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The Public Square

The Persecuted Atheist?

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I know I’m late to the party, but I’ve finally gotten a chance to begin reading Dawkins’ celebrated best-seller, The God Delusion. It’s been a very engaging read so far and I’m hoping to post a number of reflections here as I stumble across provocative passages. In the first chapter, Dawkins aims to embolden beleaguered atheists who have been cowed into silence by societal and familial pressures. I second his call to transparency, to being our authentic selves in the public square. However, along the way, he paints a picture of the plight of atheists in the Western world, and in America in particular, that to me seems off. He suggests that, “the status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago.” And, it is only “slightly exaggerating” to say that “making fun of religion is as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion Hall”. Dawkins makes some good observations about the very real prejudices that atheists do face, but this second claim is absurd. I know Dawkins is a Brit, looking in from afar, but has he ever: 1) Watched The Simpsons, The Family Guy, or The Daily Show; 2) Read The Onion, a college newspaper, or a big city’s “independent” paper; 3) Hung out in the Humanities department of any major American university; 4) Opened a Bible in West Hollywood or Manhattan?1 Ironically, many Christians also complain that it is they who are persecuted and prevailed upon to keep their beliefs in the closet. And the truth is, they’re both right.

How People Poison Everything

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Right out of the gate, Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great is at once colorful and poignant, a great pleasure to read. It’s also clear that it benefits from the accounts and extravagant details of Hitchens’ many assignments as a journalist in exotic ports of call. Before I read any further, I’m recording how I now see the problem Hitchens addresses: the pervasive ugliness and evil in the name of God and religion. As I read, I want to consider how well my current take on this undeniable reality can bear the weight of Hitchens’ experiences, insights, and arguments. The title (God is not Great) and subtitle (How Religion Poisons Everything) of Hitchens’ volume are immediately provocative. If, in the end, I’m going to be persuaded that religion ruins everything it touches, is it then rational to conclude that God is not Great? Or, just that religious people suck? Is there a non-sequitur here? And, is all religion malignant? Or, might there be some rare strains of benign or even benignant religion? As it stands, if I had tackled the subject in book form, I’d have titled it: Humanity is not Great. How People Poison Everything. Considering the evident fact that human evil, both the trivial and the atrocious, is found in all places and at all times, I’m inclined to think that the blame should be pinned first and foremost on me, myself, and I… and on you as well. The problem with people manifests itself in every human context, whether religious or irreligious. I believe that any judgment on the impact of religion, for well-being and ill, hinges crucially on one’s appraisal of the human condition more generally. So, let’s begin there…

What Price Utopia?

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This volume brings together for the first time more than two dozen of Daphne PataiOs incisive and at times satirical essays dealing with the academic and intellectual orthodoxies of our time. Patai draws on her years of experience in an increasingly bizarre academic world, where a stifling politicization threatens genuine teaching and learning. Addressing the rise of feminist dogma, the domination of politics over knowledge, the shoddy thinking and moralizing that hide behind identity politics, and the degradation of scholarship, her essays offer a resounding defense of liberal values. Patai takes aim at the unctuous and also dangerous posturing that has brought us restrictive speech codes, harassment policies, and a vigilante atmosphere, while suppressing plain speaking about crucial issues. But these trenchant essays are not limited to academic life, for the ideas and practices popularized there have spread far beyond campus borders. Included are two new pieces written especially for this volume, one on the

Tim Keller on Polarization Over Religion

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There is a great gulf today between what is popularly known as liberalism and conservatism. Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil. This is particularly true when religion is the point at issue. Progressives cry out that fundamentalism is growing rapidly and nonbelief is stigmatized. They point out that politics has turned toward the right, supported by mega-churches and mobilized orthodox believers. Conservatives endlessly denounce what they see as an increasingly skeptical and relativistic society. Major universities, media companies, and elite institutions are heavily secular, they say, and they control the culture. ¶ Which is it? Is skepticism or faith on the ascendancy in the world today? The answer is Yes. The enemies are both right. Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. But at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well. … In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. There was once a confident belief that secular European countries were the harbingers for the rest of the world. Religion, it was thought, would thin out from its more robust, supernaturalist form or die out altogether. But the theory that technological advancements bring inevitable secularization is now being scrapped or radically rethought.

