"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Atheism and Religion

(This is a guest post by Just Thinking)

In one of the comments (at The Agnostic Monk) I posted, I said:

“Sometimes I think the atheists’ arguments AGAINST the belief in God is closer to God’s truth than the Christians’ arguments FOR our belief in God.”

To which Matt asked me to elaborate and come up with something to post here. At first, I declined in fear of being seen as a complete nutcase. But then, my daughter challenged me further by saying, “If you do really believe what you believe to be the truth, what are you afraid of?” So here I am.

My hat’s off to Alex and Matt for letting a nobody like me have a voice on their blog. Please feel free to challenge my views and enlighten me.


I am a follower of Christ. And yet I oddly find myself frequently challenging the Christian perspective rather than the Atheist. And I may even go as far as siding with the atheist’s argument. This may be because I understand why the Atheist says what he says. I’ve been there and done that. At least the atheists, for the most part, are consistent in their unbelief.

What I find to be puzzling is when Christianity repeatedly talks about unconditional love that is somehow conditional, Grace that is somehow determined by works, and freedom that is somehow attached to shackles.


Alex said somewhere that “There is undoubtedly a spiritual dimension were God seeks to interact directly with our heart... the very core of our being. From what I have seen God is seeking to reveal himself to all mankind, yet being the free agents I believe we are, we often do not respond to him.”

First of all, I don’t think being free agents is what prevents us from responding to God. If, as we claim, God in fact is the Truth, then what prevents us from seeing the Truth? I believe it’s the Lie that deceives us. The choice, in actuality, is the choice to believe in the lie. The truth is not a choice. Truth just IS. It is the lie that poses as the truth that makes us think the choice is in our hands.


I also asked him, "When the child hears the loving voice of the parent and recognizes that love as unconditional, wouldn’t the child merely react to it rather than make a conscious choice?”

To which he replied, “In the beginning yes it is more of a reaction than a choice, but as we mature we come to see that true love is a choice much more than it is a reaction.”

Alex, you know I love and respect you, but let me challenge your response here: Don’t you find it ironic that you chose the words “in the beginning,” to start your reply? Please don’t hate me for making this analogy, but your very statement brings this picture to mind:

In the beginning, we were created and were in perfect relationship with God. We trusted God as the be all and end all to our existence. Then the serpent asked, “Did God REALLY say?” which prompted us to start questioning why He says what He says. The serpent pointed us to the fruit which offered the knowledge to be able to decide for ourselves who God is and the choice to decide our own destiny. What would be better than that? We chose the fruit. And we became blind to the truth.

In my belief, God is not a god of action but He just simply is. He is the I Am. He is the Truth. How do you choose truth? Truth just is. The choice is only in rejecting the lie. When you reject the lie, all that remains is the truth.

In each of us, at the inner most core of our being, there lives a child who wants to be loved, accepted, and validated for who we already are, not who we can strive to become. That is why we rebel against anything that tells us that we’re not good enough. And yet we spend our lifetime trying to perfect ourselves to become worthy. Worthy of whom? In the end, as King Solomon stated, all of it is vanity. It truly is all for nothing if we cannot understand the true meaning of grace.


I responded to a post over at Agnostic Monk by Dr. Incitatus, where he posted a video of an interview with Daniel C. Dennett. I agree with him especially on the following points:

Dennett talks about how it’s unacceptable in today’s society to be frank or rude when it comes to questioning what people hold sacred. I don’t believe that we should go as far as being rude, but I definitely think we would be able to talk openly, honestly, and frankly about the differences in beliefs. Questions should be raised and discussions should ensue. How else are we going to see the truth? That’s why I love it here – here, where the words can flow fairly freely.

I absolutely agree with him when he says most people do not actually believe in God; they believe in the belief in God. And I believe it is a true statement regarding the majority of the people who follow religion. Religion has a way of having a hold on people, because they believe God is synonymous with religion. But I hold the view that religion is a huge part of the Lie that I spoke of earlier.


In response to the Dennett interview, I commented and asked Dr. Incitatus if he had ever been a victim of religious oppression. He answered with this:

“ It (religion) is certainly sometimes used as an excuse for oppression, but not to an extent that I would consider to outweigh it's stabilising effect on social groups….” About oppression, he said, “No. That's not to say that I might not do so in the future, but I think there's a certain level of hysteria among secularists right now. There seems to be a battle between specific Christian denominations and secular Americans for who gets to hold the apparently much lauded title of "The Persecuted".("We're oppressed!" "No you're not! WE ARE!")…”
“As it is, us godless heathens run a close second with the Baptists as one of the largest groups in the US (15%). With the exception of abortion and the fact that God is rather important, the Baptists and the Catholics can't agree on anything, including evolution. So I don't fear a ruthless Christian hegemony in the US anytime soon.”

