Gates of Hell and Protestant Church History


, , , , , ,


Generally speaking I enjoy the topics surrounding Atheism versus Theism and spend most of my time on those.  I will say that I am quite happy with the discussions with non-believers and have found many to be quite cordial despite the topics.  I consider many to be my friends.


I also enjoy discussing the issues surrounding Catholic versus Protestant versus Orthodox.   And this will be the first of what I hope are many posts I will make on this topic.  I am a Catholic and a fairly committed one at that.    But just as I do not think theism is an intellectual slam dunk I do not think Catholicism is a slam dunk either.  In other words, I think there are some good reasons to be atheist, protestant and/or orthodox.     My children go to a Lutheran School.  One that I love.  But sometimes when I see what they are taught I think many protestants must wonder what is he thinking!?  Why is he Catholic?  Well here I would like to offer some insights.  There are few other fairly large reasons but this is a big one.  Lets call this the historical argument.


Ok so let us start with a passage that I believe does lead me to be Catholic or Orthodox.  Actually, I will freely admit that the reasons I prefer Catholicism over Orthodoxy are fairly minor.    I think it’s well past time to end the schism.   But anyway today I want to poke at my fellow protestant readers.


“…I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”


Now before this quote Peter says something to Jesus and Jesus says he is Peter an “on this rock” I will build my church.  A lot has already been written on what “this rock” is.  I want to focus on the second part.  Did he build a church?   If so when?    What sort of Church did Christ build?  And finally, have the gates of hell prevailed against his church?



Ok so I think most Christians would agree Christ did in fact found a church.  Moreover, he did it before the New Testament was written.  We see references to the Church in Paul’s letters which are believed to be the earliest NT scriptures.   So it would seem the Church Christ founded could not have been a “biblical church” i.e., one that claims its only authority comes from the bible.  Right?


The Church founded by Christ had to have some other authority beyond “scripture alone.”  If the church Christ founded, is now limited to the bible alone when did this change happen? Did this change right after the scriptures were written?  Or was it after they were considered to be the bible by …I don’t know, someone, a church, Martin Luther  – again I don’t know.

The bible does not say what books are supposed to be in the bible.  Would you agree that Christ’s church has the authority to decide this issue? Or is there some other way to determine what books were inspired by the Holy Spirit and should be in the bible?    There is a dispute, as many of you likely know, between Protestants Catholics and even Orthodox (each bible growing larger) as to which books belong in the bible.  Although this dispute only involves the Old Testament, we do have different bibles.

How can anyone maintain it is “the bible alone” when the bible does not even say what books belong in it and there is a dispute?

Now some maintain that the church is invisible.  If the Church was/is entirely hidden then how would this passage make sense?


“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:17


If we follow this advice what church should we go to?  Who can tell us, for example, what books belong in the bible?  Do we ask the Jews?  Nothing against the Jews but that seems odd as that is really a different religion and not surprisingly they did not include the New Testament.  Why would we ask the Jews instead of Christ’s Church?   So which of the 33,000 plus churches is Christ’s Church?


Did the Gates of Hell prevail?


The problem I have here is that it seems the protestants took such a hard line against the Catholic Church and sort of forced this issue.  If Martin Luther (and just about every other early protestant church reformer) was right and the Bishopric of Rome was indeed the seat of the anti-christ, it is hard to see how we can deny that the Gates of hell prevailed against the Catholic Church.   If you don’t think the gates of hell prevailed then what happened to Christs Church before the reformation?  Was the bishopric of Rome always the seat of the anti-christ?   I have read some protestants claim all the heretics who were persecuted by the Catholic Church were the actual true church.   Is that still a viable position among rational Christians today?  That seems a bit of stretch, but what would the alternative view be?

Of course, the Orthodox Church has an easy answer here.  Although relations have not always been rainbows and lollipops, I don’t think the Orthodox Church ever taught that the Bishopric of Rome was the seat of the Anti-Christ.  But if protestants think the Orthodox Church is a contender for being the Church founded by Christ, which the gates of Hell never prevailed against, why reject Orthodoxy?   It seems to offer a historically coherent view without requiring commitment to as many different Doctrines as Catholicism.



The Relationship between the Catholic Church and Science


, , , , , , , ,

Go through what you know about the title.  What comes to mind?

