Categories
culture politics

Liberalism, Then and Now

We go now to Houston, Texas, where a referendum on a piece of anti-discrimination legislation resulted in the bill’s being defeated nearly 2-1 to by voters. The law, dubbed “HERO” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), was written to create broad sweeping mandates for all businesses, housing, and public accommodations pertaining to gender identity and sexual orientation. Under the law, for example, a business or a school could not prohibit a transgendered woman (born biologically male but identifying as female) from entering a women’s restroom.

The law’s critics complained–quite reasonably– that such a far-reaching act would 1) undermine the conscience rights of business owners and other individuals who had objections to such practices and 2) potentially create vulnerable situations that could be exploited by predators, particularly when it came to younger children in schools. The first concern was pretty blatantly justified last October when the city’s mayor, Annise Parker, subpoenaed sermons and other communiqué from local clergy who had criticized the law. Parker was sharply rebuked in many corners for the audacious move (she soon backed off), and in hindsight, one could probably infer the controversy played a significant role in solidifying opposition to the mayor’s bill.

But that’s not a satisfying explanation to editorial board of The New York Times. In a blistering, furiously angry editorial, the Times condemned Houston’s voters as “haters” and warned that “the bigots are destined to lose,” further predicting that the politicians opposed to the bill, including governor Greg Abbot, would be “remembered as latter-day Jim Crow elders.” Other progressive publications echoed the Times sentiments (though none that I saw achieved the theocratic sanctimony that the Times did).

Now what’s fascinating about all of this is that we are seeing, clearer than ever before, the kind of intense internal transformation that has happened inside American progressivism. It’s no small thing for The New York Times to call a plurality of Houston’s voters bigots and modern day segregationists if the city were refusing to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples. But nothing like that is happening. Instead, the Times calls down fire from heaven because the city doesn’t see the benefit of a far-reaching, dubiously enforced bill that potentially eliminates any and all meaningful public distinctions between the sexes; not to mention that nearly identical laws elsewhere have been used to strip florists and bakers of their businesses.

Houston’s ERO clearly legislated a specific, very progressive sexual morality, a morality that goes far above and beyond the United States’ admitted leftward pilgrimage on issues like homosexuality and same-sex marriage. There are many liberally-minded people in the country, friendly to the idea that a man or a woman should be able to marry whomever they desire, who nonetheless balk at the idea that restrooms and public showers should take no opinion on a patron’s genitalia.

The failure of the current generation of liberals to recognize the existence and validity of this middle ground is a remarkable shift for American progressivism. It’s remarkable because it is precisely the opposite of the argument that the architects of Obergefell, like Andrew Sullivan, pioneered. Sullivan’s “conservative case for gay marriage” was not predicated on the idea that gender is ultimately an issue of self-determination and that culture must acquisese or become oppressive. Rather, Sullivan’s case was the opposite: People are born with affection and desire for people of the opposite sex or their own sex, and in either case, marriage is a stabilizing, socially constructive outlet for that desire in a way that promotes the family unit.

Now of course, I didn’t and don’t find Sullivan’s conservative case for same-sex marriage compelling. But its truthfulness is beside the point. The point is that we are hardly a decade separated from an articulation of liberal sexual ideology that assumed the very concepts of cultural permanence and cross-political values that today’s progressives decry.

To put it another way: In the span of two presidential terms, liberalism has been transformed from a fight to widen the margins of culture to a fight to close them up. It’s particularly sobering to see the transformation in light of what justice Anthony Kennedy said in the majority opinion of Lawrence vs Texas, the landmark 2003 case that ruled state sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Kennedy’s words are remarkable:

The condemnation [of homosexual behavior] has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code…”

The question for today’s liberals is simple: Does Justice Kennedy’s articulation of liberty for all apply to those outside the Obergefell/ERO arc of history, or does it not? Are people who believe things about marriage, sexuality, and gender that President Barack Obama said only five years ago he believed entitled to meaningful public protection from current majoritarian values, or are they not? When Lawrence and Texas have switched places in the courtroom, what happens?

It’s difficult to see what the long term result of this radical evolution of American liberalism will be. There’s evidence of solidarity and strength, and the leftward leaps of the Democratic Party have helped smoothen liberalism’s ride. On the other hand, the debacle that seems to be unfolding on the campuses of American universities suggests that this new progressivism has some self-destructive tendencies. It may be that in the quest to finally stamp out the remnant opposition to the Sexual Revolution, liberalism will end up biting the hands that feed it.

Categories
Christianity pop culture

American Atheism’s Diversity Problem

Google the words “atheism” and “demographics” together, and the odds are you’re looking for information about the rise in the number of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic. And that’s perfectly fair; there has indeed been an unmistakeable rise for atheism, or the “Nones,” over the past decade. Unbelief has never been more in en vogue in culture than it is right now.

