So far, this series on atheism has discussed whether we theists are “irrational” (Part 1) and whether morality is viable without God (Part 2).
I’ll now briefly canvas some of the other things atheists often say.
Two seemingly peripheral arguments
“Which religion?”: A common reason for rejecting God seems to be: “There are thousands of religions, most of them mutually incompatible, they can’t all be true.”
You’d have to look hard to find “thousands”. Anyway, however many there are, my response is “If you are curious, you will do the work of inquiring, just as a serious scientist does when faced with a difficult and complex natural question. If you are not curious, or not willing to do the work, just say so”.
This atheist assertion insinuates, “Religions can’t all be true, so none of them are”, which is clearly illogical: one of them could be true, the atheist just doesn’t know which one. The pervasiveness of theistic belief (globally and throughout history) should really make a genuine sceptic curious.
The “onus of proof”: You will often hear atheists say it is up to theists to prove God’s existence. This made better sense when Christians were doing the talking while the atheists just appraised the arguments.
This has changed, atheists now make a positive assertion “You may not claim a fact unless there is empirical/scientific proof of that fact”. They are now on the front foot, pushing their [limited and limiting] theory of knowledge.
We do wish to persuade about God, but it’s not a matter of “proof” (see Part 1). As I understand the dynamics, we Christians commend our faith to others. I haven’t noticed any Christians insisting on belief in God – not recently, anyway. By contrast, atheists insist that it is only permissible to talk facts (including facts about God) if those facts are proved empirically/scientifically. This insistence swings the onus of proof onto them: they may no longer assume this view and impose it, they must establish it.
It is worth remarking that the location of the onus of proof has no bearing on the issue of whether or not God exists: it’s just a discussion protocol.
I mention these arguments, not because they are intrinsically important but because they come up so frequently. They have negligible logical value as arguments. Really, they seem to me to be excuses rather than arguments – attempted justification for not believing and for not being inquisitive. Another refuge, like the “empiricist box” (Part 1).
It won’t hurt us to acknowledge that not wanting God to exist is entirely understandable. We all value our autonomy and we’re all at least half-inclined to resent authority. Even faith (a shifting, moody thing) is not a 24-7, airtight defence against this.
I wouldn’t be surprised if simply not wanting God to exist turned out to be the central point. And, to the extent that we Christians can empathise, a meeting-point.
“Christianity is not ‘good news’ but bad news”
Atheists often say Christianity is evil and offer a bundle of “proofs” which have become familiar – war, forced conversion, the Spanish Inquisition, witch-hunting, tolerance of slavery, the oppression of women and gays, the suppression of science and, more recently, protected paedophilia. To this list might be added Old Testament violence and the “immoral” nature of Redemption by Christ’s death.
Sometimes, atheists add that they would refuse to worship a God who is behind all of this – a strange assertion that wants to sound heroic but can’t possibly be if there is no God.
Atheists should hesitate before offering moral judgements (see Part 2) but, on the other hand, we Christians should not rely on this to avoid discussion of wrongs we know the Church has done. After all, the Church consists largely of human beings and has wielded enormous power – a notoriously dangerous combination. For the most part, though, the proofs rely on the hasty acceptance of information that is skewed or incomplete.
Christianiy’s track record is critical to the plausibility of Christianity because it is difficult to recommend Christ if history shows that accepting this recommendation is a bad idea. In Part 4, I’ll mention some books that help set our track record straight.
The dark side of this track record is also another excuse for not being inquisitive, this time about Christianity. After all, atheists don’t seem to consider the possibility that God might also be appalled at some things the Church has done.
The attack on Redemption is a separate matter, and is entirely misconceived. Our critics liken it to the ancient ritual of “scapegoating”, where a village would seize a goat, load it up with paraphernalia representing the village’s sins and drive it into the desert so that the sins (and the goat) are never seen again.
We believe Christ volunteered to, so to speak, “carry our sins into the desert”, that He did this long ago without any urging from you or me, that He returned in excellent condition and that He now asks us whether the sins He bore included ours. We say Yes, not to be cruel, but out of common sense and awe-struck gratitude. It would be unspeakably stupid to say No.
