On God’s hiddenness and the nature of faith

I was recently involved in an interesting debate about the nature of faith in God and the alleged moral guilt of disbelievers.

It revolved around the problem of divine hiddenness: if God really exists and is interested in people believing in Him, then why does He not unambiguously prove His existence?

God's hiddeness
God’s hiddenness: despite all the wonders delighting our eyes and filling our soul with awe, nature remains very ambiguous and conceals its ultimate reality.

The discussion took place in the comment section of a blog post written by progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser entitled “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?

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When I wrote Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I had a very short endorser wish-list. That list consisted of folks who were leaders in their professions and exemplars of the kind of irenic dialogue between atheist and Christian that was the book’s reason for being.

Neither Richard Dawkins nor Ray Comfort made the list.

One of the people who did make that list was J.L. Schellenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University. Schellenberg is an atheist and one of the leading philosophers of religion in the world today. His most important work in philosophy of religion is a powerful argument for atheism from divine hiddenness, an argument that he has honed over more than twenty years. Professor Schellenberg has pushed the dialogue and debate forward with a thoughtful and powerful argument, and all without animus or rancor. Indeed, while I have never met him, I know several Christian philosophers who count him not only an esteemed and worthy opponent, but a personal friend as well. You can visit Professor Schellenberg online at his website here.

All this is to say that I was delighted to receive the following endorsement from Professor Schellenberg for Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Given my goals in writing this book, an endorsement like this is worth its weight in gold, and that would hold even if the endorsement were etched in granite. The first sentence alone provides one of the best introductions to a book endorsement that I’ve ever read:

“There are some whose way of following the first of the great commandments has, in the matter of nonbelief, meant violating the second. In this brief and lively but remarkably full and acute discussion, Rauser shows the way out of this problem. Impressively fair, and writing not perfunctorily but with feeling, he has found a way to express genuine neighborliness both to atheists like me and to Christians who struggle to reconcile love and loyalty.”

Randal-Rauser_Is-the-Atheist-my-Neighbor

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Andy Schüler, a German Atheist reacted to another commentator arguing that rejecting God’s existence is never an innocent action.

Among many other things, he wrote:

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Schellenberg´s argument requires that at least some people who are open to the possibility of God’s existence and do not resist this truth still live and die as unbelievers. If you interpret the Bible in such a way that the existence of such people is impossible – then your interpretation makes the Bible evidently wrong about this matter (in a way that makes any further discussions impossible, because it forces you to accuse people who claim that they indeed are sincerely open to the possibility of God’s existence, yet also sincerely do not believe that there is a God, of simply lying about this). 

…………………………….

You don´t teach your kid that he or she shouldn’t touch a hot stove by letting him touch it. Or rather – you would be a terrible parent if you did it). And the scripture you refer to depicts God in an even worse light, God is like a parent that is an extremely skilled mentalist and not only does nothing to stop his little kid from touching the hot stove, but rather uses his skills to convince him that he  should touch it!

************

My response follows. Please forgive me for the small pieces of German dialect scattered here and there 🙂

Hi Andy! 🙂
Long time, no see!
(Sit longi Zit hon ich nix meh von dir gehert!).

“Innocence or lack thereof has nothing to do with anything here. Schellenberg´s argument requires that at least some people are open to the possibility of God existing / not resisting the truth of this, yet still live and die as unbelievers.”

My own view is that people “dying as unbelievers” (or atheists for that matter) but sincerely and humbly striving for justice and love will inherit eternal life whereas people dying as egoistical self-righteous bigots will irremediably lose their existence and be no more.

In all his parables, Jesus never threatened anyone with hellfire for not believing in Him or engaging in sexual immorality but for
1) failing to feed the poor, weak, hungry or neglected
and
2) not repenting from one’s own unjust pride.

Even Paul himself didn’t embrace the whole view often attributed to him in that he wrote

“God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11”

If you read Roman 2, it seems quite clear to me that Paul believed in the salvation of righteous heathens dying as such, his other ideas notwithstanding.

It is ironic that those arrogant and unloving fundamentalists who keep preaching about “salvation by faith” and eternal torment are those who are the most likely to miss everlasting life, according to Jesus.

Given that, I find that Schellenberg´s challenges are far less impressive (albeit not entirely unproblematic, of course).

God is under no moral obligation to give clear evidence of His existence to atheists if their unbelief while dying isn’t going to damn them.

You’re quite right that we cannot make a choice about what we deem to be reasonable
(obwohl die Engländer das Wort “decide” sowohl als “entscheiden” als auch als “bestimmen”, “herausfinden” verwenden 🙂 )

Yet, the same thing cannot necessarily be said about our hopes .

Obviously, someone convinced that theism is extremely implausible cannot entertain any hope in that direction.

But what if you’re completely ignorant about whether theism or atheism is true?

Or what if you (as I do) believe there are intriguing pieces of evidence for the existence of a non-material world which aren’t, however, compelling?

It appears quite reasonable to think one can, in that case, consciously choose to entertain and cultivate hope in either direction.

One example might make that concept a bit more palatable.

Consider the proposition: “Our world is actually some kind of simulation run by beings we know nothing about . It all started five minutes ago with the appearance of age.”

Brain in the vat:
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and include the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know nothing.

I’ve no doubt that most of us find that pretty absurd on an emotional level .
Yet, I do not think that anyone can show this to be widely implausible without begging the question and smuggling in assumptions about reality. And I spent quite a few hours exploring propositions aiming at rationally dismissing that possibility.
(You can try to prove me wrong if you so wish 🙂 ).

Therefore, I think that in order to ground our entire knowledge and existence, one has to take a leap of faith and make a pragmatic decision (Entscheidung) not based on whatever reasons.

Schene Grisse uss Nordenglond 🙂

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Are all atheists wicked fools hurtling towards hell?

Atheism: a consoling delusion for people who can't handle the reality of God's existence.
The “atheistic delusion”? Is this a fair and intellectually responsible look at the situation?

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser wrote a very relevant post about some widespread harmful beliefs held by many Christians in America.

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Randal Rauser

A few days ago Jeff Lowder of “The Secular Outpost” started a new series on “stupid atheist memes”. His first installment was:

If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”

Four years ago I did my own series along similar lines titled “How to Confound Christians with Bad Arguments.” The first installment was: “Compare Santa to Jesus.” Needless to say, naming and shaming this kind of ignorance is an important way to maintain the health of a belief community.

While I think it is worthwhile to point out the problematic memes in another belief community, it is even better to commit some time to pointing out the problems in your own community. And that’s why I’m doubly appreciative for Jeff’s new series.

