Tag Archives: Apologetics

How does C.S. Lewis’s moral argument stand up against evolutionary explanations of moral development?

My online book club (The Bookcaneers) is reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis as our first book. In the first part of the book Lewis presents the Moral Argument as a clue to the existence of God. Briefly stated, his argument is that the universality of a moral sense of Right and Wrong points us to a Lawgiver.

One question presented in the Book Club discussion was this one: How would Lewis respond to modern the arguments from evolutionary biology that say that our moral senses are the result of an evolutionary process – and thus do not point to something “outside” the system, like a personal God? 

Here was my take on the question:

First, our questions are not unique to our time, nor were they foreign to Lewis. During Lewis’s time, the idea that morality was the result of an evolutionary process was pretty common. In fact, he addresses this when he describes the “herd instinct” in book 1, chapter 2. The idea was that evolutionary development which helped the “herd” would be passed on and these evolutionary developments are what are identified as “morality.”

For a time, though, this idea fell out of favor among evolutionary biologists because of what is called the “free rider” problem. “Free riders” in the herd (the selfish, amoral ones) would take advantage of the goodwill of the herd it it would be those free riders that passed on their genes, not the “kinder” individuals. For biologists who argued that evolution was strictly individualistic, “morality” doesn’t arise because of an evolutionary process, but as result of social structures within society. As far as I am aware (via The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt) a significant number of evolutionary biologists, including atheist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), still hold to this view.

However, with the advent of “moral psychology” the “herd” theory is making comeback, and Jonathan Haidt presents a more complex version of this view in The Righteous Mind. He refers to it as the “hive” mind and contrasts it with the “primate” mind. The “hive” mind causes us to be more kind and compassionate, to care about fairness and freedom, to believe in the “sanctity” of things, etc. This “hive” mind wars against the “primate” mind which just wants us to be selfish.

First, I’m unconvinced by Haidt’s conclusions. He presents plausible explanations, but he in no way proves them. And he acknowledges that his view is a minority position.

But how would Lewis respond? Lewis acknowledges the possibility of “herd instincts” which arise out of some natural process, but he argues that these instincts are not what he is referring to when he talks about the Moral Law. He observes that we sometimes have multiple competing moral instincts, but that we do not blindly follow those moral instincts. Instead, we judge between those instincts. The Moral Law is not any one of those instincts, but is the judge between those instincts saying, “follow this instinct here” or “that instinct there.” In the language of Haidt, the Moral Law is what judges between the “hive” mind and the “primate” mind, or between the different “intuitions” of the hive mind (freedom, compassion, authority, sanctity, etc.)

In fact, this is exactly what we see Haidt do. He makes moral judgments between the instincts, but he isn’t able to justify his choice. He believes the moral sense to be disconnected from any true Right and Wrong, but he makes plenty of moral judgments. I see the Moral Law at work in his book, even though he would deny it. A description of our moral instincts can provide a plausible explanation for what is, but the Moral Law allows us to judge what ought, and this inescapable sense of the ought is what Lewis refers to as the Moral Law and points us to God.

Two more notes on the topic:

1) If we see Moral Law as only social convention, or the product of instinct, then at a minimum we have no way to really say that Nazi Germany was evil, at least in some objective sense. At a minimum, we could only say that we don’t like it, or that it causes suffering. But again, we can’t say that suffering itself is evil (for the simple reason that evil doesn’t exist).

2) Eminent biologist/geneticist Francis Collins (led the human genome project) discusses this in his book “The Language of God”. He himself was an atheist who came to faith in large part because of Mere Christianity. He argues that while evolution could account for some moral traits like “reciprocal altruism” (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine) he doesn’t believe it can ever account for true altruism – such as Jesus’s commands to love your enemy, or to help those who have no possible way of helping you in return, etc.

Book Recommendations

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Mere Christianity

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

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Apologetics Roundup (Book Recommendations)

As preparation for a recent Sunday Night series at church I read a number of apologetics books. Here’s a brief roundup of what I read:

Despite Doubt: This book served as our primary guide. It seeks to correct a common error in Christianity, the divorce of faith from knowledge. Wittmer’s thesis is that faith means committing to what we know, not to what we don’t.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism: Tim Keller’s book is excellent on multiple levels. He answers some tough objections to the Christian faith such as “There can’t be just one true religion” and “Science has disproved Christianity.” His answers are rigorous and intellectually satisfying.

