February 16, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, February 16, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Christians should not be deterred from praying for anyone, even Richard Dawkins
Here’s an interesting question for the Christian worldview: Is it ever under any circumstances wrong to pray for anyone? A controversy that has recently arisen in England raises that question and in a very interesting way. It turns out that the Church of England has engendered a controversy in Great Britain by publicly stating that it is praying for Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s most famous atheists. The backlash that came to the church was immediate, and it’s also extremely revealing. There are those in the media and in the larger culture in Great Britain, who have said that the Church of England should not pray for Richard Dawkins or should not publicly state that it is praying for Richard Dawkins, even as it is now well known that Richard Dawkins has suffered a recent stroke.
The Church of England, by means of its social media engagement, simply stated that it was praying for Richard Dawkins and his family. The backlash that came was the suggestion that it is somehow wrong, it is an imposition, it is somehow not an act of Christian kindness, but something altogether different, to pray for a man who doesn’t want to be prayed for, just to put it bluntly.Show Full Transcript
The rise of the new atheism in the last two decades has been a story unto itself. It has been both a reflection of and a driver of many of the major cultural worldview changes and challenges around us. The four horsemen, as they have been known, of the new atheism are led by Richard Dawkins, followed by the late Christopher Hitchens, and then also Tufts University scientist Daniel Dennett, and Stanford scientist Sam Harris. You put the four of them together—and their books—and you’re looking at a multi-million dollar empire of the new atheism, and all four of them have been very forceful in making their atheistic argument. And Christopher Hitchens was one of the most vehement of the new atheists; but interestingly, the controversy over prayer emerged with Christopher Hitchens, because Christopher Hitchens took no prisoners when it came to public argument.
Christopher Hitchen’s books and writings, making his atheist arguments, were absolutely acidic, were absolutely caustic, when it came to his criticism of Christianity and of religion in general. He rejected those who believe in God as suffering from a massive delusion, and furthermore, even as he was known to be dying, Christopher Hitchens said that he did not believe in God and obviously did not believe in prayer. But in contrast with what many people might’ve expected, Christopher Hitchens did not ask Christians not to pray for him. He didn’t believe that prayer was real, but he did believe that human compassion was real and he was glad to receive it, even—perhaps even especially—from Christians who expressed that compassion in praying for him.
The controversy currently in Great Britain over Richard Dawkins and the Church of England statement that it’s praying for Dawkins and his family in the aftermath of his stroke is not so much about Dawkins, who has not publicly responded in this way, but rather it’s about a secular response to the Church of England, suggesting that somehow it’s out of bounds for the Church of England to have announced that it is praying for the world’s most famous living atheist.
After the word of Richard Dawkins’s stroke became public, the Church of England tweeted last Friday these words,
“Prayers for professor Dawkins and his family.”
According to the BBC, that is the British Broadcasting Corporation, the church’s tweet was retweeted more than 1000 times. Some detractors questioned whether the Church of England was sincere in saying that it was praying for professor Dawkins. As the BBC reported,
“Some were led to question if it was mocking the British atheist’s position.”
But the church’s official Communications Director defended the tweet and the church’s prayer concerns saying that it was,
“A genuine tweet offering prayer for a public person who was unwell.”
Now as I’ve said in the beginning, the story raises the question, the basic question from the Christian worldview, and that is this, is it ever wrong for a Christian to pray for anyone under any circumstances? There is no warrant in Scripture for the argument that somehow anyone is out of bounds in terms of prayer, and that includes persons who presumably, perhaps even explicitly, do not want us to pray for them. One interesting issue in terms of the Christian engagement with atheism is the fact that even though atheists by definition do not believe in God or in the possibility of prayer as a communication with God, the reality is that Christians so believe both in the existence of God and in the reality of prayer that we find ourselves praying for those who do not believe in God, and who do not necessarily even want us to pray for them.
Richard Dawkins did release a public statement after the controversy, saying that he is getting much better and he also said,
“I am very grateful to everyone who has been sending me good wishes from all around the world.”
