The Meaning of the Koran

Test your religious literacy:

Which sacred text says that Jesus is the “word” of God? a) the Gospel of John; b) the Book of Isaiah; c) the Koran.

The correct answer is the Koran. But if you guessed the Gospel of John you get partial credit because its opening passage — “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God” — is an implicit reference to Jesus. In fact, when Muhammad described Jesus as God’s word, he was no doubt aware that he was affirming Christian teaching.

Extra-credit question: Which sacred text has this to say about the Hebrews: God, in his “prescience,” chose “the children of Israel … above all peoples”? I won’t bother to list the choices, since you’ve probably caught onto my game by now; that line, too, is in the Koran.

I highlight these passages in part for the sake of any self-appointed guardians of Judeo-Christian civilization who might still harbor plans to burn the Koran. I want them to be aware of everything that would go up in smoke.

But I should concede that I haven’t told the whole story. Even while calling Jesus the word of God — and “the Messiah” — the Koran denies that he was the son of God or was himself divine. And, though the Koran does call the Jews God’s chosen people, and sings the praises of Moses, and says that Jews and Muslims worship the same God, it also has anti-Jewish, and for that matter anti-Christian, passages. 

This darker side of the Koran, presumably, has already come to the attention of would-be Koran burners and, more broadly, to many of the anti-Muslim Americans whom cynical politicians like Newt Gingrich are trying to harness and multiply. The other side of the Koran — the part that stresses interfaith harmony — is better known in liberal circles.

As for people who are familiar with both sides of the Koran — people who know the whole story — well, there may not be many of them. It’s characteristic of contemporary political discourse that the whole story doesn’t come to the attention of many people.

Thus, there are liberals who say that “jihad” refers to a person’s internal struggle to do what is right. And that’s true. There are conservatives who say “jihad” refers to military struggle. That’s true, too. But few people get the whole picture, which, actually, can be summarized pretty concisely:

Reading the scripture.

Reading the scripture.

The Koran’s exhortations to jihad in the military sense are sometimes brutal in tone but are so hedged by qualifiers that Muhammad clearly doesn’t espouse perpetual war against unbelievers, and is open to peace with them. (Here, for example, is my exegesis of the “sword verse,” the most famous jihadist passage in the Koran.) The formal doctrine of military jihad — which isn’t found in the Koran, and evolved only after Muhammad’s death — does seem to have initially been about endless conquest, but was then subject to so much amendment and re-interpretation as to render it compatible with world peace. Meanwhile, in the hadith — the non-Koranic sayings of the Prophet — the tradition arose that Muhammad had called holy war the “lesser jihad” and said that the “greater jihad” was the struggle against animal impulses within each Muslim’s soul.

Why do people tend to hear only one side of the story? A common explanation is that the digital age makes it easy to wall yourself off from inconvenient data, to spend your time in ideological “cocoons,” to hang out at blogs where you are part of a choir that gets preached to.

Makes sense to me. But, however big a role the Internet plays, it’s just amplifying something human: a tendency to latch onto evidence consistent with your worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence.

This side of human nature is generally labeled a bad thing, and it’s true that it sponsors a lot of bigotry, strife and war. But it actually has its upside. It means that the regrettable parts of the Koran — the regrettable parts of any religious scripture — don’t have to matter.

After all, the adherents of a given religion, like everyone else, focus on things that confirm their attitudes and ignore things that don’t. And they carry that tunnel vision into their own scripture; if there is hatred in their hearts, they’ll fasten onto the hateful parts of scripture, but if there’s not, they won’t. That’s why American Muslims of good will can describe Islam simply as a religion of love. They see the good parts of scripture, and either don’t see the bad or have ways of minimizing it.

So too with people who see in the Bible a loving and infinitely good God. They can maintain that view only by ignoring or downplaying parts of their scripture.

For example, there are those passages where God hands out the death sentence to infidels. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told to commit genocide — to destroy nearby peoples who worship the wrong Gods, and to make sure to kill all men, women and children. (“You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.”)

As for the New Testament, there’s that moment when Jesus calls a woman and her daughter “dogs” because they aren’t from Israel. In a way that’s the opposite of anti-Semitism — but not in a good way. And speaking of anti-Semitism, the New Testament, like the Koran, has some unflattering things to say about Jews.

Devoted Bible readers who aren’t hateful ignore or downplay all these passages rather than take them as guidance. They put to good use the tunnel vision that is part of human nature.

