Reply to Thagard’s view on religion and grief.

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Earlier this month, Dr. Paul Thagard published an opinion piece in Psychology Today titled, “Science and Philosophy Offer More for Grief than Religion.” In it, he critiques Stephen Asma’s New York Times article, which advanced the utility of religion in personal and societal spheres, even for the secular. Asma’s case study dealt with the way religion rescued a family, after one of the sons was brutally murdered. To Asma, “Those of us in the secular world who critique such emotional responses and strategies [as religion] with the refrain, ‘but is it true?’ are missing the point.” The point is he wants the secular to understand is that Jesus saves…even if he doesn’t exist.

Thagard’s view is that religion is false comfort, and that science (and philosophy) can do better. He begins by outlining four major problems with Asma’s view:

  • “It depends on a view of how emotion works in the brain that has been rendered obsolete by advances in neuroscience.”
  • It underestimates how much science can help to understand the nature of grief and to point to ways of overcoming it.
  • It overestimates the consoling power of religion.
  • Finally, it neglects how science can collaborate with philosophy to suggest ways of dealing with grief.

Perhaps Asma’s understanding of the science of psychology and neuroscience is obsolete. I’m not in a position to affirm or dismiss the claim. Notice that Thagard’s second complaint seems to miss the target. Understanding how something works does not, in itself, provide power over its workings. More importantly, what Thagard misses here is the possibility that science might demonstrate religion to have great efficacy in helping individuals deal with loss and grief. That is, there is no reason to think that science and religion are mutually exclusive items. This is a false dichotomy.

The third claim is never actually supported in Thagard’s article (nor have I seen it elsewhere). To the contrary, I’ve not seen a study in which anything has been shown to be more effective than religion (faith) in dealing with the trials of life. I offer some scientific literature to this effect below. So, the third concern is simply an unsupported charge. It’s not that religion fails to rescue believers, but that Thagard feels the rescue is false hope. I also discuss below just how false the hope from secularism is.

The fourth complaint he advances sounds exactly like his second one, with the addition of philosophy. One might ask how science and philosophy differ on Thagard’s view. Philosophy often deals with abstract notions and objects, things beyond the material world. A thought or idea has no mass, volume or charge. Meaning, morality, even sense of autonomy and self, are simply not evidenced (or even approachable) by science. In fact, they are housed within that area of study Thagard finds anathema (metaphysics) and are the stuff of religion. Thagard wants to pilfer these into his secular elixir. He flatly writes, “philosophy that builds on science can help people to see that life can remain meaningful and morally valuable, even in the face of grief.” But, his own views disbar him from such things.

So what of the details of Thagard’s view? He wants to argue that, “science can suggest ways of dealing with grief without buying into the metaphysics of religion.” Thagard opens up, and tells us that he lost his wife to cancer when she was still quite young. This tragedy seems to have colored his ability to consider the utility of religion in dealing with grief. But what is his understanding of God?

“Religious people often react to horrible events by proclaiming ‘it’s God’s will,’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’. But what could possibly be God’s motivation for depriving a mother of her young son? The Christian God is supposed to be all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. But the constant onslaught of personal and public disaster in the world strongly suggests that any existing gods are malevolent or incompetent or both. What consolation is that?”

Notice that Thagard is offering the New Atheist version of God, and not really interacting with the views (or arguments in favor of) the God believers worship. He has resurrected an oft-used, but utterly refuted, argument against the existence of God; If God is all-powerful and all-good, evil should not exist. Evil exists, therefore God is either not all-powerful or He is not all-good. Again, this argument has been cutoff at the knees for more than a century. At some level, most Christians do agree with the view that all things are “God’s will.” But when we say this, most do not mean that He desired tragedy or suffering for an individual. Rather, we likely mean that God favors the freedom and autonomy of his created beings, and thus allows both good and evil to happen in a creation corrupted by sin.

Thagard also seems to be suggesting that it is God directly acting to take away a woman’s son. God didn’t do it, nor did He want one man to stab another. What Thagard is offering is a straw man version of God. And what is his alternative to “everything happens for a reason”? That everything happens for no reason (on atheism). What consolation is that? (It’s also worth noting that Thagard has pilfered in the moral notion that death, suffering and murder are ‘evil’ and therefor wrong. His science certainly won’t support this claim. To rescue it, his philosophy will have to go where religion already sits.)

Sadly, Thagard never acknowledges this most critical power provided by religion. He writes, “Asma rightly suggests that one of the benefits of religion is that it provides a means of social support through religious rituals such as funerals. But there are many secular alternatives, including celebrations of life and social memorials that can occur without religious trappings.” But this misses the real thrust of Asma’s case (and what any serious “scientific” mind would engage): Stephen Asma claims,

“No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime… [the mother] would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife where she was certain his body would be made whole…[this] gave her strength to continue raising her other two children.”

I don’t think there can be any doubt that this omission by Thagard was not accidental. The eternal mercy, justice and salvation represent the real lifeblood and vitality of faith, and they are things no secular alternative can supply.

Sadly, my suspicion is that Thagard remains bitter at a God he doesn’t believe in. His suggestions as to how the secular should cope with grief leave much to be desired. He first suggests that, “Coping by repressing emotions is sometimes effective.” He then adds that, “people’s lives can retain meaning through pursuit of satisfaction of their vital needs,” which he identifies as relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

“Distraught people can recognize that the loss in relatedness that bereavement brings can be compensated for by other relationships…the need for competence can still be satisfied by work and other forms of achievement, and autonomy persists as long as people retain the capacity to direct their own lives.”

All three of these are distractions that enable repression. But, the last (autonomy) is actually off limits given Thagard’s atheism; if our conscious lives are just molecules in motion, there is no autonomy, mind or free will. As Sam Harris has put it, we are nothing more than “phenomenological glockenspiels. . . The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.” As Francis Crick put it, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Thus, Thagard once again must pilfer in non-scientific metaphysics to even power his prescribed alternatives to religion!

