Book Review: Cold-Case Christianity

In The Case for Christ and other books in the series, Lee Strobel paints himself as a serious reporter who know how to ask the tough questions and ferret out the truth. Strobel uses his journalistic credentials to give his book weight, but by lobbing softball questions at a single side of a multi-faceted story, he shows a distressing lack of professional standards.

It is therefore appropriate that Strobel provides the introduction to J. Warner Wallace’s Cold-Case Christianity. Wallace is a former homicide detective and cold-case investigator who proposes that his bona fides him unique insight into the most famous death in history: the crucifixion and purported resurrection of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, like Strobel, Wallace does his profession and his faith no favors when he selectively applies his job experience to an unrelated field.

In order for Wallace’s credentials as a homicide detective to bolster his case, he must apply his skills consistently, going through the same process with the death of Jesus as he would with the deaths he investigates professionally. If he fails to apply the same standards to both investigations, he undermines the very thesis of his book. Moreover, Wallace must make solid connections between his cold cases and the case for Christ; he is not a historian, so it is important that he demonstrate that his job experience still applies to 2000-year-old events. By the end of the book, Wallace has failed on both counts.

Wallace can’t make it past chapter 2 before showing his hand. He notes that the deaths he investigates fall into one of four categories: natural, accidental, suicide, or homicide. In detective work, there is no category for “supernatural death”. However, when it comes to the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus, Wallace insists that a supernatural option must be on the table. One of his favorite phrases is “bias against the supernatural,” an accusation he lobs at skeptics whenever possible.

So why doesn’t Wallace consider supernatural options as part of his day job? Is he not demonstrating his own “bias against the supernatural” by failing to do so? Wallace never gives any explanation for the differing methodologies. He claims that, in the case of the resurrection, divine intervention “accounts for the evidence most simply and most exhaustively, and it is logically consistent (if we simply allow for the existence of God in the first place).”

However, an all-powerful, omnipresent God is a simple and exhaustive explanation for literally any phenomenon — until, as has happened since the dawn of modern science, a naturalistic explanation supplants the supernatural. The tooth fairy perfectly explains how lost teeth get replaced with money, until one’s parents are caught in the act.

Of course, in order to a find naturalistic explanation for an event once thought to be supernatural, we must at some point acquire new information. In Wallace’s cold cases, this could take the form of new eyewitness testimony or previously unavailable DNA evidence. If no new evidence comes to light, the case remains cold.

In these investigations, Wallace never takes the additional step to say, “I have no natural explanation for this murder, therefore God must have teleported a bullet into this man’s cranium! This explanation is simple and accounts for all the evidence — and saying otherwise shows an anti-supernatural bias on your part!” And yet, this is exactly how Wallace treats the data points surrounding the resurrection. Were Wallace applying his professional standards consistently, Jesus’ death would be filed away with the rest of his cold cases.

The first half of Cold-Case Christianity has Wallace recounting incidents from homicide investigations that he believes are analogous to investigations into the gospel accounts. However, the connections he draws are often specious and unconvincing. One chapter compares the martyred apostles with suspected criminals pitted against one another under interrogation. Why didn’t the apostles rat each other out like suspects often do, instead choosing to go to their deaths? The problem is, Wallace explicitly compares Peter in Rome with Thomas in India, where one was never in a position to rat out the other.

In another chapter, Wallace notes the importance of keeping eyewitnesses at a crime scene separated before detectives arrive, lest they start comparing notes and ultimately give homogenized, collusive accounts. Wallace also observes that the gospel accounts often agree with each other, sometimes verbatim, but to him this affirms their reliability as eyewitness testimony. He says these facsimiles “may be the result of common agreement at particularly important points in the narrative, or (more likely) the result of later eyewitnesses saying, ‘The rest occurred just the way he said.’” But don’t both Christian and secular biblical scholars widely accept that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source? Wouldn’t access to other accounts make them unreliable eyewitnesses by homicide investigation standards?