I have always aimed to do the same thing by extending at least as much criticism to elements within my own belief community as I direct outside it. As a case in point, in a few weeks my new book will be in the marketplace. In Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I launch a book-length critique of a particularly pernicious Christian meme, namely the idea that deep-down atheists really do believe in God and they are sinfully suppressing this belief so that they may live with impunity.  I believe this is a very harmful meme which has left much misunderstanding, pain, and suffering in its wake. (Incidentally, the book also features an interview with Jeff Lowder. Bonus!)

So how ought we to respond to harmful memes? Must we always speak out against them? The Book of Common Prayer includes the following confession: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Note in this confession that there are two distinct sins. Yes, there is the sin of commission, namely those things we have done. But there are also the sins of omission, those things we ought to have done but failed to do. To propagate memes of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice within your belief community constitutes a sin (or if you prefer, an “error” or “indiscretion”) of commission. But to fail to censure memes of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice also constitutes a sin, namely a sin of omission.

In other words, there is no neutral place to stand with respect to this pernicious nonsense. Can you imagine the impact if every time one of these memes was posted or tweeted a chorus would rise up in indignation? Things would begin to change pretty quickly. To sum up, you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.

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My interaction with an atheist

Epicurus wrote an interesting comment:

I look forward to reading the book. I’ve always felt that Christians are trapped and must believe that non christians are suppressing belief because of Paul’s writings and attitudes on the matter.
It will be interesting to read Randal’s examination of the topic.

To which I answered:

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Lotharson

Not all Christians believe in Biblical inerrancy.

What’s more, Paul can be quite ambiguous on that very topic.

Saint Paul redacting one of his numerous letters.
The Apostle Paul writing one of his numerous letters.

“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are
storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the GENTILE. 11 For God does not show favouritism.”

A straightforward interpretation of this passage would be that Paul did believe that HEATHENS were able to strive for good works, thereby inheriting immortality.

Consider further this parable of Jesus:

“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you
gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the
least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I
was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you
did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after
me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

White-dressed Jesus, sheep, malovelent goats
Jesus, the sheep and the goats

Were the righteous ones people who put their faith in Jesus during this lifetime and were “saved by grace”?

I think it’s a terribly convoluted interpretation of this passage.

A likely interpretation is that Jesus (and possibly also Paul) believed in a kind of virtue ethics according to which salvation comes through the cultivation of a just and humble Christ-like personality while sincerely acknowledging one’s sins and need for salvation.

Therefore, I do think it is quite possible for a Christian to believe that many persons dying as atheists will inherit eternal life whereas self-righteous bigots of all kinds will be no more.

I certainly know quite a few atheists who are much closer to the spirit of Christ than many of his followers.

Cheers.

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Epicurus
“Therefore, I do think it is quite possible for a Christian to believe that many persons dying as atheists will inherit eternal life whereas self-righteous bigots of all kinds will be no more”.That all sounds fine, but what do you do with verses that suggest differently? Because you don’t believe in inerrancy you can ignore them and use the ones you like?
********
Lotharson

Hi.
My point was that, at the very least, Christians aren’t compelled to have such an attitude towards atheists.
While the Bible can often speak with conflicting voices, I do not think we can find anything telling us unambiguously that unbelievers are immoral but many things clearly asserting the contrary.

I grant your general point, however.
It would be terribly question-begging to base doctrines on verses we arbitrarily pick and choose, once we’ve already concluded that the Biblical Canon isn’t internally coherent.

Ultimately, I base my faith on God defined as the greatest Being which can exist.

In the end, I think this is a hope which cannot be proven through rational arguments. Neither can atheism or materialism.
(Many mainstream Christians in Europe consider “faith” as an existential decision to hope in God rather than as a set of knowledge claims).

I also think, however, that EVERY belief system must be grounded through unproven presuppositions.

Consider for example the possibility that we are living in a simulation which was created ten minutes ago.

Brain in a vat:
A brain in a vat: what if we’re all deluded?

I’ve no doubt that (almost) all of us find this completely absurd on an emotional level.

Yet I do not think that you can show this to be rationally implausible without begging the question in one way or the other.
(You can try to prove me wrong if you so wish).

Ooops, I might have gotten a bit too far from the original topic 🙂

******
Epicurus
I want to agree with you, but when I read things like Romans 1:18-32, or Psalm 14:1, etc, I can’t
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My interaction with a Conservative Evangelical

A little bit later, a Conservative Protestant criticised my views on salvation:
Rob

So you’re advocating Pelagianism? There’s no need to go that far.

Rom 2 is tricky. Thee point isn’t salvation by works. If you read the whole chapter, the gist is to jolt Jews out of complacency in thinking that they can sin and be saved, merely because they possess the Torah as a birthright, and that many gentiles are actually closer to heaven than they.

As to the sheep/goats parable, note the word “brethren”. This does not refer to generic acts of charity, but to good deeds done to Christians, so the doer would in some sense be considered Christian (ex. he who gives a cup of cold water, etc.)

None of this contradicts Rom 1, which seems to suggest that unbelievers hold (“suppress”) the knowledge of God’s existence, out of base motives.

******
Lotharson

Hi Rob.

I could as well say that Roman 1 is “tricky” and use Roman 2 to interpret it as meaning the collective sin of the culture rather than that of all individuals belonging to it.

Suppose that both Jesus and Paul believed that the deepest truth of the universe is that you have to believe in Christ on this side of the grave in order to be saved.

I think they would have said something like that:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For you did put your faith in me before entering the grave

Roman 2:
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgement will be revealed. 6 IF He “will repay each person according to what they have done.”, WE WILL ALL BE DAMNED. 7 To those who CONSCIOUSLY BELIEVED IN HIS SON DURING THEIR LIFETIME, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who DID NOT BELIEVE IN HIM, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who DID NOT BELIEVE IN HIM: first for the Jew, then
for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good THROUGH BELIEVING IN HIM: first for the Jew, then for the gentile. 11 For God does not show favouritism.”

The fact that Jesus and Paul used very different words and phrases is a terrible fit to the classical Protestant view of salvation.

At the very least, I think that what I described earlier is a not unlikely view of salvation in the New Testament, regardless of whether or not you call it “Pelagianism“.

