Monday, April 2, 2018

Wolf Blitzer and the Atheist

Wolf Blitzer
In the wake of the Oklahoma tornados of May, 2013, media personality Wolf Blitzer was embarrassed as he interviewed a survivor and her toddler son, asking her repeatedly, “I guess you got to thank the Lord, right?” until she was forced to confront him with her atheism. 
In a political cartoon caricaturing the event, the woman tells Blitzer that a God who would destroy a neighborhood and claim a number of lives, sparing her, is not exactly worthy of gratitude. 
A frequent complaint of the atheist community is that the God of the Bible is immoral. As Richard Dawkins put it in The God Delusion: 
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 
Of course Dawkins would himself have to establish some kind of basis for morality against which this God could be judged, but for the sake of argument, assume the standard of the Ten Commandments: the commandments say “don't murder,” and yet God kills. Or take the law of Christ: “Judge not, that you be not judged,” and yet God judges. Is God a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of parent? 
To answer this question, it is instructive to examine a parable of Jesus: 
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” 
In this illustration, the relationship of the master to his servant and the relationship of the servant to his fellow servant are fundamentally different. The Master owes nothing to the servants, whereas the servants are all accountable to the Master. It is within the Master’s rights, in fact it is an exercise of justice, if the Master punishes the servant who owes and who cannot pay. 
In the Old Testament law, injury was paid with injury: the famous “eye for an eye” law. This establishes a system wherein one treats others the way they are treated. This is the essence of justice: good behavior is met with reward, and bad behavior is met with punishment. 
In the New Testament, Christ contradicts this system by saying: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 
In so commanding, Christ establishes a system of super-morality. Rather than a person treating others as they are treated, which is only just, he commands that they treat others as they would wish to be treated. 
Like the Master in the parable, God sits in a position of authority and perfection. If he chooses to judge imperfection, to take life from those to whom life was given and who then failed to meet his standards, he is only just in doing so. 
On the other hand, if one human is judgmental of another, or takes the life of another, they are superseding their authority by doing what only God has the right to do. 
The atheist who complains that God does not meet a certain moral standard assumes that God and humans are entirely equal in terms of quality and morality, and that he has as much right to judge God as God has to judge him. Moreover, he assumes that all people deserve to be treated gregariously, regardless of their merits or failings. 
To this degree, the atheist has received what he has asked for. All humans die. To complain that God allowed a great number of humans to die in some natural disaster while sparing some, ignores the fact that those who were spared will eventually die as well. They have not escaped their fate, they have simply delayed it. 
But there is another way in which all humans are treated equally by God: all are extended the opportunity for forgiveness. 
In the parable, the Master says to the servant: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.” Indeed, all who plead with God for forgiveness receive exactly what they ask for. 
All human beings are imperfect. This being so, none of them are justified in condemning the other. God is perfect. This being so, he is justified in condemning all, and he owes humans nothing. 
However, God adheres to a standard of super-morality. Transcending what is just, he offers undeserved forgiveness to all humans which they are free to receive or deny as they choose. Like the Master in the parable, who did not simply give the servant more time to pay the debt, but entirely forgave it, God has offered unqualified forgiveness to all. 
The human being who condemns the actions of God would do well to heed the words of Christ: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone.” 
While it is likely that this quote was not in the original text of John, the point remains valid: only a perfect person may rightly accuse God of abuse. 
If God does not exist, as the atheist woman who survived the tornado believes, then she has no complaint. The universe is uncaring. If God does exist, and this woman has turned her back on him, she has no complaint. She has willingly denied the only source of hope. 
On the other hand, as the law of Christ commands, this woman and the other survivors of the tornado are owed the help and generosity of the human community. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Rise of the Mentionables: How small time voices made a big-time noise

