One of the traditional complaints about atheism is that it offers no grounds for believing that life is meaningful in any significant sense.  Many old school atheists seemed to acknowledge this point.  For example, Bertrand Russell grants that the eventual desolation guaranteed by naturalism is grounds for “unyielding despair,” and atheistic existentialists like Sartre and Camus recognized that without God life appears “absurd.”  The new atheists are much more optimistic, insisting that life can be quite meaningful in the absence of God.

This makes me wonder whether life can really be as significant on an atheistic worldview as it is given the truth of theism and its correlative doctrine of an afterlife.  Suppose we conceive of the overall significance of an action as relative to its total impact on what follows after, in terms of causal influence and consequences.  Thus, for example, historians often refer to particular events, such as the assassination of Lincoln or the Treaty of Versailles as especially significant because of their impact on subsequent history.  That seems reasonable enough.  Now suppose we consider the significance of any individual human life along these lines as well, such that we recognize, say, that Martin Luther King’s life was especially significant because of all of the lives he impacted and continues to impact to this day.

Now with this understanding of life “significance” in hand, let’s compare the atheistic and theistic perspectives.  Given atheism (or to be more precise, “naturalism”), all life on Earth will eventually perish, say 10,000 years from now, and whatever impact our lives have had will cease.  I won’t say that the lives we led lose all significance as a consequence, but the significance of our lives will certainly be finite.  However, given theism and the perpetual afterlife promised on this worldview, there is literally no end to the impact of our lives, for not only may earthly deeds continue to influence others forever but our on-going choices and actions in the afterlife (Heaven and/or the New Earth, given Christian theism) will be endless as well.  Since there will be no end to our lives (at least for those who wind up in Heaven), there will be no limit to the significance of our lives or even individual actions, the effects of which may be felt and acknowledged for all eternity.

So, as we compare atheism and theism on this point, it turns out that the two worldviews could not contrast more sharply when it comes to providing grounds for the significance of human life.  Given atheism, however long earthly history proceeds, in the end it will be finite and so will the significance of our lives.  Given theism, on the other hand, the significance of our lives has no upper limit but approaches infinity.  In other words, if theism is true, then the significance of our lives is immeasurably great, while in comparison, without God the significance of our lives is infinitesimally small.  (I want to emphasize the comparative nature of my point here, for only relative to such a comparison could any degree of life significance be considered “infinitesimal.”)

So what does this mean?  Is this evidence for the truth of theism?  Not at all.  On the contrary, there are no implications here with regard to which of these two worldviews is actually true.  But what it does imply is that atheists who maintain that their lives can be just as significant (given the truth of their worldview) as those of theists (given the truth of theirs) are quite mistaken.  In fact, the difference is infinitely great.


25 Responses to “Theism, Atheism, and the Significance of our Lives”


  1. Louis

     

    Dr. Spiegel,

    Your point is well taken for theists, but I do wish you would at least give Russell et al a fair shake. “Unyielding despair” isn’t the end of the story for Russell. The context of the phrase is: “…only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation henceforth be safely built.” Thus for Russell despair isn’t the ultimate conclusion of atheism, but rather a step towards realizing true hope and meaning. He further states:

    “In spite of death…man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticize, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.”

    He also writes in a different essay:

    “But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”

    The same goes for Camus. For him absurdity was the raw material with which we can create our own meaning in the universe. Meaning is founded in our revolt against our absurd condition, hence Camus’ rejection of suicide as a valid conclusion and his infamous quote:

    “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

    In other words despair might be the initial reaction to the naturalist conclusion of mortality and finite existence, but it’s only a necessary first step toward realizing the true meaning and hope we can create for ourselves given this reality. Despair might be your conclusion as a theist to the atheist worldview, but it arguably was not Russell’s or Camus’s. (I can’t speak as well to Sartre; I’m not as familiar with his writings on the issue.)

    The flipside of your point about life’s significance is that if the theist has all of eternity to impact others, what’s the rush here on earth? Why go out of your way to do good now when you have all eternity with which to work? You make this point in your post:

    “…for not only may earthly deeds continue to influence others forever but our on-going choices and actions in the afterlife (Heaven and/or the New Earth, given Christian theism) will be endless as well.”

    Moreover, the Bible says that a man’s days are:

    -Swifter than a runner. (Job 9:25)
    -Like a swift ship. (Job 9:26)
    -Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. (Job 7:6)
    -As a vapor. (James 4:14)
    -As grass. (I Peter 1:24)
    -As a flower that withereth. (Job 14:2)

    This would suggest that there might be less impetus for the theist to do good in this earthly life than atheists. It is the doctrine of the afterlife, after all, that helps promote such acts as suicide bombings and other “righteous” killings in various theistic traditions. I would also argue for the same reason that the motivation for general care of the environment and animals is likewise reduced. In all, the significance of life on earth is minimized since it is, after all, but a vapor in the whole scheme of eternal life.

    Reply
  2. Austin Gravley

     

    I am unfamiliar with Russell, Camus, and Sartre, so I will say nothing on them.

