Atheists & secularists, like anyone else, will sometimes speak of what gives their life meaning and purpose. It might be fighting against religious dogma, or helping people think rationally, or spending time with their family, or "making the world a little better place", or... whatever. Note that these are self-imposed "purposes" or "meaning", often involving leaving some sort of intellectual or philosophical legacy. But, is this really consistent with their worldview? Have you ever heard of Lawrence M. Krauss or Glenn D. Starkman? Even if you don't run in scientific circles, you may be familiar with Krauss, who is a well-known ...
"Those who are unwilling or incapable of discerning or judging between good and evil are in this manner revealing either their disobedience or their immaturity." -- Pastor E.L. Bynum In our last "episode", we began to address the issue of what it means to "judge" others. Specifically, we took a practical, nonsectarian look at why people cry, "Don't judge me!" and why we should, in fact, make fair judgments about others' behaviors & beliefs, always with the welfare of them and others around them in mind. Now, what about Christians, in particular? Aren't we supposed to be extra loving and kind and ...
If you are at all familiar with Christian apologetics, whether engaging challenges from non-theists or from Christians with different views, you know that the topic of pain, suffering, and death is a major issue. (In fact, Darwin's struggle with this was the impetus for developing his theory.) These things are considered "evil", so the question is "Why would a 'good' God make a world full of pain, suffering, & death for His creatures to endure?", or "How could God include pain, suffering, & death (for millions of years) in His 'very good' creation?" The Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) solution is that none ...
Welcome to the 3rd and penultimate installment of this series, in which I explain how self-deluded I have been about my own hatred and bigotry regarding, well, just about everyone but straight, white, white-collar males between 18 & 65 years of age (or thereabouts). Where was I? Oh... [caption id="attachment_1341" align="alignleft" width="225"] Pro-choice Activists[/caption] 7) I hate women. And it's not just because I'm single. (Or, should that be the other way around?) ;-> In particular, I think most of today's "feminist" positions and causes reveal a certain level of narcissism and another excuse to play the blame game for ones woes, real ...
"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves." -- Abraham Lincoln "AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!" That was my response (posted on Facebook), give or take an "R" or two, to the 2012 Election results. Actually, that was my second FB post. My first was, "Crap on a stick! I'm so depressed." But, that's not quite right. I'm very disappointed, obviously. And a bit morose. But, really, I'm angry. So, here goes the rant... Are you freakin' kidding me?!! Do we really have to listen for 4 more years to this pompous, Marxist ...
Sometimes, I can't help myself. I mean, people make spurious claims and ridiculous accusations against God, Christians, "the Church", etc., all the time. Usually, I let it go. Can't be constantly getting into long, drawn-out internet debates ALL the time, after all. But, sometimes, I just have to say something. And, so it went the other day, when a FB friend of a FB friend, amidst generally mocking comments, claimed that Christians were responsible for "lots of mass murders." Of course, I had my suspicions about what she was referring to. There are some nasty stains on Christianity's record. But, I also ...
"I am pro-life. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother." -- Mitt Romney, in an op-ed piece in The Boston Globe (7/26/2005) In "The Pro-Life Position: Just One Question", I argued that if the unborn is indeed a member of the human family, no matter how small or odd it looks, then "no justification for killing it is adequate." But, then I left a footnote saying that there are rare exceptions to that rule. So, I figured I may as well address those now.... When the ...
Part 1: Firm Foundation "I yam what I yam, and that's all what I yam." -- Popeye, the sailorman Given the subjects that I usually read and write about on this blog, critical thinking really comes in handy. Not that I'm some great logician or anything. Far from it! But, over the last few years, I've been exposed to the discipline of informal logic by some pretty darn good thinkers. (At least, I think they are.) I've noticed that I am now more apt to notice logical errors & fallacies when reading or listening to someone's arguments for his/her position on a ...
[caption id="attachment_1464" align="alignleft" width="300"] Original Star Trek bridge crew[/caption] I remember when, many years ago, I first found out that the cast of the original Star Trek series did not always get along and a huge part of the problem was William Shatner's ego. Star Trek was one of my all-time favorite TV shows (and the movies and the books), and Shatner was a favorite actor when I was growing up -- right up there with Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man, and later Tom Selleck of Magnum, P.I., fame. So, I was understandably disappointed to find out my "heroes" ...
"[S]cience and religion are two essential components in the search for truth. Denying either is a barren approach." -- Dr. Martin Andreas Nowak, mathematical biologist Once upon a time (actually, it was about a year ago) in a land far, far away (OK, it was here in NE Florida), I had a brief but interesting discussion. I had been taking a few skills & personality assessment tests, which involved identifying what I thought my strengths & weaknesses were, figuring out my personality traits, etc. While discussing the results with a couple family members, the religiously-agnostic one noted, "Huh! You consider yourself ...
A young Facebook friend (and fellow Christian) posted a status the other day, expressing his frustration with some legalistic Christian brothers who were giving him grief, telling him he was going to Hell because they deemed some of his speech and musical taste as unredeemably “unChristian”. One of those who (eventually) came to his defense was a non-believer whom I will call “Brent”. Before offering any words of sympathy or encouragement, though, Brent posted the following comment:
“There’s no such thing as a real Christian these days. Christians I’ve come to find are the MOST judgemental and hypocritical people on the planet.. Hearing Christians talk has literally made me look into Muslim faith…. [T]he bible says you should act a certain way. 99.9% of Christians completely ignore what their holy book tells them. That book you’re supposed to live by, right?”
This was both sad and frustrating. The former, because far too many Christians are judgemental and/or hypocritical, which is indeed contrary to the attitude and behavior the Bible tells us Christ’s followers should exhibit. I hate to think of how many people are “turned off” to Christianity due to the poor example set by some people. The latter, because not all “Christians” are true followers of Jesus and because what constitutes “judgemental” and “hypocritical” is, you might say, up for debate. Also, I know that skeptics like Brent often speak from (partial) ignorance, particularly when it comes to biblical teaching and the “big picture”.
In any case, I thought about it awhile, wrote a response, then let it sit for a bit, while I went off to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately, by the time I came back to FB, the discussion had branched off (as they often do) into many sideline topics/claims with multiple contributors. They involved Bill Maher being “pro-death”, what Islam is capable of, further claims of inconsistency on both sides, displays of confusion about the Bible, etc. So, ultimately I decided not to contribute my two cents there, as they would probably be either dismissed with a laugh or lost in the shuffle.
Luckily for you, I chose to treat my blog readers to my words of profound wisdom. (Hey! Stop laughing at me!!) While hardly everything that could have been said in response to Brent’s statements, this is what I wrote:
“Of course, there are *real* Christians, Brent, but there are no *perfect* Christians. That’s not a cop-out. It’s just what’s to be expected of imperfect people — we’re only “human”. This is what Christian doctrine teaches, after all. Even when one chooses to follow Jesus Christ (as per the Bible), while there *is* an immediate change of heart and of sensibility toward spiritual matters, no one becomes a “perfect Christian” overnight. We all struggle and wrestle with different issues — pride, lust, anger, gossip, envy, etc. Also, once we are “saved” and reading/studying the Bible and getting (hopefully) good teaching/discipling, we begin to get a better understanding of what God says & does and why. We may even realize that some of the things we used to see as hypocrisy or inconsistency in Christians were due to our own inaccurate or incomplete understanding of what it means to be a Christian.”
In general, I was saying that Brent may be expecting more of Christians than is fair to expect. That last bit was meant to imply that his imperfect understanding of Christian doctrine — which he further demonstrated in later comments — may lead him to think the proper “Christian” response to a particular issue is X, when a fuller understanding of biblical principle shows that Y might be a better solution. (The things I have in mind are in regards to dealing with war, poverty, life & death issues, “tolerance”, etc.)
“So, yes, there are ‘judgemental and hypocritical’ Christians, just as there are ‘judgemental and hypocritical’ people that identify with other religions and worldviews. But,… and this is key… you can’t judge the validity of a religion/worldview by the inconsistent behavior of its followers — and certainly not by its heretics! Instead, you must try to get the most accurate & complete understanding of the view/system as you can, and then assess its validity according to things like internal coherence and explanatory scope & power, including how well it corresponds with reality and how well it addresses the BIG ISSUES.”