If we actually spend some time in the science of psychology and its interface with religion, we find some things that run quite counter to Thagard’s thesis. One of the well-demonstrated facts is that religion works. Consider a recent study by David B. Newman and colleagues, which curiously reported that political conservatives have a greater sense of meaning to life than their liberal counterparts. This pattern exists across sixteen developed nations. Newman et al. also referenced several studies suggesting that conservatives report greater “life satisfaction” and other measures of well-being. The real headline in the study was that religiosity was a much better predictor of participants’ sense of meaning in life. As they explained,

“Because conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals (Feldman & Johnston, 2014), and because religiosity is a strong predictor of meaning in life (e.g., Steger & Frazier, 2005), we statistically adjusted for levels of religiosity in each study to determine the unique predictive effect of political orientation on meaning in life.”

John G. Messerly (a former professor at the University of Texas, and author of a book titled The Meaning of Life) admitted that, “The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence.”

Thagard’s view is based on a secularism that sees no overarching purpose to the existence of the universe, let alone little hominids bound to one small speck (our “pale blue dot”). It follows that the overwhelming external (objective) evidence is that life is absurd. This phrasing has actually been incredibly popular among the secular cognoscenti. This is the central position of existentialists, as illustrated in Camus’s famous comment, “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning.” For the famed physicist Steven Wienberg “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Or, we could get the same line from Richard Feynman: “The great accumulation of understanding as to how the physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior has a kind of meaninglessness about it.” Rivka Weinberg (a professor of philosophy at Scripps College) recently conceded in the New York Times that, “The absurdity of human life poses a challenge to its meaning. Absurdity and meaningfulness don’t go together.” This problem is well understood. The philosopher (and atheist) Thomas Nagel has written,

“In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality. . . . The sense that life as a whole is absurd arises when we perceive, perhaps dimly, an inflated pretension or aspiration which is inseparable from the continuation of human life and which makes its absurdity inescapable, short of escape from life itself.”

The view that, “Life is short.  Life is meaningless. Life is delicious. Grab a spoon,” will never be a satisfactory grounding for our lives. The secular program of modernist thought has had more than a century to offer its replacement for conventional religion (some would say they’ve been trying since the period of Enlightenment). We have more “knowledge” than at any other point in human history, and yet the people have never been so confused. Those living in developed nations are more comfortable than they ever have been, and yet we comprise a “Prozac nation,” where mental illness and disillusionment have never been higher. Whereas Marx once called religion the opiate of the masses, atheists now routinely advise the unbelieving seek opiates in coping with reality. I’m not making this up. Leading physicist (and atheist) Alex Rosenberg suggests that we deal with the reality of life by “Tak[ing] a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.” This would be a joke if not echoed sincerely by atheist philosopher Philip Kitcher:

“Fear [of death] can be directed not toward the state itself, but at the process of dying. . . . Support need not—probably should not—come from religion but from humane deployment of medical resources. . . . Fear of being dead is misplaced, fear of decaying and dying belongs to the anxieties of life, to be addressed with sympathy by whatever techniques of amelioration medical practice can provide.”

Responding to Marx’s claim that religion “is the opiate of the people,” Asma writes,

“If the atheists think it’s enough to dismiss the believer on the grounds that he should never buffer the pains of life, then I’ll assume the atheist has no recourse to any pain management in his own life. In which case, I envy his remarkably good fortune. For the rest of us, there is aspirin, alcohol, religion, hobbies, work, love friendship.”

His point is that the atheist is just as in need of an opiate as those who find comfort in faith. Moreover, faith seems to work better. The tried and true, “road-tested” belief in God works. That is, if we’re really interested in the pragmatic efficacy of worldviews in powering a state of well-being, belief in God works, even if you don’t think God exists.

It turns out that atheists like Thagard, while wanting to claim the rational high ground, are often driven by emotion, and the very science they worship has demonstrated this. The average atheist/agnostic believes (s)he has come to doubt the existence of God for purely objective reasons. But, numerous surveys and studies have demonstrated the source of this doubt—and subsequent rejection of God—is very often emotional. In one recent study, Bradley and colleagues asked non-believers to imagine a hypothetical god, and then describe that god’s characteristics. One of the striking dichotomies the researchers observed was that,

“Despite the fact that most people who believe in gods believe in a god that is primarily loving (Exline, Grubbs, et al. 2015), many popular books written from a nonbelief perspective argue that the dominant conception of God in Western culture is truly cruel rather than loving (e.g., Dawkins 2006; Hitchens 2007).”

That is, the efforts of the so-called New Atheists to recast religion (namely, Christianity) as the irrational worship of a moral monster have succeeded in completely distorting public perceptions of faith in God. These atheists have offered a rendering of God that in no way matches what believers understand of the God they worship. In the Bradley et al. study, “a plurality of participants” used this skewed view of God to form their own hypothetical god (as opposed to drawing from the past or personal images of God). In fact, participants that used a past (historical) rendering of God were significantly more likely to see their hypothetical god as loving, not cruel or distant. Conversely, those using these popular renderings of God to form their own were statistically more likely to see their god as cruel. Another interesting aspect of the study was that it contrasted personality profiles of the participants with the characteristics they assigned to their hypothetical god. Parsing through the results presented in the study, “agreeableness” of the participants was strongly statistically correlated with hypothetical gods that were loving, but was strongly negatively correlated with those seeing gods as cruel and/or distant. Participants with healthy “secure” attachment profiles were negatively correlated with cruel hypothetical gods, while those with “dismissive attachments” were negatively correlated with loving gods.

