What Lennox Got Wrong: A Refutation of his Key Arguments

Synopsis

In this piece I offer a critique to some of the major arguments raised by John Lennox in his recent talks at Melbourne, both at the Friday night ‘Cosmic Chemistry’ public lecture, and also the Saturday ‘Reasons for Faith’ conference. Quotes that Lennox uttered over the course of these two events are presented at the beginning of each section in italics and quotation marks. These are taken from my notes made at the events in question. I have divided them up into topics, which I respond to in turn. The topics I address are: Lennox’s denial of evolutionary science, the argument that Christianity is responsible for the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the argument that language and semantic meaning cannot in principle be explained naturalistically, the notion that the very rational intelligibility of the universe must be taken for granted for science to even begin to function, the assertion that Christians were responsible for the abolition of slavery and the declarations of human rights, attacks on Atheism based on the evils done by Hitler and atheistic communist regimes, and the argument that without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. In general terms, I argue that Lennox misrepresents facts about history, fails to engage with philosophical disputes and the views of those thinkers who disagree with him, oversimplifies complex issues, and generally fails each time to present a cogent case for his arguments. (Note: Lennox also mentioned the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which I will not address here but will save for a future piece.)

Denial of Evolution

Lennox made a number of statements that were critical of evolution, or questioning of certain aspects of the current Neo-Darwinian consensus. In my view all of these arguments have been more than adequately refuted many times over by scholars far more learned than me, and such arguments are not taken seriously by biologists. As such, I don’t feel the need to rebut his claims specifically. I’m just going to list some of his most egregious assertions here for reference, as illustration of the profound extent to which of scientific denialism is to be heard even from a prominent mainstream Christian apologist such as Lennox.

  • “Where I have difficulty is in seeing this natural process (mutation and selection) as being creative, in the sense of generating new information. Evolution can explain about the survival of the fittest but not the origin of the fittest”
  • “You can arrange cars in a hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean that they are related…the tree of life has been turned upside down by biologists”
  • “Until you can give a mechanism for the progress of the lower organisms to the higher ones, you’ve just got an empty word (referring to the word ‘evolution’)
  • “Ideas coming out in the recent decades seriously questioning established wisdom…about the gradual accumulation of mutations” (note: I think what he was referring to here is growing evidence for punctuated equilibrium rather than gradualism, but he did not clarify this and made it seem that biologists were questioning evolution itself)
  • “I’m reacting as a non-biologist…but popular accepted wisdom in the blind watchmaker seems to be dying out”

The Christian Origins of Science

“Christian belief in God far from hindering science was actually the engine that drove it”
“Historically we owe modern science to Christianity”

A Dubious Thesis

The argument that Christian beliefs facilitated the scientific revolution in early modern Europe is not a new one. The usual argument goes that Christian belief in the presence of a lawgiver who created a universe governed by regular laws that we humans, imbued by God with the powers of reason, are capable of comprehending, was instrumental in facilitating the rise of the empirical scientific method in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have a number of comments about Lennox’s use of this argument. The first point to make is simply that this historical thesis is, at best, highly controversial, and Lennox really made no effort at all to substantiate it – he just asserted it as if it were a proven fact.

Second, it obviously is not the case that Christianity per se led to the scientific revolution, since Christianity was widespread in Europe for some thousand years before the scientific revolution, and it seems exceptionally implausible to argue that cause can proceed effect by over a millennium in this way. A more reasonable argument would be that some particular form of Christianity arising from the reformation, or as Lennox puts it “the particular way the reformers read the bible”, led to the genesis of science. But even this adjusted argument has major problems. For one thing, it is unable to explain why so much good science was done in Catholic countries (especially France and Italy; case in point – Galileo). Additionally, it’s not at all clear just what reading the bible has to do with science, or what specific beliefs were so new to the Reformers that could have been relevant to the scientific enterprise (the idea of natural law certainly wasn’t new, and some of the reformers, such as Luther, were actively hostile to human reason).

Science in Other Civilizations

Third, this explanation of the origins of science is just inconsistent with history. Much early pioneering mathematics and science was done in ancient Babylon, and more by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Chinese in the first and early second millennium were advanced in many areas, notable inventions including movable type, gunpowder, banknotes. The Arab World for centuries led the Christian world in philosophy, science, and mathematics. If we are to take the religion argument seriously we would have to say that paganism, Buddhism/Confucianism, and Islam all at different times and different places contributed to the rise of science, but later stopped doing so as these regions ceased to be world scientific leaders. This seems quite ad hoc and to lack much of any explanatory power.

A far more plausible explanation, I think, is that scientific progress is the product of an immensely complex interplay of economic, political, social, environmental, and ideological factors, with religion at best playing a contributory, and by no means mono-directional role (i.e. the same religion could help or hinder science, depending upon the context). Lennox’s simplistic thesis totally fails to account for the facts, and is ridiculously naive in its oversimplification of historical reality. As such I see no reason to take it seriously as an argument for anything. Of course, I agree with Lennox that scientific progress is consistent with Christian belief, but that’s a much weaker and also, I think, far less interesting claim.

