Further Dawkinsian Arguments 2

Dawkins’ argument against Pascal’s Wager includes a couple more interesting objections that are worth dealing with on their own.

What if we wager on the wrong God?
Dawkins also criticises Pascal’s Wager because it assumes one knows which God will be waiting for believers when we get there. What if we wager on the Holy Trinity, but God ends up being Baal or any nasty member of someone else’s pantheon?

The best way for me to answer this question is to present reasons why I consider Biblical Christianity to be unique among all other religions and by far the most likely to be genuine.

#1 – The Christian God claims to be personal, involved, Creator and Judge
Dawkins’ question seems to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it is nevertheless important enough. If there is a Judgment, then who will be hosting it?

The first thing to point out is that there are few religions for which the question is even relevant. Most polytheistic religions may have vague conception of an ultimate God (there is even a good case that polytheism stems as a corruption from monotheism), but are preoccupied with favourite gods (such as Catholic saints, in some cases) or regional deities (such as Baal) who ‘control’ whatever forces are most relevant to the worshipper. But these religions are vague on judgment and eternity. Other religions have gods who are not personal (Buddhism) or gods who are not supernatural, but are just a mysterious part of the natural cosmos (such as the Greek gods, pantheism, perhaps animism, and any religions that have personified natural phenomena, such as sun or moon worship).

For all of these, God is either distant, or an impersonal force, or a source of blessing or trouble in this life, but not creator and judge. Wherever this is true, concepts of eternity and judgment are vague, incoherent or irrelevant.

#2 – Christianity makes the best case for Divine revelation
I am of the opinion that God is largely unknowable and unavailable to proofs and experiments. We may gather a sense of God’s existence and nature by looking around us, but many people with good eyes still find God’s existence doubtful, and this general information about God can tell us nothing about who God is personally, what He expects of us, or where to find Him. In other words, God’s special self-revelation is essential to a claim to true religion, or else we are left with complete guesswork rather than credible truth claims (or perhaps worship of an unknowable God, as in some mystical religions, but is this much more than enshrined ignorance?).

Hinduism has the Vedas, but it is a vast body of spiritual writings that Hindus are not expected to read as a unity. They are meditations and thoughts that are said to be spiritually helpful, but (as far as I know) may contradict one another without problem. I stand open to correction, but the Bhagavad-Gita is a portion of the Vedas, claimed as divine by the Krishna Consciousness Movement. I am unable to comment about the credibility of these scriptures, as I am unfamiliar with their history and content.

Buddhism is another splinter movement from Hinduism, but it claims only to be enlightened philosophy rather than divine revelation (Buddhism is in fact atheistic, aiming at extinction from the exhausting cycle of rebirths, rather than unity with any divine force. Folk Buddhism that worships the Buddha is an ironic corruption).

Other scriptures that claim to be revelations from God usually consist in dictations made to one man in private. This is true of Islam and Mormonism, for example. This is not necessarily an argument against the truth of their claims, but consider that the Bible was compiled over about 1500 years and written by many authors, and yet still makes a defensible claim to a unified story without incoherence. The Qu’ran, by comparison, contains claims that the Christian scriptures are true, and yet finds that the Bible repeatedly contradicts what Muhammad taught. Therefore, Muslims argue that the Bible is corrupt, but given that the Bible is almost seven centuries older, the textual evidence is overwhelmingly against them. The Qu’ran also seemingly claims that the Christians think that Trinity is Father, Son and Mother Mary (“Allah will say: ‘O Jesus, son of Mary, Did you ever say to the people, ‘worship me and my mother as gods beside Allah?””), which is problematic. Finally, although Muhammad allegedly received the Qu’ran by dictation, some verses were retracted on the grounds that Satan had deceived him. But if Satan deceived him once, on what grounds can we know that the other dictation was certainly from the good source? These problems are not popular conversation starters with Muslims, as Salman Rushdie found out, but surely there are answers to them if Islam is true?

Of those religions that have scriptures, the Judeo-Christian scriptures are most credible due to their writing and compilation in more than one language, from more than one culture, and over so long a period. This is significant because there is consistency of theology and plot that is unmatched even by those works from a single author.

#3 – Christianity is uniquely moored in history
In The God Delusion, Dawkins claims that the existence of God is (at least in principle) a scientific question, because the virgin birth, resurrection and other key facts were empirical and scientifically testable. How right he is to say this is unimportant for now. It’s interesting though that his comment is true almost exclusively of Christianity. No other religion that I know of claims to stand or fall on its own historicity.

Most religions are philosophical and ethical systems, but not historical. The incarnations of the gods in figures such as Hercules are told in poems and stories, but no one knows when these figures were supposed to have lived. The gods of fertility cults have ‘resurrections’ that signify the death and rebirth of seed, but those resurrections weren’t observed by witnesses.

Christianity is completely different. The gospel events were preached in Jerusalem during Pentecost, seven weeks after the death of Jesus. That preaching presupposed that the historical events were common knowledge. The virgin who bore Jesus was available for comment when the gospels were written. The resurrection appearances were witnessed on many separate occasions, once by a sceptic who insisted on seeing and touching, once by more than 500 people, most of whom were still alive when the gospel was distributed in written form. Three of the gospels were written by disciples (if you agree that Mark ghost-wrote Peter’s story), and the other by Luke who researched and gathered witness accounts. Not only does the Christian gospel claim to be historical, but it claims to be nonsense if it’s not historical, and even invited sceptics to investigate for themselves.

