Blog by Tom Gilson,Senior Editor and Ministry Coordinator for the Christian/conservative web magazine "The Stream".Thinking Christianity for Home,Church and Community.His credo "Christians do not hold the truth, we are held by it."
Three ethical dilemmas, each of them a true story. What do they have in common, besides the obvious?
An analyst working at a major corporate headquarters says, “If I eat lunch at Chick-fil-A, I don’t dare mention it when I return to work. They view Chick-fil-A as homophobic, and they’ll report me to HR for creating a hostile work environment.”
All the managers in one corporate department have placed LGBT “Ally” stickers on their office doors. All but one, that is; the one Christian there, who feels caught. By staying silent, not putting a sticker on his own door, he’s making an unpopular statement — one that could even earn him disciplinary action.
A manager at another corporation sees his company throwing great public support behind the June LGBT “Pride” month. He feels an ethical urgency to talk to his boss about the Christian view being overlooked — if not outright steamrolled — in the process. His boss is homosexual, by the way.
I didn’t make up these stories. These are friends of mine. At first when the one friend mentioned the Chick-fil-A issue I thought he was exaggerating for effect, but he assured me he was deadly serious.
Obviously all three of these are about dilemmas they’ve faced at work. Here’s the less-obvious thing they have in common: Not one of them has ever heard any clear advice from the pulpit on how to handle tough situations like these.
In one case the church’s pastor was closely involved, giving personal counsel. I give him high credit for that; he didn’t leave his friend and church member to figure it all out for himself. Otherwise, though, I can’t help thinking “abandoned” is the right word for it.
It Isn’t Only On the Job
Those were work situations. Similar things happen in families, in schools, even in churches, too.
A Christian friend had to decide whether to attend his daughter’s lesbian wedding. A grocery store’s obviously transgender employee made some other believers uncomfortable by his manner of dressing and acting. A gay college student shouted another student down — loudly and unstoppably — for denying gays their “rights.” A woman told a church leader she was looking forward to the upcoming couples’ event, then introduced the other woman standing next to her as her wife.
None of the Christians in these cases had ever heard a sermon on how to handle those situations, either.
Is the Church Abandoning You and Me to These Dilemmas?
So here’s my question: Where are the churches on this? Where is the preaching?
I’d like to know how many other Christians in the Western world face issues like these. My guess: A lot of us.
How many of them are finding real help with these questions at church? Is any pastor preaching on how to handle these moral tough spots? My guess: Very few of us. I haven’t heard of any. Not even one. If you know of exceptions, I’d be glad to have you point it out to me.
Also: Has anyone written advice on how to approach dilemmas like these? If so, I hope someone will point it out to me, because I haven’t seen it.
As far as I can tell, the vast majority of committed, conservative Christians live with moral dilemmas for which they are completely unprepared. And aside from a Sunday School or two, or maybe some home Bible studies here or there, their churches are leaving them to sort it all out on their own.
I’m sure there must be exceptions; that pastors in some churches are equipping their congregations responsibly for life in a gay-friendly world. But there can’t be that many of them.If it where, it would have bubbled up all over in online conversations by now, or else in Christian websites and magazines. I haven’t seen a sight of it.
Again, I’d be glad if someone could tell me I’m wrong. At any rate, I say it’s time for pastors to start preaching again about standing strong for Christ — especially when standing strong may put them at risk.
The Preaching Challenge: The Hard Part
Preaching on this can’t be easy. The pastor must assume from the start that his congregation includes diverse views on homosexuality in his congregation. There may even be LGBT members or attenders.
I was speaking on homosexuality for a charismatic women’s group not long ago, and a lesbian woman interrupted me with a tirade that wouldn’t stop, beginning with, “Heterosexuality causes abortions!” That told me right away that my rational, reasoned approach so far wasn’t the thing that would resolve her issues. I offered to meet with her afterward to talk about her concerns; she ignored it. The meeting host made the same offer; the woman shouted right over her. Finally the host directed two people to escort her from the room.
