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Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world. He is a theologian and ordained minister, as well as an author, speaker and host of his own radio program The Albert Mohler Program.

Albert Mohler

Author, Speaker, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

  • Tuesday, November 21, 2006
    The New Atheism?

    2006 has been a big year for atheism. The release of several major books--all widely touted in the media--has put atheism on the front lines of current cultural conversation. Books such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation are selling by the thousands and prompting hours of conversation on college campuses and in the media.

    Now, WIRED magazine comes out with a cover story on atheism for its November 2006 issue. In "The New Atheism," WIRED contributing editor Gary Wolf explains that this newly assertive form of atheism declares a very simple message: "No heaven. No hell. Just science."

    WIRED is itself a cultural symbol for the growing centrality of technology in our lives. On the other hand, the magazine is not simply a celebration of emerging technologies nor a catalogue of soon-to-be-released marvels. Instead, the magazine consistently offers significant intellectual content and it takes on many of the most controversial issues of the times. Considering the relatively young readership of the magazine, the decision to put atheism on the front cover indicates something of where they think the society is headed--at least in interest.

    Wolf accomplishes a great deal in his article, thoughtfully introducing the work of militant atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett. At the same time, he probes more deeply into the actual meaning of the New Atheism as a movement and a message.

    At the beginning of his article, he gets right to the point: "The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking."

    In order to understand the New Atheism, Wolf traveled to visit with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett. His interviews with the three are illuminating and analytical.

    He met Dawkins in Oxford, which Wolf describes as the "Jerusalem" of human reason. Accordingly, he labels Dawkins "the leading light of the New Atheism movement."

    In one sense, this is hardly news. Richards Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, has been the most ardent and well-publicized intellectual opponent of Christianity for decades now. He was first famous for the evolutionary argument he presented in his best-selling book, The Selfish Gene, now decades old. In his more recent work, Dawkins appears to have left his scientific career something in the background as he attempts to write as something of a philosopher and (a)theologian.

    Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, reached the best-seller list in recent weeks, and he has made media appearances on everything from the mainstream media to Comedy Central. Unlike many journalists, Wolf understands what makes Dawkins unique. It is not so much that Dawkins is attempting to convince believers that they should no longer believe in God. To the contrary, Dawkins is attempting a very different cultural and political move. He wants to make respect for belief in God socially unacceptable.

    "Dawkins is perfectly aware that atheism is an ancient doctrine and that little of what he has to say is likely to change the terms of this stereotyped debate," Wolf writes. "But he continues to go at it. His true interlocutors are not the Christians he confronts directly but the wavering nonbelievers or quasi believers among his listeners--people like me, potential New Atheists who might be inspired by his example."

    As Dawkins explains himself, "I'm quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism." The Oxford professor also understands that atheism is a political issue as well as a theological question. "The number of nonreligious people in the US is something nearer to 30 million than 20 million. That's more than all the Jews in the world put together. I think we're in the same position the gay movement was in a few decades ago. There was a need for people to come out. The more people who came out, the more people who had the courage to come out. I think that's the case with atheists. They're more numerous than anybody realizes."

    For a man who is supposedly an exemplar of the humble discipline of science, Dawkins is capable of breathtaking condescension. Consider these words: "Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists . . . . Not a single member of either house of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn't add up. Either they're stupid, or they're lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they've got a motive! Everyone knows that an atheist can't get elected."

    Note his argument carefully--highly intelligent people are most likely to be atheists.

    The political dimensions of Dawkins' thought become immediately apparent when he speaks of how children should be protected from parents who believe in God. "How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents?," Dawkins asks. "It's one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society to be stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?"

    Wolf has successfully captured the essence of what animates Richard Dawkins. He is an evangelist for atheism.

    "Evangelism is a moral imperative," Wolf explains. "Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes." As Dawkins sees it, belief in God is a dangerous "meme." Dawkins is famous for arguing that memes serve as a major driving force in evolution. Memes, cultural replicators like ideas, can spread like a virus through society. Wolf understands that Dawkins claims to believe in democracy and freedom and thus accepts "that there are practical constraints on controlling the spread of bad memes." Nevertheless, "Bad ideas foisted on children are moral wrongs. We should think harder about how to stop them."

    In a very real sense, Richard Dawkins grabs the headlines precisely because he is willing to say what many other atheists think. Indeed, he is willing to say what other atheists must think, but are unwilling to say for one political reason or another. Dawkins is spectacularly unconcerned about public relations.

    On the link between evolution and atheism, for example, Dawkins is unrepentant and direct--evolutionary theory must logically lead to atheism. While other evolutionists argue before courts and in the media that this is not so, Dawkins states that he cannot worry about the public relations consequences.

    As he told Wolf: "My answer is that the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism. The 'sensible' religious people are really on the side of the fundamentalists, because they believe in supernaturalism. That puts me on the other side." As Wolf explains, Dawkins himself insisted that the word "sensible" should be in quotes. In other words, Dawkins seems to have less respect for theological liberalism than for those who are theologically orthodox. At least the true believers know what they truly believe.

