Archives For Atheism

This is a nice little segment from a TV show where one of the UK’s most famous Christians – Bear Grylls, has a conversation with one of the UK’s most famous atheists – Stephen Fry. And they are respectful. And civil. And that’s why adversarial debates are a stupid model of apologetics (well, that and they’re usually disconnected from the Gospel).

Krauss v Lane Craig round 2 happened in Sydney last night. The head to head is producing interesting conversations around the traps – and these are a good thing.

The conversation I’m keen to keep pursuing is the nature of properly Christian apologetics.

Here’s something William Lane Craig said in a pre-round 2 preview in Eternity

“E: Some Christians would say that if you don’t get the gospel out, or talk about Jesus in these discussions, then you lose. What do you think?

Oh, you won’t hear a gospel presentation tonight. It has nothing to do with Christianity per se tonight. We as Christians share with Jews, Muslims and even deists a common commitment to the existence of a creator and designer of the universe, who is the ultimate reality and from which everything else derives, and that’s what I’m defending tonight. This is a broad, theistic claim in opposition to Dr Krauss’ atheism.”

Since that question pretty much articulates the objection I raised in my previous post, I thought I might bash out this response.

I think the Apostle Paul would be horrified with this methodology.

I think this reconstruction of Paul’s feelings matters when thinking about how we defend our faith because I think Paul is perhaps the most effective Christian apologist of all time, and apart from Jesus, the best model for Christian engagement with the world and the intellectual defence of Christian belief (I won’t argue it here – read my project). Or read Acts 17 and Paul’s appearance before the Areopagus. Or try to account for Christianity still existing today without Paul’s contribution to Christianity today…

This statement means William Lane Craig went into a debate, deliberately limited by the title of the debate, and resolved NOT to know Jesus and him crucified. 

I can’t imagine Paul ever doing this. I can’t imagine any Christian apologist doing this – let me clarify. I think William Lane Craig is a Christian. And I think he’s an apologist. I think it’s just clear the “Christian” doesn’t qualify the “apologist” function.

I wonder if part of the problem is that in order to “give an account” for the hope that we have, we’ve tried to answer every objection people who don’t know Jesus might have when it comes to Christianity. That seems to be Craig’s modus operandi – convince people to be a theist and that will naturally lead them to Christianity – but Paul seems to pretty consistently aim to present the resurrection of the dead – particularly the resurrection of Jesus – because that is the absolute basis – the ground zero – of intellectual objection to Christianity.

It’s the point at which Christianity is falsifiable, and the point Christianity hangs on in terms of all the claims it makes about our status before God.

“16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” – 1 Corinthians 15

23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. – Romans 4

The intellectual offence Christianity presents is not that we believe in God – if we think it is, we’re giving far too much ground to the New Atheists.

Using a platform where you’re speaking to thousands of people who are interested in the relative truth claims made by Christianity and atheism to deliberately not articulate the core of Christianity – Jesus, his incarnation as revelation, his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead – is negligent at best.

That is where most objections to Christianity come from. That is where the offence is. The crucifixion. The resurrection. It has been since day one. The crucifixion has become such a core part of our cultural narrative – count the crosses you see in the average day – that the offence of the cross has been lost a bit.

But it was offensive. Here’s what Cicero said about 70 years before Jesus.

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

It was equally offensive to Paul’s Jewish audience. Here’s what Moses said in Deuteronomy 21.

22 If someone guilty of a capital offence is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, 23 you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

The Cross was – and still should be – an incredible impediment to apologetics, but it should also, I think, shape our approach to apologetics (see my earlier thoughts on Lawrence Krauss v WLC).

Apart from the Christians – who were actually accused of atheism in the Roman Empire – the Stoics were the closest thing to atheists going round in the first century. They were driven by rationality. They pursued decision making free from emotions. They were idealists. There’s something incredibly appealing about the Stoic framework. They certainly didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

And this is where Paul goes in Athens. When he’s speaking to a Stoic audience – he doesn’t argue from cosmology – and in some sense the Stoics did with nature what the New Atheists do with science. Or present a sort of abstract monotheism – even though he’s talking to people who are potentially pantheistic, if not atheistic (though you couldn’t really get away with atheism in Rome). Here’s what the Stoic founding fathers believed.

 

The substance of God is declared by Zeno to be the whole world and the heaven, as well as by Chrysippus in his first book Of the Gods, and by Posidonius in his first book with the same title. Again, Antipater in the seventh book of his work On the Cosmos says that the substance of God is akin to air, while Boëthus in his work On Nature speaks of the sphere of the fixed stars as the substance of God. Now the term Nature is used by them to mean sometimes that which holds the world together, sometimes that which causes terrestrial things to spring up. Nature is defined as a force moving of itself, producing and preserving in being its offspring in accordance with seminal principles within definite periods, and effecting results homogeneous with their sources

“God is one and the same with Reason, Fate, and Zeus ; he is also called by many other names. In the beginning he was by himself” – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Here’s what the poetic account of the founding of Athens declares about the resurrection…

Oh, monsters utterly loathed and detested by the gods! Zeus could undo fetters, there is a remedy for that, and many means of release. But when the dust has drawn up the blood of a man, once he is dead, there is no return to life. – Aeschylus, The Eumenides

So Paul is facing an essentially pantheistic/polytheistic audience who build and certify gods for every cause – and rather than providing evidence for a monotheistic God that the Deists would be happy with – he simply asserts that God exists and created the world on the way to getting to the real offence of the gospel.

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

I think part of the problem I have with WLC is that we seem to have a profoundly different answer to the following question.

PB: What is your best evidence there is no God, and what’s the best evidence there is a God?

