Atheist Delusions 2

Imagine.jpgStrident critics of “religion” today would like us to imagine a society without religion and to begin constructing a society without religion.  David Bentley Hart, in chapter one of his new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
, takes on “The gospel of unbelief” and puts to the test the underlying assumptions that are work in the critics of religion.

He comes out swinging: “But atheism that consists in entirely vacuous arguments [and he’s pointing at Dennett and Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris] afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism” (4). I’ll tell what you I think: this approach is itself too strident, but it’s the first chapter and Hart doesn’t keep this up.

He says past critics of Christianity were noted by a “certain fierce elegance and occasional moral acuity” (5) and he points to Celsus and Porphyry, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, and Gibbon. But in Hart’s view Dennett and Harris are shallow thinkers compared to the others.

Can a purely secular society be moral? If so, on what basis? What is evidence that a secular society can be a morally good society?

One of his more important conclusions in this chp can be found on p. 14: “What I find most mystifying in the arguments of the authors I have mentioned … is the strange presupposition that a truly secular society would of its nature be more tolerant and less prone to violence than any society shaped by any form of faith” (14).

Hart’s anthropology won’t let up: “But there is something delusional nonetheless in his optimistic certainty that human beings will wish to choose altruistic values without invoking transcendent principles. They may do so; but they may also wish to build death camps and may very well choose to do that instead” (15).

He reminds DHH of this: “Compassion, pity, and charity … are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practiced, formed by cultural convictions that need never have arisen at all” (16).

He contends that DHH “are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises” (16).

He calls on Christians not to give on this score: Christians “ought not to surrender the future to those who know so little of human nature as to imagine that a society ‘liberated’ from Christ would love justice, or truth, or beauty, or compassion, or even life” (17).

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  • If only Catholics and Muslims had modern weaponry during the Crusades and their populations were far larger at that time and place in history. Just tossing millions of dollars of weaponry and lives at each other.
    If only Catholics had modern detection devices during the Inquisition, and the populations were modern-sized but the authorities kept track of literally everyone. Same with Calvin’s Geneva.
    If only Catholic and Protestant leaders had modern weaponry at the start of the Thirty Years War, right after the defenestration of Prague when the Catholic and Protestant Leagues were aligned against one another. And if only populations were far larger like they are today and again threw themselves at one another with genuine religious vigor and force.
    What would we have seen?
    Humanity unfortunately can fall into any number of ditches depending on the century and the ideologies of the time. But I think we’ve learned by now that neither Christianity nor communism are likely to create a “worker’s paradise.” We’re just doing what we’re doing, all of us, and some of us are trying to stop rutting long enough to get this “food and air and fresh clean water” thing figured out. Let’s hope we do.
    Quit nagging about atheists and maybe they’ll nag a bit less about Christians. Try having a beer together or boweling together, or the atheists versus the Christians in a volleyball league. There’s a whole range of less dogmatic folks out there from moderates to mystics to agnostics and soft atheists (who don’t say god doesn’t necessarily not exist, but they haven’t seen any convincing evidence he does), along with conservatives of all sorts, and we’re all just trying to live together on this lifeboat spinning in space dodging asteroids.
    A lot of countries today are doing relatively well with a higher percentage of atheists than currently exist in the U.S. I’m talking about democratic countries in Europe and Japan.
    As for communist countries, they can’t stop Muslims, or religious creeds of all kinds from continuing. They’ve tried and failed. Neither can democratic nations stop the free press and questioning books from being written, and matters discussed on all sorts of issues related to religion. So here we are at belief net, where everyone is certain everyone else is deluded either beyond salvation or mental help. Just be happy we can talk about such matters openly and honestly, and that everyone’s not an uber-clone of each other with exactly the same creed, beliefs, tastes in jeans and pizza, music, art, novels, worship, et al.
    Some people pray with hands clasped kneeling (the early church council of Nicea thought kneeling was too pagan a practice, so they banned it for most of the liturgical year), or they pray standing with hands raised, or they roll on the floor, or they pray with heads on a carpet and posteriors raised, or they meditate cross-legged, or in yoga postures, or meditate during sex–without ejaculating–in a multitude of positions, or they whirl round (dervishes, Sufi mystic sect).
    I’m all for diversity, and getting along on this third rock from the sun. And isn’t diversity and mutation of beliefs something Darwin predicted? Christianity’s got about 45,000 different denominations, schismatic churches and missionary organizations. Hail Whomever, Whatever! And neither does the Divine seem to mind the flood of sacred books written since the dawn of time, from books older than the Bible to today’s freshly inspired books. There’s an even larger flood of commentaries on each such book from a multiple of viewpoints. Some real nutty stuff, yes, as even rival religions and denominations point out, debunking each other’s views. But that’s really more of a bother to conservatives than to anyone else, isn’t it?

  • “Can a purely secular society be moral? If so, on what basis? What is evidence that a secular society can be a morally good society?”
    Yes. A secular society can be moral based on a desire for mutuality–put simply, doing good to the other in order to receive good from the other. I’m not sure this reciprocity requires belief in God. To the last question, a skeptic might answer, “What is the evidence that a Christian society can be a morally good society?”
    My concern is that many Christians seem to have settled for this kind of bland consequentialist ethic. They calculate probable consequences, then do what seems most likely to have a positive result. Good is done to the other because the probable consequence is that the other will respond in kind. The motive is selfish rather than selfless. I am not convinced that a secular society will produce self-giving people. A distinctively Christian ethic requires the teaching and example of Jesus.

  • RJS

    Josh hits on a key point here. I don’t fear a “secular” society any more than I fear a “Christian” society. Society at a high level does not seem to be driven by the kind of values that promote anything like a Christian ethic. There is a basis for a truly moral society based in love for others weak or strong, kin or alien, in Christianity – it permeates the NT – but I don’t think that it has ever been realized.
    A distinctively Christian ethic requires following the teaching and example of Jesus, and Paul and Peter and John… When we do this we will have a much greater impact on the world and one that is truly “Christian.”

  • “A secular society can be moral based on a desire for mutuality – put simply, doing good to the other in order to receive good from the other.”
    That’s all well and good until we realize that we can sometimes get more ‘good’ for us by doing wrong to others.
    I’m sorry but if the only basis for morality is some sort of post-Enlightenment societal contract, then morality will only last as long as it takes for people to realize that abiding by that contract is not always in their personal best interests.

  • RJS

    What is the reason that we think that Christianity leads to a moral society or provides the basis for a moral society?
    I have been thinking about this a bit in context of recent posts on “pesky calvinists” and on the gospel. We can look at other groups as well – for example the anabaptist push to withdraw from culture.
    A doctrine of election consistent with hardcore calvinism does not lead in and of itself to anything I would consider a moral society. It was put well in one comment where it was noted that reliance on God’s sovereignty was freeing – because (and I paraphrase) individual failings and abilities are unimportant, God will do what he will do and will elect those he will elect. A person should proclaim the gospel, but he is not reponsible for the result. Well this is certainly true in principle … but the attitude leads to a certain laziness that is distinctly inconsistent with the NT. It also bleeds over into other arenas and influences the way people are treated in general. Now I am not saying that Calvinists are immoral – in fact most I know are very moral and act with an ethic of love. But I am saying that I don’t see how this form of Christianity leads to anything that I would consider a moral society. We all know that it has been perverted to justify racism and ethnocentrism.
    On the topic of gospel – I had a conversation on a previous post with another commenter who claimed that the Gospel was that Jesus came to die for our sins. Ok – but he went on to say that this may lead to moral behavior – but moral behavior is not the intent of the gospel, it is an “optional” not a required consequence. So I ask – given this view how does Christianity lead to a moral society?
    And then we come to the extreme of anabaptist withdrawal. How does the impulse to withdraw from society and from interaction with the structures of society actually lead to a moral society?
    Of course we can also bring up instances of the Church intertwined with the state – and bring out things like the crusades and the inquisition, all justified in the name of Jesus.
    Where do we get the idea that Christiantity leads to a moral society? I think that it should lead to a moral society, but we should be concentrating on making this happen – not simply living our Christian lives…

