John Lennox, Aristotle, and the American Audience

Tonight I attended a lecture by John Lennox, British Professor of Mathematics at Oxford and noted apologist for Christianity. The lecture was part of the Veritas Forum, and hosted at Harvard University.

Lennox has debated many of the most famous atheist voices in the movement today, so I was intrigued to hear him speak – even more so because his topic tonight was “Miracles – Is Belief in the Supernatural Irrational?” By addressing the question of miracles head-on, I thought, we would be hearing his very strongest arguments in favor of a supernatural worldview.

Alas, it was not to be. Lennox provided a talk that was amusing, engaging and extremely enjoyable, packed with great anecdotes and stories, but lacking in any even remotely convincing arguments. In Aristotle’s terms, he had oodles of Ethos, some strong Pathos (he was an effective storyteller), and zero Logos.

All his arguments were old apologetics standbys: atheism is a “faith” (because it’s something people believe in); many scientists believe in God, so religion and science are compatible; rationality encompasses more than science (so there’s space for woo to creep in); mechanistic explanations do not rule out explanations from creative agency (since the Ford Galaxy was both crafted mechanistically AND was invented by a mind. So too for THE galaxy); Alvin Plantinga’s nonsense about how evolution wouldn’t equip us to discover the truth (because it only cares about survival value); information is immaterial and therefore requires a supernatural explanation; God works outside the natural system. Nothing a well-read follower of apologetics will not have seen debunked hundreds of times before.

Intriguingly, Lennox finished his talk without attempting to justify the truth of any particular miracle. He argued (very ineffectively) that miracles are possible in principle, but stopped short of arguing that any given miracle actually happened. This seems to me a rather enormous cop-out, even something of a cheat.

He got a standing ovation.

This shows us something about the importance of Pathos and Ethos, about how much they affect audiences. And, I have to say, in my experience, how very open American audiences are to emotional appeals and to the likability of a speaker. Don’t get me wrong – I love this characteristic. As a speaker myself it is wonderful to have an emotionally demonstrative audience. But it is striking to note how, in comparison to British audiences, Americans seem to get into stuff more. They audibly and visibly emote, with sighs and swaying and facial expressions, they laugh more at jokes, they are more willing to take to their feet – they are very generous with their emotions. And this is something for atheist speakers to consider – we can use this to our advantage.

The Q&A was brief, but I’m glad my question was chosen to be asked: ” If I was to tell you I were just raised from the dead, what evidence would you require to believe it?”

I ask this question of all apologists for Christianity, because it goes right to the heart of the evidentiary claim: what would it take to convince them that someone they encountered today had indeed risen from the dead? There are two common responses: either apologists evade the question, or answer with standards of evidence way higher than the standards of evidence they use when considering the resurrection of Christ.

Lennox took the first route: he restated my question instead of answering it. Weak. However, another question drew the finest moment in the evening, for me: someone asked what Lennox whether he had personally experienced God working supernaturally in his own life. This produced the most charming argument for the existence of God I have ever encountered, which shall hereafter be known as:

The Argument from the Bible in the Briefcase

Many years ago, John Lennox was doing the Lord’s work, spreading the Gospel in Russia when he encountered a man on a train. They started to talk about God. Lennox was overcome with the sense that he should give the man a Bible – whence came this strange compulsion he knew not. He remembered that, but two weeks previously, he had been given a bible, in Russian, by someone else. He wondered if, by some strange and serendipitous alignment of circumstances, that Bible might still be in the briefcase where he had put it those two weeks prior.

He reached into the briefcase and, heart palpitating, his spirit fixed on the Lord, grasped the spine of a book. He pulled it from the bag, hand shaking, knees knocking, soul hoping.

Yea, verily, it was indeed the very same Bible, still in Russian, that he had himself placed there weeks ago!

Handing it to his interlocutor they were both overcome by the power of the Spirit of God – for surely it could only have been He, in his vasty might, who ensured that the Bible had not been spirited from where it had previously been placed. The gentleman was so overcome by the presence of the Bible in its anointed place that he almost had a heart attack! Surely, God works in mysterious ways.

Praise Jesus!

