Ludwig Feuerbach versus Apophatic Theologians

Every so often I stumble upon a piece of writing that says exactly what I want to say only a million times better than I could ever say it. I would never have guessed that Ludwig Feuerbach – a 19th century German atheist philosopher – would have been one such person, but I recently read some of his work and came across a passage that is exactly what I want to say to a certain breed of apophatic theologian – the kind that thinks we can’t know or say anything about God.  We can’t, they claim, say anything meaningful about the nature of God, or we can only speak of God in terms of what He is not. I always found this sort of talk to be the height of theological tomfoolery (or perhaps a close second to those poor souls who say with the straight face that Jesus was in fact an atheist). It seems to me that the God of such theologians would be a non-entity. After all, if something exists then it has a nature or attributes of some kind that make it the kind of thing it is. I much prefer an honest atheist to such types of theologian.

Anyway, I’ll let Feuerback take it from here:

“A being without qualities is one which cannot become an object to the mind; and such a being is virtually non-existent. Where man deprives God of all qualities, God is no longer anything more to him than a negative being. To the truly religious man, God is not a being without qualities, because to him he is a positive, real being. The theory that God cannot be defined, and consequently cannot be known by man, is therefore the offspring of recent times, a product of modern unbelief. . . . On the ground that God is unknowable, man excuses himself to what is yet remaining of his religious conscience for his forgetfulness of God, his absorption in the world: he denies God practically by his conduct, – the world has possession of all his thoughts and inclinations, – but he does not deny him theoretically, he does not attack his existence; he lets that rest. But this existence does not affect or incommode him; it is a merely negative existence, an existence without existence, a self-contradictory existence, – a state of being, which, as to its effects, is not distinguishable from non-being. . . . The alleged religious horror of limiting God by positive predicates is only the irreligious wish to know nothing more of God, to banish God from the mind”

Stephen J. Graham

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Reflections on Faith & Unbelief in “Far from the Tree”

Reflections on Faith & Unbelief
Far from the Tree: A Review
Directed by John Wright

A sign in my local pub encourages the patrons to put down their mobile devices and actually converse face to face. There’s only one rule: “NO RELIGION!” It’s easy to see why there’s a perceived need for such a rule: religion is divisive. When religion rears its head the pinching and eye poking often swiftly follows. Religious-themed message boards and online discussion forums have become the Mos Eisley of the internet: you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Friends have parted over religious differences, and sometimes families have been torn asunder. Wright’s film thus fittingly asks: “Does a preacher lose his son when his son loses faith?” And it addresses it in the context of a wonderfully compelling personal story.

Tony Campolo – “one of the most important Christian evangelical preachers in the last 50 years,” according to the New York Times – is well-known, massively influential, and often controversial. His son Bart Campolo was for years a partner in his father’s ministry until announcing one Thanksgiving that he no longer believed. He’s now a Humanist chaplain. This film tells the story, doing what sadly is rare for movies these days: touching your heart and making you think. This engaging personal exchange raises questions of relationship, culture, sociology, philosophy, theology, and humanity. Wright – himself the son of a Presbyterian minister – has created space to allow all these issues to be addressed, but always in the context of this personal interaction that is funny, engaging, and deeply poignant. The audience in my screening laughed heartily and shed a few tears.

The film opens with a clever sequence showing a mash-up of the many occasions on which Tony told his famous “Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” story, giving a sense of just how massive this one time spiritual adviser to President Clinton is. We can only imagine what it must have been like for Bart to grow up in this world. In his own words, Bart tells us that even at the age of 52 “father looms large for me.” When we first see them side by side in conversation the rapport between them is fantastic. This is where the strength of this movie lies. Whilst many filmmakers would’ve found the temptation of turning the camera on themselves in a presenter role too much to resist, Wright has stayed largely out of the way, cleverly creating the impression that we’re eavesdropping on this moving and meaningful exchange between father and son, who might just be sitting next to us in our local pub, or at least one that doesn’t ban religious chat.

Many of us know the sad reality of how conversations between atheists and Christians often go: generating more heat than light, riddled with personal insults, and creating little to no real meeting of minds. That’s not the case here. Tony and Bart talk through their differences all the while smiling at fond reminiscences, sharing jokes, and even singing together! In asking Bart “do you think I’m stupid, lying or deluded?” Tony perhaps fears that Bart views him in a way that’s been quite typical of those inspired by the so-called “new atheists.” Bart assures him that he simply sees things differently and, interestingly, remarks that he and his Dad are still on the same team; not just that they are “two bald guys with bad posture,” but given the nature of the work they both have a heart for: helping people in the gritty reality of life. It’s a theme Tony will echo as the conversation progresses.