Explaining Language and Thought Naturalistically

“That writing there that you take to have meaning cannot be reduced to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink on which these symbols appear…the problem is that it cannot be explained reductionistically”
“The one area when explanations do not move from the complex to the simple is in language”

Lennox made this argument in a number of different ways at different times. It was not entirely clear to me whether he was arguing that language cannot be explained by reductionistic/naturalistic means, or whether meaning itself cannot be so explained. I think probably what he meant was something like the semantic-bearing component of language – the fact that language means something – can’t in principle ever be explained by reductionistic materialism.

Theorists Who Disagree

Like the Christian origins of science, this issue is a very complex and controversial one; and yet as before, Lennox gave no hint of this in his presentation. He made no mention of thinkers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, David Marr, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putman, and many others who do think such a program is possible. Of course Lennox would also find support for his position in thinkers like John Searle (with is famous Chinese Room argument) and Rodger Penrose. My point here is not to decide that matter, but simply that the issue is a complex and controversial one, so Lennox’s confident claims that we can be sure that providing such an explanation is not possible are very difficult to justify – especially when he doesn’t even mention the controversy in the academic literature.

Progress in Semantics

Let me now consider whether we have made any progress in constructing a naturalistic explanation of meaning and/or semantic content. I’ll just list a few theories, schools of thought, and fields of research which I think are relevant:

  • Natural language processing
  • Context-free grammars
  • Semantic networks
  • Neural networks
  • Machine learning and pattern recognition
  • Formal semantics of logic (model-theoretic, proof-theoretic, and truth-value semantics)
  • Neurolinguistics
  • Machine translation
  • Computational linguistics
  • Neuroimaging and lesion analysis of brain regions associated with language

I am certainly not saying that these and similar fields or theories constitute a complete naturalistic explanation of the nature and genesis of meaning. Obviously we still have a great deal to learn, and much remains a mystery. What I am saying is that, as I think any honest analysis of these fields and theories will show, we have, over the past few decades, made considerable progress in understanding meaning and how the brain processes language, and there is ample reason to suppose that such progress will continue. Will there be absolute limits to this endeavour which leave any naturalistic explanation ultimately incomplete? Perhaps so, but my point here is that Lennox is dramatically overselling his case by simply asserting that this must be the case, ignoring the significant progress that has already been made in linguistics, computer science, psychology, and neuroscience, and also ignoring the significant philosophical disputes and complexities on the subject.

Understanding Reductionism

Furthermore, it seems patently false to say, as does Lennox, that ‘explanations of language are not reductionistic’. It’s true that such explanations do not attempt to reduce linguistic meaning to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink, but that is a ridiculous strawman vision of the purpose of science and of the meaning of reductionism. We don’t attempt to reduce economic or sociological theories to chemistry and physics, but does that mean they are somehow mistaken or incomplete? Even biology cannot always be reduced to chemistry to any significant degree (e.g. we still don’t know the molecular bases of a good portion of biological functions).

Nonetheless, reductionistic explanations are still possible, if we think of them in the correct way. In the case of language, the reduction occurs by considering the symbols in which symbolic meaning is instantiated, and also the physical systems responsible for decoding those symbols (e.g. the human brain), and determining how they work. Current approaches in linguistics, machine translation, neuroscience, etc, are precisely reductionistic in this sense. But no sensible person thinks the meaning of symbols is to be found in a chemical analysis of the paper and ink. I find Lennox’s claim about this to be a totally bizarre strawman argument.

The Rational Intelligibility of the Universe

“Physics is powerless to explain its faith in the intelligibility of the universe, because you have to accept this before you even do any physics”

Intelligibility as a Working Hypothesis

I have always found this claim puzzling. It sounds to me like arguing that one needs to believe that a particular cake recipe will taste good, and that one will be able to follow all the steps of the recipe successfully, before one can even begin to bake the cake. Of course, I need not believe any such thing; all I need to believe is that these things might be true, and that it is worth my while to give it a try to see if they are or not. In my view, this is precisely what happens in science. We cannot say ex ante that a given theory or technique will work, or whether some phenomena will even be rationally intelligible at all – but nor do we need to. We try a bunch of different approaches and see if any of them work. If not, we try something else. Perhaps there will come a time when we say ‘we have tried every conceivable scientific approach to answer this question and all have failed, so it’s time to give up and admit defeat’. But I do not think we are in that situation about any topic of importance in science at the moment.

Lennox does think we are in that situation with respect to the origin of life: he said “if there is no possible natural explanation for the origin of life what you’d expect is for all attempts to do so will fail, and the problem will just get worse over time, and this is exactly what we have seen since the Urey-Miller experiments in the 1950s”. Looking at the state of the literature in that field I can’t say I agree with his assessment at all. Nonetheless, my point remains: just as we don’t have to believe that we can successfully bake a delicious cake in order to try out a recipe, so too we don’t have to believe that the universe necessarily is rationally intelligible in order to try out the scientific method and see if it works.

