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January 18, 2010

As you know, I’ve been participating in a short exchange of letters with Luke Muehlhauser who blogs at Common Sense Atheism. Here is where we’ve been so far:

Luke’s First Letter to Me

My Reply to Luke

Luke’s Second Letter to Me


My Second Reply
Luke’s Third Letter to Me

And here is my third and final letter.

*****

Luke,

I guess this brings us to the final letter in our brief exchange. I have enjoyed this little series. As you no doubt know by personal experience, blogs tend to attract a very homogeneous readership—people tend to read blogs for which they identify with the author. Generally that means that they are quite similar to the author in the most important ways. Every now and again, though, for the sake of growth and variety, it is interesting to break the mold a little bit and we’ve done that here. It has been a learning experience and one I’m grateful for.

I’ve delayed this letter just a little bit as I’ve been wondering what to say and how to close out this exchange. With such vast differences in our belief systems, there is an endless list of issues we could discuss. But ultimately, I care a lot less for issues than I do for people. So I’d like to close in this way. I know in saying these things I may well be falling into exactly what you had hoped or expected. But I fear for you and find that there is nothing else I want to say as urgently as this.

In my first letter I quoted words from the book of Romans: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” God has given you a remarkable privilege, Luke. Not only did he give you knowledge of him through all that he has made (including you!) but he also allowed you to be born born into a home where you had access to the Bible, where your parents took you to church, and where you enjoyed countless other blessings. And yet you are suppressing the truth about who God is and about the very fact that he exists. In so doing, you are provoking God’s wrath. God cannot and will not abide such sin.

Yet God is gracious. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). God commands all people everywhere to repent. God commands you to repent, Luke. He tells you to turn away from sin, to stop suppressing the truth and to turn toward him. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God commands that you turn and he is patient as he waits for you to do so.

But he will not wait forever. “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4,5). In continually turning your back on God, you are storing up wrath for yourself. “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6-8). This is your future, Luke, if you do not turn from your sin.

My prayer for you is that you would turn to Christ. In fact, I call on you right here and right now to do just that. Turn from yourself, look to Christ, and find life in him! Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Heed his call; turn to him; find life.

January 04, 2010

As you know, I’ve agreed to participate in a brief and public exchange of letters with Luke Muehlhauser who blogs at Common Sense Atheism. Here is where we’ve been so far:

Luke’s First Letter to Me
My Reply to Luke
Luke’s Second Letter to Me

Here now is my second reply.

*****

Dear Luke,

Thank you again for your letter of December 22. I apologize that it has taken me some time to reply. The holiday season and a nice little vacation stood in my way. So maybe I’m not really apologizing at all! It was great to travel, to spend time with friends and family, and to enjoy time away from the every day. But sooner or later we knew that real life would come along again. And that has given me opportunity to respond to your second letter.

Let me go back for one moment before I go forward. In your first letter you provided a list of “facts” (don’t be offended by the quotation marks. I use them simply to indicate that you would consider them facts while I would not) about Christianity—about the person of Jesus, about the authorship of the Bible, and so on. I summarized what you were saying as follows: “All thinking people acknowledge that the foundations of the Christian faith are complete nonsense.” In your second letter you came back to this. Let me explain myself just a little bit further. Part of me really wants to offer a point-by-point defense or refutation of each of these “facts,” but instead let me say just this. If these things that you say are, indeed, true, I would be a fool to be a Christian. This is what I had attempted to communicate in my last letter.

The apostle Paul himself said that if it could be proven that Christ had not risen from the dead, his faith was utterly futile. Similarly, if what you say is true—if Christ was simply a failed apocalyptic prophet, if the Bible is indeed nothing more than the words of human beings who were not inspired by God, if Jesus and Paul taught completely different things, then we have so undermined the foundation of the faith that it would be foolishness to believe it and, more, to live according to its precepts. I am not an unthinking follower of a religion. I have carefully weighed and considered the evidence for the Christian faith. So of course I disagree with what you have portrayed as fact. I, like you, have done the research but, unlike you, have arrived at very different conclusions. Isn’t it strange how that works?

All of this to say that if what you say is fact is, indeed, fact, I would be an atheist too.

