Worlds Collide- A Discussion with Mormon Missionaries

On Thursday evening, Leah, Micah, and I headed out to the South Pasadena Farmer’s Market to pick up some fresh vegetables and to enjoy a gorgeous evening walking around. Apparently, quite a few people had the same plan, as there were no parking spots to be found. After parking about a mile away, we began walking back to the market and Leah forgot something in the car. Micah and I waited on the corner for her, and I noticed there were a couple of Mormon missionaries across the street, and they were coming my way. I tried to make myself as approachable as possible, as I love having these conversations. Sure enough, they said hi and decided to talk to me. It was interesting how they started. Very seeker friendly. They asked if I knew what it meant to be happy. Hmmm… I guess the implication is that they would provide happiness for me, which is never a claim the Bible makes. I said, yeah, but I also knew what it meant to have joy, which was more important. After this, they launched into an explanation that joy can be found in God, although they probably would have said happiness had I not brought joy into the conversation. They began talking about how God restored the church and brought truth back, etc. I tried playing a little dumb, just to see how they would approach the normal Joe on the street. Before long, they began to tell me the story of how Joseph Smith asked God what church was the right church for him to join. Before they continued, he asked me if I had heard the story, and I said I was familiar with it. So they said, why don’t you tell us what you know so we can fill in the gaps. So, I gave them my impression of the Mormon faith.

“When Joseph Smith asked this question of God, God said, ‘Don’t join any of them. They are all corrupt!’ So Joseph Smith went on his way and formed his own church. One evening he was visited by the angel Moroni, who told him go to upstate New York and you’ll two gold plates buried there. From that he dictates what we know as the Book of Mormon. “Moroni was the only survivor of the war between the Lamanites and Nephites, who are two tribes that came from two brothers, Laman and Nephi, respectively. Lehi, a Jew around 600 B.C. came over and his two sons get into a fight and have to opposing tribes. Fast forward about a thousand years and they have a massive battle in upstate New York (for which there is zero archaeological evidence). Moroni is the sole surviving Nephite, and he buries the plates for Smith to find 1400 years later.

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Luther No Longer a Heretic, Can Finally Rest in Peace

In case you missed it, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Martin Luther actually wasn’t a heretic. According to the Pope, Luther never intended to split the Catholic Church, which is actually true. He never intended to split, but was trying to invite a dialogue and discussion over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Many don’t realize this, but the 95 Theses he nailed to the church doors was written in Latin, not German, which was the language of the people. If he was trying to insight a rebellion, he would have written them down in a language the people could understand.

Pope Benedict XVI says that he was trying to cleanse the Catholic Church, and for that should not be condemned. Benedict is attempting to be seen as a benevolent, uniting force, but is fighting quite a bit of history in order to do that. Luther was condemned as a heretic by Pope Leo X, and called “a drunken German who will change his mind when sober”. He carefully researched Luther’s statements, and declared that he must recant 41 of these statements or face excommunication. This was done with a Papal Bull, or an edict, called ‘Exsurge Domine’. In the ‘Decet Romanum Pontificem‘ on January 3, 1521, Luther was officially excommunicated.

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According to Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), all Popes are infallible, that is without mistake. Even Pope Leo XII (1885) went as far as saying that the Pope holds ‘upon this earth the place of God Almighty’. These are tall responsibilities and privileges that
Popes have claimed for centuries. Vatican Council 1 in 1870 declared that when a Pope speaks ‘ex cathidra’, which is when a Pope is teaching or preaching, his words are declared truth and teachings of the whole Catholic Church. There is no doubt that they teach that Popes are infallible.

This begs a question: Is Pope Benedict XVI declaring that Pope Leo X was not infallible? It seems as if Benedict is correcting Leo, saying he was incorrect. Of course this wouldn’t be the first time that Popes have contradicted themselves, just the most recent example. According to Vatican I, if you don’t believe that Peter was the first Pope, you are anathema. This stance was softened by Vatican II, and by Benedict, who has reached out even to the Muslim world, in an effort to build bridges to Catholicism throughout the world.

An interesting side discussion would be, what in Catholic terms, does this do to Luther’s eternal soul? Is he now released from purgatory? Was he in Hell, but now gets a direct promotion to Heaven upon further review?

