Feb 1 2013

Take Sweden

Although I have never been there myself, I hear that Sweden is a great place to live. I hear it a lot. People rave about the country’s cradle-to-the-grave social welfare system.

Apparently, big government is good for Swedes, and Swedes are good for each other. More than 80% believe it is safe to walk alone at night. A majority donates to charity, and a majority is very trusting toward others.[1] They sound like good people. We might even say that they sound like good Christians, except that Sweden is supposed to be one of the most secular nations in the world.

By some estimates, only 2-4% of Swedes attend worship services every week.[2] Only 23% say they believe in God.[3]

Swedish church

Atheists look at these numbers and conclude that it is indeed possible for good people to do good things without believing in God. Listen to biologist and militant atheist, Jerry Coyne,

Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness. That experiment has already been done—in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists. I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok.[4]

But is Sweden largely filled with non-believers and atheists?

In addition to those who believe in God, another 53% believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Only 23% say there is no God, spirit or life force. These results come from a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2005. Like a lot of surveys on religion, the wording of these questions leaves a lot to be desired. Are more than half of Swedes now pagans and New Agers, because they confidently assert a belief in spirit beings and occult forces? Or did they choose this option because they are not really sure what to believe, but are willing to admit that there is more to this world than meets the eye?[5] No matter how you read the results, this is a long way from non-belief and atheism.

As usual, the picture gets more complicated as we dig deeper. For instance, around 74% of Swedes are registered members of the Church of Sweden. A significant proportion of the population continues to rely on the national church for christenings, confirmation, marriage, and funerals.[6] In one very detailed study of Enköping—a small city west of Stockholm—64.8% describe themselves as either “Strong Christian” or “Mildly Christian,” and another 19.7% identify with “Non-Confessional” churches. In other words, almost 85% of the city’s residents consider themselves to be Christian in some sense or another. Only 10.9% consider themselves to be “Atheists.”[7]

None of this is really surprising. The Swedish state and the Lutheran church were bound together for over four centuries. Being a member of the Church of Sweden was compulsory until 1952. It was not officially divorced from the state until the year 2000.[8]

So, when someone like Coyne visits Sweden, he is going to feel safe, and he is going to enjoy the fact that people are not packing the pews on Sunday. It may be secular, but it is hardly an atheist’s paradise.

Modern Sweden is secular because its people never really had to fight for their faith. To be a citizen of Sweden was to be part of the faith community. It had little to do with right beliefs, right worship, and righteous living. Next, Sweden is secular because the state gradually took over the responsibilities of the church. This is easy to do when church and state are so closely connected. And Sweden is secular because the official church grew increasingly out of step with its own people. An irrelevant monopoly is still a monopoly. The viable and legal alternatives were few and far between.[9]

But the underlying morality of Swedish society was baked into the country a long time ago. It had a lot to do with the church. It also had a lot to do with Sweden’s tremendous sense of national unity. It is easier to be nice to people who share your language, culture, and heritage. It is easier to pay your fair share of taxes when you know all your neighbors are paying, and using, their fair share of taxes, too.

If you want to highlight a country for its secular morality, and want to live there, you are going to have to look elsewhere. May I suggest Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, for starters?

Atheists like Coyne benefit tremendously from living in a diverse, multicultural society with a strong Christian heritage. E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one.” But how can we be one if we do not share a common morality? Without God, there is no way to decide what that morality should be.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, February 2013, p. 24]

 


[1] “The 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index.” The Legatum Institute. http://www.prosperity.com/CountryProfile.aspx?id=752

[2] Byron J. Nordstrom, Culture and Customs of Sweden (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010), p. 41.

[3] Eurobarometer 225: Social Values, Science and Technology. European Commission publication, 2005. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf

[4] Jerry A. Coyne, “As atheists know, you can be good without God.” USA Today. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-07-31-atheism-morality-evolution-religion_n.htm

[5] See also Rodney Stark, Exploring the Religious Life (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 126.

[6] Nordstrom, pp. 32,41.

[7] Nordstrom, pp. 41-42. Again, the devil’s in the details. Identifying oneself as belonging to a church, especially the Church of Sweden, is not the same as believing in what the church teaches.

[8] Nordstrom, p. 31.

[9] Richard F. Tomasson, “Religion is irrelevant in Sweden,” in Jeffrey K. Hadden, editor, Religion in Radical Transition (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1970), pp. 111-127.