Lennox’s Questionable Axiom

While I am on the subject of foundational axiomatic beliefs, I will quote another thing Lenox said: “There is a basic axiom behind everything I do, and it’s a biblical axiom”. (Rom 1:19) ‘for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it…so they are without excuse'”

I’m not precisely sure what Lennox was claiming to be his axiom here – that the bible is true, or that the world of God is plainly revealed in the bible, or that God has plainly revealed himself to the world? Whatever the case, I would wonder what justification Lennox would offer for this axiom, and why he considers it to be more plausible than, or superior to, the empirically far more successful presupposition of science that the universe is rationally intelligible. If he is allowed to adopt this highly controversial axiom without any particular justification, why cannot science proceed on the basis of a (generally less controversial) axiom (or as I prefer to think of it, a working hypothesis) that the universe (or parts thereof) is rationally intelligible?

Christian Contributions to Society

“It was Christians who helped with the abolition of slavery”
“Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights”
“So many of our institutions, universities, hospitals, and so on, are due to Christianity”

I generally find these sorts of arguments irrelevant and rather silly. They always seem to end in a game of counting up Gandhis verses Stalins on each side in a futile attempt at one-upmanship. This proves nothing either way – Christianity could be beneficial and false, and vice-versa for Atheism. That said, I do want to address the factual accuracy of some of Lennox’s claims here, because I think he is playing a bit fast and loose with the truth, and that is something I find objectionable.

Christianity and Abolitionism

Were Christians the leading proponents of the abolition of slavery? Certainly the early abolitionist movement in the UK was led by a number of religious figures, including evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce and the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded mostly by Quakers. On the other hand, virtually everyone in the UK at that time was a Christian of some form, so it’s not completely clear what this tells us. If anything the main distinction of relevance seems to have been between mainstream Christian groups such as Anglicans on the one hand, and Dissenters (who were not eligible to serve in parliament) such as Quakers and Anabaptists on the other. So at best the UK abolitionist history gives us mixed support for Lennox’s thesis.

If we consider the situation in France, we note that the abolition of slavery first occurred under the First Republic in 1794 led by Robespierre, famous for his dechristianization policies and advocacy of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a rationalistic Deistic religion designed to replace Christianity as the French religion. Prior to the revolution, enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu had also argued against slavery. I’m not exactly sure what his religious views were, but he certainly is not strongly associated with any particular Christian group. Thus the French case does not appear to support Lennox’s thesis: the early abolitionist movement was largely non-Christian in origin. Note that after the revolution slavery was reinstated by Napoleon, who was a Catholic.

In the United States, the abolitionist movement was also in large part spearheaded by Quakers. On the other hand, as in the UK, virtually all those who opposed abolitionism were also Christians. Consider, for example, Virginian Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow, who defended the institution of slavery on various biblical grounds. So once again we find mixed evidence.

So putting it all together, did Christians help with the abolition of slavery? Most definitely, especially the Quakers and other nonconformist groups. Did Christians hinder the abolition of slavery? Most definitely. Did non-Christians help the abolition of slavery? Definitely, as we see from Robespierre. Were there non-Christians who hindered the abolition of slavery? Probably: Hume had some rather unsavoury views about Negros, so he might be an example, though I’m not sure what his views were on slavery per se. My point here is that Lennox was just not being careful when he spoke about this. The facts are so much more complex, and it’s by no means clear that the reality of history supports his implication that Christianity per se (as opposed to people who were Christians) was instrumental for the abolition of slavery.

Christianity and Human Rights

Lennox’s claim that “Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights” is an intriguing one. I wonder which declaration he is referring to – there have been many. Perhaps he is referring to the famous statement from the American Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. If so, it is very dubious indeed to say that ‘Christianity’ was behind this declaration, as a number of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers were either Deists or held various hybrid beliefs that some scholars have described as ‘Theistic Rationalism’. The famous 1798 Treaty of Tripoli also states “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”. The precise meaning of this statement has been debated, but I think there is ample reason to be dubious of the notion that Christianity was “behind” this statement in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was passed by the French National Assembly following the French Revolution, was very much a secular document with derived much of its intellectual heritage from Enlightenment thought, which was in general not atheistic, but also seldom supported traditional Christianity either. So considering these two cases, we once again find a much more complex and messy picture than is painted by Lennox. Christians were certainly involved in the early declarations of human rights, but to say that ‘Christianity’ as such was ‘behind them’ I think is a gross misstatement of history.

I think my point has already been sufficiently made, so I won’t comment specifically about hospitals and universities (look up ‘hospital’ on Wikipedia – Christians hardly invented them). I restate my core objection: Lennox’s history is sloppy, and his conclusions drastically oversimplified and premature.

The Evils of Atheism

“A corollary to this argument is that atheism is to blame for nothing…Imagine a world without Stalin. Without Hitler and Pol Pot”
“They (atheists) do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts”
“The amount of blood that has been spilled by atheistic philosophies is colossal”

I’m not entirely sure why Lennox even brought this topic up. I don’t think he was arguing that Atheism was false because it has (allegedly) led to these evils. So why mention them in the context of a discussion about ‘reasons for faith’ and ‘science and faith’? These statements seem to be an almost complete red herring.

