Thursday, July 24, 2008

Let's hear it for atheism

It's kind of hard to follow a thread when half of it disappears, so reading this will seem oddly one-sided.

This is not to blame the brothers Archbold - I believe them when they say that Bill, their provocateur du jour, has proven unable to play friendly in their comboxes. Hence his most recent complaint, which will probably be gone before I hit "publish":

I daresay, a few dirty words here and there really shouldn't be call for such censorship. They are perfectly ammenable [sic] to good writing and not destructive of sensible argumentation.

I've been known to read blogs with cussing, and use the occasional cuss myself. CMR chooses to hold a stricter line, as is their right. But if I asked someone to tone it down and they replied "f'k yourself," they wouldn't be welcome here either.

And you'll notice that "f'k yourself" is neither good writing nor sensible argument, so I am not convinced that you have a defense here.

Terry said: "Also, making a sensible argument, in a sensible way helps?" Well where am I not making sense. Its hard to improve without knowing what exactly is wrong. And I think this charge can be made more accurately at nightfly who will never be accused of keeping his focus narrow with statements such as, "there is a great deal of evidence that there is a God and that Jesus his begotten Son is the Christ. One of the strongest bits is that Christianity is a religion of promises - and many people find that those promises are kept. Who is keeping them? If there is no God, then how could anyone claim that He would bless, or curse, or bring about His will?" Huge swathes of history and nothing to back it up.

His argument is that Christianity (and indeed all faiths) are "untainted by even a shred of evidence." Well, that's not true. There is a great deal of evidence. Yes, that is a broad statement. But it is no less broad than "there is absolutely zero evidence." It's poor thinking to complain about other people's generalizations on the grounds that they're general, while letting one's own generalizations stand "on the merits." It's also poor thinking to make a broad attack and then complain that the defense is of like scale.

Besides, I can't help that my reply is so broad - because the evidence itself is broad. Christianity IS a religion of promises. If those promises could not be kept, then Christianity wouldn't have lasted 20 days, much less 20 centuries. But, if there is no God, then obviously there is no way for His promises to come true, except by chance - and the testimony of millions of Christians throughout history are that those promises do come true. Complain that it's a broad statement all you wish - though no doubt, if I highlighted specific instances you would dimsiss them as mere happenstance. (Or simply ignore them - because I did go on to say: "Yet as one lives faithfully one sees those things happening; it suggests strongly that somebody is making it happen. And that those acts do not always take the forms we would expect strongly suggests that it isn't merely a self-delusion or a subconscious, after-the-fact rationalizing." In other words, I did make it specific, and was ignored.) It is dishonest to demand a large weight of evidence and then complain that the evidence presented is too large.

Think of it this way: human friends make promises. I'll watch your dog while you're away, I'll be designated driver, I'll pick up the tab for dinner. Well, when you come back from vacation, if the dog is well-fed, do you chalk it up to chance? If your buddy foots the bill and drops you off afterward, do you wake up in the morning saying "Wow, it's lucky I made it back last night!" Which is likelier as a credible explanation of fulfilled promises - random events or an act of the will?

One need not go even as far as a friend's promise. What of one's personal acts? Whatever a hardcore materialist may say, they certainly talk and behave as if their own actions are a product of their will, and not merely the latest turn of the cosmic clockworks. And they will certainly hold you to any promise you have the misfortune of breaking.

Likewise, when it comes to nearly two thousand years of Church history, I find that "it just happened" is even less of a good explanation than it is for friends or self. It's far more likely that there is really a God who does act in the world. Yes, it's a huge swath of history; but there's a good deal of sense backing it up.

Nor do you avoid God by saying that all those good things are just like the promises of your friend - human acts, not divine. What motivation would someone have to say that it was an imaginary God who wanted them to make and keep a promise, instead of just making and keeping it oneself? And this gets trickier when you consider promises made that no human could keep. I'm not talking per se of miracles. I'm talking about the things people say to each other every day of the year - "I will always be there for you," or "Don't worry, it will be all right," or "When I get back from the war everything will be fine." It is not within the power of any person to survive a car crash or desperate illness on command; beyond anyone's ability to know that some tragedy can be consoled; well outside the soldier's own skill at arms to defeat any danger in battle.

Those promises are made anyway because of faith, and many of them are kept; and clearly not by those who make them, whose own power over the events is so obviously limited. Random chance is again a lacking explanation: why make the promise, then?

I'll go further and say that the act of promising anything, large or small, becomes impossible if everything is random, because it relies on a freak of chance to keep that promise - to say nothing of the random act the promise itself is.