This is one of many examples where Wallace ignores obvious, well-established objections to the gospel accounts in favor of weaker targets. For instance, he spends a whole chapter defending a very early (pre-70 CE) date for gospel authorship, and he specifically contrasts this with his own atheistic assumption of second- or third-century authorship. Both dates are minority views among biblical scholars; Wallace glosses over the more common view that the gospels were written in the late first century. Why the omission?

In addition to this, Wallace repeats the classic apologetic that the apostles would not have allowed themselves to be martyred for what they knew to be a lie. But what if the disciples weren’t lying? What if they were just plain wrong? Wallace doesn’t address this reasonable alternative, going after the easy mark instead.

Possibly the worst example comes toward the end of the book, where Wallace questions what would have inspired the disciples to preach the gospel even as it cost them their lives. Making a comparison to cold cases, Wallace claims that “Sex, money, and power are the motives for all the crimes detectives investigate. In fact, these three motives are also behind lesser sins as well.” He ably dismantles the notions that the disciples were inspired by any of these three incentives (which no skeptic has ever claimed), but he ignores the elephant in the room.

What about religious fervor? Surely Wallace has seen the lengths people will go and the things people will do in the name of their god. It’s in the news every day! Is Wallace oblivious to the idea that the disciples were religious zealots? Or does he simply ignore an obvious explanation because it doesn’t fit into his narrative?

Going into these books, I try to assume the author is sincere until they give reason to believe otherwise. Unfortunately, Wallace gives plenty of reasons to doubt his sincerity. He seems to have found an interesting hook that looks profound on a book cover, but his apologetics ring hollow because he knows he’s preaching to the choir. He’s not intending for his audience to apply the slightest amount of scrutiny that would reveal the holes in his arguments. If he’s trying to build a legal case for Christ, it would ultimately be thrown out of court.

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Book Review: The Language of God

When I was a believer, I would have been scandalized by someone like Francis Collins. A Christian… who’s okay with evolution?? Burn the heretic! I now know that the truth doesn’t have lines so clearly drawn, and that’s where The Language of God comes into play. Collins, a geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project, attempts to serve as a bridge between science and faith, showing both believers and atheists there is merit to the other side. Does he succeed as a peacemaker? Is the long war finally over?

Let’s get the niceties out of the way first – and yes, there are positive things to say about Francis Collins! Overall, The Language of God is a very readable text. Collins brings in complicated subjects like cosmology and genetics and makes them understandable to the layperson. Even if a reader disagrees with the conclusions Collins draws from certain arguments, it won’t be because they didn’t know what he was talking about.

Collins lives up to his scientific credentials by acknowledging the consensus about the age of the earth and evolution by natural selection. He denies any scientific “conspiracy” suppressing creationism by pointing out that, if anything, scientists are invigorated by new ideas that challenge the existing paradigm, and these ideas succeed or fail on their own merits, not from science’s “atheistic bias”.

Collins takes his fellow believers to task for being dismissive or ignorant of modern science. Astutely, he points out that young people who discover the evidence for evolution after only learning creationism will be led to question other teachings – including the foundations of their Christian faith. He goes back as far as Augustine to show that a literal creationist view of Genesis is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Christianity.

So where does Collins’ faith enter the picture? The Language of God is bookended by the idea of moral law. Collins does not believe naturalism can explain a “higher standard” of human behavior, noting that altruism “cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves.” I’ll let Dawkins debate Collins on this point, but I do think that Collins doesn’t give enough credence to the advantages of altruism on the population level. Surely Collins would acknowledge that humanity flourishes when we all work together – his Human Genome Project would certainly not have been successful without his team setting aside their own individual objectives for a common goal. While Collins believes that the evolutionary impetus leads to tribalism instead of altruism, he must acknowledge that the innumerable denominations of Christianity indicate that religion suffers the same difficulty.

Collins also disagrees with claims that mankind created God as a form of “wish fulfillment”, as he doesn’t think the harsh and strictly just God of the Bible is the type that people would create from whole cloth. But aren’t the vindication of the faithful and an eternity of heavenly bliss exactly why people find Christianity so appealing? More broadly, Collins contradicts himself in a matter of paragraphs by proposing that a universal human longing for God points to an object of that longing. Somehow, Collins doesn’t think the idea of a God “fulfilling” some universal “wish” is an example of “wish fulfillment.” Which came first: the longing or the longed-for?

