Beware of Word-jugglers

by Phillip Brown

“But these word-jugglers are back at it again: ‘The knowledge of various branches of learning’ they say, ‘was especially added to human nature so that with their help he could use his mental skill to compensate for what Nature left out…’”

Erasmus, Folly1

     When Erasmus wrote this passage in the 1500’s he was, at least partly, speaking out against the leaders and the institutions of learning of his day, albeit satirically. His frustration with the arrogance and corruption of the intelligentsia and political leaders of his time led him to write an entire treatise mocking their behaviour and their self-righteous views about their own importance. What I find most interesting about Erasmus’ feelings is that they still seem to be relevant today. At least from where I sit as I write this article. We encounter word-jugglers every day. Almost every time that you turn on the news, you see a politician, or an expert of some kind, or another telling you what is right and what is wrong, what you should do and should not do, and even what and how you should think. These well-practiced speakers use both intelligent sounding and emotional language to convince all of us that they are people who we should listen and give credence to. I believe that we should be very careful about how much trust we put in these people.

     Part of what Erasmus was driving at when he wrote The Praise of Folly was that the motivations of leaders and academics, or experts, should be called into question. Perhaps he was asking, in a sense, just where their interests really lay. Are they really interested in the betterment of society, or are they just interested in making themselves look good and engineering a situation such that they would always appear to have authority? Folly is a bitter and cutting piece of writing and perhaps a bit overboard, but it shines a very bright light on the important issue of blindly following someone’s advice simply because they have been given a position of authority, or a podium to speak from.  We always need to think critically about what we see, read and hear, regardless of the source. Even this article should be read with a critical eye.

     A doctor who becomes an elected official or, say, becomes a director of public health, or some such position, is no longer a doctor, at least not a practicing one. They have become a politician. The same goes for an expert who has been asked to publicly speak about a political issue concerning their area of study. They are no longer just, an epidemiologist, or a climatologist. Their interests and motivations, whatever they were before they were put in that position, have now necessarily changed. There are now pressures on them to meet party expectations, or to represent their academic institution well and in a politically savvy way, and to try to avoid raising the ire of the listening public. They effectively become word-jugglers.

     The pressures that they are suddenly under leads them to change their behaviour, sometimes dramatically. Often, for people in official positions, or who are required to make some statement which will go on public record, it becomes difficult to speak the whole truth of a given situation. It seems to become necessary to come across as being particularly intelligent, articulate, and as being one who has authority, as opposed to just speaking plainly. And those people seem to feel the need to internalize their belief in their importance and essentialness to society. I want to address this with, at least a bit of, compassion. The stakes are higher when what you say and do are under public scrutiny. Experts, who are usually academics of some sort, are subject to more than just public scrutiny. They are also subject to scrutiny from their peers who are also experts in their field. Their academic reputation could be riding on what they say in an interview, or at a press conference. It should be mentioned also that the interests of the institutions which they represent may be placed ahead of epistemological integrity in such public situations. An expert may feel compelled to omit certain important, but not politically expedient, pieces of data from their public statements in an effort to ensure that their institutional standing is not affected by what they say. Politicians, it seems, can get away with being less responsible. They only answer to the public and their credibility seems to be more fluid. For a politician, credibility can be lost and regained under the right political conditions. And so long as they are not indicted with any particularly grievous crimes, when they are no longer in the public’s favour, they can just fade away into, usually, a comfortable private life. Discredited academics stand, on the other hand, to lose everything.  In any case, one can at least understand the less than particularly honest and forthright behaviour that these public individuals display in light of the above mentioned pressures.  

