Discussions between Christians and atheists.

May 27, 2017

In this blog I want to consider seven subjects that are relevant for discussions between Christians and atheists (and including some tips for the Christians involved in such discussions), namely:

1. Need of God with respect to morality.
2. The Christian’s moral status.
3. Moral thinking of a consistent atheist.
4. God and the fact of evil.
5. The Atonement.
6. Complaints against the “unfairness” of the Christians’ God regarding people who    died having never heard of Jesus.
7. Encouraging the atheist to convert.

Need For God With Respect To Morality

Occasionally the Christian will call upon the atheist to prove there is no God. Very commonly, and quite rightly, the atheist retort is to remind us that a negative cannot be proven, and so just as it is impossible to prove the non-existence of fairies and goblins, etc., even so it is with God. But, the atheist will continue, that certainly does not give you any more reason to think that God exists than fairies exist. And this is very true. However here the Christian can reply in this manner: it is true that we cannot prove the existence or non-existence of fairies, but there is also no reason to try to prove any existence of such creatures, i.e., there is no need. And indeed it would be the same with God except for this: there is a need for God, the moral need.

First of all, and as a sort of analogy, we will consider here two cases in current science which justify the use of “need” to posit an existence even though there is no visible evidence, namely: the need in astrophysics for dark matter and energy and also a multiverse to rationalize the Big Bang. We will now look at these two needs.

Dark matter and energy.

The universe is not only expanding, but is even accelerating in its expansion, and yet there is no visible evidence to account for that acceleration (nor for the excessive speed of spin discovered with the galaxies). Due to a need for an explanation astrophysics has come up with hypotheses of a dark (invisible) matter and energy. By means of these hypotheses (again with no visible evidence) the expansion of the universe and spin of the galaxies can be explained and understood and the mathematical models hold. See especial Michael Guillen’s “Amazing Truths”.

Multiverse.

The probability of a random Big Bang developing into a world with intelligent life is so infinitesimal that science has a need for an expected occurrence,* and this expectation is provided by the hypothesis that there are countless Big Bangs taking place in different universes such that in some of them, ours included, intelligent life would be expected. Again: no evidence, but still a need, and as a result science astrophysics asserts the existence of multiple Big Bangs. See Multiverse.

* Suppose there were a one chance in a trillion trillion. Still there is no reason that this one event would not happen on the first trial. But since this is so entirely unexpected (even seemingly miraculous), it is rattling to astrophysics and leads to a search for something far more expected, and this is the multiverse hypothesis.

The Need for God.

Now, as we indicated briefly above, there is also a need for the existence of God, namely the moral need; for as Immanuel Kant has definitively shown in his Critique of Practical Reason,* without God there is no meaning to the Highest Good and, accordingly, no meaning to the moral law. Thus without God the term “moral” would have no more meaning than the “uh” that we so commonly sprinkle our speech with. And so unless we want to live in a world where there is no meaning to the moral law and thus no objective way to make judgements about good and evil, it is necessary to accept the existence of God and to live according to a meaningful and objective moral law, a law which alone provides dignity to all rational creatures including all humans. Thus just as astrophysics has a need for dark energy and matter and an expectation of our Big Bang and asserts both accordingly, even so the moral makeup of the human has a need for the reality of God, and the Christian asserts this reality with a logic similar to that of the scientists.**

* Dialectic, Section V.

** See Sagan and Kant (especially Kant Analysis and Treatment) for a brief presentation of how Kant justifies our acceptance of God via this moral need. Essentially a human knows how to be moral without God, but cannot grasp why to be moral. There is an inevitable conflict between morality and the desire for happiness which can only be reconciled via the Highest Good, which calls for immortality to attain moral perfection and a commensurate happiness, and for God to provide that happiness.

Evidence for God

Also, with respect to evidence of the truth of the Christians’ gospel, there is a change in the Christians such that they are becoming more loving in a natural and reflexive way. And accordingly there is actual and personal evidence of the Christians’ God in that the Christian experience provides what the gospel promises. And this is consistent with the assertion of William James’ The Will To Believe Section IX where, for example, if we want people to be friendly with us, we can’t just wait for that to happen, but must step out and begin by being friendly with them. Likewise then those who convert to Christianity will find evidence of the truth of the Christian message in experience, but this experience is not possible except through living the gospel message in active faith. See Moral Status Of A Christian immediately below.

