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TEP-PodcastCover-1024x1024In this podcast we discuss 6 things atheists get right.

  1. We are all atheists with regard to the vast number of deities ever proposed
  2. A world with God is very different to a world without God
  3. Being good in order to get heaven is perverse
  4. Suffering is real
  5. Religion is a terrible slavery
  6. “God” is a monster (Hitchens’ god anyway!)

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[audio http://revivalmedia.org/medias/audio/TEP018.mp3]

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TEP-PodcastCover-1024x1024

In this episode we discuss the crucial questions: Which Atheism? and Which God?

In future episodes, we’ll cover “What atheism gets right”, “What atheism gets wrong” and finally “Hot Topics”.

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[audio http://revivalmedia.org/medias/audio/TEP017.mp3]

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Last year I was in a kind of debate with Andrew Copson – Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA). His final line of the evening was a plea for us all to “be good for goodness sakes.”

The line sounds twee but there’s a genuine point that deserves our attention: Goodness for the sake of ‘spiritual reward’ is neither necessary, nor desirable. In fact it’s pretty ugly. If a religious person is motivated towards goodness simply by celestial carrots and sticks (which some are) then you can understand a humanist’s protest. I hear the criticism loud and clear, and I wrote these four posts called “Why be good?” as a response.  Only the gospel saves us from immorality and moralism.

But if you’re unaware of the gospel, then your view of religion will probably sound that of like BHA President Jim Al-Khalili:

I have often felt offended by the misguided notion that people require a religious faith to provide their moral compass in order to lead a good life. Reason, decency, tolerance, empathy and hope are human traits that we should aspire to, not because we seek reward of eternal life or because we fear the punishment of a supernatural being, but because they define our humanity.

We might want to be curious about why such traits define our humanity, and who gets to say, and why the ones mentioned by Al-Khalili are so darned anaemic, and why he didn’t also identify deep-seated characteristics like greed, hypocrisy and violence. We might want to point out that Christian faith brings far more to the table than ‘a moral compass’. Actually it’s a vision for the whole terrain and an accounting for why and where we fit into a moral order that is very old and runs very deep.

But we’re not going to mention those things. We’re just going to point out the terrible danger of moralism here.

Suppose that I’m a humanist who has unplugged the celestial CCTV and now I’m free to be good for goodness sakes. What will that look like? Well I’m still going to get outraged by ‘inhuman’ behaviour – good. But now God isn’t the ultimate court of appeal and dispenser of perfect justice. No, the ‘moral-outrage buck’ stops with me. Since God has been deposed, I’m going to have to mount the highest horse.

And, as far as godless high-horseing goes, get a load of this: [Read from the bottom upwards. RD was responding to this]

DawkinsOutraged

Dawkins has never let ignorance of a topic prevent him from weighing in with the full weight of his moral indignation. But feel the indignation.

When one tweeter asked him whence his moral compass (given Darwinism and all), he responded:

Idiot that I am, I’m mining the quote – but I think it unearths a deep problem for those who let go of “God” but want to be “Good.” The problem is not in acting morally- of course not. The problem comes in adjudicating the morals and in acting The Moral One.  Wonderfully for the Christian, the Father adjudicates and the Son is the Moral One, but what’s the situation for the humanist?

They are above the non-existent ‘God’, they are above the religious who (they claim) are only good for dubious reasons, and they are above nature (‘red in tooth and claw’) and their own selfish genes. They have risen above everything else in all reality… in order to be good.

How does a humanist not avoid hubris at this point? How do they not avoid moralism?

Dostoyevsky famously said “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”  But nihilism isn’t the only danger. Dawkoyevsky’s dilemma is this: “If there is no God, everything is puritanical.”

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dawkins_southparkYesterday, Richard Dawkins drew much criticism for the following tweet:

Andrew Brown of the Guardian tells of the fall-out.

Seems to me one response would be to point to this Dawkins tweet from last month:

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander I’d have thought.  The supernatural (for want of a better short-hand) might seem absurd to the naturalist, but, well, it would.  But you can’t do theology by common sense either – and certainly not naturalistic common sense!

Anyway, perhaps the best response is just to list some of Dawkins’ other clangers from the last few weeks and let them speak for themselves…

[now deleted] What kind of person throws chewing gum in the streets, where it sticks to shoes? What kind of person chews gum in the first place?

Greetings to all atheists. But please, not so many athiests, aethists or aetheists. Greek theos: god. Hence theist. Hence a-theist.

I re-tweet for a reason. I know not everybody likes it. They are free to unfollow.

Comparisons often made of Jesus with Horus, Dionysus, Krishna etc. Any real scholars out there confirm each one? pic.twitter.com/IuN1u7McNq

then, when called on such tired and lazy comparisons…

Was it seriously not obvious that I posted that set of other gods because I was SCEPTICAL of the alleged similarities to Jesus?

If you’re used to the obscurantist smokescreens of religion, the sudden shock of the unambiguously clear voice of reason can SEEM aggressive

Dear Americans, please understand that “grade” as in “7th grade” is not part of the English language. Please state the child’s AGE in years

People outside America truly don’t know what “7th grade” means. In Britain we’ve “Year 10” but don’t expect others to know what that means.

If you only care about communicating to Americans, “7th grade” is fine. But there’s this obscure little place called The Rest Of The World

I’m NOT arguing for British English. “Year 10” not part of the language either, which is why I wouldn’t use it in an international medium.

“Hit a home run” great metaphor, understood internationally. But “7th grade” conveys precision. Don’t you WANT to be understood outside US?

Struggling with London tube notice: delays because “customer” taken ill on train earlier in day. Sorry for sick passenger, but why DELAYS?

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Test patternOk boys and girls, today we’re going to do science. I know, I’m very excited too. If you want to join in at home here’s what you will need:

  • One rationally comprehensible universe.

Not just any universe. You’ll need to be particular here. It must be a rationally comprehensible, rationally ordered cosmos.  Not a chaos, a cosmos, I must insist on this point.

Next, you’ll need

  • One consistent set of discoverable laws.

Some of the boys and girls will claim that you don’t need the laws yet – science will produce them for you later. But that’s just silly, isn’t it children? You might not know the laws yet but you need there to be laws. And you need to trust that they’re out there and that you have ways of approaching them.

Thirdly, you’ll need

  • At least one rational scientist.

This one ought to go without saying, but you’d be surprised how often it gets left out of the ingredients list!

And finally – this is the one you were all waiting for…

  • A scientific method by which to proceed.

Now if you’ve been following us for a while, the good news is you’ll have a scientific method left over from yesterday’s activities. If you haven’t already got a scientific method, please don’t just “borrow” one from the other children. That really isn’t fair.  You should go back to the original episodes and build it up from first principles. A scientific method is made from very expensive ingredients, and if you haven’t bought them yourself, then using someone else’s method is stealing.

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So there you have it – the four ingredients you need to do science. Now before you all complain… before you all complain – yes I know… I know that none of you can afford the ingredients.  I’m sorry about that, but that’s the way it is.  When we’re dealing with such valuable things, there’s no way around it.

All I can say to you is this: If you want to do science – and I sincerely hope that you do – you can’t take shortcuts, you must have these ingredients. If you don’t have them – and you don’t – then you’ll have to ask Mum or Dad.

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Below you can watch Richard Dawkins speaking in advance of the 2011 KJV celebrations. He makes the case for being steeped ‘to some extent’ in the King James Bible.  If we don’t know the KJV we are ‘in some small way barbarian.’  But he ends by saying:

it is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.

Notch it up as another Dickie Dawkins classic.  But before we laugh and point, let’s make sure there aren’t three fingers pointing back.

