Eric Metaxas: Things in America Are as Bad as During the Revolution and the Civil War

Promoting his new book, If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas told National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez that things are pretty bad right now.

America is in an existential crisis no less serious than the one we faced in the Civil War. Or the crisis before that, when our nation came into being in the Revolution. For the first time in a century and a half we are facing the imminent vanquishing of the republic, except there is no John Bull or Johnny Reb to fight against. We are being hollowed out silently from within by termites — and a hollow, brightly painted shell called “America” will soon exist where America once stood.

Can he really mean that?
There is strong disagreement among citizens about issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun control, but war has not broken out. Even with the harsh political season, we are hardly at the point of civil war.
I went to church last Sunday. I plan to go again this Sunday. No government thugs came anywhere close to my house of worship. I have exercised the same freedoms this week in my small town that I have all my life. All over the nation, lots of people exercised their freedom to do things I disapprove of but those actions did not stop me from doing what I believe to be right.
I don’t think things are as good as they could be. I think extremism on the left and right is a problem and the polarization of the society has increased. I believe the far left and far right should be held responsible for this. I could go on about this.
Currently, I worry that the GOP nominee Metaxas plans to vote for — Donald Trump — is eroding civility and virtue. I worry that his candidacy is a cancer on the GOP and political process. If anything, Metaxas is complaining about how bad things are but he supports a person who is helping to lead us there.
I think reminders to live virtuously are valuable. Human nature being what it is, I believe we need to be reminded of our values so his appeal to us to live virtuously is fine as far as it goes. However, Metaxas’ pitch is eroded by doomsday fear mongering, the historical errors in the book. and his advocacy for a presidential candidate that simply can’t be emulated in the manner he advocates in his book.
 

Eric Metaxas and Ann Coulter Agree: Donald Trump Must Be Elected

Ann Coulter dropped by the Eric Metaxas Show to rant about third world immigrants and promote Donald Trump. By and large, Metaxas agreed with her.
You can listen to the entire broadcast at Soundcloud and on Coulter’s You Tube account. The segment with Coulter begins at 10:44.  Rather than provide a transcript, I will just describe the segment. If Eric Metaxas endorsing both Ann Coulter and Donald Trump is something that is of interest to you, then you will want to hear it for yourself.
While bordering on being incoherent, I think Coulter tried to sell an analogy from Nazis to Muslims in her opening statements. She noted that we did allow Germans to come into the country in WWII but we got technology out of the deal. She wondered what we are getting out of current Muslim immigration. Metaxas seemed a little befuddled and asked Coulter to clarify her statements. She then said that the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was not an American (even though he was born in New York) because his parents came from Afghanistan.
She then blamed the presence of non-European immigrants on Teddy Kennedy. Specifically, she referred to immigration reform supported by Kennedy (The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965). Previously, immigration from Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe was restricted in favor of immigration from western Europe. This law changed the quotas to allow the entrance of immigrants who Coulter disparagingly referred to as “hoards of the third world.”
According to Coulter, the Democrats had political reasons for wanting to change the immigration laws:

The Democrats looked around the country, they realized they couldn’t get Americans to vote for them, so they decided to bring in hoards of the third world, and the third world, as you beautifully described in your opening, have very different ideas than those of us who came from the Magna Carta, the glorious revolution, the Declaration of Independence. That’s our culture. They have a different culture that has a different view of human life but it helps the Democrats at the ballot box.

