Monday, October 16, 2006

Stacked Deck: Losing One's Christian Faith in College / General Epistemological Discussion With an Atheist (vs. Daniel Morgan)

Daniel Morgan (atheist) responded in my comments boxes, with regard to my critique of John Loftus' deconversion story. This is my reply. His words will be in blue; my older cited words in green.

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Hi Daniel,

Thanks much for the rational response. It's good to know that at least one atheist who comments here has his wits about him [see, e.g., John Loftus' astounding display of hostile non sequiturs, in "response" to my critique] . Y'all are generally a pretty sharp group.

generally this indicates a less-than-stellar foundational Christian teaching

So him being in trouble is worse than you losing faith?

Losing faith is bad, though I really didn't do that. I didn't have any decent religious instruction or any informed faith to lose. I was abysmally ignorant. It was a sort of vacuum, rather than an active rejection. I was only ten years old at the time we stopped going to church. But I was still interested in spiritual things, which is precisely why I became fascinated with the occult.

But my point in context was that John's account did not suggest to me that he had any good religious instruction or example himself. There's always exceptions to the rule, but generally that great of a rebellion lends itself to a deficient upbringing as the cause or partial cause. Just ask about the childhood of criminals if you doubt this. Take a survey.

Seems odd to claim, esp given some Biblical characters, whose troubles were always overcome by faith, rather than vice versa.

See my last comment.

Even that won't suffice to prevent apostasy if there are other deficiencies because the mind is only one aspect of a well-rounded faith.

Do you think that belief is not a completely mental affair?

That's correct. Grace and faith (and the soul itself) are supernatural in character. The intellectual aspects of Christian faith are only one aspect of it.

Much philosophy can make one go astray as well, if too much skeptical and fallacious philosophy takes hold on one's brain. But in the end it comes down to God's grace and whether we accept it and continue to live by it, or reject it.

I can honestly say that this is why I no longer believe - atheological and philosophical arguments.

It seems you have an interesting change-up in views - before you are emphasizing the integral issue of apologia, now you are cautioning those who may want to build defenses not to allow "much philosophy" to "take hold"

Obviously in context I meant "bad philosophy"; not philosophy per se. I love philosophy. But there is plenty of it that starts from false premises and goes from there.

. . . how can a Christian interested in answering doubts and such know which philosophical ideas will "take hold", and does this "taking hold" indicate that the philosophical arguments are actually strong?

It may or may not. If a person isn't equipped to answer a bad (but clever and prima facie plausible) philosophical argument, then he is dead meat. There may be excellent Christian replies. But obviously they do little good if one is totally unaware of them.

If you take a relatively ignorant (in things of faith and also other subjects he is, after all, there to learn), inexperienced, idealistic, (usually) herd-mentality young person of 18-21 and throw him into an environment where it seems like the "smart" people (the professor and other smart alecky non-Christian students) mock Christianity and Christian morals, then what would you expect?

He isn't presented with both sides, generally (I took about eight philosophy courses; I know what goes on, and psychology and sociology are the same). It is oftentimes the best atheist arguments against the worst, or caricatured Christian or theist arguments. Really fair, ain't it?

So is it any surprise that the Christian student often loses his faith? Usually he had no apologetic background with which to counter this utterly slanted onslaught. This is why I do what I do! Lots of young kids read my stuff. I'm delighted to be able to help them through this ordeal of relentless, almost forced secularization at college.

Your answer seems to waver here as you indicate God's grace, something that always seems difficult to flesh out from free will. Do you think God's grace may be lessened or withdrawn if someone is reading "bad" philosophical ideas?

If one accepts false ideas, that may counter grace, yes. But it's complex. It would depend on how much one really knows. If he deliberately rejects a God and a Christianity that he truly knew, then the consequences for lack of grace would be worse. But if he is simply ignorant (as I was, up to age 18, in matters of theology), then I think it is a very different situation.

Do you liken such reading to going into a strip club and expecting God to protect you from it?

Any false idea has (somewhat like lust and sex, but on a totally different level) an attraction to one who is predisposed to accept it or too ignorant to counter it, or lacking a superior alternative. It should frighten all of us. Truth is oftentimes difficult to attain in our society.

The philosophical arguments are as "seductive"? Is it perhaps because they are sound and difficult to reply to?

