Jun 2 2014

Hear Me Roar!

Around 1 BC, a lovely fellow by the name of Hilarion writes a letter to his pregnant wife Alis:

I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child, if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it.

This is a reference to the very common practice of exposure in ancient Greece and Rome. Fathers favored bouncing baby boys; girls and sickly boys, not so much.

Romulus and Remus

Infanticide played a central role in Rome’s founding myth. Twins Romulus and Remus are thrown into the River Tiber by their great uncle, survive, and are raised by a wolf [credit: CellarDoor85/Wikimedia].

Exposure was was not always fatal. A few infants were picked up and sold to be raised as slaves, beggars, prostitutes, and gladiators. A fortunate few might have been adopted into good families.

Ancient writers took special note of practices that went beyond the norms of Greco-Roman culture. Aristotle observes that Jews rear all their children, not just the ones they want. Josephus makes exactly the same point four centuries later when he defends the Jewish way of life against its pagan critics.

In this tiny snapshot of family life we see a truly staggering difference between the prevailing pagan worldview and the Biblical worldview. The Hebrew Scriptures show a deep respect for family and children. Adam and Eve are instructed to be “fruitful and multiply” (Ge. 1:28). The Mosaic Law specifies penalties for babies who are harmed by violence (Ex. 21:22-25). Josiah is marked out as a good king for cracking down on child sacrifice (2 Ki. 23:10).

Naturally, as Jews converted to Christianity, they brought these Biblical values into the early church. It is hard to imagine that they would countenance the practice of exposure among their Gentile brethren. The New Testament builds on this respect for children. Jesus shows compassion for children (Mt. 19:13-15). Fathers are warned against inciting anger in their children (Eph. 6:4). And, most of all, the nativity accounts of Jesus show that life begins at conception and never depends for its value on the judgment of men—neither betrothed husband Joseph nor murderous King Herod.

These attitudes must have had a profound effect on pagan women who came into contact with Christianity. As a man, I can hardly put myself in their position. Even so, it must have been heart breaking for a woman to carry a child to term and give birth, only to be told that her beautiful baby daughter is to be discarded because she is (like her mother) “only” female.

Christians not only had a different view of children, they had a different view of men. There was no double standard on sexual behavior: men were just as accountable as women (Heb. 13:4). Divorce was limited and rare (Matt. 19:9). Although husbands were the head of the family, they were expected to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). They were to treat their wives as fellow heirs of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7).

Early Christianity was pro-life across the board and so, in a very real sense, pro-women. Sadly, the benefits for women declined over time, for two important reasons. First, church interests became increasingly entangled in state interests. As the imperial church came to mirror the world, it lost its distinctive appeal to society’s most vulnerable groups. And second, theologians began to develop views on marriage and women that flatly contradicted Biblical teaching (which Paul anticipated in 1 Tim. 4:1-3). Priests, forbidden from marriage, would simply avail themselves of concubines which, by the way, were a vestige of pagan Rome.

Some might argue that the modern state now protects the interests of women and children to a degree that the early church never could. Even if the average Christian woman of the 1st century was better off than her pagan neighbor, she would still have to submit to her husband at home and to male authority figures within the church. This continues to get under the skin of radical feminists, which is why they will always push for more state involvement in marriage, family, and faith.

Feminists have all but won the culture war on this front. “I am woman, hear me roar,” right? And yet, when we look at the price of victory—abortion (the new child sacrifice), divorce, homosexuality, population decline in the West (just like the Roman Empire in its waning years), sex selection (biased against girl babies in many cultures), legalized prostitution, sexual promiscuity, rampant STDs, cohabitation (the new concubinage), men avoiding marriage, etc., etc.—we have to wonder whether winning the culture war simply amounts to winning back the pagan past.

Is that a good thing? Are we, as a society, better off for all of that? And especially, are women and children really better off now that the radical feminists have everything they ever wanted, and more?

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think magazine, January 2013, p. 19.]

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.

