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God or Natural Law: A False Dichotomy

May 30th, 2015 by Matt

A few weeks ago someone showed me a newspaper article entitled “New theory could prove how life began and disprove God”, which was published in the UK newspaper The Independent. Now I have, of course, heard media pronouncements of the nature published in this article frequently, reporters often seem to have a knack for making provocative pronouncements about the theological and philosophical implications of various theories (and one can usually take such prouncemants with a grain of salt), but this one caught my attention because of the unstated premise it contained. This premise is, I think, common in discussions about religion and science, which makes it worth addressing in its own right.

Michelangelo's 'God Creates Adam

The author’s commentary opens as follows:

“A new theory could answer the question of how life began – and throw out the need for God. A writer on the website of Richard Dawkins’ foundation says that the theory has put God “on the ropes” and has “terrified” Christians. It proposes that life did not emerge by accident or luck from a primordial soup and a bolt of lightning. Instead, life itself came about by necessity – it follows from the laws of nature and is as inevitable as rocks rolling downhill. …”

According to the author, the ‘new theory’ proposes that life arose from non-life by “natural necessity”, that is: according to the laws of nature. Interestingly, the author assumes the fairly standard account of ‘laws of nature’ whereby they are more than just regularities, they involve a kind of necessity that explains or grounds regularities.  The author draws the conclusion from the new theory that God does not exist.

Now the author is not exactly clear on why this conclusion follows. One argument he seems to grope towards is that the new theory provides all sorts of problems for belief in God because someone on Richard Dawkins’ website says it does.  I suspect, however, that – apart from simple affirmations of faith in Dawkins blog – the author has something a bit more sensible in mind in his thinking.

The premise is that: life arose from non-life, according to the laws of nature; the conclusion is that: God did not create life. The unstated assumption seems to that: if you can explain something by natural law then it follows that God did not do it.  Implicit in the reasoning is the assumption that appeals to natural law and God are rival and incompatible hypothesises; the truth of one excludes or rules out the other.

I think anyone familiar with the history of theological thought should find this assumption odd. For [Read more →]

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Randal Rauser’s Interview: “Matthew Flannagan on God and Genocide”

April 15th, 2015 by Madeleine

Randal Rauser interviewing Matthew FlannaganWhen Matt was in San Diego for the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS) meetings in November 2014, Randal Rauser interviewed him for his Podcast, The Tentative Apologist.

The interview was for episode 58 and is entitled “Matthew Flannagan on God and Genocide“; you can listen to it by following the link. (It is basically an interview about Matt and Paul Copan’s book, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God.)

Rauser later reviewed Did God Really Command Genonide? here.

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Hear Matt speak @ the Auckland Confident Christianity Apologetics Conference

April 14th, 2015 by Madeleine

This ANZAC weekend make sure you check out the Thinking Matters Confident Christianity Apologetics Conference at Northcote Baptist Church. Matt will be speaking along with a number of other great speakers. Full conference schedule here.

In brief, from the Thinking Matters’ Facebook Event page:

Confident Christianity Conference

Does God exist? Why is there so much suffering? Is truth relative? Are science and faith enemies?

Can you give both intellectually and emotionally satisfying answers to these questions? Can you defend the Christian faith in a reasonable and compassionate way? Are you able to represent Christ’s message of hope, rescue and unfathomable love, even in the face of doubt and scepticism?

Join us this Anzac weekend where a line-up of top international and local speakers will sensitively and skilfully respond to the biggest objections that Christians encounter today – and equip you to live out a confident, yet gracious faith in your everyday life.

Speakers Include

– Brett Kunkle – international youth speaker
– Dr Jeff Tallon – award winning scientist
– Dr Steve Kumar – philosopher & apologist
– David Riddell – international speaker & counsellor
– Mark Powell – business leader & CEO of The Warehouse
– Dr Matthew Flannagan – philosopher & theologian

And many others!

Friday 24th April – 7:00PM – 9:30PM
This is a FREE public event. No registration needed – just turn up!

Saturday 25th April – 9:00AM – 5:00PM
Full Day Conference. Tickets:

Early Bird Adult Registration $59 (Available until 17th April)
Regular Adult Registration $69

YOUTH (Under 18) & STUDENT (with ID):
Early Bird Youth $30 (Available until 17th April)
Regular Youth Registration $40

Lunch included on Saturday (gluten free option available).