Raised? This short and concise book specifically addresses the question, “Did the resurrection actually occur?” The authors do a fine job of demonstrating the truth of the resurrection and of drawing out some of its implications.

The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Case for … Series): It’s an oldie but a goodie. I didn’t read the whole thing, just the chapter on Hell, which is very well written. This was an important book for my wife when she first got serious about her faith as a teenager.

Bonus: Where the Real Conflict Lies: Plantinga’s thesis is that there is a real conflict between science and naturalism and only apparent conflicts between science and theism. This is a heavy book, but important for anyone struggling with how religion and science can go together.

What apologetics books have you found most helpful in life? What would you recommend to others?

Being upside down (a reason why Christianity is superior to Atheism)

It is a mistake to put the subjective reasons for belief before the objective. It is a mistake to be a Christian simply out of personal preference, because it makes life more bearable, or because it provides a greater degree of “happiness.” To use religion in such a way turns it on its head and turns God from master of the Universe to servant of our felt needs. You ought to be a Christian because God calls, because He provided a way in Jesus, and because He is worthy of our worship.

However, the beauty of Christianity is that, while subjective experience is not the end of religion, it is most certainly a blessed by-product. And so, with my rather lengthy prelude, I present a wonderful (albeit subjective), reason why Christianity is superior to Atheism:

It’s from G.K. Chesterton, of course:

He begins by comparing Christianity to Paganism:

“It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow … Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. … To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say the ancient world was more enlightened than Christianity, from their point of view they are right. For when they say “enlightened” they mean darkened with incurable despair.

In this way, paganism is much like modern Atheism:

“The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least.”

Chesterton contends that this fact, that “the mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones,” is not the natural state of man. Men who live like this, he says, have been born upside down:

“The skeptic may be truly said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss.”

Christianity presents the exact opposite perspective:

“Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is small and pitiful stillness… Joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.

Several Disconnected Thoughts on G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton (Amazon)

Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton (Amazon)

Instead of a book review – who can write an adequate review of a classic – here are some relatively disconnected thoughts on G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

(The links below are to some excerpts I posted earlier)

The first words I think of to describe this book: Fanciful, youthful, joyous, and brilliant.

Chesterton’s masterful use of metaphor rivals that of C.S. Lewis.

The title, Orthodoxy, doesn’t give you a great impression of its content. It is really a defense of Christianity in general, or rather, an attack on the materialism, humanism, and skepticism of his time.

It doesn’t so much defend particular dogmas as it defends the idea of dogma in general.

Chesterton sometimes thinks like a child, in the most satisfying of ways.

He has some great thoughts on original sin: On denying sin. On understanding human nature.

Chesterton is contagiously optimistic.

His rarely approaches issues in the way you would expect, but his approach is (almost) always convincing.

You should read this book.

Real real and Faith real (Is only one religion true? – revisited)

Yesterday at our After School program I asked the students the question, “Is only one religion true?” I got a lot of interesting responses. There were about four kids that chimed in at one point or another. All told, I had a good hour and fifteen minutes of solid conversation with the students with topics ranging from how to witness to your friends, to the purpose of adult baptism, to the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. All these were interesting discussions but the main focus on the discussion kept coming back to the question “Is only one religion true?” and it is to this discussion that I want to turn.

Not surprisingly, this was a hard question for the students to answer. It is, I think, actually rather ambiguous, which is part of the reason I thought it would be a good question. With the exception of one enthusiastic and articulate Catholic student, the rest basically answered, after a little prodding, “no.” My goal here was not simply to give an answer, but to use the Socratic method to help the students reason it out for themselves.

Here’s a simplified version of how the conversation went:

Me: Is only one religion true?

Students: It’s really just a matter of belief.

Me: What do you mean?

Students: Whatever you believe, it’s true for you.

Me: What if two believe things that are contradictory? Are both of them right?

Students: You could believe anything. I could believe that this Vernors can created the universe and you could believe that God created the universe.

Me: So, doesn’t that mean one of us is right and one of us is wrong? I mean, it’s crazy to think that a Vernors can created the universe right?

Students: Right (thinking). Have you seen the movie Rise of the Guardians?

Me: No.

Students: In the movie fairy tale characters get smaller or stop existing if people stop believing in them.

Me: But, it doesn’t work that way in the real world right? If people stop believing in that Vernors can, it won’t get smaller and smaller, will it?

At this point, the students get distracted by imagining a shrinking Vernors can. So, I tried to ask the question another way.