     Now none of this means that I am giving our leaders and public experts a free pass. Dishonesty and deception are still very wrong and as such is the case, we should be holding these people accountable for their actions. And on the Christian view, they will be accountable to God in the end. But what should concern us most about this is that, in any given case, without access to enough data—and the ability to interpret the data—we are in a situation where we have little choice, but to trust what public officials and experts tell us. This is potentially very dangerous. And if the increasing secularization of society is any kind of indicator, it is certainly, at a minimum, pernicious. Rarely do our leaders profess the Gospel, or believe that we should act in accordance with what scripture says. And academic institutions, and academics broadly speaking, are behind the public policies that our leaders put in place. That said, it should be made clear that there are many excellent Christian scholars who publish very regularly in respected academic journals and who do their best to express the truth through their work. For that matter, there are many more Atheist and Agnostic scholars who are honest and try to be as objective in their work as possible. To that end, I do not mean to contend that every statement made by a politician, public official, or expert chosen to speak publicly on a particular issue is intentionally misleading people, or intending to attack Christian sensibilities. It is more likely that, in this day and age, Christian beliefs are not even considered where public policy is concerned. 

     It seems to be the case that, by and large, when it comes to public policy, political expediency and secularist agendas are what tend to prevail. We are often told by leaders and experts that we need to listen to them for our own safety. And we are told that we need to be “diverse” and “inclusive” and that all “hate”is to be eschewed. On the surface, this seems to align very well with the Gospel. Matt 22:39 does tell us to love our neighbour like ourselves. And that certainly means putting hate aside. But when we consider things more and take into account our current socio-political setting, it seems that nothing could be further from the truth. Tim 6:3-5 says:

“If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a sick craving for controversial questions and disputes about words, from which come envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between people of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain…”

NASB

Now, the socio-historical setting for this passage is likely that early church members were sometimes divided on what teachings to follow because there were some who preached Jesus’ “message” and used Jesus’ name for their own gain, but did not really know what Jesus actually taught. Also the Judaizers, who Paul mentions in Galatians, were likely a constant problem for early Jesus followers. Even though the current discussion concerns modern politics, public officials and public policies in the 21st century, the same warning still applies. The problem is one of false doctrine. And we are fed false doctrine daily. Our leaders and experts regularly espouse ideas, which are in direct contravention to the Gospel. From views about marriage, to biology, to what broadly constitutes morally acceptable behaviour, the clear teachings of scripture are thrown in stark relief against a background of secular values which are pushed by political and popular academic figures. Through well-polished, carefully prepared and publicly proliferated statements we are slowly, but surely, moved towards a false doctrine that is, not just different from, but actually hostile to the Gospel. 

     Now I recognize the apparent accusatory nature of what I have said in this article and it certainly is just that, accusatory. But it is also the way that things seem to be. From the perspective of a Christian apologist who is simply trying to be honest and who believes that not speaking the truth and tending towards being ashamed of the Gospel would be a clear display of a lack of integrity, I think that it is important to speak out against false doctrine. Having said that, I want to make it clear, that I am not advocating for any kind of wide-spread dismissing, or violating of policies, or laws simply because they do not conform to Christian beliefs. My goal, perhaps much like Erasmus’ was, is to make whoever may come to read this aware of what I see as a glaring socio-political issue in our society, namely, that the word-jugglers of our day should be approached with caution and their words held up against reason and more importantly, against the Gospel.   

1Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. Trans. Clarence H. Miller. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Podcast: Judgment Part 1 – “Can We Know the Mind of God?”

In this episode, Phillip Brown frames the question “Can we know the mind of God?” After setting up a scenario wherein that question might be asked, Phillip works through a method for rationally responding to it, noting potential roadblocks along the way.

Podcast: Obstacles to Faith Part 4 – Evidences

In this final installment of the “Obstacles to Faith” series, Phillip points to the idea that evidence poses one of the greatest challenges to belief. Through surveying various positions on faith, Phillip ties things together by tentatively showing how both emotion and evidence contribute to unbelief as well as to belief.

Is Some God Better Than No God At All?

by Phillip Brown

The question of whether, or not some exposure to theism is better than none is, like many issues having to do with belief, not uncomplicated. So it is, admittedly, something of a precarious endeavour to attempt to provide a clear response to this question. And I do not have anything close to a definitive answer. It is however something that, in this age of religious pluralism, I believe needs to be at least addressed in some way. The goals of this article are simply to emphasize the importance of the question by discussing some of the core issues involved and hopefully to get more people thinking about how they come to believe what they do. 

What ‘God’ are you seeking?

