Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania (2007).

"[B]ut he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes".
--Frank Sinatra, "High Hopes"

I had high hopes for 2007's 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania by Matthew Chapman.

The book purported to cover a collision of origin-of-life issues (such as Intelligent Design v. Darwinism), religion and law in a modern-day Scopes trial—a case called Kitzmiller v. Dover, which was tried before a Pennsylvania federal district court judge for six weeks in 2005.

Unfortunately, the hopes were never realized for two primary reasons.

First, the bias permeating the text was oppressive, distracting and eventually comical. The author, Matthew Chapman, admits his bias upfront as the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. (p. 3.) However, even that admission didn’t prepare me for the abject prejudices that followed. For example, like he customarily does for people he agrees with, he portrays the lawyers representing the plaintiffs (those challenging an Intelligent Design policy in a Pennsylvania school district) as geniuses at their craft, phenomenal family people, and (for the most part) like GQ models. “Katzkee, a tall handsome man, soft spoken, and civilized, was the scholar in the crowd, an expert on constitutional law, and the lawyer who would contribute the constitutional arguments in the final document briefing the judge on the plaintiffs’ case. He also looked as if he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ.” (p. 53; emphasis supplied.)

By contrast, when describing the intellectual father of the Intelligent Design movement, Phillip Johnson, Chapman refers to him dismissively as “a retired law professor from San Francisco.” (p. 142.) Chapman fails to mention that Johnson clerked at the US Supreme Court, authored one of the most influential criminal law casebooks, and was a tenured professor at UC Berkeley’s law school (Boalt Hall). Likewise, Chapman sneers: “If the plaintiffs’ legal team was a well-oiled collegial machine, the defense was a dysfunctional family with a frequently absent father.” (p. 54.) How’s that for objective reporting?

Second, because Chapman was ill-equipped to report the legal issues (he states he has no legal training, as “a high school dropout” [p. 84]), he never properly frames the legal questions before the court. Chapman writes: “Kitzmiller v. Dover had two distinct legal themes. One was the story of neighbors in conflict in Dover, the other the clash of opposing scientific and philosophical views on the origin and development of life.” (p. 38.) Similarly, he fails to provide adequate references to the record, instead furnishing snippets too narrow and too isolated to give the reader full understanding of the trial. As a result, this book stands far from a work of legal reportage as I hoped.

It’s a shame.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (2007).

One of my property law professors once complained about legal writers who circle around a point for many prefatory revolutions before making it, like dogs encircling a resting place before laying down. Thus, he would have loved the writing in Antony Flew's (with Roy Abraham Varghese) There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

Surprisingly concise at 158 pages (sans appendices), There is a God gets right to the heart of the matter. It explains the philosophic basis for Flew's changing his mind about God's existence. At its core, Flew now finds the design argument persusive, although he recasts it a bit.

"Perhaps the most popular and intuitively plausible argument for God's existence is the so-called argument from design. According to this argument, the design that is apparent in nature suggests the existence of a cosmic Designer. I have often stressed that this is actually an argument to design from order, as such arguments proceed from the perceived order in nature to show evidence of design, and thus, a Designer. Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design, I have since come to see that, when correctly formulated, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God." (p. 95; emphasis in original.)

Notably, Flew characterizes his arrival at this conclusion as "a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith." (p. 93.) He stresses that his "discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, wihout any reference to supernatural phenomena." (p. 93.)

In roughly the first half of There is a God, entitled "My Denial of the Divine", Flew provides his athestic background primarly as an academic and author, and in the second half, entitled "My Discovery of the Divine", he explains how he came to believe that God exists.

Christians, for example, should not be so quick to adopt Flew as one of their own, however. Flew stresses that he makes no claim to "any personal experience of God or any experience that may be called supernatural or miraculous." (p. 93.) On the other hand, Flex repeats an intriguing line: "As I have said more than once, no other religion [besides Christianity] enjoys anything like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. If you're wanting omnipotence to set up a religion, it seems to me that this is the one to beat!" (p. 157; see also pp. 185-86.) Flew continues: "I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true." (p. 185.)

