissible in some cases – such as where the life of a woman is at stake – it isn’t justified in any or all cases simply out of respect for bodily autonomy.

Stephen J. Graham

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Prophecy and the Oracle of Delphi

Many ancient Greeks considered Delphi to be the capital of the world. The story goes that a huge serpent – Python – was slain by the god Apollo. The serpent’s body fell into a fissure, and as it decomposed great fumes arose through the rocks. Upon inhaling these vapours, a person went into an ecstatic trance, a state in which it was believed that the person was possessed by Apollo and could speak the god’s words of guidance to seekers.

By the 7th century BC the temple was in full swing and it came to be the house of a single person – a woman – the Oracle of Delphi. Her task was to serve as a link between the gods and the world, and her utterances were greatly sought after. At certain times of the year, the Oracle would take questions from pilgrims. After a purification ritual – which included fasting, drinking holy water, and bathing in sacred waters – the Oracle would take up her place on a tripod seat, with laurel reeds in one hand and a dish of spring water in the other. She would be positioned directly above the vapours and as she breathed them in she entered the divine realm from which she uttered the words of Apollo to enquirers.

Visitors were screened by the priests – not everyone got through – and then the priests would instruct the seeker how to phrase their question. Of course, the seekers were also encouraged to make a financial contribution to the temple to support its noble work.

Accounts vary as to precisely how the seekers received their answers from the Oracle. In some cases it is reported that the Oracle gave answers directly, but in other accounts the Oracle uttered incomprehensible words – glossolalia – which were then translated or interpreted by the priests. The answers given by the Oracle were frequently rather cryptic, worded in such a way that no matter what happened the Oracle could be said to have correctly predicted it. For example, when Croesus, the King of Lydia, asked if he should attack Persia he received this answer: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” He interpreted this as a good omen and attacked the Persians. Sadly, the great empire that was destroyed was his own, but either way the Oracle would’ve been right.

The Oracle was viewed as infallible, and her fame and reputation grew and spread far and wide. Soon even foreign dignitaries would come, often paying huge amounts of money to skip the queues of Regular Jasons and gain a fast track to the Oracle. This enabled Delphi to grow bigger and bigger, and it was soon a powerful and wealthy city-state.

Despite the huge time gap separating them, there are many similarities between Delphi and modern prophetic practices. First of all, the reputation of the Oracle became firmly established in the minds of people. This is key to any prophetic ministry. The supernatural nature of Delphi was established not only by planting it within the wider Greek mythology, but through the telling of stories far and wide of the Oracle’s powers. Also, the use of a shine filled with vapours and the behaviour of the Oracle would provide visitors with clear evidence that Apollo was at work, much the same as we see from modern charismatic prophets who themselves go into trances, shake, and even roll around the floor under the “power of the Holy Spirit,” behaviour which anthropologists tell us serves to enhance the religious authority of the prophet. Whilst modern prophets don’t use vapours and springs of water, they do make frequent use of lighting and music to make sure the correct atmosphere is established in which they can produce mystical experiences in the minds of onlookers. Crucially, the use of vague (and thus infallible) prophecies is a very common practice, not only amongst modern prophets, but also astrologers and fortune tellers. Lastly, as always, there’s the small matter of financial contributions. The advice of the gods is rarely free, and the exchange of money – sometimes quite significant sums – adds to the impression that this ministry is a highly valuable thing.

Such features combine to create a very convincing show, as typically the true explanation for the phenomena is not obviously apparent to the casual observer or those caught up in the experience. My comments concerning modern prophecies and tongues-speech are easily found on this website. But what about Delphi? How did they operate? What’s the explanation for what went on there? Were the trances real? Where did the vapours come from? Surely not from the body of serpent?!

Archaeologists have investigated the site of Delphi on numerous occasions and discovered a few peculiar features. The area where the Oracle sat was several meters lower than the rest of the floor. Further, in the 1980’s a group of investigators discovered that the rocks under the temple were oily bituminous limestone and were fractured by two faults that cross underneath the temple. They theorised that methane, ethylene and ethane gas rose through the faults directly into this sunken area of the temple where the Oracle sat. Given the low room with its limited ventilation, the gases would be amplified and induce trances experienced by the Oracle. Significantly, ethylene gas has a sweet smell and Plutarch – who served as a priest – reported that a sweet smell would arise when the Oracle fell into her trance. This gas, in small doses, can indeed cause trance-like or frenzied states of consciousness, as well as changes in the voice of the subject.

This may not be the whole story behind Delphi. Some commentators reckon that in many cases the trances were simply faked by oracles and priests who understood too well the power and influence of their pronouncements and simply manipulated this power for their own ends. Power-crazy, money-grabbing, tongue-speaking priests and prophets misleading the faithful. Some things never change in prophetic ministry.

Stephen J. Graham

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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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Filed under Politics, Voting