If an individual is really operating from the worldview of atheism or even from a worldview of agnosticism or some other form of unbelief, the reality is that even though they do not believe in God and thus do not believe in prayer, they do believe that there are real people who are praying for them, and in the main they do believe that those people who are praying for them intend well. That’s why it takes a particular kind of atheistic indignation to demand that one not be prayed for, and that’s another thing that Christians need to keep in mind. We are called to love our enemies, even to respond in Christian love and compassion to those who despitefully abuse us and that means that, yes, we are called to pray for the well-being of even someone who is the opponent of the Christian church and one who is a skeptic theologically, and even one who might be among the four horsemen of the new atheism, Richard Dawkins here in particular.
It’s Christians who understand what’s at stake here when the secular world around us might deny the obvious. Here you have a man, albeit a public man, a very well-known man, a man whose attacks upon Christianity have been legion and have been vehement, but here’s a man who has suffered a stroke and he has a family who love him, and the issue here for Christians is to understand that it is never wrong to pray for someone. But there’s something else to keep here in mind, and that is for Christians, even as we pray for people, we must not pray only for their physical well-being. The church’s concern for Richard Dawkins has to extend beyond his recovery from the stroke. The concern for Richard Dawkins and for every other must be that we are concerned that they come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. The biggest issue for Richard Dawkins is actually not his stroke, but his atheism. The real issue here is actually not physiological, it’s theological. We understand that the most basic need of every single human being is peace with God the Father, and that is accomplished through the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we come to understand that eternity is at stake and in that light, it is not only our right, it’s not only are privilege, it is our responsibility to pray for those whom we know not yet to believe that they would come to believe in the one true and living God and in Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
Christians believe by definition in the power of prayer because it is so explicit in Scripture and it is taught to us by the Lord Jesus Christ. And we furthermore come to understand that to believe in a sovereign God who rules over the entire universe, over the entire cosmos, is also to believe in a God who has ordered us to pray in order to bring our petitions before him, as Jesus taught his disciples when they said,
“Lord, teach us to pray.”
He began by telling his disciples to pray.
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
In one sense, that covers everything. It covers every prayer concern. It covers everything that Christians are rightly concerned about when we think about prayer or, for that matter, about Richard Dawkins. But here’s something else for Christians to keep in mind as we look at the controversy over the Church of England praying for Richard Dawkins. Prayer is not a morally neutral act. It never has been, it never will be, because think of this when we pray,
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,”
we are saying that all the powers and principalities here on earth must bend to the will of the Father who rules from heaven. That is a prayer that subverts every earthly power and it establishes the reality, the Christian worldview, from which we know we ought to pray. We pray for each other; indeed, we pray for everyone. We even must pray for those who tell us they do not want us to pray for them and it is because we answer to a higher authority and it is because anyone who prays,
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,”
cannot let any power on earth tell us for whom we must or must not pray.
Loneliness alarmingly cited as reason for expansion of physician-assisted suicide
Next, a scene shift to Europe, to California, and to Canada—one common issue unites all those locations, and it’s the issue of euthanasia, the culture of death extending its reach in the end stages of life. And as we have seen, the logic of the culture of death increase its reach—that is, it expands the rules and regulations in terms of physician-assisted suicide—so that as we see human life is devalued at every stage and under every condition. The underlying issue here is the claim that human beings can be lords over our own lives; we can exercise a personal autonomy even to demand the circumstances of our own death, to define the death that will be acceptable to us. And now even to demand that a physician assist us in bringing about our death if life does not meet our conditions.
We go first to Europe; an article in the New York Times by Benedict Carey tells us about a new study that was published in JAMA, that is the Journal of the American Medical Association. As Carey writes,
“A new study of doctor-assisted death for people with mental disorders raises questions about the practice, finding that in more than half of approved cases, people declined treatment that could have helped, and that many cited loneliness as an important reason for wanting to die.”