All the Abrahamic scriptures have all kinds of meanings — good and bad — and the question is which meanings will be activated and which will be inert. It all depends on what attitude believers bring to the text. So whenever we do things that influence the attitudes of believers, we shape the living meaning of their scriptures. In this sense, it’s actually within the power of non-Muslim Americans to help determine the meaning of the Koran. If we want its meaning to be as benign as possible, I recommend that we not talk about burning it. And if we want imams to fill mosques with messages of brotherly love, I recommend that we not tell them where they can and can’t build their mosques.

Of course, the street runs both ways. Muslims can influence the attitudes of Christians and Jews and hence the meanings of their texts. The less threatening that Muslims seem, the more welcoming Christians and Jews will be, and the more benign Christianity and Judaism will be. (A good first step would be to bring more Americans into contact with some of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are in fact not threatening.)

You can even imagine a kind of virtuous circle: the less menacing each side seems, the less menacing the other side becomes — which in turn makes the first side less menacing still, and so on; the meaning of the Abrahamic scriptures would, in a real sense, get better and better and better.

Lately, it seems, things have been moving in the opposite direction; the circle has been getting vicious. And it’s in the nature of vicious circles that they’re hard to stop, much less reverse. On the other hand, if, through the concerted effort of people of good will, you do reverse a vicious circle, the very momentum that sustained it can build in the other direction — and at that point the force will be with you.

Postscript: The quotations of the Koran come from Sura 4:171 (where Jesus is called God’s word), and Sura 44:32 (where the “children of Israel” are lauded). I’ve used the Rodwell translation, but the only place the choice of translator matters is the part that says God presciently placed the children of Israel above all others. Other translations say “purposefully,” or “knowingly.”  By the way, if you’re curious as to the reason for the Koran’s seeming ambivalence toward Christians and Jews:

By my reading, the Koran is to a large extent the record of Muhammad’s attempt to bring all the area’s Christians, Jews and Arab polytheists into his Abrahamic flock, and it reflects, in turns, both his bitter disappointment at failing to do so and the many theological and ritual overtures he had made along the way. (For a time Muslims celebrated Yom Kippur, and they initially prayed toward Jerusalem, not Mecca.) That the suras aren’t ordered chronologically obscures this underlying logic.

Robert Wright, New York Times


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Beyond the Beatification of Cardinal Newman

Pope Benedict’s trip to England is an outreach for reunion, too.

This month Pope Benedict XVI will travel to England for an unprecedented state visit to the United Kingdom, meeting with the Queen at Balmoral Castle and giving an address to Parliament. The occasion for this historic event, however, is not church or international politics—although political issues will doubtless be touched upon—but the beatification (the penultimate step towards sainthood) of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman, whose long life spanned most of the 19th century, was perhaps the greatest religious figure of the last 200 years of British history. Converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism at the age of 44, he wrote cogently and beautifully under both religious affiliations, and was a lightning rod in the passionately argued religious controversies of his time, such as infallibility of the Pope or the legitimacy of Anglicanism as the state church.

Valuing his religious influences as a thinker and evangelizer of the highest caliber, Pope Benedict has made an exception of his thus-far universal practice of not participating in beatification ceremonies. Hence his trip to Great Britain.

En route to this honor were the standard ecclesial steps: the examination of Newman’s life and writings; a declaration that he had lived a life of extraordinary virtue; and official approval by doctors and theologians of a miraculous cure after prayers that Newman would intercede with God on the sufferer’s behalf.

The miracle in question holds special interest for Americans, being the recovery in 2001 from a debilitating back condition of the Massachusetts lawyer and deacon Jack Sullivan. His cure was a very modern “media miracle” provoked by a series on Newman on EWTN, Mother Angelica’s Catholic broadcasting network. At the end of each episode, a prayer card for Newman was displayed on the screen. Mr. Sullivan prayed for the long-dead cardinal’s intercession before God for a cure. The rest (following rigorous medical and ecclesial examination) is now history.

Although Newman was a devout and humble man of great personal warmth and sensitivity, it is difficult to think of him apart from his public career. The author of seminal books of theology and philosophy, such as “The Development of Doctrine” and “A Grammar of Assent,” he also dashed off the greatest autobiography in English, “Apologia pro Vita Sua” (a media sensation in his time), in a matter of weeks after personal attacks on his honesty.

