The Anti-scientific Dogmatism of Atheism, (or: Why Harvard Professor Steven Pinker is a Big, Fat, Stupidhead)

Pinker.jpgSteven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a 2018 bestselling book from the hand of a Harvard professor of psychology which triumphs the accomplishments of science, reason, progress, and humanism. The values of the Enlightenment, he says, have worked. We’re a better species for all of these intellectual developments, which have led to tangible improvements in all human society – longer lives, better healthcare, less violence, more education, broader knowledge, and more happiness. Critics have piled praise on this mega-seller. Bill Gates has called it his “favorite book of all time.”

Not everyone likes it. Pinker claims that liberal and conservative critics of his work alike are offended at his ideas and “really hate progress” (52). In fact, his critics don’t generally hone in on his pollyanna pronouncements. They focus on the fact that he attributes progress to an overly simplistic cause-and-effect relationship with the values that Pinker favors. The Atlantic calls attention to the fact that the scientific establishment upends the emotional attachments and longings of the hometown suburbanite (Gopnik, 4/18; also cf. Szalai, NYT, 2/18), but longing for traditional family isn’t one of the values that Pinker perceives to be contributing to human flourishing. Vox points out that the true challenges to Enlightenment Now are “reasonable points made by knowledgeable professionals about what one needs to prove to give a convincing account of the impact of the Enlightenment” (Hanlon, 5/18), professionals like David Bell, Princeton historian, who questions why Pinker doesn’t engage in any real analysis of Enlightenment thinkers. Rousseau, for instance, was one of the most popular Enlightenment thinkers and didn’t believe in the progress Pinker panagyrizes, and Enlightenment thinkers didn’t oppose religion the way Pinker says enlightened people must. The critics aren’t cynical. They’re rightly confused.

Me too.

My concern is a different one, speaking as a pastor and at least casual theologian. Pinker makes sweeping dismissals of anything he disagrees with, and does so with disregard for science and reason. He attempts to steal ethics from religion and hand it to science, despite the deplorably unethical uses to which science has been given historically, and his treatment of religion is exactly the kind of polemical, polarized nonsense that he is so critical of in the world of politics.

Pinker likes reason when it works for him and otherwise sets it aside – exactly the behavior that he so articulately chastises.

When it comes to ethics, there is a rigorous body of moral commitments which Pinker depends upon. However, it’s not entirely clear where they come from. “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person – one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism – requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value” (477). So not from there. He tips his hat to the reality that science cannot make definitive ethical prescriptions either, but he seems to hold on to the hope. Elsewhere, Pinker has claimed that maybe ethics can be found in the nature of morality, because evolution produces progress (it doesn’t actually), which is of moral value because Pinker says it is (“Evolution and Ethics,” Intelligent Thought, 2006, 150). Omitted is any consideration of the fact that modern racism was propped up by scientific theories spanning from Charles Darwin himself through the well-educated scientists of the Third Reich. The problem here is not that the science was bad, but that the scientists were bad, and bad scientists will always use the tools of science to forward evil achievements. Science is ethically neutral.

Likewise, on the subject of religion, the optimistic professor says unequivocally, “There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers…” (477). Notice the deceptive grouping of the mainstream – answered prayer – with the not so much – spells. It’s like saying, “You know…science, with its gravity, evolution, aether, dark energy, leeching, feminine hysteria, Chernobyl, and Piltdown man.” More importantly, notice that he gives no reason, evidence, or science behind his claim. In a 2004 lecture to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Pinker calls the Bible “a manual for rape and genocide and destruction.” He then goes on to say that he is not aware of any scientific enquiry into the claims of religion, and tries to account for the ubiquity of religion through a quirky, piecemeal explanation that leans on psychological vocabulary without doing any science.