    This attack on religious moderates is what made The End of Faith, Sam Harris' 2004 book, so interesting. Harris, whose second book, Letter to a Christian Nation, was released just weeks ago, argues that religious moderates and theological liberals function as something like "enablers" of orthodoxy and fundamentalism. As Wolf keenly observes, the New Atheists oppose agnostics and liberal believers as those who help orthodox believers build and retain a cultural powerbase. Agnostics and theological liberals may be fellow travelers with the atheists, these figures admit, but they actually serve to confuse rather than to clarify the issues at stake. On this, the New Atheists and orthodox believers are in agreement.

    Sam Harris is even more apocalyptic than Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. He argues that, unless belief in God is eradicated, civilization is likely to end in a murderous sea of religious warfare. As an alternative, Harris proposes a "religion of reason." As he explains, "We would have realized the rational means to maximize human happiness. We may all agree that we want to have a Sabbath that we take really seriously--a lot more seriously than most religious people take it. But it would be a rational decision, and it would not be just because it's in the Bible. We would be able to invoke the power of poetry and ritual and silent contemplation and all the variables of happiness so that we could exploit them. Call it prayer, but we would have prayer without [expletive deleted]."

    Wolf helpfully offers his version of such a prayer: "that our reason will subjugate our superstition, that our intelligence will check our illusions, that we will be able to hold at bay the evil temptation of faith."

    Harris' self-proclaimed religion of reason bears uncanny resemblances to the features of New Age thought--something that offends many of his fellow New Atheists. Still, Harris' books have sold by the thousands and he has transformed himself into a poster child for militant atheism. Like Dawkins, Harris sees time on his side. "At some point, there's going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God."

    The third major figure in Wolf's article, Daniel Dennett, teaches at Tufts University. As Wolf explains, "Among the New Atheists, Dennett holds an exalted but ambiguous place. Like Dawkins and Harris, he is an evangelizing nonbeliever." Wolf describes Dennett as offering more humorous examples and thought experiments than Dawkins and Harris. "But like the other New Atheists, Dennett gives no quarter to believers who resist subjecting their faith to scientific evaluation. In fact, he argues that neutral, scientifically informed education about every religion in the world should be mandatory in school. After all, he argues, 'if you have to hoodwink--or blindfold--your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.'" Like Harris, Dennett believes that something like a religion of reason might be possible. But, in some contrast to Dawkins and Harris, Dennett does not see faith as something that can be intellectualized away. To the contrary, he sees belief in God to have served an evolutionary purpose. Even as he now believes that evolutionary purpose is no longer helpful, he argues that such an evolutionary feature is not likely to be eradicated quickly. Therefore, Dennett suggests replacing belief in God with something of a secular substitute.

    In his wide-ranging article, Wolf considers the emergence of the New Atheism from multiple perspectives. He deals not only with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, but with a host of others, including some who believe in God. He understands that the New Atheists stand in contrast with the older atheism more in terms of mood and mode of public engagement. He also understands that those who attempt to rebut the New Atheism on scientific grounds can find themselves facing considerable complexity. As Wolf explains, when defenders of faith accept science as the arbiter of reality, atheists are left "with the upper hand."

    Throughout the article, Wolf also admits his own doubts. He seems to identify himself more with agnosticism than atheism, and he reveals some discomfort with the stridency of the New Atheism.

    In his words: "The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn't necessarily mean we've lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance that we could turn out to be wrong."

    The very fact that Wolf remains unconvinced by the arguments promoted by the New Atheists is itself significant. What Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett--along with the other New Atheists--really demand is that society must place itself in the hands of a new and militant atheistic priesthood. Science as defined by these new priests, would serve as the new sacrament and as the means of salvation.

    What this article reveals is that those arguing that human beings need to be saved from belief in God are facing a tough sell--even in WIRED magazine.

  • Monday, October 23, 2006
    A New Path to Theological Liberalism?

    Are American evangelicals charting a new path into theological liberalism? That is the serious question posed by Wayne A. Grudem in Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? This new book is one of the most urgently needed resources for evangelical Christianity, and it represents one of the most insightful and courageous theological works of our times.

    Wayne Grudem is no stranger to controversy. Currently Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, Grudem is the author of several important volumes on a range of theological issues. Most importantly, he is the author of his own Systematic Theology and Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth. He also co-edited the landmark volume, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, with John Piper.

    In Evangelical Feminism, published by Crossway Books, Grudem argues that evangelical feminism now represents one of the greatest dangers to the continued orthodoxy of the evangelical movement. "I am concerned that evangelical feminism (also known as "egalitarianism") has become a new path by which evangelicals are being drawn into theological liberalism," he explains.

    In this new book, Grudem considers twenty-five different patterns of argument put forth by evangelical feminists, and demonstrates that every single one of them either contradicts or compromises the authority of Scripture.

    In considering the arguments put forth by evangelical feminists, Grudem is careful to avoid ad hominem attacks on egalitarian scholars and spokespersons. Instead, he considers each of their arguments with considerable scholarly care and attention, drawing the logical conclusions from the methodological assumptions the egalitarian scholars embrace.

    At the same time, Grudem is careful to specify and name the scholars whose proposals he considers, and the book is carefully footnoted and documented so that readers can follow the arguments for themselves. Grudem's use of the term "theological liberalism" is certain to be controversial. After all, the very genesis of the evangelical movement in North America was grounded in an effort to avoid the errors of theological modernism and liberalism that had already by the midpoint of the last century overtaken the mainline Protestant denominations. Grudem defines theological liberalism as "a system of thinking that denies the complete truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God and denies the unique and absolute authority of the Bible in our lives." In defining evangelicalism over against theological liberalism in this way, Grudem returns to the Scripture Principle that stood as foundational to the evangelical movement.