You see, because he’s talking about the bible the stupidity of his position is obvious.  Of course it’s ridiculous to view the bible as first a cultural resource that religion then hijacks.  Any fool knows that the bible is originally, purposefully and most meaningfully a religious text (or if you don’t like ‘religious’, say ‘spiritual’ or ‘theological’ or even ‘Christian’).  It is evident (but not to Dawkins) that the essence of the bible is appreciated only when it’s treated according to its true theological nature.  And that to read it through atheistic lenses is the real hijacking.

But Dawkins’ inability to appreciate the bible according to its true nature is only one more example of his inability to appreciate the world according to its true nature.  The whole atheistic project follows exactly the same line.  It says that everything is most ultimately a physical, chemical, biological, historical or cultural artefact, let’s not allow ‘religion’ to hijack it.  But to pretend you are honouring the world by treating it non-theologically is just as ridiculous as pretending to honour the Word by treating it non-theologically.

The only reason we don’t see its foolishness is because we have, to some extent, bought the double-decker atheistic approach.  When it comes to the world around us we pretty much assume along with the atheists that there are brute facts that are perfectly understood in non-theological terms and that we then work with this raw data to make our theological (or atheistical) pronouncements.  And even if we do dare to wear some theological lenses to view the world, we have a slight guilty feeling that maybe we are hijacking a properly non-theological reality.

But no.  You’ve got to begin by treating the Word theologically.  And you’ve got to begin by treating the world theologically.  And it’s best you do so in that order.

It’s those who fail to see the world according to its essentially theological character who hijack it.

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top-10This is my 369th post for 2012 and here are the top ten in terms of views.

But wait, before the big reveal… Here’s the blog’s new Facebook page. LIKE ME!

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10. Jonathan and Charlotte – a Parable of the Kingdom

Here are some other responses to cultural phenomena:

What Jimmy Savile, Jeremy Forrest and Lance Armstrong teach us…

Living beyond the end of the world (a reflection on the Mayan apocalypse)

Bert le Clos’s “Behold My Son!”

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9. What is sin? Falling short? Rebellion? Something else?

This was probably my favourite post of the year.  I had a pop at some other evangelical shibboleth’s in these:

It’s not about rules it’s about Working Hard at My Relationship With God…

Accountability

 “God’s work and our work”?

Grace is not a cheese sandwich

Idolising idolatry

Genesis 12: Key to the OT?

Memorialist Communion (in church and in marriage)

Memorialist Preaching

Memorialist Prayer

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8. Five minutes on the bible and slavery

Here were the others in that series:

Five minutes on the bible’s sexual ethic

Five minutes on the conquest of Canaan

Five minutes on the bible and gender equality

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7. 321 – The Story of God, the World and You

Exciting things happening with 321, I’m looking forward to developing them in 2013.  Here’s some of the philosophy behind it:

The importance of explaining Trinity and original sin and “union with Christ” in evangelism

321 and the Gospel EventsCreation, FallRedemption and Repentance (part onepart two)

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6. The Road to Emmaus – Sermon on Luke 24:13-35

On the subject of preaching, here are posts on my three favourite preachers

Paul Blackham

Mike Reeves

Steve Levy

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5. Legal recognition of marriage and the way of Jesus – by Paul Blackham

Paul wrote some other excellent guest posts for me this year:

Translating “Son of God” – Paul Blackham

The Insider Movement (a series of 4 posts) – Paul Blackham

Paul Blackham: A Sermon on Fear

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4. Bible Read-Through in 120 Days – wanna join?

This read-through was very popular and Matthias also organised a Greek audio bible too. Download it for free:

Free Greek Audio Bible

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3. A Trinity Sunday / Jubilee Sermon

Other more thematic sermons of mine:

Five Talks on Isaiah

Does God exist? How does He fit with Science?

What happens when we die?

Why is there so much suffering?

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2. Stephen Fry offers good advice on depression – by ditching his atheism

This was a provocative post looking at the interaction between pastoral care and evangelism. If your “gospel” can’t help you deal with life it’s no gospel. And if you have to borrow Christian convictions in order to care for people, that might point you to the good sense of Christianity.

On the theme of pastoral theology, here are some posts that were close to my heart.

“This woman you put here”

Jesus is Utterly, Horrendously, Maddeningly Infuriating

Death because resurrection

Helping the Helpers

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1. Fear and Faith: Derren Brown undone in 60 seconds by his own subject

I’m a big fan of Derren Brown but his claim to have shown God as the ultimate placebo was just silly.  Here are some more posts about atheism:

Not the God story, the Hero story

“Just show me the evidence”

An introduction to humanism – transcript and comment

“A universe with a god would look very different to a universe without one.”

Beginnings and Before Beginnings

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There you have it.  Thanks for making blogging so enjoyable.  And don’t forget to LIKE ME, LIKE ME, LIKE ME!

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I’m 9 days late to this, but last Friday Derren Brown’s “Fear and Faith” aired – watch here.

It was 10 minutes of fascinating viewing padded out by some seriously underwhelming logic by way of explanation.

The show centres on the challenge Brown sets himself to elicit “a religious experience”  from an atheist.  To be fair the emotional “conversion”, when it came, was indeed dramatic.  In a candlelit church, Derren spoke to atheist Natalie and through various NLP-type techniques evoked feelings of father-hunger, a sense of awe at the mystery of the world, regrets over her past, that kind of thing.  Having anchored those feelings and established some triggers, Derren left and – BOOM – the “conversion” was dramatic.  There were tears and exclamations of both sorrow and joy, almost simultaneously.  Alone with the candles and the stained-glass images, “I’m sorry”s came flooding out along with “I love you”s.  It was a salutary warning of how prone we are to emotional manipulation.  This woman was an avowed atheist and her discussion with Derren contained no “God-talk” whatsover.  He simply spoke about feelings of love, awe and regret in a “religious” setting and his techniques produced a “conversion” the envy of many an evangelist.

So lesson number one – beware Christian evangelists using manipulative methods!

But then lesson number two has got to be: Beware atheist evangelists too.  Because Derren’s preaching was seriously misleading.  Throughout the programme he put two and two together and made 600.  First came the trivially true assertions: “religious experience can be explained by psychology”.  In the same vein he asks “Can our experience of religion be explained by psychology alone?” And he expects the answer yes.

Well of course the answer is yes!  Of course “our experience of religion” can be explained by psychology!  Even psychology alone.  My experience of falling in love with my wife could be explained in entirely psychological terms.  And if Derren did it, I’d be all ears.  I’m sure there’d be insights – certain needs from my childhood met in ‘some sort of spouse figure’, yes, yes.  All useful, all true.  And, I suppose, such psychology might – at another level of explanation – be put down to biology, and biology reduced to chemistry and chemistry explained by physics… or something.  I’d be genuinely interested in all such analyses.  But…

A) the further we “progress” into those materialistic explanations, the less satisfying they are as an account of what is, irreducibly, a personal experience.

And, crucially….

B) the claim that, because there might be a perfectly satisfying psychological explanation, my wife doesn’t exist needs unmasking as the rank idiocy that it is.

Yet Brown’s whole show is set up on precisely this absurd foundation.  Derren says he’s out to prove that “religious belief comes from us, not from the existence of the divine”.  Which is exactly parallel to saying my love for my wife comes from me and not from the existence of Emma.  Well of course it comes from me – my religious and my marital experiences come from me. But what’s that got to do with the truth or otherwise of the object of those feelings??