Well, I would say that the best evidence that there is a God is that the hypothesis that God exists explains a wide range of the data of human experience that’s very diverse. So it’s an extremely powerful hypothesis. It gives you things like an explanation of the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, of intelligent life. But also the presence of mind in the cosmos, an objective foundation for moral values and duties, and things of that sort—it’s a wide range of data that makes sense on a theistic worldview.

The best evidence there is God is the historical Jesus. The creator entering the creation and revealing himself through his word made flesh. God became man and changed the world. That’s the best evidence for God. It’s also got to be the basis of our apologetics or we’re getting the foundations all wrong.

To the Editor, Prospect Magazine,

Dear sir, it has come to my attention as a citizen of the internet, that your, until recently, esteemed publication has named polemicist Richard Dawkins as number one on your “world thinkers” list for this year.

I understand that this poll is, in essence, well in every sense, a popularity contest, and thus is not really indicative of the intellectual lay of the land… or globe. Even if some 70% of practicing “philosophers” are atheists according to a recent study, Richard Dawkins isn’t even atheism’s top thinker. Alain de Botton, and Lawrence Krauss must surely trump him in the brain stakes. Ricky Gervais tops him in the wit stakes. And Penn Jillette tops him in the making magic appear to happen when he opens his mouth or moves his hands stakes…

Far be it from me, an unpublished writer of an unpopular, by any real measure, blog, to call your judgment into account when it comes to publishing this sort of list after soliciting advice from an expert panel constituted of “the masses” (I understand your survey drew more than “10,000 votes from over 100 countries” in “online polls”) but I just wanted to humbly remind you that this is, after all, the same internet that attempted to send Justin Bieber to North Korea, sent Pit Bull to Alaska, and continues to be enamoured with web polls that present opportunities for Pharyngulation. This feels a lot like one of those events.

You see, dear Prospect, there is a real chance that in proclaiming that the person with a large social media presence is the world’s foremost thinker, in a study that is a result of a poll conducted on the Internet, that you may open yourselves to being considered what the youth of today might call a “numbnuts”… such polls aren’t just open to manipulation, they lend themselves to manipulation, and your analysis of the poll which trumpets the power of social media essentially invites manipulation.

Dawkins, as much more learned people than I – like literary critic Terry Eagleton – would attest, is guilty of a little bit of overreaching when it comes to lambasting his opponents, and underreaching when it comes to, well, thinking… As Eagleton puts it (in the London Review of Books):

“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 don’t 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…

…Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.”

In Dawkin’s defence – he doesn’t have time to worry about sky fairies, or publishing intellectually credible and honest works – he’s lining his pockets with the proceeds of the angry anti-religious screeds published in the guise of popular science or philosophy books – and as you point out in his bio, appeasing his horde of Twitter disciples with cameo turns on the Simpsons. He is a busy gent. He’s too busy to debate serious opponents, and he’s been far too busy to publish original academic work in a peer reviewed science journal since 1980. You know this. Because your own biography of the world’s leading thinker has almost nothing to say about his capacity as a thinker.

When Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene 37 years ago, he can’t have anticipated its current popularity as a word to describe internet fads. But this is only one of the ways in which he thrives as an intellectual in the internet age. He is also prolific on Twitter, with more than half a million followers—and his success in this poll attests to his popularity online. He uses this platform to attack his old foe, religion, and to promote science and rationalism. Uncompromising as his message may be, he’s not averse to poking fun at himself: in March he made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, lending his voice to a demon version of himself.

How deliciously ironic that in trying to feed an internet culture predicated on the popularity of memes, and the sharability of lists, that you’ve given top billing to this English gentleman and then damned him with faint praise. Is this the biography of a leading intellectual? I’ve bolded the bits that refer to his contributions as a “thinker” rather than as a rabid attack dog operating in an area in which he has only the credibility afforded him by his tribe of minions.

37 years ago he had a good idea. And now he’s a crotchety old man with a megaphone. Here are ten “public intellectuals” with more Twitter followers than Dawkins who you might like to consider for next year’s list. I’ve put stars next to the ones who have been on the Simpsons.

  1. Justin Bieber (approx 39.1 million)*
  2. Lady Gaga (approx 37.3 million)*
  3. Katy Perry (approx 36.5 million)*
  4. Rihanna (approx 29.6 million)
  5. Taylor Swift (approx 27.8 million)
  6. Britney Spears (approx 26.9 million)*
  7. Shakira (approx 20.6 million)
  8. Justin Timberlake (approx 20.2 million)* (in N Sync)
  9. J-Lo (approx 18.2 million)
  10. Kim Kardashian (approx 17.8 million)

I hope this helps. I look forward to reading a more rigorously and well thought out (ie not dumb) approach to identifying “world thinkers” in the future. Unless your link bait strategy was to be very clever and ironic and I’ve missed the joke.

Sincerely,

Nathan

I’ve been thinking a little more about one of the points I was chewing over as I wrote yesterday’s thing about church for atheists – just how De Botton’s proposed London temple seems geared to produce some sort of nihilistically driven depression because it makes it clear that people are oh so insignificant in the scheme of the universe.

you are here
Image: Total perspective (arrow not to scale).

It’s a horrible narrative to find yourself part of… unless you’re prepared to buy into the idea that you’re totally at the heart of the universe. Which is, of course, what happened with Zaphod Beeblebrox when he confronted the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy story The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Total Perspective Vortex is a torture chamber that leaves most people in a nihilistic malaise, broken by the realisation of their own abject insignificance. It does this pretty much by presenting the same truth that De Botton proposes to celebrate…

“When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.””

That sort of perspective hurts…

“At that moment another dismal scream rent the air and Zaphod shuddered.

“What can do that to a guy?” he breathed.

“The Universe,” said Gargravarr simply, “the whole infinite Universe. The infinite suns, the infinite distances between them, and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.”