She said the bill cut off immigration from western Europe, the people who “traditionally populated this country.” She denied the proposition that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants but told Metaxas that we have been overrun with “cheap labor” from the third world who hate the country.
Who Favored the 1965 Immigration Reform?
In fact, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the 1965 immigration bill. Most of the opposition to the bill came from southern Democrats who did not want to upset the ethnic profile of the nation. Coulter has to revise history to provide fuel for her ranting. Later in the broadcast, she again blamed Teddy Kennedy for a bill that more Republicans than Democrats in 1965 supported. There was a time when the GOP was the party of Lincoln.
Metaxas then took the conversation in the direction of support for Trump. Coulter claimed that Trump is the only hope to address the immigration problem. Metaxas agreed. He said the flaws in Trump are outweighed by the fact that he may get to name conservative judges. Metaxas said we might go off a cliff and die if someone besides Trump is elected.
Then, after complaining about California, they talk about the wisdom of having bar patrons carry guns to prevent mass shootings. From there, the conversation covered the usual pros and cons (mostly cons) of gun control. On one hand, Coulter minimized the harm guns might do but then said one gun in a bar might have saved the day.
The segment closed with Metaxas and Coulter lamenting how badly Trump is being treated in the press. What a shame that a free press reports the facts about Mr. Trump. Coulter and Metaxas have special criticism for Mitt Romney since Romney has led the #nevertrump charge. They seem to agree that Romney has some psychological problem (e.g., pathological envy?) which sets him against Trump. I think Romney is shocked that so many people who should know better are supporting Trump.
Metaxas and the Bonhoeffer Card
During part of the first ten minutes, Metaxas gave tribute to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is ironic to me in that he then pivoted to his guest Ann Coulter and their mutual support for Donald Trump. For me, following Bonhoeffer’s example means rejecting a Trump nomination. The GOP delegates would emulate Bonhoeffer if they worked to nominate another candidate to run against Clinton. When it comes to Metaxas, I agree with this fellow:

Eric Metaxas' New Book: On Tolerance for All Denominations and Religions in Colonial America, Part Two

In his new book, If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas writes on page 70:

Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620, religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life.

If only.
As I pointed out in two previous posts (link, link), Metaxas makes the argument that the Pilgrims provided a model of religious tolerance which was incorporated by the Founders into formation of America. In contrast to his claim, I wrote about the persecution of Mary Dyer, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams. Today, I bring forward another exhibit in contradiction to Metaxas’ claim. In the year 1700, the Massachusetts assembly passed an “Act against Jesuits and Popish Priests.” Here is an portion:

Be it Enacted by His Excellency the Governour, Council and Representatives in General Court Assembled: And it is Enacted by the Authority of the same. That all and every Jesuit, Seminary Priest, Jesuits▪ Priests &c to depart the Province by the 10th. of September. Missionary, or other Spiritual or Ecclesiastical Person made or ordained by any Authority, Power or Jurisdiction derived, challenged or pretended from the Pope or See of Rome, now residing within this Province or any part thereof, shall depart from and out of the same, at or before the tenth day of September next, in this present year, One Thousand and Seven Hundred. And be it further Enacted by the Authority aforesaid,Penalty on Jesuits or Priests &c. that shall re|main or come into this Province after the 10th. of September. 1700. That all and every Jesuit, Seminary Priest, Missionary or other Spiritual or Ecclesiastical person made or ordained by any Authority, Power or Jurisdiction, derived▪ challenged or pretended from the Pope or See of Rome, Or that shall pro+fess himself, or otherwise appear to be such by practising and teaching of others to say any Popish Prayers, by celebrating Masses, granting of Absolutions, or using any other of the Romish Ceremonies and Rites of Worship, by or of what name, title or degree soever such person shall be called or known, who shall continue, abide, remain or come in to this Province, or any part thereof, after the Tenth Day of September aforesaid, shall be deemed and accounted an incendiary, and disturber of the Publick Peace and Safety, and an Enemy to the true Christian Religion, and shall be adjudged to suffer perpetual Imprisonment, And if any person being so Sentenced and actually Imprisoned, shall break prison and make his Escape, and be afterwards reken, he shall be punished with Death.Penalty for receiving or harbouring any Jesuit or Priest.

Catholics were to “suffer perpetual Imprisonment.” The law allowed the death penalty for those who escaped from prison and were captured.
Even in Rhode Island, Catholics were excluded from complete religious freedom beginning in 1719.