Did anyone think of Galileo?

For many people Galileo seems two epitomize the relationship.   But to say that turns history on its head.   Science was born in a deeply Christian culture.   As I indicated I recently finished some books by Rodney Stark and I also just finished a book by James Hannam called the Genesis of Science. (Painting a basement is always a good time to listen to some audible books)  I have to say I am simply amazed at how much of science  middle age “natural philosophers” put together before even Copernicus came on the scene.

The importance of applying math to nature, using empirical evidence to test theories, including but not limited to, how objects move, how light works, whether the earth moves, how things might work in a vacuum etc.   Why was I so ignorant of all this?   I can tell you it’s not that I was taught all this and forgot it.  All of these great medieval thinkers were left out of my education.  None of it quite fit the “scientific revolution” view of history.  You know the story where the Catholic Church had to let the poor scientists out of their evil clutches before science could advance.      If you read Hannam’s book you will see that the Catholic Church and the university system (which was heavily fostered and influenced by the Church) was actually the major force that brought about science.

So what are the facts about Christianity and Science?  For that I highly recommend Hamman’s book to get a fuller picture.   Honestly it was such a flood of new and interesting information I do not have the perspective to summarize it properly. (I offer some other blogs below that do that.)

But here I will just offer something from Rodney Stark.  Rodney Stark is what I consider a hard working scholar.  He tends to do the nitty gritty work of looking up facts and delivering the information.  He did the legwork and looked up the all the major scientists during the “scientific revolution” and addressed how religious/Christian they were.  Here is his explanation of his methodology:

“Historians typically define the era of the “Scientific Revolution” as stretching from the publication in 1543 of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus to the end of the seventeenth century. Therefore, I selected Copernicus as my first case and included all appropriate cases, beginning with Copernicus’s contemporaries and stopping with scientists born after 1680. The “whom” was a bit more difficult. First of all, I limited the set to active scientists, thus excluding some well-known philosophers and supporters of science such as Francis Bacon, Joseph Scaliger, and Diego de Zuniga. Second, I tried to pick only those who made significant contributions. To select the cases, I searched books and articles on the history of science, and I also consulted a number of specialized encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries, among which I must mention the several editions of Isaac Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology for its completeness and lack of obvious biases. Having developed a list of 52 scientists, I then consulted various sources, including individual biographies, to determine the facts that I wished to code for each case”

Christianity and Science from Stark (2003) For the Glory of God p.22

Stark put the 52 scientists in 1 of 4 categories.  Clergy, devout, conventional Christian, or skeptic.   “Devout” meant that they did things that demonstrated an unusual commitment to Christianity such as writing extensively on Christianity or other works indicating strong commitment to the faith.  “Conventional Christians” would be those who did not appear to be much more than typical Christians of the time.  He gives some explanations of how he grouped these people but in general he appears to have underestimated the religiosity.  For example a scientist who became the Popes physician was categorized not as devout but just as “conventionally” religious.

Here were the results:

13 (25%) were clergy 9 of them catholic clergy,  60% were devout. There were only 2 who were skeptics.

Now yes it’s true that people in Europe at this time tended to be Christian.   But that raises the question:   Of all the places and times, was it coincidence that Science developed in Christian society?  Not in the Roman Empire, not in China, Not in Islamic cultures or Persia.  Not in any of the other times and places.    Rodney Stark and others think that is not just a coincidence.  For example, early on Christians have been open to the idea that our senses can be reliable guides to reality.  (Unlike certain Greeks that taught how the material world was relatively unreliable)    Moreover, Christians put a high value on logical thinking and reason in theology.   Christianity is an intellectual religion which made science (then known as natural philosophy) and mathematics required courses in its medieval universities.    People who argue there is a conflict between Christianity and Science are taking the rare exception and calling it the rule.

Indeed, Galileo may be the only scientist who was ever persecuted by the church for his scientific view.    And those who are aware of Galileo case can legitimately question whether it was really his views as opposed to essentially calling the pope a simpleton which lead to his persecution.  Feel free to read more on the story for youself and draw your own conclusions.   Based on what I have read I do find the Church blameworthy in that case, even if Galileo was a stubborn, egocentric, and abrasive genius.