I want to begin the discussion by getting right at what I view to be the heart of the issue, that thing upon which all other factors hinge, namely, we need to know what is meant by the term ‘God’ when we ask whether, or not some God is better than no God. One needs to define what it is that they are pursuing when they decide to investigate theism as a general concept. Are you looking for something akin to the ancient Greco-Roman pantheon of gods and goddess to whom you might pray and offer patronage to for help with a specific problem? Are you searching for the many faces of the Hindu god/s who represent the vast separateness, yet unity that is the universe and our place within it? Are you hoping to find a deistic God who got the universe going, but who now generally has little to do with us? Are you looking for the God of Abraham and Isaac who led the Jews out of the desert and into the Promised Land, who is thought to have created the universe, and who continues to sustain it, who acts in history and who wishes a relationship with you? Answering that question is an important place to start your journey.

This question matters because it is directly linked to two major features of faith -our expectations and reality- which themselves are closely linked to one another. Our expectations determine much of what we do in life. We tend not to do things, which we expect to reduce the quality of our lives in some way. Conversely, we are inclined to engage in activities, or invest in people and things, which we determine will add to our life in a positive way. The importance of our expectations whether stated, or unconscious, should not be underestimated. And this is especially true when it comes to what we choose to believe because not all belief systems offer the same things. And our expectations may not be met because what we had hoped for is not really something that our chosen worldview offers.

Also, what we choose to believe is a reflection of what we view as ultimate reality. This is important to us, whether we recognize it, or not. And what we expect, or hope for, does not always line up with reality. When you decide to believe, or not to believe in God, for example, you are not just deciding what you like and what you don’t as if you were choosing which flavour of ice cream you want to have with your birthday cake. When you make a decision to believe, or not believe in God, whichever way you decide, you are also choosing to align yourself with a worldview that makes a number of claims about ultimate reality. You are, perhaps without even realizing it, deciding for yourself the answer to metaphysical questions, which have ramifications for everything you see around you. You are deciding how everything got here, why everything is here, and where everything is going. For the sake of emphasis, choosing a worldview entails deciding to rest on a number of metaphysical, philosophical, moral, scientific, historical, and eschatological presuppositions. So when you choose, say, to get baptized and become a Christian, you are effectively making the claim that there is an extremely powerful, spaceless, timeless, immaterial, and personal being who created the universe, who sustains it, and who entered into history in the person of Jesus who He said was His Son. You are also claiming that Jesus was crucified, rose from the dead on the third day and made it very clear that it was only through him that we may be saved and have eternal life. Those claims are packed with presuppositions, too many to deconstruct in this article. But it is sufficient to say that by choosing a worldview, we are often saying much, much more than we realize.

Reframing the question.

With all of this in mind, it would seem to behoove anyone who subscribes to a particular worldview to be able to account for the presuppositions that go along with their beliefs. And this means taking some time to actually research the violability and verifiability of your perspective. What that process will bring to light is that many worldviews are just untenable. We may begin this verification process by asking which God do I choose? Some positions just cannot be supported by the available evidence. And giving the importance of all of the above mentioned presuppositions, the verification process may lead us to begin to respond to the question of whether, or not some God is better than no God by saying that it looks like it depends on the God. In terms of verifiability, not all ‘gods’ are equal.

  What the verification process will also bring to light is that, even within any given broader worldview, there are numerous sects who, while perhaps holding some of the same presuppositions, differ in some important ways also. That said, as this article will most likely be read by people who are already Christians, going forward, I will take it for granted that you have already ruled out, for whatever reasons, other belief systems. So now that you have chosen a belief system, what sect are you going to follow? There are groups in Christianity who believe that every letter of the Bible must be adhered to and there are those who say that there are in fact many ways to God and that Jesus is just one of them. These groups sometimes even include elements from other very different belief systems in their version of Christianity. Basically, you have some groups who one might say are thoroughly Christian and some groups who many would have trouble even calling Christian. At any rate, this sectarianism requires us to reframe our chief question. Instead of asking whether, or not some God is better than no God at all, perhaps we need to ask whether, or not some Christianity is better than no Christianity at all. And for believers and prospective believers alike, this is what it really comes down to.