“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1Corinthians 15:17-19, c. AD 48)

#4 – Christianity teaches a worldview that has broad power to explain
This is a minor point, and of course every worldview will necessarily have unknowns. However, if we were to judge belief systems simply according to their ability to make human experience coherent, Christianity would score highly. Perhaps stating the case against other hugely successful worldviews will make my point clearer.

Mysticism gives a high place to one’s divine mind or life force. Because much in life is cyclical, and much in life is evil, material existence is viewed as an ever-repeating trap from which one’s spirit must escape. Although it is internally consistent, mysticism is forced to treat some of life’s realest experiences, such as the good and the value in the material world and the goodness of our individuality, as illusions.

Although not a religion, philosophical naturalism, which enshrines science and reason, and which has enormous explanatory power over the natural world, is forced to treat morality and meaning as subjective, which nearly empties such concepts of meaning (as is demonstrated in the subsequent birth of nihilism). If CS Lewis in Miracles is correct, a genuine explanation for the ability of our reason to see truths is also lacking.

Christianity is able to find a place for good and evil, for spirit and matter, for our origins and our end, for our problem and our cure, for eternal and temporal purpose, and for universal ideals in ethics etc.

An important by-product of the Christian worldview is freedom. Finding a balance between the liberty of the individual and the liberty of society, between pleasures and responsibilities, and between denial and indulgence is difficult. Complete libertarianism fails to avoid slavery to pleasure without fulfilment, and slavery of society to the freedoms of individuals. Legalist societies, such as Sharia Islam, so easily force-fit individuals into unhappy moulds, and into slavery to endless empty codes. Biblical Christianity is perhaps the most successful in promoting equality, yet social order; personal pleasures as well as self-control; and joy without naïveté.

#5 – Salvation by grace
Finally and most importantly, Christianity is unique in its teaching on salvation. Every religion in the world conceives of humanity as lacking something in regard to our relationship with the divine (if we were not in need of reconciliation, there would be no need of religion to facilitate that relationship, as is so in atheism). Every religion in the world, but for one, regards the disruption in relationship between God and man to be a gap that is bridgeable by human effort. Our offences are minor enough that if we jump to god’s tune and do more good than bad. Our pleasing deeds will offset our displeasing ones when god weighs them up (allow for tweaks in terminology between religions).

Biblical Christianity has a very different view of the human problem. Our misdeeds are offences against the perfect creator, and so our attempts at offsetting the damage are hopelessly inadequate. My favourite illustration of this is adultery. Imagine that our sins are to a perfect God like adultery is to a marriage. If you’ve slept with the neighbour, it’s no good attempting to placate your spouse by making the bed. A destroyed relationship is not fixed by doing a petty chore or two.

In the light of human helplessness to achieve reconciliation in a relationship that we’ve smashed without provocation, the gospel offers grace. Because of who God is, and not because of who we are, God has made a way for us to be reconciled to Him entirely free. There is no human effort that could achieve reconciliation, and so God has done what was needed and given it to us as a gift without human effort. Of course one is expected to live in that relationship as we did before we destroyed it, but, unlike every other religion in the world, there is no concept in Christianity of earning favour with God.

This is what discredits every other religion the most in my eyes. Just as every criminal believes he’s more or less innocent, or himself some kind of victim, so also we naturally believe that we’re not so bad, and that God has no right to be especially angry with us. In fact, we’ll have a word or two with Him if we ever have to meet up. Every religion except one has more or less this kind of view of humanity built in. The fact that human ‘goodness’ can offset our badness is unequivocal testimony to this. Furthermore, every religion except one makes humanity into the hero of the whole story of history. God is more or less a bystander, now upset that we’re being bad, now inordinately delighted that we’re spinning that prayer wheel or tying bright strings around our ankles. Mankind is doing the business. It’s exactly the kind of story we’d write, but bears none of the marks of Divine authorship. Humans are doing pretty well, doing the fighting; God can be pacified with trinkets.

Christianity, by contrast, points out that there’s nothing significant that separates us ‘good folk’ from the rapist and murderer. Even if we’re shiny on the outside, people are dark to the core. We’re the ones who are helpless to effect any real change. God is the one who takes centre stage to restore something that He didn’t break, He acts despite the fact that we didn’t ask Him to, and generally aren’t grateful that He did. And to cap it off, accepting this gift means the total death of human pride and human autonomy; two of our most prized possessions. What person would make this kind of story up? Well, no other religion has come close. Not even remotely.

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6 thoughts on “Further Dawkinsian Arguments 2

  1. Hephaestion says:

    “#4 Christianity teaches a world view that has broad power to explain”

    Broad power to explain, you say. To explain what, precisely..?

    Creationists defend their troglodytic position of a 6000-year-old earth by holding up the Bible and claiming it to be the inerrant word of God. This is not just slightly wrong; this is so stupefyingly wrong (by a factor of almost a million!), so demonstrably wrong that one wonders how on earth such glaring ignorance is possible given the free and easy availability of knowledge we now enjoy. Science has the power to explain how we can calculate the earth’s age, and that it is, in fact, 4.57 billion years old. To not believe that the earth is 4.57 billion years is akin to not believing that acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s/s; it’s akin to not believing that light travels at 299,792,458 m/s; it’s akin to not believing that the known universe is 13.7 billion light years across. If the earth were really 6000 years old, we would know – the evidence would be as unambiguous as it is for it being 4.57 billions years old.