Remaining ignorant of all the people who lead up to Galileo and Copernicus in order to push the “enlightment” myth was a sad state for educational institutions.  But there is hope this prejudice is being scraped away thanks to scholarly work.  Not only has Hamman’s work received acclaim but I am told scholars are viewing his books and their views as relatively uncontroversial – at least to those who study this matter.

Short of reading Hamman’s book I would invite those with an interest in the history of science to take a look at this blog by Tim O’neill where he reviews God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science By James Hannam:

Although he is himself an atheist bastard, he also has a blog that debunks much of “new atheist” history here:

As people who are interested in truth we should read about history and where we see the ignorant prejudices of the past being propagated, suggest the person at least read some of the above listed books or blogs.

Agnostic as to Election 2016


, ,

I am not really into politics much lately.   I too thought Clinton would win.  I will just admit that I was like everyone else in the media.  That is, early on I was saying why Trump would lose.   Then, without skipping a beat, I started pontificating why he won.

Bottom line is everyone is now trying to say he won for the reasons they hope he won for – whatever that is.    But really I just don’t think anyone knows why he won.  It was a crazy election with tons of issues and it is very hard to sort out why he won at this point. (will time passing make it any easier?) Anyone who says he won for this reason or that reason is probably just expressing what they liked about him or disliked about Clinton.  They are likely partly right, but its really just speculation.

That’s why I am squarely agnostic as to why Trump won.

Bearing False Witness – Book Review

I just finished listening to three books by Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness, Triumph of Faith, and How the West Won.  Here is just a brief review of the first book.


In Bearing False Witness, he describes how he believes the Catholic Church has received unwarranted attacks over the centuries.   As a History buff of medieval Europe and the middle east I have come to draw similar conclusions on a variety of topics.  But this book has that as the central thesis, therefore he marshals the facts for more coherent case.


Stark puts it all together with his central thesis in mind and does so in an informative way.  He covers different issues with a broad brush.  These include the Church’s interaction concerning Nazism, the Crusades, the bible’s formation, treatment of other religions including Judaism, the inquisition, slavery, science, and tyrannical governments. Since he covers the issues in a relatively broad brush the book is an easy read/listen.


The topics included some information that I already learned from other sources as well as new information.  I found that when he covered a topic I already had background information on, he was fair in his treatment.   That’s not to say he took pains to present every possible counter example, but on the whole he was fair.


He opens with a question the question why bother trying to defend the church and dredge through all this history?     It’s a question I asked myself in a prior blog.  But whereas I could not formulate a decent answer, he did by quoting Garrett Mattingly “Nor does it matter at all to the dead whether they receive justice at the hands of succeeding generations. But to the living, to do justice, however belatedly, should matter.”


I really enjoyed the chapter concerning science.   The basic construct of scientific method had already been put together by various monks and religious people in the middle ages.   Later scientists who are often credited as being the fathers of science were putting those principles into use on a very large and impressive scale.   I was quite impressed with the quotations from the scholastics which formed the bedrock of scientific method.

One interesting theory he suggested, was that science did not so much need to fight religion as much as it did the Platonic view that empirical information was not as valid as a-priori ideas.

In the end if you think you will learn the Church always acted just like we do now with our modern sensibilities, you will be disappointed.  However, if you would be satisfied with a strong case that the Church has been a huge force of progress, in science, education and morality then I think this book is for you.


How Abstract Concepts can be Real


, , , , , , ,

I have noticed when I talk about abstract concepts such as morality and ask for evidence of them, I am being unclear to some. I don’t mean that morality is a physical thing somewhere that we can find like a moon orbiting Saturn. But I do mean it is real.

If I say I am taller than my daughter I am invoking an abstract concept – tallness. If I say prove tallness “exists in reality” (or provide evidence that tallness exists in reality) as opposed to our minds that might mean different things to different people. Some people would think I mean we must find an actual platonic-like form of tallness that is perfectly tall. That is not what I mean at all.

I think I “really” am taller than my daughter. That is in reality I am taller. The notion of tallness is something like, when I am standing, the highest part of my body is higher than hers (when she is standing) means I am taller than her. This tie in with reality makes the notion that I am taller than my daughter objectively true. It’s not just that I believe it is true. My belief does not make the statement true or false. Reality makes that statement true or false. That is because tallness has a tie in with reality.