Now without going any further, this is what we have seen happening. This is where we have seen the culture of death expanding, and it has done so under the cover of darkness and untruth. When proposals in nations like Belgium and the Netherlands and Switzerland were brought to legalize physician-assisted suicide, they were made under the argument that it would be limited to those who were certified to be suffering from a terminal physical disease. But that is not where it stayed. We have seen that the slippery slope when it comes to assisted suicide never stops there. It keeps being pressed on. We have seen euthanasia develop out of assisted suicide, and we have seen the fact that those who are candidates for euthanasia have been expanded from adults all the way down to children as young as 12, and at least some of these countries are considering allowing children even younger than 12 to demand physician assisted suicide. We’ve also seen that the grounds for demanding physician-assisted death have expanded from what was defined as a certifiable physical terminal disease to psychiatric diseases, and now you have the New York Times telling us of this major article that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association telling us that in more than half of the cases in these three countries in Europe where assisted suicide was granted on psychiatric grounds, the patients who demanded and received assisted suicide are now known to have foregone treatments that might have helped. And we also know that one of the main reasons why those who demanded assisted suicide under these grounds did so was because of loneliness; they themselves stipulated that that was the driving issue behind their assisted suicide.
So just rewind history, when those who brought the proposals for assisted suicide did so because they said there are those who are locked in intractable suffering from terminal physical diseases. Now we know that the legalization of assisted suicide has actually led to people who are demanding it and receiving it when the main cause is not some kind of terminal physical disease at all, not even some kind of specific psychiatric condition, but rather the condition of being lonely. And here we see the culture of death triumphant in such a way that it has set off alarm bells even with the American Medical Association and its most prestigious Journal, and even in the pages of the New York Times. As Benedict Carey reports,
“At least three countries — the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland — allow assisted suicides for people who have severe psychiatric problems and others, like Canada, are debating such measures, citing the rights of people with untreatable mental illness.”
You’ll notice just how ambiguous and amorphous that definition turns out to be. In the study that was released last week in the JAMA psychiatric section it finds,
“…that cases of doctor-assisted death for psychiatric reasons were not at all clear-cut, even in the Netherlands, the country with the longest tradition of carefully evaluating such end-of-life choices.”
One of the persons cited in the article is Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum, identified as Professor of psychiatry, medicine, and law at Columbia University. He said,
“The criteria in the Netherlands essentially require that the person’s disorder be intractable and untreatable, and this study shows that evaluating each of those elements turns out to be problematic,”
Well, that’s an understatement. The statement by this professor that the issues turn out to be problematic means that there is no way that anyone can actually ensure that the criteria for assisted suicide will be honored in any meaningful way. And behind that comes the reality that when this is first presented as a right to die, it very quickly becomes a duty to die. And we’re also seeing that one of the main reasons why many of these people have sought assisted suicide is because they are sad because they are lonely. That is one of most horrifying commentaries I’ve seen lately in terms of our modern secular confusion. Here we have people aided and abetted by the laws of their government who are now going to medical authorities to demand assisted suicide because they are lonely. It’s hard to imagine a society that could devalue human life more than this.
The New York Times article points to the fact that the example set in the Netherlands is what is being followed, at least to some extent, by American states including Oregon, Vermont, Montana, Washington, and California. The California State Medical Association just released its proposed guidelines for assisted suicide in recent days. The study, as reported in the newspaper, was led by Dr. Scott Y. H. Kim, a psychiatrist and bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health in the United States. He made a statement in this article that is so striking I read it in full. He said,
“The Dutch system is really the idealized setting in which to try something like this,”
He went on to say,
“But still, you can see that there are many cases that make us question whether this is the right practice.”
Now I know he meant that straightforwardly, that’s clear in the article, he meant what he said. The Dutch system there in the Netherlands, he says is,
“…the idealized setting in which to try something like this,”
But he went on to say that even in this idealized setting it turns out that the guidelines for assisted suicide turn out not adequately to protect human life. But it turns out that even the supporters of assisted suicide who say that the Netherlands represents the idealized situation in which to test these policies, even there the policies fail. But that raises an even more fundamental issue, what is revealed to us morally when you’re talking about assisted suicide and then you talk about the idealized situation? What could be the idealized situation when it comes to euthanasia or assisted suicide? The very idea that there could be an idealized situation is one of the lies the culture of death sets forward, one of the lies that obviously has been accepted by many, including many governments, one of the lies that leads to what is found in this report in the Journal of the American Medical Association—the guidelines for assisted suicide even in the supposedly idealized situation in the Netherlands don’t work.
