June 08, 2007

A Challenge to Atheists

Nick is a bright, attractive, and financially successful young man who was raised in a nominally Christian home. He has a wife and a kid on the way. He's not particularly unhappy in his marriage, but it's been 3 years now and the passionate zing has pretty much faded. He's also not thrilled with the thought of a kid intruding on his lifestyle — maybe some day, but not just now. He only agreed to one at his wife's nagging insistence.

His wife is a semi-regular churchgoer and has been getting increasingly religious and domestic, particularly now with the pregnancy. Nick doesn't much care for church these days, especially now that she's gotten so serious about it, and her increasingly conservative attitude has affected their relationship and social life. It seems to Nick that they just don't have any carefree, spontaneous fun anymore and that she thinks his friends are irresponsible and immature.

Nick's been hanging out on the Internet a lot, doing things we won't talk about. But of particular interest is his time spent on a prominent atheist website. With the proverbial "open mind" Nick has absorbed it all. It deeply resonated with his current thinking and he found it just the kind of rational fuel he needed to take his life to the next level, but not before writing the following email to the author of that website.

Dear Sir,

I've been reading your articles with great interest over the past weeks. I must say, you make a strong case for atheism. In fact, I thought you'd be happy to hear that you've finally convinced me that god is just a fiction! I wanted to write and thank you personally because this is a big breakthrough for me. I feel like a great burden has been lifted from my back. Ironically, I feel "born again" as an atheist.

It's a relief to know that there is no god haunting my thoughts and actions, no spiritual quests to waste my time, no church to bore me, and no money to be surrendered. My mind is free and my goals are my own to set. I know now that my conscience, which was my last hurdle toward atheism, is just the product of my Christian upbringing, or perhaps it is an evolutionary instinct meant for my survival. In any case, it doesn't need to trouble me again, since I am free to make my own values and follow my own natural desires.

"Guilt" is as meaningless now as the fictional and repressive concepts of "good" and "evil." I am free to live according to the knowledge that this is my one shot at existence, and I don't want to waste it "storing up treasures" in a mythical place I'll never see. Best of all, there is no hell or judgment, so there are no "wrong" choices to make and no "bad" behaviors to avoid. As long as I'm okay with it, and society allows it, then it's all good!

I've grown so tired of trying to resist my desires and fight my conscience that it feels so liberating to reject the god hypothesis and everything that goes with it. If I want to party and do drugs, or view any kind of pornography, who's to say it's wrong? In fact, if I want to have an affair, so long as my wife doesn't find out, it's no problem with me. Heck, even if she does find out and doesn't like it, divorce is a perfectly acceptable option. For that matter, murder is on the table as well!

I'm a pretty smart guy; I could probably get away with it too. And if not, I'm willing to skip the country. I'd probably be happier in another country anyway. The US is too uptight and morally restrictive. I understand that there are many countries where drugs and prostitution are legal, and the age of consent is quite low in some. If things don't work out for me, I can always take the escape clause. It's my life and I can live it or end it whenever I want.

I realize that your writings haven't tried to convince anyone to go out and kill people or commit suicide. But you know what? The way I see it everything is fair game now. A world without god is a whole new adventure and I plan to live it out.

Thanks again for all your great articles. They really gave me something to think about, but I'm outta here now.


My question to any atheists who might be reading right now is this: Do you have a problem with Nick's attitude, and if so, what do you say to him?

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June 04, 2007

Imagine No Religion

One of the insistent claims of the new atheism is that "the world would be a better place without religion." All the atrocities of history are typically laid at the feet of "religion." Consequently, if there were no religion, there would be no problems. There would be no religious extremists to fly planes into buildings; there would be no religious causes to fight wars over; there would be no heretics to persecute; and there would be no dogma to stand in the way of pleasurable pursuits and scientific progress. In the words of John Lennon, if we imagine there's no religion, "all the people" would be "living life in peace" and "the world will be as one."

A reply to this would begin by questioning whether it is indeed true that all, or even most, of the atrocities of history are religiously motivated. As it turns out, an objective survey of history will turn up quite a number of murderous and oppressive examples that are purely secular in nature. A few that come to mind include the Columbine massacre, the eugenics and racial elitism of Margaret Sanger and company, the killing fields of Pol Pot, the systematic purges of Stalin and Mao Zedong, the sadistic and bloody French Revolution, and probably the bulk of the barbarian invasions and national conquests of the ancient world. Only by a definition so broad as to be meaningless could we attribute these things to "religion."