Conflict doesn’t often reach that level. But I’m also aware of a youth group talk on homosexuality, where two girls walked out because they were “bisexual,” and thought the speaker was insensitive. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether he was or not. I do know that pastors need to be ready for anything when they open their mouths on LGBT matters.
So he must pray before he preaches. Then he has to explain, persuade, bring the church along to the truth with him. He must take the role of apologist for biblical morality. Simply saying, “The Bible says so,” won’t always do the job, unfortunately; some listeners will just harden in their positions, saying, “Well, then, I don’t think much of the Bible!” A preacher needs to persuade in other terms as well. (I’ve covered some of this in Critical Conversations.)
The Preaching Challenge: The Harder Part
That was the easier part. The harder part is explaining what the Bible says about moral courage and prudential wisdom, and how to balance the two on the job. Since no two job circumstances are the same, the preacher must preach on principles. And he must be prepared to call his people to make hard decisions. He has to be willing to set the pace in that, if circumstances call for it.
There’s plenty to preach on, anyway. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow to the idol. Daniel refused to eat the king’s food or to give up his daily prayers. Joseph refused to sleep with Potiphar’s wife. All of them got in severe trouble for it: the fiery furnace, the lion’s den, the dungeon. God honored all of them. Yet we also see all of them treating their pagan rulers with great respect, obeying and even serving them to the full extent possible without violating God’s commands.
These examples illustrate a principle: Do everything you can to do your job and live in relationships cooperatively and well. Hold firm to your Christian morals. Don’t raise a stink unless the stink’s already there and justifies it. If you do need to speak up, seek good counsel first so you can proceed with wisdom.
Practical Preaching Points for Job-Related Issues
Suppose you do need to speak up. How should you proceed? What should a pastor include in a sermon on it?
I had this conversation not long ago with the person in the third situation I listed above. There I admitted freely, “I haven’t been in this position. I can’t decide for you what’s best. But I do have some ideas to offer.” Here is some of what we discussed there. This case was very job-related, so I could have mentioned to him my Master’s degree in organizational psychology, too — except he already knew about it.
Know your stuff. Don’t expect to win over your boss without making a clear case for your position. Be prepared to explain your viewpoint clearly and concisely, both from a biblical point of view (which is important to your own spiritual health) and from a secular perspective (which will be a lot more persuasive to most bosses).
Don’t go in alone. Get prayer support. Get godly counsel along with it. This will also prevent you from rushing into a conversation prematurely.
Know what you’re willing to give up, and for what. If your company asks you to do something immoral, or to actively support someone else’s immorality, your choice should be clear: You have to stand for what’s right, even if it costs you your job. It cost Joseph years in a dungeon. He came out far ahead in the end, though, by doing what was right. So no, the manager in the second scenario couldn’t (and didn’t) put an “Ally” sticker on his door. He still has his job.
Try not to paint your boss into a corner. Try to find a way both sides can win instead. For example, “I know this company values diversity and inclusion, but there’s a perspective being overlooked: the Christian view on morality. I’d like to get a conversation started on this. What’s the best way to proceed?” Few bosses would say no to that. If they do, then you’ve got some hard decisions to make. See number 2.
Remind your boss of his or her own values: tolerance, listening, diversity, inclusion, and so forth, before launching in to your main topic of discussion. Ask, “Can we have a moment of tolerance and listening to each other here?” Then if the necessary you can remind your boss you were expecting to be heard and respected.
Make sure your boss knows exactly what you want of him or her. This is good business practice anyway; bosses almost always want to know where you’re heading when you come to them. In this case it can also relieve them of concern that you’re coming with hidden agendas. Come with your agenda, but keep it open and transparent.
Use questions. Lots of them. Jesus did, especially in adversarial situations. “How can we get a good conversation started on this?” for example.
Verbalize and normalize negative/interfering emotions. For example: “I can see this is hard. It’s getting awkward. That’s bound to happen in conversations like this isn’t it? So it’s just normal if it happens, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m still convinced we can work through it to a good solution that works for us all. How can we best do that?” It’s a matter first of verbalizing what you or your boss are feeling, then normalizing it by articulating the fact that it’s not unexpected in conversations like these. Then moving back to the topic at hand.
