A Critique of Fundamentalism (II)
Steven J. Conifer
[Author's Note: The following is an extension of my essay "A Critique of Fundamentalism," in which I critique chapters 1 and 5 of Henry M. Morris' and Martin E. Clark's The Bible Has the Answer. The essay is located on the Secular Web at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/steven_conifer/fundamentalism.html.]
4.1. Chapter 12 of BHA: "The Church"The first question posed in BHA's chapter 12 is this: "Which is the true church?" It is hardly shocking that authors Morris and Clark contend that "the true church in the Biblical context will be any local church which acknowledges the Lord Jesus Christ as its one Head, accepts the Holy Scriptures as the divinely inspired and fully authoritative basis of its doctrine and practice, and seeks to obey Christ's Great Commission, as given in Matthew 28:18-20, of winning men to Christ, baptizing them, and then training them in all phases of Christian truth and life."1 In other words, the only "true" church is the one whose members display an unwavering faith in the inerrancy of the Bible, regard it as the literal "Word of God," and turn to it for the final answer on every matter concerning humanity, particularly that of how humans ought to conduct themselves.
My objection to this claim is quite simple. If it is truly so that the only "true" church is the one described by Morris and Clark, then why do billions of people (including a sizable portion of self-described Christians) fail to recognize that? That is, why is it that members of every faith other than Christianity, those who belong to no faith at all, and even most who call themselves "liberal" or "mainstream" Christians, completely disagree with the authors' definition of the "true" church? Many of those in the last category profess a belief in the very same god (and also worship Jesus, accept most parts of the Bible as literally true, etc.) as the one in whom the authors believe, yet they hold a radically different view on the matter. Why is that? If there really is only one true god, then why does he not somehow make it clear which is the one true church? Surely it is not outside the realm of his abilities or desires, as he is supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and, according to virtually all Christians and the majority of theists in general, to want people to believe in and worship him in the proper fashion (i.e., by joining the proper church, reciting the proper prayers, etc.). So why, then, does he permit so much confusion regarding these matters?2
Unsurprisingly, Morris and Clark conveniently sidestep such considerations and move swiftly to the second question: "With so many cults and denominations, how can I decide which are true and which are false?" Their answer to this question is no more startling than their response to the first: only those denominations which satisfy the requirements outlined above qualify as "true." They also contend that God has "provided adequate instruction" on how one can find the "truth" if he honestly desires it.
The same kind of objection as was raised above is applicable here as well. If God's instruction were really adequate, then wouldn't there be much less confusion surrounding the issues of the true church, the true deity, the true messiah, the true holy book, the true parts of that holy book, the true code(s) of morality, etc. than there actually is? Could not an omnipotent god such as the one in whom Christians believe manage to find some way to better enlighten people as regards those issues than he has apparently thus far done? The mere fact that well over four billion people do not even adhere to Christianity should render it quite obvious that his instruction on the given issues is far from adequate. Indeed, one could rightly infer that if the Bible were truly God's "main revelation to humanity" (as most Christians claim it to be) and were as explicit on crucial points of doctrine as the authors allege, then the type of heated debates which frequently occur within theological circles would, at the very least, not occur so often, and probably not occur at all. However, such conflicts typically arise, at one point or another, within a single congregation, and within denominations as a whole internal strife of the order at hand exists almost perpetually. (Likely even Morris and Clark would concede this, though they would undoubtedly insist that that friction is due exclusively to the stubbornness and willful ignorance of all those who refuse to accept the Bible as the infallible "Word of God.") So, is a human race divided into thousands of religions, denominations, sects, cults, and creeds, constantly bickering about what God really wants and what the Bible really means (and if it really is divinely inspired), the work of an all-powerful deity who has furnished that race with "adequate instruction" on matters concerning faith, worship, moral rules, and the requirements for salvation? Such a notion seems highly implausible, regardless of how clear and "adequate" the authors of BHA maintain that instruction to be.