So here’s the kind of scientific evidence I want Pinker to account for. Scientists study first-hand evidence right under their own noses and then account for it. Some time ago, I was leading a Bible study in a room of about 40 people. We were reading miracle stories from the Bible and asking if we should have similar experiences today. A friend of mine, a medical doctor, raised his hand and told me, “Jim, I think God is telling me to pray for someone.”
“Good for you,” I said. Pastors are supposed to encourage these things, but I didn’t know what to do with that.

“I mean right now,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. This is getting weird.

“Someone in this room has trouble clenching his left hand all the way,” he said. I had no experience in such things, and only knew them through televised fundraising charlatans. Fortunately, my thoughts were interrupted.

“That’s me,” said another guy at the back of the room. “I haven’t been able to close my left hand all the way for about 20 years.” He said it didn’t bother him much, and only hurt occasionally. I sent the doctor to pray for the man in the back of the room and made plans to sympathize when nothing happened.

The next day, the man with the injured hand called me on the phone. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “My hand has been healed. Not only that, but when that guy started talking, I felt a warm sensation flow upwards from my feet through my whole body.”

Here’s the deal, Steven Pinker. Both of these guys are still friends of mine. Both can tell you the story. I’ll give you their phone numbers. A medical doctor is not a tribalistic anti-intellectual. Nor am I, actually. Nor are most Christians in America, though you seem to think they are. Furthermore, you can’t write this account off as lacking witnesses, because there was a crowd, nor coincidence, because the doctor described the situation before it happened. You can’t complain that the experiment is irreplicable, because it was, itself, a repeated test of former cases, the ones in the Bible.

The problem with Pinker’s book, and Pinker himself, generally, is that reason goes out the window on the subject of religion. Pinker claims that “we know” religion isn’t true. The problem is that there are Christians at his Harvard, and throughout the Ivy League, and not just among the student body – among the faculties. Neither John Lennox at Oxford, nor Alister McGrath at King’s College, nor Robert George at Princeton, nor Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale, nor Michael McConnell at Stanford, nor Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame, nor Martin Nowak at Harvard know that religion isn’t true.

They, like the values that you don’t subscribe to, simply don’t count.

Christian Persecution in 2019

The bombings in Sri Lankan churches that killed over 300 people, claimed by ISIS and said to intentionally target Christians in response to mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, bring a moment’s attention to a horrifying underlying trend.  The persecution of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.  According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog group:

  • 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution today
  • 345 Christians are killed each month for faith-related reasons
  • Christian women generally face the worst of it
  • China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, have bad records for human rights violations against Christians
  • Reported incidents of the persecution of Christians in the first half of 2019 are already higher than they were in 2018

The Wall Street Journal reports an exodus of Christians out of Egypt, as Muslim persecution of this minority grows, and the Christian population of Egypt in the last hundred years has shrunk from 15% to 9%.

Why the increase is a fair question.  Surely it doesn’t have to rise.  One would hope that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, all forms of persecution would wane.  An increases worldwide speaks of a trend, and trends have causes.

I have a suggestion.

The world of philosophy and its ideas are hotly contested in the University.  Some people think of it as nothing more than intellectual banter, but history says otherwise.  Ideas propagate themselves from the University and through a culture, and ideas lead to actions, belief spawns behavior.  Marx’s ideas about the oppression of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to the birth of new political regimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the hands of tyrants.  What started as philosophy made its way to warfare.  Likewise, Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest profoundly influenced Frederick Nietzsche, who chided Christianity for protecting the weak.  The weak should be put aside, he said.  Only power and genius should be allowed to thrive.  Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, took over his estate as he fell to mental illness, and she promoted his works.  As Nietzsche’s praise of power was taught in the German universities, the Nazis would take it on wholesale as an ideology.  Nietzsche’s work was so influential on the Nazi regime that Hitler attended Elizabeth’s funeral.  They agreed, the weak should be put aside.  There are dozens of other examples of how ivory tower ideas later carry worldwide influence.