Originally published on nzherald.com on Wednesday Aug 7, 2013
Strange how some people are so fearful of religion. Nowadays it’s everywhere. A week or so back London officials banned the use of the phrase “in sickness and in health” in civil registry wedding vows as “too religious”.
Then, here, it was prayers in schools – to expunge these we would have to drop the National Anthem. And every day I hear passionate prayers from the most irreligious – all it takes is a finger caught in a door. Now it is the Bible in schools.
Why the fuss? Herald on Sunday columnist Paul Little asserts that religion amounts to “an intellectual transit lounge where the shackles of reason are thrown off and replaced with the loose fitting robes of superstition”. David Hines, “Rationalist”, is stuck in a time warp, still choking on Crusades and Inquisitions. Both are caricatures that fall little short of bigotry.
If rationalism means, as my dictionary states, “reliance on reason as the best guide for belief and action” then I am a Christian rationalist. And so are many of my Christian colleagues and friends. Indeed I would expand “reason” to read “reason and evidence”.
I am an orthodox Christian because of reason and evidence. I see no “shackles” piled up outside the door of my church each Sunday.
Does it not occur to these gentlemen, and so many others like them, that the institution that gave us modern empirical science is actually rather likely to engage with the mind?
Now in fairness I think we should be allowed to inspect Rationalist websites. What does one find? No end of bigotry, abuse and hatred of all things religious.
There is an issue about Crusades and Inquisitions and it’s this: People in the church have always distinguished between the church political and the church pious.
Of course the church political has lost its way from time to time. Look at any regime where accountability has been mislaid. But also time and again the church pious has pulled it back to its roots and reformed its practice. What are those roots? They are the Bible.
The Bible has to be read rationally as I have suggested and in the totality of its teaching. That core teaching lies at the heart of our institutions of democracy, freedom and justice, our understanding of the inviolability of human dignity, our very understanding of “the Western way of life”. Any denial of this is just modern-day medieval book burning.
So why would it not be taught in schools? If we want facts, data, evidence, archaeology – then all that can be provided. It forms part of my daily study.
And here’s the rub. All this data is actually substantial and requires a great deal of study to critically assimilate. I find people are simply unaware of the sheer quantity that is available.
Can we find the teachers who can teach this? That remains a challenge. I’m sure that in practice there are good examples and poor examples and, like all teaching, it requires excellent training.
It would be futile to attempt to remove religious terms from secular discourse. Here are some rather clumsy but illustrative few paragraphs:
There’s a fly in the ointment. It’s a sign of the times that politically correct busybodies, who are a complete law unto themselves, try to force us to set our house in order. Faith is the scapegoat. Religion, we are told, is the root of all evil, a thorn in the flesh for society which is wallowing in the mire of medieval beliefs. We need the patience of Job. How can we hold our peace? The PC powers that be, self-professed salt of the earth, have seen the light and seek to redeem us lost sheep from the howling wilderness of faith and bring us safe and sound back to sterile secularism. At the eleventh hour they hope to rescue us by the skin of our teeth.
Of course each of these phrases were introduced to the English language from the Bible.
Point made? Our historical religion lies doggedly at the heart of all our culture – our language, our institutions, even our science. Seems like there’s plenty to teach in schools.
Dr Jeff Tallon is a physicist specialising in superconductivity.
MEDIA RELEASE: With the amended marriage law coming into effect today, New Zealand Christian Network is asking MPs and others who advocated for the law change to respect the freedom of belief and conscience of those who hold different beliefs on this matter.
National Director Glyn Carpenter said, it would be a pity if those assurances are ignored and people are forced to participate against their consciences with ceremonies they do not agree with or face consequences.
“This affects far more people than just marriage celebrants. I have heard this week from people involved in service industries who are worried they may have to close their businesses if they do not provide services for marriage ceremonies they don’t agree with.
“Freedom of belief and conscience need to be taken very seriously, not just for ordained ministers, but for all people” said Carpenter.