David Bentley Hart nails this in Atheist Delusions as he turns his withering wit upon Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”. Dennett, a philosopher and one of the four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse, similarly attempts to describe religion as an entirely natural phenomenon. Against this Hart writes

Not only does [Dennett’s project] pose no challenge to faith, it is in fact perfectly compatible with what most developed faiths already teach regarding religion. Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that…

…It does not logically follow that simply because religion is natural it cannot become a vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented towards ultimate reality (as, according to Christian tradition, all natural things are)…

As for Dennett’s amazing discovery that the “natural desire for God” is in fact a desire for God that is natural, it amounts to a revolution not of thought, only of syntax.  (David Bentley-Hart, Atheist Delusions, p7-8)

How else would you measure a religious experience anyway, if not via natural methods?  What else could provoke such an experience, if not natural phenomena?  The God who meets us in a Jewish carpenter, a library of ancient texts, men and women of faith, water, wheat and wine… His encounters with us do not happen in the 7th dimension.  He meets us where we are.  (That’s the meaning of Christmas by the way).  But since He meets us where we are then He meets us in naturally measurable and naturally explicable ways.  Neither Dennett nor Derren will have any objections from Christians at that point.

Where we might raise an eyebrow is during the galactic leaps of faith they employ to tell their naturalistic story.  Derren speaks of pareidolia whereby the human brain naturally sees personal significance in randomness – seeing “a man in the moon” when really there are only craters and shadows.  This is, according to Derren, “probably the biggest contributor to religious belief” in our evolutionary story.

Notice the irony though.  Derren is trying to tell you a story – the naturalistic evolution of all things, including belief.  His story is all about going from randomness to personality.  And now, here we are, persons at the end of a random process, telling other persons not to read personal significance into randomness.  Eh?

The only way you could take that move seriously would be to reduce everything personal down to randomness.  That sounds bleak, but Derren makes other such moves in just that direction. He happily gives accounts of morality and religion entirely based on the survival benefits they bestow in the grand evolutionary scheme.  But if he were consistent I suggest he should also add love, beauty and truth to that same heap.  And at that stage of course the whole endeavour collapses.

Which is very depressing.  And the show was indeed very depressing.  But for me it was saved by the last few minutes in which Derren interviewed Natalie.  He revealed that her conversion was all a psychological trick – the emotions were real, but God was not, yada yada.  Yet in my view her response, completely unscripted, torpedoed Derren’s whole enterprise. And I think he knew it.

When asked whether she now viewed her experience in the church differently, she said

It has added a kind of artificial element to it for me now…  But inducing an emotional reaction to something, if it’s through external influences, is always artificial in a way…  If I’m listening to an amazing piece of music, that’s an emotional stimulus that’s come from an artificial source…

Amen Natalie!  Preach it.  All emotions come from somewhere beyond us.  To explain the feeling doesn’t explain away everything to be said about the experience.  At this point Derren talked right across her and didn’t let her speak again.  He forcefully asserted…

The emotions are real, that’s the point. It’s just important to me that you don’t feel it has to be attached to something supernatural or superstitious. Because it wasn’t.  And it’s not even like it came from me, it certainly didn’t come from God, it came from you. They were perfectly real emotions, they are things you can carry with you for the rest of your life but you don’t have to attach them to a superstitious belief.

Carry the emotions Natalie – that’s Derren’s take home message.  Keep hold of the emotions.  Emotions that can be conjured up in 15 minutes by a TV showman.  Emotions based entirely on our ancient and selfish survival instincts.  Emotions which probably reduce down to randomness anyway.

And don’t ever ask yourself why you live in a universe in which father-hunger, awe and regret can trigger such feelings.  Boil it down to selfishness in the struggle for survival, that’ll satisfy. That and the emotions.  Induced for entertainment.  As a trick of the mind.  Take that away with you Natalie.  Cos that’s all this evangelist can offer.

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It’s apparently the death-knell for all theists: Parasites! Grotesque, painful, life-destroying Parasites!

Take this website for instance (from which the photo is taken). It proudly declares its content to signal “The Death of a Loving God.”

I was part of a debate on Thursday discussing “Is God worthy of worship?”  One of our opponents, crowd-sourcing his material from eager Twitter followers, spent his talk listing some of nature’s ugliest monstrosities.  Horrific diseases and deformities were rattled off in quick succession.  At points he played it for laughs, and he got them.

Which ought to make us think.  If this is really being raised as the “problem of evil” why are comfortable westerners, sipping red wine in an Oxford College, sniggering about such horrors?  Is this stuff really evil?  In which case let’s treat it seriously as a challenge to belief in a good God, recognizing that all of us face such wickedness.  Or is it not really evil?  Is it just a freak-show, an object of macabre fascination, or – God forbid – an exercise in apologetic points-scoring?  If it isn’t actually evil, perhaps the lesson we should learn is ‘Abandon all hope and adjust your expectations accordingly.’  Well, ok.  But a) drop the secret (or not so secret) glee regarding creation’s monstrosities, b) realise you’ve solved the problem of evil but only by losing the right to call it “evil” and c) brace yourself for a much harder intellectual problem: the problem of good (of which, more shortly).

In all this, the greatest mis-step in the parasites conversation is to ignore (often times wilfully) the doctrine of the fall.  To imagine for a moment that we can simply read God from creation is to engage in the kind of paganism roundly condemned in Scripture.  As Francis Spufford says in Unapologetic: 

To anyone inclined to think that nature is God, nature replies: Have a cup of pus, Mystic Boy.

The world is fallen.  It is corrupted, cursed, ‘knocked off its axis’, disconnected from its true Life-source.  To speak of parasites in the world does not put the merest dint in the Christian world-view.  It only supports it.

Think about parasites.  We’re dealing with creatures that are, well, parasitic!  In fact 5 minutes’ meditation on parasites will pretty much give you the Christian doctrine of creation and fall.

These things cause monstrous perversions, hellish corruptions, wicked deviations from what should be.  The disease and death they bring is not Right, it’s wrong.  This is not Light, it’s Darkness.  There is an original and ultimate life-giving source.  And there is a secondary distortion which takes life.

This is the Christian doctrine of creation and fall: an original good perverted into corruption and death.  Good is ultimate, Evil comes later to steal, kill and destroy. The Light is ultimate, the Darkness is a privation of the Light. First there is a straight line from which all crooked lines are corruptions.

But here’s the thing: to judge a line “crooked”, what exactly is “straight”?  And if you want to avoid the conclusion that there is an Original Straightness to things, you might say “Ok, these lines aren’t definitively crooked, it’s just that everything’s messy.” Well ok, fine, but at that point you’re not wrestling with the problem of evil any more.  You’re just saying “Things are messy.  Stuff happens.”

And then you have to face a much greater intellectual hurdle: the problem of good.  You see evil – as a secondary corruption of good – is not intellectually difficult to understand.  (It’s horrifically unpleasant and evokes understandably emotive reactions – but intellectually it’s origins are understandable).  On the other hand, Good – if it’s not original and ultimate – becomes extremely difficult to explain.  This is because Good and Evil are not symmetrically opposite to each other. They are like light and darkness – light can illuminate darkness, darkness cannot darken light.  Darkness is the absence or obscuring of Light in a way that is not true the other way around.

I’m speaking of light and darkness figuratively here, but they are powerful illustrations:  When the Christian is asked “Where does the darkness come from?”  They answer: “From a turning away from the light.”  When the atheist is asked “Where does the light come from?” the answer “From the darkness” seems absurdly improbable.  If light does exist then it needs to be there from the beginning.  But this is the Christian account of reality.

The atheists are right: parasites are powerful illustrations of the problem of evil.  But they’re also a perfect analogy for how evil works.  It works derivatively off of good.  But once you’ve said that, you’ve essentially told the Christian story of the world.  There’s something Good and Life-giving and something came along to spoil it.

