What I Don’t Like About the Hobby Lobby Case

By now you have heard the SCOTUS ruling regarding Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that compelling employers to pay for certain forms of contraception is burdensome to their religious liberty. When outlining these burdens, Justice Alito said, “It [the HHS mandate] requires the Hahns and Greens to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.” The problem I’ve had all along with this case is that I fail to see how life beginning at conception is a “religious belief.” What makes it religious? Nothing as far as I can tell. No biblical text, or major creed, or longstanding sacred practice claims as much (the Bible recognizes that we exist before birth, but it does not say we exist at conception). You don’t even find this sort of thing in “statements of faith” save the Catholic Catechism, and the plaintiffs were not Catholic. If anything, whether or not life begins at conception is empirically determined. Why, then, is it counted as a religious belief?

Of course, there is more to it than just the beginning of human existence. For the plaintiffs, the belief that human life begins at conception implies that human life has moral status and should not be killed unless there is a good reason for doing so. Thus, we have a conjunction of beliefs at issue in this case: (1) human life begins at conception, and (2) human life has moral status. But the second one is no more religious than the first: one can reasonably hold it without being religious. There is even a third implied belief: killing early-stage human beings by virtue of birth control that is possibly abortifacient isn’t justifiable. Religious teaching may be the most relevant here, but like the other three beliefs, it need not be.

The Hobbly Lobby case is seen as a victory for religious liberty, and it surely is. But I doubt that it is a victory for the pro-life movement, because its key premises are judged merely to be “sincerely held religious beliefs,” which in the eyes of law at least, are beliefs that cannot be rationally supported. If they could, then we wouldn’t need to appeal to religion to prop them up.

Middle Knowledge and Arminianism Are Compatible: A Response to Roger Olson

What exactly is the problem that Roger Olson has with Molinism? Answer: it collapses into determinism. But it isn’t clear what he means by “determinism.” His concept is ambiguous, and he seems to acknowledge this when he says, “if middle knowledge does not imply determinism, it does convey that [our] lives are predetermined.” So there seems to be two senses of what he means for something to be (pre)determined: one is with respect to being causally necessitated to act; the second is with respect to being fated to act according to some preordained plan. In Olson’s mind, the distinction makes no difference, because both senses are sufficient for what he finds problematic with middle knowledge: God is able to use it to render our actions certain. Once God does that, he says, “then determinism is at the door if not in the living room and that is inconsistent with Arminianism’s basic impulses.”

How should Molinists reply? First, they should deny that middle knowledge entails both causal determinism and theological fatalism. Second, they should argue that the property of being rendered certain is not problematic if the objects of God’s knowledge, that is, the propositions about what free creatures would do in various worlds, are grounded by what free creatures would do. Third, they should maintain that God’s use of middle knowledge is benevolent, because God is benevolent. Let us turn to the first matter.

Continue reading

Tim O’Connor on the Libet Experiment

Does neuroscientific findings eliminate free will? Some think so based on an experiment by Benjamin Libet that revealed evidence of neural activity linked to volitional acts before they were consciously felt by the subject. Here is a video explaining how the experiment works:

Timothy O’Connor (Indiana University) offers some criticisms of the inference that the experiment shows we have no free will:

For more on neuroscience and the soul check out Biola’s Center for Christian Thought.

Against “the Right to Die” in less than 100 words

Saw this on Leiter Reports, and thought it was worth reproducing here. From the Economist:

SIR – Another argument against assisted suicide is that there are times when giving someone a choice actually harms them. This happens in a case where an unchosen default is preferable to having a choice. Some ethicists, such as David Velleman at New York University, argue that giving the very ill the choice to commit suicide easily and legally harms all ill people by taking from them the option of continuing to live by default.

We expect human beings to provide reasons for their choices. So by requiring ill people to choose to live rather than just living by default such policies require them to justify their continued existence in a way that healthy people are not required to do.

You can read Prof. Velleman’s paper here.

Also, for those interested in this subject (as I am), Frontline has some (sypathetic) pieces on the subject, an older one called The Suicide Tourist and a new one called The Suicide Plan.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

That’s the title of a HuffPo article by Shane Claiborne who suggests that it is time “we declare that violence is evil, everywhere — period.” But I’m not interested in what Claiborne has to say, and am more interested in the slogan used to title his piece: the myth of redemptive violence. That’s the sort of thing you here people say they don’t believe in. But what does it mean, exactly?

