What is Enough Evidence for an Atheist or a Christian?

Today I heard a panel discussion by three atheists who were kind and brave enough to address our Christian apologetics organization, Ratio Christi. The panel was asked to explain their thoughts about atheism and Christianity. One of the participants repeatedly told us that he flatly dismissed any and all philosophical reasoning as evidence for Christianity. He considered philosophy as so much sophistry and illusion, mere words capable of deception. He hammered philosophy quite thoroughly, making it clear that he put no confidence in the philosophical arguments for God, such as, for example, a logical cosmological argument presented by William Lane Craig. What he did consider valid is empirical evidence, things we can test and hold as hard data.

The atheist claimed that he had objections that no Christians had been able to answer, that they always stopped talking before he did. This made me a bit suspicious, for all people, atheist or Christians, tend to stop talking when the other side becomes unreasonable. More often, the most annoying person is the last one speaking.

One of our apologists asked him what were the questions that Christians were not able to answer. His list was:

–how do we know that what you believe is true?
–how would you know if it’s false?
–how would superior evidence overwhelm your belief?
–what’s more probable: your position being true or it being false?

Now from someone who had just told me several times that he only focused on empirical evidence, not philosophy, I would have expected some questions that involved empirical data–some answer that involved pressure, temperature, or quantity. But when asked about his most troubling questions, he mentioned how to draw a logical conclusion. The only way to answer the questions he provided is to see if proper conclusions are drawn from valid premises. This man, while decrying philosophy, asked for philosophical answers. His statements were self refuting.

Why he would ask for philosophical answers is obvious, for philosophy is merely thinking. We do not have the option of whether or not to think, but only whether or not to do it poorly or well. Etienne Gilson has wisely stated “Philosophy buries its own undertakers.”

It would appear that this atheist only dismisses philosophy when it is convenient for him to ignore such principles as things not arising without a cause. He is quick to tell Christians that their claims must follow the law of noncontradiction and valid principles of epistemology.

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The Mathematical Difficulties of Natural Selection

A 2011 confernce held at Cornell University presented a series of academic papers that focused on viewing biological systems in terms of informational questions. The authors drew parallels between numerical searches and biological systems. By applying conclusions about searches to biological information, conclusions can be drawn about how the capabilities of biological systems to produce practical results. The proceedings were published in Biological Information: New Perspectives, Marks, et. al., eds., (London: World Scientific, 2013).

One paper in this volume is Pragmatic Information by John W. Oller, Jr. In this paper, Oller attempts to show the difficulty of filtering a useful result from a quantity of random noise. Oller uses information found in the English language to illustrate the task needed to draw useful results by searching through non-useful noise.

Such a search is relevant to darwinian evolution, which purports to work by random mutations being filtered by natural selection to provide useful results. The many non-useful mutations are eleminated and the few useful mutations are kept.

Oller shows the difficulty of a search method finding a useful result in a large amount of random data. The 26 letters of the English alphabet give us about 35 available sounds. The word “strengths” gives eight phonetic segments. A random change in these eight segments by the 35 available sounds gives a possible combination of 35[8th]*, or about 2.25 trillion combinations (Biological Information, p.76). Only a miniscule fraction of such a number would result in any meaningful sylables allowed in English. By moving our attention to sentences, the numbers get much worse:

The number of meaningful 12 word sentences would be about on the order of 10[12th] enabling us to estimate that the ratio of meaningful 12 word sentences in English to all the strings that could be formed from all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary: It comes out to be about 4.59×10[-58th] Finding the few meaningful strings by chance in a heap of such nonsense would be a little like trying to find some very tiny needles in a really huge haystack . . . Consider next that if we move the combinatorial explosions up several notches to the length of a short novel, say 30,000 words . . ., the number of possible strings explodes to 600,000[30,000th]. . . At the level of a short novel, the ratio of meaningful strings to possible ones has diminished to a complete vanishing point for all practical purposes.(ibid.)

Practical research by biochemist Michael Behe supports Oller’s conclusion. Behe lays out his research in his book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. In studying malaria and the drugs used to combat it, Behe has a large population in the millions of people infected with a disease over many, many years, and a large number of the population that has been injected with drugs to fight the disease. In the case of malaria, darwinian evolution seems to be limited to filtering through a very few mutations, and those only in terms of degrading existing information, such as sickle cell disease, not creating new biological information that was not there in the first place.