Now, what have philosophers and academicians been saying about Christianity recently?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a group of boisterous and condescending intellectuals began propagating atheist literature in the public sphere.  They had absolutely no new ideas to promote – most of their work was panned by their peers.  What was new was the absolute ire with which they approached their subject.  There has rarely been such a concerted mockery of religious people as this circle put together.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has been perhaps the most sardonic.  He refers to dawkinsthe God of the Bible as “the most malevolent bully in all of fiction” and he calls religion “a kind of mental illness.” He says God is “about as likely as the tooth fairy.” Anyone who has been to a secular American university knows that these types of taunt are taken up wholesale by the average sophomore, and Christian students are often mocked into a defensive silence.

It’s been over 12 years since Dawkins began his public attack on religion.  It’s been reported that his book has sold over 3 million copies, relatively small for the planet’s population.  However, the unofficial Arabic pdf of the book has been downloaded 13 million times.  (Arabic is the language of the Quran.)

Now, one could suggest that the book’s popularity in Arabic comes from a number of different impulses – curious, defensive, etc. – none of which have to do with the persecution of Christians.  But I want to suggest that there is a growing side effect of the treatment of Christianity in the American University.  As the American culture becomes visibly less supportive of its religious bodies, those who see Christianity as a rival become all the more empowered to act out against it.  If Christianity is ridiculed in America, it’s unlikely that the financial strength of America’s institutions is likely to be leveraged to make a difference in its defense overseas.  Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, church membership in America had dropped over the last two decades from 70% to around 50%.  There are simply fewer Christians pleading and speaking out for their brothers and sisters who are minority groups elsewhere in the world.  Here, Christianity remains an open target of public ridicule in a way that other religions are exempt from.

If the public voices of the University consider Christianity a fair and easy target for mockery (and no, they don’t give equal time to insulting Islam and Judaism), it’s easy to see that those will be propagated through the culture and ultimately be expressed in the form of action, specifically, action against Christians.  A dozen years of vicious attacks on Christianity may be paying off in the form of growing persecution.

Given its general uselessness as a contribution to intellectual exploration and inquiry, it might be fair to ask whether the open mockery of Christianity coming from public intellectuals ought not to be considered hate speech.  That seems the most apt description.

Kyo

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Kyo

It’s not news that the Christian church is not proliferating in Japan.  It’s less than half a percent of the population.  There’s an interesting phenomenon in the Japanese language that help accounts for this.

In Japanese, a religion is named with the title of that religion, followed by the suffix pictured here, pronounced “kyo” (rhymes with crow).  So Christianity is “Curisoto-kyo.”  Islam is “Isulamu-kyo.”  Literally translated, it simply means “teaching,” but as with many words, there is a nuance not captured by the strict definition.

The nation of Japan is not religious in the Western sense.  They may offer worship to idols or ancestors, loosely grouped under the title, “Shinto,” but Shinto has no clearly defined doctrines.  When the Japanese talk about religions, they are generally referring to ideas from outside.  And when they think of such things, they still discuss the 1995 subway gas attack that killed 13 people and poisoned thousands.  The leader of that attack was executed this summer.  The name of that cult was Shinri-kyo.  “Kyo” has subsequently come to imply “cult.”  Because Christianity falls under the same broad umbrella of religious teachings, it too now bears a suffix that implies “cult.” Everyone in Japan has heard of the gas attacks.  Less than 1% of the population is Christian.  But when Christianity comes up, it’s immediately branded as related to the gas attacks.  No surprise that it’s not catching on.

A word to wise Christians in America: guilt by association is a real thing.  If Christians generally associate with unloving power-mongers who are more interested in politics that loving the lost, don’t be surprised when no one wants to talk to Christians any more.  At that point, the faith might as well be branded “The Christian Party,” because the suffix captures exactly how it’s thought of.  In America, there is a real risk that people may come to think Christianity is just a political slate that claims to have fallen from heaven.