    Grudem is equally careful in defining evangelical feminism as "a movement that claims there are no unique leadership roles for men in marriage or in the church."

    A work like Evangelical Feminism has been desperately needed, and Grudem's new book arrives just in time. A new generation of younger evangelicals is facing the challenge of evangelical feminism just as the current and the larger culture are moving even more swiftly against biblical authority. Grudem understands that the temptation toward evangelical feminism is the same as that which has attracted so many theologians, pastors, and denominations in recent decades. As a matter of fact, he correctly observes that "evangelical feminists today have adopted many of the arguments earlier used by theological liberals to advocate the ordination of women and to reject male headship in marriage." Interestingly, Grudem provides an historical overview which traces the emergence of evangelical feminism and egalitarian theory to 1974, when Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty published their work, All We're Meant to Be and Paul Jewett of Fuller Theological Seminary published Man as Male and Female. As Grudem observes, "While egalitarian positions have been evocated since the 1950s by theologically liberal Protestant writers, no evangelical books took such a position until 1974."

    The mainline Protestant denominations began to ordain women in the mid-1950s, and it took some evangelicals less than twenty years to move in the same direction. Grudem's concern is to demonstrate that the hermeneutical moves necessary to justify the ordination of women to the pastorate subvert biblical authority. Furthermore, these same interpretive maneuvers open the door for a complete reshaping of Christianity.

    In a brief historical analysis, Grudem demonstrates that denominations move through "a predictable sequence" of theological liberalism. First, biblical inerrancy is abandoned. Then, in turn, the denomination endorses the ordination of women, rejects biblical teaching on male leadership in marriage, sidelines pastors who are opposed to the ordination of women, approves homosexual conduct as morally valid in at least some cases, ordains homosexuals, and elects homosexuals to "high leadership positions in the denomination."

    As Grudem observes, the Episcopal Church USA has, to this point, been alone in taking this sequential progression to its ultimate conclusion with the election of an openly gay bishop. Nevertheless, virtually all of the mainline Protestant denominations are embroiled in deep conflict over these very same questions. Indeed, these denominations have already moved so far along this line of progression that stopping at any point short of the ordination of homosexuals to ministry appears purely arbitrary.

    The heart of Evangelical Feminism is a consideration of the patterns of argument put forth by advocates of egalitarianism. Some evangelical feminists simply deny the authority of the Genesis account of creation, at least as this account deals with the creation of man and woman. Some, like Rebecca Groothuis argue that the Genesis account tells us "nothing about God's view of gender" because the gender issues are simply rooted in the "patriarchal" nature of the Hebrew language. Of course, this means that biblical inerrancy is now compromised by the assertion that we cannot actually trust the language accurately to convey what God intended. Similarly, other figures argue that Genesis 1-3 can be relativized on the issue of gender relations by arguing that parts of the Genesis account are nothing more that literary devices.

    Egalitarian theorists must deal with the Apostle Paul, and Grudem traces the move of Jewett and others in claiming that Paul must be understood as limited in his understanding of gender relations due to his own rabbinical training and the fact that he had not carefully resolved these issue by the time he wrote his epistles. Grudem documents how some figures make this argument by suggesting, for example, that Paul incorrectly understood Genesis 2-3, or that he willingly presented what he knew to be a false argument in order to reach his audience. As Grudem explains, if the Bible is the Word of God, then Paul's interpretations of the Old Testament are also God's interpretations "of his own Word."

    Again and again, Grudem allows the advocates of egalitarianism to reveal their own efforts to get around the clear teachings of Scripture on the different roles assigned to men and women. Gordon Fee, for example, argues that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are "certainly not binding for Christians" because these verses, he argues, were not actually written by Paul, but were additions of a later scribe. As Grudem demonstrates, not one single ancient manuscript has ever omitted these verses.

    One of the most important sections in Evangelical Feminism is Grudem's consideration of the so-called "projectory hermeneutics" now gaining favor in many evangelical circles. Grudem traces this hermeneutic to Krister Stendahl, a former dean at Harvard Divinity School. As far back as 1958, Stendahl was arguing that the church must not be trapped in a first century understanding of gender issues, but must press forward to a new reality, even as the New Testament pressed beyond the Old. Thus, evangelical figures such as R.T. France have argued for the ordination of women on the basis of a "historical trajectory" traced from the Old Testament through the New Testament and pointing beyond to the present age.

    This approach is made clear by David Thompson in a 1996 article: "Sensing the direction of the canonical dialogue and prayerfully struggling with it, God's people conclude that they will most faithfully honor his Word by accepting the target already anticipated in Scripture and toward which the Scriptural trajectory was heading rather than the last entry in the biblical conversation."

    As Grudem observes, "This means that the teachings of the New Testament are no longer our final authority. Our authority now becomes our own ideas of the direction the New Testament was heading but never quite reached."

