Recently Mr. Rob Robinson of Prophecy Update posted a critical review
of my book, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary
. Since my response to his review is longer than what Amazon will accept, I've decided to turn it into a blog post:
Thank you, Mr. Robinson, for taking the time to review my book. See my responses interspersed with the text of your review below:
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] I recently finished "Why I Believed" and found it a most interesting read that really confirmed why I have been a believer for more than 36 years. Most of the authors arguments are based on his feelings about Christianity and his feelings that the Bible is not reliable.
[Ken] While it’s true that any decision related to faith, whether to accept it or reject it, involves feelings and emotions and personal experiences, and while I did include a number of these in my book, it would be unfair to suggest that “most” of what I wrote was based on personal feelings rather than on evidence-based argumentation. I drew many of my arguments from the findings of science, history, archaeology, and the cross-comparison of biblical passages. While you may not find these arguments convincing, that’s a different matter from asserting that “most” of my arguments are based on my feelings. It would seem you have chosen to dismiss as a “feeling” any argument that you don’t agree with.
It’s not just my feeling that Jesus did not return in his generation. If there’s no evidence that he returned in that generation, it’s more than a feeling to suggest that he did not. It’s also more than a feeling that Jesus and the NT writers proclaimed that Jesus would return in the generation of those then living: there are many passages that teach just that, as I discussed at some length in by book. It’s not my feeling that the Bible endorsed slavery, even what we today would consider oppressive slavery, the kind of slavery the Civil War was fought to abolish. See Leviticus 25:42-46 and Exodus 21:20. It’s in the text and is not just a feeling.
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] It was clear throughout the course of this book that the arguments made by the author are lacking evidence. For example: in the section regarding "Fulfilled Prophecy" and "The Resurrection of Jesus Christ", the author simply states how these important facts of Christianity were compelling to him when he was a believer. I expected some refutation of the fact that Jesus perfectly fulfilled over 300 old testament prophecies, and the odds of any one man in all of history being able to accomplish this, was beyond the possibility of chance.
[Ken] In my chapter 10 on biblical prophecies, I did examine several of the 300 messianic prophecies you mentioned, but while doing so I presented six general criteria for determining whether a given fulfilled prophecy requires a supernatural explanation. I would encourage you to consider each of these principles and indicate why or why not they are rooted merely in my personal feelings. If they are purely subjective or invalid, please explain which alternate criteria you would use to exclude alleged prophecies from other religious traditions (e.g., those of Joseph Smith, some of whose prophecies I dismiss using these same criteria).
1) It can be proven that the event happened after the prophecy
. I acknowledged that all the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible were presented before the advent of Jesus, so this criterion does not disqualify any of those prophecies.
2) It can be proven that the event that was said to have been fulfilled actually happened.
This criterion presents a problem for many of the messianic prophecies, since there’s no reliable way to prove that the Gospel writers did not fabricate any of the events claimed to have fulfilled OT prophecy. It is not the skeptic that bears the burden of proof; it is the one insisting that no naturalistic explanation is possible who must eliminate the possibility that a given prophetic fulfilment was fabricated. I provided some examples of events that have all the appearance of being fabricated by the Gospel writers (see especially my discussion on Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem), but even if you are not satisfied that they are fabricated, you would still need to prove that they *could not* have been fabricated in order to maintain they require a supernatural explanation. Can you prove historically that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or that soldiers cast lots for his garments? I was conditioned as a believer never to question the integrity of the biblical authors; for decades it was just not a possibility I could entertain. But once you realize how common fabrication was in the religious context of first and second century Palestine (for example, in the many pseudepigraphal writings and infant narratives of the era), it becomes less unthinkable that the Gospel writers should be immune from embellishment and outright fabrication.
3) The prophecy must be presented explicitly as a prophecy, not simply as a historical event that has some incidental parallels with a later historical event.
See my book for a discussion of this criterion as it relates to some of the fulfilled prophecies in Matthew, especially the “slaughter of the innocents” incident in Matthew 2:13-15.
4) The object and circumstances of the prophecy must be clearly identified in such a way that there can be no mistake as to its precise fulfillment.
See my book for a discussion of how this relates to Isaiah 53.
5) Every part of the prophecy must be fulfilled.
See my book how this relates to the Micah 5:2 prophecy of a leader to be born in Bethlehem.
6) The prophecy must have a literal fulfillment, not just an imagined spiritual fulfillment.
See my book for a discussion of this criterion as it relates to Isaiah 53.
Mr. Robinson, you stated that you expected me to provide “some refutation of the fact that Jesus perfectly fulfilled over 300 old testament prophecies,” but you did not acknowledge the arguments I made above that show how a number of representative messianic prophecies fail these tests and thus do not require a supernatural explanation. To establish that these 300 prophecies are miraculous, you would need to explain either how they pass these six tests or how the tests are flawed. Instead of doing either of these two things, you chose to assert that I made no “refutation of the fact that Jesus perfectly fulfilled over 300 old testament prophecies.” Granted, I did not examine all 300 prophecies, but I examined a representative sample and ended my section on messianic prophecies as follows:
“I could go through many of the remaining messianic prophecies and find one or more conditions they fail to meet, but Thomas Paine (‘An Examination of the Passages in the New Testament, Quoted from the Old, and Called Prophecies of the Coming of Jesus Christ
’) has already demonstrated the spuriousness of a great number of them. Furthermore, the onus is on the believer to demonstrate that they pass all the tests, not on the unbeliever to demonstrate that they fail.”
If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to read Thomas Paine’s work, especially since you’re involved in a ministry whose focus is on biblical prophecies, if for no other reason but to understand the perspective of those who take the opposing position.
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] I expected some historical argument for the fact that Jesus did not rise from the dead.