In the end, what can we say of Thagard’s article other than it entirely ignores the true power of faith, dismissing even the science that supports the efficacy of religion in helping individuals cope and find a greater sense of well-being. While I don’t really want to psychoanalyze the man, it seems fairly apparent that he carries with him repressed bitterness and rejection due to his own experience of loss. His worldview has been deeply tainted by a view of God that is wholly inconsistent with the God believers actually worship. The reason I have targeted him in this blog is that we must begin 1) to see when emotional and intellectually dishonest rhetoric is being sold as “scientific” thinking and 2) to make the positive case for the pragmatic utility of religion. Beyond the evidence in favor of holding religious views will soften skeptics to a point where they might actually ask if they’re true. Pray for and love Thagard, and do not see him as the enemy. It is not the man, but his ideas, that are to be rejected.


*as with all of my blogs, I speak for only myself, and in no way represent the views or opinions of Waynesburg University or any other affiliated entity.

*correction (7/27/18). Dr. Messerly contacted me, and made me aware of a place in which I misquoted him. I had originally attributed the statement “the faithful have a place—perhaps wrongly placed, but a place nonetheless—to ground meaning, and then sites several forms of atheism that do not.” I gleaned this from a set of notes I had developed in reading Messerly (and many others in the industry). Upon reviewing those notes, I could not track down the origin of this quotation, and Dr. Messerly assures me that he said no such thing. I apologize for wrongly attributing the statement to him, and have removed it from the post.


Just not working

First off, let me say that this post will feel much like the ones I’ve offered in the past. It will once again address so-called theistic evolution. I hesitated in offering any public commentary in response to Denis Lamoureux’s review of Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. I’ve come to the belief that many of our academic debates distract us from the cross, and act to divide believers in unhealthy ways. I think many (perhaps myself included) have hinged their faith on the outcome of a particular view or theory, rather than focusing always on the empty tomb (which to me is the most important thing in Christianity). Still, I am reminded of just how close the theistic evolutionist’s bombs land to the cross and the empty tomb. Close enough to jeopardize belief in these central claims (whether they know it or not). So, I decided I would offer some concerns.

Let me say that there are some areas in which I agree with Dr. Lamoureux. I have my reservations about the massive tome (1007 pages) offered by Moreland et al. First, at its size and cost, it really becomes an expensive door stop. Most aren’t likely to read it, nor are they willing to drop $60 to get it. Second, it does clearly demonstrate just how theologically invested ID is. It doesn’t have to be that way. ID could exist as a scientific view, apart from theological claims. But it seems obvious that ID is functioning as a form of creationism. I don’t have a problem with that, but the ID community has denied such underpinnings for decades. That is where my agreement with Lamoureux ends.

His first criticism is a tired old complaint that ID is God of the Gaps. Every time I see such criticisms, I have to wonder if the one lodging the complaint has read our responses to it. As Lamoureux describes it,

“according to a God-of-the-gaps approach to divine action, there are ‘gaps’ in the continuum of natural processes, and these ‘discontinuities’ in nature indicate places where God has miraculously intervened in the world.”

His concern is that these gaps get filled by scientific (read, naturalistic) explanations. He simply doesn’t see any real gaps in descriptions of nature or history (though he does feel God works miraculously with our species. How that is not a God-of-the-gaps claim on his side, I do not know).

So in general, he simply doesn’t see God’s direct intervention in any aspect of creation. Here, he would find great support among the vast population of scientists who are non-believers.

Lamoureux, like most of the TEists I’ve read, raise the God-of-the-gaps for a second reason. They see direct divine intervention as some odd form of deism. Later in his review (page 125) he states,

“Being old earth creationists, they believe that God initiated the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago and that he used the natural process of cosmological evolution to create suns, planets, moons, and so forth. But, for 10 billion years after the Big Bang, he did no intervene in the universe until 4.1 billion years ago when he miraculously made living cells. Since the Creator formed the inanimate world through a natural process and did no use God-of-the-gaps interventions as stated in Genesis 1, does it mean that proponents of ID Theory are liberal theists? Or worse, for the first 10 billion years after the Big Bang, are they in effect deists?”

This is a silly argument, but worse than that, it actually kills theistic evolution (if the argument were valid). If the use of natural processes by God to create the inanimate universe is a form of deism, then Lamoureux is effectively a deist clear up to the point that God directly acts with the human race! He doesn’t see God intervening directly at any prior point!

But, the argument is not valid. Theistic evolutionists like Lamoureux believe that,

“The Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit created the universe and life, including humans, through an ordained, sustained, and intelligently designed evolutionary process.”

(More on the specifics of this claim later). The “sustained” part is often described as God’s immanence. So, while the unfolding of that history does not require any divine intervention (i.e., a fully secular scientific account is sufficient), God is really there for every single event (Lamoureux tells us “God is behind each and every natural process in the world, including the mechanism of evolution). Of course, the Christian ID theorist really argues the same thing. God sustains all creation. But, the ID theorist also believes that God directly intervenes, not that He only intervenes. For these reasons, I wish theistic evolutionists would just stop making this bad argument. It is demonstrably a mischaracterization of the ID/creationist view.

Now there could be an additional point of agreement here, if Lamoureux could be more clear about his views. He rightly points out that ID has mostly been anti-Darwinian. Their obsession is with the undermining of a blind evolutionary process like Darwinian evolution. As I’ve written, you cannot be intended and unintended at the same time. You cannot use an honest (chance) lottery to give your uncle money. And, you cannot have chance (“random”) mutations as a means to achieve specified outcomes. There is much more nuance we could add here, but that is the main thrust of the ID argument. (There is a significant debate regarding whether or not chance events can be used to search adaptive space and arrive at pre-specified outcomes.)

