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The Miracle of Christmas

Looks like God is the world’s best physicist.

The most extraordinary letter received here in 2021 (or perhaps in the last five years) was a response to an email of mine on colleges’ appointing atheist chaplains. The letter (edited to protect the writer) went as follows:

The appointment of an atheist as a chaplain doesn’t seem to me to be, by itself, a calamity for civilization. Over here, we have a long and respectable tradition of Anglican atheism. My wife’s tutor at university was perfectly willing to admit to being an atheist, on the grounds that his own values coincided so closely with the church’s doctrine.

When I was in boarding school, I realized that I really didn’t believe some of what I was being told in confirmation class and wondered if I should proceed anyway. So I confided to my housemaster, who replied, “Of course, you must go ahead, my dear boy: the church needs your support.”

Then, to my astonishment, he revealed to me that he had never actually believed in God. However, he said, the church, alongside the monarchy, was the most important institution in the country.

Subsequently, he was elevated to a far more august position in the church, and attended chapel for many years in full processional vestment, at least eight times a week during term.

And do not forget the Non-Believing Bishops. I’m not sure how many there have been over the years, but there were at least three prominent ones: Richard Holloway (Edinburgh), David Jenkins (York), and Shelby Spong (Newark, New Jersey). If the church can put up with atheist bishops in its own hierarchy, an atheist chaplain in a university doesn’t look that threatening.

Surely what matters is not what these clerics believe (or don’t believe), but what they say and what they teach when doing their jobs.

If you’ve been wondering why Western civilization is collapsing, now you know. The bishops and who knows how many clerics have been lying for years.

And make no mistake: the bishops were lying. At the ceremony of the consecration of a bishop, the candidate is asked, “Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the same holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach or maintain nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the same?” He answers, “I am so persuaded and determined, by God’s grace.”

The letter writer may think the lyin’ bishops were doing their jobs teaching, and the tutors too. A better guess is that their pupils saw right through them.

One survey last year showed that by 2018, only 12 percent of the national population of Great Britain identified as belonging to the Church of England or its sister churches in Scotland and Wales. In addition, surveys show that as few as 1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds now identify as Anglicans. What else would you expect from a “respectable tradition of Anglican atheism”?

A few years ago, in Norwich, England, they built a 15-meter amusement slide in the middle of the cathedral; Rochester Cathedral, just outside London, installed a mini-golf course inside the building for a month; in 2016, Gloucester Cathedral transformed its 1,300-year-old building into a skate park for a skate festival; and Blackburn Cathedral has its own brand of gin — all done, of course, to attract people who probably saw right through the lyin’ bishops and tutors. To repeat: what else would you expect from a “respectable tradition of Anglican atheism”?

So, then, how do those respectable Anglicans think life on Earth began? How do they think we humans got here? On the back of a lyin’ bishop? And what was he standing on? Another lyin’ bishop? And that one? For them, is it lyin’ bishops all the way down?

Belief in God may be only a matter of faith today. But someday, and perhaps soon — maybe in only the next hundred years — the existence of God may be so obvious that only a moron, or an Anglican bishop, will be able to doubt it.

In 2009, this column reviewed Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. Meyer’s essential premise was that there are times when we see something so improbable we say, “Somebody did that.” If you’re at a casino and the ball lands on 16 red 10 times in a row, you know someone’s cheating. You know that because for the ball to land on 16 red more than a (very) few times in a row is so improbable that “someone” (i.e., an intelligence, e.g., a crooked croupier) must be making it happen.

Meyer said we should bring that same skepticism to the idea that life developed by chance. Some people think that life on Earth had an eternity to develop. Not true. The Earth has only been cool enough for life to exist for a relatively few years (maybe four billion). Meyer says that in that relatively short time, all the necessary proteins needed to service a minimally complex cell would have to have developed. The odds of that having happened, he says, are about 1 in 1041,000  (that’s 10 with 41,000 zeros after it). So, yes, that could have happened “by chance,” but we should bring the same skepticism (actually, a whole lot more) to its having happened by chance that we would bring to the behavior of the monotonous roulette wheel.

And now there’s more. In his book Miracles, Eric Metaxas describes some other facts that, if they were just ever so slightly different, would mean that life on Earth couldn’t exist. Here are only three: If our planet were just a little larger, its gravitational force would be stronger, and it would pull all the methane and ammonia down to Earth, and life couldn’t exist. But if Earth were just a little smaller, water vapor, essential to life, would dissipate into the atmosphere, and life couldn’t exist.

If the Earth rotated just a little more slowly, the days would be too hot and the nights too cold for life to exist. But if it rotated just a little faster, the rotation would produce winds sufficiently high to make life impossible.

And a sine qua non for life on Earth is Jupiter, our solar system’s vacuum cleaner. Because Jupiter is so huge (318 times the mass of Earth), most of the comets flying around our solar system get diverted from crashing into Earth by Jupiter’s gravitational pull.

There are, according to Metaxas, hundreds of these variables essential to human life. What are the odds that they all — every single one — are just the way they are by chance?

Zero! That we exist is, in a word, a miracle.

But there’s more. Metaxas says the fine-tuning required for life to exist is nothing compared to what is needed for the universe to exist. He writes that astrophysicists now know that the “values of the four fundamental forces — gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ nuclear forces — were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang…. Alter one value, and the universe could not exist.” The odds, he continues, are a bit like “tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row.” Forget about the roulette wheel.

St. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word … ” “Logos” is the Greek word for “word,” but it also means “reason” or “order.”