[Ken] I grant that my chapter on Jesus’ resurrection is thinner than it could be, though I did make some serious arguments that you have not acknowledged or refuted, and I did point my readers to other resources that treat this topic in much greater detail. If you have a solution to the fundamental question of where Jesus first appeared to his disciplines after his resurrection--Galilee (according to Mark and Matthew) or the environs of Jerusalem (according to Luke and John)--then I invite you to put your solution forward, without at the same time insisting that I have not made any historical arguments against Jesus’ resurrection. Again, whether or not you agree with my arguments is not what I am concerned with here; I am concerned with your misrepresentation that I have not made any historical arguments on this topic when in fact I have.
My focus on the location of Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to his disciples is more than just an ancillary detail or a minor alleged discrepancy to be swept under the rug. It’s important because it goes to heart of the trustworthiness and integrity of (at least some of) the Gospel writers, which in turn is important for determining to what extent we can trust those writers in anything else they assert. I demonstrated in my book how Luke, while consulting Mark’s story of the resurrection, apparently purposefully altered Jesus’ words to favor a Jerusalem appearance over a Galilee appearance. If this suggestion sounds unthinkable or offensive to you, why? Was Luke not a human capable of misrepresentation like anyone else? What should be astounding in the least if that’s the case? It’s certainly more consistent with what we know about human nature and the physical laws of nature to think that Luke could have distorted the record than that Jesus rose physically from the dead, unless you have an a priori commitment that Luke could not lie or that Jesus had to have risen from the dead. And if Luke could have misrepresented the story, then why not Matthew too? And Mark?
Finally, I made several other arguments in my chapter on Jesus’ resurrection, but if you do not consider my discussion of the location of Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to be an argument, then neither will you consider my other arguments to be so either. But that does not make them non-arguments, just arguments you consider to be without merit. I have engaged respectfully with a number of believers, and though I’ve often disagreed with them or considered their arguments invalid, I do not recall dismissing their arguments as mere feelings.
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] I expected that the author would refute the eyewitness testimony of those who recorded the miracle Jesus performed, such as raise Lazarus from the dead by simply commanding him to do so.
[Ken] I argued in my book that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses of the accounts they described. Even evangelical scholar Greg Boyd acknowledges that the Gospels are anonymous. The texts themselves include no indication that any of them were written by Jesus’ disciples. It’s only the later tradition (of second century men) that ascribes them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. How can you prove that John was an eyewitness to Lazaras’ being raised from the dead, other than invoking the traditions of men? What historical argument do you have for this?
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I am guessing you’re a Protestant who doesn’t accept every eyewitness miracle story you hear from other religious traditions, including Catholicism. Do you believe that on June 24, 1981, six children reported an appearance of the Virgin [Mary] at a hilltop
near the town of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovina? Do you believe that she has continued appearing regularly to these individuals since that time, and that millions of others have made their pilgrimages to the site to experience visions, healings, and other supernatural events? If you don’t readily accept these or other miracle stories reported by eyewitnesses in other religious traditions, then why is it incumbent upon skeptics to refute the miracle stores of the New Testament, including Lazarus’ rising from the dead? Is not the onus on the one who believes in an extraordinary event to prove that it happened, rather than on the skeptic to prove that it didn’t? In short, why am I the bad guy for not automatically believing it happened as reported?
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] There was no evidence given for any of the preeminent reasons to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, the entire book is about the authors feelings, that he just could not believe any longer.
[Ken] Now your position on my book has progressed from “most of the author’s arguments are based on his feelings” to “the entire book is about the author’s feelings.” Again, I understand you don’t agree with my arguments. Call them invalid arguments if you will, but please at least accord me the respect of acknowledging I’ve made some arguments, and address the substance of my arguments rather than making blanket statements like this.
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] One of the author's arguments that first threw him off course from believing in Jesus or the Bible, was the "young earth" theory put forth by theologians. Of course, no one really knows how old the earth is. I myself do not subscribe to the old earth theory. I believe that the book of Genesis records the fact that God created the heavens and the earth perhaps billions of years ago. In verse 2 of Genesis, something happened that caused the earth to become formless and void. The time span between the original creation of earth and the heavens, and the re-creative state of earth, is unknown. Beginning in Genesis 1, verse 3, the record of the re-creative days of earth being restored and man being created on the earth. The Bible no where states that the earth is just 6,000 or 10,000 years old. Men have stated this as their belief for many decades, but they are clearly wrong.
To allow the unfounded opinions of men to persuade a young man to question the entirety of God's word, is preposterous. The Bible stands alone as it's own commentary and needs no help from men.
[Ken] This is a serious misrepresentation of what I wrote in my book. While I grew up as a young-earth creationist, I came to accept the antiquity of the earth while I was attending a Christian college. Coming to this conclusion was not responsible for my departure from the faith, as I plainly stated near the beginning of the section on the age of the earth in my book:
“As recounted in chapter 2, I embraced old earth creationism for the final decade of my life as a Christian. As an unbeliever I still do not consider Christianity to be incompatible with an old earth. Though Western Christianity largely came to terms with the antiquity of the earth in the nineteenth century, a revival of young-earth creationism (YEC) and Flood geology starting in the mid-twentieth century has resulted in its becoming the majority view of American evangelicals today. Were it not for the continued widespread embrace of this belief, I would ignore it in favor of more important concerns. Those who already accept the great antiquity of the earth are encouraged to skip on to the next section.”
You stated, “To allow the unfounded opinions of men [regarding the age of the earth] to persuade a young man to question the entirety of God's word, is preposterous.” Rather, what I find preposterous is your lack of care in representing my stated reasons for leaving the faith. All of my many other arguments for no longer accepting Christianity you dismiss as mere “feelings,” but you’ve homed in on this one issue (which I explicitly stated is compatible with Christianity) and made it sound as if this is responsible for my wholesale rejection of the Bible. That simply was not the case.
