Is It Reasonable to Believe in God?

beyond-reasonable-doubt.jpg

Christianity is often criticized for putting faith and “allegiance to God” above reason. Our arguments are dismissed for being circular, and we are ridiculed for refusing to consider the possibility that we could be wrong about the existence of God.

I think many of these criticisms are valid, and more Christians should be willing to admit when we have been less than reasonable.

But more on this later.

Many professing Christians simply don’t like to examine whether or not their faith is reasonable. Many of us are simply neither ready nor willing to “give a reason for the hope that we have”. Some of us feel it is not necessary, or it is too much work, or it is giving the devil too much rope.

Some are simply afraid of what they will find on the other side of this logical exercise, so they are not in a hurry to find out.

Reasonable objections

Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist, once said in his popular book The God Delusion: “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents.”

Part of Dawkins’ point is that we are products of environmental conditioning and there is therefore no supernatural explanation for why some people choose to be Christians while others don’t. Every child is technically born an atheist and only later compelled to follow the religion of their parent.

Dawkins makes a valid point. Our environment plays a significant role in shaping our life choices. Even one of my favorite 20th century Christian apologists, Cornelius van Til, agrees with Dawkins to some extent. In an essay on why he believes in God, Van Til indulges an atheist friend who tells him that the only reason he believes in God is because everything in his past set him up for that inevitable choice: Born to believing parents, educated at a Christian school and confronted every day with Christian ethics.

Given these circumstances, it would seem Van Til had no choice but to become a Christian! In response, Van Til tells the friend, rather sarcastically:

How different your early schooling was! You went to a “neutral” school. As your parents had done at home, so your teachers now did at school. They taught you to be “open-minded.” God was not brought into connection with your study of nature or history. You were trained without bias all along the line.

Van Til does not deny that a large part of the reason he embraces the Christian worldview is because it is second nature to him. He admits that everything in his past “conspired” to lead him to choose God. But is that all there is to it?

The environment alone?

We can rightly say that many professing Christians today are not Muslims for the same reasons. They didn’t have a choice. However, while Van Til acknowledges the role the environment played in his becoming a Christian, he goes on to argue that this is not the only reason people end up believing in God.

If it was, the friend, raised by similar parents and attending similar schools, would have also been a Christian. Yet he is not. In other words, even though Dawkins logic may explain many religious people in the world, the problem with the logic is that it is not comprehensive. Dawkins restricts and limits the reasons why people choose a religion to environment and effectively closes the door for any other explanations. This is neither fair nor very scientific.

He would have been more reasonable if he said “the only reason I know of” rather than “the only reason there is”. He is putting too much confidence upon how much he, a mere human being, knows about all the reasons that may exist in the world.

Consider this implication: If the environment were all it took, then we would have no atheists walking among us. Everyone would be religious and following some god or another by virtue of being raised in a religious society. Dawkins would be a phony. But the fact that atheists exist points to something more than the simplistic “product of your surroundings” explanation for belief.

Evolution alone?

Of course, Richard Dawkins and his kith will quickly rush to evolutionary explanations for why some people don’t believe. They believe that those who do not believe are the anomalies, the mutants, the “fit” ones in this battle for survival and the ones to take humanity to the next stage of existence — a world without religion, if you ask Dawkins.

Dawkins’ general hypothesis for why people opt for religion is that “human beings have acquired religious beliefs because there is a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb to believe, without question, whatever familiar adults tell them. Dawkins speculates that this cognitive disposition, which tends to help inexperienced children to avoid harm, also tends to make them susceptible to acquiring their elders’ irrational and harmful religious beliefs.”

This explanation not only presupposes that evolution is true, but that evolution is the only explanation for all human phenomena. In other words, evolution is the supreme law or philosophy of the living universe and no other explanations exist for any behaviors on earth. This is quite a leap.

If I am not mistaken, I would say that, even if evolution as espoused by Darwin is actually true, the claim that it is the only explanation for belief in God is itself a giant leap of faith. In fact, the shift from seeing evolution as a description to seeing evolution as an explanation is a leap of faith.

Will the real believers please stand up?

I would argue that the environment, while a big factor in leading people to belief (or to claims of belief), is not the decisive factor when it comes to determining whether one’s belief in God is true. There is still the little matter of whether a faith claim is genuine or not, a question that can actually not be answered by science but is confined to the realm of theology.

There are many people walking this earth today, claiming to believe in God and are even ready to give their life for this belief. Yet, they have never seriously interrogated this belief. They are simply, to use Dawkin’s word, delusional.