Does morality have tie in with reality? If I believe something is wrong does my belief make it wrong? Or does reality determine whether my belief is true or false. The latter is what I mean when I say morality is objectively real. It is not the case that I necessarily think there is some perfectly moral good form (or perfectly evil form) somewhere that we need to find. What I am asking is 1) whether these concepts have a tie in with reality. And 2) if so, how we would know in what ways morality ties in with reality.

I think I answered the first question with respect to tallness. Yes tallness ties in with reality so we can say it is really and objectively true that I am taller than my daughter. What about the second question with respect to tallness? I think we have empirical evidence that I am really taller than my daughter. We can see me standing next to her. Even a blind person would be able to feel if we are standing, and then feel the top of my head relative to the top of her head. So we have empirical evidence of how “tallness” ties in with reality.

But what about “wrongness”? Here it seems we do not have empirical evidence.

Sure we can substitute concepts for “right and wrong” and “good and evil” and then assert that this new word is promoted by such and such conduct. But whenever I see this one of 2 things is always happening. Either they are leaving the new term so vague that it is pretty much vacuous, and thus the “definition” is vacuous. (that which makes us “thrive” or that which brings “happiness” etc.) Or they do in fact put some constraints on the definition and then I have to wonder if that is really good. I gave a hypothetical that approaches one of the latter views here:

In any case, I do think we can have empirical evidence of abstract ideas.  But in the case of morality the the evidence of morality is the evidence for God.  I talk more about that connection here:


Evidence of Objective Moral Realism


, , , , , , , , ,


A fellow blogger and sometime commentator here, Howie, asks some questions for theists.

He wonders what effect would it have on our morals if we suddenly found out God did not exist.  It’s a great question and I found I could spend allot of time answering this.


In my response I indicate that “I would highly doubt any objective morality exists in reality, and if it did exist I would not believe we had any reliable way of knowing what it was.”


I have blogged extensively about the second part of that statement:

Here I want to address the first part.  I want to explain why “I would I highly doubt any objective morality exists in reality” if I found out God did not exist.


But first, I want to reiterate that I do not think there is any logical inconsistency with atheism and belief in objective morality.   That said I am unaware of any actual evidence that an atheist would have for believing in objective morality.    That is, if we were to know there is no God then all the evidence we have for objective morality goes out the window.   It’s one thing to say objective morality is logically possible, it’s another to say we have some evidence that it is true.


To understand my position let’s start with a reverse question for atheists.   Let’s say you suddenly find out that the Christian God exists.  What would that mean for your views on morality?


I would think most people would agree that if the Christian God exists, then it’s very likely that objective moral realism is true.    God orchestrated our existence and reality so that we might be ultimately judged and this judgment will be just.  Reality would have been built with this moral feature.


From that, it follows that evidence that the Christian creator God exists is also evidence that objective morality is a feature of reality.   The evidence that the Christian God exists would be things like the miracles recorded in scripture.  Again people can debate whether this is strong evidence or weak evidence, and what if any burden of proof there is, but it is “some evidence.”  This also happens to be the only evidence that our objective reality contains moral characteristics. (I don’t mean to exclude other religions that teach of a Creator God who had a hand in creating a moral reality.  So yes evidence for Islam, or Judaism would also be evidence for objective moral realism but here for simplicity sake I am just taking Christianity versus atheism.)   So the logic is exhibit A suggest exhibit B.  Exhibit B Suggests exhibit C.  A = miracles B=Christian God exists and C = Objective moral realism is true.


Do we have other evidence that objective morals are actually a feature of reality?  I really don’t think so.  Again because “wrongness” cannot be detected by our 5 senses it seems impossible to have evidence of it outside of testimonial evidence from someone who is not bound by our 5 senses.


The fact that we feel strong guttural emotional responses when we see certain “good” or “bad” actions is not, to my mind, evidence that there is actually a real objective truth to moral claims.  However, if something with a supernatural understanding designed us then of course we might think our emotions are properly cued to these real moral truths.


So the Christian God existing would be strong evidence that real objective morals would exist.  If we were to eliminate that evidence of objective moral reality existing (Say because we “find out” no God exists) then we are hard pressed to find *any* evidence of objective moral reality.   That’s not to say its logically impossible for objective moral reality to exist without God.  Nonetheless, it would be a huge blow to objective moral realism’s case to lose – exhibit B – the existence of God.