    Louis, you asked several good questions about the afterlife. Your statement,

    ” …if the theist has all of eternity to impact others, what’s the rush here on earth? Why go out of your way to do good now when you have all eternity with which to work?”

    seemed, IMO, to confuse the nature of earthly life vs eternal life. Jesus repeatedly taught in the Gospels that we are to

    Let our light shine before men in our earthly deeds (Matthew 5:14-16)
    Use our earthly life to store up reward in the next (Matthew 6:19-21)
    To seek God’s kingdom above all else in this life (Matthew 6:33)
    Build our earthly foundations on God (Matthew 7:24-27)
    Acknowledge Christ in our earthly life so God recieves us in the next ( Mathew 10:23-33)
    We will be judged at the end of our earthly life for what we have said (Matthew 12:36-37)
    Take up our cross in this life and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24-27)
    Go make disciples of all nations and spread the Gospel in this life (Matthew 28:19-20)
    Follow the example that Jesus gave while He was on earth ( John 13:12-15)
    We should mimic Jesus’ works (John 14:12)

    The difference between earthly life vs eternal life is the nature of the works that will be done in each life. Compared to eternal life, earthly life is short, however, the works that are done on the earthly life will influence the works in the eternal life. What I mean by that is how Christians live in this world will influence the life they have in the next. Some of those verses I quoted had a direct relationship to works on earth to the reality of heaven.

    While on earth, as long as someone is alive, we have the ability to change the course of our lives, regardless of situation or location, we can accept God or rejection. Our acception or rejection of God, arguably the biggest option we have as humans, will influence our eternal life, which we have no control over and cannot change once it comes upon us. Eternal life is judgment – if we are found clean of sin (that can only come through acceptance of Christ), we are sentenced to eternal life in Heaven. If not, eternal life in Hell. There will be no work in Hell, as work can bring about a degree of joy and satisfaction, and I think of Hell as the place “absent of joy and happiness itself”. Eternal life works only matter if someone is going to Heaven. Our actions in our earthly life determine if we go to Heaven in the first place, and also, Christians are meant to lead lives that will want people to follow. Our actions will help us lead others to Christ, and those people in turn will receive the eternal impact of our actions in this life.

    As for the caring for the enviroment and animals, if the naturalistic worldview entails that everything comes and goes and life is meaningless (I know I’m generalizing here, but I’m running out of time), why should we care? You cannot get a “should” from an “is”. If life just “is” this why, you cannot derive that life “should” be this way, because at the point you are postulating that life has a purpose. Ravi Zacharias makes an excellent point that if you have a watch and you say “My watch is not working as it should”, you believe that there should be a way, a purpose, as to how the watch should work and isn’t functioning properly. I agree that animals are the enviroment are important issues, but if it is just going to die anyway, why care? Christians have the advantage on this one because we understand life to have a purpose as to how things should work, and God wants us to take care of His creation. That hasn’t changed since Adam.

    Good writing Dr. Spiegel. When will you post a summary of the Pray for an Atheist campaign?

    Reply
  3. Louis

     

    Hi Austin,

    Thanks for your response. You say that you practice good works because Jesus commands you to. But does that mean you would not live a moral life had Jesus not commanded it? Moreover, God commands genocide in the Old Testament, so do you maintain that genocide is moral? If not, on what basis do you do so? The moral naturalist acts morally for the sake of the well-being of humanity and our earth to promote health and happiness and reduce pain and suffering for all sentient beings. Her actions don’t hinge on divine command. If one only acts morally solely because God commands it, what does that say about one’s true character?

    You said:

    “…if the naturalistic worldview entails that everything comes and goes and life is meaningless…why should we care?”

    My whole point is that life need not be meaningless just because there isn’t an afterlife. Nihilism is a choice, not a logical necessity. I would argue that life becomes all the more meaningful for the naturalist since she views this earthly life as all-encompassing. Individuals have the opportunity to create their own purpose and meaning in this life rather than being reliant on a God or afterlife for those things.

    The “is-ought” argument is frequently leveled against naturalists, but upon closer analysis is not unique to them. Theists and atheists are on equal ground. (I don’t quite understand the watch analogy. The purpose of a watch is to keep time, is it not? If it doesn’t keep time correctly then it isn’t functioning properly. Why is reference to God necessary to come to this conclusion?)

    Theists don’t have specific divine guidance for every moral decision, otherwise presumably there would not be any disagreement amongst theists on any ethical issue, which we know is far from the case (e.g., contraception, abortion, capital punishment, homosexuality, corporal punishment, premarital sex, the role of women, etc.). (This raises the related problem for Christian theists of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If Christians are all guided by the same Holy Spirit, why is there so much discord and disagreement on a wide variety of doctrinal and ethical issues?) The answer is that theists create their own “oughts” just as atheists do. You yourself agree that animals and the environment are important issues, but not because the Bible says so. You believe it because YOU believe (for cultural, biological, and other reasons) that unnecessary animal suffering and damage to the environment should be reduced as much as possible and that to act otherwise is unethical. You may find some Bible verses after the fact in support of your view (and likewise ignore the ones that contradict it), but in actuality you came to the same conclusion as me in the same manner. As Sam Harris puts it, you yourself put the “good” in the “Good Book.”

    And again, it is precisely because naturalists believe death is ultimate and that there isn’t any “overtime” that the earthly life here and now is of critical importance. This means life has greater urgency, meaning and purpose, not less. We don’t believe in a God that will eventually create a New Earth and make all wrongs aright. The atheist believes that task lies in our human hands during our short time on this planet, so we had better make it count.

    Reply
  4. Cory

     

    OK, this comment is going to be way dumber than the previous ones, but I just thought I’d point out that most naturalists probably assume that interstellar travel and colonization will prevent the end of Life As We Know It—at least for a lot longer than 10,000 years, and maybe forever.

    But of course, until people start living forever, like resurrected people will, they still won’t be able to enjoy the fruits of their significance, or even know they are significant, no matter how long-lasting the effects of their actions.

