At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The word “terrorism” is not all that easy to define. Yet we wouldn’t know this given the wild indiscriminateness with which it’s applied.  The following five scenarios supply us with examples of this.

(1)Those Muslims on the battlefields of such places as Iraq and Afghanistan are Islamic.  Obviously, they are also killing, or trying to kill, American soldiers.  Therefore, they are terrorists.

(2) An enraged mob attacks an American embassy in Benghazzi on September 11, 2012.  An American ambassador and a couple of servicemen are killed.  The mob consists of Muslims.  Thus, they are terrorists.

(3)Nidal Malik Hasan, a United States Army Medical Corps officer, goes on a shooting spree in 2009 that ends with 13 fellow service personnel dead.   Hasan is a Muslim.  Therefore, he is a terrorist.

(4) The perpetrators of September 11, 2001, an event that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 American civilians, were Islamic.  So, they were terrorists.

(5) The brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing that killed and maimed American civilians were Muslim.  Therefore, they are terrorists.

Situations (1)-(3) involve non-civilian targets, agents of the United States government.  But if Islamic “terrorists” are terrorists because they target American soldiers and/or representatives of the American government, then it would seem that, say, the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor also qualify as “terrorists.”

Is it because the Japanese were state actors, agents acting on behalf of their government, that we don’t think of them along these lines?

This can’t be right.

For starters, the state/non-state distinction can all too easily be turned around to show that it is impossible to be at “war” with non-state actors.  While it is possible for, say, the American government to be at war with the governments of Iraq, Syria, or any other country, it is no more possible for the United States to wage war against Al-Qaeda or “Islamism” or “Islamo-Fascism” than it is possible for it to wage war against Timothy McVeigh or Bill Ayers.

Maybe the Japanese were terrorists.  But then so too are own soldiers who kill the government agents of those on whom we wage war.

Situations (4) and (5) involve attacks against civilians.  This by itself doesn’t prove that they the assailants are terrorists, though.

We should recall that a person who causes terror isn’t necessarily a terrorist.  Sandy Hook Elementary School mass murderer Adam Lanza spread terror, yet we do not treat him as a terrorist.  This is because a terrorist is motivated to instill terror for the sake of a purpose, namely, a political, theological, or otherwise ideological purpose.

The killers in (4) and (5) appeared to be motivated by such a purpose. Perhaps they are indeed terrorists.  Yet if this is the case, then those governments that carpet bomb civilian populations in war are alike composed of terrorists.

The objection that “democracies” don’t intend to kill civilians—even if they foresee them—relies upon the Catholic doctrine of “double-effect.”    As the distinguished 20th century Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe noted, to use the doctrine in this way is to abuse it. The abusers, she wrote, would have us think that “by making a little speech to yourself: ‘What I mean to be doing is’” this, not that, we achieve “a marvelous way…of making any action lawful.”

For example, a person who starts shooting off a gun in a mall, say, and winds up hitting or killing bystanders, might appeal to the doctrine of double-effect by saying that he never intended to kill anyone. He only intended to shoot off his gun.  That someone was shot is but an “accidental,” not an “essential,” aspect of the situation.

Immediately, we recognize that this is unacceptable.  No less unacceptable, though, is the idea that we didn’t intend to kill civilians when we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Anscombe writes: “It is nonsense to pretend that you do not intend to do what is the means you take to your chosen end.  Otherwise there is absolutely no substance to the Pauline teaching that we may not do evil that good may come.”

Perhaps it is best that we don’t think much about the meaning of “terrorism.”  We may not like what we discover once we begin to go down this path.




Last week, world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking addressed legions of enthusiastic students and others at Caltech.  According to reports, the gist of his speech was that “general relativity” and “quantum theory” can enable us to account for the origins of the universe without positing the existence of God.

According to The Daily Mail, Hawking ridiculed the religious position on this topic by likening it to the myth of an obscure African tribe whose God “vomited the Sun, Moon, and stars.”  He further mocked the traditional theistic explanation of the world’s beginnings by referring back to an exchange that Martin Luther is said to have had with a younger man who ventured to discover what God was doing “before” He decided to create the universe.  “Was he preparing Hell for people who asked such questions?”  “Such questions,” Hawking maintained, are nonsense.

As Christians have noted for the better part of 2,000 years, they are indeed nonsensical.  Hawking would have known this had he, say, read St. Augustine’s Confessions—a Western classic that supplies us with an analysis of time that secular and religious thinkers alike acknowledge remains unrivaled for its insights.  Yet this is the problem: Hawking, not unlike most scientists who have made a splash in the popular culture, seems to be almost scandalously ignorant of the philosophical and theological literature that defines his civilization.

Augustine conceded long ago that the question, “What was God doing before He created the world?” is fundamentally misplaced.  He knew what Hawking now knows: the world did not come to be in time, but, rather, time is an aspect or dimension of the world.  Thus, since “before” is a temporal word, there was no “before” God created the world, for there was no time until God created it.