Of course, I could have also gotten into the issue of “judging” versus being “judgemental”, which I blogged on a few months ago. And the difference between mere inconsistency and true hypocrisy. I was also tempted to pursue the “Muslim” comment. But, I let them slide, for the time being. Instead, I decided to end with this challenge:
“I believe Christianity is *the* most reasonable world-and-lifeview there is, and I encourage you to do some serious study by reading a few books on Christian apologetics. (I can recommend some authors, if you like.) If/when *you* become a follower of Christ, I trust you will try to be the best, most faithful and consistent Christian you can be. But, you will falter and slip up time and time again, like the rest of us. And you can thank God for His mercy, grace, and forgiveness, just like the rest of us poor sinners, while asking Him to help you learn, grow, and serve Him more faithfully.
P.S. I hope you were kidding about considering Islam. Seriously, dude?!”
It is true that we Christians — real Christians — can be our own worst enemies. We are called to be ambassadors of Christ, pointing non-believers to the Truth and the Hope that we have in Jesus. So, when we do things that are inconsistent with that mission and the character we are called to have, the world notices. But, of course, Christians also get a bad rap due to ignorance and misunderstanding — both ours and others’. Fake “Christians” are a big problem, too.
It would have been interesting to see where the above conversation went from there, provided Brent was of a mind to engage in serious, rational, and respectful discussion. Unfortunately, he did not seem to be at the time, which is all too often the case with skeptic and believer alike.
I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t stutter when I wrote the title of this post. You’ll see what I mean….
As an orthodox Christian, I obviously have many “problems” with Islam, and not just the violent, extremist version(s). Today, though, I specifically want to look at those addressed in Alex McFarland’s book 10 Answers for Atheists: How to Have an Intelligent Discussion About the Existence of God. Obviously, the book does more than the title suggests. (In fact, the “10 answers” aren’t addressed until nearly the end of the book.) The first few chapters look at things like the “history of unbelief” and critiques of atheism and agnosticism. He also has some material that might be called “comparative religions”. At the end of the chapter titled “Four Forms of Theism”, McFarland briefly examines and critiques two expressions of monotheism — namely, Islam and Judaism.
McFarland offers three “reasons why Islam, though a monotheistic religion like Christianity, does not work as a belief system.” Unfortunately, I don’t like the way he explains those reasons. I’m not sure if it was sloppy thinking or sloppy writing (or both), but I think McFarland could have articulated the reasons better. So, I’m going to put on my editor’s cap and offer some suggestions for improvement.
“First, while Christianity holds that God is one being and three persons — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — who are coequal and coeternal, Muslims reject this Trinitarian view of God and believe that God is only one in being and person….
A second reason why Islam does not work as a belief system has to do with the fact that Muhammad rejected the deity of Christ (which followed from his rejection of the Trinity)….
A third reason why Islam fails as a worldview is that Muslims reject the notion of salvation by grace through faith.”
This is how the “problems”/reasons are introduced. I don’t know about you, but what hit me about each is that it is not an objective reason for why Islam is not a “reasonable” view. Why? Because each seems to assume that Christianity is correct — i.e., it “begs the question”, since McFarland is ultimately arguing for Christianity as the best, most reasonable worldview. What the above statements do is say, “Islam does not hold to these Christian doctrines, so it is not Christian (duh!) and therefore ‘doesn’t work’.” This is a rather disappointing slip-up in reasoning.
But, lest I be accused of suppressing additional evidence, in each case McFarland does say more and gives further explanation for what he means.
“The problem with Islam’s unitarian view of God is that it diminishes His character. A unitarian God such as Allah cannot truly express love without being dependent on other creatures. The triune God, on the other hand, is non-contingent, meaning He does not need to rely on creatures to express love since this relationship is already possible between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (italics mine)
In my opinion, McFarland should have led with these first couple sentences, because the real problem lies in the issue of Allah’s character and contingency on other beings. It doesn’t make the Muslim position wrong, just philosophically weak. After clarifying this, McFarland could then explain why Christianity doesn’t have this problem.
Regarding Reason #2, McFarland clarifies:
“By rejecting the deity of Christ, Muslims must also reject the reliability of the New Testament documents, even though these documents are incredibly reliable and trustworthy. Not only does this rejection of the deity of Christ not make sense in light of the New Testament documents, but it also leaves Islam without an ultimate and perfect Savior, which Christianity has in the person of Jesus Christ.” (italics mine)
The fact that the Muslims’ position on Christ’s deity forces them to reject a terrific resource for historical information — not to mention a true message of Hope that they are otherwise lacking — is the real problem. They don’t reject a potentially valuable source (i.e., the NT documents) on demonstrable, factual grounds but on theological presupposition. They shoot themselves in the foot.
“According to Islam,… [j]udgment will be based on one’s conformity to the will of Allah. Ultimately, salvation for the Muslim is a matter of his or her works.”
This is helpful, but McFarland then makes the claim that ‘it is impossible to save ourselves’ and backs it up by quoting Eph. 2:8-9. Unfortunately, this is a continuation of the apparent it’s-wrong-cuz-it-disagrees-with-Christian-teaching approach.
“By minimizing the fallen and broken nature of human beings, Islam fails to see the severity of the human condition and our drastic need for radical redemption that only Christ can provide.” (italics mine)
Now, we’re getting to the heart of it. This is the real reason that Islam falls short — an unrealistic view of the true heart of Man, which results in an insufficient, works-based “salvation plan”. Of course, McFarland threw the “that only Christ can provide” bit at the end, which I agree with but think was misplaced in the argument.
How do I think McFarland should have stated things? I think the readers would have been better served if each reason began with the actual reason and absent the assumption of Christianity being true. That’s not to say that the advantages of the Christian system can’t sometimes be woven into the discussion. I’ll give one example by restating the third reason:
“A third reason why Islam fails as a worldview is that, by minimizing the fallen and broken nature of human beings, it fails to recognize the severity of the human condition and our drastic need for radical redemption. Put another way, the Muslim view of ‘sin and salvation’ is the problem. According to Islam, judgment will be based on one’s conformity to the will of Allah. Ultimately, salvation for the Muslim is a matter of his or her works, and even then is still subject to Allah’s capricious whim. But, I think a fair assessment of humanity’s obvious imperfections and rebellion against moral authority tells us that we can never reconcile ourselves to a holy and just God (as per Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) on our own. Works alone don’t cut it.
On the other hand, Christianity has the clear advantage of recognizing how far humanity falls short and of providing the hope of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus the Messiah (e.g., Rom. 3:19-31 and Eph. 2:1-10). Further, God (aka Yahweh) is always faithful, trustworthy, unchanging, and never capricious.”
What do you think? Better? Or, was I unfairly critical from the start?
I suppose I could have related McFarland’s argument against Islam without mentioning, or at least not focusing on, my criticisms of his presentation. But, it was buggin’ me, so I wanted to vent a little. This may seem like an odd way to do so, but despite my frustrations above, I would highly recommend 10 Answers for Atheists. I’m only 2/3 through it, but other than a couple of typos (and what book doesn’t have them?), so far this has been the only glaring nit I have to pick with the book. It’s only 200 pages, written at a lay level, contains some great information and excellent advice for Christians who find themselves trying to respond to the concerns and complaints of non-theists, not to mention brief analyses of other belief systems. Even if you already have a couple or three texts on apologetics, I think you may glean something new or helpful from this book. McFarland has a few other books you might want to check into, too. I know I’m going to.
