‘Why Atheism?’ A response

I recently asked my friend Jesse whether he’d be interested in having a debate about his atheism, and my Christianity. The motivation for having this conversation, at least on my part was a bit selfish: I needed something to write about! Beyond that, I think we’ve both got fairly strong beliefs, and we both enjoy talking/writing about issues, so a blog-debate seemed appropriate. 

As a place to start, I asked Jesse if he could explain why he chose to call his blog, ‘Atheist, of course’. His first post deals with a number of issues he sees with Christianity, which I hope I’ve understood properly and given the respect they’re due in my responses below. I’ve pasted sections from his post, and replied to them. If you want the full context of the quotations, go to his blog

1. “Firstly, Christianity has, built into it, a kind of permanent shield to anyone who has rejected it and wants to present an alternative. Consider … the final writings of the Apostle Paul:

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4 NIV)”

I think the term, ‘permanent shield’ is used in reference to Christians who might avoid debate or a questioning of their beliefs as a kind of self-protective mechanism. These people might simply ignore criticism of their faith by dismissing the concerns as un-‘sound doctrine’, rather than themselves delving into the depths of philosophy and apologetics. It’s understandable that talking to these people might be frustrating, but do they represent the majority of Christians? And even if they do, does that undermine the truth of their beliefs? And what of atheists, or agnostics, or anyone else who may ‘turn their ears away from truth’ and rather listen to what they ‘want to hear’ rather than being more rigorous in exploring the foundations of their views or beliefs?

While there might be plenty of people—religious and otherwise—who hold untested beliefs, it doesn’t follow that the beliefs they hold are incorrect simply because they don’t or can’t test them. ‘Permanent shield’, if the term was understood correctly, could be used to describe everyone, about some belief they hold, and isn’t rooted in Christianity, but simply in human nature; Christians and atheists are no exception. The encouragement to “always be ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15b) seems to contradict at least aspects of the ‘permanent shield’ attribute of Christianity.

2.  “My strong conviction that Paul and his ilk were paranoid zealots, who most definitely made up doctrine as they went along.”

The underlying issue of this sentence seems to be that since the Bible is written by humans, along with their personal interpretations and judgements, it leads necessarily to atheism. Even if Paul was a ‘paranoid zealot’ who made up doctrine based on his own interpretation of scripture, this doesn’t automatically lead to atheism. The above is a strong statement, and from a look at the blog post to which it is referring, it appears to be based almost entirely on a particular interpretation and judgement of Acts 15 that rings a bit of the pot calling the kettle black: Paul’s interpretation/judgements that go into his writing undermine his credibility, yet my interpretation/judgments of Paul’s writings can lead me to claim with certainty, something about them?

Human interpretation and judgements are used when describing any event or belief. That doesn’t mean the events or beliefs described aren’t true in the first place though. Again, does the issue of interpretation necessitate an atheistic worldview? Doesn’t seem to. An open mind though? Sure.

3. “The other obstacle to people engaging seriously with my thinking is what I would call Pascalist obscurantism … moderate Christians these days are fond of claiming that belief in God is the most reasonable position. They say that it takes more faith to believe that there is no God than to believe that there is one.”

While Jesse doesn’t seem to want to dwell on this kind of issue, but rather spend time “refut[ing] a Nicene Creed type of Christianity,” it seems Pascal’s Wager—whether one finds it elegant or simplistic—has been unfairly tied to wilful deception. It’s true that a lot of Christians think their beliefs are more reasonable than atheism. But just because they think this, it doesn’t mean they are trying to deliberately deceive. This doesn’t seem to be a fair description of the many Christians who see the world with all its complexities, beauty, pain, evil, and goodness; and believe that God is a reasonable explanation. While a lot more can be said on this point, it’ll have to wait for future posts.

4. “Why do I not believe in God? The essence of my reasoning comes down to an examination of the historicity of Jesus…The history of the early church points to the conclusion that the orthodox Gospel was entirely man-made.”

It’s interesting that two people can approach a book like The Case for Christ and come to quite different conclusions about its findings. While Jesse may see the fact that the opinions of Biblical scholars have been sought as undermining the validity of their research, it doesn’t follow that simply because they’re Christian, the evidence they believe in is in some way tarnished. Maybe they’re biblical scholars precisely because the evidence is strong.

If by ‘entirely man-made’, it is meant that the Gospels were written entirely by men, then that’s correct. Other than that, it’s unclear what this comment is referring to. The history of the early Christians is something that’s been studied in depth by those like John Dickson in The Christ Files. There are a many different areas within early-Church history, including questions like: ‘did Jesus the man even exist?’ ‘Did he die?’ ‘What evidence is there for any of it?’ ‘How trustworthy is it?’

Books have been written about all of these questions and present what evidence does (and doesn’t) exist. Going into the specifics here, therefore, doesn’t seem necessary and I won’t do them credit. Few claim that the historical evidence alone is conclusive, however personally I think it’s sufficient for me to consider C.S. Lewis’ point:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

I apologise for the length of this post, I’ve broken the 1,000 word limit I set with Jesse. But as an introductory piece there were a few different angles that I thought needed attention, so I’ve skimmed over a few, rather than going into more detail with any of them in particular.

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