    Reply
  5. Dan

     

    Louis,

    Check out Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals. It’s a great book, a series of short biographies. Both Sartre and Russell are given their chapters. Both of them were horrid individuals by any reasonable persons standards.

    Camus’ famous quote about deciding not to kill himself because he found hope, something about “invincible summer,” reminds me of a quote by G.K. Chesterton which goes something like “I woke up today and I decided not to hang myself!” But the thought of no God and hence no ultimate meaning, truth (I think of Pontius Pilate looking Jesus in the face and saying “What is truth?”), hope, etc. has led many, and continues to lead many, to despair.

    Yes, you make a good point that atheist “individuals have the opportunity to create their own purpose and meaning in this life rather than being reliant on a God or afterlife for those things.” This is exactly the theme of The Fall in Genesis 3: “‘You will not surely die’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'” So it has always been that there are those that look to God and trust and follow Him and those who do not. Hence the is/ought problem for the atheist. How can the atheist criticize the tyrant? Nietzsche would be correct. The Ubermensch. Power. You just can’t get “Love thy enemies and pray for those who persecute you” from “Hey folks, there ain’t no God so make up your own meaning…’cause we’re all gonna die real soon…so be happy.”

    How can a naturalist look a mom and dad in the eye and say anything of comfort to them when their child has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, chronic seizures and mental retardation? But the Christian can read for themselves “Many of the first will be last but the last will be first” and “neither this man or his parents sinned, said Jesus, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” and “If you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me” and “This day you will be with me in paradise” and a thousand other overwhelmingly comforting truths.

    Where are all the clinics set up to help the poor started by naturalists? How about the homes for the blind? How about hospitals and homes for children with aids? Orphanages? How many naturalists give their lives to helping the poorest of the poor have clean drinking water? What is it about naturalism that simply does not produce lives of sacrifice? Could it be that for the naturalist there is no meaning? Ah yes, that would do it.

    Reply
  6. Louis

     

    Dan,

    I find your statement intriguing: “Both of them were horrid individuals by any reasonable person’s standards.” Did you mean to say “by any reasonable THEIST’S standards?” Or might you actually be acknowledging that all people, even atheists, by virtue of reason and common sense, can and do recognize immoral behavior whether or not they believe in a God? I suspect the latter, although I doubt you’ll admit it.

    I haven’t read Johnson’s book. I’ll check it out. Although not having read it, I decided to glance at the Wikipedia entry for Russell, which states that:

    “He was a prominent anti-war activist, championing free trade between nations and anti-imperialism. Russell was imprisoned for his pacifist activism during World War I, campaigned against Adolf Hitler, for nuclear disarmament, criticised Soviet totalitarianism and the United States of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.”

    I can’t speak to the accuracy of this data, but if it’s true, it hardly sounds like a moral monster or utterly despondent soul. Sounds more like someone who was concerned about the welfare of our world and it’s inhabitants. Dare I say there might even be a hint of self-sacrifice mixed in there?

    When I was a Christian I suffered from severe clinical depression and anxiety for several years as I struggled to cling to my faith. It wasn’t until I let go of the false hope and accepted my unbelief that I found comfort and was able to stop taking medication and cease going to counseling. I am not alone in this journey. Check out this website for countless similar stories of people who found healing in letting go of untenable religious dogma: http://recoveringfundamentalists.com/.

    And with respect to secular charities, are you familiar with Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or UNICEF (to name a few)?:

    http://www.freethoughtpedia.com/wiki/Charities#Secular_Charities_and_Aid_groups

    Oh wait–let me guess–everyone who volunteers for those organizations must be a theist, right? Wrong.

    The bottom line is that you cannot imagine life without God, therefore you cannot imagine anyone else finding meaning, fulfillment, and a moral life without Him. That’s fine. We can still be friends and work together to help the less fortunate in our world, even if our motivations might seem to be different.

    Reply
  7. Lezlie

     

    Hello there, Louis. Good to hear from you again.

    I am still sympathetic to many of the points you have made. I think there is something beautiful about trying to do the best one can in this world despite the belief that there is no one greater than himself to judge or applaud him. I think there is something commendable about that, though I am not sure what sort of commendation will be made. I have dropped most of my philosophical reading in recent years, but have enjoyed seeing the world through Alan Alda’s eyes a bit here and there and I think he would be in your camp.

    I suppose that during my own brief stint with atheistic existentialism, I never could quite get on to the hope after the despair. Or if I could at all, it was just to prove that it could be done, not because there was really hope for anything. In that sense, it was for me more of an in-your-face attitude toward theists than a real hope apart from their beliefs. Would you care to elaborate on the reason to move past despair to hope? Is it all this hope-in-one’s self? Surely we all know better than to hope in the good of humanity. And I have a hard time deriving much hope (though maybe there is a little there, but certainly not enough to base my life upon) in my own ability (even as I’m being redeemed) to have a lasting impact on the world.

    In a partial defense of Austin’s point, I would point out that there is nothing bad to be said of someone’s character because they simply do what God says. If a person believes God to be what Christians believe Him to be, certainly their obedience to a supreme being above their own intelligence is to be commended by all as a wise choice. I am sure you would say that it speaks well of an atheist’s character when she obeys what she believes are the laws that govern the universe, so it speaks well of a Christian’s character when he obeys what he believes to be the Maker and Governor and Lord of that universe.

