In Defense of the Pro-Life Movement: A Response to Greg Rubottom

Earlier today I received an email from a good friend, asking for my feedback on Greg Rubottom’s recent guest post on Frank Schaeffer’s Patheos blog. The original article (“Death throes of a great deception – the fall from grace of the pro-life movement”) can be found here.

About three sentences into my response email, I decided to make this into a blog post. The article is fairly long, so I’ll try to limit myself to the major points.

Rubottom begins by describing “the Republican Party’s nefarious campaign to teach Americans that God opposes abortion”. He includes this paragraph:

“Modern medical abortion is a relatively new phenomenon in the world. When this procedure was unexpectedly legalized in 1972 many struggled to understand it. There were no centuries old church degrees (sic) concerning abortion in existence. The responsibility therefore fell on all believers to decide for themselves what the “will of God” might be concerning abortion.”

I don’t want to spend too much time nitpicking history…but medical abortions have been around for thousands of years (qualifying them as “modern” in order to call it a “new phenomenon” is just being redundant). Christians have been responding to the practice (and generally condemning it) since Roman times. It isn’t as if the moral ramifications of abortion suddenly fell from the sky in 1972, blindsiding Christians everywhere.

“The pro-life believer feels confident that rape can not be the will of God – because rape is a bad thing. But despite the other obvious “bad things” staring them in the face, a woman required to bear a rapist’s child against her will and a child growing up with a rapist father, they still steadfastly refuse to consider the possibility that God might actually prefer to terminate a conception.”

Are we to play God, then, and decide that a fetus conceived through rape is undeserving of life? Do the circumstances of a person’s conception really determine their worth? Doesn’t this just open the door to prejudices from the not-so-distant past, when “bastards” were socially stigmatized as adults for the circumstances of their conception?

Or consider the following scenario from Dr. Neil Shenvi:

“Imagine a woman living in some remote area. A man breaks into her home and rapes her. But before leaving, he leaves his newborn son in her kitchen. The sight of the baby obviously brings back horrible memories for the woman. But is she morally justified in killing him to avoid the pain? No. Even if it takes the government weeks or even months to come take the baby, he should not be killed for the actions of the rapist. She is certainly a hero for caring for the needs of the innocent child. But her only other option – to kill the child – is morally wrong.”

“The pro-life worldview is promoted in our Evangelical churches [and by the Roman Catholic bishops] almost entirely by means of a very powerful appeal to ones’ empathetic emotions, along with a preference for some scripture over others and a complete denial or perversion of yet others. All to try to make a case for “human soul life” beginning at conception.”

Rubottom makes no attempt to engage with the Scriptural evidence for the pro-life position, but I think it’s worth taking a moment to do so. If you’re at all uncertain about the Biblical basis for the pro-life position, I implore you to read this excellent summary from JW Wartick.

“The teaching of the pro-life heresy in America’s churches (along with other blatant heresies all stemming from the belief in an inerrant Bible) imperils the very survival of Christianity in America.”

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I think Mr. Rubottom tips his hand here. After spending several paragraphs explaining why the Christian stance against abortion is in conflict with the Bible, he now claims that it’s a heresy stemming from a belief in an inerrant Bible.

Just think about that.

It’s an implicit concession that there is a Biblical basis for the pro-life position. Furthermore, by claiming that the Bible contains errors, he seriously undermines his previous attempts to refute the pro-life position on Biblical grounds.

“Just like nature, people should choose to allow a conception to proceed if a healthy body is understood as likely and the external environment is favorable for nurturing an emerging soul. Choice is simply another of God’s tools promoting our evolution toward perfection.”

Your eugenics alarm should be going off about now.

“God trusts nature to use her wisdom at times to destroy a fetus to ensure the best “body environment” for the potential soul.”

The author makes the mistake here of assuming that spontaneous abortions are acceptable to God (rather than a form of natural evil). In the absence of clear evidence that a fetus isn’t a “human person”, this is akin to saying, “God trusts nature to use her wisdom at times to destroy (via lightning strikes, flash floods, and eathquakes) newborn infants that lack an ideal ‘body environment’.”

And again, what kind of message is this sending to the physically and mentally disabled living among us, who WERE born with less-than-ideal “body environments”? Are their lives somehow less valuable? Isn’t this essentially telling people from impoverished families and broken homes that their lives aren’t worth living?

Is this the message of Jesus?

