We will close by briefly noting Smith's critique of the ethics
of Jesus, which makes some of the same objections we have seen from
Michael Martin's quarter (see Chapter 6) and from elsewhere, such as the idea
that Jesus' followers would not have written down anything since
they thought the world was going to end. We'll comment on only one
claim in particular, concerning Luke 6:27-8 and Matthew 5:39-41 --
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
Smith interprets these commands as directives to tolerate
injustice and be a doormat, and says "such precepts require the
obliteration of one's capacity to distinguish the good from the
Taken in their social context, these commands require
no such things. "Resist not evil" is a well-known Jewish proverb (Ps. 37:1, 8; Prov. 24:19) and actually means, do not compete with evildoers by trying to outdo them in terms of getting back at them. Three examples for the teaching follow: Turn the other cheek; if someone sues you for your cloak, also give them your tunic; if you are forced to go one mile, go two. All three of these things refer to what amount to inconvenient, but nevertheless perfectly legal, impositions on the person. The "slap on the cheek" is a type of personal insult, so that the command to turn the other cheek is essentially a command not to start trading insults, but take the higher ground and turn away from the exchange.
It is not, as many Skeptics have supposed, a license to allow yourself to get beat up. The cloak/tunic bit must be recognized in terms of the ancient Jewish customary process of making good pledge on one's debts by handing over a valuable item as collateral; for most people in this time, items of clothing were the only thing suitable. In essence, the teaching is to provide surety of repayment of a justly-decided debt, even to those who are enemies.
Finally, the double-mileage command refers in context to the legal right a Roman soldier had to make any person carry their belongings for up to one mile. As you might imagine, this was not a popular requirement in the neighborhood of Palestine, but it was the law, and the teaching again is in essence, do it, and do it without complaint, even though the Roman is your enemy.
And if you need to know why, consider that your resultant testimony as a member of God's kingdom (for the Sermon on the Mount is composed of instructions for just that set) is far, far more important than a few mild inconveniences or insults to your person...not that one like Smith would agree, having no recognition of the kingdom in the first place. Nevertheless, Smith's analysis is completely neglectful to both the context and the intent of the teaching.
Our conclusion: What I have seen of Smith does not impress.
Addendum by "Nick P."
As a Christian apologist, I decided to read and review some more arguments from the other side. I've encountered many atheists in my years, but I'd never read a direct book by an atheist. I ordered George Smith's book which I am critiquing here, and Michael Martin's book "The Case Against Christianity." As Smith arrived first, I read it first.
One might be surprised, but I agreed with a number of things he said throughout the book. Why would I say that? Because Smith seemed to delight in presenting straw men of Christian beliefs. Most noted is his attack on faith where he destroyed the idea of faith. I was glad he did, because I don't like that kind of faith either.
The book starts though with what seems to be really an appeal to pity. Implying that atheists have been so misjudged, and couldn't even hold office for awhile. After that, he discusses the differences between theism and atheism and agnosticism. I will try to avoid adding anything to what my friend J.P. has said. He has his own article on this book where he goes from the historical and textual basis. I could touch on that some, but I mainly want to hit the philosophical basis.
On page 14, Smith makes the statement that babies are not born with the idea of God. Now that's a well and good assertion, but I'm the type who needs some evidence to believe an assertion. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has made a strong case that belief in God can be properly basic. The same way we believe the external world exists, we can believe God exists. It's built into us. A reader can read Plantinga himself or Ronald Nash's review of what Plantinga says in his book "Faith and Reason." Some Japanese research strongly suggests that knowledge of the Creator God is innate. See the item here.
I suspect this comes largely from Locke's theory of Tabula Rosa, where it is stated that babies are born with a clean slate and no knowledge. When I heard this in a class at college, the first question I asked was "Is a baby born knowing how to learn?" If not, how can you learn how to learn? It's because of such questions I do hinder some on accepting Smith's claim. He uses it nicely to buttress a later point, but with my suspicion on this first start, I was hesitant to go for the rest.
Now when Smith goes on to describe the idea of god (little g for generalities and big G for the Christian God), he uses again a straw man idea. His belief is that if something is incomprehensible, it is not true. I will agree that I cannot comprehend the Christian God but that doesn't make him false.