  • Mason – That’s the standard problem of cheating. But “personal best interests” does not mean ‘doing what’s best for me in the short term’. Note that even you had to put ‘good’ in scare quotes – because it’s not really, ultimately ‘good’ to do that.
    “What if everyone did that?” is a simple enough principle to get across to a five-year-old, but people seem to forget about it when engaging in debates like this. Maybe you really would run riot if you didn’t think God was watching over your shoulder… but I doubt it. For one thing, it’s not at all clear that religion actually does improve the odds of people behaving well. Consider – the murder rate in England today is four thousand percent less than it was in the 14th century, but not many people argue that England is more religious now. Quite the opposite, actually.

  • Brian

    If I were an atheist I would not expect a secular society to emerge. I would expect people to be religious because the illusion of meaning promotes the survival of the species. This is something that religion offers and atheism cannot adequately replace.

  • Brian – Meaning of what? And to whom?

  • Travis Greene

    Josh @ 2,
    Exactly. When Jesus tells the crowds to love their enemies, not just to return good for good as the pagans do, he’s recognizing that societies tend to settle into this kind of tit-for-tat equilibrium (at least for the majorities). That’s why Dawkinsian atheism is so bourgeois. That kind of ethic is certainly better than unrestrained violence or wanton cruelty.
    But the radical call of NT ethics can never be found in the social contract. It’s not that atheists can’t be moral in a negative sense (that is, when morality is seen as a list of “do nots”), but why on earth would an atheist love his enemies, or give away all her possessions to feed the poor, or welcome the stranger?

  • John W

    To me, it seems like we get preoccupied with trying to solve the issue of a religious or atheist society while neglecting the more immediate issues of family and local community.
    If we cannot address that, in my opinion this conversation is excellent mental bubble gum, but little more.
    A completely atheist society has the same issue as a completely religious (which I suspect means “Christian” in this case) society: a singular point of view that is “right” and everyone else is wrong. As soon as that line is drawn, discrimination begins, and brotherly love ends.
    That loops me around to my point. We have a hard enough time resolving this on the tangibly local level. Let’s leave that for the day after we get our own house/s in order. (Maybe two days after — even God took a day to rest…)

  • Ray,
    It’s not so much about God looking over my shoulder as it is God bringing about a new life in us.
    That aside, why should “what if everyone did that?” determine our actions? Yes, it is easy to explain to a five year old, but that may be because there is no philosophical depth to it.
    Granted, it not be in my best interest to live in a society that is unjust or which shows no regard for life. But… whether or not I am just or show regard for life does not really change one way or the other what ‘everyone is doing’ right?
    In other words, in an artificial construct of a utilitarian ‘greater social good’, it’s great for me if you all play along, but that doesn’t mean it’s always best for me to play along as well, or that there is a convincing reason that I should.

  • Can a secular society possibly be moral? Yes (depending, of course, on how loosely you want to devine “moral”), certainly for a while.
    But a government that is strictly materialistic, especially one that is not democratic, can easily devolve into a might makes right philosophy.
    All the large-scale horrors that humans have committed over the centuries have been to “them” — our enemies, the slaves, or those worthless people over there. It took socialism to turn that loose on their own general populace.

  • Brian

    The idea that life has meaning for the individual that lasts beyond the death of the body is what I have in mind. People like that. If I were an atheist I would maintain that the idea has arisen because it has promoted the survival of the species and will continue to do so. I would claim that a satisfying understanding of our existence trumps truth.

  • Mason – Part of the reason “what if everyone did that” is compelling is because it works. Life isn’t a zero-sum game, and frequently (most of the time, in my experience) there’s a way for everyone to “win”. What you’re basically saying is that ‘if everyone were nice, then things would be great, but people would be tempted to cheat’ – basically that such a situation wouldn’t be stable.
    Except that people do arrange punishments for ‘defectors’, making the risk nonzero. But more than that, even in talking about the benefits of cheating you have to admit the benefits of cooperation… which only work if people aren’t cheating. As I’ve put it before, “I contend that I am ethical and moral, that people in general are ethical and moral, because the alternative is running naked in the woods fighting over scraps of food.”
    And we’ve gotten better and better at engineering such cooperation (Google up Steven Pinker’s “History of Violence” essay for some surprising documentation of that claim).

  • But Brian, things don’t just “mean” something in the abstract. The mean something, and they mean it to someone. And everyone had to come up with those meanings themselves – see the blog post I linked to just below my name above.
    Even if life were finite, why would that rob it of meaning? Do you not enjoy weekends because they end on Monday?

  • Joey

    Japan, it has been observed, is culturally quite moral – more so than America and even American Christianity. This, of course, comes at the cost of deeply seated societal expectations that may also lead to the higher suicide rate in Japan, but by all measures they are quite moral.
    I don’t think the purpose of religion is morality. It is a necessary affect of religion but morality is not unique to religion.
    Goodness, though is an important issue here. Can there be true goodness? Isn’t an appeal to right and wrong an appeal to something outside of our understanding? What is the standard by which humanity appeals to good? I think atheism has yet to answer this question. How can good exist if it is beyond us? Isn’t that just religious?

  • Brian

    Yes, things mean something, and to someone. That is why I wrote “for the individual.” Of course, theists would also claim that things matter to God, which is the more important aspect of the subject.
    I read part of your blog article. Statements like “zero multiplied by infinity is still zero” make me lose interest because they lack precision.
    Your analogy to weekends does not parallel life very well. When the weekend ends we are still here to think about it. When life ends we are not (from an atheist perspective). Eventually, there will be no one left, so there will be no one to whom anything that has ever happened will have meaning.
    You are reinforcing my point that a satisfying understanding of our existence trumps truth. A great many people just don’t find your perspective to be satisfying, and so even if you are right those people won’t buy into your view.

  • Yudovitch

    I find it interesting that the same group that complains about “immoral atheism” also has a higher rate of divorce, homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, and incarceration than atheists and agnostics.
    Atheists have shown their moral arguments more times than you care to listen. If you really want to understand how people can be moral without God, take an ethics class. Not too hard to understand.
    Which leaves the following questions for Christians: is a theist automatically immoral if he doesn’t belong to a religion nor does he believe in Hell? What incentive do Christians have to follow a moral lifestyle when most of them believe that no matter what you do, you’ll still wind up in Heaven so long as you believe in Jesus? What, if anything, is moral about a Bible that advocates murder, war, slavery, and oppression? Why is it that the medical advances that have gone to use helping countless people worldwide were developed by the most atheistic group in America (biologists)? Finally, why is it that no matter how much you try to deny it, atheists are statistically more moral than Jews, Christians, and Muslims in America BY YOUR OWN STANDARDS?
    If a belief in a magical wizard in the sky is the only thing keeping you from “building death camps”, you seriously need to see a therapist because it is you, not me, that is the sociopath.