The ideas are received in an environment which is strongly weighted against theism and faith. That's supremely important to understand and take into consideration. We're not all calculating rational machines. We accept things usually because everyone around us, or some respected figure does first. Some are "good" arguments as far as they go. This is why we home-school our children: not because we want to insulate them from reality, but because we refuse to leave them open to the distinct possibility of being brainwashed in the overwhelmingly secularized, literally anti-Christian public school system (as I was in the Detroit schools).

By the time they go to college they will be equipped with apologetics and solid Christian philosophy and the ability to think critically and to be able to spot false premises and ideas when they see it, with the knowledge to withstand them when necessary. I hasten to add that I don'e believe every parent must home-school. It's impossible in some cases. But every Christian parent must provide some Christian counter-weight to the onslaught of secularism and profound anti-Christian bias in the schools.

If the student never sees any alternative, then what would you expect? On my website, I give people the alternatives. They can read both sides and decide for themselves which is more worthy of belief. I don't just present the Christian view and ignore all the other ones. That's why I have almost 360 dialogues posted. I'm a totally committed Socratic in method.

There is a reason many Christians lose their faith in college.

I wrote a post on this phenomenon. Do you think it possible that it is because many Christians are insulated from the most serious objections to faith, and evidence that damages their conception thereof?

That's part of it; absolutely. The atheist "evidence" damages only insofar as a student is unfamiliar with the best Christian replies. Christians need to know not only how to defend their own belief, but how to refute competing ideas, of varying levels of respectability. Young Christians usually have neither skill when they go to college. And the skeptical or atheist professors (the ones who deliberately - and I would say, unethically - try to undermine the faith of their students) know this full well and cynically exploit it to their advantage.

I certainly do. I think this is a huge reason for it - the whole reason for going to college is to enlarge your borders/perspectives/knowledge, but this is dangerous to any religion.

It's dangerous if the situation is abominably unfair and extremely biased to one side only. Very few young people, who want to be accepted by their peers and thought to be intelligent by their professors, can withstand that. It's a stacked deck.

All religions work via identifying "us/them" and most have a protective effect (purge "them" if they infiltrate "us").

All belief-systems whatsoever do that, I would contend. Atheists do the same exact thing. Hence, we have blogs with names like, oh, how about Debunking Christianity? LOL It looks like I may soon be banned from commenting there myself, judging by John's current hysteria and profound hyper-sensitivity to critique. If so, then that is an atheist "purge" of the oddball Christian "them." I mustn't be allowed to mess with the status quo of atheist profundity and skepticism by giving cogent answers and rational alternatives to misguided atheist rhetoric (I hope I'm wrong about that, but we'll see soon enough). I made a point somewhere about how John Loftus puts up a site like that, whose purpose is almost entirely negative. He doesn't put up a blog called The Joys and Rewards of a Life of Atheism. Christianity at least offers some positive, constructive vision.

lest we get duped by truly stupid, utterly unnecessary dichotomies such as this "dogma vs. philosophy" or "faith vs. reason" claptrap

Responding to this adequately would take a lot of time,

It was a very general statement.

so I would just quote Aquinas and Gregory the Great: Aquinas said, "If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections - if he has any - against faith."

Yep; I agree. Apologetics (particularly with atheists) is largely about the removal of "roadblocks" or obstacles. Once those are disposed of, then the apologist can defend Christian doctrines that ought to be accepted in faith, with a rational (and not at all irrational) basis, as far as reason can take one.

He admits this directly after quoting Gregory the Great, "faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience."

St. Thomas Aquinas believes that faith and reason can be totally harmonized. I agree with him. Are you claiming that he is teaching otherwise here? You provide no reference for the sake of consulting context.

Surely you will admit that a careful handling of dogma, philosophy, faith and reason does lead to some dichotomies? Esp the problem of revelation v reason?

I meant irreconcilable dichotomies. There are different kinds of knowledge. The atheist wants to rule out that one can attain knowledge in certain ways (e.g., revelation) and that certain things can happen (miracles), or (often) that anything non-material can exist. But that is not a real dichotomy; it is an artificial one.

in the end, belief-systems must be analyzed of their own accord.

I agree, but we must keep in mind that Xianity has a particular truth claim to evaluate and analyze that involves the indwelling, sanctification, etc., of the believer. One of the few truth claims that we can evaluate just from observation.

No particular reply . . .

The fact that my wife or child may die or that my reputation is ruined, or that I go bankrupt or get a fatal disease, or become handicapped due to an assault has nothing to do with, that I can see, of whether the truth claims of Christianity are acceptable or not.

It certainly depends upon your interpretation of Xianity, doesn't it?

