The merits of “moderate” faith

On beliefnet, Sam Harris is debating theism with Andrew Sullivan. Both the content and the tone of the debate remind me of the recent discussions on this blog. Harris and Sullivan respect each other, and they diligently seek common ground, but inevitably they end up talking past each other.

The debate gets edgy at times. Sullivan is a “moderate” Christian. Harris opposes religion of all stripes, and argues that moderate faith is no real improvement on fundamentalism.

(An aside: I’m not sure “moderate” is a fair description of Sullivan’s faith, although I understand why Sullivan and Harris are using that description in their dialogue. As a gay Roman Catholic, Sullivan has had some very negative experiences. Moderate cannot equal insubstantial or half-hearted, or Sullivan would have given up on his Church long ago. But he is a moderate in other respects: e.g., in his admission that the New Testament is the word of fallible human beings, not the infallible word of God.)

Does moderate Christianity constitute an improvement on fundamentalism? Here are some excerpts — just the parts of the discussion where they debate that issue.

The reason I find fundamentalism so troubling – whether it is Christian, Jewish or Muslim – is not just its willingness to use violence (in the Islamist manifestation). It is its inability to integrate doubt into faith, its resistance to human reason, its tendency to pride and exclusion, and its inability to accept mystery as the core reality of any religious life.

How does one “integrate doubt” into one’s faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights — scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Yikes…”), mathematical (“pi doesn’t actually equal 3? All right, so what?”), and moral (“You mean, I shouldn’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. …

While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

In many ways, the source of much of today’s religious moderation is taking scripture more seriously than the fundamentalists. Take the Catholic scholar Garry Wills. Read his marvelous recent monographs on Jesus and Paul and you will see a rational believer poring through the mounds of new historical scholarship to get closer and closer to who Jesus really was, and what Paul was truly trying to express.

For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event – the most remarkable event, in my view – in the history of humankind.

The Gospels really aren’t, to any fair reader, about owning slaves, the age of the planet, or the value of pi. They are stories about and by a man who preached the love of the force behind the entire universe, and the need to reflect that love in everything we do. Yes, there are contradictions, internal clashes, vagueness, politics, cultural anachronisms, and any number of flaws in a divinely inspired human endeavor. But there is also a voice that can clearly be heard through and above these things: a voice as personal to me as it was to those who heard it in human form.

I have not argued that the book is principally “about owning slaves,” just that it gets the ethics of slavery wrong. The truth is that even with Jesus holding forth in defense of the poor and the meek and the persecuted, the Bible basically condones slavery. As I argued in Letter to a Christian Nation, the slaveholders of the South were on the winning side of a theological argument. They knew it. And they made a hell of a lot of noise about it. We got rid of slavery despite the moral inadequacy of the Bible, not because it is the greatest treatise on morality ever written.

Harris voices some of the criticisms that I face because of my awkwardly moderate approach to Christianity. He alleges that a moderate faith is a weak faith; one that doesn’t take scripture seriously; one that doesn’t do justice either to faith or to reason. I’ll let Sullivan’s eloquent response stand in for my own.

I also note that they are, indeed, speaking past each other. Sullivan could not be any more clear in acknowledging that there are “contradictions, internal clashes, vagueness, politics, cultural anachronisms, and any number of flaws” in the New Testament, a divinely inspired but human book. He goes so far as to admit that the accounts of Christ’s resurrection are a mess.

Why then does Harris argue that the New Testament “gets the ethics of slavery wrong”? I think this is a superficial reading of the New Testament, by the way, typical of someone who reads the text only to find fault with it. But never mind that — why does he think he’s scoring points on Sullivan by arguing a position that Sullivan has already conceded?

Atheists can’t get past their beloved straw man:  Christians are necessarily inerrantists, and innerrancy is indefensible. The second statement arguably is true; the first statement manifestly isn’t.

I’m going to follow up tomorrow with an excerpt from Sullivan’s blog, in which he maintains that the scientific method is not the only road to truth.

Left Behind Games fires back at me

Back in August, I posted on a video game — ostensibly a Christian game — based on the mega-best-selling Left Behind books. The video is set in the end times, after the faithful have been raptured to be with the Lord Jesus. Everyone left behind is caught up in an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil.

I describe the game as “ostensibly” Christian because it is contrary to the Gospel to encourage violence in Jesus’ name. (Nor do I subscribe to the theology in back of the game, but that’s a different sort of dispute.)