Me: Let’s say I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Darwin (another volunteer who had joined, not the scientist) believes that Jesus is not the Son of God. Can we both be right? Or is one of us right and one of us wrong?

Students: (thinking) It’s a matter of belief. (Implying we could both be right)

Me: Aren’t those mutually exclusive things? How could we both be right at the same time?

Students: (restating) It’s just based on what you believe. You would both think you are right.

Me: I agree, we would both think we are right, but are both of us right?

Students: Only the one who created the world would know.

Me: So only God knows everything.

Students: Yes.

Me: I agree, only God knows everything. If God knows everything, do you think he would want to tell us?

Students: Yes, that makes sense.

Me: Has he told us?

Students: Yes, he has told us in the Bible.

Me: And what does the Bible say.

Students: That Jesus is God’s Son.

At this point, I thought I had demonstrated my point but later discussions would reveal that I hadn’t really done so. I decided to approach the discussion from yet another direction.

Me: Is there anything unique about Christianity or are all religions the same?

Students: Well, all religions have a different name for God, but it’s all the same God.

Me: OK, is there anything else that makes religions unique?

Students: They each have different customs and holidays.

Me: OK, is there anything else that makes CHRISTianity unique? (At this point, the Catholic student is ready to answer but I wanted to hear from the others, so I asked him to refrain for now)

Students: Not that I can think of.

Me: (To one of the students who expressed interest in being baptized at our church) So why would anyone want to be part of one religion or another?

Students: Well, I guess you see what your friends do, if you think it’s interesting, if it works for you.

At this point, the Catholic student jumped in and said – “Christianity is unique because it’s the only one that tells us that Jesus is God’s Son, died for us, and made a way for us to be saved.” Everyone agreed… kind of.

All in all, the conversation was revealing to me about how the students think. Here are some observations:

The students had no problem making statements of Christian faith: The same students who were unwilling to say that one person was right and one person was wrong in regard to the existence of God would say, without blinking, that “God created the universe” or “the Bible is God’s word” or “Jesus is God’s Son.” All were able to express, without apology, basic tenets of Christian faith.

Basic propositional logic didn’t apply in regards to faith: The question I was ultimately asking was basic propositional logic. “Can A and not A be true at the same time?” Or, “Can God exist and not exist at the same time.” Basic logic says no, and when I applied it to something concrete (like a Vernors can) the students readily grasped my meaning. But when I applied it to God, it’s as though their minds entered another world where logic didn’t need to apply. The history of this reasoning goes back at least to Kant. The students would be unable to express the logic behind it. It’s simply ingrained in the culture.

“Real real” and “Faith real”: As I described parts of this story to another of our leaders she said that, when working with younger kids she sometimes has to say, “I mean really real not pretend real.” Subconsciously, we’ve been conditioned to think of the world in terms of what is “really real” and what is “faith real.” The “really real” world is the world of facts, figures, and science. It is measureable and knowable (Kant would call this the phenomena). The world of “faith real” is the world of morals, religion, the mind, God, doctrine, etc (Kant would call this the pneumena). Our culture doesn’t think it’s wrong or “pretend,” it just follows different rules. It’s the world of opinion. It can’t, or so the story goes, be known. It can be really real, and not at all real, at the same time. This is a false and illogical dichotomy, but as long as you don’t look at it, it’s easy to function as though it makes perfect sense.

In the world of faith, belief determines reality: You see, in the “faith real” world faith determines reality. You can say, “all religions are true because they are true for the person who believes them.” Such a thing is, of course, ridiculous. Jimmy believes God is real, therefore it is real for him. Bobby believes God is not real, which is real for him. That yields a universe where God is both real and not real at the same time. Again, if the rules of logic were to apply anyone could see the contradiction in this. But, in the “faith real” world logic doesn’t apply. The rules of reality shift from the universal to the particular. What you believe makes reality – but only for you. It’s as though we each have our own privatized reality which we create by our own faith or lack of faith.

This idea of faith and reality has nothing to do at all with the Christian, or any Theistic, notion of faith and reality. It really only ever works if “faith real” is either “not real” or “sub-real.”

This idea relegates religion to the realm of personal preference, self-actualization, socialization, and perhaps private morality but removes it from the realm of universal truth. It is not self-sustaining. It is illogical.

Update:

By way of citation, I should say that I have been heavily influenced on this point by Lesslie Newbigin in “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society