I don’t think we’re looking at oppression in the same light.
I’m speaking of the kind of oppression where the fear of God’s wrath, God’s rejection, or even the fear of being unworthy of His love that is so deeply imbedded in your brain that failing to do what is believed to be “the right thing” results in self-condemnation and self-loathing. The kind where you always feel short of being good enough and always striving to do more for God with no end in sight. The kind of oppression where you know deep in your heart what is true and yet the very religion that taught you where to look for Him is also preventing you from being completely in His embrace. The kind of oppression where you feel more at home in the company of who they call their enemies than the very people that are supposed to be your brothers and sisters.

I mean, have you felt that kind of oppression? In saying “stabilizing effect on social groups,” is that what you mean? And who’s stabilizing the “godless heathens” you refer to?

I apologize for getting emotional...but that’s what I mean when I say that religion has power over us.


I read this quote on Timmo’s blog, Thalesian Fools, in which James Cone states that “theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed.”

It is a brilliant quote. Cone may not have been referring to the religion itself when he talked of oppression; but to me, there isn’t a more powerful oppressor than religion. I wish Timmo would have expounded more with his thoughts on this, as well spoken as he is. The irony, in my view, is that the desire for freedom cannot exist without the feeling of oppression. I have to wonder if it is possible for us to sustain a relationship with Christ without an oppressor. Perhaps God and religion must coexist…


I should have some sort of a grand conclusion here where I tie everything together. But I don’t. To me, there is no conclusion to this ongoing dilemma. One side continues to falsely represent God, and the other side continues to reject the idea. All I’m saying is that the one who continues to search for an answer is closer to the truth than the one who thinks he already has the answer.

In closing, let me just clarify myself so you know where I stand: I am a Christian yet I do not subscribe to Christianity as the force that dictates how I live my life. I believe in the unconditional love of God, and yet I don’t see it as a choice. I believe in the freedom that Christ offers us, yet I remain a part of the religion that chokes the hell out of me. I rebel against everything, yet I love all those people that I challenge and confront. Sometimes, I even catch myself saying something totally out of line with what I really believe. Do we not need to constantly question ourselves and be questioned by others so we can together get closer to the truth?

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Blogger Matt M said...

I'll definitely have more to say later, but for the moment I just want to post this quote from Bertrand Russell:

Churches may owe their origin to teachers with strong individual convictions, but these teachers have seldom had much influence upon the churches that they have founded, whereas churches have had enormous influence upon the communities in which they flourished. To take the case that is of most interest to members of Western civilization: the teaching of Christ, as it appears in the Gospels, has had extraordinarily little to do with the ethics of Christians. The most important thing about Christianity, from a social and historical point of view, is not Christ but the church, and if we are to judge of Christianity as a social force we must not go to the Gospels for our material. Christ taught that you should give your goods to the poor, that you should not fight, that you should not go to church, and that you should not punish adultery. Neither Catholics nor Protestants have shown any strong desire to follow His teaching in any of these respects. Some of the Franciscans, it is true, attempted to teach the doctrine of apostolic poverty, but the Pope condemned them, and their doctrine was declared heretical. Or, again, consider such a text as "Judge not, that ye be not judged," and ask yourself what influence such a text has had upon the Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan.

I think that most people (religious and non-religious alike) should be aware that being religious and believing in God aren't necessarily the same thing.

6:30 AM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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7:10 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Russell's knowledge of the Bible was far greater than mine, so I can't really comment on his interpretation.

But I do think he's right about there often being a considerable gap between what the founder of a church teaches and what that church then goes on to teach.

For me, regardless of whether its founder was divine or not, religions are essentially man-made - our interpretation of what someone tried to teach us. As such they're susceptible to the same frailties we all are - vanity, greed, ego, authoritarianism, etc. which makes them questionable - sometimes even dangerous - intermediaries between people and their Gods.

When I was still a theist, one of the things that turned me off organised religion was the way it so often stood opposed to scientific thinking.

If we were created by a divine being then we were given the ability to reason for a purpose. The idea that this reason, and the scientific theories built upon it, cannot be trusted and must often by outright rejected just doesn't make any sense to me.