**********
I might add that Rob’s answers are pretty far-fetched in other respects as well.
While Paul’s main point in Roman 2 was certainly to criticise a belief in Jewish supremacy, the way he expressed himself makes it pretty likely he believed that humble heathens striving for a righteous life will inherit immortality and glory.
So, Rob’s remark concerning Paul’s main intention while writing this fails to engage with my reasoning.
As for Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, Rob’s argumentation sounds really bizarre to my subjective ears. It appears to go like this
1) The word “Brethren” in the parable refers to “Christians in need”
2) Thus, those who inherit salvation are those who helped Christians in need
3) A person helps a Christian in need if and only if she is herself a Christian
4) Therefore, all Christians will go to heaven whereas all unbelievers will go to hell.
 That’s the only way I can make sense of it.
While I cannot judge Rob as a person, I think that this particular argument wasn’t particularly convincing.
1′) As Jesus taught this, there wasn’t yet any Christian around and it seems quite clear that “Brethren” referred to his fellow Jews trying to do the will of this Father while he was preaching  in Israel. And whenever “doing the will of the Father” is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, it means good works towards God and one’s neighbour and not faith in Him as the only possible “fire insurance”.
3′) involves that, whenever confronted with a Christian in need, all Christians will help the person in question whereas all non-Christians will selfishly refuse to do so. This is truly an extraordinary claim which can be all too easily refuted by reading testimonies of Christians in areas of armed conflict.
Saying that these passages teach “salvation by faith only” nonetheless means that Paul and Jesus were quite sloppy in their choice of words and examples. Given their extreme ambiguity, it would have been then quite legitimate for the Church before (and after) Luther to interpret this in good conscience and perfectly legitimately as supporting the “false teaching” of salvation by works.
This comes over as a desperate attempt at salvaging one’s dogmas no matter what.
 
I believe that honestly leaving every Biblical text speak for itself instead of imposing a predefined pattern on it leads to two important conclusions:
A) The Bible is not inerrant: it can clearly speak with conflicting voices
B) The large majority of texts go against major doctrines held by Conservative Protestants. Indeed,
they’re at odds with the doctrine of hell understood as eternal conscious torment
they fail to teach that God cursed us all with a sinful nature because our first parents ate the wrong fruit.
– they’re at odds with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and grace alone (as seen in this post)
they’re at odds with the belief that homosexuality is a far more serious sin than failing to help the poor.
and I could add many others.

Conclusion

So, this was doubtlessly a terribly chaotic post 🙂
During these two interactions, I obviously touched on a lot of topics. I hope that my readers have found some of this interesting, regardless of whether they’re Christians, atheists or belong to an entirely different species altogether.

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John Loftus and the instrumental mindset

Militant atheists often present themselves as dispassionate and incredibly “bright” seekers of truth whose conclusions are always impartial and well grounded.

I think that nothing can be farther from the truth and I want to illustrate this trough the behavior of a very active American anti-theist.

 

John Loftus is a former fundamentalist who became an anti-theist and views it as his greatest purpose in life to “debunk Christianity“.

sometimes agree with his criticism of fundamentalism and conservative Evangelicalism, but find that he most often utterly fails to address the position of his strongest opponent.

He has also made it perfectly clear that his goal is not to rationally examine religious topics but to use everything he can to reach “the end of Christianity”, like a perfect ideologist.

 

Consequently, he usually picks and chooses the worst passages of the Bible while picking and choosing their worst interpretations and concludes from that the whole Bible and Christianity in general is wicked.

(Click here to see another anti-theist using pretty much the same strategy).

 

So I was very surprised as I found  a blog post from him where he states the Bible teaches that hell means annihilation (the irreversible loss of one’s existence).

 

“Since I was able to question my Christian faith for the first time once I believed in Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism as the best Biblical description of hell, see here, I thought I’d offer a few brief notes on that view, from a Biblical perspective. I know there is a debate about this going on among Christian circles, but here are some of the things that those who dispute it must deal with:

We should not confuse the reality of hell with its images. The images of hell are of: 1) “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46); 2) “eternal destruction” (Matt. 10:28); and 3) banishment into the “darkness” (Matt. 22:13; 25:30). How we interpret these images depends on other Bible verses. In the O.T. the wicked will cease to exist (Psalm 37, Mal.4: 1-2). Jesus in the N.T. shows us that the purpose of fire in punishment is to destroy or burn up the wicked (Matt.3:10-12; 13:30,42,49-50). According to John R.W. Stott: “The main function of fire is not to cause pain, but to secure destruction.” [Evangelical Essentials, (p. 316)]. Paul likewise emphasized destruction (2 Thess 1: 9; I Cor. 3:17; Phil. 1:28; 3:19). Peter likewise stressed the sinners’ fate as that of destruction (2 Pet. 2:1,3, 6; 3:6-7). Even in John’s book of Revelation, the lake of fire will consume the wicked (Rev. 20:14-15). G.B. Caird: “John believed that, if at the end there should be any who remained impervious to the grace and love of God, they should be thrown, with Death and Hades, into the lake of fire which is the second death, i.e., extinction and total oblivion.” [Commentary on Revelation, (p. 186)].

“The Bible uses language of death and destruction, of ruin and perishing, when it speaks of the fate of the impenitent wicked. It uses the imagery of fire that consumes whatever is thrown into it.” But “linking together images of fire and destruction suggests annihilation. One receives the impression that ‘eternal punishment’ refers to a divine judgment whose results cannot be reversed rather than to the experience of endless torment (i.e. eternal punishing).” [Pinnock, Four Views of Hell, p. 144].

L.E. Froom claims that conditional immortality was generally accepted in the early church until its thinkers tried to wed Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul to the teaching of the Bible.” [The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Herald Pub., 1966]. Biblically speaking, human beings are not immortal. God alone has immortality (I Tim. 6:16); well doers seek immortality (Rom. 2:7); immortality is brought to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10); those in Christ will put on immortality (I Cor. 15:54), so that they now partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).

If human beings don’t have immortality until they die in Christ when God grants it to them, then according to the Bible we cease to exist after we die. We are annhihilated, and that’s our punishment. And since according to the Bible God is judging us all along the way, there’s no need to believe that the figurative pictures of a great white throne judgement are literal events one can expect to experience, either.”

 

A far better defense of the concept this is the Biblical view of hell can be found in my interview with Chris Date.

 

Still, I was really stunned to have found that on the website of John. Annihilationism is a doctrine which is far more reconcilable with our moral intuitions than eternal torment, so it would have made more sense for John to defend the view the Bible really teaches that everyone of us will be literally tortured (as another member of DebunkingChristianity actually did).

So, does that mean that John wrote this out of intellectual honesty even if this makes Christianity taste more palatable? This is what I first thought before I saw one of his comments on the website of Dr. Glenn People:

 

My experience was that once I gave up an eternal hell it was a relief to me. Claim differently all you want to. But it allowed me to consider that I might be wrong without the threat of an eternal punishment.

