Monday, November 30, 2009

"As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God"

Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset

By Matthew Parris

Africa on the globe

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.

We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

African Landscape

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Source: Times Online

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Overview of Hinduism


Hinduism is the world's third largest religion. As of 2004 there were approximately 800 million Hindus worldwide. What is Hinduism? What do its adherents believe? How do the teachings of Hinduism square with the Scriptures and how can a Christian best witness to a follower of Hinduism?

The following resource from attempts to answer these questions and the resource can either be read or listened to:

Listen or Read the transcript

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute - By Michael Ruse

Dr. Michael Ruse, an atheist philosopher of biology, speaks out against the "New Atheists".

The New Atheists

As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: "What or who is an atheist?" If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group. Richard Dawkins denies being such a person. If you mean someone who agrees that logically there could be a god, but who doesn't think that the logical possibility is terribly likely, or at least not something that should keep us awake at night, then I guess a lot of us are atheists. But there is certainly a split, a schism, in our ranks. I am not whining (in fact I am rather proud) when I point out that a rather loud group of my fellow atheists, generally today known as the "new atheists", loathe and detest my thinking. Richard Dawkins has likened me to the pusillanimous appeaser at Munich, Neville Chamberlain. Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, says (echoing Orwell) that only someone with pretensions to the intelligentsia could believe the silly things I believe. And energetic blogger PZ Myers refers to me as a "clueless gobshite" because I confessed to seeing why true believers might find the Kentucky Creationist Museum convincing. I will spare you what my fellow philosopher Dan Dennett has to say about me.

There are several reasons why we atheists are squabbling – I will speak only for myself but I doubt I am atypical. First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting. This claim is on a par with golden plates in upstate New York. The Quakers and the Evangelicals were inspired and driven by their religion to oppose slavery, and a good thing too. Of course there has been evil in the name of religion – the pope telling Africans not to use condoms in the face of Aids – but as often as not religion is not the only or even the primary force for evil. The troubles in Northern Ireland were surely about socio-economic issues also, and the young men who flew into the World Trade Centre towers were infected by the alienation and despair of the young in Muslim countries in the face of poverty and inequalities.

Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, "What caused God?" as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery. Dawkins was indignant when, on the grounds that inanimate objects cannot have emotions, philosophers like Mary Midgley criticised his metaphorical notion of a selfish gene. Sauce for the biological goose is sauce for the atheist gander. There are a lot of very bright and well informed Christian theologians. We atheists should demand no less.

Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don't have faith. I really don't. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." I don't think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief.

Fourth and finally, I live in the American South, surrounded by ardent Christians. I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt. And especially to make unsubstantiated arguments that science refutes religion. I never conceal my nonbelief. I defend to the death the right of the new atheists to their views and to their right to propagate them. But that is no excuse for political stupidity. If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?

Back in 1961, in the depths of the cold war, terrified as we were by the threat of nuclear annihilation, John Whitcomb Junior and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood, a six-day-creationist account of origins. Because of its dispensationalist message – God clears things out every now and then, as he did at the time of Noah, and we should expect the next (literal) blow up fairly shortly – it became the fundamentalist bible. But don't worry. It's all part of God's plans, even the Russian bomb. Today, nearly a decade after 9/11, terrified as so many still are by the terrorist threat, the atheistic fundamentalists are finding equally fertile soil for their equally frenetic messages. It's all the fault of the believers, Muslims mainly of course, but Christians also. But don't worry. In the God Delusion, we have a message as simplistic as in The Genesis Flood. This too will solve all of your problems. Peace and prosperity await you in this world, if not the next.

Forgive me if I don't sign on.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Q&A with William Lane Craig: Fine Tuning and Morality


Fine Tuning: This argument (based on my understanding) is based on the assumption that life can only form under the conditions of our universe and only takes into account life as we know it. Is it not possible for life to form under different physical constants? If so, wouldn't the fine tuning of our universe be irrelevant to the question of God's existence?

Moral Argument: You assert that objective morality comes about through God (to put it very simply). Isn't it just as plausible to see morality as something evolving from early homo sapiens and the development of different societies and civilizations and the necessities that follow from living in those societies? Couldn't morality have come about naturally through the demands of a society to conform to the norms?


Dr. William Lane Craig responds:

1. Fine-Tuning. Your understanding of the argument is incorrect. See my exposition of the argument in Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. When scientists talk about a universe's being life-permitting, they're not talking about just present forms of life. By "life" scientists just mean the property of organisms to take in food, extract energy from it, grow, adapt to their environment, and reproduce. Anything that can fulfill those functions counts as life. And the point is, in order for life so-defined to exist, whatever form it might take, the constants and quantities of the universe have to be unbelievably fine-tuned. You suggest that if the constants and quantities had had different values, then different forms of life might have evolved. But you're underestimating the truly disastrous consequences of a change in the values of these constants and quantities. In the absence of fine-tuning not even matter, not even chemistry, would exist, much less planets where life might evolve.

Someone might think, "But maybe in a universe governed by different laws of nature, such disastrous consequences might not result." But this objection also betrays a misunderstanding of the argument. We're not concerned with universes governed by different laws of nature. We have no idea what such universes might be like! Rather we're concerned solely with universes governed by the same laws of nature but with different values of the constants and arbitrary quantities. The philosopher John Leslie gives the following illustration: imagine a solitary fly, resting on a large, blank area of the wall. A single shot is fired, and the bullet strikes the fly. Now even if the rest of the wall outside the blank area is covered with flies, so that a randomly fired bullet would probably hit one, nevertheless it remains highly improbable that a single, randomly fired bullet would strike the solitary fly within the large, blank area.

In the same way, we need concern ourselves only with universes governed by the same laws of nature in order to determine how likely it is that one of them should be life-permitting. Because the laws are the same, we can determine what would happen if the constants and quantities were to be altered. And the results turn out to be disastrous. A life-permitting universe is like that solitary fly on the wall.

2. Morality. The answer to your questions is: It all depends! If God does not exist, then, as I've argued, what you say is exactly what moral values are: mere byproducts of biological and social evolution. But if God exists, then they're not. For the truth of a belief is independent of how you came to hold that belief. You may have acquired your moral beliefs through a fortune cookie or by reading tea leaves, and they could still be true. In particular, if God exists, then objective moral values and duties exist, regardless of how we come to learn about them. The socio-biological account at best proves that our perception of moral values and duties has evolved. But if moral values are gradually discovered, not invented, then our gradual and fallible perception of those values no more undermines their objective reality than our gradual, fallible perception of the physical world undermines its objective reality.

So the real question is: do you think there is an objective distinction between good and evil, right and wrong? I'm sure you do. Philosophers who reflect on our moral experience see no more reason to distrust that experience than the experience of our five senses. I believe what my five senses tell me, that there is a world of physical objects out there. Similarly, in the absence of some reason to distrust my moral experience, I should accept what it tells me, that some things are objectively good or evil, right or wrong.

Extracted from

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Jesus in the Bible and the Qu'ran


Dr. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries recently debated Imam Syed Z. Sayeed in Queens, NY, looking at the topic of Jesus in both the Bible and the Qur'an.




Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Is God a Delusion? Discussion

William Lane Craig vs Lewis Wolpert


In 2007, Professors William Lane Craig and Lewis Wolpert undertook to debate each other on the topic of the existence of God. Below is a series of 4 reasonably short videos of the pretty humorous discussion that took place after the debate, moderated by BBC's John Humphrys.