From Creation and Fall, the Christian can explain both good and evil.  But if our “creation story” is effectively: “slime + struggle + selfishness” with no injection of an original Good, it’s quite a stretch to end up with “selves, sentience and symphonies.”

Parasites are horrible.  As they work their way through the eye-ball of an 8 year old boy we are appalled.  This is not simply painful, not simply ugly, not simply maladapted to life – it is wrong. 

But let’s also remember, parasites are parasites!  There can’t be parasites “all the way down“.  No, there is an ultimate and original Good by which to judge these things evil.  And the Christian can hate this evil with a holy and almighty antipathy for we are seeing the work of God’s enemy – an enemy Christ opposes with every drop of His own blood.  We do not shrug our shoulders or snigger or adapt ourselves to the inevitable.  We call evil evil and we fight it.

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So stimulating.  Read in full here.

Nietzsche claims, humanism won’t plug the gap [left by the “death of God”]. All humanism does is substitute one useless form of transcendence (Man) for another (God). The death of God therefore has to herald the death of Man as well. You can’t just swap one fetish for another. This is why the Übermensch signifies the kind of transformed humanity which would flow from genuinely accepting the death of God. It’s the reckless, exuberant, self-delighting existence of those who are able to celebrate a life without foundations – the cavalier insouciance of those spiritual aristocrats who have the courage to risk a life without guarantees. The Overman or Meta-Man is the one who can peer into the fathomless pit of the nothingness of God without being turned to stone.  He (never a she, for Nietzsche) is the ecstatic creature who sings and dances at the very thought that his existence is every bit as mortal, fragile, ungrounded, arbitrary and contingent as a modernist work of art.

The only problem is that all this sounds rather like Christianity, which isn’t quite what Nietzsche had in mind. For the New Testament, as for Also sprach Zarathustra, the only good God is a dead one. For Christianity as for Nietzsche, the death of God in the figure of a tortured political criminal known as Jesus means not replacing God with humanity, but the advent of a transfigured humanity. For Christianity too, God is an abyss of sheer nothingness, absolutely no kind of entity at all, a groundless ground; and to say that we are created is to say that our existence is absolutely non-essential, that we might perfectly well have never been. Such existence is pure gift, sheer gratuity and contingency, a radical end in itself, a supreme acte gratuite – self-founding, self-grounding and self-delighting. Just as God exists for absolutely no purpose beyond himself, so human beings are fashioned to live in this way too, to be at their best when they are as gloriously pointless as a work of art. A just social order is one which would allow men and women to be in this sense ends in themselves, not means to another’s power or profit. God, as Aquinas sees, is the power that allows us to be autonomous. Thinking that faith in God puts firm foundations beneath your feet, rather than shattering them, is the delusion of fundamentalists…

So Nietzsche and Christianity, those supposedly sworn antagonists, actually agree on an embarrassing amount. (Embarrassing for Nietzsche, anyway). Nietzsche believes that we can’t be free unless we can get out from under the patriarchal Nobodaddy (as William Blake calls him) known as God. But of course the New Testament believes just the same. Seeing God as judge, patriarch and accuser is what is meant in scripture by Satan – the Satanic image of God, the God who will beat the shit out of us. And since we’re all inveterate masochists, cravenly in thrall to the Law, or to what Freud knows as the death drive, this is exactly what we secretly hanker for. We’ll gladly tear ourselves apart as long as there’s enough gratification in it for us. This is the terrible, lethal nexus of law and desire – which is also, as it happens, the chief subjectmatter of psychoanalysis. Those who are eternally trapped in this closed circuit, in which law and desire feed endlessly, fruitlessly off one another, are traditionally said to be in hell. The figure of the tortured and executed Jesus is the overthrowing of the Satanic image of God, for God as friend, lover, victim, counsel for the defence, fellow accused and flayed flesh and blood. It replaces the Satanic God not with humanity at its most triumphant, as rationalist humanism does, but with humanity at its most torn and vulnerable.

And this is what Nietzsche can’t stomach. It’s here, not over the death of God, that he and the Gospel part company most decisively. Because weakness, suffering and mortality for him are simply part of a ghoulish, morbid religious conspiracy to bring low the noble, heroic and life-affirming. He forgets that Jesus never once counsels the sick to reconcile themselves to their afflictions. On the contrary, he seems to regard such suffering as evil, and is out to abolish it. Nietzsche forgets, too, that any power which is not rooted in a solidarity with human creatureliness and fragility, with the raw fact of our bodily finitude, will never prove durable or effective enough. That this is so is one of the lessons of tragedy, an art-form which fascinated Nietzsche himself for quite different reasons.

And so in the end Nietzsche is less revolutionary than the New Testament. Like some demented health-club proprietor, he can’t stop worshipping vigour, robustness and virility, or seeing failure as sickly and shameful. Like those Americans who hate a loser, he doesn’t see that what matters is failure, not success – that Jesus is a sick joke of a Saviour, that in every human sense his mission is an embarrassing, abysmal failure, that the notion of a crucified Messiah would have been a horrendous, unspeakable scandal and blasphemy to the pious Jews of his day. In the end, Nietzsche disowns the deepest insight of tragedy – that, as W.B. Yeats puts it, ‘nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent’.

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Beginnings

Charles Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859.  Up until then, said Richard Dawkins,  atheism was “logically tenable” but from Darwin onwards you could be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (The Blind Watchmaker).  Notice that philosophy might give you tenable arguments, but biology is the place for true intellectual fulfillment… according to this biologist anyway…

With the discovery of natural selection, biologists had a naturalistic explanation for the existence of brilliantly adapted (and therefore apparently designed) species, populating an intricate and flourishing bio-sphere.

Well, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the whole thing is explained according to this process (I mean it’s a bit like the old saying “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, but let’s go with the argument).  Let’s imagine it explains the whole variation and adaptation of life on the planet. What we have here is a mechanism explaining the origin of species.

Notice first that mechanism says nothing about agency – a point John Lennox makes well in places like here.

But notice, second, that we’re talking merely of the origin of species.  There are other origins questions to ask.  Like – the origin of the cosmos, the origin of life (natural selection assumes the existence of life) and the origin of consciousness.  These are not at all suited to explanations via natural selection and yet they pose even more fundamental questions for us.  So if an atheist claims to have origins questions sewn up, tell them they have, at best, a mechanism to explain one of the least interesting of the origins questions.

Before Beginnings

It’s not just beginnings that are fascinating.  What about before the beginnings?  What are we assuming pre-existed these origins questions?

As we’ve just noted, natural selection assumes the pre-existence of ‘life.’  But when it comes to the even bigger origins questions, what about the pre-existence of things like  laws of physics, logic and mathematics.  Every attempted naturalistic explanation for ‘beginnings’ assumes plenty about ‘before beginnings.’ Take, for example, Hawking’s book from 2 years ago which said:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,”

Besides the logical incoherence of the universe self-creating, we have here pre-existing ‘laws’.  We have an ordered, self-consistent reality calling the tune for all the cosmos.  Gravity is chief among the gods as he bosses around lesser deities like time, matter and energy, which in turn war to create the cosmos as we know it.

Now Christians also have beliefs about before the beginning.   We believe in the pre-existence of Persons, of love, of minds, of purpose.  And these Persons have brought forth laws, time, matter and energy.  It was not matter that made minds, but minds that made matter.

When you consider that every minute of our waking life we’re confronted in technicolour by the reality of persons, love, minds and purpose.  In fact, everything we hold dear consists of persons, love, minds and purpose.  What should we believe about ultimate reality – about before beginnings?  Gravity reigning as supreme being?  Or love?

We shouldn’t fear questions of beginnings.  And we should positively pursue questions about before beginnings.