“Solid female characters, not just superheroes, are essential for the Arab world at this time of unprecedented violence against women.” — Joumana Merhej, creator of female Muslim superhero “Malaak” (quoted by Salon editor/writer Prachi Gupta)
A Facebook friend of mine posted an article announcing Marvel Comics’ new “Muslim Girl Superhero”, which will debut in January 2014. His accompanying comment was “Explain this:”. (Not sure what there is to explain, really.) I only saw a couple of responses, and they were generally negative. Not hostile, but perhaps dubious/suspicious and pessismistic. My reflex was to retort with something similar, but as I thought about it some more, I decided it was worth a little more research before forming any opinions. So, I checked out a few more articles beyond the primary one (from the New York Times), including by Reuters, Salon, Marvel, and Al Jazeera. They were all fairly brief and mostly all the same stuff, but I was able to glean a few more facts and a couple good quotes.
The character is the brainchild of two Marvel editors, Sana Amanat (who grew up Muslim and whose experiences inspired the idea) and Steve Wacker, and the writer they brought onto the project, Muslim-convert G. Willow Wilson. Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan is a huge fan of Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel (formerly Warbird, formerly Binary, formerly Ms. Marvel). So, when Kamala develops powers of her own, she pays homage to her favorite superhero by calling herself the new “Ms. Marvel” and donning a crimefighting costume reminiscent of Danvers’.
Of course, Kamala looks somewhat different than most costumed heroes (including Danvers), at least in the Marvel and DC Universes. She is a dark-skinned girl of South Asian — some definitions would include Pakistan as “Middle-Eastern” — ethnicity and, even more at issue, from a predominantly Muslim culture. Kamala herself, like her family whom she lives with in New Jersey, is Muslim. Based on the promo images, the Khans seem rather Westernized in their appearance, so while “conservative”, they probably aren’t very strict. (In fact, they remind me of friends I had back in NJ, at least one of whom described himself as a “secular Muslim”.) However, her brother is described as “extremely conservative”, which may indicate he will become “radicalized” (or tempted to, anyway) in the future.
According to Amanat,
“It is so important that we tell stories that reflect the ever-changing world that we live in and being a Muslim-American is so much a part of that…. [This story] is about a young girl who is figuring out who she is and what happens when these really extraordinary things happen to her.”
Beyond the usual coming-of-age, teen angst stuff (a la Spider-Man), Wilson explains,
“[Kamala] struggles to reconcile being an American teenager with the conservative customs of her Pakistani Muslim family. So in a sense, she has a ‘dual identity’ before she even puts on a super hero costume. Like a lot of children of immigrants, she feels torn between two worlds: the family she loves, but which drives her crazy, and her peers, who don’t really understand what her home life is like.
This makes her tough and vulnerable at the same time. When you try to straddle two worlds, one of the first things you learn is that instead of defending good people from bad people, you have to spend a lot of time defending good people from each other. It’s both illuminating and emotionally brutal. That’s what makes this book different.”
“It’s for all the geek girls out there, and everybody else who’s ever looked at life on the fringe.”
That actually sounds pretty good, though I’m curious about the “defending good people from each other” line. The best comics-writing incorporates a believable portrayal of real-world, very “human” issues and conflict. This title sounds like it will have plenty to draw from, and the creative and editorial teams have a definite direction they want to take the character(s). So, color me intrigued.
The following comments are even more focused on the religion issue:
“Wilson: Islam is both an essential part of her identity and something she struggles mightily with. She’s not a poster girl for the religion, or some kind of token minority. She does not cover her hair — most American Muslim women don’t — and she’s going through a rebellious phase. She wants to go to parties and stay out past 9 PM and feel ‘normal.’ Yet at the same time, she feels the need to defend her family and their beliefs.
Amanat: As much as Islam is a part of Kamala’s identity, this book isn’t preaching about religion or the Islamic faith in particular. It’s about what happens when you struggle with the labels imposed on you, and how that forms your sense of self. It’s a struggle we’ve all faced in one form or another, and isn’t just particular to Kamala because she’s Muslim. Her religion is just one aspect of the many ways she defines herself.”
My cynical side wants to read past or through what the creators say and think, “Oh, great! Another blatant attempt to push issues of ‘diversity’ and multiculturalism. Here come the not-so-subtle lessons about religious & anti-religious bigotry; bullying; the poor, misunderstood ‘radical’; yada-yada-yada…” As one commenter to the FB post reminded, most creators in the comics industry these days are of a liberal/progressive mindset, which usually means a “politically correct” take on things. Sometimes, this can manifest in an overcompensation to give Muslims not just fair, but special, treatment, emphasizing the “religion of peace” claims as if they somehow outweigh or neutralize the terrible realities. (And, yes, perhaps some people do need to be reminded that by far the majority of Muslims are not sympathetic to jihadist activity or the extreme sexism and cruelty common in certain sects.)
But, for now at least, I don’t really see much indication of a heavy-handed, politically-correct approach to Miss Khan’s story. Maybe it will crop up later, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt, for now. So, I choose to remain “cautiously optimistic” in hopes that the new Ms. Marvel remains an enjoyable read, socio-culturally relevant and fair, without becoming caught up (however subtly) in PC, pro-Islam indoctrination. Maybe, we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by this groundbreaking book.
“Statecraft is soulcraft.” — Aristotle
I usually read during my “lunch hour”. Whether working at a job or taking care of stuff at home (or just hangin’ out), that’s a time I usually set aside to get through at least a few pages in one of the books I have in progress. Lately, I’ve been reading Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft by Francis J. Beckwith. From the “Politics for Christians” title, you might assume it would be a somewhat superficial book with lots of Bible verses thrown around, while telling Christian readers what to think and how to vote on every political issue under the sun. On the contrary, as an entry in the “Christian Worldview Integration Series” by IVP Academic, this book is a work of substance, though communicated at a lay level. Taking his queue from the above quote, Beckwith states,
“[Aristotle] meant by this that the state government, by its policies, procedures and actions, places moral ideas in the social and legal fabric of a political regime, and that these ideas serve to shape the quality of its citizens’ character. This central truth animates the notion of politics offered in this book. And it is, I will argue, central to a Christian understanding of politics.”
Christians like myself are often told, whether explicitly or implicitly, that we should keep our religious ideas to ourselves and “God forbid” that we let any religious belief influence our politics. If we have “religious reasons” for supporting or opposing a piece of legislation, for example, we are told those are irrational and inadequate. And, oh, by the way, “the Constitution says you can’t force your religion/morals down everybody else’s throats!”
A reasonable assessment, however, of the ideas of religious freedom, liberal democracy, civic responsibility, etc., shows this to be an unfair position, both in its accusations and its demands. Beckwith, of course, examines the philosophical, theological, and constitutional arguments on the subject throughout his book. But, the part I want to share excerpts from is Chapter 4, “Secular Liberalism and the Neutral State”. Beckwith explains:
“In opposition to Christian activism, some argue that if the views of Christian citizens were to become enshrined in our law, it would violate a fundamental principle of liberal democracy: in a pluralist society that includes citizens with conflicting and contrary philosophical and religious beliefs, the law should not embrace any one of these perspectives as correct. Some argue that this principle is supported by America’s tradition of church-state separation that supposedly bars legislators, through the U.S. Constitution’s free exercise and establishment clauses, from imposing a religious view of the human person and the common good on citizens who disagree with that view.
This position is called secular liberalism (SL)…. [It] is widely held in different forms by an array of thinkers across the religious and political spectrum. For this reason, secular liberalism should not be confused with the popular political philosophy known as ‘liberalism,’ which is associated with left-leaning members of the Democratic Party in the United States or the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. Some of the strongest critics of SL are self-described liberals, such as William Galston and Michael Sandel. On the other hand, some of the strongest supporters of secular liberalism (at least on the matter of the role of religious worldviews in the public square) are non-liberals such as Episcopal priest and former Republican U.S. Senator John Danforth (Missouri) and conservative political commentator Andrew Sullivan, a self-described ‘gay Catholic.’
Secular liberalism has had a tremendous impact on the law and the way in which courts (especially the Supreme Court) have dealt with social issues such as abortion and homosexual conduct….