“Humanity must follow nature’s and God’s example by judging the “exterior environment” into which the potential soul will be born. The mental and physical fitness of the mother and father. The physical resources. Is there severe damage to the fetal body nature is blind to? Would pregnancy endanger the life of the mother? Is the conception against the will of the mother? All of these external environmental factors must be considered and found acceptable in order for one to truly say that “God approves” that another soul come into the world.”

As Mary Ann points out in the comments section, shouldn’t Jesus himself have been aborted according to this criteria? Wasn’t He born into abject poverty, in a barn, to an unwed mother?

Rubottom argues that babies shouldn’t be carried to term if the external environmental factors are unfavorable. Yet even a child born into a stable, upper-class family is certain to experience some degree of pain and hardship during her life. This “exterior environment” argument just seems so…arbitrary. Is there even such as thing as an ideal environment for bringing a new soul into the world?

Throughout the article, Rubottom spends a good deal of time arguing that the human body is merely a “container”, and that the soul is created as a “process” during human development. Yet, astonishingly, he shows no interest in even attempting to define when a human life becomes valuable and worth protecting.

When should we start protecting human life, and why? This ought to be the first question that’s asked.

My Previous Posts on Abortion

The Roots of the Abortion Debate

Abortion Methods: An Overview

A Pre-Election Post: Abortion and Right of Conscience

Possibly the Worst New York Times Op-Ed in the History of New York Times Op-Eds

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Evidence for God: A Fine-Tuned Universe

Note: This article is inspired by a lecture given by Dr. John Bloom at the 2012 EPS Apologetics Conference. Dr. Bloom is a physics professor at Biola University. He holds a PhD in physics from Cornell University, a PhD in ancient near eastern studies from the Annenberg Research Institute, and a Masters of Divinity from Biblical Theological Seminary.

Dr. John Bloom

On my own “Evidence for Christianity” page, I mention that there are a number of physical parameters which appear “finely tuned” to produce a universe capable of harboring life. Described below are four examples of fine tuning…but there are many, many more.

Matter-Antimatter Asymmetry

Quarks and anti-quarks form via matter-antimatter pair production. Because of their nature, these particles instantly annihilate each other. However, during the Big Bang, a slight asymmetry in this pair production resulted in approximately 1 extra particle of matter for every 10 billion produced.

Matter-Antimatter Asymmetry

It turns out that this 1 in 10 billion ratio of “leftover particles” happens to be the exact amount of mass necessary for the formation of stars, galaxies, and planets. As much as 2 in 10 billion, and the universe would have just been filled with black holes. As little as 0.5 in 10 billion, and there wouldn’t have been enough density for galaxies to form.

Uneven Temperature Distribution in Space

The temperature of space is cold – REALLY cold – but it hovers slightly above absolute zero (approximately 2.73 K). It’s theorized that this is residual warmth from the Big Bang. What’s noteworthy is that this temperature isn’t evenly distributed throughout the universe. There is actually a “speckle pattern” consisting of variations on the order of 1/10,000th of a degree.

Temperature Variations Across Space

There is also a correlation between the temperature of a region of space and the amount of matter in that region of space. Colder regions have more matter; warmer regions have less matter. According to physicists, a 1 in 100,000 level of imperfection is needed in order to have properly-sized objects (stars, galaxies, etc.). Our universe once again stands on a razor’s edge. If there were a tiny variation one way or the other, the universe would be made up of either black holes or dispersed hydrogen.

The Universe is Electrically Neutral

Most people know that protons and electrons carry equal-and-opposite charges (+1 and -1, respectively). What many people DON’T know is that protons are composed of 3 quarks, with charges of +2/3, +2/3, and -1/3, adding up to a +1 elementary charge. Electrons are entirely different fundamental particles…that happen to EXACTLY cancel out the net charge of the proton.

Quark Structure of the Proton

Protons and electrons have completely different compositions, and were formed at different times during the Big Bang. As far as we can measure, there are equal numbers of protons and electrons in the universe. If these charges didn’t precisely balance out, then the force of gravity (which is vanishingly weak by comparison) would be inconsequential. We would once again be left with a universe devoid of stars, planets, and galaxies.

The Nuclear Binding Force

The nuclear binding force is essentially what counterbalances the electrical repulsion of protons within nuclei. It’s the “glue” that holds a nucleus together. If the value of this force were ~5% weaker, then every atom in the universe would be hydrogen. If the value of this force were ~2% stronger, then the presence of “mega-atoms” would result in a universe composed of neutron stars and black holes.