The centre of the story is, of course, Bart’s deconversion. As we listen to conversion and deconversion stories we quickly begin to see common themes, and Bart is no exception. His doubts are not spectacular or atypical: why doesn’t God, the omnipotent & omnibenevolent creator of the cosmos, do something to help impoverished kids? When we look at the world can we really say there’s such a being in charge of things? Can’t we just get the Bible to say what we want? And isn’t it just fundamentally a very human document? Are our gay friends really going to hell? Why does God never seem to intervene when we pray about important things? In a wonderful little touch Wright illustrates Bart’s faith as a Jenga tower: as each brick comes out the whole thing get more unstable, until…………

Crash. And that’s just what happened to Bart: he suffered a near fatal bicycle accident and in his recovery, he no longer felt the same. Bart seemed struck with a strong sense of mortality: feeling that had he died he would have ceased to exist. He found that he simply no longer believed and had better start living accordingly. I’ve read similar stories of people surviving such things to the opposite effect: believing they’ve been given a second chance, that Someone-Up-There still wants them around for some purpose, that they’ve been given a gift of life. Surprisingly, Bart tells us that he feels as if he has been given a gift: a gift of perspective. Whereas a popular apologetic argument tells us that life without God and immortality would be meaningless and purposeless, Bart will have none of it. He feels more awake to life given that it’s all we have. As he and Tony share a chorus of “This world is not my home,” Bart points out that he feels that this world matters – perhaps precisely because we’re doomed – and expresses the desire that, “I’d like to live until I die.”

Bart’s story illustrates beautifully the muddled reality of both faith and doubt. Neither is the purely intellectual exercise that certain philosophical rationalists would make out. Our life experiences are crucial. In fact, Tony appeals to sociological factors – rather than some of the more intellectual problems Bart points to – in explaining Bart’s loss of faith. Wright himself also enquires as to whether there might be deep psychological factors at play. Noticing that Bart moved to the other side of the country, Wright asks if perhaps Bart is trying to distance himself from his father, with one manifestation of this desire being his rejection of his father’s faith. Here’s the truth: they’re all hinting in the right direction. We simply aren’t the wholly rational agents we like to portray ourselves as. When we read The Gospel According to St Modern Atheist, to be religious is to be stupid or deluded. On the flip-side, St Big Bucks Christian Apologist’s Epistle to the faithful would have us believe that a fair hearing of the evidence should lead to conversion, and that arguments often don’t work because atheists deep down wickedly reject God. What this film does it force us to look at how all this plays out at a very human level far from the ivory tower. And we find that the reality is messier. It always is. Over 100 years ago the American Philosopher William James spoke of the importance of the will in belief formation. More recently we’ve come to appreciate the range of influences on our believing. Whilst we seek to rationally reflect on our beliefs and life experiences we must do so with emotional, psychological, sociological, and cultural baggage. We simply see things differently, as Bart says. That’s human. And it’s not due to deficiencies of intellect or to wickedness. Clearly Tony isn’t stupid, and Bart obviously isn’t just a bad guy.

As Bart and Tony recall that Thanksgiving Day when Bart first told his Dad of his deconversion the mood becomes more sombre immediately – the pain etched on Tony’s face lets us see that undoubtedly this still affects him deeply. There was real fear for their relationship. A lesser man might have rejected his son, but Tony sees a much bigger picture. Bart is still his beloved son; he’s still a good man. In fact, for Tony, Bart is “an anonymous Christian,” which I’m sure will be labelled by some evangelicals as nonsense, or at best a case of denial. But it gives us an insight into Tony’s faith. Tony Campolo was a trailblazer of the “evangelical left,” and helped to awaken a sense that the gospel of Christ is more than a preached messaged. There are social obligations too: to help the poor and oppressed. In his role as a Humanist chaplain, Bart fights for social justice and cares for the poor, and as Tony reminds us, “that’s Kingdom work.”

And with that Tony echoes Bart’s sentiments from earlier in the film and we end up marvelling at how different Tony’s and Bart’s worldviews are and yet how similar they remain. Bart is still Tony’s beloved son doing Kingdom business. Tony admits to having the occasional doubt. In this there is a real meeting of minds. Bart’s attitude is the foil to the kind of aggressive atheism that’s become all too familiar. Tony is the foil to an evangelical complacency about the social obligations of the gospel, as well as to a kind of dogmatic evangelical certainty.