    Of course there are all sorts of questions about why various theists come to different moral decisions. There are many partial answers to that question with which I am sure you are familiar. I change some of my rules for each of my children, while other are inflexible. That is a very partial answer, to be sure, but I think the bottom line for me is that I am willing to adopt a wait-and-see approach to some of the facts of the story being told here in this life in light of greater truths. (This is not to say that I think some of the awful facts are not important and worth overlooking, just that I don’t expect to be able to figure out how to fit all the facts together in a way that I deem to make sense.) I suppose we all are comfortable with various mysteries about life.

    Reply
  8. Louis

     

    Hi Lezlie (formerly Slusher, I presume?)! I hope all is well with you.

    I appreciate the dialogue. I’ll try to address a few of your questions and points.

    You say:

    “Would you care to elaborate on the reason to move past despair to hope? Is it all this hope-in-one’s self? Surely we all know better than to hope in the good of humanity.”

    The reason to move past despair, quite simply, is life. A life over which we all have control to act freely to create happiness and meaning and enrich the lives of those around us as well. For me this hope comes from enjoying every minute with my family and friends, reveling in the beauty of nature, finding fulfillment in my vocation, and playing whatever small role I can to reduce pain and suffering in the world and promote well-being. (I suspect you derive hope from many of the same things.) I suppose I don’t have as pessimistic view of humanity as you do. Yes, we are all (atheists and theists alike) capable of great evil, but we are capable of great good as well. We can wallow in pessimism or we can act to make a difference. I don’t believe waiting for God to make things aright in heaven is a viable option. We have a life to live here and now.

    With respect to your point about character, I don’t mean to assert that obeying a purported divine command is in itself immoral. (Although isn’t it immoral when the command happens to be something like genocide?) My point is that if you feed the hungry and clothe the naked SOLELY because it’s commanded by God, to me that reflects an inferior personal character to someone who does it because it’s just the right thing to do as a decent human being.

    Reply
  9. Lezlie

     

    Yes, Lezlie Slusher (now McCrory) it is, Luch. Hi.

    I understood your initial point to say nothing else. Of course, you know that I would say that things are the right thing to do only because God set it up that way, so ultimately that is the correct answer for a Christian to give concerning why they do x or y. “Just the right thing to do as a decent human being” is subservient to “because it is the Lord’s command” in our vocabulary, since God sets the standard for “decent human being.” There is, of course, room to discuss ethics both inside and outside the Christian worldview…I would just use different terminology, as the ultimate “because” goes back at least one more level for the Christian. (With you, I would leave it as some sort of utilitarian argument or argument from person-making or some sort. You understand. But I only think those systems work insomuch as that is the way we understand God’s design in the whole thing and God’s care for humans.) Perhaps I’m being redundant.

    I’m not looking to beat a discussion into the ground, because I’m sure there is little new ground to cover here, but I want to make sure that I would summarize your response correctly in saying that the reason you have hope is because of your own shot at life and perhaps the lives of the moral people like you whom you love.

    I would also say you present a rather truncated form of Christianity at which to take a stab when you say:

    “I don’t believe waiting for God to make things aright in heaven is a viable option. We have a life to live here and now.”

    I agree with that point, and I think Jesus would as well. Of course, we are not MERELY to wait on God to make things right later, but we are also to hope in His making things better now(including our very selves, hence the doctrine or sanctification…). Jesus gives us little room for inaction when calling us His Body here now. Some Christians may not take this charge with enough seriousness, but those people are not representative of Christianity…not by themselves in the very least. And it by no means represents the Christian life I try to live.

    Reply
  10. Jim Spiegel

     

    Louis,

    Thanks for the good discussion here. I would echo Lezlie’s point about the Christian duty and INSPIRATION to work hard in this life to make the world better and to help people. And the plethora of Christian hospitals, charities, orphanages, relief agencies, etc. is testament to that (not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars that Christians give every year to help those who suffer). As Dan asked rhetorically in an earlier comment, where are the naturalist/atheist organizations of these kinds? As for my wife and me, we support World Vision (a world hunger relief organization) and give between 10-15% of our income yearly to various ministries that help others. Both of us also serve our local community in lots of ways. And our services are quite typical among the many devout Christians that we know, including Lezlie and her husband (and many others in their wonderful church, by the way). Finally, we don’t do this simply because God commands us. Rather, we do it out of GRATITUDE for what Christ has done for us and a desire to follow his example of self-sacrifice—not just on the cross but also his entire life of service and mercy toward the needy. By the way, Arthur Brooks’ fascinating book, Who Really Cares, powerfully confirms that these are not merely anecdotal observations. But to keep it personal, Louis, if you ever need a kidney, just ask.

    Reply
  11. Louis

     

    Dr. Spiegel,

    Thanks for chiming in! You’ve been AWOL from your own blog!

    I don’t want to get into a statistics war, but I will point to one study reported in the Journal of Religion and Society in 2005 that found:

    “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.”

    http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

    If you find inspiration in your theism to act morally, I’m all for it. But are you inspired to things such as genocide as per God’s multiple commands in the OT? Are you grateful for that example? It would seem that you cherry pick from God’s word what you find morally inspiring.

    All joking aside, while I don’t need a kidney at the moment, I would be grateful if you donated plasma. I have an immune system disorder that requires monthly infusions of immunoglobulin, which is produced from donated human plasma.

    I intend to come to Homecoming one of these years. It would be nice to catch up in person sometime. If you ever find yourself in the Chicago area let me know and perhaps we can meet for coffee. (You too Lezlie.)