    This is the world view that encourages people to believe that man was created in an instant, in situ, from clay; that a wooden boat was built to carry all the animal, bird and insect species (male and female) for forty days and nights while it rained so much that the there was a planet-wide, mountain top-covering flood; that seas were parted; that a man survived in a whale’s stomach for three days; and so on. These are fantastical things to believe in. But Christians are encouraged to believe such nonsense. And they are encouraged to do so because they are encouraged to a) believe that the Bible is true; b) to believe that the Bible is the (inerrant, to some) Word of God; d) that faith in lieu of reason is a good thing; and c) that doubting is wrong.

    Of course, there are many fine Christian scientists, but the religion gives succor to these kinds of juvenile beliefs. In fact, the religion positively encourages belief in such things as the occult, voodoo, witchcraft, satanism, quigi boards and much other superstitious nonsense. But still these beliefs persist, and even thrive. As Joseph Goebbels once observed, a lie repeated often, and with enough conviction, becomes the truth. We can believe that the earth is 6000 years old (a “truth”) even though the evidence tells us otherwise. So what can Christianity really explain?

    Well, almost nothing real it would seem. We know why there is suffering in the world. We know why there are tsunamis, why there are tornadoes, why there is disease, why there is climate change, why there are volcanoes, why there is sex, why there is death. We have a good idea of how stars form and how planets form, how mountains form. We even have an approximate idea of how life came to be, and it’s only a matter of time before we understand the creation of life as well as we do the evolution of life. And none of this is to be found in the Bible, or any holy book for that matter.

    Perhaps the worst aspect of Christianity is the elevation of humans as something special, something above the fray of nature. “No, no, we’re not descended from monkeys! We have eternal souls! We are made in the image of God!” Dear me, such ignorance, such arrogance, such conceit. This is only matched by the groveling at the Feet of their unseen god: “We’re wretched, we’re sinful, we’re not worthy!” Dear me, such self-loathing, such self-denigration, such a lack of dignity. This is not the power to explain. This is the power to distort, to contort, to elevate, to subjugate. It’s a mess of contradictory, superstitious obfuscation.

    “We’re the ones who are helpless to effect any real change. God is the one who takes centre stage to restore something that He didn’t break, He acts despite the fact that we didn’t ask Him to, and generally aren’t grateful that He did.”

    This is a total abdication of responsibility. It’s a glorious throwing up of the hands, a giving up, and a belittling of our own resilience and ingenuity. How utterly demeaning . Yes, life is challenging; yes, sometimes the challenges seem insurmountable; yes, the ending is tragic and inevitable. But given a brief respite, a stable climate, look what we have achieved. These achievements are not attributable to Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu or even Osiris. No, they are demonstrably, clearly, indubitably attributable to the ingenuity and sweat of mankind, to our insatiable curiosity and desire (and ability) to understand the world in which we find ourselves. If you want to give your god credit for natural selection, then fine, but all mankind’s achievements were won through hard work, ingenuity and learning from our errors. And to luck, of course. Any number of chance events throughout our 4-billion-year journey to homo sapien might have driven our particular evolutionary branch to extinction.

    To credit God with all that is good and blame all that is bad on mankind is nonsensical. Once you give your god omniscience and omnipotence, once you employ him as a creator and a judge, as involved, then he becomes responsible for everything.

    We are assailed by disease, by the environment. We are threatened by religious nut cases who either have nuclear weapons or want them, who fly aeroplanes into buildings and deny reality. You can’t reason with someone who believes they are doing their god’s will. You can’t reason with a martyr for Allah or with one of God’s warriors. You can’t bribe them or tempt them or subdue them. Those people who believe they have a direct and personal holy communion with an unseen and supernatural god have placed themselves one step below the ultimate pedestal. How modest. And what’s more, it can never be proven that they are wrong. How very convenient. Someone can quite happily be babbling away in “tongues” at church, and no one can show that they are talking rubbish and deluding themselves that they are under God’s direct influence. Talk about delusions of self-importance! They are buddy-buddy with not a president, not a king, not a celebrity, but God His Very Holy Self! Imagine, for a moment, that there is no God. There is your friend babbling away in tongues, quivering in a divine embrace. Absurd, isn’t it? Stripped of religion we’d simply call them deluded and get them help; with religion, we indulge them. In fact, to point out the delusion is to bring forth cries of intolerance and a lack of respect for a person’s beliefs. Well, we don’t respect a belief in invisible unicorns; we respect the *right* to believe in invisible unicorns.

    As we struggle to survive, as all life does, how does the religious world view help? While the theologians busy themselves with questions of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, while Bible study groups discuss whether Genesis should be interpreted allegorically, metaphorically or literally, while priests comfort the bereaved, while the congregation lose their fear of death, who does the real work? Who dedicate their few earthly hours to curing us of malaria? Who dedicate their lives to understanding where we came from, how we work, and where we may be heading? It’s not the clerics. It’s not the pastors. It’s certainly not the evangelical Christians – they would rather you accept Jesus’s Gift than find a cure for leprosy. Given the choice, they would rather have a child be a Christian than be an atheist who finds a cure for AIDS.