Additional there is good evidence in the New Testament for the Resurrection of Christ. The Resurrection story caused such a commotion that if the body were still in the tomb the Jewish authorities (including a fervent opponent of Jesus, Saul of Tarsus) would have produced the body in order to silence the disciples. Also the disciples, who were thoroughly disillusion and downcast, suddenly changed and risked and gave their lives in testimony of the truth of the Resurrection, hardly to be expected for those knowing it to be fraud. And then the testimony of Paul (the former enemy Saul) is quite credible. And the written reports of the early Christians and especially of Paul were produced during the life of people familiar with the events of that time and these reports would have been contradicted if the story were not true.*

* And regarding such evidence see especially the essay by Philip Vander Elst (listed below in further resources) as to the validity of the reports of the New Testament.

Moral Status Of A Christian

Very often in discussions between atheists and Christians, the Christians will assert that “atheists have no reason to be moral in the absence of God,” and then the atheists will often respond with: “if the only reason you are being moral is because you fear punishment or expect reward by your God, you are deplorable and not a really moral person at all. We atheists can act morally without regard to any God.”

Following is a response by this Wesleyan Christian.

Aspects of Christian Faith and Living

An important consideration for the edification of the atheist, especially concerning Wesleyan Christian thinking (among that of many other Christians), would be to admit that a person might originally enter into the Christian faith out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, but then, as a result of the conversion, comes to experience the New Birth where eternal life is counted as obtained, and all moral and loving acts ensue from a New Nature which excludes all calculations concerning condemnation or reward.* This New Nature is often expressed by the Wesleyan as: “while I am far from perfect, I am not as far as once I was; and I am on the way”. John Wesley put it this way: “what the gospel promises has been accomplished in my soul.” In other words I have the experience (given sufficient time) that I have changed and that I am becoming more loving in a natural way. And this experience is in addition to, and a confirmation of, the gospel message.

* This assurance does not constitute any sort of license for lawless conduct, for, as Wesley stated: “I am saved from the fear, though not from the possibility, of a fall from grace.”

As a result then of the conversion, Wesleyan Christians act in reflection of their New Nature and not in order to manipulate God into any sort of favor.

Moral Thinking Of A Consistent Atheist

It might also be helpful for Christians in conversation with atheists to try to put themselves in the place of an atheist with respect to the moral, e.g., “It’s very difficult for me to imagine how I would actually act absent my belief in God. In the first place I would have to try to thoroughly grasp that in the materialist, atheist world people will have no more objective value than roaches or mailboxes, i.e., we would all be nothing more than clouds of dancing atoms which will eventually dissipate and meld into thin air.

“Once I might fully grasp this I could then start thinking and acting like an atheist. The moral makeup of atheists can be pictured as a spectrum ranging from a rational, logical and consistent atheist at the one end, i.e., the ‘bold’ atheist (a la Ted Bundy,* for example) who rejects all concern for any alleged morality (except possibly for public show and animal pity,** and who would want, of course, to be very careful about any unlawful activity); to, at the other end, what might be called the ‘timid’ or ‘mild’ atheist who realizes (like all atheists) that there is no objective meaning to morality or dignity, and yet (unlike the bold atheists) goes on living morally anyway, at least for the most part and perhaps due to some animal pity or just due to habit (perhaps from having been reared in a theist culture) or by following Stephen Uhl’s ‘Golden Rule of Enlightened Selfishness.’ I imagine presently that if I were an atheist I would be a timid one and would act in accordance with the feelings of animal pity. However, if I had an opportunity to safely and profitably cheat someone for whom I might have no feelings of pity, and especially if that someone would not suffer much from being cheated, I suspect that I, as an intelligent and consistent atheist, would be strongly moved to do the cheat and in that case act like the bold atheist.

* I know of no one who expresses the atheist “moral sense” better than this Ted Bundy, the notorious serial rapist and murderer.

** Animal pity will encompass the feelings that most people have when they witness the mistreatment of helpless people, and also of animals which are close to humans, e.g., cats, dogs, horses, etc. It will encompass also feelings of compassion.

“Again all this is sheer speculation for I really have no idea what sort of atheist I would really be. In any case I know that as an atheist I would no longer have any basis for condemning another person, e.g., Hitler, for immoral actions, for absent God the term ‘immoral’ would no longer have any objective meaning. It would be like asserting that chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla.”

God And The Fact Of Evil

Here we first need to consider what evil is, namely a moral depravity. According to what was just established at the end of the preceding section, atheists have no standard by which to make moral judgments (except as “echos” of theists) and so for whom the term “moral depravity” would just be meaningless prattle. For them the holocaust should be something on the moral level of a massive storm destroying all the trees is a large forest, i.e., a natural occurrence and of no more moral significance than the blowing wind. But since the Christian does have a legitimate and objective meaning for the term we must take on the atheist’s challenge in this regard and respond, namely: it is very common for the atheist to assert that the God of the Christians is either unable to deal with evil or unwilling to do so, and which contradicts the Christians’ assertion that God is omnipotent and loving.