The relationship between a father and a son is always a special one (just ask Jesus!). Our conversations with other people will rarely be as engaging and emotionally charged as this one. But whether you’re a Christian or an atheist and you’re looking for a primer as to how to conduct religious conversations, this is a great example to follow. Show it in your youth group. Take your humanist friends to see it. Better still – invite humanists to your church group and watch it together! Maybe some of the respectful honesty of this exchange will rub off and, who knows, maybe we might even convince my local pub finally to take down its prohibition.

Stephen J. Graham

You can find out more about the release of this film and where you can see it at:

https://campolofilm.com/

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Abortion & Scripture

I’m not particularly surprised, but I’ve recently discovered a number of religious organisations and individuals who offer arguments in favour of abortion explicitly on religious grounds. Take, for example, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. They point out that the Bible says nothing about abortion, and surely if it considered the issue of prime importance it would have done so. Roy Bowen Ward writes, “One thing the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort.’” He advises pro-life Christians and Jews to therefore be silent where the Bible itself is silent. Or take the words of the Reverend Mark Bigelow: “Even as a minister I am careful what I presume Jesus would do if he were alive today, but one thing I know from the Bible is that Jesus was not against women having a choice in continuing a pregnancy. He never said a word about abortion (nor did anyone else in the Bible) even though abortion was available and in use in his time.”

Now, let’s grant the claim that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention abortion. Let’s ignore also – for the sake of argument – the many passages which appear to regard the unborn as fully human. What follows from this? Does the alleged silence of scripture mean women have a God-sanctioned right to abort? I hardly see how that is the case. Why should we suppose that just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn some practice or other that it must therefore approve of it? That strikes me as a terrible piece of reasoning. The Bible is silent about a great many things. It doesn’t tell us that it’s wrong to discriminate against people of other races. It doesn’t condemn the lynching of homosexuals. It never tells us that torturing animals for kicks and giggles is not a-OK. Are we to suppose such actions are therefore morally justified? Not so long ago it was a popular line of racist argumentation to claim that because the Bible was silent on the humanity of blacks that blacks were not fully human.

Firstly, the Christian can regard many things as prohibited by scripture by inference from the sorts of principles it lays down as to how he or she should live in the world. Thus, scripture does indeed – by inference – condemn many things that it doesn’t explicitly mention. While it’s therefore true that the Bible never speaks of individual races it does tell us that all human beings are created in the image of God and are of utmost value as a result. Secondly, why should we suppose that the only moral injunctions the Christian should pay attention to are those explicitly cited in holy writ? Human have (I believe) a moral sense and an ability to engage in moral reasoning. Whilst the Bible provides the primary authority for Christians there is no reason to suppose that it should be the Christian’s sole authority. There are many things that might be right or wrong despite the (alleged) silence of scripture.

Furthermore, there might well be an explanation for the silence of the Bible on abortion. As mentioned above, the Bible is not a complete moral code. It’s a record of the life of, firstly, the Israelites, and, secondly, the early church. It concerns their life and religion, and their experiences with God and with each other. As such it primarily addresses issues of relevance to those communities. Seemingly neither the Hebrews nor the early Christians were inclined to practice abortion, and thus it shouldn’t surprise us that their writings are silent about the matter. It just wasn’t an issue. This itself is telling, particularly in light of the fact that abortion was widely practiced by the surrounding cultures. The Hebrew worldview was very different. Humans were regarded as possessing intrinsic value as a result of being made in the image of God. Children were regarded as a great blessing, a gift from God; they were not an unwanted nuisance getting in the way of life. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward,” writes the Psalmist. In fact, early on in the national psyche of the early Hebrews immortality itself was expressed through one’s descendants. In this light, barrenness was regarded as a curse. In this culture, therefore, abortion was largely unthinkable; hence the Bible’s silence. The same goes for a practice like female infanticide. Despite being widespread in the surrounding cultures it is never mentioned in the Bible, but the reason is because it wasn’t an issue for the early Hebrews, not that female infanticide is therefore morally permitted.

When we come to the New Testament and the early church a similar point can be made. The early church – and almost all the NT authors – were Jewish Christians. As such they inherited a Jewish morality. Whatever the Jews believed about abortion was almost certainly what the early Jewish Christians also believed. When we look at the Judaism of the period we find that it was staunchly opposed to abortion. The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides states: “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures.” Or take Josephus: “The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus.” It is therefore reasonable to assume – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – that this opinion was shared by the early church of the NT period. Much of the NT was written to particular churches to address particular issues. Abortion simply wasn’t an issue. The silence of the NT is thus far more likely because of how common place moral prohibitions against abortion were, and because it simply wasn’t an issue that needed to be further addressed. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest the writers of the NT deviated from the established morality here.