Or: "The evidence is quite the contrary - the saints have all been extraordinarily joyful, despite the most dreadful hardship. Those in the Church who have spread misery are usually found to be in obvious defiance of the Church's actual teachings - in fact, one of the chief accusations of nonbelievers is that Christians disobey their own teachings. But of course it doesn't mean the teaching is wrong: in fact the teaching is proved right when disobeying it brings evil to oneself and others." Again huge generalizations with not a sliver of evidence brought.

Again, the key part of the quote was omitted, this time from the beginning. Let me help you. "If Christianity were merely a set of rules made to dominate and control people, and enslave their minds, then living by those rules would result in misery for the believers and those around them. The evidence is quite the contrary - "...

You left out the whole basis for the argument, Bill. It's easy to knock down the conlcusions if you ignore the premise.

Try to follow. Atheism claims that religion is a huge exercise in controlling other people. I think this is preposterous on its face - what would I gain by convincing people to follow Jesus? I would stand to gain much more by convincing people to follow ME, and give ME the money rather than give it to charity. It's been tried that way, and what happens? Well, exactly what you'd expect. Those guys are eventually exposed as frauds. And the inevitable smash comes precisely because of what I mentioned before: they make promises beyond their power to keep, and not surprisingly, they are not kept.

So why doesn't this happen to the Church? They make even wilder promises about how people can find joy in the midst of suffering, and transform their lives, and thus transform the world. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was just a solitary nun taking in dying beggars and giving them food and comfort in their final hours; how is that suddenly an order of religious numbering thousands, in countries across the world?

This is kind of the pattern he follows. Makes huge statements that forbid engaging and are merely platitudes of the church.

It doesn't forbid engaging. Go ahead and dispute it. If you think it's a mere platitude, poke some holes in it. It shouldn't be hard. You have a lot to go on here. I propose that Christianity is true. I find the accusations of atheism against it are self-contradicting and uncredible. I submit that the experiences of real, everyday people, both as individual examples and as an aggregate, weigh heavily in favor of a personal God who created the universe - as described above, people find that the faith makes and keeps promises, of a kind and in a manner that precludes chance or solely human will; that therefore there is a real God who acts in history.

Ultimately, if you want an argument to reply to - as a doubter I found that half of my life didn't make any sense. There was no explanation possible for any sort of disinterested acts of kindness. What's more, there was no real explanation for acts of cruelty and malice. People told me that goodness and evil were illusions, or subjective, or relative; they told me altruism was ultimately selfish and crimes were ultimately for a greater good. Then I was simultaneously told that I should nonetheless be good and altruistic, and not commit crimes - but that I shouldn't judge criminals or promise breakers, and that generous people were dupes.

Not only did life make no sense lived that way, there was no way to explain why people would tell me to live in a way that made no sense. There was no way to understand why people would live that way themselves, obviously unhappy and making others miserable, and yet think that they were good people doing the best they could.

The faith had the answer - the Fall of Man. It was faith that explained both good and evil truthfully, while evil could not even explain itself. It was also faith that offered a solution that has thus far proved beyond anyone else's power to provide: Christ is the solution. It is ultimately not just how one lives but Whom one lives for. I don't just think this is true because He said so; I think it's true because I've tried both faith and the alternatives - including "being a good person" and living the faith without the God at its heart - and the faith is the thing that works.

All of the things He says that I can see with my eyes are true, and that suggests a trustworthy source. So when He makes certain promises that are harder to verify (such as eternal life), I don't think of Heaven first; I think of giving up sin for virtue and seeing a benefit; I think of prayers being effective, and how I am brought closer to other people (whom I can see) as well as God (whom I cannot). I think of how much more rational and sensible life is when viewed as a part of faith, rather than as a series of lucky breaks or an iron chain of causation. And once I returned to the faith, it proved itself by keeping two of its bigger promises: first, that the faithful find joy, even in the worst circumstances; and second, that the faith is freedom for the mind and soul. To paraphrase Chesterton, as a Christian I am free to think that one or the other miracle is not true; as an atheist I'm not allowed to believe any single one, ever. Christians can believe that sometimes God, as a Being with will, chooses not to act, nor to give His reasons; an atheist must deny every last possibility that He can act.

Alas this will also be deleted so I am going to make a habit of copying and pasting my comments into word documents whenever I engage a thread so I can just rapidly repost them.

No need. For one thing, it's incredibly rude to spam a blog. For another, you have a place to reply here, if you see fit - and if you play nice. (This goes for anyone else joining in too, please.)

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