In my view, the game will bring Christ into disrepute — hence the negative review on my blog. But Left Behind Games disagrees with me. This week I received the following comment:

This statement is posted from an employee of Left Behind Games on behalf of Troy Lyndon, our Chief Executive Officer.

There has been in incredible amount of MISINFORMATION published in the media and in online blogs here and elsewhere.

Pacifist Christians and other groups are taking the game material out of context to support their own causes. …

Please play the game demo for yourself (to at least level 5 of 40) to get an accurate perspective, or listen to what CREDIBLE unbiased experts are saying after reviewing the game at

Then, we’d love to hear your feedback as an informed player.

The reality is that we’re receiving reports everyday of how this game is positively affecting lives by all who play it.

I admit I haven’t played the game. There are other ways to gather information and reach an informed conclusion. For example, I could visit a promotional Web site and look at the game’s characters. Some of them are soldiers:


The “level one” soldier, on the left, has two special abilities: “Pray, WarCry”.

Soldiers recognize that not all warfare in this world will be spiritual. Their role puts them at the front line at all times – and their orders are NOT to shoot unless their teammates are attacked, themselves.

Spiritual warfare and physical warfare alike are legitimate for the well-rounded Christian. Pray and WarCry are both valued assets.

The “level two” soldier also has two abilities: “Pray, Explosive Bullets”. I don’t have to think of a critique; the description satirizes itself.

The “level three” elite soldier has three special abilities: “Pray, Camouflage, Silent Attack”:

These are the best trained combatants in the world, capable of intense fighting – on the front line, or deep inside enemy dominated areas. Capable of moving invisibly for short periods of time, and able to utilize Silent Attack techniques when so ordered.

As I understand it, players lose spiritual power when they kill. But, aw shucks, sometimes they must kill in self-defence. And here we seem to have moved beyond that justification. Any soldier who sneaks behind enemy lines to carry out a silent attack is an aggressor, not a defender. Is this a soldier or an assassin?

The Bible occasionally speaks, metaphorically, of spiritual warfare. For example, St. Paul encourages Christians to “put on the whole armor of God”,

that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (see Eph. 6:11-18)

Paul mentions only one offensive weapon: a spiritual sword, the word of God. The Christian’s enemies are “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” — against whom Exploding Bullets are ineffectual.

On the occasion of Jesus’ arrest, he forbade his followers to use violence:

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?
(Mt. 26:51-54)

Christians take their cue from the ethical principle, What would Jesus do? In this context, we must observe that Jesus submitted to execution rather than take up arms against his oppressor.

gold WWJD ringTake another look at the image of the three soldiers. Can anyone picture Jesus dressed in such military garb, with an automatic machine gun in his hands? Would Jesus fire Exploding Bullets, or sneak behind enemy lines to silently assassinate an enemy?


Despite everything I’ve just said, I am not a pacifist. I am, at bottom, a pragmatist. I reluctantly conclude that good men and women must sometimes resist evil violently: as in the case of Hitler, or even Osama bin Laden. Hence my remarks are not intended to disparage real soldiers risking their lives in real wars. (God bless them, I say!)

But Christians must never turn killing into a game. They must never imagine it as just another tool in the toolbox, alongside prayer and the Bible. They must never think, My role in the cause of the kingdom is to kill people who collaborate with the devil.

Thanks, sjrnyc, for giving me a chance to say it one more time: LEFT BEHIND: Eternal Forces will bring Christ into disrepute. I don’t care how many testimonials good evangelicals supply you with. “Let God be true and every man a liar” — or, if not a liar, then tragically mistaken.

The enigma of consciousness

Winston Churchill was describing the action of Russia when he said,

It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

But those words are also an apt description of human consciousness.

Of the three perplexities singled out by Owen Flanagan, I am least informed about this one. (I’m not very knowledgeable about any of the three, but consciousness least of all.)

I’m not alone in my ignorance: even the best and brightest minds are groping in darkness. Consider the following comments from an interview between Phillip Adams and Paul Davies, a physicist and author:

Phillip: Paul, I am aware that almost every branch of science seems to be attacking the problem of consciousness – there’s a profusion of books and theories coming out. But where are you physicists?

