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Friday, November 11, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Evangelical Idiots and the Death of America

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

It’s the end of the world as we know it ...
Tom: Immanuel Can, today I’m feeling the urge to talk about Craig James.

Craig is the author of the book The Religion Virus: Why We Believe In God (he doesn’t). He is a blogger with a site also called The Religion Virus. I’m not so much interested in his atheism (because we’ve done that, and recently), but in his enthusiastic mischaracterization of the beliefs of Christians.

For example, in a post entitled Evangelical Idiocy: The Death of America? he says:
“Here is a sampling of [evangelical] idiocy:

- Six in ten white Evangelicals believe that hurricanes, floods and earthquakes are signs from God that the End of Times is almost here. They don’t believe in global warming. They don’t believe earthquakes are just normal geology.

- A majority (53%) of white evangelicals believe that God punishes whole nations for the sins of some citizens.

- Evangelicals believe that God is actively controlling the world, and that everything that happens is because God deliberately made it happen.”

Bring on the Idiocy …

First of all, IC, are we evangelicals going to be the “death of America”? Or perhaps you and I could take a whack at doing in Canada, if you’re up for it, just the two of us …

Immanuel Can: No, not at all. You know, it’s amazing to me what the atheist set does to try to make history look as if it shows Christianity is bad for a culture. For just a couple of examples, they will completely overlook the signal contribution of conservative Christianity in events as monumental as the preservation of ancient cultures and the modernization of India, the end of slavery and the rise of government welfare programs, the development of public schools and higher education, and even more impressively, the very genesis of Western science. They routinely gut their own histories in order to prevent recognition of such things, or to make them look incidental, or to seem like secular achievements. Sadly, these are also stories about which Christians themselves know too little.

But no, that’s no danger.

Tom: Whew. The sweat was beading on my brow ...

IC: In fact, the real question is this: given all the advances Christianity has generated for Western culture, can it continue to thrive when that source is cut off by secularization? How will we do when there is no longer a compassionate motive for welfare, a belief in truth to motivate integrity in education, an incentive to preserve and respect rather than shatter new cultures, a compass for our moral directions and a belief in a lawgiver God to underwrite our confidence in science? Those are the questions we need to answer.

But a little ground-level Christian piety is some kind of threat to Western advancement or science? Get serious. Can anyone believe that? Really?

Where Do Those Numbers Come From Anyway?

Tom: Well, I’m very glad you’ve cleared that up, but I can’t decide whether guys like Craig James are ignorant of all this, or simply incredibly disingenuous.

For instance, you are probably familiar with the way in which surveys are frequently taken by professionals tasked with the promotion of a particular agenda rather than with objectively gathering data. And you are definitely familiar with just how easy it is to stack the deck by slanting the sorts of questions you ask or the way you report your findings. In this instance, I can just picture the questions: “Do you believe a hurricane can be a sign from God?” or “Do you believe God ever punishes nations for the sins of some of their citizens?” The person being questioned replies in the affirmative and now “a majority of white evangelicals believe God punishes whole nations for the sins of some citizens”. Ooh. Scary.

But a huge, and perhaps thoroughly intentional, mischaracterization of the evangelical mindset.

Characterizations or Misrepresentations?

IC: Quite. But anyone who’s done the academic work to produce a thesis or a book knows the answer to whether they are being incompetent or dishonest. It’s the latter. They do see the evidence, and they have the brains to recognize what it means; but they also have the perversity of heart and lack of integrity to refuse the evidence of their eyes, and they have the dexterity to avoid rendering the obvious conclusion in their writing. I’ve met such, talked with such, argued with such, read their books and papers, and seen how they operate.

Academics are not a new kind of person, though some people think they’re special. They’re normal men and women, with the normal range of desires and ambitions, along with the normal set of sinful impulses; but unlike other people, they have found means through their research and activities to actualize their desires in academic ways. It’s pretty simple, really; it’s ordinary human nature. The good ones are good, honest academics; the bad ones use their abilities to advance their personal desires or to indulge in unhealthy utopian speculations.

Hurricanes, Floods and Earthquakes

Tom: Let’s look at a couple of instances of what I think are misrepresentations of the evangelical mindset: “Six in ten white Evangelicals believe that hurricanes, floods and earthquakes are signs from God that the End of Times is almost here. They don’t believe in global warming. They don’t believe earthquakes are just normal geology.”

I simply have never met an evangelical that believes these things as stated. Take me for example. I have severe doubts about global warming. But it has nothing to do with my faith in God and everything to do with my lack of faith in the honesty of the scientific community and my conviction that the whole global warming “consensus” is the product of a political agenda.