Newman’s experience in helping found what is today the University College of Dublin inspired his extended argument for a classical liberal education, “The Idea of a University.” He also wrote novels of religious conversion and hymns still sung in both Protestant and Catholic churches, such as “Lead, Kindly Light.”

He also won early (and continuing) renown as a brilliant preacher. The atheist novelist George Eliot memorized the whole of one of them, “The Second Spring,” and would recite it at the drop of a hat at private salons.

As a young and ardent Anglican priest, Newman and like-minded others originated the “Oxford Movement” in an attempt to revive the ancient doctrines and zeal for the “old religion” in an increasingly liberalizing Anglican Church. From the early 1830s up to his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, Newman battled the yielding spirit of Anglican toleration for indifferentism, which manifested itself in the belief that one religion was as good as another.

When his arguments were rejected by his Anglican superiors and he came to believe that his continued membership in the Church of England separated him from what he had now come to regard as the true Church, he converted to Catholicism and was ordained in Rome. Returning to England, he settled in Birmingham, where he founded the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, from which came the famous Brompton Oratory in London.

Newman died in 1890 popularly considered a saint. Over a century later, the Church is vindicating this judgment of the people of the U.K. and the whole English-speaking world. Pope Benedict’s decision to preside over Newman’s beatification reflects his love and respect for a fellow theologian whose work he has studied from his seminary days, and whose influence on the Second Vatican Council made him perhaps the most influential theologian on the council, even though it was meeting more than 70 years after his death.

Yet what is most intriguing about Benedict’s upcoming visit to England is its ecumenical significance. Pope Benedict has established very cordial relationships with Orthodox patriarchs and bishops (a long-held ambition of his predecessor John Paul II as well). At the same time, he has made a remarkable and controversial offer to members of the Anglican Communion throughout the world to be received into the Church, singly or in whole congregations, bringing with them their liturgical traditions and even their pastors and bishops, if those clergymen were properly received into the Catholic Church.

If Pope Benedict’s outreach meets with even limited success, perhaps tens of millions of fervent Evangelical and Pentecostal “Bible” Christians may want to reexamine more closely this ancient Church as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation draws near in 2017. The mutual momentum towards reunion may be irresistible.

Rev. McCloskey is a Church historian from Washington, D.C.


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Mystery and Evidence

There is a story about Bertrand Russell giving a public lecture somewhere or other, defending his atheism. A furious woman stood up at the end of the lecture and asked: “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied: “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’ ”

This is a very natural way for atheists to react to religious claims: to ask for evidence, and reject these claims in the absence of it. Many of the several hundred comments that followed two earlier Stone posts “Philosophy and Faith” and “On Dawkins’s Atheism: A Response,” both by Gary Gutting, took this stance. Certainly this is the way that today’s “new atheists”  tend to approach religion. According to their view, religions — by this they mean basically Christianity, Judaism and Islam and I will follow them in this — are largely in the business of making claims about the universe that are a bit like scientific hypotheses. In other words, they are claims — like the claim that God created the world — that are supported by evidence, that are proved by arguments and tested against our experience of the world. And against the evidence, these hypotheses do not seem to fare well.

But is this the right way to think about religion? Here I want to suggest that it is not, and to try and locate what seem to me some significant differences between science and religion.

To begin with, scientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability. No-one can understand quantum theory — by any account, the most successful physical theory there has ever been — unless they grasp the underlying mathematics. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves.

Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical. (I’m talking here about the content of what people who regularly attend church, mosque or synagogue take themselves to be thinking; I’m not talking about how theologians interpret this content.)

What is more, while religious belief is widespread, scientific knowledge is not. I would guess that very few people in the world are actually interested in the details of contemporary scientific theories. Why? One obvious reason is that many lack access to this knowledge. Another reason is that even when they have access, these theories require sophisticated knowledge and abilities, which not everyone is capable of getting.

Yet another reason — and the one I am interested in here — is that most people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it. Of course, educated people who know about science know roughly what Einstein, Newton and Darwin said. Many educated people accept the modern scientific view of the world and understand its main outlines. But this is not the same as being interested in the details of science, or being immersed in scientific thinking. 