We won’t know anything for sure, but Benedict is going to release his findings in September, so we will sit by idly, waiting with baited breath! One thing I can say for certain, Luther doesn’t care what Benedict thinks of him right now.

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Side Note: an interesting Catholic view of Luther’s life. Though often difficult to follow due to odd language, sentence structure, and numerous links, it is none the less interesting to read a Catholic perspective on Luther.

“Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris- Part 1

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One of the leading voices in New Atheism is Sam Harris. Harris, 40 years old, if not a leading voice, is definitely one of the loudest and most aggressive ones. His brash arrogance is very popular in a world of sound bites, as people are more intrigued by style than substance. I believe one of the reasons Harris has been so successful and popular is because he’s not afraid to voice his opinions, and usually does so with resounding confidence.

One of his more popular books is “Letter to a Christian Nation”. A couple months ago I sat down to read through this ‘Anti-Christian Manifesto’ to see what Harris was all about. I have to be honest. When I initially started reading, I was somewhat concerned with reading something that was really going to make he stop and think. I wasn’t thinking that he was going to shake me to my foundation and mortally challenge my faith, but I thought I would at least run across an notion that I had not heard and that would cause me to seek out an answer from someone wiser than I. When I finished my reading through the book, I was very unimpressed. I didn’t run across any ‘silver bullet’ arguments. Instead, all I found was a bunch of ‘straw-man arguments, unfair representations, arrogant commentary, and gigantic leaps to conclusions.

I made many notes as I was going through this book, so this will be a multiple-post topic. I realize that not many people want to read on huge post, but that it is easier to digest multiple smaller posts.

Harris begins his book by making his first generalization, saying that many of his ‘hostile communications’ have come from Christians. He’s quick to point out that Christians claim to be the ‘loving’ religion, and therefore this is hypocritical. If its one thing that Harris loves to do, it is combining all of Christianity into one lump. The thought that there are many different types of “Christians” and ways of thinking doesn’t seem to cross his mind. He’s more content with pointing out any inconsistency and use it to attack a belief in God. There are numerous examples of this, and I will be pointing them out as I go through.

His point is to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” He’ll attempt to do this by presenting rerun arguments and old accusations. Something that has been a comfort to me is that the Word of God has stood the test of time, and when men like Sam Harris roll around, they aren’t raising any accusation that hasn’t already been raised and defended. These attacks usually just come with different packaging.

One of Harris’ main arguments is against the idea of “intelligent design”. Harris says that it is frightening how so many people believe in a God-created world. It is troubling, he says, because it offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design.” (He goes on to offer some laughable examples of this ‘unintelligent design’, which I’ll cover later) Harris may not find it ‘compelling’, but some others do. There is evidence out there, that we believe points to a Creator, he just chooses not to find it ‘compelling’.

Harris seems to equate the idea that the earth was Created with the belief that the world has to be 6,000 years old. He never mentions that there are Christians who believe that the world is actually older, or that it may have even been created with age, just as man was created as an adult, not an infant. He says that we believe that dinosaurs lived on the ark, although I wasn’t aware that I believed that.

Another example of mischaracterization is Harris note that 44% of Americans believe that Christ will return in the next 50 years. Who are these 44%? I’m sure he didn’t just make this number up, but he doesn’t provide the source. He says that most Christians also believe that things on earth will get a lot worse before Christ comes. Therefore, he concludes, most Christians would be happy were New York engulfed in a ball of fire.

According to Harris, America should catch up with the rest of the world and abandon our Christian roots. This, seemingly, has led us to be a ‘lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant.’ He says that a Christian faith will lead this country in the wrong direction socially, economically, environmentally, and geopolitically. But last time I checked the Bible, that wasn’t what Christianity was all about. It is meant to change people spiritually. The Bible doesn’t promise that things will go well economically or environmentally should a society ‘follow’ Him. The most important need is that this nation needs Christ for spiritual cleansing.

Well, that’s the introduction! As you can see, I have quite a bit to say, and being just 7 pages into the book, who knows how long this is going to take, but we’ll see.

Critique of New Atheism

Here are the first and second part of the characteristics of New Atheism that I wrote in the past couple weeks. You should check them out before you read this post, if you haven’t read them yet.

