Saturday, 28 June 2008

Vanquishing Atheism's Vanguard

I reviewed Vox Day's book The Irrational Atheist for Tekton Apologetics Ministries and the review has recently been uploaded. The Tekton rating system is a 1–3 thumbs down for negative reviews and 1–3 thumbs up for positive reviews (with no neutral option). I gave the book 2+ (ie. a 4 on a 0–5 scale)

The review is at Tektonics and I have reproduced it below.

Vanquishing Atheism's Vanguard

A Review of Vox Day's The Irrational Atheist

by Joel Bethyada

I had high expectations for this book. This concerned me somewhat as it increased the chances of being disappointed on reading it. Suffice it to say that it met my prior elevated expectations.

Vox is witty. He is both very clever and very funny. When you are laughing just reading the contents page you know it is going to be a good book.

What is useful in this foray into the New Atheist territory is that Vox lets them choose the battlefield and the weapons. And while Vox has no hesitancy in demolishing the arguments with his opponents' swords, he frequently just sharpens them before handing them back leaving the New Atheists to eviscerate themselves!

The first few chapters cover the ground rules. Subsequent chapters are devoted to various popular atheists exposing their foolishness or duplicity. Despite the subtitle (Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens), Vox also has chapters on Dennett and Onfray. That they are not referred to in the title is due to Vox's admiration of the former's honesty, despite his mistaken conclusions; and the consistency of the latter's position, albeit a horrifying one.

He then discusses objections to Christianity that have been raised by several of New Atheism's statesmen or are commonly used by contemporary atheists. Vox suggests that Hitler was neither Christian nor atheist, but likely pagan; briefly dismissing the genetic fallacy that Hitler was raised Christian by noting that so were Dawkins and Hitchens. The Inquisition is dismissed mentioning themes that have previously been raised by other apologists, and also making the astute observation the the precipitating cause had a higher body count than all the inquisitors over several centuries combined. He then covers the Crusades. And finally human sacrifice in religion suggesting that often times political subjection was a primary motivation over piety. I am less certain the ancients made as great a distinction from the spiritual as modern day secularism.

Following along the lines of the Christians-behaving-badly arguments, the tables are turned and the New Atheists are forced to answer for unprecedented mass murder of the more powerful atheists (and only atheists!) of the 20th century.

As a theological addendum, Vox takes on theodicy and determinism using analogy with computer games. The analogy is quite a useful one but because of some theological errors, minor equivocation and pushing the analogy further than it is capable of, this section, while interesting reading, is less compelling than the atheist trouncing.

The style is slightly difficult at times (but made up for in the humour); the arguments are reasonable to follow but some sentences take slow focused concentration or re-reading. Vox makes frequent reference to his vast knowledge of topics and persons and reading the electronic version may be preferable to allow quick searches on esoteric comments. (The electronic version is available free online).

The book's strengths include a offence approach—though perhaps a little aggressive, if one is going to take someone to task about minor mathematical errors he best be sure to make none himself—and arguing within the atheist paradigm. Weaknesses include allowing his opponents to label scientific that which is certainly not empirical evidence and better labelled historical, and the discussion of complexity where Vox fails to identify the real flaw in Dawkins' argument and his fractal designer rebuttal is incorrect.

Will this book affect persons on either side of the debate? I hope so. Certainly the more noble of the atheist crowd will ponder its conclusions and it may perhaps draw them away from the dogmatic assertion that "God is not." It will certainly encourage Christians who have thought the New Atheist arguments held water to realise they are hot air—if they can overlook any theological disagreements they have with the author. And for those who were already convinced of the New Atheist stupidity it certainly adds more ammunition to their armoury.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

The limits of God

God is unable to do any conceivable thing. There are things he is unable to do for a variety of reasons and I wish to categorise these.

One method of dividing up the actions that God is unable to perform results in 2 options: Actions that men (also) cannot do and actions men can do

Attributes of God are similarly categorised. Attributes of God that man can have to a degree are called communicable. Examples would be love or mercy. Attributes that God has and we do not are called non-communicable. An example would be omnipotence.

Actions that neither men nor God are able to perform belong to the category of logical impossibilities. These actions require breaking the law of non-contradiction. Asking God to both do and not do something in the same way at the same time is logically impossible. Asking God to both have an attribute and an attribute that contradicts it is logically impossible. God cannot make a rock too big to lift. God cannot be both unchangeable and changeable in the same manner.

