Friday, February 25, 2011

The Loftrino

The Loftrino: New Meme Isolated

Fort Wayne, Indiana: Scientists here have isolated a new fundamental memetic particle with a remarkable set of properties. Called the loftrino, after atheist writer John Loftus, the particle has a large negative probative mass, (it can prove some 46 times the opposite of whatever it claims), seems to always be in motion, was produced in an imaginary epoch called the Enlightenment, and can never be destroyed by outside action, no matter how long or fiercely you bombard it with facts. The loftrino has been observed traveling through two thousand years of Christian history, without being swayed by the gravitational pull of facts, the informed opinion of historians, or even the evident sequence of events.

The particle was isolated last week when, in a demonstration, John Loftus posted a graph of the purported baneful influence of Christianity on science. This graph shows seven distinct eras in the history of science: (1) Egyptian, (2) Greek, (3) Roman, (4) "Christian Dark Ages," (5) Renaissance, (6) Age of "Enlightenment," and (7) Modern Science. The graph shows scientific knowledge and understanding increasing in each of these eras, except for the "Christian Dark Ages," when it drops off like a rock about 420 AD, then flatlines until 1300 AD. After the "Enlightenment," it picks up at an accelerated rate.

If that isn't clear enough, in large black letters the words "The Hole Left by the Christian Dark Ages" fill an empty space in the graph, like a dragon on the edge of an old map.

The graph did not originate with Loftus. It appears to have been produced by an anti-Christian blogger named Jim Walker, at (If someone knows of an earlier use of this graphic, please let me know!) Here's a sample of the history prose on offer in Walker's accompanying essay:

"The Christian Dark Ages represents a time in the history of Europe where scientific advancement not only halted but went backwards. The hole left by the Dark Ages bears the imprint of scientific ignorance that lasted longer than the Roman Empire. Imagine where scientific advancement would stand today if not for the scars left by Christianity.

"During the Renaissance, and especially the Age of Enlightenment, people began to wake up. Many freethinkers and scientists rejected orthodox religion and replaced it with unitarianism, deism, or non-theistic philosophy. During the 1800s and after, scientists no longer had to fear religious persecution in any form. As never before in the history of mankind, scientists began to reject theocracy entirely. And what happened as a result of the freedom from religious influence? Science literally exploded with new ideas and discoveries!"

Scientists are allowed an element of whimsy in named elementary particles (quark, charm quark, gluon). Also, perhaps because of all the scientific explosions going on there, the meme was not originally isolated on Walker's blog. (Though it was devastatingly debunked, to the extent that a loftrino can be debunked, by Mike Flynn here. Flynn appears to operate with the unfair advantage of having studied history.) But rather than calling it the "Walker," the new particle was named after the site at which it was first isolated and described, John Loftus' Debunking Christianity site.

The peculiar character of the loftrino has to do with its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Carl Sagan has also made similiar claims about how Christianity ruined ancient science. But Sagan was an astronomer, and no one expects him to know much about the history of Christianity. Loftus, by contrast, used to be an evangelist, and certainly knows a lot of facts about Christianity.

Furthermore, Loftus edited a book just last year that gives the lie to some of the claims on which this view of history are based, in a chapter written by Walker's favorite historian, Richard Carrier. If one can edit a book that debunks one's pet theory, yet still hold fast to that theory, loftrinos are likely to be on the loose.

Let's look more closely at the development of science during the historical periods covered by this graph:

# 2 + #3 Was Greek science on the steady upswing until about the time of Christ, as the Walker / Loftus graph shows? Did Roman science continue to progress for the next 400 years?

Here's Richard Carrier, in The Christian Delusion:

"Pagans did set the stage for the end of ancient science -- just not for any of the reasons Christians now claim. By failing to develop a stable and effective constitutional government, the Roman Empire was doomed to collapse under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economic policy; and in the third century BCE that's exactly what it did. Pagan society responded to this collapse by retreating from the scientific values of its past and fleeing to increasingly mystical and fantastical ways of viewing the world and its wonders." (my emphasis)

Indeed, none of the 16 leading ancient scientists Carrier named on pages 401-2 worked within a century of the legalization of Christianity. (One list of the 100 most important scientists names seven before about 200 BC, but only Galen after that date.)

So according to Loftus' own book, not to mention historical reality, the second and third periods of the graph should show a declining, not a rising, slope.

In addition, Carrier credits theism in part for the rise of ancient science:

"Most intellectual polytheists believed in a Creator who had intelligently ordered the cosmos, that this order could be discovered by the human mind, and that such discovery honored God. Scientists like Galen and Ptolemy were thus motivated to pursue scientific inquiry by their religious piety, exactly as (Rodney) Stark claims Christians were, and for exactly the same reasons." (407)

Carrier describes Christianity as one of the "mystical and fantastic" worldviews into which Roman society fled while (supposedly) abandoning science. Yet he also admits that one key element in Christianity, faith in a good and rational Creator God, was in fact intimately associated with the rise of science BOTH in ancient Greece AND in modern Europe. The loftrino passes through these facts, not swerving one micron to right or left.