So where does this leave us?

Sir Fred Hoyle

The well-known English astronomer Fred Hoyle – a lifelong atheist – puts it this way:

“A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

In order to escape the obvious Theistic implications of fine tuning, many physicists have proposed that we inhabit only a single universe in a much larger multiverse.

Aside from being entirely ad hoc, the multiverse hypothesis – by its very nature – cannot be evaluated empirically. One might label it a philosophy, but it certainly falls outside the realm of science. (There’s also the problem of the Boltzmann brain paradox, which I may discuss in a future post.)

Dr. Robert Jastrow

In conclusion, Dr. Bloom shared the following quote from NASA physicist Robert Jastrow:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Evidence for the Resurrection: The “Minimal Facts” Approach

Note: This article is inspired by a lecture given by Dr. Gary Habermas at the 2012 EPS Apologetics Conference. Dr. Habermas is a historian and philosopher, and is one of the world’s leading experts on the resurrection. 

Dr. Gary Habermas

When presenting a historical case for the resurrection of Christ, it is often useful to build an argument using only the “minimal facts” accepted by mainstream secular critics. This entails setting aside any book of the New Testament that is NOT currently regarded by critical scholars as being authoritative.

Although the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have gained a great deal of renewed academic credibility in recent years, there remain a number of critics who only accept Paul as a reliable author. Furthermore, of the fourteen books traditionally attributed to Paul, only seven are generally classified as “undisputed” among secular historians: Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon.

Dr. Habermas presents a case for the resurrection that relies exclusively on these seven books. Only dates that are widely accepted by secular critics will be used.

_________________________________________________________________________

Our starting point:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures…” (I Corinthians 15:1-3, KJV)

The key point here, for our purposes, is that Paul is transmitting a testimony that he himself received. So the message of the resurrection must have been alive and well before Paul wrote this passage in ~55 AD. (In verse eleven, Paul also alludes to there being additional witnesses preaching the news of the resurrection.)

“The Resurrection of Christ” (Peter Paul Rubens)

This in itself is remarkable, since historians place the date of the crucifixion at either 30 AD or 33 AD. It actually predates the four canonical gospels, which were written between 70 AD and 95 AD.

We also know that Paul’s radical conversion experience took place during his trip to Damascus two or three years after the crucifixion. Following his conversion, Paul spent three years in Arabia and Damascus before returning to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:17). While in Jerusalem, Paul spent more than two weeks visiting with James and Peter (Galatians 1:18-19).

“The Conversion of Saint Paul” (Caravaggio)

So within six years of the crucifixion, Paul (a guy who claims to have encountered the risen Jesus en route to Damascus) was comparing notes with James and Peter (two guys who had known Jesus personally).

Then, in Galatians 2, we learn that Paul returned to Jerusalem in 48 AD:

I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. (Galatians 2:2, NIV)

As for those who were held in high esteem – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism – they added nothing to my message. (Galatians 2:6, NIV)

This is critically important. It tells us that the essential facts of the gospel message – Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection – were agreed upon by early Christian leaders up through 48 AD.

But how long did it take for this message to develop in the immediate wake of the crucifixion?

Well-known agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that “high Christology” (the belief in the divinity of Jesus) appeared within one or two years of the cross. Other, less skeptical historians believe that local Jews were worshiping Jesus within six months of his execution.

_________________________________________________________________________

These are the “minimal facts” that are virtually undisputed by secular historians. Regardless of whether or not one actually accepts the resurrection, the historical implications of these facts seem inescapable.

Of course, there are a number of even more compelling arguments for the resurrection that rely on the accounts of the canonical gospels. These arguments are beyond the scope of this post…but William Lane Craig outlines a few of them in his 2006 debate with Ehrman.

Additional Reading:

Minimal Facts Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Saccades and Smooth Pursuits (Fodder for Your Next Dinner Party)

Every now and then, I like to write about “sciency stuff” that I find particularly cool. These tend to be some of my more labor-intensive posts, so the day may come when I give up on them altogether.