  • Joey – Chess has certain rules. How the pieces move, the 8×8 board, castling, etc. Now, you’re not allowed to move your king into check, but there’s no rule against trading your queen for a pawn at the start of the game. You shouldn’t do that, though, if you want to win. It’s almost always a bad move.
    Note “shouldn’t” and “bad”. Those are value judgements that arise from two things – the fundamental rules of chess and the player’s desire to win the game. “Don’t trade your queen early” is a strategic rule.
    Now, the real world has some unbreakable rules (e.g. conservation of energy) and the humans living in it have desires. I’d contend that morals are strategic rules arising from the combination of those things. And they are as real as chess strategies, and in the same way – ignore them at your peril.
    If that were the case… it wouldn’t be surprising that humans would have instincts along those lines, the same as our instincts for physics or for language.

  • Joey

    Yes, we are bound by natural laws. I can’t fly, for instance.
    But, besides natural law where do these rules come from? My philosophy professor in undergrad always asked the question, “Is it ethically wrong to put cigarettes out in babies eyes?” I can’t fly – but I can put cigarettes out in babies eyes and that doesn’t disrupt natural law.
    “they are as real as chess strategies, and in the same way – ignore them at your peril.”
    Is this true? I agree to an extent but I think lots of folks have ignored goodness to their benefit. Those in the sex-trade industry world wide enslave young children to prostitution and they benefit from it. This isn’t as simple as play well and you win, play poorly and you lose. Lots of people play poorly and come out on top. Is that OK in the natural order of things?
    I realize none of my questions or comments are earth shaking but I don’t know that your analogy really gets the heart of the question, Where does goodness come from?

  • Brian – Eventually, there will be no one left, so there will be no one to whom anything that has ever happened will have meaning.
    But that doesn’t automatically rob what’s happening now of meaning. For my part, I don’t see why I should be worried about that.
    You are reinforcing my point that a satisfying understanding of our existence trumps truth.
    “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.” – Edwin Way Teale
    “Believe this, not because it’s true, but for some other reason…” – Screwtape, “The Screwtape Letters”, C. S. Lewis

  • John Morris

    Atheism is not a belief system that offers moral guidance. Atheism is merely belief that god (or gods) does not exist. The world and life was not created, it evolved through natural processes. As Atheists, we don’t yet fully understand all these natural processes, but science has made great strides in this understanding in the past 200 years. The trend of knowledge in this space clearly points to our existence being a natural phenomena and we learn more about the processes each day.
    In this context, arguing about religion as the basis of a morality system is severely weakened if is central pillar, its God, does not exist. That said, social sciences, such as Anthropology, clearly shows that religion has played an important role in culture and social cohesion (of which the concept of morality plays a role).
    Although Christianity likes to portray itself as a traditional pillar and moral foundation of our modern culture, this really is only partially correct. Much of what is deemed “Moral” has evolved greatly in the past 2000 years (ie slavery, stoning, etc) and differs greatly between countries sharing the same religion. Social and political developments such as nationality and legal systems play a much larger role in how we identify ourselves as a culture and our views of morality (right vs wrong) then anything defined in the bible.
    Atheists don’t view the world through Jesus-glasses and with the benefit of this 20-20 vision, recognize that our culture is a creation of man. Culture, including morality, is driven and evolved by the people within it. You may believe that your religion is a significant part of it, but ultimately religion, like culture, is entirely a creation of man.

  • Joey – As I noted above, real-life isn’t a zero-sum game like chess. It’s possible for everyone to win, there doesn’t have to be a loser.
    Lots of people play poorly and come out on top.
    I’d contest that. Let me quote you a story about somebody “on top” in the sense you mean: Saddam Hussein.

    When one of the most secure and luxurious of his palace-and-bunker complexes was completed in 1984, at a cost of $70 million, Saddam Hussein moved in right away. But even protected by enormous layers of concrete, sand and steel, behind zigzag corridors and blast doors made to withstand a Hiroshima-size explosion, and guarded by men who knew they’d have to be ready to die for him, or be killed by him, Saddam apparently could not sleep.
    “All night long he heard a sound like the cocking of a pistol,” remembers Wolfgang Wendler, the German engineer who supervised the project. Wendler was summoned by angry officials to find out what was wrong. He discovered a faulty thermostat.

    Saddam, of course, deserves no pity. But this is the kind of life he led – literally jumping at shadows, because there was no one he could fully trust. Stalin became so suspicious of doctors that later in life he refused their treatment and consulted with veterinarians instead. These dictators had plenty of purely material comforts, but in the process of acquiring them they’d given up any chance of enjoying them untroubled by fears of assassination, let alone the pleasures of sharing them with loved ones. They could literally never afford to fully relax.

  • Joey

    Ray, correct me if I’m wrong – I would like to reiterate your point to make sure I understand it:
    Goodness comes from a combination of working within the natural order of things and the individual desire to succeed. In order for an individual to truly succeed it is in their best interest for others to succeed?

  • Joey – close. By cooperating with others, we improve our own lives. I enjoy living in a house that I could never have built by myself, and eating food that I could never have grown by myself, and using a computer that I could never have built on my own, and listening to music I could never have composed, and so forth. And then there’s the whole other sphere of rewards that come from loving relationships with other people (things atheists can enjoy, too).
    Running roughshod over others can get you more of the material stuff, but not so much on the interpersonal relationship front – and long term, it’s counterproductive on the material level, too. Saddam and Stalin had to import most of the good stuff, their own countries couldn’t compete given where their leaders had placed them. Look at North Korea today. Kim Jong Il lives pretty well, but so did Bush and so does Obama – and both of the latter can sleep at night without worrying about being assassinated.

  • Brian

    The conversation is rambling too much. Let me focus on one issue. How do you keep atheism from degenerating into nihilism? I think a lot of people reject atheism because they find that conclusion unpalatable.

  • Ann

    All laws make a moral judgment about what is “good” and what is “not good.” Scot’s questions hit on key issues that hinge on law:
    “Can a purely secular society be moral? If so, on what basis? What is the evidence that a secular society can be a morally good society?”
    It seems atheists believe that laws – both natural laws of survival and cooperation, *and* legislated laws – can govern people into acting morally toward everyone.
    To act morally, for Christians, means to act in the best interests of the other, to care for the poor, the weak, the stranger. No matter how much people who claim the label, “Christian”, fail at such acts, the admonitions to act morally toward one’s neighbor are within the Book which describes right worship of God in loving justice, acting mercifully, and walking humbly. Christians understand love for everyone because one Creator of every person is the assurance of each person’s worth combined with the revelation of God-in-Christ reveals love as the goal of law. Loving God and loving neighbor “are” one act.
    What I don’t see in a secular society run by atheists is any protection vs the tribalism and power struggles endemic to human societies. Survival of a group may mean encroaching onto another group’s territory or economic livelihood, but if Group A is stronger and more connected, what would prevent them from usurping Group B’s power?
    Yet, the bottom line is that all nation-states legislate and operate in a manner that benefits the corporate body of the powerful, militarily and economically. Whatever religious “label” is slapped onto government policies is irrelevant; nation-states govern through power, not service, and any religious label is merely a panacea to the credulous. (As for the corporate “body of government” so for the individual: merely bearing a self-assigned label of “Christian” or “atheist” does not make one treat another with honor, love, and respect. A so-called Christian may act atheistically just as an atheist may act lovingly. We’re known to God according to our acts, not according to the labels we assign ourselves.)
    The atheists hold a belief that the world would be better off and more moral without religion. What is ironic is that governments already *are* atheistic by their actions. The power does not lie in the hands of any god, but in the hands of humans who hide their self-interest behind the name of some god. Governmental power stripped of its god-mask *is* atheism in action.
    The history of the Papal States seems to clarify how intrinsically at odds governmental power and Christian love and service are.