If Oller’s and Behe’s work is valid, we have no good evidence to show that natural selection working on random mutations has the power to filter through the vast quantity of biological data required for darwinian evolution to work on a scale as large as entire species. The level of information in a short novel is quite small compared to that required to change from one specie to another. It does not seem reasonable for the biologist to continue to tell us that since such huge improbabilities are not impossible, they must be true.
*wordpress has difficulty presenting superscript numbers clearly, so I have used brackets to indicate scientific numbers.  

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Where is the Burden of Proof: Christianity or Atheism?

Christian & Atheist discuss who has the burden of proof for their position.

A: Since I am the only reasonable person here, the burden of proof lies with you theists.
C: I readily welcome the burden of proof for my views, for there are proofs for God’s existence and evidence that the Bible is true. But you have a burden of proof also. Are you making a claim that your view is true? If so, you are making a truth claim and have a burden of proof for your idea.
A: No, atheism is a-theism, a lack of belief. Since I make no truth claim, I have to prove nothing. I merely have no belief. Since you believe something, only you have to prove something, not me.
C: If you do not believe God exists, then you must hold to naturalism, which is the view that the only things that exist are natural, such as matter and energy.
A: Yes, of course. I am logical, and naturalism is the only logical position. Only matter and energy exist.
C: You then have a burden of proof to show that naturalism is true.
A: No, silly Christian. The natural world is just there, as Bertrand Russel said. It does not need an explanation.  But I do not believe in God, so you have a burden of proof for showing God exists.
C: I am an a-naturalist. I have a lack of belief in naturalism, and the burden of proof on you is to show that naturalism is the correct viewpoint.* As an a-naturalist, I merely disbelieve that the natural world is all there is. I do not have to prove anything, but you have to prove your point.
A: Well, I….uh….it just exists.
C: While you are at it, please explain the existence of things such as mathematics and justice, since they are neither matter nor energy.
A: You’re a fundamentalist and an idiot. And Christians are hypocrites. And your dog is ugly.
C: It seems that I have a great deal of rational explanation for my belief, but you have ducked your responsibility. You merely try to focus on the reasons for my viewpoint, but by your own admission, offer no good reason to say that your position is true. I will continue to hold that God exists and the Bible is true.


*Thanks to Jon Stewart for the inspiration.

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William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens

I think the following snippet of a debate from Craig & Hitchens is very telling. It becomes more striking when one is familiar with the level of arguments presented by each man earlier in the debate, but this should suffice to show the nature of the mens’ arguments. Here is the rebuttal period from a debate where Craig attempts to build a logical case, and Hitchens attempts to build some sort of inferential one or some sort of guilt by association. He does not attempt to prove much of anything logically. Hitchens presents what are common atheist positions, which are not much more than “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

But what is most striking is that Hitchens seems to be unfamiliar with Craig’s first question. Craig asks Hitchens to distinguish between broad categories of atheism and agnosticism, and Hitchens seems as if he has not been faced with the question before. Further, Hitchens appears to change his position right before our eyes, moving from one position to the other.

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Genesis 1, Science, and Logical Conclusions

This week I learned of a college student at a large, local state university who told of a story about one of his professors. The student’s geology professor, on the first day of class. specifically took time to ridicule Genesis 1. What this has to do with teaching undergraduate geology is more than a bit questionable. Recent news reports included beheadings done in the name of Muhammad. I wonder what would happen if this geology professor went to a few select mideast countries and ridiculed the Quran on the first day of class. On second thought, I do not have to wonder.

But I do wonder whether this geology professor has taken the time to read Genesis 1, or any of the other 49 chapters of the book. Keep in mind that we live in an age where the leading scientists of our day tell us, with all seriousness, the absurd notion that absolute nothing can produce something, even everything (See here, and here, and here).  Meanwhile, Genesis 1 is getting a bit of a new evaluation that should lead us to a new respect for the old story.

The folks over at Six Day Science have stated “Genesis 1 makes at least twenty-six statements about the creation of the universe and the development of life on Earth that can be tested against current scientific understanding.” These items are not only tested against cosmology, chemistry, physics, and yes, geology, but are found accurate. You can find the explanations here and here.  Next, the folks over at Reasons To Believe have several resources on how science is compatible with Genesis (start here).

I am reminded of the introduction to logic course that a relative of mine took at a local public university. I saved their handouts and tests, and the examples used in class leaned heavily toward showing logical fallacies in conservative Christian positions. Some of the examples were straw man examples, but even if we considered the rest valid, the irony of such a class is blatant. The professor taught logic by using in-class examples that only showed fallacies in one viewpoint, a clear persuasion technique.