If we wish to apply biblical principles to the abortion debate then it seems we must return to the most fundamental question of all: is the unborn a human being? If such is the case – and the science of embryology appears to tells us that it is – then the onus is on pro-choice Christians to show why the general biblical prohibitions against the unjust taking of a human life do not also apply to the unborn.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 12 – Is “best explanation” a good enough apologetic for the resurrection?

In the run up to Easter I nearly posted an article on how to weigh the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. I abandoned it because I had a few others that seemed to me more interesting. In the article I suggested that in order to weigh the evidence we need to first find out what the evidence actually is, and we can do that by asking ourselves a series of questions, some of the most important being:

1. Did Jesus die on the cross?
2. Was Jesus buried in a known tomb?
3. Was Jesus’ tomb found empty a short time after his death and burial?
4. Did his followers claim to have experienced the risen Christ?
5. Did these experiences radically alter the lives of those who claimed them?

The answers we give to such questions go into an “evidential pot” – the set of things that any proposed hypothesis must explain. I don’t think such an evidential experiment is either necessary or sufficient for believing in the resurrection of Christ, but I actually do think it’s possible to do it and for the results to be favourable to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ.

However, over Easter I have been frustrated by the efforts of numerous Christian apologists in their arguments in favour of the resurrection. It seems that the most common strategy is to argue that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of some body of facts. But often the issue is left hanging there as if that settles it. Sadly, it doesn’t and I want to explain why.

There are several different hypotheses which are commonly discussed in resurrection debates, besides the resurrection hypothesis itself: swoon hypotheses, hallucination hypotheses, wrong tomb hypotheses, and so on. Moreover, there are numerous criteria which are used to assess these rivals. Let’s assume that the traditional apologetic line is correct: the resurrection hypothesis is indeed the best. What follows from this? Not much. I’ll explain by way of an analogy. Suppose I regularly here noises coming from my attic. Between myself and my friends we come up with a bunch of different hypotheses. As it’s happened before I suspect it’s nesting birds. Another friend – sceptical of my cleanliness – suspects it might be mice or rats. A third reckons it’s a faulty water pipe. A fourth thinks it’s a noisy neighbour. A fifth thinks it’s a ghost. So, we have 5 rival hypotheses here. Now let’s say after making sufficient checks I can rule out the presence of birds or rodents. Suppose also my plumber assures me that the water pipes are in tiptop shape. I also discover that my neighbours haven’t been around for a few weeks. It seems therefore that I’m left with the ghost hypothesis as the best available. But does this fact make me rationally obliged to accept it? Surely not. The reason is simple: the existence of ghosts strikes me as utterly implausible, and even if ghosts did exist would they not have something better to do than bang around in my attic? Since the existence of ghosts is not a live intellectual option for me I cannot accept that hypothesis.

Something similar could very easily be the case with respect to the resurrection hypothesis. An atheist could grant that it is the best hypothesis available, and yet remain well within her intellectual rights is rejecting it. As with all such matters there is always a secret option: suspend judgment until more evidence comes to light. Christian apologists should not therefore think their case for the resurrection can be based purely on it being the best explanation of some body of evidence, at least not if they seek to convince non-Christians rather than simply show that their own worldview is consistent with the evidence. In many (most?) cases there needs to be an examination of a wider scope of evidence – such as the existence of God. If someone is not convinced of the existence of God then no matter how much greater the resurrection hypothesis is in comparison to its rivals, it simply won’t be a live option for such a person. In fact, what we end up having to do is a much bigger and far more messy task: of comparing entire metaphysical systems across a broad range of evaluative criteria. Just how difficult this task is will have to wait for a different article.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 11 – The Resurrection as Myth

Imagine a debate in which an orthodox(ish) Christian says that the resurrection narratives aren’t very good stories, whilst the atheist insists they are charged full of meaning and significance. That’s the position I found myself in during an exchange with fellow Tweep Shane McKee, a self-described Christian Atheist.

To my mind the resurrection lies at the heart of Christianity; it’s the sun around which everything else orbits. However, I say this only insofar as the story is true. Shane, on the other hand, insists that the story is false – utterly mythical – but that it’s none the worse for that, speaking to us about human life, death, hope, and many other issues. So much does it resonate with Shane that he sees fit to add the description “Christian” to his “Atheist.”