Culture of death in Canada demands physician-assisted suicide for future dementia patients
And as if on this front you think the news can’t get worse, it does, right across our northern border where the Globe and Mail of Toronto reports,
“The advocacy organization Dying With Dignity is urging federal and provincial legislators to allow people diagnosed with dementia to make advance requests for assisted death while they are still cognitively able to make the choice.”
That is the lede directly read from the Toronto newspaper. But as I said, the news is even worse than first appears. Here is one sentence from the Globe and Mail reports, I quote it in full,
“A poll commissioned by Dying With Dignity suggests 80 per cent of Canadians agree that individuals with a terminal medical condition like dementia should be permitted to consent to assisted death in advance.”
So now the culture of death is going to suggest that someone fill out a form while they still are not suffering from dementia in the event that one day they may be in order that, lacking the ability to demand assisted suicide then for themselves, someone else will act in their place to invoke assisted suicide. And finally we need to recognize that this idea of euthanasia or assisted suicide is something that virtually every civilized society has understood as being immoral throughout human history. As a matter of fact, the very foundations of medicine, going back to the Greek physician Hippocrates, began with that Hippocratic oath’s first statement,
“First, do no harm.”
In that oath, which until recently was repeated by every physician entering that profession in Western nations, made very clear that no doctor can act positively to bring about the death of his patient. When we look at a moral reversal like this, we’re not looking at a minor change in policy; we’re not looking at just a change in law. We’re looking at an entire system of morality of the understanding of right and wrong of human life and the sanctity of human life being turned upside down and human dignity is being denied in the process.
UAE creates Minister for Happiness; begs the question, what makes us happy?
Finally, related to the previous story we raise the issue of happiness and joy. You know, the Christian worldview reminds us that we do not always even know our hearts well enough to know what brings us happiness or joy or why. Sometimes these things are a mystery unto ourselves. The Christian faith, by the way, greatly validates joy, and it greatly diminishes happiness as a human goal. Happiness is a situation, it’s a state of mind that can go; it can come for any number of reasons. The world may steal our happiness. But as the Scripture makes clear, the world can’t steal our joy. That’s because joy is something that is rooted in truth. Joy is ultimately rooted in our confidence in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Joy is rooted, like the apostle Paul said in his confidence that he who began a good work in us will continue it to the very end. But what about happiness as a matter of national policy? Can it even be a meaningful part of national policy? That’s raised by an article that appeared last week at the BBC, we read,
“The prime minister of the United Arab Emirates has announced the creation of a minister of state for happiness, as part of a major government shake-up.
“Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the ruler of Dubai, said the minister would drive policy “to create social good and satisfaction.”
Now a government is one of God’s gifts to his human creatures. That’s made clear in Scripture; it’s affirmed by the apostle Paul in a chapter like Romans chapter 13. But government doesn’t have the power to bring about something like happiness, and frankly, it leaves us scratching our heads to wonder exactly what a Minister of State for Happiness would do. In a fallen world, we can imagine many things any government might do to make its citizens unhappy, but it frankly stretches the imagination to know what a government might do in order to make its citizens happy. But it does tell us a great deal about how people look at government that these days it makes sense in the United Arab Emirates for the ruling sheik to announce there’s a new Minister of State for Happiness. But as challenging as that job no doubt will be, the important thing for Christians to recognize is that distinction between happiness and joy, because the one thing the Scripture makes clear is that the government can’t take joy away from us, because the government can’t give it to us. Anyone whose ultimate hopes are invested in government is going to be eventually, devastatingly disappointed, even in a nation that has as a part of its new government, a Minister of State for Happiness.