The Briefing 12-02-15

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Study denying gender distinction in human brains illustrates limits of naturalism on gender

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Thesis from the Economist for moral good of porn overwhelmingly rejected by readers

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Absence of religion in Downton Abbey show exemplifies fear of offending secular British

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Transcript

The Briefing

December 2, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, December 2, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Study denying gender distinction in human brains illustrates limits of naturalism on gender

A big story comes yesterday from the Washington Post that tells us a great deal not only about that modern project called science, but the degree to which two things are operating at the very forefront of our culture. One of them is that science that claims to be just about rational and objective inquiry is actually itself highly influenced by larger currents in the culture. The second thing to note is the increasing tendency to reduce the human being to mere biology and in particular the brain to mere chemistry and matter. All that comes to the forefront and that story that appeared yesterday, it is by Rachel Feltman and the headline is this,

“Brains aren’t actually ‘male’ or ‘female,’ new study suggests.”

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The article then continues,

“Lots of folks — well-intentioned and otherwise — like to point out the supposed differences between male and female brains. But it’s time to throw away the brain gender binary, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Brains can’t really fit into the categories of “male” or “female” — their distinguishing features actually vary across a spectrum.”

Now there are a number of issues that come to the forefront in just this news story in its headline and in its first sentences. In the first place, we’re supposed to think this is really important. The headline suggests importance, the opening paragraph in it sentences declare importance and yet when you look at it from a Christian worldview perspective there is actually very little of anything of importance here, but understanding that is also important. The supposed importance of this purported research is made clear in the second paragraph, I read it,

“It’s exciting news for anyone who studies the brain — or gender. And it’s a step towards validating the experiences of those who live outside the gender binary.”

Well, there it is. It was implicit in the first paragraph; it’s explicit in the second paragraph. This is an article that is supposedly important because of its validation of a current controversy and in this case of the LGBT agenda. Now there’s a lot more here, but there’s also a lot less here than meets the eye. In the first place, we’re talking about a study of the brain and the lead paragraph of the story tells us that unlike what many people either believe or supposedly believe, there are not fundamental physical differences in the brains of men and women. Now hold onto that thought, here comes the third paragraph, buckle your seatbelts,

“Whereas a categorical difference in the genitals has always been acknowledged, the question of how far these categories extend into human biology is still not resolved.”

That is a sentence quoting the authors of the study. Feltman then writes,

“Structural differences in the brain — and differences in behavior — are often taken as evidence that brains can be distinctly male or female. For this to be true, the authors write, the differences would have to be consistent: Those who were biologically male would have to almost always have “male” features and not female ones in their brain.”

Let’s just back away from the headline for a moment. Does the Christian worldview in any way and has Christian theology in any way at any time argued for a fundamental necessary difference in the brains of men and women. The answer to that question is categorically no. The Christian worldview based in Scripture points to inherent differences between males and females, and of the fact that the categories of male and female are a part of God’s gift to creation and a part of his gift to the human creature. But there has never been an argument about this being tied in any essential way to the brain. That’s what’s really interesting here because what this really indicates is the extent to which modern naturalistic science having abandoned the biblical worldview has to assume that whatever importance there is to humanity and whatever differences there might be between say men and women, somehow has to be locatable in the brain and so a closer look at this article indicates that there are huge problems here, but they are not problems at the intersection of Christian theology and science, not at all. What we’re looking at here is the inability of a naturalistic understanding of the human being to come to terms with anything of importance, including the reality of gender. But there’s more here, just consider that third paragraph, a paragraph that says, astoundingly enough, and remember this is in the Washington Post; there have been recognized categorical differences in the genitals of the reproductive systems of men and women.