I want to explain – in more than 140 characters – why that strikes me as rather absurd.

Firstly, take the resurrection narrative purely as a story, the kind of thing that someone might make up around the campfire on a cold night, perhaps. Is it a good story? It might come as a surprise, particularly to my Christian friends, that I don’t regard the resurrection story – considered purely as fiction – to be particularly interesting. There are certainly some interesting moments in the run up to the resurrection, such as the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends who subsequently has such regret that he kills himself, or that most poignant moment on the cross when Christ cries out those haunting words of Psalm 22: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?.” But the actual resurrection narratives – again, taken purely as fiction – don’t amount to a literary hill of beans. They are a combination of the mundane with the surreal, lacking the power and pathos of the crucifixion account. Considered purely as literature the narratives are of minor interest. Of course, if the event really happened then the story is suddenly far more interesting. There’s now a wonder and a significance that was lacking previously. The only reason the Easter story has such a grip on even the non-Christian imagination is because it has been passed on and preached as true by centuries of Christians. Had it never been preached as true the story would today be of only minor interest to a handful of classicists, if indeed it was remembered at all.

Secondly, whilst it’s true that the resurrection story contains certain “big themes” of human life, there are literally thousands of other such stories doing a much better job. Take a story like The Plague by Albert Camus, for example. Hell, even take the graphic novel I read last week – Thor: Gods & Men! It tells the story of Asgard crashing into New York City. Thor, the god of thunder and now ruler of Asgard, proceeds to take over earth and make life as brilliant and easy as possible for humankind. However, the more he tries the more human beings resent him for it and begin to fight back. The story touches on themes of power, freedom, divine-human relations, and repentance; it’s full of intrigue, double-dealing, sacrifice, and love. Other stories – such as many ancient Greek, Celtic or Norse myths – are full of such notions also. However, no matter how much these stories resonate with us, no matter how much they raise our spirits, warm our hearts, or make the hairs on the back of our neck stand on end, it seems bizarre in excelsis to define our identity in terms of any of them. It would be like me calling myself a “Grimmian Christian” because not only am I a Christian but the Brothers Grimm stories give me the warm fuzzies.

Thirdly, the power of any myth lies in its use of images to portray a truth beyond itself, typically a metaphysical truth. So, for instance, the Genesis myth isn’t just a cutesy story about a magician God who poofs the world into existence in 6 days and makes a nice garden with a talking snake. It’s saying much more than that. It’s pointing to the absolute power and supremacy of Israel’s God. “You worship the sun? Pah! Our God made that almost as an afterthought!” Theological points are crammed into these few chapters. What though of the resurrection if it never happened? What’s its mythological point? It doesn’t actually have one. The authors wrote the story as true. There isn’t any bigger point under it all, which is why – considered as myth – it’s incredibly bland. If it didn’t happen we are left with a rather sad story of a man unjustly killed by the state, and a bit of make believe tacked onto the end. That’s hardly great material out of which to create something of religious significance, or personal identity.

The resurrection story is therefore significant – existentially, religiously, cosmically – only if it’s true.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 10 – The Importance of the Resurrection

This week the BBC reported the results of a religious belief poll, with the headline proclaiming that one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-39153121). My response to this was a simple “Psssst…they’re not Christians.” I was promptly taken to task by a few Twitter followers for the comment, which was described as “harsh” by one, while another chastised me for not taking into account other important features of religious faith besides belief (such as practice). Many of my fellow Christians seemed to agree with me, however.

Why should I adopt such a stance on a single doctrinal position? Isn’t Christianity much bigger than a single belief? Well, of course it is. However, there are several pretty major beliefs the rejection of which leaves people outside of historic orthodox Christianity. The resurrection is one such belief, and those who reject it surely know – if they are remotely reflective – that they are placing themselves outside of orthodoxy here. Resurrection was the founding belief of the entire Christian movement; without it there would have been no Christianity. It appears in virtually all Christian creeds which are accepted universally across denominational boundaries. Contrary to one accusation, therefore, this isn’t an arbitrary move on my part.