Perhaps it may be argued that these persons and societies were not properly atheistic, or an appeal might be made to examples of virtuous atheists. To the issue of what constitutes a "proper" atheist, I will speak latter, but here I would point out that the same could be said of religious people. Innumerable examples of selfless devotees could be brought to bear, and religious contributions to society could also be referenced, like hospitals, universities, orphanages, emergency aid organizations, youth programs, and soup kitchens. In my own small town alone there are several dozen relief organizations which are founded, staffed, or provisioned primarily by Christians. And I will gamble that it is the same in your own town.

I would argue that the charitable contributions of religion far outweigh any of its real or alleged abuses by orders of magnitude. This could only be denied by attempting to secularize certain key contributors, but it is not fair to selectively secularize only what is flattering and then turn a blind eye to atheism's culpability in the unflattering. Or perhaps it could be denied by defining certain contributions as something other than "good," but that begs the question as to why atheism's standard of good should prevail in arbitrating this dispute. One cannot simply assert that things like proselytizing, opposing abortion, or defending traditional families are strikes against religion without first demonstrating the fiction of such things and the religion(s) that sponsor them.

The atheist's argument begins with the assumption that there is no truth in religion, but then lodges complaint against actions that may be consistent with that religion in order to condemn the religion itself. This means that if one assumes, for the sake of argument, that the religion is true, then any act consistent with that religion is removed as grounds for complaint, and, conversely, any act inconsistent with it is exempt from complaint.

Of course, what the religion actually teaches about humanity and how it ought to behave may offer grounds to question the religion itself if it is contrary to all reason and experience. However, if there is any truth in religion, then there will surely be some hard teachings involved that are distasteful to human preferences, and we must also deal with the question of how we might, outside of a transcendent standard that religion would provide, judge certain doctrines "bad" or against "right" reason.

When asking whether a behavior is caused by a belief system it must first be determined if that behavior is consistent with the beliefs in question. For a religion like Christianity there is some hope of doing so, since it is founded upon certain doctrines and is in possession of a guidebook — the Bible — to which one might appeal in making a ruling. For this reason a strong case can be made that most of what is commonly credited to Christianity is actually a violation of its fundamental principles. It is not consistent with Christianity; it is antithetical to it. And if something is inconsistent with a thing it is hard to make a case that it is caused by that thing.

I once had an atheist insist to me that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was a Christian, as if to blame Christianity for the bombing itself. To answer such a charge it is not necessary to know anything at all about Timothy or his motivations; you must simply ask yourself if it is reasonable to imagine Jesus helping him pack his truck full of explosives. Since the answer is obviously "no," then even if McVeigh thought of himself as a Christian he must have a very different thing in mind when he uses that word — a thing which no classical Christian would care to defend.

If religious wars, inquisitions, and heretic burnings were in fact consistent with Christianity, then we should expect to have seen such things from its very inception and Christians would be repeating the behaviors even to this day rather than apologizing for them. This is exactly why the events referenced as "Christian atrocities" are generally isolated episodes in history and not things that invariably spring up wherever the Gospel is preached. Christianity has within itself exactly what it needs to be self-reforming. But no matter how divine her doctrines, because the visible church is composed of humans (some of which are only arguably "believers"), it is guaranteed to manifest flaws large and small. If the skeptic is looking for proof of God in the perfection of His followers, then the skeptic is presuming something about human nature that Christianity does not teach.

Of course, I have here been defending Christianity as opposed to "religion" in general. However, most of those arguing against religion train their guns primarily on Christianity and only employ things such as Islamic extremism for the sake of the juicy examples it affords. I will not take pains to defend religion at large, though each group surely has its own defenses to offer. I am only obliged to defend what I believe to be true: classical Christianity. If any who consciously differ from that truth consistently commit offenses, then it is not Christianity's burden to bear, and they "prove" the truth of atheism only as much as they prove Christianity, or anything else in opposition to themselves. The sins of the one, or even the majority, do not categorically invalidate all. If this were not so then we must condemn all thought of government because of the abuses of communists and fascists.