As far as the idea of God puking up the universe is concerned, Christians (along with Jews and Muslims, for that matter) have always found this as primitive and repugnant a conception as does Hawking.  Again, it is shameful that he apparently doesn’t know this, for it is elementary.

Unlike, say, Hindus and ancient Greeks, Christians staunchly deny that the universe “emanated” from God, or that God brought it into being from some “stuff” that already existed.  And, of course, they just as stanchly deny that God is a physical being, a body.  Yet this is all that is implied in Hawking’s metaphor of the god of his African tribe.

For the Christian, the world is not contemporaneous with God, the way a person is contemporaneous with his shadow, say, or the bile in his stomach.  Rather, God is the Supreme Being, immaterial and, thus, invisible, who created the world out of nothing.

In fact, ironically, it is precisely because of the belief that the world is the product of an all-good God that science has soared to such heights as it has.  In the absence of this Christian doctrine, it is much more likely than not that science itself would have been absent from the West.   It is the idea that the material cosmos, by virtue of being the handiwork of the Perfect Architect, is both real and good that the universe was deemed an eminently worthwhile object of investigation.

If not for this “religious position,” there would have been no science—and no Stephen Hawking.

There is a final point.  As Christian (and other) thinkers have noted for centuries and centuries, the universe is not self-explanatory.  Hawking might agree, which is why, I think, he has theorized that our universe is but one universe among an infinite number of such universes.  But this line only pushes the problem back a step.

First, since “the universe” is but a short-hand term for everything or all things, to speak of infinite universes is like speaking of infinite everythings, or limitless all things.  Neither logically nor grammatically does it seem to make much sense.

However, the bigger obstacle to Hawking’s view is philosophical or theological.  Let’s just suppose that there is more than one universe.  So what?  The basic question over which atheists and theists have been clashing from time immemorial is: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Hawking never states the question this directly—and for good reason.

Whether there is one universe or an infinite number of universes, nothing composed of parts—as the universe is—is self-explanatory. In other words, to explain the universe or universes, we must go beyond them.

Why is X here?  Unfortunately, for the Hawkings of the world, it is logically illicit to answer this by pointing to X itself.

Hawking may be a great scientist, but he is a lousy philosopher—and an even worse theologian.

Immediately upon Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s capture, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham was demanding that the suspect’s Miranda Rights be waived.  The bomber, Graham contended, must be treated as an “enemy combatant.” He tweeted that the “The Law of War” permits the United States government to withhold “Miranda warnings” and legal “counsel” from those suspected of being “potential enemy combatant[s].”

Unfortunately, Graham’s position is no anomaly.  Within short order, many a Republican, both his Congressional colleagues as well as “conservative” media personalities, came to side with him.  To be fair, their reasoning is understandable: If Tsarnaev is given Miranda Rights, he will then have the right to remain silent, and if he exercises this right, he will then refrain from revealing whatever he may know about future terrorist attacks, thus exposing innocent Americans to injury and death.

Yet while “the Graham” reasoning is understandable, it can’t but send shivers down the spine of any liberty-loving American. The sort of utilitarian logic on which it’s based is precisely what the Constitution was designed to guard against. Unlike their posterity, those who ratified the Constitution knew that liberty is no mean feat.  In fact, it is beyond manly, approximating the divine, for means-end reasoning like that which Graham exemplifies is vastly more common, and vastly easier, than the resolutely non-utilitarian, and even anti-utilitarian, considerations that the love for liberty demands.

Let’s be clear: though an immigrant, the Boston bomber is a naturalized American citizen. Most Americans, yours truly included, believe that he is indeed guilty of the crime of which he’s accused. But our beliefs on this score are utterly irrelevant: no one is guilty of any crime in America, regardless of how heinous it may be, until after the government, upon meticulously subscribing to every detail of established procedure, proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

That every criminal defendant in America is presumed innocent before the government proves otherwise is elementary stuff. But, sadly, the Lindsay Grahams of the world remind us that this elementary stuff bears repeating.

The liberty that Americans have always known is inseparable from the decentralization of authority and power that their institutional arrangements have traditionally secured.  Multiple “checks and balances”—among which are the Constitution’s Bill of Rights—insure an essentially self-conflicted government, a government incapable of acting hastily and arbitrarily against both its own citizens as well as those of other nations.

In other words, there is no liberty; there are only liberties.  Or, if you will, liberty refers to a system of mutually reinforcing liberties, a system that distributes authority and power far and wide.

Much has been done over America’s history to erode this system of liberty.  But there is no more ominous sign that it is all but a thing of the past than the government’s targeting of American citizens, right here at home, as “enemy combatants.”

In the case of Tsarnaev, the government, thankfully, decided to ignore the pleadings of Graham and many others and issue the suspect his Miranda Rights.  Yet this does nothing to change the fact that legions of Americans cheered wildly last Friday night when he was arrested.  Neither does it change the fact that the authorities, from the President on down, did much to encourage the notion that the guilty had been caught.