That’s simply not what Jesus came to build.  He wasn’t out to create political power structures to shelter the fearful.  The teachings of Jesus (Jesuskyo?) are all about surrendering in the name of love.  The more his followers do so, the more likely Japan and the rest of the world are to see Christianity stand apart from cultish shadows.

Disciples and customers

The critical decision that the modern church must make is whether or not to raise up disciples or customers.  The results will be very different.

You can have a very big church filled with customers.  Appeal to the expectations, calm every complaint, give the old guard what they want, and appease the donors.  This can generate a gathering of satisfied church-attenders who bring their friends, promising them a similar customer-satisfaction experience.

On the other hand, a church can create disciples.  This necessarily requires telling peoplehqdefault.jpg that they can’t have what they want, that Jesus’ call is to take up your cross and to die to yourself.  A church in a frenzy of attracting customers can never deliver a message like this.  A church that delivers a message like this will never attract customers.  But it is fundamentally the road to discipleship.  Churches that create disciples define their purpose by their mission, not by the whims of their shareholders.

The result of a disciple-making church is a most likely initially smaller but impassioned group of people who are truly committed to the mission of Jesus in the world.  But when a gathering of people takes Jesus’ mission to heart, they become an unstoppable force for the kingdom.

The leadership of the church just has to decide at the beginning, when the groundwork for the church is being laid: customers or disciples?

JerkBook

An Observation
There is a place to which the kingdom of God has not extended in the American church, unnamedand that is Facebook.  Christians seem to think that though God can probe our deepest thoughts, he can’t read our online accounts.  Facebook is to Christians what a long stretch of empty highway is to a compulsive speed-demon, that is, the one place where the authorities can’t see you get away with it.

Except on Facebook, everyone sees it.  I once talked to a man who wouldn’t even consider church because, he said, he looked at what Christians had written on Facebook.

When Jesus says things like “love your enemy,” “turn the other cheek,” and “bless and do not curse,” those commands actually extend not only finally but firstly to our casual daily interactions that seem virtually insignificant.  Those teachings extend primarily into the mundane.  I look at Christians’ Facebook pages that are a long string of insults of political figures, divergent ideologies, and other religions, and I wonder what they’re trying to accomplish.  No one is converted by hatred.

Facebook is a center for childish gossip among those who claim to believe that action without love is just noise (1 Cor. 13).  I once confronted someone about gossip and he told me I just had a different definition of gossip than him.  Going around and talking about what you don’t like about an individual is gossip, no matter why you feel justified in doing it.  We may think a political figure is a viable target, but an intelligent and kind-hearted follower of Jesus should know how to critique a political position without spewing venom. When we talk about our enemies, we are still required to speak in love.  If you don’t love, you don’t know God (1 John 4:8).

fbA Challenge

Scroll back through your Facebook page and ask yourself a question about each recent post.  “Does this show that Jesus loves a lost world?” (Do this on your own social media accounts, not on someone else’s.)  And maybe as an act of holy worship today, you need to delete some of the junk you shouldn’t have posted in the first place.

A Disclaimer

You get a pass for pictures of food, cats, Star Wars memes, and so forth. ; )

Life Without God

AdamBefore we commit to something, if we’re wise, we weigh the consequences.  Before we take a job, we consider the pay, the hours, the benefits, the commute, the effects on our families, and the relative enjoyment and fulfillment we will find in it.  Sometimes we take one because we’re desperate, and anyone who has done so knows about how well that works.  When we date and marry, if our friends are wise, they ask us if our romantic interest is good for us, if they’re fun, if they fulfill us, if we can see ourselves with them over the long haul.  We’re often too enamored to ask these questions ourselves, but this is what the voice of wisdom would say.

It concerns me that there is another decision which the bulk of the population makes wholesale without wise consideration of the consequences, and that’s the decision to live life without God.  Whether by tacit negligence of explicit rejection, we choose to do life on our own terms without God.  I wonder how that decision might go if we weighed the consequences as we do with a profession or a partner.