The Case for Civility

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In a world torn apart by religious extremism on the one side and a strident secularism on the other, no question is more urgent than how we live with our deepest differences — especially our religious and ideological differences. The Case for Civility is a proposal for restoring civility in America as a way to foster civility around the world. Influential Christian writer and speaker Os Guinness makes a passionate plea to put an end to the polarization of American politics and culture that — rather than creating a public space for real debate — threatens to reverse the very principles our founders set into motion and that have long preserved liberty, diversity, and unity in this country. Guinness takes on the contemporary threat of the excesses of the Religious Right and the secular Left, arguing that we must find a middle ground between privileging one religion over another and attempting to make all public expression of faith illegal. If we do not do this, Guinness contends, Western civilization as we know it will die. Always provocative and deeply insightful, Guinness puts forth a vision of a new, practical “civil and cosmopolitan public square” that speaks not only to America’s immediate concerns but to the long-term interests of the republic and the world. ~ Product Description

Os Guinness on Tolerance Versus Free Exercise

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Toleration was certainly the term of choice in matters of religious liberty before American independence. It had been made popular by writings such as John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and copied into the first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 by George Mason. Young James Madison objected, however, and when he succeeded in changing the word tolerance to the words free exercise, he advanced the cause of religious liberty by light-years. Tolerance is too condescending and uncertain. It is the gesture of the strong toward the weak, the government toward the citizenry, and the majority toward the minority. Free exercise, by contrast, is inalienable because it is the inalienable right of everyone, the minority no less than the majority, the weak as well as the poor, and the citizens just as much as the government.

Os Guinness on What Politics Can’t Do

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Put differently, there are two equal but opposite errors into which Christians have fallen in the modern world. One error is to "privatize" faith, interpreting and applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. That way faith loses its integrity and becomes "privately engaging and publicly irrelevant." ¶ The other error, represented by the Religious Left in the 1960s and the Religious Right since the late 1970s, is to "politicize" faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes "the regime at prayer," Christians become the "useful idiots" or "biddable foot soldiers" for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form: Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests. In short, out of anxiety about a vanishing culture or in a foolish exchange for an illusory promise of power, Christians are cheated into bartering away their identity, motives, language, passions, and votes.

Os Guinness on the Culture Wars

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To be sure, it is as dangerous to exaggerate the culture wars as it is to minimize them. At the core of these wars is a battle between two sets of elites, with their corresponding battalions of activists, organizations, and supporters. And on most issues, the great majority of Americans find themselves between the two sides, somewhat ambivalent and often confused. But when all the issues have been clarified and matters of style separated from matters of substance, it becomes clear that the issues dividing the traditionalists and the progressives are important and will be decisive for the future of of the republic. They are, after all, disagreements about the very nature and destiny of human beings, so they cannot be swept under the rug. ¶ In short, the issues at the heart of the culture wars will be decisive for the American future, and they will have to be settled — but not in the present, destructive manner.

Os Guinness on Mutuality and Reciprocity

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The principle of religious liberty for all rests on and requires an essential mutuality, or reciprocity, of rights, responsibilities, and respect — the "three Rs" of religious liberty. Thus a right for one person is a right for another person and a responsibility for both. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and right for an atheist, and a right for a Muslim, and a right for a Buddhist, and a right for the adherent of every possible faith or nonfaith within the wide span of the fifty states, either today or in some future as yet unseen. In principle, there is no right for anyone that is not thereby a right for everyone.

Douglas Coupland on Emoticons

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Mom wrote this one, saying, "They’re called emoticons — I read about them in USA Today. They’re like sideways happy faces." We all ganged up on her: "We hate those things!" Everyone except for Bug who, as it turns out, loves them. And then Susan ‘fessed up that she liked some of them. And then Todd. And then Karla. I guess emoticons are like Baywatch — everyone says they don’t watch it, but they really do.

Os Guinness on the Secularization Thesis

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The salience of religion in our times is a massive stumbling block to much educated opinion in Europe, the United States, and the Western world at large — to what was once called the republic of letters, and which Peter Berger calls "the international faculty club." For one of the cardinal assumptions of intellectual orthodoxy since the Enlightenment, expressed canonically in the secularization theory, is that modernization means secularization, which in turn means that, like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, religion will slowly disappear from sight as the world modernizes, leaving behind only a vacant grin. ¶ This presumption translates practically into three attitudes that are widely prevalent in educated circles in the West: that religion in the modern world is irrational, archaic, retrograde, and on the way out; that what remains of religion is the leading source of evil and conflict today; and that a central task of politics is to curb the illiberal power of religion, above all in the public square. In short, the idea that religion is a wild card in human affairs is admissible, but the idea that it could play a central and constructive role is absurd. ¶ For any thoughtful student of world affairs who understands the role of religion in American and Western history, or in international affairs today, this view is preposterous.