Naturalism and Moral Progress


, , , ,

As most of my readers know, one of the main reasons I give for being Christian is that it offers a much more coherent view of my overall moral beliefs than does atheism.  It is my opinion that answering the question “what should I do?” is far more important than any scientific question.  Accordingly, I form my noetic structure around this question.

Now there are many different views that atheists can hold to be sure.   Some are realists and many are various anti-realists.   But I think it’s an insurmountable problem for them.   Sure even Christianity has some weak points, but this is one that atheism has and I think it is demonstrated in this discussion.  It’s a discussion, I presume based on the title, that involves only naturalists and deals with morality.

By saying this is a shambles I do not mean at all to impugn the intelligence of the people involved.  They are all very intelligent people.  But IMO they are dealing with an intractable problem, when they try to reconcile naturalism with the belief that we made moral progress.

In particular, I would point out that I found the comments by Steven Weinberg and Sean Carrol to be very insightful.   Weinberg, in particular, made several quite interesting comments that help cut to the quick.  For example, at about 1:27:00 after he says he can’t argue with a  pro-life advocate who just believes abortion is wrong due to human life being sacred, at which point

Daniel Dennet says:  don’t even try and you let time pass and will find that people gradually change their mind by all sorts of subtle forces…

Weinberg cuts in: “but not rational arguments…”

And Dennet does not offer disagreement.

As I listened it seemed that many seemed to agree on some sort of “moral progress,” but at the end it seems that what people understood that to actually mean fell apart.  Sean Carrol agreed that views change, but are we closer to the truth?  To which Massimo Pigliucci said I thought we agreed there is no truth with a capital “T” regarding morality.   From his blog I think Massimo meant that morality is just a matter of peoples own views and not based in reality.  I am not sure everyone agreed with that.  (But Massimo would know these people better than I do.)

For a realist “moral progress” would mean that societies beliefs better mirror moral truths of reality.  E.g., our views of slavery show moral progress because slavery is really wrong.

But if there are no moral truths in reality and morals are just a matter of subjective opinion then what could “moral progress” mean?  Does it mean everyone is agreeing with me more?  Does it mean everyone just agrees with each other more?  So that if it were a Nazi society but there was more agreement with it, then it would be morally better?

I am hesitant to ascribe such positions to the people involved but sadly they had to break for coffee before they could even explain what they meant by moral progress.   I am curious how an anti-realist would understand the term “moral progress.”


“Top Down” and “Bottom Up” Christianity


, , , , ,

There are many reasons that people believe and trust in God, and I don’t mean to try to address all of them.  But I have come to see some general distinctions in why Christians have faith.   One general way is what I consider a top down Christian who believes for reasons along the lines of: “The bible (or the Church) is inerrant and it says this, so I believe it.”

I have no quarrel with such a view.  However I don’t think those with this view will be particularly helpful in explaining to non-believers why they might also believe.  Non-believers generally don’t start out with the premise that the bible or the Church is inerrant.

Then there are what I would call bottom up Christians.  Descartes I believe is a very good example.  It is the process he goes through to believe in God that I am referring to.  That is, he asked himself fundamental yet difficult questions about his world and his existence and how he could make sense of it.  This led him to believe in God.

Now this distinction is not a very neat one.  Because even if you are bottom up you usually come to give authority to the Church and/or the Bible.  After all are you really a Christian if you don’t give any weight to what we know of Christ and his Church?   Also the top downers usually will have some reasons to believe other than the inerrancy of the bible and/or the church.  So there definitely is overlap in everyone.

I consider myself more of a bottom up Christian.  My reasons for belief in Christ have much more to do with my desire to fundamentally pursue the ethically correct course.  It was through the consideration of what that would mean (meta-ethics) and how I can accomplish that end that supports my belief that Christianity is the way.

Now some might say – that it’s more likely that I am Catholic because I was raised Catholic.  And although I think my philosophical views support Catholicism this is just in my head.  They would say that if I didn’t have this philosophical belief to support my faith then I would just rationalize my faith some other way.  I honestly can’t answer that.   It is hard to answer such counter-factuals.