As for this notion of an “enemy combatant,” it makes sense when a country is at war against an identifiable enemy.  But if Tsarnaev is to be declared an enemy combatant, then with whom can he be said to be fighting against America?  If we are at war, then the question is: with whom?

Graham will no doubt answer “radical Islam,” or “Islamism,” or something along these lines.  For a variety of reasons, this is woefully inadequate.

As long as our government insists that it is engaged in some amorphous “War on Terror” or “War on Islamo-Fascism,” then, in principle, anyone, and at any time and for any reason, can be declared an enemy combatant.  Muslims will be particularly vulnerable.  On Monday’s edition of Sean Hannity’s radio show, guest Jay Sekulow, from the American Center for Law and Justice, summarily dismissed this idea, reassuring listeners that anyone endowed with enemy combatant status has the right to attain a habeas corpus and argue his case before a judge so as to prove that he is not guilty as charged.

Pay careful attention here.  Sekulow thinks that American citizens needn’t worry about their liberties because if they are accused of being enemy combatants, then the burden will be on them to convince their government otherwise.

All hyperbole aside, the Grahams and the Sekulows of the world pose a much larger threat to American liberty than any posed by the Tsarnaev brothers.




There can be no question that Stephen Hawking is a brilliant scientist.

But he is a lousy philosopher, and an even worse theologian.

If ever it was in question, Hawking’s speech at Caltech last week established beyond doubt that the world-renowned physicist suffers from Amateur Philosopher Syndrome (APS).

Scientists, particularly popular scientists, like Hawking, are especially prone to APS. All such scientists see the world, not so much scientifically, as scientistically.  That is, they assume that there is but one legitimate tongue in which to speak of reality: the language of science.  All others are dismissed.

Three aspects of Hawking’s lecture reveal his to be a classic textbook case of APS.

First, while referring to this as a “glorious time” in which we have succeeded in coming “this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe,” Hawking referred to human beings as but “mere collections of fundamental particles of nature” (emphasis added)[.]

Second, as The Daily Mail reported on Thursday, Hawking mocked “the religious position” on the origins of the universe by likening it to “the myth of an African tribe whose God vomited the Sun, Moon, and stars.”

Finally, Hawking assured his audience that, thanks to “general relativity” and “quantum theory,” we can now account for the origins of the universe without any appeals to God at all: our universe, like one foamy bubble among countless others, might just be one of an infinite number of other universes.

To the first point, the question must be posed: From whence springs the assumption that we are “mere” combinations of physical particles?  There are at least two problems with a scientist using the word “mere.”

The first is that “mere” is an evaluative, not a descriptive, a philosophical, not a scientific, term.  As Hawking uses it, is likely intended as a metaphysical—not a physical—word. It suggests insignificance.  But, scientifically speaking, it is as inappropriate to speak of the significance or insignificance of the world as it is to speak of its beauty and ugliness, or its sweetness and bitterness.  These are not attributes of the universe; they are attributes of our minds that we project onto the world.

The second problem is that “mere” is exhaustive.  To say that X is “merely” this or that is to say that it is only this or that.  Science—real science, not philosophical or ideological dogma masquerading as science—can’t speak to ultimate questions.  That’s the job of philosophy and theology.  Science can determine that we are bundles of material particles, but it most definitely cannot determine whether we are merely this.

What stuns most of all is just how illiterate in the philosophical and theological traditions of Western civilization Hawking appears.  For millennia, Jews and (later) Christians have found the idea of God “vomiting” the universe to be just as primitive, just as crass, as it strikes Hawking as being.  The reason for this is not hard to grasp: if God puked up the universe, then He didn’t create it.  Rather, the world would then flow out of God, or from some pre-existing stuff.

Jews are unique in world history in being the first to affirm the existence of one supreme God who created the world out of nothing.

This is crucial, for it is this belief that the world is distinct from, yet created in the image of, an all-good and all-wise being from which the scientific enterprise was born.  As long as the world is thought of as a distinct creation of God, it is assumed to be both rational and good, i.e. a proper object of study.

In short, neither science nor the scientist Stephen Hawking ever would have arisen had it not been for this conception of divine creation that Hawking ridicules without having grasped.

There is one last point that bears mentioning.

The notion of a sea of “universes” that Hawking invokes is both logically troublesome and theologically irrelevant.   The word “universe” is a synonym for “everything.”  So, claiming that there is an infinite number of “universes” makes about as much sense as claiming that there is an infinite number of “everythings.”

But even if there is some sense to be had from the idea of multiple universes, and even if these universes have always existed, this doesn’t for a moment circumvent the fundamental question: Why is there something rather than nothing?  This is what we want to know when we ask about the beginning of the universe.

And, contrary to Hawking, explaining the existence of a universe by referring back, and only back, to the universe itself is like accounting for one’s own existence by looking no further than oneself.

The verdict: Hawking hasn’t come close to showing that we can dispense with the God hypothesis in explaining the presence of the universe.