Being an evangelical has nothing whatsoever to do with my beliefs about these things and further, the Bible has nothing to say about global warming per se.

But that’s me. What’s your take on the evangelical mindset with respect to hurricanes, floods and earthquakes and their origins?

IC: Well, I would say this: that anyone who tries to read into these events some predictable pattern of justice is silly. It is simply not true that in this world, at this time, the just are rewarded and the wicked punished — and we have new examples daily to prove that. We might think we’d like it if the world worked in a strict, predictable way like that: but actually none of us really would, since we so often end up on the bad end of that deal. But equally silly are those who say they are certain that none of these events is ever due to God’s decision against the sins of man. How could they know that, any more than the other side does?

The truth on both sides is this: we just don’t know what, if anything, particular earthquakes and hurricanes may or may not mean, or what such phenomena may mean in general. Only very silly people on either side think they do.

Tom: I have a feeling that what many Christians are saying about these things when asked is very close to what I would say on the subject, which is that any particular situation could be an instance of the judgment of God. I mean, can we really rule it out? He judged Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. He judged Ananias and Sapphira in the New, among others. Based on the prophetic word, he continued to judge after the close of the NT in connection with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

So COULD any individual situation be the judgment of God? Of course; how could you rule it out? But is that a high percentage bet? I don’t think so.

However, if I were to say such a thing to someone doing a survey for TIME magazine, for instance, who knows how my statement would be represented?

IC: Yes. They’d be likely to treat the very suggestion that God could be passing judgment on anyone as evidence of your insanity; firstly, because in their view God does not exist, but secondly, that it’s really, really, really unpleasant of you to suggest anyone could ever deserve to be judged. So scoffing would be the order of the day. But no rational refutation, of course.

The Punishment of Nations

Tom: Which is in fact what Mr. James does here: just scoff. Now another example of what he calls “evangelical idiocy” is his allegation that “A majority of white evangelicals believe that God punishes whole nations for the sins of some citizens”.

How crazy is that notion? Has God ever punished nations for the sins of some citizens, and is there any chance he might do it today, in your view?

IC: Au contraire, I recall God explicitly promising that for the sake of even ten righteous people he would not condemn a whole city. And then I note that even when God judged that wicked city, he saved “righteous Lot” and his family out of it rather than destroying any of the innocent with the guilty. The Word assures us that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment”. Rescue for the one, judgment for the other, both guaranteed by the character of God.

But then, if you don’t happen to believe that guilt is a real thing, or that judgment is a real thing either, then you might still imagine there was some injustice involved …

… except then you also wouldn’t really believe in the concept of justice, would you?

Tom: Well, this is it. These verses and Old Testament stories that demonstrate that God is perfectly capable of making a distinction between the righteous and the wicked are well known. I find it very hard to believe that “a majority of white evangelicals” believe the exact opposite. It seems far more likely to me that the question was framed to them in a misleading way, or that those who for the purpose of the survey self-identified as evangelicals were not a representative sample of regular churchgoers, let alone real believers.

God’s Active Control of the World

How about Mr. James’s claim that “Evangelicals believe that God is actively controlling the world, and that everything that happens is because God deliberately made it happen”? That one’s certainly is your wheelhouse: how credible is that statement, and does such a worldview pose a danger to America?

IC: Well, he’s channeling Calvinism, obviously.

Tom: And Calvinists represent approximately 30-32 percent of evangelical pastors. Not even a third. My guess would be that a much smaller percentage than that of evangelical churchgoers even understand the issues involved. So to tar all evangelicals with the Calvinist brush is another significant misrepresentation.

IC: And I prefer to refer to Calvinism as “Divine Determinism”, because below the surface level it has far less in common with Christianity than it really has with atheistic Materialistic Determinism, which is the narcotic-of-choice of the atheist set. What these two types of Determinism have in common is that they insist that mankind is nothing other than a product of some kind of Great Force — either an arbitrary and totally manipulative supposed “God” figure (Calvinism) or else the ironclad Laws of Nature and Causality plus Time (Materialism). And it could be true that both systems are a real threat to both the human race and to science itself, if enough people were to be gullible enough to believe in them. But perhaps we may hope they aren’t.

Tom: I’m thinking there’s a certain amount of passivity that follows logically from the idea that God deliberately makes everything happen.

IC: That’s fair. It can be used to rationalize passivity or quietism, of course, but also to create wide-open space to justify moral excesses as well; it depends on the motive. The key thing is that it removes all praise or blame from the moral situation. It leaves no incentive to be greatly good, but also no reason either not to be wildly evil if the inclination strikes you. Either way, you’re not responsible.

