Category Archives: Religion

Is the Golden Rule Unique to Christianity?

Some Christians mistakenly believe that Jesus was the first person in history to express the ethical precepts taught in the Golden Rule. Many of the things Jesus said and did were unique in history, but we must also remember that Jesus’s intent was to fulfill the Hebrew scriptures. Much of what Jesus says and does are then based upon the words already recorded in the Old Testament. In addition, the Bible teaches that God has etched the moral law into the heart of every man (Rom 2:14-15) , so that nobody can claim ignorance of it. Therefore, it would be surprising if an ethical maxim like the Golden Rule had never been uttered by anyone before Jesus. So what is the history of the Golden Rule?

Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), writes about the Golden Rule:

This maxim is a commonly accepted basis of human civilization, and has been expressed in other contexts throughout history in both positive and negative forms. Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca (4 BC– AD 65) expressed the principle positively, ‘Let us show our generosity in the same manner that we would wish to have it bestowed on us’ (De Beneficiis 2.1.1), while Chinese philosopher Confucius (551– 479 BC) stated it negatively, ‘Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you!’ (Analects 15: 23; for other examples, see Betz 1995, 509– 16).

The precept appears to have been a common theme in Judaism at the time of Jesus. Tobit gives a negative form of the principle, ‘Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. And what you hate, do not do to anyone’ (Tobit 4: 14b-15 NRSV). Hillel the Elder, an authority on Jewish Law (c. 70 BC– AD 10), supposedly held this motto, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.’ In the only text in the whole of rabbinic literature that attributes the saying to Hillel, the Elder goes on to say, ‘That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn!’ (b. Šabb. 31a; see Alexander 1997, 363– 88).

Wilkins goes on to address the criticism that Jesus is adding nothing new to the Golden Rule with his teaching.

Critics have denied the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching because this Golden Rule has been expressed in other contexts throughout history. Although the basic idea can be found elsewhere, Jesus’ expression of the Golden Rule represents a more demanding interpretation of love of one’s neighbor than was normal among other teachers of the time (France 2007, 284). Jesus’ teachings were significant because of the authority with which he taught as the Son of God who has come to fulfill the Law (5: 17– 20; 7: 28). Whereas other expressions of this saying indicate ethical aspiration, Jesus declares that the Golden Rule is the normative manifestation of his followers’ discipleship.

Steve Jobs and the Problem of Evil

In Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, we get a few paragraphs explaining Jobs’ thoughts about Christianity. Isaacson explains:

Even though they were not fervent about their faith, Jobs’s parents wanted him to have a religious upbringing, so they took him to the Lutheran church most Sundays. That came to an end when he was thirteen.

In July 1968 Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor. “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.” Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?” “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”

Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church. He did, however, spend years studying and trying to practice the tenets of Zen Buddhism. Reflecting years later on his spiritual feelings, he said that religion was at its best when it emphasized spiritual experiences rather than received dogma. “The juice goes out of Christianity when it becomes too based on faith rather than on living like Jesus or seeing the world as Jesus saw it,” he told me. “I think different religions are different doors to the same house. Sometimes I think the house exists, and sometimes I don’t. It’s the great mystery.”

From this brief report, it appears that Jobs was flummoxed by the problem of evil at the age of thirteen. He wanted to know how God could know that children were starving to death and not do anything about it.

Anyone who has read this blog or other Christian blogs knows that not only do Christians have reasonable solutions to the problem of evil, but that every other worldview fares much worse when dealing with this problem.

Buddhism, Jobs’ chosen religion, lays evil at the feet of human desire. If humans wouldn’t desire anything, then there would be no suffering. The goal of Buddhism is to teach its adherents to suppress all of their desires. That is what the Buddha attempted to do.

Jobs, like most Buddhists, doesn’t really get this. You could hardly imagine a person who had more desires than Jobs. His desires to change the world through technology, to perfect computer and phone designs, to control the user experience, are all what he’s known for.

It seems that for Jobs, Buddhism was a way for him to justify dropping acid and pursuing spiritual experiences. All of the more fundamental teachings of Buddhism were ignored by Jobs, as far as I can tell, and he certainly never came to grips with Buddhism’s answer to the problem of evil.

Sadly, it seems clear that Jobs never really gave Christianity a chance. That’s unfortunate.

