I recently had a brief chat with a chap about “religion” – which even though I am a church pastor, doesn’t happen very often! Not like this anyway.
In the course of the conversation we talked about a theological book I was carrying, and he commented that the book will have “religious bias”, and that, by implication, could not really be trusted.
Of course my thought-reply was immediate: “If by “bias” you mean an unthinking and pre-determined approach of coming to, and understanding, truth, then No. But if you mean by “bias” that I am seeking truth and understanding through the lens of Christian Theology, a discipline that implodes if without internal and external integrity and disciplines, then Yes.”
Of course, the underlying assumption, as I saw it, was that Christian books of theology are naively enslaved to a bronze-age superstitious worldview, but still seek to peddle their wares to unsuspecting passersby, since everyone knows that science (more accurately, scientism, or “scientistic epistemology”) has put to death once and for all the myth of religion, or more specifically, the myth of Christianity.
Then my friendly interlocutor mentioned something Ricky Gervais had said in a US TV interview a few years ago. I’ve listened to it and seen it on YouTube a couple of times, and each time I am staggered at how pleasant and wise popular atheist sloganeering sounds, every phrase met with the wide-eyed support and cheering and clapping of gladiatorial spectators witnessing the death of a prize-winning fighter. Only this time, it is the wise Ricky putting to death the mythical monster that is Christianity. It reminded me of the marvellous Mark Twain, who wrote in Volume 1 of his Autobiography, “These poor fellows furnish a “comic” performance which is so humble, and poor and pitiful, and childish, and asinine, and inadequate that it makes a person ashamed of the human race. Ah, their timorous dances – and their timorous antics – and their shamefaced attempts at funny grimacing – and their cockney songs and jokes – they touch you, they pain you, they fill you with pity, they make you cry…. London loves them; London has a warm big heart, and there is room and a welcome in it for all the misappreciated refuse of creation.”
Sadly, it is nothing but the poor and pitiful, the childish and asinine quality of the popular new-atheist movement in our day that is wildly unwild, one could say tame. G. K. Chesterton did: “It is not the wild ideals which wreck the practical world; it is the tame ideals.” Is this shallow debate wrecking the world? Yep.
So what did Ricky say?
Among other things, that strictly speaking he is not an atheist but an agnostic-atheist. This is actually to his credit since he is at least conceding that given “evidence” (whatever that means) he would, in theory, be open to the evidence. But then he adds something to the effect that he only believes in one less ‘god’ than any Christian. Of all the gods in this world that Christians also don’t believe in, he just goes one further (cue applause and laughter), and doesn’t believe in one more god or rather that Christians deny one less god than he does.….. Sucker punch, hole-in-one, out for the count! Christianity can’t recover from such a claim can it? Let’s dig the hole and bury this religion.
Well, I say “claim”, but I mean infantile mutterings. For Gervais has made, literally, a school boy error, akin to the cute childish question: “So who made God?” Another category error, but try telling that to a confident six year old! He has assumed that the Christian God, the Father of our our Lord Jesus Christ is like all the other gods, be he Zeus or be she Artemis. This category mistake is the profoundest one to make. The gods in this world, the gods invented in this world are gods of this world. They are like us but bigger. They are, so to speak, Freud’s projection, a projection of us. Only in this sense is Freud right about god being a projection, but once again, it is a school-boy category error!
More than being a mere projection of us, they compete with humans. We humans must sacrifice to them to secure their pleasure and favour. A calf here, a human there, and maybe, fingers crossed, they won’t wipe us out. They are beings within the universe; they are contingent on us and other worldly matters just as human beings are to one another; they are like us, obsessed with sex and power, and so the gods cavort and lust and slay and are never satisfied. They are the representations are humanity’s wickedly perverted and distorted desire. They are like us because we imagined them into being.
But being. Or rather, Being. The Christian revelation of God is wholly different. The God of classical theism is not one more god among all the thousands of mythical deities; he is not like us, a projection of us; He is not contingent on anything that we or the world could supply; He doesn’t lack anything that we can provide; He doesn’t compete with us and demand sacrificial back-scratching favours. He is not an invention of us; humanity has its being because God is Being itself. So just because there are many versions or candidates trying to fill an Office, doesn’t mean there isn’t a correct Candidate. Take a trip to ancient Greece, it was Aristotle who taught that gods like Zeus were myths, but he said that there is a true God who is infinite in Being, who is the Prime Mover, who keeps everything in existence.
No. The solid witness of Scripture is that God, fully and finally revealed in the God-Man Jesus Christ, is not a Being among many, but is the very Ground of Being; God, properly understood, is Being itself; wholly Other; Unique, neither competitive or needy. This is the God Christian theology seeks to understand. This is the type of God, when properly understood simply cannot be just another God. Christian theology is Faith Seeking Understanding, it is a truth-seeking venture of humanity responding to the revelation of a God who wouldn’t be known unless He reveal Himself in history. Keith Clements, commenting on P. T. Forsyth explains the task of theology: “Forsyth knew in his own time and place, and in his own way, that the role of genuine theology is to uncover the truth, which must include the uncomfortable truth of the forms and masks worn by egoism in society” (italics mine).
Gervais’ responses reveal the devastating fact that in all probability, in all likelihood, with all the evidence coming out of his own mouth, he does not know any of the classical arguments for the existence of God, arguments which, when understood, help us to at least guard against school-boy errors. So to assert that God doesn’t exist is an epistemological claim, a claim to knowledge, so if that claim is going to be made, then at least have the decency to tell me why the arguments from Christian Theology on God’s existence fail, because we’ve got to assume at the very least that you know the arguments! But no. You don’t, as most of what passes for this “debate” in Webland dont know either. Hence Thiselton counsels in ‘On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise’ another vital aspect of theology, “It is one task of theology, among others, to attempt to disentangle manipulative power-bids from non-manipulative truth-claims, and to distinguish evidence, argument, or valid testimony from modes of rhetoric which rely on seduction, disguised force, or illegitimate appeals to privilege.”
The moral of this post: Popular, self-defining, superficial, sloganeering, applause-generating, pithy, meme-like atheism is winning the present day battle for the hearts and minds of many others who also don’t know the philosophical grounds for this debate. And that sounds a lot like brainwashing to me!
In the words on Dr John Dickson:
“Christians have been pondering this stuff for a long time. They’ve faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith. My first tip [for atheists], then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents – Pannenberg, Ward, MacIntrye, McGrath, Plantinga, Hart, Volf – popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, “Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!”
While popular atheism seems to be gaining ground among certain (fairly well-heeled) groups of people, I strongly suspect that the insipid shallowness of its arguments will finally give the game away. It cuts both ways of course, just as trite and intellectually unchallenging preaching/teaching leads a lot of thoughtful people away from church.
To be honest, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if some nu-atheists actually went to Nietzsche, or Heidegger or Freud and learned about an intellectually robust atheism that doesn’t rely on sniggering and soundbites.