One way of answering the question is that violence is the means by which the forces of evil and chaos are vanquished or that salvation comes through exacting vengeance on those who threaten it. Thus to deny “redemptive violence” is to deny that violence is the means by which peace, shalom, utopia, or the kingdom of God is brought about. If taken in this ultimate sense, then I can agree.

Nonetheless, one doesn’t have to be committed to “redemptive violence” to believe in “protective violence.” It seems to be an obvious truth that there is a moral difference between:

  • [A] Those who use violence towards others for violence’s sake.


  • [B] Those who use violence to protect others from those who use violence towards others for violence’s sake.

A pacifist who thinks violence is always and everywhere evil fails to make this distinction, which has always been problematic for their position. If A and B are not on the same moral plane, then some contrived “dirty hands” ethic is invoked to save appearances. But how plausible is that when trying to distinguish between a rapist and one who physically subdues and restrains the rapist? The pacifist is, at least, committed to the claim that he or she inhabits some moral plane (the plane of non-violence?) that is supposedly over and the above the rapist AND the one who restrains the rapist, but that’s just absurd. What can be said in favor of such a position, I do not know.

Perhaps the pacifist will make a distinction between the use of “force” and the use of “violence,” and argue that the one who restrains the rapist doesn’t really engage in violence. But this has always struck me as a distinction without difference, especially if violence is just a name we give to a set of actions that are used to harm others. Even if “force” is just a name for a subset actions that harm others to a lesser degree, they are still such that they harm others. And such actions, we are told, are always evil? I find that hard to believe.

Calvinists on Hell and the Fate of Everyone Who Ever Lives

I don’t know how Calvinists do it. Like many bloggers Justin Taylor posted an obituary of Steve Jobs. Unlike many bloggers, he receives comments. Not three comments in, the post got this one:

I am saddened by Jobs’ passing. My prayers are with his family and friends. I don’t mean for this to be insensitive, but why would those who believe in the concept of God’s sovereign saving grace have any “hope” one way or the other that Jobs found rest in it? Wouldn’t they just want God to carry out His salvific desires in whatever way HE sees fit?

“Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”

if God decided to NOT impart Jobs with His sovereign saving grace (he didn’t appear outwardly a believer), this only magnifies the grace that the elect receive: “that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory.”

For the Calvinist struggling to make sense of God’s attitudes towards the non-Christian who passes away, the pastoral response is precisely the one Taylor gives:

Good question. We ultimately submit to God’s sovereign, secret will (God will have mercy on whom he has mercy). But it’s entirely appropriate to pray and labor and hope for the manifestation of God’s revealed will (God desires all to be saved, is not wishing for any to perish, takes no pleasure in death, etc.).

As for me, I have never been able to make sense of this "secret/revealed’ distinction concerning God’s will, because the "secret will" doesn’t seem to be so much of a secret. It seems as though this so-called "secret" will is partly revealed as the (Calvinistic) quotations from Romans 9 make evident. Since it is revealed, it seems to undermine the appropriateness hoping for the attitudes of God in the so-called "revealed will" (everyone being saved, and so forth) to be fully realized. A comment from someone named Bill brings this up:

Justin, your words about our response to the secret and the revealed will of God make some sense of our attitude in this present life, but this is because of our limited perspective and our lack of sanctification. As Reformed theologian John Gerstner says about heaven,” When you go to heaven, you’ll be so sanctified that you’ll be able to look down into hell and see your friend there and rejoice that he’s there.” R.C. Sproul says that in our present unsanctified state our concerns are more in line with those who are in rebellion against God but when we are finally sanctified our desires will be more aligned with the glory of God.

It is no wonder that people like Rob Bell write the kinds of books he writes when Christians seriously entertain ideas that make the eternal torment of friends look like something to take pleasure in. At any rate, I offered my two cents on this sort of thought in the following argument:

[1] If we conform our attitudes to God’s attitudes, then we make progress in sanctification. (premise)

[2] God’s attitude towards the death of the wicked is pleasure and joy. (premise for reductio)

[3] If our attitude towards the death of the wicked is pleasure and joy, then we make progress in sanctification. [1 and 2]

[4] Yet God does not take pleasure or joy at the death of the wicked (Ez. 18:23) (factual premise)

Therefore, if our attitude towards the death of the wicked is pleasure and joy, then we do not make progress in sanctification.

