A recent blog post of mine was the beginning of an online exchange between myself and a friend and coworker, Marcelo.  Marcelo and I disagree on the subject of God’s existence, he being a naturalist while I’m a Christian.  But we also enjoy a good, reasonable discussion, and thought that even if we don’t end up changing each other’s beliefs in the matter, it could be a mentally stimulating exercise that could broaden both of our perspectives.  If you’re interested in this topic, I encourage you to follow along on my site and on his.  The following is in response to his post linked below.

Response to “Religious Worldview: It Doesn’t Suit Me

Marcelo wrote: One set of rules tells me that questioning is bad and that I’ll go to hell if I even think about questioning it. The other one tells me that if I question the rules and find something interesting, I may even get a prize for it and perhaps be recognized in history as a smart person. It also doesn’t require me to “believe” anything, for everything is discoverable. If I want, I can try to prove it all by myself, and unless I make a mistake, or find an error in their rules, I’ll arrive to the same conclusions. Needless to say, I’d rather spend 60 years trying to understand the Big Bang than reading a story that must not be tampered with, or I’ll forever roast in a pit of lava while others rejoice.

This paragraph brings up a number of important issues which deserve a response.  On the topic of science, I don’t disagree, and that’s something I too appreciate about science as a field of study.  However, I have to take serious issue with this description of Christianity.  I do not doubt that your perception is based on actual experiences with Christians and/or the teachings of certain “Christian” groups.  But I was raised Christian, have studied many Christian writings including the Bible, and what you describe is not the Christianity I know.  It sounds much more like a cult, of which there are unfortunately several that grew out of Christianity.

Which brings me to my first point: Christianity is not made up of perfect Christians.  One of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity is that all people are imperfect sinners in need of a savior.  As long as we live in this fallen universe, Christians are no better than non-Christians.  The fact that many people calling themselves “Christian” have misrepresented or misdirected Christian teaching, whether intentionally or not, really just proves this claim of Christianity.  That’s not an excuse for the failures of Christians to act as they should, but merely a matter-of-fact point that we’re susceptible to the same failures as anyone else, and hence, there is plenty that is taught from “Christian” pulpits which is in fact not Biblical.  We are called to hold ourselves to a higher standard out of appreciation for Christ’s sacrifice, but our failure to live up to God’s perfect standard is nothing more than proof of our need for His grace.

Next, this idea that Christianity discourages questioning is not orthodox.  Various churches may have resorted to it as a weak defense mechanism, and again, it is the modus operandi of many cults.  But any serious Christian knows that suppressing doubt is just postponing the day when we’ll have to face a tough question we’re not prepared to answer.  Any belief is this way, and I’ve never heard a Christian I respected suggest that questioning our faith is a sin.  Timothy Keller, an influential protestant pastor, wrote about this very subject in one of the books I recommended in my previous post.  I thought it good enough that I actually blogged an excerpt a few months ago: Faith, Doubt and Civil Dialogue.

Finally, the Christianity you describe is not Biblical.  A timely Easter-related example is given in the way Christ responds to the skepticism of one of his followers, perhaps best (and unfortunately) known as “Doubting Thomas.”  Thomas famously responded, quite rationally, to the reports of Christ’s resurrection with the following demand for proof: “unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25, NASB).  Later, Christ appears to Thomas and, rather than condemning Thomas for his doubts, provides the evidence Thomas needed: “reach here with your finger, and see my hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27).  Although Christ certainly does exhort his followers to have faith, His response to reasonable doubt is also reasonable – He answers questions with proof.

In fact, and this is a whole digression that I don’t have space to get into now, I have found this to be true whenever I’ve had a doubt or serious question about a Biblical claim.  Once I really question and research it, and open up my mind a bit, I find that the Bible’s claims are in fact consistent with common sense and physical evidence.

My main point so far is that I reject this notion that Biblical Christianity condemns the testing of its claims.  We believe God gave us our ability to question and think critically.  If our own faith denounced those very gifts, it would contradict itself.  And I wouldn’t be a Christian if I believed that to be the case.

I will briefly address a possible counter-example from the Bible: Deuteronomy 6:16 says “Do not test the Lord your God.”  The context of this passage makes it clear that the “testing” is of the sort that a disobedient child does to his parent by trying their patience.  It’s not referring to an honest exploration of hard-to-believe claims.  The same goes for Christ’s quotation of this passage in the New Testament (Matt. 7:4, Luke 4:12).  In that case, he was scolding the devil for maliciously trying to trip Him up, as a bully might “test” someone in order to provoke them to do something wrong.  Ok, moving on…

Marcelo wrote: Belief in a particular God seems to have more to do with what’s fashionable in the environment a person is raised in (or lives in the case of people who convert to a different one), rather than on the veracity of the claims this particular religion makes.

This may often be true, but is really orthogonal to whether a particular religion is true or not.  Christianity is a proselytic faith that is not fundamentally tied to any particular race or culture, but naturally it will have areas of strength and weakness along cultural, geographical and familial boundaries.  But this is also true of atheism.  People immersed in an irreligious environment are more likely to adopt these beliefs than someone raised in a religious environment, and vice versa.  If someone, religious or not, holds their beliefs because that’s the easy or popular thing to do, that’s not much of a belief.  It doesn’t make them wrong, but until they explore and challenge their own beliefs as well as alternatives, they aren’t very good representatives of their respective perspectives (say that five times fast!).

Marcelo wrote: I want to expand a little on this subject of believing because it’s the right thing to do. [...] Daniel Dennett, a philosopher, introduced the term “Belief in belief” in his book Breaking the Spell. This term refers to individuals who don’t fully believe in God, but who think that believing in God is the right thing to do, either because society tells them to, or because they’re afraid of the consequences of not believing. I really like this term, because it perfectly fits my stance on the issue for many years. I never really thought that God could help my grandpa get well, yet still I prayed. I think many people are caught in this stage, mostly because it’s convenient. The problem is that you can’t stay there for long. You can fool others, or you can fool yourself, but at some point, every person who gets into this mindset needs to make a decision. If you finally stop believing in God, then you can either say it openly, or pretend that you still do because it’s convenient; and lie your way through church events and holidays. Notice how either path leads to hell if God exists, but one of them also leads to prejudice and segregation from their social circle in this world.

Brilliantly put, and I completely agree that society or fear are not reasons to believe something.  But I wouldn’t consider these persons to be any more than nominal Christians (assuming that’s the faith we’re talking about).  A Christian who holds their beliefs because they’ve examined it and found the evidence (both empirical and personal) to be in its favor is not the same as a Christian who merely adopts that label out of peer pressure or family tradition.  Prejudice and segregation are sinful responses to a loved one falling away, and only make matters worse.  Christ didn’t take this approach; instead His mission on earth was to offer salvation to Gentiles the world over, regardless of their background or behavior.

I think here is a good point to give a brief clarification on the doctrine of hell.  Although not all Christians have the same understanding of what hell literally is, and the Bible’s not clear on this, I and many other Christians describe it roughly as follows:  Hell is not “punishment” for unbelief.  Hell is the natural consequence of a life lived apart from God’s grace, and ultimately it is the chosen path of those who end up there.  I don’t believe hell to be some burning pit of torment that God wrathfully throws unbelievers into.  Rather, I, and many orthodox Christians, understand hell to simply be complete separation from God.  On earth God’s presence is imperfectly felt (through grace, hope, joy, peace, love, etc.), but not complete.  Heaven is where God’s presence is complete, hell is where it is completely absent.

Marcelo wrote: The essence of doublethink [is] fooling the brain into believing something when it’s convenient regardless of the evidence or reasoning behind it. This exercising of doublethink is what makes angels different from fairies. Quoting from [Orwell's 1984]: “doublethink is basically the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

This is something I have struggled with and which ultimately led me to the, somewhat frightening, conclusion that I had to open my faith up to scrutiny or I’d always be avoiding “uncomfortable” questions out of fear that they’d expose a contradiction in my beliefs.  I won’t deny that I was nervous when I started putting the claims of the Bible up against those of outspoken atheists such as Dawkins, or widely-recognized “facts of science” such as the age of the universe, development of life, etc.  My conclusions from that summer of exploration is what made up the video series I’ve referenced before, but basically, yes, doublethink is an easy trap to fall into whenever you believe something without really knowing why.  As for angels or fairies, I don’t necessarily disbelieve in fairies because if I accept the existence of some supernatural beings (God, angels, etc.), then I cannot count out the possibility that there are others.  But here the same arguments I gave before about Santa Claus comes into play: it becomes an issue of how important is examining the belief (what difference does it make whether or not fairies exist?), and how trustworthy the claim is (I have more reason to believe a teaching of the Bible, which I have already spent a lot of time testing, than I do a children’s story universally accepted to be fictional).

Marcelo wrote: Coming back to my point, believing that God created man and the whole Universe in seven days requires one of to things: not looking at the evidence (or failing to understand it); or recognizing it but convincing one self to ignore it by using some form of doublethink. I don’t know which one is worse. This also applies to many other myths, like the world flood only survived by Noah and those in his ark, the impregnation of a virgin (where “virgin” is known to be a translation error), or God himself writing a series of books and a certain pair of stone tablets.