    Scientists are now turning their gaze to morality, the last redoubt of the religious. But like all the other mysteries that the religious hide behind, this one too will be hypothesised, analysed and eventually understood. What good is the Bible when it comes to morality if it can be used to kill and enslave? Slave owners held up the Bible as the divine authority allowing such an inhuman practice. The crusades, witch burning, the killing of heretics – all these things were carried out in the name of God. Whether you are an abortion clinic bomber or someone who gives to charity, whether you are a money-grabbing tele-evangelist or a kind and comforting priest, whether you are a God-warrior mum terrifying your children with threats of eternal damnation or a mum just wanting the best for her children, all can find support for their position in the Bible.

    Israeli psychologist George Tamarin asked over 2000 Israeli schoolchildren (aged eight to fourteen) whether they thought Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not in the battle of Jericho, where “They utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, and asses, with the edge of the sword…” 66% totally approved, with 26% totally disapproving, and the remainder partially approving. In other words, the majority of these children approved of genocide. A sobering result. In a control group, Tamarin asked the same question, but changed the time and location. Joshua became ‘General Lin’ and Israel became a Chinese kingdom circa 1000BC. The results, without religious bias, were somewhat different. 75% now disapproved of the massacre, and only 7% approved it. The power to distort…

    The greatest power to explain the world comes from science. Our most noble accomplishments are driven not by superstition, but by curiosity; they are built through teamwork, not by divine decree. As science explains more and more, so the religious explanations becomes less and less. If we want to understand the fundamental nature of the universe, do we build the Large Hadron Collider, or do we consult the Bible (or a priest or a pastor)? If we want to explore ourselves and understand how we came to be, do we inspect the genetic, fossil and geological evidence, or do we consult the Bible (or a priest or a pastor)? Christianity has so little power to explain anything real that it is almost completely barren as a world view. You might as well pick any of the other religions given the real-world usefulness found within the pages of a 2000-year-old book written in a time of widespread superstition and ignorance. How many unsubstantiated metaphysical assertions should a theist be allowed to make before someone calls foul?

    A naturalistic world view assumes that everything is a result of physical laws. Instead of invoking a deity at every mystery, science seeks out the most parsimonious and natural explanations. The religious explanations, however, do not. They provide no testable, verifiable or falsifiable explanation; they cannot be disproven (Thor makes thunder, Zeus makes lightening, God made man, etc); they are the end of the causal chain, the end of the discussion – we know the answer and can pat ourselves on the back and sigh with the relief of knowing we are right, that we have the answer, that God is The Man. A scientific explanation can be shown to be wrong. Indeed, science relies on being shown that a particular hypothesis is really, truly, demonstrably wrong.

    A Christian geneticist can quite happily smile and pray with her fundamentalist brethren who “know” that the Theory of Evolution is a lie, a Nazi-supporting, eugenics-founding, racism-supporting, pseudo-scientific lie (as evangelicals would have us believe). A reasonable (let alone powerful) world view could not possibly accommodate such opposing views. We can’t (or shouldn’t) simply choose to either believe or not believe in evolution. We follow the evidence, the ever-increasing pile of inter-disciplinary evidence. And that evidence clearly shows that the fact of evolution is most eloquently and accurately explained through the process of natural selection. No one has ever presented a comparable theory.

    And for those Christians who accept evolution by natural selection? Well, perhaps they can explain at what point between homo habilis and homo sapien did their god insert the soul? We quickly find ourselves discussing a thing that cannot ever be tested, falsified or verified, created by a thing that can never be tested, falsified or verified. We continue to talk about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And, by the way, given that Adam and Eve are figurative, how are we supposed to interpret Original Sin? And death, for that matter? And the crucifiction? Under constant, reasonable, rational questioning, doubts arise, and the whole superstition mess collapses.

    We should rather face up to the tragedy of life, that we can never fully comprehend the world we are in, that we are all destined to die, and not lie that we know the answers, that there is a god, that there is an afterlife, that God looks over us, and so on and so forth. We should be confident in what we do know, what we have discovered, and honest about what we do not know.

  2. Daran ( a real name of a Christian human) says:

    … & by all that, Hephaestion, (your parents must have been hippies), i take it that you have no objection to the other 4 points?

  3. Jordan Pickering says:

    Hep.

    Thanks again for your comments. I thought I owed you a long response this time, seeing as I didn’t get around to your Pascal one…

    “‘#4 Christianity teaches a world view that has broad power to explain’
    Broad power to explain, you say. To explain what, precisely?”

    I mean that it finds a satisfying place for the things in life that we instinctively prize or experience as most real. I mean that it is not forced to ascribe too much to ‘illusion’ in order to retain coherence.

    “Creationists defend their troglodytic position of a 6000-year-old earth by holding up the Bible and claiming it to be the inerrant word of God…”

    I’m not a creationist, and I have no problem believing that the earth might be somewhat older than 6000 years. I don’t think that Genesis 1-3 ought to be read as literal history. I think it belongs to a more colourful, imagery-filled genre, and that it intends to teach us the nature of the God, the world and our place between the two. As for the age of the earth, I am in not position to disagree with you, but I think there is some variety of informed opinion. The figure has changed more recently than the gravitational acceleration one, I think.

    “This is the world view that encourages people to believe that man was created in an instant, in situ, from clay; that a wooden boat was built to carry all the animal, bird and insect species [etc.]… These are fantastical things to believe in. But Christians are encouraged to believe such nonsense. And they are encouraged to do so because they are encouraged to a) believe that the Bible is true; b) to believe that the Bible is the (inerrant, to some) Word of God; d) that faith in lieu of reason is a good thing; and c) that doubting is wrong.”