  • Brian – Why must atheism ‘degenerate into nihilism’? Or conversely, how does theism avoid nihilism? (Be careful not to fall into the “Euthyphro Dilemma”.)

  • Nathan

    I’m a newly-wed on a pretty fixed income, but I do like to buy and read new books from time to time. This is one that I think would be very interesting to me (another would be Lost Genesis, the other book concurrently under review). For anyone who has read it in full, is it a strong read countering atheist arguments or is it just the author’s attempts to rebut negative perceptions of Christianity?

  • Blake

    Suggesting that Dennett is a shallow thinker makes me suspicious of the credentials of anyone who would claim such a thing. As a Christian, I disagree with Dennett, but he’s by far the brightest of the New Atheists. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are all hacks, but Dennett actually commands some respect from professional Christian philosophers. Alvin Plantinga said of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,
    “[It] is a big, bright exploration and defense of naturalism–or at least of one aspect of it. In several areas it is authoritative; it is written with passion and power. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this book acquires the status of a minor (or maybe major) classic among statements of naturalism.”
    I’ve read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and fully agree with Plantinga’s analysis.

  • Brian

    You are answering a question with a question. That is an evasion.
    As for your question and Euthyphro Dilemma, theists are fully aware that some such issues cannot be fully resolved. We have epistemological limitations when it comes to understanding God. This is intrinsic to the Christian understanding of God. If the dilemma could be resolved, what we would end up with is a sub Christian God.

  • Brian – The question was rhetorical, but not an evasion. It’s often asserted that atheism leads to nihilism, but I’ve never seen an actual thoughtful case made for it. I certainly don’t see it, and I’ve laid out some arguments already in this very thread against it.
    If you could explain why you think atheism leads to nihilism, maybe I could answer you.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    The irony of all this, Ray, is that it’s the classical Christian view of God that does actually take the correct side of Euthyphro’s dilemma. It is the atheist who says “things are good because the gods (aka man) command them”. It is the Christian that says “God commands things because they are good, and that goodness exists in the core of his being”.

  • Eric the Green

    Wonders for Oyarsa,
    W.f.O. said, “It is the Christian that says “God commands things because they are good, and that goodness exists in the core of his being”.
    Then, where does evil come from?
    *I will not accept, ‘evil is only the absence of good.’ If we were to say pleasure is good and pain is evil, there’s the space in between where most of us reside for most of our lives. Murder, after all, is more than JUST ‘not good.’

  • Doug Allen

    I really enjoyed the Atheist Delusions 1 discussion, but found it too late to contribute. So here’s a start, my April 15, 2007, book review of Jesus Creed at Amazon in which I reference and recommend not only Scot’s book, but also Sam Harris’ book-
    “Some say religion is like a sponge that soaks up every bias, prejudice, and sentimentalism- and there is much truth to that (see my forthcoming review of A LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION). Scot McKnight has squeezed the sponge dry; his book THE JESUS CREED-LOVING GOD, LOVING OTHERS distills orthodox Christianity into the Jesus Creed which is Jesus’ remarkable answer when asked “what is important.” Jesus answered to love God and love others. This foundational creed is derived from the Jewish Shema, Deuteronomy 6.5-5, and from Leviticus 19:15 “Love your neighbor as yourself.” McKnight writes, “It should shape everything we say about Christian spirituality. Everything.”
    Jesus’ imperative to love God and love others was radical when Jesus taught and remains radical today or at least muffled under the cacophony of Christian credal contentiousness. McKnight, a professor and Christian biblical scholar, draws on his intimate knowledge of the Bible, holy land history and sociology to highlight, using stories from the Bible and his own life, Jesus’ essential and uncompromising command to love God and others.
    “What a concept,” my high school students might say sardonically without knowing knowing what sardonic means! But McKnight is serious and insists that to love God and all love others must inform every interpretation of every Biblical verse and every understanding of Christian tradition. McKnight’s teaching is gentle with fewer “rough edges” than Jesus’ own, and the book is even humorous at times with stories and quotes from friends and contemporary entertainment media. Ironically, McKnight is teaching a not always well received message (MERE CHRISTIANITY by C.S. Lewis comes to mind as another distillation of Jesus’ message that threatens the verse-interpretation obsessions of so many denominations). Jesus’ simple command- that McKnight names the “Jesus Creed”- challenges contemporary (and past) Christian perspectives, caught up, as so many are, with worldly and political agendas.
    McKnight combines historic settings and metaphor to beautifully bring Jesus’ message to life. The table metaphor is one such Biblical setting and metaphor. The Torah required obedience to 613 laws, laws which defined “clean” and “unclean” in ways that sometimes made love of others difficult or impossible. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, required ignoring the perhaps dead- and therefore impure- Jericho man lying on the side of the road. The Samaritan, however, was willing to violate the law in order to fulfill the greater command to love God and love others. Jesus, in ways that astounded and provoked the elites of his time, welcomed all to his table (and ministry): women, who were marginalized by the ethos of his day, sinners of every sort, lepers, and all the untouchables of that society. Loving god and others meant love god and ALL others.
    If the Jesus Creed, love God and love all others, is often hard to hear in the pronouncements of Christians and Christianity, it is even harder to live, witness the history of the church. This book with its simple and difficult message is recommended to all Christians who may have lost the path by following the extraneous, and it is especially recommended to all Christians and non-Christians who have been hurt and angered by those who lost the path and failed to express love and welcome. Possibly like you, my life has been touched more by the path-fallen messages than by the Jesus Creed, a message anything but mean-spirited.
    McKnight also hosts a Jesus Creed blog (use your search engine to find it) where daily blogs include the tame, the topical, and the terrifying. Time and time again McKnight and his contributors wrestle with Biblical verses and Christian tradition, sharing their journeys, their doubts, their hopes and fears in ways so moving that any Christian or non-Christian would walk the extra mile with them. These blog pilgrims are sometimes as stripped naked wanderers in the wilderness searching for sustenance and meaning. And that sustenance and meaning comes not from their voluminous knowledge- these blog contributors are mostly professors, students and pastors dizzy with their book knowledge and interpretations- but from six simple words: love God and love all others. From the book and from the blog, one is constantly reminded- all interpretation must be informed by the Jesus Creed. Also, there is general blog agreement that Biblical interpretation must be informed by established scientific facts and theories, but that is another story, outside the scope of McKnight’s book.
    Another recommended book is A LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION by Sam Harris, an atheist who attempts “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms,” and quite successfully, I might add, except for one proviso. Scot McKnight, his book, and his blog escape and are not demolished by Harris’ just criticisms. I think McKnight would agree with very much of Harris’ critique, and I can’t help but think that Harris would find the Jesus creed among the highest expressions of religion. In fact, had Christians learned to love God and love all others there would have been very little basis for Harris’ book. However, it must be admitted that, with very few exceptions, Christians and all others, share in this deficit of universal love.
    McKnight teaches all to love God by following Jesus along that path of loving others, and his pilgrim bloggers are a testimony to its truth. Harris succinctly shows how Christian dogma and prejudice has continually blocked many from loving others, often creating rancor and sometimes war- another undeniable truth. Somehow, perhaps, love and truth will overcome our history’s foreshadowing of tragedy: a world divided into angry factions with weapons on every side that can extinguish the human experiment. These two books, THE JESUS CREED- LOVING GOD, LOVING OTHERS and A LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION inform each other and give some hope that love and reason, indeed the human experiment, might prevail.”