I am further reminded of the account of a Chinese scientist who was visiting the USA, doing a few lectures on particularly unusual fossils found in China. In the lectures and demonstration, the scientist questioned Darwinian evolution. One of the American scientists asked “Aren’t you afraid to question Darwin?” which hinted at a lack of academic freedom and pressure to toe the line on Darwinism. The response was telling: “In China, we can question Darwin, but not the government. In the US, you can question the government, but not Darwin.”

Respected scientist and researcher James Tour has said the following:

I do have scientific problems understanding macroevolution as it is usually presented. I simply can not accept it as unreservedly as many of my scientist colleagues do, although I sincerely respect them as scientists. Some of them seem to have little trouble embracing many of evolution’s proposals based upon (or in spite of) archeological, mathematical, biochemical and astrophysical suggestions and evidence, and yet few are experts in all of those areas, or even just two of them. Although most scientists leave few stones unturned in their quest to discern mechanisms before wholeheartedly accepting them, when it comes to the often gross extrapolations between observations and conclusions on macroevolution, scientists, it seems to me, permit unhealthy leeway. When hearing such extrapolations in the academy, when will we cry out, “The emperor has no clothes!”? (for the rest of this article, see here)

Here Tour touches on a subject that seems to me to be a significant issue within the modern scientific community. Any given area of science, even sub-sub areas of specialization, include so much published research that most scientists have trouble staying current in their own fields, yet alone being expert enough in other disciplines to understand the interdependent details of such a wide-ranging theory such as Darwinian evolution. (for more, see here)

In any case, it seems telling that a professor in a science class would spend time ridiculing a view that is not particularly relevant to the course. Such actions tell of motivations that are not based in education or a pursuit of truth, but are grounded in an emotional dislike for the viewpoint.


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Does Dispensationalism Teach Two Modes of Salvation?

I periodically hear from Christian circles the accusation that dispensationalism teaches two modes of salvation, one for Israel and another for gentiles and the church. Dispensationalism is a way of viewing theology, and can be contrasted with a few other systems which differ on how to view God’s overall way of dealing with people over time.

Although I am no longer, I was a member of two dispensational churches, totaling about 18 years. During that time, I did not once hear taught the doctrine that there are two salvations. While I’m sure there may be some individual dispensationalists who believe this, I found the idea of two methods of salvation to be rather shocking, and if true, would likely qualify as heresy.

Lewis Sperry Chafer founded Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, and published his Systematic Theology in 1952. DTS is one of the largest seminaries in the world, and the largest one that teaches dispensationalism, graduating somewhere around 600 to 800 people a year, going back some 70 years or so. Although I believe it does no longer, in the past Chafer’s Systemaic Theology was taught at DTS for many decades. If anywhere there was a “mainstream” teaching of dispensationalism, it would be here. Chafer systematized the teachings of his mentor, C. I. Scofield, who published the widely-influential Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909. I would estimate that DTS has graduated about 20,000 pastors in past decades, and is therefore the largest source of dispensational teaching by a wide margin. So here are some quotes from Chafer’s Systematic Theology:

“the individual Jew is now divinely reckoned to be as much in need of salvation as the individual Gentile (Rom. 3:9). These facts, related as they are to the present age-purpose—the calling out of the Church from both Jews and Gentiles alike (Eph. 3:6)—have no bearing upon the divine purpose for the coming kingdom age when, according to covenant promise, Israel will be saved and dwell safely in her own land (Deut. 30:3–6; Jer. 28:5–6; 33:15–17).”
(Vol. 3, Page 105.)

“it is also as clearly stated that no blood could ever avail for any remission of sin other than the blood of Christ. We conclude, therefore, that the nation Israel will yet be saved and her sins removed forever through the blood of Christ.”
(Vol. 3, Page 107.)

“God is righteously free to act in behalf of sinners only on the ground of the fact that the Lamb of God has taken away their sins. A major objective in the death of Christ is, therefore, the national salvation of Israel.”
(Vol. 3, Page 108.)