In this vein, Flew includes an excellent appendix from New Testament scholar N.T. Wright that succinctly addresses these core questions, "How Do We Know that Jesus Existed?"; "What Grounds Are There for Claiming from the Texts, That Jesus Is God Incarnate?"; and "What Evidence Is There for the Resurrection of Christ?" (pp. 187-213.) Flew responds: "I am very impressed with Bishop Wright's approach, which is absolutely fresh. He presents the case for Christianity as something new for the first time....It is absolutely wonderful, absolutely radical, and very powerful." (p. 213.)

Accordingly, it's a compelling combination to find two building blocks of the Christian religion in a single, lean volume. Flew outlines the architecture for the existence of God, and Wright sketches it for Christianity. Thus, one doesn't have to go round-and-round with redundancies or irrelevancies--like following a dog encircling his mat--to get to the heart of these crucial inquiries.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Adventure Review: Long Beach Grand Prix.

"Goose knuckles."

That's how one young man described the phenomenon appearing on his hand as the IndyCars screamed by us this past weekend at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Like hockey, this is another sporting event that doesn't really translate to television. It has to be experienced in the flesh to be believed. The overpowering sounds of open-wheel racing evoke visceral responses unlike anything else.

In addition to the race, the promoters really know how to put on a first-rate show. For example, one race was inaugurated with what appeared to be an immense military cargo jet buzzing the crowd about a couple of hundred feet up while turning its wings perpendicularly to the ground, which immediately followed sky divers with one unfurling a huge US flag. Complementing the contests, the organizers had commandeered a vast swath of Long Beach (including the Convention Center) with myriad other exhibitions, entertainment and experiences.

This is a world-class event, not to be missed, if you are in Southern California for the 36th installment of the Long Beach Grand Prix next April.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Summiting, Part III.

At oral argument, my certified-appellate-specialist counterpart responded to a justice's question by evidently abandoning his first of two primary arguments.

Seizing on this curious concession, I pinned him on this point and then advanced to his second contention.

The next day, I received a copy of a letter he sent to the justices. In the missive, he attempted to retract his concession imploring the court to consider his first claimed error. To gain the court's benevolence, he asserted that he wasn't prepared for the question and his remark was ill-considered and hasty.

Incredibly, about 14 days later, I received a second letter he later sent to the justices. In the second correspondence, he attempted to “clarify” his first letter, again saying that he wanted the court to rule in his client's favor on his first argument.

Three bites at the proverbial apple. That was a first.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Summiting, Part II.

In Summiting (Part I), I provided excerpts from my Respondent's brief:

In this brief, I adopted an alpine climbing theme and started with a Nelson Mandela quote: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

To switch things up at oral argument (since it's a good idea not to repeat one's brief), I quoted Randy Pausch, the late Carnegie-Mellon professor, who alighted the world with his "Last Lecture" viral video and book.

As Dr. Pausch said, "If there is an elephant in the room, introduce it." I then posited that the trial court's statement of decision, spanning 28 pages--replete with evidentiary citations and credibility determinations--was the proverbial "elephant in the room" in this case. Appellant could not get around the myriad exhibits and testimony relied upon in the document, as much as he wished to ignore it.

In its opinion today (affirming in favor of my client 3-0), the appellate court adopted my arguments that (1) Appellant had waived his insufficiency of the evidence argument by not citing all of the evidence favoring the decision (or even acknowledging its existence in the statement of decision); and (2) even if Appellant hadn't waived the argument, the evidence cited in the statement of decision more than amply supported the judgment.

At oral argument, Appellant's counsel (a certified appellate specialist) in part tried to undermine the trial court's determination by claiming that the trial court got a fact wrong. When it was my turn, I corrected this allegation by noting that the trial court nowhere made such a finding or relied on said "fact", but rather based its ruling for that issue on seven (7) other evidences, which I cited from the statement of decision--the "elephant in the room". You could have heard a pin drop when that evisceration was complete. Not surprisingly, these seven evidences were quoted in the opinion--with enumeration.


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Book Review: Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (2008).

John W. Loftus’ Why I Became an Atheist: a Former Preacher Rejects Christianity doesn't really blaze new ground, but it does cover a lot of it.

In fact, this comprehensiveness is a key distinctive that separates it from the work of the "New Atheist" trio, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (the "Trio"). The other two distinctives are its author's credentials and candor.