…all men professing and of competent estates and of civil conversation acknowledge and are obedient to the civil though of different judgments in Religious (Roman Catholicks only excepted) shall be Freemen and shall have liberty to choose and chosen Officers in the Colony both millitary and civil. (link, page 25)

None of the original founders were still around at the time and for reasons not completely clear (although perhaps related to a desire to be consistent with British anti-Catholic sentiment), Rhode Island passed a law which singled out Catholics. Thus, in the home of religious tolerance in the colonies, religious toleration went backwards. The law was not repealed until 1783.
In New York, Catholics were tolerated until a purge came in 1688. In 1700, New York’s lawmakers passed a law, similar to the anti-Catholic law passed in Massachusetts, which called for imprisonment of priests who led Catholic worship and death for any who escaped prison and were captured. Other colonies went through anti-Catholic periods as well.
When one considers the experience of the Quakers and Catholics, it is impossible to support the notion that religious tolerance was “the single most important principle of American life.” Metaxas engages in wishful thinking when he writes, “complete tolerance for all denominations and religions” existed for nearly a century before the founding of America.
It is astounding that the founders came together to ban religious tests for federal service and enact the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, one cannot exclusively ground this tradition with the Pilgrims and Protestant controlled colonial assemblies. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Madison and the others, influenced by Enlightenment writers as well as their religious traditions, took the nation in a different direction than was true of the colonial governments.

On Tolerance for All Denominations and Religions in Colonial America

In his upcoming book If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas claims there was “complete tolerance for all denominations and religions” for nearly a century before the founding era of the United States. From page 35 of the book:

On page 70, he adds

Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620, religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life.

Such tolerance was not extended to Quakers and other dissenters in the colonies. In 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged in Puritan Massachusetts as a Quaker dissenter. Anne Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts in 1638 and settled in Rhode Island where Roger Williams also settled two years earlier after being banished from Massachusetts.  Persecution and discrimination were the lot of many dissenters from the state church.
Thomas Jefferson did not attribute his ideas about religious freedom to the example of the colonial governments. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson criticized the treatment of dissenters by colonial governments.

Note that Jefferson judged that Puritans showed intolerance toward other sects, most notably the Quakers. They wanted religious freedom for themselves but not for others. Religious tolerance was the exception, not the rule in colonial times, even in Jefferson’s Virginia. Metaxas tells us that religious tolerance was complete; Jefferson said the intolerance matched the level displayed in England. I’ll go with TJ on this one.
Metaxas mentions exceptions to the general religious intolerance but he weaves them in with his contention that the Pilgrims and Puritans gave us the tradition of religious freedom. For instance, Metaxas briefly describes the Flushing Remonstrance and Roger Williams’ settlement in Rhode Island. The Flushing document was a petition to the leader of New Netherland settlement Peter Stuyvesant asking for relief from his ban on Quakers. Metaxas rightly heralds this action. However, Metaxas fails to set it in context. Despite the noble purpose, the petition failed and Stuyvesant cracked down on dissent. He jailed two leaders of the petition effort. Others recanted their dissent in the face of punishment.
Regarding Roger Williams, he was forced out of Massachusetts because he “broached  & divulged diverse, new & dangerous opinions.” Williams had to secretly escape to Rhode Island in January 1636 during the harsh Massachusetts winter. Dissent was not well tolerated. Metaxas does not give us the whole picture. Without banishment due to the intolerance of the dominant Puritans, Williams would not have established religious freedom in Rhode Island.
I can’t understand why writers omit this history. The outline for Metaxas’ book appears to come from Paul Johnson’s 2006 First Things article on the same subject. The cover similar ground and gloss over similar issues. The America given to us by the founders is much closer to Roger Williams’ Rhode Island than John Winthrops’ city on a hill. That is a good thing and a story worth telling and retelling.
 
Additional information:
See my post from yesterday and Gregg Frazer’s review of Metaxas’ book.

In New Book, Eric Metaxas Takes a Page from David Barton

Yesterday, History professor Gregg Frazer posted a very helpful preview of Eric Metaxas’ upcoming book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. In this book, it appears that Metaxas has taken some pages from David Barton.

