briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

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

It’s Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Humbling Effect of Nature Beyond Our Control: The Deadly Winds and Waves of Hurricane Dorian

Meteorologists will tell you that a tropical cyclone is known as a hurricane, so long as it is found anywhere but in the Northwest Pacific where the very same storm will be known as a typhoon, but going throughout human history, it is clear that coastal areas, especially tropical coastal areas, have been threatened by these kinds of massive storms. But it is only in modern times that we have the ability to see them, and to watch them, even to attempt to track them.

As you look at the hurricane that is now imaged all over the media, and appropriately so, you see the breadth of the storm, you see the power of the storm, and we have been able to track Hurricane Dorian ever since it began as a lowly little tropical depression off of the western coast of Africa.

That’s where most of the Caribbean and North American storms originate. They originate as tropical depressions off of Africa. They are then carried by the oceanic winds and especially when they get to the warmer waters of the Atlantic, they begin to heat up, and that’s exactly where they draw their energy.

These storms are called cyclones properly so because they are a circle, they are a cycle. You see the winds begin to develop around a storm wall, which is often known as an eye. And then sometimes these mere depressions begin to accelerate into a tropical storm and once that storm reaches 74 miles per hour of sustained winds, it becomes known as a hurricane. The hurricanes are then rated by this particular feature of the speed of the sustained winds.

The Saffir-Simpson scale categorizes these storms from category one, barely a hurricane, 74 miles per hour until you get all the way up to the massive and most fearsome category five. But even as Dorian hit the Bahamas, it began so as a category five storm and it is still there. It is still basically hovering over the Bahamas, reduced only to being a category four storm with sustained winds clocked as of this morning still at about 130 miles per hour.

With the advent of more modern weather science, meteorologists began to define or at least to predict the beginnings of a hurricane by that rapid loss in barometric pressure and that’s what constitutes the heart of the storm. The winds begin to build around that low pressure system, as effectively it operates like something of a vacuum sucking up energy in the form of heat from warmer waters. And the storm does move. It began to move even as it was that little storm, that little depression off of Africa. It began to move westward towards North America. But where it would hit, no one knew weeks ago and the terrifying thing is that right now, even with the advent of modern weather science, even with all of these instruments watching it and with satellites tracking its every move, even with hurricane hunter planes penetrating the storm wall and going into the storm on behalf of the national weather service, the reality is no one knows right now where Dorian is headed.

A few observations. First of all, we anthropomorphize so much of nature. We anthropomorphize, that is we try to humanize even a storm. We give it a name, a personal name, because in effect we personalize these storms as if the storm has a mind. But of course the storm doesn’t have a mind, but human minds want to try to read where this storm is going and what it’s going to do.

It is very interesting to note that with the advent of modern satellites, that’s well within my own lifetime, only then have we been able to track these storms. And over the course of the last several decades, the technology has grown exponentially. We can now track them. We can now image them. Doppler radar gives us relative intensity, even band by band in these storms. We have so many tracking stations and weather units able to document a storm like this.

But it is extremely humbling to recognize that even as of early this morning, no one knows exactly where the storm is going to go. There are even continental differences in the prediction systems. There’s a North American system and there is a European system. Those are often put together with other forms of predictive analysis into a cone of danger, but right now it’s a cone of uncertainty as even the weather scientists admit.

I was very interested late last night and into the early hours this morning to hear meteorologists sometimes express what amounted to an apology for the fact that they are unable to predict the path of the storm, as if this is a failure. And then I heard a figure on the media last night complain that it is unacceptable that we are not able accurately and precisely to predict these storms, as if human beings are somehow supposed to possess the infallible ability to predict the innumerable variables that will go into a storm. It goes far beyond our computational power. It goes far beyond our analytical ability. It is deeply humbling, but human beings do not like to be humbled.

Another interesting fact is that if you look at these tropical storms, these clones in the Southern Hemisphere, and compare the same satellite image with the storm in the Northern Hemisphere, you will note a distinct difference. That difference is, they are rotating in opposite directions. It’s the same reason why you have in the Northern Hemisphere and in the Southern Hemisphere exactly opposite patterns of water circulating in a flushing toilet. It is the same scientific principle known as the Coriolis effect. It explains why fluids in the Northern Hemisphere and fluids in the Southern Hemisphere, given the rotation of the Earth, tend to move in opposite directions. That explains that radical distinction between the satellite imagery of a tropical cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere as compared to the north.