A Christian
One thing I’d like to clarify here is what I mean when I say that I’m a Christian. I wish that this wasn’t necessary but, unfortunately, it really is. There is no governing body over the name “Christian” (which is a good thing, I’m sure) so anyone can say, “I am a Christian” regardless of what he believes or does not believe. This leaves us with the strange fact that many people who believe very different things lay claim to the same name (like, for example, if people from Zimbabwe and people from the United States both laid claim to the title “American.”). Evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses diverge in absolutely fundamental ways and yet both claim to be Christian. So let me say what I mean when I claim to be a Christian. I hope this will provide useful clarity.

Fundamentally, I mean that I am a follower of Christ. I call myself by his name, placing myself under his authority and leadership. But more specifically, here is a brief outline of the beliefs of those who seek to faithfully follow Christ.

God is the Creator of all that is. He is utterly holy, having no sin or evil whatsoever. He is eternal, having always existed and existing forever. He created the world and all that is in it.

God exists in three persons. There are not three gods but one God who exists in three distinct persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

As the crowning act of his creation, God created human beings. But these human beings chose to go their own way, committing an act of cosmic treason against their ruler. They turned their backs on him, indicating that they would rather be independent of him. That act put humans in a position of strife against God. All men now sin against God and in that way alienate themselves from him. God’s holiness and God’s justice mean that he cannot tolerate sin and hence, cannot tolerate sinners. Therefore sinners must be put away from him in a place of punishment—a place we know as hell.

But God is merciful and full of grace. He has provided a means by which we may escape the consequences of our sin. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be punished on behalf of sinful men. Christ, though he was God, lived a perfect life and was put to death, crucified on a Roman cross. As he hung on that cross, God punished him for sin in place of sinful human beings. Christ accepted this punishment willingly both out of loving obedience to his Father and out of loving compassion for human beings. Christ died but three days later came back to life, proving that he was, indeed, God.

God now offers forgiveness through the living Christ. Anyone can now receive the benefit of what Christ did, exchanging their sinfulness for Christ’s holiness. Their sin will be counted against Christ and his holiness will be counted to them so that when God looks at sinful men he sees only the holiness of his Son. These people, with their renewed relationship with God, will spend eternity with him.

All God requires for us to receive this benefit is that we place our faith in Christ. This is both a believing about Christ and a believing in Christ—believing that he exists and believing that he stands as the one who mediates between sinful men and a holy God. And thus God calls all men to believe in Christ and to put their faith in him.

A time of judgment will come. At some point in the future Christ will return, bringing an end to this world and ushering in a new era where those who follow Christ will inhabit a recreated, perfected earth while those who have rejected him will receive the necessary and eternal punishment for their rebellion against him.

This is what I mean when I say I am a Christian and really, it’s what I mean when I say that I am an evangelical. Those words are a kind of shorthand that encapsulates all of these beliefs.

Working Together
In your last letter you asked me to suggest what Christians and atheists could do together to make the world a better place. I find that quite a difficult question to answer. In many ways I think there is a lot we can each do to relieve suffering in this world (which is typically what we mean when we speak about making the world a better place). Christians and atheists alike can bring relief to the poor and healing to the sick. I have a tough time foreseeing any kind of meaningful organization that would deliberately bring Christians and atheists together for this purpose. But certainly as individuals there is much that can be done. And honestly, I think it has to be admitted that Christians are doing a better job of this than atheists. It is not lost on me that in the days after a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, countless Christians organizations immediately made great strides in disaster relief, both on the ground and in collecting resources. I heard little of the work of atheists.

Ultimately Christians seek to make the world a better place by living as Christians and by encouraging others to put their faith in Christ. Christians live with a view to the present and also a view to the future. This world is temporary. We are called by God to care for it and to care for the people who inhabit it, but ultimately we know that this world and this life is fleeting. So while we do and should seek to relieve suffering, ultimately our greatest concern is to help people to escape eternal suffering. Without downplaying the horrors of extreme poverty and starvation and all the other trials many in life deal with on a daily basis, we still regard these sufferings as fleeting when compared to the potential joy or sufferings to come. Hence I anticipate that there will always be some level of difficulty when Christians and atheists work together, for Christians will always have an eye to the soul and to the eternal.

A Question
Let me leave you with a question. I would be interested in hearing your take on the role and the acceptability of evangelism or proselytization. While Christians are known for their work and perhaps with their obsession in spreading their faith, in recent years atheists are making strides in this area. As it becomes increasingly socially acceptable to be an atheist, we find atheists interested in spreading what they believe (or do not believe). How do you feel about proselytizing? Should we both be free to proselytize or should we both just keep private what we believe (or again, what we do not believe)?