…As understood and embraced by popular culture, secular liberalism accentuates the fact of pluralism, that there exists a plurality of different and contrary opinions on matters religious, philosophical and moral. From this fact, many in our culture conclude that one cannot say with any confidence that anyone’s view on religious, philosophical or moral matters is better than anyone else’s view. Given that, it is a mistake to claim that one’s religious, philosophical or moral beliefs are exclusively correct and that fellow citizens in other religious, philosophical and moral traditions, no matter how sincere or devoted, hold false beliefs. Thus, it is wrong to hold that political or moral positions derived from one’s religious, philosophical or moral tradition ought to be the proper subject of laws that constrain another’s liberty.”
I’m sure you noted, as I did, the underlying assumption (or is it a conclusion?) of moral and epistemological relativism — near-constant companions of strong pluralism — that permeates the SL position. This is true, despite the efforts of its more sophisticated proponents, like Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls, to offer political theories “in order to defend a political regime in which there is wide philosophical and religious disagreement among its citizens and yet a justified system of laws that does not collapse into moral relativism.” I think it’s a little late for that, when such relativism seems to be part of your foundation, fellas.
“Although secular liberalism is offered by its proponents as the most rational ordering of the public square in a society in which its citizens embrace conflicting and contrary worldviews, I think there are good reasons to believe that it cannot succeed in this noble purpose.”
The issue in question, then, is “whether liberal democracy itself forbids… Christians[, for example,] from ever making their case in the public square and/or having their views enshrined in law.” At this point, Beckwith proceeds to examine three arguments often used to defend secular liberalism and, thereby, prohibit legislation informed by religious thought. He refers to them as: a) the golden-rule-contract argument; b) the secular reason argument; and, c) the err-on-the-side-of-liberty argument. I won’t try to explain all of them here, but I will give a couple examples from Beckwith’s examination of the “secular reason” argument.
Philosopher Robert Audi gives this brief explanation of the argument: “[O]ne has a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless one has, and is willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support (say for one’s vote).” But, one needs to ask not only, “Why does one have this obligation?” but also, “What is this ‘secular reason[ing]‘ he speaks of?” What does he mean by that, exactly? Beckwith argues that the “secular” vs. “religious” distinction is inappropriate, because “‘secular’ is not a relevant property of a reason that is offered in support of the strength or soundness of the conclusion that its advocate is advancing…. A reason does not gain more or less truth by being ‘secular’.” In essence, Audi makes a category error.
“Consider this example. Suppose one believes the conclusion that unjust killing is morally wrong and offers two reasons for it:
(1) The Bible forbids unjust killing.
(2) The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative forbids unjust killing.
Most people would call (1) a religious reason and (2) a secular reason, since the first contains the name of a religious book, the Bible, and the second contains a nonreligious principle, the categorical imperative. But how do the terms religious and secular add to or subtract from our assessment of the quality of these reasons? If one has good reason to reject the authority of the Bible, then that good reason and not the religious nature of the Bible is the real reason why one ought to reject reason (1). On the other hand, suppose that one has good reasons to believe that the Bible is a better guide to moral philosophy than Kant’s categorical imperative. In that case, one ought to conclude that (1) is a better reason than (2). But, again, how do the properties of “religious” and “secular” affect such a judgment? At the end of the day, a reason is weak or strong, true or false. Thus, “religious” and “secular” are not relevant properties when assessing the quality of reasons people may offer as part of their arguments.”
In considering another aspect of the “secular reason” argument, Beckwith then reviews Ron Reagan’s speech on embryonic stem-cell research at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Reagan argued that embryos are not human beings, let alone “persons” deserving of rights.
“But by sequestering early embryos from the class of moral subjects, Ron Reagan attempts to answer a question of philosophical anthropology that religious traditions also offer an answer. Reagan presents an argument in order to justify killing early embryos by trying first to answer the question of the nature of a moral subject. Those who oppose Reagan’s position, mostly Christians, present arguments and counterarguments in order to first show that the early embryo is a moral subject and then, from there, show that killing that entity in the way that Reagan suggests is unjustified. Reagan chooses to call this position ‘an article of faith’, even though its advocates offer real arguments with real conclusions and real reasons. Of course, these arguments and the beliefs they support are, for many of their advocates, articles of faith, but they are also offered as deliverances of rational argument. In that case, they should be assessed on their merits as arguments….
…[N]o matter what position the government takes on the nature of the embryo or fetus, it must rely, whether explicitly or implicitly, on some view of the human person tied to a metaphysical position that answers precisely the same sort of question that the “religious” positions to which [Paul D.] Simmons alludes try to answer. Because these so-called “religious positions”, as I have mentioned already, are often defended by arguments that are public in their quality and do not rely on crude appeals to holy Scripture or religious authority, it is not precisely clear why a public argument that is informed by a citizen’s religious belief violates the Constitution while a contrary public argument that is informed by a citizen’s secular belief does not.”
At the conclusion of the chapter, Beckwith offers the following:
“Secular liberalism cannot remedy the deep philosophical conflicts that percolate beneath the political debates in which Christians have become vibrant participants. For its application results in what [Frank] Canavan calls the pluralist game, a bait and switch in which a religiously neutral public square that respects pluralism is promised so that our legal regime may avoid the imposition of any ‘sectarian’ or ‘religious’ dogma. But that is not what is delivered. What arrives is a legal regime that is no less sectarian than any of the ‘religious’ views it was intended to sequester. As we have seen, secular liberalism presupposes and entails its own understandings of liberty and the human good that answer precisely the same philosophical questions that the so-called sectarian views answer.
Consequently, contrary to some depictions of Christian involvement in politics, such religious citizens seem not to have inserted themselves into the public square because of a desire to ‘force their morality on others’ (if we use the common pejorative description). Rather, they have become politically active for the purpose of resisting what they believe are understandings of the human person that are contrary to human dignity and thus the common good.”
What do you think? I thought this was a pretty good examination of the issue — intellectually rigorous, yet not overloaded with theology, philosophy, or political theory that might scare off a layperson like me. I haven’t quite finished the book, but I do feel confident in recommending it to Christians and non-Christians alike. Oh, and the chapter on “The Separation of Church and State” was very informative and eye-opening! This is good stuff. I may need to check out more books in the series….
“But examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” — I Thessalonians 5:21 (NASB)
I’m not really into Halloween. Haven’t been for years. Sure, in my early years, I did the whole trick-or-treating thing. I remember, when I was around 5 or 6, I went out dressed as a cheetah, with drawn-on whiskers. I was so cute. I think I wore the costume, minus hood & whiskers, as pajamas for awhile afterwards. Another year, I went as a generic-brand pseudo-Batman, complete with purple mask & cape. (I guess the DC licensing division hadn’t wised up to the marketing possibilities of putting out the real deal. Or maybe they were available but more expensive. I dunno.) I thought I was so cool!
But, as a newly “born-again” Christian at the time, my Mom was becoming more aware of the pagan and satanic connections to Halloween. Neither she nor I quite remember the details, but apparently she decided it was not a good idea to be involved in the traditional celebrations, so we stopped. I think I remember staying home and playing board games. At least once, I think we went to a “Harvest Celebration” or some such thing at some church, where the kids could dress up as Bible characters, play games, and eat sweets in a physically and spiritually safe environment. I seem to remember giving out candy and Christian tracts to the kids that came to our door on Halloween night — assuming we were home. When I got a little older, there may have been Halloween parties that I wasn’t allowed to go to, but I don’t really remember. (And, as far as I can tell, the deprivation didn’t have longlasting effects.)
Now, as a single adult, Halloween has just become that one night of the year that little kids (and big ones) come knocking on my door, while I “hide” in the dark and hope they go away. That’s right. I don’t even give out candy. I’m such a grinch! (No, wait. Wrong holiday.)
Yet, I have to admit that I sometimes envy people having fun in their costumes, goofing around, etc. So, would I join in, if the opportunity presented itself? Can a conservative Christian like myself, who believes in demonic entities and the “spiritual warfare” going on about me, in good conscience participate in Halloween parties, trick-or-treating, or celebrations of any sort? Well, it depends….
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on the origins of Halloween or all the weird (sometimes criminal) stuff a very few people do or have done on that particular night. We won’t be doing an in-depth exegesis on scriptural passages that talk about fleeing evil and pursuing holiness. I’m not even going to quote any Bible verses! But, before going any further, we should acknowledge a couple of foundational things:
* Much of what we think of when it comes to Halloween — e.g., ghosts, goblins, witches, vampires, etc. — is occultic, and this is a reflection of the holiday’s origins.