    Reply
  12. Louis

     

    One more thing I forgot to mention, Dr. Spiegel, as I shared previously with Dan:

    “And with respect to secular charities, are you familiar with Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or UNICEF (to name a few)?:

    http://www.freethoughtpedia.com/wiki/Charities#Secular_Charities_and_Aid_groups

    Even our close primate relatives (who presumably are as atheistic/naturalistic as it gets!) often die trying to save one another and exhibit alarmingly high levels of empathy, compassion, altruism, and self-sacrifice:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/20/science/20moral.html?_r=1

    Of course, at other times they can be pretty brutal to each other. Kind of sound familiar? I would hope the argument itself for whose worldview is morally superior would not eclipse the common moral aims (of which there are many) between Christian theists and secular humanists.

    Reply
  13. Jim Spiegel

     

    Louis,

    There is a big difference between “secular” charity groups (most of which are largely comprised of theists, I would presume) and “atheist” or “naturalist” charities (not political action groups, mind you, but organizations like hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, etc.). One would think that with 30 million atheists in the United States alone there would be many such groups, that is if atheists really are as devoted to helping humanity as religious folks are. But I know of none, except SHARE. So slim are the pickings that even when individual atheists, such as Robert Wilson, give large sums to charity they sometimes turn to Christian charities: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=ao00mLBMjK4E&refer=home. (As an aside, note Wilson’s remark that “without the Roman Catholic Church there would be no Western civilization.” Indeed.)

    Reply
  14. Louis

     

    Jim,

    I presume you personally know all the doctors who volunteer for Doctors Without Borders and the individuals who give their time to organizations like UNICEF and Amnesty International? And all the volunteers at local hospitals, orphanages, and homeless shelters nationwide and worldwide–you know them as well? How do you know they’re all theists? Please do share your sources.

    No comments on the 2005 Journal of Religion study I cited? And the Roman Catholic Church as a moral guidepost–really? How convenient to ignore all the evils instigated by the Roman Catholic Church through the ages. To list a few:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apologies_by_Pope_John_Paul_II

    And I have yet to see any semblance of a reasonable response to the purported moral example set by the God of the Old Testament. Few people would take issue with Jesus’ INSPIRING example of compassion and self sacrificial love as detailed in the Gospels, but what about the nature of God as revealed in the Old Testament? You cited Dawkins quote in your book whereby he calls the God of the Bible a “…vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser…” but what do you offer to counter that claim in light of the Old Testament accounts (and the doctrine of the atonement for that matter)?

    It’s this kind of arrogance, philosophical gerrymandering, and cherry picking that served as a contributing factor to my abandonment of the faith (contrary to your theology of unbelief), and it continues to make it hard for me to believe in the honest aims and motivations of most Christians. (It would be ALL Christians, if not for a few close friends who freely admit the reality that all people, regardless of worldview, have the capacity for both good and evil and and can and do act both morally and immorally. These folks invite me to join them in their endeavors to fight oppression and suffering in the world rather than dismiss me and other atheists out of hand as de facto immoral agents.)

    Do you truly care to engage non-theists on these and other issues? If not, please at least admit it and I’ll be on my merry way.

    Reply
  15. Jim Spiegel

     

    Louis,

    That is a very harsh response, I’m sorry to say. (Please, let’s try to avoid sarcasm–it never helps with discussions like these.) I honestly don’t see why you’ve become so angry here. If it was my assumption that volunteers for secular charities probably reflect the general population (a large majority of which is theists), I don’t see how that could be provocative. Its certainly not irrational, nor is it arrogant. As for why I focused on that issue, you mentioned it in two different comments so I figured it was your first concern. (And I’m neck-deep in grading now and only have time to post a few brief comments.)

    Also, I recognize that many Christians and those who call themselves Christians have committed all sorts of horrible crimes over the centuries. Since that actually confirms the doctrine of original sin (and total depravity, I would say), I don’t see this as surprising or as a strong objection to the truth of Christianity(so long as it is the exception it is, rather than the rule). Also, since Jesus (who was the strongest critic of religious hypocrites) lived an exemplary life, the objection from hypocrisy can never undermine the central claim of the Christian worldview, which is that Jesus is the Son of God.

    Reply
  16. Louis

     

    Jim,

    I apologize for the tone of my last comment. It was uncalled for; please forgive me. And I understand how busy you must be so I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to have this virtual chat.

    It seems to me based on your assumption that volunteers for secular charities probably reflect the general population, then in this context it would follow that atheists are at least as charitable and self-sacrificing as their theist counterparts. Please let me know if I’m missing something here.

    My intent is not to make an argument from hypocrisy per se with respect to the fundamental truth claims of Christianity. (Although my point about the moral nature of God Himself as revealed in the Old Testament is a related argument that I think needs to be dealt with. Why is Jesus’ life accentuated as exemplary over Yahweh and the other “godly” characters in the Old Testament?) Going back to your original post, my assertion is that the significance of atheists’ lives is not ipso facto inferior to theists’ by virtue of belief (assumed to be true) in an afterlife. It all hinges upon the actual nature of the deeds undertaken during one’s existence, doesn’t it? Does an eternal, hypocritical Christian life have more significance than a self-sacrificing atheist’s simply because it lasts forever? Doesn’t this cut both ways? Won’t the evils perpetuated by Christians over the centuries also reverberate throughout eternity? Or are they conveniently erased from memory and omitted from the eternal history books? If so, what impact do these beliefs about eternity in and of themselves have on the impetus to act morally in this life? Might this be a contributing factor to the findings of the 2005 study from the Journal of Religion and Society? This is precisely why many of the new atheists assert that even independent of the reasons for believing, belief in an afterlife generally does more harm than good.

    Reply
  17. Lezlie

     

    Louis,

    I’m currently on a mini-vacation, but this discussion has served as fodder for some interesting conversations while driving from here to there the last few days. In some ways, I feel like I’m still mulling over this particular discussion; in some ways I feel like I already have my answer to it; in some I feel I will always be mulling over it. (In this life, that is.)

    There are two main responses I have to the question of the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New. I understand that it seems Christians like to nicely overlook the more wrathful God from books like Joshua and Exodous, etc. Having been part of groups that thought it was valuable to teach straight through both the old and the new testaments, I can say we don’t just sweep it under the rug. However, that is not to say there is an easy answer for the seeming discrepancy. Of course, you know we must claim that there is no discrepancy and you know that the Old Testament seems to cover God’s interaction with humans on more of a scale of people-groups than individuals. I don’t think that means He didn’t care for individuals; we see accounts of people like Rahab and Naomi. I tend to assume there are many more stories like that that just didn’t get recorded. On the other hand, we see God strike a liar in the church dead in the book of Acts, so there is continuity for you. I can’t say it’s the sort of thing I comfort myself with at night, but from what I know of God (and I really think that is key in the matter) I am prepared to assume the best of Him when I don’t understand.

    The God of the Old Testament IS much more difficult to understand. The writers of the OT say so themselves! This is by no means the ONLY reason Jesus came, but I really think showing us how to be human on this earth played no small part Jesus’ camping with us for awhile. He was a human, so we understand him much more readily than the Father God whose ways are so far above our ways that they are simply NOT our ways. (You will recall there is a verse about that somewhere.) But when He came to us on our terms, that was different. I appreciate what I understand about God from that and I can only assume that I will likewise appreciate what I understand from the way things work on a cosmic scale, though I don’t expect to ever understand that here. Perhaps this is one reason why I reject the notion that Christianity is merely a crutch; while accepting God on His terms does provide a great deal of comfort in times of trouble, it can be a scary thing to trust your own life to the one who has the power to destroy it and who has done so — even to His own Son!

    Of course, these difficulties only present themselves to the believer, and if you reject the story of the Bible, there is little reason to bring it up. I cannot tell from your posts whether you are merely trying to point out what you believe to be internal inconsistencies in Christian doctrine or whether you are choosing only to treat as true those parts of the Bible that paint God to be ruthless, etc. If the latter is true, (i.e. you will readily accept the character of God as He is portrayed in the OT, but for whatever reason are not as likely to accept His character as demonstrated through His life as a human) I would ask on what account you leave off the discussion the Christian doctrine that the God who ended abruptly so many lives of sinful people during the OT came down and let us cut His perfect, sinless life short. If you’re merely pointing out internal discrepancies as a complete outside to belief, that’s perfectly fine. I just wonder what you claim as your point of entry.

    Reply
  18. Louis

     

    Hi Lezlie,

    I’m happy to chat with you about this. I don’t mean to be cynical or sarcastic, but your whole comment reflects what I am accustomed to seeing and hearing when reading theology and discussing this issue with theists: cognitive dissonance reduction (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance). I know it all too well and personally as I used to engage in it religiously (no pun intended).

    Jim himself in his new book quotes Richard Dawkins as describing God as “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misog- ynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” These might seem like harsh adjectives, but the fact is that’s what you see when you read the Bible start to finish. Christians naturally focus on the life of Jesus and the doctrine of the atonement in an attempt to eclipse everything else. But I think the case can be made that even the atonement itself is vindictive and unjust (the concept of punishing the innocent in place of the guilty–penal substitution theory).

    At what point does it become reasonable to conclude that the God of the Bible is a moral monster and not worthy of worship if He truly does exist? The depths to which theologians have gone to try to reconcile all these facts is staggering–cognitive dissonance reduction to the extreme–and I believe a formidable problem for theists who claim the moral high ground over atheists by virtue of having a higher “standard.”

    Even if you want to maintain that there is some “good” end purpose for all of God’s genocide and plague-bringing, Ivan Karamozov’s words come to mind:

    “Tell me yourself—I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say a little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!”

    Reply
  19. Lezlie

     

    Louis,

    Thanks. I am happy to discuss this with you as well. It’s kind of like old times, but not at all the same. :)

    I’m not entirely sure where our words have crossed in this last exchange, but I don’t think you’ll get the disagreement from me that you expect. I actually intended to make similar points in my previous post, but I’ll try to be a little more clear. As I said, I don’t expect there is much new ground to cover. I don’t expect to come up with something better than all the brilliant minds before me during the course of this discussion.

    To give a straight answer to the question at the end of your post, I don’t think I would be able to do it. Of course, there are some things about myself and God that I believe to be importantly different. The first is that I do not have the same power as His of redemption — to take something truly bad and use that bad for a greater good (that may not have been able to be attained without that bad). I think nothing is beyond God’s redemption. I do not intend this as universalism, but I don’t that, if you put God in the same scenario, that He would be bound to let that one girl’s horror stand left alone as such.

    I don’t disagree with the quote you borrowed from Spiegel’s book…not entirely. I would say, though, (and this is a point I tried to make in my last post) that it is an incomplete picture of God. You say:

    These might seem like harsh adjectives, but the fact is that’s what you see when you read the Bible start to finish.