For full details, a speaker lineup and to purchase tickets – check out our conference page:

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Hear Matt speak @ ACTIV8 Training Day in Christchurch

April 12th, 2015 by Madeleine

Matt is speaking along with at the upcoming annual ACTIV8 Pro Life Training Day in Christchurch on Saturday 18 April 2015. The conference runs from 9:30am to 5:30pm, the cost for the day is $25 (includes lunch). Register online at:

ACTIV8 Training Day


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A very belated report on my trip to San Diego

April 12th, 2015 by Matt

With trips to the US, Christmas, New Years, the summer break, Madeleine’s work, my preaching and juggling the family and the launch of my book, it has been a while since I blogged. Since the last post was about me going to the US I figured I should start by giving a very belated update on the trip before I get down to more run of the mill blog posts.

Last time Madeleine blogged it was Wednesday 19 November 2014, the day after I had flown out of Auckland. I arrived in Los Angeles at 10 am on Tuesday 18 November 2014 (love the international date line!) and I finally arrived in San Diego that afternoon where I had an enjoyable dinner with Moore College President Mark Thompson.

The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS)  meetings began the next day. The first session I attended was a very good paper by Richard Davis and Paul Franks critiquing Wes Morriston’s criticisms of divine command meta-ethics (DCM). This paper was technical so I’ll try to summarise: Morriston objects that if moral requirements are identical with God’s commands, and even if it’s impossible for a perfectly good God to command the random sacrifice of 3 years olds, DCM still entails that if this impossibility were actualised and God were to command the random slaughter of 3 year olds, then such slaughter is wrong.

This objection involves what is called a counter-possible, which is a hypothetical statement with an impossible antecedent. In this case the antecedent is that a perfectly good person could command the random sacrifice of children. According to the standard semantics for counter in modal logic all counter-possibles are  trivially true. Morriston argues this approach to standard semantics is mistaken; it is plausible that some counter possibles are false and that this counter-possible is one such example.

Davis and Franks, give an interesting and thoughtful reply to Morriston in their forthcoming article “Counterpossibles and the ‘Terrible’ Divine Command Deity“. They argue: (a) Morristons’ own criteria  for distinguishing true from false counter-possibles entails that the counter-possible, If God commanded random sacrifice then random sacrifice is morally required, is, in fact, true and not false. Second, (b) they argue that DCM does not entail this counter-possible.

To put their point in a nutshell: they argue that a world where God commands evil is a world where God ceases to be good; and since goodness is an essential property of God this entails that in such a world God would cease to exist. However, given God is the creator and sustainer of all that is distinct from him, a world where God does not exist is a world where nothing exists. Hence, it is false that if God commands evil, evil would be morally required. This was an excellent paper and I enjoyed some stimulating discussion with both of the authors during the Q&A and also at lunch.

Next up was a paper by Frank Beckwith discussing Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous article “A defence of abortion”. Thomson famously concedes for the sake of argument that a fetus is a human being and then argues, from analogy, that even if that is the case abortion is still permissible. Beckwith argued that, in fact, Thomson does not grant the personhood of the fetus in the way opponents of abortion understand it, but instead assumes a radically individualistic understanding of persons whereby people are not bound by any obligations to others which they do not willingly consent to, a picture which appears to rule out such things as parental duties to children or children’s duties to parents.

This was followed by Micheal Rea’s interesting paper on whether God is gendered and the use of masculine and feminine language and imagery in describing God. His argument was that God is not gendered and the fact that most imagery used in scripture to describe God is masculine does not justify conceptualising God is exclusively masculine terms.

In the break I had some very good fellowship and discussion over pizza with members of the Facebook group, Christian Apologetics Alliance.

In the afternoon I took part in the ethics session of the ETS. The session kicked off with an interesting paper on how capital punishment is practiced in the US. The author, Ken Magnuson, made several disturbing observations about the fact that wealthy people almost always escape capital murder charges whereas the poor do not. This paper was unclear on what the nature of the core problem was: was it that innocent poor people were executed, or that the guilty escaped justice? While the fact that large numbers of innocent are executed might be a reason for opposing the death penalty, the fact that some guilty people get off does not seem to be. If the problem is that some escape capital punishment who deserve it, then ensuring everyone escapes capital punishment will increase the injustice. What was clear was that there needs to be some reforms to ensure less inequitable outcomes.

