Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mere Anglicanism Conference: a Report

The Mere Anglicanism Conference for 2014 in Charleston, South Carolina, has just concluded, and what a Conference it was! This was a double first for your Curmudgeon: the first time attending Mere Anglicanism, and the first time in the delightfully hospitable environs of Charleston.

The Conference reached “sold out” capacity weeks before it began — even though it had moved to a larger venue this year in order to accommodate a crowd of up to 650 in the two-story high Charleston Music Hall. The organizers attribute the dramatic increase to the timeliness and topicality of this year’s theme: “Science, Faith and Apologetics: an Answer for the Hope That Is Within Us.” In my humble opinion, however, the draw of the event was equally due to the stellar lineup of speakers.

Oxford University Professor of Mathematics John Lennox both led off and summed up the Conference. He began Thursday evening’s session with a bravura survey of all that is faulty with the arguments and logic of the so-called “New Atheists”, that is to say, Steven Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (now deceased), Sam Harris and the like. Essentially they want to exclude religion from the public and academic sphere, and replace it with methodological naturalism — which they call “science”, but which as they spell it out is really just a religion in its own right: it excludes all discussion or concepts of the supernatural on grounds which are just as dogmatic and doctrinal as is their straw-man chimera of religion based on faith. Quoting passages from his recent book, Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target, Dr. Lennox had the audience laughing over the self-induced isolationism of the intellectual atheists.

Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy Emeritus Alvin C. Plantinga led off Friday morning’s session with a compact analysis of “Where the Conflict Really Lies” between science and religion. (That is also the title of his most recent book.) As he explained it, the conflict is not between science and religion, but between (methodological) naturalism and evolution. Those who follow Darwin assert that evolution is unguided, that is, that the mutations on which evolution depends are wholly random, and have no correlation to an organism’s adaptability to its environment. “Survival of the fittest” is just the luck of the draw. However, the randomness of mutation is not necessary for the theory of evolution to explain the development of species — it is, as Prof. Plantinga characterized it, a “metaphysical add-on”. God can just as easily be directing the changes which occur, and intervening from time to time to multiply phyla and possibilities.

Indeed, random evolution utterly undermines methodological naturalism. The reason is that random mutations lead, more than 99% of the time, to deleterious effects on the organism. This means that the reliability of our (evolved) cognitive abilities, if they mutate and evolve randomly, would be extremely low. They might have evolved luckily thus far, but at any given moment, the odds are no better than 50-50 (and very likely much less) that their next conclusion would also be true, and thus useful for further adaptation. And even if the next conclusion is false, it still would result in adaptive behavior so long as man relies on his cognitive abilities. Thus in the final analysis, man has no way of knowing whether his behavior is based on true or false perceptions of reality, because evolution aims for environmental success, and not truth.

Naturalism, however, depends on the complete reliability of man’s cognitive faculties as they purport to have (randomly) evolved over time, and indeed asserts that there is no other trustworthy means of discovering scientific truth. Thus random evolution — as opposed to God-guided evolution — leaves man without any strong leg to stand on. If evolution is taken as unguided, then belief in the soundness of the methods and conclusions of naturalism solely by use of our unguided faculties is irrational. (And yet the atheists claim it is "irrational" for Christians to believe that God gave us our faculty of reason, created and designed in His image, to enable us to understand and believe the truth!)

The next speaker was Stephen Meyer, of Seattle’s Discovery Institute. He presented a lecture based on his latest book, Darwin’s Doubt. Examining the evidence for the breadth and depth of the so-called “Cambrian Explosion”, he showed how the great number of new phyla introduced on earth in such a brief time period (speaking from an evolutionary standpoint) could not have occurred solely through random processes of evolution (and in that sense, his lecture was the perfect sequel to Prof. Plantinga’s). The inability of traditional Darwinism to explain the sheer proliferation of phenotypes during the early Cambrian period was known to, and acknowledged by, Darwin himself (hence, “Darwin’s doubt”). Not only must one explain where all the new phyla came from, given the lack of fossil evidence for any forebears in the previous ages, but given the requirements of DNA, one must account also for the vast increase in coded information which underlies their DNA. “Information” is not material, and so cannot evolve physically or randomly (think of monkeys at typewriters trying to crank out Hamlet). Information is always, in mankind’s experience, the hallmark of an intelligent mind. Dr. Meyer did not go so far as to point it out, because his brand of Intelligent Design makes no claim to prove the existence of God as such, but the only intelligent mind around at the time of the Cambrian period was God.

Then Dr. Denis Alexander, a Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, gave a lecture on “Human Evolution and Adam and Eve”. He surveyed the genetic evidence that supports man’s evolution from earlier ancestors, and pointed out that human DNA contains pseudogenes (genes that were functional in our forebears, but which have no function in humans) that, in present-day chickens (for instance), enable them to lay eggs with hard shells. In all, he said, the human genome contains over 11,000 such pseudogenes — showing its broad connections with all the DNA that preceded it.