Now, astoundingly, that has to be said in a major American newspaper in the year 2015. But then the jump of logic is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand how all of that is tied to a comprehensive understanding of human biology and to that the Christian would simply have to say we are not surprised. That is not going to be an investigation that will ever reveal the essence of what it means to be male or female in terms of the intention of God in his design. As I said at the beginning, one of the major insights in this article is the extent to which modern science is actually being driven by moral and cultural agendas. That is absolutely transparent in this article in the way that it’s treated in the headline of the article and in the language used by the reporter. The study is cited as saying,

“[B]rains with features that are consistently at one end of the “maleness-femaleness” continuum are rare,” the scientists wrote in the study. “Rather, most brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males.”

Responding to the research Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University said,

“We are beginning to realize the complexity of what we have traditionally understood to be ‘male’ and ‘female’, and this study is the first step in that direction,” he said. “I think it will change peoples’ minds.”

Here’s the final paragraph from the article and it reveals the real intention behind the research and the reporting, lead author, Daphna Joel,

“Hopes that the study will help do away with assumptions made about gender differences. “We separate girls and boys, men and women all the time. “It’s wrong, not just politically, but scientifically – everyone is different.”

Now just consider those words at face value read in a direct quote from the Washington Post quoting directly from the study. Here you have a supposedly objective scientist saying that she hopes that the study will do away, again I quote,

“With assumptions made about gender differences.”

Once that is honestly expressed as a hope you abandon any pretense whatsoever of scientific objectivity and you’ll notice the study is claimed to be scientific, it’s published after all in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and yet as the article comes to a close it is evident that this really isn’t about science at all. At the conclusion we have the researcher telling us what’s behind the research and it is not as we would suspect a dispassionate objective attempt to try to understand the human brain, but an attempt to try to further a moral agenda. Finally, you will note that the researchers solidly sides herself with the political agenda when she speaks of the understanding of human beings as male and female as “wrong”, not just politically, but scientifically. Once she inserts the word “wrong” and then she uses an argument that’s overtly an admittedly political she leaves the scientific world altogether. But then she concludes with the statement that’s absolutely astounding in its implications. She says,

“Everyone is different.”

Now we should note that’s not just a statement that is in service of the LGBT revolution. That’s a statement that suggests that there are no meaningful categories whatsoever for human beings under any circumstances. That’s an ideology we should point out that won’t work not only in the bathroom it won’t work on the playground. It won’t work in the political arena. It won’t work anywhere, because it can’t work.

Thesis from the Economist for moral good of porn overwhelmingly rejected by readers

Next, we go to The Economist of London, one of the most influential periodicals in the world today. The Economist that has had some very unusual coverage of the pornography issue in recent months decided to host an online debate over the issue of pornography and the thesis that was debated was that pornography really isn’t dangerous at all and that society should just come to terms with it. Put in its simplest terms, the issue of debate was whether or not pornography can be, “good for us.”

As you might expect, it’s a very revealing exchange that took place amongst persons chosen by The Economist in order to argue the case, either for or against the fact that pornography can be good for us. Interestingly, most of the people who were involved in the debate seem to accept the premise at least to some extent, arguing that either pornography is inevitable or that it’s actually something that’s a moral good. It is actually good for us. Those who are arguing for the goodness of pornography for the basic idea that pornography can be somehow good for us were arguing amongst other things that pornography has now become the default method of sex education, that it has given voice to those identified as sexual minorities, that it has legitimated many sexual lifestyles and practices that had been hidden away and denied. That’s the arguments that were presented for the thesis that pornography is good for us. Furthermore, before we go even further in this debate, we need to recognize that The Economist wasn’t exactly neutral. It was not neutral in the fact that it hosted the debate with that thesis statement in the first place and it’s also not neutral because the magazine has actually run editorially filtered content and news reporting suggesting that pornography is big business and that ultimately it doesn’t do a great deal of social harm. But what’s really interesting is how the arguments were marshaled against the thesis put forward by the magazine that somehow pornography is good for us.