#4 What about the "Christian Dark Ages?" Historians recognize that science was not, in fact, abandoned by ancient Christians. In the 6th Century, for example, John Philoponus (who does not appear on Carrier's list) applied the idea of impetus to the planets, "the first attempt at a unified theory of dynamics." Listen to my interview of Oxford historian of science Dr. Alan Chapman for a more judicious and genteel view of this relationship.

Why did Christians fail to revive the full-scale era of scientific inquiry that occurred in Greece some 800 years before Christianity was legalized, but that had badly faded in the interum? Put that way, the question seems rather weak, like asking why matches don't spontaneously combust after they've been dropped in a creek and then covered in a mudslide.

Even so, for anyone with some acquaintance with history, or should I say some vulnerability to it, ought to know the answer: invasions. "Christendom" was on the defensive from 400 AD for most of the next millennia. Goths, Visigoths, Huns, Arabs, Vikings, Moors, Turks, wave after wave came crashing against European civilization. Whenever the tide slowed for a few years, civilizations popped up like crocuses in the spring. These civilizations and new institutions -- Irish monasteries, universities, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great -- had four things in common: Christian origins, unbounded curiosity, a fundamental sense of human equality that allowed social mobility, and a creativity that met and far surpassed even that of those few ancient Greeks who dabbled in science.

(5) The Renaissance. Walker shows science beginning a steep climb again from 1300. He actually credits the rise of science to a backlash against priestcraft failed to stem the tide of bubonic plague, or "Black Death." Actually the science of the Middle Ages was developed in the 13th and early 14th Century by people like Roger Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Pierre de Maricourt, William of Occam, and Jean Buridan, mostly friars and priests. (Bacon was especially concerned for missions.) This was all DECADES before the bubonic plague even arrived in Crimea, in 1346! Those little rats, and the fleas that rode them, would have had to travel backwards in time to help inspire Medieval science! Perhaps that science was more advanced than we thought!

(6) The Enlightenment. Like many skeptics, Walker (and Loftus through him) credits the Enlightenment for increasing the pace of scientific discovery. He therefore sets the next slope increase at 1700 -- AFTER Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Hooke, Newton, the Royal Academy, and all the great bible-thumper scientists who founded most of the modern scientific disciplines.

The Enlightenment was a movement in mostly bad philosophy and bad history. It's leaders, like Hobbes and Voltaire, were often also bad at science. Many skeptics fervently wish Enlightenment figures had inspired the birth of science; but until we find their time machines, we will have to reject that theory, too.

Other ancient civilizations developed the beginnings of what might be called science: Sumer, India, China, even MesoAmerica. Why did those civilizations get no further? Was Christianity somehow to blame for their failure, too?

But the thesis, "The Christian Dark Ages killed science" will, like most "New Atheist" claims, travel to the edge of the known universe, without being moved one micron up or down, left or right, by any of these facts, or those Flynn mentions.

Other skeptics may dispute credit with Loftus for discovery of the loftrino. Richard Dawkins, for example, has ardently held to the belief that Christian theology recommends "blind faith" from 1976 to the present, a long career even for a loftrino. (They cannot be influenced by outside realities, but their half-life is one lunar year, after which they degrade into back issues of the Huffington Post.)

If another claimant is produced, though, and is able to make a strong historical claim, and come up with a pithy alternative name for the loftrino, speak now, or forever hold your whirled peas!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

From Far Formosa

The day after 9/11, I boldy boarded a plane in Fukuoka, Japan, and flew back to Taiwan. This felt bold not only because airplanes had been going missing, but also because we had to fly around a hurricane that was positioning itself between islands. But I was eager to return to an island where I had spent five or six years of my life, a the beautiful and fascinating shoe-shaped country once called Formosa.
For years after that trip, whenever we played "Quiz" at the dinner table, my younger son would often blurt out the answer, "Taiwan" to irrelevant questions. "What is the capital of New Jersey?" "Taiwan!" This is no doubt partly because his stock of geographical names was small, and partly because my trip, under those conditions, and no doubt accompanied by prayer at home, made a deep impression on his mind.
Recently, I read a book by pioneer missionary George MacKay, called From Far Formosa! Gosh! How that book brought back memories. And what an amazing story he has to tell -- one of the most successful missionaries to China, one of the only ones to dare marry a Chinese girl, attacked by Chinese, aboriginal head-hunters, French naval vessels, poisonous snakes.

Everything has, of course, changed -- but much also remains the same.

I thought I'd share my review of that book, then some quotes from it, along with some of my funky old photos from my years in "Far Formosa."