This day we’ll be delving into the neuroscience of eye movements. There are basically two different “types” of voluntary eye movement, so I’ll start with the definitions:

Saccades: rapid, intermittent movements as the eye fixes on different points in the visual field (watch video)

Smooth Pursuits: tracking of a moving object at a steady, coordinated velocity (watch video)

So this is where things get interesting. It turns out that – at least in most people – the ability to initiate and maintain smooth pursuits requires that there actually be an object to pursue. In other words, you can’t just “will yourself” to smoothly pursue an imaginary object across the room. Instead of smooth motion, your eyes will produce a series of rapid saccades.

(I’ll wait while you try it.)

You can scroll down to my “sources” for a more complete explanation, but here’s the short version:

Pursuit movements are often portrayed as voluntary but their basis lies in processes that sense retinal motion and can induce eye movements without active participation. The factor distinguishing pursuit from such reflexive movements is the ability to select and track a single object when presented with multiple stimuli. (1)

But wait! There’s more! It turns out that there are a few exceptions to this rule.

For example, humans are capable of prematurely initiating smooth pursuit if they anticipate that an object is about to move (i.e. watching a diver prepare to jump into a pool). They can also briefly maintain pursuit if the object momentarily vanishes (i.e. watching an airplane that moves behind a cloud).

Even more astonishing is the fact that a human can maintain smooth pursuit by tracking the motion of his own finger…even if he’s in a pitch-black room, unable to actually see his hand. (2) Just think about that for a minute.

I can think of a few other instances where higher-level cognitive functions interact with more primitive reflexes to produce bizarre results. But this has to take the cake.

Sources

(1) Barnes GR. Cognitive processes involved in smooth pursuit eye movements. Brain and Cognition, 2008, 68(3):309-326.

(2) Gauthier GM and Hofferer JM. Eye tracking of self-moved targets in the absence of vision. Experimental Brain Research, 1976, 26(2):121-139.

Three r/atheism Images in Need of Debunking

Like many people, I have a fascination with the grotesque. Every few weeks, I find myself returning to the subreddit r/atheism.

Today I’ll be responding to a few of the (non-profane) images that I encountered on my latest reddit safari.

Numero uno:

When I saw this quote, I thought it seemed a little over the top (even for Hume). I did some double-checking, and it turns out that this is taken from Hume’s “A Treatise of Human Nature“. The sentence originally included a qualifier: “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.”

It’s still a pretty bold claim. I give a few counterexamples.

Social Darwinism
Moral Relativism
– National Socialism
Hedonism
Anarchism
Nihilism
Opportunism
Will to Power
Segregationism

Next up:

I’ll tackle this one point-by-point.

“…every single bit of progress in human feeling…[has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world].”

I’m not quite sure what’s meant by “progress in human feeling”…but one could fill tomes with the names of poets, artists, composers, and authors who haven’t been antagonized by organized churches.

“…every improvement in the criminal law…[has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world].”

What about the post-Constantine Christian leaders, who reformed Roman law to prevent abuses against women and children? What about the role of the Justinian Corpus Juris Civilis in establishing an early basis for western civil law – including procedural justice and legal equality for women? What about the Judeo-Christian understanding of natural law, and the idea that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”? What about the Catholic Church’s stance against torture, suicide, and euthanasia?

“…every step towards the diminution of war…[has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world].”

What about the numerous Christian contributions to just war theory? Or from another perspective, what about the admirable nonviolence of the Quakers (an organized Church, last time I checked)?

“…every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery…[has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world].”

Why, then, was the American abolitionist movement spearheaded largely by clergymen? What about William Wilberforce and the Second Great Awakening? What about the many thousands of church-supported Christian missionaries who have left their homes and families to bring spiritual, material, and medical support to the most impoverished corners of the world?

This Hitchens quote is a complete non sequitur. Let’s apply the reasoning to something besides religion.

“Since it is obviously inconceivable that all [economic theories] can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”

Or imagine that I ask 100 people for directions to the nearest post office, and I receive a hodgepodge of different, often conflicting answers. It’s possible that all the directions are wrong…but it’s also possible that one or more of them are right. Dismissing all of the competing claims outright isn’t “the most reasonable conclusion”; it’s just the most intellectually lazy.

(In a previous post, I tackled this issue from the perspective of a Christian who de-converts, in part, because of the competing claims of the numerous world religions.)

Ten Questions to Ask a Christian: My Responses

Not long ago, I received an invitation from Marcus at The BitterSweet End to respond to his Christian (Theist) Challenge. It’s my understanding that he’ll also be responding to my own list of Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist, so stay tuned. (For those who remember, I also compiled the numerous responses I received from atheists in another post).