Be prepared to lose anyway. But remember the Lord still wins.
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.”Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:28-30)
What would you add to these nine points? Have you been through one of these ethical dilemmas? I’d love to hear from you on it.
I couldn’t stay away. I’d said I was retiring this blog, but in the weeks since then I’ve realized that’s wrong. What I really needed to do was re-purpose it. You can see it now on the home page; I’m using this as an author/speaker website, with the blog included as part of that. I’ve got my first new post ready to go in a few hours.
When I shut it down it was because I was having trouble discerning where Thinking Christian fit alongside my other writing at The Stream and The Spiritual Readiness Project, not to mention my next book currently in process. I strongly encourage you to read The Stream. It is undoubtedly the best place to go on the web for a Christian perspective on current events, along with a good helping of timeless Christian encouragement.
The Spiritual Readiness Project is proceeding in a seasonal fashion as other team members and I have opportunity to do the research for it. Expect much more to come from that this fall.
Meanwhile Thinking Christian will be a home for weekly (at least) work on more challenging, sometimes more experimental thinking than I do at The Stream. And I’ll keep you informed here about other major work I’m doing elsewhere.
I’d welcome your prayers as I start here again. Thank you!
How does one say this, after all these years, all these friendships, all these interactions?
It’s been quite a ride, for one thing. And it’s coming full circle.
When I started this blog on another platform almost 15 years ago, I thought it was going to be about Christian strategy. It quickly morphed into an apologetics and ethics blog, however. Now I’m returning to that original strategic intention now. I’m doing as part of a group, on a different platform, for a new purpose fitted to a new day in our world. It’s still got plenty to do with ethics and apologetics, but it’s focused now on strategies to bring more thinking Christianity into the Church.
I’ll write several posts here to explain and introduce that over the next few weeks. And then I’m going to retire this blog.
The published posts and comments will remain, of course.
It really has been a great run. I’ve treasured my time with the community of commenters here: Charlie Scott, SteveK, Holopupenko, G. Rodrigues, BillT, scbrownlrhm, Melissa, Victoria, Jenna, Billy Squibs, JAD, djc, The Deuce, Medicine Man, bigbird, and so many other supporting commenters. It’s dangerous to begin building a list; I’ll miss someone crucial to my time here. I must apologize for that in advance.
I think as well as the loyal opposition. doctor(logic) comes first to mind: he was one of the first and one of the most engaging. Also Paul, Sault, Tony Hoffman, David Ellis, Raz, Nick Matzke, Tom Clark, OlegT, Jacob Stump, James Lindsay, Ray Ingles, Shane Fletcher, Keith, Ordinary Seeker, Larry Tanner, Gregory Magarshak, John Moore, Skepticism First, and so many, many others who have enlivened discussions here for so long.
Would You Be Willing … ?
If this blog has meant something to you over the years, would you be willing to say so in comments?
I’ve met some of you face to face, including one atheist who asked me never to tell about it — and I haven’t, though I still wish we could have recorded that meeting, or een sold tickets to see it! Nothing violent about it; we had a great breakfast together. And some lively debate!
Here is where I’ve honed my writing skills. Here is where I learned much of what I know about apologetics ministry. Holopupenko taught me to appreciate Thomism, much of which I even agree with now! Others taught me that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, which drove me to further study.
Behind the scenes, too, this was where my son, Jonathan, taught me an awful lot about web design and especially WordPress, as he also developed a whole series of outstanding design themes.
The Content, the Connections
Here, too, is where I found a network that connected me with writing opportunities online with First Things, Breakpoint, the Christian Apologetics Alliance Facebook Group, the Apologetics Bloggers Alliance, and ultimately The Stream, where I now do the great majority of my writing. I can’t begin to say enough thanks for the friendships gained through all that extended network.