Hitler was no Atheist

There are many other problems with Lennox’s remarks here. First of all, he seems to be implying that Hitler was an atheist. Lennox did not say so explicitly, but he did say ‘atheism is to blame’, and then mentioned Hitler in between the names of two very staunchly atheistic communists (Stalin and Pol Pot), so I think it is legitimate to infer that he was at least implying that Hitler was an atheist. As anyone who has investigated the topic knows, the religious views of Adolf Hitler are a highly complex and controversial subject (I’m getting tired of saying this actually). Hitler made numerous statements on the subject that were often unclear or potentially contradictory. He certainly didn’t approve of mainstream Christianity, but of course that doesn’t make him an atheist. I personally don’t think the evidence supports the notion that Hitler was an atheist – I think he had too much of a sense of destiny and teleology for that view to make sense (though he wasn’t a very deep thinker so he might have just been inconsistent). Either way, I certainly think that casually throwing in Hitler in this way and implying that he was an Atheist is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

Atheism and Communism

As to the remark that atheists “do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts” – is that supposed to come as a surprise? What Lennox is doing here is a dishonest and misleading bait and switch. Communism was atheistic, therefore contemporary atheists (or atheism generally) necessarily have some connection to the deeds of past Communist regimes. If this notion were to be applied consistently, it would mean that Christianity would have some necessary connection with the evils of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, anti-Semitism across history, and any number of other evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Lennox argued that such evils should not be placed at the feet of Christianity because Jesus would have abhorred such things, and “no one who disobeys Jesus is a true Christian”. This is just the No True Scotsman fallacy – every Christian who does evil is not really Christian, but every Atheist who does evil is still a perfectly ‘real’ atheist.

Lennox’s Double Standards

Lennox, rightly, does not want to be associated with those Christians who advocated religious warfare or defended slavery on biblical grounds. Similarly, I do not want to be associated with communist leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot. For starters, I (like I think most atheists) am not a communist, and do not agree with much of their philosophy or politics. Furthermore, even modern-day communists generally deny that Stalin or Pol Pot (etc) were real or true communists. They were not following Marx’s actual teachings, nor would Marx have approved of their actions, so how could they be real Marxists? Sound familiar? Anyone can play this game.

I’m quite happy to agree that Stalin was an atheist. So what? Why would we think that his atheism was responsible for his crimes. He was also a Georgian – maybe that was to blame. Or maybe it was because he attended seminary. Or maybe it was because he had a moustache. Hitler had a moustache too, and modern-day moustache-wearers don’t like to compare Hitler’s and Stalin’s moustaches with their own pro-facial hair positions. To (mis)quote Lennox: it’s very important that we realise where the facial hair bus is going before we get on.

The Impossibility of Naturalistic Ethics

“The problem (with naturalistic ethical theories) is that if you leave god out and elevate any of these systems to the top, you run into serious problems. Well Hitler decided that the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews, Poles”
“On what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?”
“If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?”

Most Atheist Philosophers are Realists

This is another common apologetic argument – without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. Often this is defended by invoking certain quotes from Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and others (in a manner that I think misrepresents their views, but I won’t get into that here). I always find this strategy to be rather dishonest: selectively quote-mine some nihilistic or apparently nihilistic philosophers, whilst ignoring the fact that 59% of philosophers who are atheists are also moral realists (compared to 81% of theists – not actually such a big difference). So prima facie this argument already faces an uphill battle – most philosophers don’t buy it.

But what of Lennox’s specific arguments for this thesis? He didn’t actually offer many. At least in my experience, this is another common apologist tactic: to simply repeatedly assert that there is no objective morality without God, without actually giving any clear argument as to why this is the case.

Hitler was no Utilitarian

First let’s look at the case of Hitler. To begin with I’ll just say that its absurd to speak as if Hitler was a utilitarian in any sense. It is totally disingenuous of Lennox to make this insinuation. But even if Hitler had said that “the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews”, he would have been wrong. It’s hard to define what is meant by ‘benefit’ here, but however we cash out the concept (suffering, utility, human flourishing, whatever), it seems incontrovertible that the Holocaust did not promote human benefit. How could the Nazis get around this? They could, and in fact did, argue that Jews were sub-human, and therefore not worthy of ethical consideration. But how did they defend this assertion? They used pseudoscientific arguments drawn from bad anthropology and worse social Darwinism. They used misrepresentations of history and manipulation of contemporary social indicators (e.g. the Nazis argued that hardly any Jews fought for Germany in WWI, illustrating their cowardice, but this was just factually incorrect).

So the Nazi justification for oppressing the Jews was based upon bad reasoning and inaccurate information. As such, we can marshal any number of reasons against their contention that ‘the Jews were subhuman’, without invoking God at all. Indeed, God contributes nothing to this analysis. There’s nothing surprising about this. When we think about why the Nazis were wrong, we talk about the horrific harm they did, and the false beliefs they had about race (among other things). God does not figure into the explanation at all. No appeal to a creator is needed to understand that Auschwitz was a horrific crime – the suffering and death of so many sentient beings speaks for itself.

Why be Moral?