The Comfy Cocoon of Knowing You’re Right

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Imagine a man named Charles. Charles is dogmatic about his beliefs concerning the origin of the universe, the existence of God, right and wrong. Charles is an evangelist who loves telling people about his beliefs. He writes a lot of blog posts and sometimes he comments on other people’s blog posts. Whenever he gets an opportunity to explain to people why his views are correct, he jumps at it.

Charles converted to his views as an adult after spending many years on the other side. He has an inside view of the other side and knows all of their weaknesses. He feels sorry for those still on the other side, as he knows they are wrong about reality, wrong about the big questions of life.

Charles has surrounded himself with those who think like him. He congregates with them, buys books written by them, votes like they vote. Charles has found a community that affirms what he believes.

Charles no longer feels a need to consider the evidence the other side provides for their viewpoint. He looked at it briefly in the past, but it is so obviously wrong that he didn’t have to spend much time before he moved on to other things. Now, when he interacts with the other side, he just does so to shake them out of their ignorance. He knows their arguments are weak, so he doesn’t really pay much attention to them.

Charles, more recently, has grown less patient with the other side and has started calling them names and insulting them, mostly anonymously or through social media. He just wishes they would snap out of their uninformed beliefs. When he encounters the other side these days, he sees them as the enemy. They represent what is wrong with the world.

Charles doesn’t feel too bad any more when people on the other side are demonized or mocked by his friends. I guess he’s just used to it. The other side is, after all, irrational and deluded.

Charles now lives in a very comfortable cocoon, a safe place he has constructed for himself. He knows he is right. He knows his friends are right. He knows the other side is evil, deluded, even hateful. If the other side would just go away, the world would be so much better off. In the mean time, though, the cocoon is pretty nice.

He is protected from having to actually think about the other side most of the time. What’s the point? He already thought about it a while back. No need to dig it all up again. No need to leave the cocoon.

Is the World Becoming More Religious?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Reports like this must cause Dawkins foot soldiers massive indigestion. The standard atheist dogma is that religious belief is on the decline and will eventually die out altogether. According to the study titled “Christianity In Its Global Context, 1970-2010,” conducted by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, religion is on the rise. The study is summarized at the Christian Post, but here are some highlights:

In 1970, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population was religious, and by 2010 this had grown to around 88 percent, with a projected increase to almost 90 percent by 2020, the report states. The growth of religious adherence can largely be attributed to the continuing resurgence of religion in China, it notes.

In 1970, agnostic and atheist populations together claimed 19.2 percent of the world’s total population, largely due to communism in Eastern Europe and China. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of the nonreligious returned to religion. . . .

“If this trend continues, agnostics and atheists will be a smaller portion of the world’s population in 2020 than they were in 2010,” says the report. “Although the number of atheists and agnostics continues to rise in the Western world, the current growth of a variety of religions in China in particular (where the vast majority of the nonreligious live today) suggests continued future demographic growth of religion.” . . .

Between 1970 and 2020, all major Christian traditions are likely to grow more rapidly than the general population in the global South, according to the report. However, at the same time, Christianity is declining as a percentage of the population in the global North “at a dramatic rate.” This can be attributed to birth rates in many European countries in particular being below replacement level, and aging populations.

Is Science Going to End Religion?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A common refrain among secularists is that as science advances, the need for religion continues to diminish, and eventually the need will disappear altogether. After all, the argument goes, the only reason religion exists is to answer questions for which science has yet to provide answers. Once all those questions are answered by science, religion serves no useful purpose.

The problem with this argument is that religion answers questions that science can not, in principle, ever answer. This point was brought home to me again as I was reading, of all things, a best-selling business management book called The Future of Management. The authors, Bill Breen and Gary Hamel, make this case persuasively. They begin their argument by noting that

for more than 300 years, commentators have been predicting the end of religious faith. From Auguste Comte to Richard Dawkins, they have argued that faith must inevitably crumble as scientific certitude grows. Yet faith in a divine presence continues to be one of humanity’s great common denominators. While some societies are more overtly religious than others, the majority of human beings share a belief in the transcendental.

There is no doubt about that last point. I would even say the vast majority of human beings that have ever lived shared a belief in the transcendental. So what is the mistake that Comte and Dawkins are making?

The belief that science will one day displace faith is based on a mistaken assumption that religious belief is principally a set of mystical and misguided conjectures about how the natural world works. As the sunlight of scientific discovery breaks through the black night of ignorance, so the thinking goes, these primitive superstitions will evaporate like the dew beneath the summer sun.

If religion is not primarily about explaining the laws of nature, what is it primarily about?