Hurricane Dorian has already been deadly in the Bahamas. The death toll is not yet known. It won’t be known for some time. As of the earliest hours this morning, authorities in the Bahamian government were indicating that they were unable yet to get rescue parties to many remote islands, and Grand Bahama Island itself has suffered what has been estimated in some places to be upwards of 30 inches of rain, that with a tidal surge. This amounts to not only devastating but extremely deadly flooding.

As of the earliest hours of this morning, hurricane warnings and evacuation orders have been put in place by government officials in Florida and in Georgia. And you had similar efforts beginning in South Carolina and North Carolina. You have those two states that have coastal areas that are hugely exposed because they jut out into an eastward direction out into the Atlantic, north of Georgia. But in Florida and in Georgia, cities all the way from West Palm Beach to Savannah are under dire warnings of potential danger and devastation that could come from Hurricane Dorian even if the storm, as now predicted, stays slightly off of the American coastline.

Another aspect of Hurricane Dorian reminds us that the damage that is brought by so many of these storms has to do not only with the tidal surge and not only with the strength of the winds, but also with the duration of the rain. And when you’re talking about Hurricane Dorian, by some estimates this morning, the storm is moving no faster than a human walk. One man in West Palm Beach said quite appropriately to the media, “It’s like being stalked by a turtle.”

Some in the media also seemed almost to dismiss the idea that we should be praying for those in the path of the storm as if we should be doing something about it. Well, there are things to do in preparation. There are things to do in rescue efforts. There are things to do in evacuation and assistance, but when it comes to the storm itself, there is nothing that we can do. There is no human effort commensurate with the power of this kind of storm.

Like many, I have loved ones directly in the line of this storm, and I’m praying, and I believe you are too, for those who have suffered devastation and for those whose lives are endangered, recognizing that in reality, once evacuation orders had been given, and once provisions have been made, once human beings have done everything in our power to do anything, the reality is the storm is still the storm, just as powerful and resisting all human wisdom, in one sense just as unpredictable.

But as is evidenced throughout so much of nature given the reality and the glory of creation and also the corruption of the fall, we can look at a reality like Hurricane Dorian. We can see it from those satellite images, and we can see both the beauty of it and the deadly nature of it.

Once again, it is deeply humbling. It reminds me of how God addressed Job in the closing chapters of that very important Old Testament book. Job was reminded that he observes nature, but he did not create it. He is not in charge of it and the Creator is not answerable to him. In that sense, looking at a hurricane after creation and the fall is like looking into the face of a tiger, so beautiful and yet simultaneously so deadly.

Part II

A Dangerous Confusion: Are Humans Really So Different From Other Species?

But next, we shift to another issue of massive worldview significance. Even as a hurricane humbles us, we recognize that around us is an enormous amount and almost unfathomable amount of confusion about where human beings actually fit within the cosmos, even within planet Earth. Consider the witness of the Psalmist in Psalm 8. Famously he writes, “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the Earth. You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants, you have established strength because of your foes to still the enemy and the avenger.”

The Psalmist then wrote, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet,” said the Psalmist inspired by the Holy Spirit, “you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings,” or the angels, “and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the Earth.”

What we see here affirmed in Psalm 8 is that we are not self-existent beings. We are the creation of a heavenly omnipotent Creator. He made us in his image. He made us a little lower than the heavenly beings in one sense, but he made us distinct from all the rest of creation in the cosmos. He made us in his image. And thus the Psalmist, struck by that fact asked, “What is there in man that God is mindful of him?” And the answer is God’s own glory demonstrated in humanity as God made human beings, every single one of us in his image, male and female.

The kind of confusion I’m talking about is such that appeared in a recent Op-Ed published in the Los Angeles Times. Again, one of the most influential American newspapers. The headline of the opinion piece: “Are we really so different from other species?” The author of the article is Mark W. Moffett identified as biologist, anthropologist, and the author of the new book, The Human Swarm. He begins by writing, “As a biologist who documents new species and behavior in remote places from sinkholes in Venezuela to tree tops in Borneo, I see abundant signs,” he wrote, “that the future is grim.”