Os Guinness on Nationalism and Worshipping Ourselves

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Yet over the course of time the United States has given rise to its own soft civil religion, and the reason lies in the character and function of civil religion. In the absence of an official religion, what binds a nation together becomes suffused with a sense of the sacred and surrounded with a religious or semireligious aura until it becomes its civil religion. Thus, in essence, civil religion is a nation’s worship of itself.

Os Guinness on French, English, and American Securalism

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Church and state were not officially separated in France until February 21, 1795. But the overall explosion that the corrupt, coercive French establishment ignited against itself created a grand fusion of revolution and irreligion and led to a radical secularization of French public life, so that in France to be progressive still mostly means being secular and to be religious still means being viewed as reactionary. This is a key part of the French mentality that lingers to this day and bedevils the resolution of French conflicts over religion in public life, not to speak of the direction of the European Union. ¶ Astonishingly, too, Roman Catholic writers, from the popes down, who decry the militancy of French secularism today rarely acknowledge that this fierce secularism was bred and developed in direct reaction to their own earlier corruptions and has led to similar outbreaks of murderous anticlericalism elsewhere. These include the vicious Mexican repression of Catholics in the 1920s and the brutal Socialist slaughter of seven thousand priests, nuns, and bishops in Spain in 1936.

Os Guinness on Religious Liberty

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The right of religious liberty is a fundamental consequence of human nature itself and of our capacity as thinking, choosing, conscience-directed beings. … [T]his foundation in human dignity is what makes religious liberty a natural, basic, and indispensable right, independent of the decisions of any group or government. As a human right rather than a favor, religious liberty is a right to be guaranteed by the government, but it is not the government’s right to grant. ¶ Religious liberty is for all human beings, not simply liberty for the religious. It is rooted in the characteristic, natural, and inescapable human drive toward meaning and belonging. As fundamental as life itself, this “will to meaning” finds expression in ultimate beliefs, whether theistic or nontheistic, transcendent or naturalistic. Religious liberty is for atheists and secularists, too, and for all human being who assume and value meaning in their lives. … [T]here are two reason why religious liberty should rightly be seen as the first liberty. On the one hand, it comes first logically, in that it protects the inner freedom of thought, deliberation, judgment, and choice that is the source and subject of the later rights of free speech and free assembly. Though not infallible, conscience is inalienable. Thus, what we are each bound by according to the dictates of our reason and our conscience is the very deepest thing we also desire to speak of with freedom. And we further desire to gather together with other who prize those same things.

Os Guinness on the Wall of Separation

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But in reacting to to separationism, many conservatives have gone overboard and are actually speaking against the separation of church and state. ¶ One example is the common arguments heard from the Religious Right that the separation of church and state is a "myth," that it was "not in the Constitution," and that it was an invention of Jefferson’s through his reference to a "wall of separation" in his letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. A Republican congresswoman recently denounced the separation of church and state as a "lie." ¶ This argument is both wrong and foolish. The phrase is not in the Constitution, but the principle most certainly is. More important, both the framers and almost all Americans — certainly all Protestants — viewed the provision as principled and positive.

Os Guinness on Faith Based Initiatives

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Another example of a flawed understanding of the separation of church and state is George W. Bush’s much-trumpeted but bungled policy of providing government money for what he calls “faith-based initiatives.” Predictably, this initiative was surrounded by controversy from the start and did not live up to its supporters’ hopes. At its best, it was a well-intentioned compliment to the dynamism of faith-based entrepreneurialism in the nineteenth century. The tribute was sincere and the intention laudable — to encourage the voluntarism and dynamic energy that are now recognized as the lifeblood of a healthy civil society, and to foster the little platoons and mediating institutions that are its cells. ¶ But regardless of its political and legal problems, such as the accusations of cronyism and political manipulation, the project was self-defeating as a concept because the close relationship between government and faith-based groups almost inevitably leads, first, to a growing dependency of the faith-based organization on the government, and, eventually, to the effective secularization of the faith-based group. In the words of David Kuo, President George W. Bush’s special assistant for faith-based initiatives, “Between Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services alone, for example, more than $1.5 billion went to faith-based groups every year. But their activity had come at a spiritual cost. They were, as organizations, largely secular.”