December 21, 2009

Not too long ago I received an email from Luke Muehlhauser who blogs at Common Sense Atheism. He introduced himself as “a former Christian who now writes one of the most popular atheism blogs on the ‘net,” and asked if I would be interested in a brief exchange of letters. This is not the first time I’ve been asked if I would be interested in such a thing and always I’ve said, “no.” But this time I was somewhat intrigued, and especially so after Luke sent through his first missive. We have agreed to write three letters each, simply interacting about what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how we got here. I hope you will find the results interesting.

You can read Luke’s first letter to me, here.

And now, here is my response.

*****

Dear Luke,

I thank you for your letter of December 15, 2009. It was interesting to read of your early days as a believer and your gradual conversion to atheism. The civility you’ve shown in this communication and ones before it have given me confidence that we can enjoy some effective back-and-forth, not always a given when a Christian and an atheist write to one another. Thank you for offering me the opportunity to respond to you.

I feel that if this series of communications is to be at all effective, we are going to have to be both careful and charitable with our premises. In your opening letter you provide a long series of statements that together effectively say, “All thinking people acknowledge that the foundations of the Christian faith are complete nonsense.” You state each of these as accepted fact of the kind that no intelligent person could possibly deny. You offer no proof for any of them, but simply list them as a long series of unfounded statements. You say:

  • that what the church had taught you about Jesus was untrue or gravely misleading.
  • that even the most conservative scholars agree that many of the New Testament letters are forgeries.
  • that the books of the New Testament are written by very different authors (a point no Christian would dispute) who have very different theologies (a point that, at the very least, requires great nuance).
  • that the gospels contradict each other all over the place.
  • that if there is any consensus about Jesus it is that he is a failed apocalyptic prophet who was convinced that the world would end in his generation.
  • that the religion of Jesus is completely different than the religion of Paul. The unmistakable conclusion is that the religion of anyone who has had their theology formed by the writings of Paul (and, presumably, the other New Testament writers) is not Christ’s Christianity at all.

Thus, only half way through your first letter, we have (presented as accepted and indisputable fact) gospels that are nonsense because they constantly and fatally contradict one another and letters that are nonsense because they are nothing more than the inventions of later religious zealots. In other words, we have no Christian faith, at least for anyone who has any ability to think for himself. So where does this leave me?

In one short paragraph you have gone from personal narrative describing your own “deconversion,” to providing a long string of statements that must immediately put me on the defensive. If all of the statements you made were true, or, at least, if I believed they were true, I would have deconverted long ago. If all of the premises you’ve listed are true and accepted as fact by any thinking person, I would have to be either hopelessly naive or terribly stupid to be a Christian. Surely you see how such statements are fallacious. You and I both know that we can appeal to scholars and experts and consensus as a means of offering proof for any statement we care to make. If these communications are to be useful, we will need to refrain from such sweeping and antagonistic statements. Otherwise we will have one side cheering, the other side jeering, and neither side learning very much about the other. If these letters are to contain civil discourse, we’ll both need to be willing to affirm that the other is intelligent and rational and has chosen his path based on the thoughtful weighing of evidence. This is true for me and, from what I’ve read on your blog, it is true of you.

Another brief point before I continue. I do not wish to cede to you the term “deconversion.” After all, if you deconverted from Christianity, I could as easily say that I deconverted from atheism (or functional agnosticism, perhaps) when I became a Christian. In either case there is the assumption of certain beliefs and premises and the letting go of others. I propose one of two things: either we both stick only to “conversion” or we each use both terms however we see fit.

My Story
You asked for the story of my faith journey, so here goes. It begins much like your own, with being raised in a Christian home. I was raised by parents who had recently deconverted and become Christians. I was raised to know the Bible, to know Christian theology and to understand that theology is more than beliefs; it is beliefs that call for action. When I was fifteen or sixteen I had something of a crisis of faith (as do so many other young people who are raised within a religious tradition). As I began to foresee my life apart from my parents, I realized that I had to think about my Christian faith to determine if it was something that I truly believed or whether it was merely something foisted upon me by my parents—something akin to family traditions or genetic traits. Was my faith like my nose, an unfortunate byproduct of being born a Challies? Or was it a gift, something that I could truly embrace? It was in this time of searching that I came to accept the Christian faith as more than tradition but as truth. I’ve often since described this as “making the faith of my parents my own.” I was no longer simply an obedient child honoring his parents by going to church and going through the motions of religion, but a committed follower of Jesus Christ who would follow him even if my parents turned away. I cannot point you to an exact moment in time when I became a Christian, but I do know that I am one today and that I have been one for almost twenty years now. For this growing desire to determine whether I was truly following Christ and for this undeniable need to follow him, I give thanks to God.

