Extrange

Why Christianity, And Why Not

Thu, 7 Nov 2013 | norman

Recently I asked a bunch of smart Christians a set of questions to show me why it is reasonable to believe Christianity:

  1. Did the universe have a First Cause?
  2. Is the First Cause an intelligent Creator?
  3. Is the Creator the kind of God who answers prayers?
  4. Has the Creator determined an objective morality for humans?
  5. Is the Creator the God of Christianity?

But maybe before we look at those, I should mention why this is important, and what makes it interesting: Because if the answers to some of those questions are "yes", then we open ourselves up to a world of danger. What's so dangerous? And can we avoid the danger? Let's take a look.

I'm going to rush through the standard answers without getting caught up in the details, and then point out some important gaps.

Why Christianity? The Christian Answers

Did the universe have a First Cause?

Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Aquinas and Spinoza all say, "Yes."

Is the First Cause an intelligent Creator?

Was the universe designed? Was all this created on purpose? Does God have a mind -- or something like one?

Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Aquinas and Spinoza all say, "Yes."

Looking at the order they observed around them, they thought it was pretty obvious that it must have been designed.

(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmological_argument)

Is the Creator the kind of God who answers prayers?

Along with the universe, did God create a spiritual domain, with places like heaven and hell, or the underworld, or nirvana? Did God create angels, and maybe jinns? Is God interested in us and what we do? Does God maintain relationships with us?

Al-Farabi, Avicenna and Aquinas all say, "Yes" to some of those.

Spinoza says, "No." He believed that the order of the universe is evidence of God, but he rejected the idea that the universe has a purpose, or that God has a plan.

Has the Creator determined an objective morality for humans?

Does God determine what is good and bad? Does God care how you live your life?

Plato says, "Yes." Kant says, "Yes." C.S. Lewis says, "Yes," and proposes that conscience is proof of an objective, divinely-ordained morality.

(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_morality)

Is the Creator the God of Christianity?

Aquinas says, "Yes." He believed that the First Cause was the God of the Bible, and that Jesus is God. He acknowledged that his five proofs of the existence of God don't necessarily imply this, but that it can be reasoned from the Bible and from the miracle of the resurrection, which is proof that Jesus is God.

Why Not; Gaps You Can't Ignore

Beach

Did the universe have a First Cause?

First off, the real answer is "We don't know."

The first gap is the assumption that there is only one First Cause. It may be that the cause of the universe may have occurred many times and we are only witnessing this one because this is the one we are around for.

We are constantly learning more about the laws of physics, and it seems likely that the cause of our universe could well cause other universes.

"What caused that cause?" you may ask. That brings us to the second gap; whether we need a First Cause at all.

The alternative is "brute fact"; the existence of something, perhaps the laws of physics, perhaps a yet-unknown reason for the laws of physics, that has no cause.

Is the First Cause an intelligent Creator?

The third gap is that the First Cause has an intellect. This is an attribute assigned to it ever since Plato. And it smells strongly like anthropomorphism. From a very young age we are able to conceive of minds separate from physical bodies; it allows us to empathise, to imagine how someone might feel or react in hypothetical or historical situations. We build relationships and deep understandings of the characters of the people around us. Trust is a cornerstone of our societies. None of these things would be possible without our ability to imagine the minds of others even when they aren't physically present. The idea of an intelligent First Cause hijacks this natural tendency of ours in order to explain the universe we see around us.

Aristotle believed that intellect is the soul. He believed that the function of the brain is simply to cool the blood. But we now know that the mind is a product of the brain. There is no such a thing as a disembodied mind, any more than that the music of a CD player will continue to play without the CD player itself.

The current state of the universe, and everything that has happened in it for the last 13.7 billion years can be explained without the need to invent a disembodied mind. And it also seems very likely that its origin can also be explained without requiring a disembodied mind.

Is the Creator the kind of God who answers prayers?

Here we have a problem. According to Aquinas, one of the attributes of the First Cause is that it is unchanging. An unchanging God doesn't change His mind. He was always going to save your sick child from malaria, or He was never going to save her.

This doesn't sound like a biblical God, who can not only change His mind, but even feel regret for making poor decisions in the past. (e.g. In 1 Samuel 15:10-12, God regrets making Saul king).

There are a few ways in which Christians try to make sense of this. One is to suggest that it is not that prayer changes God, but rather that prayer changes the Christian. I am not sure how this accounts for the idea that prayer is answered by God. Perhaps the next explanation is better.

In His omniscience, God always knew that you were going to pray. So it seems to you that He responded to your prayer, but He was always going to cure your sick child because He knew that you were going to pray for her. If you were not going to pray for her He would know that too, and He would have chosen, before the start of the universe, to allow her to die.

While the logic is flawless, I don't see how it accounts for things like God's regret (which, let's be honest, also seems contradictory to God's omniscience).

Nor does it account for what Christian's feel is a personal relationship with God, because this solution implies that the entire relationship was scripted before the universe began; that their interaction with God is not two-way at all; instead, in a sense, it's all prerecorded, like Ferris Beuller's doorbell, where the Christian is played by headmaster Ed Rooney, and God is played by Ferris Beuller. Except in the movie, Ed Rooney only believes he's having a two-way conversation for about a minute.

Has the Creator determined an objective morality for humans?

Before we can conclude that morality indicates the existence of God, we would have to show that it is either commanded by God or determined by the nature that God intended us to have. Alternatively, morality could be given by the consent of humans, just as the behaviour of other primates is regulated by the consent of members of their societies.