    I accept that there is much fantastical in scripture, and some of the details you quote above may well be stylisations of what actually happened (perhaps even Noah). I don’t think that the miraculous is unreasonable though. If there is a God who created (even by evolution), then could he not continue to intervene?

    As an aside, in the making of man from clay, I think Genesis is merely reminding us that humans are dust, that is, that we derive our value from relatedness to God, and that we are dependent upon Him for life, but value is not inherent to us. It’s interesting that evolution also has all life springing out of inorganic chemistry, and so although evolution is a longer way round, if we did evolve, even then it would make the clay moulding metaphor appropriate.

    Also I don’t think that the last two points of your a-d list are so true of Christianity. I know Dawkins quotes Luther calling reason an opponent to faith, but I suspect it’s necessary to investigate what he’s reacting against. Luther of all people was a world leader in opposing mindless superstition by the skills of humanism. CS Lewis in Miracles makes a decent case to show that reason is best accounted for as a God-given and not accounted for at all by natural processes. It’s well worth a read for better engagement on the miracles question too, but whatever your views on Lewis, the Bible is insistent that Christianity is about a renewed mind, and that Christians must be prepared to give reasons for our beliefs. So I don’t think that genuine reason is at all an enemy of faith.

    Doubting is also not ‘wrong’, except for the kind spoken of mostly in James, which is synonymous with double-mindedness, fence sitting. Doubt in the sense of uncertainty is surely a corollary of faith, but it is a state that should cause us to renew the reasons for belief and investigate things further. You give the impression that Xty holds on to its hegemony with a big stick, but I don’t think that this is the case (as far as biblical teaching goes, that is; various churches may be different. And wrong).

    “Of course, there are many fine Christian scientists, but the religion gives succour to these kinds of juvenile beliefs. In fact, the religion positively encourages belief in … superstitious nonsense…

    Perhaps the worst aspect of Christianity is the elevation of humans as something special, something above the fray of nature. “No, no, we’re not descended from monkeys! We have eternal souls! We are made in the image of God!” Dear me, such ignorance, such arrogance, such conceit. This is only matched by the grovelling at the Feet of their unseen god: “We’re wretched, we’re sinful, we’re not worthy!” Dear me, such self-loathing, such self-denigration, such a lack of dignity. This is not the power to explain. This is the power to distort, to contort, to elevate, to subjugate. It’s a mess of contradictory, superstitious obfuscation.”

    You seem to be saying that it is wrong for us to see ourselves as above nature, and yet also wrong to see ourselves as below our creator. You would have us created a little lower than the angelfish, and dictating terms to God? I think logic is on our side here at least (as long as, for the sake of argument God exists. No one doubts that we’re pitiful fools if God doesn’t exist. Paul says as much in the Bible itself.) Anyway, I don’t think that non-religious human beings actually believe we are equal to nature. We might say that we are only 5% different to chimps or whatever, but in practice we all see how big a margin that is. We all live as if humans are more valuable than animals.

    The difference in Christianity is that this ‘image of God’ status actually means that humans are supposed to rule the planet for ITS benefit, not to exploit it for our own. Note how Jesus behaves as ruler of humanity: complete self-sacrifice is the ideal.

    Our ‘self-loathing’ (humility, rather) is recognition of human rebellion against God, and is completely fitting if God is who He says He is. Yet He lifts up, purifies and completes His people so that they can be in relationship with Him. What’s so undignified about that? It’s an honest recognition of what we are really like before God.

    As for explaining the facts of the world, the Bible encourages science (and also directly tells us to stay away from clairvoyance and divination). For example, the wisest of all men, Solomon, was credited with wisdom for being a scientist. He classified species etc. So, the way in which the Bible would teach us to get to know all the details about the inner workings of things is the same way you would: by study and investigation. So there is no conflict between science and Christianity.

    “‘We’re the ones who are helpless to effect any real change. God is the one who takes centre stage to restore something that He didn’t break, He acts despite the fact that we didn’t ask Him to, and generally aren’t grateful that He did.’
    This is a total abdication of responsibility. It’s a glorious throwing up of the hands, a giving up, and a belittling of our own resilience and ingenuity. How utterly demeaning.”

    Incorrect. It is thoroughly aware of human responsibility. That’s the point. Other religions are soft on what humans are actually responsible for. Atheism really ought to be deterministic, and many of my atheist friends are self-consciously so. If everything proceeds according to fixed scientific laws, then humans are not personally responsible for anything. We’re only conduits for the inevitable march of cause and effect.

    Christianity is unique in denying that we are able through ingenuity or otherwise to repair relationship with God (in fact, we wouldn’t even know what God is like if not for revelation of Himself—how if we don’t know Him naturally can we then claim to know how to please Him?). It’s humbling to be sure, but not abdication of responsibility at all.

    “Yes, life is challenging; yes, sometimes the challenges seem insurmountable; yes, the ending is tragic and inevitable. But given a brief respite, a stable climate, look what we have achieved. These achievements are not attributable to Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu or even Osiris. No, they are demonstrably, clearly, indubitably attributable to the ingenuity and sweat of mankind, to our insatiable curiosity and desire (and ability) to understand the world in which we find ourselves. If you want to give your god credit for natural selection, then fine, but all mankind’s achievements were won through hard work, ingenuity and learning from our errors. And to luck, of course. Any number of chance events throughout our 4-billion-year journey to homo sapien might have driven our particular evolutionary branch to extinction.”

