May 20, 2010


These days I've been in an email conversation with an old friend who is one of the most sensible and brightest people I know. He's also an atheist, and so we are able to have honest and intriguing talks about God and faith and practice. I wanted to share some of one of my emails:

The question of a/theism intrigues me these days, even more so after working as a parish priest for a few years. Some of my colleagues imagine that we are in a struggle with atheism, but for me I'm not so sure of this. My diagnosis is that many people, both religious and not, seem to have absorbed an image or idea of God which isn't credible, and sometimes isn't even attractive. So of course they become 'practical atheists,' because there is nothing compelling or lovely in the idea of God they think they are supposed to believe in.

To me the standard question of theism, 'Do you believe in God?' doesn't even seem to work anymore. Of course I believe God, in the sense that I believe what he has revealed about himself, but to believe in God seems too suggestive of God as some kind of object or some-thing that is sitting some-where waiting for me to assent to his existence. To me God is too immanent for all that. Indeed I think this is precisely the message of Christianity; that God has abandoned everything it ought to mean to be God on our human terms (i.e. honor, power, coercion, etc.), and has emptied and sacrificed himself into our humanity, in order to blaze for us a path out of the misery we insist upon for ourselves with our selfishness and violence. I guess this is part of why Christianity works for me and why I enjoy preaching it; it is a sustained critique and subversion of an idea of God created in our image, of what human beings tend to do and become when given absolute power over others. I'm still just a punk rock kid you know!


Anonymous said...

Speaking of email exhanges with atheists, here's one I had with my brother. He had a very vivid dream one night about the laws of physics being the veil between life and death. I took advantage of the opportunity to challenge him about his non-belief in God by saying that even time and matter are malleable beyond the confines of the third dimension. Here's his response. He stumped me as to a reply. Sorry for the length of the comment. I'd be curious as to your thoughts.

I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say. How does time and space being malleable imply "god"? Also, what is "God"? The question, "do you believe in God?", has different answers depending how one defines "God". If the question is, do you believe in the Christian God (of any flavor), with the whole original sin and salvation and heaven and hell thing, my answer is "no". The whole idea, to me, is preposterous. Some original humans supposedly messed up, and from that point all of humanity is damned. You just have to believe in Jesus and (depending on the denomination) do this list of things and not do this other list of things. In some denominations (esp. Calvinist-baptist) there is nothing you can do to become saved: you're either chosen or you aren't (predestination). This doesn't sound like the oft-quoted "kind and merciful" God to me. They all preach the same bible yet they all reach vastly different conclusions. Of course, Christ "spoke in parables and without a parable he did not speak" (Matthew 13:34), so there's plenty of room for interpretation. :)

If the question refers to a mechanistic God, one who is only involved in the running of the universe and does not make cryptic pronouncements that we're supposed to guess at and then follow, then my answer is "yes". Indeed, the laws of physics, of which humanity has over time gained a partial knowledge, can be said to be such a god. They are omnipresent. They are omnipotent - indeed they describe everything that is possible to do. And, since (as far as we can tell) the force-fields extend everywhere and make the presence of every particle felt, they are omniscient.

Of course, a lack of belief in God does not imply a lack of belief in good morals and advancing the cause of humanity. And furthermore, it makes good sense to have good morals and to be good. Here's the reasoning: Imagine you just paid good money to go to Disneyworld. You know you have a week to enjoy it and after it is over and you can't afford to go again any time soon. Now imagine there's someone there being a nuisance and making it unpleasant for you. You don't appreciate having spent all that money and not getting the most you can out of the experience. I feel the same about life. You are given some number of years and after you're dead, that's it, as far as we can tell. Whether there is something else afterwards or not, we don't know, and so it makes sense to make of the present as much as one can. And you don't want someone else to ruin it for you (for example by theft, fraud, killing, etc.) Likewise, someone else wouldn't want you to ruin it for them. Follow out the chain of reasoning, and instant moral code, born of nothing but common sense. No God required.

Brother Charles said...

First of all, don't be discouraged. Your brother is clearly somewhat hostile to faith, which makes everything harder.

The first paragraph is part red herring, part not. That there should be confusing "interpretations" of God among different Churches and ecclesial communities is indeed confusing, for theist and atheist alike. It's a red herring, though, because there is such a thing as a reliable, apostolic tradition that we have from the witnesses to the resurrection. The question of the credibility of original sin and salvation is important, though. His analysis is a caricature of the doctrine. This is good to notice, because a lot of honest, religious people don't have much more than caricatures of doctrines.

The 'mechanistic god' paragraph is dismissed because it is such a thin and shallow concept of God so as to be unrecognizable as deity; in other words one does not need God to "divinize" these natural laws, so it's not an argument over the existence of God in the first place.

The last part is also a red herring. Of course there is such a thing as a natural morality, and thank God. Religion is not first of all about morality, however; this is one of the modern impoverishments of theism with which we struggle. We are first of all about the origin and purpose of being, and from a sense of this end or purpose derives the desire for genuine happiness. Only then do we talk about morality as the way we can encourage ourselves and free each other for this joy.

In the end, though, I wouldn't argue, especially by email. It's a bad forum for theological debate, at least in my experience. Be gentle, and do your best by good example. I find it to be the best way to arouse curiosity, which is the opposite of the dismissiveness I perceive in the email.

Sorry for the length of the response! :)

Qualis Rex said...

Great post, Father Charles. Just on a purely annecdotal and non-scientific note, I have often found that atheists have the same issues with "God" as they do with their parents, stemming from early childhood. Substitute "God" for "Mom" or "Dad" and that's where their argument really lies. "How could a loving "God" (Mom/Dad) allow this to happen?"

Unfortunately a lifetime carrying this time of resentment, which can be easily transferred to a deity is hard to break or reason with. I have a very close friend who to this day associates "Jesus" with her Mother, who she is not on speaking terms with, since her Mother used Jesus to justify all of her bad behavior (i.e. "the Lord Jesus does not want you to go out in that skirt!") No matter how I try to reason with her and tell her that the Jesus in the bible is not the same person as the one used by her Mother, she just shrugs it off. The damage is done.

ben in denver said...

Well, my mind was changed by the ontological argument of St. Anselm.

I've looked at it again and agan, and its logic is irrefutable. I've read critique after critique of the argument and I've found them wanting. Most critiques accuse him of equivocating, but he doesn't do this. Even the critique of Kant against the ontological argument, which may well work against Descartes formulation of a similiar argument, does no damage to St. Anselm's argument.

Later, I came to believe that the 4th way of Aquinas was perhaps the most eloquent and ultimately most compelling rational argument for God's existence, but it was St. Anselm who converted me.

Greg said...

One challenge in discussing these issues with atheists is their lack of understanding of physics, not their lack of understanding of faith.

For a period I participated in a listserv comprised of professional mathematicians and physicists.

The host admitted me because I was of good nature and he figured he could slowly tear off my wings to the great delight of the group and himself.

We became friends. Went to lunch, enjoyed each others company.

But then I demolished his math physics argument for atheism.

When other members agreed I had presented a sound counter argument based on math and physics, and he must return to the drawing board, our friendship ended.

Thus, I have learned one must move beyond that dialogue to matter of the heart, as Francis did.