The Final Analysis.

Giving the importance of recognizing and understanding the presuppositions that go along with any worldview and the importance of the idea that our worldview must reflect reality and the notion that our expectations must be managed and be realistic, I think that choosing a worldview requires us to go through a process of verification. This process will help to ensure that we are able establish which beliefs and presuppositions display verisimilitude, and thus which worldview is reasonable to hold. And where Christianity is concerned, in particular because of the eschatological ramifications associated with holding the right, or wrong, set of beliefs, we need to take our reframed question very seriously. As to whether, or not some Christianity is better than no Christianity at all, at the risk of positing a radical idea, it may be that some forms of Christianity are so far removed from what most Christian groups and theologians view as core Christian beliefs, that due to the extreme heresy of those perspectives, no Christianity at all would be a better option. But we also understand God to be filled with boundless love, long-suffering, and compassion for us. This would led me to believe that even though we may not get it quite right, and we never really do get it altogether right, God just wants us to keep trying to build a closer relation with Himself by seeking to know His Son. 

Podcast: Obstacles to Faith Part 3 – Suffering

In this podcast, Phillip discusses what are possibly the most challenging obstacles to faith – personal suffering and the loss of a loved one. Giving the very personal and delicate nature of this subject, Phillip not only approaches things from an apologetics standpoint, but also pursues a pastoral tack and attempts to address the emotional side of things as well.

Christian Action is an Apologetic for Christianity

by Phillip Brown

When the Pharisee challenged Jesus and asked Him “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt 22:36), Jesus responded with two of the most often quoted teachings from the New Testament. He said,

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.  The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’” (Matthew 22:37-40)

There seems to be little question about what Jesus meant when He told us to love God. His instruction on that was thorough and made it clear that our love for the Father is supposed to be all encompassing. But it may not always be so clear as to what exactly it means to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Action and Inaction

To try and get a better handle on what it might mean to love your neighbour let us turn to the parable of the Good Samaritan and the events leading up to it. For the sake of context it will help to see the whole passage. Here is what the text says,

“‘And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.’ But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied and said, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped  him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ ‘Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?’ And he said, ‘The one who showed mercy toward him.’ Then Jesus said to him,‘Go and do the same.’” (Luke 10:25-37)

I will break down what, in this passage, is most important to this discussion. Verses 31 and 32 speak clearly of inaction on the part of the priest and the Levite respectively. These were people who you might say were fellow countrymen of the beaten and stripped man. This is evidenced from the fact that he was from Jerusalem. So even his own people would not help him. This is an obvious example of how not to love one’s neighbour.

In verses 33-35, we see that the Samaritan’s behaviour was the polar opposite of that of the beaten man’s countryman. The Samaritan not only stopped to see what was wrong, he bandaged the beaten man, nursed him, and ensured that he had lodging. This is an example of action. The Samaritan was in a position to help the beaten man and he put pause on his own journey to provide the man with what was needed in order to preserve his life. The point of the parable is made clear in verse 37. In asking who proved to be a neighbour, Jesus was telling the lawyer that the Samaritan, because he took action and helped the beaten man, was indeed an example of what it means to be a neighbour.

Moved By Compassion

Now what makes the parable even more impactful is the fact that it was a Samaritan who helped the man from Jerusalem. It is known that at that time there was a great deal of friction between the Jews and the Samaritans. The two groups are often characterized as enemies of one another. So a Samaritan coming to the aid of a Jew would have been seen as, for lack of other words, kind of a big deal. And that is indeed an important lesson. But what might be overlooked in the passage because of all of that is that Jesus said the Samaritan felt compassion. This is a key component in the parable because it reflects that mirror image of loving God and your neighbour. There are a number of occasions where Scripture tells us that God feels compassion for His people, for example Deuteronomy 13:17, Lamentations 3:32, Zechariah 10:6, and Hosea 11:8-9.