(I. Here's an explanation of the photos: (1) On a 300 mile "prayer hike" across Taiwan with Keenan Booher; his wife Juanita missed this part of the walk. (2) Peace Park in the usually rainy port of Jilong at the north of Taiwan. Some of Mackay's adventures take place nearby; so did mine. (3) A Taiwan fern tree. (4) A tribal girl decorating a Christmas tree high in the mountains of Taiwan; MacKay had some interesting run-ins with their "headhunter" ancestors; some became Christians. (5) What would an anti-government demonstration be without snacks like tianbula? (6) A tribal village in Hualian. MacKay describes traveling to this region by boat across a beautiful night ocean, then contending with headhunters and waves on the way back. I usually took the train, aside from walking that one time!)
II. Here's the review, also posted on Amazon:

"When I first went to Taiwan as a solitary missionary, 6 story MacKay Hospital on Zhong Shan Rd was a popular meeting place, including for dates. I felt a little guilty about going out with some of those girls -- they made it a little harder to concentrate on the job, you know!

"One of my amusing discoveries in this wonderful old book, was to learn that MacKay himself, for whom the hospital was named, raised a lot of eyebrows when he married a Taiwanese girl. (James Rohrer points out in a critical article that MacKay was one of only two China missionaries he found who dared marry a Chinese lady.)

"MacKay was a man deeply in love not just with one Taiwanese girl (who turned out to be a tremendous help), but with the island of Formosa and its peoples as a whole.

"The book is cobbled together, Rohrer suggests, from MacKay's notes and a first draft that emphasized a scientific description of Taiwan. Two church colleagues apparently helped write the book. The final draft is well-written, but has a bit of a disjointed structure. First MacKay tells a bit about his early life. Then he plunges into a long description of the geography, history, geology, plants, animals, and ethnic groups of Taiwan, the industry, (in) justice system. Finally he describes his travels, work, and the institutions he established.

"Don't be afraid of those middle chapters! There are priceless nuggets in there, too. MacKay can never get far without telling a story -- about famous snakes he knew (tried to bite him, were killed with tobacco, etc - ah! those snakes brings back memories!), about European sailors chased by a mob for hitting pigs with walking sticks, loving descriptions of luscious local fruit, the story of Christian converts who were tortured and killed for their faith.

"But the best of the book is probably the last and by far longest part of the book. Like the young Taiwanese who followed him around the island on interminable mission travels, I found MacKay a delightful companion. He's full of humor. His descriptions of nature are often eloquent and bring me back to my own trips to Hualien, the hills behind Xindian, and so on. There are bombardments by the French, riots among the Chinese, stalkings by headhunters, nighttime ocean journeys.

"MacKay's love for God is also palpably clear. As a missions narrative, this book is full of interest. Some 3000 Taiwanese were practicing baptized Christians in northern Taiwan by the time of MacKay's untimely death, along with many churches, schools, a museum, an educated group of minister-doctors. How did all that happen, when the price of conversion could be death? Especially interesting to me (I worked with "mountain people," as they called them in those days) were his accounts of the quick conversion of several villages of lowland tribemen, within a few weeks. This is amazing -- most of these villages were very leery of strangers, and had not accepted Chinese religions for hundreds of years.

"There are a few passages that breath of spin, and a few words suggesting late Victorian over-floweriness here and there. Let's blame that on the editors. I enjoyed this book so much, I've read passages to my family over dinner. Gotta get back to Taiwan.

III. And here are a few exerpts from the book:
"Ginger. This very useful pant attains the height of about a foot, and has long, pointed leaves. The rhizomes or roots are taken when green, sliced, and prepared as a relish. Around the city of Tek-chham there has sprung up quite an industry in preparing it for market. It is preserved dry, in sugar, in small earthn pots. It is not in any way like the preparation in Canton which is brought into Western lands. Plums, peaches, and pears are preserved in small earthen pots like the Tek-chham ginger."

"Reptiles. Serpents. One day, on returning from the country, and goin up the steps to the door of our house in Tamsui, I found a large serpent, eight feet in lengthy, lying across the threshold. With help I succeeded in dispatching him. The following day, when about to leave my study-room, I was confronted by its mate, of equal length and very fierce-looking. A loud call brought two or three students, and we ended that one's life. They belonged to the species Ptyas mucosus."

"Once, as I ented a small shed like a hen-coop, a snake which resembled the hoop-snake sprang from the roof and fell coied up in front of me. Its head was up in a moment, and ready to spring. I jumped backward, and with the assistance of others I succeeded in securing this rare specimen for my museum."

"At Tamsui, near the mission bungalow, I erected a second story above an old kitchen for a small study-room. One night, about eleven o'clock, I heard a noice among papers which were lying over a hole in the floor. Supposing that the noise was produced by rats, I called to those below. Presently Koa Kau ran up, looked into the room, then darted downstairs again, and in a twinkling pinned the exposed part of a monstrous serpent to the wall below. By this time fully three feet of the body was through the hole into the room above."