“National election, too often confused with individual election (note the Apostle’s warning to the nation Israel on this point as recorded in Rom. 9:4–13), anticipates no more than the ultimate blessing of Israel as a nation and their national preservation unto that end. Ahab and Jezebel along with Abraham and Sarah, were partakers alike in Israel’s national election. However, a judgment day for Israel is predicted when multitudes will be rejected (Ezek. 20:33–44; Dan. 12:1–3). There is, nonetheless, a recognition in the Bible of a spiritual remnant in all Israel’s generations; but that spiritual group shared no additional covenants, their distinction being due to their willingness to be more faithful to those relations to Jehovah which were the privileges extended to all in Israel. The remnant out of Israel in this age is “a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5), and is composed of those who are saved by faith in Christ, and therefore partake of the heavenly calling which pertains to the Church. It is not until a Deliverer comes out of Zion that all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:27), and that salvation will not only be unto the realization of all their national, earthly covenants, but also unto the taking away of their sins (cf. Jer. 31:34). In the present time, as above stated, only a remnant out of Israel are being saved as individuals, which is according to the divine election in grace and unto the heavenly glory of the Church.”
(Vol. 3, Page 189-190.)

“The receiving of eternal life will be for Israelites, as it is in the case of the Christian, a feature of salvation itself; and salvation for Israel is, in Romans 11:26–32, declared to be after the present age-purpose of the fullness of the Gentiles which is now accompanied by Israel’s blindness (verse 25), and at the time when “there shall come out of Zion the Deliverer,” who shall “turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” “This,” Jehovah says, “is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.” Isaiah anticipates the same great moment of Israel’s salvation when he predicts that a nation shall be born “at once.””
(Vol. 4, Page 26.)

“There is great force added to the whole program of Israel’s regathering, repentance, restoration, salvation, and realization of her covenants, when, by the proper elimination of the present age, these are seen to follow directly upon the rejection of their King.”
(Vol. 4, Page 321-322.)

Again, these quotes are from what could be called the most influential dispensational teacher of the last 100 years. Another influential dispensationalist is Norman Geisler, who in his Systematic Theology also affirms one salvation for all. I therefore maintain that this is mainstream dispensationalism, not the extreme views that are sometime painted as dispensational, or views possibly held by individuals.

Putting together the quotes above, Chafer is saying that in the future, most of the nation of Israel will repent at once, believe in Christ, and be saved by Jesus’ blood. The last quote specifically mentions repentance. Therefore, while I admit there may be some that call themselves dispensational that would hold to two salvations, this does not represent the bulk of dispensational teachings in the last 70 years. Two salvations was never taught by Chafer.

As far as mainstream dispensationalism teaching that there are two salvations, one for Israel and one for the church, it is simply not true. It teaches, and has always taught, that as far as individual salvation goes, all are one in Christ Jesus.

As a Christian who was a member of two dispensationalist churches for 18 years and earned a seminary degree from a dispensationalist seminary (SES), I affirm that I have never heard a dispensationalist pastor or Bible teacher hold to two salvations. Chafer taught that Israel had a national election separate from the individual Jew, but this is another matter (see below). Israel must repent and believe in Jesus just as gentiles, which was taught to at least 20,000 dispensational pastors over the last 70 years.

So far, I’ve seen no direct quotes from any dispenationalist theology text that says any different. I’ve seen non-dispensationalists giving accusations, but not a word of citation from a noted dispensationalist. Perhaps they are there and I have missed them; if so, I would be interested in any primary source quote from a dispensational theology text that says Israel is saved by some other means other than faith in Christ. I’ve found none.

Perhaps the confusion is created by dispensationalists’ teachings about the covenants and kingdom roles of Israel and the church.  Norman Geisler has explained the difference between Traditional Dispensationalism (Darby, Scofield, Chafer), Revised Dispensationalism (Walvoord, Ryrie), and Progressive Dispensationalism (Blaising, Bock):

 [Traditional Dispensationalism] holds that the Old Testament covenants known as the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the new were made strictly with the nation of Israel and its literal descendants and will be literally fulfilled in them. This involved the belief that there were two new covenants, one for Israel (yet to be fulfilled) and one for the church (presently being fulfilled). Further, Israel and the church forms two separate peoples of God, one earthly and the other heavenly. Hence, they will have two destinies, one in heaven for the church and one on earth for Israel.

 Revised dispensationalism . . . affirms that there is yet a literal national fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to Israel. However, it holds that there is only one new covenant , which, while having a later literal fulfillment in national Israel, has a present application to the church. Most revised dispensationalists hold . . . all are part of one overall people of God who share in spiritual redemption wrought by Christ.