There are also actions that humans are able to perform that God is not able to perform. This seems to solely relate to the realm of sin therefore they are actions that abuse a good; they create an evil. Evil is a distortion of an underlying good. Therefore God is unable to perform them because he would be doing evil. An example would be lying. Lying is a distortion of truth, truthfulness is an attribute of God. For God to lie would be a denial of his nature.

There is a subcategory of actions that men can do and God cannot that deserves mention. There are some actions that are limited to men because its definition excludes the possibility of applying to the divine. An example would be murder. This requires some explaining.

God and men can both kill humans. Killing is defined as removing a life. Now this can be allowed as in the case of war or capital punishment, disallowed as in the case of murder, or accidental (because we live in a fallen world) as in the case of manslaughter.

Murder is disallowed because it is the unwarranted removal of life. God created us and owns us. We must obey him and he has told us that we are not to murder, not to destroy the imago dei. This prohibition clearly is one that can only apply to men (and possibly angels). God cannot destroy life without his own permission. If God does destroy life it means he has permitted himself to. Therefore God is unable to murder because the definition of murder does not apply to deity. One could argue that it was at least theoretically possible for Jesus to murder during the incarnation if he took a life without the implied or express permission of the Father, though that takes us into another debate, perhaps for another time.

The limits of God
  • God cannot perform logical impossibilities.
  • God cannot sin.
  • God cannot do things defined in terms of men.
The limits of men
  • Man cannot perform logical impossibilities.
  • Men can sin.
The debate on the limits of God goes even deeper than this. When we say that God cannot sin the question arises whether God cannot do evil or will not do evil? Or even, can anything that God does be considered evil as he is the definition of good?

Further, even if God cannot sin as deity, it is possible that Jesus could as man even though he choose not to.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Health outcomes and inequality

A difficulty I have with socialist interpretation is their ideology is such that good outcomes are made to appear bad if they arise within capitalism. While they may claim their focus is different (equality), I have a hard time believing that socialists would abandon their political philosophy if history showed socialism was more wealth generating than the alternatives. Rather, the better living conditions would be evidenced that socialism is preferable to other systems.

If capitalism cannot be said to decrease wealth, attributing it blame for causing poverty can still be attempted.

An article evaluating the health system in Chile was published in April. It blames government policies for creating inequality in health care, and states that this causes
decreased solidarity between rich and poor.
While I disagree with the article, I will not do full justice to its subtleties here and it is best read to appreciate its point of view. Nevertheless, it apportions blame where there likely is little. It also seems to imply that had Chile not enacted its policies then the (perceived) negatives would have been avoided without having any significant effect on the positive outcomes of reform; a dubious claim.

Chileans have compulsory income contribution to health though they can choose public or private systems. A public system meant that all citizens had access to health care including the poor. The article gives examples of funds transferred from private to public which it views as inappropriate. This may be valid but without more detail I will reserve judgment. Other complaints include:
...access to care is somewhat equitable, but quality of care is not.

[Private] insurance policies for women of childbearing age may cost four times more than men's policies.

...adjusted mortality for the poorest decile is 6.0 out of 1,000, versus 4.8 for the richest.

[Private health care spends] ten times as much on administration per member and about two times as much on health care per member than [the public], even though [private] members are in better health and need less care.
But is this not to be expected?

In fact it is partially surprising that access to care is equitable. It is good that it is, but it is possible that things could be otherwise.

It is not surprising that quality is higher for a private system. It often times has more funds for this. All systems always have limits based on funding; if a private system has more funds it can do more tests, it can do more operations.

Policies for childbearing women will be more expensive. Men of that age have minimal health costs and therefore minimum premiums. Women have higher health costs due to childbirth. A health policy that excluded childbirth and related costs would be cheaper and possibly similar to men's. Do not insurance companies charge higher premiums to younger drivers as they have a higher risk? Anyway, if most women are married then the household costs for health care may be similar across families.

Mortality may be related to income even in countries which have predominantly public health, this may not be related at all to the private/ public differences; I will come back to this.

The paper complains about the money spent on administration and health care, yet notes this about the public system:
Access to specialists appeared deficient in the public service: there were waiting lists of up to four years in some specialties, such as ophthalmology.
Yet elsewhere claims the private system is inefficient. It may just be that prompt access requires a little more cash which the private system has. If the private system had waiting lists of 4 years despite more money then it is inefficient, but it doesn't.