In the book, the guy who built it did so because his wife nagged him…

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

The vortex is a little chamber, with a single door, that contains the whole universe…

“At the far side of it stood a single upright steel box, just large enough for a man to stand in.
It was that simple. It connected to a small pile of components and instruments via a single thick wire.
“Is that it?” said Zaphod in surprise.
“That is it.”
Didn’t look too bad, thought Zaphod.
“And I get in there do I?” said Zaphod.
“You get in there,” said Gargravarr, “and I’m afraid you must do it now.”
“OK, OK,” said Zaphod.
He opened the door of the box and stepped in.
Inside the box he waited.
After five seconds there was a click, and the entire Universe was there in the box with him.”

Zaphod survives, without spoiling the story, because he enters it in a fake universe where he is the centre – so the perspective provided by the Vortex actually affirms that he is uniquely, and specially, the figure at the heart of the universe.

“It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy. Didn’t I tell you, baby, I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox!”

Here, as a reminder, is what De Botton is proposing… the Temple to Perspective.


Image Credit: The Guardian – for an interesting, more to scale version, check out this pic from artinfo.com

Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence… The temple features a single door for visitors who will enter as if it were an art installation. The roof will be open to the elements and there could be fossils and geologically interesting rocks in the concrete walls.

He thinks that’ll produce awe, not depression…

“The dominant feeling you should get will be awe – the same feeling you get when you tip your head back in Ely cathedral,” he said. “You should feel small but not in an intimidated way.”

I’d say Douglas Adams is closer to the truth. Unless you can find a way to provide yourself with value and significance, the universe is a very big place, and it’s going to blow your mind.

I reckon the Psalms, in the Bible, have a much better account for human perspective than Adams or De Botton. While the universe is really big, the Psalmist, in Psalm 8, points out that God is bigger. This both inspires awe, and gives value to humans…

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

But the story gets better. This is perspective – and it’s a perspective that gives value. This God isn’t just interested in humanity corporately – but in individuals… Here’s half of Psalm 139. We don’t get in the box and perceive the universe, the God who created the universe perceives us…

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

The story gets better again in Jesus… This is why Christians – not just the religious people who believe in a creator God – have the best narrative to tell and be part of… We become part of the story because God steps in, he doesn’t just know us, he loves us, and makes us his children by giving us his Spirit. It’s the complete opposite to De Botton’s temple. We’re not small and insignificant in the scheme of the universe – the God who created the universe gives himself to us… and dwells in us… here’s how Paul spells it out in Romans 8…

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

I’m not suggesting you should pick truth based on what the best story is – but this is the sort of perspective that is going to produce awe and a good and happy life, based on being valued by an infinite personal and relational entity, not a small and depressed life based on being a speck in the scheme of an infinite universe that doesn’t care if you expire tomorrow.


Image Credit: The first Sunday Assembly Meeting, BBC

Meet The Sunday Assembly. An atheist “church”…

“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that will meet on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more.

Come on down to hear inspirational speakers and to enjoy a morning that is part-foot stomping show, part-atheist church.”

The atheist church: it’s all about you…

The church’s co-founders wrote a piece as part of the same New York Times conversation as Penn Gillete’s piece I wrote about the other day.

“We started The Sunday Assembly… because the idea of meeting once a month to sing songs, hear great speakers and celebrate the incredible gift of life seems like a fun, and useful, thing to do.

What’s more, church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked). Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. (Our first reading was Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena bit.) A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.”

This seems to be building on the theme of philosopher Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists (incidentally for a more eloquent treatment of De Botton’s work than you’ll find here, or elsewhere, be sure to read Dan Anderson’s observations on a night with De Botton while he was on the Australian leg of his book tour).

De Botton gave this talk at TED.com that spells out his thinking.

Here’s a summary of De Botton’s thesis in the book, from his own website:

Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, Alain (a non-believer himself) proposes that we should look to religions for insights into, among other concerns, how to:

  • build a sense of community
  • make our relationships last
  • overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy
  • escape the twenty-four hour media
  • go travelling
  • get more out of art, architecture and music
  • and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs.

De Botton has taken his idea a little further than the gathering (the ekklesia – which is the word we translate as “church”), he’s planning to build an atheist temple in the middle of London’s finance district.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good. That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective … Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism has become known as a destructive force… De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.”

His proposal has been pretty soundly criticised by other atheists who are less willing to buy into anything that uses “atheist” and “religion” in the same sentence without the qualifiers “not a”… Here’s another piece from the Guardian… and the concluding quote about how unnecessary De Botton’s approach is…

“To answer De Botton’s original question, atheists do have their own versions of great churches and cathedrals. If the antithesis of religion is scientific rationalism, then surely its temples are the British Library, theMillau Viaduct and the Large Hadron Collider? If it’s about glorifying creation, then why not the Natural History Museum or the Eden Project? What about the Tate Modern? Or Wembley Stadium? Or the O2? Or the Westfield shopping centre? Perhaps non-believers should decide for themselves what a temple of atheism should be.”

There’s something in that criticism, but it’s the same sort of criticism I might make against the notion of carving out “sacred space” from a sacred creation. If the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it – then why make a church building when you can meet on the beach. I think there are actually good sociological reasons for creating spaces to use and gather for mission, and great reasons for those spaces to look nice and inviting, and even for them to help people grasp something of the God we follow… but that space isn’t really sacred in any magical sense.

It seems from these two examples that some atheists recognise the good and compelling aspects of religion, and they’re trying to copy it by capturing some of the nature of religion, without the essence – it looks like, at this point, the process boils down to two alternative methodologies – trying to capture something transcendent in art and architecture, and trying to capture something more meaningful in human relationships built around a core commitment… and why not, these are fairly consistent with how religions operate in time and space, sociologically.