In fact, the rejection of religion would be a bit like the rejection of all formal government. Gone would be any objective moral framework, historical narrative and vision, or idea of absolute justice. But what would take its place in a strictly atheistic world? What ethical theory follows from atheism? John Lennon thought we could all "live as one" if we gave up on religion, but given that atheism's only dogma is the rejection of the supernatural it is impossible to say what such a world would yield.

Many atheists would propose something like secular humanism, but that is merely a broad ethical creed that begs for consensus over details, and it is no more objectively binding on its supporters than a New Year's resolution. And even if its followers were all passionately committed to it and everything derived from it, it is not the case that all atheists are on-board with it. Some atheists are nihilist. Some are anarchists. Some are communists. Some are hedonists. Some are quite sympathetic to religion. And some are just psychopaths. The frightening thing about atheism is that while it is difficult enough to say what is consistent with it, it is quite impossible to say what is inconsistent with it.

Unlike with Christianity, there are no grounds on which to even begin a debate over how atheism is to be lived out. So long as there are no gods and souls being appealed to, then it all equally qualifies as atheism. But worse than that, without a transcendent standard of morality, there are no grounds for saying how atheists ought to behave or why they ought to behave in any proposed way. Along with God goes any idea of fixed and binding moral imperatives. Morality simply becomes whatever humans define it to be at any given time and place. Lennon's imaginary world of brotherhood would be spoiled in the determination of which humans have the power to control the definition of the good and true. And the hunger for power is a very human trait. History has taught us at least that much.

Religions that explicitly teach violence aside, from a purely theoretical perspective it only makes sense to think that if one believes in divine justice, from which even death is no escape, then one is more likely to be concerned about his or her own good behavior. If people do bad things in contradiction to a system that teaches otherwise, then it must be the case that something else is driving them. I would suggest that something more subjective is at the bottom of human aggression — something at the very heart of humanity. As one sage has said, human depravity is one of the most empirically verifiable of all the doctrines of Christianity.

If we removed religion, people would simply find alternate grounds for oppression. There would always be substitute causes, movements, and justifications for evil persons to employ in their service. People have an incorrigible need to feel justified in their actions — even hardened criminals will make excuses. Religion is simply one very powerful justification to be leveraged. Removing the "excuse" of religion will not magically make bad people into saints. It would be as reasonable to believe that removing gangster rap and heavy metal will leave us with responsible and well-adjusted teenagers.

Some might argue that Europe has become largely secularized and it is doing just fine. Well, that returns to one's definition of "fine." When the news delivers stories of moral absurdities — stories that could make even an atheist cringe — they often will originate in one of the European bastions of secularism. Some notable examples would be: sex vendors at sporting events, a woman marrying a dolphin, the mainstreaming of pornography, problems of child pornography rings, lesser standards for what qualifies as child pornography, welfare recipients being forced to take available jobs in the sex industry, involuntary euthanasia, porn stars in politics, football (soccer) riots, and the breakdown of the traditional family. (Of course, I am begging the question to think that an atheist will take issue with such things. But for those who merely shrug at my list, it proves my point that it is indeed consistent with atheism; and for those who are troubled by it, it proves my point regarding the diversity of atheism.) Additionally, when it is said that Europe has become secularized it does not necessarily mean that it has become atheistic; it has simply become more diverse and "spiritual" but less inclined toward organized Christianity.

But even if all religious people died tomorrow in some great pluralistic rapture, I would expect that the world would not immediately descend into a pre-modern barbarian chaos. Modern atheists are so fat with the moral capital of their Christian heritage that they could probably live for decades before suffering bankruptcy. And most are either in denial or have quite forgotten that if there is no God anything is permissible. Well, anything that you can get away with at least. In a world without purpose and standards beyond personal happiness, what taboos can stand?

Is it really true that it would be the end of evil if we made an end of religion? As I've argued, it would only be the end of evil in the name of religion and the end of our grounds for naming anything evil. Evil would remain, but would be called by a different name, and it would be celebrated, tolerated, medicated, or carefully regulated — but never judged.

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June 01, 2007

False Dichotomies of the Emerging Church

I am published!

I was recently notified that my comment on a blog post by Myron B. Penner titled "Postmodern Apologetics" had made its way into a book being compiled from the various materials on that same website. The site's name, which will probably be the book title as well, is "A New Kind of Conversation." It is (or was) devoted to topics of concern to the Emerging Church Movement.