And so enamoured with the state that anything that "sounds" like a private monopoly is bad.
Some [private] companies are in an oligopoly position: the main three firms share close to 80% of the market.
But government monopolies are good and could never be the source of inefficiency.
A logical recommendation for a health system counter-reform in Chile would be to move from a multi-insurer scheme to a single public insurer scheme, as in Costa Rica.
Despite all these claims in the discussion the authors are forced to admit,
Chile's health indicators are good, compared with countries with a similar gross national product, such as Colombia and Argentina. These results are due in part to Chile's high economic growth rate and a spectacular reduction in poverty. Further significant factors are the high proportion of the population with access to drinking water and sanitation, and the high adult literacy rate and education level.
They claim this is as the result of public policy:
But relatively equitable access to health care, mainly through public health insurance and public health services, which cover 80% of the population, played a major role in this achievement, as did maternity and child health protection programmes implemented through the public health network.
Presumably the achievement they are talking about is health indicators; not economic growth, reduction in poverty, water, sanitation, literacy. But of what evidence? Health outcomes on a population basis are better correlated to these latter issues than to individual procedures on sick individuals. As important as hospitals are it is unlikely they make nearly the same impact on life expectancy as more basic provisions and decrease in poverty.

And this is where the issue lies. If economic policy is to minimise government expenditure because that leads to economic growth, then this economic growth may be what has made the difference. Who cares how much people spend on private health care? It is a private expenditure. It is less money for the government to outlay which leaves more money in the hands of the producers. If the producers then create wealth, what does it matter that some of it is spent on health? Even if only 25% of the population contribute to the private system, that is still a large number of people the government no longer needs to pay for.

The bigger issues are:
  1. Are the poor worse off than before?
  2. Is the number of poor persons less than previously?
If the poor are no worse off (or even better off) and the middle class has grown as the lower class rises out of poverty then what is not to like? These are good outcomes.

To complain there is more inequality because not everyone has yet escaped poverty and some are excessively rich is a politic of envy. Yes the rich man has an individual responsibility to care for his poor neighbour, but income inequality is not a bad in and of itself. Oppressing the poor to become rich causes inequality but it is the injustice of oppression that is wrong.

It seems to me that socialists want equality of outcome so much that it is better that all live in abject squalor than most have a modest income, if that modest income means an associated variable income.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Random quote

Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.

Karl Popper (1902–1994)

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The long-suffering of God

The time of the judges is an interesting period. God intends to lead Israel by men he raises up. Though he commands the Israelites to obey him, frequently they don't and God removes his protection and allows evil men (of which there is no shortage in the world) to oppress them. We see them following God in the time of Joshua but depart soon after his death and several times again even though God delivers them thru Othniel, Ehud and Barak.

We reach a period when the Israelites again choose disobedience:
The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the LORD and did not serve him. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the people of Israel that year. For eighteen years they oppressed all the people of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. And the Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was severely distressed. (Judges 10)
It is in their distress that they cried out to the Lord,
"We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals." (Judges 10)
I find this response of God interesting. God said,
"Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress."
God says enough! He has delivered Israel repeatedly, he will do so no more. And if Israel continues in her idolatry then let her ask for help from the false gods she clings to.

This example of wearing out God's patience is reminiscent of God's words to Moses when the Israelites made a golden calf shortly after God delivered them from Egypt:
And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you." (Exodus 32)
After rejecting God, God rejects them. In the first he would have destroyed Israel had not Moses interceded for them. In the second he tells Israel that he has delivered them several times already and he is thru.

Nevertheless, the Israelites acknowledged their sin, acknowledged God was right, accepted God's judgment on the matter, stopped their idolatry, and again requested deliverance. They would have worn out my patience, yet God remains ever merciful and kind. After the Israelites' repentance in word and deed God...
became impatient over the misery of Israel (Judges 10)
And again God raises up a deliverer for Israel!

These passages tell us much about the patience and grace of God and it gives us much hope that even those who reject God continually may not be beyond his redemption. But we would do well not to presume on his grace. Some have rejected God and are then only useful for God to show his glory thru his righteous wrath, such as God's judgment on the Egyptians. Proverbs warns:
He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck,/
will suddenly be broken beyond healing. (Proverbs 29)
We do not know the length of our days. None of us deserves life. God is not compelled to save us. These stories give hope for the sinner contemplating repentance but leave no room for presumption.


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