Tom: So the effective difference between Divine Determinists and Materialistic Determinists is that most of the former consistently try to observe a particular moral code, with or without a logical reason to do so. Not particularly scary, in my view.

IC: Certainly in the case of Christians, we can assert quite confidently that many are more enamored of the truth of scripture and the explicit words of Christ than of the Calvinists’ pet doctrine. So I don’t think there’s any real threat proceeding from conservative evangelicals there. The Divine Determinists are usually more interested in forcing their theological view on their peers, rather than on politicking generally or undermining confidence in science, and they certainly have little impact on public opinion.

However, the atheist set … I can’t be so optimistic for them. Determinism makes all scientific inquiry into nothing but a chance happening of atoms, and destroys with it all human choice, praise, blame and freedom. A great many atheists are at first drawn to the insanity of Determinism — only to veer away in panic at the last minute when they realize it deprives them of all the freedoms they long for so much. But usually they settle on an irrational and schizophrenic belief in BOTH the idea that humankind can make real choices AND that ultimately physical causes and effects are all the universe has in it. And yes, they have considerable influence, strong political will, and potential to do great harm to science and human rights.

Tom: And yet our friend Mr. James is oddly unconcerned about the dangers posed by Materialistic Determinists, inconsistent or not.

What if Craig James’s Numbers Are Correct?

One observation I ought to make about Mr. James is that even if we assume all the data to which he refers is accurate and objectively obtained (though without a source, it’s tough to confirm that), the conclusions he draws are beyond bizarre, and wildly illogical. For instance:
“... these beliefs are dangerous. It means ... if you’re the one who is gay, I still get nailed by God’s hurricane. If you get divorced, I get hit with an earthquake.”
Now if I happen to believe (wrongly, in his view) that God judges nations with hurricanes and earthquakes, how on earth does that impact the atheist? How does it change his life one whit? In the atheist worldview, I’m not the one sending the earthquakes and hurricanes. They are natural phenomena and my belief or lack of it affects exactly nothing.

Unless James is actually trying to make the case that all earthquakes and hurricanes are products of global warming, and that global warming is primarily caused by Christians, or that Christians in politics are powerful enough to seriously hinder the environmentalist agenda, none of which is a reasonable assumption and none of which he even remotely tries to demonstrate.

IC: Yes, that’s quite funny, isn’t it?

At the same time, it raises a serious question: if Christians are NOT dangerous on these counts, what explains the atheist determination to make out that they are?

How can a person like Mr. James — who under normal circumstances would see through so flimsy a fabrication — be simply unable to apply the standards of logic he would routinely use in other contexts? It can’t be a brain seizure, can it? But if it’s not, then what accounts for such absurd self-contradiction? As an atheist, he must surely believe that hurricanes and earthquakes are purely chance phenomena governed by routine physical laws. He must think so every day. So what would account for a sudden fit of irrational and blind zeal capable of wiping even his own basic logic from his consciousness?

It’s almost … well … supernatural.

The Danger of Evangelical Political Clout

Tom: It may actually be that James, all evidence to the contrary, actually fears that politicized evangelicals have enough clout to genuinely and negatively impact the world. He goes on to say, “How can a modern democracy function if its citizens are ignorant about simple scientific facts that affect national policy? How [can] citizens vote responsibly when their votes are based on superstition and myth?”

It seems to me that he vastly overestimates the power of Christians (and, for that matter, Americans) in the world. Unlike certain atheists like Pat Condell and even the late Christopher Hitchens who are (or were) savvy enough to register the threat of Islam, James is wholly concentrated on this hobby horse of “evangelical idiocy”.

So your comment about “blind zeal” is apropos more ways than one.

IC: Wait … wait … my sides are hurting … I need a second.

You mean his supposition is as follows: that America of the 18th-20th centuries was largely free from evangelicals and yet highly democratic, and so flourished; but now the evangelicals are not decreasing but increasing, and they’re posing a threat to America and democracy? THIS is his theory? O mercy. How could we have any more perfect illustration?

Well, can I say it better than old G.K. Chesterton?
“This is the last and most astounding fact about this faith; that its enemies will use any weapon against it, the swords that cut their own fingers, and the firebrands that burn their own homes. Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church ... I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there could be no human judgment, even for practical purposes. They burned their own corn to set fire to the church ... But what are we to say about the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred for the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God ... The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.”
— G.K. Chesterton, The Romance of Orthodoxy 

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