Not really. What is it about a person dying or going through problems that disproves Christianity? Nothing. Just like the problem of evil doesn't disprove that God exists. Atheists tried for centuries and had deluded confidence in that, but now it is in shambles and they are left with far less impressive, highly subjective plausibility arguments.

Some going through such tragedies would point to the covenant nature of Xianity, and question if God was involved in another "bet" with the devil. Some would question the idea that God speaks to them at all, if they spend hours each day "communing" yet had no warning whatsoever that their child had an advanced stage of cancer and that no one knew until it was too late . . . etc., etc. Surely you can see how the question of the relationship of the believer to God falls under this category?

Yes, but I thought we were talking about how this supposedly is a disproof of Christianity (related to John's deconversion).

There are many teachings about the "covenant", and so I would think you could see some falsification potential here.

One particular theology may be proven wrong and that disproves Christianity? Again, you lost me.

People know that's not possible on merely human power alone. It contradicts everything we know about ourselves.

Ah, so you believe in Allah now?

How so?

He shows poor hermeneutical skills here.

And this is what Steve Hays would say to you. (Steve is a YEC) And AiG, and ICR, and etc., they all have their "experts" who would disagree with your interpretation of Genesis and its exegesis.

Every movement has its fringe groups. YAWN Even atheists!

That's the view of many of us Christians, and we're not all losing faith like John. Quite the contrary. I've been doing Christian apologetics for 25 years now, and I've never been caused to doubt my faith as a result of further study (and I've done tons of that). I've always had my faith strengthened, in defending the faith, seeing how solid it is on rational grounds, and observing the weakness of attacks upon it.

Up above, you cautioned those who would delve into "much philosophy". Do you see how one could read your words before, and these words, and see a bit of a contradiction?

No, because you took that completely out of its context. I meant "bad philosophy." I have entire web pages on philosophy, and excruciatingly long debates on heavy philosophical issues with atheists and scientists. You have simply misunderstood my meaning, in your zeal to find a contradiction somewhere.

Either you can admit that there are rational grounds for rejecting Christianity or not,

Conceivably, but I've yet to see one in my rounds as an apologist. The Problem of Evil is instructive. For centuries atheists strutted around like poeacocks thinking that was the Knockout Punch. Turns out it wasn't. I suspect this is the case for all the other currently fashionable arguments too.

but you seem to admit there is some sort of grounds that people do, upon having "too much [secular] education" . . .

They have grounds for rejecting a caricature for a seeingly plausible view in an atmosphere thoroughly hostile to Christianity. I was saying that in the context of Christian college students losing their faith. Like I said, it's a "stacked deck" and they don't have a chance in that situation, if they are inadequately equipped. Belief systems and reasons for adopting them are exceedingly complex. I've always thought that: at least as far back as my first philosophy course in 1977 as a freshman in college, if not before.

No, but they could explain how a person would be more open to thoughts of a contrary nature to Christianity, if one is going through a period when he wonders about why God might do thus-and-so, or not do this or that, and if Christians are not being particularly consoling or understanding of his crisis. We don't develop in a vacuum.

Ah, now we're back to the catch-all factor: God's grace.

I don't see that I was talking all that much about grace in this particular remark. I was talking about hostile environments that one may find oneself in. That can explain loss of faith on a personal, emotional, human level, but that doesn't disprove Christianity. That was my point.

There is no question that this happens, and that intellectual rationales are only the merest facade for the real or far more important reasons.

Sometimes it does, just as many people merely believe out of tradition, fear or hope, and not serious rational analysis.

Exactly.

One thing to keep in mind though is that freedom does not necessitate atheism. Rejecting Christianity is just that, and it leaves one with quite a number of options for "freedom" if that is all they want - from Buddhism to Krishna to any other Eastern philosophy, then to a sort of open/loose theism or deism, then agnosticism, etc.

Of course.

Everyone wants others to think that they made these big changes in opinion based on complete rationality and objectivity.

I agree - we all want to at least THINK that we're rational, and appear that way to others.

But any look at ourselves quickly disabuses us of that notion: at least in any pure sense.

That's a difficult claim to back up. First, looking inward is subjective, definitionally. Now, we all act irrationally at times, and often in retrospect we can even see it and admit it. But to say what you've said, bereft of argument, is, well, just another assertion.

Okay; so I am to view you as this perfectly rational, objective thinking machine, immune from all human influences, emotions, biases, pressures of friends and admired ones, family, any number of possible false premises, possible unsavory motivations, pride, jealousy, etc., etc., etc.? I dont think so.