My point in speaking about compassion is twofold. In the first place, I think that it is important to see the link between compassion and action. The Samaritan was moved by compassion for the beaten man and that compassion drove him to act. It is clear that compassion and action are related in some way. Secondly, that mirroring of love for God and for each other highlights the relationship between God’s compassion for us and our having compassion for one another. If Genesis 1:27 is correct in that we are made in God’s image, it seems reasonable, then, to assert that the compassion that we have for one another -that which is demonstrated in the parable of the good Samaritan- is a reflection of the compassion that God has for us. And that compassion is directly liked to action.

Christian Action As an apologetic for Christianity

What all of this points to is what I call Christian action. The Samaritan’s behaviour exemplifies how we as Christians should respond when we see someone in need and have the ability to help. In other words, the parable in question instructs us on what to do when we have the opportunity to act. When Jesus said “Go and do the same” (Luke 10:37), he was telling the Lawyer not just what a neighbour is, or how to be one, but also that action is what He expects from us. And action is a powerful apologetic for Christianity. When others see Christian action, they may well be motivated to find out why someone would demonstrate such compassion. And that is your opportunity to tell them that that is what Jesus taught us to do.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a massive opportunity for Christians to take action and reflect God’s compassion for us on one another. One does not need to make a large display of it, or travel long distances to act. It is likely that each of us has people in our own community who are in need. Quietly offering to help someone you may notice suffering, or even simply checking in on friends and family to make sure that those who may be feeling the impact of being isolated for so long are aware that they are not alone are easy ways to demonstrate Christian action. Your neighbours are all around you and it does not take much to demonstrate what loving your neighbour really means.

Podcast: Obstacles to Faith Part 2 – Exposure to Christianity

In this edition of the “Obstacles to Faith” Series, Phillip discusses the notion that a lack of exposure to Christianity, and Christian culture broadly speaking, sometimes prevents people from understanding who and what Jesus is and as such constitutes an obstacle of faith.

Where Does Morality Come From?

by Phillip Brown

Introduction

           Probably the most discussed question among moral philosophers is that of the origins of morality. It is not a simple question to answer and theories abound. Even the definition of morality is not quite so simple because the place from which morality comes has an impact on what exactly it is. In this article, my ultimate intent is to show that a divine source best fits the observable evidence for how we make moral judgments and as such is the case, it is most rational to follow the moral precepts laid out by and understood in light of Christian teachings. I will begin by defining morality, I will then discuss a few of the theories which have attempted to show where morality comes from, finally I will present a brief defense of the notion for a divine source and for Christian morality being rational.

Defining Morality

           For the sake of this article, and for the sake of having some kind of fixed goalpost to which we can anchor the concept, let us define morality as simply being the fundamental set of principles which an individual uses to guide their decision making process, and their actions and behaviours, in the event they encounter a situation where they are required to judge what would be right, that is moral, or wrong, that is, immoral. This definition is reasonable enough to use in that it works well in context with most well known moral systems, for example various forms of consequentialism and deontological systems like Kantianism and systems rooted in religion. It is, one might say, a classical definition. For clarification, deontological systems are ethically normative and such systems subscribe to the notion that some actions are right and wrong in themselves according to the guiding rules of the system.

           The above mentioned moral systems rest on the notion that morality is either a universal set of principles which, typically, stem from a divine source, or some set of principles for moral judgment making which people create and employ in their daily lives. Either way, a somewhat defined set of rules is at play. What makes my definition of morality problematic is that some philosophers and social psychologists in particular, have posited ideas, which strongly suggest that morality is actually evolved. Others have posited that our morality is primarily emotion-driven and that social pressures shape our morality. Still others have suggested that our morals are learned diachronically. If these theories, in their various incarnations are true, then clearly morality cannot just be a set of guiding principles either divine, or of human invention.