Paul DaviesPaul: Floundering around, I think! There are some scientists who think that consciousness is such a problem it is best defined away. Let’s sweep it under the carpet, they say. Let’s make out that the conscious self doesn’t really exist, that we only imagine it – we merely hallucinate our own existence. Then the problems go away. …

So there is a strong temptation to try and define the problem away, to say that the human body or the human brain is just a very complicated machine, doing what all machines do, which is slavishly complying with the laws of physics. In that case, if you knew enough about what’s going on in my head you could predict precisely what I’m going to do. Any notion of there being a self in my head here, a self which has a certain will, wanting to move an arm, and so on, just disappears. I am reduced to a very complicated machine. …

[But] I think we have to take consciousness seriously, in spite of the fact that many scientists would like to do away with it.

Davies makes the point, perhaps obvious, that consciousness is very intimately connected with the brain:

Phillip: With Alzheimer’s disease we often observe the person’s physicality, even some vestige of personality traits, but the self gradually evaporates.

Paul: So it would appear. It’s quite clear that consciousness – selfhood – and mental activity in general, are very intimately connected with the electrochemical activity of the brain. …

From the scientific point of view consciousness is associated with complexity, and the brain is an exceedingly complex system. In my opinion, consciousness emerges when matter and energy are organised to a certain level of complexity. So it is entirely possible, although I don’t know the answer to this, that human beings are unique in having the required level of complexity for full self-awareness to emerge.

I find this reference to complexity very interesting. The naturalist model looks like this:

  1. We don’t know where matter/energy came from. But we believe that if you organize molecules with sufficient complexity, inanimate matter comes to life.
  2. We don’t know how matter ever reached a stage of sufficiently complex organization that it could live. But we further believe that if you increase the complexity even more, consciousness spontaneously emerges.
  3. Alternatively, maybe consciousness doesn’t exist and “self” is an illusion. Frankly, that hypothesis solves a lot of problems, from the perspective of physics! When you get down to brass tacks, we don’t see how consciousness can be accounted for in our system.

Why is consciousness such a problem for physicists?

From the physicist’s point of view the mystery is this: I think thoughts, I have ideas, emotions, impressions, sensations – mental activity – and I can respond to this mental activity in a very obvious way, just by moving parts of my body. So, for example, if I would like to raise my arm to wave away a fly … my arm obligingly goes up.

Now, how can thoughts do that? How can the desire ‘I would like to raise my arm’ be turned into the physical activity of the arm moving? … To put it in the most blunt form, how can thoughts move matter?

This is a necessary belief of the theist, that an immaterial entity can cause effects in the material realm. Nonetheless, Davies remains committed to a naturalist worldview. In his opinion, consciousness is solely a function of matter and complexity:

It’s perfectly clear to me that if consciousness is associated with a physical process of some sort – swirling electrical patterns, say – as exemplified in complex brain activity, then we could in principle build a system that would be conscious. It’s quite obvious, for example, that if we could map your body and brain to a sufficient level of detail and build a replica over here then we would have something that is conscious. We can imagine rebuilding or duplicating Phillip Adams atom by atom, ending up with a conscious person.

It’s very important to realise that every atom in your body – imagine plucking a carbon atom out of your brain, for example – is identical to a carbon atom in a lump of wood, or a carbon atom in the sun, or whatever. Carbon atoms are all precisely identical, so there is nothing special about the stuff of which you are made. It is the way that stuff is put together that is the key to producing life and consciousness. It is the complex organisation of the matter that gives rise to consciousness, not the actual material of which you are made.

Or perhaps the dualists are right, there is a “ghost in the machine”.

Throughout this series of posts, I’ve kept my claims modest. Here I only want to emphasize how speculative the whole naturalist system is.

Never mind certainty: are there adequate grounds for confidence here? It looks like nothing more than a house of cards to me.

[Coming soon … further exploration of The God Who May Be]

What is life?

Let me return to the Owen Flanagan quote (first posted here), now including a few additional sentences:

Three of the greatest perplexities are these: First, why is there something rather than nothing? How is it possible that there is anything at all? Second, how is it possible that among the stuff that exists there is life? Third, how is it possible that some living things are conscious?

Alongside and intimately related to the questions of how these things are possible in the first place are questions about the nature of these things: what is the nature of what there is (the stuff comprising the universe), of life, and of consciousness?
(The Science of the Mind, 2nd ed., chapter 8.)

Unexamined assumptions lie in back of many of our disagreements. In this case, we have been discussing the origins of life, implicitly assuming that we all know what life is. But, as Flanagan points out, the nature of the things under discussion (matter, life, consciousness) are not self-evident.

