Why I’m not an Atheist #3 – Jesus

Everything Iʼve said to this point you might describe as the negative reasons for my not being an atheist — things which others find persuasive about atheism which I donʼt find persuasive.

But the strongest reason I refrain from choosing atheism is because of Jesus. I suppose itʼs natural for someone like myself to be categorised as a ʻtheistʼ, but I feel no particular attachment to theism per se. I am a Christian — if I am a theist, it is not because I have highly developed arguments for theism which have led me there. It is because I am convinced — rightly or wrongly — that God took on human form in the man Jesus Christ, and that he did so in order to save humanity from his own judgement.

But again atheism is quick to expose my convictions as a delusion.

“Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history…” (The God Delusion, p. 122)

Why do I hold on to my convictions about the historicity of Jesus Christ when there is so
much scholarship indicating itʼs a myth generated over time?

Well, the thing about this scholarship Dawkinsʼ talks about is that it doesnʼt actually exist.

I donʼt mean that there are NO scholars that propose the kind of things Dawkinsʼ says, but that the claim that ʻreputable biblical scholars in generalʼ say this kind of thing is just not defensible. There are SOME scholars who make those kind of claims, and often do so not in journals but in publishing direct to the public.

But reading a little more widely than just Richard Dawkins, and Barbara Thiering, you discover that within scholarship itself there is large ʻmiddle groundʼ which just gets on and analyses the NT documents in just the same way you would analyse any other document from history — neither to debunk nor to defend Christianity, but to see what they say historically. Sweeping claims that that scholarship slants towards a mythological reading of those gospels is just absurd. It shows that Dawkins is not acquainted with serious historical scholarship, or chooses not to write about.

Terry Eagleton is a marxist scholar who wrote a justly famous review of Dawkins book. In it he had this to say about Dawkinsʼ engagement with scholarship:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they donʼt believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday. – Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, London Review of Books, October 19, 2006.

In talking about Jesus, I need to address that historical question, because you may be expecting me to defend my convictions about the historical Jesus. But I would suggest the shoe is on the other foot — if you are convinced of the mythology of the gospels, and heir mutilation over time … where have those convictions come from? Why are you so sure of them? Is it because you understand the history, or because you have taken on faith the claims of certain scholars and writers? I know you can run off to the web, or pull out the God Delusion and find someone who agrees with you — but Christians can do that too.

Finding someone to agree with you can help, but it doesnʼt make it right.

For me, there is good reason to understand the documents of the New Testament as providing a historically reliable connection with Jesus Christ. The documents were written by eyewitness, or were the words of the eyewitnesses written down within the lifetime of those who had lived with Jesus. There were many other gospels, but these were second century documents that synthesised the original Jesus with 2nd century gnosticism — which was the reason for their rejection. The transmission of the documents was not without error, but there are so many copies of the NT from different periods and different regions that the copying errors are pretty easy to identify, and very few of them are of any real significance.

Now they are just claims, and there is historical data behind those claims — I did a whole talk on it at CU last semester called “True Words?”— you can listen to it on CUʼs website if you want.

So when I say that Jesus is the definitive reason that Iʼm not an atheist, I hope you donʼt think to yourself, Well heʼs just deluded, and has an imaginary friend called Jesus, or that Iʼm worshipping some later myth about Jesus. When I say Jesus, I mean the real historical Jesus who I think it is plausible to believe was a man who claimed to be both the son of God and the saviour of the world.

But itʼs not Jesusʼ historicity — itʼs Jesus himself who is the main reason why I interpret atheism’s claims negatively.

I donʼt worship Jesus because Iʼve got good arguments about him — I worship him because he is supremely worthy of worship. He is the creator who has written himself into his creation. I hope you will forgive me if I speak about him!

He claimed to be without sin; he claimed to be God, and did things that only God could do; he claimed to be the only path to reconciliation with God. It was because of those claims that Jesus was treated without compassion. He wasnʼt crucified for telling people to love each other — but for claiming to be the king! He was lied about, arrested, endured a mock trial, beaten, whipped, nailed to a cross and a crowd mocked him and spat on him. In the face of that rejection, on the cross, his concern was for the forgiveness of his enemies. In his death, he paid a penalty, enduring our death for us – that we could be forgiven. The creator died for us in order to reconcile us to himself.

Jesus confronts us: he says we are corrupt, not just morally, but intellectually. That in cut
ting ourselves off from God we have forced ourselves into a position of having to invent
alternative explanations for the world that donʼt include God.

So I have a choice — I can listen to what the atheist says about Jesus (a mythological figure, misunderstood by Christians), or listen to what Jesus says about the atheist (humans loved by God but in rebellion against him creating philosophies with which to remove Godʼs influence). Each has an explanatory power about the other — itʼs not an easy decision. I am not an atheist, because I have listened to Jesus and for my part, I am persuaded he speaks truth.

Why I’m not an atheist #2 – Scientific Naturalism is powerful, but not enough.

I resist naturalistic explanations of my belief in God.

Atheist still use philosophical arguments, but it seems they are more a tool for unsettling Christians rather than the lifeblood of atheism. What seems to give much of modern atheism its strength is that in scientific naturalism it has found a way of explaining the world that doesnʼt need God. The philosophical argument still has its place of atheism, but it is less urgent and less pressing. The best argument against understanding the world in a theistic way is to provide an elegant, attractive, powerful mode of explanation that has no need for God.

The scientific naturalist mode of explaining the world is very powerful. It is indeed an impressive and elegant human achievement to have come up with this naturalist explanation of the world.

And yet I hold out on this very powerful way of understanding the world.

Why maintain a belief in God, when there is a very reasonable explanation of the world that doesnʼt require God? Indeed why am I not an atheist?

A couple of reasons:

Firstly, I maintain a difference between the conclusions reached by science, and the
assertions made by naturalism
.

Science is a methodology. It takes as its starting point observation – physical evidence of
one sort of another is the means by which science discovers physical causes.
You can do lots with the methodology of science. Itʼs very powerful! But one thing you cannot do with science is prove that physical causes is all there is. You assert a conclusion if it has already been woven into your methodology at the start. Naturalism conscripts science — it says: Look at all the physical causes science has discovered, and science can explain how it all works, so there must be no other causes.

But the interpretation of your scientific conclusions depends not on your science, but on your philosophy.

I look at the conclusions of science, and I see in them a discovery of how God has done things in the world.

A naturalist looks at the conclusions of science and says, There is no need for God.

Both assertions are beyond the realm of science — there is no scientific experiment you can do that can prove one over against the other. Any observational data you find will just fit into a prior philosophical framework you have established for yourself.

This is why some of you are agnostic rather than atheist. You are committed to the scientific method, but have seen that it is not in itself sufficient to say anything about God, for or against. We decide on other basis. Science is like a big bucket — an enormous bucket — that you can plumb the depths of the ocean with. But just because youʼve got a full bucket doesnʼt mean youʼve got the whole ocean. Itʼs far too imperialistic to claim that!

But secondly, I reject naturalism as a philosophy because it is too powerful.
Iʼll need to explain what I mean!

Naturalism explains my convictions about God in evolutionary terms. This is one of the humorous back and forths that always happens when atheists and Christians engage: the Christian will present some sort of reason or fact why the atheist should believe in God, and the atheist will respond with: Well I can explain fact using just natural physical explanations. I point to the fine tuning of the universe as evidence that God made it; the naturalist says, that doesnʼt prove God, because, as unlikely as it is, sheer random forces just made it like this.

I point to the number of people around the world, and throughout history  who believe in God, as evidence that we are hardwired for God — but the naturalist explains all such belief as a kind of  by-product of our evolutionary development … religion has helped us survive, but that doesnʼt prove thereʼs a God. I point to the beauty and design in the world and all the things we value, as signs that we are built and created by and for someone greater than ourselves; but the naturalist will encourage me to be suspicious of my perceptions “The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before” Dawkins writes.

Thereʼs a long list of things that evolutionary naturalism is powerful to destroy and tear down, and the harder atheists use it with entertaining and formidable skill.