This lack of interest in science contrasts sharply with the worldwide interest in religion. It’s hard to say whether religion is in decline or growing, partly because it’s hard to identify only one thing as religion — not a question I can address here. But it’s pretty obvious that whatever it is, religion commands and absorbs the passions and intellects of hundreds of millions of people, many more people than science does. Why is this? Is it because — as the new atheists might argue — they want to explain the world in a scientific kind of way, but since they have not been properly educated they haven’t quite got there yet? Or is it because so many people are incurably irrational and are incapable of scientific thinking? Or is something else going on?

Some philosophers have said that religion is so unlike science that it has its own “grammar” or “logic” and should not be held accountable to the same standards as scientific or ordinary empirical belief. When Christians express their belief that “Christ has risen,” for example, they should not be taken as making a factual claim, but as expressing their commitment to what Wittgenstein called a certain “form of life,” a way of seeing significance in the world, a moral and practical outlook which is worlds away from scientific explanation.

This view has some merits, as we shall see, but it grossly misrepresents some central phenomena of religion. It is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims. When Saint Paul says “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” he is saying that the point of his faith depends on a certain historical occurrence.

Theologians will debate exactly what it means to claim that Christ has risen, what exactly the meaning and significance of this occurrence is, and will give more or less sophisticated accounts of it. But all I am saying is that whatever its specific nature, Christians must hold that there was such an occurrence. Christianity does make factual, historical claims. But this is not the same as being a kind of proto-science. This will become clear if we reflect a bit on what science involves.

The essence of science involves making hypotheses about the causes and natures of things, in order to explain the phenomena we observe around us, and to predict their future behavior. Some sciences — medical science, for example — make hypotheses about the causes of diseases and test them by intervening. Others — cosmology, for example — make hypotheses that are more remote from everyday causes, and involve a high level of mathematical abstraction and idealization. Scientific reasoning involves an obligation to hold a hypothesis only to the extent that the evidence requires it. Scientists should not accept hypotheses which are “ad hoc” — that is, just tailored for one specific situation but cannot be generalized to others. Most scientific theories involve some kind of generalization: they don’t just make claims about one thing, but about things of a general kind. And their hypotheses are designed, on the whole, to make predictions; and if these predictions don’t come out true, then this is something for the scientists to worry about. 

Religions do not construct hypotheses in this sense. I said above that Christianity rests upon certain historical claims, like the claim of the resurrection. But this is not enough to make scientific hypotheses central to Christianity, any more than it makes such hypotheses central to history. It is true, as I have just said, that Christianity does place certain historical events at the heart of their conception of the world, and to that extent, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes that these events happened. Speaking for myself, it is because I reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that I consider myself an atheist. But I do not reject these claims because I think they are bad hypotheses in the scientific sense. Not all factual claims are scientific hypotheses. So I disagree with Richard Dawkins when he says “religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”

Taken as hypotheses, religious claims do very badly: they are ad hoc, they are arbitrary, they rarely make predictions and when they do they almost never come true. Yet the striking fact is that it does not worry Christians when this happens. In the gospels Jesus predicts the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God. It does not worry believers that Jesus was wrong (even if it causes theologians to reinterpret what is meant by ‘the kingdom of God’). If Jesus was framing something like a scientific hypothesis, then it should worry them. Critics of religion might say that this just shows the manifest irrationality of religion. But what it suggests to me is that that something else is going on, other than hypothesis formation.

Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.

Science too has its share of mysteries (or rather: things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.

This point gets to the heart of the difference between science and religion. Religion is an attempt to make sense of the world, but it does not try and do this in the way science does. Science makes sense of the world by showing how things conform to its hypotheses. The characteristic mode of scientific explanation is showing how events fit into a general pattern.

Religion, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of the world by seeing a kind of meaning or significance in things. This kind of significance does not need laws or generalizations, but just the sense that the everyday world we experience is not all there is, and that behind it all is the mystery of God’s presence. The believer is already convinced that God is present in everything, even if they cannot explain this or support it with evidence. But it makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning. This is the attitude (seeing God in everything) expressed in George Herbert’s poem, “The Elixir.” Equipped with this attitude, even the most miserable tasks can come to have value: Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/ Makes that and th’ action fine.

None of these remarks are intended as being for or against religion. Rather, they are part of an attempt (by an atheist, from the outside) to understand what it is. Those who criticize religion should have an accurate understanding of what it is they are criticizing. But to understand a world view, or a philosophy or system of thought, it is not enough just to understand the propositions it contains. You also have to understand what is central and what is peripheral to the view. Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail. But this dependence on fact does not make religious claims anything like hypotheses in the scientific sense. Hypotheses are not central. Rather, what is central is the commitment to the meaningfulness (and therefore the mystery) of the world.

