Replies to Acorn Post Comments (Part 2)
January 26, 2008
If someone had asked me about my religious beliefs at the age of ten, I would probably have answered that I was an “atheist.” I don’t remember exactly how I came to that conclusion, and it seems a little precocious, but I think it’s true. I didn’t get much religious instruction, though I was required to attend some Jewish education at an Orthodox Synagogue for a while. I read much of the Bible at that time.
I have known a fair number of atheists during my life. The ones who are most hostile to religion are often people who were raised by religious parents and then rebelled against their upbringing. Most of the aggressive atheists who participate at the evangelical Christian web site worldmagblog.com seem to fall into this category. I seem to be unusual in that I don’t have a long-standing personal grudge against religious belief. Part of the complicated reasons for my participating at wmb was that I thought of my childhood reaction against religion as superficial and shallow, and that I ought to learn more about religious belief (particularly Christian belief.)
Tim argues that there are better “Apologists” (defenders and advocates of Christianity) I should read than the ones I cite. At the moment, I feel that I have pursued this investigation about as much as I want to. I just turned 64 and there are many topics I want to explore and time grows shorter for me.
I will say the following. First, I don’t think that religious belief (or lack thereof) has much to do with intelligence. For example, Isaac Newton has been described as one of the most intelligent humans who ever lived. Whether that grandiose statement applies, I am not sure, but he was one very bright dude indeed. He was also one very religious dude. There are many other religious believers who are very intelligent people.
At the same time, there are many very intelligent atheists and agnostics. Bertrand Russell is another example of a brilliant man. William Empson, author of the book Milton’s God, is another example of a brilliant man. He earned joint degrees in literature and mathematics and probably could have been a brilliant mathematician, but instead decided to pursue literature. He has been described as one of the three most brilliant critics of English literature (along with Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt).
My conclusion is that one cannot “prove” or “disprove” the existence of God by any amount of logical argument or historical research. If a convincing argument for or against could be made, by now we human beings would be in agreement on the matter. I don’t believe once can argue one’s way to belief in God (as much as Christians like to argue about it).
I read Milton’s God in graduate school and I was profoundly influenced by it. Empson argues not only for atheism but that the theology of Judeo-Christianity is immoral; that Jehovah is an immoral bully. This is perhaps a much greater heresy than arguing that the Garden of Eden is a myth. I responded to it with an immediate reaction of “Of course!”
Which raises the difficult issue of morality (a term Christians like to use) and ethics (a term atheists like to use). I have a sense of “right and wrong.” David Rochester wrote not very long ago about his relationship with a woman named Laura who said she didn’t believe in evil. She said that Hitler, for example, was not evil but perhaps misguided in his beliefs. Like David, I have encountered similar people and I have been quite offended. In fact, in my makeup, I have a strong streak of self-righteousness and a strong tendency to condemn people I think are engaging in “bad” behavior. My behavior and life has not been (and is not) perfect, so not only am I philosophically incoherent, I am also a hypocrite.
I do not believe one can argue one’s way to an overwhelmingly logical and convincing reason for being a moral person. Why not steal and rape and murder?
For Christians, the answer seems to be, because God and Jesus said not to. For evangelical Christians the answer seems to be in part that the argument is more convincing because the Bible is inerrant. If it’s true in a historical sense: Jesus actually lived and Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead (and Noah’s ark really existed, etc.); and if it’s true in a scientific sense: humans were formed in the Garden of Eden and all life came from God’s Creation and not as described by “Darwinism” (as evangelicals like to scornfully dismiss the theory of evolution), then the rules of morality must be based on absolute truths provided by God.
My summaries and paraphrases of religious belief tend to provoke Christians into sputtering, apoplexy. Tim is very, very intelligent and a very very good scholar and Cameron is very very good and for all I know, Tim is gooder than Cameron and Cameron is smarter than Tim. Also, they both laugh at my jokes some of the time, which is the best way to flatter me. Nevertheless, they have not convinced me.
I don’t think there are “absolute” moral laws in the universe. There are no overwhelming logical reasons for not killing and stealing and raping. I don’t do these things because my parents (for all their faults and failings) raised me not to do these things; they made use of my natural empathy for other humans to turn me into a reasonably decent human being. I tried to do the same for my daughter and I think I succeeded reasonably well. She and her partner are trying to do the same for our granddaughter. She will be four next month; perhaps I will give her a midterm exam.
I have to get ready to leave for the mainland. I will blither on when I get more of a chance.