Collins encounters the same pitfalls as other apologists when addressing the issue of human suffering. He recounts the harrowing ordeal of his daughter’s sexual assault and his own struggle to reconcile his faith with this very personal evil. Collins proposes two reasons why God may have allowed this horrible event to occur. For himself, he believes he now understands that he cannot protect his children from all pain and suffering, and he must entrust them to God. For his daughter, he notes that this experience has allowed her to be a source of counsel and comfort for other women who are dealing with the same issues.

I’m glad Collins and his daughter have found ways to cope with their trauma, but are outsiders going to find these solutions satisfactory? For Collins’ daughter, if the only purpose of suffering is to be able to help future sufferers, wouldn’t it be great if there was some all-powerful being with the ability to end the cycle of suffering permanently? And how is Collins comforted by the idea of his daughter being protected by the same God who fail to prevent the original assault? How many second chances would you give a babysitter who let your child be harmed under their care? Collins precedes his explanation with so many “if” statements he almost seems to be losing confidence himself:

Consider this: if the most important decision we are to make on this earth is a decision about belief, and if the most important relationship we are to develop on this earth is a relationship with God, and if our existence as spiritual creatures is not limited to what we can know and observe during our earthly lifetime, then human sufferings take on a wholly new context.

Emphasis mine, but that’s a lot of conditions for your grand rationalization of human suffering! You’d better be damn sure your God is real, because if our existence is limited to our earthly lifetime, and if our most important relationships are with our loved ones and not with God, you may have wasted your life devoting yourself to a cosmic teddy bear.

These “if” states pop up throughout the book, and they only serve to undermine Collins’ credibility. When addressing the fine-tuning argument, Collins claims that if an intelligent Creator set off the Big Bang, then the unlikely fine-tuning of the universe falls into place. Collins also notes that miracles are not an issue for the theist scientist, because if a being exists outside of nature, then there’s no conflict in positing that this being could make miracles happen.

By making these claims, Collins has now provided an explanation for literally any phenomenon one wants to explore. But Collins has already shown a more naturalistic bent than many Christians, so as a scientist, where does he draw the line? When does he stop looking for naturalistic explanations and accept that “God did it”? Collins never addresses this.

Moreover, Collins’ rationale can be used to support more than just Christianity. If Allah is the one true god, and if Muhammad is his prophet, then of course Muhammad could split the moon in two! How does Collins sort through the supernatural claims of other religions to arrive at Christianity? This is never addressed either.

Even Collins’ stance on theistic evolution (or as he rebrands it, “BioLogos”) fails when held up to scrutiny. Collins is clearly familiar with the “god of the gaps” fallacy as he applies it to intelligent design, but he vehemently denies that theistic evolution falls into the same trap. He weasels his way out by claiming that his ideas are “not intended as a scientific theory” and questions like “How did the universe get here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” are not answerable by science. However, the first question is absolutely the domain of science, and the second is not answered by theistic evolution anyway, so where does that leave Collins? If “BioLogos” is not a scientific theory, perhaps he should not spend an entire book using science to defend his views.

While I obviously have my issues with a lot of Collins’ writing, I must emphasize that I haven’t addressed the hefty chunk of The Language of God where Collins, as a scientist, simply explains the evidence for various ideas that may be controversial to Christians but not to scientists. I think The Language of God could be a good book to give that anti-science family member to show that science and God don’t necessarily conflict. However, because of its various apologetic issues, I hope this book would not be the last word on the subject, but that it would ultimately serve as a springboard into further inquiry.