There is a preview of the parts of the book available at Amazon and Google so I was able to check some of what Frazer wrote and look into a couple of additional problems. Given what I found, I would not recommend it unless one plans to fact check it. However, as Frazer notes, fact checking is not easy since Metaxas didn’t include many end notes or source materials.
Given what I read, Frazer is spot on.

One of the more egregious historical errors is the claim that the “very first settlers on American shores” came “precisely” to gain religious freedom, along with the equally false claim that “in America the idea of religious freedom was paramount,” and that there was “a complete tolerance of all denominations and religions” from the beginning (34–35).

These are not minor differences in interpretation. As Frazer says, these claims are false. Even though it may be a common false claim, it is disappointing to see Metaxas perpetuate it.

Thomas Jefferson and Yahweh

Of interest to me is Metaxas’ treatment of Thomas Jefferson. The first issue I checked revealed an error and a significant misrepresentation of Jefferson. Metaxas, like Barton, seems to want his readers to see Jefferson as much more religious than current political leaders. In doing so, he uses a questionable quote attributed to Jefferson to make it appear that Jefferson believed in “Yahweh of the Hebrew Scriptures.”
MetaxasJefferson
Here Metaxas claims that Jefferson wrote Daniel Webster a letter in which Jefferson said: “I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the [Bible] will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands.”

First, Jefferson did not write this in a letter to Webster. The fact checkers at Monticello have looked into this and concluded, “This quotation has not been found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson.”

Actually, in a June 16, 1852 letter to a “professor Pease” Daniel Webster claimed Jefferson told him this quote during Webster’s visit to Monticello. Webster said he “spent a Sabbath with Thomas Jefferson many years ago, at his residence in Virginia.” Webster added that “It was in the month of June and the weather was delightful.” According to Webster, on that Sunday in June, Jefferson uttered the words about the Bible (actually Webster said Jefferson said, “sacred volume”).

There are several problems with this quote. First, Webster visited Monticello from December 14-19, 1824, not in June. The weather was not delightful, as they were delayed in leaving because of bad weather. Webster wanted to leave Monticello early because, according to an account of the trip, he received troubling news about an illness in one of his children. When the weather broke (December 19, 1824 — which was a Sunday morning), they left the area. In the historical account of the visit, Webster made no mention of religious discussions or Jefferson’s quotes about perusing the sacred volume.

Thus, the quote itself is suspicious and Metaxas reports it incorrectly as being written by Jefferson.

There is another problem with Metaxas application of the quote to suggest Jefferson believed in the God of the Old Testament. Jefferson didn’t have very good things to say about the Old Testament. Jefferson wrote that Jesus reformed the deficient religion of the Jews.

His [Jesus’] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.

and

Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion: and a step to right or left might place him within the gripe of the priests of the superstition, a blood thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel. (letter to William Short, August 4, 1820)

Jefferson’s view of Yahweh is not well represented by Webster’s questionable quote, but rather by his own words, calling Him “cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.”

I am pleased that Gospel Coalition published this review and hope that Metaxas will quickly address the errors and misleading narrative.

Note: The one concern with Frazer’s review is that he says Metaxas’ used a fake quote attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville. Apparently, Frazer had a prepublication copy of the book with the Tocqueville credited with the quote. Sometime prior to the Google preview being posted, the error was rectified because Metaxas acknowledges in the Google copy that the quote is false (although he cites it and says it summarizes Tocqueville well).

Eric Metaxas and the Strange Hitlery Tweet

This so wrong on so many levels:


So many good replies:


Eine dummkopf.
Now Metaxas is up there with those folks who call Trump “Drumpf.”
Then I thought of Mark Noll’s sentence: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”*
*Perhaps Metaxas was attempting a joke. In any case, it was a lame attempt. Given his support for David Barton, it is hard to tell when one can take him seriously.
Update: Now Metaxas says he was joking. Alan Noble (Christ and Pop Culture) provides the appropriate commentary.