It was great, when it was at its best. At its peak this blog was seeing something like 35,000 page views a month. On this WordPress platform alone, after I switched from the original, this post is the 2,345th I’ve written. Commenters have written more than 60,500 comments. Four years ago I ran a test on a random sample of blog posts, and estimated that by then I’d blogged just under half a million words, not including comments (which were much more voluminous).
In time it will disappear from all those rankings, I know. It’s going to be hard to let that go.
So Why On Earth Would I Leave This Behind?
Why move on, then? I’ve changed. The world we live in has changed. The Church has changed, too — but it’s not keeping up with the rest, and that alarms me. American Christianity is moving toward persecution, in terms that Jesus himself defined in Matthew 5:11-12. Anti-Christian hostility is well documented. Even where individuals aren’t facing hostility, the Christian view of reality is under persistent, consistent attack. It’s only likely to increase as our culture polarizes more and more.
Many of my colleagues in apologetics have asked, “Why won’t the Church adopt apologetics as part of its equipping?” It’s a great question. We at the Spiritual Readiness Project are turning it into a matter of research. We want to be able to answer that great question, from the perspective of the churches — and especially the pastors who have so much else to think about.
We want to know very specifically how we can help. And then over the course of 3 to 5 years we intend to produce books, articles, and conferences to serve the Church in this vital area of equipping.
If that weren’t so crucial, I wouldn’t leave here. But it is.
The Past Few Years: The Good and the Bad
The pace here has decreased over the past few years, too. When I joined Ratio Christi’s national leadership team some five or six years ago, my writing time diminished. Later on I tried to keep things going here while also writing for The Stream, which might have worked had my heart not been turning toward the Spiritual Readiness Project.
When I quit writing here as much, the commenting community I’d enjoyed so much here dissipated, too. It only makes sense. There wasn’t nearly as much reason to come and converse. Not only that, but the quality of skeptic/atheistic commenting has diminished greatly; either that or it’s always been this poor, and my patience with it has worn out.
I’ve told would-be bloggers, “Whatever you do, write something you enjoy writing about!” I’m doing that at The Stream almost every day, and loving it! But I’m also finding new excitement in the Spiritual Readiness Project. It’s a team effort, which like The Stream is a welcome break from years of solo blogging. And I’m choosing the venues I think will matter more over the next several years.
Transition Begins Now; and Thank You!
I’ll write few more transitional posts here, since I really want you to know about the Spiritual Readiness Project. Then I will turn all my attention there, The Stream, and other writing (including a book in progress), and be done writing here.
I leave here with a lot of joy in my heart for all God has allowed me to do and to experience here. I say this with love in my heart, and great appreciation: Thank you all for reading, sharing, commenting, and making my life richer through it.
News came out a couple weeks ago about Raphael Samuel, a 27-year-old Indian man who’s reportedly suing his parents for bringing him into this world without his consent.
“Life was imposed on me…. I want to make it a legal right for a child to sue a parent…. Ideally the parents should not have the child. But if they do have the child, they must compensate the child, they must guarantee property for the child, they must guarantee a good life for the child.”
Antinatalist Raphael Samuel Explains The Reason Behind Suing His Parents - YouTube
Okay, he’s a nut case. My Facebook friend Roger Browning answered it just as seriously as it deserves:
This will obviously be thrown out. Penal code 706.4.2(a.1) clearly states “consent is assumed unless fetal form 603b is filled out and filed in triplicate. Original copies must be time stamped by a notary public and in witness of, not less than, three (3) witnesses unrelated to the non-concenting party”
It’s on him for not filing the appropriate paperwork prior to the 24 week deadline (4 month extensions available in New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island, and 13 others in cases of rape and incest).
The Man Who Chose To Live and Die
But there really was a child who was born by his own consent. His parents never guaranteed him any property, in fact he never owned any at all, to the day he died. His parents didn’t guarantee him a good life. No such luck. He had “no place to lay his head.” He was constantly under pressure from enemies who wanted him killed, but in the end it was a friend, of all people, who betrayed him. He died horribly, painfully, humiliatingly at a very young age.