 [Progressive dispensationalists] insist that there is a present inaugural fulfillment in the church. Thus, they maintain that fulfillment of the Davidic covenant began at Christ’s ascension to God’s right hand and will later come to earth at the Second Coming. Like covenant theologians, they both stress the view that there is one people of god . . . (Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol 4, 499-500)

As we can see from this comparison, the emphasis here is on eschatological fulfillment of covenants, not on salvation. The issue is whether or not Christ’s kingdom is written on hearts or physically on the earth in the latter days, or whether the earthly kingdom is only ethnic Jews or many nations. We should all approach this with a bit of caution, for it is difficult to properly mesh Jeremiah 31, the book of Hebrews, and Jesus’ upper room statements about the new covenant. But we can be sure of this: all mainstream dispensationalists teach one salvation, by repentance and faith in Jesus.

Geisler does include a critique of some ultradispensationalists (Baker, Bullinger, O’Hair), but the issues in question are not salvation (see vol. 4, 680ff).



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Questions of the Mind Applied to the Kalam Argument

I recently saw a person in an online philosophy discussion pose the question “Can we prove that logic applies to reality?” Such are questions that give philosophers a bad name amongst non-philosophers who view topics like this as worse than the flat earth society and alien abductions, and dismiss them as musings of rich college students with not enough to do. Perhaps they are correct. Others, such as postmodernists, new agers, and pantheists readily embrace the non-logic of the entire universe, and are ready to give us a logical argument why this is so.

Let us put the question before us: Can we prove that logic applies to reality?

This question asks us to accept the premise that we are trying to start with a question in our mind and get to reality. The questions starts with a pure idea, namely the question of whether we can prove that logic applies to reality, and tries to apply this pure idea it to reality.  We cannot do this, however. If we start with a mental problem separated from reality, we will always have a mental problem and will not be able to get to the real world. If we start only in the mind, we will end up there. Further, with the question at hand, it is impossible to prove the contradictory, that logic does not apply to reality. So the question puts the burden of proof onto us, and it is impossible to prove, for we merely have a mental problem separated from reality. We might as well be asking, “Can we apply the concept of four to reality, before we apply it to reality?” Any supposed demonstration that logic applies to reality has to use reality to prove it,  which is the question in the first place, so any response will be circular and invalid.

If we start with pure mental problems, we will be forever locked in our minds. To make conclusions about what is real, we must start with reality and derive meaning, not the other way around. If we start with thought problems and try to get to reality, we will fail and forever be locked in our minds.

A similar question is sometimes applied to some of the proofs for the existence of God. The Kalam Cosmological Argument is as follows:

1. Everything that has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe had a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe had a cause.

I have had some atheists object to the first premise on the grounds that we cannot prove the premise applies to reality. The objection, as posed by some atheists, goes something like this: Can you prove that everything that has a beginning needs a cause? I think you might be inventing the idea and applying it to the world. Can you prove to me that causality applies to reality? If you cannot prove it, it is an unsupported premise.

The first premise is built upon the law of causality that says that every effect requires a cause. By definition, an effect is something that is caused, and a cause is something that produces an effect. We cannot get away from these basic definitions without either redefining what we are talking about or going into absurdity.

Well, if we view the law of causality as a mental concept separated from reality, then we have by definition done just that: separated it from reality. In such a case, the atheist’s question has started with a mental problem and will always remain there. Such might be an interesting mental puzzle, but the atheist has paid a high price for his skepticism. He has forever locked himself into his mind and cannot draw conclusions in the real world. I suspect he does not use this degree of skepticism with more mundane things like his dealings with the bank teller or the IRS auditor, but only when we are talking about a God that applies moral standards to one’s life.

But if we accept that a real world exists and derive our premise from it, then premise 1 is perfectly valid. We start from the real world and draw from it both premise 1 and the law of causality that is behind it. Premise 1 of the Kalam Argument is not proved by starting with pure mental questions and trying to apply them to reality, for no question on any topic can make this leap. Rather, premise 1 is derived by accepting that the real world exists and we can know things about it.

Further, it does no good to deny premise 1 by using induction, namely, by saying that we have not observed every event, therefore we cannot know that every event requires a cause. First, the contradictory is impossible to prove, namely that there are some events that do not have causes. Second, an event is by definition something that is caused, and a cause something that creates an event, so the subjects and actions are true by definition. We cannot equivocate in mid-discussion and change what we are talking about. If the conversation is about causes and events, we cannot then say that some events might not be caused, for that is not what we are talking about.

Therefore we hold that the first premise of the Kalam Argument is valid, and the argument is a good demonstration of a first cause. This we call God.

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