    At this point, a crucial question arises. If this hermeneutical method is legitimate, how can we stop at the ordination of women? This is the very argument made by proponents of normalizing homosexuality and ordaining homosexuals to the ministry. If the New Testament is to be superseded by a later reality based in a more modern understanding, how can the church justify relativizing some texts without relativizing others?

    Grudem also offers a careful critique of William Webb's "redemptive-movement" approach, which, as he observes, casts the entire ethical structure of the New Testament into doubt. Grudem goes to some length to demonstrate that Webb's approach undermines the church's ability even to understand the New Testament text. Webb's cumbersome and elaborate criteriology for deciding these issues puts the question outside the reach of all but a tiny priesthood of scholars. Even more importantly, it points to something outside the New Testament as our authority. As Grudem notes, this is "a huge step down the path toward liberalism." In other chapters, Grudem considers the fact that many evangelical feminists claim the right to prioritize certain biblical texts, while relativizing others. Others attempt to dismiss certain passages as "disputed" in order to eliminate their functional authority in today's church. Grudem effectively undermines these arguments, showing once again that the acceptance of these arguments requires the subversion or outright rejection of biblical authority. These maneuvers are absolutely incompatible with an affirmation of biblical inerrancy.

    In a series of capable considerations, Grudems looks to a host of alternative arguments made on behalf of the ordination of women, ranging from those who claim an authority of experience or "calling" above Scripture to others who claim that women can teach and preach in the church so long as they do so under a male pastor's authority.

    Finally, Grudem returns to the issue of homosexuality, arguing that the hermeneutic employed to advocate egalitarianism leads, if pressed consistently, to the normalization of homosexuality as well. "The approval of homosexuality," he notes, "is the final step along the path to liberalism."

    The great value of Wayne Grudem's new book is its combination of cogent argument and fair presentation. Grudem is careful to acknowledge that many, if not most, evangelical feminists have not moved completely along the trajectory toward the full embrace of theological liberalism. Nevertheless, his surgical approach to their theological arguments and hermeneutical proposals reveals the clear and present danger to evangelical orthodoxy posed by egalitarian theory and practice. Evangelical Feminism is truly a tract for the times--a manifesto that should serve to awaken complacent evangelicals to the true nature of the egalitarian challenge. Furthermore, the book serves as an arsenal of arguments to use in revealing the crucial weaknesses of the egalitarian proposal.

    Nothing less than the future of the Christian church in North America is at stake in this controversy. Evangelicals no longer have the luxury of believing that this controversy is nothing more than a dispute among scholars. Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? has arrived just in time. Get this book quickly--and read it with care.

  • Tuesday, October 3, 2006
    The Road to Nowhere—Middle Church

    Bob Edgar wants to rescue America from the religious right. In his new book, Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right, Edgar intends to reset the nation's agenda when it comes to matters of Christian concern.

    A former six-term Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Edgar now serves as the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. As such, he is one of the primary spokesmen for the religious left in America--symbolically presiding over the dwindling numbers of mainline Protestants in the nation.

    "My purpose in writing this book is to awaken the conscience of average, ordinary common folks within the United States to do above-average, extraordinary, and uncommon things to insure a future for our fragile planet," Edgar states. "I am especially interested in inspiring and challenging what I call 'Middle Church,' 'Middle Synagogue,' 'Middle Mosque'--the many millions of faithful people who do not always connect their spiritual values with political issues and whose voices are, as a result, often drowned out by the far religious right."

    As it turns out, one does not have to be very conservative in order to be considered part of the "far religious right" as identified by Bob Edgar. Interestingly for one whose own organization pushes so many political agendas, he claims to speak for those "faithful people" who do not, at least always, "connect their spiritual values with political issues."

    As Edgar sees it, there are two different churches in the United States--one based on love and the other grounded in fear. As Edgar asserts, "fear, fundamentalism, and the FOX Broadcasting Company must not be allowed to set the agenda for our nation."

    Well then. As children we are wisely advised by parents to learn the art of compromise. This is good advice for children playing in the sandbox. However, it is disastrous advice when it comes to matters of truth. Compromise works when truth is not at issue. But the very character of the National Council of Churches and the larger ecumenical movement is one of constant compromise at the expense of truth.

    As the book begins, Edgar traces his own political involvement to the inspiration he received from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by King's example, Edgar wants to call America's Christians to a middle way. "It is time for Middle Church--an umbrella term I use to refer to mainstream people of all faiths--to stand up to the far religious right and to embrace Christianity no less sincerely. The classic, historical Christianity practiced by Middle Church is far more authentic than the narrow religious expression of most radical right-wing religious leaders. We in Middle Church, Middle Synagogue, and Middle Mosque are not secularists who wish to banish God from the public square. We are people of faith whose traditions lead us to work for peace and care for the poor."

    Conservative Christians are certainly not above criticism. The evangelical movement is certainly capable of political misjudgment, spiritual triumphalism, and a truncated set of moral and theological concerns. Bob Edgar could have written a book offering an intelligent analysis of conservative Christianity and its cultural and political engagement. Unfortunately, this is not that book. It is not an intelligent analysis, and the intelligent reader will find the book absolutely perplexing at many points.

    For example, Edgar could have offered a careful, exegetical, historical, and theological engagement with moral issues. Instead he offers irresponsible generalizations such as this: "The Bible mentions abortion not once, homosexuality only twice, and poverty or peace more than two thousand times. Yet somehow abortion and homosexuality have become the litmus test of faith in public life today."