What kind of being would make something so fundamental to our existence and then consistently undermine it?

If there is a God then I doubt we'll find Him/Her/It/Them through the churches and the religions they build around them.

8:41 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Questions should be raised and discussions should ensue. How else are we going to see the truth?

I think that brilliantly encapsulates why Alex started this blog.

It always annoys me when people start talking about comments or critiques that shouldn't be made, normally because they might offend someone.

As far as I'm concerned, if it's put forward in the honest pursuit of truth there is no question that shouldn't be asked.

The way a question is asked, however, is important - as it determines how we should respond to it.

I've sometimes seen questions raised about whether atheism is the result of a psychological failing (rebellion against our fathers then becomes a rebellion against God, etc.) and it's something that I used to find insulting. But the more I've thought about it the more I've realised that what's important isn't the question but the way/reason it's asked: If posed in a "what's wrong with you?" manner then it is quite insulting (as the aim is to dismiss rather than understand), but if it's asked in a genuine attempt to understand atheism then it's a perfectly valid question.

In the first case, I think that the question can be ignored - nothing you say will make the slightest difference to the person answering it. In the second, I think that an open and honest question deserves an equally open and honest answer.

9:15 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Sorry, I misunderstood your question when you asked whether I had been oppressed by religion. I took it to mean whether I had been discriminated against for being an atheist.

"And who’s stabilizing the “godless heathens” you refer to?

This raises the important question as to whether we still need organised religion, even if it provided an important element of social cohesion in the distant past. With the progress of science and civil liberty, we have progressed beyond the need for a crude authoritarianism social structure, with its monarch and its aristocracy. Concepts such as inalienable rights are supported by reason alone, and so through material knowledge we are slowly relieving ourselves of the myths that once helped give us the illusion of knowledge in the past.

The stumbling block here is that the importance of material knowledge in making this transition from organised religion to a less primitive and authoritarian alternative introduces an aspect of elitism. It takes a lot of thinking to understand why morality doesn't just disappear because there is no deity.

One of the appealing aspects of Christianity back in its infancy was that it was a great equalizer. Its followers were all considered equal before God, and equal in terms of knowledge of God. It's why the Imperial Romans despised Christianity so much; it arose on a platform of spiritual socialism that pitted itself against the patrician system and the priest-class. That of course changed with the merging of Imperial Roman government and church, but it was that initial equality that helped Christianity spread through and beyond the Middle East so quickly. The Reformation was an attempt to rejuvenate that equality in knowledge, although IMHO the effects were fairly disastrous in so much that it led to an even stronger appeal to the authority of scripture.

I think much of the conflict between religion and science right now is really about the anti-establishment sentiments of a group of people who, rightly or wrongly, feel that their position in society is being undermined by an intellectual elite claiming to have higher knowledge of the mysteries of the world. The difference between the scientist and the priest is clear from an objective viewpoint, but from the subjective viewpoint of a person who cannot understand General Relativity, or Darwinism, or quantum mechanics, they are merely exchanging one faith for another.

12:33 PM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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12:58 PM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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2:18 PM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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2:35 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"Ouch! That hurts! I'll have to think on that for a while... (I'm choosing to believe you said it in a loving way.)"

Sorry, the comment wasn't directed at you. It was a general comment about the fact that for many people who aren't specialists in a given area of scientific expertise, much has to be taken on faith. The scientist is a go-between with regard to interpreting a certain science in the same way that a priest might be a go-between on matters of scripture. Of course, every scientist is a layman when he is removed from his specialist field.

7:13 PM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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7:52 PM

Blogger Timmo said...

Hmmm..... Is that REALLY what he taught? I can't say that I fully agree.

Yes, Christ definitely did teach these things.

We should give our goods to the poor: Matthew 19:16 - 30

We ought not fight: Matthew 5:38-42

Most contentiously, perhaps, we ought to be wary of churches (people who claim to be Christians): Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 23:1-36

We ought not punish adultery: Matthew 7:1-11 and, especially, John 8:1-11.

8:28 PM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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11:20 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

for many people who aren't specialists in a given area of scientific expertise, much has to be taken on faith.

I think this is an interesting area - for the most part I trust scientists as they and their predecessors have often come up with the goods: without them we wouldn't be having this "e-discussion", for example.

But I'm not so sure I'd describe it as being taken on faith.

My reasons for trusting science as much as I do are largely pragmatic. I believe a number of theories are valid because they have clear practical applications - if my computer works then I'll assume the scientific theories behind it are more or less valid.