The difference is between comprehension and apprehension. Smith makes it sound like if we don't have comprehension, then we have no idea. Personally, I don't even have a full comprehension of myself. How, then, can I have one of God? However, I can apprehend God. There are some basic concepts about God that I can understand. I can understand that God exists for instance. I can't comprehend eternal existence but who can comprehend eternity?
Furthermore, let us think about other fields. Quantam Physics is something new, and there are many things we don't understand. By Smith's wording, we should throw out Quantam Physics then. Also, you will not find a single physicist who claims to fully understand E = MC squared. However, if you go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you will find definite proof this theory actually works.
So, with that, let's move on to the Christian God. I personally think Smith's book should have been called "The Case Against Christianity", because this seems to be the only kind of theism he wants to defeat. I do not recall mention of Hinduism or Islam. I will not mention Buddhism since it is non-theistic and I wonder how Smith would accept it.
Smith poisons the wells at the beginning of his third chapter by referring to God as a creature. God is never referred to as a creature in Christian literature. He is separate and distinct from his creation. Then he pulls out the comprehension book. Please Mr. Smith, we believe in apprehension, not comprehension.
Smith also makes the case that God-behaving attributes would rule out negative attributes. I agree! So what's the problem? We know if God is all-powerful he can't be non-powerful at the same time. Smith makes it seem that if God is to exist he must be perfect and impefect at the same time and in the same sense. This from one who claims to value the Law of Noncontradiction?
I find it interesting how he says on page 52, that God cannot be described and neither can non-existence. I find this odd since he just described God as a being who cannot be described and non-existence as something that cannot be described. In fact, if you can't describe them, then what is he doing telling us all these characteristics he sees?
He then goes on to attack the attributes. He attacks ominpotence with the straw man that God can do anything. This is not Christian teaching. The Bible makes it clear that God cannot lie for instance. (Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18.) So what can God not do? God cannot do anything that goes against his nature. His nature is also logical. He cannot contradict the laws of logic.
The next one he deals with is omniscience. Smith attacks this on the basis of free-will. (Note he never gives the atheistic basis of free-will). William Provine has made the case that if evolution is true, which Smith would grant, man has no free-will. I was waiting for Smith to give the argument for free-will from the atheistic perspective, but it never came.
Furthermore, assuming God does know all future choices, that does not mean that he causes future choices. For instance, we would not say because the weatherman knows it's going to rain on Friday, that means he's making it rain on Friday. God can know in advance all free-will choices of all creatures and the choices still be free. Of course, we could add that how God and time interact might be something we'll only understand with more knowledge.
And of course, God's goodness. (Notice Smith never gave his ultimate standard for good and evil). He merely bases it on what brings happiness. However, one could argue that the Israelites slaughtering the Midianites and looting them brought them happiness, and was even evolution fulfilling survival of the fittest. Let's look at his instances though.
The cases of human sacrifice are isolated incidents I'd say really. J.P. probably has more info on this than I do, but I will say the majority are not sanctioned by God, but are often the result of stupid decisions on the part of men.
Smith talks about the killing of the firstborn in Egypt. He neglects to mention the earlier 9 warning plagues and that the Egyptians were told how to avoid the death of the firstborn.
Smith's sanction of slavery doesn't define biblical slavery either. It was nothing like the slavery in the American Civil War.
His other references fail to understand the holiness of God. Each time there were warnings for these, and it was meant for the community as a whole. Allow one cancer cell into the body, and it could multiply and kill the person eventually. Israel had a divine task to bring the Messiah to the world.
As for Numbers 31, Smith fails to mention that earlier in the book the Midianites led Israel into temptation through sexual seduction. The command for sparing virgins was because they hadn't taken part. Don't you love the way these skeptics only get enough of the picture to get their side and then condemn us for not doing our research?
Now we move on to Smith's main weakness, talking about faith.
Smith makes it seem that the definition of faith is straight from the school of Archie Bunker. Faith is "Believing in things that you know ain't so." He asks for a biblical definition. You know, when I want a definition I usually go to a dictionary. You'd think Smith would have gone to look up the word in such a reference where he would have found the Greek word "pistis" which refers to trust.