However I can say that because of my “bottom up” justification I am not so concerned with several of the issues of Christian doctrine that have no bearing on why I am Christian.  These same issues seem to deeply trouble many other Christians.   If there were to be a divide between bottom up and top down Christians, I would say it centers on inerrancy.

By “inerrancy” I think I can refer to both the inerrancy (usually called infallibility) of the Church and the inerrancy of scripture.   For Catholics the inerrancy issue centers on the church and scripture.  For Protestants it centers on scripture.  How important that is to you is a big indicator to me of whether you are a “top down” or “bottom up” Christian.

Let’s consider scripture first.  For Catholics the second Vatican Council said in the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum)

“The Books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.”

Now for the most part bottom up Christians are fine with understanding “…for the sake of our salvation” to mean if it has nothing to do with our salvation it might contain an error.  So for example if the bible says rabbits chew the cud, or quotes Jesus saying the mustard seed is the smallest seed, this is not going to be something we feel we need to investigate and defend.   It’s hard to see how the veracity of these issues has anything to do with our salvation.

No doubt many top down Christians will be startled by my saying “might contain an error”.   I have read/heard many times arguments along these lines:

  • If the bible is wrong in one place how can we trust it in other places?

As to this argument, I can only shrug.  I suppose the bible could be wrong in other places.  But I believe that scripture teaches “firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.”  And that is really the point right?  God seems not to have much of an interest on whether I get every minute and trivial detail of history or science exactly right.  Otherwise he would have spent more time teaching history and science instead of ethics when he was here on earth.

Moreover, I read other books and learn allot from them even if they get some things wrong.  Why should I refuse to read or learn from the books of the bible if they get some things wrong?   This is the same attitude I take with the Fathers of the Church and Saints.   Reading them can enrich my life and faith even if they do get some things wrong.   Do I put more trust in the books of the bible and the teaching of the magisterium?  Sure.  But it can still be a spectrum.

The other argument that usually gets trotted out goes something like this:

  • God knows what is true and false and the bible is inspired, so why would God lie?

Here I just have a different notion of “inspired.”  Some Christians treat inspired as if there effectively was no human part to the writing.  We can imagine the authors of the various books being unable to control their hand as it writes the books of the bible.  Their intellect (or lack thereof) would play no part.   That’s not how I see “inspiration” at all.  I see inspiration more along a spectrum of the common understanding.   Such as this story was inspired by my grandfather. Etc.  OK, I think there was more to inspiration (“God breathed”) than that, when it comes to scripture but it needs to move further in that direction than some sort of uncontrolled hand.  Would God have allowed the human author to make a mistake about something irrelevant to our salvation?  I see no reason to think he would guard against it.

As a Catholic I also believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church.  Might the church make some mistakes?  Sure.  That doesn’t mean that following the Church is not the best way to living a good life and salvation.

At this point some will say I am a cafeteria Catholic when it comes to the Church and a cafeteria Christian when it comes to the bible.  They will say I just take what I like and listen when I want.  I disagree.

It is not I like a reject any particular teaching.   I have a hunch that some things the Catholic Church teaches about mortal sin are wrong.  But it is not like I have some big issue with any of the politically hot button issues.  I also don’t have a particular part of scripture that I think must be wrong although I suspect there are some errors.  But these errors are by and large in minor details.

So it’s not the case that I am only Catholic when it suits me.  I really have no problem saying I should try to live by Church teachings and never completely discount any scripture as to how I should act as merely mistaken.  Although I do interpret Old Testament scripture in light of Christ’s Teachings and admit there is certainly friction.

Just because I hold open the possibility that the Church or Scripture might get some things wrong from time to time that does not mean that I don’t hold them up as the most important authorities for how I should live.       It does mean that I will spend less time worrying about whether rabbits chew the cud, or what some convoluted Old Testament passage is supposed to mean.   Plenty of Saints have made it through life without ever a care about these issues that seem to keep so many people from embracing the faith.    Letting go of the minutia will leave more time to focus on what the Scriptures and the Church have rather clearly asked me to focus on.    Trying to strengthen my faith in Christ so I can follow him and be more loving, honest, hopeful, and charitable.

Emotion Reason and Truth


, , , , , , ,

I had read an article a while back about the fact that political partisans mainly use emotional centers of the brain when analyzing statements and claims of various politicians. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” The title of the article states “Democrats and Republicans Both Adept at Ignoring Facts, Study Finds”

Ok this article clearly condemns these partisans when it comes to their political thinking.  The underlying assumption we all hold is that if you are using the emotional part of your brain to draw conclusions instead of the reasoning parts then your conclusions will be unreliable.     Is this just for politics?  What about science, math, religion, or morals?

Well I don’t have all the answers or really the full answer on any of them.  But I think it is quite clear when it comes to morals we say the opposite of politics.  That is when people don’t primarily use emotional centers of the brain when drawing moral conclusions their conclusions are unreliable.

Where is the evidence?  It is coming in droves thanks to the use of MRI scans of the brain.   In particular when we compare the psychopaths brain with that of normal people. There have been numerous studies of psychopaths.  Psychopaths are people who distinguish themselves in society by at times behaving horrendously immorally.   It’s not only the murders, but also the extensive lying, and lack of guilt for their actions, that help separate them out.    MRI studies have found that they lack certain emotions that normal people experience.  It is not necessarily a complete lack of emotion but it is shown to be substantially diminished in test after test. (although it does appear they can turn on these emotions when they want)

However generally as a group psychopaths do not lack any ability to reason.  In fact, they seem to use the reasoning portion of their brain more than normal people.  So for example when psychaths were compared with normal people and asked to determine the emotional state of a protagonist they both were equally able to determine that person’s emotional state.  But psychopath used reason where as normal people used more of their emotional brains.

The study stated in its abstract: “The results emphasize that although psychopathic patients show no deficits in reasoning about other people’s emotion if an explicit evaluation is demanded, they use divergent neural processing strategies that are related to more rational, outcome-oriented processes.” This article discusses this study and others.

There are other philosophers who have drawn similar conclusions:

One of the best known psychologists to draw this conclusion is Dr.  Haidt.  He published an article called “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail”, 14 years ago.  His thesis seems to be continually bolstered by later mri testing.

In the end I still maintain that reason and logic can play a part in moral decision making.   But the empirical evidence is quite overwhelming that, for most of us, we are primarily basing our moral views on emotional mechanisms.

Why is this relevant to Christianity?  Well mainly I think it is just interesting in it’s own right.  But also if you have read my other blogs you will see there is a view held by some that our moral judgments are the result of reasoning processes just like the reasoning that brings us scientific advances.   They argue that since our reasoning is a reliable mechanic to truth finding, we can rely on our “moral reasoning” for moral truth. Well as it turns out this idea of “moral reasoning” is for the most part a myth that science is debunking every day.

I would maintain that if naturalism is correct we shouldn’t think emotional responses will bring about truth beliefs in morality any more than it will bring about truth in politics.    If however, you think God wrote the moral law on our hearts, then you have a good reason to trust your moral emotions.  The fact that our moral views are driven by emotions fits quite well with Christian thought.

The Way


, , , , ,

Some might wonder why I keep talking about morality in relation to apologetics. For many Christianity is a set of beliefs. For me Christianity is a way of life. Yes our beliefs are important and even necessary in this way of life but that is not all there is to it – not by a long shot. According to the bible, the earliest followers of Christ were known as followers of “the way.” Acts 18:26; 19:9, 19:23; 22:4; 24:14, 24:22.

This description fits quite naturally with my understanding of what it means to be Christian. Accordingly when someone says they are no longer going to follow “the way” (i.e., they are not going to be Christian) it seems a natural question to then ask – well then what way will you live? Indeed when I strongly questioned whether I would remain Christian this was the question that seemed to come to the fore. How then should I live and on what basis will I choose that life?

When I looked at how I formed my moral beliefs in as dispassionate way as possible, I understood that ultimately it was my emotions that were primarily involved, not the reasoning process, or our empirical senses. Science combines reason and our empirical senses and effectively finds truth about reality. But that is not how our moral beliefs are primarily formed. In the next blog I will give further reasons and evidence for this view. For now suffice it to say that I realized that if our moral beliefs were to be reliable, in any real sense, then something beyond natural processes must have a hand in forming them.