Next was a paper by Evan Lenow where he argued that the philosophical doctrine of self-ownership, as articulated in its progenitor John Locke, does not support abortion rights. In this I thought he was right; Locke’s writing in the first treatise makes Lenow’s case even stronger.

That afternoon I gave my paper, “Abortion as Self-Defence”. I offered a critique of Elieen Mcdonagh’s contention that even if a fetus is a human being, its presence inside a women who does not wish to be pregnant constitutes an act of unjustified aggression and so a women’s right to self-defence entitles her to kill it. My criticism was based on the fact that, in non rape cases, the fetus’ existence inside the woman is due to voluntary sexual intercourse for which her and her partner are responsible and this action confers parental obligations upon both of them. Given that parents have an obligation to provide the basic necessities of life to their children, the fetus’ appropriation of such necessities cannot be unjust aggression. This paper was well received and there was some excellent discussion about rape cases and therapeutic abortion in the Q&A. (Audio of my talk is available here.)

Thursday was equally intense. I began the morning hearing a paper by David Wood on Paul Draper’s version of the problem of evil. This was followed by a panel discussion on Scott Smith’s recent book, In Search of Moral Knowledge. The panel consisted of Francis Beckwith, David Baggett and James Dew, all offering critique and commentary on the book and Smith offering a response.

Matthew Flannagan and Paul CopanOver lunch I met with Paul Copan and a representative from Baker Academic to discuss the launch of Copan’s and my book, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, the promotional events we would each be participating in, and also the prospect of further publications in the future. I was then interviewed on camera for US television about the book. [Read more →]

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Matt in San Diego

November 19th, 2014 by Madeleine

San DiegoMatt has safely arrived in San Diego and the Annual General Meetings of the Evangelical Philosophical and Theological Societies commence in a few hours.

Matt is giving two papers this year, one at each conference: “Mackie’s Answer to the Error Theory: A Reply to Joyce″ at the EPS and “Abortion as Self Defence” at the ETS. As his book, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of Godco-authored with Paul Copan, has just been released and is available for sale at the conference, I expect he will be busy promoting that too.

If you are lucky enough to be in San Diego at the conferences please snap a pic of him for me and tag him on Facebook so we back in NZ can see what he is up to 🙂

I want to thank those who generously donated to help get Matt there, we couldn’t have done it without you.

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Is belief in God essential for Morality? Why Crime Statistics don’t answer this question

November 18th, 2014 by Matt

Readers of this blog will note that, of late, I have been focusing a lot in my thinking, writing and research on questions of the relationship between religion and morality. One particular frustration I encounter in this topic is the, unfortunately common, tendency for writers and researchers to conflate separate questions and subsequently give answers to the wrong questions thinking they have answered the right ones.

A good example is article which was sent to me via e-mail recently entitled “The destructive myth about religion that Americans disproportionately believe.” The article comments on a recent survey which found that the majority of people in certain parts of the world, including the United States of America, believe that belief in God is essential for morality. The author considers this a “destructive myth”. His rebuttal involves two premises: (a) he interprets the survey’s results to mean that the majority of people believe you cannot live a morally good life unless you believe in God; (b) he aims to refute this by appealing to some unsourced crime statistics that suggest atheists do not commit disproportionately more crimes than theists.

o-PRISONER-READING-facebookI think his reasoning on both points is mistaken, before getting into why, I note that this article proposes to be about whether belief in God is essential to morality; it is not about the related, though separate, question of whether the existence of morality depends on the existence of God.

Turning to the first premise (a), the article opens with:

“Pew Research Center published the results of a survey conducted among 40,080 people in 40 countries between 2011 and 2013. The survey asked a simple question: Is belief in God essential to morality? While clear majorities say it is necessary, the U.S. continues to be an outlier. In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, the majority says it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. “This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East,” says the report.”

This is confused. The author states the question asked was: “Is belief in God essential to morality?” The author then interprets those answering in the affirmative as saying “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person.” This does not follow from the affirmative answer. The question asked was whether belief in God is essential to the institution of morality itself; such a question is asking whether the institution needs this belief. The question did not ask what attributes were necessary to be a moral person.

Not only are these separate issues, they are logically distinct. [Read more →]

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