Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Relational Apologetics: A book review/criticism

This will be a rather long post.  I don't often write book reviews here, but I do from time to time pick up a book written by someone I disagree with.  It is a good way to sharpen my debate skills, and know what the non skeptical groups out there think about various things.  Of course, I also might find out I was wrong about something which is always good.

I saw a post on twitter the other day advertising a book on Christian apologetic being given away for free on Amazon and thought I'd give it a read to see if I was surprised.  I won't make you wait till the end of the article to find out that I wasn't.

The first thing I should mention before getting into this is that this book was clearly written by a fundamentalist Christian for other fundamentalist Christians to help them be better "apologists."  That is to better defend the claims of Christianity for those unfamiliar with the term.  As a former believer I have a rather unique way of seeing books like this one different from either a Christian or an unbeliever who was never religious.  I read lots of books like this one when I was a believer and they haven't changed much since then.

First, I will say that I appreciated the generally friendly tone the book was written in.  It seemed the author genuinely wanted to be respectful of unbelievers.  He failed at this quite spectacularly in a few places which  I will speak about shortly, but he did try to be nice.  He also spends some time complaining about how being a bible believer is so hard because Christians are hated in this country for what they stand for.  I found that part a bit silly given all special treatment Christians have traditionally received in this country.

He tells Christians to form real friendships with unbelievers but to make sure we don't "influence" them, which I thought was humorous but the first thing I really noticed came on page 61 where he write.
It is good to ask God to give you eyes that can see past clever arguments into a person's motive. Clever words are a smoke screen for a deeper issue.  Arguments that appear to be logical are just a mask covering some emotional or volitional problem. Man's default position is a belief in God (Romans 1:19-32) In the attempt to hide from Him they will devise seemingly wise arguments to convince their heart that it is right in its rebellion.
So very quickly he has dismantled all those nice feeling I had from him when I started the book.  This sort of statement goes right to the heart of why I am hesitant to consider Christian evangelists to be my friends.  The claim of friendship is a duplicitous one.  In this statement he has said that those who do not believe in god are either willfully deluding themselves or have serious inability to examine their own motives.  He is also suggesting that we really believe in god but are just denying it because of some emotional reaction.

Now, on a certain level I understand why they say this.  This guy believes the bible is inerrant, and the bible says I know god is real so he believes it. No amount of protestations on my (or anyone's) part would convince him his conclusion is wrong.  However, nothing will change the fact that his statements are also incredibly insulting.  The catch is that this book was written to other Christians, I imagine he would never say this to an unbelievers face, but he is always thinking it. I used to be an evangelist myself so  I can say with certainty that this is very common belief among them.  It's in the bible after all.

The next quote I found interesting was this.
Instead of feeling cornered and just ending the conversation at your friends next question by saying, "Well you just have to have faith," ask this question; "If God does not exist to create where do you think life came from?" The reason you ask this question is because the origin of life is a problem that skeptics need to be able to answer just like Christians.
I found this particularly interesting because earlier he has told Christians it was OK to use the phrase "I don't know" when asked a question they are unsure about.  I applaud that because there are far too many Christians who just make stuff up.  By comparison skeptics will readily admit they don't know what the origins of the universe are and point out that we don't default to his god being real just because we don't know the answer.  He continues along the same line:
 The believer has faith that God is unmade and has always existed, and the skeptic believes, on faith, that some matter has always existed. Each person is a person of faith.
This is blatant false equivalence.  A religious person doesn't just believe in a god, they believe in a specific god with all sorts of traits, often expounded upon in a sacred book of some kind. To pretend that this is at all equivalent to the belief that matter, which we are actually made up of, may exist eternally in some form is just absurd.  And besides most atheists/skeptics don't claim to know with any certainty what the origins of the universe are, just that the god claim hasn't been demonstrated with sufficient evidence. He is clearly arguing as a presuppositionalist here so it is hard to take him seriously.  He engages even more openly in presuppositionalism later on in the book which I will point out too.

Further, this entire line shows they the writer doesn't really understand big bang cosmology very well.  As I understand it, and of course I am no expert, the notion of an "eternal" universe is inherently meaningless since time is a construct that is relative to matter.  By this standard it is absurd to speak of "prior" to the big bang, because time, and therefore causality, as we understand them have no meaning once we roll the universe back to the point of planck time.

He then goes off the rails about women several times in the same chapter showing he doesn't understand much about them either.  He does some shtick about how women and men talk about things differently. (women talk to much and men don't listen) that made me want gag.  A few pages later he claims that when pro-choicers talk about women's rights it's a distraction from the real augment because women's rights are not relevant to the subject of abortion, even after admitting that science does not have a certain answer about when life begins. My eyes nearly popped out of my head on that one.

It was especially ironic because later on in the book he mentions how "some religions" think you can use women as you want because they less valuable than men. He implies this sort of behavior makes a religion bad.  Perhaps he meant Islam, but honestly Christianity doesn't have a stellar track record on women's rights.