In recreating a gathering, and recreating a “sacred space,” these newer atheists are following the sort of religious handbook you follow if you believe religion is a purely human invention, and the transcendental aspects of religion are something we create through manipulating the senses and emotions.

These are the worst bits of religion. Not the best bits.

They’re good things – but they’re not the sort of good things that make religious belief worth sticking with.

A grand building is nice, and can be a testimony to the God who provided order and beauty in the creation. But, in the end, Dawkin’s criticism of De Botton’s project (from the article linked above) is essentially the criticism most protestants have when walking through massive and ornate cathedrals in Europe…

“I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

The Sunday Assembly went for corporate singing as one of the artsy elements of religion that is worth maintaining in a post-Christian (non-Christian) church. And corporate singing is good.

In fact, just to be clear, I’m not saying great architecture, and great music are bad things – they are good things, they’re just some of the worst parts of Christianity.

At this point it’s worth throwing to Dan Anderson’s assessment of De Botton’s plundering of the “gold” of Christianity… and the way it highlights something lacking in how my tradition, and Dan’s, do religious “culture”…

“Too frequently, conservative evangelicalism operates with a truncated theological anthropology. As a product of the rationalist Enlightenment, evangelicalism frequently forgets the power of exactly the kinds of practices that De Botton commends: we jettison liturgical habituation to the truths of the gospel, we fail to engage with the fact that we are creatures of desire, of community, who thrill to beauty, who are inescapably embodied. If the full galleries at the Opera House last night are anything to go by, people are craving the kinds of things that make church ‘churchy’. Ironically, in our passion to make churches as welcoming to outsiders as possible we actively trash our rich heritage of these practices until the church gathering becomes indistinguishable from the philosophical lecture, apart from some vestigial (embarrassed) singing.”

That’s important. But this is silver cutlery stuff. At best. When it comes to the treasures of Christianity.

Restored human relationships, and a bit of perspective about the universe and our place in it – the other, slightly more transcendental aspects of the Sunday Gathering and De Botton’s open air temple, are also great things about Christianity. Probably the slightly better gold plated tableware. But human relationships are really hard – even in a church context where some of our central tenets – that we’re all equals united in Christ, naturally sinners who’ll stuff up, but new creations, called to put others first, called to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to serve a common purpose – should mitigate selfishness and some of the brokenness in how we relate to one another. The church is full of people hurt by how they’ve been treated by other members of the church – who’d leave if these things weren’t true. If we were meeting on the basis of being able to relate well to one another without these central truths of Christianity we’d be splintering into denominations ad infinitum or at least until we had as many churches as there are people. The Sunday Gathering, or any atheist church, loses all of these elements and is pushing a pretty optimistic view of human nature.

That’s beginning to tap into the really good bit of Christianity, and the church, and it’s a good bit that is out of reach for atheists – precisely because atheism is not a religion, or a belief in something. At this point there are two questions I want to explore before wrapping up… the first I think is predominantly something for non-Christians (possibly atheists) to think about when it comes to the exercise of trying to copy the good bits about church, the second is for Christians given that there’s some sort of movement wanting to duplicate the good (but not essential) bits of church…

What is (good about) church?

A lot of this depends on the idea that Christians are gathering around something that is supernatural and true – that there is a God, who revealed himself in Jesus and through the Bible – in fact, those things are so central to what it means to be Christian that there’s no value to be redeemed if they’re not. I reckon Paul’s right at this point, in Corinthians, where he says if Christianity isn’t true, then individual pursuit of pleasure (eat, drink, and be merry) is really where it’s at (though, for extroverts, this might be found in something that looks like church). Because death is the ultimate reality. But if Christianity is true, then death is the penultimate reality – it’s a gateway, to God’s presence.

If there’s no truth to religion then there’s no point for doing anything altruistic, and it’s hard to demonstrate that the good life is tied up in anything other than selfishness – why you’d gather with other people who think this way anyway – unless there is a deeper human yearning for community and connection with something bigger than ourselves – is beyond me, perhaps you can explain in the comments. And if that deeper yearning exists, then it could be explained by an appeal to human nature, but it opens the door for a god to have created humans with this capacity. Anyway. I digress.

There’s really nothing good about the Christian church, in my opinion, if you take out the core bits of Christianity. This is especially true if most of the non-core bits of Christianity are shaped by human culture. And they basically are. Any good sociologist should be able to show that… it’s why churches look and feel different in different times and places. If you want to build a society around the best bits of culture then it’s only worth pillaging the church so long as Christians are doing our job and creating the best bits of culture. I’m not sure that’s been really true of the church since Bach (or maybe Tolkein and Lewis). Which is a tragedy, and reflects a bit of a failing of the church in terms of how we think about creation.

One of the really powerful movements from the Old Testament – where the Temple was kind of important – to the New Testament, is the movement in how Sacred space is understood. This is one of those cool things where seeing how something develops across the whole Bible, and into the future, is really cool – and it’s pretty foundational to how we define church, and what the “good” essential bit of church is.

It all starts in the beginning… one of the fun things about Genesis 1 and 2, and the Garden of Eden, is that the Garden is described using the same sort of language and setting that is later used for the Temple in Jerusalem. You can read more on this in this article “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission” which is a nice summary of Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission. Basically Adam and Eve were given the job of being priests, expanding God’s temple over all of creation (the verbs used when God gives Adam a job in Genesis 2 are used of the priests later). When things go badly, part of the restoration story of the Old Testament is pushing towards recapturing God’s presence with humanity – sacred space is represented in the Tabernacle, then the Temple… if people want to capture something good and transcendental the Old Testament centres this around the city of Jerusalem, which is part of the tragedy of Exile. Sacred space was really important in the Old Testament, because access to a sacred space was a measure of how things were going for the sacred people – when they were being faithful to God they’d have access to this space, and good things would happen, when they were bad, they’d lose access to that space and bad things would happen.

Then we get to the New Testament. And everything changes. First God dwells with the world in the person of Jesus (read John 1). Then, Jesus makes it clear who God’s people are, after he leaves, because they’re given his Spirit (see the closing chapters of John, and all of Acts). Sacred space isn’t a big deal for the early church. They’re meeting in houses, town halls, the mini-sacred spaces of the Jews (synagogues)… and the word “church” is being used for the gathering – and Paul freely uses temple language to describe individuals (we’re the dwelling place of God) and the church more corporately. There has been a movement. The people are sacred, the dwelling place of God, and space is relatively unimportant.

The church gathering – the people – is good because it anticipates where we’re heading in the long term, the Bible ends with a description of the church of the future – and in some ways this is the aspirational standard we’re struggling to meet now, as broken humans in a broken world.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Temples and religious spaces are pretty important to the sociology of religion, but they’re not really important in Christianity in terms of what it is to be part of the church. Where God dwells in us, in a way that unites us.

Gatherings of people around a purpose in a way that breaks down hostility and creates love are good things, and again hugely important when it comes to explaining religion as a social phenomenon – but unless the purpose is really big, and people are so bought into it that they’re able to overcome personality differences, or perhaps alternatively there’s either some really good external help for dealing with differences, or an internal change in nature, my guess is people will stay while it suits them.

The great and important bit of Christianity and being the church is that we gather around the ultimate purpose, not around an absence of purpose, or the purpose of trying to “live better” in a broken and frustrated world where tears, death, mourning, crying and pain are penultimate realities.

The better news is that our understanding of humanity changes – not only to give us a pessimism about human organisations and how individuals will react to situations, but because we’re united in Jesus, and our nature is changed through the Holy Spirit – we can truly love others and appreciate gathering together only if we’re cognisant of the God who is there, who we’re gathering to celebrate, and the work he’s done in bringing a bunch of broken people together. Church is fundamentally not really about self-improvement (though that might be a bi-product), but about thankfulness to God, and service of others in the hope that other broken people will know God too. We gather around a story that makes us something, connects us to something – each other, sure, but ultimately we gather because we have been connected to God, through Jesus, with an amazing future. Our narrative is pretty powerful.

The atheist church, especially as the Sunday Gathering defines it, is far too self-serving to be a long term proposition – perhaps that’s why they’ve set the bar pretty low at monthly, as opposed to the picture of what it means to be the church in the Bible, which sees the gathering as a regular expression of a permanent reality.

The other big problem I see with the atheist church is the complete and definitive absence of a positive narrative. By its very nature, atheism, and corporate atheism, is a lack of belief, or a gathering around a lack of belief. The strength of Christianity is the story it involves – of a God who creates the world, and redeems it from brokenness, through sacrifice, for each person who wants to become part of the story, and it offers a future. It interweaves with our history and resonates with our experience. We’re people who live lives as stories, and communicate in stories – and there’s nothing compelling about the atheist narrative. The story De Botton’s atheist temple tells is depressing. You are a small dot in a big and infinite amount of time and space. You are, essentially, nothing. How can you live a more fulfilling life if that’s the meta-narrative you’re buying into. You might be a bigger bit of nothing than other individuals if you do something great. But it’s a pretty hard sell. Who’d want to be a teller of that story? Who’d want to wake up with that story defining their choices. Believe nothing if you like – but gathering as a celebration of this belief doesn’t seem like the path to happiness. It doesn’t make any sense. Better to gather in an association that celebrates something positive – a wine club, a music club, an Epicurean society… If you really want to capture the essence of the church without its core, it’s tied up in the power of our narrative – this is true for other religious belief systems too, it’s why oppressed minorities are amongst the first to flock to Islam, it’s why Mormonism is big in the US… while De Botton is essentially trying to do this in the design of his temple which functions as an ode to the complexity of the human genome but simultaneously highlights our insignificance in the scheme of things –  the qualitative aspects of that story (the facts of which other religions acknowledge) aren’t all that compelling, they lack direction. A good story has a plot.

What can Christians learn from the Atheist Church?

300 people went along to the first Sunday Gathering – it is capturing something, at least initially, that humans are geared to look for. It’s sad that they appear to have a better doctrine of creation than we do, it’s sad that they’re interested in the ephemeral nature of music, the arts, and even science while we’ve, largely, abdicated the responsibility to be not just workers in creation but people who want to make good things that reflect who God is… There’s a balance here, but there are two reasons I think we should be returning to the abandoned field of producing good works – even good works that appear to have little value outside the cultural sphere – because when they’re not turned into some sort of idol, which is what this Sunday Gathering is basically doing, they testify to the God who revealed himself in Christ, in the best story ever told. Good art (and living a good life) is a good response to this story, and doing art (or life) well is a good way of telling this story.

I don’t mean making Christian sub-culture versions of current art either, they’re sub-standard by nature. I mean making the best versions of art, as Christians, having healthy theologies of creation, culture, and work… people are wired to appreciate that, especially post-modern people who have moved a little beyond the idea that we sway people with just the bare facts – which is where we’ve kind of found ourselves in the conservative evangelical circles that I’ve been shaped by. Dan’s quote that I posted above says this better than I will – or at least positions us to be thinking this through, but if these things are naturally attractive to humans, and not contrary to the gospel, then why aren’t we using them?

They can be a distraction from the main thing – the story that we’re on about – but they can be used to help tell our story in a more powerful way that resonates with people and tugs at more than the part of their brain that’s geared towards listening to a boring monologue.

Most idols are good parts of creation that we turn to when we should be turning to God – these things are the objects of idolatry, but they were gold created by God before we turned them into golden cows.