I thought it would be good to wrap-up this introduction to New Atheism with some of my thoughts and complaints with this new movement. These are not all of my views, but some more of the more important ones. Let me use a disclaimer that I don’t pretend to think that these are true of all New Atheists. These are just general characterizations of some of the leaders and most vocal individuals in the movement. If you are an atheist and are offended by some of the characterizations, just know that I’m not lumping everyone into the same pile.

1. They unfortunately horribly mischaracterize Christianity. Like I said in the previous posts, they are notorious for straw-man arguments. That is when you define that which you are arguing against in a way in which it would be easier to tear down. They often equate the most radical extremes, and present them as being mainline.

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Characteristics of New Atheism: Part II

Disclaimer:  As I have said earlier, this post isn’t necessarily meant for Atheists.  This isn’t meant to increase discussions.  There are plenty of venues where that is being done.  This is more for the readers of my blog to get familiar with New Atheism, and how I see it.  I realize that I will say some things that may be contested, but I am trying to be as accurate and even handed as possible.

I know what some of you may be thinking.

1. “Wow, Tim’s writing a lot lately!” Yes, yes I am.  I guess there has been more to write on, and since New Atheism has been so prolific with their writings, there will be plenty more to write on in the future.  I do most of my blogging at work since we don’t have internet at home, so that is a reason I don’t get a ton of it done, but I’m trying to do some at home and then just post it when I get in.  Now that the holidays are past, you’ll be seeing more consistent posting.

2. The other thing you are thinking is, “Wow!  There is actually a Part II!”  I feel like if I decide a post is too long and break it up into two posts, the second one is less likely to get written.  Here’s to trying to break that habit!

Without further adieu, here’s the rest of the characteristics:

Reason to replace a biblical morality

I spoke a little of this earlier, but it is central enough that it bears more discussion.  This is particularly the view of Sam Harris, from his interview with “Wired” magazine:

“There would be a religion of reason.  We would have realized the rational means to maximize human happiness. We may all agree that we want to have a Sabbath that we take really seriously–a lot more seriously than most religious people take it. But it would be a rational decision, and it would not be just because it’s in the Bible. We would be able to invoke the power of poetry and ritual and silent contemplation and all the variables of happiness so that we could exploit them. Call it prayer, but we would have prayer without [expletive deleted].”

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Characteristics of New Atheism: Part I

Disclaimer: As I have said earlier, this post isn’t necessarily meant for Atheists. This isn’t meant to increase discussions. There are plenty of venues where that is being done. This is more for the readers of my blog to get familiar with New Atheism, and how I see it. I realize that I will say some things that may be contested, but I am trying to be as accurate and even handed as possible.

History

This isn’t by any means an exhaustive history of Atheism, as that can be a very difficult pursuit. There can be some references that could be interpreted as atheistic as far back as Socrates, but I’m going to start with around the 1600’s. Interestingly enough, Karen Armstrong had this to say about Atheism prior to this age:

“During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word ‘atheist’ was still reserved exclusively for polemic … The term ‘atheist’ was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist.”

During the 1600’s, Humanism began to become the way of thinking. Basically speaking, Humanism says that man is the center of existence. Man is the ultimate authority. The Enlightenment really helped spread this way of thinking. God was no longer the center of things, and the militant wing of Humanism became Atheism. They were not content with man just being the center of existence, but also wanted to push God completely out of the picture and society.

At first, Atheism was primarily opposed to the Judean/Christian God, but as the 20th century came, it moved into more of an objection to all deities. Until the last thirty or so years, atheism was mostly about just not believing in God. They generally didn’t care if you believed in God, just as long as you didn’t press it on them. They were mostly content with just living without God being a factor in their lives.

But over the last twenty years, there has been a seismic shift in atheism, leading to something called ‘New Atheism’. Mitchell Cohen says it is “a reaction against politicized and intolerant religious fundamentalists who have acted aggressively to impose their views of the world on American politics and public life for several decades. A strong intellectual challenge to them has been long overdue.” As you can see, this new brand of Atheism is seeking to make a difference in the world. Here are some characteristics of New Atheism:

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The New Atheism

Disclaimer: This post will begin a series I’m going to be doing on New Atheism.  Let me begin with a warning and a request.  I realize that these posts will be somewhat unpopular with many people, namely atheists.  The purpose of these posts really isn’t to create a dialogue between Christians and Atheists, and as you will see later, I don’t think this would be possible or a good opportunity to do that.  So here is my request:  if you are an atheist and you really hate these posts, this isn’t a place for you to voice your aggravation and continue to attack Christianity.  As we will see, New Atheism isn’t about an open debate, but about intolerance towards any sort of acceptance of Christianity.  So if you have a comment that wouldn’t be considered ‘healthy dialogue’, I kindly and respectfully ask you not to post it.