He had the choice, though, right from the start. There was never any necessity that he suffer helplessness or dependency. He never really had to feel heat or thirst; never had to experience the pressure of temptation; never had to die. For the rest of us, that’s absolutely unavoidable. Not so for him. Of course he did go through all that, but unlike every other person who’s lived, he did it all completely by his own choice.
Of course you know who I’m talking about. (Maybe this should have been a Christmas post, but Raphael Samuel didn’t time it that way for us.)
The Man Who Chose To Be a Sacrifice for Us
This morning on Facebook I saw the question,
So the big deal with Jesus is that he sacrificed his life for normal humans. … I mean he was God in the flesh right? … Wait though, when normal people die we don’t get to come back to life and then dematerialize and get transported to heaven where we rule the universe for eternity? What was the sacrifice again?
I asked him in reply,
What was the sacrifice again? Would you choose to do that if you could live forever in absolute power, control, freedom, lack of pain?
Jesus did it for us willingly (John 10:11–18) because of his love (John 13:34–35) and for the joy of bringing us to God (Hebrews 12:1–2).
There are so many reasons to worship him. This is one more.
Prepare to nod your head in agreement with some of the findings, and to be surprised at other — especially the two big factors we found that don’t seem to motivate many people’s interest in apologetics.
Why this research?
Christians working in apologetics have been asking for years, “How can we get churches more interested in apologetics?” We’ve used a naive, intuitive, seat-of-the-pants approach to figuring that out. F could name some shining exceptions, especially work led by Sean McDowell, Greg Koukl, and Brett Kunkle, plus Summit Ministries and Impact360. They’ve found powerful ways to instill interest in young people for the first time. The rest of us? For the most part our best answer has been, “Give them the resources and they will come.”
For some people, that’s exactly the answer they need. So it’s a good one; and yet for all the resources we’ve developed, we’re still not seeing churches rise up and grab hold the way we believe they should.
Enter the Spiritual Readiness Project, a multi-year research and training initiative, taking a serious problem-solving approach to the question of apologetics in the church. We’re a team of four people seriously interested in apologetics, and also trained in social sciences, seeking to understand the motivational basis of the question. We’re starting with research, and we’ll be ending with at least one book, plus conferences and web-based training and resources.
I’ll be very interested in your comments on what we’ve found. (Trolls will be thrown back under their bridge.)
I was just looking at a Facebook battle over whether women tend to suffer emotional distress after an abortion. A secular psychiatrist said there’s no evidence; someone else insisted there was.
As Christians we are committed to truth. We need to know what we’re talking about, to make sure we’re speaking truth, before we engage in these kinds of arguments. I’m not sure the Christian in this discussion was succeeding in that. That doesn’t mean she’s wrong; in fact as a strong pro-life advocate I think she’s right in most ways, just not in the way she was standing for in this debate.
Even with a Master’s degree in psychology, I wouldn’t try to win the battle the way she’s trying to win it, for four reasons.
1. Research-Paper Wars Are Always Hard to Win
First, it’s difficult to win any war of this type, comparing research study with research study. That’s especially true for those who do not keep in close touch with the literature. It’s study vs. study, paper vs. paper, authority vs. authority, and for those who don’t have the professional qualifications to wield the authority properly, there’s really no chance at all of winning.
Remember, I say that as one who would like to say the pro-life view on women’s post-abortive emotional health is adversely affected. I’d like to be able to cite that research, too. The reason I don’t is because research studies are like people: If you only look at one, you’re not getting the whole picture.
Studies hardly ever all agree with one another; and when I look at a page linking to studies showing adverse effects, I don’t know whether these studies have been cherry-picked. If they have, then they don’t carry scientific authority. If I don’t know whether they have been, then I can’t cite them with any authority.
2. Few of Us Have the Knowledge to Use it Authoritatively
For issues that have been studied multiple times, researchers have a tool called meta-analysis that’s designed to ferret out what they all agree on, if anything. Unfortunately in the debate I’m watching, I can’t take time to read the links offered. Two are freelyaccessible; they total 230-plus pages, which is too much for me to tackle right now. One of them relies heavily on meta-analyses. Both of them also use a different but also acceptable methodology: simple inspection of the studies, looking at the quality of the research and drawing conclusions only from the best. (Another one for which only an abstract is available appears to do the same.