David Barton Denies Plagiarism; Eric Metaxas Appears on Wallbuilders Live

It is surprising to me that Eric Metaxas appeared today on Wallbuilders Live.
Rick Green, Tim Barton, and David Barton spent the first few minutes laughing off Barton’s use of Metaxas’ article without attribution on January 23. On the broadcast today, after tearing down my faith, Tim Barton said at 3:28 into the broadcast that the gang made it clear during the January 23 show that Barton was reading from an article. If you listen to the broadcast, (click here for the entire broadcast), you will see that none of the hosts tell the audience that Barton’s “math test” and related quotes came from any article. At about 4:00 into today’s show, Tim Barton said, “we openly acknowledge that we are reading someone’s else’s article.” I listened again to the broadcast and there is no mention of an article by anyone. If they had mentioned Metaxas or even that the material came from an article, there would have been no need for the post.
Listening to Eric Metaxas say (at about 19:00) that David Barton is doing his part to get the truth out is surreal.
At the end of the broadcast, the gang makes light of the number of Facebook likes the Getting Jefferson Right page has. How about another comparison with the now pulled from print The Jefferson Lies? How about comparing the number of favorable reviews from actual historians each book has?

David Barton Plagiarizes Eric Metaxas' WSJ Article on a Fine-Tuned Universe

Without any mention of Eric Metaxas or the Wall Street Journal, David Barton, on his Wallbuilders program today, described the exact illustrations and arguments used by Metaxas in his WSJ article “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” Barton referred to Carl Sagan’s two criteria for planets capable of sustaining life and then he said scientists have discovered that 200 perfect conditions must be met for a planet to have life. Barton refers to the Friday segment as “good news Friday.” In this case, the good news according to Barton and crew is that scientists are now leaning toward intelligent design.
Here is the link to the episode. The discussion of Metaxas’ article comes within the first 10 minutes.

Other than Barton’s embellishments, this is a description of the WSJ article. For instance, at 5:36 Barton tells his co-hosts:

BARTON: Now that they know that there are 200, they’re getting this movement in the scientific community  toward what we call intelligent design. As a matter of fact, the guy who coined the term ‘Big Bang’, are you ready for this? Fred Hoyle, and he’s the astronomer who coined the term ‘Big Bang’ said that his atheism was quote ‘greatly shaken’ unquote at the new developments.
GREEN: Wow!
BARTON: He later wrote that quote ‘a common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with the chemistry and biology.  The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming to put this conclusion almost beyond question.’ That’s atheist astronomer.

Metaxas wrote in his WSJ article:

Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

Barton focused on two main points: one, scientists have discovered that no planets (“bubkis”) are in the habitable zone and two, that there are 200 criteria necessary for earth-like life. Both of these points are disputable. As I noted in a prior post, NASA has identified eight planets in the habitable zone, and Metaxas has not provided a source for his contention about 200 parameters. The one source I know Metaxas pointed to, a research brief by Jay Richards for the Discovery Institute, identified only 22 parameters.


In fact, Richards cautions against identifying a broad number of parameters.

In discussing fine-tuned parameters, one can take either a maximal or a minimal approach.
Those who take the maximal approach seek to create as long a list as possible. For instance, one popular Christian apologist listed thirty-four different parameters in one of his early books, and maintains a growing list, which currently has ninety parameters. He also attaches exact probabilities to various “local” factors.
While a long (and growing) list sporting exact probabilities has rhetorical force, it also has a serious downside: many of the parameters in these lists are probably derived from other, more fundamental parameters, so they’re not really independent. The rate of supernova explosions, for 290 instance, may simply be a function of some basic laws of nature, and not be a separate instance of fine-tuning. If you’re going to legitimately multiply the various parameters to get a low probability, you want to make sure you’re not “double booking,” that is, listing the same factor twice under different descriptions. Otherwise, the resulting probability will be inaccurate. Moreover, in many cases, we simply don’t know the exact probabilities.

“Rhetorical force” is a good description of what Metaxas used in his WSJ article.
This rhetoric made an impression on David Barton who liked it so much, he appropriated it as his own and added some rhetorical force of his own.