But hereʼs my question: why stop with religion? If religion is the product of evolutionary
adaptation, then why not rationality? Why ought I to be suspicious of my perceptions of design, but not suspicious of my perceptions of whatʼs rational?

If evolutionary naturalism is true, then ʻrationalityʼ is not to be explained as some characteristic of our species that connects us with the real world — it is merely a characteristic of the species that  helps us survive better in the real world. The power of reason depends on its objectivity — that it is really true and connects me to the world in a way that is true. But evolution is not interested in truth — itʼs just interested in survival. What we think about the world may be nothing more than a dream, an invention of our pragmatic minds.

Darwin himself realised this, and wrote to a friend:

“With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of manʼs mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”

Naturalism is a very powerful sword. Naturalism does away with God, to be sure. But in the process, it does away with everything. Nothing we know or perceive can be depended on as connecting us to the real world — anything our brains tell us are merely the product of evolutionary adaption. If physical forces really do explain everything, then they must truly be allowed to explain everything — even my own explanations. It is just a case of special pleading to ʻexemptʼ naturalism from its own razor.

Naturalism, and atheism, in terms of what it actually teaches, seems to me to be a counsel of despair. My love for my family, my concern for others, the reasons I get out of bed in the morning — all of them are illusions, and irredeemably so.

Now please donʼt misunderstand me: I donʼt mean that every atheist is living in despair!
Iʼm glad to say thatʼs not the case. But if the physical evolutionary causes are the only explanation for life you have, how can you assert the reality of meaning of any kind? Itʼs not enough to say that you do assert the existence of meaning and love and beauty! When I hear atheists do that, I just think they are talking as a semi-Christianised atheist, still spending some cultural credit hanging around from Christianity! Itʼs not enough to say evolutionary naturalism doesnʼt lead to meaningless for you — you have to show why it shouldnʼt?

Why I’m not an Atheist #1 – Because my Parents weren’t

I put this as the first reason for not being an atheist, not because itʼs most important, or because it  is representative of how someone stays out of atheism — itʼs not. But because for many atheists this is the great explanatory factor behind my theism.

Only a fool would deny the influence of parents and society. Itʼs a helpful analysis of the way in which we come to believe the things that we believe — the sociology of knowledge.

But is that sufficient to sink my “non-atheism” right in the beginning?

Well that would only be the case if in fact other forms of knowledge were free from the same kind of sociology. But all knowledge is sociological to one degree or another. Only a  fool would say that every thought he ever had, heʼd come up with himself. Most of our  thoughts come from others. We all belong to a community of one sort or another that reinforces the plausibility of some beliefs  and discourages other kinds of beliefs.

The atheist PR machine likes to talk as if itʼs the exception — it talks as if atheism is the conviction one arrives at when you start thinking for yourself.

But the more I look at atheism, the more it seems to me that there are plenty of others to help you do your thinking. Richard Dawkins writes about the aim of his book like this:

“My dream is that this book may help people to come out. Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out, the easier it will be for others to join them. There may be a critical mass for the initiation of a chain reaction.”

Dawkins aim is not simply to present the arguments, and let the arguments speak for themselves. Rather his aim is, one might say, a sociological one — he hopes to give people courage to own their convictions through the knowledge that there are others who share them. And through that, others might be encouraged to join the thronging crowd.

But Dawkins is not being deceptive. Itʼs the way all human knowledge works. We are not  just rational beings — we are also relational beings, who depend on each other for all sorts of things, knowledge included. The fact that I depend on something for my knowledge does not make me irrational, it makes me human.

I talk to a lot of university students who are atheist or agnostic, who all use the same kind  of arguments. Did they all really, somehow astonishingly, come up with the same arguments independent of each other? No, the majority have just bought into intellectual trends of the day — they have been ʻindoctrinatedʼ, and most donʼt have the sense to see it. (They really think they think for themselves!) They disbelieve, in other words, because they were born in the West! If theyʼd been born in Iran, odds are, they would believe something completely different.

Luckily for atheists, their beliefs might still be true irrespective of the fact that they got them from their culture — but that would need to be demonstrated in some other way. Which is how I treat my Christian convictions — theyʼre not true because my parents believed them, but neither are they deceptive just for that reason either.