With this genetic background, Dr. Alexander explained that by computer analysis of the human genome, it is possible to derive a mathematical demonstration that all current humans on earth are descended from a group of hominids that at one point in time was as small as 10,000 individuals — a “genetic bottleneck”. While some claim that the evidence shows an even smaller bottleneck (of around 3,000 or so), there is no genetic proof that all of current mankind is descended from a single man-woman couple. Thus Dr. Alexander posed the question: is the Biblical story of Adam and Eve incompatible with evolution as we understand it?

He turned to four hypothetical models that have developed to reconcile the apparent discrepancy, and commented on the strengths and weaknesses of each insofar as they account for “the Fall” of man through Adam’s original sin. The first model makes no pretense that Adam and Eve were historical, and treats the Genesis narrative as wholly theological, i.e., it is the story of “everyman”. This model fails to explain just how or when apes became men accountable to their creator God (or, as I have put it elsewhere, “when did the lights come on?”).

The second and third models both try to fit Adam and Eve into evolutionary history — the second, by treating them as symbolic of mankind’s evolutionary progress to the point where a spiritual nature, or awareness of God, evolved among an African tribe of early humans, and the third, by positing Adam and Eve as a pair of neolithic African farmers, chosen and singled out by God, who then led their fellow tribe members to consciousness and enlightenment. The second model suffers from the same weakness as the first, and while the third preserves the historicity of Adam and Eve, it robs the story of all its MiddleEastern context and removes it to the African savannah.

The fourth model was the one preferred by Dr. Alexander (among the current ones on offer — he expressed the hope that still other, closer models could be formulated). This model, advanced by the Rev. John Stott, retains the main features of the third model, but assumes that the two neolithic farmers chosen out by God lived in the Middle East, and that their tribe became the progenitors of Israel. Original sin, and man’s corruption, is then explained by seeing Adam as the “federal head” of mankind. Just as the poor decision of a country’s leader could bring his whole country into a state of being at war, so Adam’s mistake landed all of humanity into a fallen state, because he as “God’s first human” was the standard-bearer for all of us, and failed.

(Regular readers of this blog may remember that the topic of the historicity of Adam and Eve is a favorite of mine. For an in-depth treatment of the problems and critique of the previously suggested solutions, along with my own humble suggestion to explain original sin naturally, please start with this post, and follow the subsequent ones in the series as they are linked.)

Prof. of Biochemistry Michael Behe, of Lehigh University, closed Friday’s lectures with a talk based on the evidence reviewed and discussed in his new book, The Edge of Evolution. By looking at the extensive medical and genetic evidence assembled over the years concerning those who evolved sickle-shaped hemoglobin as a preventative against malaria, and also looking at the adaptations made by the malaria virus against drugs used to kill it, Dr. Behe was able to show that the evolutionary processes involved could not be seen as “random” — again, because of the relatively short time frame in which they took place. Like his earlier focus on what he calls the “irreducible complexity” of certain organs (e.g., the bacterial flagellum, which is a microscopic outboard motor), this conclusion undermines the asserted role of random mutation in Darwinian evolution.

Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College and The King’s College (New York), one of my favorite philosophers, and the author of a prodigious number of wonderful books, led off Saturday’s session with a talk on his favorite author, C.S. Lewis, and Lewis’ refutation of scientism. (The term is a synonym for methodological naturalism as discussed by Prof. Plantinga; it is the view that all truths about the physical world can be derived only by the methods of science — and that anything which science cannot measure or detect, such as God, therefore does not exist.) Quoting from a variety of Lewis’ works, Prof. Kreeft underscored that C.S. Lewis had arrived at many of the same conclusions about scientism as demonstrated by Prof. Plantinga the previous day, and foreshadowed the recent book by Thomas Nagel (an atheist) who questions the reliability of Darwinian evolution as a model that fits the evidence that has accumulated. As is the case in many areas, C. S. Lewis pointed the way.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali then gave (without notes or lectern) a wide-ranging commentary on the themes of the Conference, in which he managed to touch upon Darwin’s personal Christian faith, which was sorely tested by the deaths of three of his daughters, and upon the current culture’s indifference to the lives of the unborn. Scientism can offer no principled basis for morality, and our culture reflects that fact. The challenge for the Christian is to maintain God-based morality in the face of attacks by atheistic scientism. (The entire Conference was a wonderful source of material with which to accomplish just that goal.)

Professor Lennox then gave the concluding talk, in which he regaled the audience with accounts of his numerous debates with the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and their illogical attempts to dismiss his claims for Christianity and a universe which is the product of the ultimate Intelligent Designer. Again and again, scientists are discovering the ordered designs in nature — including the incredible degree to which the universe is “fine-tuned” so as to enable and support life here on earth — but are blinding themselves to the proofs which those designs give of the universe’s creator. The phenomenon would appear to be a psychological one. Quoting the German psychiatrist Manfred Lütz, Dr. Lennox pointed out that the atheists’ view of God and religion as an escape from the harshness of nature’s realities is true only if God does not in fact exist. But if God does exist, then it is atheism which constitutes an effort to avoid having to face Him. And in this regard, the Christian takes note of the opening sentences of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were created by him, and without him was not one thing created that was created.

The final event of the Conference was an hour-long panel discussion by all seven speakers, moderated by Dr. Kenneth Boa, the head of Reflections Ministries, and an accomplished theologian and philosopher in his own right. The topics for the panel were derived from questions submitted earlier by the audience, which Dr. Boa had synthesized into a short list. Alas, the time proved inadequate to discuss more than the first four, but the range and depth of Christian faith that was on stage provided a powerful witness to ultimate truth and the light it provides to those who follow it. There was a general consensus that Pascal was onto something when he opined that God provides just enough evidence to challenge the skeptics and to comfort the faithful, and that as the world’s skepticism increases, so does the quantity of evidence for God’s existence — as witness the evidence discussed at this Conference.

One cannot fail to mention the accompanying worship services at the Conference, which provided the liturgical means to express the depth of faith engendered by the lectures and discussions. A choral evensong on Thursday, provided by the choir and organist of the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, demonstrated how music enhances worship and makes it more meaningful. There followed a spectacular high mass on Friday, with music provided by the choir and organist of St. Helena’a parish, in Beaufort, together with the Charles Towne Brass Quartet plus tympani and bagpipe (!), and celebrated by Bishop Mark Lawrence. The music went on and on until the very rafters (figuratively speaking) were ringing by the final procession, and all went into the night with singing hearts.

Continuity between the two services was provided by the sermons on the readings from Genesis delivered by Prof. C. John Collins, of Covenant Theological Seminary. Not only did Dr. Collins tie the readings into the theme of the Conference, but he brought his expertise on the Hebrew text to bear in his theological insights into and dramatization of the Fall. (Dr. Collins has also published a number of books in this area, including an examination of the same models for Adam and Eve discussed by Dr. Alexander, in Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care.)

In addition, the Rev. Dr. Leander Harding of South Carolina led two sessions of morning prayer, at which he delivered two fine homilies drawn from the readings from Chapter 7 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and tied his thoughts into the themes of the Conference as well. The worship services and the lectures were perfectly in balance: the lectures inspired the worship, and the worship gave concrete meaning to the message of the lectures.

All in all, this was one of the most satisfying and remarkable experiences of my life. To be in the midst of such intellects, to be able to interact with them and respond to their insights, all the while enjoying the company of kindred souls and friends whom I had previously known only at a distance, was a great blessing, for which I am deeply grateful to the Conference’s organizers and facilitators. This was not just “Mere” Anglicanism; this was Anglicanism at Its Top-level Best, for the Questioning Faithful. I have to believe that the clergy who attended came away with a multitude of facts and arguments with which to disarm skeptics and to strengthen their own pastoral abilities, while the lay attendees gained no less for their daily forays into the secular world.

Next year’s Conference should be equally sought out and well-attended. As announced by the Rev. Jeffrey Miller of St. Helena’s, the Director of Mere Anglicanism, its tentative theme has to do with the three greatest threats to Christianity today: secularism, multiculturalism, and radical Islam. Mark your calendars for next January 22-24 in Charleston!


  1. Sometime it looks like bacteria et al are evolving faster than we are! We better watch out!

    Jim of olym

  2. I hope others are invited, such as Archbp. Lazar Puhalo and David Goa of Canadian Eastern Orthodox venue are invited next. They have a lot to say on these issues.
    rdr. James Morgan

  3. Wow! That was some conference. I wish had could have been there.

    The original group of archaic humans from which all humans came, was about 10,000 people and appeared suddenly and unheralded by any other species about 4 million years ago.

    This is what the scriptures teach. That God created Mankind after He had prepared a place for them to live - in this case a well-watered region of Africa.

    Th Cambrian explosion was triggered by the binary feature, which I discuss here: http://biblicalanthropology.blogspot.com/2013/07/does-binary-feature-signal-greater.html

  4. Allan, My father was an attorney and a pastor, and his family were scientists so things like this entered his preaching a good deal. You might enjoy this segment of one of his sermons delivered in NYC.


  5. Scientists can’t disprove God’s existence anymore than they can prove the existence of another universe that sparked a big bang. Yet, the non-existence of the former they already proclaim with graven absoluteness while providing no proofs and bypassing the scientific method for this premature, yet now, incontestable belief. Their cart before a horse, it would seem, based on their own prescribed methods, should disqualify them automatically as credible scientists. But, curiously, on the later hypothesis about another universe they gleefully admit a possibility that is enticingly appealing to them with their increasing enthrallment captivating even more universes for us.

    Our scientists’ duplicity could be explained by the ordinary and habitual seeking of human pleasure that, for them as cleaving priests to their cloven reality, must be kept discreet. Because by this they seek God more than they know. And from this observable pattern of scientists’ behavior, perhaps, we are able to predict a final singularity when our density of the infinite compresses our volume of carts to a point where God’s brilliant closure of boundless pleasures is the only thing left to observe.