Thursday, October 10, 2013

Challenged on "evidentialism," St. Paul, and Ye Olde Earthe

The New Atheism has been a polarizing movement, even within its own ranks, so it's no great surprise that reviews of my book on that faith tradition, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, have reflected that polarization.  Of 33 reviews on Amazon so far (or 31, ignoring two extras a fanatical lawyer snuck in under aliases), 13 give the book five stars, 7 four, and 9 (or 7) one.  All the one and two-star reviews are by skeptics, though there is a four-star review by a philosophy professor who is an atheist.  Until a week ago, there were just two three-star reviews, including by an atheist who said he thought the book deserved four, but preferred the less crowded quarters of the 3-star bivouac.  The other 3-star reviewer also appeared to be an atheist, at any rate not a Christian. 

An earlier 3-star review by a Christian had been taken down.  The book had been reviewed by a Christian from Northern Ireland who criticized my belief that the world is old.  He later removed that review, perhaps because he didn't like being stuck by himself (at the time) in the middle. 

If he'd waited a few years, he'd have gained interesting company.  Last Wednesday, a Christian named Jason Goodwin, from New York State, posted a third (or rather fourth) three-star review.  I rather enjoyed the review, not because I agree with much of it, but because it is so far at odds with its fellows, novel in critique, and really engaged my arguments and assumptions. 

Since Jason has taken the time to post an eccentric review of book that is mostly out of the spotlight now, let me reproduce it here, and add some commentary and response. 

"In his book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism: Responding to the Emerging Challenges to God and Christianity, David Marshall penned a tome that sought to address the aggressive onslaught that the "new atheists" sough to bring upon God and His people and to convince their own of the legitimacy of their arguments. He addresses such things as God and science, the Word and the Flesh, and Truth and Consequences."

These are the titles of the three sections of The Truth Behind the New Atheism 

Before I start to critique the book, the Church has ALWAYS had challenges against it. It all started in Genesis 3. So, to say that these were emerging challenges thanks in large part to the 'new atheists' only takes into account what these people have been doing in their futile attempts to discredit God and His Holy Word in 'Western nations'. I can see if he was trying to be concise and limit the words of his subtitle so as to not draw it out needlessly, but it could have been better worded so as to not possibly confuse readers - especially Christians who know that the persecution of the Church is much more violent and intense in other parts of the world where Islam and Communism still reign supreme in particular countries."

Certainly I agree that Richard Dawkins is a gentle opponent compared to that pudgy brat in North Korea with the nukes, or those fellows with towels around their heads in Iran.  But I think the title of the book indicates pretty clearly which particular "emerging challenges" I'll be addressing.  I've written other books and articles about China, Islam, and the Evil Empire. 

"What is good and helpful about this book is that Marshall displays himself to be a highly intelligent and well-read man. He is certainly no bucolic hack who carelessly rants about the evil of suppressing the Truth in unrighteousness (which is exactly what the people he writes about are doing, regardless if they're being forthright or subtle). He has certainly thought out his material and he is right to respond to and challenge those who make their scurrilous accusations with their venomous, acidic diatribe."

Thank you!

"At the same time, I am concerned about his approach when it comes to answering these people who challenge (if not outright deny) the existence of God. Marshall appears to be an evidentialist - as opposed to a presuppositionalist. He can give all the evidence of the existence of God as much as he wants, but those who hate God (as is the case with the 'atheists' whom he wrote about) will come up with whatever excuse in the book (not necessarily his) to deny God's existence amongst the 'evidences.'"

I'm not unsympathetic to this complaint.  A lot of people do resemble those remarks.  Several of my posts here on various "New Atheists," including PZ Myers, Peter Boghossian, and yes John Loftus, I admit lend it support. 

Jay Budziszewski describes how, as a young professor, he argued against God and against objective morality to obtain a position teaching at the University of Texas.  In retrospect, he recognized that he had been deceiving himself.  He knew, in his heart, that his arguments did not really work.  I think this is common, possibly even constituting a majority of unbelievers. 

But if what we believe is true, that truth will leaves evidences of its veracity.  And those traces do not always return void.  I have met and read many Christians who came to faith through rational argument.  Chuck Colson tells his story of reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity in his autobiography, Born Again, and it is clear the rationality of Lewis' argument weighed heavily in his conversion.  Through Colson, many more came to faith.  If this were not possible, it is hard to explain why St. Paul spends so much time reasoning with unbelievers in Acts.  And it is an historical fact that many of the most successful evangelists in the history of missions have presented rational arguments for the Christian faith, including Mateo Ricci, WAP Martin, who perhaps had an even bigger impact in Japan than in China, and the Presbyterian missionary to Taiwan, George MacKay. 

God works in many ways in the lives of different people.  I don't claim that rational argument involving the presentation of evidence for Christian faith is the only way that He works, or the noblest way, or always the most effective way.  But God gives to each gifts, and this seems to be one he has given me.  It is not so much that all the world looks like a nail to someone with a hammer, as that the hammer is in my hand, because I have been given a job to do.

