December 20, 2009

The BBC reports that Olive Jones, a school teacher who’s also a Christian, was suspended for offering to pray for a sick pupil. This case looks similar to that of Caroline Petrie, a nurse who was also suspended (though later reinstated) after she offered to pray for a patient.

The Daily Mail has a longer interview with Mrs Jones than the BBC. I take articles in the Heil with a pinch of salt, but I assume they wouldn’t directly misquote her, as they’re on her side. Some salient points from their story: Jones is a supply teacher who visits the homes of kids who are too ill to come to school. After a previous incident, she’d been warned before that it wasn’t appropriate to pray with her pupils. The parent who complained had previously complained after Jones gave a testimony (evangelical jargon, usually referring to a story about how someone became a Christian, told for the purpose of evangelism, though in this case it was about how God saved her from being crushed by a tractor) in front of the parent, but the complaint hadn’t reached the right people, so when she did so again in front of the parent and child and also offered to pray, the parent complained to the school. Mrs Jones is now suspended pending an investigation. It’s not clear whether the decision to investigate happened after the press got involved: it looks like Jones is a contractor who can be fired without notice, not a full time employee of the school.

Inevitably, the Heil‘s commenters, and those at Cranmer’s blog, blame Muslims, political correctness, New Labour etc. etc. I suspect that if the story had been about a Muslim or Pagan doing what Mrs Jones did, the Mail‘s take on it would have been rather different (though I hope that the school’s response would not have been).

Jones’s actions as described by the Heil seemed to me to be deserving of disciplinary action from her employers. The same would apply if a Muslim or a Pagan had done the same, or if a strident neo-sceptical toxic rationalist neo-atheist had told the kid there’s no God and no miracles. Teachers aren’t paid to give unprompted religious “testimonies”, and shouldn’t assume that they’re welcome (especially in someone’s home). If the parent or the kid had asked about Jones’s religious beliefs, it’d be different, but there’s no evidence that this happened. It’s beholden on the school to ensure they comply with employment law, and firing for the first offence seems too harsh, but if someone’s on an at-will contract and has been warned once before, I can perfectly understand the decision to fire them.

I don’t think this is a free speech issue: Jones is free to pray on her own time (which will surely be as effective as praying with the family), and indeed, she was free to do what the Heil said she did and accept the consequences.

Tom Harris, MP and Ian Dale have further thoughts on the matter.

Edited to add: Tabloid Watch has the story from the parents who complained. Their daughter is 14 and has leukaemia, and they’d endured Jones’s evangelism for a while before complaining.

A couple of the blogs I read recently had discussions on the resurrection of Jesus: Common Sense Atheism and Parchment and Pen.

The wrong kind of God

In the comment thread over at Comment Sense Atheism, I wondered about the role of natural theology (that is, stuff like the Kalam Cosmological Argument) in preparing the ground for belief in the resurrection. When William Lane Craig debated against Bart Ehrman, Craig said “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” According to Ayer (that is, the commenter over at Common Sense Atheism, not the logical positivist), “Natural theology shows the existence of the monotheistic God; the resurrection, in its religio-historical context, shows that that monotheistic God is the one described by Jesus and the disciples, whose redemptive purpose is laid out in the Bible.”

There’s an unwarranted assumption here. Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that the Kalam argument is valid. This gets us as far as deism. To get to Christianity, we need the resurrection, as Ayer says. But if God didn’t do it, the resurrection is fantastically improbable, which I think means the New Testament evidence alone shouldn’t convince us unless we assume that God is the sort of god who might raise Jesus from the dead. But why should we assume that? Remember, we need that assumption to bolster the NT evidence sufficiently for us to believe it, but the only available “evidence” that God is that sort of god is the resurrection itself, the very thing we’re seeking to prove. I’ve not seen an argument from Craig (or any other apologist) which avoids this apparent circularity.

Simple explanations

So we’re stuck with being deists, which is a bit boring: as far as I know, they don’t have any choons. Perhaps we might instead argue that the New Testament evidence is sufficient on its own: it shows Jesus rose, and hence (if we’re feeling charitable about it) that there’s a god of the right sort, Christianity is true, greatest hits of Charles Wesley here we come.

This was what the Parchment and Pen posting was about. C Michael Patton argues that alternative explanations are less simple than just accepting that Jesus rose from the dead. There was a thread on the local newsgroup, cam.misc, where another Christian made the same argument.

I remembered that Heinlein once said the simplest explanation is always “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.” What’s wrong with that explanation? It hides complexity behind language, as Alex Selby explains. I ended up saying that the Christian account is “simpler” in some sense, but not in a sense that lends it credibility. In this sense, the “simplest” explanation for what you see in Derren Brown’s stage shows is that mind reading really works and he’s a master at it: all that other stuff he does to achieve the effects is extremely convoluted in comparison. Alex doesn’t think we should describe that sense as simple. I can see his point, and perhaps I should have said that the Christian account feels simpler, rather than that it is.

At this point, a popular apologetic move is to accuse your opponent of assuming naturalism, materialism, scientism and other bad -isms (remember: if you have no other arguments, you can always play Spot The Worldview). I’m not sure whether that’s a valid move. I think you’d need an argument that using this informational Occam’s Razor won’t do the job in the case of non-material stuff, which again, I haven’t seen anyone attempt.