I have suggested that while religious thinking is widespread in the world, scientific thinking is not. I don’t think that this can be accounted for merely in terms of the ignorance or irrationality of human beings. Rather, it is because of the kind of intellectual, emotional and practical appeal that religion has for people, which is a very different appeal from the kind of appeal that science has.

Stephen Jay Gould once argued that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria.” If he meant by this that religion makes no factual claims which can be refuted by empirical investigations, then he was wrong. But if he meant that religion and science are very different kinds of attempt to understand the world, then he was certainly right.

Tim Crane is Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of two books, “The Mechanical Mind” (1995) and “Elements of Mind” (2001), and several other publications. He is currently working on two books: one on the representation of the non-existent and another on atheism and humanism.


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Why God Did Not Create the Universe

There is a sound scientific explanation for the making of our world—no gods required

According to Viking mythology, eclipses occur when two wolves, Skoll and Hati, catch the sun or moon. At the onset of an eclipse people would make lots of noise, hoping to scare the wolves away. After some time, people must have noticed that the eclipses ended regardless of whether they ran around banging on pots.

Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to postulate many myths in an effort to make sense of their world. But eventually, people turned to philosophy, that is, to the use of reason—with a good dose of intuition—to decipher their universe. Today we use reason, mathematics and experimental test—in other words, modern science.

Albert Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” He meant that, unlike our homes on a bad day, the universe is not just a conglomeration of objects each going its own way. Everything in the universe follows laws, without exception.

Stephen Hawking at his office at Cambridge University on Sept. 2.

Newton believed that our strangely habitable solar system did not “arise out of chaos by the mere laws of nature.” Instead, he maintained that the order in the universe was “created by God at first and conserved by him to this Day in the same state and condition.” The discovery recently of the extreme fine-tuning of so many laws of nature could lead some back to the idea that this grand design is the work of some grand Designer. Yet the latest advances in cosmology explain why the laws of the universe seem tailor-made for humans, without the need for a benevolent creator.

Many improbable occurrences conspired to create Earth’s human-friendly design, and they would indeed be puzzling if ours were the only solar system in the universe. But today we know of hundreds of other solar systems, and few doubt that there exist countless more among the billions of stars in our galaxy. Planets of all sorts exist, and obviously, when the beings on a planet that supports life examine the world around them, they are bound to find that their environment satisfies the conditions they require to exist.

It is possible to turn that last statement into a scientific principle: The fact of our being restricts the characteristics of the kind of environment in which we find ourselves. For example, if we did not know the distance from the Earth to the sun, the fact that beings like us exist would allow us to put bounds on how small or great the Earth-sun separation could be. We need liquid water to exist, and if the Earth were too close, it would all boil off; if it were too far, it would freeze. That principle is called the “weak” anthropic principle.

The weak anthropic principle is not very controversial. But there is a stronger form that is regarded with disdain among some physicists. The strong anthropic principle suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints, not just on our environment, but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves.

The idea arose because it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life, but also the characteristics of our entire universe—and its laws. They appear to have a design that is both tailor-made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration. That is much more difficult to explain.

The tale of how the primordial universe of hydrogen, helium and a bit of lithium evolved to a universe harboring at least one world with intelligent life like us is a tale of many chapters. The forces of nature had to be such that heavier elements—especially carbon—could be produced from the primordial elements, and remain stable for at least billions of years. Those heavy elements were formed in the furnaces we call stars, so the forces first had to allow stars and galaxies to form. Those in turn grew from the seeds of tiny inhomogeneities in the early universe.

Even all that is not enough: The dynamics of the stars had to be such that some would eventually explode, precisely in a way that could disperse the heavier elements through space. In addition, the laws of nature had to dictate that those remnants could recondense into a new generation of stars, these surrounded by planets incorporating the newly formed heavy elements.

By examining the model universes we generate when the theories of physics are altered in certain ways, one can study the effect of changes to physical law in a methodical manner. Such calculations show that a change of as little as 0.5% in the strength of the strong nuclear force, or 4% in the electric force, would destroy either nearly all carbon or all oxygen in every star, and hence the possibility of life as we know it. Also, most of the fundamental constants appearing in our theories appear fine-tuned in the sense that if they were altered by only modest amounts, the universe would be qualitatively different, and in many cases unsuitable for the development of life. For example, if protons were 0.2% heavier, they would decay into neutrons, destabilizing atoms.

If one assumes that a few hundred million years in stable orbit is necessary for planetary life to evolve, the number of space dimensions is also fixed by our existence. That is because, according to the laws of gravity, it is only in three dimensions that stable elliptical orbits are possible. In any but three dimensions even a small disturbance, such as that produced by the pull of the other planets, would send a planet off its circular orbit, and cause it to spiral either into or away from the sun.

The emergence of the complex structures capable of supporting intelligent observers seems to be very fragile. The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned. What can we make of these coincidences? Luck in the precise form and nature of fundamental physical law is a different kind of luck from the luck we find in environmental factors. It raises the natural question of why it is that way.

Many people would like us to use these coincidences as evidence of the work of God. The idea that the universe was designed to accommodate mankind appears in theologies and mythologies dating from thousands of years ago. In Western culture the Old Testament contains the idea of providential design, but the traditional Christian viewpoint was also greatly influenced by Aristotle, who believed “in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design.”

That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Our universe seems to be one of many, each with different laws. That multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine tuning. It is a consequence predicted by many theories in modern cosmology. If it is true it reduces the strong anthropic principle to the weak one, putting the fine tunings of physical law on the same footing as the environmental factors, for it means that our cosmic habitat—now the entire observable universe—is just one of many.

Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states. Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist. Although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, this makes us in a sense the lords of creation.

Stephen Hawking is a professor at the University of Cambridge. Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist who teaches at Caltech. Adapted from “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, to be published by Bantam Books on Sept. 7.


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The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity

‘How can we stop the oil gusher?” may have been the question of the summer for most Americans. Yet for many evangelical pastors and leaders, the leaking well is nothing compared to the threat posed by an ongoing gusher of a different sort: Young people pouring out of their churches, never to return.

As a 27-year-old evangelical myself, I understand the concern. My peers, many of whom grew up in the church, are losing interest in the Christian establishment.

Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.

Statistics like these have created something of a mania in recent years, as baby-boomer evangelical leaders frantically assess what they have done wrong (why didn’t megachurches work to attract youth in the long term?) and scramble to figure out a plan to keep young members engaged in the life of the church.

Increasingly, the “plan” has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called “the emerging church”—a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too “let’s rethink everything” radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it—to rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it “cool”—remains.

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated “No Country For Old Men.” For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.’s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

“Wannabe cool” Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an “iCampus.” Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular—and arguably most unseemly—methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?

Sex is a popular shock tactic. Evangelical-authored books like “Sex God” (by Rob Bell) and “Real Sex” (by Lauren Winner) are par for the course these days. At the same time, many churches are finding creative ways to use sex-themed marketing gimmicks to lure people into church.

Oak Leaf Church in Cartersville, Georgia, created a website called to pique the interest of young seekers. Flamingo Road Church in Florida created an online, anonymous confessional (, and had a web series called, which featured a 24/7 webcam showing five weeks in the life of the pastor, Troy Gramling. Then there is Mark Driscoll at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church—who posts Q&A videos online, from services where he answers questions from people in church, on topics such as “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse.”

But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? Maybe sex sermons and indie- rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

In his book, “The Courage to Be Protestant,” David Wells writes:”The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.

“And the further irony,” he adds, “is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.

Mr. McCracken’s book, “Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide” (Baker Books) was published this month.


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A Thousand Miles in the Footsteps of Martin Luther

How to think about the Reformation at 500.

Lutherans world-wide are already buzzing about 2017, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, commonly regarded as the starting point of the Reformation. But no one’s quite sure about the right way to observe the occasion.

Should Lutherans celebrate the profound insights of a brilliant theologian into the gospel? Or should they lament the splintering of the Western church and the physical and spiritual intra-Christian wars that followed? Should Lutherans lord it over Catholics or should they apologize? Will Catholics ignore the anniversary and its significance altogether, or condemn it; or will they find a way to celebrate it too?

On top of all this, many believe, Christians are and remain in the grip of an “ecumenical winter.” Despite the high hopes for church reconciliation and even reunion through most of the 20th century, the past 25 years have seen waning interest in ecumenism on the popular level, and scandal and schism consuming the churches’ attention at the institutional level.