The fact of the matter is that all faiths have distinctives. Whilst religions are obviously more than just belief systems, they do at least include a cognitive element which is essential to their being the sort of thing they are. Could I one day wake up and just decide to be “Muslim” despite not believing the Qu’ran is the final Word of God, or that Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets? Of course not. When it comes to religious faith we can’t believe or live as we like and still reasonably apply some label to ourselves. Words such as “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” actually mean something, despite how difficult it might be to provide an exhaustive definition of what they are. And there are clear cases when such labels do not apply. “Muslim,” for instance, clearly does not apply to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But – so I was challenged – who decides?! Well, in this case we all must make our own minds up as to what we are willing to accept as being “Christian.” It seems to me to be eminently reasonable, however, to use belief in the resurrection as a marker of orthodoxy here. It always has been in a way that certain other doctrines – such as the eternal mode of God’s existence – never have been. Someone might not agree with the boundaries that I draw, but that person will still have some boundaries, however vague. Without such boundaries the word “Christian” would be literally meaningless.

It may be true that Christianity – like all religions – has evolved somewhat with time. However, churches today still largely accept historic creeds from centuries ago. These creeds embody some of the earliest Christian beliefs and they are still distinctives of Christianity today. In that regard the core of Christianity remains the same. It was founded on faith in a risen Christ and it continues to be so. There are some who would reject certain quintessential Christian beliefs as the resurrection and attempt to salvage something from the remains. They might reduce Christian faith to a collection of false but meaningful stories. But that’s hardly enough for religious significance. After all the Brothers Grimm also have a collection of false but meaningful stories but it would be a tad silly to construct a religious faith out of them. There might be other such attempts to construct a quasi-Christian alternative, but any such a system is no longer historic Christianity. It’s an aberration. A Big Mac without the meat.

And so, what do we make of the report than one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection? I suspect it’s a simple case of nominal Christianity. My dad still puts his religion down on forms as “Church of Ireland,” despite the fact that he doesn’t believe a word of Church of Ireland doctrine – he’s not religious at all. Which means that a quarter of “Christians” don’t believe in the resurrection, perhaps, but not a quarter of Christians. Rejection of the resurrection is a rejection of historic Christianity.

Stephen J. Graham

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Q & A, Mind Farts, & Brain Vomit: Solutions

I managed to catch the final lecture of William Lane Craig’s “Reasons for Hope” tour of Ireland. The venue was Assembly Buildings in Belfast city centre, home of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The event was managed by Christian Unions Ireland and attracted several hundred people. It wasn’t a debate or a hard-headed philosophical lecture. It was a popular level apologetics talk, pitched to interested lay-people. Still, Craig was engaging and easy to listen to. He’s undoubtedly a fantastic communicator, whatever you think of his philosophy. Sadly he only spoke for around 45 minutes of the event, the rest of the 1.25 hours being dedicated to Q & A. What a disaster.

Seriously. It was a train wreck. It was so bad that I confess I left half-way through and went home. Every Q & A cliché was on display. The guy who has a rambling speech to deliver. The guy who can’t quite turn his incoherent thoughts into a question. The guy who asks his simple question in such a convoluted way that no-one – not even Craig with two doctorates – can understand it. It’s maddening. Here we were with one of the most influential Christian philosophers at our disposal but instead we were having to listen to Joe Bullplop rambling about cosmic nihilism, or Jimmy Whattheheck trying to make some point about humans being pleasure seeking animals (or perhaps, as another attendee suggested, it was “pattern seeking,” I have no idea. The point is – it was about a clear as dirty dishwater).

I assume these people have come to this event because they have at least some interest in philosophy. Why, then, can they not ask a simple question? Why do they even struggle to form a coherent sentence? Don’t they know I’m not interested in their brain vomit? Is it stupidity? Arrogance? What inspires them to embarrass themselves with a mind fart in front of several hundred people? It’s painful to watch.

It’s utterly unnecessary too. It’s about time we clamped down on it. Far too many perfectly decent events are ruined by badly handled Q & A sessions. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Never have an “open mic.” If you do, there is no quality control at all. You’re leaving yourself open to every swivel-eyed loon who thinks he has something important to add to the debate.

2. Lots of well-meaning people can become unstuck and tongue-tied when they suddenly hear their voice magnified across an auditorium. Insist they write their question down and read it.

3. If you want to help the people above, have their question checked by an assistant before they ask it. If it doesn’t make sense to the assistant, it probably won’t make sense to others. Time to rethink and rewrite.

4. Even better – have questions written down and submitted beforehand. This way the best and most relevant questions can be picked out rather than prioritising questions based on who had the balls to get up in front of a microphone first.

5. Don’t be afraid to embarrass people publically. Yes, it might be cruel, but it’s time to stop tolerating incoherent babble. Cut people off if you have to. Tell them to take a seat to get their thoughts together and try again later. Tell them they have 10 seconds to get their question out or they lose the mic. Not only do you cut short their nonsense, you also put off others tempted to do the same.