I have never seriously doubted the claims of the Bible—that God is the creator of the world, that we humans are a sinful bunch who have committed an act of cosmic treason against this Creator by rejecting him, that Christ came into this world to offer hope to sinners, that he died and rose again, and that simply by placing our faith in him we can be forgiven for our sin and can be granted the gift of eternal life. The more I come to understand the Bible and the more I come to understand life, the more I see that the Bible is startlingly accurate in its description of the way the world works, the way life works. God has given us the Bible as an amazing and a unique resource. Some people see the Bible as a collection of tales or as a book of moral fables. I understand it as a lens like the lenses in a pair of glasses. It is a means God gives us by which we can see the world through his eyes. We see him as he wishes for us to see him; we see ourselves much more clearly than we otherwise could; we see the past, the present and the future in ways we could otherwise never understand. We see the broad picture of who God is and what he is accomplishing through the world. And when I look at the world through that lens, through the lens of the Bible, I do not see pointless suffering; I do not see contradictions (though I’ll grant you a few apparent absurdities); I do not see malicious design; I am horrified by hell but when looking at my sin and God’s holiness cannot deny its necessity. In all things I see a God who has a purpose and who is carefully and sovereignly carrying it out. I know atheists are prone to portray Christians as unthinking (trust me, I’ve read Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris and others), people who have made up their minds and have subjugated intellect to emotion, but I would like to believe this is not true of me. I have studied the world, I’ve studied my own heart, and I’ve seen that the Bible truly does get it right. At the very least I can’t deny that it gets right its description of me.

Who I Am
Many Christians have come to realize that if we are to understand anything of the Christian faith we need to begin in one of two places, with what we know to be true of God or with what we know to be true of humans. In my life I’ve known myself better than I’ve known God and so I’ve started with what is true of myself. And one thing that is most basically true of me is that I am not a good person—not all the time, anyway, and certainly not nearly often enough. No matter how we wish to define morality, I am not a moral person. Not consistently, anyway. Some of my earliest memories in life are memories of deliberately and joyfully hurting other people. I’m 33 years old now and, as much as I hate to admit it, I still have plenty of moral failings. I still hurt people, and often I hurt the people I love most and who love me most. I often place myself first when I should be thinking foremost of others. And those are just the things I do. Were we to catalog the things I think and desire, those crimes of the mind and heart, we would need a lot of time and a lot of paper to even begin to quantify and catalog them. Always I have known of this lack of morality within me, this desire to harm instead of help, to take instead of give. It is the Bible that has given me the words to describe it. The Bible calls it sin. It is no small thing to say, “I am a sinner.” But it is the start of a great journey, for an admission of sin is an admission of moral culpability.

Foolishness
Before I sign off from this first letter, I would like to give you something to chew on—a description of yourself from the Bible. Do allow me to be candid here. I say these things not to be arrogant or insensitive, but merely to frame things in biblical language (a habit I try to emphasize in my own life). I am not ashamed of how the Bible describes you and feel it would be a useful piece of background information. You have mentioned your dissatisfaction with philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God. And, indeed, you and I could undoubtedly argue such things from now until Christ returns (or the world ends) and such arguments become moot. As far as the Bible is concerned, though, God’s existence is self-evident. The Bible expends little effort in defending the existence of God because God takes the view that his existence needs no proof beyond the very fact that we are, that the world exists. Other evidences exist, to be certain, but they are less important and less obvious than the evidence we already have available to us. We call this “common grace”—grace common to each of us that ought to be sufficient to convince us of God’e existence.

The Bible often uses the word “fool” to describe a person who either denies God’s existence or admits it but refuses to submit his life to him. “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God,” wrote a poet several thousand years ago (see Psalm 14). That is the Bible’s position. God, through the Bible, calls you a fool, Luke. This is not a judgment on your intelligence (you may be a very intelligent fool); rather, it is a moral judgment. In the book of Romans it says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them [those who deny the God of the Bible], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The biblical position is that you are without excuse before God for your denial of him. You have no right to plead ignorance. From the world around you, you are able to know that God exists and that he is powerful. And so in most cases all those long, philosophical proofs for God’s existence are not all that important. And that, I suppose, is why the Bible does not expend time making most of them. In denying that God exists you are willfully, deliberately closing your eyes and your mind to the greatest evidence he has given you. You have chosen to be a fool. That is what the Bible says.

