In my recent postings I have described a presentation in which I argued for both sides of the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. I began by assuming the role of Pastor Chris (Chris is my nickname) and I responded to them in the role of the atheist, Dr. Schriner.
Last week I quoted “Dr. Schriner,” who offered evidence that religion does not typically make people more moral. In fact, it sometimes makes them more hostile to those of other faiths and cultures. Schriner concluded:
“If God doesn’t communicate with us, God probably does not exist. But if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.”
This week I read an essay by philosopher Georges Rey called “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.” Rey cites a splendid passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty which discusses the gap between theology and morality. I’ll quote it at length, boldfacing one key passage.
Mill notes that doctrines which should make a powerful “impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding … [This] is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. … These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of [Christian] ethical maxims, … and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that … it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; … that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with…. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.”
Here is how “Pastor Chris” replied to the claim that Christianity does not improve Christians, and the other charges made by Dr. Schriner:
How sad that such a smart young fellow as Dr. Schriner has to fall back on such outdated atheistic ideas. It is so “Twentieth Century” to proclaim that the grand march of science is closing every gap in our knowledge. Today new discoveries are opening up astonishing new mysteries! At one time we had no idea that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for intelligent life. Not all scientists have realized this is so, but it is truly revolutionary to hear brilliant physicists say the cosmos seems precisely designed to make our existence possible.
In the Twentieth Century biologists said we were on the verge of explaining the origin of life. Today we’re no closer than we were then. And many philosophers now admit that we have no idea how to show that consciousness could exist within a physical brain. The gaps in our knowledge remain, and in some cases are widening.
Schriner complains that people go to church and still do nasty things. But I once heard a preacher say that the church is the only organization in the world for sinners only. We sinners need churches and temples to help us become better people. But since sinful humans are in charge of religious institutions, they will sometimes pervert religion for terrible purposes. That’s why Jesus himself warned us against false prophets and corrupt priests.
Even fair-minded non-believers admit that religion is good for us. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett acknowledges that “for day-in, day-out lifelong bracing, there is probably nothing so effective as religion: it makes powerful and talented people more humble and patient, it makes average people rise above themselves, it provides sturdy support for many people who desperately need help staying away from drink or drugs or crime” (Breaking the Spell, p. 55).
Notice that Schriner never denies that the vast majority of people have sensed the presence of this sturdy support, for centuries, all over the world. The overwhelming testimony of this “great cloud of witnesses” speaks far more eloquently than the outdated arguments of atheism. [End.]
If you’re an atheist or agnostic, what would you say in response to these remarks? Post a comment and let me know. Next week I’ll conclude this series with final statements from Dr. Schriner and Pastor Chris.
Roger Christan Schriner
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“But if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.“
On what basis do you assert that “if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not.”? How can you possibly know that receiving divine communications of one kind or another does not make people wiser or better?
“Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.”
God communicates in all kinds of ways to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Perhaps you can explain how this quite spectacular “sign language” of God “actually undermines the case for deity.” From where I stand it does no such thing.
On my entry of October 6 there’s an explanation for this series of postings. It is based on a talk in which I took both sides of the debate about God’s existence. Each statement in the debate was very brief, and therefore should not be taken as a fully-developed exposition of a line of argument. “Dr. Schriner” presented evidence for the claim that, in general, Christianity does not improve Christians. In the October 26 posting “Pastor Chris” presented evidence to the contrary.
Roger Christan Schriner
Should a theist “fight” back to make an argument or turn a cheek to show a new side of a discussion?
In letters, an atheist becomes a theist by adding a humble space. A theist becomes atheist by removing the gap. Both changes are momentary. They become timeless when we enjoy finding new gaps.
When intolerant atheists make “straw man” arguments to deny the existence of God, and even go out of their way to belittle and malign God believing people in various ways, I think that it is more than fair for a Theist to “fight” back.
Insofar as my comment goes, it was a far cry from “fighting” in my books. I was simply challenging assertions that are open to considerable question, and doing so in a fairly civil manner.
You are right that the assertions are open to questions. I hope we can find joy in questions as well as answers. My question of a fight was asking Roger about his title and having fun with words. Your questions are certainly civil. For those who have trouble sensing what we sense and using words we use, how should we ask and act with them to bridge the gaps?
I have trouble with the evidence of a God communicating with people. It seems to me that if he were to communicate, he would be often challenging his listeners to do something about suffering, both locally and globally, and not the trivial things you hear believers reporting that he says to them, that seem to be just what they want to hear and justify their existing lifestyles.
On the other hand, I know lots of Christians that DO take the challenging stuff in the Bible seriously, and talk a lot about how to put it into practice in their lives, and actually do so, giving up well paid jobs, moving to poor countries, spending all their time caring for others, etc. Others agonise over the difficulty of being relatively well-off, and whether that is OK as long as they give lots to charity and if their job is making a difference to their community.
@ChristianAtheist As I said in my previous comments, God can and does in fact communicate in a variety of different ways. OTOH God can also choose not to communicate. If you read the stories of the Biblical prophets you will find that some of them, perhaps most notably Jeremiah, were quite frustrated by the fact that, after some initial communication, God clammed up on them. . .
Chris, I enjoy having fun with words myself, and certainly find joy in posing certain questions. . . but perhaps that is not quite what you meant. 😉 There is nothing at all wrong with finding joy in certain questions themselves, but if the answers are already quite readily available why pose the question other than as a rhetorical question?
As far as communicating effectively with “those who have trouble sensing what we sense” I think that one needs to tailor one’s words to the individual as much as possible. Of course, when communicating with groups or the general public, this is not possible. None-the-less I think that presenting one’s arguments in as rational and civil a manner as possible, without overdoing the civility bit, is the best approach to trying to bridge the gaps? That being said, there are those who are not the least bit interested in sensing what we sense or bridging the gaps between Theists and Atheists.
Hi Robin, when I got my answers that Jesus is my Savior, new questions were born of how best to serve others and understand the words they use. Good atheists believe in good and I commend them while sharing my feelings and logos. I invite them to believe in G__d where I give them the space to fill in the blanks. So in letters and in truth the bridge between atheist and a theist is a humble gap for both – open to answers and new questions.
For example, I am convinced of communications beyond me and continue to wonder how they work and find new meanings to apply to life. I think and feel that much of my self discovery is aided by the G__d of nature. Wireless e-mail will still be a miracle for me even as I learn more how it works.
As a related idea, look at your post and other words and see how the change from “but” to “and” sounds. But tends to negate the initial statement. In logic, the and symbol is used for both so I have found it a better bridge and use but sparingly. That helps me recognize what part of truth others have.
The question being debated is “Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe.”
However, Dennett’s commentary is speaks to a differerent question — “Resolved: That religious belief has utility.”
They aren’t the same question.
Hi Steve. It’s harder to follow the flow of argument since I’m presenting excerpts from this “debate” in several different posts. Dr. Schriner claimed that religion doesn’t make people better and may make them worse, and said this is evidence that God doesn’t exist. Pastor Chris is replying to that charge. Rather than arguing for God’s existence, he is rebutting a claim that supposedly shows God does not exist. — Roger Schriner
These two argumentative types aren’t focussing on much / any evidence for anything related to the proposition. Given that there is no real evidence for either standpoint and, I suspect, there never will be, might I be so brave as to suggest that discussing the function and purpose of religion might be more interesting and more valid?