These are the people Jesus alluded to when he said:

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:22-23)

It turns out that the argument that some people are only Christians because they grew up in a “Christian” environment is actually a case for why some people are fake Christians. It has little to do with why anyone is a true believer. To this extent, then, bringing up evolution and environmental factors in debates about the reasonability of faith is largely an exercise at missing the point.

A reasonable faith

However, if the opponents insist on this line of argument, I would say that the environment criticism does in fact contribute to the reasonability of such a belief. It is actually reasonable for people who have been brought up surrounded by the Christian worldview to end up professing Christianity. It would be unreasonable to choose otherwise.

But just because something sounds and looks reasonable doesn’t make it true. There are still questions to be answered concerning the existence of God and the evidence for that supposed existence.

I do hope, though, that it is increasingly becoming clear that we don’t always need irrevocable proof to make reasonable claims and choices. Reason is a servant to whatever evidence is available and our ability to weigh that evidence. You are only as reasonable as your intellectual ability allows you to be. This is why it is reasonable for a child to cry when hungry (because he or she cannot speak) and unreasonable for an adult to do the same in a house with a stocked kitchen.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

What Is So Wrong With Positive Thinking?

Why do so many people (myself included) like to bash prosperity preachers? As a friend recently asked me after I posted a critique on a sermon by Creflo Dollar: “Cornell, what do you have against the man?” Before I respond to that question, three corrections:

  1. We (whoever we are) actually don’t “like” to bash prosperity preachers. (at least some of us don’t find any pleasure in it)
  2. We don’t bash prosperity “preachers”. (some of us prefer focusing on what the preachers “teach”, though many readers tend to be too emotive to distinguish between a teaching and a teacher)
  3. We actually like “prosperity” preaching. (what some of us are against is “false” prosperity preaching)

The reason I name some of these preachers is quite simple, really. It is the same reason we name people who said certain things in the newspaper. It is called attribution. If the President of Kenya said something profound (or profoundly wrong) in public, it is only reasonable that I post whatever was said along with the name of whoever said it. It is just good journalistic practice.

But somehow, when it comes to Christian preachers shouting words in public stadia, we are somehow only supposed to discuss what they said without naming them (or else send them private e-mails). I don’t think I am the only one seeing this inconsistency.

Photo courtesy: drugtesttraining.com.au

Photo courtesy: drugtesttraining.com.au

Now, I have said all that (above) in order to say this: I find it equally inconsistent to insist on applauding “positive thinking” without examining and questioning those positive thoughts. Most of the “false” prosperity teachings out there are usually forms of positive thinking. They are aimed at helping people feel better about themselves and their Christianity. There is nothing wrong with that. I am all for helping people feel better about themselves and their faith. It is the “how” of attaining this goal that I have qualms about.

This is my point: “Positive thinking” means nothing if you have the wrong standard for determining what is positive and what is negative.

For instance, if self-interest is the ultimate objective, it may be seen as positive to accumulate insane wealth without helping the poor. Do you find any problem with that?

Similarly, if social well-being is the objective, it may be seen as positive to do what helps the masses but deprives the individuals of their rights. Do you have a problem with this approach too? Why?

But if God and His glory is the standard, it is positive to do what glorifies Him, and in doing that, realizing that both the individual and the society will benefit.

Therefore, “positive thinking” means nothing without a proper context. What many of us try to emphasize when we critique false prosperity teachers teachings is how (the context in which) they deliver their message. For instance, a teacher may say that God wants to make you wealthy. That is correct. But then the teacher adds that “God wants to make you wealthy today” and we have a problem.

The problem is not that God CAN’T make you wealthy today. Of course He can. The problem is not even that God WILL NOT make you wealthy today. Who knows? Maybe He will. The problem is that God has not given us any reason in His word to be certainly sure that HE WILL MAKE YOU RICH TODAY OR TOMORROW OR IN THIS LIFE.

It is just not there. And it is false to add a false WHEN to a true CAN.

Another aspect of “positive preaching” that has arisen recently is how Victoria Osteen recently responded to “why we worship God”. By now you know what she said, so I don’t need to repeat it here (or you may Google it if you missed it). But I will only say this to that:

Make God your beginning and your end, and “the rest” will follow. But be careful not to do it SO THAT the rest will follow or BECAUSE you want the rest to follow, do it because you love God and want to do what pleases Him… whether or not “the rest” follows.

It is like loving your spouse, you don’t love them “for yourself”, in fact, if they knew you love them because of what you stand to gain, they will not see that as love. You love your spouse because you genuinely seek their joy whether or not you will be happy yourself. Of course, your own happiness MAY follow as a result, but that is not WHY you love them. You love them for them, even if they DON’T NEED your love.