He also commits the ad annis fallacy in assuming that our time is more enlightened than people who believed in miracles. Smith doesn't realize that they knew a lot of things back then. They knew that it took a man and a woman to make a baby, and virgins didn't give birth. When people died they buried them because they stay dead. They knew water doesn't hold up under a man's footsteps and that food doesn't just multiply.
In fact, in the Matthew account, we see that Joseph plans to divorce his wife because of her pregnancy. Why? Because Joseph's Dad had talked to him and told him what it takes to make a baby. When he saw Mary pregnant and knew he hadn't slept with her, well, his mind was able to work quite naturally.
Smith continues on with this straw man of faith. He assumes faith means to accept without questioning. Does he not know that the Bereans were considered more noble because they checked to see if what Paul said was true? They didn't just take a blind leap, and they were commended for it. Also, in 1 Thess. 5:21 we are told to test everything. The NASB says to examine everything carefully. In fact, the Bible is the only holy text I know of in any religion that makes this claim.
Smith speaks a lot of sensory detection which just makes me wonder about something. Has Smith ever had sensory perception of his own thoughts? Has he ever had sensory perception of the laws of logic? In fact, in the debate between Stein and Bahnsen, this was the point that Bahnsen got Stein on. Stein wanted some other nonmaterial thing that existed and Bahnsen said "Laws of logic."
Now by Smith's argument, if the only things that exist are those we have sensory perception of, then we must conclude that the laws of logic do not exist and that Smith's own thoughts do not exist.
On page 166, Smith says that no one is allowed to ask questions and one is condemned when they ask. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I love it when people ask questions of me. I wish more people would ask questions. One of my main sayings to students of mine is "Question everything" and I recall Ravi Zacharias' advice to parents of "Teach your children how to think." In fact, Norman Geisler has said that next to Jesus Christ, logical reasoning can be a Christian's best friend.
Now despite all his speaking about reason, Smith fails to answer one question I had on my mind as I approached this book. Where does reason come from? Is matter capable of reasoning? If not, and all people are is matter, then how can it be that we were somehow able to reason?
A friend of mine called me one Saturday as I was leaving for work, to tell me about a program on the radio where a major evolutionist from a leading university was speaking. Apparently, the host had been answering some questions, so it was an atheistic program, but my friend said I needed to call in.
So I called on my cell phone and made my question. I will have to paraphrase but I simply said, "I've got one question about evolution. We know from science that matter is irrational. That means that it does not possess rationality and cannot think and reason. Now when we look at the world around us, it seems that so many species like humans can think and reason and possess rationality. Now if Hume is right and water doesn't rise higher than its source and an effect can't be greater than its cause, how do you get rationality from irrationality?"
I have never heard such shuffling. The host immediately said that the guest would have to answer that question. The professor told me it was the $64,000 question and that we really didn't know, but we know God didn't do it because we'd just have to ask who created him. (A point I will answer later.)
My case was sealed though and I never got a chance to respond. Now, I ask Smith the same question. If he can't tell me where it came from, why should I trust it? If it's an accident, why trust an accident? Now let me say I do love reason! I encourage it. I hate the faith Smith described. Blind faith is just stupid and too prevalent in the church today.
My view is that reason and faith go hand in hand. Faith simply means to trust and when you see enough evidence, you trust the evidence by faith. An illustration is when you watch a mystery movie or show.
My family and I watch "Monk", the USA Network show a lot. We watch and try to solve the case. You'll see someone dead at the beginning often and won't know how they died. Then, detective Monk puts the pieces together and solves the case, and as he describes it, you see a flashback scene where the murder is acted out.
Now did Monk see the murder? No! If he did, he wouldn't need to find clues. What he saw was evidence and by that evidence trusted that this is what really happened. To say evidence alone is enough, is to say that evidence speaks for itself. It doesn't. It needs to be interpreted.
You may go in the crime scene and look around and see nothing. The detective can go in and see so much more. Why? He's seeing the same evidence, but he's interpreting it and following it through to its logical conclusions. Yes, reason can only take you so far, because you have to eventually trust your reasoning. Reason doesn't make decisions. People make decisions based on reasoning.