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Chris Addison chats to Derren Brown on Radio 4’s Chain Reaction (UK listeners can get it for another few days).

From 19:30 Derren talks about his journey towards atheism.  But then at 25:36 he’s back on magic and showmanship.  What he says here is very revealing – not only about the stories we respond to, but the god he rejected:

Magic tends to be about people clicking their fingers and saying “Oh, this will happen” and then it happens.  Which is a God-like whim and is therefore not dramatically very interesting.  What’s more interesting dramatically is a Hero-story.  All drama that interests us is about somebody who’s struggling with something and then goes through some journey but at some cost to himself, and so on.  And that’s what we need more of in magic, people treating it as a Hero’s journey rather than as a whimsical God-like figure who could make anything happen.

Whimsical, struggle-less, finger-clicking Gods do not win our love.  Struggling, suffering, journeying Heroes do.  Very true.

But what if the true God is the Suffering Hero?

And on that subject, isn’t The Dark Knight Rises the most Christian film you’ve ever seen??  Astonishing!

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Here’s a video released today by the British Humanist Association:

Below is the transcript with some comments from me:

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An Introduction to Humanism

Rumy Hasan: It’s important to realise that one can live a fulfilling life without religion – where the focus is on human beings.

Many religions do in fact put the focus very firmly on human beings.  So how is “religion” being used by you and in this video?

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AC Grayling: Humanism of course is not a religion.  It’s something which bases itself on a common-sensical view of the world. It’s an open-eyed view.  It takes seriously the facts about human beings and their experiences and tries to do the best on that basis.

From the descriptions following, humanism sounds very much like a religion.  It doesn’t sound like Christianity, but, sheesh, get a load of the moralising below.

It’s a good and right concern to want to be open-eyed, truth-seekers.  But there are some underlying assumptions here.  There’s an assumption that we can un-blind ourselves from our ignorance (through clear thinking?), that we know where our blind spots lie and can get perspective (notice how Grayling claims the commonsensical high-ground – he and the humanist fraternity are the ones who see).  There’s also an assumption about what kind of truth lies out there.  If the truth consists purely in facts to be discovered within the world by empirical studies then go for your life.  But you’ve pre-judged what kind of truth you can discover by pre-judging what kind of truth you believe already exists.

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Polly Toynbee: A humanist sees the world as infinitely precious and quite extraordinary and almost miraculous.

Of course you do.  We are all worshippers who are awed by something.  If you aren’t awed by God, of course you’re awed by the world.

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Tim Minchin: I think humanism is important because having a non-superstitious world-view allows you to go about your own business, making ethical choices based on a general desire to do the most possible good.

Having gotten rid of God, the humanist can now get on with the important business of doing good.  Again, this is not Christianity (which rather swaps “our goodness” for God), but it is distinctly religious in flavour.

There’s an excellent comment on the video from a free-thinker, Ontologistics: “As Nietzsche showed, Humanism is part of the Christian legacy. The word “good” is bandied about in this video without explanation or sanction, because it cannot be sanctioned. A freethinker will in fact adopt a Nihilist view, as this does not require belief in some supernatural, metaphysical “good”.  I.e. Humanism exchanges “God” for “good”, both of which are delusions. In this sense, it comes close to being a religion.”

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Philip Pullman: I view the world as a place where I am extremely lucky to have been born and to have a consciousness because there are so many wonderful things to be conscious of.

Well you’re either absurdly lucky or there’s consciousness behind the cosmos.  A consciousness that arises from a mindless cosmos is quite a turn of luck indeed.

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Zoe Margolis: We can be decent human beings and love and care and support each other and not expect a fantasy to fulfil our hopes and our dreams when we can actually live them in this lifetime.

Well I suppose rich westerners, if they’re talented and lucky enough, can live a few, very limited dreams.  But this comment seems to be a plea for dreaming smaller.

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Isn’t it sad to think there is no after-life?

Andrew Copson:   Some people worry that a view of death as being the total and final end of life can be depressing.  They think it would be a more comforting thought that life went on.  But I think, and many other humanists think, that, rather than robbing life of its meaning, giving a finality to the story of your life actually imbues it with greater meaning.

Or, put it this way: Either we are taken seriously as a creature of eternal significance in the eyes of One who gives everything meaning, or we are a rational animal soon to expire and become compost.

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Richard Dawkins:  If there’s something frightening about death, it’s the idea of eternity. Something about everything just going on forever and ever and ever. That’s a frightening thought.  And it’s just as frightening if you’re there as if you’re not.

If there’s something frightening about death.”?  If?  There’s a disturbing lack of reality to this approach to death.

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Rumy Hasan: It just means that we have this life and we make the most of it.  If anything that’s a positive.  So we don’t say “Ah well, you know if we muck it up in this life, we have an afterlife.”  The onus is on us to lead better lives in this life.

Spoken like a true religionist.

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How can humanists live ethical lives without religion?

Philip Pullman: The morality question is another one where people think, “Well we’ve got to have religion or we’ll all be immoral.”  That’s a very shallow and hasty way of thinking it seems to me.  There are all sorts of guides to morality.

No doubt!  Some good and some bad wouldn’t you say?  And who’s to arbitrate?  Really, who?

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A.C. Grayling: People often think that you can’t have morals unless there is a god to enforce them somehow.  Look at classical antiquity, nearly 1000 years before Christianity became the official outlook of Europe, you have people who base their morality on reason.

Sure.  They base morality on an approach to reason.  But I doubt that Grayling adopts, wholesale, their morality or their account of reason.

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Philip Pullman: There are enormous tracts, ranges, mountain ranges of meaning that our available to us without our needing to go to the Bible for them.

…and the Bible encourages us to explore them

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Tim Minchin: I guess humanism is the beginning of a life of trying to live well and be good. And the thought that, you know, some mistranslated off-translated doctrine to tell you that that’s a good way to live is not just surprising but slightly abhorrent to me.  If you can have something that’s slightly abhorrent…

Again, Minchin reveals his deeply religious outlook – “trying to live well and be good.”  If any Christians are flirting with atheism because you can’t stand the moralism of your church – take a long hard look at humanism.  The only escape from moralism is the gospel!

And it’s not so much that Christians need a divine command to know what’s good.  That’s not our position.  Far more we say, “‘good’ depends on an understanding of reality shot through with the glory of Christ.”  “Good” corresponds to “God” in a profoundly personal way.  The good life is love of God and love of neighbour and it goes with the grain of a whole universe charged with His beauty.  Nothing abhorrent here.

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Rumy Hasan: The humanist views the world in a rational manner.  It’s wondrous, it’s astonishing, awe inspiring, yes at times fearsome.  But a humanist says “well let’s try and understand the world”

Yes, let’s try and understand the world.  And in a rational manner.  But rationalism will shrink your view, not expand it.

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Why might a humanist hold science in particularly high regard?

Andrew Copson: If you believe that we live in a universe which is a natural phenomenon which behaves according to certain discoverable natural laws and norms then of course the only way of finding out true facts about reality is through the scientific endeavour.

Wow.

First notice the premise: “If you believe…”  This is an inescapable fact of all enquiries – we’re all involved in faith seeking understanding.  But it’s nice to see Copson admitting it.

Second, these “discoverable natural laws and norms” – do they ever make you think?  Especially since they correspond to that consciousness we all love?  You seem to take these as a given.  Shouldn’t you be more curious about the ways of this world, wondering at “laws and norms” as part of this “natural phenomenon”?

Thirdly – and most outrageously – “the only way of finding out true facts”?  The only way??  For a start, this sentence has not been the outcome of the scientific method – it’s the result of certain beliefs.  So what the heck??  This amounts to something like: True facts are entirely the domain of the scientific endeavour (except for these self-justifying assertions that prop it up, in which case bad philosophy will do the trick nicely).