But suppose our imaginary utilitarian-Hitler were to really push the gauntlet. Suppose he were to say “I’m not saying the Jews are subhuman in any real biological sense. I’m just saying that I don’t wish to accord them any moral value. My moral framework only accords moral value to Aryans. Thus the Holocaust, by benefitting Aryans, was a morally good action according to my utilitarian framework.” This would be where Lennox would insert his rejoinder: “on what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?” How can the naturalist say that Hitler is wrong about not according moral value to Jews? Well, I think the naturalist can make an argument about that, but it would take rather a long time to explain, because meta-ethics is complicated.

For now, let me just reverse the challenge: what can the theist say to Hitler? According Jews zero moral value is wrong because God says so? Why should Hitler care what God says, even if he did believe that God exists? Who says that God gets to dictate morality? God said that? But that’s circular: Hitler says that he gets to dictate morality. Is it because God is all powerful? That’s just a variant of might makes right. Perhaps Hitler might be persuaded by that sort of argument, but the naturalist likely will not. God gets to dictate morality because God is good? But how can you say ‘God is good’ without antecedently having a concept of what the good actually is? Good with reference to what standard of good – God’s own standard? Hitler too was good by his own standard of good; why is God’s standard superior? Because he is more powerful? Now we are back to might makes right.

These are deep questions, and of course this brief post will by no means exhaust the debate. But hopefully I have illustrated my main point: Lennox has got a lot more work to do if we wishes to show that theistic ethics succeeds where non-theistic ethics fails.

Subjective doesn’t mean ‘Not Real’

Let me address a final comment Lennox made: “If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?” I find this to be a strange thing to say. First of all, I don’t think any naturalist would want to say that there was ‘no external basis’ for morality. Surely morality would be based on the interactions and circumstances of people (and perhaps also animals), facts about the external world which are not ‘mere opinion’. But I think perhaps what Lennox means is something like “why would any statement to the effect that we should place value on some external state of affairs be anything other than mere opinion?”

In responding to this, I want to draw attention to the phrase “mere opinion”. I would ask Lennox why he thinks that ‘opinion’ is necessarily ‘mere’ in any sense? Why should the fact that something is solely the product of human evaluative opinion make it any less real or important? Is the beauty of Mozart’s music ‘merely’ human opinion? The fact that money is valuable is certainly the product of ‘mere human opinion’ – there’s no value to money outside of the value we place on it. Similarly with language – there’s no meaning at all to the sound ‘tree’ other than that we humans place on it as a result of our subjective opinion. Would Lennox also ask “if there is no external basis for the value of money, how can any conception of the value of money be anything other than mere opinion”? Of course the value of money is ‘merely opinion’, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, or that the value of money is somehow less ‘real’.

And to push the analogy further, if a divine being declared that money was valuable by fiat, that wouldn’t actually change anything. People would still only place value on money if in their opinion it had value (this is why governments do not always succeed in having their fiat currencies accepted by the population). Likewise for language: the best attempts of the Académie Française aside, no external being or body can imbue meaning in a word by fiat, unless people themselves also had a subjective sense that this is indeed what the word means. All the world’s governments could declare tomorrow that ‘green’ actually means ‘blue’, but unless people’s subjective opinions on the matter also changed in this way, the governments would simply be wrong – the words would not mean that. Furthermore, people may disagree about the beauty of a Mozart piece, of the value of a particular currency, or the meaning of a word. But such disagreement does not entail the fact that ‘all opinions are equally valid’, or that all such talk is meaningless and without meaning or real purpose.

My point here is not to say that morality is the same as aesthetic value, or monetary value, or linguistic meaning. Obviously there are differences. My point is simply that things can be both ‘mere opinion’ and still also be perfectly real and meaningful. If Lennox wishes to argue that morality is useless or meaningless if it is ‘mere opinion’, then he will need to present a cogent argument to that effect – something he did not do in his presentations.

Conclusion

Though he did say some things that I agreed with, such as calling for more civil dialogue between believers and non-believers and rightly calling out many of the New Atheist thinkers for their sloppy philosophy, overall I was disappointed with Lennox’s presentations. I felt that his arguments were, generally speaking, unstructured, sloppily presented, imprecisely expressed, and inadequately researched. He frequently oversimplified complicated and controversial questions, and seemed far too willing to dismiss the fact that a sizeable majority of experts in the relevant field disagree with his opinion (e.g. in the case of evolution and his views about moral realism and theism). Of course Lennox’s time was limited, so he was unable to go into complete depth on any subject, but he did have over four hours in total at his disposal, and I think he could have done much more than he did in that time. Overall I did not find the case that Lennox presented for Christianity to be very compelling at all, nor do I think it dealt very directly or ably with any of the core philosophical questions at the heart of the dispute. In my view, Christian apologetics deserves better than this.

PolesWikipedia: The Poles are a nation of predominantly West Slavic ethnic origin who are native to East-Central Europe, inhabiting mainly Poland. The present population of Poles living in Poland is estimated at 36,522,000 out of the overall Poland population of 38,512,000. The preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland defines the Polish nation as comprising all the citizens of Poland.