The next question presented in chapter 12 that I shall pursue here is the following: "What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit?" The authors describe three passages in the New Testament which list several "spiritual gifts": I Corinthians 12:7-11, 27:28; Romans 12:4-8; and Ephesians 4:7-11. Altogether, say Morris and Clark, seventeen such gifts are listed, only two of which are included in all three lists: those of "prophecy" and "teaching." The former, they explain, immediately ceased to exist after the "Apostolic Era" of the first century, as there "was no further need [for that gift]." In fact, they add, a "grave warning" against any further "pretended 'prophecy'" was given in the closing words of John, the last of the apostles (Revelation 22:18,19).
I have three rejoinders which I shall advance in response to this section of BHA's chapter 12. First of all, the very idea of receiving "gifts" from the Holy Spirit is terribly vague.3 How, exactly, does one do this, i.e., how does one receive these gifts, and how does he recognize which he has received, or even that he has received one at all? And if he is somehow certain that he has received a particular gift, then how might he ascertain the manner in which he is to use it, and to what extent, and under what circumstances, etc.? Is the reception of these gifts akin to a hypnotic trance during which one is given subliminal commands, and from which he emerges with all the necessary knowledge but without any definite idea as to how he has procured it? Is it something of an "epiphany," or less dramatic and momentous than that? Does one receive these gifts all at once, or individually, or what? I suspect that many Christians would greatly appreciate answers to these questions.
Second, why is it that the gift of "prophecy" (as the authors describe it) ceased to exist following the deaths of the original apostles? What, exactly, rendered it obsolete? If God desires that everyone (or almost everyone) adhere to Christianity, then why would he cease to employ the arguably most effective means by which to bring about that state of affairs? Why not allow this remarkable gift to continue, bestowing it upon hundreds or even thousands of Christian missionaries so as to greatly increase the likelihood of their winning converts to their religion? Surely if certain people alive even today were able to predict future events of great significance and those prophecies were ultimately fulfilled, then nearly every rational human being would eventually convert to whatever religion those people endorsed. Yet, for some incomprehensible reason, God chose roughly nineteen hundred years ago to do away with this "gift" altogether. (It should be noted, in addition, that it would tremendously help the authors' case if the so-called "prophecies" contained in the Bible had themselves been fulfilled, quite apart from any which might have been proposed subsequent to its writing.)
The third and final point I wish to make with regard to the given section pertains to the very concept of the Trinity. How might it be that that concept even makes sense? That is, how is it that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are the numerically same entity, viz., that they are one and the same entity? Is it really conceivable that three separate and distinct beings should somehow (simultaneously) constitute but one? That would certainly seem to defy both the laws of nature and those of logic, and should hence be regarded as hopelessly incoherent.
4.2. Chapter 14 of BHA: "The Life in Christ"
Irrespective of whether or not God exists and truly has prescribed a particular "mission" for us each, it is simply erroneous that the only way one can enjoy a meaningful and happy life is by discovering and fulfilling the "mission" to which they refer. Millions (perhaps even billions) of atheists, agnostics, and individuals who simply profess no religious beliefs whatever have presumably enjoyed just such a life despite the fact that they do not, by and large, worship any sort of deity, attend church services of any kind, or even believe in a "higher power." Furthermore, if God really has assigned a specific "mission" to us each, then why is it so unclear to so many of us? That is, why are there so many people who claim that they have no idea what their purpose(s) for living might be, or that they have no such purpose at all? What are we to make of all those individuals who believe that life merely happens, ends, and that's it? Are they simply being obstinate and defiant, refusing to acknowledge (let alone carry out) the special "missions" which they have been given? If so, then why doesn't God do more to help them see the truth, to help them understand just what those "missions" are? Surely an all-powerful being such as the Christian God could manage that.
The second question in chapter 14 reads as follows: "How can one know when God has called him?" Unfortunately, Morris and Clark fail, yet again, to provide a clear and sufficient answer. They claim (eventually, after rambling for the better part of the section) that every "true Christian" has been "called" for some specific purpose, but they neglect to illuminate that claim to such an extent that it might admit of a critical assessment.