  • I hate to go all “Godwin’s Law” right out of the gates, but this line really begs to be answered:
    (referring to a secular society) “they may also wish to build death camps and may very well choose to do that instead.”
    As we all know the Catholic and Lutheran people of 1930s Germany did exactly that. I won’t try to argue that their religious beliefs caused it (though I think I could) but that their supposedly morally superior beliefs didn’t stop them is an inescapable refutation of Hart’s arguments.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    Hi Eric,
    Let’s move stuff to this thread, since it’s newer. If you like, I can answer your question about evil (at least, I can answer it as far as I can probe the mystery – evil is the sort of thing that one can never truly fit neatly into a tidy picture of how things ought to be – evil shouldn’t exist!). But I was wanting to ask you (which you surmised from my comment to Ann in the last thread) what your core issue with Christianity is. You seemed to indicate that it is the place evangelical Christians fit in the current political landscape. Is that right?

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    “As we all know the Catholic and Lutheran people of 1930s Germany did exactly that. I won’t try to argue that their religious beliefs caused it (though I think I could) but that their supposedly morally superior beliefs didn’t stop them is an inescapable refutation of Hart’s arguments.”
    I’m sorry – was Hart arguing that religious people never do bad things? I missed that part of the book.
    As for morally superior beliefs not stopping them – there is such a thing as cowardice, despite your beliefs. The Nazis were a pretty intimidating bunch, and all but the bravest and most committed Christians took the path of compromise and acquiescence (as you and I very well might have in their shoes – don’t kid yourself), rather than suffer and die in a concentration camp like men like Bonhoeffer. But you would have to have a clever argument indeed to say that Hitler’s philosophy and that of the third Reich derived more from Jesus Christ than it did from Frederick Nietzsche.

  • WfO (cute reference, BTW) – I’m afraid you’ve only postponed the problem. Saying “God commands things because they are good, and that goodness exists in the core of his being” doesn’t answer the question of why something’s good. So far as I can see, it boils down to an assertion that ‘it just is‘.
    It’s good that you recognize that things can’t just be good because God commands them. Otherwise, we’d just have the ultimate case of ‘might makes right’. As you note, “[t]he Nazis were a pretty intimidating bunch”, and many people collaborated with them. If it were simply God’s commands that made something good, then those collaborators would have been right in principle – they’d just have picked the wrong bully to submit to.
    There has to be something else that makes something good or not. And it can’t depend on God saying so. But just saying “goodness exists in the core of [God’s] being” doesn’t answer what it is. The ‘game theory’ account I’ve given in this thread (and detailed further in the link above) seems to work better as far as I can see – and doesn’t devolve to “things are good because the gods (aka man) command them”, any more than the “Sicilian Defense” in chess is a good strategy simply because people say so.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    I’ve only postponed the problem insofar as existence itself is a problem – indeed, a surprise! At some point one has to stop, and say “it just is”, since we can’t conceive of something truly and in all senses coming from nothing, and we all agree that we exist.
    Part of my core philosophy is that goodness, truth, and beauty are transcendent and foundational (and, indeed, are different ways of talking about God – the fountain of all that is). What makes something “good” is its harmony with the core purpose for which all things exist – to express love, to know and be known, to realize beauty and glory, etc. Evil is ultimately a privation of the good – a bit of good divorced from an essential other bit, and thus turned against itself toward non-being. This is all very esoteric, I know, but when we are talking about the true, the good, and the beautiful, we are talking about ontology – the nature of being.
    Let me step back a bit. I think I agree with you that “good” as we use it implies a purpose. Actions may be “good” in achieving that purpose or “bad” for it. But then we can turn higher and ask, of any purpose “is this a good goal to pursue”? If man were created by an evil god, such that his purpose for existing was to infect and destroy the universe, then actions “good” for man would still be ultimately “bad”, since the purpose itself is directed toward bad ends. And so we must either go higher indefinitely, or stop because there is no higher place to go. Is there a “good” that isn’t itself in search of some higher purpose, but rather a “good” that is good in itself, to which all good is to be measured? It seems to me that if there is not, then all other “goods” lose their authority (for they have nothing to appeal to when their authority is questioned, and they are clearly not ultimate themselves).

  • Thelemite

    You know, I’ve never once heard one of the prominent “new” atheists claim that a world without religion would automatically become a eutopia. What I have heard them argue, however, is that since religion/theism isn’t based on reality it would be better if we choose to be rid of it, and have one less excuse for violence & contention in the world.
    They also make this allowance: religious people who, like the author, don’t see any reason to appreciate truth, justice, life, etc. if god doesn’t exist are encouraged to continue in their beliefs. Better that such individuals be psychologically restrained by a lie than be allowed to steal, rape and murder as they please.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    By the way, Ray, if you’ve caught my reference, feel free to visit my site. I try there to face these sorts of questions as honestly as I dare.

  • WfO – It’s true that “we can’t conceive of something truly and in all senses coming from nothing”, but on the other hand we also can’t conceive of something just going back forever with no beginning. At that point, I have to just say, “Looks like we haven’t had the right insight to make sense of this… yet.”
    As I said before, though, I have an understanding of goodness (and truth, and beauty) that doesn’t rely on them being “foundational” in the sense I think you mean. So, like LaPlace (is supposed to have said), “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    Is that the other hand, Ray? It seems like something I reject as well – reality did not come from nowhere, nor is it simply an infinite regression. There is a foundation. I call that foundation “God” – this is simply Aquinas’ argument as far as I understand it.
    There’s always the potential for other explanations we cannot conceive of. Indeed, we say this about God – that our philosophical language about him is limited and ignorant at its very best. We can only know God insofar as he can be expressed in human terms. Christianity teaches that the terms in which we CAN understand him happen to be the most important terms, but I suppose believing this is an act of faith.
    But, if you don’t mind, expand on your philosophy that has no need of this hypothesis. In my experience, such philosophy lacks essential parts of humanity, but perhaps I’m wrong in your case. You may not see how atheism needs to nihilism – I cannot see it going anywhere else when it has depth and honesty. So I don’t see what you see – walk with me for a moment and show me.

  • Ann

    Regarding the conversation between Wonders and Ray – it seems to me that the foundation you’re both dancing on is perceived very differently by the atheist and the theist.
    If I’m understanding Ray aright, he’s saying that the foundation is the material world, and “is”. Again, if I understand him correctly, “good” and “right” are constructs of humanity apart from the facts of any material foundation.
    Wonders (and I) see that “good” and “right” are foundational within the material world which is created by God who *is* good and righteous. We cannot separate the goodness out of God (therefore, operating in another realm than Euthyphro – the Hebraic vs. the Greek), God’s goodness emanates as love toward and incarnated within creation rather than simply as commands (i.e., laws).
    One of the major problems regarding atheism’s perspective is that the perspective resides within the mind of the privileged – economically and educationally. I recognize atheism as being widely practiced all over the world by both those claiming religion and those not. Yet, in the final awareness of those who are powerless, experiencing injustice, oppression, abuse, and death at the hands of active “atheists” (regardless of their religion’s brand-labeling), their worth resides in something *other* than material facts of a body’s existence. They know – somehow – they shouldn’t be treated so. That cry for justice, for valuation as a worthy human person, indicates more than constructs out of materialism and chaos. But a privileged person may never feel that cry, and (please forgive me if I offend by offering some truth from my perspective) many white, western males may miss out knowing that depth simply because of their situation in the world.
    Such a constructed view, ISTM, would have religion sound like this: “Try throwing them a sop and give the poor sods a reason to keep living or slaving on via myths of ‘god(s)’!”
    An atheist who never experienced/received love, justice, or a sense of worth as a human has not experienced “God”. From my view, the atheists’ perspective sees the “enemy” in religion and ignorant people, rather than discerning how all humans, including themselves, act atheistically OR with an awareness of hope outside of the moment where the powerful actors deny all hope.
    Thus, evil resides within humans who deny their own free will to act morally in multitudinous small ways toward every person around them – and the absence of God in those actions takes on frightening coordination within large systems (e.g., Nazi Germany, Cambodia’s killing fields, Wall Street’s greedy hoard, or even within institutions bearing religious banners).
    FWIW, the atheist methodology here seems also to reveal an enacted belief that the best route out of the enemy’s camp is via modernist academic logic, claims of philosophical and intellectual superiority, deconstruction and reconstruction in the image of the academy. While it’s important that Christians not neglect the development of reason, thought and examination, nevertheless, we believe that the best route out of the enemy’s camp is loving God and neighbor.
    What good, after all, does an atheist argument do to someone who needs hope? Even a privileged person with an atheistic perspective can see that food, medical care and substantial help are more valuable for the destitute, injured and oppressed than an intellectual discussion! And, in offering such help, ISTM they’d be incarnating the goodness of God to others. If, after offering such help, they can retreat to their day jobs, homes and philosophical discussions, and not realize the import of their own actions which convey hope to the hopeless, that seems like a barren place to dwell.
    Likewise, one claiming “religion” while failing to offer such human help also dwells in barren places of a hypocrisy of a different stripe.