In July of 2017, an online conversation began between myself (Joel Furches), Tyler Vela of The Freed Thinker, Chad Gross of Truthbomb Apologetics, Adam Coleman of Tru ID and Nick Peters of Deeper Waters. The one thing we all had in common was that we were all Christian Apologists with our own small ministries – emphasis on "small." The conversation went thusly:
Wouldn't it be nice if unrecognized but talented Christian Apologists received enough exposure so that the church was aware of these dynamic resources in its midst? In a world where Atheists are more vocal, and often more informed on the Bible than Christians, some of the most important resources, that sit elbow-to-elbow with you at church, go unnoticed. And if Christians began to take advantage of their local Apologists, the gradual crumbling of the American church might slow and then stop. The church might actually experience growth if it knew that there were dedicated people who had answers to the questions hammering it down by the culture around it.
Certainly, there were big name, celebrity Apologists who had the lime-light, but was this really enough? These small voices in the crowd were worth mentioning and the Gospel is Mentionable.
This conversation amidst we small-time voices began as idle speculation and light-hearted joking. The conversation grew so lengthy that I decided to create a separate Facebook group just to keep the discussion going. But I made a mistake. I created a page instead of a group. The difference is that a Facebook group is just a place for like-minded people to post and discuss on topics on which they share interests. A Facebook page is a front for a business or organization. By sheer accident, I had given us a face for an organization. Thereafter, we actually began to talk more seriously about The Mentionables.
By this time, Chad and Adam had dropped off the discussion. I wanted a team of four, so I tagged in another small-time apologist I had interviewed in my years as a Christian journalist: Neil Hess of Soul Winning Ministries. He joined, and began hosting a joint podcast under our name.
Soon we had a YouTube channel, with regular talks and videos being added, and all of the social media feeds with regular updates. We began to receive endorsements from some of the big-time Apologists, like J Warner Wallace and Sean McDowell. We had our own website, and hosted an occasional live-stream show on Facebook and YouTube.
Excited as I was by this gradual snowballing of events that seemed to have begun a grassroots movement amidst the smaller voices in Apologetics, I mentioned the events to a friend of mine from college who now lived two states away from me in North Carolina. By the next day, he had arranged an Apologetics conference for our group on his own initiative.
Shortly after this, Chad and Adam came back onboard the team, and we now had six members. I felt this was plenty for a speaking team, but new people kept expressing interest in the group.
The whole point of the movement had been to give voice to your friendly, neighborhood Apologist, and I didn't want to turn away any talented amateurs, but I already had six members, and the team was beginning to look a bit bloated. What to do?
This was when the idea of the Network emerged. For new Apologists who expressed an interest in joining The Mentionables, I began placing them in a national catalog of Apologists. Now anyone can go into the catalog, locate an Apologist close to them, and find out what this Apologist does, the services they offer and the topics on which they speak.
Better still, small time apologists from around the country could search the catalog finding the services these Mentionables offered – things such as audio and video editing, philosophical advice, and guest writing – and then take advantage of the services they needed.
With a conference and podcast under our belts, I began to look for other projects and opportunities for our group to do. We began to seek out and record friendly debates with atheists for broadcast on our podcast. A few of us began to make appearances at local conferences – not as speakers, but with tables at which we sold books authored by team members and offered promotional material about the group. We began to receive questions from fans and listeners who had Apologetics or theology problems and wanted answers. I would throw the question out to the entire network, and then publish every answer I received on the groups blog. This way readers had the advantage of getting several perspectives on the same question, rather than one man's opinion. This became our "Question of the Week" program.
It was this model that carried over to a signature team project. In November of 2017, I came across an article on Hubpages, a publication for which I also write. The article was titled "40 Questions to ask a Christian." It was written by an atheist, and the forty questions (which actually turned out to be only 39) were tactical tricks which attempted to disarm and silence the Christian to which they were posed. This gave me a brilliant idea.
I made the suggestion to the network that we work on these questions together in a similar fashion as what we did with the Questions of the Week: we each give our own individual answer, then put them together to give readers a well-rounded response.
The project took off and bore fruit.
A few months later, two of the Mentionables were invited to attend and speak at an event. They were told “have materials for the children.”
In a world where we talk about philosophy, theology and science, the kinds of material produced isn’t particularly appropriate for children.
But children do ask hard questions. Sometimes much harder than the questions asked by adults. The team collected these questions, and began to provide answers. These were real questions really asked by actual children. Questions parents often couldn’t answer, and passed along to the team.
The team continues to do projects and build momentum. Who knows what the future holds?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