"The pig is a great pet among the Chinese. It is always to be found about the door, and often has free access into the house . . . The affection of an Englishman for his dog is scarcely stronger than the affection of a Chinese for his pig. Foreigners in China should remember this, and not thoughtlessly excite enmity and antagonism. Not long after my arrival, when in my house in Tamsui, I heard loud voices and hurried trampling in the street in front. On opening the door I saw several European sailors, from a ship lying at anchor in the harbor, running in wild haste down the street toward me. As they came near, one of them, mad with rage, asked if I had a gun. They were followed by a mob that seemed to be furious and eager to overtake them. I directed the sailors down a narrow lane, by which they escaped to their ship. Turning to the crowd, I asked the cause of the disturbance. They replied that the sailors had been striking the pigs belonging to one of their families with their walking-sticks. The people were very indignant, and had they overtaken the sailors there would have been trouble. I appeased them by the assurance that should the offenders misbehave again complaint would be made to the authorities."

"It has been my custom never to denounce or revile what is . . . sacredly cherished, but rather to recognize whatever of truth or beauty there is in it, and to utilize it as an 'open sesame' to the heart. Many, many times, standing on the steps of a temple, after singing a hymn, have I repeated the fifth commandment, and the words 'Honor thy father and thy mother' never failed to secure respectful attention."

"This venerable cultus, the worship of ancestors, is indeed the most stubborn obstacle Christianity has to face."

"Out on the downs I saw a dozen boys herding water buffaloes. As soon as I went near they shouted, 'Foreign devil, foreign devil!' jumped on the ground, waved their large sun-hats, and disappeared behind boulders. The next day I tried them again. They looked at me in silence, but on the alert, and ready to run at the first sign of danger. The third day I spoke to them, and as I had carefully practiced my words they exclaimed, in utter astonishment, 'He knows our language!' That the 'barbarian' could speak even a few of their words interested them very much. I took out my watch and held it up for them to see. They were around me instantly, feeling my hands, fingers, buttons, and clothes. The herdboys and I became friends that day . . . I was out there on the plateau with them every day for four or five hours, talking to them, hearing them talk, noting down new words and phrases, until my vocabulary began to grow with a rapidity that quite amazed my servant . . . years after, when they grew to manhood, they continued friendly, and were always delighted to recall the first days on the buffalo-pasture. Several of them became converts to Christianity, one a student and preacher."

But the stories in this book are endless; that's probably enough for now, but I may add more later.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Argument from Transcultural Plausibility (ATP): or, "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love John Loftus' Favorite Argument
Perhaps John Loftus will be famous some day, like the ancient polemicist Celsus, for formulating a challenge that led to a interesting argument for the Christian faith. John calls his challenge the "Outsider Test for Faith. (OTF)" Perhaps history will know it as the Argument from Transcultural Plausibility (ATP).

The idea is not, of course, original with John. He asks, if his argument is no good, as some people say, why do critics like Victor Reppert and myself keep bringing it up?

Speaking just for myself, I find the idea of looking at Christianity from the viewpoint of other traditions fascinating. I lived many years in different Asian countries, and have been studying world religions and the history of missions for decades. I'm fascinated by how Christianity originated in a highly parochial and defensive Jewish culture, then found a way to transcend Jewish culture and become the dominant faith of the Greco-Roman, then other worlds.

As someone else points out, G. K. Chesterton also asks us to look at Christianity from the outside, in a great book called The Everlasting Man. Eleven years ago, I wrote as follows, in a book called Jesus and the Religions of Man, meant as an updating of Chesterton's classic:

"What should a Christian say to an idealist setting out on a journey? Seek the good in every spiritual tradition and cherish it; but don't be naive. Allow yourself to become desperate enough to be heretical, and even desperate enough to be orthodox. Give credit where credit is due, bu talso blame where blame is due. Take ideals seriously enough to live by, even die for. But be careful to whom you open your heart. Follow each star to the place where it leads. Then come and look again in a town called Bethlehem."

I don't want to take anything away from John: I appreciate him bringing the subject up, and in an interesting way. But that's the Outsider Test for Faith in a nutshell.

I explained some problems I have with the way John formulates OTF, as an argument against Christianity, in an earlier post.

In my last post, though, I did a bit what might have seemed a bit of an about-face, accepting John's conclusion that we should look at our own faith (whatever that is) from an outside perspective, at least for the sake of the argument. I then discussed the various difficulties involved in transmitting faith from one culture to another, and made a few modifications to OTF. I call the modified version the "Argument from Transcultural Plausibility" (ATP).

ATP takes into account the real-world challenges of convincing people in foreign cultures, speaking different languages, and with defense mechanisms against foreigners as subtle as the Great Wall of China, to swap their deepest beliefs for a "foreign religion." I argued that Christianity has actually done remarkably well, considering all the challenges. If there's anything to ATP, it might be seen as an argument FOR the Christian faith, and, possibly, against secular humanism.