In any case, the same questions as were raised above can also be put forth here. First, why do some people fail to clearly perceive, or to perceive at all, the purpose(s) of their lives? Second, why do some people flat-out deny that they possess any such purpose? And most consequential of all, if each of us really does possess such a purpose (as the authors of BHA enthusiastically proclaim), then why doesn't God unambiguously apprise us each of that purpose? As was noted above, a deity who is able to do anything which is logically possible (or conceivable) should have no problem performing such a task.
The next question of chapter 14 which I shall consider here is another relatively broad one: "What is the 'deeper life?'" As usual, rather than offering a concise, straightforward response, the authors digress for the vast bulk of the section, first discussing a wide range of phrases synonymous with the "deeper life" and then describing everything which this marvelous mode of existence is not (one of their favorite and most exasperating routines: answering the reverse forms of their own questions rather than the questions themselves). They do, however, remind us that everlasting life is available to everyone (as opposed to a "select group of spiritual Christians"), so long, of course, as he embraces Jesus alone as his "Lord and Savior."
My objection here is again one which was raised earlier. Why are those who have never even heard of Jesus (e.g., members of remote African tribes) or who are totally incapable of exercising any control whatever over their beliefs (or both) held accountable by God for their lack of Christian faith, and, accordingly, cast into Satan's "lake of fire" (where they are eternally tormented)? Is not the Christian God a being of limitless love and mercy?
Also in this section the authors again mention that the "gift of prophecy" became obsolete after all of Jesus' apostles perished (or, as Revelation 22:18 states, this gift was "done away" with). And again I raise the obvious question: why? I myself cannot think of any method for "winning men" to Christianity more potent than that of genuine prophecy. Indeed, what could possibly be more remarkable and convincing than hundreds of predictions, propounded by common men and women with no background or training in the Christian church, being proven accurate in every generation? If God were to simply begin employing such a device tomorrow, then I should think that at least nine out of ten human beings would convert to Christianity well before the close of the twenty-first century.
The fifth and final question of chapter 14 is this: "Is prayer mainly of psychological benefit, or does God really hear and answer?" In a rare instance of clarity and relative brevity, the authors actually respond to the question by the third paragraph of the section. Their response, however, is not quite as unexpected: of course there is more to prayer than mere "psychological benefits," but only if one is a "true" Christian and has fully accepted Jesus as his "own personal Savior and Master." Otherwise, how dare we ask him for anything?
Once again, the authors describe God as something of an ill-tempered, almost arrogant deity, demanding that people worship and adore his son (who is also God himself, remember) if they have any desire to avoid intolerable agony in the hereafter. This concept of God is, to say the least, a far cry from the one to which most Christians subscribe, viz., one characterized by measureless compassion, forgiveness, and love. What Morris and Clark have failed to sufficiently explain here is why that sort of god would send anyone to hell, and if for whatever inexplicable reason he really does, why he doesn't make a greater effort to clearly inform us of that fact and thereby help us to "save" ourselves from the icy, unyielding grip of Satan.
A final series of objections which might be raised here concerns the belief, prevalent among both Christians and theists in general, that God possesses foreknowledge, which presents a huge host of difficulties. First, if God is truly omniscient as regards the future as well as the past and present, then why need anyone pray to him? Cannot God simply discern one's thoughts and desires without the person's having to express them (whether silently or aloud), since he has always known what those thoughts and desires would be? Second, if God indeed has a "master plan" for humanity and knows in advance everything that is ever going to happen (right down to the most minute detail), then what is the point of invoking his assistance in any affair, whether personal, global, or otherwise? If some end is to be achieved, then so it shall be; and if not, then evidently it is just not part of God's "plan" that that come to pass. So what, then, is the purpose of seeking his guidance at all? And lastly, there is, of course, a more familiar and far larger problem with respect to divine foreknowledge, one known in the literature as "the Problem of Free Will": if God really knows beforehand everything that one will do (and think, believe, etc.), then one really hasn't any volition whatever, for one could not possibly do (or think, believe, etc.) anything contrary to what God foreknows. Hence, if God indeed possesses foreknowledge, then none of us possesses free will, and therefore none of us can be considered culpable for any of our beliefs or actions.4
4.3. Chapter 23 of BHA: "The Spirit World"
But there are far more substantial problems with the idea of an evil being working in opposition to God's will. Even assuming that the Bible is reliable at least insofar as its descriptions of Satan and his devious schemes are concerned, numerous questions could be put forth, none of which seems to have any clear or satisfactory answer. The authors hasten to underscore that God created the angels (of which Satan was originally one) as "free spirits" rather than "unthinking machines," but one might still rightly inquire as to how Satan ever came to acquire his wicked character at all, let alone envy God's status as ruler of the universe and seek to oust him therefrom. That is, whence might have emanated even the conditions for sin? Or, put simply, what is the ultimate root of evil? Needless to say, it seems preposterous to suppose that it might lie in some deed performed by a deity such as the one in whom Christians typically believe, viz., one who is all-merciful and morally perfect. But if it does not lie there, then where might it?