We’ve over-corrected in response to the insidious idolatry that tends to turn good cultural things into ultimate things, and it’s probably time to get the good golden dinnerware out of the closet and start using it, lest it get plundered, copied, and cheapened because of the glut of replicas in the market.

I mentioned I’d been reading Hume the other day. He characterises “religious people” in a slightly well-poisoning way in the midst of his discussion in Dialogues on Natural Religion

“And here we may observe, continued he, turning himself towards DEMEA, a pretty curious circumstance in the history of the sciences. After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every principle derived merely from human research and inquiry… The Reformers embraced the same principles of reasoning, or rather declamation; and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith, were sure to be interlarded with some severe strokes of satire against natural reason.”

This characterisation has become a bit of a meme. It treats all religious belief as outside of human reason, a case Hume attempted to make in his seminal ‘Of Miracles’ in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, Hume argues that because miracles don’t happen, because they are outside of nature, and are almost impossible to verify using a naturalistic framework (a somewhat circular approach to the supernatural), religious belief operates in the world of faith, not reason. He pushes a form of fideism. The belief that reason and faith are in conflict. He does this because he needs to maintain some veneer of being an orthodox Christian, because not being an orthodox Christian in 18th century Scotland is pretty difficult – fideism is a cop out, Hume probably didn’t hold to it – given that his entire academic program contradicted it, and it’s pretty sloppy arguing, on behalf of modern atheists to characterise faith in this way.

Fideism is dumb. Faith might be the belief in things unseen or hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), but it is also based on experience and observation, and not a little reason. That’s pretty consistently been the Christian approach to faith and knowledge since, well, forever. That’s why science was a product of Christians trying to read and understand God’s world better. Seriously. Google Francis Bacon. And it’s why atheistic naturalism’s sweeping claims are devoid of anything that looks like history or philosophy

It’d be great for the thinking, intellectually honest, atheists out there to break free of the group think shackles of this meme, and start admitting they don’t have a monopoly on reason.

But no. It continues. Enter Penn Jillette’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Penn’s a smart guy. He’s funny. He’s been reasonably nice about Christians in the past – while clearly disagreeing with people of faith. But this article perpetuates a false meme. To be fair, he’s answering an equally annoying meme from our side – the claim that atheism is a religion…

Here’s what he says…

Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share.

Faith is a hypothesis, as is atheism, about the question of God’s existence on the basis of evidence – like revelation, history, philosophy, and not a little bit of reasoning on the basis of our own existence.

It’s a positive hypothesis, while atheism is a negative hypothesis. There are plenty of less than good systems of religion built on varying types of faith – but faith itself should never be maintained contrary to actual evidence. It’s just that the evidence that naturalists put forward is so dissatisfying on anything but a purely material level, and in its modern form (possibly since Hume) it fails to consider any alternative frameworks and anything that has come before it. Hume was pretty good at characterising or ignoring the people who made good arguments against what he was saying, his whole project in Dialogues and Enquiry essentially ignores 1,700 years of Christian thought that is relevant to the natural theology exercise. Christians have something to say on how we read nature based on the Bible – and I’m not talking about accounts of human origins, but accounts of human nature, and the application of a Christian anthropology to the scientific endeavour had been serving us pretty well since Christians kicked the scientific process off because they believed God supplied a guarantee that the natural order would continue in the way that he created it to operate.

That is all.

I don’t want to suggest Richard Dawkins and his other two horseman friends (following the very tragic demise of Christopher Hitchens) aren’t effective in their campaigns against religion, and for atheism… but I’ve been reading some David Hume (Dialogues on Natural Religion) for the Philosophy subject I’m taking at college this year, and he’s much more interesting and engaging, and therefore more dangerous, than today’s $2 shop atheists like Richard Dawkins. He makes some of the bilious rhetoric these modern guys employ seem very cheap indeed, not because the substance of his argument is all that different – in many ways Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins have all simply been developing Hume’s arguments in line with modern knowledge, but because he is all style. He’s just so winsome, and gentle, it’s like one of those kung-fu moves from the B-Grade movies out there, where you don’t know he’s actually started hitting you until it’s too late – unless, you are familiar with kung-fu.

I can’t help but make comparisons with Dawkins as I read Hume (By the by, Hume’s Dialogue, while it was said to undermine “natural theology” and the argument from design pretty much assumes the conclusions it then sets out to prove, by essentially ruling out divine revelation by looking for natural causes of both nature and religion, and then admitting that such revelation is probably necessary to know anything about the nature of God).

Hume is wrong because he essentially fails to engage with the question of who Jesus is – God made incarnate. God made subject to empirical observations. God made man – a man who was real, historically verifiable, and whose death and resurrection didn’t just legitimise his claim to be king – but all the stuff he said was written to point to him from beforehand – the Old Testament, and the testimonies that are written about him are the empirical evidence offered to support his claims. Written documentation of history – Hume was a history writer himself, so it’s surprising he’s so dismissive of history’s ability to contain and describe truth.

But back to the comparisons…

I like how at times Hume, in contrast to Dawkins, will engage with some of the big theological questions that present themselves in the course of his argument (lets not forget how Dawkins chooses not to engage with where hard Christian thought is happening), here he is highlighting the dangers of trying to draw an analogy from the creation to the creator:

“But as all perfection is entirely relative, we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine Being, or to suppose that his perfections have any analogy or likeness to the perfections of a human creature. Wisdom, Thought, Design, Knowledge; these we justly ascribe to him; because these words are honourable among men, and we have no other language or other conceptions by which we can express our adoration of him.”