  • WfO – you can read the essays on my website, linked immediately above, if you want to understand my worldview. They’re pretty comprehensive. It’s not a blog yet – I got started on that stuff before blogs were common, but someday I plan on shifting the material over so people can post replies more easily.

  • Ann – No, “good” and “right” aren’t constructs of humanity apart from the facts of any material foundation, and more than the Sicilian Defense in chess is ‘apart from the facts of the foundational rules of chess’. You can make all kinds of moves on a chessboard… but if you have a desire to win, some moves are good and some moves are bad.
    In life, there are all kinds of things we are able to do. But, if you’re a human being with human desires, then some actions are good and some actions are bad. We do have an inbuilt sense of this – our moral sense, our intuitions of fairness, mercy, etc. – in the same way, and for the same reasons, as we have inbuilt talents for (Earth-based) physics and (human) language.
    BTW, please be careful. How many atheists do you actually know? Are you sure that none of them have “experienced/received love, justice, or a sense of worth as a human”? Do you think I haven’t?
    Even a privileged person with an atheistic perspective can see that food, medical care and substantial help are more valuable for the destitute, injured and oppressed than an intellectual discussion!
    I, er, fail to see why these are mutually exclusive. I have a sufficiency of material comforts – as does practically anyone who lives in the West, and certainly anyone who can read this blog – so I donate money to charity. This last birthday, most of what I received was money, which went to Kiva Loans (check ’em out,, an awesome organization), and my brother – also an atheist – donated a flock of poultry to a needy family in the Philippines through Heifer International in my name.
    And if I think that believing in ‘supernatural’ things – things which are, by definition, forever unknowable and incomprehensible – is a problem… one that actually, quite often, leads to people needing “food, medical care, and substantial help” – then engaging in intellectual discussion is something that I also should do.
    If you can actually point out someone who “can retreat to their day jobs, homes and philosophical discussions, and not realize the import of their own actions which convey hope to the hopeless”, then maybe we can talk. Otherwise I’m afraid you come off as, at best, ignorant and dismissive. At worst – insulting, though I won’t leap to that conclusion based on a single blog comment.

  • Eric the Green

    Wonders for Oyarsa,
    Wonders for Oyarsa said, “evil is the sort of thing that one can never truly fit neatly into a tidy picture of how things ought to be – evil shouldn’t exist!).”
    Well, I’m only playing at discourse, to be honest. I know what evil is, and can define it biologically; according to evidence provided by psychology, and to a lesser degree (in a broad sense) sociology. But, since most of the religious don’t follow the sciences or study the philosophies, how do they explain evil. The quick answer I usually hear is “the Devil,” but this explains nothing.
    IF a god created the Universe, then this god MUST have created evil. The only response that I can see here is, ‘evil is only the absence of good.’ If we were to say pleasure is good and pain is evil, there’s the space in between where most of us reside for most of our lives. Murder, after all, is more than JUST ‘not good.’ ”
    I’m speaking of the problem of evil.
    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?”
    — Epicurus
    Wonders for Oyarsa said, “…your core issue with Christianity is? You seemed to indicate that it is the place evangelical Christians fit in the current political landscape. Is that right?”
    Sort of. ONE of my problems with religions is where they get their justification.
    Most *Intellectual Christians (*I.C.) DO NOT believe that the Holy Bible is without error or that it is infallible. The I.C. don’t believe in the Noah’s Ark story, the talking snake in Eden, Moses parting the Red Sea, or a thousand other tall-tales, misnomers & mythnomers that the Masses of the main three religions believe as a matter of fundamental truth.
    One of the biggest problems with religion in the world lies in this;
    Fundamentalists (about 15% of any population) believe their holy books are the literal breath of God. The rest of the majority religion base their worldview on this book, but don’t necessarily live their lives around it like the fundamentalists do. However, it is the unenlightened masses that are the fuel for the ‘bombers.’
    They justify, least through their Inaction and most through contributions, the actions of the extremists. When fundamentalists slay a homosexual or an adulterous wife, it is a sad event for the masses…but what can they say? After all, their bible prescribes such punishments. They don’t give much thought to it, because they have no reason to question it.
    I don’t understand how I.C.s can partisan their minds between the natural & supernatural. I have no use for these hybrids. BUT, I do foresee a good that could come from them. IF the I.C.s would openly and often push the “inspiration” of the Bible and frequently put down the “literal interpretations” of the Bible, THEN the majority would likely follow suit leading to a ceasefire from the Anti-Theists.
    It is the fundamentalists that most frequently abuse the I.C. by only half quoting them. If the I.C.s could secure the megaphone of the masses, the world would be…I can’t even imagine such a world.
    I still believe, 99%, that the I.C.s are misguided in their beliefs, but I feel the same way about Conservatives & Liberals (as I am a moderate). But I don’t rail against Conservatives & Liberals because they are not basing their beliefs on a book that says I (an atheist) should be put to death.