    Indeed. Especially not Osiris.

    What you’re talking about here seems very different to the narrow point that I was making about the possibility of earning salvation. No-one doubts that humans are capable of wonderful things. Subduing (taming) the earth is our mandate, and something that we’re fairly good at. Neither is it foreign to Christianity to have God working by human agency.

    I wonder how you would be able to judge though whether or not God is at work in ordinary human events? One president instead of another, one lucky discovery here, one war averted there. We say grace for our food not because it fell from heaven, but because if we have certain talents, or our health, or a job, or a functioning economy, or a stable climate we believe that God has been gracious in bringing this about.

    You’ve captured the typical optimism of modernism well, and humans have achieved much, but we’re also responsible for WWI & II, various genocides, racism, ecological disaster, extinctions, etc. etc. Seeing as Christianity couples that same optimistic scientific mandate with the responsibility to stand as custodian of creation, and seeing as it is about moral regeneration and complete other-person-centeredness, one wonders how much could have been achieved if we weren’t acting man-alone and irresponsibly at times.

    “To credit God with all that is good and blame all that is bad on mankind is nonsensical. Once you give your god omniscience and omnipotence, once you employ him as a creator and a judge, as involved, then he becomes responsible for everything.”

    If I’m allowed to recommend two CS Lewis books in one post, read The Problem of Pain. What you raise here is very well worn territory, and that’s the best book on it that I’ve read (which is admittedly not saying too much).

    “We are assailed by disease, by the environment. We are threatened by religious nut cases who either have nuclear weapons or want them, who fly aeroplanes into buildings and deny reality. You can’t reason with someone who believes they are doing their god’s will. You can’t reason with a martyr for Allah or with one of God’s warriors. You can’t bribe them or tempt them or subdue them. Those people who believe they have a direct and personal holy communion with an unseen and supernatural god have placed themselves one step below the ultimate pedestal. How modest. And what’s more, it can never be proven that they are wrong. How very convenient.”

    Again, one of the reasons why Christianity is superior to all other religions is that scripture claims to be the ruling word over its followers (the fact that this is so often not the case in practice is a complete scandal to me – you have to ignore vast swathes of scripture to call yourself Christian and yet not submit to it). And if scripture is the rule, then Christians are not free to do what you describe, and they can be proven wrong. It’s not convenient at all. That is why there are so many Christian publications devoted to internal criticism.

    “Someone can quite happily be babbling away in “tongues” at church, and no one can show that they are talking rubbish and deluding themselves that they are under God’s direct influence. Talk about delusions of self-importance! They are buddy-buddy with not a president, not a king, not a celebrity, but God His Very Holy Self! Imagine, for a moment, that there is no God. There is your friend babbling away in tongues, quivering in a divine embrace. Absurd, isn’t it? Stripped of religion we’d simply call them deluded and get them help; with religion, we indulge them. In fact, to point out the delusion is to bring forth cries of intolerance and a lack of respect for a person’s beliefs.”

    I agree with you (within certain limits). The most terrifying and awesome thing about Christianity is that it promises relationship with that God of the universe to anyone who will accept His terms. The awful thing is that so many presume upon it, and claim an immediacy to it that is unlikely to be genuine. Exhibiting ‘supernatural’ signs is a great temptation for attention seekers, or people who would be holier than thou. Having said that, there may be some genuine supernatural experience as far as I’m concerned, just not the canned artificial stuff that is usually paraded on TV and in megachurch.

    I also don’t have a problem with respectful criticism (because people are deserving of respect in general), even of religion. Religion does not deserve special treatment, either gentler or harsher.

    “As we struggle to survive, as all life does, how does the religious world view help? While the theologians busy themselves with questions of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, while Bible study groups discuss whether Genesis should be interpreted allegorically, metaphorically or literally, while priests comfort the bereaved, while the congregation lose their fear of death, who does the real work? Who dedicate their few earthly hours to curing us of malaria? Etc…”

    You are perhaps not aware quite how much humanitarian work is funded or directly done by Christians, both now and in history. Yes, the better Christians among us spend a good deal of time in study and reflection and prayer. But it’s not as though atheists are out there giving all their spare time and money to good causes and not wasting time debating on wordpress, or worse, watching rugby or sitcoms or filling up bars and clubs. The ‘real work’ of curing stuff is done by scientists full time, and they may be Christian or not. But many Christians, because of their faith, finance and run orphanages, adopt babies, run homeless shelters and prostitution rehabilitation homes, etc. etc. etc. I’d say that the Christian worldview has made a phenomenal difference.

    “What good is the Bible when it comes to morality if it can be used to kill and enslave? Slave owners held up the Bible as the divine authority allowing such an inhuman practice. The crusades, witch burning, the killing of heretics… all can find support for their position in the Bible.”

    Finding words in the Bible that sound like what you believe is different to having legitimate Biblical support. That is why the church and scholarly circles that I’m involved with so emphasise contextual interpretation. It is simply not possible to do any of the heinous things above without coming into serious and clear contradiction with scripture. Biblical morality is always ‘love your neighbour’ (with neighbour defined to include your enemy—cf. the Good Samaritan), and exemplified by Jesus who died gruesomely for his enemies. Now if there is a moral code that is more other-person-centred and less like the things you describe above, let me hear it.