But is there anything to ATP? Or is it based simply on the logical fallacy of Ad Populum? John suggests I am making some such mistake:

"David Marshall's latest critique of the OTF confuses the success of a particular religion with passing the OTF, which, if correct, would make contradictory religions true by virtue of being successful."

In other words, I am supposedly saying that Christianity must be true, because it is so popular. In that case, what about Islam or Marxism, which also caught on in many diverse cultures?

Can we reasonably deduce anything about the truth of Christianity from the fact that people in thousands of different cultures have come to believe in it, even at great risk or cost, or at the price of their own lives? Don't people often die for lies?

One does not want to be caught in public committing logical fallacies. But I do see two potentially viable arguments for Christianity based on the ATP:

(1) The first argument is based on a fulfilled prophecy.

One of the most dramatic and significant stories in the OT is the story of Abraham taking his son Isaac to a hill in the region of Mt. Moriah to sacrifice him. Richard Dawkins sees in this story "child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: 'I was only following orders.'" Jews read in it as the story of how human sacrifice, which had been common around the world, began to end. God was saying, in effect, "This, I don't need." Christians see the lamb who substituted for Isaac as a figure of Jesus, who would ultimately die (perhaps on this very same hill) for sinful humanity.

But notice how the story ends. After the angel appears and the lad is dramatically spared, God promises Abraham:

"I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens . . . And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you obeyed my voice."

This is quite a promise to make a Bedoin herder who lived in a tent in the wilderness 3500 years ago! Of what Pharoah of Egypt can we say all nations of the world have been blessed because of him? Can we say it of Alexander the Great?

Many mighty empires have disappeared without a genetic trace since this promise. But the Jewish people have not. And no one can deny they have had an often positive impact on the world -- for instance, some 30% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish.

Jesus was the most famous "seed" of Abraham. The universal spread of his teachings, and their impact, marks a stupendous fulfillment of this ancient promise.

Admittedly, Islam also claims in some sense to be a religion that arose from "Abraham's seed." (Though don't tell anyone in the Muslim world I said this, but I tend to see Mohammed as more of a bad seed.)

(2) As philosopher John Hick points out, people reasonably see a claim as more plausible if "great figures in the past" came up with something similiar. At any rate, he notes, “it is encouraging to find that one’s hard-won view of things was also the view seen by other and greater minds in earlier ages."

Aristotle agreed. He distinguished between two kinds of valid knowledge: Science, (which meant, broadly, what we know based on intentional empirical study) and Wisdom. As a source for the latter, Aristotle encourages us to "attend to the undemonstrated dicta and opinions of the skilful, the old, and the wise."

We do this every day, in classrooms, on the Internet, in conversations with friends. "Implicit faith," said Dr. Johnson, is the source of most of what we know.

An argument might be made that the sum total of wise men and women who tested Christianity from the perspective of different cultures, and found it passed, or that parts of it they knew best passed, makes it more reasonable to believe in Jesus Christ. There are some "Christians" who embarrass us. But clearly, the Christian faith is rendered more credible by winning the fervent allegiance of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Kepler, Solzhenitsyn, and Pascal.

But some converts impress me even more. Those are the men and women who fervently love great non-Christian civilizations and cultures. They know it as well, study it with passion, and interpret it with genius. They then take the OTF, and determine that not only does Christianity pass, but that the Gospel renews the wellspring of their civilization.

In the Greco-Roman world, I think of Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine, in particular. There may be others, but these are the "skillful, the old, and the wise" I know, whose arguments for the Christian faith still impress me.

There are some of the same quality in India. One of the great reformers of India, Ram Mohan Roy, a father of modern India, wrote a pamphlet exerting some of Jesus' teachings, under the title, "The Principles of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness."

How does the Gospel look to "outsiders" like Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen, Krishna Banerja, and (yes) Gandhi? Obviously most Indians did not convert. It would have been difficult for them to do so, especially while India was occupied by often ravenous English imperialists! But the Gospel deeply affected India.

My own field is China. Perhaps the three most revered leaders in all China's long history are Emperor Tai Zong who helped found the great Tang Dynasty about 618 AD, the wise and noble Emperor Kang Xi who set the Qing Dynasty on its foundations in the late 16th Century, and Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Qing Dynasty and began the Republican era.

Remarkably, these three "wise, old, skilful" Chinese leaders interacted with three great branches of Christianity: Nestorian (eastern), Catholic (Jesuit) and Protestant.

Tai Zong read some of the works of Nestorians who arrived in China in 635 AD, and wrote a "blurb" for the Nestorian stele later found outside of Xian. He seemed to like what he understood of it (judging by textual products of that period, the translation was probably less than stellar). He also sponsored the church financially.