I suppose [4] is where things are going to be disputed, but even most Calvinists I’ve read seem to agree that such is the case. If not, then hyper-Calvinism is not far off. And I am not sure the two-wills of God strategy is strong enough to explain how it is not the case that [2] and [4] stand in contradiction.

Christopher Kaczor on the “Violinist” Argument

Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “A Defense of Abortion” presents a profoundly influential argument that draws a distinction between possessing the right to life and the right to life support. The argument is famous for its images and colorful thought experiments. Consider:

    You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

Most of us think the director of the hospital is wrong to appropriate another human being’s body for the sake of keeping another person alive, and that the individual in the thought experiment has the right to “unplug” from the violinist. Thompson, however, acknowledges that the right to “unplug” does not entail the right “to secure the death of the unborn child.” The problem is compounded by the acts of violence that abortion entails. In his new book against abortion, Christopher Kaczor makes the thought experiment more colorful:

    Consider the violinist analogy again, with the “unplugging” replaced by the means of freeing yourself from the violinist that impinges on his bodily integrity and includes his death. Imagine for instance that you are to separate yourself from the violinist by poisoning him or taking an ax to his body or by tearing him limb from limb or by putting through an incredibly powerful suction machine (akin to a jet engine, say) that would leave him in recognizable pieces on the other side. If we were to separate ourselves from the violinist by any of these means things begin to look a bit different.

Read the whole thing.

[cross-posted at The Biconditional Blog]

Marriage Better for Blacks Under Slavery than Obama?

Was a child born into slavery in 1860 more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President? Apparently, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum think so as they are both signatories of a document called The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence upon Marriage and Family. The message is not to go back to slavery, of course, but to say that if we thought things were bad for marriage then, they are worse now.

However, is there any truth to this claim? The study they cite doesn’t have any figures about the marriage rates or family dynamics of black slaves in 1860. The earliest I could find were figures from 1880. What’s worse is that the study says this:

Ultimately, these problems likely have deep roots in the unique, sometimes traumatic, historical experience of the African American community. Orlando Patterson has eloquently argued that slavery and Jim Crow scarred male-female relations among African Americansin ways that continue to shape current marriages — particularly in the ways that slavery denuded Black men of their proper role as husbands and fathers, fostered promiscuity, and wove violence and domination into the fabric of male-female sexual relations among Blacks (and interracial relationships). This cultural legacy, and the unique sex ratio of African Americans, may help explain why studies suggest that infidelity, domestic violence, and mistrust of the opposite sex are particularly salient problems in the African American world, even after taking into account the effects of economic factors. In Patterson’s words, “The nation as a whole, and Afro-Americans in particular are still paying the ethnocidal price of slavery and the neo-dulotic Jim Crow system.” (p. 45)

There may be good reasons to formulate a document declaring human dependence on marriage as it is a family-producing institution. How we are nurtured in childhood affects how we behave as adults, which makes the quality of marriage an interest to the state. Marriage has been treated far too lightly in our culture today. However, there is no good reason to make the kind of assertion above in its defense. Apart from being associated with a pro-slavery-style narrative that envisages blacks better off under slavery, it is patently false. The causes of marital fracture in the African American community are complex and tragic. To understand them takes a nuanced analysis that is sensitive to historical evidence. Cherry-picking data and making specious inferences to score cheap political points (that have ironically backfired) doesn’t help anyone.

For more on what family life was like for a slave see Putting an Antebellum Myth to Rest.

Chinese Parenting and the Good Life

Amy Chau has written a much discussed article claiming that Chinese parents [read: parents who really push their kids] are superior to Western parents [those that allow them to follow their passions]. The reasons for this are not so clear; at least not as clear as the differences between her parenting style and her neighbor’s. By the end of the article she says,

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

I have had some exposure to this since I study alongside a lot of Korean students who feel the academic pressure to perform well. A Korean friend of mine was raised by a single mom in a Korean church and ipso facto was the odd-man out. Since there wasn’t a per-ordained code of family honor and reputation to uphold, she decided to go against the grain and let him do what he wanted. Interestingly enough, he competed with his fellow classmates just fine, and graduated from UCLA, a hallmark of success in his community. However, because he never felt the pressure to fit the mold and felt at liberty to leave his career in engineering and pursue his MDiv. He is now a pastor in a Korean church and almost all of his counseling sessions are filled with high schoolers confessing frustration with their parents. So all that is to say, I think Chau paints a one-side, rosy picture that is hard to take seriously.