He then goes into a section where he presents his actual "evidence" for the Christan god.  He starts by  repeating his claims that skeptics are illogical and just come up with rationalizations to justify their emotional reasons for disbelief.  He goes on to a poorly structured attempt to ask a few questions to get the skeptic to admit that there might be a god which seems to rely totally on the person they are speaking to not knowing much about science, which I suppose is a good assumption because most people don't, but it makes it seem as if he doesn't care that his arguments are weak because he knows most people will be too ignorant to notice.

Having "convinced" us that there might be a god, he skips over presenting any actual evidence for any particular god's existence and jumps right to proving the bible is reliable.  There are a couple of gems.
What is agreed upon by historians regardless of their religious persuasion is that Jesus died by crucifixion.
I'm not even sure what to do with this one.  Which historians is he talking about? The biblical narrative can't even provide a solid birth date for Jesus as Luke gives conflicting data.  There is no record of his crucifixion in any contemporary work, Pilate (who historians do agree was real) never mentions anything about the conversation he had with Jesus according to the gospels.  The gospels mention people getting out of their grave and wandering around, yet no one outside the bible records this event, at least not that any that has been found. Historians seem uncertain if Jesus existed in any form, much less the version written of in the gospels.
People do not suffer for a lie when there is nothing to be gained; none of the apostles recanted their testimony of a risen Jesus, and the only thing they gained was their death. The best conclusion to be drawn from this data is that Christ rose from the grave.
This seems to be the crux of his argument for the veracity of the bible.  I've read similar arguments from more well known apologists like Josh McDowell and they are just as bad there. First there is an historical problem with this argument.  There is no extra biblical evidence to prove the existence of the apostles.  There are, of course, stories that they were executed in various ways, but there were stories told by the early church and there is no corroboration for them.

The second problem is one of psychology.  Even if the apostles were real and were executed, people believe crazy things on no evidence all the time.  It is not necessary to believe they were lying to believe the resurrection did not happen.  Elvis died just over 35 years ago, there is video of his funeral and yet there are people who earnestly believe he faked his own death.  People are mistaken all the time, and eye witness testimony is incredibly unreliable.

The last problem is one of statistics.  When someone uses the phrase "best conclusion" what is usually meant is that one conclusion is statistically more likely than others. How exactly are we suppose to measure the statistical likelihood of the resurrection when it we have no scientifically verifiable cases of resurrection? If we took a random sample set of 1000 dead people what do you think the chances are that one of them would be alive again in three days?  To say the resurrection is the best conclusion assumes that we are willing to accept an event which have have no evidence ever occurs is more likely than any other possibility. 

He does touch on one thing  I actually agree with him on, which is the problem of religious pluralism.  That is people who treat all religions as equally true on some fundamental level.  He says they can't all be right, and I agree. They are all wrong.

The last bit he writes on is the "problem of evil."  He borrows heavily here from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. The argument is a mess of semantic and logical flaws like defining the word "wrong" is a peculiar way and demanding that the only way to meet this definition is a god who tells us what is wrong.  He engages in the typical false dichotomy that if there is no "ultimate" authority (and only god fills this role in his estimation) everything is left up to mere personal preference.

I have written and spoke quite a bit on the subject of secular morality so I'm not going to debunk this fully here but to any one who is interested I recommended to the debate I did here.

I also highly recommend this talk by Matt Dillahunty.

Matt Dillahunty: The Superiority of Secular Morality

He seems confused by how the non religious handle the is/ought dilemma.  It isn't really difficult, to handle this.  The old saying "those who live by the sword die by the sword" applies quite well here. If you treat other people poorly in some way there is a good chance you will suffer consequences. I can't force anyone to agree with me with or without religion, but we don't need a law to be universal to be useful.

I will leave this topic with a real world example of how all this talk of ultimate purpose and objective morality is nonsense.  Lets look at the black plague.  The black or bubonic plague killed wiped out somewhere between 30% to 60% of Europe population in the 14th century.  Further if we had known more about medicine and germ theory many if not most of these deaths could have been avoided.  I think we would all agree that the plague and the ignorance that magnified it's effects were bad things.

Now ask yourself this?  Would the bacteria who caused the plague agree with us?  To them the plague was like a golden age for bacteria.  Human suffering resulted in a huge population boom for bubonic bacteria.  Of course you can argue that bacteria lack the self actualization to recognize any of this, but it doesn't really change the point.  If the bacteria could answer a question and you asked it if it was evil to kill humans the question would likely have no meaning to it.  Humans are just a food source as far as the bacteria is concerned. It would be like asking humans if it is moral to eat broccoli.

It is clear the reason we consider it wrong to kill humans (and various other moral injunctions) is because we are human and share a particular social heritage with them, and further are a part of the hominidae family of animals who strongly value social cohesion. There is no need to invent deities to explain our morality when there is so much science that already explains our behavior.

Well that was pretty much the whole book in a nutshell.  Truth be told I was hoping for a bit more, it seemed like the same recycled arguments every modern apologists uses.  I keep hoping one day to see some novel idea or argument from apologists, but I'm pretty skeptical I will run into one at this point.

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