But, Lamoureux seems to agree. He writes,

“Evolution is teleological and features a plan, a purpose, and a final goal. Evolutionary creationists firmly reject dysteleological evolution and the belief that the evolutionary process is the result of irrational necessity and blind chance… Evolutionary creationists are also adamantly opposed to secular interpretations of evolution such as deistic evolution, Darwinian evolution, Neo-Darwinism, atheistic evolution, and dysteleological evolution… Moreover, this evangelical Christian view of evolution asserts that God planned men and women to be the pinnacle of creation…”

If Lamoureux now speaks for all TE, then we seem to have hit a point of agreement. And yet, Lamoureux doesn’t really seem to be able to put his full weight on the statement he just made. He immediately follows up this comment with the qualifier,

“Now it must be noted that natural selection and random mutations are important mechanisms in biological evolution.”

This of course is the Neo-Darwinian model! So, he seems to ascribe to this “secular interpretation” after all. Like most, Lamoureux tries to bridge this gap by suggesting that,

“natural processes [like random mutations] operate within the boundaries of an overarching set of physical laws that are ordained and sustained by the Lord.”

Thus, his view maintains that these larger laws of necessity are able to direct random mutations so as to achieve pre-determined outcomes (e.g. the argument from convergent evolution). I have my doubts about just how precise such outcomes can be, but you don’t need my arguments against his view; Lamoureux seems to discredit himself. A few pages later in his review (page 121), Lamoureux points out that,

“bursts of new plants and animals often occur after mass extinctions in which 50 to 90 percent of species disappear in the ‘blink of an eye’…the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago also eliminated about 75 percent of species on Earth.”

It seems to me that these events are also part of the “overarching set of physical laws,” and yet they could easily snuff out life on the planet over and over again. It’s a good thing that humans weren’t on the scene during such an event. Otherwise, the “pinnacle of creation” would have been utterly annihilated. Does that sound like a guaranteed plan for creating something in God’s image? As one last aside, I would point out that, if Lamoureux does in fact reject all of those other dysteleological views of evolution, then he sits squarely outside of the mainstream literature in evolutionary biology. Perhaps he should spend more time correcting the secular scientists and their errant models, as opposed to criticizing his fellow Christians.

Lamoureux also points out all of the pseudogenes (genes that no longer function or serve a purpose) in the genomes of organisms. This seems like profligate waste created by an unintelligent process (though I’m also skeptical about whether or not these ‘pseudogenes’ in fact serve no function. e.g. studies like this). He then offers the observation that baleen whales grow useless teeth that are often lost even before birth. I don’t know much about the developmental biology of marine mammals, but let’s assume he’s right. As a Christian who believes God “created the universe and life, including humans, through an ordained, sustained, and intelligently designed evolutionary process,” the outcomes he discusses seem like pretty shoddy and unpredictable work. [As an aside, I do think some of these issues apply to all old earth views, not just TE].

There are many other issues I have with his review (particularly his rather blithe conflation of speciation patterns and the origins of novel features and body plans), but I want to end on one honest query I have for Dr. Lamoureux. There’s an old saying that, if you’re good at something, you don’t have to tell others. They’ll tell you. Now, I’ve never mentioned at any point (anywhere) that I’m an evangelical Christian. I don’t have to. It’s known. Yet, Lamoureux reminds readers that his view is evangelical eight times in a single article. It’s clear that he’s self-conscious about the opinion that TE is not seen as evangelical (he never defines what “evangelical” means to him).

If he is worried about this perception, I think it’s for good reason. For several pages, Lamoureux deals with Wayne Grudem’s hermeneutics. He even outlines Grudem’s charge that there are twelve “historical and scientific facts” about origins that contradict TE. We don’t need to list them all, but the main items are that human beings were created de novo, that Adam & Eve are historical real people, that human death begins with the fall of Adam & Eve, etc. Now, Grudem is but one contributor to the Theistic Evolution book, and I won’t say that I completely agree with his arguments (I haven’t read him enough to say that). But the issue of human origins and Adam & Eve are critical.

One of the things I’ve never been able to wrangle out of TEists is a coherent account of humanity. Nearly all TEists (Lamoureux included) flatly reject that God directly created Adam & Eve. Instead, humanity emerges from within a breeding population of primate ancestors. This presents many difficulties. First, essentially all Christians hold that primates (ancestors or otherwise) are not made in the image of God. They are not morally culpable, and are not spiritual beings capable of damnation or salvation. So, the TEist must navigate that moment in which some “human” was born to a primate mother. God looks upon the human and says “Adam” and yet “Adam” must breed with non-human animals.  This Adam can attain immortality (either in salvation or damnation) while the rest of his kin simply perish. It’s just a real mess to deal with. Lamoureux doesn’t touch this at all.

The second major problem is what to do with evil, the fall and the entire enterprise of Christ’s sacrifice. On Lamoureux’s view, death, disease and suffering are part of God’s good creation. He intended them. They are part of those “overarching” physical processes that guide creation. Yet, the Bible (front to back) teaches that death, disease and suffering were not part of God’s original plan, and that they are things that must be conquered. Jesus does not look upon a crippled man, or a man suffering from leprosy, and say ‘behold, God’s good work.’ He heals them of their afflictions, and we are repeatedly told that they are an aspect of this fallen world, and must be conquered. (more on this in a moment). The connection between the death initiated by the “first Adam” and the life restored by the “second Adam” are just too clear. Lamoureux also doesn’t touch this.