* Christians are commanded to a) avoid “all appearance of evil” and b) be ambassadors of Christ to the world.
Given those things, how should we proceed as responsible followers of Christ during the “witching season”? I will try to boil it all down and give a few suggestions for a balanced approach:
1) Beware of the genetic fallacy. This can occur when you recognize one or more unsavory characteristics about a thing’s origin and assuming that they apply equally to its modern form. (E.g., “Halloween started out as evil/pagan, so it is just as bad nowadays.”) This is not logical. I’m not saying that everything about Halloween these days is harmless, but neither does it all automatically lead to Satan worship. There is a large range of both liberty and danger in between.
2) Don’t get, or let your children become, too obsessed — either pro or con — with ghosts, ghouls, vampires, zombies, death, and the like. When one has a solid scriptural foundation, I think such things can be enjoyed in moderate doses without danger. I, for example, occasionally read or watch material with that stuff in it, but it isn’t a particular fascination. It’s just a part — a subgenre, really — of the larger sci-fi/fantasy realm that I enjoy.
3) If you know, perhaps from activities or associations in your past, that you have a “weakness” for occultic phenomena, then by all means avoid it. Even if that’s not you, it’s wise to generally avoid things like palm readings, astrology, Ouija boards, seances, etc., which may seem harmless but can open you up to spiritual oppression. It is very real and quite seductive!
4) On the other hand, unlike the abovementioned activities, simply wearing a creepy costume, trick-or-treating, and/or attending a typical Halloween-themed party does not in itself constitute “courting evil” or participation in the occult.
5) Teach your children from Scripture early on about the realities of evil and the spirit realm. Also, take due precautions re their (and your) physical safety on Halloween night — everything from watching for traffic to unsafe candy & apples to avoiding potential kidnapping. Then, pray up a storm! (Well, not literally….)
6) A Halloween party can be a great opportunity to have discussions about spiritual matters with unbelievers. I don’t recommend railing against all the “ghosts”, “witches”, et al., and telling them that they’re going to Hell. (Though, if you get far enough into the conversation, Hell and the Devil are bound to come up.) Also, don’t think that quoting a bunch of Bible passages is going to be very effective. Rather, use good conversational tactics and exhibit the traits of a winsome ambassador for Christ — knowledge, wisdom, and character. Give yourself the modest goal of putting a stone in someone’s shoe (as Greg Koukl likes to say) regarding worldview and spiritual matters.
7) Lots of Christian parents limit their and their kids’ participation to “harvest festivals” and Reformation Day celebrations. That’s great. But, if you choose to participate in traditional trick-or-treating, too, it’s certainly not unreasonable to make off limits any costumes or activities of an occultic nature. (On the other hand, one visit to a well-done “Haunted House” may cure your kids of their curiosity about that stuff once and for all! And, it may provide another patient for the local child psychologist, which is good for the economy.)
8) Finally, be careful not to be too judgmental of other Christians who are either more strict or less strict (re themselves and/or their children) when it comes to Halloween participation. After all, these are secondary issues at best, and it comes down to a matter of conscience (and, perhaps, spiritual maturity) for everyone. So, instead, pray for wisdom and spiritual discernment for both of you.
Alright, that’s my 2 cents (or, was it 8?)…
Happy “All Hallows’ Eve”!
Happy Reformation Day!
Stay safe, everyone!!
P.S. If you would like to read a few articles by respected Christian thinkers that do go into a few of the details I avoided, while also taking a balanced and reasoned approach on the topic (as I attempted to do), then check these out:
Originally, I was going to use this in Sunday’s installment of my “Informal Logic 101″ series. But, I opted not to, ‘cuz it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. It is still worth commenting on, though, so…
An example of a bad argument can be found in a recent editorial in Connecticut’s New Haven Register, in which various politically conservative individuals and institutions were accused of being very much like the notoriously racist & violent Ku Klux Klan. It was not only a vicious smear but an implicit argument by analogy.
I will attempt to fairly summarize the “argument”:
1) The KKK is an evil organization whose message includes a) the proclamation that Black people are an inferior race, b) fear of and opposition to immigration, and c) expressions of disgust and hatred toward gay people.
2) Conservative individuals like Ted Nugent and Ann Coulter, as well as the national Republican Party and a burgeoning array of fringe “conservative” media like Fox News have embraced this message.
3) These individuals and institutions must be called out, condemned, marginalized, and ostracized for their hatred and racism, just as we do the KKK.
Or, put another way, “Conservatives in America hold the same warped values and tout the same racist message as the KKK; therefore, they should be condemned and ostracized in the same way we do the KKK.”
If the comparison was accurate, I would agree. But, it isn’t, as any fair assessment demonstrates. The first premise is certainly true, but the second is a mischaracterization. There may be a fringe element on “the Right” that act/speak as if Blacks are inherently inferior, and that’s both disgusting and irrational. But, that view is not generally true of conservatives nor a part of historical conservatism. In fact, the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and the party of King, who led the Civil Rights Movement. The Klan, on the other hand, was founded (1866) & functioned as a militant, terrorist anti-Republican instrument of the Democratic Party.
The only immigration that conservatives fear and oppose is the illegal sort, and the various expenses and other problems that result from it. Implied in the accusation is a bigotry and hatred for immigrants themselves, who are predominantly (though not completely) brown-skinned. Of course, there are plenty of brown-skinned Americans who are against illegal immigration, too. Like them, what white conservatives like myself “hate” is the blatant disregard for rule of law and a nation’s sovereignty over its borders.
Sadly, there are probably more instances of “expressions of disgust and hatred toward gay people” from conservatives than I care to admit. Hopefully, those are in the minority, too. The emphasis should be on condemning homosexual behavior, which is damaging to individuals and society alike. Governmental policy and laws should not, therefore, encourage or promote such activity. Gay people, however, should be treated with love, compassion, and respect, even while disagreeing with them, and I know that many (most?) conservatives agree with me.
A couple points re Nugent and Coulter: 1) Yeah, Nugent is intentionally provocative and sometimes says stupid things that may betray a personal stereotyping of and condescension toward non-whites. In a nutshell, while I generally like him (i.e., I find him entertaining and somewhat fascinating), he can be a jerk, and that’s on him. But, even if he’s guilty of a measure of bigotry, he’s no Klansman. 2) Coulter also occasionally says some things that are intentionally provocative, polarizing, sometimes insensitive, maybe even “vicious”. But, while she doesn’t buy into the whole gay agenda (inc. SSM & sex ed.), to imply she is guilty of rank homophobia is ridiculous, since she has a lot of gay friends and is one of several notables on the Right associated with GOProud.
So, while there is some truth to some of the assertions, it is far too weak to support the author’s conclusion. He doesn’t like conservatives and conservative ideas, so, providing little-to-no supporting evidence, he resorts to libelous accusations. This “argument” fails. Of course, such rhetoric still wins the approval and reinforces the beliefs of those who already share the author’s views. Unfortunately, it may also influence the thinking of others who haven’t yet drunk the kool-aid but do not think critically or do their own research. The Register‘s “apology” didn’t help much, either.
And even more recently, notorious jerk (and that’s being kind) Florida Rep. Alan Grayson (D) likened the Tea Party to the Klan in an email, which depicted the “T” in Tea as a burning cross. He accuses the grassroots group of engaging in “relentless racist attacks against our African-American president”, including producing pictures and placards with very racist images and messages. I admit I have seen a couple of those signs in photos from Tea Party rallies over the years. But, assuming they weren’t “plants” by the Left, they are obviously by a fringey few, who have been publicly shamed and rejected by the 99.9+% of Tea Partyers who think they’re asses. Grayson went on to say,
“[T]here is overwhelming evidence that the tea party is the home of bigotry and discrimination in America today, just as the KKK was for an earlier generation. If the shoe fits, wear it.”