Can Science Make a Fine-Tuned Case for God? – A Response to Eric Metaxas

In his Christmas Day Wall Street Journal article, author Eric Metaxas promises that he will explain how science makes a “relatively recent case for God’s existence.”  He then spends a significant part of the op-ed telling us that scientists have been looking for life sustaining planets since the 1960s but have yet to find any. Metaxas reminds readers that Congress defunded the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in 1993. He then tells us that researchers continue to look but that “As of 2014, researchers have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.”
In addition to the absence of habitable planets, Metaxas says humans shouldn’t be here.

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.

As I read the article, I had the nagging feeling that something wasn’t right.
On examination of NASA’s program to discover habitable planets, I found information which tells a very different story than told by Metaxas in the WSJ. For instance, in February 2014, NASA announced discovery of a “motherlode” of exoplanets, four of which orbited their stars in a habitable zone.  Then in April, NASA announced the discovery of a potentially habitable planet about the size of Earth. Watch:
[youtube]http://youtu.be/RlidbLyDnPs[/youtube]
And then just a week ago, NASA announced that the Kepler mission has discovered 1,000 planets with a total of eight being in the habitable zone.  In contrast to the pessimism implied by Metaxas, planet hunters seemed pleased with the results of their work:

“With each new discovery of these small, possibly rocky worlds, our confidence strengthens in the determination of the true frequency of planets like Earth,” said co-author Doug Caldwell, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “The day is on the horizon when we’ll know how common temperate, rocky planets like Earth are.”

While eight is not a gazillion; as of now, it isn’t bubkis either.
However, it is not particularly scientific or helpful in any sense to pick a side and declare the debate over. While NASA’s planet hunters are optimistic, some experts are skeptical about life on other planets. Furthermore, the newly discovered planets might not be habitable, or they might not even exist. Recently, a team from University of Texas in Austin provided data which cast doubt on the existence of planets orbiting in the habitable zone of dwarf star Gliese 581. However, the scientific attitude is to pursue the evidence wherever it leads. The technology to find evidence of such planets is in very early stages and with advancements may lead to better understanding.
Lead researcher Paul Robertson in the Gliese study takes the position that the techniques which allowed his team to rule out a planet orbiting Gliese will allow them to find other real planets in the future. In the McDonald Observatory press release on the study, Robertson said:

While it is unfortunate to find that two such promising planets do not exist, we feel that the results of this study will ultimately lead to more Earth-like planets.

In light of their findings, I asked another member of the UT-Austin team, Michael Endl research scientist at the McDonald Observatory at UT-Austin, his view of Metaxas’ article. I wondered if he was pessimistic about finding habitable planets since he had helped disprove one such planet existed. In reply, Endl said:

One common mistake that Metaxas does is to take the null result from SETI and draw the incorrect conclusion that this means life is rare. Complex, intelligent, technological life might be sparse but simple life might be quite common. For most of its time, Earth was a planet inhabited by microbes. There could be less complex life on habitable planets around every single star in the night sky and we wouldn’t know it.

Regarding the future of planet hunting, Endl is ebullient:

NASA’s Kepler mission has already shown that small planets are common around other stars, and soon we will know how common Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars in the Kepler field are. New missions like TESS, K2 and PLATO will find more of these planets closer to us, around nearby stars. And with the next generation of large aperture ground-based telescopes, as well as new space telescopes, like the James-Webb Space Telescope, we might be able to probe some of them for bio-signatures in their atmospheres.

I also asked Endl for a list of the 200 criteria for planetary life mentioned by Metaxas. Endl replied:

This is also bogus. There is no list of criteria that scientists use. You can make this list arbitrarily long or short, depending on your viewpoint. Sagan was talking in the broadest terms, distance to star and mass/radius of the planet. Since we do not know what criteria are really needed for life to form, such a list is very artificial.