In the case of less observable theories, evolution for example, I again have to fit what it says to what I experience for myself: I can see that genetic variation and competition for resources exist and the logical outcome of this is adaptation. Looking at the fossil record tends to suggest that this adaptation can radically change a species given enough time. so to this extent I accept the theory of evolution.

When it comes to theories involving atomic structure, I accept that they must have some validity because they've lead to both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. So I believe that theories regarding the formation and life-cycle of stars are probably on the right track.

But the fact that scientists can be wrong doesn't alter my opinion of them. If it turned out that Quantum theory was complete rubbish or that stars mysteriously become rectangle-shaped every so often it wouldn't damage my opinion of evolution, etc. because it's my application of these theories to the observable universe that provides the source of their legitimacy, not the credentials of the people who came up with them.

6:18 AM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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7:25 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

You said,
"...but absolutely positively NOT for scripture"

Then you said,
"Can we look at the concept of what He was trying to teach? Jesus is a master at metaphors."

So interpretation is still very important, isn't it? I appreciate that one must be skeptical of another who claims to know the 'right' interpretation, but any scripture that is full of allegory is going to be difficult to translate without some form of guidance. It seems to me that allowing and encouraging people to interpret scripture literally is when the problems start.

Matt said,
"But I'm not so sure I'd describe it as being taken on faith."

The more knowledge possessed, the less faith required; I suppose that's the difference between Faith and faith. For a lot of people, however, that knowledge is limited when it comes to science, and not always due to their lack of effort. The Pharmaceutical industry jealously guards its knowledge to the point where it is very much a faith position for any patient to agree to a certain type of medicine. Sometimes, and this is where trust in the scientific establishment has faltered, that faith is not justified and people are harmed.

I find it horrific that President MBeki believes that AIDs treatments are little more than pharmaceutical industry propaganda, but a quick glance at the history of the pharmaceutical industry in Africa and one realises that such paranoia is not entirely unjustified.

In an ideal world, nobody would have to accept scientific explanation on faith, but merely the evidence. However, because some are unable to understand that knowledge, or are not allowed access to it (only recently are scientific journals giving free public access to their contents), there is a certain element of faith involved. I just thing scientists have to be cognizant of that and not dismiss doubters out of hand (as I feel Dawkins does), and actually engage them and address their issues.

"...it's my application of these theories to the observable universe that provides the source of their legitimacy"

Agreed, in so much that most of us have a sufficient power of reason not to fall into the cargo-cult trap. That a proffered explanation fits in with our observed world - i.e. has a high level of "truthiness" - is not necessarily testament to its truth, and arguably underlies the emergence of religion in the first place.

That atomic theory underlies nuclear power has a high level of truthiness, but can we really be sure that it isn't in the result of a gang of Freemasons chanting in a pentagram, before the Eye of Ra, invoking forth the infernal vapours of Hades?

... can we?

9:18 AM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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2:23 PM

Blogger Timmo said...

Just thinking,

I'd like to focus on Matthew 19:16-30. (We can still discuss the other passages, if you like.) Here Jesus is approached by a rich young man asking Jesus what to do in order to attain eternal life. Jesus tells the man to follow the commandments, and not commit adultery, steal, bear false witnesss, honor his parents, and love his neighbors. But, when the man says he has kept these precepts, Jesus replies,

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treature in heaven. Then come, follow me... I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

There are multiple themes at play in this passage, such as God's unique goodness, goodness which we invariably fall short of (Mat. 19:17). There is another theme here, too: our moral duty to give our goods to the poor and destitute. In this connection, you may be interested to read Gustavo Gutierrez' classic A Theology of Liberation.

Do you remember the parable of the rich man and the begger? The rich man dined finely each day, while the begger starved. By hoarding his goods, he left the begger -- his neighbor -- to suffer.

Of course, as I said above, there are other themes at play in Matthew 19:16-30. The rich man leaves Jesus disappointed. Why? He was willing to follow Christ up to a point. Attachment to our possessions distracts us from Christ -- it is spiritually dangerous and will numb us in the long run. Christ demands that we give ourselves to Him entirely, which means He comes before everything else, that He has top priority.

So, it seems to me that Jesus does teach us to give our goods to the poor. It has at least the dual purpose of easing the suffering of our neighbors, but also guarding us from attachments which have the effect of drawing our gaze from the glory of God.

7:48 PM

Blogger Just Thinking said...

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3:38 PM

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