    “Israeli psychologist George Tamarin asked over 2000 Israeli schoolchildren (aged eight to fourteen) whether they thought Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not in the battle of Jericho etc…”

    Israelite conquest of Palestine… One of the toughest things about my faith, I’ll concede. And it’s a long discussion that we can have by and by. As a starting point, can I ask a question first? If God exists as judge of men, do you think that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was just or unjust?

    “The greatest power to explain the world comes from science.”

    Agreed, as long as the natural world is all there is to explain. Christianity is behind the scientists, cheering them on. It’s a thoroughly Biblical and laudable practice to pursue science. If you want to understand the way the world works, then look at the world and figure out how it works. Sure. The Bible has predictably little to say about Bombardier Beetles and the mysterious deaths of Scottish Porpoises (the dolphins did it, if you’re interested).

    “Do we build the Large Hadron Collider?”

    That Swiss thing? Certainly. I’ve got an atheist friend (one of the determinists) on that project.

    “Christianity has so little power to explain anything real that it is almost completely barren as a world view. You might as well pick any of the other religions given the real-world usefulness found within the pages of a 2000-year-old book written in a time of widespread superstition and ignorance. How many unsubstantiated metaphysical assertions should a theist be allowed to make before someone calls foul?”

    Well, predictably, that’s where we differ. The world around us is important, and it matters how it works. The Christian worldview DOES have room for this scientific enterprise, and so it is no less a part of the Christian explanation as the Naturalist one.

    However, the things that are most real and important to us are value laden and relational. It matters most to most people what is truly right and good and meaningful. How do we live wisely and well? Naturalism contains the sweeping negative: the material world is all that there is (which is an unsubstantiated metaphysical claim, incidentally), and so it more or less consigns ethics and value to being subjective and therefore illusory. It has various explanations for their origin, or why they’re useful illusions, but it can’t find a real basis for them. Christianity can.

    And for an ignorant, superstitious world-of-origin, have you actually taken stock of how sage and unsuperstitious the Bible really is? It condemns superstition and false spirituality at every turn.

    “A naturalistic world view assumes that everything is a result of physical laws. Instead of invoking a deity at every mystery, science seeks out the most parsimonious and natural explanations. The religious explanations, however, do not.”

    Good on science. I recently read Dawkins’ crit of Intelligent Design, and at last understood everyone’s extreme irritation with it. I’m with Dawkins on that one (and with Bonhoeffer). God is not found where science can’t explain something in nature. Natural mysteries ask for natural explanations.

    On the rest of your thoughts, Christianity is supposed to hold that its scriptures are its final authority (not discounting reason and experience, but not submitting God’s Word to them). This at least gives you something to test, and something to use to repel the multiple false brands that fly under its banner. So it’s not unfalsifiable in every respect.

    Secondly, I think that you need to accept that not every statement or idea is a scientific one. We may have to move off to shakier territory when talking about things that are really important (but this is true of most of adult life in general—wisdom is remarkably unlike science). You are right that cross-examination can easily raise doubts (that the whole ‘mess’ collapses is many steps too far). But doubt is ridiculously easy to conjure up, and no one ought to be claiming that faith is another word for certainty (the claim of certainty is a common human reductionistic tendency, not just in religion).

    With a nod to the sentiments of Dawkins, Harris et al, I believe in as many gods as you do, except that I add one. Most of what is called religion is odious to me, which is one reason why I wrote this entry in the first place. Other religions are completely unlike Christianity and completely on the wrong track, in my opinion.

    Christianity claims to be revelation, chiefly made in the person of Jesus (its historical nature gives us a little bit more falsifiability at least). It claims to tell us something about the underlying reality of the world and the upheaval that it exhibits. It might all be a big hoax, but as a scientist, you need to consider how plausible the hoax explanation really is. It really would be silly to pat yourself on the back for bravely facing a meaningless, cruel world if that’s not actually the way the world is, and especially if you’re only refusing it because you’re mistakenly mashing the genuine in with the counterfeit, or if it’s too much of a blow to pride.

  4. Hephaestion says:

    “Israelite conquest of Palestine… One of the toughest things about my faith, I’ll concede. And it’s a long discussion that we can have by and by. As a starting point, can I ask a question first? If God exists as judge of men, do you think that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was just or unjust?”

    Even given the context of the time, such a genocidal display of slaughter would have been excessive, if not entirely atypical. In Numbers 31 we are given another graphic account of the kind of violence typical of those times (even if the story is not factual, its writers would have taken from the norms of the time). It was a brutal and ignorant time and place in which to find oneself, not to mention deeply superstitious.

    Since then, we have seen a steady decline in violence (mainly in the West, but globally too), with a tipping point at the start of the Age of Reason in the 16th century (see Manuel Eisner). In fact, from the Middle Ages to the present there has been a drop of at least two orders of magnitude in homicide rates (in Europe). We are arguably, in spite of the carnage of the 20th century, living in the most peaceful and safe times in mankind’s history. (Interestingly, one of the explanations for this drop argues that an increase in technology has led to an increase in the number of non-zero sum games we play – trading goods and services -, and that the result is that people are more valuable alive than dead.) Our views on what is acceptable in warfare, and in society in general, have changed over time. Our values and norms have changed. We no longer, for example, burn cats on stage for public entertainment. We no longer advocate genocide for our enemies. We no longer burn people at the stake or disembowel them. We are, in short, far less cruel than we once were. We have laws to protect us from ourselves, and our standards of behavior have progressed.