Moral Origin Theories

           I would now like to, very briefly, address the above mentioned moral origin theories and see if we can come to some preliminary conclusions about their validity. Two of the three theories that I will address focus primarily on how moral judgments are made. But they also provide us with explanations for the origins of morality and this makes those theories useful for our study. The first idea that I want to discuss is the notion that is morality a product of evolution. In the interest of being charitable, I should clarify that, usually, when people speak of morals being a product of evolution, they do not mean so in the biological sense. That is, they do not tend to claim that there is some morality gene that has evolved in humans and animals, which has changed and adapted over time. Typically, what anthropologists, social psychologists, and moral philosophers mean when they claim that morality is evolved, they are referring to the idea that as humans began to form communities and other groups, like hunting parties for example, for the sake of survival and behavioral norms began to naturally arise out of necessity. They also observe that these norms differ from group to group according to their specific circumstances and that these norms change over time. We can call this the moral, social evolution theory, or MSET for short.

           I question whether, or not this is a satisfactory explanation of morality. On the surface, it fits the Darwinian model of survival of the fittest, in a social sense anyway. And it does explain why moral norms may differ from group to group. But it does not explain the feelings one gets when they encounter certain moral predicaments. For example, when we hear about sex trafficking cases where women, often very young women, are sold into what is effectively slavery, and are abused in horrifying ways, all but those involved in causing these women to suffer seem to feel some combination of repulsion, sadness, and anger. Simple group survival can explain why we don’t approve of that behaviour, but it cannot explain our visceral responses to it. This theory also poses a problem for anyone who wants to make a claim that a particular behaviour, or action is absolutely immoral. This is so because if a particular set of morals arise as a result of a particular group’s need to survive in their particular circumstances, then it makes sense to say that those principles would not necessarily apply to a group in a different situation. This would mean that morality is relative. And if it is relative, then no one, anywhere, at any time can reasonably make universal moral claims. But we all seem to recognize, in some universal sense, that sex trafficking is immoral. So clearly there is some universal quality to morality that cannot be explained by the MSET.

           The next idea is that morality is primarily emotion-driven and it arises from some deeper cause. This is more complex than a simple social evolution theory. This idea is often called the social intuition model of morality, or SIM for short. It has been championed by people like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt and colleagues are sometimes referred to as social institutionists. They claim that their research has shown that people’s moral judgments are mostly irrational. That is to say that our moral judgments are not the result of an effortful, timely, deliberative process wherein, when someone encounters a situation where a moral decision must be made, they weigh the factors at hand and make their decision based on any set of principles, or calculations like a math problem. Instead, on the SIM, people’s reactions to moral problems seem to be quick, effortless, and non-deliberative. This suggests, the social intuitionists say, that our moral judgments stem from our intuitions, and are not rational, but emotional. They back this up with brain imaging studies which have shown that when moral judgments are made and someone is not trying to adhere to something like a consequentialist pattern of reasoning, that is there is no effortful deliberation, areas of the brain associated with emotions are shown to be very active. Finally, and very briefly, the intuitionists seem to think that we have some kind innate moral framework in which our morality develops and that this, in combination with our interactions with others in our society (hence the social part of the SIM) gives rise to our emotion-driven morals.

           This would seem to explain the emotional responses to certain moral issues that the MSET could not account for. But it has faced challenges of its own. And one of those challenges has to do with the fact that we can explain why someone’s moral judgments seem to be intuitive without needing an innate moral framework which gives rise to emotion-driven responses. In a 2012 paper, Hanno Sauer responds to Haidt’s work and suggests that while emotions are certainly a large part of our moral judgments, those moral judgments are not really irrational. Sauer suggests that our seemingly intuitive moral judgments are developed, or learned in much the same way that habits are formed. For example just the same as when someone develops a morning routine where they get up in the morning, make a cup of coffee and have a bagel while reading the news, our moral judgments are kinds of routines. Briefly put, Sauer argues that, after having faced various moral issues many times over, and deliberating between the relevant factors in many of those cases, we develop reasons for holding our respective positions. This development happens over time. So as mature people, when we face the same, or similar issues, because we have already done the effortful work of deliberation, similar to the way that we figure out and develop our daily routines we already have our moral judgments on hand. And this makes it seem as if those judgments are wholly intuitive, though really because a given moral problem might be familiar to us, we have simply already done the hard reflective and deliberative work. And this drastically reduces our response times. It also means that our moral judgments are not really irrational.