And so the question remains whether annihilation will hurt or save the church. Without such a threat there is, well, no threat. It’s not quite the same as universalism but close. If all will be saved or if no one will suffer an eternal punishment then there is less motivation for missionary work or evangelism, and less of a need to preach correct doctrines rather than pop psychology which helps grow a church.

Without an eternal hell then another problem surfaces with the atonement? Typically the substitutionary doctrine says Jesus paid our punishment on the cross, but if there is less or no punishment then why did he need to do this at all? Why die to save human beings from extinction? To cease to exist is no punishment at all and therefore nothing to save anyone from.

I know you’ll answer these questions to your satisfaction, but these answers don’t satisfy me.”

 

So on average (according to Loftus) the doctrine of conditional immortality is a good thing because this would lead Christians to get less evangelistic and more willing to rationally question their faith.

I’ve grown convinced that John Loftus views everything as means to the end (of Christianity). As Randal Rauser wrote:

” Having just leafed quickly through it I was struck yet again by how much Loftus brought his Christian fundamentalism with him when he became an atheist. I see, for example, that his critique of Genesis 1-2 includes fundamentalist assumptions about reading ancient literature as a scientific account. Moreover, the book even ends with a “Commitment Page” (p. 467) in which Loftus asks the reader to sign their name that they are now an atheist committed to propagating atheism in the world. Once an evangelist, always an evangelist, I guess.

I hope to have a review of Loftus’ book sometime in August (I have two time sensitive reviews that I need to get out first).”

 

I think we can know beyond any reasonable doubt that John Loftus has remained a missionary fundamentalist.

More generally, searching a reasonable conversation with an American anti-theist is akin to seeking a rational discussion with a far-left or far-right politician who is doing everything possible to bring about his or her reforms.

It is an utter waste of time and I advise all my fellow Christians (both Conservative and Progressive) to avoid wasting your time on such websites where mockery, bullying and ridicule are commonplace. If you feel outraged by something they wrote, write your response on your personal blog but don’t challenge them in their own lands.

 

I’m really glad that in France and Germany, one can find PLENTY of non-militant and tolerant intellectual atheists who are willing to engage in friendly and rational challenges with no ax to grind.

In a truly open society (as defined by Karl Popper) it should certainly be possible to discuss about worldview differences without getting disagreeable.

 

 

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Anti-atheist non-sense

Regular readers of my blog certainly know I’m no big friend of anti-theists, that is to say people who yearn for the disappearance of ALL religions and advocate the use of mockery, ridicule and emotional bullying (along many other means of heinous propaganda) for waging this unholy war.

But I am also all too well aware there are many anti-atheist religious fundies out there.

I just stumbled across a blog post that truly infuriated me. It is entitled “ADHD” which rose my attention since it actually means a condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder I have  (I’ll certainly write a full-fleshed “coming out” if I’m in the mood one day”).

However the author meant something quite different:

anti-atheist ads

“ADHD

 
All atheists have a deadly case of ADHDAtheistic Depraved Hellish Disorder. ADHD can affect atheists of all ages— adolescents and adults. It’s estimated that in the United States alone, as many as 2 million atheists have ADHD. The specific cause of ADHD is the Love of Sin, forgetting God, and rejecting Jesus Christ. Studies of the Scriptures indicate that this disorder is highly heritable, and that Adam’s genetics is the main factor. This disorder causes the victim to have an impulsivity to love their sins more than their own soul, and it leads them down a dark, lonely road to misery and hell. Some symptoms become more and more present after their conversion and discipleship to Darwinism. Many symptoms are present by age 10. They fail to give close attention, and miss very important details about life and death.  They are inattentive to Biblical truth and moral details, and make deadly mistakes in their moral and spiritual judgments.
 
ADHD patients have difficulty focusing on the one Person that can save their soul from the Love of Sin. They don’t seem to listen when spoken to about reality, mortality, and Eternity.  They struggle hard with following simple Biblical instructions. They become bored after only a few minutes unless they are committing a sin they enjoy. They have great difficulty learning something new besides Darwin’s fairy tale. They frequently switch from one sinful activity to another. They have trouble processing scriptural facts as quickly and accurately as a moral person. They have trouble sitting still while listening to a sermon about sin, judgment, and the Cross. They daydream about ungodliness and can’t control their impure thought life. They also talk nonstop about how their granddad was an orangutang.
 
ADHD causes poor concentration and the atheist is often forgetful about God and the brevity and frailty of life. Every day feels likes an endless challenge, because they refuse to retain God in their knowledge. They are easily distracted with the things of the world and have great difficulty sustaining attention when it comes to remembering God. They do not seem to listen when spoken to directly about Eternity and the Blood of Jesus Christ. They talk excessively about Darwin, evolution, deny being sinful, and insanely think they came from a monkey and will die like a cat. They think, speak, and act sinfully without regard to the eternal consequences of their sins. They blurt out inappropriate profanities and wicked blasphemies about God. They have difficulty waiting their turn in conversation and butt into conversations.
 
People with ADHD are borderline insane and have symptoms of stubbornness, aggression, frequent temper tantrums, deceitfulness, cursing, lying, or stealing. ADHD victims often fidget and squirm when being witnessed to about their Crucified Creator – Christ Jesus – and the eternal destiny of their soul. They don’t follow through on simple instructions about Salvation and fail miserably to complete moral duties each day. Atheists love sin more than anything and they try to mask these difficulties and completely deny they have ADHD. 

Wicked pride and sinful habits keep the atheist from coming to the feet of Jesus. They avoid or dislike anything that requires sustained moral purity and the forsaking of their self daily. They often lose their way, and will eventually lose their soul. These troublesome symptoms of deadly inattention and sinful impulsivity will persist in the atheist all through his Godless life. Statistics show that all atheists that deny their ADHD symptoms grow worse and worse and end up damning their own soul. ADHD is a long-term fatal condition without receiving personal help from Christ Jesus Himself.
 
The only true remedy in the universe for Atheistic Depraved Hellish Disorder (ADHD) is to go directly to your Heavenly Health Care Provider, the Great Physician, Christ Jesus Himself and receive His divine medicine (God’s Precious Blood) into your soul by faith today. Drop to your knees, Call 9-1-1, and simply ask for JESUS.

I can only call this an incredibly evil, silly and morally offensive parody, even if the author might have written it out of ignorance rather than out of meanness.

The fact is that MOST atheists living under the sun are not anti-theists, they can be quite kind and nice persons and (more importantly) they believe there is no God because they’re sincerely convinced it is the case. I disagree with them on that point and find their arguments extremely wanting, but I can’t systematically accuse them of dishonesty.

The assertion that they’re “distorting the truth” demands very strong evidence due to its stark initial implausibility, Paul’s sayings notwithstanding (and the interpretation of this passage might be much more complex than many people seem to realize).

There is not a scrap of evidence that statistically speaking atheists are less moral than other groups.

hateful sign toward atheists

But this very blogpost shows us why there are so many atheists in America who have gotten fully angry. If all religious folks they’ve encountered act in such a manner, it seems natural they conclude the world would be better off without Religion.

Still, this gives them absolutely no excuse to bully nice believers who have never done them any harm.

What I like about secular Continental Europe is that there are lots of friendly atheists and religious believers who don’t view each others as deluded or deceitful and engage in rational and respectful dialogs.

As progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser wrote:

“Martin Marty has observed that the new division which will define our age is not between conservative and liberal, or religious and irreligious, but rather between mean and non-mean. “

I wish everyone would let this thought sink in.

 

 

Renewing the Evangelical mind: an interview with Peter Enns

Renewing the Evangelical mind: an interview with Peter Enns

 

In what follows, I had the immense privilege to interview Peter Enns (links), who is undoubtedly the leading progressive Evangelical theologian in the whole world.

Here are the topics we touched upon, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.

 

1) Where Peter Enns comes from and how his thoughts evolved with time

2) How is evolution currently perceived among American Evangelicals?

a) Young Earth Creationism

b) Old Earth Creationism and Concordism

c) His own approach

3) What were likely the intentions of the original authors as they wrote the text?

4) One of the very foundation of Evangelicalism is the idea that God cursed us with a sinful nature, making misdeeds deserving an eternal punishment inevitable.
Can we find this concept in the very text of Genesis?

5) If Paul thought it was the case but the authors of Genesis 2 and 3 didn’t hold this view, what should we believe as modern Christians?

6) What is inerrancy and why is it viewed as the very foundation of Christianity by so many people?

7) What about God inerrantly gathering errant texts for His own purposes, as Professor Randal Rauser thinks it’s the case?

8) Many people say that if there is only a small mistake in one obscure book of the Old Testament, we can no longer trust the resurrection. What’s Peter’s response to this?

9) Problem of divine hideness:

Why would God not have given us an inerrant text rather than leaving us stabbing in the dark?

Why did He allow so many people to mistakenly assume its inerrancy?

10) What did God REALLY do during the history of Israel? Did He reveal Himself to a real Abraham and a real Mose?

11) Given the results of modern critical scholarship, what makes the Protestant Canon so special?
What does it mean to say that the imprecatory psalms were more inspired than books of C.S. Lewis on pain and love, and writings of Martin Luther King on non-violence?

12) Currently, there is a massive exodus from young people out of Conservative Christianity?
What are the causes of this?

 

https://i1.wp.com/randalrauser.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Peter-Enns.jpg

 

For those interested by our conversation, I recommend the following resources:

 

Peter’s blog containing many insightful posts and Peter’s website full of great academic writings.

The following books are also worth looking:

The Evolution of Adam : What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.
Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology).
Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.
Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible (Telling God’s Story).
Ecclesiastes (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary).

UPCOMING: The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

 

Genocides in the Bible? An interview with Matt Flannagan.

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Regular readers of my blog know that I’m no big fan of Biblical inerrancy and think that while there is much beauty to admire in the Bible, you’re going to find heinous things too.

 

Still, I want to give a fair hearing to people I disagree with. Therefore I was delighted to have had the opportunity to interview Conservative Evangelical theologian Matt Flannagan from New Zealand about this topic.

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In the following interview, we touched on a number of issues while exploring the morality of the conquest of Canaan as described in the Old Testament.

 

DailyMotion version: Click here.

 

Since this is my very first audio-interview, the quality of the sound is far from being optimal. So I hope you can forgive me that, along my lack of professionalism and terrible accent.

 

If a sufficient number of people find that really unbearable, I’ll start out painstakingly writing down the whole dialog.

You can complain at lotharson57@gmail.com or even write a comment here (if you want to have the satisfaction to publicly humiliate me 🙂   ).

 

A small personal tip: I generally listen such long interviews while having to accomplish repetitive tasks besides.

 

Jesus and political involvement

Deutsche Version: Jesus und das politische Engagement

 

Yesterday evening, I participated in an interesting inter-religious dialog about how one’s faith shapes one’s political views.

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In America, the Religious Right (mainly constituted of Conservative Evangelicals) considers that the Good is defined by an inerrant Bible they venerate (and sometimes almost worship), regardless of all empirical evidence.

I consider such an approach extremely misguided. The Bible speaks with conflicting voices on many topics, and Conservative Evangelicals have always to pick and choose which verses to take at face value, which in turns determines the set of contradictory verses whose meaning has to be distorted.

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My regular readers know that I very often criticize the New Atheists and their claim that Religion is the worst poison of the world which ought to be wholly blotted out.

I think that they too are utterly misguided and fail to recognize that the main cause of religious atrocities and evil is not a supernatural belief in and of itself BUT the concept that whatever God (or the gods) allegedly decrees is good and ought to be meticulously applied, regardless of the horrors it might involve, a point stressed by no one less the last Pope Benedict.

 

To my mind, religious atrocities would rapidly cease if all believers seriously took the thought that God is morally perfect, that is far more loving and just than the best human being who has ever lived.

 

During His earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear that all laws exist for the well-being of mankind and are not arbitrary in any way.

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“And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Mark 2:27 

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

 

This is why a Conservative Christian opposing homosexuality is not being faithful to Jesus if he just states “Homosexuality is wrong because God decided so according to His good pleasure.”

No, IF homosexuality is wrong, then it is wrong because it is harmful for the individual and society and get in the way of becoming a loving and caring person. They should provide us with empirical evidence backing this up.

 

All political decisions from a Christian standpoint should aim at promoting the well being of one’s neighbors (that is the whole mankind), alleviating their suffering and encouraging them to become loving people.

But we live in an extremely complex world and it is often pretty hard to figure out which sets of laws would really be useful and which should be avoided. People starting with different presuppositions will reach in good conscience conflicting convictions, and we should all withstand the self-righteous temptation to view them as either dumb, ill-informed, irrational or wicked, a point well developed by progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser in his book “You’re Not As Crazy As I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions”.

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Becoming a new Atheist?