  • Ann

    @ Ray #47: You said,
    “BTW, please be careful. How many atheists do you actually know? Are you sure that none of them have ‘experienced/received love, justice, or a sense of worth as a human’? Do you think I haven’t?”
    By far, most of my extended family are highly educated atheists, and the top-tier college from which I graduated was profoundly atheist, Ray. They mainly fall within the category of atheists who do far more good for others than many who self-identify as “Christians.” Further, I never said that “none of them” (meaning atheists, in general) have experienced/received love, etc. I made a generic statement: “An atheist who never experienced/received love, justice, or a sense of worth as a human has not experienced ‘God’.” However, it doesn’t surprise me when I meet or speak with angry atheists – those whose experiences of rejection, correction, or imputed worthlessness by religious people nurtured an unhealthy reaction of trying to undermine those people’s professed belief.
    You said: “In life, there are all kinds of things we are able to do. But, if you’re a human being with human desires, then some actions are good and some actions are bad. We do have an inbuilt sense of this – our moral sense, our intuitions of fairness, mercy, etc.”
    So, why don’t people listen to (or “obey”, if you will) this inbuilt sense, their ideas of good/bad actions? Fear? Selfishness? Systemic injustice? Why don’t people all agree which “actions are good and …bad”? How do we develop a body of knowledge that incorporates every detail about goodness and badness in every situation? Then, what would humans do to promote goodness and eschew badness? Legislate? That would be one gigantic book of laws, wouldn’t it?
    The bottom line for a Christian is this: we believe laws are inadequate to address the whole of good/bad within humans and between humans within communities. Religion is merely an outworking of the understanding that we need to support one another in acting rightly within ourselves and our communities. Some religions seem to be about maintaining a societal status quo (a friend who grew up in a Hindu nation left Hinduism after getting his doctorate in developmental economics because of this). In that way, ISTM you’re espousing a “religion” of atheism. BTW, one of my cousins (an internationally-known professor in his field) and I had this discussion. Although an atheist, he clearly recognized that Christ-like religion – at its best – tries to foster cooperation and supportiveness between peoples.
    So, to answer an apparent ad hominem, no, I’m neither ignorant or dismissive.
    From my POV, you seem to make a statement of “faith” that any or all “faith in the supernatural” leads to poverty, injustice and hunger. How unfounded is that creed!
    So, you gave money to – a charity I’m familiar with, and which I agree can be terrific! But, you also responded to my words “Even a privileged person with an atheistic perspective can see that food, medical care and substantial help are more valuable for the destitute, injured and oppressed than an intellectual discussion!”
    with this remark:
    “I, er, fail to see why these are mutually exclusive.”
    The point I was making is that the Actions matter; Actions reveal our convictions, our “belief.” Intellectual response is _always_ secondary to what we’re receiving bodily in events and interactions; and may be secondary or primary to what we’re choosing to embody in our own actions. I.e., if I act or speak harmfully to another and then try to rationalize it away, my 2ndary intellectual response is “unfaithful”/ untruthful to myself, to the other and to reality. OR, if someone corrects me for an action/inaction, and I fail to receive the correction with humility, and react with prideful self-rationalization, then I also act unfaithfully/untruthfully to self and others. We each live in one body with a mind that supports and protects the body – so much so, that our own mental health may be harmed as we continually justify and shift blame for our own “bad” physical choices. Of course, our communities are also harmed when we perpetuate such self-centered justification.
    I’d surmise that you wouldn’t try to persuade the recipient of your micro-loan that they really need to abandon their religion, would you? If you tried, how would they receive you or understand your intellectual argument vs. the supernatural? Likewise, any religious charity which bundles charity with a demand to convert also abandons love of fellow humans for an agenda.
    In my understanding, in your gift you offered intangible worth and trust – not simply tangible money – to another. That’s a gift of meaningfulness. Sincerely, that’s wonderful! It seems you understand you offered that worth and trust to a fellow human being in your gift. Why, then, could it be so important to you that your intellectual bundling around that gift be anti-supernatural? Is that not a “religious” agenda?
    For Christians, giving and caring are intrinsic to God and our participation in Godself is evidenced in our extension of giving and caring. We believe self-sacrificing love and gifts transcend the material comprising the gift. I.e., Jesus’ gift of his body in death for speaking the truth that corrupted people & systems were harming his community transcends the material of his body. (Of course, we believe in the resurrection of the dead, too, because we see the power of God triumphing over the unjust death of the Righteous One, who is Jesus.) When any of us fail to act lovingly, generously, and caringly toward others, or to receive correction regarding our failures, we act a-theistically. However, all of us need to understand how our actions affect those around us, individually and in community – and that’s what the true “church” is supposed to teach us.
    @ Eric #48: if you ACT a-theistically, as described above — then _secular_ justice systems and laws would put you to death. Scripture defines disbelief in God via one’s actions, not one’s thoughts. If you act and speak with love, care and responsibility toward self, others and if you consider the affects you have on your community, why would your thought-bundling matter to us? Likewise, if we act and speak with love, care and responsibility toward self, others, and if we consider the affects we have on our communities, why would our thought-bundling matter to you?
    We all have a basic understanding that our secondary intellectual processes may found the actions we take, for better or for worse, but words and actions are the only judge-able outcomes.

  • Eric the Green

    Ann said, “if you ACT a-theistically, as described above — then _secular_ justice systems and laws would put you to death.”
    I don’t understand why you said a secular government would execute atheists? I also don’t understand the need for “_” in between your words “secular justice.”
    Ann said, “Scripture defines disbelief in God via one’s actions, not one’s thoughts. If you act and speak with love, care and responsibility toward self, others and if you consider the affects you have on your community, why would your thought-bundling matter to us?”
    Please define how an a-theist “acts.” I may be reading too much into it, so please explain. It appears you are implying that atheist actions do not include, “love, care and responsibility toward self, others”…’or consideration of the community.’
    What about homosexuality & adultery? Is the Holy Bible only condemning people to death that “act” homosexual or adulterous, but overlooks mere homosexual or adulterous thoughts?
    You may have rationalized these portions of the Holy Bible (with ‘this’ REALLY means ‘that’) but the rest of the religious masses have not. So, lets not talk about how parts of the bible COULD be interpreted, lets instead speak of how the bible IS interpreted by the majority of those that worship it.
    You type “ISTM” a lot. What is this?
    International Society of Travel Medicine?
    Information Systems and Technology Management?

  • So, why don’t people listen to (or “obey”, if you will) this inbuilt sense, their ideas of good/bad actions? Fear? Selfishness? Systemic injustice?
    Humans have a talent for physics – at least, in an atmosphere, at 1G, at speeds much lower than that of light, etc. But that doesn’t mean people will learn to throw a ball well without practice. We have an inbuilt talent for language… but if it’s not exercised and developed early on, people can have permanent deficits in that area. The basics of moral thinking ‘come naturally’, but developing it past that takes careful instruction and nurturing in the right kind of environment.
    We’re also learning more as a species. Just as we develop better techniques for architecture, say, we also develop better techniques for ‘architecting’ our moral codes. Consider the plight of slaves a century or so ago… or women more recently than that. The moral code listed in the Old Testament simply can’t work for a society like today… and I run into very few people who would really prefer living back then. Look up Steven Pinker’s essay “A History Of Violence” – the murder rate in England today is 4000% less than it was in the 1300s. Not many people argue that England is more religious now than in the 14th century – quite the opposite, in fact.
    And that leads me directly to another point – the whole point of this discussion is whether or not atheists, or a secular society, can be moral. If you
    define “acting immorally” as “acting a-theistically” as you do above, you’re just shutting down the debate before it gets started. If you want to define “atheist” as something other than “without belief in God(s)”, I can’t stop you – but at that point you’re not really speaking English.
    Why, then, could it be so important to you that your intellectual bundling around that gift be anti-supernatural? Is that not a “religious” agenda?
    You misunderstand. I can offer strings-free help to other people, and argue – in appropriate venues like, say, this one here – that belief in the supernatural is a risk factor for harm. Even in my reply, I didn’t say that “any or all “faith in the supernatural” leads to poverty, injustice and hunger”. What I said was… let’s see here… that it’s “a problem… one that actually, quite often, leads to people needing “food, medical care, and substantial help”“. “Quite often” is different from “any and all”, if that helps.
    An analogy: most smokers don’t get cancer. But smoking’s a risk factor for cancer. Many – probably most – theists don’t cause active harm directly because of their beliefs… but plenty do. I see accepting the existence of things that are forever incomprehensible by humans as a risk factor for causing harm. See the essay I’ve linked to above for why. (It also answers the question of whether or not I consider my worldview to be ‘religious’.)
    BTW, I’m glad to be corrected on the meaning of your statement about atheists not experiencing “love, justice”, etc. As I said, the way it was written, it ‘came off as ignorant or dismissive’, and your clarification is welcome.