He goes on, “A recent United Nations report confirmed the terrible truth. One million species on Earth are threatened with extinction. Yet even though we know how bad things have gotten,” he concludes, “there’s been little inclination to act.” But he does see hope when he writes, “Moving forward will require us to recognize that abuse of nature is at its core part of a basic human drive to distinguish in groups from out-groups. As long,” he says, “as nonhuman species are considered other and inferior, action to save them is unlikely. But knowing this fact,” he says, “there is hope not only for how we treat other species, but for how we treat other humans.”

But what is this fact he’s writing about when he says, “But in knowing this fact, there is hope”? It is the fact he says that ingrained in our nature, and this is often argued simply on the basis of evolution, ingrained in our nature is a propensity to define ingroups and out-groups.

His argument is really clear. Human beings define fellow human beings as the ingroup and all the other creatures including sentiment creatures as the out-group, and thus we feel free to abuse them. That’s the argument that is being made here. But you’ll notice that his corrective is to understand that the ingroup is all of us and that human beings are not categorically different from other creatures, and presumably here he’s speaking about sentient or thinking creatures.

Later in the article he writes, “A significant body of research suggests that how we perceive animals and how we perceive people is closely linked. Brock University scientists, Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson,” he says, “had research participants read essays enumerating the human like traits of animals.” He continues, “Mere exposure to this perspective caused even those with entrenched prejudices to think kindly of immigrants to regard them more as equals despite the fact that the essays mentioned nothing about humans.”

If you’re getting lost in this argument, that’s understandable. He shifted the category from dealing with human-like traits of animals to feeling better about other human beings including immigrants. As I said, evolution is basic to this worldview. It shows up explicitly in a following paragraph where he writes, “From an evolutionary standpoint, the link in attitudes towards animals and treatment of other people make sense. In an age,” he says, “when dangerous animals and foreign clans represented constant threats, people responded by differentiating without hesitation between us and other. While,” he says, “that ingrained tendency to identify and react to outsiders was a survival tactic in their dangerous world, it is what today lies at the heart of dehumanization.”

Hold onto that word. He uses the word “dehumanization.” He then says, “Ranking our own groups at the top of the hierarchy is the source of racial, ethnic, and nationalistic clashes, and as it turns out, mistreatment of other species as well.”

Now, I’m going to make the argument that this is a near deliberate effort at confusing the categories. He speaks of human conflict, specifically of conflict that is based in racism or ethnic division, but then he immediately jumps after using the word “dehumanization” to saying that the very same pattern explains our “mistreatment of other species as well.”

Those are two instances in a relatively short article where the author intentionally jumps from issues of human conflict to our conflict with other creatures, and particularly here, other species, as if those are comparable or even parallel in this sense. He summarizes the research by saying, “When our innate assumptions of superiority are counteracted, the possibility for more humane treatment of both fellow humans and nature increases.”

I spoke of a category error, and I’m going to go back to a word that was in his article that I want to highlight. It is the fact that he talks about the key issue as being “dehumanization.” He says that this identification, he roots in evolution, of an ingroup and an out-group is the foundation of the process of dehumanization. He says it lies at the heart of dehumanization. But how does the word “dehumanization” even morally fit and an argument that then jumps immediately to other species?

But perhaps the word “dehumanization” is even more calculated in one sense than you might think. Later he cites the research as finding that, “Likening people to animals can be transformed into a positive simply by turning the comparison on its head.” In his words, “Rather than thinking about how you and I are like animals, try this, they are like us. Instead of insulting us by putting us on par with animals, this vantage point raises animals up to ours.”

Except of course that’s nonsense and it’s human beings here thinking about animals, writing articles in the Los Angeles Times. It’s not animals thinking about humans, writing articles published in a newspaper. There is a categorical distinction between human beings and animals. By confusing that basic category distinction we’re all in trouble. I mean, first of all, all human beings are in trouble. We are not the same as other creatures, and we actually do not make the other creatures safer by treating them as if they are the equivalent to human beings.

Instead, we have to go back to that basic distinction between the secular worldview and the biblical worldview. The biblical worldview reminds us over and over again that human beings are distinct from every other aspect of creation, from every other creature. Distinct in the fact that we’re made in the image of God, we have a moral consciousness, we have analytical ability, we have relational ability, we have linguistic ability. Most importantly, we have the ability to know God, and he has given to human creatures the ability to relate to creation differently than any other creature.