And in doing that job, I work as apprentice to many of the greatest carpenters on this great building project. 

Is the World Old?

"To further compound his error of evidentialism, he makes the claim that the Earth (as well as the rest of the universe) is old. For example, he cites the distance of the stars from us. ...while he appeared to use the process of logical deduction to justify his argument for an 'old earth,' he may not have considered that the stars were made AFTER the earth was formed as recorded in Genesis 1.

"It is very troubling that he does not appear to acknowledge the sovereignty of God."

It may also be that God created the whole universe five seconds ago, including the memories in our minds.  If God wanted us to believe the stars were young, He could have put them less than ten billion light years away.  So I deduce that He doesn't mind if we believe what all the evidence  He created points to.

I'm not sure how that denies the "sovereignty of God," or why that term, which I find nowhere in Scripture and think rather unwieldy, is so popular, anyway.   

"The book DOES NOT respond well 'to the emerging challenges to God and Christianity,' unless, of course, you're the author. He has admitted that he's not a scientist (and neither am I in the sense of the disciplines other than theology). Concurrently, neither one of us are polymaths. With that said, I do not know what qualifies him to be able to refute their claims while at the same time agreeing with them on the age of the universe and the 'evolution' of species. You either believe in evolution and toss aside the claims of Scripture, or it's the other way around. You cannot have it both ways."

So if someone is convinced that evolution has occurred, and cannot unconvinced himself, by Justin's argument, it would be better that he not believe in the Bible, than that he do? 

If Jason is arguing that one can only argue about the age of the earth or evolution if one is a scientist, then he puts his own position at a far greater disadvantage than ours.  Among non-scientists, you will find plenty of people who deny the age of the Earth and evolution, in the sense of common decent.  If we make an appeal to authority on these issues, Old Earth and Common Descent will win the argument in a rout. 

But let's try to figure the issues out from the facts that we know.   

No, I'm not a scientist.  I don't think I'm a fool, either, and have had an interest in these areas of science for more than 30 years.  I'm not asking anyone to take my conclusions about science on authority, which is why I argue briefly for each of them.  Those chapters were read by eminent scientists before going to press, and seemed to pass muster. 

"Marshall sought to address the arguments presented by the people he's responding to where they seem to suggest that God (or their gods) came up out of primitive societies and that we are now becoming more enlightened to where we can shelve the very idea and notion of God. However, in doing so, he horribly stumbles in his efforts to reply to their cavils. All that kept screaming through my mind was, 'ROMANS 1! ROMANS 1!'  This was clearly an attempt to argue his points by using their position. You just simply cannot do that! It's a very bad form of apologetics - if it is to be considered such."

I hope Justin will fill out his complaint a bit, here.  I had Romans 1, and Acts 17, very much in mind as I wrote the section on how awareness of God has unexpectedly (to skeptics like Hume or Durkheim) proven common around the world -- as Paul clearly anticipated.  This is, in my opinion, a powerful piece of evidence (sorry!) for the truth of Christianity, which I have developed on this site in the form of TACT -- Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence.  (See my recent response to Don Page, for instance -- Romans 1 and Acts 14 and 17 are very important to our discussion.)

"Marshall attempted to answer the critics of Scripture, who obviously find fault with some of the accounts, especially with regard to the citizens of Sodom attempting to do unseemly things to Lot's guests, as well as with the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter (pp.97-98). nI'll give him the benefit of a doubt that this is what he's failing to see: they're borrowing from the Christian worldview to justify their condemnation of Scripture.  Since they're using convenient snippets to rationalize their hatred toward God and the whole counsel of His Word, it only goes to show that Marshall is chasing the winds that they're blowing instead of looking at the big picture and answering them by displaying that Scripture clearly shows that man is sinful and God is holy. Sin has consequences, whether we admit it or deny it.  We are all born in original sin and we have no hope outside of Christ. Marshall would have been wise to answer it this way instead of going "line by line" to repudiate their sophistries.  But, the theology and philosophy that he appears to subscribe to had much to do with how he replied, and it handicapped him in the process."

I'm not quite sure what Justin is getting at, here.  If he means that apart from the Bible, no one would think of complaining about some of the stranger passages in the Bible, well that's obviously not true.  They have, for instance in Medieval China.  In a larger sense, it is true that modern skeptics are drawing on reforms that the Gospel has brought the world, to complain about the Gospel that raised them.  (In fact, this is a point I plan to press in my debate with Dr. Zuckerman on Saturday -- he as much as admits it, in one of his books.)  But it's hard to be sure exactly where I am alleged to go wrong, here.   

"As I continued to read the material, it became quite obvious to me that Marshall spent a great deal of time mentioning how much Richard Dawkins was cherry-picking pieces of Scripture to suit his agenda - even to the point of going to pieces of anti-canonical literature such as the 'Gospel of Thomas.'  Marshall was right to call Dawkins' bluff on the matter.  The long of it and the short of it is that Dawkins and his like-minded minions will find every excuse in the book (no pun intended) to justify their sin of unbelief (which is something Marshall DID NOT say - unfortunately).  I did like what Marshall said at one point in Chapter 7: 'The argument to authority, when properly used, can be a useful tool of rational thought...Those who idolize the scientific method often seem to lose the art of careful historical thinking.'"