Smith goes on to argue against Revelation. One searches in vain throughout his critique of the Bible whenever he does it of reasons for late dates and such. They're not given. They're just assumed. When I read Christian apologist works on the Bible though, they give reasons. It's a lot more convincing. Smith should have learned to use evidence instead of having people take him on faith.
Smith's cases on biblical interpretation are weak. If he had bothered to look into Jewish interpretation at the time, he would have known that Matthew was using the Pesher style, which was entirely acceptable. In that, you find a passage that meant something to the people then and find a parallel to it now. It was entirely acceptable. (See Richard Longenecker's "Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period" and the final chapter of Paul Copan's "That's Just Your Interpretation!") Of course, Smith only wants enough evidence to buttress his atheism and then move on.
Smith then moves on to miracles. While he has earlier condemned theists for interpreting everything to support a theistic outlook, he says on page 212 that "Explanations, by their very nature, must fall within the realm of natural causality." Ah! When theists do it, it's wrong, but if an atheist wants to stack the deck in advance, that's perfectly acceptable.
His argument against miracles is pretty much saying that the natural law cannot be violated and a miracle would violate it, so that is not possible. Smith hasn't proven his case though. Miracles are rare events. That's why we call them "Miracles"! In fact, look at some miracles. Water turning into wine? Sure. Happens all the time. That's how wine is made with water. Jesus just speeded up the process.
In fact, as soon as the miracle is done, the natural processes take over. Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, but she had the same 9 month period and probably the same pains and the same urges that sent Joseph to the market at night for pickles.
Now Smith goes on to the arguments against God. I have to admit that this was one of the funniest sections of his book to me. The main concept is dealing with the universe. He quotes Corliss Lamont on pages 230-231, who says that there is a time where we just have to stop asking why. We just accept it. Is this not the blind faith Smith earlier attacked? Smith himself says the universe needs no reason for its existence. It just exists. The existential problems are great and this will be covered more in the final section speaking about the sins of Christianity.
Smith again continues his "head in the sand" ostrich approach on page 233. Here he says that naturalism cannot be defeated by argumentation. Now, there is a problem with any theory if you have no way of falsifying it. I'll make it easy for Smith. If he wants to falsify Christianity, he just has to explain away the empty tomb. A person who gives no way of falsification simply is saying they don't believe in any evidence to the contrary. Their mind is like concrete. It's thoroughly mixed and permenantly set.
When Smith goes to the cosmological argument, we can't fault him for not knowing what would happen later, such as Brandon Carter shocking the world by speaking about the Anthropic Principle. However, Smith misrepresents the Cosmological argument on page 236 by saying "Every existing thing has a cause." This isn't the Cosmological argument. It's a straw man. The argument is "Everything that begins to exist has a cause."
Smith fails to answer the question of the infinite regress. If time is a series of causes and effects, then how did we get to this effect? If there's an infinite past, then there was an infinite set of causes and effects completed. Now if we complete an infinite set, the Law of Noncontradiction has been violated because the set is no longer infinite.
Smith's answer is simply "Who created God?" The problem is that Smith doesn't realize that in the Christian view, time is a creation of God as well. The start of creation began with time. How can a being outside of time age, grow old, die or undergo change? The universe, on the other hand, is clearly within time so it is legitimate to ask it of the universe. Furthermore, if science is right with the Big Bang theory, then the universe is losing energy, and it has no place outside of itself to get it. (Unless Smith wants to posit the God he denies.) It's doubly interesting that Smith demands an explanation when on page 252 he says that not everything needs an explanation.
Smith again goes on to his ad annis argument on page 255 where he talks about primitive man. One wonders if Smith uses the geometry and philosophy of primitive man at all. Primitive man, in many ways, was quite brilliant in what he was capable of doing without modern technology.
Smith's argument against design is weak, and shoots itself in the foot when he asks "Who designed God?" First off, let's assume that God is complex. (Actually, if Smith wanted to know about God, he could have checked a tome on Systematic Theology and found that an attribute of God is simplicity, meaning he has no parts.) What if we say "God doesn't need a designer."
Smith could say "Complex things need designers." At that point, we have to ask who designed the complex universe. If he says "Okay, then complex things don't need designers", we can smile and say "Glad you agree. God doesn't need a designer either."