So why give any less love to God? Why love God any differently?

~~~~

Cornell

 

Is the Bible a Work of Plagiarism?

I came across this interesting comic on the web (below). A teacher gave her students the following assignment: What is the “Golden Rule” and its source? The answers she got from her students are quite telling. In fact, many atheists use this example to illustrate why they think the Bible is not the Word of God but a mere fabrication of pre-existing (pagan) traditions.

thegoldenrule

Now, what is fascinating is that all the answers given by the students were correct, and factual. The problem is that some of the people quoted lived centuries before Jesus was born, and yet we often attribute the Golden Rule to Jesus (Matthew 7:12). But Confucius (551–479 BC) and Buddha (480-400 BC) said and taught the same thing and yet they lived hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

Similar examples have been cited as arguments against the validity of the Bible stories. Such as Noah’s flood. Many argue that the story was merely a Jewish adaptation of the Neo-Assyrian Gilgamesh flood myth found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The myth, according to historians, is very similar to the Biblical stories and yet it existed centuries before the supposed period of Noah.

Do these examples disqualify the Bible? Many people believe so. Yet what such arguments against the Bible reveal is the arguers’ ignorance of what the Bible is and what the Bible does. The Bible is not God’s Word because it contains novel (new and unique) ideas about God. In fact, the reverse is the case, all true ideas about God that exist outside the Bible only prove that God is the author and owner of all truth. It is the reason R.C. Sproul has popularized the phrase: “all truth is God’s truth.”

Truth is truth, wherever you find it. To argue that only the Bible contains truth is to actually speak against the Bible, because the even the Bible claims that there is truth about God outside itself. Romans 1:19 actually says whatever may be known about God is available to even those who have never read the Bible. Psalms 19 talks about how nature teaches us about various attributes of God. Even Paul often  quoted pagan sages in the Bible (1 Cor 10:23).

The availability of truth apart from the Bible is actually an argument for God, not against Him. It is proof of His sovereignty — that  God is God over all people and all things, not just the Jews and the Christians. It is proof that those who will never encounter Christianity will not be judged unfairly, because “what may be known about God is “plain” to them (Rom 1:19).

No, the Bible is not a work of plagiarism. But it is a work that seriously needs to be plagiarized by you and me.

For the fame of His name.

Cornell

You Don’t Need God to be Good [By a Christian]

Kamau wa Kibe does not believe in God. In fact, He doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a god. He is an atheist and he believes he can do good all by himself. Mary Wangari is a Christian and she believes human beings can only do bad by themselves. She believes that you need God to be good. I was once privy to a brief exchange between these two poles:

Mary: You need God to be good.

Kamau: I do plenty of good in my life without God, no thank you.

Mary: But you have no basis for morality or any reason to be good, or to be kind and loving.

Kamau: As a matter of fact, I do have a basis. I prefer pleasure to pain, and I prefer what helps people to what hurts them, because that’s what I would want other people to do for me.

Mary: You see? You have just borrowed from the golden rule: Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. Jesus came up with that.

Kamau: That’s not true, the so-called “golden rule” has existed in many major philosophies centuries before Jesus was even born. Confucius taught the golden rule in 500 BC, Egyptians taught the golden rule from as far back as 600 BC. This stuff is recorded, just Google it. Jesus definitely didn’t come up with the golden rule.

Mary: You’ve obviously read a lot of historical books. But those are fabrications. You don’t know if that’s what they taught.

Kamau: The Bible is a fabrication.

Mary: I still think you can’t have a basis for morality without God. The Bible says no one can be good without God. God is good and without Him, we would all be savages having no reason to be good or peaceful or loving.

Kamau: I guess we just have to agree to disagree on that one.

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I have attended a fairly good number of Atheist versus Christian debates and the one feeling has been consistent in all those episodes is mild amusement. The conversation above is fictional, but it is generic of the many exchanges that happen between a theist and an atheist. The question of morality is a perennial topic in these exchanges.

Many people who abandoned God did so because of the problem of evil — they put the morality of God on trial and found God guilty. Christians on the other hand maintain that because of the fall in Eden, it is impossible to promote any goodness without appealing to religion or a theistic worldview. Theists argue that you lose any basis for asking people to be decent or hold to any positive values if you remove God out of the picture. Atheists disagree. Repeat.

But what if both groups are right on this issue of morality? What if it is true that “you don’t need God to be good” and also true that “you need God to be Good”? What if these two claims are not contradictory and only seem so? What if they are complementary — two sides of the same coin? I believe that the Christian is right when he says you need God to be moral and I also believe the atheist is right when she says you don’t need God to be moral. I hope this short illustration will help clarify what I mean. Continue reading