The third major problem is it is so clear that the authors of the New Testament (including Jesus) affirmed a historical Adam & Eve (as well as oddities like Noah and Jonah). Lamoureux does not deny this. He affirms it. He gladly admits that these ancient authors believed God directly created things and that Adam & Eve were historically real. But, Lamoureux himself, rejects these things. He writes,

“In the same way that the Holy Spirit accommodated and allowed the biblical writes to employ an ancient understanding of astronomy in the creation of the heavens, the Lord also permitted an ancient biology in conceptualizing the origin of men and women. the de novo creation of humans in Genesis 1 and 2 is an incidental ancient vessel that delivers the inerrant spiritual truths that the Lord created us and that we bear the image of God…should anyone be surprised that the biblical writers accepted the de novo creation of the universe and life, including humans? No. This was the origins science-of-the-day in the ancient world. And, of course, the apostle Paul believed in a historical Adam as stated in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. However, does this apostle’s belief that Adam was a real person mean that Adam actually existed? No.”

I always wonder which Old Testament figures and events the TEist does affirm. Was Abraham real? Moses? Of course, two gospels draw a line from these early characters to Jesus (Luke goes to Adam, while Matthew stops at Abraham). It was important.

So, we are supposed to dismiss Adam & Eve (and all creation accounts in which God directly intervenes), because these beliefs are just archaic “science of the day.” But, I wonder (I honestly wonder), would Lamoureux be consistent in applying this principle? These were ancient peasants who were superstitious, living in a world filled with fables and tales and talk of spirits. Today, we know what causes a man to have leprosy, to be crippled, or to be mute. Yet, there are nine times in the New Testament where such afflictions are directly linked to demonic activity. What does Lamoureux do with those? Did Jesus really draw an evil spirit from a boy who suffered seizures (Luke 9:37)? What nonsense, given modern science. And why stop there? Discussions of such miracles and messianic leaders were prominent superstitions of the day. On what grounds does Lamoureux keep Jesus, but scrap the rest? These are the bombs I mentioned at the beginning of my post. Lamoureux wants desperately not to be labeled a “liberal” Christian (even as he flatly declares that “intelligent design is unbiblical”). But, how can this label be avoided, given his positions? I ask these honestly, and I invite Lamoureux (and other TEists) to respond in honest conversation.


I’m not kooky, I’m Christian

The next few blogs are going to take a different tone and angle, diverting from issues of science and theology, and instead discussing Christian living.

For the past few months, the Lord has been working on me. I say this not as a boast. By His mercy and grace, He gave me correction, when I was unworthy of it. I believe He did so because there is work He has in mind for me. I have been convicted of many sins, some of which were blind to me in the past. At any rate, enough about me, and more about Christian living.

Here’s the first big idea I’ve been wrestling with: We are God’s property (1 John 4:4). I have several things to say in this regard, but I’ll break them up over a series of blogs. Let’s begin with what it means to be God’s property. There is a spiritual aspect to this. For us to acknowledge that our lives are His is the greatest earthly achievement we are capable of. As Justin the martyr succinctly put it, “all that is necessary is that [a person] believe, and be baptized.” Ah, but this is not as easy as it seems (more on the belief part later). Justin is also clear about what baptism symbolizes. In being submerged in baptism, we are saying that our sins have been buried with Christ, as He accepts our sins on himself. Emerging from the water, we are reborn in Christ’s resurrection, into new life as part of His kingdom (Luke 17: 20-21). As such, Justin tells us to keep the seal pure, by abandoning sin. Paul says similarly, saying, “To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”

Now, the truth is, we will sin even after baptism. Paul has a lot to say about that too (Romans 7: 15-22). While is may seem impossible for God to rescue a sinner who has been baptized, all things are possible through God (Matt. 19: 26). Anyway, we are sealed as one of God’s servants when we accept redemption through Christ. We belong to God. This gets to my major point today; we must behave as if that is true. Suppose a wealthy family member let you use his home. The home belongs to him, and yet, it is yours to dwell in. When it comes to God, our lives–and our bodies–are like this. Jesus compares our lives to fruit trees, which are known by the fruit the bear.

We are not promised any number of days in this world (Luke 13: 1-5). However, we are living vessels of God’s Holy Spirit. As such, we must take care of ourselves, understanding that we are God’s property. What if I told you that, on average, you could live ten years longer? You can do this by simply taking good care of God’s property. Avoid obesity, exercise regularly, eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables, stay away from alcohol, cigarettes and processed meats. In other words, live the way were intended to. There are even dramatic benefits for those who begin practicing this life-style between the ages of 34-84, so it’s never too late to get right. In taking care of ourselves, we glorify the Lord, and show reverence for Him as our owner. We must be careful not to let sins seem into our lives and habits.

My final request for you all today is to rejoice in Him, and give thanks. And, as a final aside, I believe that there is also the evil one spoke of in the Bible, and it’s a good idea to announce and proclaim that you are sealed by God.

To God Be the Glory

To God be the glory, great things he hath done;
so loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
who yielded his life an atonement for sin,
and opened the life-gate that all may go in.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father through Jesus the Son,
and give him the glory, great things he hath done.

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
to every believer the promise of God;
the vilest offender who truly believes,
that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

Great things he hath taught us, great things he hath done,
and great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
but purer, and higher and greater will be
our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.

Long hiatus

Hi all. I’ve been gone a while. Frankly, for all the wrong reasons. My silence has been an attempt to not further blacklist myself in the scientific/academic community. I’ve felt convicted of this in recent days. “But whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:33). I am guilty of denial by omission. I publicly confess that, and promise to never act in this way again.

I also had some private conversation with Joshua Swamidass. Very encouraging stuff. I think I was too hard on him in previous posts. He and I probably won’t agree on everything, but I want to say that I think he is an authentic seeker of the kingdom of God, believing in His miraculous power and salvation through Jesus Christ. More on these, and other convictions of sin, to come. Take care out there. God bless.


Dr. Who?