Assuming, of course, that the “culture” we are talking about is white male culture.

It turns out that atheism in the United States is very male and very white. According to a new one-sheeter put out by Pew Research, 68% of self-identifying atheists in the country are male, while an astonishing 78% of them are white. That means that more than half of the US’s atheist population are Caucasian males.

Contrast that with the demographic data for religious groups in the country. Pew estimates that 54% of US Catholics are female, while only 59% are white. Evangelicalism–which many atheists endlessly lampoon as whitewashed and sexist–is more diverse than atheism, with more than half of US evangelicals being female and 76% being white. Collapsing all of the divisions under the “Christian” category in Pew’s data yields numbers that are significantly more diverse both in gender and in race than the numbers for American atheism.

I find this data so interesting because, in mainstream public forums like higher education and mass media, it is typically religion that is portrayed as stifling diversity and secularism as welcoming it. Much of the literature of the New Atheists takes massive broadsides, for example, at Christian churches that practice male-only eldership or that teach that husbands are to be spiritual heads of the home. It’s amusing to think that the same authors who are accusing religious people of practicing discrimination and prejudice are forming an intellectual culture that is actually less diverse than the churches they rail against.

This data is also interesting because it demonstrates the futility of trying to compact social trends under broadly sweeping statements like, “Americans are leaving religion.” As my friend Chris Martin has pointed out, those kinds of unqualified, all-inclusive sounding statements are always click-worthy but are more often than not simply incorrect. If what we mean by “Americans” is “white, male, college-educated Americans,” then the statement becomes more responsible. But of course, such synonymity is ridiculous; America is vastly more than its white, male, thirtysomething bloc.

It would be a mistake, of course, to act as if such demographic homogeneousness was itself some kind of sophisticated argument against atheism. It’s not, just like the homogeneously white history of my own denomination is not itself an indication that the resurrection of Christ is a false doctrine. But even if such facts do not affect the truthfulness of the biggest metaphysical claims being made, they do tend to reveal an internal logic to the belief system. My denomination’s pro-slavery origins reveals a white supremacist hermeneutic, for example, that struck at the very center of how my denominational ancestors would have understood the gospel of reconciliation. That’s the power of theology; it can either build slave plantations or build a biracial marriage.

So what does that tell us about the maleness and the whiteness of American atheism?  First, atheism, as a demographic, seems to be succeeding where most of the Christian denominations are failing–namely, with men. The appeal of atheism to younger men probably has less to do with its intellectual rigor and more to do with what Ross Douthat has identified as a kind of latent boredom in the West with religious and social traditions that have been undermined by progressive culture. There is a self-preserving, rebellious character to atheism that likely appeals to the atrophied moral imaginations of young men living in a lifeless sort of post-confessional, hyper-pluralistic society.

Secondly, atheism’s demographic shortcomings among minorities suggests that its appeal is not, in fact, to people who have been on the wrong side of privilege but on the powerful side. Atheism’s success on the college campus seems to be tilted generously towards white students and not towards minority students who we might instinctively think have more of a complaint against the “power structures” of religion. This too would be a significant corrective to the image of atheism and religion that is often presented in college and in media.

In any event, the whiteness and maleness of American atheism is a fascinating demographic reality and not one, I think, that many would expect or assume. Truth is sneaky like that, I suppose.

Categories
Christianity culture religious liberty

Gird Your Slander Like a Man

At the inglorious Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern writes that Mets slugger Daniel Murphy cost his team the World Series–and that’s a good thing. You see, the problem with Murphy is that he’s a really, really bad person. Why? Because he still believes things that the Christian religion teaches! (Oh the humanity!)

You know where Stern is going with this already, don’t you? He decries Murphy as “perhaps the most explicitly and unabashedly anti-gay figure in major league sports today,” and here’s all the evidence you need for that claim:

Earlier this year, Murphy unloaded his thoughts about Billy Bean, an openly gay retired player and Major League Baseball’s Ambassador for Inclusion:

“I disagree with his lifestyle. I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. I don’t think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect. Getting to know him. That, I would say, you can still accept them but I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent.”

Let’s stop right here and clarify something important. If you think that quotation from Daniel Murphy is an example of hate speech, then, by the rules of logic, you believe that Christianity is inherently hateful. Full stop. If what Murphy said in that quotation is bigotry, then Christianity itself is an act of bigotry. There’s no way around this.