Martin Luther posting his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, 1517.

Under the circumstances, it seems to me and my husband Andrew that the only thing to do is go for a thousand-mile walk.

Because, as it turns out, 2010 already is a 500th anniversary year for the Luther-minded. In 1510, Martin Luther the Augustinian friar set out from his priory in Erfurt, Germany, for the thousand-mile trek to Rome.

This Sunday, August 22, Andrew and I are departing from the same Augustinian priory in Erfurt—presently inhabited by Lutheran nuns—and following Luther’s footsteps all the way to Rome, where we’ll arrive 70 days later. Luther’s connection with Rome was severed by the unfolding events of the Reformation. We are trying to fix the broken links, reconnecting Erfurt and Rome with our feet.

Our path will take us through southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and half of Italy. In many respects it will be an easier trip for us than it was for Luther. He left during the pre-Christmas Advent fast, which meant more snow and less meat. He didn’t have orthopedically correct shoes or waterproof synthetic fabrics. But he still went farther than our planned daily trek of 15-20 miles: about 26 miles a day for him, considered then a normal day’s march.

Luther did, however, have one distinct advantage. While we’ll resort to frequent camping, especially in the northern half of our journey, where pilgrim hostels are few and far between, Luther enjoyed Augustinian or other monastic hospitality every night. People in 1510 didn’t camp out if they could possibly help it.

But we and Luther do share one significant similarity: We’re both living in the midst of a communication revolution. For Luther it was the printing press. He and his followers were able to use pamphlets and ever-cheaper printed books to promote the Reformation cause. This ability to spread the word also hardened the opposing teams in a divided and dividing church.

For us the main tool is social media. We’ll be Tweeting our progress in Nuremberg, Vaduz and Siena. Facebook fans will have a chance to “like” our photos of Septimer Pass in the Swiss Alps and the boat ride down Lake Como (it’s not cheating: even 16th-century pilgrims skipped walking along its narrow shore and opted for the boat).

Visitors to our blog——a play on Luther’s famous words at Worms, “Here I stand”—can follow our daily progress and read our posts featuring snippets of Luther’s writings, Catholic theology and ecumenical documents.

Our hope is that, through the use of these new media, the controversial figure of Martin Luther and the current relationship between the Catholic and Lutheran churches will appear in a new light.

For the Martin Luther of 1510 just doesn’t fit comfortably into popular polemics. According to many Catholics, he’s still a good son of the church at that time, but about to turn bad, and richly deserving his eventual excommunication in 1520. According to many Protestants, the early Luther is still in the grip of old illusions and religious terror, about to break free from the past and start something brand new. Extreme caricatures are required to sustain the image either side has of him.

In the discourse between Lutheran and Catholic ecumenists over the past half-century, however, a new picture of Luther has emerged. Both sides have acknowledged that the claim of a severe cleavage between pre- and post-Reformation Luther is simply inaccurate. Luther’s revolutionary insights were firmly grounded in the long tradition of the church. Both Catholic rejection and Protestant triumphalism fail to do justice to the real man and his work.

The Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965 and officially committed the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement, made a number of reforms that would have won Luther’s wholehearted approval: permission to distribute both bread and wine at the mass, worship in the vernacular, and an emphasis on biblical preaching—to name just a few.

The problem is that most Lutherans and Catholics remain unaware of the remarkable ways that their churches have drawn together over the past fifty years. Differences and disputes still compel greater interest than convergence and agreement.

So we two pilgrims invite Catholics, Lutherans and all other Christians concerned for the unity of the church to join us on this pilgrimage. Come in person if you can, or undertake a pilgrimage in spirit: Follow our blog, reconsider Luther, educate yourself about churches other than your own, and—above all—pray. Jesus promised to hear the prayers of only two or three gathered together. How could he ignore the prayers of all the fans on Facebook?

Ms. Hinlicky Wilson is a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and editor of the quarterly journal Lutheran Forum.


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Philosophy and Faith

One of my jobs as a teacher of bright, mostly Catholic undergraduates is to get them thinking about why they hold their religious beliefs.  It’s easy enough to spark discussion about the problem of evil (“Can you really read the newspaper every day and continue to believe in an all-perfect God?”) or about the diversity of religious beliefs (“If you’d been born in Saudi Arabia, don’t you think you’d be a Muslim?”).  Inevitably, however, the discussion starts to fizzle when someone raises a hand and says (sometimes ardently, sometimes smugly) “But aren’t you forgetting about faith?”