At this point we should note that none of the arguments against pornography in any way claim to represent a Christian worldview understanding. The arguments were exclusively secular, but one of the participants, the main participant arguing against the thesis that pornography is good for us was Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. And even though he does not write from either a conservative or a Christian viewpoint, he does argue against pornography, and he does so even in a secular argument, at least he attempts to make a secular argument against pornography in moral terms. He writes this,

“All political positions are based on underlying moral claims. Attitudes towards pornography are no different. At issue are not preachy judgments about sexual behaviour, but how to reconcile humans’ yearning for self-realisation with the need for stable, respectful communities that allow individuals to fulfil their potential.”

Now let’s just stop for a moment. Very importantly, Professor Jensen recognizes that all political positions are based on, these are his words,

“Underlying moral claims.”

That is an essential component of the Christian worldview, but he’s arguing this from a secular perspective. But that’s what makes it really interesting, when he attempts to create a secular argument, a secular moral argument against pornography without any recourse to what he calls,

“Preachy judgments about sexual behavior.”

Instead he tries to argue that human flourishing will basically only take place within respectful communities and according to his definition pornography falls outside the boundaries of that respect. He writes,

“Although it’s true that “you can’t legislate morality”, every position in the pornography debate is based on a sexual ethic.”

Again, we simply insert, about that he’s profoundly right. Every position in the debate is based in a sexual ethic. He continues,

“And the ethic of pornography is pretty clear: individual pleasure-seeking trumps all other values, and no one need pay attention to the consequences of either institutionalised male dominance or modern culture’s seemingly endless appetite for high-tech media that become more “real” than our own lives.”

Now, once again, there’s some embedded moral wisdom there. But what we need to note is that his argument actually doesn’t get very far. The attempt to create a merely secular argument, a purely secular argument against anything in moral terms, eventually falls on the fact that morality if not established by a law giving God by a transcendent deity, that morality simply becomes a matter of endless negotiation. Professor Jensen’s definitions of what it means to be a part of a respectful community are simply countered by those who have a different understanding of what that respectful community might be. We need to know that Professor Jensen tries to put some real moral substance to his argument when he writes,

“What does it mean to be human now? Our answer must be consistent with the core progressive principles of dignity (all people have the same claim to being human), solidarity (human flourishing depends on loving connections to others) and equality (dignity and solidarity are impossible without social and economic justice).”

So there you have the three principles of his secular ethic. He describes these as core progressive principles. They are dignity, solidarity and equality. He then calls for a sexual ethic that is based in those three principles. The problem is this, where in the world would even his three principles take us in terms of a sexual ethic? It won’t take us to the ability to say that anything, anything at all is categorically right or categorically wrong. So bringing this issue to a close, it tells us a great deal that The Economist, once again, one of most respected periodicals in the world has decided that the question about whether or not porn is good for us is worthy of an online debate under its masthead. It tells us a great deal that the argument was entirely secular and that even the person trying to make the strongest moral argument could ground it only in supposedly core progressive principles that aren’t accepted even by the other participants in the debate.

But as instructive is all of those issues are from this debate that alone would not explain why we’re talking about it today on The Briefing. We’re talking about this today because The Economist gave its readers an opportunity to vote on the proposition. The entries into the debates were absolutely imbalanced, no one was arguing from a Christian position and no one was arguing from a position of any kind of clear moral objectivity. But what happened when The Economist put this question to their own readers? The proposition that porn can be good for us, failed by a margin of 81 percent. So what did The Economist learn from this. As they wrote,

“Pornography is surely the largest single category of content online.”

Nevertheless, morally speaking this affirm something that Paul tells us in Romans chapter 1. There are things we cannot not know. In our hearts we cannot not know that pornography is bad for us. So even as the editors of The Economist put the question up for debate, the readers of The Economist came back resoundingly. 81 percent said there is no way that pornography can be good for us. As the Scripture reminds us, the word of God is written on our hearts, it always has been, it always will be.