Kang Xi was educated, in part, by Jesuit priests. He seemed to believe in God, and liked and respected the Jesuit missionaries. In his early years he was a big help to Christians. (And they were a help to him!) Unfortunately, due to the bossy stupidity of some Catholic missionaries, and a foolish pope, Kang Xi came to feel threatened by these foreigners, and was forced to outlaw Christian evangelism -- though he did not much enforce the law. It was not the Gospel that pushed him away (though he he was not a convert), it was European arrogance (along with Chinese pride) that kept the Gospel at a distance.

Sun Yat-sen, like many 19th Century Asian reformers, was himself a Christian. Despite all the cultural barriers, despite the signs that read "dogs and Chinamen keep out," despite the saying, "One more Christian, one less Chinese," the father of modern China took, and passed, the ATP.

Such great lovers of Chinese civilization as Lin Yutang, John Wu, and many thinkers behind the Tiananmen protests of 1989, ultimately turned to Jesus not as a repudiation of their cultural heritage, but as a fulfillment of it.

If God intended to bless the world through Abraham's seed, as prophesied, one would expect the life of Christ to make a noticable impact on the world. And if one wants to get "outside one's own culturally-influenced head" and see if the Christian faith remains plausible, the thought experiment John suggests (and G. K. Chesterton before him) may be a great way to do so. I think, when both questions are considered fairly, Christianity passes ATP, and this may indeed give us two more legitimate reasons to believe it is true.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Why Christianity passes the OTF, and Humanism fails

Why Christianity passes the "Outsider Test for Faith," and Secular Humanism may fail.
In an earlier blog, I responded to an argument made by atheist writer John Loftus against Christianity, which he calls the "Outsider Test for Faith (OFT)." John answered me in a series of five blogs on his Debunking Christianity web site. I responded with a later, somewhat rushed post.

Here's the nub of the argument, in John's own words (from the book The Christian Delusion):

"1) Rational people in distinct geographical locations around the globe overwhelmingly adopt and defend a wide diversity of religious faiths due to their upbringing and cultural heritage. This is the religious diversity thesis."

2) "Consequently, it seems very unlikely that adopting one's religious faith is not merely a matter of independent rational judgment but is causally dependent on cultural conditions to an overwhelming degree. This is the religious dependency thesis."

3) "Hence the odds are highly likely that any given adopted religious faith is false."

"4) So the best way to test one's adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism used to evaluate other religious faiths. This expresses the OTF."

I don't actually much mind John's conclusion, though I think both his first two premises are badly flawed, and conclusion (3) does not at all follow from them. But in this post, I don't want to rehash earlier points or respond to John's criticism and drag readers into a conventional Internet tit-for-tat.

Let me try something bolder. Let us consider the possibility that the OTF is actually a disguised argument FOR the Christian faith, and AGAINST secular humanism.

First, I amend the test to better reflect the true nature and difficulty of conversion. Then I show how three specific Christian teachings pass "OTF-2.0." After that, I argue that Christianity as a "package deal" has passed OTF around the world in a remarkable way, even all the bells and whistles of Jewish and European culture attached. (And that when it is rejected by entire peoples, it is usually for these irrelevant acrudements, not for the Gospel is itself.) Finally, I briefly consider the shorter and spottier record of Secular Humanism in meeting the challenge of OTF-2.0.

I. Amending the Test. This gemstone will, of course, need a little rubbing, to make it gleam in that light. Six facts must be polished to reveal the true import of OTF.

First, we must remember that most people have never had or taken time to carefully investigate any belief system. The 17th Century Jesuit missionary to India, Roberto de Nobili, noted,

"To preach the faith to simple and uneducated people and, with divine grace, to persuade them is not such a difficult affair. They are, so to speak, blank sheets on which we can write without hindrance. But it is a very difficult proposition when you have to teach men of learning, such as the Brahmins are, who not onnly are proficient in several sciences, but consider themselves the wise men of this world and the teachers of other men."

At the same time, Nobili pointed out that these same Brahmins would not even talk with Europeans dressed as Europeans usually were -- they were considered unclean. Still less would they listen to religious ideas from those they considered out of caste and impure.

Second, human beings are social animals. Since early man hunted mammoths in family packs, we have made important decisions in groups. This is true of evaluating religious claims as well: while no one person may do all the research required to decide about Christianity or secular humanism, they often assume, truly or falsely, that the group as a whole has done the research, and rely on the family or clan or tribal or national will. This also applies to those Nobili called the "simple and uneducated:" in Athens, philosophers scoffed at Paul, but in the countryside in Lystra, they stoned him half to death.

People feel, as Aristotle put it, that one "should attend to the undemonstrated dicta and opinions of the skilful, the old, and the wise." Their judgement or subjective opinion (γνωμη) may be in error, but should not be too quickly slighted.

Third, it is extremely hard for most individuals in most societies to go against their family, clan, tribe and nation.