  • Eric the Green

    According to the statistics, careful of causation & correlation, Religion & Violence are strange bed fellows. The statistics show a strong correlation between religion & violence markers.
    Here’s an Article you may like. “Does Religion Cause Immorality.”
    Here’s a NBC video on Gregory S. Paul’s study.

  • Ann

    Time only for a reply to Eric #50:
    ISTM = “it seems to me”
    the “_secular_” is an underline — I’ve no clue how to underline on this blog. Are we blogging in html? (I’ve seen some of you experts create italics and marveled!)
    Without getting in too deeply at this time of night, there are references in both OT and NT which indicate our actions and attitudinal posture are how we can should perceive faith in one another:
    e.g., Psalm 24:3-4 — Psalm 24 is a psalm of ascent, i.e., a psalm sung on the way to worship God in the temple. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? and who shall dwell in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.”
    “clean” in the Hebrew has the connotation of being free of bloodshed
    “lifting up” is worship through our living – behaving righteously toward neighbors(not swearing deceitfully, for instance)
    “what is false” is a translation of the Hebrew word for “emptiness”, “vanity”, “worthless” and was often used as a substitute for “idols” – in the LXX, the Greek word is the same one that Paul uses for “vain”, “futile”, or “empty” faith in 1 Corinthians. The implication of the Tanakh version is that one claiming to worship God while practicing falsehood in life is violating the commandment, “taking the LORD’s Name in vain” (the same words, in both Hebrew and Greek LXX are present in Deut. 5:11, too)
    Consider, too, the prophets such as Amos, who decried the abuse and oppression of the poor by the powerful and wealthy (ch. 5:11-ff, e.g.). Or, the prophets who said, essentially, “quit with this “worship” wouldn’t you??? Your actions belie your claims to worship God!”
    Paul, who listed sins in Romans 1, listed them within the context of “false worship.” In 1 Corinthians 15, he admonished the Corinthians with his concern that their divisiveness, unloving choices, and wrongdoing were evidencing “vain” faith, not faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
    Jesus: “if you love me, obey my commandments.” And, he rescued the woman from stoning (where was the man she was caught with???), and he still sent her on her way with the words, “go and sin no more.”
    Paul followed Proverbs’ counsel when he told others not to judge the purposes of another’s heart, but to leave that to God. (1 Cor. 4) Yet, concern with visible, behavioral choices, words, human interactions, and a demeanor of humility and love pervade Jesus’ and Paul’s words.
    If anyone takes OT punishments for crimes and imposes them onto today’s world or tries to institute them into secular legal systems, they’ve missed both Jesus and Paul. Jesus, in the aforementioned story, stopped the men who would have stoned the adulterous woman. Mercy and forgiveness obviously trumped law and hypocrisy within the community. Yet, Jesus also said to the men, “if you look upon a woman with lust, you have committed adultery.” (Think of the Middle East, today, and Islam which probably most closely approximates the time’s treatment of women – it’s considered to be women’s fault that men become lustful, that Adam sinned, etc.) Paul said specifically, “what have I to do with judging those outside?” (i.e., judging people outside of the church, non-believers)
    As for adultery, promiscuity, fornication, and homosexuality, the Bible says that God’s image in creation is gendered diversely in male and female, in Christ we are reconciled, in Christ male and female may together reflect God’s image. The believers’ bodies are considered to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and as reflecting God’s image in marriage we image reconciliation, restoration and new life. Adultery, promiscuity, etc. are all violations against our own bodies and the other(s) with whom the acts are committed. In a community worshiping God, and being called to image God to others, these are – in Hebrew terms – taking the Name of the LORD in vain.
    I’m implying nothing at all about contemporary atheists. I’m merely reporting how the Bible teaches us to perceive atheism — and it has zilch to do with one’s thoughts or reason or logic. One’s thoughts and purposes are God’s ballpark. God is the only Judge. Rather, true worship is perceived in righteous action and in attitudinal fruit within us by the power of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, etc.). (“Righteous” is a relational concept in both Hebrew and Greek, not a list of do’s and don’ts, but always attentive to human daily interactions.)
    Of course, you can always default to your belief that I’ve rationalized Scripture to explain us away to your comfort level. Or, perhaps, you’ve misunderstood Scripture (too naturally easy for all of us to do, because of our brokenness). Of course, those of us who believe Scripture in this way do our best to teach, pastor, love others in such a way that they understand God better. But, we can’t control everyone who slaps a “Christian” t-shirt over a lot of hateful and harmful speech and action, can we? They’re really not a part of our community, to begin with, according to Paul and his explanation of the “spiritual” Israel. (Romans 2) Nevertheless, we grieve that, in our humble opinions, they take our LORD’s Name in vain.

  • Ann

    @ Ray #51: a last comment on your remarks.
    You said, “If you define ‘acting immorally’ as ‘acting a-theistically’ as you do above, you’re just shutting down the debate before it gets started. If you want to define ‘atheist’ as something other than ‘without belief in God(s)’, I can’t stop you – but at that point you’re not really speaking English.”
    To someone who is reading life through a biblical understanding, I’m speaking English. The difference between that understanding and this point is that between a modernist assumption that philosophy is the point of Scripture, that a particular content of thought indicates “belief” in God, that speaking creeds and assenting intellectually to particular dogmatic statements are the sum total of what it meant to be a God-worshipper in either Judaism or Christianity. Contemporary philosophy is about thoughts, reason and logic. Biblical “philosophy” (love of wisdom) is about living lovingly, wisely and righteously toward neighbors, family and God. Biblical “belief” in God (in the Greek, the word translated “faith” is also variously translated in forms of “trust” or “belief”) is evidenced in our activities of righteousness, not in the divisive reasonings, justifications and rationalizations. We should recognize a Christian by how they act, speak, treat others, and live differently than others – intelligence, logic, reasoning skills, education, etc., simply aren’t entrance requirements for being a Christ-like Christ-follower. Most people posting here could argue anyone into the ground who lacks our education, right? But, if we did so, our intellect/education has become a tool of oppression, rejection and debasing of another instead of a blessing to God and community.
    Certainly, you’ve observed many people arguing for Christianity (apologetics) and you’ve disagreed with their philosophy, their reasoning or their logic. If that’s how you want to debate, then obviously, I’m not the person who’s going to engage you there! 🙂
    In fact, I consider that the debate itself is a big, fat, red herring from the whole point of Biblical philosophy and faith. Most of us don’t give a hoot about what someone else is thinking, but we quickly become defensive or offensive when reacting to a verbal or physical behavior directed at us. If one doesn’t perceive love from us, they wouldn’t care what we *think*, and they might avoid our presence altogether – unless they were looking for a reason to fight. More than enough folks are looking to fight. I’m not one of them, and my reasoning for not fighting is founded in my belief in Christ. However, there are times when I’m forthright about telling the truth, and people do get offended. I do the best I can to distinguish between *what* I’m addressing and the person to whom I’m speaking, though.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    Eric, surely you don’t hold me responsible for the actions of Muslim “fundamentalists”, right? I highly doubt any of them look to me as any sort of justification for their actions – except so far as I am an example of how bad things could get if they didn’t work hard to keep the evil Western world in check, etc.
    But I’m curious about your biological definition of evil. I’m dubious that such a thing exists, except perhaps as a semantic game. But surprise me.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    By the way, Eric, does this correlation between religion and violence make any distinction between religions? For instance, are the Anabaptist Amish really more violent than the average atheist?