The argument from morality also leaves an important practical gap. Even if we assume that it is God who determines a metaphysical, objective morality, the fact that Christians haven't reached a unanimous agreement on what that moral code is, means that its usefulness is limited. Many claim to know the will of God but few agree, so what difference does it make to our lives whether there is a metaphysical objective morality when we have to figure it out anyway?

Christians may say that they agree on the important parts. But that misses the point. The important parts can be determined without any guidance from God, usually just by empathising with fellow human beings. And the fact that there is any disagreement among people who claim that their morality comes from God means they are forced to figure things out for themselves, just like those who do not believe in their God.

Is the Creator the God of Christianity?

"Well, what about Jesus? He is proof of the Christian God."

Historians know that claims of miracles are not unique to Christianity; while the Jewish faith has been partial to them for a long time, and even had "miracle-offs" with opposing priests, most religions claim miracles too. My favourite is Ichadon, the Buddhist monk, whose martyrdom was followed by such amazing miracles that Korea adopted Buddhism as its national religion. Christians will maintain that only Christian and Jewish miracles really happened. There are some miracles of Christianity that ought to have been corroborated by non-Christians, but for which there is no record outside the Bible, like the "darkness over the whole land" for three hours at the time of Christ's crucifixion (Mark 15:33) (which cannot be explained by a solar eclipse, because the Passover corresponds with a full moon, and a solar eclipse can only happen on a new moon, and cannot last longer than about seven and a half minutes).

There are many explanations for what is written in the Bible that are all more likely than a supernatural resurrection of a divine Jesus. If you assume the existence of the Christian God, you may consider the resurrection of Jesus to be extremely likely. But if you are relying on the resurrection to provide evidence for the Christian God then you cannot make that assumption. And without it, almost any other explanation is more likely than the supernatural resurrection of someone who is both man and God.

"What about my relationship with God? I know what I feel."

Feelings are probably the strongest motivation for belief. But many people have found that the way they feel towards God, their relationship with God, is not really a two-way relationship after all. As Jerry DeWitt puts it, it turns out that you are looking in a mirror. And after you notice this, the strength of your relationship with Jesus or the Father gradually fades.

You will find many people with devout and fervent relationships with the Living Jesus who have changed their minds; people who have invested an enormous amount in that relationship, and who have lost a lot; their jobs, family, and friends, by walking away from it. People like Seth Andrews, Vyckie Garrison, Jerry DeWitt, Teresa McBain, Dan Barker, among others. But when you realise the truth, it is emotionally difficult, and morally questionable, to continue to live a lie, although many do.

Now What?

Tree

The Implications of Christianity

I think the most important implication is the acceptance that some things can't and shouldn't be understood.

This belief is so pervasive that even if people leave the church, this acceptance of impenetrable mystery allows them to replace their Christian faith with faith in any number of other impenetrable mysteries that they just find to be more appealing, like karma, or just some warm, fuzzy subset of Christianity that suits them.

Anyone who allows their life to be based on something mysteriously and unquestionably true is vulnerable to basing it on something dangerous or harmful to others, or themselves ...

... because "mystery" necessarily implies "no reality check".

"No!" you object, "Reason is your reality check." But then you must do away with the mystery. Stick with the reason. Keep rationalising backwards. Ultimately you either end with a mystery that you unquestioningly accept -- no reality check -- or an unknown that you explore scientifically. You hypothesise, you test (forbidden in Deuteronomy 6:16), you adjust, you learn, you understand. And until you understand, you refuse to accept.

The Implications of Not-Christianity

If we deny unquestionable truth, then we allow ourselves the opportunity to identify our mistakes, and the freedom to adjust our behaviour, instead of believing that The Book must be right, and if things aren't working, it's because we aren't following it closely enough, or correctly.

Identifying our mistakes and adjusting our behaviour have worked very well for us in the past. A rejection of the divine right of kings resulted in republics and democracy. A rejection of witchcraft has saved the lives of thousands of society's most vulnerable individuals every year. A rejection of slavery has improved the well-being of the most oppressed.

These were all mistakes that were identified, and society was changed, sometimes by a Christian minority, sometimes by a secular minority, and eventually they dragged the whole of the Christian community to a better way of living.

We have a long way still to go. There is still the religious objection to gender equality in many circles, and homosexuality is still widely seen as a corruption of nature.

But, fortunately, outside of Christianity, these are mistakes that many have spotted, and are actively working to correct. And if they get it wrong, they will learn from that too, and try again. This is how we progress; stepwise, and empirically; not by clinging to ancient tradition and hoping for things to improve.

Why Is All This Important?

You may not be the kind of person who would do bad things in the name of faith but many people do. "Bad things" does not necessarily mean flying aeroplanes into buildings or shooting doctors who work in clinics that offer abortions. It can be as easy as denying rights or freedoms to a group of people, negatively impacting their lives, by acting on beliefs that they don't share.

Whether you do these things yourself or not, in the minds of people who do, simply the fact that you can be counted among their number adds to the validity of their beliefs, and, they think, support for their actions.

"What Should I Do?"

Reject mystery as a valid foundation for belief.

The rest will follow as a consequence. Because you are honest, and strong, you will probably eventually leave the community of those who still think mystery is a good foundation to base their whole lives on. And that is when you will stop providing implicit support for those who do not have a problem with basing their actions on a belief in mysteries.

And please provide community and support, even implicit support, for those who strive to question, explore, and unravel those unknowns that remain. Those people deserve our admiration, respect and gratitude; a lot more than they receive at the moment. It is thanks to them, and those like them in the past, that we live as long and as well as we do.

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