A Christian. An Atheist. Two Friends. On God and Government (Round 6)


Thanks for your reply.

I truly enjoyed our NY debate! Thank you again for your hospitality. As I mentioned in my recap, I was so enthused by the turnout and the spirit of the discussion (not just ours, but from the audience as well). I would love to keep our live debate series going as I see them more as forums – philosophical think-tanks with a group of friends who are interested in tackling the big questions.

On morality, I agree we could certainly go on forever on this subject. As objective moral realists, we agree not only on moral realism but the fact that morality has to be a very large part empirical. To add, I believe we’re both sympathetic to morality also having an intuitive component, yet share the view that intuitions should be checked by the bounds of empiricism. As we both commented, unchecked dogmatism has led to some horrific endpoints. Lastly, on morality, we’ve both admitted to not having all the answers.

Obviously, in our views of morality we’re separated by theological realism, though Charles (our NY moderator for those who wouldn’t have known) jokingly accused me of being a closet skeptic and you a closet theist. Perhaps he was pleasantly surprised by our inquisitiveness and empathy of each other’s positions. I’ve made known to you that my worldview is not immune to doubt – far from it. And yet I cling to this Christian faith as being a unique religious worldview. Why, you ask?

I would actually start what I like to call the “movable skeptic approach”. Rather than jumping into Christianity and defending the Gospels, I ask if there is good reason to consider God at all. Given our existence, should we be inclined to consider a prime mover, a source of infinite goodness, and a transcendent reality?

In the words of the late, great philosopher of science Karl Popper:

“I do think that all men, including myself, are religious. We do all believe in something more–and it is difficult to find the right words–than ourselves. While I do not want to set up a new kind of faith, what we really believe in is what we call a Third World, something which is beyond us and with which we do interact, in the literal sense of interaction, and through which we can transcend ourselves.” (Karl Popper on God: The Lost Interview by Edward Zerin)

In the spirit of Popper’s “Third World”, I think you would call this transcendent reality “secular humanism” and I call it “God”, and it ultimately comes down to the question: did it all start with mind or matter?

At this point, I am a deist as I find the arguments for the existence of God are strong in general, completely distinct from Christianity. In my open skepticism, I would have no problem moving from deism to atheism if I felt atheism a stronger worldview. And yet, if there is good reason to consider that God exists, then I would also have no problem accepting a specific faith tradition. But it must be for good reason or else I would return to my deistic home base.

On Christianity specifically…

First, a historical reason.

You admit you are in the vast minority of historical scholarship in holding to the fact that Jesus did exist. I’m intrigued by your position – you’re certainly innovative my friend! You’re in luck though! Besides my willingness to consider all possibilities, I’ve wondered about your position myself – could a group of power hungry social revolutionists just concocted a new religious order, putting the new man-God (one the actually never existed) on their side?

A few things to consider. First, Bart Ehrman, agnostic and prominent New Testament scholar, addresses the historical Jesus in this interview with the “Infidel Guy”, Reggie Finley.

YouTube Preview Image

For those that do not have time to watch the entire video, I’ll just share a few of Ehrman’s sentiments:

•          “I don’t think there is any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus.”

•         “We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anyone else for His time period.”

•          “Why not deny Julius Ceaser… why not deny the Holocaust… why not deny Abraham Lincoln lived…”

Secondly, take William Lane Craig’s point:

“Even Gert L¸demann, the leading German critic of the resurrection, himself admits, ‘It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” (From Reasonable Faith, “The Resurrection of Jesus)

My point is that outside the Gospels, we have multiple independent attestations (Jewish and Roman – Tacitus, Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger to name a few) to the life, ministry, following, and crucifixion of Jesus under Pilate. Holding the skeptical note, I then move to consider the following position:

Fine. Jesus existed, did some “startling deeds”, and was killed, but there was clearly political motivation for the early followers to lead the charge with this new religion.

But then I turn to the fact that we have multiple independent reports of the incredible persecution of the early followers who were tortured and murdered for their beliefs. I get that it was cool to wear Vans sneakers and listen to alternative music in the 90’s (which I admit freely I experimented with) but it was not cool to worship a man-God in the first century Jewish-Roman culture.

Contrary to your position, I cannot find any faith tradition that holds a candle to Christianity in terms of historical reliability. Not just the historical Jesus, but the historical footprint of the early Church. For the early followers to give their lives to this cause – the only other explanation that I have seriously considered has been mass hallucination theory, but even that has serious problems.

Second, a personal reason.

We agree on the very moving and inspirational aspects of “Christian philosophy” such as “love your neighbor”, the Golden Rule, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” I am also very much moved by the picture of the Creator of the universe dying for others, which on one hand is moving. We have this awesome image of God – a father giving his life for his children. If God exists, we’re starting to see his character. And then we come upon Hell…

On Hell, you noted it was disturbing. I cannot empathize with you enough and I assure you that all believers have reflected deeply on this. Actually, this is a hotly debated issue right now on exactly what “Hell” is – whether it is the traditional Hell, universalism, or annihilationism. But if we’re moving to consider how Hell would make sense with a loving God, we’re not discussing the existence of God, but now his character. We’ve moved from philosophical inquiry if God may exist to a very personal and theological inquiry, a key question for the theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan – “Is this a God worth loving?”

“The question of God is epistemological, when we ask how the universe can be intelligible. It is philosophic when we ask why we should bow to the principle of sufficient reason, when there is no sufficient reason for the existence of contingent things. It is moral when we ask whether the universe has a moral ground and so a moral goal. It is finally religious when we ask whether there is anyone for us to love with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength.” (Bernard Lonergan, Philosophy of God and Theology)

Mine is the position that ours is a God, if Christianity is true, that is more than worthy of loving, yet I freely admit that I am deeply disturbed and dumbfounded by Hell. I’m sure we’ll discuss further…

Also on the personal note I would add religious experience – those transcendent moments that you touched on in NY. The question is whether or not those moments are brain fizz or some actual sense of the divine. I say both.

So my friend, I have to pose the “movable skeptic approach” to you. In the spirit of Charles’ friendly accusation – do you ever doubt your doubt, find yourself in a curious “deistic” mood? The cosmological argument, first cause, “fine tuning”, transcendent “religious experience”, objective moral realism – do you ever find yourself scratching your head with any of these? Not a crayon “god of gaps”, but on the entirety of existence of human experience, a sense of Popper’s “Third World” that is more analogous with “God”?

Convince me that naturalism is a stronger position than deism and we’ll revisit Christianity later…

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Round 14
A Christian vs. An Atheist: Two Friends On God and Government, Round 15
Theology on Tap and Faith vs. Doubt
A Christian. An Atheist. Two Friends on God and Government (Round 13)
About Andrew

Andrew Murtagh is an entrepreneur, engineer, and author with an interest in philosophy, theology, science, and culture, and how these areas intersect. To read more about Andrew click here. Or click here to read about his book, Proof of Divine.