"Probably the greatest difficulty for me was that I had to trough through the earlier chapters in order to get to the section about Truth and Consequences.  It just seemed like it did not flow well.  With that said, I also felt like his writing style was a bit sluggish and somewhat overloaded to fill space.  That may not be necessarily what he implied and intended, but that is this reviewer's perception."

Other readers have praised the style, which seems to appeal to some tastes, and put a few people off.  Justin appears more sympathetic with my arguments in the later chapters, which may also influence his perception of how those unpleasant, Old Earth early chapters "flow."  But kudus to him for toughing it out. 

World Religions and Evidence, Again

"Another major distraction with the book was the fact that he appeared to be comparing Christ with other religions in a seemingly positive way.  Perhaps much of this comes from his exposure to other cultures (and I'm sure that he will validate it one way or another), but I really don't see what purpose that was meant to serve when it came to repudiating these people.  It is possible that it did expose his evidentialism as opposed to having a complete presuppositional reliance upon the whole counsel of God."

Yes, I do "compare Christ" in a positive way, briefly, as did Paul in Athens.  I show in my dissertation that the "fulfillment" approach is biblical, and why "exclusivism" is biblically unsound as well as intellectually flawed.  But this is a third major issue on which I would need to convince Justin, which is not the purpose of this particular volume. 

"Furthermore, I couldn't get past how he could claim Presbyterian roots and yet appear to have evidentialist overtures. I don't know if this was his way of trying to refute atheist claims (which is what needed to be done), or if he was trying to reach a broader audience and not just 'preach' to a Reformed choir - for lack of a better term. Either way, I thought that this was a major distraction."

I can understand why a Calvinist might feel that way.  I'm not a Calvinist, though I have deep respect both for John Calvin and for my friends in the Presbyterian Church, which is frankly my favorite denomination, despite my disagreements. 

Calvin's read of Acts 17 is just wrong, in my opinion.  Not so much wrong in details -- and it is Calvin whom Alvin Plantinga quotes when he writes of a "divine sense" -- but in his uncharitable read of Luke and of the pagans with whom Paul engaged.  He sees Paul merely as refuting and rebuking the Athenians, which is not the whole story, nor is it the tone Paul in fact takes.  And yes, I do also think a more friendly approach to non-Christian religions -- not naïve, not gullible, not affirming of error or evil -- does help in evangelism, and that the historical record demonstrates this fact. 

"I wish I could give this book more than 3 stars.  I really do.  Unfortunately, given that he actually validates some of their criticisms by agreeing with them on the age of the universe instead of staying completely on course with the whole counsel of God may have ruined his own credibility in the argument. Citing 'Christian' old-earth advocates such as Hugh Ross as opposed to Young Earth creationists such as Dr. Henry Morris and the Instutite for Creation Research (or even Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis) was a MAJOR minus.

And it is a "major minus" to me, when people start putting the word "Christian" in quote marks, like this, because they disagree with a person who is in fact so serious in his Christian faith as Hugh Ross seems to be.  This is a harmful state of mind, which I think is Calvin's most unfortunate characteristic, and one of the evils of his age of religious war, which I don't think we should emulate. 

"The absence of Dr. Kurt Wise in his text (whose Ph.D. mentor was none other than Stephen Jay Gould) also hurt his cause (for lack of a better term). At the same time, I can't just completely 'goose egg' him by giving him a 1-star review. He meant well and did put forth his best effort in dealing with people who hate God and have thrown warrantless excuses for doing so.  I can see that this is no easy task by any means.  Nonetheless, what he offered looks like a serious letdown, and I think that his evidentialism had much to do with this because it hampered him from offering a much better apologetic."

It's a little hard for me to understand why refusing to offer evidence would make my argument stronger.  Nor do I think that citing crackpot "scientists" (sorry, but let me be frank, and surely it is more legitimate to question whether Ken Ham is a scientist, than whether Hugh Ross is a Christian) would have helped gained credibility with real ones, either. 

I am not speaking of Kurt Wise, whom I do not know. 

"To put things in a nutshell, the 'New Atheism' spokespeople are no different than the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, with the exception that they do not acknowledge God but are nonetheless 'thankful' that they are not 'even like this tax collector' (read Christian); whereas, while there have been many who have done evil things in the name of religion (John 16:2), there have been those whom God has convicted of their sin(s) like the tax collector mentioned in the above parable - which these spokespeople appear to have conveniently left out. Thus, for them to appear to have all the answers and to be the final authority on all matters only proves how much hubris they have along with an abject dearth of humility - along with the fact that they refuse to deal honestly with Scripture and with the Church as a whole as means to defend their arguments.

Well, Justin, I'm sorry you didn't much enjoy my book.  It appears that we have some pretty fundamental disagreements.  Perhaps we can talk more about some of those other issues, another day.  But thanks for giving it a shot, and doing your best (most of the time, anyway) to be fair. 

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