Jonny Scaramanga (whom I once interviewed) is a former Christian fundamentalist who left behind his faith after having realized that the “education” he had received was nothing more than a brain washing.

First of all, I want to say I really like him and his generally respectful attitude towards people not sharing his current worldview.

So I was somewhat troubled after having read his last blog post.

Some of my Christian readers like me because, they say, I am an atheist but not a New Atheist. I appreciate their support, but I think I might actually be one of those nasty Gnu Atheists. I think I should clarify my position.

I’m thinking about all this because I’ve been asked to review a book called Godbuster: Banishes all known gods. I haven’t read it yet, and I’ll reserve judgement until I have, but at first glance, I’m not sure how a book like this is going to be useful.

When I stopped being a Christian, I was not happy about it. There are a great many Christian tropes about atheists: they’re just too proud to submit to God; they’re just angry at God; they’re just too selfish to stop sinning; they hate God. None of those were true of me at the time. My heart was not “hardened against God”. I really wanted to believe. I just couldn’t.

Photo by David Shankbone. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s not the case anymore. I like the universe without God in it a lot more than I liked it when I thought there was an Almighty watching over it. I don’t think there is a God (or gods, or godesses), and I’m glad about that. The idea of worship now seems servile and unpleasant to me. But I’m happy for those who want to engage in it to do so.

 

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

I freely concede, however, that for many individual adherents faith is a net positive. Here I disagree with those atheists who think that religion is bad for everybody, and those who consider their private faith a positive thing are simply delusional. I think there are many people of faith who gain a great deal from their religion without it doing them or those around them much harm. The atheist counter-argument is that belief in God is necessarily irrational, and behaving irrationally is always harmful. I’m not so sure about this.  One of the lessons of psychology is that we pretty much all hold some irrational beliefs, and some of them do us some good. For another, I’m not sure all religious belief is irrational. The kind of religion criticised on this blog is irrational, and to the extent that religion is irrational, it must be opposed. But there are religious believers who accept the findings of science, who behave logically and rationally, and who simply think that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. I don’t accept their arguments, but that’s fine. They’re not forcing me to share their faith. Fundamentalism, of course, makes empirical, scientifically testable truth claims all the time: miracles happen; prayers are answered; the universe is <10,000 years old; a catastrophic flood ca. 4,000 years ago destroyed almost all life. These empirical falsehoods are used to bolster a belief system which does harm to its adherents and those around them. But that’s not true of all Christianity, much less all religion.

Indeed, Dawkins and Sam Harris, et al, don’t really take on these more intellectually defensible forms of Christianity in their books, partly because their arguments are much less easy to dismiss than the ludicrous claims of fundamentalists. Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

As for the latter part of the argument (that liberal religion shares beliefs with fundamentalism), well, I too share many beliefs with fundamentalists. I think that the world is round, that drinking water is a good idea, that North America is a continent, and that murder is bad. Sure, these aren’t religious beliefs, but I have significant overlap with the crazies on matters of reality, of philosophy, and even morality, and this does not make it difficult for me to part ways with them where they head off into the land of the unbelievable. The fact that the mainstream believers share some beliefs with the dangerous ones is not necessarily a problem.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists. I also think this is much more likely to succeed (especially in the short term) than getting rid of religion altogether. Asking people to reject religion wholesale is asking them to make a radical transformation in their worldview and identity. Not many people are willing to do this. On the other hand, convincing them that it’s perfectly possible to be a believer who accepts science, embraces LGBT people, and actively pursues social justice is comparatively realistic (lots of people already do it).

So why Godbuster? I suspect I’ll agree with it, because I don’t find the gods of any religion plausible. But so what? I don’t care what people think about Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or any other deity. I care that all humans have equal rights, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or geographical location. I care that we pursue policies that reduce social inequality. I care that we do everything we can to halt climate change. I care that children have the access to education that will empower them to make good, informed choices about how to live their lives. If people feel inspired to pursue these things because of their faith, that’s fine by me.

Do you disagree with this post? Good, I’m still working out my thoughts on this subject. I composed it last week, and re-reading it before posting, I find that I’m already mentally writing a counter-argument. I think I’ll add to these thoughts next time.

 

The horrors of a fundamentalist universe

 

To begin my response by something positive, I must say I admire Jonny’s humility and his acceptance of being possibly wrong.

I completely share Jonny’s indignation against Christians despising atheists and homosexuals, and this is what pushed me to write the parable of the “Good Godless Gay” where I used pretty much the same picture he showed towards the top of his post.

I agree that there are many atheists who leave Conservative Evangelical Christianity because they are basically good person and can no longer worship a being who will eternally torture billions of his creatures, for sins he himself bounded to commit, having cursed them with a sinful nature.

So I am sure that a nice and respectful atheist honorably defending his or her intellectual views is far closer to Christ than a nasty fundamentalist defending his “truth” in a heinous way.

 

Likewise, I entirely sympathize with Jonny viewing a godless universe far more optimistic and joyful than a fundamentalist universe where most humans will be eternally tortured for sins the Almighty Himself doomed them to commit.

hell

In another post, I explained why the cognitive dissonance faced by Conservative Evangelicals is far greater than that hardcore materialists are facing.

 

What is the “harmfulness” of religion?

 

Jonny further wrote:

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

 

But what is this sentence supposed to mean? That 100% of all religions are harmful and ought to disappear? I’m sure this is certainly not what Jonny thinks about that matter. What he probably means is that the majority (perhaps more than 80%) of religious movements have (by and large) a harmful influence of society and if ALL religious were to be blotted out, the world would be a better place.

But if it WERE true, and social engineering were morally permissible, why should we not just combat the 80% harmful religions and leave the remaining 20% alone?

 

The only argument of the New Atheists is that tolerating them would inevitably lead to condone heinous fundamentalism. But Jonny himself doesn’t buy this argument:

Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

So it would be great if Jonny and his fellow secularists (I am not employing this word in a negative sense) began to distinguish between the diverse religious movements with respect to their harm and benefits.

Perhaps the world would be better off with NO religion at all, but it would be EVEN better off with only tolerant and progressive religions preaching a compassion grounded in transcendence.

 

The grounding of morality in a purely material cosmos

 

The following sentence is particularly interesting.

I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

IF we already know that there are basic moral values such as “maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain of the greatest number”, I agree we don’t necessarily need religion for achieving this, even though I believe that humanist and humanitarian religions (yes, this is not an oxymoron 🙂 ) can achieve an enormous contribution to this goal.

But why should we believe in the existence of objective moral facts identical to increasing happiness and diminishing suffering?
To paraphrase the great enlightenment philosopher David Hume, how can we derive the moral “ought” from the factual “is” without begging the question?
Of course, theism has also problems regarding the foundation of morality, such as the famous Euthyphron-Dilemma: “is rape bad because the gods disapprove of it, or do they disapprove of it because it is wrong?”.

While it would be foolish for me to try to answer this age-old problem in some sentences, I think that Reductive Materialism (RM) faces an even more formidable challenge. According to RM, everything which exists is identical to a bunch of energetic particles in interaction. But to what clusters of atoms or molecules with a precise location in space and time the moral value “It is always wrong to rape a woman.” can be identified to?

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I don’t see how you can do that without completely distorting the meaning of the moral sentence. Thus yes, you don’t need to be a theist to be a good person striving for the Good. But you can run into serious problems if you try to justify this moral goodness in an objectively mindless universe.

Even if they have their own sets of problems, worldviews such as Theism and Platonism provide us with a world where objective morality (moral laws not followed by “if…”) are much more at home than in a thoughtless clump of stuff.

 

None of my arguments are uncontroversial, of course, but they should lead the New Atheists to a much deeper intellectual humility while criticizing the opinions of their opponents.

 

Progressing religion

Finally, Jonny wrote a fantastic sentence I want to emphasize.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists.

 

Actually, progressive Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote something very similar several years ago: religion can cause violence, injustice and oppression but it DOES not have to.

As a Christian, I certainly believe that a religion grounded on the message of Jesus can only have positive repercussions on society, if you seriously take the thought that every human being is unconditionally loved by a Heavenly Father.

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While the Religious Right is utterly obsessed by homosexuality, they completely lose of sight that it was only condemned by very few verses in the Bible, so even by presupposing Biblical inerrancy, their priorities are inexcusable.

 

Conclusion: upholding a tolerant and open society.

 

I am well aware that by having written what I did, I am going to infuriate quite a few Conservatives and liberals alike.

Yet my intention is not to provoke a heroic battle of epic proportions, but to push people in both camps to reflect more profoundly about their own assumptions and start realizing that the others are not as crazy as they thought, to paraphrase the title of a great book of progressive Evagelical theologian Randal Rauser.

Evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave us also important insights into why and how the culture war is maintained, along with its lovelessness.

It is my true hope we could all (a bit) contribute to build up a society where one’s political opponents are no longer view as loathsome foes but as people we happen to disagree with on various grounds.

I’m infinitely far from being inerrant and know all too well that many of my ideas are worthy of being criticized. But if I can only positively inspire four persons reading that, I would have achieved my goal.

 

 

Invisible burden of proof

Progressive Evangelical apologist Randal Rauser has just written a fascinating post about the way professional Skeptics systematically deny a claim they deem extraordinary.

 

I’ve talked about God and the burden of proof in the past. (See, for example, “God’s existence: where does the burden of proof lie?” and “Atheist, meet Burden of Proof. Burden of Proof, meet Atheist.”) Today we’ll return to the question beginning with a humorous cartoon.

Religion cartoon

This cartoon appears to be doing several things. But the point I want to focus on is a particular assumption about the nature of burden of proof. The assumption seems to be this:

Burden of Proof Assumption (BoPA): The person who makes a positive existential claim (i.e. who makes a claim that some thing exists) has a burden of proof to provide evidence to sustain that positive existential claim.

Two Types of Burden of Proof

Admittedly, it isn’t entirely clear how exactly BoPA is to be  understood. So far as I can see, there are two immediate interpretations which we can call the strong and weak interpretations. According to the strong interpretation, BoPA claims that assent to a positive existential claim is only rational if it is based on evidence. In other words, for a person to believe rationally that anything at all exists, one must have evidence for that claim. I call this a “strong” interpretation because it proposes a very high evidential demand on rational belief.

The “weak” interpretation of BoPA refrains from extending the evidential demand to every positive existential claim a person accepts. Instead, it restricts it to every positive existential claim a person proposes to another person.

To illustrate the difference, let’s call the stickmen in the cartoon Jones and Chan. Jones claims he has the baseball, and Chan is enquiring into his evidence for believing this. A strong interpretation of BoPA would render the issue like this: for Jones to be rational in believing that he has a baseball (i.e. that a baseball exists in his possession), Jones must have evidence of this claim.

A weak interpretation of BoPA shifts the focus away from Jones’ internal rationality for believing he has a baseball and on to the rationality that Chan has for accepting Jones’ claim. According to this reading, Chan cannot rationally accept Jones’ testimony unless Jones can provide evidence for it, irrespective of whether Jones himself is rational to believe the claim.

So it seems to me that the cartoon is ambiguous between the weak and strong claims. Moreover, it is clear that each claim carries different epistemological issues in its train.

Does a theist have a special burden of proof?

Regardless, let’s set that aside and focus in on the core claim shared by both the weak and strong interpretations which is stated above in BoPA. In the cartoon a leap is made from belief about baseballs to belief about religious doctrines. The assumption is thus that BoPA is a claim that extends to any positive existential claim.

I have two reasons for rejecting BoPA as stated. First, there are innumerable examples where rational people recognize that it is not the acceptance of an existential claim which requires evidence. Indeed, in many cases the opposite is the case: it is the denial of an existential claim which requires evidence.

Consider, for example, belief in a physical world which exists external to and independent of human minds. This view (often called “realism”) makes a positive existential claim above and beyond the alternative of idealism. (Idealism is the view that only minds and their experiences exist.) Regardless, when presented with the two positions of realism and idealism, the vast majority of people will recognize that if there is a burden of proof in this question, it is borne by the idealist who denies a positive existential claim.

Second, BoPA runs afoul of the fact that one person’s existential denial is another person’s existential affirmation. The idealist may deny the existence of a world external to the mind. But by doing so, the idealist affirms the existence of a wholly mental world. So while the idealist may seem at first blush to be making a mere denial, from another perspective she is making a positive existential claim.

With that in mind, think about the famous mid-twentieth century debate between Father Copleston (Christian theist) and Lord Russell (atheist) on the existence of God. Copleston defended a cosmological argument according to which God was invoked to explain the origin of the universe. Russell retorted: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.” With that claim, Russell is not simply denying a positive existential claim (i.e. “God exists”), but he is also making a positive existential claim not made by Copleston (i.e. “the universe is just there, and that’s all”).

In conclusion, the atheist makes novel positive existential claims as surely as the theist. And so it  follows that if the latter has a burden to defend her positive existential claim that God does exist, then the former has an equal burden to defend her positive existential claim that the universe is just there and that’s all.