That seems to be enough for most students.  The trump card has been played, and they — or at least the many who find religion more a comfort than a burden — happily remember that believing means never having to explain why.

I myself, the product of a dozen years of intellectually self-confident Jesuit education, have little sympathy with the “it’s just faith” response.  “How can you say that?” I reply.  “You wouldn’t buy a used car just because you had faith in what the salesperson told you.  Why would you take on faith far more important claims about your eternal salvation?”  And, in fact, most of my students do see their faith not as an intellectually blind leap but as grounded in evidence and argument.

“Well, if there’s no God,” they say, “how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?”

At this point, the class perks up again as I lay out versions of the famous arguments for the existence of God, and my students begin to think that they’re about to get what their parents have paid for at a great Catholic university: some rigorous intellectual support for their faith.

Soon enough, however, things again fall apart, since our best efforts to construct arguments along the traditional lines face successive difficulties.  The students realize that I’m not going to be able to give them a convincing proof, and I let them in on the dirty secret: philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any  of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years.

This seems to bring us back to where we started: “It’s all faith.”  I, with my Jesuit-inspired confidence in reason and evidence, have always resisted this. But  I have also felt the tug of my students’ conclusion that philosophy, although a good intellectual exercise and the source of tantalizing puzzles and paradoxes, has no real significance for religious faith.

Recently, however, I’ve realized  a mistake in the way that I — and most of my professional colleagues — tend to think about philosophy and faith.  (One of the great benefits of getting to teach philosophy to bright  undergraduates is that it makes it easier to think outside the constraints of current professional assumptions.)  The standard view is that philosophers’ disagreements over arguments about God make their views irrelevant to the faith of ordinary believers and non-believers.  The claim seems obvious: if we professionals can’t agree among ourselves, what can we have to offer to non-professionals?  An appeal to experts requires consensus among those experts, which philosophers don’t have.

This line of thought ignores the fact that when philosophers disagree it is only about specific aspects of the most subtle and sophisticated versions of arguments for and against God’s existence (for example, my colleague Alvin Plantinga’s modal-logic formulation of St. Anselm’s ontological argument or William Rowe’s complex version of a probabilistic argument from evil). There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals.  Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.   This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

This conclusion should particularly discomfit popular proponents of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, whose position is entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments.  Believers, of course, can fall back on the logically less rigorous support that they characterize as faith.  But then they need to reflect on just what sort of support faith can give to religious belief.   How are my students’ warm feelings of certainty as they hug one another at Sunday Mass in their dorm really any different from the trust they might experience while under the spell of a really plausible salesperson? 

An answer may lie in work by philosophers as different as David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alvin Plantinga.  In various ways, they have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life.  Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world. Plantinga in particular has argued that core religious beliefs can have a status similar to these basic but unproven beliefs. His argument has clear plausibility for some sorts of religious beliefs. Through experiences of, for example, natural beauty, moral obligation, or loving and being loved, we may develop an abiding sense of the reality of an extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us.  Who is to say that such experiences do not give reason for belief in God as much as parallel (though different) experiences give reason for belief in reliable knowledge of the past and future and of other human minds?  There is still room for philosophical disputes about this line of thought, but it remains the most plausible starting point of a philosophical case for religious belief.

But this defense of faith faces a steep hurdle. Although it may support generic religious claims about a good and powerful being who cares for us, it is very hard to see it sustaining the specific and robust claims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam about how God is concretely and continually involved in our existence.  God is said to be not just good and powerful but morally perfect and omnipotent, a sure ultimate safeguard against any evil that might threaten us.  He not only cares about us but has set up precise moral norms and liturgical practices that we must follow to ensure our eternal salvation. Without such specificity, religion lacks the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that have made it such a powerful force in human history.

But how can religious experience sustain faith in a specific salvation narrative, particularly given the stark differences among the accounts of the great religious traditions?  What sort of religious experience could support the claim that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and not just a great moral teacher?  Or that the Bible rather than the Koran is the revelation of God’s own words?  Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.

I am not saying that religious believers are in principle incapable of finding satisfactory answers to such questions.  I am saying that philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on these questions, and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief.  This is what I will try to convey to my students the next time I teach introductory philosophy of religion.

Gary Gutting teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-edits Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an on-line book review journal. His most recent book is “What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.”


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