Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Letter to Common Sense Atheism I

Dear Luke,

First, I must congratulate you on your tactics. Your approach is not only civil, but clever. The technique of granting your interlocutor the benefit of some initial assumptions can be an extremely effective one, particularly if you are confident of your ability to handle the arguments that follow naturally from them. Since you are an ex-Christian, I would expect you to be at least somewhat familiar with most of the standard arguments and I completely agree that it would not serve either of our purposes to waste time fencing over the usual terrain. However, I don't think there's any need for you to to grant me any assumptions, at least not in order to answer the questions you've posed.

Before I begin answering those three questions, however, I have a minor one for you. I understand why many atheists wish to discuss religion with me. I have written a book on the subject, after all. What I do not understand is why so many of them wish to discuss religion with me without first reading the relevant book. It would seem to me that reading the book and then asking questions would be the rational way to go about the process, so perhaps you could enlighten me as to why that is often not the case. I know you've read at least part of The Irrational Atheist, but had you completed it, you would know that some of your assumptions about certain Christian beliefs don't apply to me.

For example, in answer to your second question, I am not a Young Earth Creationist. I don't know how old the Earth or the race of Man is, nor, I contend, does anyone else. I have never been impressed with Bishop Ussher's reasoning or his chronology. I even did some similar calculations when I was seven or eight and concluded at the time that even if one took the Biblical account seriously, there appeared to be a considerable amount of missing information that rendered the chronology incomplete. On a tangential note, given that evolution assiduously avoids addressing the question of origins, there is no intrinsic conflict between the concept of a Divine Creation followed by an evolutionary mechanism utilized in order to the produce the variety of species we observe today.

Not that I subscribe to that idea, however. To complete my answer to that second question, I am a skeptic who is highly dubious about the theory of evolution by natural selection for three reasons. First, I see it as a dynamic and oftentimes tautological theory of little material value to science. This may change in the future, of course, but since it has been around for 150 years without producing much in the way of practical utility or reliable information, and has even hampered the development of more useful biological science, I see little sign of that changing anytime soon. Second, the predictive models evolutionary theory produces are reliably incorrect and fall well short of the standard set by the hard sciences. In fact, they seldom even rise to the much lower standard of the social sciences. Third, the theory of evolution by natural selection does not rest on a scientific foundation, but a logical one; it is no more inherently scientific than the Summa Theologica. Since our discourse is not intended to be about evolution, but religion proper, I will not go into further detail on the subject in this dialogue except to say that all three of those statements can be verified in substantial detail by anyone who wishes to investigate the matter. So, with that tangent out of the way, I will return to the primary topic and your first question.

Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man, and I am aware that there is no shortage of evidence, scientific, testimonial, documentary, and archeological, to demonstrate that no individual is perfect or even perfectible by the moral standards described in the Bible. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus Christ is the only means of freeing Man from the grip of that evil. God may not be falsifiable, but Christianity definitely is, and it has never been falsified. The only philosophical problem of evil that could ever trouble the rational Christian is its absence; to the extent that evil can be said to exist, it proves not only the validity of Christianity but its necessity as well. The fact that we live in a world of pain, suffering, injustice, and cruelty is not evidence of God's nonexistence or maleficence, it is exactly the worldview that is described in the Bible. In my own experience and observations, I find that worldview to be far more accurate than any other, including the shiny science fiction utopianism of the secular humanists.

I don't concern myself much, if at all, with the conventional extra-Biblical dogma that you describe and in which many Christians believe. I am dubious about the concept of the Trinity as it is usually described, do not await an eschatological Rapture, have no problem admitting that the moral commandments of God are arbitrary, and readily agree that the distinction between the eternally saved from the eternally damned appears to be more than a little unfair from the human perspective. On the other hand, I know that evil exists. I have seen it, I have experienced it, I have committed it, and I have loved it. I also know the transforming power that Jesus Christ can exercise to free an individual from evils both large and small because I have seen it in the lives of others and I have felt it in my own life. Now, ever since St. Augustine wrote his Confessions, it has been customary for Christians to exaggerate their sinful pasts; Augustine was hardly the Caligula that he portrayed himself to be. I find dramatic personal histories to be tiresome in the extreme, so I won't say more except to note that as an agnostic, I enjoyed a sufficient amount of the hedonistic best that the world has to offer across a broad range of interesting and pleasurable experiences, only to learn that none of it was ever enough. It may amuse you to learn that one girl who knew me only before I was a Christian happened to learn about The Irrational Atheist and wrote to me to express her shock: “The fact that you wrote this book proves there is a God.”

And one with a sense of humor, no less. Now, there's no reason this would mean anything to you or anyone else who was not acquainted with me before. But it meant something to that woman, just as an observable transformation in one of my close friend's lives made a distinct impression on me.

I certainly do not deny the experiences or revelations of those who subscribe to other religions. I merely question the specific interpretation ascribed to them by those who lived through or received them. After all, the Bible informs us that there are other gods and that those gods are capable of providing such things at their discretion. Among other things, I studied East Asia at university and have spent a fair amount of time reading the sacred texts of various religions, including a few fairly obscure ones. I have yet to encounter one expressing a religious perspective that can be legitimately confused with the Christian one, nor, in my opinion, do any of these alternative perspectives describe the observable material world as I have experienced it as well as the Christian one does. I think it is astonishing that an ancient Middle Eastern text is frequently a better guide to predicting human behavior than the very best models that the social sciences have produced despite having an advantage of two thousand more years of human experience upon which to draw.

I suspect that unless you can understand why the first book in C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy is called Out of the Silent Planet, unless you fully grasp the implications of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, you cannot possibly understand much about Christianity or the degree of difference between it and other religions. Fortunately for many Christians, intellectual understanding isn't the metric upon which salvation is based. The Biblical God claims to know everything about the human heart and He would appear to recognize that thinking isn't for everyone.

In answer to your third question, I will simply note that if a different being had created the world, then a different morality would obviously apply. For more on this, consider reading the second appendix in The Irrational Atheist entitled “Two Dialogues”. I believe logic dictates that the Creator alone has the right to set the standards for His Creation. His game, His rules. In keeping with that principle, God always has the absolute right to do as He sees fit, which just so happens to be precisely the answer He gave to Job and company. The answer to Euthyphro's so-called dilemma is that the good is good because it is commanded by God, since there is no objective, supra-divine standard of Good by which His commands may be judged. Finally, to demonstrate the flaw in the logic of your example of the artificial baby, I shall merely cite the old joke. First, make your own dirt. Then go ahead and do as thou wilt.

I hope these answers have given you some perspective on why I am a Christian. In the interest of keeping this letter to a reasonable length, I think I should give you the opportunity to ask whatever additional questions have occurred to you before we turn the tables around and address your beliefs.

With regards,

PS: I would be deeply remiss if I did not take the opportunity to commend you for the eminently sensible conclusions you have expressed regarding the validity of the New Atheists' arguments.

NB: This was written in response to 1st Letter to Vox Day.



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