Fourthly, we see here a humanist side-lining the humanities.  Humanism de-humanizes.

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A.C. Grayling: Humanists hold science in very high regard because science is the careful open-minded approach to trying to understand the world and human beings in it.  It’s a method of critical enquiry which is always ready to change its mind when better facts come along.

Good.  And in its own limited way it works well.  But science is set up as a naturalistic endeavour to study naturalistic phenomena.  Let’s discover all the facts we can in this way.  But let’s never think we’ve discovered the totality of reality via these methods (there’s also things like goodness, truth, beauty, love).  And if you want to pronounce on God, you’ll have to study Him via a method suited to His own self-revelation – i.e. you’ll have to listen to His Word.  If you won’t do that, I question how ready to change your mind you really are.

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Polly Toynbee: It is a method of communication from one generation to another building on layers of knowledge and layers of knowledge on a really solid foundation.

What solid foundation is that?  Or should I say Whose solid foundation is that?  The firm ground on which the scientific endeavour stands relies on the intelligibility of nature.  The self-consistency of these laws and norms.  Their consistency throughout creation.  Their correspondence with our own minds.  Humanists are glad for these  foundations, but humanism doesn’t give them to us.

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Richard Dawkins: Science is not only the way to go if you want to discover the truth about something, science is also wonderful, science actually exposes how wonderful the universe is and what a wonderful privilege it is that every one of us has the opportunity to understand the universe in which we live: where we came from, why we exist and where we’re going.  It’s just a wonderful, thrilling experience to immerse yourself in modern science. It’s a poetic experience.  Science is the poetry of reality

We begin with self-refuting nonsense about science being the way to discover truth (science didn’t tell him this!).  We end with the flourish: “science is the poetry of reality.”  Garbage.  Science is the appreciation of a poetry that’s already there.  That’s a hugely important distinction.  Because in the space of one sentence Dawkins has claimed science as the arbiter of truth and beauty.  Stunning!

But let’s get some perspective.  There’s truth that’s out there to be discovered.  There’s beauty that’s out there to be appreciated.  And science has role in uncovering it.  But the biggest question remains – and it remains beyond the scope of scientific endeavour – what on earth is truth and beauty doing out there?

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What is the humanist view on human nature?

Andrew Copson: One of the natural consequences of humanism, of the idea that the human race is one species, of the idea that every individual member of that species is a bearer of the dignity that humanity gives us, is a general spirit of inclusiveness and that’s always characterised humanist thinking.

So the human race is one species (among 15 000 other species of mammals).  And apparently this confers a certain unspecified dignity on us.  In fact, humanity itself confers on each one of us this undefined dignity….  How does that work then?  This seems to amount to the claim that we are humans and not puffins.  And every human is a human and not a puffin.  And this is our basis for equality and inclusivism.  To be honest, I can think of firmer foundations.

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Zoe Margolis: Unlike many religions which are unfortunately about repressing sexuality and having very anti-female and homophobic perspectives, humanism offers an alternative which is actually inclusive.

Without the gospel, all inclusivism works according to a certain ethic.  Some are in, some are out.  You’re not preaching a new inclusivism, you’re just preaching a new ethic.  Jesus came to bring true inclusivism – we’re invited to His table as sinners (outsiders!) and, through an acknowledgement that we’re all law-breakers, we’re brought into true community.

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A.C. Grayling: Humanists begin to think about the good and flourishing life on the basis of their best understanding of how things are for human beings. But that does not mean that it’s got a particular line, a particular doctrine, that everyone has to fall in with.  In fact it demands of people that they think for themselves.

I dunno A.C., some of your friends here seem to be pushing some quite particular lines.  And let’s face it, you all have a very firm line on the nature of humanity, the kind of truth you are seeking and the way you discover and verify it.

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Polly Toynbee: We have power in our hands to make our life and our society and our world better. We don’t stand to ask, there’s nobody else, no good getting on knees begging for someone else to do something, it’s just up to us.

 Yep.  Sounds like religion to me.  And a religion for the strong, the rich and the brave.

But if you’re not up to the BHA’s religious regime, I’ve got good news for you.  There’s a way to be a true humanist.  At Christmas we sing the line “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.”  Eternally our God has pledged Himself to man.  Forevermore our Lord has become Man – the truly inclusive Man – the man for all humanity.   And He’s for you.

Some just focus on humanity, some just focus on God-myths and after-lifes – in both cases you’ll lose a true vision for humanity.  But in the God-Man you’ll find true humanity.  He will liberate you from the self-justifying burden of being good and He’ll send you out into the world to rejoice in the truth and beauty that reflects His character.  There is a poetry to this world, and He’s the Poet.

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Click for source

Have you ever heard this kind of claim from an atheist:

Unlike you theists, I am open to change.  All you need to do is show me the evidence and I’ll confess on the spot that I was wrong.  If you can prove God I will switch sides.  You theists on the other hand obstinately cling on to the God hypothesis no matter what the evidence.  You call this irrationality “faith.”

How to respond?

Do we say “No I’m very open to change, I just think the evidence is better on our side”?

That might sound tempting.  After all it has the air of intellectual credibility about it (if, ironically, you don’t think about it too long).  And it’s the least we could do seeing as the atheist has been so even-handed with “the evidence.”  Besides, what hope is there for genuine dialogue if we’re not open to change?

Well let’s slow down a second.  What kind of openness is being claimed by the atheist?

Doesn’t their claim amount to:

I, the neutral observer, will accept  the God hypothesis if and only if naturalistic evidence meets my criteria.  And of course such acceptance will be eternally tentative, since opposing evidence may arise to dis-prove the God hypothesis.

Let me ask some questions about those bolded phrases…

Are you really a neutral observer?  Is the scientific community, religious community or indeed the human race collectively a neutral observer?  How could you ever know?  What tests could you perform to figure out whether, when it comes to God, humanity suppresses the truth?

If you are assessing ‘the God hypothesis’, are your investigations being carried out in a way proper to the object of your study.  I.e. is God really a ‘hypothesis’ to be tested?  And if you think he is, the question must be asked, Which god are you talking about?  Because it doesn’t sound like the God of the Bible.  If, on the other hand, God is a Self-Revealing Speaker, doesn’t “scientific investigation” look very different?  i.e. Wouldn’t a proper correspondence to this Object of enquiry entail listening to His Word?

Who gets to decide what is “evidence”?  Does the Bible count?  Does it count on its own terms, or only when filtered through other tests?  What about encountering Christ spiritually through Scripture or worship?  Wouldn’t that be quite a  “knock-down” proof – for some even literally!  Is this evidence allowed at the bar?

Even if you are a neutral observer, even if God is a hypothesis that could be tested and even if the evidence you demand is the right kind of evidence – will you really ‘become a believer’ on the basis of this evidence?  Surely, to be consistent with your methods, you will merely line up with the God-hypothesis-camp until a better hypothesis comes along?  This is nothing like what Christians mean by “faith in God.”

Therefore in what sense are you open to change?  Admittedly, you are open to reshaping certain of your views – and that is a very laudable thing. Few ever do it, so such openness is indeed commendable.  But the openness of which you speak is set within a tightly de-limited, pre-established epistemological system (i.e. system of gaining knowledge).

And if that’s your definition of “open” then the Christian is at least as open.  If you show me convincing evidence about a pre-millennial return of Christ (to choose an intra-mural Christian dispute of secondary importance) then I hope I’m open enough to change.  I hope I am.  Obviously, people are biased, obstinate, self-justifying fools by nature (the Bible told us that long before science did), so it might be an uphill battle, but allow me to declare my willingness to change.

So there you are.  I’m open.

Of course, at this stage, the atheist says: “That’s not openness to change!  That’s just redecorating the exact same house.”  To which I say, “Pretty much!  But then, a tentative assent to the God-hypothesis is also just re-decoration.  The foundations and structure of your beliefs would remain exactly the same.”

You might rate yourself as a De-Facto Theist on Richard Dawkins’ scale, but it’s your commitments to a naturalistic method of knowledge that are really God for you.

To inflexibly hold pre-commitments about yourself, your object of enquiry, your method of enquiry and your criteria of judgement is to be “open” in only a very limited sense.   But here’s the thing… pre-commitments about Me and God and the World and how I know things are absolutely inescapable!  I can’t even begin to think without at least a shadow of an opinion on these things.

Which means none of us are very open.  There is no neutral space between the Christian position and the naturalistic position.  There is only conversion – i.e. a radical re-ordering of my view of self and God and the world.

Does this shut down all conversation?  Absolutely not!  This is the beginning of genuine conversation.  Now that we know where we all stand (and both Christians and atheists are regularly deluded about this), real interaction can happen.  How?  I say “Come on over to my house.  Let me show you around.  For a time, come in on my foundations, my vision of God and self and how to know things.  Experience the world from within these commitments.  See if life doesn’t make more sense.  See if you don’t confess that Jesus really is the deepest Truth”  And, by the same token, you can say to me “Come over to my house.  Allow me to show you the Magic of Reality as I see it.  Experience the world from within these commitments.”

There’s great hope for fruitful engagement (though this is a real statement of faith, I acknowledge!).  I believe that there is plenty to be said on the other side of an acknowledgement of our radical differences.  But let’s be honest enough to state our differences.  It’s not a case of simply assessing mutually agreed-upon evidence with the obvious tools for the job.  It’s about show-casing different visions of reality.

This doesn’t mean we cast stones at each other’s “houses” or dig into our entrenched positions.  Instead it’s a call to hospitality.  Let’s love our neighbours.

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Still in Africa, back in a couple of days.  Here’s one I first posted two years ago…

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I lost some of the best years of my life last month to an atheist blog.

With that in mind, I was amused at the recent furore over comment moderation at richarddawkins.net.  People are surprised at the vitriol spewed forth under pseudonymous cover in the under-belly of RichardDawkins.net?  A forum devoted to one of the most vituperative fundamentalisms going?  Does this shock anyone?

A couple of weeks ago I commented on a well respected and well-read atheist blog and was sworn at and wished dead in the most imaginatively vicious ways.  Compared to the abuses I and other Christians suffered there, the “rat’s rectum” comparisons that flew between fellow-atheists at Dawkins’ site sound like Pollyanna.

Anyway, I thought I’d try to redeem my experience by reflecting on some things I learnt, and some things I should have:

One reflection on my experience was written during the interchanges: Evangelists and Apologists Note: The six things that have already happened.

Here are some other reflections:

  1. Reason flows from the heart.  These guys raised a banner loud and proud for reason, logic, the scientific method, etc.   But there was nothing particularly reasoned or scientific about their manner of argument.  They were well read intelligent people (PhD students etc) but much of their commenting consisted in caps locked swear words.  “Logic” was their slogan not their method.
  2. They constantly appealed to a logical high-ground without any thought as to whether they were allowed one – being materialists and all!
  3. Pointing out this inconsistency didn’t seem to get me anywhere (though you never know how non-commenting readers are responding).
  4. Everyone deals in circularities:
    1. I believe the bible is the word of God because in it God speaks
    2. You believe the scientific method is the arbiter of what’s true because it’s proved itself effective when judged by science.
  5. Everyone has ultimate authorities which, by the nature of the case, cannot be authenticated by outside sources – ie the scientific method cannot be tested by the scientific method.  One guy admitted that this self-validation hasn’t happened yet but that one day science would definitely be able to prove the scientific method by the scientific method.  There’s faith for you.  Which leads to…
  6. Everyone is faith based.  We all proceed from assumptions which we take to be true and then move forwards on the basis of them.
  7. I kept getting asked for ‘evidence’.  My responses were in three broad categories, first I’d point to Christ risen from the dead, second I’d simply quote Scriptures.  But probably the most effective thing was to say “everything!  Everything reveals the LORD Jesus to you.”
  8. Therefore evangelism is the invitation to the unbeliever to step inside the world in which Jesus is LORD and look again.  Basically it’s saying: “Let me tell you a story about a triune God, the world He made and the Son who redeems it.  Now look again at the world through the Lens of Jesus.  Now do you see why self-giving love is the greatest thing?  Now do you see why trust and beauty, evil and forgiveness, truth and goodness are real beyond any scientific analysis?  In other words, now you can take seriously the most basic aspects of your human existence and not run against the grain of reality all the time.”
  9. In this sense theology is a science.  It begins with self-authenticating premises and moves out in faith to investigate .  This investigation is shaped by the Object of knowedge.  Since the Object of knowledge is the Speaking God, the method is to hear His Word.  The premises of our enquiry after knowledge (e.g. Jesus is LORD, the bible is true etc) are not falsifiable in the way the materialists demand they be.  But then the scientific premises (e.g. that true knowledge is verified by the scientific method etc) aren’t falsifiable either.  Premises are the light by which we see.  It’s their success in seeing that recommends them.
  10. The failure of “science alone” to see the world was very evident to me.  It didn’t seem particularly evident to them.  That Beethoven’s 9th was a series of compression waves was certain for them.  That it was “beautiful” was a verdict they couldn’t make with anything like the same certainty.
  11. The atheists who commented were very clearly captured by the vision of “the onward march of science”, demolishing ignorance and dispelling superstition.  There was clearly a love for scientific progress that had won their hearts.  Nothing less than a greater love could ever displace this.  All their calls for “evidence, evidence” were simply calls for reality to fit into their paradigm – to serve their greatest love.  They need a new paradigm, or better – a new love.
  12. The call for “evidence, evidence” in the sense that they mean is a desire to be confirmed in their self-imposed naturalistic prison.  What counts as ‘evidence’ for them is only that which can be assessed according to their naturalistic paradigm.  This is simply a refusal from the outset to hear a Voice from above.  Again it is a matter of hard-heartedness, however seriously they wish to be taken intellectually.
  13. My lowest point came in the heat of battle when I fired off a comment justifying my intellectual credibility.  I’m ashamed of what I took pride in at that moment.  I should have borne shame and taken pride in the foolishness of the gospel, allowing Christ to vindicate me.  The cause of the gospel was hindered rather than helped by the assertion of my academic credentials (which weren’t that great anyway!).  This is especially so given what I’ve been arguing above.
  14. Having said all this, I think it was a worth-while exercise.  Many of the commenters were American ‘de-converted’ evangelicals and knew a lot of bible.  The hurt from previous scars was palpable and I hope that a charitable Christian voice might at least temper some of the “all Christians are bigots” tirades that otherwise spiral on in these forums.
  15. On the other hand, some of the commenters were angry Brits and others who seemed to know very little of Christian things.  All they’ve heard has been from other atheists.
  16. And of course there were many more who I’m sure just ‘listened’.  My time at Speaker’s Corner taught me that even as you engage the Muslim apologist in front of you, you’re aiming at the wide-eyed apprentices hanging off his coat-tails.  Who knows how the Lord will use these words?
  17. Turning the other cheek hurts but it’s powerful.  I trust that (#13 and other lapses notwithstanding) perhaps the most useful aspect of the interchange was the attempt to model Christ in the way I commented.
  18. The absolute hatred for Christians is frighteningly palpable.  The hatred that’s there in the comments sections will rise more and more into the public realm, that seems pretty certain to me.  But if we’re surprised and outraged let’s get a grip – no soldier should act all offended and hurt when the enemy actually shoots bullets at them!
  19. Just as Stephen Fry speaks of descending into the “stinking, sliding, scuttling” floor of the internet, engaging in this kind of way can be the faintest taste of what the LORD Jesus did in descending to a world that hates Him.  (It can be a total waste of time too, but I think there is a time and a place for it).  I spent a few hours in an internet forum.  His whole life He lived and loved and spoke and served among a hatred that literally tore Him apart.  He’s the One we proclaim.  His attitude is the attitude we take.  And as we join Him (in big ways and small) in cross-bearing love, we get to know His enduring grace that much more.
  20. There is a time for shaking dust off your feet.  Some need to spend a little longer in the battle.  But probably people like me (who have to be right!) should quit sooner.  :)

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It was six years ago yesterday that Stephen Fry wrote a now famous letter to a fan on the subject of depression.  You can read the whole thing here.