May 13 2012

fiscus Christianus

After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Romans added insult to injury by turning the Temple Tax into the Jewish Tax (the infamous fiscus Judaicus). The half-shekel that was originally offered to the Lord’s sanctuary (Exodus 30:13) was now being sent to Jupiter’s temple in Rome. Jews were required to pay this tax on top of all the regular Roman taxes.

As you can probably imagine, the Jewish community resented every denarius that found its way into the coffers of their pagan oppressors. The Jews of Palestine, in particular, honed their passive-aggressive evasion of taxes into a fine art.[1] We see a glimpse of this simmering hostility in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians in Matthew 22. The Lord’s response on that occasion became the definitive Christian view: “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Christians believe in paying their taxes, but this doesn’t mean they like where the money is going. They have long objected to federal funding of abortions, and the idea of using tax money to support “spouses” of homosexual public employees seems no less odious.

On a broader level, Christians have a strong track record of giving to the local church and church-related organizations, and so are often ambivalent to government spending on social services. Critics complain that these donations do not represent real charity. Giving money to the church, they insist, is like paying a club membership fee, and has little to do with housing the homeless or feeding the poor. Except that it does. As Albert Brooks has observed from extensive survey data, religious people are “more charitable in every nonreligious way—including secular donations, informal giving, and even acts of kindness and honesty—than secularists.”[2]

In my view, tax-supported funding of materialistic science comes closer than anything else to a kind of fiscus Christianus. Following the triumph of Darwinism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, major universities, museums, and research institutes succeeded in marginalizing people of faith. Striking evidence of this coup shows up in the ranks of the National Academy of Sciences. According to one poll conducted in the late 1990s, only 7% of NAS members profess a “personal belief” in God.[3]

Charles Darwin coin

"Render therefore unto Darwin the things are Darwin's." The Royal Mint of Britain issued a two-pound coin in 2009 to celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth.

Meanwhile, the dissidents are suppressed at every turn. Caroline Crocker earned her Ph.D. in immunopharmacology and had an outstanding teaching reputation before losing her job at George Mason University. Her plight was featured in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, but this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are countless unpublicized stories of discrimination against Darwin dissenters and religious conservatives.

Being hounded out of a job is only part of the story. Billions of tax dollars are committed every year to support Big Bang cosmology, evolutionary biology, and other pursuits of materialistic science.

Christians have been asked through their tax dollars to fund missions to Mars because it is inconceivable that life could have evolved only on Earth. Ditto for funding of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). They have been asked to fund museum exhibits that portray the story of human evolution. They have been asked to fund large-scale physics experiments that promise to tell us how something could have come from nothing. In other words, the very same people who are obligated by God to pay their taxes are the very same people who are expected to fund the Temple of Darwin’s outreach efforts.

Thankfully, the Darwinian-industrial complex doesn’t always get what it asks for. The Superconducting Super Collider was supposed to find the Higgs boson – what Leon Lederman dubbed the “God particle” in his 1993 book of the same name. It was cancelled when cost projections climbed to the $12 billion mark, but only after researchers spent two billion dollars on a boondoggle now littering the Texas countryside.

Meanwhile, students seeking relief from the materialist worldview and its sordid consequences must pay a premium to attend a private, church-affiliated school. If they choose instead to attend a public university they will feel decidedly unwelcome in a variety of subject areas, and will have their views silenced by campus-wide speech codes.

Opportunities may be limited at the next academic level, as well. Graduate counseling students who are morally opposed to homosexuality have been required to spend extra time and money on changing their religiously-deluded minds. Eugene Volokh, of the UCLA Law School, calls this a “viewpoint-based tax.”[4]

So although there is no fiscus Christianus as such, at least not officially, Christians are still being made to support a system that is institutionally opposed to their faith.

Many Christians call or write their representatives when moral issues are at stake: abortion, homosexual “marriage,” or what have you. But how many write to object to the funding of materialistic science? How many have looked into the cost of these projects? How many have wondered whether their favorite public university supports the First Amendment?[5] Maybe it’s time to start.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think magazine, April 2012, as “The Tax on Being a Christian,” p. 8.]

 


[1] Menachem Elon, “Taxation: Legal Aspects,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2007, 19:535.

[2] Albert C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. New York: Basic Books, 2006, p. 38.

[3] Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, “Leading Scientists Still Reject God,” Nature, 1998, 394:313.

[4] Eugene Volokh, Brief of FIRE and NAS as Amicus Curiae in support of Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, et al., October 19, 2010.