Why I Became an Atheist is a serious, comprehensive critique of Christianity (especially conservative Protestantism [see, e.g., p. 12]). Loftus writes, "In it I present a cumulative case argument against Christianity." (p. 12.) Exhibiting its expansive scope, it includes chapters or lengthy discussions on “the problem of evil” (theodicy), philosophical arguments about the existence of God, the origin of life, textual criticism, prayer, the historicity of the biblical record, prophesy, the existence of hell, and living as an atheist, among many other topics.

I’ve read works from today’s big four religion critics: the Trio, plus Bart D. Ehrman—whom I’ve heard amusingly referred to collectively as the “Four Horsemen”. Loftus' book explores topics found in their works, which emphasize certain critiques of religion.

For example, Ehrman recently published a book on theodicy, God’s Problem, and Dawkins largely advocates for an evolutionary rather than theistic explanation for the origin of life in numerous books, such as The God Delusion. Ehrman also has authored books closely examining the New Testament record, such as Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, covering material far beyond anything in Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris'. Uniquely, Loftus provides a taste of all these critiques in his over 400-page, densely-packed tome. In other words, if one were look for a recent survey text for atheistic argumentation, this book would more than suffice. Then, if one wanted to drill down into areas of the other author's expertise, then one could follow up with the respective expert, say Ehrman on New Testament critical scholarship or Dawkins on Darwinism.

I have read that Loftus posits that his "Outsider Test for Faith" (Chapter 4) constitutes an innovation, but I found it just another challenge to employ critical thinking, which a serious Christian should do in any event, and perhaps a recasting of the burden of proof--placing it on the believer.


Unlike the Trio, Loftus holds credentials from within the evangelical academic community. He obtained M.A. and M.Div. degrees from Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois. (p. 13.) Thereafter, he received a Th.M. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School ("TEDS") under the mentoring of Dr. William Lane Craig (p. 13), now a professor at Biola University. Additionally, Loftus "spent a year and a half in a Ph.D. program at Marquette University with a double major in theology and ethics... and taught classes for several Christian colleges...." (p. 13.)

However, this Dr. Craig connection leads to a critique. The book seems largely personalized to refute Dr. Craig--his former mentor, even though Loftus denies it at the outset. (p. 14.) Loftus curiously includes incidents occurring in class with Dr. Craig (his former professor) and personal interactions with him. A picture with Dr. Craig at Loftus' graduation from TEDS is even reproduced. (p. 14.) Moreover, large swaths of text are disproportionately dedicated to setting forth Dr. Craig's apologetic argumentations, only to endeavor to knock them down. While I recognize that Dr. Craig is a leading Christian apologist, he is far from the only one now or before. For example, Loftus does not similarly attack prominent evangelical apologist Dr. Norman L. Geisler's arguments with the same frequency or ferocity as directed to Dr. Craig's. This omission is underscored by Loftus' observation that Dr. Geisler has produced "more than sixty apologetics books, including The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics." (p. 11.)

Loftus interestingly points out that Dr. Geisler "is recommending this book of mine to his students." (p. 11.) Loftus also quotes Dr. Geisler's review of Why I Became An Atheist, which review I endorse: "[I]t 'is an honest and open account of how a Christian became an atheist. Seldom are unbelievers so candid and open. Second, every Christian--let alone Christian apologists--can learn some valuable lessons from it on how to treat wayward believers. Third, it is a thoughtful and intellectually challenging work, presenting arguments that every honest theist and Christian should face.'" (p. 11.)


As Dr. Geisler observed, this book is remarkably "candid and open" (p. 11). To Loftus' credit, and perhaps discredit, he provides the impetus for his "de-conversion." (Chapter 1). Contrasting his de-conversion from one based solely upon a rejection of the evidence itself, Loftus candidly admits "there were three major circumstances that happened in [his] life that changed his thinking." (p. 24.) At its locus was a moral failure followed by mistreatment by the church. (pp. 24-30.)

He tries to answer anticipated critiques by writing, "While the things I have just written [about his personal experiences] might explain to some degree why my thinking has changed, I want to stress the fact that my thinking has indeed changed. You cannot explain away my present thinking by pointing to these experiences I've had in my life." (pp. 31-32.) Despite Loftus' protestations, I couldn't help but conclude that much of Loftus' book that follows Chapter 1's personal story constitutes post-hoc rationalizations for his rejection of Christianity. Nevertheless, I do concur with Loftus that his arguments must be dealt with on their merits--regardless of how Loftus got there. (p. 32.)

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