Gratitude
You asked me to ask you some questions. So here is one I’ve got. I began thinking about this after reading Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem, a book in which he describes his conversion from Christianity to agnosticism. In the book he shares a few of the things he misses most about being a professed Christian. Most notably, he misses being able to give thanks. He realizes what a great life he leads, what a “blessed” life he leads, and feels like he owes gratitude to something. And yet there is no one to whom he can give thanks. This leaves a void in his life and one he regrets. “I have such a fantastic life,” he says, “that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it; I am fortunate beyond words. But I don’t have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it.” I admire Ehrman for this admission because I am sure there is always the temptation to deny that he has lost anything with all he feels he has gained by leaving faith behind. After reading those words—poignant and honest words—I began to wonder how other atheists who have turned from the Christian faith have dealt with the loss of God. What have you lost? Who do you thank?

Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss such things.

Tim

February 02, 2009

You Can LeadRay Comfort is setting out on a blog tour to support his new book You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence but You Can’t Make him Think. Knowing that many of the readers of this site are admirer’s of Comfort, I decided to participate. I solicited questions from readers and here is one that Comfort was eager to respond to.


I often respond to the questions/arguments posed by atheists not so much because I think I can convince them they’re wrong, but because of the undecided people who might be the audience. If atheists claim they are well grounded in reason and logic, and no one stands to oppose them, I’m thinking huge numbers of people will assume that Christians concede the argument. I want people on the fence to know that there are well reasoned, rational arguments in favor of theology. How much time and energy do you think we should spend responding to atheistic claims?

I have preached open air (soapbox style) over 5,000 times. This is different from the doomsday street-corner folks that yell at passersby. I try and engage people in healthy discourse.

If you have ever been in a good open air meeting, you will know that at times there’s a sense of excitement, as people ask genuine questions about Christianity. In those situations you often have what is called a “heckler.” He is usually a colorful character who is upset. He is loud and somewhat aggressive. He is the one who attracts the crowd (who’s going to gather around to hear a boring preacher?). It is his presence that holds the crowd long enough for me to share the gospel. While I am directing myself at the heckler, I am also speaking to the crowd.

That’s what’s happening on my blog (“Atheist Central”) where we have more than one nasty “heckler.” They give the blog the life it needs to keep people coming back. But there’s a crowd listening (the blog gets emailed out daily). That’s why I am pleased to have atheists there. As a fisher of men, I don’t mind admitting that I bait them with some attractive morsel, and they usually bite. Most of them have said that they are closed to the gospel, but the others who are on the sidelines may have an open mind. Those are the ones to whom I am speaking—unsaved fence-sitters.

For your interest, here is an example of a colorful heckler:

However, when I witness one-to-one to a professing atheist, I am careful to take the time to patiently answer his questions, but not go down rabbit trails. I pray for God’s help daily, because I have a clear agenda—to go through the Ten Commandments to bring the knowledge of sin, then bring the remedy of the gospel and the necessity of faith and repentance. The time and energy I spend on him is dependent on whether or not I discern sincerity on his part.


You can find out more about Ray Comfort and his ministry at livingwaters.com.

December 13, 2008

It will come as no surprise to you that atheists are becoming increasingly militant in their stand against theism in general and Christianity in particular. This militancy is often taking the form of mock horror and dripping sarcasm. I find it valuable every now and again to read quotes like this one from Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation. Why? Well, I suppose it helps me remember the old adage—the truth—that the Christian faith always has and always will appear foolish to those who, blinded by their sin, refuse to acknowledge their Creator. Quotes like this do not rock my faith; instead, they strengthen it.


According to a recent Gallup poll, only 12 percent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process, without the interference of a deity. Thirty-one percent believe that evolution has been “guided by God.” If our worldview were put to a vote, notions of “intelligent” design would defeat the science of biology by nearly three to one. This is troubling, as nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design. But the current controversy over “intelligent design” should not blind us to the true scope of our religious bewilderment at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The same Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of Americans are actually creationists. This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. Those with the power to elect our presidents and congressmen—and many who themselves get elected—believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, but the hand of an invisible God.

Among developed nations, America stands alone in these convictions. Our country now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant. Anyone who cares about the fate of civilization would do well to recognize that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying, even to one’s friends.

Forty-four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on earth. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen—the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves—socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.