Response by this Wesleyan Christian

The approach to this challenge could go like this: God has already acted to eliminate evil in the world, and has done so in a way which is consistent with the freedom conveyed by God to the human (such that the humans are not simply herded like frightened or disciplined cattle). Taking a cue from Gandhi* we can be assured that God has given the humans the answers to all the problems that can ever arise (including the holocaust and any other evil), but has done so in a fragmented way such that every person has a bit of the answer and where there must be cooperation and spontaneous sharing to find the complete answers. But the humans are reluctant to share, preferring rather to sell in a market.** This free sharing is very much what Jesus seeks with his Gospel, sharing rather than selling, and serving rather than dominating and this is the primary way that God has chosen to deal with evil, by calling for a conversion which results in the New Birth, and then acting per universal love and not in pursuit of gain.**

* This is presumably per Gandhi’s take on Matthew’s gospel story.

** This may be a very good indicator of an “original sin” which continues to plague the human race.

*** Instead of monetary gain, and consistent with the human proclivity for beneficial competition, the recognition of achievers could be in the form of awards and trophies and praise, not unlike what motivates high school sports teams and players. See Lin and the organization of cooperative competition.

Part of this answer was formulated by the ingenious John Rawls, namely: since talents are dispersed randomly, all talents actually belong to the species and not to the individual. Accordingly all persons must be aided by society to discover their talents and then are to be given sufficient means to develop these to the fullest. For example, a composer like Beethoven will need a quieter place of work than most of the population, and should be given that . . . but no more than that, i.e., no more than what is needed to be happy and content and productive.

This solution to the problem of evil is also suggested by the authoritative earliest Christian society where the church nearest Jesus in terms of time and spirit undertook to live according to a Christian socialism which works toward the elimination of injustice and inequality and abuse and all factors leading to hatred and mutual destruction.*

* See this New York Times article about early church communalism. And certainly the Christian marriage is a model for a communal society, i.e., each giving according to talent and receiving according to need.

In a word: evil, including that of the holocaust, can be eliminated and avoided by all humans becoming “new creatures” in Christ and acting accordingly and sincerely, e.g., in loving and spontaneous and non-calculating sharing on a worldwide basis whereby then the foundations of evil are eliminated, and where all people are looked upon as family. Kant in his thesis on Religion Within The Bounds Of Sheer Reason (Sentence 8.4 of the General Remarks to Part I) asserted that no one can reasonably expect God to do what the humans can also do on their own.

The Atonement

A common complaint of the atheist concerning Christian thinking is the atonement. “Why and how”, the atheist questions, “does the execution of an innocent person pay for the sins of a guilty person? That hardly seems right or just.”

A suggested response from the Christian goes like this, “There is another  justification for this atonement, namely: Jesus needed to die in order to show his disciples what he meant by a New Nature and how to obtain it. The disciples had spent several years under his guidance and teaching, but they continued to try to ‘lord it over each other’ and simply could not grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words. In this way, by his dying on the cross and being resurrected on the third day, Jesus could finally convey the meaning of, and need for, a new spirit (and not just words to be argued about), and the disciples could understand and convert in confidence and receive the Holy Spirit and start living and loving the way Jesus did, and go out in his name and teach and convert others. Without this death the disciples would never have caught on to what Jesus was all about, and without the resurrection which assured the disciples of the truth of Jesus’ message and the promise of conversion, his death would have been futile.” See also The Awakening Atonement, and Kant’s Religion Within The Bounds Of Sheer Reason, Part II., First Section, C, Par. 5.

Complaints Against The “Unfairness” of the Christians’ God Regarding People Who Never Heard Of Jesus

There is an understandable objection by many, Christians and atheists alike, to the assertion that people who never heard of Jesus, and hence could not have accepted him so as to follow him in his way, would be assigned to hell. Here are four speculations for overcoming this objection, speculations which are based on the character of God, especially God’s compassion and justice. The first three will apply to people only to the extent that the Gospel and an opportunity for conversion have not been clearly presented to them.

Conversion in Hell per C. S. Lewis

Here people who are in hell (which is a place very similar to earth and populated by ghosts of people who are sinful and selfish) are encouraged to hear a message of redemption and who can comply with the assistance provided, and thus leave hell and enter heaven, a thesis developed by C. S. Lewis. According to Lewis the only people/ghosts who remain in hell are those who choose to. For more on this see “The Great Divorce” by C. S. Lewis. And see also again the essay by Philip Vander Elst on the influence of C. S. Lewis on him when an atheist before his conversion to Christianity.