What Murphy said isn’t just representative of the 2,000+ year testimony of the religion that he claims, it is such a basic, such a non-incisive commentary that it could have been spoken by the overwhelming majority of all religious people around the world. That leaves me with a simple question for Stern: When you go on, as you do in the article, to blame Murphy’s beliefs for the suicides and abuse of LGBT teenagers, why don’t you take ownership of your belief that religion itself causes gay teenagers to die? What is stopping you from finishing that thought? Is there really honor in suggesting that such a simple statement of religious conviction about sexuality is violence-fomenting hate speech, but not actually attacking the source of the hate? I don’t think so.

What you have in this piece is a classic example of shoot-then-run journalism. Stern is more than willing to implicate Murphy and people like him in the deaths of LGBT youths, but he’s not willing to give an intellectually cogent explanation as to why they’re implicated. He asks his readers to embrace the idea that Murphy is a bigot who has merited the wrath of the Sexual Revolution’s gods, but without the courage to articulate why that is. He has an explanation, of course–Christianity (and most religion) is hatefulness incarnate–but articulating that explanation would merely expose his own prejudice. There’s an appalling unwillingness here to own one’s own beliefs, to pursue a meaningful case against the very people in whose disappointments and sadness you openly rejoice.

If you’re going to accuse someone of hate, but you can’t bring yourself to implicate the greater worldview realities at work, then you’re not an advocate for justice or a warrior for equality. You’re just a coward.

Categories
culture life movies pop culture

I Miss Blockbuster

I miss Blockbuster.

Hopefully you know what I’m talking about: The video rental megachain that for years was the first place you’d check if you wanted to watch a movie on a slow Friday night. Not long ago a movie was either playing in the cinema, renting out at Blockbuster, or was (for the moment anyway) unwatchable. For years, Blockbuster was the only way to watch a particular movie at home without shelling out for the full cost of the video/DVD (remember when that distinction was a HUGE deal?). If you wanted to watch a movie you didn’t have, you went to Blockbuster.

Oh sure, Blockbuster had competition, in the same way that Wal-Mart has “competition.” Its rival stores would boast either more selection, better pricing, or longer rental times. It didn’t matter, really. Blockbuster was a cultural fixture, an institution as much as a company. If you were renting a movie, you “went to the Blockbuster,” even if technically the words on the building said something else– just like most of the country asks for a Coke even when they just mean soda.

I remember the Blockbuster on Bardstown Road, just 2 minutes from the house I grew up in here in Louisville. I remember Dad and I walking inside trying to find new movies that looked interesting but that we had missed in theaters. I remember the manager of that store mainly because he was a younger looking man who stayed at that same Blockbuster for over 8 years (even as our Blockbuster runs became more sporadic over the years, the manager remained familiar to us, and eventually I just asked him). Eight years at a Blockbuster?

Nowadays, the wooden rows of new hits and old favorites have been replaced by invisible “My List” queues on Netflix and pixelated “Stream Now” buttons on iTunes and Amazon. Blockbuster went out of business a few years ago, squeezed between the emerging technology of instant streaming and the $0 overhead of Redbox. Of course, that’s how business and history go. Instant streaming is too convenient to fire up the car for a Blockbuster run. Redbox is too cheap to justify a 4 dollar, 4 night rental, that required a second trip back to the store. Innovation and technology booted the old ways. That’s how things go.

But there is something to lament here. There is something to lament about the end of a ritual, one that required actually going and being somewhere. To rent a movie once meant going to a store, and seeing other people, possibly someone you knew. It once meant actually leaving the house and seeing people and things and places that reminded you that you weren’t the only person in your city that wanted to watch a movie–or maybe even that particular movie–that night.

Do you think it’s possible we’ve lost that in the Netflix Age? I think so. It seems every cultural recreation has been reduced to its most basic mechanics. “Watching a movie” becomes “streaming a movie,” and in that vocabularly shift we have the loss of things like video stores and the people inside them. “Listening to music” becomes “downloading music” and in that we see the disappearance of things like record stores, and the people inside of those. You see what has happened? Technology has freed us from hassle and expense mainly by freeing us from others.

Maybe that’s why I got nostalgic for Blockbuster. You see, with Netflix, there’s no Bardstown Road store, with a manager of 8 years who probably has some interesting stories. With Spotify, there’s no “Book and Music Exchange,” where I might see that one album from my childhood that I had completely forgotten about but that the mere sight of has brought me back to a particular time in my life. All of that has now been replaced with something called a “Search” form, a one way road to getting exactly what I want without having to deal with anything that might pull my attention elsewhere.

I miss Blockbuster. Of course, if I have a hankering for a kind of Blockbuster experience, I have options. A local “family video” store offers less stock for less price. And of course there’s always Redbox, where a little self-discipline and memory can give me and Emily a $1 movie night. I’m not hurting for choices, and I’m not complaining. I suppose I’m just remembering a ritual from years gone by, a ritual that probably seemed inconvenient and expensive and crowded at the time. Now, it just seems fun.