6. Here’s a rule I recommend you announce to the audience: if you can’t ask your question in a single short sentence don’t get to your feet until you can. If your question takes a paragraph of explanation, then this Q & A isn’t for you.

7. It might be cheating, but it’s not always a bad idea to have a few audience “plants.” These are people who have been primed with questions to ask beforehand. It helps get the Q & A off to a good start and sets the tone.

8. Insist – with no exceptions – that the questions relate to the topic of the evening. If they don’t, cut the person off and move on.

9. Normally during a Q & A there is a chairperson controlling the event. This role is absolutely crucial – not only for 1-8 above, but also to save a dying Q & A session. If it’s falling flat he or she should intervene to ask a few questions in and around the topic, turning the Q & A into an interview for a brief time.

10. Don’t think the Q & A time is a time when the hard work is done and you can just sit back and relax. Q & A can make the difference between an audience member staying and praising your event or going home and writing a disgruntled blog post about it.

Stephen J Graham

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The Prosperity Gospel & Donald Trump

My latest article discussing the religious background of Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, and the Word of Faith prosperity gospel with which she is associated, can be found here:

http://www.onreligion.co.uk/trumps-prosperity-gospel/

Stephen J Graham

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Miracles in “Traditional Religions” – A Response to Fiona Bowie

In her essay “Miracles in Traditional Religions,” Fiona Bowie, a social anthropologist, makes a case in favour of taking the miracle claims of practitioners of “traditional religions” more seriously.

http://www.academia.edu/459694/Miracle_in_Traditional_Religion

In the course of her essay she chastises Western thinkers for ridiculing, ignoring, or dismissing what traditional peoples report concerning miraculous phenomena. Bowie’s essay is indeed fascinating, but sadly it contains several basic reasoning mistakes which I’m going to highlight in the course of this response.

Bowie opens her essay with the story of Nigel Barley, an anthropologist who spent time with the Dowayo of Northern Cameroon and in particular their renowned rainmaker the “Old Man of Kpan.” The Old Man kept a number of “rain stones” on a particular mountain, which were used in his rituals to make it rain. Towards the end of Barley’s trip they visited the spot on the mountain where the rain stones were kept, and he asked the Old Man if he could see him actually making rain. The Old Man replied that as he had just splashed the rain stones it was going to downpour and so they better get off the mountain pretty quickly. True enough, whilst they were on their way back down a violent storm broke overhead.

According to Bowie, Westerners tend to be uncomfortable with believing such stories because we’ve lost both the notion of a personalised universe and the belief that our thoughts and actions interact with the powers of nature – be they gods, spirits, or other forces. The problem with this, she argues, is that: “Such a view does not fit easily with the words and actions of the Old Man of Kpan. He had splashed remedies on the stones and as a direct consequence it rained.” What we have here is a fairly clear instance of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we claim that because X happened after Y that Y was the cause of X. From the reports of Nigel Barley all we can conclude is that after the Old Man performed his ritual it rained. We cannot say it rained because he performed his ritual, unless we have good reason for connecting the events. After all, at the time when the Old Man performed his ritual there were millions of other events occurring also. Why not attribute the rain to something else? Maybe an Englishman on the Underground sneezed and caused the rain. Maybe an Australian pulled his bath plug out. Maybe Poseidon woke up cranky and hurled a storm over the land in his fury. Maybe some unknown weather god got sad when he saw his favourite wildebeest killed by a predator and cried tears that manifested as rain. Why suppose the Old Man caused it by splashing his rain stones? Millions of hours of research and study have gone into understanding weather. We now have a good grasp of the physical processes at work. Storms do not manifest due to rituals.

There isn’t anything particularly uncanny about the abilities of the Old Man. He’s lived in that area for a long time. He understands its weather patterns well enough, I’d say. Moreover, when a storm is close it can be easily visible on the horizon from certain vantage points – say, the top of a mountain.

And this brings me to my second criticism. Bowie seems so desperate to embrace the insights of “traditional peoples” and chastise Westerners for their scepticism concerning such things that she ends up forgetting to apply even a rudimentary critical analysis to the various claims she discusses, often adopting a rather naïve face-value acceptance of miracle claims. For example, she discusses a case of two hunters in Alaska, one of whom had fallen through ice. His companion threw a stretch of rope to him and pulled him out. What’s miraculous about this is that the companion claimed to be carrying a rope that was only 5 foot long and when he threw it to his friend in the icy water it miraculously grew longer so as to reach him. Bowie seems to just accept this story without pondering alternative explanations. For instance, perhaps the man had simply underestimated how long his rope was. Alternatively, perhaps – as is common in situations of extreme stress – his perception of reality was skewed, making it seem that his friend was further than he really was. Bowie doesn’t entertain any such alternatives. Why not?