    How can an intelligent reader, armed with even the slightest knowledge of the Bible and the Christian tradition, take such a statement seriously? The Bible does not mention abortion only in the sense that it does not make direct reference to the practice of surgical abortion as is common today. The Bible speaks clearly to the sanctity of human life and to the priority of protecting unborn life. Furthermore, to state that the Bible mentions homosexuality "only twice" indicates that Edgar has redefined homosexuality as something other than that which the Bible addresses in numerous passages.

    There can be no doubt that the Bible's consistent judgment is that homosexual acts are inherently immoral and sinful. The Christian church in all of its major branches has understood this for two thousand years. This has been a true ecumenical consensus until recent years when some more liberal churches in the West have abandoned the Christian tradition in order to endorse homosexual practice.

    Thus, it is an act of intellectual dishonesty for Edgar to claim to speak for "classic historical Christianity."

    Just in case we might miss his point, Edgar offers this assessment of Scripture: "The far religious right is fond of condemning homosexuality because they say the Scripture is immutable and its words are literal." Again, Edgar identifies the scriptural consensus that homosexuality is sinful as an example of the radical nature of the "far religious right" [italics his]. Once again, one need not be very conservative to end up in Edgar's category of the far religious right.

    As for his view of Scripture, "I do not personally believe God stops talking to us with the final word in the book of Revelation." Edgar explains that, as a pastor, he had included readings in worship from the Old Testament, the New Testament and what he calls the "Now Testament," by which he means readings from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.

    When it comes to familiarity with the Bible and the Christian tradition, there is no excuse for Edgar not to be well versed. After all, he is a seminary graduate and was for a decade president of the Claremont School of Theology. Thus, the reader might be surprised when Edgar, criticizing the fact that evangelicals seem too concerned with the Rapture and the end of the world, states this: "The book of Revelation does speak of the Rapture, and the portrait it paints is in fact quite fierce. But it's equally important to understand that the books of the New Testament are works of human beings." In the span of two fairly short sentences, Edgar manages to suggest that the New Testament is to be read as a merely human book while moving the Bible's text concerning the Rapture from 1 Thessalonians chapter four to the book of Revelation. Continuing to define his understanding of Scripture, Edgar suggests that "not every single word can be taken as literal historical fact."

    When it comes to global warming, however, Edgar is quite certain that the problem is real and can be resolved by human beings. Furthermore, he offers his conclusion that dealing with global warming would not "cause economic problems." Edgar is quite certain that the Bible does not reveal an explicit command by God against homosexuality, but he is confident that God has a position on global warming.

    Now, there is an urgent need at present for a truly thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of global warming and its theological significance. It would be fair to suggest that many evangelicals are simply dismissive of ecological concerns. Nevertheless, Edgar never makes his case for why we should, on his authority, assume that global warming should take priority over other concerns--especially those related to the sanctity of human life and the ordering of human sexuality.

    Edgar dismisses the theory of Intelligent Design and the claim by "biblical literalists" that the earth is less than six thousand years old. "Let me just say here that I believe God is an 'intelligent designer,' and that's why God 'intelligently designed' the theory of evolution." That statement is cute, but it cannot be taken seriously. Readers with the slightest familiarity with the dominant theory of evolution held in the scientific community today will know that the very idea of an external design is incompatible with that theory. Cute statements are no substitute for serious thought.

    The same is true when Edgar turns to moral issues--after all, the central concern of his book is to replace the agenda of conservative Christians with a different public agenda for Christianity. The "Middle Church" Edgar affirms must be absolutely certain about issues like peace, justice, poverty, racism, and ecology, but "must be prepared to agree to disagree about homosexuality, abortion, and stem cell research."

    In an amazing passage, Edgar asserts: "People of faith must be able to conduct a respectful and open conversation about all aspects of sexuality including homosexuality. God has a lot to say on all these topics, and if we skip the listening and rush straight to the judging--an enterprise in which we're not supposed to be involved anyway--we can't hope to make serious progress in our discussion."

    Statements like this must leave us wondering if this author actually means to be taken seriously. His book is filled with moral judgments--judgments about ecology, justice, racism, and a host of other issues. But when it comes to sexuality, Edgar offers the facile suggestion that moral judgment is "an enterprise in which we're not supposed to be involved anyway."

    In other words, when Edgar makes moral judgments, he's not being judgmental. But when others moral judgments, they are being judgmental. The Bible does not say that we are not to make moral judgments, or that we are not to judge moral behavior. Indeed, the Bible makes absolutely no sense if that is the case. The Bible--in both Old and New Testaments--is filled with moral judgment and with advisement on how we are to make such judgments. Of course, the judgments we are to make concern behavior, not the heart. We are expressly forbidden to judge another's heart. That distinction is missing from Edgar's analysis.

    As is always the case, the major issues of moral consequence are rooted in issues of more fundamental importance. When it comes to theology, Edgar demonstrates himself to be on the far left of the ecumenical movement. Consider this: "My God hopes for positive outcomes. My God does not play tricks or determine outcomes. My God has enough self-confidence to be less concerned with the language in which people pray than with the fullness with which people love one another. Most important, my God does not withhold love or acceptance from a Hindu child in India, a Buddhist child in Thailand, a Jewish child in Jerusalem, or a Muslim child in Ramallah." All that is said with absolutely no reference to Jesus Christ, or the Gospel.