    We also have the notion of reasonable response. Since the second world war, the West has held itself to a higher standard of ethical and reasonable response to violence, with one of the intentions being to limit civilian casualties in war. There is something disturbing about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even if we are able to defend the act given the historical context (Stalin’s announcement to enter the war from the north, the hawks in Japan wanting to fight to the death, the massive death toll encountered on the islands, and so on). More people were killed in Dresden, but the total, instant annihilation seen in Japan is somehow much more deeply unsettling. It’s like wantonly stomping on ants: there is no hint of fairness or any justification. It’s an abject abuse of power. There is instinctive agreement that power should not be abused, especially when it is unevenly distributed. We expect a superpower to exert a more responsible and thoughtful form of power play than we would a banana republic; there is a responsibility that comes with being very powerful.

    Returning to Sodom…

    It’s an unsatisfying plot development, the destruction of those cities. The God character is given omniscience and omnipotence and would therefore be able to conjure up an infinite number of creative means to achieve His ends, without resorting to a wanton display of extreme violence (typical of the behavior of men at the time). It doesn’t, however, quite stoop to the conceit found in the crucifiction episode, in which the now-human God character sacrifices Himself – but only for three days! For a book claimed to be anything between inspired by God to the actual word of God, it lacks imagination, it lacks timelessness, it lacks a certain godlike touch. In fact, it’s terribly parochial and limited. Where are the actions and deeds that are beyond the imagination of *our* time, not just that time; where are the solutions that inspire awe in our age, not just that age. It’s all so small. Our knowledge of ourselves and the universe is far beyond the wildest dreams of any of the Bible’s many authors; our reality is far beyond their powers of imagination. Our understanding of what happens within just one human cell would have amazed them, as it does us.

    This is a god that creates a people, has a hissy fit when they disappoint, disobey and offend, and then murders swathes of them with gratuitous excess. If not written by children, it was written with childlike minds.

    Thomas Jefferson summed it up quite nicely: “The Christian God is a being of terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.”

    He could have added petulant, overly sensitive, insecure, petty, voyeuristic, homophobic, prudish, repressive, genocidal and a bully of the highest order. He’s almost a caricature of all that is bad in men.

    Cities change, they shrink and expand, people emigrate and immigrate, buildings go up and come down; in short, they evolve. The same goes for countries and their borders. (One can’t help wondering how accurate would have been Egypt’s borders when God went on yet another killing spree…) We know all this; the writers clearly didn’t. We know that people and places evolve, values change, cultures change, languages change. We know that continents move and mountains come and go, that climate changes. We know that entire species come and go. We know that life changes the environment. We know that everything changes over time. The writers didn’t; how could they? Their limitations became their god’s limitations. The story reflects the knowledge and thinking of the time and place; how could it be anything else? They didn’t know any better; we do.

  5. Hephaestion says:

    “And for an ignorant, superstitious world-of-origin, have you actually taken stock of how sage and unsuperstitious the Bible really is? It condemns superstition and false spirituality at every turn.”

    It’s never a good sign when earnestness can be so easily mistaken for satire…

    One usually finds the word “un-superstitious” holding hands (if not exchanging bodily fluids) with materialism, skepticism, naturalism, empiricism and science. Only a ‘genuine’ Christian could conjure up that word and keep a straight face, blissfully unaware of his own linguistic legerdemain.

    Superstition: excessively credulous belief in and reverence for, supernatural beings; a widely held but unjustifiable belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequence of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.

    The definition speaks for itself. But, lest there be any doubt: Christianity condemns the superstitions of others, not its own.

    Which brings us to “false spirituality”…

    Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things; of or relating to religion or religious belief.

    More angels can dance on the head of a pin if they are in step. True or false? How can one employ logic when is comes to such thing as “spirituality” (or the “soul”)? This is a thing that can never be tested, verified or falsified, only asserted as fact to those who want to believe, who do not put up their hand and ask the awkward questions. We employ the language of reason to rationalise that which is beyond reason. It sounds nice to the ears and makes us feel secure, but it’s nonsensical; it cannot endure unfriendly cross-examination.

    “(and [Christianity] also directly tells us to stay away from clairvoyance and divination).”

    But not because they’re so much pseudo-scientific rubbish! No, it’s because they are anti-Christian in some bizarre way. This implies that there *is * something to them, that there *is* something to the occult, to satanism, to angels, to exorcisms, and so on. They are all almost certainly bunk. We can say this because there is no evidence. When evidence is found, and verified, and many such samples taken, independently, then we can begin to revise the “bunk” status. If science can show that clairvoyance is a fact, then what will you do? Deny it? Christianity has had 2000 years to show the world a real, bona fide, indisputable, all singing, all dancing angel. Not a god, not a devil. Just an angel. And we wait, and we wait. The Higgs Boson may be bunk, but at least scientists go to the trouble of finding out. The “knowledge” we have about angels has not advanced at all. The knowledge we have about the fundamental nature of matter has advanced beyond imagination. The reality of the universe is almost too counter-intuitive for most of us to grasp. But we follow the evidence, wherever it leads.

    Next you’ll be telling us not to worship “false” gods…

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