Therefore, unless you or I are able to answer the challenge on the level that Faizal has raised it, then we really aren’t able to answer. We can’t use the authority of psychological research unless we take that research seriously.
3. Authorities Can Be Biased, and Research Flawed Regardless
Second, however, the APAs are both politically influenced. In the field I’m more familiar with, homosexuality and transgender, it’s very clear their research is politically biased. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if abortion-related research were likewise biased.
Meanwhile the social sciences have been suffering a serious crisis of replicability: Findings aren’t holding up when re-tested. Is that the case with post-abortion studies? It wouldn’t be surprising — although the research summaries linked above do cite an impressive number of studies, which reduces the likelihood of that flaw.
I cannot say more than that myself. I know neither the literature nor the history of abortion-related studies. I can say it wouldn’t surprise me if it were politically biased or otherwise flawed, but I cannot say that it actually is. In fact, if I were to say it without knowing, I’d be guilty of the same thing: Letting my bias determine my conclusions instead of the facts.
4. Guilt is Still Guilt, and God Still Has the Final Word
Third and finally, it’s also a mistake to suppose that psychological science knows all the answers. Faizal says fundamentalists impose guilt. In fact guilt is an automatic effect following upon sin, and it can only be erased through God’s forgiveness.
Psychological science knows nothing of this. Women may or may not be able to ignore and suppress their feelings of guilt — and we live in a world where many women can find strong support for suppressing those feelings — but guilt is what it is, regardless of whether one “feels it” or not.
In other words, most of us don’t have the resources to employ psychological authority in these discussions. But that doesn’t mean we have to bow to it. Psychological science is neither the only source of relevant knowledge, nor the most authoritative. God has the final word.
Five years ago I published an article at Touchstone magazine that I titled “Too Good to be False,” and which they titled, “The Gospel Truth of Jesus.” Leading New Testament documents scholar Daniel Wallace paid me the compliment of calling it “Lewis-esque.”
For quite a long time Touchstone displayed it for free on their website, but now it’s behind a subscriber paywall. The copyright is mine, so today I’m republishing it here.
This article runs long for a web page, so here’s a shorter form, reprinted from an earlier blog post:
It begins with Jesus’ ethical perfection, unmatched in all of Western literature, and I believe also in all world literature besides. He is the one character portrayed as possessing perfect power while being perfectly other-oriented, without flaw or exception.
This combination is rare beyond rare. The degree to which he displays this dual perfection seriously stretches the meaning of “unique.” Lord Acton said it well: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely;” but according to the accounts we have, Jesus had absolute power, yet he was absolutely uncorrupted. (To understand that rightly with respect to Jesus, you must take “absolute” in its most absolute possible sense.)
That means that if his story as portrayed in the Gospels really were invented, then those who thought him up concocted a character far greater than any other in all the history of human imagination. No one else has demonstrated the ability to compose a character anything like that. Maybe someone could have, but the fact is, no one has. That’s a hint—not proof, but a pretty good hint—that his greatness surpasses the reach of human imagination: that he is unimaginably great, in the most literal sense of the word.
Where Did Such a Character Come From?
Still we have his story. The skeptics suppose that it really was the product of human imagination. I can’t tell you that’s impossible, since we have only a strong hint that it might be; but I think I can safely say it’s exceedingly unlikely to have happened the way they say it did.
For what they tell us is that Jesus’ character was concocted through a disjointed, error-riddled process of corporate cognitive dissonance reduction. It originated in a culture where even a hint of human deification would get a person stoned to death. That’s where they think this character’s unmatched, divine ethical perfection came from.