No Origin

Without God, we come from nowhere.  We are not designed.  We have no purpose.  When we talk about living a meaningful life, we really can’t mean “meaningful” in any traditional sense, because without an origin, we aren’t made for a purpose.  We are, in stark terms, an accident, blindly wrought by inanimate forces of nature, a marionette of physics.  If we were sensible about this, we would never have reason to get out of the bed in the morning, because there is nothing for which we are made.

No Destination

Similarly, we’re not going anywhere.  From the dust we come and to the dust we return.  As a result, there’s obviously no goal.  Again, meaning must be crucified as a twisted prank of evolutionary forces.  The most basic of purposes – making the world better – is a stupid waste of time.  The world is going to perish in the eventual heat death of the universe, long after human life is gone, with no one left to remember it or appreciate it.  Self-awareness will have been a cruel mistake.  Raising our children is an arbitrary pastime.  Accomplishments are trophies thrown in the fire.  With nowhere to go, we have absolutely no reason to live.

No rules

Realize the tectonic implications for politics and ethics.  Any rules we have to govern human life are arbitrary constructs.  Might does make right, by sheer virtue of the fact that no one else can.  Values like civility or fairness or justice are tools of power for the manipulative to use to force a gullible (and religious) lower class into behaving and working to produce luxuries for the rulers.  Voltaire was right – if there is no God, he must be invented to keep the peasants in line.  Nietzsche was right – if there is no God, values are the whims of the strong.  If there is no God, the only real morality is anarchy, and complex political systems to reign that anarchy in are just stalling techniques to help the rich die in peace.

Without God, the obvious consequence is that we have no past, no future, and a horrible present.  This in no way proves that there is a God, it simply, and wisely, lays out the consequences of casually ignoring the possibility that He exists.

Mentoring as Memory Making

father_child_fishingI can remember my grandmother showing me how to bait a hook, and my grandfather teaching me how to distinguish the tension in the line that is caused by a river’s current from the pull of a snagged trout.  I don’t mean I remember the idea.  I mean I can see in my head some clear pictures of them teaching me – of a silver fish in the bottom of a gray bucket, of a yellow kernel of corn in my hand next to the hook, of Granddad smoking his pipe on the bank.  That was almost 40 years ago.  40 years ago, I had thousands of experiences each day, but that one I can still picture.

I can remember my youth pastor teaching me how to read the Bible.  We were having a Bible study in a dusty upper room of a church, back when churches still had libraries, and we sat on the floor in a circle, and he showed me how to think through the biblical text.  We were reading Isaiah.  The carpet was green.  I can see us sitting there.

I can remember a leader in my college ministry at church teaching me how to articulate a rational defense of the Christian faith. We sat in the basement of his house watching VHS tapes of William Lane Craig debating other scholars.  We would pause the tape to debate the points that he made, and also to talk about our girlfriends and our desired careers and the news.  I can remember the very intense look my friend would get when he mulled over philosophical questions.  He’s now a philosophy professor who teaches at the same school as Craig.  I picked up a book in a theological library the other day because I saw my friend had written one of the chapters, and he had written about a subject I remember us arguing about one night.

Mentoring is not the act of an expert passing on a field of expertise.  It’s the moment that someone who is passionate about one of their interests stops to show why it matters to someone else.  What matters in that transaction is not that someone with a professional certification educates someone else.  What matters is that a memory is made when two hearts and minds gather around a topic of a similar interest.

Imagine what would happen if everyone who is passionate about Jesus took just a moment this week to talk with someone else about what Jesus has done for their marriage, their morals, the meaning of their lives, their parenting, their friendships, their prayer life, or their inner peace.  Imagine if all they did was share a question they wondered about concerning Jesus so that two people could wonder it together.  Mentoring is making memories that Jesus can use for the rest of someone’s life, and everyone who follows Jesus ought to be a mentor.