    Just in case we missed his point, Edgar argues that, in his personal opinion, God does not "even ask us to convert those who espouse other faiths?" Why? "I believe God reveals his love to different people in different ways and through different vehicles." This from the general secretary of an organization known as the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

    Bob Edgar--and the movement he leads--has replaced the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a platform of political involvement. "I admit that I do not give much thought to the afterlife personally," Edgar explains, "but it's only because I am keeping plenty busy here on Earth and I trust God to sort out eternity." On that last part we can all agree. God will "sort out eternity." What separates Bob Edgar and biblical Christianity is the fact that God has told us how He is going to judge humanity--and the crucial issue in that judgment is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    When it comes to matters of public policy, evangelicals surely do not have all the answers. Furthermore, evangelicals are well served by a reminder that our moral agenda needs to be broader than the issues of the daily headlines.

    Nevertheless, conservative Christians did not decide to make abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell research front-line issues. It is nothing less than intellectual dishonesty to suggest that evangelicals prompted the national debate on those issues. On all of these fronts, evangelicals are simply calling on the Christian church to stand by its historic convictions and moral wisdom.

    We must always be willing and ready to read what our own critics have to say. This is especially true when the critic is fair, intelligent, and thoughtful. Unfortunately, Bob Edgar has written a book that fits none of those categories. Instead, his book appears to be nothing less than a parody of mainline Protestantism--a cartoon reflection of what the ecumenical movement really represents. Middle Church is a roadmap to nowhere except further decline in influence and relevance.

  • Tuesday, September 26, 2006
    The Dawkins Delusion

    "I do not, by nature, thrive on confrontation," declares Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and one of the world's leading skeptics concerning Christianity and belief in God.

    Dawkins is well known as an intellectual adversary to all forms of religious belief--and of Christianity in particular. He is one of the world's most prolific scientists, writing books for a popular audience and addressing his strident worldview of evolutionary theory to an expanding audience. Put simply, Richard Dawkins aspires to be the "devil's chaplain" of Darwinian evolution.

    All this is what makes Dawkins' denial of a confrontational approach so ludicrous. It is simply false at face value. This is a man who has taken every conceivable opportunity to make transparently clear his unquestioned belief that the dominant theory of evolution renders any form of belief in God irrational, backward, and dangerous.

    Dawkins set out the basic framework of his worldview in best-selling books including, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, and, most famously, The Selfish Gene. Now, in The God Delusion, Dawkins brings his attack on Christianity to a broader audience. Interestingly, Dawkins' new book is released close on the heels of two similar works. Fellow skeptics Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have written similar books released since late summer. Taken together, these three books represent something of a frontal attack upon the legitimacy of belief in God.

    There are few surprises in The God Delusion. Dawkins is a gifted writer who is able to popularize scientific concepts, and he writes with an acerbic style that fits his purpose in this volume. His condescending and sarcastic tone set the stage for what he hopes will be a devastating attack upon theism.

    Dawkins admits his "presumptuous optimism" in hoping that his book will cause persons to set aside their faith. "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down," he asserts. Time will tell.

    Though The God Delusion is intended more as an attack upon theism than as a defense of evolutionary theory, the framework of evolution is never far from Dawkins' mind. In his opening chapter, he argues that most legitimate scientists--indeed all who really understand the issues at stake--are atheists of one sort or another. He defines the alternatives as between a stark atheism (such as that Dawkins himself represents) and a form of nonsupernatural religion, as illustrated by the case of Albert Einstein. "Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply," he explains. As examples, Dawkins offers not only Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking but also Martin Rees, currently Britain's Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society. According to Dawkins, Rees "goes to church as an 'unbelieving Anglican . . . out of loyalty to the tribe.'" As Dawkins explains, Rees "has no theistic beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the cosmos provokes in the other scientists I have mentioned. He cites Einstein to the effect that he was a "deeply religious nonbeliever"--moved by the majesty of the cosmos but without any reference whatsoever to a supernatural being.

    As Dawkins explains, real scientists are naturalists. As such, they eliminate entirely the question of a supernatural being's existence. "The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason."

    As Dawkins then makes clear, his attack upon belief is explicitly and exclusively directed toward belief in supernatural gods. As he explains, "the most familiar" of these deities is Yahweh. Put simply, Dawkins holds no respect for those who believe in the God of the Bible, whom he describes as ruthless, cruel, selfish, and vindictive.

    Accordingly, Dawkins does not understand why social etiquette requires respect for those who believe in God.

    In one of the central chapters of his book, Dawkins attempts to accomplish two simultaneous purposes: to undermine the intellectual movement known as Intelligent Design and, in a twist of its logic, to suggest that belief in God is itself a refutation of the very notion of an intelligent design. As Dawkins sees it, "the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other." As he sets out his case, he denies that there could be any legitimate basis for belief in God. The very notion of a supernatural agent flies directly in the face of his presuppositional naturalism. Therefore, by definition, such a God cannot exist and those who believe in such a God prove their intellectual inadequacy or gullibility.