Here is was my response.
This is another of your excellent posts, Randal!

Unlike most Evangelical apologists, you’re a true philosopher of religion and don’t seem to be ideology driven like John Loftus (for instance) obviously is. This makes it always a delight to read your new insights,

I think that when one is confronted with an uncertain claim, there are three possible attitudes:

1) believing it (beyond any reasonable doubt)
2) believing its negation (without the shadow of a doubt).
3) not knowing what to think.

Most professional Skeptics automatically assume that if your opponent cannot prove his position (1), he or she is automatically wrong (2), thereby utterly disregarding option 3).

skeptik

All these stances can be moderated by probabilities, but since I believe that only events have probabilities, I don’t think one can apply a probabilistic reasoning to God’s existence and to the reality of moral values.

While assessing a worldview, my method consists of comparing its predictions with the data of the real world. And if it makes no prediction at all (such as Deism), agnosticism is the most reasonable position unless you can develop cogent reasons for favoring another worldview.

Anyway, the complexity of reality and the tremendous influence of one’s cultural and personal presuppositions on reality make it very unlikely to know the truth with a rational warrant, and should force us to adopt a profound intellectual humility.

This is why I define faith as HOPE in the face of insufficient evidence.
I believe we have normal, decent (albeit not extraordinarily) evidence for the existence of transcendent beings. These clues would be deemed conclusive in mundane domain of inquiries such as drug trafficking or military espionage.
But many people consider the existence of a realm (or beings) out of the ordinary to be extremely unlikely to begin with.
This is why debates between true believers and hardcore deniers tend to be extraordinarily counter-productive and loveless.

The evidence are the same but Skeptics consider a coincidence of hallucinations, illusions and radar deficits to be astronomical more plausible than visitors from another planet, universe, realm, or something else completely unknown.

magonia

In the future, I’ll argue that there are really a SMALL number of UFOs out there (if you stick to the definition “UNKNOWN Flying Objects” instead of a starship populated by gray aliens)

Of course, the same thing can be said about (a little number of) miraculous miracles.

 

On hell and a psychopatic mindset

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randaul Rauser wrote a new amazing post about the problem of hell (understood as a never-ending torture).

BildI agree with anti-theist Richard Dawkins that terrorizing small kids with this is a form of child abuse and that this damnable doctrine ought to be jettisoned.

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Randal wrote

 

In my recent interview with Robin Parry on universalism, Robin observed that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, he put the point rather provocatively when he declared, “You’d have to be a psychopath not to want [universalism] to be true.”

Psychopath?! Them’s fightin’ words!

That might seem like a daring statement, but as Parry notes, even conservative Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm agrees that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, J.I. Packer makes a similar point when he observes: ”If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 163).

So we are left with a situation in which proper Christian character requires that we hope universalism is true even as we are to believe it isn’t.

Next, Robin addresses the underlying tension between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and Christian “moral character formation”. He explains:

“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, I believe that hell is tormenting people forever. I don’t have a problem with that. And I think, when you first come across this view, if you’re an ordinary human being, you would have a problem with that unless there’s something really wrong with you, something seriously in terms of your moral compass. So then you have a theological system where you have to try and desensitize yourself to this. And there is a real problem of a theological system that actually, rather than cultivating virtue in your attitudes and so on, cultivates attitudes that are actually vicious.”

As Parry points out here, eternal conscious torment presents a serious problem, for the Christian determined to move beyond the pained contortions of cognitive dissonance and to a real embrace of the doctrine is required to adopt attitudes toward some of God’s creatures that are, as Parry says, “actually vicious”. To be sure, the individual may not know who the reprobate are, but they do know that a subset of God’s creatures will be subject to eternal torments even as the elect experience maximal joy in a restored creation. Consequently, they should seek to inculcate in themselves attitudes that are in conformity with God’s, including a satisfaction in the horrifying future of the reprobate. It does indeed seem that the only alternatives at this point are extreme cognitive dissonance or vicious attitudes that are indeed inimical to the cultivation of true Christian character.

Parry is not suggesting that advocates of eternal conscious torment are vicious. But he is claiming that consistently embracing eternal conscious torment as the fate for the reprobate requires the cultivation of attitudes that are vicious. Think, by analogy, of the meat eater overcome with compassion when witnessing the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But rather than resolve not to eat meat, he resolves to harden his emotions against the terrible fate of industrial livestock. Likewise, the Christian overcome with compassion or immobilized in anguish for the eternally damned either lives in cognitive dissonance or seeks to inculcate vicious attitudes whilst cauterizing his compassion and embracing the divine plan of never-ending torment for the reprobate.

Is there a way to proceed in the interpretation of scripture and theological reflection which can help us avoid this impossible choice between cognitive dissonance and moral disassembly? Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation?

Eric Seibert believes so and he offers a way forward with a hermeneutical principle to guide theological reflection. (For more on Seibert see my audio podcast interview here and my print blog interview here). Seibert’s proposal has a decent lineage: St. Augustine. He begins by quoting the great Church Father:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

Seibert then fills out Augustine’s principle:

“Whenever we read and interpret the Bible, we should always be asking whether our interpretation increases our love for God and others.” (The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 66-67).

The position offers at least the beginning of a resolution to the problem. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it. Consequently, the extent to which one believes eternal conscious torment leaves one in the hinterland between cognitive dissonance and the inculcation of vicious attitudes, to that extent one has reasonable grounds to reject the doctrine.

 

Here was my response.

 

Hello Randal, thanks for this new amazing post of yours.

I find it amazing that even hardcore Calvinists such as Paul Helm grant the point that nobody should WANT eternal conscious torment to be true.
This logically entails that they are themselves morally superior to the god they profess to worship.

 

That said, I think that Robin Parry confronts us with a false dichotomy .

Either we believe that people are going to be tortured forever for sins they could not have avoided (having been cursed with a sinful nature).
Or we believe that all of them will inherit eternal bliss.

But there is another alternative, namely that:

1) God did NOT curse us with a sinful nature (the authors of Genesis agree with me on that one).

2) God will grant eternal life to everyone truly desiring Him and there will be lots of conversions beyond the grave (inclusivism).

3) Those not desiring God won’t suffer forever but they will be no more.

Given that, I don’t even feel a need to hope that universalism is true.
I don’t feel a need to hope that Hitler, Fred Phelps or Bin Laden won’t return to dust.

Interestingly enough, many secular European folks told me that if there were a good God, they would not be shocked at all if He were to act in the way I have just outlined.