Religious faith is not chiefly concerned with the what, how, and when of natural phenomena. Rather, it is concerned with the why of existence. And while a few scientists may argue that the question of “why” is unanswerable and therefore not worth pursuing, they haven’t yet convinced the rest of humanity to suspend its search for significance.

Several atheists have made that point on the blog. They say that the “why” questions are uninteresting or are never going to be answered, so why worry about them? But as Breen and Hamel explain, the “rest of humanity” does care about these answers, and religion attempts to provide them. As Breen and Hamel explain, religion’s message is that

you are more than protoplasm, more than artfully yet unintentionally arranged stardust. There is a purpose to your existence. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, two sociologists who’ve studied the human foundations of faith, put it simply: “… religious explanations specify the fundamental meaning of life: how we got here and where we are going (if anywhere).” In other words, they provide answers to the eternal question of “why?”

Has religion proved successful? Yes it has.

History provides countless examples of individuals whose quiet, life-affirming faith elicited virtue, spurred charity, and restored broken lives. Scholars have repeatedly found that religious faith enhances self-esteem, improves physical health, and enlarges the capacity of individuals to cope with the traumas of life. Faith has something to teach us about resilience—not because faith itself has survived, but because faith, to the extent it provides individuals with a sense of meaning, helps make people more resilient. . . . Without a narrative that creates drama and meaning, we are listless and rudderless.

I would go on to add that Christianity, specifically, has done more to give meaning to people’s lives than any other religion. It is a force for good unparalleled in the history of the world. As great as science is, it is not even worthy to hold Christianity’s sandals.

Who Can We Worship?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In every human institution, there are individuals who are at the top because of their athleticism, charisma, intelligence, personality, or physical appearance. The people who aren’t at the top often look up to those leaders, admire them, and in some cases, worship them.

This phenomena takes place regardless of the particular kind of institution, although some institutions are more prone to instill worship than others. Cults are particularly notorious for having charismatic leaders who are worshiped by the membership. Political parties also seem to regularly spawn worship of their leaders.

Even if there is not outright worship of a leader, followers often excuse or rationalize the bad behavior of their leadership. They argue that just because so and so verbally assaults his co-workers, cheats on his wife, or lies about his professional credentials, we should still respect and admire him. We simply look the other way when our leaders sin.

I want to argue that if you find yourself regularly excusing the immoral actions of your leader, you are doing yourself and your organization a grave disservice.

This point hit home to me recently when I was reading an open letter written by mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Ryan Hall. In this letter, Hall is calling out his friends in the MMA world to stop the hero worship of the MMA fighters and instructors who are at the top of the profession. In these words from the heart, Hall reminds each of us what happens when we keep issuing our leaders a pass:

I understand now that poor character is poor character and there is never any reason to support it, no matter what carrot that person dangles in front of you or threat that person holds over your head. If an individual is willing to blur or even outright ignore the rules of right and wrong, of human decency, on any level, they are highly likely to do the same in other aspects of their life whether I have witnessed them do so yet or not. If they have mistreated others, it’s only a matter of time before my number is called.

What does this have to do with Christianity, you might ask. Well, here it is. Christianity is the only religion, the only major institution, where worship is only directed toward the morally perfect God-Man, Jesus Christ. We do not worship fallible, morally flawed, human beings who let us down time after time.

Jesus’s character is unmatched by any other human, his love for us is unequaled, and his holiness is unsurpassed. As Christians, we never, ever have to worry about our leader embarrassing us. No other human institution on the planet can claim that.

Who can we worship? Jesus the Messiah.

Can Secularists Survive Without Christianity?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Most secularists would laugh at this question, but not one. I ran across an article written a few years ago (thanks to the link provided by J. Warner Wallace) by an atheist,  John D. Steinrucken, that goes beyond acknowledging the debt secularists owes Christianity. He actually castigates those secularists who attack Christianity as irresponsible.

Steinrucken opens the article with this grenade:

Succinctly put: Western civilization’s survival, including the survival of open secular thought, depends on the continuance within our society of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

How so? Steinrucken goes on to make his case:

Although I am a secularist (atheist, if you will), I accept that the great majority of people would be morally and spiritually lost without religion. Can anyone seriously argue that crime and debauchery are not held in check by religion? Is it not comforting to live in a community where the rule of law and fairness are respected? Would such be likely if Christianity were not there to provide a moral compass to the great majority? Do we secularists not benefit out of all proportion from a morally responsible society?