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] Without the Bible, we do not have a clear explanation for all of the present conditions that we find on the earth, and in human life.
1. Origin of the universe The Book of Genesis stands alone in accounting for the actual creation of the basic space-mass-time continuum which constitutes our physical universe. Genesis 1:1 is unique in all literature, science, and philosophy. Every other system of cosmogony, whether in ancient religious myths or modern scientific models, starts with eternal matter or energy in some form, from which other entities were supposedly gradually derived by some process. Only the Book of Genesis even attempts to account for the ultimate origin of matter, space, and time; and it does so uniquely in terms of special creation.
2. Origin of order and complexity Man's universal observation, both in his personal experience and in his formal study of physical and biological systems, is that orderly and complex things tend naturally to decay into disorder and simplicity. Order and complexity never arise spontaneously--they are always generated by a prior cause programmed to produce such order. The Primeval Programmer and His programmed purposes are found only in Genesis.
3. Origin of the solar system The earth, as well as the sun and moon, and even the planets and all the stars of heaven, were likewise brought into existence by the Creator, as told in Genesis. It is small wonder that modern scientific cosmogonists have been so notably unsuccessful in attempting to devise naturalistic theories of the origin of the universe and the solar system.
4. Origin of the atmosphere and hydrosphere The earth is uniquely equipped with a great body of liquid water and an extensive blanket of an oxygen-nitrogen gaseous mixture, both of which are necessary for life. These have never "developed" on other planets, and are accounted for only by special creation.
5. Origin of life How living systems could have come into being from nonliving chemicals is, and will undoubtedly continue to be, a total mystery to materialistic philosophers. The marvels of the reproductive process, and the almost-infinite complexity programmed into the genetic systems of plants and animals, are inexplicable except by special creation, at least if the laws of thermodynamics and probability mean anything at all. The account of the creation of "living creatures" in Genesis is the only rational explanation.
6. Origin of man Man is the most highly organized and complex entity in the universe, so far as we know, possessing not only innumerable intricate physico-chemical structures, and the marvelous capacities of life and reproduction, but also a nature which contemplates the abstract entities of beauty and love and worship, and which is capable of philosophizing about its own meaning. Man's imaginary evolutionary descent from animal ancestors is altogether illusory. The true record of his origin is given only in Genesis.
7. Origin of marriage The remarkably universal and stable institution of marriage and the home, in a monogamous, patriarchal social culture, is likewise described in Genesis as having been ordained by the Creator. Polygamy, infanticide, matriarchy, promiscuity, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and other corruptions all developed later.
8. Origin of evil Cause-and-effect reasoning accounts for the origin of the concepts of goodness, truth, beauty, love, and such things as fundamental attributes of the Creator Himself. The origin of physical and moral evils in the universe is explained in Genesis as a temporary intrusion into God's perfect world, allowed by Him as a concession to the principle of human freedom and responsibility, and also to manifest Himself as Redeemer as well as Creator.
9. Origin of language The gulf between the chatterings of animals and the intelligent, abstract, symbolic communication systems of man is completely unbridgeable by any evolutionary process. The Book of Genesis not only accounts for the origin of language in general, but also for the various national languages in particular.
10. Origin of government The development of organized systems of human government is described in Genesis, with man responsible not only for his own actions, but also for the maintenance of orderly social structures through systems of laws and punishments.
11. Origin of culture The Book of Genesis also describes the beginning of the main entities which we now associate with civilized cultures--such things as urbanization, metallurgy, music, agriculture, animal husbandry, writing, education, navigation, textiles, and ceramics.
12. Origin of nations All scholars today accept the essential unity of the human race. The problem, then, is how distinct nations and races could develop if all men originally were of one race and one language. Only the Book of Genesis gives an adequate answer.
13. Origin of religion There are many different religions among men, but all share the consciousness that there must be some ultimate truth and meaning toward which men should strive. Many religions take the form of an organized system of worship and conduct. The origin of this unique characteristic of man's consciousness, as well as the origin of true worship of the true God, is given in Genesis.
14. Origin of the chosen people The enigma of the Israelites--the unique nation that was without a homeland for nineteen hundred years, which gave to the world the Bible and the knowledge of the true God, through which came Christianity and which yet rejects Christianity, a nation which has contributed signally to the world's art, music, science, finance, and other products of the human mind, and which is nevertheless despised by great numbers of people--is answered only in terms of the unique origin of Israel as set forth in the Book of Genesis. (Text fro Dr Morris)
There is no other source that credibly and logically explains the origin of all these important facts. The Bible is alone in it's correct view of man, sin, death, and the condition of the human heart.
[Ken] I found the 14 items above listed in the book The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings,
originally published in 1976 by Dr. Henry Morris (one of those men who influenced me to embrace young-earth creationism, which you characterized as an “unfounded opinion of men”). In the context of this response, I would prefer to answer your own points in your own words relating directly to my book, not the copied-in text from another author. I won’t attempt a point-by-point response, but I do want to address a couple of items, having already addressed some of the others in chapter 6 of my book:
Morris states, “The earth is uniquely equipped with a great body of liquid water and an extensive blanket of an oxygen-nitrogen gaseous mixture.” At the time he wrote his book in 1976, he could not have been expected to know about planets in other solar systems. Not until 1994 was the first extra-solar planet confirmed in our galaxy. Since then, an increasing number of planets have been discovered each year, and recently the first water-filled planet
was identified. Based on the rate of discovery, there are likely billions of planets in our galaxy alone, and probably trillions in other galaxies. Can we say with confidence that none of them have an extensive oxygen-nitrogen gaseous mixture? If there are trillions of planets out there, I would certainly not bet against it.