At that point he presents a much bigger picture of God than he seems to employ throughout the book, where his God, if he exists at all, is a neutered, deistic god, who has no influence on natural events, and potentially even less interest. It’s a bigger picture of god than some modern Christians are willing to conceive. God is so far beyond comparison to man that drawing analogies is largely futile… unless, of course, you have something that claims to be the word of God which essentially establishes a comparison between God and man (Gen 1:26-27) right off the bat…

Anyway, like I say, I’ve enjoyed reading Hume because he seems genuine in grappling with the issues he’s writing about – though you’re never really sure, at this point, how much legitimacy he’s giving to opinions other than his own when he writes, his Christian character, Demea, who promises to indoctrinate her children before they’re taught any “scientific” enquiry, is pretty much a caricature with very little of substance to contribute.

Where Dawkins is shrill, Hume is gentle. Where Dawkins is bombastic, Hume presents with doubt and not a little epistemic humility. Where Dawkins is brash and intolerant, Hume is empathetic and questioning. Where Dawkins is filled with smug certitude and self-righteousness, Hume is a little bit charming and self-effacing. Where Dawkins can’t see much good in any religious people, Hume was enamoured with the leading Christians of his time (he used to go to see Whitfield preach, not because he believed what Whitfield was saying, but “because he [Whitfield] does.” Where Dawkins seems to want the quick victory, Hume amassed a pretty comprehensive case against Christianity almost by stealth – with snippets in all sorts of publications that almost needed to be put together posthumously.

This article in the New Yorker comparing the atheists of old with the new atheists has a nice little para on Hume…

“Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.”

What’s particularly interesting to me, given my recent penchant for all things Ciceroesque, is how much Hume follows Cicero. Deliberately and unabashedly. While there’s a fair bit of overlap in philosophical approach and the questions both men asked, there’s a style comparison as well. It’s, I think, a testimony to the quality of the communication advice and approach to life that Cicero laid out for communicators (believe in your cause, live for it, speak eloquently and passionately, write often, etc). This too, is why I think Dawkins and his ilk, though they persuade some, will eventually fade away into insignificance – their “rhetorical triangle” is not particularly balanced, they’re heavy on the pathos, with not much logos, and not a whole lot of conduct worth imitating or being convinced by…

Ira Glass is a brilliant broadcaster/storyteller/journalist. He’s also an atheist. In this video, a conversation with a Christian guy named Jim Henderson, Ira Glass talks about how Christians are misrepresented in pop-culture. It’s nice.

It’s up there with Penn Jillette’s great testimony about a well-meaning Christian who approached him after a show.

Especially this clip…

Glass also talks about the “Christian pitch”… and his investigations of Christianity.

“Christianity is number one for a reason. It’s a great story… and it’s a reassuring story.”

He tells a cool story about how some prison evangelists framed the gospel for the prison kids they were working with… It’s worth a listen to hear an atheist trying to represent Christianity accurately.

Thanks to Cosmo on Facebook for the link to the video.

A grand day for my archives

I’ve occupied this corner of the internet, or one very much like it, for quite a while now. And it’s always surprised me which posts get traffic and which ones don’t. I’ve just had a fun moment looking at my all time stats (well, for as long as I’ve had google analytics installed).

This is fun – to this date my most controversial post “Five things that would make atheists seem nicer” has been my most read post of all time. It got hammered in three days, and took down my server. This week sometime that post will be eclipsed by my “longest tail” post  – “How to make Sizzler’s cheese toast.” This is pretty satisfying to me. You should be part of getting it over the line (especially now that it has just been updated with a slight change to the recipe secured via the Sizzler website).

That is all.

So Q&A was a bit of a letdown, even for those of us who had low expectations. But one cool thing that’s come from the world’s leading atheist thinkers descending on Melbourne this week is this website. DoubtingDawkins.com from OutreachMedia. Which provides some food for thought for Dawkins fans. Each of the statements is a link. That took me a little while to figure out.

It features some pretty sharp videos. Like these.

Seriously internet. Get a grip.

Christopher Hitchens died today. He was a brilliant and acerbic polemicist who played pretty free and easy with exactly what historically orthodox, Bible based Christianity looks like in his most popular work God Is Not Good, but he was by all accounts a charming, debonair, raconteur type who meant what he said, and said what he thought, in a manner that belied his significant gifts. By all accounts, including his own, his battle with cancer was difficult, but he conducted himself with the poise, gravitas, and wit that endeared him to readers around the world.

But he was committed to remaining an atheist to the end. Committed to maintaining his rage against God (incidentally the title of the book his brother Peter wrote when explaining why he returned to faith). Now, Hitchens had plenty of Christian influence in his life – his brother, his travelling debate compadre Douglas Wilson, and Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project, and founder of Biologos, who took a personal interest in his treatment for the nasty cancer which ended his life too soon. Hitchens also clearly understood the gospel he was rejecting – his pointed criticisms of Christian liberalism make it clear that he knew what the Christian faith entailed. And that he rejected it deliberately, defiantly, and with some style and wit.

Here’s his definition of Christianity:

“I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

He was in enough debates with enough Christians that he had a fair idea of what it was he was arguing against (even if he chose to misrepresent it for the sake of some polemical point scoring).