I wonder if he still does, and if not, why atheism would change a respect for the rights of the most defenseless and innocent of human beings? It seems to me that the pro-life position is almost self-evidently right and moral, without the necessity of any theological basis.

I will admit you will find some sympathies with me, esp regarding late-terms. However, in the end, it comes down to a question of value - what makes human what they are, what gives them rights, and what rights does one have over their own body?

A male child is not the same body as his mother, unless you want to argue that females possess male sex organs. Nor is a female baby, for that matter, because she has an entirely different DNA. A human being is the offspring of two other human beings. This ain't rocket science! It is what it is, genetically, from the moment of conception. A preborn child has rights from simply existing, according to every system of human ethics there is, if it is regarded as a person and a human being (that's what it boils down to). There is no good argument that would deny personhood to a preborn human being. What you are now began at the time you were conceived, and cannot possibly have any other logical starting-point. Anything after it is arbitrary; anything before is senseless since the DNA that you possess was not in its present combination. This stuff has to be argued with a graduate student in chemistry? It's practically self-evident.

I choose to place someone's legal right to decide whether they will abort a 2-3 month old fetus above any presumed "rights" of something which can rightly be described as less complex, less value-laden in the biological and psychological sense, than a mouse.

Then you have adopted absurd and monstrous ethics, to regard something you can't rationally argue is not a human being as of less value than a mouse. This is what atheist (as well as liberal Christian) ethics usually amounts to in practice: animals considered more valuable than human beings. We can't kill a protected species without penalty, but we can legally slaughter a human being and be patted on the back for it by people like you.

I wanted to know if John changed his mind on abortion, and if so, why? He knows what goes on in abortion, if he used to oppose it.

I think the difficulty in separating this from theology lies in the concept of value - Xians believe the soul itself is an embuement of value.

And atheists believe it is perfectly just to deprive this human being being slaughtered in its mother's womb of the only life it will ever have. This is the same mentality that ruled the Nazi Holocaust: the notion that there is such a thing as a human life unworthy to be lived, due to inconvenience, or someone else's lousy science and even more atrocious and selfish ethics.

It did? Not if it doesn't exist!

He certainly should've stated this (and the next statement) otherwise here. The only way to make sense of it, in light of his perspective now, is to inject, "What I thought of as..."

A bad habit of speaking; a remnant of his past fantasies?

But Christianity (rightly understood) is the remedy of that, not its cause.

Hardly. Christianity creates guilt for normal and biological urges and behaviors. It is a source of much guilt where there is no moral argument contrariwise, especially with respect to doubt, sex, self-interest-first behavior, etc.

Not going down that huge rabbit trail . . .

Want a speculation? I'll bet it's because there are far fewer "true Christians" than you'd want to believe, and most just go through the motions out of tradition, to keep up appearances, and because of family. Just a speculation.

It depends on how you are defining "Christian" and "true Christian." The first can be defined doctrinally and discussed in an objective manner. The second: who really is a Christian (really eschatologically saved, or of the elect, etc.), - apart from doctrinal considerations - cannot be determined with any certainty by human beings, only God. But that there are many "wolves in sheep's clothing" is undeniable. The Bible clearly teaches that.

Does John give far less to charity than he used to, because he is free from guilt?

Speaking for me only, I now see the huge waste in tithing that could be going to real charities -

I wasn't talking about tithing, but about charity in general. I think it was a good and fair and relevant question, given his rhetoric about guilt. Lots of people give money at church out of guilt or dead, begrudging obligation, not with joy.

places that use >90% of their resources to actually help people,

Like pro-life groups? They help real little people . . . to live and be allowed to have a life in the first place.

rather than provide infrastructure and etc. for their organizations. Here's what I did this past weekend [link] (Amber is my wife and I took that picture).

Excellent. If you are fighting against breast cancer, you might want to read up on the increasingly evident link between it and birth control pills.

I see. So the more we can sin, the less guilt we feel? That couldn't be more opposite of the truth than it is.

Perhaps the better way to see this is, "Why adopt ridiculous notions of perfection that don't comport with reality, which induces guilt, rather than building an ethical system that actually comes into contact with real life, and living by it, so that you don't have to deal with guilt?"

Guilt (and the related conscience) is a necessary part of any ethical system and any normal human being. To attempt to get rid of it simply because one has an extreme, distorted sense of guilt (and false attribution of this to God) is as foolish and irrational as trying to get rid of all automobiles because the one you had didn't run properly.