This man is willfully blind to the facts and/or a shameless instigator of racial division (among other things), using hyperbolic fear- and hatemongering. Regardless, his “argument” doesn’t hold up, either.
“Correlation does not equal causation.” — many people, including me (‘cuz it makes me sound smart)
We’re baaaaaaack, and we have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started!
Clear thinking & reasoning require at least a basic understanding of causal relationships. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to make logical mistakes in this area. As you may have gathered from the header, our current group of fallacies primarily deals with causes (and effects), while the last one is about making comparisons to give rhetorical (if not logical) force to an argument. And, yes, we have a healthy dose of Latin to make it all sound properly intellectual. We will start with the three main types of “false cause” fallacy, the first being…
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc
This phrase translates to “after this, therefore because of this”. It refers to when one too quickly assumes that ‘A’ is the cause of ‘B’ just because ‘A’ occurred before ‘B’. Or, as Anthony Weston puts it in A Rulebook for Arguments, “assuming causation too readily on the basis of mere succession in time.” Yeah, that’s what I said.
Obviously, succession in time is, on its own, insufficient proof of cause & effect. Star Trek (the original series) debuted on Sept. 8, 1966, and I was born four days later. I also became a huge fan of the show and its successors. Was there any causal relation between the show’s debut and my birth? How about the show’s debut and my eventual affinity for it? Well, much as I like to think we were fated to be “together”, the answer to both questions is “No.”
Another example that is more common (and, yet, more controversial) would be the basic assumption of Darwinian evolutionists that organism ‘A’ must have evolved from similar organism ‘B’, because ‘A’ precedes ‘B’ in the fossil record. Both metaphysical naturalism and/or strong methodological naturalism precludes them from even entertaining the idea that similarity or “kinship” between the two organisms may be the result of them having a Designer in common. Such a Designer may have done as little as tweaking the genetic code of organism ‘A’ (or a common ancestor) to eventually produce organism ‘B’ OR s/he may have orchestrated the extinction of organism ‘A’ followed by the speciation by fiat of organism ‘B’. Regardless, one cannot assume a purely naturalistic, evolutionary linkage — i.e., a causal relationship — between the two based primarily on temporal succession.
Non causa pro causa
“Not the cause for the cause.” This one simply refers to the misidentification of an effect’s actual cause. For example, what would you think if I said, “The latest statistics for local juvenile delinquency just came out, and they show a more than 5% decrease in non-gun-related crime by teenagers over the past decade. I also just read an article observing that we have twice as many pizzerias in our city now as we did in 2003. So, it looks to me like more pizza is the answer to reducing crime among juveniles.”? Would you agree with my conclusion? I hope not. There may indeed be a correlation between available pizza hangouts and teenagers getting into trouble less often, but I sincerely doubt that it’s a substantial cause of the decrease. A much better study would need to be done to determine any real cause-and-effect.
This is connected to our next fallacy…
Sometimes, we like to jump to conclusions, and sometimes that means latching onto a particular explanation for a thing. But, upon honest reflection, we know that the answer is often more complicated. There can be many factors involved that lead to a particular effect.
“The North fought the South in the American Civil War because of slavery.”
Well, as a former associate of mine was fond of saying, “It’s not that simple.” It’s true as far as it goes. Slavery was indeed a primary issue — maybe the primary issue — for moral, religious, socio-economic, and political reasons. One might even say that it became the lightning-rod, central issue for many that led to war. But, truth be told, there were several other reasons why people fought, and they often were interrelated. Some issues were more important for some people, and others for others. To imply that differences of opinion over slavery was the only cause of the Civil War would be an example of oversimplification.
These next two are special types of the false cause fallacy…
Sometimes referred to as the “domino fallacy”, this happens when someone claims that doing ‘X’ (either by an individual or a larger group) will set off a domino effect, with successive events inevitably leading to dire consequences. Now, not all slippery-slope arguments are fallacious, especially if one can demonstrate how using a particular way of reasoning for ‘X’ logically opens the door for the same reasoning being used to argue for ‘Y’, ‘Z’, and any number of other things. (The push for “same-sex marriage” falls under this.) The problem, however, is when assertions are made without sufficient reasons/evidence to back up the predicted chain reaction. For example:
“If we let kids play with toy guns, or even get used to seeing images of guns portrayed in a positive light, they will eventually start playing with real guns and start shooting each other, mugging and robbing innocent citizens, and generally grow up to be thugs and criminals.”
This, of course, is only part of a larger, anti-gun argument. But, history teaches us that this “logic” clearly does not bear out in real life.
An argument by analogy occurs when one observes or points out the similarities between two things and reasons that they probably have other characteristics in common, too. The first premise makes a claim about thing ‘A’. (First question: Is this claim true?) The second premise claims that thing ‘B’ is somehow like thing ‘A’, usually in more than one way. (Second question: Are the two examples relevantly similar?) Then, a conclusion is made. (Note: This may sound like a deductive syllogism, but analogies are actually a type of inductive reasoning.)
Analogies can be very helpful in thinking through ideas or illustrating a point to someone else. We use them all the time, so it’s important to think carefully about them. Sometimes, analogical reasoning is valid and works very well. Other times, though, not so much. If the proposed similarities are actually not significant to the issue (if they even exist) and, thus, the conclusion being drawn, then the analogy breaks down. Here’s a somewhat silly example:
“I hear Henry is one of those types that is really into the arts, especially when its tied to his cultural heritage, ‘cuz he’s kind of fanatical about that stuff. Come to think of it, Hitler and the Nazis were the same way. Henry’s probably just like Hitler!…”
Of course, appreciation of the arts and affection for one’s cultural heritage have no direct, let alone exclusive, connection to Nazi ideology or practices. The “similarities” are inconsequential and the argument’s conclusion is waaaaay off the mark.
The focus here is on not using bad or false analogies, which is usually done by overestimating the strength and/or relevance of the similarities. Another problem, though, comes from the other side — i.e., dismissing an argument by analogy simply because the analogy doesn’t go far enough, the similarities aren’t numerous or exact enough to satisfy. Of course, this is unfair, because no analogy can be “perfect”, else the two things being compared would be essentially identical and no analogy needed. Analogies are only meant to be taken so far. Also, remember that, since they are inductive rather than deductive, analogies can only be suggestive, not conclusive.
As Prof. Samples reminds us, “Good analogies compare things that have solid connections, directly relate to the conclusion, and pay careful attention to dissimilarities.” A great (though controversial) example of an argument by analogy is the “Watchmaker analogy” used in support of Intelligent Design Theory. William Paley’s argument for design in nature and, by extension, for God’s existence, can be boiled down to this:
“1) Watches display design.
2) Watches are the product of a watchmaker.
3) Organisms display design.
4) Therefore, organisms are the product of a Designer/Creator.”
Skeptics have long since pointed to the critical analysis of David Hume (1779) as a supposed debunking of Paley’s argument, concluding that living systems are not sufficiently similar to man-made mechanisms to warrant the analogy, or at least the likeness is not strong enough to justify the conclusion of the ID theorist. But recent developments in biochemistry have led some scientists and philosophers to rethink Paley’s design argument. Dr. Fuz Rana has reported on several amazing discoveries. Actual biomolecular motors provide “a strict analog to man-made machinery.” Even more intriguing and directly applicable to Paley’s argument are the mechanical molecular clocks inside cyanobacteria (photosynthetic blue-green alga) — i.e, real, honest-to-God (heh!), biochemical timekeeping devices (see illustration above). The Watchmaker analogy has been vindicated!
“This mechanism being observed… the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker.” — William Paley (1802)
We got through five informal logical fallacies today? Whew! Good job!
Prof. Samples’ lesson for the day?
LESSON: “Exercise caution in analyzing causal relationships and conceptual comparisons.”
It’s controversial holiday time, again. Yaaayyy!!!