The answer to this question is found at the end of her essay when she quotes approvingly the words of Edith Turner concerning the applicability of Ockham’s razor to our quest for the miraculous. According to Turner we should not: “go out of our way to invent complicated explanations so as to avoid accepting the possibility of the existence of spirit being and powers” rather than learning “simply to listen to what those adept at these matters are saying and begin to take them seriously” However, this strikes me as a misstatement and misuse of Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor does not mean we are obliged to choose the most simplistic answer: The Old Man of Kpan sprinkled water and as a direct result it rained. It doesn’t mean we simply believe whatever people tell us about this or that phenomenon and the reasons for it. Ockham’s razor means that we should – all other things being equal – opt for the simplest adequate explanation. An explanation might remain incredibly complicated, but still be the simplest one that adequately explains some phenomenon or body of data. It is neither simple nor adequate to claim that a rope miraculously grew so as to save a man drowning in icy water, and I have already provided two simpler and more adequate explanations for this event.

Moreover, who exactly are the people described as “adept” at such things? How are we to know who is adept and who isn’t? Given the sheer amount of dubious claims – and even more dubious people making them – it isn’t clear who we are supposed to listen to. What about the Indian clairvoyant who believes he has the ability to find criminals. Is he adept? Should we punish people according to his say so? Rather than rely on thousands of hours of hard work, research, and investment should we view the Old Man of Kpan in equal terms to any meteorologist when it comes to theories as to what causes storms? It seems to me that the only way to answer the question about who is and who is not “adept at these matters” is to investigate the claims that come to our attention. The trouble is that when we do so such claims typically evaporate, and Bowie has done little to convince us that there’s good reason for taking them seriously.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 9: Does Matthew 20 contradict Mark 10?

Justin Schieber of Real Atheology recently suggested that there was a discrepancy between these two passages:

(1) Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left…” (Matthew 20:20–21)

(2) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left….” (Mark 10:35–37)

Schieber shrewdly observes that whilst Matthew says the mother of John and James makes the request of Jesus, Mark says that James and John made it themselves. Take that inerrantists!!

Now, what follows from this claim? First of all it doesn’t follow that the event never happened. After all, many modern media outlets provide conflicting accounts of real events all the time. Schieber, however, means to say that these passages present a problem to the one who believes in inerrancy. Such “discrepancies” are nothing new, but this one in particular is hardly troubling to the inerrantist, unless we insist on ridiculously wooden readings of the text.

There are, of course, certain explanations which clearly won’t do. For instance, one suggestion is that Matthew and Mark report different events: one in which James and John ask Jesus this question, and the other when their mother does on their behalf. The accounts strike me as far too similar for that suggestion to be plausible. I think we can safely say they are intended to report the same event. Even here there are several possibilities discussed by inerrantists, but I want to mention just one which seems to me (a non-inerrantist) eminently plausible.

In order to understand this rather simple explanation let’s take a detour through the world of criminal law. In criminal law we find a principle called “joint enterprise.” Let’s say Bill and Ben plan to murder Mary. They organise their venture, set off and break into Mary’s house. While Bill goes to find her valuable possessions, Ben holds her at gun point. After a few minutes of taunting her, Ben pulls the trigger, killing Mary, and then he and Bill make their escape. Suppose a newspaper ran a feature on Bill 5 years later in which he was called a murderer. Is the newspaper feature wrong, since it was Ben who fired the shot? Not at all. Under the doctrine of joint enterprise both Bill and Ben are guilty of Mary’s murder.

Let’s return then to James, John, and their mother. It seems to me a rather simple reading to see the matter as a “joint enterprise” in the same way. In Matthew’s version the mother speaks, but she does so on behalf of her sons. She is speaking what they want to say. It is their words that come out of her mouth. She makes the verbal petition, but it is actually James and John behind it. So, in Mark’s version the mother is simply ignored. Even though she spoke the words Mark reports them as the words of James and John. Why? Because the words were those of James and John even if spoken by another. Even though literally “Their mother said,” it remains true that “John and James said.”

There is, therefore, no significant problem here for the inerrantist. There is only a problem if we, (as I suspect Schieber has done), confuse the doctrine of inerrancy with biblical literalism.

Stephen J. Graham

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