Theodore Drange raises similar questions, writing:
Furthermore, if God is indeed omnipotent and omnibenevolent (both properties indispensable to the Christian concept of deity), then how is it that Satan ever succeeds in luring humans into committing sins worthy of eternal damnation (whatever they might be)? The authors suggest that God, "in His inscrutable wisdom, allowed Satan for a time to continue in his rebellion, now with the earth as his base of operations and with most of mankind as his unwitting allies." But this reply simply won't do, for if it is really the case that God continues even today to allow Satan this opportunity, then there remains a critical question concerning God's motives, namely, why he permits Satan to do this, to get people's souls eternally damned and cause great amounts of evil in the world. If God indeed loves humanity maximally (as most Christians claim that he does), then why does he not, by way of simply exercising his infinite powers, simply destroy the devil and put an end to the widespread depravity that he has purportedly engendered? And if the Christian should respond by alleging that it is all part of God's "master plan," then he shall simply beg essentially the same question that he has endeavored to answer: what long-range goal(s) might God possibly have that would morally justify his allowing humans to experience all the pain and anguish brought about by the devil's heinous enterprise, and how could that/those goal(s) possibly outweigh God's desire to protect us from misfortune? Drange expounds the problem thus:
[I]f Satan is taken to be the cause of all apparently natural evil, then he seems bent on greatly harming humanity and to have been successful in inflicting tremendous damage. The question naturally arises why God should set up the world in such a way. Since Satan is such a powerful adversary to humanity, why have him around at all? And why should God favor Satan's side of the conflict? If the enormous suffering of billions of people could be prevented by eliminating or restricting Satan, then why not do it? What is so important about letting Satan exercise his free will? Unless these questions are answered, the Devil Defense would be not merely incomplete but actually incoherent. An all-loving deity could not sic the devil on us or allow him free reign to perform evil, for that would be incompatible with his being maximally loving toward humanity, which is supposed to be one of his essential properties, especially within the context of evangelical Christianity.8
Second, the authors suggest that God allows the devil to continue tempting and corrupting humans because "it has enabled [Him] to reveal His grace and love as well as His power and holiness." This contention is simply absurd. How might God's permitting evil (including his eternally damning sinners to hell) possibly enable him to exhibit any of those attributes? In fact, it would almost certainly have just the opposite effect, leading most to conclude that God, if he exists at all, is a markedly callous and/or impotent being scarcely worthy of the title that humankind has assigned him.