           Like the SIM, Sauer’s theory, call it the moral education theory or MET, accounts for the quick and effortless responses that we tend to give in moral situations. But none of the above mentioned theories seem to recognize the possibility that deontological moral principles are a legitimate source of morality. They all point to some kind of evolution, or development. And in that case, my definition of morality does not really work because there are no universal, or defined principles being followed. Just evolved, or learned responses. The MSET clearly points to very ancient and necessary reasons for morals to have developed for a given group, the SIM implies that there is something innate in us that works in conjunction with our social environment and the MET implies that the environment in combination with our own moral reasoning over time gives rise to our individual morality. They all ignore the possibility that morality could be universal and derived from a source other than ourselves.

The Argument for a Divine Source

           The question that concerns the believer is where does this leave religion based morality? Religious morals are prescriptive and deontological. They are not thought of as being evolved out of necessity and they do not come from us, but from a divine, or at least very overarching and powerful source. I submit that not only is there room for a religious moral theory, but that it accounts for all of what we observe better than the theories that I have discussed so far. The theorists mentioned above, perhaps unwittingly, have done much of the hard work for us. They have shown that there is a strong emotional element to morality that plays a role at the time a judgment is made. They have also shown that although seemingly emotion-driven, for adults at least, there is a reasoning process that has happened prior to encountering moral problems that allows us to respond to those problems intuitively. What accounts for these characteristics of moral judgment better than a deep belief in a God who has given us clear moral standards to follow? Standards, which over time, as we have grown, we have learned about, investigated, and continued to study. Believers have an emotional commitment to God and an emotional commitment to His morality. It takes time to learn and study His moral law, thus our morality developed in us over time. This accounts for both the emotional and developmental components of morality. And because of the divine source it is universal. And it’s universality allows for believers to make objective moral claims. As such it avoids the subjectivity issues associated with the other theories.

           There are a couple of objections that come to mind, which should be addressed before concluding. The first objection is that religious people like Christians, just blindly and irrationally follow what their religious books, or their religious leaders say. That is why they just spit out their moral judgments so quickly. Sauer’s MET suggests that morality is learned over time and that because we have already done the reasoning work, by the time we are mature people, although our moral judgments may appear to be just regurgitated, knee jerk responses, in truth, they are likely well thought out and quite reasonable.

           The second objection is that it does not make sense to talk about divine morality if we cannot prove that the Divine even exists. As I have discussed in one way or another in previous articles and as many brilliant philosophers, historians and scientists have claimed and continue to claim, there is very good evidence to support the notion that there is a God. And further to that, the historical evidence for Jesus is quite good. There are a multitude of good reasons to believe in God and that Christ is who he claimed to be. And if this is true, then it logically follows that we should subscribe to God’s moral law. Not doing so would in fact be irrational.

           So where a moral system like Christianity is concerned, it cannot simply be said that Christians are blindly and irrationally following what the Bible says. The evidence shows that belief in God’s moral law is quite rational. While it is certainly true that there are people who blindly follow the words of their religious leaders and of their religious books without further investigation, for most Christian adults especially, this is likely not the case. They have done the hard work already and have good reasons to make the moral judgments that they do in accordance with Scripture.

How Do You Know?

by Phillip Brown

            One of the questions that Christians get asked, and people of faith in general, is how are we so sure that we are right. The question might be put in this way; how do you know that your way is the only way? In this article, I want to do three things. First of all, I want to break this question down, so as to make it clear what exactly it is that we are being asked. Secondly, I want to provide a general response to the question. And finally, I want offer a few suggestions about what to keep in mind when responding to this kind of challenge.

            When someone asks how something is known they are typically requesting one of two kinds of information: either what evidence one has to support a given claim, or set of claims, or, in the more radical sense, how can you know anything at all? The former is what one might call scientific skepticism. Essentially, this deals with specific claims to knowledge. The second is philosophical skepticism. This form of skepticism questions whether, or not knowledge is even attainable.