    I would say the fact is that’s PART of what you see when you read the BIble start to finish. I think you make too light of the fact that the Bible makes clear that Jesus IS God. And as I said, He is God in a much more easily-understood form. I do think it is important to consider things in the Bible that don’t make sense in light of the things that are pretty clear, and I don’t think that’s an intellectual mistake or something to be ashamed of. So of course I understand the old testament in light of the new. And I understand God in light of Jesus. And I’m glad I didn’t live in the time before that was possible and I’m not sure if I would’ve been a believer then, had I been assigned to that age of history. But I am thankful that wasn’t required of me. I don’t say this to sweep the difficulties under the rug, but to be glad that I have more help (revelation) in dealing with them than did my predecessors. Of course, who knows whether I would’ve really found faith more difficult had I been a product of those times instead of these. We will just never know.

    If I am too focused on the goodness of God in this, I would put forth that you seem to push those attributes under the rug in favor of things that more suit your position of doubt. For all the commands to go forth and kill (though there were enough explanations given from time to leave room for an intellectually responsible position that God has well-thought-out, good reasons for such things) there are also verses about how God is mindful of even the death of a sparrow and that He rescued the believing whore from among those who merely stared at the horrible approach with their mouths spilling forth fear. For those stonings for missteps there are mercies for the weak. Our God is described as and indeed acts like a consuming fire, but scripture states plainly that He is Love. I think you do well to remind Christians of the more difficult truths of scripture, but you do so to the neglect of the entire truth.

    I want to address one more of your questions directly. You ask:

    “At what point does it become reasonable to conclude that the God of the Bible is a moral monster and not worthy of worship if He truly does exist?”

    I think this is putting the cart before the horse. The first question is whether God exists, I would say. Then, if He does, we can go from there to questions about what He is like. I have concluded that God must exist — as the Being who had in mind the entire universe at least. (That argument about the First Cause and the like strikes a chord with me.) Since I believe that the God of the Bible is this God, as the Bible claims Him to be, the question is not what I think about the way He set things up. (And that’s not to say that I think THIS is what He intended for us. Let’s not forget that some — if not all — of those unpleasant Godly decrees and direct actions are only in play because of the Fall. Perhaps that is a whole other discussion.) The question is whether I want to live a life subordinate to that powerful authority or in rebellion against it. Being the small person I am, I think living subordinate to His standards , for whatever cognitive dissonance it may cause (your link didn’t work, by the way, so I’m not able to address it directly…) is vastly wiser than living in meaningless rebellion against it. If God is as big as it seems He is, who am I to be the referee in His game? I know this point angered me before I was the one making it, but it is the only starting point offered from the Originator of all things. So I bit the bullet. I have not been disappointed. Are you familiar with the parts of the Bible that make it clear that God does not abandon people during all this mess? The fact that He came down here and went through it with us is no small thing. I would have little respect for a God who watched all the terrible fallings-out of history from afar and who had no empathy for those of us having to live through it. But if that one girl really does have to suffer — because of God’s choice or ours is difficult to discern — then she sure isn’t going to do it alone. And if the universe itself and my own existence doesn’t earn my respect for God, that fact does.

    I have many more thoughts, but I am always long-winded. If you wish to hear anything else, I’ll be happy to respond, but I’m won’t keep talking without being asked.

    Reply
  20. Lezlie

     

    Ugh. I apologize for the ridiculous smile at the beginning of the post. I had no idea… And I also apologize for its length. I really do not intend to make this a blog post of my own; it takes me much longer to be brief than not and my kids woke up from nap.

    Reply
  21. Louis

     

    Lezlie,

    I appreciate your humility and honesty. It’s a welcome change from so many people out there (atheists and theists).

    The reason I point out the parts of the Bible that I do is precisely because if God is love, why are they even in there? A lot of love and forgiveness doesn’t blot out a genocide here or there. That’s the whole point. If a world leader committed a fraction of the acts attributed to God in the Bible he or she would be brought to justice at the International Criminal Court at the Hague for crimes against humanity, yet God gets a pass because, well, he’s God, I guess.

    I maintain that this creates an irreconcilable internal contradiction for the reasonableness of the worldview of Christianity. It also irreparably damages, in my opinion, the notion that Christians have a “superior moral compass.”

    Despite all that I’ve said, I don’t go to the extreme that a number of the “new” atheists do in condemning all forms of religion. Many theists I know like you and Jim (and many others, like Jonathan Tripple who is planting a church near me in the fall) contribute vastly to the good in this world. My mission is not to try to de-convert everyone. It is, however, to challenge the notion that a godless worldview is meaningless and that Christianity is a more reasonable or morally superior worldview than secular humanism. I do not believe that faith is supported by the evidence or reason. That is something I feel strongly about. But it need not cause bitterness or dissent. Like anything in life we should unite in the areas we agree upon, which are plentiful and center primarily around helping the oppressed in our world, improving human and animal welfare, protecting and preserving the environment, etc. We can be good and live equally significant lives both with belief in God and without it.

    Reply
  22. Dan

     

    Louis,

    I agree with your first point. Why wouldn’t I? The Apostle Paul talks about everyone knowing right and wrong in many places, one of which is in Romans chapter 2. (as a matter of fact, just read the whole book of romans, it’ll take you less than 30 minutes, fantastic stuff, better than Wikipedia).

    Sorry about the depression. Maybe it wasn’t Christianity but was simply wrong theology. Although I am certain that Christians can suffer depression (read Lamentations, no doubt even some Christians have been guilty of committing suicide), according to John in his short letter 1st John he speaks about the general mark of a Christian is Joy…among other marks, right Christology, obedience and love for others. G.K.. Chesterton said something once like this “The great secret of the Christian is joy…” (have you read Chesterton? Pick up Orthodoxy…Chesterton is hilarious and brilliant).