Having studied historical linguistics at a sister institute of Wycliffe Bible Translators, I learned there is a consensus among linguists that all modern languages evolved historically from ancestral languages. For example, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romansh all evolved from Latin; no one seriously disputes this. The same sorts of processes have been going on for millennia, adequately explaining the great diversity of languages on earth today. Dr. Morris suggests that “The Book of Genesis not only accounts for the origin of language in general, but also for the various national languages in particular,” apparently referring to the breakup of languages at the time of the Tower of Babel. But since we already have a perfectly adequate explanation for how language splits up and evolves, the Tower of Babel story is not needed to explain how it happened. This is an argument based on evidence, by the way, not a feeling.
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] "Why I Believed", is a classic example of how no amount of evidence can persuade a heart that really does not want to believe.
[Ken] It seems you’re projecting your view of human nature into my situation, rather than accepting my statement in chapter 1 of my book, as though you know me better than I know myself:
“If I could patch things up by forcing myself to believe again, I would do so in a heartbeat. Unfortunately I have tried that several times, only to be besieged again by doubt, and have come to the conclusion that attempting to will myself to believe that which in my heart I do not believe is futile. In this struggle I am not alone; millions of others have passed through the valley of the shadow of doubt, finding themselves unable to return to the pastures of faith, despite repeated appeals to God to restore their faith. We have prayed more times than we can count, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24)”
-------------------[Mr. Robinson] In the end, human beings are experts at making excuses for why they both do and do not do certain things in their life. Facts do not persuade anyone to do anything, if they have an inner desire to not believe.
There is no revelation in this book that would ever persuade anyone who has genuinely examined all the evidence; studied the Bible in it's entirety, and examined the historical record of Jesus Christ's birth, life, death, and resurrection.
The attraction of sin in the world is sometimes greater to some individuals, than is the attraction to God. This is the reason that Jesus came and offered His life for all men. We are hopelessly lost and have no chance of ever redeeming ourselves from the total depravity and darkness of our own heart.
Bible Prophecy Update
[Ken] It was not an attraction to sin that led me from my faith, but rather a growing realization that what I believed was probably untrue. Is there a particular sin or sins (other than the sin of unbelief) that you would accuse me of? It’s unfortunate that the Christian religion, which for many promotes good will and peace among men, is being used in your hands as a tool to impute the worst of motives, intentions, and actions on the millions of us who have left the faith after a wrenching struggle, wanting desperately to believe but not being able to reconcile our faith with reality. This is in keeping with the following observation from chapter 4 of my book:
“The bottom line is this: those whose beliefs are nonnegotiable will do whatever it takes to discredit those who challenge the Christian faith. Whatever it takes
. Often the easiest way to do this is to impugn their character—they are arrogant, self-absorbed, immoral, willfully self-deceived, or unscrupulous.”
Again I thank you for taking time to read my book and to write your review. Though we fundamentally disagree, I wish you the best.
As a Christian I believed that “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB). No matter how difficult or tragic the circumstances, I believed there was always a silver lining that could justify whatever happened to us, whether or not we could discern God’s purposes. An illness might help me take a break from my busy life and draw closer to God. A stubborn root in the ditch I was digging was a chance to develop my muscles, gain some exercise, or nurture a strong work ethic. The death of a loved one meant that the loved one would have a better life in heaven in God’s presence. A persistent backache presented an opportunity to develop my character, to strengthen my ability to depend on God. to exhibit grace in the midst of my pain, and to relate to and console others experiencing similar hardships. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 1:4, God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
As a secular humanist, I no longer believe there’s an omnipoent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being watching out for me and orchestrating every event to ensure it works out for my ultimate good. This means I can no longer look at everything that happens to me as good; there really are some bad things that come my way, things I wish hadn’t happened, things that have no silver lining, no redeemable value. This doesn’t mean I can’t seek to make the best of a difficult situation, to “turn lemons into lemonade,” so to speak. It doesn’t mean I can’t use my experiences of adversity to comfort others who are going through similar adversity. It doesn’t mean I can’t allow hardships to soften my pride and sharpen my character. It just means I can accept the reality that life would have been better if certain things hadn’t happened or that some things just suck, end of story.
On the downside of this secular realism, I can no longer take emotional comfort in the certainty that every difficulty I face has a reason that will make it worthwhile in the end--indeed, that will make it so that life will be ultimately better
when anything unimaginably awful happens than if it had never happened.
On the upside of this secular realism, I have more of an impetus to redress wrongs in this life. We have some Christian friends whose twenty-something son died several days after the mast of his sailboat struck a 14,000-volt power line
above a Minnesota lake, necessitating the amputation of his legs before he eventually succumbed to the effects of electrocution. As a father, I can’t imagine anything worse happening than to lose my son in his prime like this. If this were to happen to me as an unbeliever, I would see it as purely and utterly bad, and I would not seek any silver lining in the incident; rather, I would investigate why a 14,000-volt power line was hanging so low over a lake where sailboats roam, and I would sue to the maximum extent of the law whoever was responsible for it--not to profit financially but to help prevent such an unmitigated tragedy from ever happening again. I would not be able to bring back my son from the grave, and I wouldn’t have the comfort of knowing I could see him again in glory, but the least I could do would be to take measures to see that this couldn’t happen to anyone else. I would not allow Christian meekness, forgiveness, or the desire to be a good Christian example to get in the way of my pursuing like a bulldog as much justice in this matter as the law permits.
Several years ago I was discussing with a Christian the issue of slavery in the Bible. Unlike some disingenuous apologists who deny that the Bible supports slavery (see, for example, Exodus 21:20, Leviticus 25:42-46), this individual acknowledged it but reasoned that this life is so short that, despite the hardships of slavery, it’s like a drop in the bucket compared to eternity, which is really what matters in the end. I can’t think of a better example than this of the downside of seeing a silver lining in everything: it dulls our sense of justice, potentially opening the door for us to accept as God’s will all manner of carelessness, inhumanity, or injustice, or at least to give us less incentive to fight for redress.