[photo from here]

It’s been said that half the critics always hate you. It’s always disappointing when an internet troll is able to harm, say, your book reviews. But alas, this is the day and age we live in. I hope that most people are able to recognize such drive-by attacks. The attacker usually offers the “one star out of five”, and says things like “this is the worst book I’ve ever read,” and “the author is ignorant,” etcetera. But, if they have a pulpit, then so do we. So, I have decided to reply to a recent reviewer. I have no idea who Dr. Rau is…and I suspect none of us ever will (unless the individual steps up to offer their own book for us to review!). Anyway, here goes.

In Dr. Rau’s review, he claims the following:

“By the second chapter it became clear that Rossiter consistently conflates all three models of theistic evolution (Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything). When discussing their scientific position it is fair to lump them together, but not regarding how they address theological issues. Directed evolution (DE) is consistent with conservative Christian doctrine. Planned evolution (PE) also affirms all the basic creeds hammered out by the church councils in the early centuries after Christ. Non-teleological evolution (NTE) denies many of these basic Christian beliefs. At one point he mentions the ‘three types of theistic evolution outlined in previous chapters’ (p. 63), but I searched in vain to find any mention of three types, which apparently means the book was poorly edited as well as poorly written.”

This is a peculiar claim, given that on page 9 of my book I wrote:

“I will present that theistic evolutionists take one of three forms: 1) Some massively compromise Christian theology, so that it might fit snugly around evolution, 2) Others create artificial firewalls between their scientific and theological beliefs, so they cannot harm one another, 3) Still others hide God in the distant and undetectable cosmic background, and claim that he is somehow pulling the puppet strings on every subatomic particle in the universe (and that things only look random).”

The first form I offer is a TE that sacrifices theological claims in light of science. I think all TEists do this to greater or lesser degrees. The second would be the type of TE offered by Polkinghorne, Collins, modern Thomism and most forms of Reformed Theology. Essentially, God is immanent through all, and thus is there, but not detectable. This is Dr. Rau’s Planned Evolution, though we can subdivide it to include the more radical open theist claims (Rau’s Non-teleological Evolution). My third form of TE is Rau’s Directed Evolution.

Rau states, “At one point he mentions the ‘three types of theistic evolution outlined in previous chapters’ (p. 63), but I searched in vain to find any mention of three types, which apparently means the book was poorly edited as well as poorly written. (p. 63)”

Given that those three were offered on page 9 of my book, it would seem that, rather than this being a case of poor writing or editing, that this is sloppy and careless reading. Sorry.

But, let’s leave Rau alone, and address the common claim that I (and others) “conflate” and “lump” TE into one group. This is false. I clearly delineate several different forms of TE. The problem (which I will discuss below) is that they all suffer from the same deadly flaws. Repeatedly, people have told me, “Well yes, that’s [insert TE leading figure]’s view, but there are other views, and you didn’t deal with those.” I extensively quote and discuss the views of John Haught, John Polkinghorne, Kenneth Miller, Francisco Ayala, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Joan Roughgarden, Pierre Teilhard, Howard Van Till, Stephen Barr, Denis Lamoureux, Richard Wright, and many others.

From BioLogos, I extensively quote and discuss Francis Collins, Darrel Falk, Karl Giberson, Jeffrey Schloss, Peter Enns, as well as the webpage content on the BioLogos site. Deborah Haarsma had only recently taken over as president of BioLogos at the time my book was written, and there isn’t much to assess her on (but all should see her debate Stephen Meyer here). It is really impossible to suggest that I am somehow ignorant of the views being expressed, or that I didn’t offer a diversity of views. But, the point of the book was 1) to let TEists speak for themselves (using their own words), and 2) to offer a broad sketch of the TE landscape, ranging from complete determinism (e.g. Stephen Barr) to open theism (e.g. Kenneth Miller). It is a red herring to claim that I don’t deal with every possible form of TE. My point was to delineate the space in which TE views exist, based on their own descriptions.

Now then, what are these fatal flaws? The biggest is stated in my book as follows:

“…something cannot be intended and unintended at the same time. If it can be shown that the source of variation upon which natural selection acts is a chance-based process, it necessarily follows that it cannot produce particular intended outcomes. Thus, if the theistic evolutionist fully ascribes to the Darwinian process as a sufficient and complete explanation for our origins, we—humans in specific—could not have been intended by God. There are important details and nuances to the argument, but this is the basic point of conflict.” (pg 28)

Mutations are understood to be chance, and we mean something that is actually (physically) a quantum event that is indeterminate.

I also wrote:

“Because they are chance or probabilistic events, it would also be very difficult (if not simply wishful thinking) to suggest that such a process could lead to particular intended outcomes. This gets increasingly tenuous when one argues that a God would create this mechanism some 3.5 billion years ago, knowing that something like Homo sapiens would eventually emerge. If God did use such a process to achieve an intended end, then our understanding of evolution is clearly flawed (i.e., it is immediately rendered a non-random process). Saying that God used evolution to create humankind (or anything in particular) is like saying that Suzie used the lottery to give her uncle a million dollars. If she did, then the lottery was clearly not random.”

This is dangerous for the TEist, because, unless they’re open theists who think we were not intended, their theology conflicts with their science. On the side of theology, God made us intentionally. But, in their science, all evidence suggests that no life had to exist on this planet, and no evolutionary outcomes could be intended ahead of time.

Again, as I wrote,

“The idea that Darwinian evolution is as much God’s plan as the wind is precisely what Darwin himself was saying when he wrote, ‘There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.’

Which is to say, whatever processes TEists are dreaming up, they will have to directly contradict Darwin’s view. Their theology is impinging on their science.