Steinrucken challenges secularists to provide a transcendent moral code for our society:

Just what are the immutable moral laws of secularism? Be prepared to answer, if you are honest, that such laws simply do not exist! The best answer we can ever hear from secularists to this question is a hodgepodge of strained relativist talk of situational ethics. They can cite no overriding authority other than that of fashion. For the great majority in the West, it is the Judeo-Christian tradition which offers a template assuring a life of inner peace toward the world at large — a peace which translates to a workable liberal society.

Steinrucken admits that most men need God and reminds us that

so many of those who have forsaken the God of their fathers (it has been fashionable to do so) are now reaching for meaning in eastern exotica, new-age mumbo-jumbo, and other attempts to fill the spiritual hole.

He warns of the consequences of rejecting the Christian heritage of the West:

To the extent that Western elites distance themselves from their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage in favor of secular constructs, and as they give deference to a multicultural acceptance that all beliefs are of equal validity, they lose their will to defend against a determined attack from another culture, such as from militant Islam. For having destroyed the ancient faith of their people, they will have found themselves with nothing to defend.

What is Steinrucken’s advice to the atheist elites?

If the elitists of our Western civilization want to survive, then it is incumbent upon them to see to the preservation of the hoary, time-honored faith of the great majority of the people. This means that our elitists should see that their most valued vested interest is the preservation within our culture of Christianity and Judaism.

Steinrucken has recognized what Christians have been pointing out for centuries to those secularists who live amongst us: secularism is parasitic of the  Christian worldview. It incessantly borrows intellectual and moral capital from Christianity without ever admitting it is doing so. At least one secularist finally admits it. Hopefully the rest will come around.

What Are the Roles of Faith and Reason in Christianity? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this series Philosopher Edward Feser demonstrated that reason, not faith, brings us all the way to the conclusion that Jesus is divine.  Once we arrive here, where do we go?

Feser explains:

Suppose you know through purely rational arguments that there is a God, that He raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and therefore that Christ really is divine, as He claimed to be, so that anything He taught must be true; in other words, suppose that the general strategy just sketched can be successfully fleshed out.

What would follow?  Faith, or belief, enters and takes center stage.

Then it follows that if you are rational you will believe anything Christ taught; indeed, if you are rational you will believe it even if it is something that you could not possibly have come to know in any other way, and even if it is something highly counterintuitive and difficult to understand.  For reason will have told you that Christ is infallible, and therefore cannot be wrong in anything He teaches.  In short, reason tells you to have faith in what Christ teaches, because He is divine.

We have faith in Christ and what He teaches because of who He is.  Because He proved himself to be divine by resurrecting from the dead, we believe Him.  That is faith.

Does every Christian follow the process that Feser describes, reasoning through philosophy and historical evidence to the conclusion that Jesus is divine?  Obviously not.  Most Christians believe because they have received it on authority from someone else who does understand the arguments.

There may even be more than one link in the chain to get back to someone who understands the arguments, but this hardly matters.  What matters is that there are theologians and philosophers and other scholars who do understand the arguments, so even the person who does not understand the reasons for his faith still indirectly bases his faith on those reasons.

This is no different than anything else we come to believe in life.  For the vast majority of things we each believe we have received on authority from someone else.  Feser gives a parallel in science.  “The man in the street who believes that E=mc^2 probably couldn’t give you an interesting defense of his belief if his life depended on it.  He believes it because his high school physics teacher told him about it.”

Continuing alone these lines Feser further argues:

Most people who believe that E=mc^2, and who believe almost any other widely known and generally accepted scientific proposition, do so on the basis of faith in exactly the sense in question here.  They believe it, in other words, on the authority of those from whom they learned it.  Everyone acknowledges that this is perfectly legitimate; indeed, there is no way we could know much of interest at all if we weren’t able to appeal to various authorities.

So these are the roles of reason and faith in Christianity, a far cry from the story that atheists tell.  Some of you may be complaining at this point that you know Christians who disavow this approach, who truly do have blind faith, who say that reason has no place in their belief system.  Feser’s final words on this topic are a propos:

I do not doubt that there are and have been Christians and people of other religions whose theory and/or practice does not fit this understanding.  But I do not speak for them, and neither did Aquinas and the other great thinkers of the Western religious tradition.  And if the ‘New Atheists’ are serious about making a rational case for atheism, then, as I have said, they should be taking on the best representatives of the opposing point of view – not blabbering on for hundreds of pages about the dangers of ‘faith’ as an irrational will to believe something in the face of all evidence, when this is an attitude that the mainstream Christian theological tradition has itself always condemned.