Pray for Persecuted Muslims

Muslims are dying in Central African Republic (CAR). Actually, people have been dying in the country for weeks now. Nothing new there, people die all the time.

But reports say that these Muslims are dying in the hands of Christians. Innocent men and women are being massacred, not because of any crime they have committed, but because they have a different religious affiliation. Children are murdered because they were born in the “wrong” religion. In a way, this is both news and not news.

Muslim civilians prepare to board trucks in Bangui to flee violence in the Central African Republic's capital. AFP

Muslim civilians prepare to board trucks in Bangui to flee violence in the Central African Republic’s capital. AFP

Religious extremists commit such heinous crimes all the time. Christians should not be surprised that fellow believers are being killed in the Middle East. The Bible says this will happen. It is to be expected and acknowledged, even if it will not be enjoyed. But should Christians be surprised that Muslims are dying at the hands of Christians?

DISOWNING THE EXTREMISTS

As Christians, reports of fellow Christians killing people who belong to a different religion are disturbing. And we are quick to dismiss them as the work of “religious extremists” who are not true Christians. We are careful to qualify how we refer to such people, as “professing” Christians who are not true Christians at all. We do not want to be associated with such barbarism. Because we know the Jesus we worship is a peaceful King. A king who embraced women and adored children, no matter which god they worshiped or where they did their worshiping. Our Jesus vehemently condemned the killing of the innocent — the last and the least among us. Continue reading

When ‘good’ professors fail ‘good’ students and how it relates to Christianity.

[By Julie Wang’ombe]

Imagine its exam day at a university. Anyone who’s ever been a student, as I currently am, knows that in any class, there’s a ‘colorful’ range of students. The serious; the cavalier; the ‘brilliant without much effort” the “must work twice as hard to do half as well as the average person” the “school is really not my thing” people etc.

I want to focus on one of these students. The procrastinator. She isn’t stupid, except in so far as procrastinating is stupid. She has known for 10 weeks that the exam is coming and only picked up her notes two days ago (:-/). But when she looked through her notes and the syllabus, she realized that there was far too much content for her to go through in two days. So, what does she do? In an attempt to do her best in the time she has while retaining her sanity, she decides to try and make some informed guesses about what would come in the exam. She decides to take a gamble. Perhaps there were ten topics to be studied, and she chose four thinking “after all only one topic will come in the exam.”

Unfortunately, what she studied for doesn’t come in the test. Instead she finds herself sitting in class, on exam day, staring at a question for which she has absolutely no answer. Panic hits as she begins to envision the big fat ‘F’ that will be her due at the end of the semester. Panic gives way to the self-assurance that worry won’t change things: “You’re here now so think: what’s the best you can do?”. Smart. The student decides to make the best of the situation: she decides to write what she knows, what she studied, not what is needed in the exam paper. She takes a gamble. Maybe the professor, seeing that she at least understands something in the course, will be kinder to her even though she will not answer the questions asked but the questions she had hoped would be asked. She writes her paper, hands it in and hopes for the best.

Have you ever seen this happen?

What do you think a professor should do when faced with such a case? Reading the students exam paper, the professor may adjudge that this student is capable, literate, smarter than average and has a way of reasoning distinctly higher than the rest of the class. But, holding that paper to the exam’s marking scheme, the professor cannot reconcile the answer the student has given with the answer that is required. While the professor may want to be lenient and show mercy it would be, ethically speaking, unfair. What’s the point of a marking scheme if your going to throw it out for one student? Besides, it would be unfair to treat this student different from all other students some of whom have prepared really long, and worked really hard for a good grade. Even giving the student a chance to resit the paper would be, in a way, unfair to the rest of the class.

It would seem that a ‘good’ professor, a just professor, has no option but to fail this student albeit begrudgingly. In this situation, however, the F will (or may not) not be an indicator of the student’s ability (or lack thereof) but will rather be a reflection of the student’s unpreparedness. (both of which, by the way, are  important (perhaps equally important. After all, a future employer of this student would be as wary of a the fact that he/she is a known and persistent procrastinator (read unreliable) as they are of a person who simply won’t be able to do the job. So either way the F helps weed out ‘undesirables’)

But what does this have to do with Christianity?

I’ve just finished reading the book “The Reason for God by Tim Keller in which he tackles some of the questions that skeptics have about the existence of God, the goodness of God and the legitimacy of Christ’s claims. (It’s a helpful read, by the way you should get a copy!)