Smith uses the analogy of a man walking down the street, and a tile blows on him and kills him. Not enogh information is given about this scenario. What if this was New York City, and the street was busy, and people were always walking down it? Then, it's not unlikely that if a tile fell, it could hit someone and kill them.
Furthermore, Smith is talking about one improbablity. Suppose you were at an office that gave lottery tickets. A man came who had bought one ticket and hit the jackpot. An unlikely event, but it can happen. Suppose he comes the next week after buying one ticket and hits the jackpot. You're getting really suspicious. If this happens a third time, you'll definitely want an investigation. The more improbabilities you have, the more unlikely it is that all will happen. There are many things the anthropic principle has shown us. Each one makes it unlikely that it happened by chance.
As for the bad things he sees like earthquakes, if Smith would get a copy of a book such as "Rare Earth" or Lee Strobel's "The Case for the Creator," he'd actually see that there are reasons for plate tectonics, and one of the reasons there could be life here is that ours is the only planet we know of that has earthquakes.
Smith finally taks about the sins of Christianity including the doctrine of Hell. I must comment on this though I would recommend the writings of J.P. Moreland especially. (See question #6 of Lee Strobel's "Case for Faith" as well as the book Moreland co-authored with Gary Habermas "Immortality: The Other Side of Death.")
Smith paints the picture of a burning Hell. He neglects to mention that biblical conservatives like myself and Moreland and many others deny Hell as a fiery furnace. It's highly symbolic language. Furthermore, what would Smith have God do with wicked people? What can God do that will honor their humanity and choice and not treat them like objects? Quarantine. That's what Hell is. God leaves them alone.
Smith talks about the Christian hating pleasure. I have no idea what Bible he's reading. Did he neglect to read John 10:10 where Jesus said he came to give us abundant life.?Did he neglect to read 1 Tim. 6:17 where we are told God gives us all things richly for our enjoyment? Did he fail to see Song of Solomon where sexuality is written about in explicit terms? What of Psalm 104:15, where we are told how God blesses man and gives him wine to gladden him?
In fact, my greatest sermon I have preached, is a sermon I have on pleasure. I think pleasure is at the heart of Christian thinking. John Piper has said "The pursuit of pleasure is not optional. It is essential." One of my main problems with atheism and other non-Christian beliefs is, that they ultimately have a low view of pleasure.
In fact, G.K. Chesterton said he'd explain the problem of evil when he was explained the problem of pleasure. He can understand why we need food to survive, but why do we have to have taste buds that make food taste good? Why does water have to taste good. On the last point, I cannot speak from experience yet, but why does reproduction, a natural process, have to be so enjoyable, as Smith gladly notes?
And what of sex outside of marriage? How beautiful. Baby, I want you to take off all your clothes for me, and give me all you are. But, I don't want to make a commitment to you yet, because I'm not sure I can trust you. You think you can trust her? Then prove it and wait. Acting early would be saying you're not sure you can, so you're going to get what you can get now.
Smith also makes it seem that we obey God out of fear. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Naturally, if we have wronged God, there is something to fear. Would it be any other way? Would an all-good God allow evil to go unpunished? Smith cries against evil, but then complains when God punishes people. It makes no sense.
I obey God for the same reason I obey my parents. I love them. I don't want to do something that would hurt them. It's the same reason you don't cheat on your wife. It's not a divorce threat hanging over your head (or it shouldn't be), but it's just that you love her.
But what if Smith is wrong though and there is real guilt because a real command has been broken? The guilt I feel when I do something we all know is wrong does not seem make believe. Who will rid me of guilt? What can you do if you're guilty of guilt?
God has the answer and he can do it because he is a person. We can even speak analogically of him because of his personality. No, God is not a sadist wanting to cast people into Hell. 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Tim. 2:4 make this very clear. He wants all to come.
If God just left us with guilt, we would have a problem. We don't though. An escape has been made. God himself has provided. Examine the evidence. Use your reasoning. Find out if his claims are true. He invites you to. He says you will be rewarded if you seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
I would encourage it because frankly, I don't have enough faith to be an atheist.