Book Review: There Is a God

Christians love themselves a good “get.” Whenever a notorious celebrity or outspoken atheist converts to the faith, from Alice Cooper to Jeffery Dahmer, believers point to them as examples of the life-changing power of Christ. Antony Flew is one such name that I’ve seen dropped multiple times in Christian apologetic texts, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Flew was a well-known atheist writer and debater for decades, but his 2007 book There Is a God claims that all it took to become a theist was obeying the Platonic maxim to “follow the argument wherever it leads.” So what arguments were responsible for Flew’s famous change of heart?

Flew is a philosopher by trade, and he understandably views the God question through this lens. However, when it comes to other fields of study, Flew behaves like a child who hasn’t learned to share; he demands these other fields respect the domain of philosophy while simultaneously using philosophy to encroach on those fields.

Early in the book, Flew sets ground rules for scientists who wish to engage in philosophy, declaring that “a scientist who speaks as a philosopher will have to furnish a philosophical case.” This is a fine sentiment on its own, but Flew doesn’t seem to understand when it is appropriate to speak as a scientist and not a philosopher. For instance, Flew does not believe that origin of life questions can be answered by life science:

How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and “coded chemistry”? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.

This error in categorization leads Flew to to believe we have a “reason for doubting that it is possible to account for existent life-forms in purely materialistic terms”. He goes on to quote a number of scientists who acknowledge (honestly) that we don’t know how life arose on this planet, and concludes that the “only satisfactory explanation” is an intelligent designer. Sometime, despite being a neophyte theist, Flew has already mastered the “science doesn’t know, therefore God” cliché.

Flew employs the same cliché when discussing the idea of the multiverse. Once again, Flew points to the lack of scientific consensus on this issue as support for theism. However, his critique that multiverse theory “explains everything and yet nothing” rings hollow when “God did it” theory has the same shortcoming.

This isn’t the only time Flew demonstrates a knack for classic apologetic mistakes. He masterfully assaults the strawman of the scientist with the atheistic bias, decrying the “dogmatic atheism” of scientists trying to “preserve the non-theistic status quo.” Flew’s collaborator, Roy Abraham Varghese, ups the rhetoric in the book’s first appendix by claiming that “a deliberate refusal to ‘look’ is responsible for atheism of any variety.” Has Varghese never encountered atheists like myself who have searched for God and found nothing?

Flew is happy to quote-mine scientists when they support his views, but he has some basic misunderstandings on key scientific questions. He has bought wholesale into the “monkeys with typewriters will never randomly produce Shakespeare” argument against evolution, ignoring the point that natural selection is not as random as he thinks.

Additionally, several of Flew’s arguments boil down to “laws require a Lawgiver,” a circular argument that cannot be used as evidence for said Lawgiver. Flew frequently uses loaded language to point towards a creator god he has yet to demonstrate. He asks, “Who wrote the laws of the nature?” as if we already know there is a “who” to write them. He claims that “if you accept the fact that there are laws,” you must then ask the question, “What agent (or agents) brings this about?” Once again, when did we establish that there is, in fact, an agent who brings anything about?

Flew then makes a leap in quoting Swinburne to assert a “personal God with the traditional properties” must be said Lawgiver. This is worth noting, because it’s one of the few places in the book where Flew comes off as anything other than a deist. Flew never publicly declared himself a Christian, so if you are a Christian reading this book looking for a dramatic conversion story, you will be disappointed in that regard. Flew does admit that “the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected,” but he outsources the heavy apologetic lifting to N.T. Wright in the second appendix.

I finished There Is a God with a base level of respect for Antony Flew. He has, if nothing else, walked the walk while risking his livelihood and academic reputation. I’ve made the same journey, albeit in the opposite direction, and while I disagree with Flew’s conclusions, I admire his intellectual honesty more than I do, for instance, Sean McDowell, the apologist son of an apologist who appears to simply be following in the family business. That said, I believe Flew’s lofty credentials do not counterbalance the faulty arguments and misinterpreted evidence that ultimately lead to his change of heart.

 

Book Review: Unbelievable?