So, in the beginning was the ordering of, for example (as Metaxas says), the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force, which, if it had been off by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000 (one quadrillion), would have prevented stars from ever forming at all.

So, yes: in the beginning was the Word.

And then, 2,021 years ago, the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Merry Christmas.

Published:

December 24, 2021
The American Spectator

Bad Omens From Buckley’s Biographer

Sam Tanenhaus is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr, the founder of National Review and of the modern conservative movement. Tanenhaus was interviewed recently by Geoffrey Kabaservice of the Niskanen Center. Readers of the interview will see why Buckley’s friends and conservatives expect an unflattering and inaccurate portrayal of one of the most consequential intellectuals of the twentieth century.

If Tanenhaus’s biography of Buckley is anything like the silly book he wrote in 2009, wonderfully titled The Death of Conservatism (reviewed here), you won’t want not to miss it.

Here, from The Death of Conservatism, is possibly the silliest sentence—and Tanenhaus at his best?—to get published by a mainstream publisher in that entire decade: “Culturally, too these are conservative times…. [C]onservatives should savor the embrace of ‘family values’ by the nation’s homosexual population, who seek the sanctuary—and responsibilities—of marriage and childrearing.”

It just doesn’t get any richer than that—and that explains why admirers of Buckley aren’t expecting an honest or accurate picture of Buckley from Tanenhaus.

Tanenhaus needs to work on getting Buckley family facts straight. He says Buckley couldn’t have written to the King of England about repaying the war debts when he was six because “if he did it, he wrote it in Spanish. And he couldn’t write Spanish because he learned Spanish from his nursemaids, and they were not writers. That’s one of these myths that surrounds Buckley. It’s kind of fun to poke little holes in those. You just think it through logically.” Right.

But thinking logically is difficult without facts. Suggesting that Bill was unable to write in English at age six is absurd. Yes, his first language was Spanish, but he also learned English (at the same time? Amazing!)…in order to converse with his mother and his siblings.

Kabaservice and Tanenhaus discuss Buckley’s (partly) Southern upbringing and his attitude towards black people and the Civil Rights Acts: It’s fair to say they are fixated on the subject. It is also fair to say Buckley was not an early convert to the Civil Rights Acts, though he seems to have changed his mind partly later on. But then later on he also changed his mind on the freedom to smoke: he said, while struggling with emphysema, that he thought government should prohibit smoking. Not everything we say when we get older is wise.

Kabaservice’s and Tanenhaus’s bias is clear: Kabaservice talks about the “storming of the Capitol” on January 6. That’s just left-wing media cant: No more than one gun was confiscated; and possibly up to 23 people had what were described by one report as “baseball bats, chemical sprays, a captured police officer’s riot shield, a crowbar, fire extinguishers and a metal flagpole.” The only killing was by a policeman (details still being covered up by Democrats 11 weeks later), of an unarmed woman climbing through a window, a position difficult to describe as “threatening.” When you hear the words “storming the Capitol” reach for your…skepticism.

Kabaservice and Tenenhaus make great sport of Russell Kirk, an early National Review senior editor, for taking John Calhoun seriously. Calhoun, you see, owned slaves, and presumably nothing he ever said, ever, can be taken seriously. He believed in states’ rights, any serious discussion of which the wokies smother with a racial blanket. And he had a theory of concurrent majorities. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s not surprising, but it’s worth looking up.

Alas, poor Calhoun: He’s become an arch villain. But it’s really, “Alas, poor us,” because he had interesting things to say about minority rights. You get the impression from the Calhoun-haters that if Calhoun had invented the Salk vaccine, they’d have preferred to die of polio.

Kabaservice and Tanenhaus make fun of people who disparaged the civil rights bills. And of people who didn’t like Lincoln (shhh, some people still don’t). And of people who like constitutional government. They are critical of National Review senior editor James Burnham’s writing about “plebiscitary democracy.” “Well,” says Tanenhaus, “it goes back to that idea that we were a republic initially and we evolved into a democracy.”

Whoa there, fella. What does “evolved” mean in a constitutional republic? If you’re a big-government liberal, that evolving may make your heart go pitter-pat. But what happens to the losers in flyover land when the populations of New York (where the governor may soon be indicted) and California (where the governor may soon be recalled) run the country?

Does Tanenhaus care?

Don’t these folks who wear their antiracism on their sleeves ever look at the results of the policies they promote? They are hugely detrimental to…precisely the people they claim you are discriminating against. Really, it’s painful to listen to New York Timesie intellectuals who spend their time promoting policies that are detrimental to black people (e.g., a minimum wage, illegal immigration, and suppressing non-public schools) while smugly Madison-advertising their own racial sensitivity and moral superiority.

Did the early post-WWII conservatives get some things wrong? Probably. Most of us do. But one thing they got right was the danger to freedom the gargantuan state presents—never more apparent than today—and presents most especially to black people.

Tanenhaus, and Kabaservice, have some pleasant things to say about Buckley: He was a peerless discoverer of talent; he exuded a kind of generosity of spirit; he was open to discussion; and he had a largeness and a capaciousness that we don’t see elsewhere.

All true, as those of us who knew him well know. But it’s a good guess that Tanenhaus’s book will emphasize Buckley’s early positions on race while studiously ignoring what 60 years of ministrations by Democrats, resisted by Buckley, have done to black Americans. The takeaway from this interview is that Tanenhaus is not likely to be complimentary to Buckley. Just think it through logically.

Published:

April 1, 2021
The American Conservative