    In accordance with his own evolutionary theory, Dawkins acknowledges that the universe displays appearances of design. Nevertheless, he suggests that these appearances are false, and that any example of apparent design is actually due to the Darwinian engine of natural selection. He considers the traditional proof for God's existence offered by the philosophers and rejects each out of hand. Finally, he considers the argument that the existence of God can be proved by Scripture--but then launches a broadside attack upon Scripture itself.

    When it comes to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, Dawkins displays absolute amazement that any intelligent person could even entertain the notion that such teachings might be true. Pointing back to the nineteenth century, Dawkins asserts that the Victorian era was "the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment." He adds: "When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked."

    Since Dawkins considers the existence of God to be nothing more than a scientific hypothesis--just like any other--he presents his case that "the factual premise of religion--the God Hypothesis--is untenable." In other words, "God almost certainly does not exist."

    So why do so many persons believe in Him? Consistent with his evolutionary worldview, Dawkins must offer a purely naturalistic interpretation for the origin and function of religion. He argues that religion must be, like all other human phenomena, a product of Darwinian evolution. Nevertheless, he understands that the existence of religious belief poses some interesting Darwinian questions. "Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant; and Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste," Dawkins explains. Therefore, there must be some fascinating Darwinian explanation for how religious belief emerged and survives. Citing his colleague Daniel Dennett, Dawkins suggests that religious belief is "time-consuming, energy-consuming" and "often as extravagantly ornate as the plumage of a bird of paradise." He sees no good in it at all. "Thousands of people have been tortured for their loyalty to a religion, persecuted by zealots for what is in many cases a scarcely distinguishable alternative faith. Religion devours resources, sometimes on a massive scale. A medieval cathedral could consume a hundred man centuries in its construction, yet it was never used as a dwelling, or for any recognizable useful purpose."

    In his own twist, Dawkins argues that belief in God is simply a by-product of some other evolutionary mechanism. He suggests that one possible source of belief in God (understood in purely physicalist and natural terms) is the need for the brains of children to accept on faith the teachings of their elders. Thus, he argues that evolution may have "psychologically primed" the human brain for some form of belief in God. Nevertheless, whatever function this may have served the process of evolution in the past, Dawkins now believes that it has become a dangerous liability.

    "I surmise that religions, like languages, evolved with sufficient randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to generate the bewildering--and sometimes dangerous--richness of diversity that we observe. At the same time, it is possible that a form of natural selection, coupled with the fundamental uniformity of human psychology, sees to it that the diverse religions share significant teachers in common." In the end, Dawkins sees all these forms as dangerous.

    Along the way, Dawkins insists that morality is not based in absolute truth but in a consequentialist form of reasoning that is itself a monument of evolutionary development. He plays with categories and concepts--no doubt intentionally--in order to confuse the question. Christians do not argue that those who believe in God always act in a way that is morally superior to those who do not. Atheists may behave better than Christians. This is to our shame, but it does not pose an intellectual challenge to the validity of the Christian faith. The more urgent question has to do with how any form of moral absolute--including even a prohibition on murder or incest--can survive if all morality is merely a natural phenomenon of human evolution. Dawkins simply embraces the relativity of morality, arguing that this explains why Christians are so dangerous. Believing in moral absolutes, Christians are led to defend the sanctity of human life at every level and to believe that, of all things, the Creator actually has set forth moral commandments and expectations concerning our sexuality. Dawkins rejects these ideas altogether.

    At the same time, he suggests that the morality revealed in the Bible is actually immoral when judged against the enlightened standards of our current moral Zeitgeist. Furthermore, Dawkins argues that modern persons do not actually derive their morality from the Bible, no matter how much they may claim to do so.

    In a sweeping rejection of biblical Christianity, Dawkins expresses outrage at the morality of both the Old and New Testaments. "I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellant. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity," he asserts. Dawkins would dispense with the Ten Commandments and replace these with a new set of commandments more attuned to modern times. Among his proposed commandments are these: "Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business;" "Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species." Another of Dawkins' commandments hits close to home: "Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you."

    Amazingly, Dawkins denies that he is himself an absolutist. Accordingly, he expresses incredulity at the fact that he is seen as a particularly ardent opponent of Christianity.

    "Despite my dislike of gladiatorial contests, I seem somehow to have acquired a reputation for pugnacity towards religion. Colleagues who agree that there is no God, who agree that we do not need religion to be moral, and agree that we can explain the roots of religion and of morality in non-religious terms, nevertheless come back to me in gentle puzzlement. Why are you so hostile?"

    Dawkins denies that he is a "fundamentalist atheist." "Maybe scientists are fundamentalists when it comes to defining in some abstract way what is meant by 'truth.' But so is everybody else," he insists. "I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere."

    In the end, Richard Dawkins will surely fail in his quest to turn theists in to atheists. His book represents nothing fundamentally new--just the same old arguments repeated over and over again. Dawkins is quick to label his intellectual adversaries as fundamentalists, but he conveniently redefines the term so that it does not apply to his own position. He claims to live life solely on the basis of scientific evidence, but is so fundamentally committed to the theory of evolution that we cannot take his protestations to the contrary seriously.