And it happened not just once but four times. The number of Gospel accounts we have in the Bible is significant here, not because of how they might or might not confirm one another, but because the authors had four distinct opportunities to get it wrong—to introduce some flaw into Christ’s self-sacrificial, other-centered character—but none of them did. Therefore skeptics must suppose that this decidedly imperfect community not only introduced his ethical perfection but maintained it perfectly over multiple tellings of the story.
The Evidence is Against Its Being Merely Imagined
I think what they’re imagining could best be described as a miracle of a different sort.
You can choose which explanation to believe. Take Jesus’ life as true, and you’ll find it fits into a long history, a back-story, as it were. More than that, it’s the central piece in a coherent world picture.
Meanwhile there’s no reason to think that the skeptics’ proposed “community of faith”—actually, non-community of cognitive dysfunction, as I explain in the article—could or would have concocted a character of Jesus’ overwhelming ethical magnificence.
The skeptical version has no coherent back-story. It fits nowhere in what we know of human nature, of literature, or the context of the times. That is, it fits nowhere except by power of shoehorn and sledge hammer (and never mind the bits and pieces flying everywhere!) wielded for the purpose of keeping God out of the story.
If the story of Jesus is unimaginably great, but the story exists anyway, then it’s unlikely it came about by means of the imagination. It’s far more likely that it’s true.
Let’s start by agreeing Shermer is right, as he opens this interview: Humans do seek out evidence that supports our beliefs. We do tend to cement our convictions more than we question them. He’s also wrong, though, when he tells Stephen Colbert (at 1:40), “The only way to tell, really, the difference between these true patterns and false patterns is science.”
I’m happy to leave the most obvious flaws in that thinking for you to discuss in the comments. For starters, it’s a performative self-contradiction/self-defeating statement, and it’s over-optimistic with respect to the “debunking” human factor in science. I see these topics debated all the time.
Under the surface, though, Shermer’s got another theme going on. Hardly anyone talks about this one — even though atheists and “skeptics” do it all the time.
That theme goes something like this: Never let yourself get fooled. Suspend judgment. On everything. Make certain it’s certain before you buy into it. Never believe anything that might not be true.
That’s a scientific attitude, in a way. Scientists are loathe to say experiments prove anything; instead they “fail to confirm” or to “disconfirm.” Every conclusion is a working conclusion, subject to later amendment. I’m speaking in ideal terms here, for scientists are human beings, too. (I’m also excluding evolution, which for mysterious reasons gets exceptional treatment as “Fact, Fact, FACT!“)
Heuristics, Science, Art, and Morality
The history of science supports this tentative approach. We keep learning, and therefore unlearning. What once was certain is now rejected as false; therefore the safer route is never to say anything is certain. Working conclusions are good enough, anyway: They lead to new technologies or new theories; or if they prove not to work after all, they point away from themselves toward new ideas.
But not everything is science. Not every false conclusion has the same heuristic value. Some are just deadly. Not every branch of knowledge has the same learning-unlearning-new learning growth characteristic science has, either. Science has progressed by orders of magnitude over the past few years, much less centuries, but has music? Poetry? Drama? How much better was Tennessee Williams than Sophocles? Who today is orders of magnitude ahead of Shakespeare? (Is anyone even a match for Tennessee Williams?)
There is such a thing as heuristic science, so eternal skepticism has its usefulness there, but there is no such thing as heuristic music. Even less is there any such thing as heuristic morality; the very term contradicts itself. Moral truths have no scientific tests, though, so on Shermer’s line of thinking, one should never adopt any moral conclusions. The problem with that should be plain, however. Skepticism cannot be known to be a virtue unless one knows of such a thing as virtue. His position incinerates its not only its own logic but also its own reason for being.
We Won’t Be Fooled Again!
He seeks to minimize false beliefs so We don’t get fooled again! (I’m sure he skips the “get on my knees and pray” part.) In some skeptics’ case, it sounds a lot like, “We won’t get embarrassed again!” Because there is that image to keep up, you know.
But a ship navigated by skepticism can only land at random ports, and after each landing skitters off again just in case it’s the wrong place to be. Maybe one port is right, maybe not, so the safest bet is to stay out of them all. (We won’t get vulnerable again!)