Columbus Day is celebrated as a U.S. federal holiday (since 1936) in honor of the intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus’ initial landing in the Bahamas and, therefore, the Americas. The facts that Columbus was a) not the first non-native to “find” the New World (ask Leif Erickson) and that b) his discovery was accidental do not matter. It still represents momentous developments in world history and Western civilization. The American colonies favored Columbus over John Cabot, a Venetian explorer who sailed under the British flag and whose landing on Newfoundland in 1497 was considered by some to be the founding of the British Empire. The words “Columbus” and “Columbia” were used commonly in writings throughout the American Revolution, and the new nation of the United States of America proved its veneration of Columbus by naming its federal capital (DC), two state capitals (OH & SC), and a river after him.
Technically, Columbus first “arrived” in the New World — instead of the East Indies he was hoping for — on Oct. 12, 1492, and it is still celebrated on Oct. 12th in other parts of the world. But, since 1970, all but three of the states in the U.S. celebrate Columbus Day on the second Monday of October. (Hawaii, Alaska, & South Dakota don’t celebrate it at all, and Berkeley, CA, replaced it with “Indigenous Peoples Day” in 1992.) This year, it’s on Oct. 14th.
Columbus Day is also the traditional time when those steeped in politically-correct, anti-European (and/or anti-imperialist), anti-capitalist historical revisionism go about demonizing Christopher Columbus, casting aspersions on his character and accusing him of all manner of moral crimes, from greedy capitalist pig to brutal tyrant to genocidal maniac and “father of the transatlantic slave trade”. So, I decided to examine a few of these claims and present a bit of a corrective based on actual, historical facts and (un)common sense. But, first, let’s review some basic facts about Columbus the man and his historic voyages.
Christopher Columbus was born to a middle-class family in the Republic of Genoa (i.e., modern-day northwestern Italy) somewhere between Aug. 26 and Oct. 31, 1451. He first went to sea as a young lad. Beginning in his early 20′s, he apprenticed as a business agent for a few prominent, Genoan families. Columbus was largely self-taught and well-read in a number of subjects; though, according some historians, he did not always fully grasp what he read and came up with some incorrect ideas about the world that he stubbornly held onto. He was also an avid student of the Bible (including the Apocrypha) and biblical prophecy & eschatology.
Columbus spent a lot of time on trading vessels over the years, sailing as far south as Ghana on the coast of West Africa and possibly as far north(west) as Iceland. He married a Portuguese nobleman’s daughter, had children, and visited his family when he could. On a stop in Lisbon in 1479, he reconnected with his brother Bartholomew (aka Bartolomeo), a cartographer, and they began working on a project together.
Since the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, the “Silk Road” route to the Orient — source for silk, gold, jewels, rugs, dyes, spices, and opiates, all very much in demand in Europe — had become increasingly treacherous. This made things difficult for traders and ate into their profits. In hopes of gaining competitive advantage, various navigators/explorers and their backers tried to find a safer, alternate route to the Indies (i.e., roughly all of south and east Asia). To this end, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain were eventually convinced (after initial rejection) to support Columbus’ plan, which would use a naval route devised by Christopher and Bartholomew to cross the “Ocean Sea”, i.e., Atlantic Ocean. (Note: Spain was not in great financial condition, having just spent a lot to conquer the Muslim-held, Iberian province of Granada. So, roughly half of the financing for Columbus’ first trip was actually from private Italian investors.) In the “Capitulations of Santa Fe“, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to give Columbus the rank of “Admiral of the Seas” (and later “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”), promised him a share of the profits in perpetuity, and made him Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands he could claim for Spain, with the option to buy into any commercial ventures with those lands.
Columbus hired three ships — two caravels named the Santa Clara (nicknamed Niña) and the Pinta, and a larger carrack named the Santa María (aka La Gallega) — with total crew of 90 men and set sail on his first historic voyage on August 3, 1492. Unfortunately, he had made several mistakes in his geographical assumptions, grossly underestimating the westward distance between Europe and Asia. (Note: The King of Portugal had earlier rejected Columbus’ plan, because his experts had pointed out these miscalculations. Columbus refused to be swayed.) Yet, despite the many dangers & hardships (e.g., navigating through uncharted seas; disease & malnutrition; near-mutiny), and thanks largely to his valuable (though imperfect) knowledge of trade winds, Columbus and his surviving crew finally made it to land again, where they were able to rest, gather provisions, and explore before returning home. In addition to discovering new territory to colonize and resources to exploit, Columbus had also found new people groups to introduce to Christianity — one of his personal goals, and one shared by many explorers and colonists of the day.
This was but the first of four round-trips to/from the Americas (mostly in the Caribbean) that Columbus made for Spain between 1492 and 1503. The later trips included many more ships, with passengers and supplies for establishing colonies for Spain. News of these journeys (and others) brought the “New World” to the attention of governments, businessmen, Church and laymen alike, heralding the initiation of European exploration and colonization of the Western Hemisphere.
If this was of such significance in Western history, one might wonder why they aren’t called the “Columbian” continents. Why did Columbus only get a single, South American country named after him? According to one theory, the key might just lie in Columbus’ stubbornness:
“Columbus always insisted, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that the lands that he visited during those voyages were part of the Asian continent, as previously described by Marco Polo and other European travelers. [This intransigence] might explain, in part, why the American continent was named after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci [who recognized the land for the "new" continent(s) that it was] and not after Columbus.”
On the other hand, others say it was simply that Vespucci’s self-promoting letters — which may or may not have been fabrications by others — describing the New World circulated more quickly than Columbus’ written accounts. (A cartographer and navigator himself, Vespucci was, at the King of Portugal’s request, a professional observer on several Portuguese expeditions exploring the east coast of soon-to-be-called South America from 1499 to 1502.) Thus, Vespucci’s name became sufficiently associated with the discovery that geographers dubbed the land “America” — a feminine form of the Latinized “Americus Vespucius”. In fact, German cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann are credited with the first recorded usage of the word “America”, on their world map Universalis Cosmographia (1507). I should also note that, by the time of his death in 1506, Columbus had fallen out of favor with the Crown (see below) and was not a popular figure in Spain or the New World.
OK, end of Vespucci tangent. Now, I suppose we can get to the more controversial stuff….
There is plenty of controversy associated with Christopher Columbus, from where he was born to where his true remains are located. But, our concern is with the kind of man Columbus was. Not things like “Was he a good father? A loyal friend? An honest businessman?” No, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the charges are much more serious. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, there appears to be a lot of truth to them. I don’t like admitting that. I thought the worst of it had been debunked, and I was ready to defend Columbus’ honor. But, the case against him does seem pretty damning, and if anyone has been able to show that the relevant documents are fake or have been inaccurately interpreted, I couldn’t find it online. (I didn’t have time to research offline.)
Most of the evidence against Columbus comes from his own letters and logs, and from a 48-page document recently discovered (2006?) in the state archives in Valladolid by Spanish historians. In it, friend (reluctantly) and foe alike — 23 in all — describe some of the hardships and brutalities that occurred under the government of Christopher and his brothers. But, let me back up a step….
There had been a few incidents with the natives, though not many, and Columbus and his men were able to counter and/or administer punishment for any hostilities. It could be (and has been) argued that many of these punitive actions went too far. Columbus probably first knew he was in trouble when he returned from his Third Voyage (Aug./Sept. 1498) to find a rebellion underway by many Spanish settlers against the government of he and his brothers, Bartholomew and Diego. They were accused of “gross mismanagement” and of overstating the ease and opportunities for wealth. Apparently, some of his crew were involved and he had them hanged. Some returnees to Spain brought these and other charges against him in court, and “Columbus was eventually forced to make peace with the rebellious colonists on humiliating terms.”
Recognizing a growing problem, in 1500 Ferdinand and Isabella stripped Columbus’ of his governorship and had him arrested and shipped back to Spain in chains. Viewing his actions as a breach of contract, they also refused to continue paying him the royalties from their original agreement. This was the beginning of a long and drawn-out legal battle known as los pleitos colombinos (“Columbian lawsuits”), involving Columbus’ sons and descendants and reaching into the 18th century. Columbus was freed and allowed to return to the New World for a Fourth Voyage in 1502. On the way, he stopped off of Morocco to rescue some Portuguese sailors under siege by the Moors.