Now, the questions:

1. Do you feel like Religion, God and The Bible conflict?

I don’t believe God and the Bible conflict. I do recognize that religion, defined as “imperfect people seeking to follow a perfect God”, can sometimes conflict, in practice, with God and the Bible.

2. If God told you kill someone, (And you are 100% it’s God).  Would you kill that person?  Why or Why Not?

If you’re asking whether or not I ascribe to some version of divine command theory, the answer is yes.

At the same time, God obviously can’t contradict His own nature…so it’s difficult for me to answer this question without additional context. In many ways, it’s like asking, “Can God make a rock so big He can’t pick it up?”

Until God begins recruiting unsuspecting Christians as His personal hit men, I wouldn’t be too worried about this kind of hypothetical question.

3. Who created God; if he came from nothing or has no creator doesn’t that violate The First Law of Thermodynamics?

The First Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but it doesn’t address the question of “where all this energy came from in the first place”. It specifically describes energy within the universe, so it’s not clear why it should be applied to the state of things before the universe began.

I touched on this issue in a previous post, but the main idea is that God is defined by Christians as the Prime Mover; the “first cause” of all that exists.

4. If you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God; do you believe it to be inerrant or infallible?  And, If the Bible is found errant, does God still exist and is the Bible still a trustworthy source?

I hold to the inerrancy of the autographic text of Scripture. Obviously not all manuscript copies are perfectly preserved.

As to the second question, it would really depend on the circumstances (and more importantly, what one means by “errant”). I don’t generally draw a distinction between inerrancy and infallibility.

On a side note, there is sometimes confusion between inerrancy and strict Biblical literalness. To borrow a line from the Chicago Statement: “history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth.”

5. In the Bible their are stories of God telling the Israelites to kill innocent women & children and children being punished for the sins of their father.  Is this morally right or morally justifiable?

I hope this isn’t too much of a cop-out, but I would recommend checking out this Q&A post from Dr. William Lane Craig. It’s also relevant to question #2.

6. If God is perfect, how can something imperfect come out of something that is PERFECT?  Did God make a mistake?

This question touches on the problem of evil, which I’ve written on previously.

Briefly: I don’t see any reason why God’s perfection and omnipotence should be incompatible with the existence of evil, provided He has sufficient reason to create creatures with free will (the ability to rebel against Him).

7. If a Christian goes into a forest and gets lost.  And he prays to God to be saved and not die.  Does a God still hear him?  How do you know?  And, how can you be sure?

God hears him, yes. [Psalm 116:1-2, Proverbs 15:29, I John 5:14]

8. If you were to die, and when you go before God; it’s some other God you have never seen or heard of nor worshiped?  What would you do?  Would you plead for him not to judge you harshly and what would you say?

Assuming the God you refer to is singular, it couldn’t really be “some other” God. In this case, your question becomes, “What would you do if it turns out that your understanding of God is largely incorrect?”

According to the beliefs that I already hold, my sins in this life leave me deserving of nothing less than eternal punishment. As it stands now, my solitary hope rests on an act of divine mercy.

So the worst-case scenario – in your hypothetical situation – is that I end up receiving the punishment that I already rightfully deserve.

Would I plead for mercy? I don’t know. Maybe. But that seems more a question of personality than theology.

9. What is something that would convince you that Christianity is wrong and that there is no God?  (If your answer is NOTHING, than please explain WHY?)

Christianity is certainly falsifiable. It would require showing that the resurrection of Jesus never happened. [I Corinthians 15:17]

Of course, even if one were to disprove the resurrection, this wouldn’t disprove God – only Christianity. I’m convinced that the moral, scientific, and philosophical arguments for God are entirely sound. If I were to abandon a belief in God, it would have to be for emotional or existential reasons – not intellectual ones. It would have to be a matter of personal rebellion against God (and the idea of God).

I don’t anticipate that happening, fortunately.

10. This is a quote by the atheist Richard Dawkins…”We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go ONE god further.“-Richard Dawkins. Why does the Christian reject all other gods, but not their own?  Why are you Christian?  Why do you believe in only the Judo-Christian God?

In response to your quote from Richard Dawkins, allow me to provide a quote from CS Lewis:

“If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.”

I am a Christian because I believe Christianity provides the most comprehensive, coherent understanding of God. For more details, see points 4, 6, 7, and 8 on my “Evidence for Christianity” list.