Colbert asks (at 4:04), “What about religion?” Shermer says, “There are so many prophets and they conflict with each other…. <inaudible> What kind of experiment could we possibly run to tell the difference between whether this is the one true religion or this is the one true religion?”
I wonder what kind of experiment can the ship run to tell whether this is the right port or this other one is. None, obviously. Why would this even be the kind of knowledge someone would gain by experiment? How would you know where to start, anyway, since we haven’t even defined what it means to be the right port? Keep the ship at sea!
Likewise with religion. Shermer refuses to land, because he might land in the wrong place. No, worse than that: He sees that there are wrong places to land — there must be, considering their contradictions — and concludes therefore that there is no right place to land.
The Skeptic Who Wasn’t
At this point I must introduce one way besides science by which we can know a conclusion is untenable. If it doesn’t follow from its premises — if it’s irrational — then one ought not land on it. Yet this Shermer does: When he will land on no religion, in view of the fact that they all might be wrong, he lands on a conclusion that is demonstrably irrational.
Let me replay it in case you missed it: Every religion has a chance of being false, therefore we should conclude that none of them is true. There’s another: Our experimental methods, designed for heuristic knowledge in the natural world, don’t give us certain knowledge in the extra-natural world; therefore we conclude that there is no knowledge of the extra-natural world.
Neither conclusion follows from the premises, but Shermer commits to both of them. He’s not such a good skeptic after all. He believes both of those conclusions even though they might be — no, even though they certainly are false.
In fact everyone, Shermer included, happily lives with truths not known through science. Christians like myself are convinced that history (including its documents, artifacts, archaeology, and more), philosophy, and even science point directly toward the reality of God in Jesus Christ.
Could I be wrong? Sure. But I have made it my business to maximize true beliefs, where truth matters as much as this does. I am quite convinced there are good reasons to consider this a true belief. I won’t skitter away from it like a scaredy-cat, just because there’s a chance it might be wrong.
This took place a couple weeks ago, but I saved posting it until now because too many of us are too busy just before Christmas. I’m trusting you won’t be too busy now. At least read the article, please. It matters.
What Is Sex-Change Regret? - YouTube
This is a call to action. It’s based on new, serious challenges we believers face. We’re in a situation where people with power, hostile to the faith, are moving toward full-on anti-Christian totalitarianism — and it’s growing still. But this is also the year things could begin to change.
As Michael knows — and says — I’m no chicken-little doomsday preacher. I’m just saying what I’m seeing. If your own observations aren’t enough to convince you, realize there’s considerable social science supporting this. It’s a direct threat to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Most urgently, it’s a direct assault on young believers’ faith. It’s putting their eternities at risk.
A Plan For Your Church’s Response
It’s happening, and the Church is asleep to it. One reason I think we won’t look it in the eye is because we don’t know what to do. We need not feel so lost. In my Stream article I list six basic steps every church should be taking today. Here’s the short version, directed mostly at church leaders, especially pastors.
Tell the whole truth. Don’t hold back! Let your congregation know how we’re at risk.
Again, tell the whole truth. God is still God. His Word is still His Word, and that includes His moral instruction.
Third: Remind them Jesus still lives, and we must live for Him, no matter what.
Fourth: Lead the way in engaging the battle through prayer.
Fifth: Equip your people with answers.
Sixth, and finally (because people often remember most what they read last): Show and teach how to engage the battle in love.
These steps can make all the difference. Realistically? Yes! How? I unpack that lightly in that article. Over the next several weeks I’ll follow through in greater depth. Stay tuned here and at The Stream.
This isn’t about defensiveness. It’s not about running scared. Jesus’ followers are secure. He saved us completely on the Cross. I can live in total freedom and joy in him, given that knowledge. But what about the people we love? What about our friends, co-workers, neighbors — and our family members, especially our children and grandchildren?
2019 could be a great year for us if we gear up to reach out, fully equipped to speak the truth in love. But only if we wake up and start taking action. Now’s the time.