Os Guinness on Culture Warring

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Many of the issues dividing the two sides are substantive, critical, and fully worthy of democratic debate. They are issues on which all responsible citizens should take a position, and issues that will be decisive for the republic. Not for one moment am I advocating any stifling of the issues or a helicopter politics that hovers above the issues and never lands. At stake in the resolution of passionate issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are competing views of the freedom, justice, and humanity of Western civilization. All these topics and many more are issues that require resolution and not a stalemate. ¶ The trouble comes from the manner in which the issues are being fought. … Name-calling, insult, ridicule, guilt by association, caricature, innuendo, accusation, denunciation, negative ads, and deceptive and manipulative videos have replaced deliberation and debate. Neither side talks to the other side, only about them; and there is no pretence of democratic engagement, let alone a serious effort at persuasion. ¶ Needless to say, the culture-war industry is lucrative as well as politically profitable, and a swelling band of profiteering culture warriors are rushing to strike gold with their wild attacks on the other side, all for the consumption of their own supporters and the promotion of their books and programs. But the toll of such trench warfare on the republic is heavy.

An Apology for Apologetics

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An Apology for Apologetics argues that a vigorous apologetics is a vital component of any sound effort at interreligious dialogue. Griffiths shows that a spirited defense of each religious tradition must be made by people who are both committed to their “truth” and open to serious criticisms by members of other faith traditions. He demonstrates why and how such a recognition of the necessity of interreligious apologetics (the “NOIA principle”) runs counter to the underlying presuppositions of many proponents of interreligious dialogue. Griffiths raises the specter of an unacceptable price that will be paid if the apologetic enterprise is abandoned. Religious traditions, he shows convincingly, will face relegation to the realm of purely private opinion and religious people will be denied the minimum plausibility they need to engage in public discourse. He argues ultimately that if basic doctrines cannot be defended against alien claims, religious tradition cannot survive. This book will without a doubt stimulate the debate it seeks to introduce: it unapologetically issues a challenge to teacup ecumenists and lazy pluralists. An Apology for Apologetics is for all who are seriously concerned with their own religious communities. It shows how to think about (and communicate with) those whose practices and convictions seem to differ significantly from one’s own.

Thank You for Arguing

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Magazine executive Heinrichs is a clever, passionate and erudite advocate for rhetoric, the 3,000-year-old art of persuasion, and his user-friendly primer brims with anecdotes, historical and popular-culture references, sidebars, tips and definitions. Heinrichs describes, in "Control the Tense," Aristotle’s favorite type of rhetoric, the deliberative, pragmatic argument that, rather than bogging down on past offenses, promises a future payoff, e.g., a victim of office backstabbing can refocus the issues on future choices: "How is blaming me going to help us get the next contract?" To illustrate "Control the mood," Heinrichs relates Daniel Webster’s successful rhetorical flourish in a murder case: he narrated the horrific murder by following Cicero’s dictum that when one argues emotionally, one should speak simply and show great self-control. Readers who want to terrify underlings into submission will learn from Heinrichs that speaking softly while letting your eyes betray cold fury does the trick handily. Thomas Jefferson illustrates Heinrichs’s dictum "Gain the high ground"; keenly aware of an audience’s common beliefs and values, Jefferson used a rhetorical commonplace (all people are created equal) to launch the Declaration of Independence. ~ Reed Business Information

Recipe for Conversation

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Personally, there are few things I relish more than a ranging conversation with friends over an overflowing plate of supreme nachos. And, graciously, it is in this intrinsically good thing that lies the promise of truths that can set us free. Dialogue is no panacea, of course. In and of itself, it cannot usher in peace and goodwill on earth. Indeed, very often grudges and misunderstandings find their breeding ground here. Still, good conversation is the best thing on the menu, whether it is with a book, a blog, or a bloke. So what makes any old conversation about important and controversial issues a good conversation? I’d like to suggest a few essential ingredients, mostly learned from the unsavory taste of foot-in-mouth. Take these insights with a grain — or a dash — of salt.