I'd lay my "sins" on the table next to anyone else's, any time. I'm a quite transparent kind of guy. People know when I feel bad, and I am a terrible liar.

That's how I (admittedly, probably cynically) read this. So he has simply gone from overscrupulosity (one extreme, and a distortion of Christianity and discipleship), to another (a marvelously "guilt-free" existence: so he says, anyway). But I don't believe it. I believe guilt is there, down deep, and knowledge of God is there too (buried and suppressed).

You believe that, and maybe you're right, although you have no evidence, but you also should consider that people are the products of their environment, and John was a minister for a very very long time. You don't "shake off" deep-seated convictions overnight, nor the guilt response you've held since you were 18. [assuming you're right]

That's true, too. But I am saying that he had an incorrect notion of the place and function of guilt as a Christian. He rejected (in that respect) a gross caricature of the proper Christian view and went to the other extreme.

Two considerations:

1) Do we justify Jesus' words that it is the same to hate someone as to murder? Was this merely a metaphor to point out that bad thoughts are bad? Ditto with adultery/lust?

The thought is that the interior disposition precedes the act and is the essence of the bad act. To murder, one must have a motive, and that motive is immoral and unethical. The hatred is the key to the act.

2) His point is that overscrupulosity can be avoided by saying, "How silly is it to think that we can control our thoughts!"

Of course we can control our thoughts, with God's help. This is the whole point. I'm not saying it's easy. It's a perpetual struggle. But it is possible. When I fall into lust or jealousy or greed or pride or any number of sinful thoughts and feelings, it's ME, it ain't God doing that. We cultivate and coddle sin when we fall prey to it. The proper response to lust (something I've struggled with a lot through the years, as have most men) is to run, as Joseph did from Potiphar's wife. That's the only thing that works. Run! Otherwise we can quickly become consumed by it. But it's our free will. The response to jealousy is to recognize that we are no better than anyone else under God, and to rejoice if someone else has some blessing we don't have; not to dwell on ourselves and what we don't have, etc.

All these things are cultivated by force of habit. Jealousy and slander and malice develop in group gossip situations. It's obvious how lust is fostered everywhere in our culture. Greed flows from the excessive materialism of our society, and the selfishness that we all must fight constantly. But to just throw in the towel and think that we are at sea with regard to our wills and controlling decadent and immoral habits: that's asinine and absurd. It's no more true within an atheist ethical framework than a Christian.

But I have never doubted the fact that God loves me and that He is merciful and all-loving.

Never doubted that, eh?

That's what I said. And the Christian believes this is only possible itself by God's grace, not our own power.

I guess some of us can believe easier than others. I always had doubts, and fears of going to hell, ESP as a devout Christian.

I think a lot of that has to do with our innate temperaments, as I alluded to in my critique. A worrier by nature will obviously worry about matters of faith, or worry that he is good enough, etc. There are many different temperaments. The trick for us is to understand when some objection or feeling we have flows from that rather than the nature or necessity of our belief system. My temperament is very even keel, easy-going, not moody at all (though I did suffer a serious six-month depression as a one-time event in my life, so I understand that firsthand). It obviously grates upon someone like John, who has a different temperament, and so he has to call me names. But we need to learn to live with and accept (without senseless knee-jerk reactions) human beings who are different from us in gender, age, temperament, culture, politics, religion, worldview, IQ level, class, body type, etc. . . .

Nor do we see even a trace in this in someone like the Apostle Paul, who has a confident, almost boasting faith.

The least of the apostles? The guy who appealed to people he knew in order to make his case that he was authoritative in knowing what God wanted?

The guy who said he was "a Pharisee of the Pharisees" and killed Christians earlier in his life?

Exactly. He was very confident as a Jew and again as a Christian.

Perhaps he just wasn't as well-endowed (conscience-wise) as some of us, huh?

Before his regeneration, certainly not. But this is what we teach, so no big deal.

So this becomes a major factor. Personal elements that made John feel this excessive guilt and inability to accept God's mercy and forgiveness, are neither Christianity's nor God's fault.

I'll agree with you on this - guilt and community should have very little to do with our analysis of Christianity.

Good.

Personal elements aren't determined or caused by God?

I would say they are largely caused by genes and early upbringing.

So the density of one's conscience (a cultural and mental phenomenon) has nothing to do with God? How sovereign is your God?

Conscience is only one aspect of temperament of self-aware personhood. We can cultivate conscience just like anything else or gradually cause ourselves to be dead to it. We all have it originally, but it can clearly be abused.

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