I can’t say for sure, but I wonder if this “all things work together for good in the end” outlook is at least partly responsible for the historical tendency of fundamentalists to be more concerned with doctrine and evangelism than with social justice. Note that I don’t have this view of all believers; moderate and liberal Christians (and, to be fair, some fundamentalists) have championed the rights of slaves, women, and racial and other minorities, but historically it was the fundamentalists who fought to keep slavery in the South, to prevent women from voting or from working outside the home, to fight environmental protections, and to maintain the status quo of racial segregation and economic inequality, all the while championing fundamentalist doctrine, evangelism, and the inerrancy of the Bible. But if this life is the only one we have, and if this earth is our only home, and there’s no supernatural being to make everything work out in the end, then we are responsible in this life for seeking justice, for redressing wrongs, and for preserving this planet for our posterity, knowing there is no “new heaven and new earth” coming to wipe our mess clean.
No, not everything works together for our good--neither for believers not for unbelievers--but I hope we can all agree for the need to work together to improve the world we share, to reduce the things that don’t work for our good and to increase the things that do.
In Part 1 of my blog post entitled, “Is abortion wrong?
”, I reviewed some reasons I opposed abortion when I was a believer and concluded that all but one of them were weak. Let me summarize the strongest argument that contributed to my pro-life stance:
1) It is wrong to kill an innocent human being (I include “innocent” here to sidestep the questions of capital punishment for criminals and the killing of enemy combatants in warfare.)
2) Unborn babies are innocent.
3) Unborn babies are human beings (i.e., there is no important difference between a baby one minute before it leaves the womb and the same baby one minute after it leaves the womb).
4) Therefore, it is wrong to kill an unborn baby (or, in other terms, abort a fetus).
During the process of my deconversion, I never really gave the issue of abortion a thought; it wasn’t something that related to the truth or falsehood of religion, which for me was the central question at hand. But once I had come to the conclusion that my former faith was without warrant, I began to think about the implications of having abandoned the dictates of the Bible and Christian tradition. I had to think through the three premises above leading to the conclusion that it’s wrong to abort a fetus. I instinctively wanted abortion to be wrong; it’s a conviction I had held all my life. But as a secular humanist, could I justify my desire for it to be wrong and to outlaw it in civil society?
The bottom line is: can the three premises above be grounded in a secular perspective? I don’t know of anyone who would maintain that unborn babies are guilty enough to deserve death for crimes they’ve committed, so premise #2 is safe. That leaves premises #1 and #3, which I’ll treat together since they hang on the definition of human being.
I’m a computer science engineer by training. One of my favorite classes in college was digital electronics. Maybe that’s because I like the concept of binary logic: everything is either on (“1”) or off (“0”). It’s much less messy than analog logic, where values can fall into an unlimited number of gradations. I suspect it’s our affinity for binary logic, for everything to be black or white, 1 or 0, that makes personhood and abortion such thorny issues. If we can point to a moment (usually the moment of conception), a discreet point in time marking the transition from non-person or non-human to person, then there’s no sliding scale, no shades of grey that make it tricky to determine when or whether it is or is not appropriate to end a life. As Dr. Suess would say, “A person’s a person (1, not 0), no matter how small.”
Though a microscopic fertilized egg at the moment of conception has a full complement of human DNA, it bears no resemblance to an adult or even to a newborn baby--not in its form, in its ability to think, in its ability to feel pain. There is no brain, no blood, no heart, no limbs, no head, nothing but a little microscopic blob. If we were not committed to the convenience of binary on/off, 1/0, black/white logic, we could readily acknowledge that this is a very different entity from a newborn baby, or even a twenty-five week old fetus, which by that time has taken on the form of a human and which can feel pain. We would realize that being human doesn’t lend itself to a convenient definition, that there are only degrees between a non-person and a person. If someone were to show me a fertilized egg under a microscope and tell me, “That’s a person,” my response would be, “Are you kidding me?”, and I would tend to think they were driven more by their ideology than by any concern to align their beliefs with reality. Now if they were to show me a twenty-eight week old fetus with a head, arms, and legs that can feel pain
, and if they told me that was a person, I wouldn’t be nearly so skeptical. True, a fetus at that stage likely lacks many of the traits we associate with personhood, chief among them self-awareness (which begin in children at around 14-18 months; see page 725 of this link
), but at least such a fetus bears a much greater resemblance to a prototypical human than does a microscopic egg. The point is that personhood, whether we like it or not, is
more analog than digital, more a point along a sliding scale than an on/off, true/false, black/white proposition.
The problem is that, once we adopt a sliding scale definition of personhood, then the definition of person
is only in the eye of the beholder, and each beholder could come to a different conclusion. But then even in raising this problem, we’ve slipped back into binary thinking. What if, instead of wringing our hands over what separates a person from a non-person, we were to admit degrees of personhood? I can acknowledge that a fertilized egg has elements of personhood while also maintaining that it’s not a person. And an embryo at two weeks exhibits a few more elements of personhood while still not being a full person. For that matter, a newborn baby, even though much more like a person than an embroyo, is not a prototypical person and lacks many of the congnitive abilities of an adult chimpanzee, including self-awareness
, the ability to consider the future, and verbal communication. It’s not comfortable for us to think of personhood in terms of a sliding scale, but it seems a martian observer would have no problem studying us and coming to see us in this light.