What the new office of religious engagement may mean for religions

On August 18th, 2013, Shaun Casey, professor of Christian Ethics working for the State Department, announced a new office that will “…focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen US development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values.” 
The originally proposition was to open “The Office of non-governmental engagement and partnerships” – a department intended to focus on a variety of cultural groups, worldviews, and beliefs. Originally it was suggested that a focus on just religious groups was too narrow. However, under the direction of religious moralists such as Shawn Casey, the project became focused specifically on interactions with religious groups. 
In his recent article from Religious Dispatches“State Department to open an office of Religious Engagement,” writer Austin Daceycites the rationale for opening the department: 
“Understanding religion is imperative to understanding local civil society. Gallop polls show us that four out of five people on the planet believe in something greater than themselves, often viewing all sectors of life through the prism of faith. Religious faith and adherence is often a source of conflict and contributes to global instability and undermines long term US interests. However those same forces of faith contribute much good to civil society, and when properly engaged can promote human progress and peaceful co-existence on a global scale.” 
More and more when religious beliefs are brought into the public limelight, the people chosen to represent such beliefs tend to be the charismatic leaders of mega-churches, popular-level authors, and hosts of media organizations such as Oprah. 
Such people rarely deal with the deeper, core doctrines of the system they represent, but often focus on obtainment of the superficial “good feelings” that such religions pay lip-service to. And no wonder. While the public may be willing to tolerate a “love everybody indiscriminately” message, they are increasingly dubious of the underlying doctrines that drive religious behavior. To put a diplomatic face on religion that sells the lie that religions are basically about nothing but tolerance and good will is fair neither to the public nor the religions being misrepresented. 
The cold, hard truth is that large portions of the religious community do take hardline moral stances on unpopular positions such as banning gay marriage and abortion. Moreover, there is a very good reason that members of the same religion may have deep disagreements over core values, that being that individuals within that religion have the freedom to think and make value choices for themselves. Were this not true, religions truly would be the brain-washing institutions that many see them to be. 
A truly democratic institution would give such belief systems the right to state their case and vote their conscience like every other citizen. A truly diplomatic approach to these religious groups would represent their rationale for such beliefs rather than glossing over them for a less substantial and more publically appealing message. However, as Austin Dacey rightly points out: 
“Constitutional or not, official interfacing with faith-based organizations will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement. The defining of some communities among various porous-bordered, normative, and discursive communities as ‘religions,’ and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokesmen for these communities …Often it’s precisely the dissidents, the doubters, the non-traditional believers who are the most in-need of recognition, and who often offer the most-needed perspectives on peace, the rule of law, and minority rights within their societies. 
“When the US government bestows high-level diplomatic attention, instead, on select –typically male, adult, and non-democratically appointed spokespersons – it aids them in consolidating their own power and authority within their communities.” 
While it is a controversial phrase, the so-called “separation of church and state” is intended for the protection of both institutions from one another. When the state and the church have mixed historically, it has resulted in an officiating of religious belief that is then mandated for every participant within that community. The religion and the government become one and the same, and those who differ from the official stance in their beliefs are something worse than overlooked: they are outlawed. 
Bestowing a diplomatic status on religious institutions places them in a category separate from the citizenry. No longer can religious people claim to be thoughtful individuals who act and vote from their consciences; they are now a separate culture that must be studied and negotiated with. 
This is a troubling acknowledgement of what religious institutions have been claiming for decades; that secularism is the new state religion. Secular values, thoughts, and beliefs drive government actions and law-making and such beliefs are implicitly or explicitly forced upon people who reject these values. Now that non-superficial religion no longer drives social values, it has become a troublesome minority group. Through diplomatic means, the government seems to wish to negotiate their way free of moral entanglements that religions entail.