The naturalist view of life is articulated in accessible language by Maitland Edey and Donald Johanson. There is precious little difference between life and non-life, they claim:

There is no edge, only a gray area, a continuum. The slide from the nonliving to the living is not sudden. It is plaguingly gradual, and it is noticed in chemistry by the coming together of certain elements that are labeled — for definition’s sake — organic molecules, although they are far from being alive. However they are the precursors.

Life appears to depend, not on some magic elixir, but on the organization of those chemicals in new ways, in slightly more complex ways in which atoms would not ordinarily glue themselves together. They do so when they have picked up bits of energy to hold them together in those unusual ways — and even attract to them other units. …

Once life is seen as an artificial holding together of matter that otherwise would not be so held, then the nature of death becomes easier to comprehend. It is broken bonds. …

Life, it may be said, starts with odd chemical assemblages and is kept in business by supplies of raw materials and energy to hold those assemblages together.
(Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution, pp. 256-57)

Naturalists reduce life to this: “an artificial holding together of matter that otherwise would not be so held”. Implicit here is an awareness of complexity: organic molecules are mysteriously held together in unusually complex combinations.

The problem of life’s origins thus reduces to, How did this degree of complexity get established in the first place?

In response, I can only observe that such a definition of life is counterintuitive: i.e., contrary to our everyday assumptions. Most of us think in dualistic terms. For most of us, life consists where matter is joined to an immaterial element: a “self” (spirit, soul, mind, consciousness — pick your preferred term).

The concept is neatly captured in the phrase, “the ghost in the machine”. This is “British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s derogatory description for René Descartes’ mind-body dualism,” according to Wikipedia.

The phrase may have been intended as a slight, but it expresses the intuition most of us have about life. It doesn’t utilize the language of any specific religion (which would beg too many questions). And it also hints at an important point: that the naturalist account of life reduces man to a mere machine. Man does not possess even the dignity of an animal, which is the usual charge levelled against against evolutionists.

In this post, I merely want to point out that we’ve been discussing the origins of life without first determining what life is.

For life to arise naturally1 is improbable enough even if we assume the naturalist’s arguably reductionist definition of life. If, on the other hand, the dualistic notion of “the ghost in the machine” is accurate, naturalism would seem to be completely without foundation.

In his comments on a previous post, John argued that there is some probability (albeit vanishingly small) that life could come about naturally. Jamie and I replied that any such calculation of probability rested on a prior, unproven assumption about what life is.


1Michael (aka Snaars) has objected to my use of the word “naturally”, and the alternative, “spontaneously”, which was also used in a few comments. Here I continue to use “natural” as a convenient way to refer to naturalist explanation of life’s origins. Substitute another term if you prefer.

Other people’s children

Isaac 1“Hello, Stephen”, says the young man behind the cash register.

I must be giving him a blank look, because he adds, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“Uh, vaguely.”

“I’m Don and Janice’s son.”

“Oh”, I say, feeling relieved. “You were just a little kid the last time I saw you.”

Feeling relieved, but also old. Nothing ages you like other people’s children.


When you meet an adult you haven’t seen for a few years, they still look basically the same. If anything, you can take perverse delight in the fact that the hair is greyer, or the bald spot or the paunch is bigger.

The passing years have not been kind to you, old chum!

Isaac 2But when you meet other people’s children after a few years have passed, there’s no upside to that moment of startled recognition.

This is Shane? This young man with the deep voice? It can’t be … he just learned to ride his bike last summer. It is Shane.

And that wasn’t last summer! It was, let me see now … never mind, let’s not go there!

He’s not smirking, is he? What does he see when he looks at me? What does that Bible verse say? — oh yeah —

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Shane has grown up. And I have grown …?

(The two photos are of my youngest son, Isaac, who has certainly changed with the passing years, but who hasn’t quite reached that stage where he’s going to make my friends feel old.)


Excuse me for the lack of blogging these last few days …

heavy load

… I’ve been pulling an absurdly heavy load at work. Activities should get back to normal as I rest up a bit over the weekend.

On a related note:

All my interests now seem to centre on the computer. I sit at a computer at work, and then I relax at home in front of the computer. Is this nuts, or what?

Three of my hobbies are blogging, photography, and music. Blogging is obviously a computer activity. I’ve learned to edit digital files, both for photos and music, so both of those hobbies involve time at a computer, too.

Thank God for my other two hobbies, reading and MaryP. Most of all, thank God that MaryP is not a virtual woman but a real flesh-and-blood person.


Even then, I sometimes like to gaze at photos of her on the computer.

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