[5] The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps a database of speech restrictions at http://thefire.org/.


Mar 7 2012

Of Magick and Miracles

When atheists are looking to blame Christianity for all that is wrong in the world, they are inclined to run through the usual litany of crimes against humanity, including the Crusades and the house arrest of Galileo.[1]

My first reaction is to say that this has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. My second reaction is to point out that much of what we think we know about these events comes to us from people who have an axe to grind against the medieval Catholic Church, Christianity, religion, or all the above. Real historians have done their best to set the record straight, which the New Atheists blithely ignore as they regale the unfaithful with sordid tales of Christians acting unchristianly.

The same rap sheet usually includes the witch-hunts of the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to some estimates, around 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and as many as 60,000 may have been executed.[2] Critics blame these horrors on what they take to be the inherent evils of religion. In the Enlightenment, the medieval church was faulted for its irrational belief in witchcraft. Today, in the cultural morass we call Postmodernism, the medieval church is faulted for using witchcraft as an excuse to pick on lonely elderly women, or practitioners of pre-Christian pagan beliefs, or both. The first angers the feminists, and the second has become a cause célèbre of New Age Wiccans.

Again, I would reply that the witch hunters were hardly following the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Nor were they following legal precedent from the so-called Dark Ages. In 785, Charlemagne enacted martial law on the newly conquered pagans of Saxony. Article 6 of that law blamed belief in witchcraft on the deceits of the devil, and imposed the death penalty on anyone who burned a witch.[3] Misguided vigilantes posed more of a threat to life and property than a few pagan “witches.” So much for the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne and his contemporaries wrote magic off as a pagan fantasy. In this respect, they were closer to the Christian worldview. From a Biblical standpoint, nature works in a regular way until God intervenes. There is no room for magic and witchcraft because God reigns supremely over both the natural and the supernatural. The great witch hunts of later centuries undermined this view by giving witchcraft a newfound credibility.[4]

The whole point of magic – or maybe that should be magick – is that there are hidden forces within nature that can be manipulated for good or evil. Don’t get this confused with magic used as a plot element in Lewis’ Narnia series or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And don’t get this confused with the stage magic used by entertainers who pull rabbits out of their hats. To claim that magick is something more – that it is metaphysically real – is to deny the Biblical worldview.

This is why the Bible takes a no-holds-barred approach to magick, sorcery and divination. Under the Old Law, sorceresses were put to death (Exodus 22:18). This may sound harsh, but sorcery represented a clear and present danger to God’s chosen nation. If the Israelites could be conned into thinking that a pagan sorceress had real gifts of sorcery, then perhaps they could be conned into accepting her prophetic guidance as well, which could lead the people into soul- and life-threatening situations.

This helps us understand a potentially difficult passage in 1 Samuel 28. On the eve of his final battle, Saul consults the medium of En Dor. He asks her to conduct a séance with the dearly departed Samuel and, indeed, the spirit of the prophet appears in their presence. But is Samuel’s appearance a genuine piece of sorcery, or the work of God? The woman’s reaction gives it away: she cries out in a loud voice (vs. 12). She is shocked because she has never been able to summon the spirits of the dead. Her mediumship is a fraud, and she knows it. This is the work of God.

The same skepticism holds throughout the New Testament, and especially in Acts. Luke repeatedly draws a distinction between the real power of the apostles and the fraudulent claims of people like Simon and Elymas (8:9-25; 13:4-12). The apostles’ miracles are not tricks; they are not demonic; they are not self-serving. Their power is from God, just as the Gospel they are preaching is from God.

Mystics and charlatans were not the only ones with a magic problem. Christians in Ephesus still clung to their magical scrolls (19:18-19). Their worldview was confused and incomplete.

It has to make us wonder: How much stock do we put in black cats and four-leaf clovers? Maybe it’s not witches or magick for us. Maybe it’s something else, like astrology or evolution. But clearly there are consequences for not building a thoroughly Christian worldview.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, March 2012, p. 8.]



[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian. London: Routledge, 2004[1957], pp. 22,123,161; Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148,159; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006, pp. 1,37,41,166,308,312. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell. New York: Penguin, 2006, 30,43,408; ad nauseum.
[2] Edward Peters, “Witchcraft,” Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Garland, 2000, p. 1069. Peters’ figures are at the high end of estimates.
[3] See Arend Quak, editor, Speculum Saxonum. Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1999, 34 fn. 21. Article 6 reads as follows: “If anyone, deceived by the devil, believes, in the way pagans do, that some man or woman is a witch (strigam) and eats people and if for this reason he burns her and gives her flesh to be eaten, or eats it himself, he is to suffer the capital punishment.”
[4] Karen Jolly, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone, 2002, pp. 23-26.