Jul 1 2012

Slaughter of the Innocents

Almost every system of values has its supreme goal or highest good. Depending on the ethical theory, this could be something like happiness, or self-interest, or tolerance, or the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people. From a Biblical standpoint, the highest good is to love God and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; 1 John 5:2). On this view, my actions are morally right if they demonstrate a love for God and are consistent with what God wants me to do. In ethical circles this is often dubbed the Divine Command Theory (DCT).

A long-standing criticism of the DCT is that it could end up condoning acts of horrific cruelty. We might have to accept, for instance, that torturing animals for fun and profit is right and good if God commands it. As a matter of fact, the God of the Bible has condoned no such thing, but that’s not the point. If God told me to torture animals then I, as a dutiful servant of God, would have to agree that it was the right thing to do. If I don’t agree, then I would have to concede that right and wrong depend on something other than God.

Atheists are fond of this argument because it follows a similar line of reasoning developed by Plato in his Euthyphro dialogue.[1] But the gods in Plato’s sights – the Olympian gods of popular Greek religion – were notoriously cruel and arbitrary. Plato never knew the God of the Bible. He never knew a God who was both all-powerful and all-good. From the standpoint of Biblical morality, it is right to obey a divine command, not because it comes from a God who happens to like the idea, but because it comes from a God who is just and loving.

This is a more nuanced version of the Divine Command Theory, but critics still see chinks in the armor. The problem now is not what a supremely powerful being might command, but of what the God of the Bible actually did command. If God is a just and loving God then why, for instance, did He order the slaughter of innocent children?

We cannot paper over this problem. As the Israelites were preparing to enter Canaan, God ordered the “complete destruction” of its existing inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:2). It wasn’t long before they put this plan into effect at Jericho: “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old” (Joshua 6:21). And it was still in effect when Saul attacked the Amalekites. “Do not spare them,” God says, “but kill both man and woman, child and infant” (1 Samuel 15:3).

How do we respond? First, it was a case of kill or be killed. This might offend our modern sensibilities, but the Israelites faced overwhelming numerical odds (Deuteronomy 7:1). Their opponents would give them no quarter, and the Israelites could afford to give no quarter in return. Like it or not, these were the rules of engagement. But why was it so important to win at all costs? This brings us to the second and most significant point: if the Israelites failed to survive as a covenant people, then there would be no Christ, no Lion of the tribe of Judah, no Root of David, to win a final victory over sin and death (Revelation 5:5).

In rehearsing some of these same points, William Lane Craig reminds his skeptical readers that they are the beneficiaries of an ethical tradition that values human life.[2] Their squeamishness over the treatment of non-combatants would not be possible without the final and full revelation of the Biblical worldview. When Richard Dawkins subsequently denounced Craig as an apologist for genocide,[3] we have to assume that Dawkins has a low opinion of genocide, and then we have to wonder how he arrived at that opinion. It didn’t come from nature or evolution, and it certainly didn’t come from the Bronze Age Canaanites.

The broad sweep of redemptive history reveals a God who is loving and just (Romans 3:21-26). When this same God ordered His own people to destroy or be destroyed then perhaps, and only perhaps, can we begin to understand how desperately we needed His plan to succeed.

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

[1] Louise M. Anthony, “Good minus God,” The New York Times, December 18, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/

[2] William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites.” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

[3] Richard Dawkins, “Why I refuse to debate William Lane Craig,” The Guardian, October 20, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig


May 1 2012

Once, Twice, Three Times an Immigrant

Ground Zero mural

Ground Zero mural commissioned by Yakov Smirnoff

As Yakov Smirnoff would often say, “I love this country.” The Ukrainian-born comedian built a sizeable career on this line and his signature Russian reversals.

In America, you always find a party.
In Russia, Party always find you.

For Smirnoff, these jokes were only partly tongue in cheek. They reflected an abiding appreciation for the economic and personal freedoms of his newly adopted country. On July 4, 1986, Smirnoff took the Oath of Allegiance on Ellis Island with a scale-size model of the Statue of Liberty in his hand. After the 9-11 attacks he used $100,000 of his own money to mount a patriotic mural near Ground Zero.[1]

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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.