Fourth, missions must open locked and guarded doors. Often people are impeded in choosing a faith for reasons that have nothing to do with the intrinsic value of that faith.

These reasons can be as elemental as life and death. A December 2010 poll showed that in Egypt and Pakistan, at least three quarters of Muslim respondents favored the death penalty for those who leave Islam. Death, torture, imprisonment, loss of job, and in some ways worst of all (for social creatures) ostrication, losing the love of one's family, have in many societies been normal consequences of converting.

In many cases, conversion to Christianity seemed to involve two terrible acts: (1) A repudiation of one's own traditions, and (2) Embracing the traditions of a dangerous foe.

At first, Christianity arrives from people who speak a different language, act strangely, eat weird foods, and (often) are perceived as a real or potential threat.

Even in the late 20th Century, in a free and innovative country like Taiwan, I found that about three quarters of the people I asked saw Christianity as "alien religion" ("洋教." Many agreed it was a good thing, and many agreed with specific Christian teachings, but its apparently foreign character made it hard for people to consider it fairly.
So we must not be naive. The dice, in most cultures, have always been loaded. It is simply not the case that most people over most of human history have had easy access to the facts as we do, or if they did, been socially in a position to choose a new faith if they wanted to.

For these reasons, the test Christianity and Secular Humanism must pass is not mainly of individuals. It must be of entire cultures, over periods of time, with allowance made for the innate conservativism of most human cultures.

Furthermore, some conversions are more impressive than others. Conversion to Christianity has almost always been socially and often physically dangerous. In some countries, especially Islamic countries, and some periods of European history, it can also be risky to come out as an atheist. But while atheism may be seen as repudiation of tradition, it is usually not seen as involving allying oneself with "the Franj," or "the Crusaders."

Fifth, other barriers have impeded the spread of faith.

Christianity was born into a world of tribes. Perhaps some twenty thousand different ethnic groups, each speaking its own language, were scattered across the globe. Most were at war with their neighbors. Fundamental beliefs could not pass freely from one mountain valley in Guang Xi province, or one village in the Amazon rainforest, or one tribal band on the Great Plains, to the next. Each was an animal with a tough hide and claws that scratched and teeth that bit. (Indeed, many had such totems.)

In such a world, evangelism could only proceed slowly. Paul was hounded and whipped and imprisoned from village to village, but he was in some ways lucky: most the towns he visited spoke Greek or Latin, had met Jews and understood some of his references, and were subject to Roman law. Outside that circle, man could be even more wolf to man: violent northern European tribes, Arabs, Africans speakings thousands of mutually-incomprensible languages across an unbridgeable desert, the vast, peopled, defensive plains, deserts, and jungles of Asia, and then endless oceans to other quarellsome continents.

Evangelism could not, under any circumstances, be the work of a day, a century, or probably even a millennia.

Sixth, if people need to be treated as groups as well as individuals, belief systems should also be broken down into specific tenets. Christianity invokes a series of claims about the world: a good God, Who created the world, speaks to humanity, sends prophets, sent his Son Jesus, who did miracles, taught truth, died and rose again.

The package theology called "Christianity" may be impeded by cultural or geographical barriers, even while the people who reject that package accept, or already believe, some of its constituent tenets.

With that introduction, let us consider the record of these two faiths in passing, in this ammended sense, the "Outsider Test for Faith."

(II.) God or non-God?

The idea of God clearly has passed the "outsider test for faith."

300 years ago, David Hume claimed that at the time of Christ, the whole world was polytheistic: "It is a matter of fact incontestable, that about 1,700 years ago all mankind were polytheists." This was a bit of an exagerration -- Hume did not know that many tribes were aware of a "High God" similiar to the God of the Bible. (Though they also usually believed in other spirits.)

But certainly, the theism that arose in Judaism, and then was adopted by Christians and Muslims, has crossed barriers with remarkable success. Today, about half the people in the world today believe in God in the Judeo-Christian sense. My survey in Taiwan found many non-Christians there who believed in a supreme God. Even in Japan, where Christians are less than 1%, and the government tried to snuff out theism by 200 years of murder and mayhem, when I surveyed my students, I found that about one fifth believed in a personal God who created the world.

III. Redemptive Sacrifice

The idea that "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins," is almost universal. This seems almost to be a fundamental intuition. Red ochre is often found in prehistoric graves, which seems to be a substitute for blood. Sacrifice is central to the earliest Indian texts, the Rig Veda, (which even speaks of Prajapati or God sacrificing himself for human salvation), the Chinese Classics, in Indonesia, Africa, and in much of the world.

The Gospel does not simply affirm this intuition -- it fulfills it, and by fulfilling it, ends actual blood sacrifice. Rene Girard has written profoundly on the social implications of that.