Are Kids Born with Belief?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

That is the title of an interview with author Justin Barrett in the June 2012 issue of Christianity Today.  Barrett recently released a book, titled Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefwhich “builds upon previous research on cognitive development to show that children naturally intuit design—and a Designer—when exposed to the natural world.”

This type of research is important because of the occasional refrain that children must be brainwashed into belief in God, because without brainwashing children would not believe in God.  Put another way, belief in God is unnatural to children and must be forced upon them.  Is this correct?

Barrett’s research leads him to conclude that “virtually all humans are essentially born believers—they have a natural receptivity to religious belief.”  Barrett adds:

We are not starting with unformed blobs that can be shaped into anything we like. Research from developmental psychology suggests children learn some things more easily and are attracted to some ideas more than others. There are certain kinds of ideas that children can learn more easily and rapidly than others, and internalize more deeply, such as believing in gods.

Children have a natural disposition to see the natural world as having purpose. Research has shown that children have a strong inclination to see design in the world around them, but they are left wondering who did it. They also know design doesn’t arise through random chance or mechanistic processes. In fact, children (and adults) automatically look for a person behind purpose or design. By five months old, infants already make the distinction between things that are acted upon and those things that do the acting, that is, intentional agents (like people). And preschoolers’ default assumption is that these agents are super-knowing, are super-perceiving, and are not going to die. If a child is exposed to the idea of a god that is immortal, super-knowing, super-perceiving, the child doesn’t have to do a lot of work to learn that idea; it fits the child’s intuitions.

In response to the argument that belief in God is just another childish belief that children grow out of, Barrett reminds us that

there are all kinds of childish beliefs, such as the idea that other people have minds, that there is a real world out there, that the laws of nature are stable, that my mother loves me. All these ideas are rooted in children’s early developing intuitions. If that is someone’s claim, I accept it; religious belief is in awfully good company.

It seems that the brainwashing runs the other way.  Children have to be inculcated with non-belief, not belief.  Belief in God comes easily and naturally for children.  Telling a child that there is no “immortal, super-knowing, super-perceiving” agent goes hard against the grain.  It seems that God has designed the human brain to be receptive to belief in him.

Is Atheism Transmitted from One Generation to the Next?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, Russell quotes the famed philosopher John Stuart Mill writing about his father’s road to atheism.  The quote is instructive for Christians as it gives a small glimpse into the world of a famed atheist.

My father [says John Stuart Mill], educated in the creed of Scotch Presbyterianism, had by his own studies and reflections been early led to reject not only the belief in Revelation but the foundations of what is commonly called Natural Religion.  My father’s rejection of all that is called religious belief was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual. . . .

It would have been wholly inconsistent with my father’s ideas of duty to allow me to acquire impressions contrary to his convictions and feelings respecting religion: and he impressed on me from the first that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known.

There is a lesson here about transmission of beliefs.  It is often claimed by atheists that religious views are merely transmitted from parent to child: we are simply born into our religion.  Atheists, on the other hand, come to their beliefs for mostly intellectual reasons, and are not born into their views.

In the case of James Mill, it appears he did buck the family religion and become an atheist against the teachings of his family.  However, if we read on we see that his son, John Stuart Mill, received his father’s atheism.  The younger Mill was clearly taught to be an atheist by his father.

What we can conclude is that in this case, one generation rejected its religious heritage, but the next did not reject its anti-religious heritage.  Mill’s experience is a great example of an atheist parent making sure that his child embraces his particular worldview.  

I’m sure some of you are wondering what the big deal is.  Of course atheist parents inculcate their beliefs into their children.  The reason I offer this quotation is because of the persistent claim that atheism is all about free thinkers bucking their family’s beliefs.  Perhaps this is true of some first-generation atheists raised in a religious family, but that first generation may choose, as James Mill did, to make sure no more free thinking happens with his children.

My guess is that atheist parents pass along their beliefs just like religious parents.  It is time to admit that Christian and atheist parents are pretty much in the same boat – we all want our children to embrace what we believe. 

If the term free thinker is to refer to people who reject their family’s heritage, then there are free thinkers from every religous and anti-religious persuasion (every group gains converts from outside their current community).  Atheists cannot lay sole claim to this moniker. 

There are more lessons to be learned from Mill’s quotation, and I will tackle those in the next post.