Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"Perspectives from the Theist in the Atheist Class"

Posted for Austin Gober (but you're not the only one)...

I thought long and hard as to what I should discuss in my final report to our class. I considered a wide breadth of topics. However, where I ended up was deciding to share some of my thoughts on this unique experience both the things that I learned, the things that challenged me, and my closing thoughts. As I embarked on this journey at the beginning of the semester, I thought I had a reasonable expectation of the thoughts and challenges that I would face being the Christian in the atheism philosophy class. I thought I would hear the classic problem of evil argument and that I could easily handle that with the free will response. I imagined a simple first-cause argument to sway those entrenched in an atheist position. But what I actually encountered was something quite different. I heard many stories of the pain that had been inflicted by the church either personally to you or to your friends. I heard descriptions of strange "Christian" teachings that would cause any logical person to have doubts. I felt the confusion surrounding the big questions of why does our world look like this and why do Christians act like that. I suddenly found myself not just having to deal with the typical big questions in the religious debate but also I was having to answer for all of those hurts and all of those absurd positions. I felt as though I was being looked at not for what I was saying but as a epresentative of all the awful things associated with religion. I felt isolated and attacked for much of the semester. However, I don’t hold ill regard towards anyone for that. I don’t believe that it was anyone's intention to cause their distaste for the very things that cause them skepticism towards the faith. I found myself in this isolation and defense wondering "Is this the feeling that they have in their homes, schools, and communities?" After all, it is no secret that in this culture many of the ideas expressed in our books and discussions would be vehemently disregarded and those that espoused them would be treated roughly. It was an eye opening thought. I had caught a glimpse of what it was like to be surrounded by people that you entirely disagreed with on life's most important topics and feeling like the conversation was going nowhere but everything was deeply personal. I thought I had a decent idea of that as my older sister is agnostic and I had seen her encounter some of these things. However, suddenly finding myself in that role was entirely different. So I would like to say that I admire you all for standing up for your ideas and dealing with the pains of our culture.

I would like to apologize for anything that has been said or done to you in the name of faith that has been explicitly harmful especially if I have done any of that. I would like to thank you all for the opportunity to talk openly about life's deepest questions and even though at times things may have gotten heated on both sides I am glad to have experienced these discussions with you all. I would like to thank you for challenging me to refine and consider ideas as we all try to figure out this thing called life. At the end of the day, yes, I do definitely disagree with the atheist position on many subjects. I may not like the things that are said. But I do not hate the person saying them. We are all brothers and sisters of the same race. The human race. Regardless of whether or not you believe in the same deity or even a deity at all, we still have that unifying factor of humanity. I am grateful for the opportunity to have spent the semester learning different ideas but most importantly I am grateful for spending the semester seeing how these ideas impact and shape our bond and I hope that in the future these discussions can continue and these bonds can grow amongst each other.
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My last post remaining there are some things I'd like to address in my final words to you all. I would like to respond to some of the main arguments that I've heard this semester and then pose some thoughts or questions about the atheist positions we have heard.

Almost as many times as I have had a first-cause discussion, the reply I have heard is that ne popularized by Bertrand Russell: "Who made God?". To be completely honest, that reply has always frustrated me. Not because I have found it to poke holes in my position but quite the opposite. The reply seems to me like gotchya phrasing lacking depth that induces unwarranted reactions. For me, the argument from the first cause has always been just that – discussing an uncaused cause that precedes the system of cause and effect that we currently understand the world to operate under. When one uses the rebuttal of who created God, they have misrepresented the argument. To question what created God recasts His position as uncaused or first cause. Therefore one is completely shifting the argument outside of the argument from the first cause. The real debate within the argument from the first cause should be understood as comparison of the merits of God vs the universe to fulfill that role. Therefore, the rebuttal of what created God has never given me intellectual pause. A better rebuttal would be, "well, why can't the universe fulfill that role?". That is an entirely different argument for which I certainly have a response but I have other concerns to address in this limited space.

The Euthyphro dilemma
You all know this dilemma. You all know the classical Christian responses that invoke God's goodness as the solution. However, for me, I go one step further in my response. I would agree that the dilemma seems to put the theist in a difficult position to say the least. Arbitrary morality or a law that is higher than God. Not a great choice to make. The solution is there must be some eternal guiding force at play that directs morality. That guiding force to me is not just simply God's goodness but specifically the eternal love relationship that exists in the Trinitarian God.

This love is the guiding force of God; thus it is the simplest explanation for the basis of morality. Jesus himself summarizes the entire law into love the Lord Your God with all your heart and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. When I ponder everything: why did God create us and so much more the guiding principle for me has to be understood as love. Thus the solution to the dilemma is that moral laws of God have developed out of this guiding principle of love that has been eternally existent within the Trinitarian God.