IV. Need for a Savior

All the world, it seems, is looking for a Savior: Messiah, Christ, Sanatan Sadguru, Sheng Ren. I argued, in True Son of Heaven and Jesus and the Religions of Man, that Jesus fulfills many of these prophecies in remarkable ways.

So in this case, too, Christianity passes passes the "outsider test" from the inside.

It is remarkable how universally the figure of Jesus seems to have been accepted as ideal, in cultures around the world, even as fulfilling vastly different ideals, as I attempt to show.

V. Christianity as a Package Deal

Why does John Loftus create a web site in Fort Wayne, Indiana, half way between glacier-scoured Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, in the northern American plains, trying to debunk beliefs about a politically-powerless peasant who lived 2,000 years ago on a piece of semi-desert where Asia, Africa and Europe come together?

Consider what barriers the Gospel overcame to get to Indiana. At every step -- from Jesus to the disciples, the crisis after Jesus died, persecution from defenders of Jewish orthodoxy, transmission to Greek and Latin cultures, then to Egypt, Libya, Gaul, Spain, England, Saxony, 300 years of persecution from defenders of Greco-Roman culture, Islamic invasions, Norse invasions -- each step represented choices, usually by thousands of individuals.

Often those choices were a matter of life or death. Often they involved ostricism. Often they involved identifying with hated foreigners.

True, Christianity was never entirely an "outsider" faith. Always it seemed to fulfill deep and ancient sacred hopes in each civilization. But the barriers were high.

We should not ignore the elephant in the room -- the fact that to become the world's largest religion, Christianity faced, and passed, the OTF millions of times.

Where, today, are there no Christians?

It may be hardest to find Christians in some Muslim countries. Maybe also in North Korea.

Why are Christians hard to find in Saudi Arabia or Omar? Do you need to ask! According to Mohammed, the penalty for leaving Islam and embracing another religion should be death. This rule was accepted throughout the Muslim world, and remains the assumption (as Pew Poll showed) for the vast majority of Muslims at least in two large Muslim countries. (I recently asked a friend who had been an imam and Muslim legal scholar in Africa: "When you were still Muslim, did you think it was right to put converts to Christianity to death?" "Absolutely!" He replied.)

Aside even from that, there is tremendous social pressure against conversion to Christianity, for obvious historical and religious reasons.

Nonetheless, a Coptic friend from Egypt tells me that hundreds of thousands of Muslims have converted to Christianity there. He may be exagerrating, but many certainly have. Thousand of Iranians and Algerian Berbers have also converted in recent years, and probably two million Indonesians a few decades ago.

My friend converted, he says, when he heard the audible voice of God.

In China, Christianity was associated with barbarians, imperialism, and the Opium Wars for hundreds of years. Many early converts were also killed. Communist education teaches atheism, which is why (according to a recent study) 66% of Chinese say they have no religion. Most Chinese still only have a hazy idea of what Christianity is about, and most young people scoff at religion, as they have been taught to do.

Still, over the past few decades, some 60 million mainland Chinese have converted to Christianity.

Christianity is also beginning to spread in Nepal. In India, members of a movement called Christ bakhti attempt to retain Hindu culture while trusting in Jesus. What this shows is that while few Indians are "Christians" yet, what India largely rejected was not the Gospel, but Western imperialism and cultural forms that came with it.

Triumphalism would be misplaced: Christian faith is not an easy thing, and each of us faces choices every day. But it seems clear that, given a fair chance, and taking the real world into consideration, Christianity does not fail the Outsider Test for Faith, but passes it in a remarkable, unprecedented way.

VI. Does Secular Humanism pass OTF?

The core tenets of Secular Humanism, as explained by Paul Kurtz, involves four simple assumptions: (1) There is no God; (2) or afterlife; (3) One should be concerned for oneself; (4) and for other people. One might distinguish western secular humanism, which usually accepts democracy, from Marxism, a non-democratic form of secular humanism. I see Secular Humanism, defined in this way, as probably the leading atheist faith in the Western world.

The last two tenets are, of course, accepted by almost everyone. So in order to make a convert, Secular Humanism needs only to convince you of two simple facts. You don't need to go to church, tithe, get baptized refrain from sleeping around (always a selling point), or (usually) die a martyr's death.

Still, most Secular Humanism seem to be either (a) an elite faith, bred in western universities, and fairly rare in the real world, or (b) a top-down faith, believed on government authority. (Maybe the two are related: education, many secular humanists have affirmed, is the key to a God-free future.)

This is just a thought, and maybe I'm wrong. But it seems that Christianity, both in parts and whole, has passed OTF-2.0 with flying colors. Secular Humanism certainly has easy appeal, and a fairly large congregation, but has yet to prove it can succeed without wholesale government sponsorship.

Update: In this post, I mostly assumed for the sake of the argument that there is, or can be, some validity to OTF 2.0. In a follow-up post, re-christening it the Argument from Transcultural Plausibility (ATP), I argue that in two ways, it may indeed carry some weight.