Human beings are given this coregency, are given this responsibility of taking command of nature, but at the same time nature is also presented to us even in the beginning of the Bible as a garden — a garden of which we are stewards, a garden that is to be the recipient of our care for God’s glory. Our use, yes, but our care also. A biblical worldview explains why the animals are to be treasured not merely because of biodiversity, but because of the glory of God demonstrated individually and specifically in every different species of animals, and in every aspect of creation.

His answer is summarized in a sentence, “For species facing extinction and for oppressed peoples alike, reconnecting humans with the natural world is imperative.” The biblical worldview doesn’t say that human beings are to be disconnected from the natural world, we are creatures embedded in the natural world. But we are not just like the rest of nature.

As Psalm 8 reminds us we are made in the image of God so that we can know him and worship him. We care for creation because God made it and it is the display of his glory. But we do not believe, indeed we cannot believe that the way forward is somehow to think ourselves just like the rest of creation, just like the other animals.

And you’ll recall that Mark Moffett said that if we don’t want to think that we are just like the animals, then we should return the favor by thinking that they are just like us. But again, the obvious fact is they’re not just like us. They’re not writing for the Los Angeles Times, they’re not reading the Los Angeles Times. They might have a certain use for a newspaper, but it’s not writing it or reading it.

Part III

Another Dangerous Confusion: Do Your Children Think That Robots Are People?

Meanwhile, in a headline that could only make sense in very modern times, the Wall Street Journal ran a full page article in the print edition entitled, “Why Kids Should Call the Robot, It.” Sue Shellenbarger is the author of the article in the work and family column, and she’s writing about the fact that children need to be encouraged not to personalize and to anthropomorphize robots.

Shellenbarger gets right to the point. She begins, “If you want your preschooler to grow up with a healthy attitude towards artificial intelligence, here’s a tip: Don’t call that cute talking robot ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Call the robot, ‘it.’” She continues, “Today’s small children that is Generation Alpha are the first to grow up with robots as peers. Those winsome talking devices spawned by a booming education tech industry can speed children’s learning, but they can also be confusing to them as shown by research. Many children think robots are smarter than humans or imbue them with magical powers.”

Again, let’s just ponder the fact that this is one of those articles that would only make sense in our own very, very modern times, but it raises an issue that should immediately register interest, especially among Christian parents. It’s concrete advice. Don’t call that cute robot “he” or “she.” Maintain the distinction — she says this in the very first paragraph — by referring to robots only as “it.” Again, even if the article ended right there, which it doesn’t, it’s a full page in the Wall Street Journal print edition, but if it stopped right there, we would have encountered a shocking and very interesting common grace illustration of the necessary distinction, that category distinction, between human beings and other objects or even other creatures. When it comes to artificial intelligence, it turns out that there is a grave danger of confusion, especially when we begin to personalize robots by referring to them as “he” and “she.” What’s the point here? “He” and “she” in this sense will only make sense not only technologically, but more importantly morally if “he” and “she” refer to human beings.

She sites Jennifer Jipson identified as professor of psychology and child development at California Polytechnic State University as saying, “They,” meaning these small children, “know robots aren’t alive and don’t eat, sleep, breathe, or reproduce, but at the same time they attribute to them the ability to think and have emotions and sensory abilities.”

I’m going to switch at this point to a different article that appeared not too long ago in which parents were advised that they should teach their children good manners in dealing with robots such as the fact that they should apologize to a robot if an apology is called for, which raises the huge question when exactly is an apology appropriate for a robot?

Shellenbarger also warns that children, “Can become emotionally attached to robots. Most children ages nine through fifteen,” she says, “who interacted with a humanoid robot for fifteen minutes said later they might go to it for comfort if they were feeling sad or lonely, and believed the robot could be their friend.” That, she says, citing a 2018 study in the journal, Developmental Psychology.

She also cites MIT researchers, Randy Williams and Cynthia Breazeal. She’s identified as founder and director of the personal robots group at MIT, that’s the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famed Media Lab. Shellenbarger summarizes, “Parents can help by setting boundaries at home, guarding against toys that claim to be a child’s best friend or tell them what to wear.” Just in case you were looking for a number, “Dr. Breazeal says, children tend to internalize parents’ attitudes about technology by age eight.” My guess is it’s actually a lot younger than that.

So on the one hand we conclude by saying, welcome to parenting in the brave new world in which you not only, against a secular tide, have to reassert the Bible’s teaching about the distinction between human beings and the animals, you also have to underline the distinction between human beings and robots, and yes, it matters.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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