I really like the idea of Justin Brierley’s podcast “Unbelievable?” Bringing together opposing viewpoints for reasonable discussion is exactly what we do in the Atheist Christian Book Club, so when we read Brierley’s book, also titled Unbelievable?, I felt legitimately optimistic. Surely Brierley’s ten years of mediating between theists and atheists would refine his own beliefs, weeding out the weakest arguments and leaving only the sturdiest pillars of faith for his readers to consider. Sadly, I found that Brierley’s arguments were oddly focused on unquantifiable inklings and hunches, and not enough on hard evidence.

A big theme of Unbelievable? is what I call the argument from “there’s just got to be more!” I’m sure there’s a more formal name for this fallacy, but Brierley continually assumes that, because mankind searches for a higher power or a greater purpose, this indicates there is a power or purpose to be found. In chapter 2, Brierley says that, despite scientific discoveries regarding human origins, he “can’t escape a conviction that the order, elegance, and majesty of the universe and our existence within it is crying out for an explanation beyond itself.” He quotes a psalm where David stands in awe of the vastness of the universe, but rather than being humbled by mankind’s seeming insignificance on the cosmic scale, Brierley promotes David’s “sense of purpose” and “belief that he was made in God’s image” – as if believing it makes it so.

Some of Brierley’s support for his faith comes from feelings so vague they could be used to prop up almost any belief. He recounts the stories of people who found God in pop music and poetry, rainbows and romance. He treats childbirth, one of the most well-studied areas of medicine, as pure magic. Has no one pointed out to Brierley that, even if we grant his “evidence”, they don’t point to any particular religious persuasion, or perhaps not even to God at all?

At times Brierley shows plain, unadorned ignorance, presenting fallacious arguments and patent untruths that I can’t believe have gone ten years without being corrected. He claims that the second law of thermodynamics would inhibit evolution, ignoring that the Earth is not a closed system so the law does not apply. He seems to believe that anything that provides hope is good by default, but he doesn’t make the connection that not everything that provides hope is true. He adds “legend” to C.S. Lewis’ “liar, lunatic, Lord” trilemma, but he applies this only to mythicism, never addressing the idea that Jesus’ exploits could have grown legendary after his death. At one point, in two sentences Brierley manages to confuse weak and strong atheism and assert quantity over quality for theistic arguments:

Atheism … has an overall much shorter list of arguments of its own in favour of a naturalistic worldview, the prime one being the argument from suffering.

In this respect, I’ve often felt that the weight of arguments in favour of theism is frequently underappreciated by sceptics. They may dispute their validity, but the preponderance of arguments tips the scales towards belief in God.

It’s confounding statements like this that make me lose any respect I may have had for Brierley at the outset. He touts his impartial debate moderation, and this may be the case, but his book shows all the confirmation bias and bad-faith arguments I’ve come to expect from apologetic authors.

Book Review: Is God Just a Human Invention?

As a member of our local Atheist Christian Book Club, I’ve had the opportunity to delve back into the world of Christian apologetics, an area I haven’t touched since high school. It’s interesting to see what new ideas are out there, as well as what hasn’t changed in the last 15 years. Most recently, our group reviewed Is God Just a Human Invention? by Sean McDowell (son of well-known apologist Josh) and Jonathan Morrow. I was hoping that the breadth of topics covered by this book would yield some interesting new thoughts to consider, but I left feeling disappointed. McDowell and Morrow express little in the way of original thoughts, and when they do veer off the approved apologetic script, the results are unconvincing and best and downright shameful at worst.

I sometimes wonder why new apologetics books are published if they’re just going to repeat the same arguments ad infinitum. The very first chapter claims that theism is making a roaring comeback on college campuses, once bastions of godlessness, bolstered by “new insights and evidence” that have “brought new vitality to theism.” So what are these brand-new, earth-shattering ideas that have academia in such a tizzy? The cosmological argument! The argument from design! The argument from morality! Have the authors never read another apologetics text? Hell, the cosmological argument is at least a thousand years old! “The New Atheists can only ignore these arguments for so long,” they say. Well, the New Atheists haven’t been ignoring them, but even they were, there have been rebuttals of these arguments around for as long as believers have been repeating them. Perhaps, unlike McDowell and Morrow, they’re hesitant to tread the same well-worn paths.