The short description of that movement might be "postmodernity meets Christianity." In my mind the movement roughly falls into two broad camps. One includes those who have refashioned Christianity to suit the tastes of the postmodern culture. The other is those who are attempting to contextualize the Gospel for a postmodern people. Perhaps it is simply the latest flavor of liberal versus conservative Christianity, though the liberalism in the Emerging Church is cleverly veiled behind a dense linguistic fog that is often difficult to penetrate. And I believe they prefer it that way, as to come right out and plainly state one's beliefs and disbeliefs would express the kind of dogma that they are very keen to reject.

The article to which I responded invoked my criticism in that it seemed to advocate throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In this case, the abuses of secular modernism suggested that we should rethink our ideas about propositional and objective truth claims. In its place would come telling our "story" and living it out among the unchurched. I found this and other ideas in the essay to be false dichotomies, and I said as much.

Here, then, is my response in full:

False Dichotomies

While this article offers some valid critiques of modernity, I think it does not affirm what is, in fact, biblical underlying certain ideas that have been abused by secular modernists. Many authors have offered similar critiques of modernity and classical apologetics without seeing the need or prudence of questioning its very foundations. I think that Penner's conclusions rest on a number of false dichotomies.

1) Modernity vs. postmodernity

Penner seems to be suggesting that thinking objectively and rationally means thinking without bias and presuppositions. I believe there is some equivocation on the word "objective" here. There is a difference between thinking that there is objective truth and thinking that you know it objectively (i.e., without bias or error). Postmoderns are right to question presuppositions and human fallibility, but we lose all tools of discourse if we go beyond this to conclude that no one, then, has any better-reasoned belief than another or that truth itself is a vapor. It does seem warranted to conclude that we ought to be humble regarding our fallibility, more introspective toward in our suppositions, and more rigorous in our application of reason. Penner says he "greatly values the insights of analytic philosophy and admires its rigor." But if these things get us nowhere, then what is to value; and if they do have merit, then let's use them to their fullest advantage.

2) Authority of revelation vs. reason

The problem with secular modernity was that they did not accept revelation at all. But Christian "modernists" accept it as objective truth and apply it as the foundation, frame, and fence for rational discourse. St. Paul rightly warns against vain philosophy according to human tradition, but when philosophy is grounded in those truths revealed by the Author of reason, then we are privileged to taste the "mind of Christ." And if we reject reason in relation to biblical revelation, then the very words of God become nothing but unprocessed photons striking the retina.

3) Science vs. Christianity

There seems to be a driving need to segregate the world of empirical science from the world of "faith." I think this is a response to the imagined hostility of the one to the other. However, we are now living in an age where we have the best scientific reasons ever to believe in a loving and intimate creator. The problem is not that there is no good reason to believe that science is compatible with the God of the Bible; the problem is that science has been secularized and its very definition has been changed to exclude the supernatural from consideration. Secular scientists are now more concerned with getting a certain kind of answer than with getting the right answer. The field of science has a deeply Christian legacy, and there has been a recent resurgence in Christian scholarship. There is no sense in abandoning a healthy ship.

4) Kerygmatic vs. rational and objective approaches (or, Cognitive claims vs. subjective "actuality")

But is the "kerygma" which we should share grounded in truth? When we tell our "story" is it an objectively true story, and if not, why is there any reason or passion for sharing it? If it is not based on objective truth, then we are simply peddling an interesting story and we are ascribing a mystical value to it that has no more weight than a Dr. Phil book. Our story can be both true in the objective sense, and efficacious in a subjective sense. Indeed, it has "actuality" because of the power in the truth that it contains. And when we tell that story, we are offering a series of cognitive claims. Even if a story were metaphor (like the parables), the very meaning of those metaphors is a matter of rational proposition.

5) Arguments and reason vs. love and empathy

To say that our beliefs are objectively true and advocating for them is not to say that you cannot give personal expression to these truths. In fact, those truths are the very things that impel us to love our neighbors (and enemies) and to meet them at the point of their need. How would we know how we ought to love them if not for the very things which apologists seek to defend, since one man's love (according to his own fancies) is another man's coddling?

It is true that you may win an argument but lose a soul, but every good apologist should know this. And for those who don't, the answer is not to surrender our claims to truth and the reasons for them; the answer is to refine our tactics, character, and wisdom. As Peter says, we should be ready to give a defense, but we should do this with gentleness and respect. And we should know when a good intellectual response is called for and when an outstretched hand and a willing ear are in order.

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN