Category Archives: Belief

Short Article 11 – The Resurrection as Myth

Imagine a debate in which an orthodox(ish) Christian says that the resurrection narratives aren’t very good stories, whilst the atheist insists they are charged full of meaning and significance. That’s the position I found myself in during an exchange with fellow Tweep Shane McKee, a self-described Christian Atheist.

To my mind the resurrection lies at the heart of Christianity; it’s the sun around which everything else orbits. However, I say this only insofar as the story is true. Shane, on the other hand, insists that the story is false – utterly mythical – but that it’s none the worse for that, speaking to us about human life, death, hope, and many other issues. So much does it resonate with Shane that he sees fit to add the description “Christian” to his “Atheist.”

I want to explain – in more than 140 characters – why that strikes me as rather absurd.

Firstly, take the resurrection narrative purely as a story, the kind of thing that someone might make up around the campfire on a cold night, perhaps. Is it a good story? It might come as a surprise, particularly to my Christian friends, that I don’t regard the resurrection story – considered purely as fiction – to be particularly interesting. There are certainly some interesting moments in the run up to the resurrection, such as the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends who subsequently has such regret that he kills himself, or that most poignant moment on the cross when Christ cries out those haunting words of Psalm 22: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?.” But the actual resurrection narratives – again, taken purely as fiction – don’t amount to a literary hill of beans. They are a combination of the mundane with the surreal, lacking the power and pathos of the crucifixion account. Considered purely as literature the narratives are of minor interest. Of course, if the event really happened then the story is suddenly far more interesting. There’s now a wonder and a significance that was lacking previously. The only reason the Easter story has such a grip on even the non-Christian imagination is because it has been passed on and preached as true by centuries of Christians. Had it never been preached as true the story would today be of only minor interest to a handful of classicists, if indeed it was remembered at all.

Secondly, whilst it’s true that the resurrection story contains certain “big themes” of human life, there are literally thousands of other such stories doing a much better job. Take a story like The Plague by Albert Camus, for example. Hell, even take the graphic novel I read last week – Thor: Gods & Men! It tells the story of Asgard crashing into New York City. Thor, the god of thunder and now ruler of Asgard, proceeds to take over earth and make life as brilliant and easy as possible for humankind. However, the more he tries the more human beings resent him for it and begin to fight back. The story touches on themes of power, freedom, divine-human relations, and repentance; it’s full of intrigue, double-dealing, sacrifice, and love. Other stories – such as many ancient Greek, Celtic or Norse myths – are full of such notions also. However, no matter how much these stories resonate with us, no matter how much they raise our spirits, warm our hearts, or make the hairs on the back of our neck stand on end, it seems bizarre in excelsis to define our identity in terms of any of them. It would be like me calling myself a “Grimmian Christian” because not only am I a Christian but the Brothers Grimm stories give me the warm fuzzies.

Thirdly, the power of any myth lies in its use of images to portray a truth beyond itself, typically a metaphysical truth. So, for instance, the Genesis myth isn’t just a cutesy story about a magician God who poofs the world into existence in 6 days and makes a nice garden with a talking snake. It’s saying much more than that. It’s pointing to the absolute power and supremacy of Israel’s God. “You worship the sun? Pah! Our God made that almost as an afterthought!” Theological points are crammed into these few chapters. What though of the resurrection if it never happened? What’s its mythological point? It doesn’t actually have one. The authors wrote the story as true. There isn’t any bigger point under it all, which is why – considered as myth – it’s incredibly bland. If it didn’t happen we are left with a rather sad story of a man unjustly killed by the state, and a bit of make believe tacked onto the end. That’s hardly great material out of which to create something of religious significance, or personal identity.

The resurrection story is therefore significant – existentially, religiously, cosmically – only if it’s true.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 10 – The Importance of the Resurrection

This week the BBC reported the results of a religious belief poll, with the headline proclaiming that one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-39153121). My response to this was a simple “Psssst…they’re not Christians.” I was promptly taken to task by a few Twitter followers for the comment, which was described as “harsh” by one, while another chastised me for not taking into account other important features of religious faith besides belief (such as practice). Many of my fellow Christians seemed to agree with me, however.

Why should I adopt such a stance on a single doctrinal position? Isn’t Christianity much bigger than a single belief? Well, of course it is. However, there are several pretty major beliefs the rejection of which leaves people outside of historic orthodox Christianity. The resurrection is one such belief, and those who reject it surely know – if they are remotely reflective – that they are placing themselves outside of orthodoxy here. Resurrection was the founding belief of the entire Christian movement; without it there would have been no Christianity. It appears in virtually all Christian creeds which are accepted universally across denominational boundaries. Contrary to one accusation, therefore, this isn’t an arbitrary move on my part.

The fact of the matter is that all faiths have distinctives. Whilst religions are obviously more than just belief systems, they do at least include a cognitive element which is essential to their being the sort of thing they are. Could I one day wake up and just decide to be “Muslim” despite not believing the Qu’ran is the final Word of God, or that Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets? Of course not. When it comes to religious faith we can’t believe or live as we like and still reasonably apply some label to ourselves. Words such as “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” actually mean something, despite how difficult it might be to provide an exhaustive definition of what they are. And there are clear cases when such labels do not apply. “Muslim,” for instance, clearly does not apply to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But – so I was challenged – who decides?! Well, in this case we all must make our own minds up as to what we are willing to accept as being “Christian.” It seems to me to be eminently reasonable, however, to use belief in the resurrection as a marker of orthodoxy here. It always has been in a way that certain other doctrines – such as the eternal mode of God’s existence – never have been. Someone might not agree with the boundaries that I draw, but that person will still have some boundaries, however vague. Without such boundaries the word “Christian” would be literally meaningless.

It may be true that Christianity – like all religions – has evolved somewhat with time. However, churches today still largely accept historic creeds from centuries ago. These creeds embody some of the earliest Christian beliefs and they are still distinctives of Christianity today. In that regard the core of Christianity remains the same. It was founded on faith in a risen Christ and it continues to be so. There are some who would reject certain quintessential Christian beliefs as the resurrection and attempt to salvage something from the remains. They might reduce Christian faith to a collection of false but meaningful stories. But that’s hardly enough for religious significance. After all the Brothers Grimm also have a collection of false but meaningful stories but it would be a tad silly to construct a religious faith out of them. There might be other such attempts to construct a quasi-Christian alternative, but any such a system is no longer historic Christianity. It’s an aberration. A Big Mac without the meat.

And so, what do we make of the report than one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection? I suspect it’s a simple case of nominal Christianity. My dad still puts his religion down on forms as “Church of Ireland,” despite the fact that he doesn’t believe a word of Church of Ireland doctrine – he’s not religious at all. Which means that a quarter of “Christians” don’t believe in the resurrection, perhaps, but not a quarter of Christians. Rejection of the resurrection is a rejection of historic Christianity.

Stephen J. Graham

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What Would Convince You to Abandon Theism?

In his essay “Theology and Falsification”, Antony Flew asks: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?” The context of the question is Flew’s contention that no matter what evidence comes their way theists will perform all manner of theological gymnastics rather than give up their belief. This, reckoned Flew, meant that their assertions concerning God were meaningless – they suffer “death by a thousand qualifications.” I’ve always thought Flew quite unfair to theists in this essay, but I find his question a fascinating one and so thought I’d give my own brief answer to it.

Firstly, it’s important to ask why a person believes in God in the first place. Someone might well believe God exists because of, say, a combination of the fine-tuning argument and the Kalam cosmological argument. Presumably if such a person was persuaded by good reason that both arguments are unsound then they would give up their theism. If they didn’t then it would seem that their belief wasn’t really based on such arguments after all. In any event, in cases like this there seems to be a fairly clear answer to Flew’s question. However, if theism isn’t so clearly based on some particular argument or group of arguments then the situation is much more complicated.

Whilst I believe that there are several arguments which clearly and strongly favour theism over atheism (in particular the contingency cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the anthropological argument from the nature of human beings as free, moral, conscious, rational persons), I can’t honestly say my theism rests on any of them. Should each of these arguments be defeated my theism wouldn’t necessarily crumble, (though it might weaken to the extent that these arguments offer some degree of confirmation). So, why do I believe in God? What does ground my theism? To be honest, I don’t really know. The common wisdom is that human beings arrive at their beliefs after a process of rational thought. Each of us, so the story goes, examines the various live options vying for our assent and weigh the evidence, discarding what doesn’t measure up, and accepting what does. It’s like a man wandering around a supermarket. He picks up various items and, after making a decision, either puts them back on the shelf or puts them into the trolley for the check-out. I don’t think belief primarily works this way. Believing this or that is typically a more passive exercise than the supermarket model. To a great extent we simply find ourselves with certain beliefs, or forming certain beliefs under specific circumstances. Our minds – the beliefs we hold as well as the processes we go through to arrive at them – are conditioned by many factors largely beyond our direct control: culture, society, upbringing, peer pressure, psychological make-up, character, temperament, desires, and all manner of accidents of life. These processes are whizzing away in our minds forming beliefs, and removing others, and often quite apart from our rational awareness. We thus find ourselves with all manner of beliefs without trying: I had boiled eggs for breakfast, my son is 9 years old, the earth is round, the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, Leibniz believed the world was the best possible, trafficking of human beings for sex against their will is immoral, Jupiter has 67 moons. Some beliefs are based on memory, some on testimony; others are based on perceptual experience or a sense of right and wrong that is difficult to define. We can of course challenge these beliefs. My friend might tell me that he remembers an astronomer telling him Jupiter has 63 moons. This might prompt me to check the matter out and adjust my belief if necessary.

Let’s then apply this to my theism. For whatever reason, I find myself with belief in God. The existence of God seems obvious to me as I contemplate the universe and reflect on life. Perhaps this is due to what Calvin called a “sensus divinitatis,” or perhaps it is due to the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Atheists might prefer to think of it as little more than a psychological quirk at best, or at worst a delusion. Whatever the cause, my theism is there as a fundamental part of my noetic structure, and a crucial part of how I make sense of the world around me. It isn’t very easy to spell out the circumstances under which I might give up my theism. However, there are a few candidates for defeaters.

Firstly, if someone produced a convincing argument that the concept of God was incoherent, then that would be the most likely case which would cause me to abandon theism. There have been a few attempts in the history of philosophy to produce such an argument, but none has as yet come close. However, if anyone succeeded then I suspect my noetic apparatus would respond by abandoning theism.

Secondly, and particularly in relation to my theism being specifically Christian, should historians ever show that Jesus did not in fact exist, or that the resurrection was a cooked up myth (perhaps by finding conclusive historical documents of some sort) then I would abandon specifically Christian theism. Since Christianity makes a number of unique historical claims, it is always open to historical disproof.

These two are the surest cases under which my beliefs about God would not survive, but there are other instances which might well threaten my theism. For instance, suppose I suffer a catastrophic illness, or witness a close family relative going through such trauma. This could well dissolve my theism. I don’t mean that I would give up my belief in such circumstances because I think that under them the problem of evil would suddenly appear cogent. I’m simply observing that under such circumstances many people have lost their belief in God, and that it isn’t implausible to think that the same could happen to me. Of course, it could equally happen that under such circumstances my belief would end up much more steadfast and sure. How could we ever know how our minds would respond under such life-changing circumstances?

I have already alluded to the fact that beliefs can be modified or ditched in the light of evidence and rational scrutiny. However, this is easier with respect to some beliefs than others. Let’s compare belief in God with the belief that Jupiter has 67 moons. Belief in God has a certain feature that beliefs such as “Jupiter has 67 moons” do not have. Philosophers call this feature the “depth of ingression.” This is the degree to which a belief can be given up without significant reverberations throughout the rest of our noetic structure. Some beliefs are central, others peripheral. Whether or not Jupiter has 67 moons doesn’t matter much. I could give it up without any further noetic consequences. Belief in God is not typically like that. It occupies a far more central place. My theism colours – or even determines – what I believe about many other (incredibly important) things: moral value, freedom, the nature of humankind, or what a good life is, to name just a few. In fact, belief in God can occupy such a central place that it becomes a normative belief – part of the standard by which we measure other beliefs. So, take the following anti-theistic argument from evil:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

A theist who entertains this argument might very well doubt premise (2) simply because “God exists” + (1) have so much warrant for them that (2) cannot be seriously considered. Of course, this doesn’t mean belief in God can never be overturned, for it could be by an argument which contains premises with at least as much warrant as theism. What it does mean is that it’s very easy to see why giving up one belief is a more complex affair than giving up another, and that it isn’t always easy to spell out the circumstances under which we would reject a belief the origin of which is exceedingly complex, and which occupies a central place in our noetic structure. Those who lose their belief in God tend to undergo a “paradigm shift,” a huge change in their noetic structure that often takes either a life-changing event (like a catastrophic illness), or a long time (as we see from deconversion stories) to take effect.

In my case, whilst there are circumstances in which I can imagine losing my belief in God, I suspect it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (3): The Clear Teaching of Scripture – A Response to Michael L Brown

Christian author and radio host Michael L Brown recently remarked: “The ultimate reason I’m not a Calvinist is the overwhelming testimony of scripture, carefully exegeted, from Genesis to Revelation. I understand my Calvinist friends have come to the opposite conclusion based on their study of Scripture. The question is: Why?” Brown is making the sort of statement I’ve seen time and time again from theologians on any side of some controversial question: “X is the clear teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood.” Now, the problem with that sort of statement is that when you ask why people disagree with X, you are asking why they disagree with the plain teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood, and to that question there is typically one of two answers: said person is not intelligent enough to properly understand or interpret scripture, or else they are wickedly disobeying it. With this point made – either implicitly or explicitly – the pinching and eye poking soon follows.

The problem isn’t that anyone is too stupid or too wicked (OK, sure, some theologians are one or the other, or both), the problem is that much that is pronounced as the “clear teaching of scripture” is anything but clear. Take this particular issue: Calvinist versus Arminian interpretations of scripture (we’ll leave aside for now the eminently more sensible secret option three: molinism). For either side to claim that the Bible clearly teaches their position is to vastly overstate the case. There are verses which seem to support a “Calvinist” view of providence and others which clearly support an “Arminian” one. This presents a difficulty for claiming either view is the “clear teaching” of Scripture carefully exegeted. Proponents of each position are typically adept at taking those verses which are claimed by the other side in support, and showing how they are consistent with their own position after all. Seemingly there isn’t a verse supporting Calvinism or Arminianism that can’t be interpreted differently by those with the contrary persuasion.

What is assumed more often than not in these debates is the idea that theologians – or regular church Joes – go to scripture as objective interpreters and allow it to speak to them as it actually is. But that strikes me as flat out false. We all come laden with baggage. Brown overlooks that when people approach scripture they typically do so from within a certain theological tradition and with an interpretative framework in place. Moreover, a person’s control over such things is fairly limited. Someone born and raised in a Presbyterian church is far more likely to operate from within that church’s interpretative parameters, and thus adopt a Calvinistic hermeneutic, and typically without even realising it. He’s absorbed it with his mother’s milk, as it were. It isn’t that he is less careful or less intelligent or more sinful than Michael Brown, it’s simply that his interpretative presuppositions and theological tradition differs.

This principle holds in many areas of our intellectual life. None of us – not even those brilliant internet freethinkers – arrive at our beliefs from some neutral view from nowhere after rationally and systematically following some prescribed objective method. I suspect our believing this or that is a much more passive process than we appreciate. Often, for a whole host of reasons, we simply find ourselves with the beliefs we have. Of course we can (and should) critically reflect on our beliefs, and may even effect some noetic change or other – but, by and large, the judgments we make, particularly on matters of controversy, are coloured by a multitude of factors largely beyond our direct and significant control: culture, upbringing, psychological makeup and 101 other contingencies of life. And all this before we acknowledge the all too human tendency to read one’s views into the Bible, with the result that eisegesis regularly masquerades as “careful exegesis.”

So, why does a Calvinist see the “clear teaching of scripture” differently from Michael Brown? Because they aren’t Michael Brown, and because no-one reads the Bible without some interpretative lens in place.

Stephen J. Graham

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Are There Any Genuine Christians: An Argument Ad Masturbatum

In my previous article I considered a very widespread belief amongst Christians that there is no such thing as an honest atheist – that all atheists deep down know there is a God and knowingly reject their creator because they desire a life of sin. In this article I want to examine the flip-side charge from some atheists: that there are no genuine Christians. Sometimes this takes the form of an exclamation: “surely you can’t believe that a dead guy rose again from the dead!” On other occasions it’s the old psychological claim that Christians are simply engaged in wishful thinking rather than genuine belief. But here I want to consider an actual argument, which I’ve chosen to call the “argument ad masturbatum,” the reason for which will become obvious.

Take some ordinary Christian – we’ll call him Bob. Bob is a single man in his 20s, active in church, evangelises his friends, and has just signed up for an apologetics course. However, Bob has a little secret that he hopes is never found out. He engages in regular masturbation. Obviously he doesn’t do this in the back pew on a Sunday morning or while he’s waiting for his groceries to be bagged. Nor would he do it in the presence of his mother or an officer of the law. It’s in the dark of night, when no-one is around, that he finds himself overrun by sexual images in his imagination and engages in masturbation.

What has this to do with God? Well, Bob wouldn’t engage in masturbation in the presence of other people. He’d die of embarrassment if his mother walked into his room and saw him. However, Bob professes to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, and personal God. So, if he wouldn’t masturbate in the presence of his mother, why does he do it in the presence of God, who he claims disapproves of his actions? Is it not the case that whilst he claims to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, personal being, he actually holds no such belief? If Bob really believed what he claims to believe, then he wouldn’t even masturbate in private; since, obviously, if such a being exists there isn’t a private place at all.

Despite the rather juvenile nature of this argument, it does make a more general point. There are many cases when Christians engage in behaviour that they surely wouldn’t engage in if they really believed God was present and fully cognizant of what they do. So, would we so easily lose our temper with the seemingly incompetent shop assistant if Jesus was right there physically beside us? Would we engage in harmful gossip if God’s presence was manifest suddenly in our midst? And yet, don’t Christians claim to believe God is indeed present all the time? Don’t our actions in hundreds of situations betray our actual unbelief despite what we claim?

It’s a neat little argument. A little too neat, I think. The argument ignores some crucial features of how humans hold knowledge and beliefs, in particular the relative strength of the belief in question and the fact that many of our beliefs rarely enter our conscious awareness. Our minds are complex things, caverns holding a depository of fact, memories, beliefs and values. Millions of pieces of information are crammed between our ears in complex arrangements. However, the vast majority of it simply sits in there without ever flitting into our conscious awareness. Take my belief that “Paris is the capital city of France.” Until 10 seconds ago that belief wasn’t in my sphere of conscious awareness. It was somewhere within my cavernous brain, hidden away until I recalled it for the purposes of making an illustration in this article. However, it’s true to say that “Paris is the capital city of France” is a belief I hold even when I’m not consciously aware of it (which is most of my waking life). We find the same thing when we sit to watch a quiz show. We hear a question, and if the answer is hidden away in our mind somewhere it will hopefully spring back into our sphere of conscious awareness so we can answer. Sometimes we can’t get the answer but we know it’s in there somewhere. When we then hear the answer we might claim in frustration, “I knew that!” Again, I might be asked to make an exhaustive list of all the insects I know of. When I submit my list it might well be the case that an entomologist can name a few species I didn’t include in my “exhaustive” list but which I did in fact know about (eg, pond-skaters). These examples illustrate that our minds can contain lots of beliefs and pieces of knowledge that don’t constantly sit in our sphere of conscious awareness. They flit in and out, and sometimes we struggle to recall them at all.

It is this feature of our minds that helps to explain the seeming disconnect between Bob’s proclaimed beliefs and his actions. So, in the dark of night, Bob isn’t thinking about God. This belief – like his belief that Paris is the capital of France – is sitting somewhere else in his mind, dormant and forgotten. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. He does. When asked for his thoughts about God, his belief will come whizzing back into his consciousness as he confirms his acceptance of it as true. Moreover, look also at the nature of God compared to the nature of Bob’s mother. Bob’s mother is a physical being and should she enter the room her presence forces itself upon Bob’s conscious awareness. However, God is incorporeal and invisible. His presence is not manifest to Bob’s consciousness a lot of the time. So, the belief that God is present is not as obvious to Bob as the belief that his mother is present.

This failure to live in the conscious awareness of God’s presence is perhaps what ultimately lies at the root of what Christians call sin. The process of sanctification is thus a process by which we live more and more in the conscious awareness of God’s presence (and hence sin less). Bob, like most Christians, has only made very limited progress in that direction. He often forgets God in his day to day living, in the same way that all of us “forget” most of the things we know or believe as we go about our day to day routines. Moreover, Bob’s belief in God isn’t certain. Like all of us we believe the things we do to a greater or lesser degree, and most of the things we believe are held to some degree of probability rather than certainty. Where our belief is stronger, we are perhaps more aware of God throughout our lives.

It seems to me, therefore, that Bob’s actions do not at all negate his confessed beliefs. Instead they testify to the level of his conscious awareness of God and the degree of his belief.

And so I end this article the way I ended the companion article about honest atheists: with an appeal to the principle of charity. In any discussion we should always do our interlocutor the courtesy such that when they tell us they believe this or that we simply believe them and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed an honest account of their epistemic situation. Only by doing so can we hope to have a productive discussion about the relative merits or demerits of the belief in question. Failing to embrace this principle will leave us toying with unhelpful psychoanalysis which is patronising, self-righteous, and waste of time.

Stephen J. Graham

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Are There Any Honest Atheists?

Jeffrey Jay Lowder strikes me as one of the most fair-minded atheist thinkers; he’s civil, deeply thoughtful, and charitable to his opponents. Further, he has no qualms about chastising his fellow atheists when their manner descends below that which is helpful in civil discourse, or when they make poor arguments. He has also in the past conceded that there are features of the world that lend some evidence to theism. I wish more atheists – and theists – adopted his attitude.

Lowder expressed irritation recently concerning how so many theists consider atheists to be liars, linking to an article by Sam Storms in which Storms rejects the concept of an “honest atheist.” Storms is not a lone voice either. This view of atheists is incredibly widespread. In his short, but substantial, book “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?,” Randal Rauser provides an excellent brief overview of thinkers past and present who adopt what Rauser labels “The Rebellion Thesis.” The thrust of the rebellion thesis is that no one really disbelieves in God; atheists are simply in moral rebellion against their creator – and, crucially, they know it. They hate God and desire a life of sin. Rauser cites an account of the Christian theologian RC Sproul who was invited to present a case for the existence of God to a university sceptics group. After presenting the case, Sproul told them: “Your problem is not that you do not know that God exists; your problem is that you despise the God whom you know exists. Your problem is not intellectual; it is moral—you hate God.” So, here was a group of sceptics reaching out to the “opposition,” and giving him a platform, their time, and attention – a very charitable act these partisan days – and Sproul shows his thanks by pretty much spitting in their faces. I call upon my fellow theists to – at the very least – acknowledge how frustrating it must be to have one’s honesty called into question. Sproul basically accuses an entire room full of strangers of being self-deluded liars. The brazen arrogance is astounding.

Imagine the following conversation:

John: “I’m a vegetarian now, I believe killing animals for food is wrong.”

George: “You say that, but you know eating meat is not wrong.”

John: “Pardon me? I’m telling you I believe eating meat is wrong!”

George: “Yeah, but you’re a human, and we’re one of millions of species who eat meat. We’re designed to eat it; there’s no way any human can REALLY think it’s wrong when it’s hard-wired into our being.”

John: “Well, I think it’s wrong!”

George: “You’re only saying that, deep down you know there’s nothing wrong with eating meat! I bet you even stuff your face with bacon sandwiches when no-one’s looking!”

John: “You’re insane! I really believe killing animals for food is wrong!”

George: (fingers in ears) I can’t hear you MEAT LOVER!”

A parody perhaps, but the view of atheists held by many theists isn’t a whole lot different. Where does it come from?

Many of those challenging the “honest atheist” concept cite certain Biblical texts in support of their position. Sam Storms – when he isn’t quoting John Calvin at length – relies on Romans chapter 1. Others draw also on the two near identical passages in Psalms which tell us “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God.'” [Ps 14:1 & 53:1]. Upon such texts these theologians build a theology which labels all unbelievers generally, and atheists in particular, as liars. In other words, not only are they considered as living a life estranged from God, but they know they are and are in wilful rejection of the God in which they claim not to believe. Saying that atheists – or other non-believers – are in some way estranged from God is one thing, but it’s a whole different ball-game to claim that they really know there is a God and have wilfully and with full understanding rejected Him. The latter is a much stronger claim, and I contend that the evidence – biblical evidence, testimonies from atheists and converts from atheism, and psychological evidence – simply doesn’t support it.

I haven’t the time to exegete properly the relevant biblical texts here, but I want to make just a few comments, and I refer the reader to Rauser’s book for more details. Firstly, it seems to be rather anachronistic to read modern intellectual atheism into either of these texts. In fact, as Rauser points out with respect to Psalm 14:1, even if modern atheism was indeed in view it still wouldn’t justify the thesis that atheists are dishonest, or that all atheists are fools. Just because the fool says in his heart “there is no God,” does not entail that everyone who says “there is no God” is a fool. That would be logically fallacious. In any event, I am in full agreement with Rauser, who argues that when we examine the wider cultural and literary context we discover the most likely targets of Psalm 14 are those who believe in God but live as if they do not. That’s religious hypocrites like you and I, not atheists.

Romans 1 is perhaps a more convincing basis for denying the “honest atheist” concept. But even here there are problems. Rauser points out that the passage is part of a larger discourse concerning the universality of the sinfulness of humankind, and thus shouldn’t be used to single out any particular group. In addition, the immediate context is that of Gentile pagans who supress their natural knowledge of God and embrace pagan religion. Rauser also cautions that by applying this text in the way proponents of the rebellion thesis do, we cause all manner of mischief for any Christian who goes through a period of doubting God. Is such a person really just sinfully rebelling? That seems highly implausible. As Christians we can have all manner of doubts – stemming from intellectual doubts caused by some atheistic argument, to existential doubts, perhaps caused by some period of suffering and the apparent absence of God. I find myself in agreement with Rauser’s comments that: “The Christian cannot deny the fact that God’s existence and nature are not always plain and clear. The fact is that there are countless people of religious faith who have not always found God’s existence and nature to be plain and clear.” Perhaps some theologians will simply bite the bullet and insist that this is indeed all just sinful rebellion, but that strikes me as uncharitable and implausible in excelsis. Whatever we make of Romans 1, there seems to be good enough reason to doubt that the intention is to teach that all atheists are really believers in God knowingly and sinfully rejecting their creator.

When the interpretation of a passage is dubious it seems prudent to bring to bear other considerations on the matter, and there are a few non-biblical indications that the rebellion thesis can’t be quite right. Firstly, there are atheists who seem completely genuine. They are good, decent, and very honest people (shocking, I know!), and they tell us that they genuinely don’t believe in God. They aren’t angry or particularly immoral. They are well-balanced and psychologically stable people. That in itself is very good reason to believe they are accurately reporting their epistemic situation. From a purely psychological perspective the rebellion thesis seems like quite a tall tale. Secondly, Christians rarely report their conversions as being an acceptance of what they already really knew, but rather most of us understand it as a “seeing the light” or finally coming to believe something we honestly didn’t believe previously. In fact, Storms would have to call me a liar when I report as a Christian that prior to my conversion I genuinely didn’t believe in Jesus or the God of Christianity. If the rebel thesis was right, then the vast majority of Christians would report their pre-Christian lives as being a state of rebellious rejection of truths they really knew. To the best of my knowledge this isn’t the case. If this is true of the vast majority of Christians, why is it so difficult for Storms et al to accept that atheists are currently in this same state?

Despite the lack of evidence and high implausibility of the rebellion thesis, perhaps it is true after all that every atheist really knows that God exists. Still, I can’t see how any good can come from making such a claim. It’s irritatingly patronising, smacks of arrogance, does nothing for theist-atheist dialogue, and reeks to high heaven of self-righteousness. I therefore propose that we adopt a principle of charity: that when we engage in any intellectual discussion, we do our interlocutors the courtesy such that when they tell us that they hold such and such a position, we simply accept it and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed a truthful report of their epistemic situation.

Anything else is to spit in their face.

Stephen J Graham

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Randal Rauser’s book “Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism” (Cascade Books, 2015) is available on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Atheist-Neighbor-Rethinking-Christian-Attitudes/dp/1498217168 or through the Kindle shop.
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Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: The Stories

John’s story
@CounterApologis

I was a believing evangelical Christian until I was around 29 years old. I was a trustee in my church and an active volunteer (sound guy) for 8 years before I deconverted and became an atheist.

Even though I’m straight and have been happily married for over a decade, homosexuality was the initial cause for my deconversion. I have two gay friends, a couple which were recently married now that it’s legal. Back when I was a believer, the fact that I could see that my friends were very clearly in love stood out to me as something that contradicted the bible. I had to either accept that their love was wrong or that the bible was wrong, and I could not call their love wrong. Worse than that, I accepted my friends accounts that this is simply how they were and that their relationship made them happy. They didn’t choose to have their attractions any more than I chose mine. This caused a problem because I also had to accept that they were going to hell according to my faith.

That lead to questioning how a loving god who created everything could morally create a place of eternal conscious torture, knowing that a majority of creation would be condemned to it. In that situation, the only moral option is to simply not create anything. Theodicies where the reprobate is seen as being necessary for the elect to get into heaven made god into more of a monster.

This lead to questioning why I believed in a god in the first place. I realized I’d never seriously asked myself that question before. I was born into a Catholic family that converted Baptist when I was 9. I was taught Jesus was the son of god the same time I was taught water was wet and that 2+2=4. God was axiomatic, not the conclusion of an investigation. I realized I had no reason to believe.
That was when I started to devour apologetics, trying to cobble my faith back together for the sake of my marriage and family. I found nothing convincing. Worse, as an engineer by training I found science being misrepresented in many cosmological arguments. I was disgusted by the aura of certainty that was used to present arguments I found to be based on flimsy metaphysical assumptions that often defy our best scientific understanding of reality. When I read attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions in the bible or things in the bible that were scientifically proven false, I found the interpretations to be tortured and/or ad hoc. If anything apologetics cemented my apostasy and my atheism.

Fortunately for me eventually my wife also deconverted. Almost exactly nine months after that our daughter was born. I’m currently happier than I’ve ever been in my life and I consider myself lucky to have escaped religion.

Jenny’s Story

I can’t say I was an aggressive atheist. Whilst I didn’t believe in God, I wasn’t particularly interested in examining the evidence of God’s existence. If He existed, well, He knew where to find me. But, I wasn’t going to hold my breath either. What got me wondering about God and the purpose of existence was the death of my friend Lizzie. Lizzie and I were inseparable from childhood. Then she got sick and died suddenly from meningitis. I sat at her funeral and somehow couldn’t get my head around the fact that someone so alive could just not be there anymore. And then I examined my atheism and saw that if it was true then all exists for no reason and comes to nothing. Life just seemed more significant than that. And so for the first time I wondered was there maybe a God. I came across many different arguments, but none finally convinced me. I guess what moved me to theism was opening my eyes to the world in a new way. I began to “see” or “perceive” a creator in the natural world around me. The atheist view just seemed so incredible. That everything just came from nothing by nothing and for nothing. I couldn’t accept that, and to be honest I didn’t want to either.

Daniel’s Story
@areligioncritic

I am no longer Christian in any straightforward sense of the word. How could I be? I had trouble connecting to people, let alone a personal God who wasn’t even in front of me. I am an “Aspie;” I am on the Autism Spectrum. Of course now, I know that there are other theologies that put less stress on a personal God, i.e. Paul Tillich’s ‘ground of being’ or the impersonal ordering of the cosmos that the Chinese call T’ien (Heaven). And I am drawn to these more than I am to a personal God.

However, at this point there are so many different conceptions of God that I don’t think I can have any epistemological certainty about God, be it God’s existence or qualities. This does not fully explain it though, as I believe that belief in God is not primarily what religion is about. To me religion is about a community that shares beliefs and rituals– that is community is primary and belief is secondary. However, I am generally leery of tight knit groups who think and do the same things, perhaps also partly due to Asperger’s.

Joseph’s Story
@almostorthodoxy

Conversion is a tricky thing. As most people who have attempted to write their conversion story know, to try and put it into words and explain why one converted (or in my case, reverted) inevitably falls short. With that being said, as one ought to do before any essay, I beg forgiveness.

I shall admit that this isn’t my first time writing my “reversion story.” I’ve written multiple before this, and – the funny thing is – they never end up being the same. That I know. What I also know from past experience is this: that writing of this article won’t be me simply reciting reasons that I am already aware of as to why I am a Catholic, but rather, it will be a way – as a sort of self-examination – for me to actually figure out said prompt for myself.

A couple of days ago, I was reading Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 41, and this passage stuck out for me:

“It was thus that while admiring the members of the tabernacle, he was lead unto the house of God – by following a certain delight, an inward mysterious and hidden pleasure, as if some instrument sounded sweetly from the house of God. While he was walking in the tabernacle, he heard this inward sound; he was led on by its sweetness, and following the guidance of the sound and withdrawing himself from all noises of flesh and blood, he made his way even to the house of God.”

For in many ways, this short little passage encapsulates the whole of my reversion. To say anymore would be to risk over-complication; but – so as to not short change the reader – I shall continue.
Balthasar, in the first volume of his magisterial Glory of the Lord trilogy, says that:

“It is not dry manuals (full as these may be of unquestionable truths) that plausibly express to the world the truth of Christ’s Gospel, but the existence of the saints, who have been grasped by Christ’s Holy Spirit. And Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”

I concur.

What lead me back into the confessional and “unto the house of God” wasn’t the discovery of any new, novel arguments put forward by an “apologist”, but rather it was the “sweetness” of the saints. Anything else, in Balthasar terminology, would be to collapse revelation into “a set of ‘propositions’” to be “established as ‘reasonable’ by an extrinsic principle.” The universalizing tendency latent with the Enlightenment ‘reason’ must simply, pace Romans 14:11, bow its knee to the self-revealing glory of the Lord: the truest of universalisms. Much like a work of art, the glory of revelation needs no further justification outside of itself. Revelation’s gestalt is it’s own raison d’être, subsuming everything into itself. And, as for us, living as we do over two thousand after Christ, the glory of the Lord is precisely revealed through the Holy Spirit working through and within the lives of the saints.

As Balthasar said: “Christ himself foresaw no other kind of apologetics.”

And with that being said, I shall spare you of the particulars, with the exception of three words: Thérèse of Lisieux.

Kate’s Story

My atheism was dogmatic, but utterly unexamined. I remember arguing once with a Christian friend and I was furious at completely losing the argument, and my temper. My problem, as I came to see, maybe wasn’t that I disbelieved in God, but rather than I resented Him for bad life experiences! But who knows! But as I came to critical assess the case for God I found the evidence overwhelming. The main considerations for me were: that something like our universe should exist as a “brute fact” was simply unbelievable; that it should just pop into existence from nothing and for no reason was surely impossible; that life should then just develop by chance from non-living matter calls for extreme credulity. Moreover, when I considered the complexity of life and the fine-tuned conditions of the cosmos that allowed it to develop, atheism struck me as untenable. And that was before I discovered the problems atheism has accounting for morality, consciousness, free will, and personhood. In short: theism makes sense of the world in which I live – atheism just doesn’t, and so I couldn’t remain an atheist.

Nathan’s Story
@FaS_Skeptic

From the time I was a young child until I was out of high school, I went to church nearly every week. I was never made to go to church once I was old enough to reasonably make that decision, but I enjoyed almost everything about it. I liked the sermons, I liked the singing, and I really liked the people. My church was a small Brethren church in a tiny farm town, so everybody knew each other and it was a pretty tight knit community. It was a fairly moderate church, no speaking in tongues or fire and brimstone. I was heavily involved with our youth group as a teen, and even attended ‘Acquire The Fire’ a few times.

Once I started college, I didn’t attend church as often, but I never really had my faith challenged too seriously during my undergrad studies. While working on my MBA, I had a job with a lot of downtime and decided that I wanted to read more often. At the time, my view on evolution was best described as an old earth creationist who believed in some “microevolution”. A few conversations I had with a friend made me realize that I was pretty ignorant about evolution, which sparked my curiosity. I read books specifically on human evolution at first because that’s what conflicted with my faith, but then began to read material that dealt more with the details and the process of evolution. This is when doubts about my faith started to creep in. I never had a problem accepting that Noah’s Ark or some of the other Bible stories were probably a myth or fable to teach a lesson, but if the whole creation story is a myth, why should I believe in any of it?

I hung on by a thread for a while as I read books in other areas of science which continued to chisel away at my belief in the God of the Bible. Up until this point, I was primarily reading material dealing with science and not really getting into the arguments for or against God. Eventually though, I started listening to debates and reading arguments for atheism. I found myself agreeing with the arguments for atheism and against theism most of the time, and I eventually realized that I was only holding on to any belief in God for emotional reasons even though I really no longer believed. Atheism was always a dirty word to me, and it took another year after I stopped believing to actually identify as an atheist.

I hate the stereotype that as an atheist, I must have had a bad experience in church, or that I am being rebellious. I have nothing but good memories from my time in church. I still admire the community aspect of it, how when someone is sick or in trouble, people are there to help without question. There are no bad experiences at church that I have to share, and anyone who knows me would laugh at the suggestion that I’m rebellious. I just simply no longer believe that God is needed as an explanation for our existence.

Johnny’s Story
@MuchJonathan

http://fairmindednotions.com/

I was raised in a Christian household. I was taught to believe by blind faith and thought that’s what everyone did. We just picked which beliefs to hold to, I thought, and lived by them. So that’s how I lived up until just a few years ago. I had never much questioned my beliefs, except maybe here and there when instances of evil popped up, until a friend that I met online challenged me by asking some tough questions. He was going through his own personal deconversion and was seeking answers – answers that I didn’t have. I did what every anti-intellectual would do. I ran to the Christian apologetic sites on Google and responded to him with the first things I saw. The confirmation bias in me held onto anything that would conform to my predispositions. And this, rather ironically now that I reflect on it, is how my intellectual journey began.

I started buying all of the popular apologetics books by William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alister McGrath, Ed Feser, John Lennox, etc. I especially became familiar with some of the work of Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, Larry Hurtado, Craig Evans, and Craig Blomberg. I even attended a semester of Bible college, and this is where I started losing confidence in the Christian worldview.

I spent about two years in Christian apologetics. I attended the Bible college not even a year ago today. My journey to doubt began around this time. As a side interest, I would study biology (which I am now majoring in at Winthrop University). I couldn’t help but be troubled by the horrendous evils founded throughout the history of life on Earth. Life began looking a lot more like the products of the tinkering of nature rather than the carefully crafted works of the Divine hands of a Maximally Intelligible and all-loving being. To give one example that I’ve been troubled with lately, and an issue I’ll be researching later in my academic career: In our DNA, we have regions that code for proteins that are responsible for suppressing tumors. It just so happens that the chemical structure of these regions of DNA make them highly susceptible to being silenced by a process called DNA methylation (you don’t have to know what this is to get my point here). Of course, if the genes are silenced, they can’t do their job of suppressing tumors. What sort of intelligible creator, out of the very depths of his all-loving heart and omniscient mind, makes His children in such a way as to be perfectly vulnerable to cancer? Not only are we perfectly made for cancer, we are also perfectly made for about 6,000+ other SINGLE-gene diseases that are founded in about 24% of our ~25,000 genes. Now, this is just a few instances of evil that seemed very much gratuitous. The evolutionary picture of life painted by the vast amounts of data from the life sciences portrays nothing but a picture of these horrendous evils and indifference. Now, I didn’t expect that God would create some hedonic Utopia, but I did figure he would reduce suffering as much as possible and only allow evils that were necessary to either prevent worse evils or bring about greater goods. I find it awfully hard to believe that every instance of horrendous, seemingly gratuitous evil is necessary for the obtaining of such conditions. The issue is that an all-loving Creator would not allow such gratuitous evil and since I’ve concluded that many of these seemingly gratuitous evils are very most likely actually gratuitous, the conclusion that follows is that an all-loving Creator very probably doesn’t exist.

That being said, the evidential problem of evil was not the biggest stumbling block for me. I was still trying to hold on to my Christian worldview. I was definitely emotionally attached. “What about all of the good arguments for God’s existence?” I kept asking myself. The more I studied them, the less compelling they became. The meta-ethical argument presented by William Lane Craig, for example, began to look like an awful argument as I become familiar with reasons why many reject the argument. I actually became unconvinced of every argument I once thought was virtually indisputable – the cosmological arguments, the design arguments, etc. . . I even became convinced that verifying a miracle via historical methodology is out of our epistemic capacities.

I was in a position where I was beginning to see good reason to affirm the nonexistence of God and I was left in the dark for compelling arguments for the existence of God. I was left with nothing but the hopes of hearing the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, this is what one ought to expect when they are in tears crying out to God for spiritual confirmation. I’ve checked myself over. I’ve admitted that I may be wicked in His eyes -essentially undeserving if that so be the case. I’ve admitted that maybe I’m entirely wrong in my assessment of the fundamental nature of reality and maybe there will be a day I stand before the Divine, despite my current unbelief. If He is there and created me to know Him, there I was then, and here I am still. I’m still waiting for that inner confirmation or some intellectual spark that I’ve missed. I’ve cried out. I’ve repented. I’ve prayed. I’ve acknowledged that I may be unrighteous when compared to a perfect being, and I’ve asked to be accepted and transformed. I’ve sought God in every venue of life. God was nowhere to be found. So, as of now, I am intellectually inclined to disbelieve.

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Conversion – Deconversion – Reconversion: An Introduction

Conversion and Deconversion stories have fascinated me for a long time. All stories are unique, and yet there are often common themes that occur. The main reason for my interest in such stories lies in the fact that it is rare to find people changing their position entirely on some matter of ultimate importance. Many of the people I knew 20 years ago still hold the same views and opinions today as they did back then. Not only do people rarely change their minds on big issues, movement on smaller issues is often lacking also. As we grow older perhaps we become more set in our ways. It’s little surprise then that the vast majority of people appear to make their minds up about religion in their teens and don’t change their mind as they get older. This is a fact well known by religious evangelists, hence the massive stress on youth work in many churches and religious organisations, often to the detriment or neglect of the middle-aged and elderly. It is a well-known Jesuit maxim (though the saying, or something like it, originates with Aristotle): “Give me a child until he is 7, and I’ll give you the man.” As true as this might generally be, there are a few brave souls who go into reverse as they get older. They reject their earlier belief/unbelief, changing their minds about an issue of ultimate importance. Their stories are worth hearing. What is it that causes people to make such a radical U-turn?

There are, of course, a few famous examples. For instance, we might think of my fellow native of Belfast C.S. Lewis. Lewis believed the evidence for the existence of God too strong to ignore, but admitted to being a most reluctant convert. We might also think of more recent examples. Probably two of the most well-known are those of the former atheist journalist Lee Strobel, and the atheist-philosopher turned deist/theist Antony Flew. Lee Strobel worked as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and after the conversion of his wife he decided to look into the truth claims of Christianity. After several years of sifting through the evidence Strobel himself converted to Christian and is now one of the most influential popular-level apologists in the world. He recounts his journey from atheism to theism in a number of books, chiefly: The Case for a Creator, The Case for Christ, and The Case for Faith.

Antony Flew was one of the most distinguished philosophers of religion and one of the foremost voices for philosophical atheism for the vast majority of his academic career. Then, towards the end of his life, there were rumours that he was moving towards theism. These rumours were affirmed when he published his book “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.” In this book Flew lays out a number of pieces of evidence which convinced him that some sort of creator exists. Whilst not embracing Christian Theism Flew indicated that he regarded NT Wright’s case for the resurrection as the best there is in print, and hinted that he was moving in this direction in his thinking. Some skeptics were, well, skeptical. Many saw this not as a genuine conversion but simply an old man hedging his bets in his dotage as death beckoned. Others believed that his book had not properly reflected Flew’s own thoughts, but rather those of Roy Abraham Varghese, a theist philosopher who did most of the actual writing of the book. Flew denied that this was the case, but many still believe his mental state at the time was such that he was exploited. Seemingly conversion & deconversion stories can raise strong feelings!

On the other side one of the best known deconversions that I’m aware of is that of Jonathan Edwards, the British Olympic gold medallist triple-jumper. Once upon a time Edwards even refused to compete on a Sunday due to his religious convictions. Today he is an atheist who claims not to miss his faith, and that he is happier without it. Edwards even speaks of looking back at his time as a Christian with an acute sense of embarrassment at how judgmental and even “scary” he considers himself to have been.

That such radical changes can occur in people really grabs my attention. Why did they change? Were there arguments that lead to the change? What other life experiences were they going through that pushed them to make such a radical turn-around?

And so I thought I’d collect a number of brief stories – of conversion, deconversion, and reconversion – to give a flavour of what’s going on in the minds of people who radically change their worldview. I don’t offer these stories up for critique or refutation. They are brief, and there’s far more that each person could say about their own life and how their decision panned out the way it did. We are creatures of narrative and often decisions we make one day have been years in the making, involving a complex of rational, psychological, social, and cultural factors. I’m grateful for the people who came forward to state an incredibly complex situation into a few hundred words.

I never edit or screen comments, but I’ve decided on this occasion not to accept critical comments on anyone’s particular story. They are intended only to give (all too) brief snapshots of the goings-on in the minds of people who “repent” of their former selves. Their purpose is to inform rather than provoke critique.

So as not to take away from the stories themselves, I intend to post them separately from this introduction: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/conversion-deconversion-reconversion-the-stories/

Stephen J. Graham

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Is Experience of Evil a Defeater for Theism?

I’ve never been much impressed by atheistic arguments from evil. I’ve written quite a few articles in the past year on the problem of evil and in the coming months plan to analyse what I think are two of the best arguments: those offered by William Rowe and Paul Draper. What strikes me is just how difficult it is to formulate a good argument against the existence of God from the facts of evil or suffering. A large part of the problem – as I hope to show in forthcoming articles – is that often these arguments try to produce defeaters by pointing out certain probabilistic relationships between certain propositions about God and the facts of suffering. However, defeaters very rarely proceed by way of a person becoming aware of probabilistic relationships between propositions.

In any event, even if I’m right about this (and there are those who disagree with me. Shocking, I know), that does not mean that evil and suffering isn’t a problem of some kind. In fact, I think it’s arguably the most troubling feature of the world that theism must face. But precisely what sort of challenge is it if not, say, a probabilistic one? If there is (as I think) no good argument, in what way is evil still a problem?

We could note perhaps that evil might make the theist angry with God, or make Him seem far and distant. Note those passages in Job where God seems to have become entirely mysterious to Job, and Job demands that God appear and justify Himself, and, more importantly to Job, exonerate him. Or perhaps we might think of those Psalms expressing anger towards God for some state of affairs. And then of course there are those haunting words of Christ himself on the cross: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” All of these show that evil and suffering can indeed be a problem for the theist as he or she wrestles with God. However, in such cases there is no hint that evil was a threat to the person’s theism. All of those in question remained staunchly theistic.

But, isn’t there a stronger threat to theism from our experience or awareness of evil and suffering? Might not one’s experience of suffering in the world provide a defeater for theism? Think of all the most horrific evils or instances of suffering in the world. We might think of those mentioned by Dostoevsky’s Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov, hideous cruelties human beings inflict on each other: “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel.” Here Ivan is referring to people being nailed to wooden posts by their ears and left overnight before being killed, and cases where babies are thrown into the air and caught on the end of spears in front of their parents. We might also think of the cruelties inflicted on human beings by the natural world: from parasites that gradually eat away the insides of the eyes causing blindness, to the pains and indignities caused by conditions such as motor neurone disease. Further, we might reflect on a figure pointed out by Stephen Law in his debate with William Lane Craig: “for almost the entire two hundred thousand year sweep of human history, one third to a half of each generation died, usually horribly, before reaching their fifth birthday.” Or we might be cognizant of the wanton destruction in the animal world: from hyena’s who begin to eat their prey before killing it, to the wanton destruction by wasps attacking bee colonies and tearing the heads off all the bees.

Some instances of suffering are so abominable that it seems inappropriate and downright callous to use them in cool philosophical discourse. When brought face-to-face with such things wouldn’t a rational person simply see that there cannot be a God such as Christians believe in? True enough, perhaps he cannot demonstrate this with a cogent philosophical argument of some kind; he or she might even concede that there is indeed no good probabilistic or evidential argument at all. But still, he might insist, isn’t it just obvious that a being such as God wouldn’t permit such things?

The idea here is that a person who is fully aware and properly attuned to the horrors of the world will simply see – or perceive – or something like that – that such a being as God would not, if He existed, permit it. We might call this phenomenon a “sensus deus absconditus.” In the same way as Calvin spoke of a sensus divinitatis bringing people to perceive the existence of God in the absence of any argument, so, it might be claimed, no argument is needed. (Of course, if Christianity is true a sensus divinitatis makes winsome sense, but on atheism what would account for a sensus deus absconditus?) Our atheistic objector might say something like: “just open your eyes, drink in the sheer horror of reality, the utter loathsomeness of so much of earthly existence.” He might even think that giving arguments from evil is counter-productive, diverting our attention away from all the blood and pain and towards a piece of arcane reasoning. Giving philosophical arguments, it might be said, keeps our attention off the very realities that constitute a defeater for belief in God.

Is there really a defeater here? The answer is “yes” and “no.” The thing about defeaters is that they are relative to a given noetic structure. Whether something is a defeater for some belief I hold will depend on my other beliefs, and how strongly I hold them, as well as my background experiences. Thus, viewing the loathsome evils of the world might be enough to defeat X’s belief in God, but not Y’s. (I’m ignoring the complication that A can defeat B for person S without really being a defeater for B at all).

However, there is a more important point to be made here. If Christianity is true then experience of evil will not be a defeater for theism with respect to fully rational noetic structures. As Plantinga has shown, if Christianity is true then there are cognitive mechanisms such as the “sensus divinitatis” and “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit,” or others very much like these which provide, for the person with a fully rational noetic structure, a clear knowledge of God and awareness of his presence. Such a person may therefore be as convinced of God’s existence as of her own. Such a theist might be greatly puzzled about evil, but abandoning faith simply wouldn’t be on their radar.

Of course, for most of us theists there is no wholly evident presence of God; none of us enjoys such a pristine condition of complete rationality. But of course, it’s also a part of Christian belief that our cognitive faculties are being renewed, our “sensus divinitatis” is in the process of repair (to use Calvin’s language). Such knowledge doesn’t provide an answer to the mystery of evil, but still might provide over-ridding grounds for the person’s theism in the face of life’s atrocities. Whilst we do hear of stories of missionaries going off to the third world only to come back atheists due to what they have witnessed, we also hear of people whose theism in the face of the world’s evils becomes ever more resolute. Some might see the evil of the world as the result of “man left to himself,” desperately in need of God. The hideousness of it all might just as easily drive people towards God. (Note in passing that the vast majority of people who experience the worst atrocities are more likely to be theists). For my own part, whilst my awareness of evil provides possibly the greatest puzzle for me, denying the existence of God seems out of the question. The existence of God – for whatever reason – is among those propositions about which I’m most certain. If, after thinking really hard – as well as I can – on the case for and against God, and on reflecting on how the world honestly seems to me, I stand before the evils of the world with my theism still intact, I can’t see that I – or any other theist – would be guilty of an epistemic faux pas.

It seems to me then that whilst it’s clearly factually correct to say that for some theists the experience of evil has defeated their theism, there is no general defeater – either a warrant defeater or a rationality defeater – to be had here. I think the atheist could only properly claim a warrant defeater for Christian belief by first assuming that Christian belief is false, and thus that there is no source of warrant such as a sensus divinitatis or something else like that. Moreover, there does not seem to be a rationality defeater as long as the theist has considered all the evidence she has to the best of her ability and still finds herself persuaded by theism. The theist who continues to believe in the face of even the most grotesque instances of suffering the world can produce is not therefore, so far as I can see, breaking any epistemic duty, acting contrary to reason, or otherwise epistemically deficient.

Stephen J Graham

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The Making of a Philosophical Theologian

I had planned to write my 50th article on the topic of the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person.” Regrettably, as a person wholly bound by it, time has slipped through my fingers and I’ve had to postpone the article until the new year. So, I thought I’d write a much lighter piece to finish off the year – a short article about, well, me and how I ended up on the intellectual road on which I find myself. I ask the reader to forgive my self-indulgence.

I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during what are known as “the troubles,” a rather volatile mix of religious and political hatred that took the lives of several thousand people, maiming and traumatising thousands more. Neither of my parents were Christians (still aren’t) but we used to attend church with my devout Grandmother – an old traditional Church of Ireland church (similar to Episcopalian for American readers). I hated it. In fact I hated it so much I was regularly taken out during services due to my poor behaviour, and eventually my parents decided to leave me with my heathen Grandfather (whose only worship took place in the evenings at the bar counter, and whose idea of Holy Communion was 6 pints of Guinness followed by 12 shots of Irish Whiskey) each Sunday morning while the rest of them went to church.

Thus ended my experience with formal church services for a number of years. Church just wasn’t on my radar…until one of my best friends (Davy) seemed to undergo a rather dramatic change, telling me one day he had been going to a small Pentecostal church and had got “saved” and why didn’t I come with him one Sunday morning. It was a very different church experience from what I had hitherto experienced. But through conversations with Davy and others in that church I began considering the “great things of the gospel” (to steal a phrase from Jonathan Edwards) for the first time. I remember in particular a man called Clark Mills who seemed to radiate peace, and whose company and conversation had a profound impact on me. One day, without much drama, I joined my friend Davy in a prayer and became a Christian. I was 15 years old.

But, unlike so many Christians I didn’t live in a spiritual bubble. At this point in my life my father was an aggressive atheist (though he tends towards theism these days), and one of my best friends – Jon Donaghy – was an atheist. The latter was to prove a big influence in my intellectual direction.

If I was to pick out one single episode that greatly influenced me, it was an argument I had with Jon one day in his house – we were both around 17/18 at the time. The topic was whether or not there is a God. I don’t remember much of the fine details of our debate but I do remember not coming off terribly well. Blurting out “you can’t get something from nothing” was about as close as I came to making a philosophical argument. But the discussion lit a flame under my ass and made me investigate whether theism made good rational sense, or if I had been deluded. I’ve never been pacified by simplistic Sunday School theology that tells us to “only believe” or “just have faith.” These kinds of responses just irritated me. So, I began reading popular works of philosophy. One particularly influential book I came across at this time was “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe” by William Lane Craig. This was the first time I had seen someone getting philosophical about the existence of God. I was mesmerised that books like this existed and began to read widely. (My only regret was that I wasted so much time on books advocating young earth creationism, a topic I now regard as so silly that I refuse even to debate it with anyone).

When I went to university I was initially enrolled as an undergraduate chemistry student; turns out I enjoyed my high school chemistry class far more than the subject itself. At the end of my first semester I had planned to leave university altogether when Jon advised me to switch subjects to something I liked. It was too late in the academic year to switch so I ended up taking the rest of that year out, enrolling the following September on a degree programme I knew I’d like: Theology & Philosophy.

I was at the time attending a Presbyterian church, and I remember telling an elder what I was going to study. “Theology” – “Oh, that’s great.” “And philosophy” – And with a frown he added: “you need to be careful about that philosophy.” Studying philosophy was the one of the best decisions I made, and frankly I found it far more “faith friendly” than theology. With a few exceptions theologians tended to irk me greatly, largely for their sloppy reasoning, but also their penchant to vie with one another to see who can concoct the silliest theory. Philosophy by contrast made me come alive.

My Philosophy of Religion teacher was William Crawley. William used to be a trainee Presbyterian minister, but after leaving the profession (and subsequently describing himself as a “lapsed Protestant”) he works as a journalist and presenter for the BBC. William massively influenced me. He had a wonderful manner, was argumentative, funny, and iconoclastic. (He had also been a youth leader in the Presbyterian Church I had been going to during my mid-late teens, so I enjoyed the advantage of already knowing him). Moreover, it was through William and his classes that I came across a name that forever changed how I think about religion, faith, God and related topics: Alvin Plantinga. William had written his Ph.D on the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga (he was quite critical of it, in fact), and I remember thinking that this was a guy I had to read. So I did…

Despite the best efforts of philosophers such as William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne, I found myself uneasy about the kind of approach they adopted. My problem was that this was not how I had come to believe in God at all. It seemed artificial, even contrived. True enough, there is some excellent work being done by philosophers of religion in the area of natural theology, but it always seemed rather distant to me – more like a purely academic exercise than anything else. I had been working on a few vague ideas in another direction when I read Plantinga’s essay “Reason and Religious Belief.” This was one of those glorious moments when I found a philosopher saying so much that I wanted to say but far better and with far more intellectual clout than I could ever muster. He took the few broken bones I had been playing around with, and built them into a skeleton, adding flesh, skin and hair! Moreover, it seemed to resonate with how I actually came to believe in God. Whatever you think of Plantinga I think it’s difficult not to appreciate that he really does grapple with the reality of how humans come to believe the things they do. Contrast it with “artificial” approaches by theists such as Swinburne or atheists like Paul Draper, both of whom appear to treat theism like a sort of quasi-scientific hypothesis which stands or falls on its ability to explain some body of data. As much as I respect Swinburne (and I’m fascinated by his work on morality and consciousness), his argument for Christianity is one of the most contrived pieces of philosophy I have ever read. It reads as if he coolly sat down one day and reasoned his way to believing that God exists, that God exists as a trinity, that he would want to become incarnate, and that he would want to stamp his revelation with a great miracle, like, say, umm, a resurrection. The truth is no-one comes to believe these things in this way – not even Swinburne.

It has been the influence of Plantinga more than anything that weakened my earlier enthusiasm for natural theology. Those who have been reading my blog this year will notice that of the 50 articles included here I don’t think there’s a single argument for the existence of God. In fact, I suspect the topic I’ve written about most (and plan to write about further in the new year) is the problem of evil. There’s a two fold reason for this. Firstly, as an intellectual problem I find the problem of evil intriguing, though unsuccessful. However, and secondly, I still think evil presents problems – at least it does for me. The levels of the evil and suffering in the world appals me. Whilst I don’t think there’s a good argument from evil against the existence of God, I’ve sometimes had my belief greatly shaken simply by my experience of evil and suffering. I suffer from both anxiety and depression and have been suicidal on two occasions in my life. Sometimes the universe looks too black and horrible for there to be a God, at least to my eyes. And yet, in my more rational moments I’ve never been convinced by arguments from evil.

I plan to write on two of the best such arguments from evil in the new year: those advanced by William Rowe and Paul Draper. In keeping with my preference for responding to arguments against theism rather than offering arguments for it, I’ll also be writing on arguments which I consider the best (or at least most promising) in the atheologian’s arsenal: arguments against the coherence of the concept of God, starting with the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person.”

But for now I’ll draw this article to an end and wish my readers a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Stephen J Graham

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