    The God Delusion is sure to garner significant attention in the media and in popular culture. Dawkins, along with the other fashionable skeptics and atheists of the day, makes for good television and creates an instant media sensation. In one sense, we should be thankful for the forthrightness with which he presents his arguments. This is not a man who minces words, and he never hides behind his own argument. Furthermore, at several points in the book he correctly identifies weaknesses in many of the arguments put forth by theists. As is so often the case, we learn from our intellectual enemies as well as from our allies.

    The tone of the book is strident, the content of the book is bracing, and the attitude of the book is condescending. Nevertheless, Dawkins insists that his strident attack upon the faith is limited to words. "I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement," he insists. He even allows that "we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions" of organized religion, "and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals," he asserts. Nevertheless, all this must be done without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions." Further: "We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage."All this raises more questions that Dawkins answers. If belief in God is so intellectually abhorrent, why would anyone want to retain the traditions associated with these beliefs? Why does Dawkins acknowledge that all this amounts to "a treasured heritage?" It must be because, in the end, even Richard Dawkins is not as much of an atheist as he believes himself to be. If Dawkins is so certain that theism is dead, why would he devote so much of his time and energy to opposing it? A man who is genuinely certain that Christianity is passing away would feel no need to write a 400-page book in order to urge its passing.

  • If God has spoken, then the highest human aspiration must be to hear what the Creator has said. Revelation is necessarily a personal matter. To hear the voice of the Lord God is not merely to receive information, but to meet the living God. Last week, we considered five realities that should frame our thinking in light of the fact that God has spoken. Here are three more.

    Sixth, because God has spoken, we must obey. This is not a word submitted for our consideration. The living God allows us to hear His voice from the fire and survive. He has demands to make of us, as Creator speaks to creature. And in the giving of the Torah, and the entire body of law, there is the requirement of obedience. This is repeated over and over again. It is stated in the form of a positive principle: Israel is told, "If you obey, you will be blessed and you will live. You will prosper in the land that I am giving you." The demand of obedience is also stated in the negative: "If you disobey, you will be cursed. You will bear my wrath. The nations of the world will cast you out. You will go out before them, to be taken as their exiles. You will be cast out of the land."

    The demand of obedience is very clear, and it is central to Deuteronomy chapter four. Even as the Lord God through Moses is preparing His people to enter the promised land by reciting again the law, He says to them, "It is about obedience. I'm not giving you mere information. I'm not letting you hear my voice for your intellectual stimulation. It is not so that you will have an epistemological advantage over the pagan peoples around you! It is so that you would obey."

    Seventh, if God has spoken, we must trust. "Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." We know that song, or at least some previous generations knew that song. But it really is a matter of trust, a hermeneutic of trust, an epistemology of trust, a spirituality and theology of trust. If God has spoken, we trust His Word because we trust in Him. Woe unto anyone who would sow seeds of mistrust or distrust of the Word of God. For to fail to trust this word is, as Israel was clearly told, to fail to trust in God Himself. Paul Helm, one of the most faithful Christian philosophers of the day, points to trust as the new apologetic. He refers to an apologetic of trust, understanding that in the end, the character of God is what finally anchors not only our epistemology, but our redemption and our hope.

    Eighth, if God has spoken, we must witness. Deuteronomy chapter four has a counterpart chapter in Deuteronomy 30. There, as Moses now prepares to die, the Lord speaks through him and says, "For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it that we may observe it?' Nor is it beyond the sea that you should say, 'Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it that we may observe it?' But the Word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land which you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life. Choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants by loving the Lord your God and obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him."

    Now consider Romans 10. The Apostle Paul refers to this very text. Romans 10:8 reads: "But what does it say? 'The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart"--that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, 'Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for 'Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.' How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? How will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!' However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our report?' So faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of Christ."

    So faith comes from hearing--hearing and yet surviving. This too explains why we are here. Because in the very formula and logic of Romans chapter ten, somehow we heard. Not one of us was at Horeb, but yet we have heard. Someone had to tell us. God spoke, and someone had to speak to us. Therefore there is, as the Word of God makes so very clear, the mandate to go and to tell. If God has spoken, then we do know. If God has spoken, then we are accountable. If God has spoken, it is by mercy and for our good, and if God has spoken, it comes with a commission and a command, which makes a difference in the life of a Christian.

    The difference for the church is that we understand what it means to gather together as the ones who by the grace and mercy of God have heard. The church gathers under the authority of the Word. It makes a difference also for a seminary. We are not making this up. Our task is not to go figure out what to teach. Our task is not to figure out where to find meaning in life. It is to be reminded continually that we have heard the voice of God speaking from the fire and have survived, and thus we teach.

    This is the mercy of God--to hear and yet survive. It is the mercy by which we live every day and experience every moment and evaluate every truth claim and judge every worldview and preach every sermon. We work and we live under that mercy. One cannot help connecting Deuteronomy 4--the experience of Israel hearing the Lord God speak from the midst of the fire and yet surviving--with Hebrews chapter one, which in the prologue tells us that God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers and the prophets in many ways, has spoken to us in these last days by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom also He made the world. We are here because God has spoken, not only in the fire, but in the Son, in whose name we are gathered and in whose name we serve.

    This is the third of a three-part edited transcript of the Convocation message given at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on August 24, 2006. Click here for Part One and here for Part Two. It is also the beginning of a series of messages on the Ten Commandments that Dr. Mohler will preach throughout the academic year.