Another difficulty with the authors' reply here is that if it were true, then it would seem odd that Satan does not tempt and corrupt even more people than he actually does, and cause still more pain and suffering than the authors ascribe to him. For instance, why doesn't he demolish whole cities on a regular basis, obliterate species by the hundreds every hour (thereby greatly disrupting the food chain), further erode the ozone layer, wipe out hospitals and churches, and so forth? And what about all the pleasures that he has ostensibly left intact? As Drange queries:
Why [doesn't Satan] make the world still worse? Why [does] he leave in all the beauty and harmony that exists in nature, the delightful sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and fragrances? Why [does] he permit us to have as good an immune system as we have?... [Ours] is clearly not the best of all possible worlds, but also it is far from being the worst. Why [doesn't] Satan do still more to make it closer to the worst? One might reply that God restricts Satan (just as he restricted him with regard to how much suffering Satan could impose on poor Job). But then the question simply becomes that of why God doesn't restrict Satan more than he does.11Michael Martin raises two other important points, namely, the improbability of there even existing conscious beings who are disembodied (as Satan and his cohorts are generally supposed to be) and the lack of credible eyewitness reports of such beings on those relatively rare occasions that they allegedly appear in bodily form. He writes:
The Satan hypothesis is about the actions of disembodied conscious beings. Although Satan and his cohorts are thought to take on bodily form sometimes, the consciousness of fallen, no less than ordinary, angels is independent of any physical causality. But our experience is that consciousness is causally dependent on physical organisms... Thus we have inductive evidence against the Satan hypothesis.In light of these many conceptual difficulties, it seems quite likely that the authors' assertion that Satan is a real being who reigns over the earth as its "prince" (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11) and who "deceiveth the whole world" (Revelation 12:9) is mistaken, and hence that so also are all of those biblical passages which seem to support it.
I conclude that, having employed generally the same methods of evasion and obfuscation as they did in BHA's chapters 1 and 5, Morris and Clark have again, in its chapters 12, 14, and 23, failed utterly to adequately defend even a single assertion which they propound therein.
4.4. Biblical Contradictions Regarding the "Resurrection"
Question #1: How many women went to Jesus' tomb?
Now suppose that the individuals who claimed that astronauts had landed on the moon thirty years prior to their announcement of the alleged event were to have belonged to some radical pro-lunar-exploration group (a group as unorthodox as, say, the Flat Earth Society) whose members were known to zealously advocate sending humans to the moon and to actively recruit new members wherever possible. Surely then, given their patent biases and manifest aims, it would be most reasonable to declare that very likely the event in question did not occur. Such a situation is perfectly analogous to that of the disciples who reputedly penned the gospels. That is, they were all viewed by their peers as something of extremists who challenged traditional beliefs and sought to win converts to their new religion (which was then a kind of Judaic cult looked upon by most with skepticism and disfavor), proselytizers who espoused ludicrous notions about a supposed messiah and his grand message for humanity. We thus have strong grounds for dismissing the accounts under inspection.
Now suppose further that the members of the hypothetical pro-lunar-exploration group were to have claimed not merely that astronauts had landed on the moon thirty years before their announcement, but that the astronauts had traveled there via some magical means of transportation (e.g., teleportation). Would it not then be fair to deem the given event virtually impossible? To be sure. The point here should be obvious.
In both the present essay and the previous one, then, we have seen excellent reasons for regarding Christian fundamentalism as irrevocably flawed, and hence excellent reasons for rejecting that outlook.
Notes1. Henry M. Morris and Martin E. Clark, The Bible Has the Answer (El Cajon, CA: Masters Books, 1997). [All citations derived from this work are located in its chapters 12, 14, and 23.]
3. Incidentally, it might be plausibly argued that the most serious defect of the entire text of The Bible Has the Answer is its pervasive unclarity and grossly deficient descriptions and explanations.
5. This question obviously presupposes that it is legitimate to refer to writings contained in the Bible as "evidence," which is something that I would deny. However, I shall simply bypass that issue and attack the authors' claims on other grounds.
9. In the philosophy of religion, a distinction is often drawn between "moral evils" and "natural evils." The former consist in those afflictions for which humans are in some way or another culpable, the latter in those which take the form of natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, floods, etc.).
10. For a detailed discussion of why both the Devil Defense and the Free-will Defense fail miserably as theodicies (i.e., defenses of God's existence against the problem of evil), see, especially, Drange, pp. 97-119; Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), pp. 362-400.
13. See, for example, the Craig-Tooley debate (1994) at: http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-tooley1.html
Steven J. Conifer can be reached at writer11879.
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