Conversion while dying.

According to this theory, in the fleeting moments before death all people, who have never heard about Jesus nor clearly understood him, are presented with the story and invitation of Jesus and who can then choose to comply with that and thus attain heaven, or refuse to do so and end up in hell. This incorporates the notion of a “slowdown of time” for a proper and sufficient presentation. This would be similar to the opportunity of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in his dying moments

Reincarnation to hear the message of Jesus.

In the Christian scripture of Hebrews we learned that people are “appointed to die once.” This might be interpreted to mean that a final and true death does not arise until people have been born into a situation where they clearly learn of the story of Jesus and understand him, and have the opportunity of accepting or rejecting him. This would be a tie-in with the Hindu and Buddhist thinking of rebirths.

Annihilation by person choice.

Here people who never accepted Jesus and who die in a state of sin (and thus are unfit for heaven) would have the option of spending eternity in hell or of being totally annihilated. This would be similar to the “The Great Divorce” approach first above in that there is a way out of hell, and it would depend upon the choosing of the individual.

Encouraging The Atheist To Convert

Following are some considerations for the Christian to present to the atheist to consider when mulling about the strength of the Christian appeal (and some of which have already been cited above):

Multiverse This is a comparison of the faith of Christians in God with the faith of scientists with respect to the Big Bang, and where a belief in God is no more daring than a belief in a multiverse.

Trinity This is a quite different take on this paradox, where a trinity here is no more absurd than the binity of the left and right versions of hand, and where the dual nature of Jesus, i.e., fully divine and fully human, is echoed in the knowledge of light per quantum science.

Sagan and Kant on Morality The moral law arises via human rationality and independently of any notion of God, but can only be rationalized, i.e., provided with a purpose, by means of the concept of the Highest Good, i.e., immortality (to achieve to individual moral perfection and obtain commensurate happiness) and also God (to compel nature to provide the happiness called for by that moral perfection). See also the related and very explicit exposition of the license belonging to the bold atheist entitled: Imagined Lectures at an Atheist Youth Camp.

Atonement This is a bit different from the usual take on the Atonement. Here Jesus does not die to pay for the sins of the world, but to overcome the sinful nature of humans (and immediately and especially that of his disciples) and to provide a new spirit to humans who now understand and are willing and receptive. Closely associated with this is Jesus Without A Stenographer.

Conversion of atheists This is an argument designed to win over Bill Maher and other atheists to Christianity.

Appeal To Agnostic Youth This is another such argument, aimed here at the youth who are wondering about religion.

Rational Religion In Paragraph 8 of the General Remarks to Part I Kant indicates that the Christian religion is the “only moral religion in human history.” This can serve as a guide to any atheist who is wondering which religion he or she might want to convert to. Also in the translator’s Appendix to Kant’s book there is a comparison of the thinking of Kant and Wesley with regard to religion.

Christian Liberty Here is a quick rundown on the liberty of the Christian, and includes a unity of principles of action of St. Paul and the modern Christian, and how any differences between the two are based on different understandings of what is helpful and hurtful, what is medicine and what is poison.

Jewish Scriptures. I find it helpful not to get involved with discussions about some of the brutality which is occasionally cited in the Jewish scriptures and which atheists will often bring up. My justification is that these older scriptures serve the Christian primarily in understanding the worldview of Jesus’ environment and the context of his speech and actions. Any defense of these episodes I leave to the rabbis and scholars of these scriptures. This view (independence of Christian thinking from ancient scriptures) is maintained by Matthew 7:12 where Jesus informs us that the Golden Rule “is the Law and the Prophets,” thus encompassing most of the Jewish scriptures in a single rule. And a confirmation of the primacy of Christian teachings in this regard is given in John 5:1-18 where we see that no alleged command of God from anywhere may be interpreted by a Christian to inhibit an immediate act of love.*

* With respect to creationism versus evolution, I would leave that discussion also to the students of the Old Testament and those of evolution, and note only this: regardless of the origin of the humans this much is certain: regardless of its origin, humans have an immoral character (usually referred to as “original sin”) and Jesus lived and died to rescue humanity from that character through a New Birth.

From Atheism To Christianity: A Personal Journey. See this essay by Philip Vander Elst concerning his conversion to Christianity and with special reference to the influence of C. S. Lewis in making this move.

Author contact: pmr#$kantwesley.com, replacing #$ with @

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