Many of McDowell and Morrow’s arguments simply don’t work, or even make the opposite case. In a chapter about Christianity’s reputation for sexual repression, the authors assert, in Italics even, that “God is pro-sex!” The rest of the chapter details that God is specifically pro-heterosexual sex within the confines of marriage, which pretty much confirms the argument they think they’re debunking. Chapter 2 posits that the human brain is prone to error and unreliable, while Chapter 3 mocks atheists who would deny a miracle that happened in front of them. If our brains are so easily deceived, why would we not be skeptical of a seemingly impossible occurrence?

The most painful part of the book is watching McDowell and Morrow argue themselves in knots trying to rationalize biblical atrocities. In a chapter defending biblical slavery (!) McDowell and Morrow make the absurd claim that “God can’t just eradicate slavery all at once and still retain human freedom.” In other words, we cannot outlaw an institution that oppresses human beings because that would be oppressive to human beings? This isn’t the only conundrum. In a chapter about genocide in the Old Testament, the authors point to the Canaanite ritual of child sacrifice as justification for God’s command that Israel’s warriors “not leave alive anything that breathes“, which presumably would include children. Strangely, the authors don’t even touch on the slaughter of the Amalekites, where Saul is lambasted for not killing literally everything and everyone. Plus, there’s that whole worldwide flood thing. As a former Christian, I can sympathize with the authors, as it is indeed difficult to reconcile the barbaric God of the Old Testament with the New Testament’s God of love.

That said, McDowell and Morrow lose my sympathy when their arguments become disingenuous and insulting. When they hold up serial killer Ted Bundy as the inevitable result of atheistic immorality, or they quote “atheistic philosopher Frederick Nietzsche (who was carefully read by Hitler)” it becomes clear they are more interested in poisoning the well then having an authentic discussion. Perhaps more disturbing, in the previously-mentioned chapter on sexual repression, the authors have the audacity to claim that date rape – date rape – is no big deal outside of Christian morality. They paraphrase Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse in wondering why atheists would ever care about rape on college campuses:

When people go on dates, the frequently find themselves participating in many activities they don’t particularly want to do. Why is it a crisis, she asks, to get forced into sex, but not a crisis to get forced into eating Chinese food when you really wanted Mexican? Why aren’t there “basketball game date crisis centers” for students to visit after being dragged to a basketball game they didn’t want to attend?

How can anyone make these comparisons with a straight face? Have McDowell and Morrow never met a rape victim? Do they lack such a concept of a woman’s bodily autonomy, or even a basic human empathy, that the only thing keeping them from a libidinous rape parade is a WWJD bracelet? Or do they call the police in tears every time they get dragged to brunch with their wives’ friends, because that’s just like rape?

The authors do provide one passage worth special emphasis, as it sums up apologetics, intelligent design, and the whole of Christian ignorance in a single paragraph. McDowell and Morrow spend a chapter discussing the fine-tuning argument, and along the way they chastise science and its pesky desire to know stuff:

Can scientists only accept explanations that have further explanations? The problem with this objection is that it is always possible to ask for a further explanation. There comes a point, however, when scientists must deny the request for further explanation and accept the progress they have made. If the universe looks designed, why not accept design as the most plausible explanation, even if we can’t explain the Designer?

Oh, science! Hasn’t the time come to rest on your laurels? After all, we’ve already learned that the sun orbits the Earth, diseases are caused by imbalances of the humours, and everything around us is made from exactly five elements. Take a break – you’ve earned it!

The ultimate flaw in Is God Just a Human Invention? is its very thesis. McDowell and Morrow go specifically after the “New Atheists,” presumably because they think all atheists get their marching orders from the dastardly Four Horsemen. In reality, Dawkins doesn’t speak for all atheists. Neither do Hitchens, Dennett, or Harris. This isn’t to say that atheists are immune from dogma or demagoguery, but I would hope that anyone who is skeptical enough to become an atheist would also be discerning enough to understand that no one person or book has all the answers.