Categories
culture life movies

Character and Courage

I saw the new Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies last weekend. My wife and I enjoyed it. It’s an engrossing, well-acted movie, beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List). Fair warning: This is a Cold War movie in more than subject matter; if you’re looking for explosions and gunfights, head elsewhere. Bridge of Spies is a movie for people who enjoy listening to other people talk.

Tom Hanks portrays James B. Donovan, the real-life insurance lawyer at the height of the Cold War who was asked to defend a suspect Soviet spy in court. I’ll leave enough unsaid to give those of you who (like me) don’t know the history a cause to see the film, but I’ll summarize it thusly: Donovan risked his professional and personal life in representing Rudolf Abel, and then did it all again–at the further behest of his country–by entering East Germany to negotiate a crucial prisoner exchange with the Germans and Russians.

Donovan was a man of remarkable courage. He cut across the passions of the country by insisting that Abel be represented fairly, even to the Supreme Court. He presciently warned the civil judge who sentenced Abel that a death penalty would ruin any chance to use him as leverage in case the Soviets captured an American. And he stood his ground with Soviet negotiators, insisting on favorable terms even when threatened. One of the characters in the film gives Donovan the nickname “Standing Man.” It suits him.

Resolute character in the face of intense opposition is a favorite theme of Spielberg. He seems to relish the stories of those kind of men, whether real (Abraham Lincoln, Oskar Schindler) or imaginary (Capt. John Miller). Courageous people are obviously of evergreen interest to novelists and filmmakers, but one thing that sets Spielberg’s heroes apart is the courage of their self-mastery. Spielberg’s courageous characters are not merely brave in the culturally convenient senses of the word. They are not brave in their self-actualization; they are brave in their self-sacrifice. There is a tremendous difference.

If you were to ask most people today to list the 3 most important virtues, do you think courage would be on the list? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I don’t think that’s because we fail to see the necessity of courage. Rather, my guess is that, in a culture of pure self-actualization and assertion of “my story,” all of us simply believe that we are courageous by default. A generation’s worth of agonized psychological health campaigns and “self-esteem” parenting literature have made all of us deeply suspicious that we are being very courageous and very brave merely by getting out of the bed in the morning.

Consider the lyrics of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” one of the most popular songs of the last year. What is “Roar” if not a celebratory anthem for crowning oneself courageous for the achievement of existence?

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sit quietly, agree politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

What does “agree politely” and “past the breaking point” mean here? I guess it’s hypothetically possible that Perry has recorded an upbeat, catchy mainstream pop tune about domestic violence, but I doubt it. Perry gives us a clue what she means elsewhere in the song:

Now I’m floating like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes
I went from zero, to my own hero

The key phrase there is “my own hero.” Not YOUR hero. Not THEIR hero. MY own hero. Perry’s song is about freeing oneself from the life of what Ayn Rand called “second-handers,” people whose sense of identity consists in being approved and admired so much so that they forget to love anything else. That is indeed a noble goal, and one that can point towards heaven, as Screwtape warned Wormwood.

But does being “my own hero” also mean, as the chorus sings, “I am a champion”? Is asserting oneself as an individual really the deepest and most genuine form of courage? If it is, then I’m afraid men like James Donovan and Abraham Lincoln were deeply self-deceived. Those men believed the way they could courageous was not by asserting their own personal championhood, or becoming “their own hero” to the frustrated designs of those around them. Rather, people like Lincoln and Donovan were willing to lay down their lives for the cause of something outside them, for something that had lasted and would last well beyond their lives and their fortunes. Rather than asserting their inherent awesomeness, these men became servants. They chose to say “Here I am” rather than “Hear me roar.”

When Christ said that whoever keeps his life will lose it, he wasn’t merely being poetic. Claiming an autonomous self-dictation over our lives may bring with it the sensations of thrill and adventure, but ultimately, by losing our courage and our character, we become absorbed in the elementary systems of the world. It’s true that we should follow what is truth and right regardless of how many voices invite us elsewhere. But it’s just as true that truth and right are not determined by the dictates of our hearts. It’s not that we shouldn’t live for ourselves, it’s that we can’t. We were made to give ourselves up. That’s who we really are, and only in doing that can we become more like our true selves, more like what–or, indeed, like Who–we were meant to be.

Rather than being told to follow our heart, what my generation needs is to be told to lay down our lives for something great and true and beautiful and timeless. So much of what is mistaken for courage these days is merely the shriveling of the person back into itself. We should heed the example of James Donovan and be willing to give ourselves to others, to great causes, even to (that dreaded word!) institutions and places. Even if no movie is ever made about our courage, we have a Father in heaven who promises that if we lose our life, we will, in the end, find it.