But there is something I find admirable about it though. Most Asian parents really do believe their kids are strong while Americans often believe their kids are fragile. I think this is because the West has inherited a Freudian psychology that is preoccupied with wounds inevitably inflicted by caregivers in early childhood development that just isn’t shared by our Asian neighbors. That doesn’t mean Freud was wrong, or that Asian parents could learn a thing or two from our model. Both cultures can learn from one another it seems. One values training for the future and the other values personal liberty. Still, something seems to be lacking in these values

This brings me back to parental ethics and the stewardship model as popularized by Mike Austin. In this view, parents have been entrusted with a child’s upbringing and are under the obligation to invest wisely in the formation of a good and responsible future adult. On the surface, this model does not have anything negative to say about the way Asian parents “do” parenting. It might even seem to be vindicated since it is concerned about the child’s future success, and it seems to produce such good results. But this depends on how we conceive of the “end” in this end-directed model. We might be able to say that fully grown Asian children are productive members of society, but still ask whether they are truly living good lives. This is a more open question if their family relations are strained under the burden of honor/shame codes that often conceive of love in highly conditional terms.

In response to the article I would much rather have a child grow up into a life that exemplifies character qualities like intellectual virtue, faith, hope, love, humility, forgiveness, patience, compassion, and frugality. Such virtues are truly a part of a flourishing life. Getting into a good university with mad math skills on a music scholarship is trite in comparison.Those things don’t matter as much the “first things,” yet they seems to be all-important to many Asian parents according to what my Korean pastor friend tells me. I am thankful he has these virtues instead of the status, and I think he is too.

The Suicide Tourist

The other night Frontline aired a disturbing documentary titled The Suicide Tourist that follows the journey of Craig Ewert to Zurich, Switzerland where he seeks out the services of a company that is in the business of assisting in “death with dignity.” There is little in the documentary that is new in the way of argument for or against Ewert’s actions. What is new is the unprecedented access to the intimate details of the story all the way up to the life-ending act that is unflinchingly captured on film.

As a piece of journalism it does do its best to remain objective, though it is easy to believe that the filmmakers were sympathetic to the autonomy expressed in Ewert’s assertion that he has “the right to die.” Still, it is free from excessive narration and allows the viewer to observe and make his or her own judgments.

I began by saying that the film is disturbing, and it is. Much of the discussion at the PBS website, to my great surprise, has commented on how “courageous” and “brave” Ewert was in making his decision, and how his death was beautifully portrayed. I had the opposite reaction. I thought Ewert came across as a pathetic figure, not because of his suffering or the fact that was deteriorating from ALS, but because he was so utterly hopeless. He had nothing to look forward to except “death or suffering and death” as he despondently remarks. His hope to no longer exist simply does not add up to “courage” or “bravery” in the usual sense, and if one thinks that living well entails dying well I am not sure this is an example anyone would want to look to for guidance.

However, the film has its moments of mercy. Craig and his wife Mary still share laughter, enjoy walks in the park, smelling fresh air, conversing, and have tender moments of physical affection. Throughout the film we are told that Craig felt as though his life was lost when he received his diagnosis. We are left with impression that the road to Zurich is chosen as if it were the next logical step like a drive to a morgue after life expires. But of course, that is false. Shortly after Craig’s death Mary reflects on the fact that though they both believed his life ended when they learned of his terminal condition, she still very much enjoyed his life up until his final moments. The contradiction within this arbitrary blurring of life and death is one that rests uneasily in her words as she fights back tears. She assures us she has already grieved his death (at diagnosis), but quietly manifests a grief that has already begun.

In the end, I am left cold feeling despair over how the story comes to a conclusion. Truly, there is nothing to laugh at when considering living with a degenerative disease like ALS. In a sense, Craig does bravely go through with his act while he is evidently frightened of death. He is not sure what awaits him. He believes that there will be nothing, but he does not know for sure. He hopes that it will be peaceful… but perhaps not.

The issue of assisted suicide is a hot legal issue, but more profoundly it represents the tip of the iceberg of serious worldview issues. Those that are religious and who hold a hope out for the resurrection are less likely to view life and death the way Craig does. Craig’s story is one of those dramas caused by a worldview that calls for the end of life if it is deemed unworthy of life, instead of one that truly redeems a person from suffering by the power of God to raise the dead. And in that there is not much else but the hope to die well.