‘Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection’ by John Lennox: A Critique

Synopsis

In this piece I present a critique of John Lennox’s argument in his ABC online article ‘Eliminating the Impossible: Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection?’, found here http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/04/16/3986403.htm. I recommend reading it first, as I assume the reader has some familiarity with its structure and broad outlines. Also, in order to keep my critique somewhat focused, I have decided to ignore Lennox’s initial remarks about Hume and the laws of nature, and focus solely on his arguments concerning the empty tomb, and the historical evidence for resurrection appearances. Please note that although I do discuss some issues relevant to broader discussions about the historical reliability of the New Testament and the likelihood of the Resurrection, that is not my primary intention here. The primary purpose of this article is to provide a critique of the specific claims and arguments made by John Lennox in this particular article.

Evidence and Superstition

“The brilliant ancient historian Luke, a doctor trained in the medical science of his day…”

Two points here. First, some non-trivial number of biblical scholars have doubts as to the authorship of Luke-Acts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorship_of_Luke-Acts). One could argue that is not central to the point here, but I think Lennox is painting a picture of excessive certainty, as if there is no doubt who the author was. I believe this is disingenuous in the context of the argument he is trying to make about the reliability of the gospel accounts, and hence he should be more careful in aligning the strength of his claim with the strength of scholarly consensus on the matter.

Second, the use of the term ‘medical science’ is very misleading, and indeed anachronistic. Medicine in the ancient world was nothing like modern scientific medicine. Indeed, the notion of ‘science’ as an empirical enterprise didn’t even really exist. Lennox here speaks as if Luke was trained in modern empirical science and related modes of critical thinking, but that is simply not the case. Roman doctors didn’t even know about such basic things as the germ theory of disease, or that that heart was a pump, and humoral theory was widely accepted. Nothing Lennox said is directly contradictory to these facts, but the point is that once again the language he is using presents a biased, misleading picture of the real situation. Luke was not trained in ‘medical science’ in any meaningful sense of the term, and to say that he was grossly misrepresents the situation.

“Luke here makes it obvious that the early Christians were not a credulous bunch, unaware of the laws of nature, and therefore prepared to believe any miraculous story, however absurd.”

Lennox draws this conclusion on the basis of a single anecdote about Zechariah and Elizabeth, though later on he also mentions a few other examples of skepticism in the NT (e.g. Thomas). But his claim here far exceeds what can be concluded from the evidence he presents. Lennox provides some examples of people expressing skepticism about miraculous claims, and then on that basis concludes that (most? all?) early Christians were ‘not a credulous bunch’. That simply doesn’t follow. I believe there is considerable evidence that the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures in which these events took place were deeply superstitious, full of magicians, rituals, magic artifacts, and miracle workers. There are numerous books on the subject, for example http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Magicians-Greco-Roman-Matthew-Dickie/dp/0415311292/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1T20P8MHD3EA73D8ZG62. Lennox just totally ignores such issues, painting a picture of widespread skepticism which simply isn’t warranted by the few anecdotes he provides as evidence.

“Christianity won its way by dint of the sheer weight of evidence that one man had actually risen from the dead.”

Again, Lennox here is just asserting his conclusion. He has not provided any reason to accept this other than his very dubious claim that most people of that time were skeptical about miraculous claims. I think there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, as I have indicated above. Even today, where literacy is widespread and access to information has never been easier, erroneous beliefs about all sorts of matters are abundant. How many people today believe in ghosts, or bigfoot, or that the moon landings were hoaxed, or that global warming is a myth… the list goes on. I argue, contra Lennox, that there is no reason at all to believe that most people in the ancient world would have required much in the way of evidence or critical evaluation before believing in supernatural miraculous claims; just as it is the case today that, despite our much greater levels of education and the influence of modern science, many people (even most in some cases, depending on the survey) quite readily believe such things.

“Most of our evidence comes from the New Testament and it may surprise many that, in comparison with many other ancient works of literature, the New Testament is by far the best-attested document from the ancient world”

True but largely beside the point. The question is whether the documentation available provides sufficient evidence for the supernatural claims being made. Arguing that the documentation is better than that available for many other events in the ancient world is simply beside the point. Many accounts from the ancient world contain a mixture of the plausible, the dubious, and the very unlikely (though scholars don’t always agree which is which of course). For example, the generally reliable Roman historian Tacitus has some rather dubious claims about Vespasian conducting miraculous healings in his court. As far as I know, no scholars argue for the likely historicity of these events, despite the fact that they are documented relatively early. The point is, one of the main things ancient historians do is sift through documents to determine which parts are likely to be historical and which parts are not. In doing so they consider a wide range of different factors, not least of which is the plausibility of the claims. Historians don’t simply say that because one event is better documented (or documented sooner afterwards) than something else, it is therefore more likely to be historical. History isn’t that simple.

The Empty Tomb

“If the tomb had not been empty, the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus, demonstrating conclusively that no resurrection had happened”

On what evidence does Lennox base this claim that the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus had the tomb not been empty? What makes him so sure that the authorities either knew or cared where Jesus was buried? Or perhaps the body was moved and its location was lost (or at least lost to the authorities)? Even the world-class scientific organization NASA couldn’t keep track of the original footage of the Apollo 11 moon landings. More than a few famous artifacts and documents have simply gone ‘missing’, even from some of the world’s leading museums (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/dec/10/row-british-empire-museum-artefacts). Now granted this isn’t precisely the same thing, but my point is that mistakes, screw-ups, and incompetence abound. Can we really be so sure that the ancient Jewish or Roman authorities could not possibility have encountered any difficulty that would have prevented them from producing a body?