    Also, of course I can imagine there not being a God. I can also imagine not believing there is a God and doing nice things for people. (yes I have Atheist friends and family) I just can’t imagine having any reason to do such a thing except for the reason that it would please me. Would there be any other reason? Again, Paul says is 1 Corinthians “If the dead are not raised let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” That makes sense to me. (I am fond of both eating and drinking by the way and would gladly buy you a beer sometime or do some charitable work side by side with you even if you have no other reason in doing it other than you just think it’s a good thing to do).

    Also, I work in all kinds of hospitals, never been in a Humanist facility. Been in a bunch of St Josephs, St Cathrines, St Lukes, St Francis, many Baptists, Presbyterian Hospitals, an Episcopal here and there. But no “Atheists Hospital”. You guys need to get busy. Lots of sick folks out there. I just don’t see many motivated Atheist that do such. By the way, if there isn’t a God, what’s so bad about being self absorbed? It’s not like your going to hell for it or anything.

    d

    PS I truly do think Bertrand Russell was a punk, even if he did some altruistic anti nuke protest and went to jail for it. If you send me your address I’ll send you the book and then you can read it (just one chapter) and then we would have something in which to agree when we grab that beer.

    PPS what do you think of Anthony Flew changing his mind? That dude was smart. He figured out there really was a God. Now that took some humility didn’t it? Having to say “Uhh I reckon I was wrong for the last fifty years…”

    Reply
  23. Louis

     

    Dan,

    If you must, keep doing what you think is moral because of your anticipated reward in heaven for your steadfast obedience. I’ll keep doing it because it enriches my life and those around me, even though such actions often aren’t in my immediate self-interest. I’m sorry to hear that you can’t fathom being a good person without the thought of a carrot being at the end of a stick up in heaven. Kind of makes me wary of having a beer with you. After all, God might instruct you to smite me and you’d have no other choice but to comply.

    You seem like an intelligent guy, so I’m shocked to see your ignorant statement about American hospitals. The only thing religious about “religious” hospitals are their names:

    http://www.atheists.org/The_Question_of_Atheists_Hospitals

    And I’m not quite sure why you and many other theists blow the trumpet for Flew. Apparently he wasn’t smart enough because he’s weeping and gnashing his teeth in hell right now by your account. He rejected the personal God of Christianity to the very end, only acknowledging deism. What a tragedy–he was so close, but no cigar! Not exactly a glowing victory if you ask me. The poor guy’s suffering eternal conscious torment in hell in fulfillment of your God’s will and here you are holding him up as a Christian inspiration? That’s pretty sick.

    http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2010/04/antony_flew_for.html

    Reply
  24. Dan Newcomb

     

    Loius,

    Christianity teaches loving obedience not of grim resignation. Read the small letter by John called 1st John, it’s way in the back near the end. It talks about love and obedience and not being perfect and how Jesus takes care of our sin when we sin…nobody is perfect. But love is the main mark of the Christian, or should be.

    Funny, I have similar concerns about you…perhaps you could at any moment find self fulfillment in smacking me in the head and who could say that such an act would be wrong? Certainly not God. And certainly not anyone else because who cares what anyone thinks as there is no ultimate meaning in life because we are all here by accident, just time and chance so who are you to say anything about right and wrong…don’t even begin to tell me what I ought to do if there is no God.

    I am shocked that you think I am particularly intelligent. I am not really, and that is the wonderful thing of faith in Christ. One can be average intelligence or much worse and read (or listen) the Bible and realize Truth. You ought to read a book by Christopher Nolen, Damn Burst of Dreams…born with Cerebral Palsy, everyone thought he was without any intelligence until a fantastic drug allowed him to start typing poems with a stick attached to his head. He ended up writting some beautiful poems and books and trusted Christ. You will really find him inspiring. Just will blow you away. Christy Nolan was never motivated by a carrot or a stick but by a deep and abiding love for God and the hope of all things being made new.

    I regards to Hell, I am with you, it sounds horrible to even begin to consider such a place…hence I cling to Christ with such joy and delight…all the things that I have done! But perhaps God isn’t as bad as you think. (He really isn’t you know “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.’) There is so much that we just do not know, even the most brilliant Bible scholars. I think of the story of Jesus being questioned by the Saducess and was asked about which brother a women would be married to in the after life after she married seven brothers and each of them died. It was meant to prove the foolishness of the thought of an after life, until Jesus answered…”There is no marriage in heaven.” A great example of something not considered effecting the validity of ones beliefs.

    Also I think of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man…and the rich man is in hell and asks eventually “Let me come back from the dead to tell my brothers.” and God says “No, even if a dead man were to come back from the dead they would not believe. They have the Law and the Prophets, if that doesn’t convince then nothing will.”

    In regards to Flew, who knows, he was buds with Bishop N.T. Wright, maybe he came to faith. Or maybe God will apply the work of Christ to his behalf…somewhere in Genesis it says “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”. I trust He will. Also, Dr Spiegel doesn’t believe in eternal Hell, maybe he is correct. Either way Hell is horrible but all you gotta do is repent of your sin in trust in Christ…which you know dude.

    Come on, have a beer with me, I truly do not believe that God speaks to people any more…at least I haven’t ever heard anything. If I do, I will do my best to resist and run it by Dr Spiegel before I smite you.

    d

    Reply

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