One of the ‘issues that people have with God, which the book tries to deal with, arises from the issue of evil and suffering especially. You’ve probably heard the question: “why do bad things happen to good people?”. Stretching this question, one should of course wonder why Hell (which is perhaps the worst place and most painful suffering there is) happens, even to the best and brightest of humanity.

How can God send good people to hell? How will he punish even  those who give their lives for the sake of ideals: freedom, justice, equality, human rights?  Those who are working hard to make the world a better place whether in obscurity or on a recognized platform. Doesn’t he see that their good? Their not perfect, but they’re trying! Can’t he just let them into heaven?

There’s one main problem with these questions. Whose definition of good (bad) are we talking about?

According to Christianity, God has his standards which he is faithful to and will use to judge men.

Most of us, however, decide on our own definition of good and expect God to judge us in accordance with that. The Professor is continually asked to change His scheme to accommodate our blatantly ‘wrong answers’. Imagine the aforementioned student going back to his professor and forthrightly saying, “Listen, I’m sure you pretty much made a mistake in you’re setting of this question. It’s really not what you meant to do but I went ahead and took the liberty to write a response to the question I’m sure you wanted to ask; the question I really felt you should ask and the question I prepared for. I also developed a marking scheme too just to help you in the grading.”

Sounds Ridiculous? It should! But isn’t that just like us? Believing that if we think we are good, then God must (and is obligated to also) think we are good and if God thinks we are good, he would be unjust to throw us into Hell.

Truthfully, God would be unjust to throw innocent people to Hell. But who, pray tell, are these innocents who live in such danger?

God’s standards of good are so high that what He thinks the best human being is, is wicked. Because God‘s standard of God is…. Him. Being good is not about doing good deeds outside of God’s standards, its about being like God: perfectly loving, perfectly humble, perfectly merciful, perfectly holy.

Indeed:

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

God loves justice. He loves mercy and kindness. He loves giving to the poor. He loves freeing people. And loves people who recognize their need for God. If you pursue the justice/mercy apart from God, you fail. Miserably and on all three counts in the verse. Because only God can help you to seek true justice and practice proper kindness. That’s God scheme of things. The true scheme of things.

Most of us think we are good in comparison with other people. All of us will know we are bad when we truly see ourselves in light of a Holy, loving, merciful God who judges (fails us) not only on the basis of action, but also on the basis of inaction and ill-intention and any really any single act, thought or desire that is not in conformity with His law. The simple truth is this:

‘There is no-one good, not even one’.

When we truly realize that, it shifts our paradigm and our question invariably changes from why God sends good people to hell, to a cry of desperation: “is there any way  a good and just God might allow bad people into heaven?”  and finding the answer to this question, becomes the matter of life and death it actually is.

It Is Not Safer to Believe in God

Blaise Pascal reasoned that we should believe God exists because it is in our self-interest to do so.

If we don’t believe God exists, the worst case scenario is going to hell. But if we believe God exists, the best case scenario is going to heaven.

pascalwager

The problem with Pascal’s wager is that it is a weak wager, a false and misleading wager. Believing that God exists is not any better than believing He doesn’t.

“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19)

Many people consider themselves Christians because they have grown up in church and believe that the God of the Bible “exists”. But sadly, that is not what it means (or what it takes) to be a Christian.

“Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb 11:6)

But what is this thing called FAITH? And even more importantly, what is faith IN God? Is it merely “believing that God exists”? Is it “acknowledging that there is a God and He rewards those who seek Him”? Is it “believing that God is all powerful and the creator of the universe?” Or is it more?

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)

Does this mean that faith is the abstract sense of assurance for things hoped for. If I really TRUST and sincerely BELIEVE God for the car I am HOPING for, is this faith? Is this all there is to faith? The Bible seems to show that faith is more complex than that. It is not just a Word of Faith.

“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17)

So, it is not just about hearing abstract passages, promises and commands in the Bible and believing them. It is about hearing these passages, promises and commands in the Bible through the WORD OF CHRIST?

So what is this WORD OF CHRIST? What is this special message that reserves the right to be called the Word of Christ? Is it just any words spoken by Christ? Is it one of the parables? We can’t afford to get the wrong Word of Christ. So what is it? It is the one message about Christ that the Bible ascribes the power to save and transform people.

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” (Rom 10:9-10)

Pascal was wrong, God is not looking for gamblers. He is looking for sinners. People who are conscious of their sin and broken by their offense against God. God is looking for people who will believe that He has provided a way to reconcile wayward men and Himself.

It is the Word of Christ, the Gospel, that we believe and are saved. You can take that to the bank.

For the fame of His name,

Cornell.