Abraham's sacrifice
I must admit. Out of everything in this class that has caused me to struggle it is this subject that has caused me the most struggle. I definitely wrestled with this question/argument for a while. I talked to many people and read a lot of things until I reached a satisfactory answer. The complaint is that God demands that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son Isaac and in doing so forces Abraham to lose all semblance of moral agency. He either obeys God who hands down the rules and does something we would reason to be wrong or he can disobey God to avoid the act of killing his son. I agree. At first it seems like an impossible situation not just for Abraham but also for the believer that realizes the implications of the situation. I think the answer lies in a fuller, more comprehensive understanding of the situation. In Genesis 17 & 21, God has promised to Abraham that he will have many descendants through Isaac. Abraham also knows the Lord to be a trustworthy, good God. So when the Lord tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac,

Abraham must know that the situation is not as simple as just killing Isaac. Abraham is walking in faith that the God he knows and trusts has promised good through Isaac. So when he sets out on his task it is not just a situation of two choices, it is trusting the Lord in it knowing that He has it taken care of. Hebrews 11 discusses Abraham's faith and in verse 19 states that Abraham even trusted God to raise Isaac from the dead. Simply Abraham was trusting God that it would work out according to the goodness of God's nature and he followed God through the whole path.

My Questions and Thoughts on Atheist Positions
In the case of morality, it seems to me that the atheist is put in a very difficult position. If they choose to believe in an objective morality, they must explain how their naturalist position can contain an objective morality. If they choose the subjective morality they must say that nothing is inherently wrong thus they lose the ability to criticize and compare other moralities with their own. Of course the atheist position does not necessitate the ability to compare moralities but realistically it does pose problems for life.

On the subject of choosing naturalism, a strict naturalist view abhorrently refusing belief in anything supernatural to me seems illogical. For instance, if all the world's knowledge wer a napkin and the atheist were to put the amount of knowledge they have on that napkin surely their knowledge would not encapsulate the entirety of the napkin. That metaphor shows the folly of supposing that the naturalist point of view holds all potential knowledge thus eliminating the possibility of any supernatural occurrence. I see no rational or logical reason to believe that nonbelief of supernatural occurrences is a superior position.

Most importantly I rest my stance on the person of Jesus. The atheist is given two options are the front of the discussion with each leading to more paths later. The first of the dilemmas is on the existence of the historical Jesus. In spite of Russell's statement that "it is very doubtful whether the historical Jesus existed at all," the historical records point powerfully to not only his life but also his death by crucifixion. The atheist is left having to come up with a response for many things: the evidence for the empty tomb, why did the disciples profess and die for the statement of the risen Jesus, Paul's conversion, James conversion, the change of the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, etc. Those issues for the atheist remain whether or not they agree that Jesus made claims of divinity.

All in all I have thoroughly enjoyed this class. I would love to have further discussions and I thank you all for putting up with me and furthering my thoughts on many subjects.


  1. Austin, thank you for this thoughtful and generous essay, and for your steady participation throughout the semester. You never let on feeling "isolated and attacked," and I have to say I never perceived any hostile intent on anyone's part. But for any inadvertent slights, I'm sure I speak for the class in deeply regretting that. And I have to say that I didn't think our conversations "went nowhere," they almost always shed light on the assumptions motivating others' statements.

    You're perceptive and empathic to realize that nonbelievers in this culture often feel isolated and attacked, and have only recently felt it safe to emerge from the closet. Things in this regard are changing rapidly. To wit: this very course.

    The question "why can't the universe fulfill the role" [of 1st cause] is precisely what I thought "Who made God?" was intended to elicit. It does, for me. As for J.S. Mill and Bertrand Russell.

    "Eternal guiding forces" are precisely what the Euthyphro Dilemma undermines, no?

    Abraham was trusting God. Who can Isaac trust, if not his Dad?

    Regarding morality, I think things are a lot simpler than you suggest. See my comment to Nick's post.

    Regarding Jesus: by all (faded) accounts he seems to have been a mostly-exemplary human, though not (as Russell pointed out) entirely. But all the points you say the atheist is challenge to explain - the empty tomb, et al - are points the atheist says the theist is too credulous about. None of us were there, and many of the received accounts are less than compelling.

    Anyway... further discussion, by all means! Don't be a stranger. Feel at home on this site, any time. Good luck! Peace!!

  2. Oh, the first cause argument. Here's a recent scientific theory that may or may not help http://phys.org/news/2015-02-big-quantum-equation-universe.html . It's a quantum physics version of "turtles all the way down."

    I would like to address this statement :" For instance, if all the world's knowledge wer a napkin and the atheist were to put the amount of knowledge they have on that napkin surely their knowledge would not encapsulate the entirety of the napkin. That metaphor shows the folly of supposing that the naturalist point of view holds all potential knowledge thus eliminating the possibility of any supernatural occurrence."
    Perhaps I am confused as to the metaphor, but surely the blank spaces on the napkin would simply be things I personally haven't learned (or that haven't been explained yet). That doesn't make them supernatural, but just facets of the natural world of which I (or everyone) is ignorant. For instance, at some point we had not written down on our napkin how bacteria make people sick. That did not mean sickness was caused by supernatural forces, it meant that we hadn't discovered germ theory yet. That part of the napkin has now been filled in a bit.

    In other words, to quote The Doctor (who knew a few things about the supernatural) "To the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable; only unexplained."

    1. Didn't Einstein scrawl "E=mc2" on a napkin? Maybe quality should be considered, as well as quanitity!