Categories
Christianity economics education ethics

Christians and College Debt

I’ve found myself thinking about one particular classmate from my undergraduate years. We entered around the same time. He was able to graduate much sooner than I, though, mostly because his Sallie Mae loan covered enough of his college bill so that he could take a full load or more every semester without working many hours (if he worked at all). Unfortunately, my friend made an alarming discovery upon graduation: His bachelor’s degree, though fully accredited and indicative of a high quality education, wasn’t exactly a “Get A Job Free” card. He soon realized that a bachelor’s degree in theology was not going to help him the way he’d planned when his loan repayments came due. He was forced to get a 30 hour per week job and enroll as a new undergrad in a local public university to get a more marketable degree, merely for the hope of landing a job that would empower him to pay off the loan for his first college experience.

For many American college students, this story hits close to home. Student loan debt is no longer a minor macroeconomic footnote. Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies instead dubs it a “time bomb,” a gravely serious economic stranglehold on millions of Americans. Collins notes that student loan debt is already higher than the US’s total credit card debt and will, according to some economists, balloon even more at the turn of the decade. One report released last year estimated that 70% of graduating seniors carry debt out of college and that the average student debt was just south of $30,000.

In February The New Yorker ran a fascinating article on Corinthian Colleges, a company that until recently ran hundreds of “for-profit” colleges. Due to financial troubles, Corinthian was forced to shut down all of its Canadian schools and many of its American ones, leaving students–who had taken out significant amounts of loans to help pay for an education from a Corinthian college–with little or nothing to show for their time there. The piece documented the plight of students “protesting” the events by demanding that their loans be forgiven, since the education they were taken out for is worth little. Federal agencies and US senators have joined the fray, imploring Congress to force the forgiveness of part or all of the debts.

This story poses an important moral dilemma for Christian collegians, many of whom find themselves in exactly the kind of financial straits described above. Some Christian writers have endorsed the strategies of the students protesting Corinthian, insisting that student loan is inherently unjust debt and that schools, creditors and government have a moral obligation to wipe such debt clean. That’s precisely the argument of Tad Hopp in his recent piece “Degrees of Debt.” Hopp’s passionate argument is appealing because he’s right that the problem of crushing student loan goes beyond the individual students themselves. His demand for a “conversation” about national debt forgiveness is hard to resist, as is his insistence that federal agencies and loan companies are in perfectly fine shape to not collect a few hundred million more.

But Hopp sidesteps the relevant biblical and moral questions that Christian students tempted to refuse to pay back their student loans are really facing. Before the relationship of a college student to a lender is a systematic justice issue (and it very well may be), it IS, in fact, an issue of individual character. Biblical wisdom literature is filled with admonitions both to avoid debt if possible, and to be sure to pay back whatever is borrowed. Refusing to do so is not only a serious legal matter, it is a matter of personal character before God. The Scripture commends the one who keeps his word even when it costs him, and it assumes that Christians keep balanced accounts with others. A plain reading of Biblical wisdom and morality makes clear that refusal to repay what is borrowed is not an option for a Christian.

But–and this is crucial–that is not the same as saying that Christian college students are doomed to become servant-scholars. There are biblically faithful and intelligent ways to deal with crushing student debt. Hopp is correct that the system is broken, but he needs to take this argument further and realize that the system’s biggest fault is the gap between student expectation and reality. Many students are willing to go into serious debt to enter college because they believe a bachelor’s degree is as good as a career. That was never really true, but it’s certainly a fiction in today’s economy. Hopp is right that we need a national conversation, but not a conversation about debt protests; rather, we need a national conversation about university alternatives like community college, technical schools, apprenticeships, and much more.  None of this suggests that four year degrees are bad or wasteful, but it does suggest that their monopoly on the imaginations of students and the aspirations of parents and teachers is a problem.

What about Christians who currently have student loan debt? As we’ve seen, Scripture assumes that Christians are people who pay what they owe to whom they owe it. That doesn’t mean that Christian students shouldn’t reach out for help, whether in the form of deferments or grants. Depending on the severity of the debt and the life situation of the student, putting a hold on further education might be necessary. That’s OK. Taking a semester off to get control of personal finances is not an admission of defeat or a forfeit of the future. Churches and Christian communities can help with this by dismantling the many stigmas around not being enrolled in university. Knowledge and wisdom are not always the same.

