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 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.

12 Responses to “Replies to Acorn Post Comments (Part 2)”

  1. mmacmurray Says:

    Believing, as I do, in a Creator-God, and believing that God not only created us but also keeps things going, I think that it is God’s grace that keeps us human beings from being as bad as we could be.

    Each one of us is capable of murder, but most of us confine our murderous impulses to our thoughts and don’t act upon them. The same with gluttony or lust: most of us don’t eat as much as we think we’d like to; most of us don’t act on every lustful thought we have.

    I think that there are different means of restraint used – health reasons, cultural mores, laws, etc., but that there is restraint exerted on us from outside ourselves. As a Christian, I believe that God is the author of that restraint.

    What I can’t answer, because I don’t understand it, is why the restraint sometimes seems to be lifted: why murders occur, why the genocide keeps going on in Darfur now, why children sometimes suffer and die. While I believe that God is the Judge of all the earth and will do what is right (Genesis 18:25), I still struggle with how that all works out.

  2. janie Says:

    Hi, Random,

    I haven’t been around for a few weeks–traveling to visit family, and I don’t have a laptop.

    I just wanted to remark on a couple of things:

    I think of “empathy” partly as a God-given tool to aid us in behaving in a loving and, if you will, “moral” way. In fact, nearly all religions appeal to it in their version of the “golden rule” (Christian version–“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). But one doesn’t have to be “religious” for empathy to operate quite well in helping one evaluate one’s actions.

    I agree with you that it is most frequently not possible to change a person’s religious views by trying to argue “reason” with them. And that it is not possible to prove or disprove the existence of God by a study of logic or history. Certainly, in my own case that’s not how it happened. It happened by what I experienced as an inexplicable moving of the spirit of God in my heart and mind, after which I became convinced in the reality of the Lord Jesus and moved into a relationship with him. Lots of people have tried to tell me that this is something I wanted to believe for some “psychological” reason, so I just keep imagining it is true. Perhaps. I have believed it for over thirty years now, and it has given me a sense of freedom, changed my life for the better in many ways, and given me a lot of joy and a way to deal with the difficulties in my life in a constructive way. This has become so compelling for me that I am no longer able to comprehend not believing it. And it just keeps growing as time goes by, like it has a life of its own.

    I can tell others about my experience, but I don’t have any illusions of being capable of convincing anyone.

  3. Cameron Says:

    I agree with your statement where you say there are no logical reasons for not murdering. However, that’s not the same as a moral absolute.

    In fact, avoiding murder would seem to go against evolution (see? I managed not to call it Darwinism! 🙂 ) Survival of the fittest and all of that seem to support slaughtering those who oppose or oppress you. Why is empathy a good thing in a non-Biblical world view?

    I believe MMcMurray better explains what I would have said, so I’ll hush now.

  4. Clownscape Says:

    I believe that the subtle distinction is not between theists and atheists but between what we could call theistic and non-theistic. The fact that you either “prove” or “disprove” the existence of god makes you equally theistic, because the central issue or more appropriately, your interest is God.

    When been asked about his beliefs, one of my friends simply shrugged and said – “I exist. As for God, it he does, he don’t matter to me; if he doesn’t, he don’t harm me.”

    So, the only distinction I find is between religious minded and non-religious minded people.


  5. renaissanceguy Says:

    Random Name, long time no read. I appreciate what you wrote in this post.

    I think that you are correct in saying that one cannot argue a person into Christianity (or out of it). However, many a person who is already drawn to Christianity (or out of it) has been persuaded by effective arguments. In addition, many a person has remained a Christian (or a non-Christian) on the basis of carefully reasoned arguments.

    I have a tricky question for you. When you talk about your own ethical code (ethics is a better word than morality), do you ever think hard about where it came from? Did you just choose to adopt it arbitrarily? Do you think it was instilled in you by other people? Did you get it from “mother nature”?

  6. TJ Says:

    Random, I tend to agree with you that one cannot argue a person to a belief in God. The Scripture is very clear that the existence of God is self-evident, but that the unrighteous suppress that knowledge of God, which results in much foolishness (see Romans 1). One of the manifestations of this foolishness is found in one’s thinking. The mistake you make about arguing for God is that one only does so to change the mind of others. While that is usually the optimistic goal. There can me other reasons as well: the proclamation of truth, glorifying the Creator, showing the unbeliever the folly of his/her thinking, etc.

    Take the Empson example you gave above. He assumes an absolute morality in order judge the God he claims is a bully. But in order to do so, he needs to be able to justify 1) this standard of morality that he appeals to and 2) the standard of authority by which he gets to elevate himself to an authoritative position in order to so so. He might assume he can do all these things, but until he provides a rationale for such beliefs, he hopelessly sinks into a subjectively philosophical quagmire.

    In all of my discussions with atheists (as well as “radical agnostics”), the discussion ultimately devolves into subjectivism. More simply stated, it simply becomes a “I don’t want to believe that because I don’t like that” rationale. This, as you can see, is pure subjectivism.