But if personhood is a sliding scale, at what point along the scale does it become wrong to abort a proto-human? What if a father wants to kill his newborn baby or his two-year-old toddler out of convenience, arguing that these young ones have not reached the status of full personhood? The fear is that the sliding scale will become a slippery slope, and before you know it, we’ll have lost all reverence for the sanctity of human life and we as a society begin killing anyone with disabilities, with cognitive impairments, with limited prospects for a full and prosperous life, etc. For me the “slippery slope” argument is one of the strongest theoretical arguments against abortion from a secular perspective. I recall back in the 1980s during my high school and college years hearing Dr. Francis Schaeffer lament that European nations like the Netherlands were beginning to legalize euthanasia, and that before long this would lead them down the slippery slope of doctors killing their patients without the consent of the patients. The ensuing lack of reference for the sanctity of human life would lead to escalating rates of murder, infanticide, and all manner of violence and social decay. Yet several decades have passed since that time, and the rates of violence have only declined, and there is no mass abuse of euthanasia or infanticide or any such thing. So even if the “slippery slope” can be seen as a strong theoretical argument against abortion, in practice it has shown itself to have little to no merit.
It’s not just pro-choice advocates that subscribe to the sliding scale view of personhood. In practice, pro-life advocates do too. How do I know this? It’s estimated that more than two-thirds of all fertilized eggs fail to come to term
; in other words, they’re spontaneously aborted, usually unbeknownst to the mother. So if these eggs are fully human, then fully two-thirds of all humans perish in a dark, pre-natal holocaust. Spontaneous abortion It is by far the single leading cause of human death, eclipsing heart disease, cancer, accidents, warfare, homicide, human-induced abortion, and suicide--indeed, all forms of post-natal death combined
. Where are the concerned pro-lifers soliciting funds for research to put to rest this horrendous scourge, this mother of all killers? If they really subscribed to on/off, black/white personhood, would they not display more compassion and more activism for the billions of victims of spontaneous abortion? As far as I can recall, I have not heard a single pro-life advocate express the slightest concern over this tragedy. I can only conclude that they couldn’t care less. Why couldn’t they care less? Either they’re unaware of this holocaust or they don’t really believe in the personhood of fertilized eggs, or a combination of the two. Surely there are some who know about it and fail to sound the alarm. In any case, I really don’t think they believe in the equality of all human life, or they would put their money where their mouth is.
So am I an eager pro-abortion advocate? Far from it! I regret any unnecessary loss of life. I lament the loss of some kinds of life than others; it’s only natural for us feel more acutely the death of family and friends closest to us than that of unknown individuals halfway around the world, the death of those in their prime more than that of the elderly, the accidental death of a teenager more than the early miscarriage of a baby, the death of a beloved pet dog more than the death of a fertilized human egg, the death of a mother cat than that of one of its many kittens, the death of a kitten than that of a butterfly, or the death of a butterfly than that of a dandelion.
From a naturalistic perspective, we live in an interconnected web of life, all with varying degrees of closeness to us and to our interests and affections, with varying degrees of sentience and intelligence and capacity for feeling pleasure and pain. Though we instinctively place our own species in a category of its own--qualitatively different from all other forms of life--the gulf is not as wide as many, particularly those in conservative religious traditions, often imagine. It’s common to hear a complaint, “Those liberals care more about beached whales than unborn human babies!” But is it really that difficult to understand why a secular humanist like me would be more concerned about the slow, painful, dehydration of an adult whale--a whale that’s part of a social network, perhaps the mother of a calf or two, the matriarch of a pod, an animal that has all the same nerve endings and capacity for pain that we have--than the harvesting of an unconscious, unfeeling human embryo to be used for medical research with the goal of developing a cure for diseases that have plagued us for as long as we can remember?
I thank Sam and Holly for their thoughtful responses to my first post on this topic
. I too am only reluctantly pro-choice, as Sam so adeptly put it. I wish we lived in world where all the answers were easy, where death was not a reality, where we never had to make trade-offs between life and liberty, where populations of all species (including humans) could grow geometrically over thousands or millions or billions of years with no ill effects on the sustainability or quality of life on our planet. But we don’t live in such a world, and sometimes hard choices have to be made.
It’s interesting that both Sam and Holly raised the question of what we eat, because I’m a vegan wannabe myself. I deplore the inhumane treatment of animals so prevalent in the poultry, dairy, cattle, and fish farms that feed our society’s insatiable appetite for meat and dairy products. In the past couple of years I’ve significantly increased my consumption of beans and lentils, but I have not gone fully vegan as it wouldn’t be practical at this point in my family and social environment. I tell myself that by eating less meat, I’m doing my small part to reduce animal suffering just a little bit. The thing is, as a believer, I had no such concern for the welfare of these sentient beings; they were made for our benefit, and there was such a quantum dividing line between humans and animals that the welfare of animals, while not to be disregarded entirely, paled in significance to our responsibility to our own kind, even if packaged as an unfeeling microscopic cell. I’d like to think my perspective has become more reasonable, even if still not fully consistent. I would still not hesitate to shoot a starving wolf threatening a newborn human infant. I suppose we’ll never be able to shed what humanist ethicist Peter Singer calls specieism
(as an analog to racism
). For the record, as a human I do not advocate treating humans and animals equally in every context when the interests of both come into conflict, but we can certainly afford to give greater attention to their capacity for pain and the role we can play in minimizing it (or at least in not increasing it), just as we can recognize a common interest in reducing the number of abortions, particularly those after the 25th week of pregnancy when the fetus begins to feel pain.
It was surprising for me to learn recently that the rates of abortion (expressed as a ratio of abortions per 1000 women of childbearing age) has been on the decline around the world in the past several decades. The rate of decline has slowed since 2003, coinciding with a slowdown in the rate of birth control distribution. If our concern is to reduce the number of abortions, the most effective way to do so is to make contraception more widely available
I’ll leave you with one other interesting morsel: abortion has effectively taken the place of infanticide, which was widespread in all cultures before the modern era (again, read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
). The rates of abortion are essentially no higher than the rates of infanticide in previous generations, and abortion itself, along with violence of all kinds, is on the decline, as I’ve discussed in a couple of other recent blog posts
. Those of us who are reluctant pro-choicers, along with pro-lifers, can look forward to the day when abortion becomes becomes rare.