Christian universities should lead the way in being honest with prospective students about the costs of tuition, living, and other expenses. Not too long ago I was looking around on the website of Biola University, a Christina liberal arts school in Southern California. A good-sized section of their “Prospective Students” page was dedicated to calculating the cost of attending a private school in Orange County, including a friendly reminder that life there is considerably more expensive than most of the nation. I was impressed with the effort Biola put forth to be transparent with students, even if it meant some students turning away. Where students get in trouble is when recruiters obscure the realities of debt by encouraging incoming freshmen to “just take out a loan.” Christian schools should acknowledge that loan agencies are an option but never encourage students to go into serious debt without thinking soberly about the implications.

A final word to parents and students together: Don’t be afraid, or embarrassed, if you choose university to select a local school and live at home for a while. In many cases the costs of tuition are only a fraction of the cost of living in a college campus. Ignoring the meaningless propaganda about “the college experience,” parents and students can experience a tremendous amount of financial freedom by picking local schools, especially ones that offer in-state tuition benefits. Some Christians unwisely automatically dismiss this as “delayed adulthood,” but I can assure that what happens in most university dorms bears not even a passing resemblance to adulthood. If living in a spare room or basement can empower a student to throw herself into studies and remain financially afloat at the same time, embrace wisdom rather than the stereotype.

Categories
Christianity philosophy science

4 (Simple) Responses to Science-Based Atheism

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism. Many college students discover atheism through science classes; students who enter university as Christians have their faith fiercely tested by their studies, and too many give up the fight merely because they assume that a biology professor must be correct about whether God exists. When a little bit of childlike faith meets a lot of studied atheism, fear can take control.

That’s unnecessary. You don’t have to have a degree in science to have something to say to those with scientific objections to faith. Here are four simple responses to those who say that science has either disproved God or has made belief in God unnecessary:

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge. 

There are two possibilities when it comes to human knowledge through science. The first possibility is that everything that is real is actually reducible to scientific principles. Everything–from the universe, to human emotion, to spiritual experiences–is explainable through scientific research. The other option is simple: Not all existence can be explained through science.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is utlimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion. The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible. Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority. 

The progressive nature of scientific inquiry is essential to its value. Done rightly, science can correct its own errors. But this presupposes that science can make errors in the first place. And if that’s true, then the question is: How do we know what could be a current error in scientific consensus, and what do we know is absolutely true?

This is a very important question to ask religious skeptics who appeal to science. A likely response is that science may be wrong on almost everything it says, but it almost certainly isn’t wrong about what it doesn’t say; ie, if science hasn’t revealed God by now, it’s not rational to think it will. But this objection misses the point. One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge. If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work. 

The wording of this point is very important. If we left out the word “rational,” then the statement would actually be false and quite easy to shoot down. You don’t need supernatural theism to be curious, or to want to explore the natural world. But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science. What does the word rational mean there? It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars. All of these facts are pursued by scientists as being intrinsically valuable, yet they offer very little information that can help guarantee a species’ continued existence on the planet.

The real explanation is that scientists pursue these facts because there is intrinsic value in knowing what is true about the world, regardless of how much help it gives us. Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles. Science itself offers no self-evident account for why it should be pursued. You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all. To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study. It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth. Theism offers an explanation for why knowing truth is valuable. Scientific atheism does not.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga is famous for articulating what he calls the “evolutionary argument against naturalism.”

The argument is complicated in detail but simple in premise. Plantinga begins by putting two facts alongside each other that nearly all atheists agree on. First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. Secondly, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures. Plantinga then points our attention towards a tension between these two facts. If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties.

But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all? What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions? How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

This astute observation was echoed by Thomas Nagel in his recent book Mind and Cosmos. Nagel, an agnostic philosopher from New York University, argues that human comprehension of the universe cannot be explained merely by atheistic evolutionary processes. It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to. Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

Scientific knowledge is only possible if things unprovable by science are actually true. If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark. If, however, human beings are the products of an infinitely greater Mind, then we have justification for believing that true and false are realities and not merely the shadow puppets of our ancestors.

Categories
culture ethics

The Sexual Revolution Still Hates Women

Rebecca Traister, writing in New York Magazine, says that when it comes to sex, women are in a permanent position of disadvantage and injustice in our culture. All sex–even consensual sex–is dominated by a “power imbalance” that favors men and prioritizes male desires. Sex used to be feminist, Traister argues, but then looming specter of patriarchy intervened, and now women can’t even win for losing:

It’s rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. Students I spoke to talked about “male sexual entitlement,” the expectation that male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them. They spoke of how men set the terms, host the parties, provide the alcohol, exert the influence. Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look [like] porn stars…

[T]hen there are the double standards that continue to redound negatively to women: A woman in pursuit is loose or hard up; a man in pursuit is healthy and horny. A woman who says no is a prude… a man who says no is rejecting the woman in question.