This week can pass by forgotten, or it can live on in someone’s memories for the next 40 years.

It Only Takes One

If I could study any of the biblical cities, I’d study Ephesus. I’d study it because it was a burgeoning, multi-ethnic, religiously diverse metropolis. I’d study it because it’s the best preserved of the ancient cities, having been vacated by a majority of the population after a wicked bout of malaria. And I’d study it because, through it, a couple of Christians changed the world. 

Imagine that if you decided to teach the faith to one person, you would create out of your city a hub of Christian teaching, writing, and thinking for the next hundred years. Imagine that if you decided to teach the faith to one person, one day people would talk about your city the way they talk about Salt Lake City – you know, “it’s ok to visit, but there sure are a lot of Mormons there.” Substitute “Christians” – that’s what a single mentoring relationship can do.

Ephesus
The theater in Ephesus, where Paul preached (Acts 19)

At Ephesus, Paul went and preached, staying 3 years and beginning a church. He appointed Elders and empowered saints. Then he left. But while he was there, he mentored Timothy, his “son” in the faith, to whom he passed on the best of what he knew.

John, the disciple of Jesus, settle there and became a pastor. He led the church, continuing to pass the faith on. We know of just a few names of individuals who moved from rural and distant parts to the big city, and that changed the city.

Ephesus became one of the centers of the Christian church in the centuries to come. By the 5th century, when the Roman Emperor wanted to call together a council of the bishops of the church, he called them to Ephesus.

It’s not inconceivable that any American city could have such a legacy. It only took one or two people gathering, engaging, loving, and teaching. Anyone can do that, in any city. Why can’t it be your city? Why can’t it be mine?

Three, Two, One

A snow-capped couple used to sit next to me in a café, clucking away with each other and passing friends. The first time I noticed them, I was trying to read Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” but couldn’t pay attention. I was privately amused at the way they loved each other, giggling as they finished each other’s sentences and offering to get up one for another, because at their age, it was too much of a commitment for them both to stand up.

I was conscious of my eavesdropping, but not of the effect they were having on me. They became part of the aesthetic of the café – the warm, sun-filled widows, the robust, walnut-toned coffee, and the happy old couple as familiar as the furniture. They were always there.

Until one day I saw her alone. When I stopped to ask, I withered to hear of his passing. She was thereafter different than she had been before, as was the café.

cloverThat couple for me is a better metaphor for the Trinitarian God than most of the go-to illustrations. St. Patrick notably used the three leaf clover to explain the Trinity to the pagan Irish, but his metaphor was flawed, because if you pull a leaf off of it, you still have a deformed clover, but a clover nonetheless. A widow is something fundamentally different than a spouse. One does not merely lose a spouse, one loses spousehood. When we love and are beloved, to lose love changes our identity.

Imagine the Trinity not as a mechanical philosophical concept requiring technical definitions of “substance” and “nature,” but rather a being who is so infused with and exuding love that the Father, Son, and Spirit are giddy at finishing each other’s sentences, that within the nature of the one God is a love so overwhelming that it must be reciprocated. Trinity is love immune the frailties of human love. It’s love made perfect, love like the first time a baby laughs, love like a wedding, love like a hero dying to save someone else. Imagine a love so urgent it can’t resist exposing itself to the risk of betrayal and brutality. It will pay the cost if only to love one more. Imagine a kind of love that promises a day when inseparable lovers are reunited, because that’s how a good story is supposed to end.

A friend of mine who is a missionary in a Muslim country tells me that she sometimes tells Muslims that there is “love if,” “love because,” and “love despite” – you can love someone if they will do something for you, because they have done something for you, or despite anything that they do for you. She has been told more than once by the people to whom she ministers that “love despite” isn’t real.

Imagine love despite. That’s a better description of Trinity that most of our metaphors.