But here I want to stress that Christianity had much more to do with being a basis for my moral beliefs, rather than any belief about science. After all, where do we get the idea that Jesus was so concerned with scientific teaching? If the Son of God was so concerned with science and came down to make sure we understood it, wouldn’t we expect to have iphones at least by the 1980s? If the Holy Spirit was inspiring people to write books with the aim of teaching science wouldn’t we expect far fewer computer crashes then we have?

Yet when I read so many blogs of people who left Christianity I see allot of talk about science. It struck me as quite bizarre. Moreover, when I bring up morality they seem to think that has no bearing on their decision. They seemed to think I was just as bizarre for raising, that issue and not talking about science. Finally in reading many of the books, comments, and blogs from those who deconverted I also see a presumption that they thought they were really “hard core Christians.” And what that meant is that they studied the bible – every bit – and they took every bit of it literally.

So for example Bart Ehrman talks about how he had studied at the Moody Bible Institute, but then started to lose his faith after agonizing over whether the mustard seed was truly the smallest seed. At first I had real difficulty understanding how anyone could think that is such a fundamental part of Christianity that they would lose their faith over it.

But I have spent time studying Christian history and these sorts of views make more sense. Let me piece together the logic as I see it. We have Martin Luther who eventually found that his views could not even be supported by prior church councils. So he retreated to the bible alone. Now from the Catholic view he actually even had to trim some of the Old Testament, but there are various arguments on both side of that debate. He *may* even have wanted to trim even some of the new testament books, or at least he de-emphasized some of them. See for example his prefaces to James, Jude, and revelation in his 1522 translation of the New Testament.

But in any case he started the belief that Scripture alone was the sole authority in matters of Christianity. This belief took hold Protestant Christians. For many Protestant Christians they insert this view into their very basic creeds and understandings what Christianity is. Rejecting this view, like the non protestant churches do, is often viewed as making them non-Christian.

The results of scripture alone should not be surprising. Even before Luther died not only was the Pope the anti-christ for disagreeing with him but even other protestants like Zwingli were accused of being guided by the devil in their faulty interpretation of scripture. See eg.,

The differing interpretations continued to happen. And over time we see the Protestant Christians who adhere to Scripture alone being divided and re-divided, how many times? With the rise of non-denominational churches it is difficult to even know. After all they hold certain beliefs but how they might differ from other “non-denominational” churches is difficult to calculate. Now one might not see this as a problem. But scripture itself seems to suggest this division is indeed a problem.

So something should be done. But what? Fast forward centuries and we get a potential solution. It seems like a sensible solution to say every part of the bible should be viewed as equally important for our salvation as any other part. After all there is no authority outside the bible that can tell us this or that part is more important or deserving of focus. But that is only part of the problem. The other problem is not so much a question of emphasis but one of interpretation. Zwingli thought the same words meant something different with respect to the Eucharist. He read them symbolically not literally.

How should that be addressed? Well the most common way to understand something is usually in a literal sense. Therefore to avoid these divisions we should read all of the bible in this sense. Hence we have the literalists who can claim a certain high ground among denominations. Everyone else is deemed to be less “hard core” Christian because they are shying away from accepting the bible. They are reading this or that passage symbolically because they lack faith and refuse to accept what the Holy Spirit is really saying in the most common sense way i.e., literal way.

Now the point is *not* to say that Catholics are right and people should reject “scripture alone” just like I do. Rather the point is to draw out the logic of this position precisely so that it can be analyzed and hopefully shown to be lacking. Does unity mean complete unity on all questions or just relevant ones? Does not the bible itself suggest that emphasis is on certain of its passages as opposed to others? My point to Christians is that you should reject the line of thinking I set out and find the holes yourself.

Have faith in your own church that meets in Christ’s name and is therefore guided by the Holy Spirit. I place faith in the Lutheran Church by sending my children to a Lutheran School. I believe very much that the Holy Spirit guides the Lutheran Church in teaching my children Christianity. I think the Lutheran church does have a tradition and an important one.

At base I want to point out this line of thinking so you can pinpoint for yourself where the reasoning breaks down. By clearly identifying the problem you will be spared the road that leads to your faith hinging on your beliefs about the relative size of seeds.

As for some atheists who might think they were “hard core” Christians because they accepted this literalist view, and therefore ultimately rejected your faith due to science, my point is different. Maybe consider it’s at least possible, you never really understood the “core” of Christianity. Perhaps, you missed the forest for the trees.