    These last statements of yours are very troubling: “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.” This is the kind of thinking I referred to earlier. From a rational perspective, it is very consistent: if our destiny is to become worm food, then it doesn’t matter what you or I think or how you or I behave. Someone can wipe out your family and steal your property so that it benefits their own, and without moral absolutes, there is nothing that be done about it (sure, the government can intervene, but who’s to say that it isn’t interfering with naturalistic forces in doing so). The problem is, no one really lives like this. If someone steals your car, you don’t say “Que sara, sara.” You phone the police and accuse them of stealing. One cannot have their moral cake and eat it too, for it just tastes like foolishness in the end.

  7. cheles Says:

    Random: I loved this post. I just so happen to be one of those children who grew up with religious parents. I completely confess, I became one of those hostile people towards anything deemed a religion. I didn’t wake up until my ex-husbands mother got mixed up in a cult and aggressively attempted to convert my ex-husband and I at the time. I was stuck in a small town up north, thirty miles away from the nearest town. Let’s just say I was bored so I decided to study my ex-mother-in law’s belief and compare it to my own (I was a born-again christian at the time). I delved into everything I could get my hands on. It got so competitive that some head dude from New York city (that’s a hint) came down to “deal” with me. I sent that son-of-a-gun packing home within an hour with his tail between his legs. Even though I was a christian at the time, the disgust I felt was overwhelming. I felt sick after he left- how religion brings the very worst out of people. Our fight/debate was proof enough for me. The hate that was reflected in his eyes towards me and the reflection of the same in me, was shocking. It definitely was a wake-up call. It was when I studied the Greek Interlinear along with many other texts, that I began questioning my own faith.

    I too, refuse to believe in God or Satan. I believe that they don’t exist. But I was told to have blind faith in their existence. Blind? Yeah, I was blind at the time all right. I had to believe because some guy on the pulpit told me to because he’s a so-called “representative” of God. Organized religion is exactly that: organized by man, not God. The most unhappy times in my life was when I was a christian and involved in church. The pressure and so called “love” they manifested put me in a serious depression when I was a teen-ager. None of it ever made any sense to me. So I left my faith and began reading and comparing about every other religion, faith, and spirituality that was out there. The old saying that “knowledge is power,” is so incredibly true. I don’t believe in any religion. But I do consider myself to be a spiritual person. I believe that there is something more out there. I believe that we exist for a reason. What that is, I cannot tell you. I haven’t got that far on my journey yet. But I sure as hell will never again, let anyone tell me “where I am going” (usually it’s hell for most people *wink*).

    I feel absolutely no guilt leaving religion. When I left, the freedom and relief I felt was incredibly overwhelming. I too have questioned what makes mankind do the good and evil acts that they do. I believe that its genetic and I too also believe we that we are good because we’re taught that certain behaviour is considered “good.” Some days, when I read the paper regarding all the tragedies in the world cause by our kin I think, that we really haven’t evolved much from our neandrathalic ancestors. To say that evil doesn’t exist, is ludicrous. It is so clever, that it can disguise itself in the most inconspicuous places. My journey by the way, caused my parents question their own faith. They too, on their own free will, left and have never looked back. As a family, we often talk about our old faith, how we thought back then, and how we were led like fools. The wounds of betrayal are still very fresh and this will sound strong, but it’s true: we would die first before we would ever turn back to it. Again, great post.

  8. modestypress Says:

    Typical Christian vs. atheist argument at evangelical web site (my sarcastic, unfair paraphrasing).

    Atheist: Sending people to Hell for eternity makes no sense, even for very bad people. I can’t accept such a God who does that.

    Christian: God sent his Son as a sacrifice. Believe in Him and you won’t have to suffer Hell for eternity. Whether you like it or not does not matter–that’s the way it is.

    Christian: With no moral absolutes, there is no reason not to be a bad person.

    Atheist: It may offend and disturb you that there are no moral absolutes. Some atheists decide to be good people even though there are no moral absolutes to guide them. Whether you like the absence of moral absolutes or not does not matter–that’s the way it is.

    This argument will surely continue for hundreds of years if humans don’t destroy themselves by the end of the century, which I consider quite likely. I am not an optimist and not a particularly cheerful person. However, I try to be cheerful and optimistic around my granddaughter, and for her sake, I try to be hopeful.

  9. Pete Says:

    Yes Random, you comment was sarcastic and unfair. There was no mudslinging here, just an exchange of peoples past. Not much like WMB at all!

  10. modestypress Says:

    Pete, I am sorry my comment came across as sarcastic and unfair. (I am not sure which specific comment you are talking about.) I don’t think the comments to my posts at at my blog are like wmb at all. We are just people with different points of view discussing religion and politics but attempting to do so politely. I think.

  11. Pete Says:

    I was simply quoting you! See your comment at #8. I found it puzzling as this exchange was nothing like WMB. But after rereading what you wrote, I gather you were describing WMB and not the comments exchanged here. Nevermind…!

  12. modestypress Says:

    My bad, as the kids say. RG would warn you about her grandpa.

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