In the letter he likens depression to the weather:

Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It’s real.
You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.

BUT

It will be sunny one day.
It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
One day.

It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness – these are as real as the weather – AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault.

BUT

They will pass: they really will.

Spoken like a true believer!  Indeed, spoken like the Christian author Tolkien: “it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer.”

But Fry isn’t a Christian and he doesn’t believe that “this shadow” is a passing thing at all.  If Fry was consistent he’d say,

‘The sun will come out and then go back in, and then explode and consume the earth in a terrifying fireball.  None of this is under your control.  But everything will, most certainly, get worse.

All the best,

Stephen.’

I really like Fry’s letter.  I think it was wonderfully thoughtful and very helpful.  Be he has a choice.  He can have his atheism or he can have an answer to depression.  He can’t have both.

And for Christians, surely this is the ground on which to engage atheism: pastoral theology!

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Today is definitely the day to dust off Alan Lewis’s wonderful Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Easter Saturday.  As he meditates on Eberhard Jungel’s theology, Lewis writes

[Jungel] in effect identifies Easter Saturday, the day of the burial of God, as theology’s foundational, defining moment.  For it is this occurrence, as recorded in the Christian narrative, which maximizes the dispute between faith and non-faith.  While the flesh of God’s Son lies immured in death, the sharpest controversy divides those who see only that God is gone and finished and those who know that in this palpable absence nonetheless God is yet more present, with life-giving resurrecting power.  Even so, the God who is present in this absence, whose creative power is at work through the powerlessness of this defeat and death, is no more recognizable to the theist than to the atheist.  Faith in God on the day when God is dead is faith of a very different order from the certainties expressed in metaphysics; and it is faith in another God then the distant, immutable, omnipotent deity of theism, that supreme stranger to suffering and death.

Not only, then, is Easter Saturday the day of mutual contradiction between those who believe in God and those who cannot; it is also the day of shared contradiction for those who believe in the absolute God and those who cannot, by the theology of the Crucified One: faith in the life and power of the God who is dead.  To the extent that both of these conflicts are occurring now, with great intensity, at the end of the modern era, means that today is a cultural “Easter Saturday.”  And that is the context, where faith hears and opposes both partners in the disputation between theism and atheism, in which theology must work today, and to which the gospel is to be addressed.

We have much in common with atheists.  We too proclaim the death of God.  We too take a long hard look at the world  and conclude there is no magical hope within the created order, nor any comfort in a power that remains outside it.  There is no help from the god who is shut out of the tomb – the god who is defined in opposition to our suffering and death; some power imprisoned by his own majesty.  Our only hope comes from the God who shuts Himself in the tomb.

Happy Saturday.

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Adapted from this older post.

Deconversion is essential to the religious liberty of every man, woman and child.  We must deconvert from every god that man has imagined.   If humanity is to be free from the tyrannical rule of God: God must die.  This is the most basic claim of orthodox Christianity.

Christopher Hitchens often made the following kinds of remarks about religion’s “permanent, unalterable dictatorship”:

An eternal North Korea is, he says, religion’s idea of heaven.  But it’s Hitchens’ idea of hell (probably ours too!).

But which God is he imagining ruling over this kingdom of heaven?  He’s imagining a greedy dictator, a cosmic leech, an almighty sink-hole of need.  Of course, if that were true, eternity would feel like a drain!  Our lives on earth would be bad enough.

This was the tyranny that Dan Barker laboured under – now president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.  He speaks of his past in evangelical Christianity here:

I was a “doer of the word and not a hearer only.” I went to a Christian college, majored in Religion/Philosophy, became ordained and served in a pastoral capacity in three California churches. I personally led many people to Jesus Christ, and encouraged many young people to consider full-time Christian service.

But one day he de-converted to find liberation from this Almighty Surveillance System:

“For my whole life there had been this giant eyeball looking at me, this god, this holy spirit, this church history, and this Bible. And not only everything I did but everything I thought was being judged: Was God pleased? I realized that that wasn’t there anymore. It occurred to me, ‘I own these thoughts. Nobody knows what I’m thinking right now. There’s no fear of hell, no fear of judgment, I don’t have to be right or wrong, I can just be me.'” (Source)

Once God was dead, Barker was free.  It was “exhilarating”, he said.  You can imagine it was something of a Hallelujah moment.  The death of God always is!  Mischievously, I wonder whether Barker wishes such exultation could go on forever…

It’s interesting that Barker had this revelation while out in the beauty of nature and looking up at the ‘heavens’.  I mention his location because it’s very similar to John Bunyan’s de-conversion experience, three centuries earlier.

He too was labouring under the feeling that heaven was a spiritual North Korea.  He felt the “giant eyeball” very keenly and it was a heavy oppression.  But one day he also de-converted from his old religion…

“As I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience . . . suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, “Thy righteousness is in heaven”; and, methought withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand, there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, He wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday and today for ever (Heb. 13:8).”

“Now did my chains fall from my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations also fled away, so that from that time, those dreadful scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now also went I home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.”

Notice the exhilarating effect of the death of God!  When Bunyan grasps the implications of God the Lamb he finds instant freedom from religious afflictions and even from “those dreadful scriptures of God.”  Even Bunyan’s language mirrors the de-conversion experiences related so often on today’s atheist websites.

I’ve met many an atheists on the internet – especially those from the kinds of religious environments that Bunyan experienced in the 17th century.  Countless times I’ve heard de-conversion stories about finding release from a greedy god, from judgementalism, from hypocrisy, from the guilt, shame and fear of their religious upbringing.  I feel their pain.  I also grew up in church.  I also laboured under the tyranny of an imagined god.  I also felt the eye-ball in the sky.  I also found release in de-conversion.

But there’s two kinds of de-conversion.  There are two kinds of death-of-God experience.

Bunyan de-converts from a God-of-Demand and finds a God-Who-Is-Giver.  The death of God means, for Bunyan, looking to the cross.  There He sees the LORD Jesus giving Himself utterly – pouring out His life for the world.  There He sees that God is not greedy – God is Giver.  This is the vision that changes him.

Barker de-converts from a God-of-Demand and finds, what?  Only other powers.  Selfish powers.  Uncaring powers.  What lies ‘at bottom’ in this universe in the atheist vision?  ‘Blind, pitiless indifference’ if you ask Dawkins.  Barker is de-converted towards powers that will only judge and crush us in the end.

His exhilaration can only be short-lived.  He’s only traded one tyranny for another.  But with Jesus, the death of God is our salvation.  And it might just make you want to sing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” (Revelation 5:12).  That’s the song of heaven – because heaven is a celebration of the grace, not the greed, of God.

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