Jan 9 2012

Blind Hopes

Whether they like it or not, evolutionists find themselves having to dabble in theology and philosophy. Typically they’re not very good at one, or the other, or both, but they don’t have a lot of choice. They know that religious belief predominates, and they know that the inference to design in nature is profoundly intuitive. It certainly was for David:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. – Psalm 139:14

To overturn three-plus millennia of what almost everyone knows very well is a tall order, and so hyper-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins know where they must begin:

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.[1]

They also know where the entire enterprise must end. Materialistic science leads to the soul destroying conclusion that there is no morality and no meaning. It’s a hard sell.

One brutally honest approach is to put the unadulterated wares on sale knowing that the local fast food chains will have better luck selling tofu burgers at their drive-through windows. This was Richard Dawkins in a more honest moment back in 1995:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[2]

Another approach, and the preferred mission model of the New Atheists, is to gussy up the product with a sprinkling of religion, or something that looks a lot like religion. It’s not always possible to tell whether this approach is unintentional, with religion sneaking in the back door, or just plain cynical, with atheists charging out of the portcullis to raid the enemy’s stores.[3] This is Dawkins in his latest outing, The Magic of Reality (2011).

What might be new for Dawkins is old hat for E.O. Wilson. “The evolutionary epic,” Wilson wrote back in 1978, “is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[4] Like many atheists, Wilson takes his myth-building cues from Prometheus – the old titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it back to man.

The true Promethean spirit of science . . . constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[5]

In the ancient Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound, the rebellious titan not only stole fire from the gods, but “caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.” That seems a worthy enough goal, at least at first glance. After all, who wants to go through life knowing that Zeus is about to blast the whole of humanity into Hades? Except that Prometheus adds deception to his crimes: “I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.”

The greater context of the “blind hopes” line is what makes militant atheists both less like and more like Prometheus than they usually admit. They’re less like Prometheus  because at least the titan saved humanity from the wrath of Zeus. Last time I checked, atheists have saved exactly zero souls from eternal punishment. (They haven’t done much for the living, either.[6]) And they’re more like Prometheus in that they need to offer a piece of deception along with their gift of all that counts as knowledge. If materialistic science is the only game in town, then “hope” is an answer to a question that nobody is allowed to ask. What can they pretend to offer in its place?

Unfortunately, evolution – the central creation story of materialistic science – is the perfect engine of despair. Not only is it depressingly “red in tooth and claw,”[7] it is entirely backward facing. Evolution cannot look forward to the next day, the next ice age, or the next asteroid impact. Evolution is blind. “It has no vision,” as an earlier Dawkins reminds us, “no foresight, no sight at all.”[8]

But not to worry: materialistic science will win the day. It will tell us everything we need to know.

And therein lays the deception. Materialism has shown itself to be entirely incapable of explaining the mind, the universe, life, and pretty much everything else important to the human experience. It can do even less for “the deepest needs of human nature.” Even if we lump the best of science and technology into this picture we will have no more than Prometheus’ gift of fire. It will give us something useful, perhaps, but not hopeful. It will allow us to plan and scheme based on what we see right in front of us, on what the devilish Uncle Wormwood would call “real life,”[9] on what crops we are growing and barns we are building,[10] but all such hopes are blind. What humanity needs so deeply is a future good, and nothing here and now will ever satisfy that need.[11]

[A version of this article appeared in Think, January 2012, p. 11.]



[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, p. 1.

[2] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: BasicBooks, 1995, p. 133.

[3] Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion. London: Routledge, 2002, p. 131.

[4] Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 201.

[5] Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 209.

[6] See, e.g., Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

[7] Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam, lvi.

[8] Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, p. 5.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. New York: Macmillan, 1961, p. 8.

[10] Luke 12:16-21.

[11] Romans 8:24; 1 Corinthians 15:19.


Apr 10 2011

Suffering Fools Gladly

It started in an undergraduate philosophy class. I sat back one day and decided to observe the interchange between professor and students over the problem of suffering. We were going step-by-step through the usual array of arguments, and seemed to be getting nowhere.

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