Scientific Skepticism


            Scientific skepticism is, I think, quite reasonable. Very little is epistemologically self-evident. And as such is the case, we have good reasons to ask someone to provide us with good reasons to believe their claims. There is no reason why one should not ask for empirical, or philosophical evidence in any situation wherein a statement is made that something reflects reality. I think that this is especially true where claims regarding subjects like morality, the existence of an historical figure, or even the existence of God are in question. For example if you are going to make a claim that Jesus is who the New Testament says he is, it is perfectly reasonable for someone to respond with questions demanding evidence that your claim displays verisimilitude. Scientific skepticism is a methodologically sound approach to all inquiry and should be kept in mind when trying to determine whether, or not our beliefs are true and justified.

Philosophical Skepticism

            It is not as common for people to ask after whether, or not knowledge is even attainable, but it does come up in conversation from time to time. When this question is encountered, it behooves us to think deeply about the ramifications of the potential answers. Rene Descartes introduced this problem many years ago in his Meditations on First Philosophy. He posited the idea that there might be a demon who is tricking him, and that every site, sound, sensation and smell was all the demon’s creation. He then questioned whether, or not, he could ever actually know if this was the case? In other words, he asked whether, or not we can actually have knowledge of the external world. If the demon hypothesis is true, or even possible, and it is at least possible, how can we ever know anything apart from what the demon shows us? This came to be known as Cartesian skepticism. And it is still debated among philosophers to this day. Though it may seem like a radical claim, it is not altogether unreasonable. At least so far, there does not seem to be a legitimate way out of the predicament.

How Do We Respond?

            A response to either of these two forms of skeptical questions should be prefaced with two other questions. First of all, ask for clarity, that is, ask your interlocutor which of the two kinds of “how do you know” question is being asked. This is important because it will determine your next question. If they are asking the Cartesian skeptical question, then simply tell them that if we cannot attain knowledge about the external world, then it does not matter in any meaningful way whether, or not you have evidence to support your claim. But if the questioner simply wants evidence for a claim that you have made, then it is your responsibility to be able to respond with well-researched, well thought out arguments. Regardless of whether, or not one is a person of faith, an agnostic, or an atheist, the burden of proof is on the one who makes a claim in any given situation.

           The second preface question is slightly more antagonistic sounding, but my experience has shown that it is more than reasonable to ask. Ask the questioner if they are actually willing to change their mind if you provide them with compelling enough evidence? Often, people demand that you give them proof of your beliefs, not because they are genuinely interested, but because they expect that you haven’t got any. If, upon being asked, you present them will a thoroughgoing argument for why you believe, say, Jesus to be just what the Bible says he is, you can then begin to discuss the merits of the evidence that you present.

           Sadly, however, this is not likely to happen. People struggle with what they believe, or disbelieve, in many ways. And often, uninformed preconceptions lock people into a specific mindset and shaking that mindset is indeed a difficult task. Once you begin to show that you are prepared to put up a reasoned defense for your beliefs, you will most likely run into situations where the person decides that they no longer have time to listen to you, that no amount of evidence would be “good enough” for them, or, if they are honest, they will just state their true feelings and say that they really aren’t willing to have their mind changed. At this point, you have two options, you can point out to them that because they are unmoving in their position, continuing the conversation is no longer valuable and walk away, or you can still try to state your case, so that others around you may hear and, hopefully, be convinced. Either way, you have shown that at least you were willing to defend your position rationally and that is a win in itself.

The Take Away

           If nothing else, I want you take away three things from this brief article. First keep in mind that everyone is different and whatever it is that someone believes, or disbelieves, it is likely that they genuinely seek the same answers that you do. They just might be at a different point in their spiritual journey than you are. So when engaging in conversations about how you know, or don’t know something, try to be patient and understanding. Secondly, be open. If someone is honestly interested in the evidence, take your time and go over it with them as many times as they require. This will help you build a rapport with your interlocutor and it gives you many chances to restate your case and improve on your argument. If it becomes clear that they are not interested, or that they genuinely believe that we cannot attain any true knowledge, and if there is no good reason to remain engaged in the conversation, then smile, be polite, and navigate away from the situation with grace. Above all, be firm, fair and as friendly as possible. And remember, when you engage someone in conversation, you may end up being considered by that person a representative of Christians everywhere. You want to represent Christ well.