Russell H. Dilday on Moderation

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But moderation is not necessarily synonymous with lukewarm moral weakness. The word "moderate" and its noun form "moderation" actually convey something admirable when applied to civility in public discourse. The classic meaning of moderation is a position that avoids excesses and extremes; that is, temperate, restrained, prudent, fair, and reasonable. A moderate believes that the truth usually lies in the "golden mean" between extremes. Moderates aim for judicious tolerance, a calm willingness to listen to and consider the conviction of those with whom they disagree. Without surrendering convictions, moderation seeks truth in the center, which is not always marked by a cowardly "yellow stripe." The "radical middle," as Gordon Fee calls it, is not bland neutrality, but it’s the path that avoids the dangerous ditches on either side of the road. It’s a courageous position held by people some have called "flaming moderates."

Truth With Love

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As one who awoke to the intellectual richness and cultural depth of the Christian worldview in the mid-1970s through the writings of evangelist-apologist-activist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), I often worry that the next generation will fail to heed the challenge and receive the inspiration Schaeffer gave us through both his writings and his life of discipleship. Truth With Love is thus heartening because it winsomely explains both the rational and the relational apologetic of Francis Schaeffer to those who may not have otherwise heard the good news. This book is a revised doctoral dissertation, but one that succeeds in being both intellectually meaty and existentially appealing to those outside the strictly academic crowd. There are plenty of quotations and footnotes, as well as personal interviews with those who knew Schaeffer well. While such a well-documented book needs an index of names and subjects as well as a bibliography, unfortunately, it has neither. ~ Douglas Groothuis at DenverSeminary.edu.

David Bentley Hart on the Inevitability of Secularization

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Modernity  is secularization. It is, in its essence, a project of detaching moral, legal, and governmental reasoning from any authority transcendent of the state or the individual. It is the project of an ethics conformed not to divine justice but to human reason and popular consensus; of a politics authorized not by divine ordinance but by the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state; and of a model of freedom based not on the perfection of human nature but on the unconstrained liberty of individual will. ¶ And America is a  modern nation — the first, indeed, explicitly to constitute itself without reference to any sacral institution of its authority. In a nation so formed, nothing was more inevitable than a subtle, chronic antagonism between religious and state authority; and, to secure itself against any rival source of moral legitimacy, such a state was forced continuously to drive religious adherence from the public realm into the private realm of “values” (where, of course, it is free to do what it likes). It scarcely constitutes a kind of fatalism to acknowledge that, for all the enormous virtues of its Constitution, and despite the piety of many of its citizens, America enjoys no miraculous immunity from the logic of modernity.

Toward a Civil Discourse

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Examines how, in the current political climate, Americans find it difficult to discuss civic issues frankly and openly with one another. Because America is dominated by two powerful discourses — liberalism and Christian fundamentalism, each of which paints a very different picture of America and its citizens’ responsibilities toward their country — there is little common ground, and hence Americans avoid disagreement for fear of giving offence. Sharon Crowley considers the ancient art of rhetoric as a solution to the problems of repetition and condemnation that pervade American public discourse. She investigates the cultural factors that lead to the formation of beliefs, and how beliefs can develop into densely articulated systems and political activism. Crowley examines numerous current issues and opposing views, and discusses the consequences to society when argumentative exchange does not occur. She underscores the urgency of developing a civil discourse, and through a review of historic rhetoric and its modern application, provides a foundation for such a discourse. ~ Product Description

Why Good Arguments Often Fail

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You gave it your best shot. You made the best case you knew how, and your friend still wasn’t persuaded to follow Christ. Why is it that solid, rational arguments for the Christian faith often fail? For over fifty years James Sire, noted author and public defender of the Christian faith, has asked himself that question. Sometimes, of course, the arguments themselves just aren’t that good. How can we make them better? Sometimes the problem has to do with us and not the arguments. Our arrogance, aggressiveness or cleverness gets in the way, or we misread our audience. Sometimes the problem lies with the hearers. Their worldview or moral blindness keeps them from hearing and understanding the truth. With wisdom borne of both formal and informal experience, Sire grapples with these issues and offers practical insight into making a more persuasive case for Christ. Includes an annotated bibliography of resources for framing effective arguments. ~ Product Description