Well, I could go on and on, but these are my thoughts as they currently stand, and I look forward to more good feedback from readers.
Is abortion wrong? It's not a question that was ever up for debate for me as a conservative evangelical believer, but after my deconversion, I had to wrestle with a host of moral questions from a new perspective: premarital sex, homosexuality, abortion, war, government welfare, and many more. As I argue in my book, I think the feared (and real) loss of clarity on many of these issues is a significant factor preventing many believers from reconsidering their faith; it’s just a lot easier to take the word of God or of Dobson or of Colson on these matters than to do the hard work of weighing the variables and considering them in shades of grey rather than in black and white. And it’s scary to think of falling down the precipice of moral relativism.
I find it remarkable that no Christians have asked to know my opinion on abortion since my deconversion (well, perhaps once in the context of a small discussion group perhaps five years ago). Up until now, I haven’t publicly expressed my thoughts on this issue, partly because I hadn’t (and still haven’t fully) come to a firm conclusion on this question. Now that I’m maintaining a blog and abortion and birth control have been in the news again recently, it’s probably time for me bring my thoughts out into the open.
Secular humanists, though predominately pro-choice, are not unanimously so. For examples, listen to Robert Price’s Point of Inquiry podcast interview with Jen Roth entitled “Atheist Against Abortion
,” or read Nat Hetonff’s entreaty to Obama
. So if you’re a conservative Christian and you fear that leaving your faith will necessarily entail changing your views on abortion, you needn’t let that stand in the way of deconverting. But I won’t pretend that it’s likely for your outlook on abortion to remain unchanged.
As former believers, we can no longer call on the Bible or Christian tradition or the divinely established sanctity of human life to argue against the practice of abortion. The best we can do (if we remain pro-life) is to appeal to an agreed-upon commitment to treat all human life as deserving of preservation. But then on what basis can we agree on this apparently arbitrary commitment without also maintaining a similar commitment to other species?
Before I continue the discussion of abortion from a secular perspective, let me back up to my perspective as a believer. My opposition to abortion was rooted in the sanctity of human life, a sanctity that in my view derived from God’s having created humankind uniquely in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). As soon as the 23 chromosomes of the father’s sperm and the 23 chromosomes of the mother’s egg came together, a 46-chromosome human being is formed, worthy of the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enjoyed by all other members of our species, whether born or unborn, strong or frail, athletic or invalid, intelligent or mentally disturbed. Terminating a human life, no matter how small, is equivalent to murder, period. I was impatient with any line of reasoning about abortion that did not take this into account. I could not understand how certain politicians like George H. W. Bush could call themselves pro-life while allowing exceptions for rape or incest. Would these “pro-life” politicians think it’s fine to kill such offspring if they’re already born, or if they’re 10 years old? If not, then why is it any different if they’re still in the womb? They’re still human, for goodness’ sake! (I did reluctantly allow for one exception to abortion: when a mother’s life is at stake, when it comes down to one life versus another, but I considered this to be quite rare and more hypothetical than a daily reality.)
Though I bought into other pro-life arguments, it was this murder question that primarily drove my anti-abortion stance, exemplified by the bumper sticker, “It’s a baby, not a choice.” Some have argued that abortion leads to higher rates of cancer for the mother, but the research is not at all definitive on this, so it makes pro-lifers look disingenuous when they pretend it is more definitive than it really is. Another common pro-life argument is that there are many childless couples who would love to adopt if only mothers who don’t want to keep their babies would give them up for adoption, but that’s merely a pragmatic argument that doesn’t take into account the opposite pragmatic concerns of the mothers who do not wish carry their babies to term, or the health of our planet that one day will reach its practical population limit (whether in decades, centuries, or millennia). Once we wade into pragmatic arguments like these, we lose the force of the central ideological argument against abortion, namely, that it’s the taking of a human life, i.e., murder.
Another argument I considered but which didn’t have the same weight for me as it did for other pro-life proponents was the concept of potentiality. Mozart is the poster child for this argument. His father was crippled and his mother deaf and blind when he was brought into this world to join his 13 other siblings. Surely in a situation like that today, abortion would have been encouraged, but in his day, Mozart was allowed to live and grow into the genius who contributed so much to our culture. And yet, to be blunt, every time a teenage boy has a wet dream or masturbates instead of having sex with his girlfriend, or every time a wife declines sex because she’s “too tired tonight, honey,” it could be argued that the world may have lost a potential Mozart or an Einstein. Then too, by the same token, perhaps a potential Stalin or Hitler could have been lost to the world. I just never bought the peculiar “potentiality” argument for these reasons.
Then there were the scriptural arguments. As a Christian I was aware that I couldn’t simply appeal to the Bible to convince the wider secular world that abortion should be restricted or outlawed, but the Bible did help reinforce my personal pro-life stance, particularly the following verses from Psalm 139:
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
However, even such passages didn’t have the weight of my primary argument against abortion as a Christian, namely that humans (no matter how small) are in some sense unique among all the species and that our common prohibition against murder extends to all members of our species. The above passage could surely apply just as well to animals--if God is the author of life and knits humans in their mothers’ womb, does he not do the same for dogs in their mothers’ womb? And yet no Christian that I know if is as exercised about canine abortion as they are about human abortion.