“If they had had the slightest evidence that the tomb was empty because the disciples had removed the body, they had the authority and the forces to hunt down the disciples, arrest them and charge them with tomb-robbing”

Lennox is making a lot of assumptions here. First of all, he is assuming that the authorities cared at all about what happened to Jesus’ body or who stole it. It seems very plausible to me that, with the leader of the sect dead, neither the Romans nor the Jewish leaders had much reason to pay any attention at all to the remaining Christian movement, at least at this very early stage. Second, Lennox is assuming that the authorities had the capability to find and punish those responsible. Even today in many places in developed countries, with much greater police resources and forensic technology, the majority of murders (and other crimes) remain unsolved (e.g. http://www.timesrecordnews.com/news/2010/may/24/unsolved-homicides/). Third, how does Lennox know that the authorities didn’t arrest any of the disciples (or something like it)? Granted, we have no documentary evidence for it, but why should we? We have very little documentary evidence of anything from that period. For instance, we do not have one single example of a first century document attacking Christian beliefs (we have some from the second century but not the first, I think Celsus is among the earliest http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celsus). So how can we be so sure that exactly the sorts of things Lennox is talking about did not happen, and we simply have no record of them?

“Tomb-robbers would not have taken the corpse, and left the valuable linen and spices.”

How does Lennox know that the valuable linen and spices were left? Luke and John both mention ‘strips of linen’ being left, and John also speaks of ‘the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head’. Were these the only pieces of linen that were originally used? We don’t know, but Lennox seems to assume that they were. I don’t see any reason to share this assumption.

“How could any tomb-robber have removed the stone when the guard was there?”

Was there a guard there? Only Matthew mentions any such thing. And Matthew also, in the same passage, gives us details about a private meeting between the chief priests and elders in which they devise a plan to announce that the disciples had stolen the body. How did Matthew know about that conversation? I doubt any of the disciples were invited. For these and other reasons, a number of scholars think the the entire section about the guards is a later addition. I’m sure Lennox and others would dispute this, but the point is Lennox doesn’t even mention the issue. He just treats the presence of guards as if it is an established fact.

“But it was the way in which the grave-cloths were lying that convinced St. John of a miracle. So, could someone have taken the body and rewound the cloths deliberately to give the impression that a miracle had happened?”

Lennox here is (I presume) referring to John 20:7. I won’t quote it, because the proper translation and interpretation of this verse is quite controversial. See here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_20:7. Some translations use a phrase like ‘folded together’ or ‘rolled together’ to describe the cloths, while the NIV simply refers to the cloth ‘lying in its place’. So Lennox’s argument here is highly sensitive to the exact translation one uses, and what you think the author was originally trying to say. Personally, I think that an argument which relies on such an equivocal detail from the last of all the gospels to be written, should not be granted especially much credence.

Psychology and Hallucinations

“It was also psychologically impossible, since they were not expecting a resurrection”

Really? They weren’t expecting a Resurrection? What about Mark 8:31-33, where Jesus says “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again”. There are similar predictions in Mark 9:30-32, and Matthew 20:17-19. Now, one might argue that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant, as happens so often in the gospels. That is certainly possible, but is it not also plausible that, in the days after Jesus’ death, some of the disciples might have remembered his words about rising again on the third day, and formed expectations on that basis? I’m not claiming I can say for sure what was going on inside their heads, but Lennox seems to think that he can, even despite the fact that his claim evidently runs counter to what the NT says elsewhere.

“Hallucinations usually occur to people of a certain temperament, with a vivid imagination”

The research I have done on the matter indicates that hallucinations are fairly common (e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11166087), though I think it does depend on how one defines one’s terms and how the survey is conducted. A the very least, a citation for Lennox’s source for this claim would be nice.

“But Matthew was a hard-headed, shrewd tax-collector; Peter and some of the others, tough fishermen; Thomas, a born sceptic; and so on.”

As with his comments about Luke, Lennox’s claims greatly overreach the evidence here. As for Luke, scholars are far from united on the belief that Matthew wrote the gospel commonly attributed to him. More importantly, though he may have been a tax collector, what makes Lennox think that such an occupation has anything to do with being ‘shrewd’? Indeed, according to this survey (http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/05/psychologists-are-least-religious-of.html) accountants (the closest thing we have to the profession ‘tax-collector’ today) are among one of the most religious professions. Now of course that evidence is rather silly and not really relevant to first century palestine, but I think it is at least better than any evidence Lennox has presented for his implicit claim that being a tax-collector makes one less likely to hallucinate or form false beliefs. His remarks about Peter and Thomas should be considered equally without basis. ‘Tough fisherman’? ‘Born skeptic’? What does that even mean? Is putting an emotive and unsupported adjective in from of something supposed to constitute some kind of argument?

