Salvo enters the fray

A new magazine has been launched, called Salvo. I like it. In fact I like it a lot. Just browse the list of names of the editorial advisory board – Francis Beckwith, Paul Copan, Robert P. George and others – it’s an impressive lineup.

It’s a slick, snappy presentation, obviously geared towards a young audience – college freshmen perhaps – addressing a host of contemporary philosophical and ethical issues from a Christian perspective. The opening issue has material ranging from the thought provoking and profound (like an article on Hollywood’s mixed messages on cloning or a piece on DNA and its complex specified information) to the downright hilariously satirical (spoof advertisements for euthanasia services and the abortion pill).

I want to say those things first to make it clear that my opinion of the magazine as a whole is very positive. I think the concept is great. I haven’t seen anything quite this well put together addressed to this target audience in such an intellectually serious level while still retaining a popular appeal. In fact, I intend to contact these people and let them know just how much I liked the first issue, and tell them that this is just the sort of thing I would be very interested in contributing to.

Can you hear a “however” coming? Well here it is: At times, and sometimes in pretty major ways, this issue of Salvo appears to trade heavily on the fact that its audience is young, inexperienced, and already converted to a Christian outlook. It is my view that much greater editorial vigilance is required to bring this magazine up to a level where it delivers material to young Christians who can really use the arguments they find therein when talking with their skeptical peers. Here are a few examples of the kind of thing I think hamper the cause of Salvo:

1) On the front cover of this first issue, there is a quote from one of the lead articles, called “Grave New World” by Hunter Baker. The point of the quote is that Science – philosophical naturalism, really – does not provide a basis for genuine moral value. That’s a point worth making. But notice how the quote on the front cover goes: “If science can’t explain the conscience or the values by which we order our lives, then there must be some other way of knowing.” But think about that for a moment, and you’ll see that it is a fairly obvious argument from silence. It effectively claims that “if no scientific explanation of phenomenon Q is forthcoming, then it must be the case that our knowledge of Q is conferred in another way.” But that just doesn’t follow. Absence of evidence is not at all the same as evidence of absence. If a person is a committed naturalist, then the fact – assuming he grants it – that science cannot currently explain the phenomenon of moral value in no way means that we must know of moral value in some other non-scientific way. He may simply believe that science has not yet accounted for such a phenomenon. The quote on the front cover would be much stronger if it said something like “if naturalism is incompatible with the existence of the values by which we live, then they must have a supernatural origin.” I know, it brings God into the picture more explicitly and may therefore put the skeptical reader off, but let’s face it, this was never written for skeptics in the first place.

2) This is, in my view, a more serious example, because it involves importing a very strong theological bias into what is supposed to be a listing of the bare definitions of philosophical terms provided for the reader. The section is called “passwords” and the stated purpose is “to help you get through this issue of Salvo.” Since the reader is young and not necessarily well informed on these things yet, the magazine provides a list of definitions of terms like a glossary so that if they get to a word they are not familiar with they can consult the list. Now, that’s a great idea. But when providing such a list, agendas must take a back seat. Look at this example: “determinism: The idea that everything that happens, from the motion of planets to the actions of human beings, is merely a mechanical expression of heredity and environment. There is no free will on the part of man, nor can outside agents (such as God) have an effect on the course of events.” Wow. So there’s no longer any such thing as theological determinism, where God determines the course of history? The definition provided here is simply horrendous, and smacks of a person who wants to paint determinism as badly as possible to scare young minds away from considering it. It has basically been defined as naturalism, an appearance made all the more clear when we turn to the definition offered for naturalism: “naturalism: The insistence [note: why not just “the belief?] that the universe is an absolutely closed system; there is no God who intervenes in the universe and human affairs, only natural processes. Naturalists believe that science is the only way to come to an understanding of truth.” Apart from the last sentence, the definitions of “determinism” and “naturalism” are all but identical! One can only pray that ignorance is the culprit here.

3) Throughout the magazine there were peppered examples of the mistaken conflation of non-cartesian views of humanity with naturalistic views of human purpose and significance. This thinking is frequent yet unfortunate in a lot of contemporary North American evangelical philosophy (I – respectfully – noted the appearance of J. P. Moreland on the editorial board), and it is a fairly minor fly in the ointment overall when assessing the magazine.

But I do want to reiterate, I think this magazine is outstanding – in a real class of its own, and definitely worth keeping up with. If you haven’t encountered Salvo yet, then I do urge you to check it out at the website.

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