The more I gather evidence, the more I am feeling like the WSJ op-ed is both outdated and premature. It is outdated because Metaxas primarily relied on a 2006 statement from a retired political scientist (Peter Schenkel) as an authority to discredit the search for habitable planets when, in fact, there is currently great optimism about the Kepler research program and technological advances among scientists. However, the article is premature in that the search for habitable planets has a long way to go with numerous advances in technology to come. We know more than Metaxas told us but we don’t know enough to say much for certain. Thus, it is hard to sustain enthusiasm about the article’s premise.
It is tempting to scold Metaxas for taking us all on a ride by failing to incorporate a more complete and accurate picture of his topic. However, I want to conclude more positively.
I don’t take strong issue with one of the points Metaxas brings us. There are times when scientific research work dovetails nicely with what we believe about God. I point out this common ground frequently in my classes. For instance, I think the social psychological study of self-serving bias provides a nice point of contact with my theological views of human depravity.  Likewise, I think the work on ostracism and attachment match up nicely with theological conceptions of humans existing in the image of God. However, I don’t think we can push this too hard in areas where our knowledge is tentative.  As Kurtis McCathern pointed out yesterday, studying the cosmos looking for God could lead us to several different images, some of which might be hazardous to our preconceptions.
In another context, I summarized my approach to faith and science:

I start with the premise that science is no threat to faith. If scientific work seems to conflict with tenets of my religion, I accept the tension until I understand things better. Extending that belief to history, I do not need the founders to be evangelicals in order to enjoy and defend American freedom for people of my faith, another faith, and no faith.
Loving God with all my mind doesn’t mean splitting it in two. If a study of science or history tells me something uncomfortable, I do not retool the science or history to make me comfortable. I walk by faith, live with the tension, and accept what is in front of my face.

Finally, I actually agree with Metaxas’ WSJ conclusion: this universe and our place in it is a miracle. My personal belief is that it is a miracle brought about somehow by God. However, I don’t need science to tell me that. I know it when I listen to Led Zeppelin with a friend over tacos, hear my granddaughter say Papa, hold my grandson, watch my children grow and change, and experience the love and kindness of my wife. And after surviving open heart surgery a little over two years ago, I am more convinced than ever that every minute of life is a miracle.

Kurtis McCathern on Virtual Worlds, Watchmakers, and Other Speculations: Reactions to Eric Metaxas

One thing is sure, Eric Metaxas has people talking. His Christmas Day Wall Street Journal article titled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” has been liked over 370,000 times on Facebook  and has been retweeted over 5700 times. Obviously, the topic is of great interest to many people. 
After I read the WSJ article, I reached out to a few people with questions about some of the claims. I will report on most of the answers tomorrow. However, today I want to post a reaction to Metaxas’ article from good friend and computer engineer Kurtis McCathern. Kurtis has a BA from Rice University in computer science and math and works at Blizzard Entertainment on the World of Warcraft franchise. This piece is not exactly a rebuttal but he jumps off of the WSJ article with reflections on our assumptions about God’s creativity. Yesterday, I linked to an article by Peter Enns which ended with the following observation:

Bottom line, as I see it: God’s “existence” (pardon the metaphorical language) and consequently knowing this God are not proven or disproven by the amazing advances in recent generations concerning our knowledge of the physical universe–even if those advances challenge how we think of God and speak of God.

God is not at stake. Our metaphors are.