On a more emotional level, I was moved as a Christian to hear descriptions of the violence of abortion and the pain it caused to sentient babies, particularly in the course of so-called “partial-birth abortions.” I learned that a baby can feel pain certainly by the 25th week of pregnancy and that abortion does cause intense pain to the baby. Yet I had to admit that I wasn’t as concerned about the pain experienced by a bull when slaughtered so I could have hamburger, and I also realized that the pain-to-the baby argument couldn’t be used against the practice of abortion in the first few weeks of pregnancy, so again, this was in a sense another distraction from my central argument against abortion, namely that it constituted the taking of a human life.
It’s getting late, and I need to work in the morning, so I’ve just now decided to make this into (at least) a two-part blog. I intend to continue next time by explaining my current views as a secular humanist, even if I’m not fully settled on the matter. Perhaps this will lead to a dialogue that will help many of us consider a viable position that recognizes the legitimate arguments that can be made from different points of view.
This week I met at Starbucks for over two hours with an agnostic friend who, as the foreman of the jury, voted to convict a murderer, sending him to death row
. To clarify: the jury found him guilty but didn’t explicitly sentence him to death, but the nature of the crime entailed a death sentence. The perpetrator killed two innocent men for apparently no good reason during a convenience store holdup in 2010. I asked my friend (whom I’ll call “Scott”) whether he was certain of the guy’s guilt, and he said, “100% certain.” Scott was understandably shaken and weary from the long, drawn-out trial and from the senselessness and monstrosity of the crime. “Where does evil like this come from? If God doesn’t exist, how can we even conclude such acts are evil? How did I end up being part of this trial? There are no winners in all of this, only losers.”
It’s interesting that I had been reading about violence, and particularly the motives that underpin violence, in the book I mentioned in last week’s blog post, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
. On virtually every page of Pinker’s book, I gain new insights I had not considered or learned before. For example, on page 484:
“Have you ever fantasized about killing someone you don’t like? In separate studies, the psychologists Douglas Kenrick and David Buss have posed this question to a demographic that is known to have exceptionally low rates of violence—university students—and were stunned at the outcome. Between 70 and 90 percent of the men, and between 50 and 80 percent of the women, admitted to having at least one homicidal fantasy in the preceding year.“
Fortunately for society, we fantasize about murder far more often than we actually carry it out; there are consequences to murder that prevent most of us from committing it casually. Normally it’s only when the perceived benefits of murder (e.g., putting an end to a rivalry in an affair, financial gain, silencing a witness to a crime, bringing someone to justice for a offense committed against the muderer, etc.) outweigh the risks that murder is actually carried out. It was revealing to me to read this on page 488:
“I am now convinced that a denial of the human capacity for evil runs even deeper, and may itself be a feature of human nature, thanks to a brilliant analysis by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister in his book Evil
. Baumeister was moved to study the commonsense understanding of evil when he noticed that the people who perpetrate destructive acts, from everyday peccadilloes to serial murders and genocides, never think they are doing anything wrong. How can there be so much evil in the world with so few evil people doing it?”
I hadn’t really considered the fact that most evildoers think of themselves as good people and attempt to justify their actions. In fact, most murders are committed out of a sense of vigilante justice to set things right when the justice system has failed. This makes sense to me in retrospect as I consider the end of every episode of the TV shows I enjoy most (The Mentalist
), in which the murderers, once caught and confronted with their crime, always explain why they committed the murder, expecting the law to sympathize with their motives. (Of course, we as an audience do not sympathize with their reasons and are disgusted with the very attempt of the murderers to justify themselves.)
Pinker then goes on to expound on an important facet of human nature in relation to offenses both small and large: when we’re a perpetrator, we justify and downplay the severity of our actions, and when we’re a victim, we typically inflate the extent to which we have been victimized, attributing the worst possible motives to the perpetrator. And generally a neutral third party takes the side of the victim, unable or unwilling to understand what motivated the perpetrator. The long and the short of it is that we (usually without realizing it) tend to put ourselves in the best possible light, whether we’re the victim or the perpetrator in any situation. If we genuinely (especially without realizing it) believe ourselves to be better than we are, then when we make our case to the outside world, we can do so without consciously lying, and if we’re not consciously lying, we can be more believable to others in our self-deceived pronouncements.
But on to the next question Scott posed to me: Why do we consider acts like murder to be evil if there is no god to give us any reason to think they’re evil? My position is that we all live in and depend on society for our well-being. If society allows or smiles on murder, then eventually the chances that murder will touch me or my family or friends will increase. We have no choice but to denounce murder in the most uncertain of terms, to send a message that murder doesn’t pay, and to remove from free society those who don’t respect the right of the rest of us to live without the threat of murder. Millennia ago, societies consisted only of small families or clans of hunter-gatherers, and murder within these societies was always seen as evil (though not outside those societies). Over time the size of our societies has grown from clans to tribes to ethnic groups to nations and now leagues of nations. We still legitimatize homicide in warfare, but expanding the extent of our societies and putting in place laws and police and justice systems to keep the peace within our societies have played a large part in the significant reduction of violence over the centuries.
I don’t have all the answers to the problems of human nature that still plague us in the twenty-first century, but I am heartened to know that, despite the very real and upsetting examples of apparently wanton violence like the murders that Scott witnessed repeatedly on the surveillance tape during the recent trial, the rates of all kinds of violence are on the decline in our world. Whatever the reasons for the decline, we can be thankful we live in a safer world than ever before.
I ended my conversation with Scott by addressing his concern that nothing good could come of the murders or the trial he participated in, that it was wearying and tragic. I assured him that if there were no juries or a justice system to get murderers off our streets, we would certainly be living in far, far more murderous society. We are all capable of murder, but as long as the cost of committing murder (whether life in prison or the death penalty, even if I have reservations about the latter) outweighs its benefits, we can prevent its shadow from affecting all our lives. Thank you, Scott, for doing your duty so the rest of us can live in relative freedom from the daily fear of homicide!