“Again, hallucinations tend to be of expected events. But none of the disciples was expecting to meet Jesus again. The expectation of Jesus’s resurrection was not in their minds at all.”

See my comments above. This is highly dubious given that Jesus predicted his resurrection, at least if you trust what the gospels say as generally being historical, which I understand Lennox does.

“Hallucinations usually recur over a relatively long period, either increasing or decreasing. But the appearances of Christ occurred frequently, over a period of forty days, and then abruptly ceased”

Again, a citation would be nice. I think there are plenty of other cases of unusual or miraculous events being widely reported for a brief period before ‘dying down’. Two examples I would cite are the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard and the Devil’s Footprints in Devon. One must also consider what evidence there is that the appearances ‘abruptly ceased’ after forty days. What ceases abruptly are the accounts of the gospels, not necessarily the appearances. Acts does continue the narrative, but it focuses mostly on missionary work. I don’t see any particular reason to believe that sightings of Jesus didn’t continue for long afterward, especially in the Jerusalem area. Indeed, people still claim to see Jesus today.

“Hallucinations, moreover, do not occur to groups and yet Paul claims 500 people saw Jesus at once.”

I agree that hallucinations per se do not occur in groups, but I think we have more than enough cases of groups large and small reporting seeing and experiencing very strange phenomena. I have compiled a list of such cases here https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwSqSiJGs1DPUE82QVBHcm1XM1E/edit?usp=sharing. I don’t think the Resurrection appearances are unique in this regard. At the very least, Lennox hasn’t bothered to include any sort of comparative analysis as a basis for claiming that they are unique.

Other Matters

“They clearly do not account for the empty tomb – no matter how many hallucinations the disciples had, they could never have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem, if the nearby tomb had not been empty.”

How does Lennox know this? The famous book When Prophecy Fails discusses a number of doomsday cults, and analyses how, in many cases, people continued to believe even after specific predictions about the world ending on a particular day fail to come true. Some people believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen, despite mountains of evidence that it did. I think Lennox here grossly underestimates the ability of human beings to believe things without much evidence, and even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

“To anyone who knows anything about the ancient laws regarding legal testimony, it is very striking that the first reports mentioned in the Gospels of appearances of the Risen Christ were made by women. In first-century Jewish culture, women were not normally considered to be competent witnesses”

I’ve never understood why so many apologists consider this argument to be so compelling. All that it proves is that the stories about the discovery of the empty tomb were not invented whole-cloth in order to make the Christian story sound more appealing. It does not follow at all the that stories must therefore be accurate, or probably historical, or that they could not have become changed over time or before they were written down (remember Paul doesn’t mention the women or the empty tomb, so we are talking about a period of decades until these stories were written down). I accept that the story of the women was not invented. I see no reason why it therefore follows that it is probably true, or true in all the details that Lennox et al would like us to believe.

“The explosion of Christianity out of Judaism and the testimony of millions today are inexplicable without the resurrection”

What about the testimony of millions of Muslims, and the explosion of Islam out of Arabia? What about the testimony of millions of Mormons, and the explosion of Mormonism out of New York? What about the testimony of millions of Buddhists, and the explosion of Buddhism out of Hinduism? Indeed, what of the convictions (testimony would be the wrong word but the devotion can often seem equally religious) of millions of Marxists, and the explosion of this ideology from the writings of an obscure German living in mid 19th century Britain? Lennox’s argument here seems to apply to far too many movements at far too many times in history to be supportive of his case. It seems demonstrably true that new religions or ideologies can develop and spread very quickly, even if we regard them to be substantively false.

“As Holmes said to Watson: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?””

Here is my explanation of events. The body of Jesus was moved, either stolen, or reburied by Jospeh of Arimathea, or relocated by some unknown third party. After that, the disciples had various experiences of seeing and meeting with the risen Jesus. These stories were modified over time through retelling and the foibles of memory, becoming more impressive and coherent then were the original experiences. The Christian movement, on the basis of true conviction and missionary zeal (nothing unique to Christianity, though still admirable) then spread over the course of the succeeding years and decades, just as have many other religions (there’s an interesting piece here comparing the growth rate of early Christianity with Mormonism http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=95). I don’t consider any elements of this account impossible. Unlikely? Perhaps, in some parts. But impossible? I think Lennox has not even come close to establishing that this sort of account is ‘impossible’.

Conclusion

I originally said that this piece was ‘terrible’. I stand by that claim. I contend that, at least in the part of the piece that I have reviewed, Lennox makes very few cogent arguments. He makes assertions without providing any evidence, he makes unjustified leaps of logic, he rules out alternative explanations too readily and without justification, and he is far too confident in the conclusions he draws given ambiguous and complicated evidence. Quite frankly, I think in many ways this piece is an embarrassment. Granted, it is only a short article on the ABC website, but still, I think much better was possible given the space and resources Lennox had at his disposal. My primary purpose in writing this critique was to highlight to any Christians who did find this piece compelling just how lacking in substance I found its arguments to be, and to call Christians to action (as it were) in putting forward more robust, evidence-based, carefully-considered arguments in favour of the resurrection of Jesus. The question is too important for us to simply ignore, or to be satisfied with mediocre arguments on either side.