Metaxas selectively addressed what science has to say about the origins of the universe, failing to address opposing arguments and data. Along with Enns and McCathern, I think it is too soon to know what science makes the case for.
……………………………
Virtual Worlds, Watchmakers, and Other Speculations
by Kurtis McCathern
I literally create worlds for a living. Not by myself, of course: a large team of designers, artists, and programmers work together to create the lands, flora, fauna, and characters that make up World of Warcraft. In fact, my part as a programmer is barely recognizable as creation as all. My code runs below the trees and rocks a player would see in the world, as dozens of computers fly messages back and forth to simulate the world of Azeroth. In ancient Greece, my fellow programmers and I would play the roles of Erebus and Nyx, bringing forth the Aether which would bind creation together.
It is from this perspective that I wonder why we as Christians are so fascinated with watchmaker arguments.
The canonical watchmaker analogy was made by William Paley in “Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity”, and goes more or less like this: you are walking along, you come across a watch. A watch is intricate in design, with several tiny pieces that must be made with exacting tolerances all to work together. When you come across this watch, you don’t think the watch has been there forever, or that it just spontaneously occurred. You assume the origin of the watch is a watchmaker.
Other teleological arguments predate this by thousands of years, and are not unique to Christianity, but they do seem to come up a lot in evolution vs. creation debates. They are popular because they are easy to understand and engage that most dangerous of human skills: intuition. Every time another complex, interrelated, seemingly irreducible system is described by science, the bookies of the debate stand ready to argue that the odds are irresistible. Science, do you really want to believe that you are here by a chance of one in a billion billion billons (or worse)? How big a gambler are you?
Pieces like Eric Metaxas’s recent effort in the Wall Street Journal seem to crop up whenever there’s a shiny new hard-to-explain-the-odds bit of science. They claim: science has now discovered the universe is not like a watch, it’s more complex, like a race car engine. Or a rocketship! Or the entire internet! If you came across the entire internet by chance you would assume an intelligent designer, right? (Don’t answer that.)
The odds are certainly very long, but on closer inspection you see the argument isn’t really about odds at all.
A strong argument against the watchmaker analogy already exists: it’s called the anthropic principle. It states that you can’t really worry about the odds that led to you existing, because you already do exist. You can only observe the outcome that led to you. Put it this way: if you are walking along a garden path, and you come across five dice with the number 4 facing up, you might assume that somebody set the dice like that, because it’s an extremely unlikely result. But another possibility is that the person who owns the path rolls those dice every day, and only opens it up for people to come in if all the dice come up 4’s. Thus every one who has ever seen the dice has seen them as 4’s. No other observation exists because no one was there to observe.
In other words, we as intelligent creatures can speculate on our origins only because we happen to be here. In other universes, there’s no “us” to do the speculating, or even to have the origins about which to speculate. But that doesn’t mean the universe was carefully scripted for us to arrive on stage.
The watchmaker argument hasn’t really changed; it’s just a matter of scale. Unfortunately, greater odds don’t necessarily mean there was a designer anymore than smaller odds would mean there couldn’t be.
But there’s a greater problem with watchmaker analogies for Christians: we know how to build watches, but we don’t know how to build worlds. In Greek antiquity, a speculation on origins only had to explain the ground, the air, the water, and the stars you could see. Aether seems pretty good in that light. Now we know more about experiential reality, so we have to add black holes and dark matter and Einstein’s favorite fudge factor: the cosmological constant. As a result, popular scientific opinion currently seems centered around string theory and the bubbly multiverse.
To clarify, look at another popular video game: Minecraft. Unlike World of Warcraft, where every rock or tree is placed carefully by a designer or artist, in Minecraft the entire world you inhabit is generated randomly from a single number, and millions or more unique possible worlds can result. Just constrain your equation a bit here and a bit there and suddenly you’re chopping wood in a blocky forest.
It’s a strange idea, even to science. In fact, scientists are arguing now if it’s even possible to determine the validity of string theory experimentally, since the multiverse idea means anything you don’t understand or doesn’t fit can pushed out into places you can never observe. Some, like Paul Steinhardt, are worried about losing the integrity of science as a result of trying. Given the discussion within the scientific community, it’s understandable that a non-scientist could be overwhelmed.
Yet I fear the watchmaker analogy feels compelling exactly because this strange random new world feels foreign. We know how to build watches, and we’re comfortable culturally with God the careful craftsman. Like those theologians of Galileo’s day who were unwilling to believe they weren’t the center of the universe, we don’t like the idea that God’s creative process might be less Da Vinci and more Jackson Pollock — messier and harder to understand than the knitting described in Psalm 139. Augustine reminded us that turning water into wine instantaneously at a wedding is really no more miraculous than doing it in barrels and casks over years, and likewise creation is no less miraculous if it requires a bubbly multiverse instead of scripted design. A bubbly multiverse would mean less focus on our individuality and more on God’s overall design: God as curator of creation, instead of craftsman.
Remember: a God who can create the universe by placing every tree and rock World of Warcraft style could also have written the code for the universe Minecraft style and created a billion billion billion other ones at the same time.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” Isaiah 55:8