So why. Pray tell. Are we Christians so committed to articulating a hope that Hitchens magically renounced his skepticism at the very last? Certainly it is our hope. But should we not take the man at his word. His last words, incidentally, took the form of a requiem for the atheist dream, throwing down the gauntlet to challenge Nietzsche, one of the grandfathers of the modern atheist movement, and particularly his somewhat facile maxim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Hitchens was wrong to dismiss that saying – because the cancer killed him in the end. And the only thing that doesn’t kill a human, at least in the Biblical account of humanity, is faith in Christ, by which we have a much more hopeful outlook than either Hitchens or Nietzshe…

“Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

The Christian attempt to respond to the death of an interlocutor by extending grace to them, and naming them as potentially one of the saints, is nobly intended, but was odd when Steve Jobs died. And is downright insane when it comes to Hitchens. I’m not saying God couldn’t have come knocking on Hitchens’ door, but there is simply no indication that he changed his mind at the last (and he precluded such with a particularly pointed statement just months ago). Despite what Doug Wilson’s much lauded eulogy on Christianity Today might suggest. So while I hope Hitchens found the peace that faith in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus brings – I’m not going to chuck him a halo and a white robe just in case. But I’m not sure why the Christian blogosphere embraces the hagiographic eulogy in these times. The most gracious way to let an atheist go out is to let them go out acknowledging that they were defiant to the end (Matt Stone says something similar but with more brevity), that they, unlike many others – considered the questions of eternity, and their own mortality, and in the words of Hitchens, looked death in the face bravely (but stupidly), these were his last published words.

“So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.”

Some famous atheists and agnostics in these first two (list of names here, and here)…

And some Christian voices for balance…

There’s a bit of a campaign doing the rounds regarding the answering the controversial religious affiliation question in the 2011 Census. And now there’s a counter campaign. What happened to just telling the truth?

It’s pretty bizarre that the Atheist campaign website is down the night before the census – I can only hope that this isn’t thanks to some misguided Christians thinking it’s a bad thing for people to be honest in their census answers (remember the ninth commandment people…). It was a good website, and a good campaign.

One thing I thought was interesting was their insistence that being able to sign up to the Apostle’s Creed (or maybe the Nicene Creed) was the mark of a Christian, their position was that if you can’t agree with the creed – you’re not a Christian, and you shouldn’t indicate that you are. Which is great. Because now we’ve got a functional definition of Christian and we can do away with the typical internet atheist’s constant resort to the “no True Scotsman fallacy” whenever one suggests that a particular behaviour is not consistent with Christian belief. Because apparently being a Christian does require a particular characteristic, it’s not just good enough to call yourself one…

That’s all well and good. I’d love people to answer the census honestly, because I hate nominalism. It breeds complacency and a bizarre superiority complex when Christians approach social issues. It flies in the face of the human experience. And people should stop feeling like they need to pretend to honour a religious belief they don’t actually live out. The way people live is indicative of their belief system. Anyway.

Here’s the counter campaign, almost the pro-nominalism campaign… from a friend’s Facebook. I quite like the intention here. Because politically correct editing of society is just ridiculous. Take, for example, a school in the US that renamed Easter Eggs “Spring Spheres” – which is pretty bizarre because the word Easter comes from a pagan festival anyway and what Christians are really interested in at Easter is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“Australia will be holding census tomorrow.
Don’t leave the ‘religion’ part blank.
Be sure to at least tick Christian or (your own faith)
1,000,000 Muslims will tick their box and
10,000,000 Australians will leave theirs blank and wonder why Christmas carols are being banned from schools, not to mention Easter hat parades! It’s not about religion, it’s about keeping our way of life! :)
Repost if u agree!”

I have some major problems with this, because the stats are ridiculously paranoid. 63% of Australians said they were Christians at the last census. The ABS population clock says we currently have 22 million people in our country. Based on figures at the last census people who indicated no religion accounted for around 18% of our population (I’m sure that will increase, that’s the trend. That’s about 3.9 million people. Not 10 million. 13.8 million people said they were Christians last time around. And the real furphy in those figures is the Muslim statistic (again, I suspect this will increase this year). 1.7% of Australians ticked the Muslim box last time around. That’s about 400,000 people. The one million figure quoted above would be a huge increase in proportion of the Australian population – from 1.8% to 4.5%. I just don’t see that happening.

I think we need to look elsewhere for the cause of the removal of Christmas from the calendar, and it’s got much more to do with the decreasing role Jesus plays in the lives of Australians.

So please, atheists, muslim, Christian, whatever your creed – lets get a good picture of the nature of the Australian community, because ultimately it’s going to help the church do its job and think clearly about its mission.

That is all.

Lotteries will go broke if this craze catches on and God keeps answering said prayers the same way…

A self-confessed atheist has become a believer after mocking God by sarcastically praying for his mother to win the lottery. However, his joke prayer was amazingly answered as the next day his mother won $1 million on the New York Lottery Sweet Million game.

Better than a wet fleece.

Both Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins have written recently about their love of the KJV. The new-atheist glitterati are doing their bit to pry the Bible out of the hands of “the religious” and into the hands of English teachers.

There’s a great article on The Punch by the Bible Society’s Roy Williams responding to this trend of atheists damning the Bible with faint praise. It’s well worth a read. The comments aren’t. They’ve become a playground for the type of person who thinks writing lengthy rant comments to reinforce one’s own views is a good use of one’s time. While I love comments here. And discussions (online and in person) there’s something about the complete lack of respect that anti-theists show to any “woo believers” on the internet that just makes me angry and pushes me from my position of centre hugging moderate towards religious extremist. If I read many more of these threads I’ll be voting Family First and donating to the Australian Christian Lobby in the hope of making atheism illegal.

From the article:

“Dawkins is quite candid on this score. He admits that he cannot abide translations of the Bible other than the KJV, whether they are closer to the meaning of the original ancient texts or not. He wants the KJV taught in schools “not as history, not as science and not (oh please not) as morality. But as literature.”

There are serious problems with this argument.

For a start, the 47 men who “wrote” the KJV would have scoffed at any suggestion that their primary task was to produce fine literature. Appointed and supervised by the Bishop of London (later Archbishop of Canterbury), Richard Bancroft, they were chosen on the basis of two criteria.

First, their pre-eminence as biblical scholars – in particular, their detailed knowledge of at least one of the three ancient languages in which the books of the Bible were originally written (Hebrew and Aramaic in the case of the Old Testament; Greek in the case of the New Testament).”