Traister bemoans these “sexual judgements” and the way they position women to either leave unsatisfied or shamed. Even if consent and safety are present, women in today’s sexual marketplace too frequently disappear into the desires and dictates of men, leading to what one writer that Traister cites calls “Sex where we don’t matter.”

To which I say: Yes! Traister is exactly correct. The Sexual Revolution’s marketplace is indeed brazenly anti-women. When sex is a public commodity, women and children always have the worst, least valuable shares. This isn’t a wrinkle of sexual revolutionism; it’s a feature.

But Traister doesn’t want to challenge the reigning sexual nihilism of her time. In fact, she wants to make clear to anyone who might misinterpret her that casual sex and hookup culture are by all means beautiful and good. “This is not pearl-clutching over the moral or emotional hazards of “hookup culture,” she quickly clarifies. “This is not an objection to promiscuity or to the casual nature of some sexual encounters…Having humiliating sex with a man who treats you terribly at a frat party is bad but not inherently worse than being publicly shunned for having had sex with him, or being unable to obtain an abortion after getting pregnant by him, or being doomed to have disappointing sex with him for the next 50 years.”

If that isn’t a perfect summary of the self-deluded state of the modern secular self, I don’t know what is. You can see Traister’s thought process working towards the obvious truth: That maybe a culture of casual and irrelevant sex lends itself to an erotic Darwinism where the powerful and energetic will subdue others. You can hear the beginnings of a profound dissatisfaction with the terms of the Sexual Revolution. But in the end it is all stamped out by the glitz of modern accessories to our individual autonomy. Having humiliating sex becomes better than not having enough sex. Being taken advantage of is not as bad as carrying a child. Evil is bad, but at least it’s not boring.

But Traister’s honesty betrays her worldview. Her observations of the inequalities of casual sex are more durable than her rote progressivism. Traister begins the piece, after all, quoting a fellow feminist’s story about a drunken, unsatisfying sexual experience she once had with a group of frat boys. The fellow writer consented and everything happened seemingly according to the rules. The problems start when she wakes up. “But in the morning, she wrote, ‘I feel weird about what went down.'” There you go. When the alcohol stops coursing and the bodies stop moving, all that’s left is the throbbing of the soul, even if through cultural re-education and indulgence all that the mind can muster is, “That was weird.”

Rebecca Traister writes from the front lines of the Sexual Revolution’s civil war. It’s a civil war between nature and rhetoric. The rhetoric says, “We’re all equal and entitled!” The nature says, “I am stronger and more important than you.” Sex in which women “don’t matter” isn’t a rotting leftover from the Puritans; it’s the fresh du jour of the Darwinian world outside the world of transcendence, meaning, love, beauty, devotion, and God.  The chains of marriage and monogamy are loathed by the same culture that excels in sex trafficking, campus rape, and human consumerism.

Listen to Allan Bloom:

In all this, the sexual revolution was precisely what it said it was–a liberation. But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important in life and marriage.

But now there was little attempt to apply egalitarian justice in these matters…The undemocratic aspects of free sex were compensated for in our harmless and mildly ridiculous way: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was preached more vigorously than formerly; the cosmetics industry had a big boom; and education and therapy in the style of Masters and Johnson, promising great orgasms to every subscriber, became common…These were the days when pornography slipped its leash. (The Closing of the American Mind, p. 99)

Welcome to the Sexual Revolution, where the sex is free because the women foot the bill.

Categories
Christianity culture pop culture

TED Talks: Sermons For a Secular Age

I was talking to a friend the other day about certain trends of the millennial generation. One of those trends that came up was my peers’ fascination with TED Talks. My friend was only vaguely familiar with the videos, so to help clarify what they were, I described them this way: “They’re essentially sermons for secular millennials.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that what we’re seeing in the “TED Talk” series is a secular manifestation of the sermon. If you’ve never watched a TED Talk before, I recommend you do so. That’s not necessarily because all of the videos are helpful (most aren’t, actually), but because it is utterly fascinating to watch a homiletical exercise that attracts large, young audiences, for good amounts of time (20+ minutes). I’m old enough to remember when a lot of evangelical literature urged pastors and church leaders to change their approach to preaching. “The younger generation can’t listen to a 30 minute speech,” the thinking went. “You can’t just talk to people anymore.”

It turns out you can.

Now of course, all TED Talks are different. Some are less like others. But in general, the TED Talks I’ve seen share at least two distinct similarities with traditional preaching.

First, TED Talks are very propositional. It’s true that a lot of TED Talks deal with personal stories and narratives. But what strikes me about the TED series is how proposition and information-driven it can be. There are many TED videos that consist mainly of the speaker passing on raw information or data to the audience. Some of the information can be quite techincal, such as cognitive research science or sociological data crunching.