It was at this point that I converted to Christianity. I asked afterward if Lennox had the very same briefcase in which the bible had been kept safe by God, that I might touch the Holy Relic, but sadly he had brought a different book bag that day. Perhaps The Briefcase is enshrined in a chapel on a high mountaintop, where it receives pilgrimages from newly-converted Russians daily.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • paul collier

    I have been worried about the future of this country but I see now that things will be swell. With this kind of bubbly and euphoric faith in God we shall go forth and re-dominate the world. We even have a lucrative commodity to produce, export, and lead the world in: evangelism. I’ve never been prouder to be American.

  • Jim Farmelant

    “This shows us something about the importance of Pathos and Ethos, about how much they affect audiences. And, I have to say, in my experience, how very open American audiences are to emotional appeals and to the likability of a speaker. Don’t get me wrong – I love this characteristic. As a speaker myself it is wonderful to have an emotionally demonstrative audience. But it is striking to note how, in comparison to British audiences, Americans seem to get into stuff more.”

    I agree with James that Americans seem peculiarly susceptible to emotional appeals. I am not sure that this is such a lovable characteristic. All too often, Americans have shown themselves to be susceptible to all sorts of charlatans and demagogues, who have managed to do considerable damage over the years. I also think that this characteristic is related to the special prominence that evangelical Protestantism has long enjoyed in the US. This sort of religion has helped to promote the idea that the apparent “sincerity” of a speaker’s testimony is a good measure of its truth-value. This sort of thing has, IMO, made it much more difficult for many Americans to grasp the point of rational thought, certainly not a good thing!

    On the other hand, since this is something that is not likely to change any time soon, I think that James is correct that it behooves us to try to make this characteristic work to our advantage.

  • Jim Farmelant

    “ntriguingly, Lennox finished his talk without attempting to justify the truth of any particular miracle. He argued (very ineffectively) that miracles are possible in principle, but stopped short of arguing that any given miracle actually happened. This seems to me a rather enormous cop-out, even something of a cheat.”

    Not even David Hume, as far as I can tell, denied the possibility of miracles. Rather his contention, as I understand it, was that there were no good reasons for the wise man who “proportions his belief to the evidence” to accept any purported claims for miraculous events as being true. For Hume,it was almost always more likely the case that any purported miracle would be better explicable in terms of misinterpretation of the evidence, hallucinations or delusions, or outright fraud. So,I would go even further than James and say that I do accept the logical possibility that a genuine miracle has occurred at some point in history and ask what would follow if that concession is made. And my answer would be, that for the reasons given by skeptics from Hume to more recent writers like Carl Sagan or Antony Flew, very little would follow from such a concession, since the real point would be is there sufficient evidence that would convince a fair-minded skeptic that any miracles have ever occurred. And my answer would be no.

    Hume argued that in assessing reports of purported miracles that we should keep in mind that people often dissimulate, especially about miracles occurring either because they believe they are doing so for the benefit of their religion (i.e. the “lying for Jesus” phenomenon) or because of the notoriety that results from claiming to have witnessed such events. People by nature enjoy relating miracle stories that they have heard without caring to check their veracity and thus miracle stories are easily transmitted even where false.
    Hume noted that miracles seem to occur mostly in “ignorant” and “barbarous” nations and times, and the reason they don’t occur in the “civilized” societies (or at least not so often in so-called civilized societies like the US or UK) is such societies aren’t so awed by what people there know to be natural events.
    The miracles of each religion argue against all other religions and their miracles, and so even if a proportion of all reported miracles across the world fit Hume’s requirement for belief, the miracles of each religion make the other less likely. Nevertheless,
    as Hume noted, belief in miracles remains popular, and that “The gazing populace receive greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition and promotes wonder”.

    Certainly, Lennox would make a far more convincing case for belief in miracles, if he could take at least one such event and explain to us how the evidence that such an event has occurred is able to meet all the challenges that scientifically-minded critic like Hume (or Flew or Sagan) would present against any such a purported claim.

    BTW in fairness to Lennox, he has written what he thinks are rebuttals to Hume (for example, see: http://www.bethinking.org/resources/the-question-of-miracles-the-contemporary-influence-of-david-hume.htm), but I don’t think that he grasps Hume’s reasoning at all.

  • pboyfloyd

    The Holy Briefcase shall NOT be mocked!!!

  • Rick

    I was not aware John Lennox’s arguments in this lecture had been debunked. Can someone help me out with some links to it. Thanks


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