To do this, they must claim that God acts in ways wholly undetectable by us, and thus not in conflict with our science:

“As Jay Richards has described it (specifically with respect to Van Till’s rendering of theistic evolution), ‘It allows theists to adhere to methodological naturalism,’ in such a way that, ‘there is unlikely to be any conflict, between theological and scientific beliefs (at least in the natural sciences) . . . [it] protects the Christian scientist from having to object to methodological naturalism in some or another scientific discipline.’ Collins is transparent about this, announcing that theistic evolution, ‘will not go out of style or be disproven by future scientific discoveries.’ For anybody keeping score, this is somewhat akin to guaranteeing that you’ll never miss a shot in a game of basketball, so long as you never shoot. Theistic evolution cannot be disproved, because it makes no testable claims.”

Theistic evolution asks the scientist to assume God’s activity, even though there is no evidence of God acting. From my reading of TEists, their description of the unfolding of cosmological, geological and biological history is identical to the atheist’s.  They agree on how all of this happened in terms of mechanisms. But, as I detail in many places in my book, this means that the addition of God offers no explanatory power. Sprinkling in a God whose actions are wholly indistinguishable from pure naturalism doesn’t add anything to our understanding of reality. It’s unnecessary and unevidenced.

Other problems follow, and I’ve talked about them at length elsewhere.

If God is driving mutations, we have God as the direct cause of ghastly malformation, suffering and innocent death. Further, His action produces more of these deleterious outcomes than beneficial ones.

If we are organic creatures, when (and who) evolved to be morally culpable free-willed persons? How did that work? If we’re purely material, how could we have free-will and how do we have souls? [If God acted directly to produce such things, the TEist is again at war with their own science].

If creation is theologically understood as coming from chaos and moving towards perfection (from the big bang to the evolution of moral beings made in God’s image), how does that square with biblical claims of a creation in ruin, needing restoration? Again, there are many other problems. And they apply to ALL forms of TE.

To just correct Dr. Rau on a few other items:

He claims that I am “unfamiliar with the philosophy of science, not clearly distinguishing law from theory and approving Popper’s discredited idea of falsifiability.”

He will have to show me where Popper’s criteria of falsifiability has been discredited. We use it every day in analytic logic and in science.

He also takes a swing at evolutionary biology, claiming “we find mistakes I would not expect from a professor of biology, like, ‘Natural selection exists (presumably) whether or not there are variants to select for.’ (p. 142) By definition, natural selection acts only in the presence of heritable variation.”

First, this is taken out of context, because I was making the point that natural selection is a gear (one half of Darwin’s equation) that turns whether or not you feed it variation. Nothing wrong with my science there. And yes, there would be natural selection even among a population of genetic clones. The null hypothesis would be that natural selection (i.e., selective pressures like predation, competition, resource limitation, etc.) would act identically on identical individuals. We do these experiments every day.

With that, I’ll return to work. Have a nice day.


What do you experience between death and the resurrection? The biblical answer seems to be, nothing.


Let’s dispense with the contextual aspects of my review of The Death Myth: Uncovering What the Bible Really Says About the Afterlife. Yes, the author (Brian Rossiter) is my brother, and we’ve coauthored a book together in the past. So, you might anticipate some overt bias in my review. However, I think Brian would agree with me when I say that we’re harder on each other than any editor or critic. With respect to this topic (what does the Bible say about the state of the dead), I once held the view his book critiques. In fact, early on in my post-conversion thinking, he and I really bumped heads on this topic. However, over the past three years or so, I have come to largely agree with the ideas Brian promotes in this new book. It took a lot of reading, thinking, and discussion to get there.

It is also important to realize that most Christians are going to initially recoil at what this book argues. It’s going to feel heterodoxical, if not heretical. But it’s not. In fact, I think Brian (hereafter Rossiter) does a very good job of illustrating why the view he promotes (sleep death) is more likely the “traditional” and biblical view, over and above the accepted and widespread alternative (temporary disembodiment position). More on what these look like below.

Rossiter doesn’t come at this as a half-cocked layman. He has advanced degrees in Theological Studies, and has been an educator in biblical studies at both the high school and college levels. His command of the topic is evident early on in Chapter 1. Rossiter begins by drawing attention to the theology at play in the most common and mainstream (practical) Christian functions: Sunday worship services and funerals (after all, the book is about what happens when we die). He points out that songs like “I’ll Fly Away” convey a view that is actually at odds with the Bible, and the early church. He questions the idea that the dead are now up in heaven, looking down upon us today. Moreover, he questions the teaching that we transition from bodily death into an intermediate state (pre-resurrection) as conscious disembodied souls. Okay, everybody take a deep breath, and give him a chance to unpack the argument. And remember, he’s advancing a view held by Justin the Martyr, Tertullian, Martin Luther, John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. That alone should ease concerns about heterodoxy.

So what is the major thesis? Rossiter really drives at two goals: 1) To make the case that the “traditional” view (i.e., what’s held by most today) of death can be attributed to the infusion of Platonic idealism into Christian theology. Said more plainly, early theologians were eager to incorporate Greek philosophy into their metaphysics, and were also eager to create a clear dichotomy between the fallen and decaying matter of this world (our bodies) and the immortal and perfect spiritual world (our souls). This culminated in the view that we (as in, our conscious self or mind) are our souls, and we therefore live consciously as souls apart from the body. What Rossiter shows (both theologically and philosophically) is that this view is broadly incoherent, manufactured, and wholly inconsistent with the overall description of the afterlife provided in scripture. Again, take a deep breath, and let the evidence lead you.

I don’t want to re-write the entire book in this review, but the next major task Rossiter takes on is dealing with the various scriptural passages used in defense of the temporary disembodiment position (the “we are souls” view). While I think he very capably deals with items like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the thief on the cross, John’s Revelation, and many other commonly-sited passages, he’s also shrewd in pointing out that, if taken to be even remotely literal, these various examples actually contradict one another. For example, if “Abraham’s bosom” or “paradise” is a temporary holding place for souls, then John’s revelation that the souls of the dead sit at the altar of God in heaven before the final judgment cannot be true. If Jesus joined the thief in such a place, then he didn’t return to the Father either.