Good Christian preaching is, of course, also quite propositional. There’s a lot of information that has to be transmitted between preacher and congregation for the meaning of the biblical text to be clear. And it’s remarkable to me that in an age where many Christian preachers are urged to eliminate as much as possible the “dry” transfer of propositional knowledge to their congregations, there are millions of people joyfully watching a lone speaker talk about statistics and research, eager to know how to apply that information to their lives.

Secondly, TED speakers are authoritative. Again, there are exceptions, but in a large number of cases the speaker in a TED Talk does not seek to have a “conversation” with the audience as much as she wants the audience to grasp how their presuppositions about something are incorrect and possibly inhibiting their lives. The TED series is filled with titles like, “Forget What You Thought You Knew About ____,” and “Why You Should Immediately Stop ____.”

In a typical TED setting, there is a clear demarcation between the knowledge that the speaker possesses and the knowledge that the audience possesses. Most TED speakers I’ve seen don’t fumble over their main points through endless reminders that “This may not apply to you” or “Your story may be different.” There is an expectation in the very essence of the TED Talk that the speaker has something which the audience needs and otherwise will probably be unable to grasp. This is authority.

Obviously, in this kind of secular setting, the speaker would not lay claim to any sort of meaningful moral authority over the audience. There’s nothing to resemble the kind of revelatory authority that evangelicals believe is invested in the faithful preaching of Scripture. But there is a kind of authority, an authority of medium that betrays our hyper-egalitarian cultural instincts. The people who come to a TED talk are not coming for a self-actualizing experience through a “conversation” with the speaker (though that word is a cultural shibboleth and is thus used to disguise the authoritative posture being taken). They’re coming to learn from someone who knows, and to walk away with something they didn’t have.

Absent a theological center, TED Talks are merely inspirational speeches from qualified teachers. But the specter of something more is obvious. We may not be as “over the whole church thing” as we think.

Categories
Christianity culture

The lessons of George Bell

“You can die in such anonymity in New York.”

This lengthy story in The New York Times is a haunting, heartbreaking narrative that depicts a reality that many of us might be embarrassed to admit is one of our greatest fears: Dying utterly alone. “The Lonely Death of George Bell” is a fine piece of investigative journalism by N.R. Kleinfield, but more than that, it is a grievous commentary on the ability of lives to disappear–both by individual choice and by societal obliviousness.

Here’s an excerpt:

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

Who was George Bell? Kleinfield’s inquiry into this anonymous New Yorker’s life yields very little. There are photographs of a teenage George sitting beside his father at Christmas, looking content and happy (“He was especially attached to his parents,” Kleinfield writes). As the years progress, the photos begin to depict a man with large appetites but little joy. He spent the last 20 years of his life collecting disability payments, a union pension, and, as a “hoarder,” just about anything else he could get. But he never had people over, never went out with friends. He existed, and obtained. That was the extent of George Bell’s life.

Why did this article affect me so much? I think it may be because, in a way, I identify with George Bell. Why was he the way that he was? What stopped  him every time the thought occurred to him that he should maybe, just maybe, go out with a friend, or write a letter, or call somebody? What was it that he believed about himself or about others that made a rotting, shrinking apartment more comfortable and more appealing than a week’s vacation?

The truth is I don’t know. And that’s why I identify with him. This kind of habitual solitude, this kind of perpetual retreat into one’s own decaying lifestyle, defies logic and reason, and yet, its appeal is undeniable. To never be at the mercy of someone’s probing questions. To never have to explain why it’s been so long. To never have to promise someone to get help, or to see a doctor, or to make that visit. Anonymity is the currency of autonomy. The best way to have control over my life is to make sure to keep others out.

Is that what happened with George Bell? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as the article suggests, there were psychological factors at work. But what about us? It’s easy to look at the unrestrained chaos of a New York hoarder’s apartment and scorn, but should we? We are, after all, the lonely generation. We are the lonely generation that marvels at our social networks and our mobile connectedness, collecting “Friends” and “Likes” and “Followers” much the same way that George Bell collected trinkets. Are our digital villages much better than the locked apartments of anonymous New York pensioners?

We such a desperately lonely people. Whether we read about the sad life of a George Bell, or about the angry isolation of a school shooter, we can’t deny this. We are lonely, and in most cases, we don’t even know it.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to try to draw out a simple “lesson” from the death of George Bell. Perhaps it would be too crass, an inadvertent participation in the dismissal of life that seemed to define his last two decades. But it seems right to me to reflect for a moment on the tragedy of a life spent and finished in obscurity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It was never meant to be like that. Our God is the God who puts the lonely in families, and not just families that share DNA but families that share adoption in Christ. The church is where loneliness meets its match.

Did anyone ever tell George Bell?