Meanwhile, Columbus’ successor as governor in Hispaniola was a member of the Order of Calatrava named Francisco de Bobadilla. Bobadilla had been tasked by the Crown with investigating the allegations of barbarity and greed by and under the watch of the Columbuses. The result is the aforementioned 48-page document. From it and other documentation, we know that the Columbuses were not above ordering public humiliation, disfigurement, dismemberment, and/or execution for various crimes and offenses. Some of these offenses (e.g., suggesting that Columbus was of lowly birth) seem hardly a big deal to us, and our modern-day sensibilities balk at such cruelty. To be fair, though, matters of family honor, respect for local authority, etc., were considered quite important to defend and maintain; so, while the method of punishment seems barbaric, we can at least understand the seriousness of the offenses in context.
The evidence also seems clear that Columbus, like many of his contemporaries, was involved in the slave trade to some degree. For example, one letter from Columbus to Ferdinand & Isabella says,
“In the name of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and brazil-wood which could be sold…. Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negros and Canary Islanders died at first.”
Assuming this is an accurate quote, it not only indicates that Columbus was involved in the trade but it betrays a stereotypically cavalier attitude toward the lives of indios and others sold into slavery. Here is a quote from another letter by Columbus that some take as evidence he was also involved in the sex trade, even providing very young girls:
“A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”
I have to say, though, that without more context, one could read this more generously as his supplying women & girls for wives and servants. Even then, of course, they were likely captured and sent from their homeland against their will.
There is one area, however, where I did find some information that can help us correct some misconceptions, namely about the severity of the European “mass murder” of indigenous American peoples via warfare, starvation, and disease. We are typically told that Columbus (and other “white devils”) brought all manner of Eurasian diseases with them — e.g., syphilis, smallpox, influenza, plagues, etc. — for which the Native Americans did not have immunity. This effectively devastated the native populations. The term often used is “genocide”, which implies that the Europeans not only knew exactly what they carried but that they purposely infected the indios precisely in order to wipe them out, greatly reducing any opposition to European colonization and exploitation of the land. I haven’t figured out how the European colonizers could plan this and stay healthy themselves, especially with their extremely limited medical knowledge. (Details, details.) Of course, those that survived the new diseases were supposed to have been savagely massacred in war with the white man.
In A Patriot’s History of the United States, authors Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen looked at recent studies and list five points that need to be seriously considered in order to get a realistic view of the numbers and causes of this so-called “genocide”. I’ll do my best to summarize:
1) Inflated estimates for the death toll resulting from European invasion of the New World have been as high as 56 million! This is supposed to represent a little over half the original population, which would put that at almost 100 million. Problem with those numbers is they just don’t jibe with reality. More reliable numbers put the total population closer to 53 million at the outside, but estimates keep getting revised downward. Some have put the pre-Colombian population of North America alone between 1.8 million and 8.5 million. The adjusted number of estimated deaths, then, while still very tragic, is much smaller than the earlier, grossly-exaggerated estimates.
We should also realize that it is very difficult to accurately estimate how many people were alive in a particular region 500 years ago. One popular method has been extrapolation from estimates given by early explorers, based on those populations they could count. But, this method has been challenged by archaeological studies in the Amazon Basin, with experts concluding that early estimates were exaggerated. In some cases, a “plus or minus reliability factor” of 400 percent(!) has led to overestimates in the millions.
2) “A recent study of more than 12,500 skeletons from sixty-five sites found that native health was on a ‘downward trajectory long before Columbus arrived.’ Some suggest that Indians may have had a nonvenereal form of syphilis, and almost all agree that a variety of infections were widespread. Tuberculosis existed in Central and North America long before the Spanish appeared, as did herpes, polio, tick-borne fevers, giardiasis, and amebic dysentery.” Experts are divided on just how much Old World disease affected the New World, but “[m]any now discount the notion that huge epidemics swept through Central and North America; smallpox, in particular, did not seem to spread as a pandemic.”
3) Indians didn’t generally document how many were lost in battle. Later transcriptions of oral histories revealed that some tribes “emphasize[d] bravery over brains” by exaggerating casualties, while other tribes adjusted their body counts downward, so they didn’t look weak. “What is certain is that vast numbers of natives were killed by other natives….” Can you imagine how many more would have died if they had had better weapons?
4) “According to a recent source, ‘The majority of Southwesternists… believe that many areas of the Greater Southwest [including northern Mexico and the southwestern United States] were abandoned or largely depopulated over a century before Columbus’ fateful discovery, as a result of climatic shifts, warfare, resource mismanagement, and other causes.’”
5) “What has been missing from the discussions about native populations has been a recognition that in many ways the tribes resembled the small states in Europe: they concerned themselves more with traditional enemies (other tribes) than with new ones (whites).”
All of this should tell us that Columbus et al. cannot be blamed for all, or even most, of the death and suffering from war and disease in the Americas in the late 15th century and forward. They contributed, sure, but it does no one any good to blame them for anything more.
This brings up another point I wanted to mention. In a lot of the anti-Columbus/anti-European rhetoric, as well as with other topics of similar controversy, I’ve noticed that the writers & speakers never seem to give the benefit of the doubt regarding a particular piece of historical “evidence”. They always assume the worst, reading/interpreting things in the most negative way possible. What might be an isolated incident is assumed to be regular and habitual. What might be a matter of accident or ignorance is assumed to be intentional. What could be a practice only undertaken reluctantly or under coercion is assumed to be done freely and with enthusiasm. The picture painted of Columbus, then, becomes one of an evil-to-the-core, habitually cruel and savage tyrant, heartlessly issuing orders of torture and death on a whim and sentencing others to lives of great hardship and brutality, all while greedily amassing wealth (mostly gold) at the expense of others. But, I get no sense of him being such a monster. My own impression, even with all of the violence and inhumane crap that went down, was that Columbus was simply a man of his time. That isn’t to excuse most of it. But, it is to recognize that a) Columbus was but one of many European explorers/colonizers who treated native populations harshly at times, and b) though they went overboard at times, Columbus and his brothers probably thought they were acting reasonably to maintain order on the frontier for their masters back home.
So, why do they do it? Why does the anti-Columbus/anti-European crowd emphasize and unnecessarily exaggerate the negatives? Many who lean this way are of Central or South American origin or extraction. There is a heavily Marxist influence in those cultures, so it is understandable why many of them are bitter towards European colonization and have fallen for the revisionist claims. Groups like La Raza also feel that their land was unfairly stolen by the Europeans (including American colonists, of course), so there is a longstanding grudge. But, there are also non-Latinos like the late Prof. Howard Zinn — who, ironically, got his MA & PhD from Columbia University — who promote(d) such views. Zinn was influenced by early Marxism but later moved toward anarchism. So, it’s no surprise that he also hated the ideas of private property and capitalism. I can only guess that such people consider anything that makes European (or American) colonization and associated economic concepts look bad is good for their cause. But, there’s probably more to it.
I understand the need to get past the idealistic, thumbnail sketches of “heroes” that we read as schoolchildren. I’ve blogged on this before. But some people go *way* too far the other way to compensate! Christopher Columbus was no saint, but neither was he the evil, genocidal monster they make him out to be. That’s just the facts.
I would like to end with a comment by a HS social studies teacher named Anthony Guzzaldo, which I came across on an education blog:
“If we only recognize the achievements of those heroes of history without flaws, who would be left to recognize?
Rather than present Columbus as purely heroic or, contrastingly, purely horrible, I would rather see the study of Columbus used to help [older] students to grapple with the ambiguities of history. The so-called heroes and villains of history are rarely, in reality, singly one or the other, just as most of history is far more complex and nuanced than it is often presented. The same can be said for the prominent figures and issues of the present day. We do our students a disservice by presenting the past or the present as anything other than that.
So, put down your swords, Columbus worshipers and demonizers alike. You’re both right.”
Yes, we need to acknowledge Columbus’ faults and the negative impact his arrival (and those of many of his successors) had on the New World and its people. But, at least on one day of the year, can’t we focus on celebrating his vision, his persistence, his accomplishment in forever connecting two supercontinents and the positives that came from those extraordinary efforts?