New Atheism

For many years, atheism has been a view that a person would hold to if they just didn’t believe in God.  It often reflected a lack of desire to try to believe or search things out.  Most of the time they didn’t mind if anyone else believed in God, as long as those beliefs didn’t infringe too much on their own lives.  Recently, there has been a significant shift in atheism, and a ‘New Atheism’ has been born.  This new movement can be characterized by not only intolerance towards Christianity, but also towards anyone who would tolerate it to any degree.  They see themselves as being repressed and held down by a society that inexplicably holds to Christianity, only to its own demise.

Just like any movement, this one is lead by charasmatic personalities, both young and old.  The senior statesman would be the British scientist and evolutionist, Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins, who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford was, for many years, known as the author of  “The Selfish Gene”.  Though he grew up in a normal Anglican family, he questioned religion from an early age.  Interestingly, at one point he was convinced back to Christianity due to the argument from design, but eventually abandoned religion altogether when he became convinced that evolution satisfyingly answered the questions of the complex design of the world.

Recently, around the events of 9/11, Dawkins began to become more militaristic in his fight against Theism, namely Christianity.  This is worked its way to his recent book, “The God Delusion”, where he presents his evidence that a belief in God is just foolishness.  It is mostly centered around the idea that Creationism is just  “preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood”.  The book has been very successful, reaching #5 on the New York Time’s bestsellers list for hardcover non-fiction books.  As of November 2007, it has sold 1.5 million copies.  It has gotten around, to say the least.

Another, and even more militaristic personality, is an American named Sam Harris.  He has been called Atheisms new bulldog, and has led his charge with two books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”.  Sam Harris seems to take it to the next step, blaming every bad thing in America on Christianity, calling for an abandoning of  Christianity to a new society based on  reason.  The thing that all these men have in common is that science is the new religion. They see science as falling woefully short of obvious scientific truths.  Harris grew up in with a Jewish mom and a Quaker dad, attended Stanford studying English, but dropped out when he started Ecstasy.  This lead him to study Buddhism, meditation, and read hundreds of religious books.  Eventually, he would return to Stanford, obtaining his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy.  He is now pursuing a doctorate in  neuroscience, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. (Wikipedia)

Harris says that religion, namely Christianity, served a purpose for some time, but it is now time to view God the same way we view the myth of Zeus.  It is now time to leave religion behind, and take society in a new direction.  Religion as been “one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised.”  According to Harris, we must bring the nation to a point where we can not only talk about how mentally ridiculous Christianity is, but to the point where we cease to let it effect the way our society is run.  Reason, instead, should be the basis of society.   In the near future, I will be writing some views on his “Letter to a Christian Nation” book, so you will become very familiar with Harris.

Other personalities in the New Atheism movement are Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, as well as entertainers Penn and Teller, who have made bashing Christianity and Creationism a part of their popular act.  If you could boil all of their thoughts down to one, I think it may sound something like this: A belief in Christianity, Theism, God, Creationism, the Bible, the Koran, or any other ‘holy scripture’ is idiotic, baseless, and you are stupid if you believe them.  They very much carry themselves as being societies best thinkers, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just a nim-wit.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be adding various other posts to continue to explore some of these writings, what they teach, and how it may affect our society.  Their mission is to make Christianity intolerable, outlawed, and banished, along with those that hold to it.  They will not rest until their mission is accomplished.  What is a Biblically minded Christian to do?  Through this series, I pray that you do not fear these men and their bravado, but you realize that this is another season of attacks on faith.  Interestingly enough, in England, where Dawkin’s books shot up the sales of books of spirituality by 50% and the sales of Bibles by 120%.  Somewhat ironic that this has lead to a resurgence in the reading of the Bible.  I doubt that was the intended reaction.  I pray that it leads us to a resurgence in understanding our faith, and how to defend it.