Absence of religion in Downton Abbey show exemplifies fear of offending secular British

Yesterday, we talked about controversy in Great Britain over the fact that the major company that controls advertisements before major movie showings in that nation had decided that a commercial made by the Church of England that featured nothing more than a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was out of bounds. Secularists in Britain and furthermore, even the commercial companies involved, seemed to decide that the risk of offending secular Britons was far greater than the risk of offending the Church of England, which is after all the established church in the United Kingdom. But that’s England now and that’s pretty much what we come to expect in terms of the secularization of the nation that was once profoundly Christian, in terms of its orientation but is now one of the most secular on earth and yet there is also an attempt to rewrite history and that is where contemporary media and the formers of culture, sometimes are revealed in terms of their agenda. Back in January 2014, I wrote an article entitled, “Downton Abbey” and the Modern Age—What Are We Really Watching?”

My point in writing that article was that what Americans are watching by the millions is not just a British import, it is actually also a very clear cultural message and what’s important in that message is often not what’s present but what’s absent. As I wrote in that article back in 2014, what’s absent is the understanding that would’ve been clear to anyone whether upstairs or downstairs in Downton Abbey and that is the cultural and worldview importance of Christianity. The dominant influence of Christianity during these decades covered by the program, they’re basically invisible on Downton Abbey and now we have evidence that wasn’t available in 2014 of why that is the case. And once again, it’s extremely illuminating in terms of our cultural moment.

The Telegraph, another major London newspaper tells us that the show’s historical advisor now tells us as the program is coming to an end that,

“God [was officially] banished from Downton Abbey.”

That’s the headline from the telegraph. Patrick Foster, media correspondent for the newspaper reports,

“The trials and tribulations of the Crawley family have enthralled Downton Abbey viewers for six series. But some have questioned why Christianity, which would have formed a central part of the lives of the aristocracy in the early 20th century, is largely absent from the show.

“Now the man tasked with ensuring the historical accuracy of the series has revealed why Downton does not do God. Alastair Bruce, who serves as the show’s historical advisor, said that executives in charge of the series had ordered producers to “leave religion out of it”, for fear of alienating an increasingly atheistic public.”

Now there in sentence structure we need to note what links yesterday’s story about the Church of England and its commercial with this one. In both of these news reports, the reporter tells us that the decisions were made by those who increasingly control the culture that the risk of offending secular or atheistic viewers was simply to high, so how exactly would you keep religion out of the program? Well, Alastair Bruce tells us that the way they did it was explicitly for one thing,  not ever to show the family sitting down to a meal, because that would’ve required the saying of a blessing, the saying of grace. Alastair Bruce said,

“In essence you hardly ever see a table that isn’t already sat at. We never see the beginning of a luncheon or a dinner, because no one was ever allowed to see a grace being said, and I would never allow them to sit down without having said grace.

“I think that the view was that we’d leave religion out of it, and it would’ve taken extra time too. I suggested a Latin grace, but they decided that was too far, and no one would’ve known what was going on”

Simply astounding. Do the millions of viewers who are watching this supposedly secular program realize that the invented name for the house invokes historic Christianity? After all, the second part of the name is Abbey. And then of all ironies, we have the show’s much respected historical advisor who is so scrupulous that he wouldn’t show the family sitting down to a meal without saying grace because that would’ve been historically inaccurate. So the way around it was not to show the family at prayer, but instead simply to show them already eating. But then as interesting as that is already thus far, we have the additional information coming from the historical advisor to Downton Abbey that the producers feared that showing the family sitting down to a prayer before a meal wouldn’t even be understood by an increasingly secular society who wouldn’t even understand what they were doing. But then, just when you think you have seen or read it all, Alastair Bruce takes the argument even further telling us that he wasn’t even allowed to have napkins folded at the dinner table in the shape of a Bishop’s miter. That had been a traditional napkin shape for the British aristocracy. He said,

“Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.”

He concluded,

“I still wish we could’ve got some decent napkin folds, but I was always left with my triangle.”

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing