ATHEISM VERSUS CHRISTIANITY The Non-meeting of Minds

Upton Sinclair is credited with the following observation “It is difficult to get a man (sic) to understand something, when his salary [or reputation or even salvation?] depends upon his not understanding it!”

At high school I was introduced to the art of debating. We were taught that once you had been given a side of a moot to defend you assembled your supporting arguments and only considered the likely counter arguments as points to be refuted at all cost. It was rare indeed for team members to be convinced by an opposing argument and indeed the whole point of the debate was to assemble a case as irrefutable as possible, and in the process to undermine the opposition argument by fair means or foul. I would have to say that this version of debating encourages intellectual dishonesty because in the process it was more common to parody the opposition case and exaggerate the rightness of ones own cause than it ever was to seek genuine enlightenment from listening to other points of view.

Years later – looking at the current Atheism versus conservative Christianity debates I am convinced I see the same cynical school debating team characteristics demonstrated time after time. If the protagonists were genuinely seeking possibilities of truth from the opposition they are hardly likely to do so when riding into battle under a previously chosen emperor’s flag. For the conservative Christian, particularly one convinced that they have adopted a genuinely better view of life and religion under the born again rubric, it is hardly likely that he or she might be wanting to admit a possibility they were deluded or just plain wrong in their self-perceived decision for salvation. The Atheist, also often born again into a new way of thinking about what now seems to them a newly discovered contemptible version of Christianity – (particularly where the new stance has involved a conscious decision to reject a previously held state), has too much at stake to now admit error of judgement.

On more than one occasion, taking such presuppositions into debate, results in wilful misunderstanding. Let us start with the atheist who contrasts the objective attitudes of science-based understanding with the ancient crass behaviours advocated in ancient texts. To take some quotes from one observed internet discussion.
“What “Truth” does one get from Numbers 31:17-18? I get that the deity of the Christians ordered genocide; the murder of babies, children, women, men and the enslavement and rape of young virgin girls……
Christians will a) refuse to accept that dirty little fact, try to justify genocide and rape or try to write it off as ‘in the old testament’ even though the Jesus Christ they claim to worship very specifically said he not only agreed with the old laws but if one didn’t follow them all to the letter one would not be entering heaven……
Another lovely ‘Truth’ can be found in Psalm 137:9. “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”. What “Truth”, precisely, is one to take from that? Happy about bashing a child, ANY child’s head against anything?”

Of course if the claimed atheist alternative is in fact the modern objective seeking of the sort of truth that may then be used for the betterment of humankind there would be no contest if the above verses did actually represent mainstream Christian belief.

Remembering my elderly, well- intentioned and demonstrably caring congregation at Epsom who not so long ago knitted balaclavas for the children in the aftermath of the Christchurch Earthquake and thinking of them instead abducting small children to beat their innocent tiny brains out against rocks is truthfully stretching the bounds of possibility. The weakness in this case against Christianity is that it is seizing upon an historical artefact of an antecedent to Christianity and holding the modern version accountable for the uncertain past.

However when the Christian apologist talks of the morally bankrupt atheism and derides the continual shifting in understanding and uncertainties of emerging theory that characterises modern science, again there are assumptions that don’t do justice to the atheist position. There are demonstrably good moral atheists like Bertrand Russell, just as there are atheists in community service clubs like Rotary and the Lions – and to say that their motivating philosophy is morally bankrupt is a nonsense since as my psychology professor used to remind us, that demonstrated behaviour is the only possible way of guessing at what might be in the heart.

Since despite the good behaviour of many Christian nurses, social workers and reformers through the ages there have equally been self claimed Christians who have been psychopaths, war criminals, child molesters and Church secretary gropers, to only notice the moat in the other’s eye seems a little unfair.

In reality there is learning to be had from listening carefully to the points of the other side.
Atheism per se is not automatically to be feared in that its main premise of not believing in God is more than reasonable if the God which has been rejected is not worthy of belief. Remember that despite whatever mysterious forces might be in control of the Universe there are very many interpretations and downright guesses as to what this creative process involves.

The many versions of “God” followed by untold religious groups and sects are often mutually exclusive and to learn that God is therefore not plausible always raises the interesting question of what the speaker has in mind when they use the term. After asking that question of a number of atheists I have encountered through the years, and hearing about the God they don’t believe in – I have often found myself agreeing that I too, do not believe in that sort of God. On the other hand, having the outsider correctly identify my or my group’s weaknesses in thought and action offers salutary reminders of the need to live the best in one’s faith. If in return, the atheist might learn that there are areas where the self claimed moral alternative were to result in little visible signs of helpful activity this too might be of assistance.

My chief concern is that we do not genuinely listen to one another. If we approach the discussion with the assumption that we mustn’t give honest consideration to the other’s point of view we are going to miss many genuine insights.

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11 Responses to ATHEISM VERSUS CHRISTIANITY The Non-meeting of Minds

  1. Mark Haines says:

    I have also found that by listening respectfully and carefully to those on the other side has led to the discovery that we have far more in common than anyone had thought before the conversation began.

  2. peddiebill says:

    Mark – I totally agree. I suspect the reason why Atheists are so opposed to Christianity, is that the version of Christianity they have rejected – most in their right mind would reject. Perhaps listening to them makes us more self critical which cannot be a bad thing. I also wonder if we are too worried about the damage atheism can do. As Colin Morris once put it, if God is indeed the creative force behind the whole Universe it is hardly likely that a person rejecting this God would make any real difference. “When Christians complain that satirists and others are insulting their God, they are revealing their belief in a very little God. After all how much damage can you do to Mt Everest by spitting at it?” (quoted in the Guardian)

  3. dave says:

    Effective listening requires empathy, to understand the other’s position enabling the acceptance of any differences. I suspect the extremists for both positions make a civil debate difficult (impossible?). Extreme atheists apparently cannot accept that some people really need to hold onto a religion; it can be one important attribute of their personality, while others can do without religion or theirs is not critical to their daily life. Extreme fundamentalists are so convinced the Bible is the literal truth and rulebook apparently they cannot accept those who deny it, including those who follow a different religion (like Islam vs Christianity). Less fervent believers still profess their religion, whatever it is, is better than all the alternatives (whether that is atheism or other religions). Both sides in this debate appear to claim absolute certainty.
    The obvious (to me, any way) middle ground is of course accepting there are those that need religion and those that do not and accepting those with a different religion. I rarely hear anyone suggesting tolerance as a solution for an emotional conflict such as this. It seems as though, for both sides in this debate, accepting a position of tolerance is also considered accepting one’s worldview cannot be universal. If a debate must have a winner and a loser, then a possible compromise is not an option and unfortunately that seems to be the unwritten assumption in this particular debate. Tolerance is not a win or lose; it is accepting the world the way it is, which is not just black and white but also all the colors in between.
    I suggest there will always be some form of religion in humanity, no matter how far in the future or in the past one will go, even if limited to a set of simple superstitions. I know using the words always and never is rarely correct but in this case the use of always connects with the inherent diversity of humanity, with inconsistent levels of education, social skills, and cohesive (or not) communities. If every person became identical to every one else, humanity as we know it would cease to exist, since that community would be no different than one of electronic robots.

    Accepting racial diversity in America has been a very difficult road in our history that is still not as widespread as it should be. Accepting religious diversity is apparently much more difficult. The divisive us vs them context is always a powerful tool for any leader dealing with any social group.

  4. peddiebill says:

    I have heard that the sociological need to have a supportive like-minded group is increased in stressful situations.
    I can imagine non-mainstream viewpoints in the Bible belt in the US – or a number of places in the Middle East which are seen as threatening to those in whatever the mainstream view of the majority might be. Maybe that is why there are so many in the US Baptist areas who express horror at deviations from conservative Christianity (such as liberal Christianity, atheism, prochoice or homosexuality, and those who follow Islam) – whereas in the Middle East it is deviations from whatever the local majority version of Islam that causes outrage. I wonder if anyone ever stops to think that changing their viewpoint is unlikely to change whatever reality that inspires religion in the first place….or that the environment and the family situation has far more to do with the religious position than the unencumbered objective search for truth. I was born into a liberal methodist family, and bin Laden was born into a very conservative Muslim faith. Is it just coincidence that years later bin Laden was a very conservative radical Muslim and I am a questioning and even more liberal methodist?

  5. Cherel says:

    Your final question is interesting Bill. If you are such a thinker, why haven’t you moved away from your upbringing by now? You and bin Laden my be stuck in a rut, but many people have broken free of their past and moved on– especially thinkers. You surprise me.

  6. peddiebill says:

    Well Cherel, what were you in your previous life? I am hoping to hear you say you were bought up Wahhibi Muslim, or at the very least Roman Catholic. Please dont say Southern Baptist!!
    And yes, I admit I have changed a little. I was much more conservative in my youth – but a series of bad experiences with the “born agains” and a few years exposure to the wonders of science and meeting a range of people with other faith positions made me question more.

  7. Cherel says:

    Actually, I was raised in pentecostal churches. I won’t take the time to go into what that experience was like but I will say that I questioned some of the doctrine and experiences from a fairly young age because they didn’t seem to line up with my understanding of the scriptures as I read them for myself. There are many wonderful and sincere pentecostals, I just happen to disagree with some of their “sacred cow” doctrine— which puts me at odds with most Christians I know and even some members of my own family. As you said, most people believe the way they were raised.

    I am a reader so I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to religious ideas. As far as I can tell, most denominations have chosen to focus in on some aspects of the truth to the neglect of some other aspects. That’s why we have denominations. I don’t really care about such matters.

    I believe in the fundamental teachings of the scriptures about Jesus being the Son of God.
    He was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, proved He was God by authoritative teaching, performing miracles and forgiving sins, was crucified, resurrected and taken back to heaven and is coming again, etc. I believe in One God Who Has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
    I believe we are saved by grace through faith. Salvation is a gift of God– freely given to those who believe that Jesus died for them. When one accepts salvation by faith they are “born again” into God’s family and have a true awareness of the forgiveness of sin– their past record of sin is wiped clean never to be remembered against them again– and they have no more feelings of guilt! (Heb 10:14) That’s true freedom!

    I’m truly sorry you had bad experiences with “born agains.” You must know they don’t represent all true believers. It just seems your life experiences have led you into questions rather than answers. Do you ever expect to find the answers? Do you want to?

    I can see why you would be drawn to science. I am fascinated by scientific discoveries. I just happen to see them all in the light of how great God is. We use words like omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, eternal, etc. and then forget what they mean. That kind of a God can create anything as quickly as He pleases. Being created in His image makes me relate to Him as He has revealed Himself to us. Besides, Jesus lives in my heart. I cannot relate to a non-intelligent, random process called evolution. I see no truth in that theory and am not drawn to it at all. What draws you to a theory that has no known source, no intelligent process, and no purpose in the end?

    If you seek Him with all your heart, you will find Him. He has the answers you need.

    • peddiebill says:

      I wonder if you have understood what scientists call evolution – far from being random it is a process called selection – Darwin who didn’t understand genetics called it Natural selection. Since the word intelligence is a comparative term which compares “mental ability” to human abilities it would seem to me to be quite inappropriate to describe the forces behind the wonders of the Universe.
      I am not sure why you assume that because I ask questions I therefore learn nothing. For example I am now quite convinced that the principle of compassion is a great uniting force which emerges from almost all religions. That has become a guiding principle for my life. By asking questions I now understand a little of how and why religions develop and some of the needs they meet. When you talk glibly of a male God who creates things at will you are talking at a level which I do not relate to because I dont yet understand the creation process, let alone understand how and why it happens. Is gravity or nuclear power a male construct? Why must God as creator be male because the same authors who said the world was flat thought he was?That doesnt stop me asking questions about creation – and at least I now understand something of the tensor forces which hold nuclei together and some of the stellar evolutionary processes. However I am not going to pretend I can describe all that is important with a few trite phrases. Your series of statements about Jesus are good creed type statements but to me they gloss over some really important questions. I dont know what the Son of God actually means eg how does he relate to the non-Earth parts of Creation. If he was almighty and without sin then his powers were far beyond Harry Potter and he could not have suffered in a genuine sense – just a magic charade???? The Virgin Birth – apart from the fact that it was a claim made of a number of contemporary leaders like Zororoaster and some of the Roman Emperors has very weak scriptual basis and makes no biological sense. eg Born of a Virgin was based on a mis translation. The original said “young girl”. (Look up the Hebrew and Aramaic if you dont believe me). I cant imagine why two gospels trace Jesus’ geneology through Joseph if Joseph was not his father. etc. etc.

  8. Cherel says:

    I’ve read Cosmos by Carl Sagan. I’ve read books by Stephen J. Gould and others. I just finished The Genesis Enigma which tells the evolutionary tale from the Big Bang to date. Evolutionists speak of the universe in glowing, sometimes even worshipful terms. They are forced to use words like design to describe what they see, and then forced to deny a Designer– by their faith in evolution. They talk about the occurence of the most intricate and improbable processes imaginable without having been implemented and directed by an intelligent, powerful being– and then give the credit to a non-entity called evolution and mind-boggling billions or millions of years– which no mortal can possibly comprehend. Time & non-intelligent ? = An Intricately Designed UNIVERSE and a Perfect Habitat for Mankind called EARTH (nothing else like it in the universe that we know of) and LIFE– in all it’s forms! That just takes more faith than I can come up with.

    Humans are the most intelligent mortal beings we know of and they come up with some pretty impressive innovations. Being created in God’s image, I have no problem comparing their intelligence to the Creator of the Universe. Although it’s a miniscule fraction of God’s intelligence, it towers over “evolution” because evolution is non-existent.

    I’m sure you learn all kinds of things from your inquiries. Compassion is wonderful but it’s elusive if not grounded in a greater ethos connected to the value of human life as God’s image bearers. Someone has to define what compassion means in the context of daily living. Is it compassionate to kill someone who is in pain– whether they want to die or not? Or, is that simply convenient for society at large and perhaps weary caretakers? Many questions could be asked about compassion.

    I don’t believe God is male or female. He has no counterpart– and no need to replicate Himself. Since He created male and female in His image, He must have all masculine and feminine traits. He has chosen to use male terminology in relating to us for His own reasons. Guess we’ll find out when we get our other questions answered. It’s not something I worry about.

    Biblically speaking, being the Son of God means Jesus is God like His Father. He said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father. I only do what I see my Father doing.” He came as God in the flesh so we could get to know God and better understand His love for us. The greatest revelation of His love being His willingness to die for us.

    The Bible says the pre-incarnate Jesus created everything in the universe and currently sustains it by the Word of His power. Those universal laws we talk about are merely His consistent care for His creation. If He withdrew His control, everything would “crash and burn”.

    The virgin birth is essential to His mission on earth. He chose a human mother so he would be human and His Heavenly Father, of course, means He is God. The mystery of being fully human and fully God is beyond us at this point, but with God all things are possible. Just as you don’t know how evolution works but you choose to believe in it, my belief in what God has revealed about His Son is by faith. I trust Him to know what He’s talking about.

    He became fully human so He could suffer and die for us. He didn’t have to. He chose to.

    The virgin birth was prophesied hundreds of years before He was born. Even if it said He would be born of a young girl, the New Testament gives a detailed account of what happened. It states that Mary had not known a man, was informed that she had been chosen to bear God’s Son, accepted God’s commission, conceived when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, and lived with Joseph without conjugal relations until after Jesus was born. His birth was accompanied by the Star of Bethlehem and Angels praising God and informing shepherds. It was followed by Magi from the East visiting and Herod the Great trying to kill Him. Besides all the miracles He performed to reveal His Godhood, the heavens opened on more than one occasion and His Heavenly Father spoke, saying, “This is my beloved Son…” After His death on the cross, the Roman Centurion said, “Surely this was the Son of God.” (I could go on and on. 🙂

    Zoroaster is known to have had 2 parents. His virgin birth status was added by his followers after the fact. Roman emperors??? The reason Joseph’s lineage is mentioned is for legal purposes. Jesus was a descendant of David with a right to his throne by blood through Mary and even by a legal relationship with his adopted father, Joseph. It also honors Joseph.

    By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen. Heb 11:3

    It all comes down to faith. A command doesn’t take billions of years to manifest. If what we see did not come from anything that can be seen, it could not have evolved. If everything was good at the end of God’s creation week, mutations cannot have been involved in the development of life. If death entered the world because of man’s sin, nothing could have died before they sinned. How could nothing die in millions of years?

    Either God’s Word is true or it’s not. Either Jesus is the Son of God Who created everything or He is no one to be concerned with. It all comes down to faith. The enemy of your soul does not want you to consider these things. God does.

    • peddiebill says:

      I find it hard discussing matters with you because you are certain about everything including the non existence of evolution, the nature of God etc basing your evidence on popularist commentaries. Because it does not occur to you that the authors are themselves working with limited insights you do not allow for the possiblity they might be wrong. In another earlier generation you would have made a wonderful defender of the flat Earth, but I am not so sure you would have made a good scientist. Continual challenging of the accepted truth is what drives science. God’s word might be true – but discerning which of the many words are God’s words is not quite so easy.
      To take a simple example we know that the Bishops who got together to decide on the canon of the New Testament were partly politically motivated – and in fact under orders to get rid of parts of the writings that didnt fit with the intentions of the Roman Emperor (a bit the same as what happened years later with the King James translation of the Bible). We also know bits were added eg the earliest gospel Mark did not have the last bit pointing towards the possibility of resurrection added until years later. To then claim that the Scriptures are totally the word of God seems taking it too far.

  9. Cherel says:

    If “evolution” exists, what or who is it? Where did it come from? What empowers it? And, what is the point of its existence?

    Not sure what commentaries you are talking about. I’m speaking to you straight from God’s Word. I could have listed quotes but I figured a conversational style would save time. It’s a liberal myth that the church at large ever believed in a flat earth. It occurs to me that all humans are working with limited insights (including evolutionists). That’s why I look to God’s Word for answers, rather than to men.

    As I said, it comes down to faith. No one can prove to you that the Bible is God’s Word if you choose to deny it. You seem to have a “very small god” who cannot preserve His Word. I am aware of the “problems” you mention and real or not, they do not impact the fundamental teachings of scripture. His Word is a message and the message comes through loud and clear to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It tells us where we came from and where we are going.

    We’ve hit another dead end and I wish you well. 🙂

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