Rossiter also points out several other uncomfortable issues. If we are souls, what kind of conscious awareness persists apart from the body of the unborn child who passes on? This individual is yet to have a single experience or conscious thought. What could possible emerge, and with what knowledge or mental attributes? If we can survive as conscious persons without a body, why do we need a body to begin with? What is the point of a final judgement, if we are all judged at the point of death?

If we go to heaven (and not some holding place), doesn’t that make the ascension of Elijah and Enoch much less special (they went to join all the others who have passed). [Further, if these men were not taken to heaven, but rather to a holding place, the argument is the same]. And, if there is consciousness in the afterlife, why do we get no indication of that from those who have been resurrected (the little girl in Mark 5, or Lazarus)? Jesus gives us no indication that he went anywhere after the crucifixion, but rather that he laid in the ground for three days, and even warned his followers not to hold onto him because he had not yet ascended.

The Apostle Paul directly addresses the state of the dead in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15. It would’ve been the ideal place to tell everyone that they will exist consciously after death, awaiting the resurrection.  Instead, he repeatedly compares death to sleep (the actual word used directly implies a deep unconscious sleep), and puts all discussions of life beyond the grave in the context of the resurrection and Jesus’ return. Again, these concerns and many many more are discussed. As an aside, Rossiter also deals with extra-biblical evidences, namely, near death experiences (NDEs). He also deals with the issue of praying to or through the dead (why does the Bible forbid contacting dead spirits, if we in fact are just such beings, capable of prayer beyond the grave?).

So, what is the alternative? The view has classically been referred to as “sleep death.” That is, when you die, you are unconscious and experience nothing until the resurrection, at which point your soul (Rossiter calls this “identity information”) is reunited with a resurrection body, and you exist as a conscious being. That is, you are not your soul, and you are not your body. You are both, wholly and completely. Luther put it this way:

“As soon as thy eyes have closed shalt thou be woken, a thousand years shall be as if thou hadst slept but a little half hour. Just as at night we hear the clock strike and know not how long we have slept, so too, and how much more, are in death a thousand years soon past. Before a man should turn round, he is already a fair angel.”

While Rossiter concedes that no view on the afterlife is without criticisms, sleep death makes better sense of the facts in hand, contains fewer contradictions, and requires less theological acrobatics. It is for the reader to decide for themselves whether or not his arguments are sufficiently convincing.

Misrepresenting the arguments

I haven’t blogged in a while, and this one will be brief. I noticed that Robin Parry offered a blog over at BioLogos today. This is kind of funny, given that Robin was my editor for Shadow of Oz (the awkwardness of having a theistic evolutionist edit a book critiquing theistic evolution!). Anyway, I just can’t help but think we should be well beyond the simplistic casting of the argument that guys like Parry seem to be offering. He either doesn’t understand the argument, or is intentionally misrepresenting it.

His understanding of the ID enterprise is:

“The problem with Intelligent Design (ID) is its tendency to look for God (or simply a ‘designer’) in the gaps of scientific explanations. So-called irreducible complexity, for instance, is seen as evidence of this ‘designer’ because science cannot (in principle, we are told) explain it in terms of natural processes. But if future science did actually explain any alleged instances of irreducible complexity, then such instances would cease to be evidence of the ‘designer.’”

But this tired argument has been knocked down over and over again. For example, I directly addressed it in my second book,

“As an older man, [my] grandfather worked at a gas station, taking out the trash, cleaning toilets, and sweeping the parking lot. His friends became worried that he had fallen on hard times, and finally one of them approached him about it. ‘Why are you working as a janitor at a gas station?’ asked the friend, to whom [my] grandfather replied, ‘Because I own the place.’ [The argument that ID renders God one cause among many] is common (particularly among theistic evolutionists), but lacks any merit whatsoever. There is no logical reason why the activity of God in His creation would in any way limit His power as the ultimate Creator. In fact, this is precisely what the Christian faith holds in its claim that the Son of God became a human being (and a servant, at that).”

Within Christianity, we might ask what the theistic evolutionist (like Parry) would have to say about any instance where God did intervene in creation (pick any Old Testament or New Testament miracle or supernatural happening). These should be impossible on Parry’s view, because God then becomes evident as one cause among many.

Parry argues,

“The problem here is that the ‘designer’… is pictured as one being among others (albeit a more intelligent and powerful one) acting as a cause in the world in the same manner as other causes act in the world. The reason that this is a problem, at least for Christians, is that classical theology does not picture God in this manner—as one cause or being among and alongside others. Rather, divine Being is of a fundamentally different kind from creaturely being, and divine causation acts at a different level altogether. God is the one who imparts being to the whole of created reality and who enables all of the powers of causation within creation.”

I’m not aware of any ID theorist or Christian who rejects the idea that God is immanent throughout His creation and exists as a fundamentally different kind of cause. But, what Christian could possibly deny that the God of the Bible does reveal Himself by directly intervening in the creation as a detectable cause? You would have to toss the Bible away entirely. I take it Parry doesn’t apply such restrictions in God’s action to Christ Jesus, who is both part of the eternal trinity and acted as a cause among causes  on earth. To put it bluntly, Parry’s argument is incoherent. Unfortunately, it’s not his argument. He’s simply re-iterating what many theistic evolutionists have already said, and it didn’t work as an argument for them either. It fails entirely.

Instead, what is really at play here is the incoherence of the theistic evolution view. As JP Moreland recently put it, theistic evolution either ascribes to a form of deism (God kick-starts the process and no longer intervenes), or to a situation where “God was involved in the process of evolution, as long as there can be no way to tell He was involved.”

The Bible teaches a God who was (and is) detectably involved in His creation.