A few points:

  1. I agree with your first points, and one of the challenges of my time testing the Bible was coming to the realization that the relatively recent “creation science” movement, and their young-earth interpretation, is patently not consistent with scientific discoveries.  I won’t say impossible, since a supernatural God could have created a universe with the appearance of having existed for billions of years, but based on my belief that God ultimately gave us our mental faculties and ordered universe, I disagree with this interpretation.  I won’t say anything else because that’s a whole series of blog posts in itself, but I do address this in episodes 4 & 5 of my video series.
  2. As for the bit about “virgin” being a translation error, I’ll admit I had to look it up.  Apparently the translation error was introduced when the prophetic work of Isaiah was translated into Greek, which formed the basis for most later translations.  But an important point here is that Isaiah 7:14 is generally understood to prophesy multiple events, which is the true of many Old Testament prophetic writings.  One of the purposes was to convey the short time before Israel was destroyed (before a “maiden’s” child grows very old), while the other event is the Messiah’s birth.  A true virgin birth would not make sense in the first case, because that’s not what the prophesy was about.  Additionally, the New Testament claim of Mary’s virginity is not based solely on this prophesy, as both Matthew and Luke clearly describe it this way in their own words (Matt. 1:18, 20, 25; Luke 1:34, etc.).  Further explanation of the Christian response to this criticism is here.
  3. Small clarification on the doctrine of divine inspiration: we recognize that the Bible is a collection of books written and compiled by humans.  Thus, the writings convey different literary styles and focuses which are unique to the individuals who wrote them (especially obvious in the Gospels, where Luke’s educated background is clear in his higher style, and Matthew’s Jewish background is evident in his focus on a Jewish audience).  However, we believe that God inspired these individuals to write them.  In other words, it’s not that God was giving dictation, but that he moved authors to tell their story or share knowledge he had given to them by various means (experiences, visions, etc.).  We also believe that God guided the church as it put together the modern canon of Scripture.  I talk about this in the 6th video in my series.

Marcelo wrote: There is NO evidence of the existence of God. It is claimed that many phenomena can not be explained without the intervention of God. For example, science hasn’t been able to explain what happened before the Big Bang, and many theologians take this as a sign of supernatural intervention. It can not be explained by science, therefore, there is a God. Read that sentence again and try to find the fallacy in it.

That argument is fallacious, but it ’s not one I’ve ever tried to make.  This is a “God of the gaps” approach and is very weak indeed.  I don’t argue that God exists just because science hasn’t explained every last mystery of the universe.  In fact, I don’t argue that the Christian God exists for purely scientific reasons at all.  I do, however, argue that a supernatural “something” exists because by definition the natural universe is bound by natural laws which do not and can not explain how our universe, no matter how many dimensions we may theorize it has, or how many form/state/phase/etc. transitions may be possible according to String Theory or whatever may eventually supercede it, it’s still “natural.”  So whether there may be a natural explanation for what happened before the big bang, we’re still dealing with pre-existing laws governing pre-existing matter/energy whose application is limited to the natural sphere of existence and which cannot ultimately explain existence from nonexistence.  There is a point where an unnatural assumption must be made in order to satisfy the natural law of causation.  This unnatural assumption is essentially supernatural.  This “uncaused cause” could be some completely theoretical, untestable theory based on imagined pseudo-mathematical or pseudo-mechanical behaviors which can never be proven because they aren’t bound by the laws that govern the only universe we are able to observe.  This is still a supernatural (ie, “beyond nature”) creator, even if it’s not the personal God of the Bible.

This is an important distinction because otherwise God’s role becomes less significant as science expands our understanding of the universe.  But the line I see between a natural universe which has no explanation for creation ex nihilo, and a supernatural creator is not one that I can ever see science crossing, because science is by definition the study of the natural/physical universe.

Marcelo wrote: I’ll say it again: there is NO evidence for the existence of God, only lack of evidence for the current theories.

I (obviously) disagree with the first part of your statement.  Beyond the necessary existence of a supernatural “creator,” I actually do believe there to be sufficient support for the Bible’s claims, including the personal God it describes, to make it the most probable and complete belief system I’ve ever come across.  The reasons for that are pretty wide-ranging, and I touch on some of them toward the end of my video series (couldn’t resist another plug!).

Wowza, 2900+ words and counting.  These posts really are gargantuan, but then again so are the topics!  Cheers!

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