Revelation and our mode of understanding

It could perhaps be more helpful if we were to begin to see that all of God’s revelation to us is anthropomorphic. It is, then, essentially accomodated revelation; it is revelation accommodated to our mode of being and our mode of understanding. It is not, therefore, that God’s revelation is accommodated to us when it speaks, say, of God’s eyes or his arm or his repentance, while it is not accommodated to us when it speaks of his eternity. One quotation from Calvin may help us see the matter more clearly:

“What, therefore, does the word “repentance” mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all modes of speaking that describe God for us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Althought he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners.”

While there can be no question that there are truths given to us in God’s revelation that point to his essential character, and others that point to his covenantal character, we should be careful to note that those covenantal attributes of God’s are no less “literal” than are his essential attributes. God’s repentance, then, is not simply something that “seems to us” like repentance. It is literal repentance, he is (covenantally) changing directions because of his faithfulness to his covenant. But it is repentance of a condescended, covenant God who has come down, taking on the form of a creature, in order to glorify himself, and it is repentance that does not in any way sacrifice, undermine, or otherwise alter his essential character as a se. He repents, all the while remaining the eternal, immutable “I AM.”

K. Scott Oliphint,  in Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (P&R Publishing Company 2006), page 253-4.

Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief now available online

Christian Classics Ethereal Library has made Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief available online in full. Published in 2000, Warranted Christian Belief is Plantinga’s third entry in his series on epistemology and represents an important work in the debate about the rationality of theistic belief. Plantinga suggests that the many common arguments against Christianity can be divided into two categories: the claim that Christian belief is false (de facto objections) and the claim that Christian belief is irrational or intellectually unacceptable (de jure objections). In his book, Plantinga focuses on the de jure objection and defends the view that belief in God may not only be rational, but rational without supporting beliefs or arguments.

Expect an intellectual work out – the argumentation can be complicated at times, but it is worth the investment. Plantinga is one of the great philosopher’s alive today and his writing has had a massive effect on the way scholars have approached questions in metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of religion. William Lane Craig has suggested that Plantinga’s 1967 book, God and Other Minds, was the turning point in the debate about the death of God.

Some endorsements for Warranted Christian Belief:

“Warranted Christian Belief is a tour de force … it will be a welcome summary of an important movement, and for anyone interested in debates about the rationality of religious belief, a reference book for many years to come.” – Books & Culture

“This is an impressive book … Every philosopher interested in epistemology should read it and every philosopher should be interested in epistemology.” – Australasian Journal of Philosophy

“The book is full of philosophical and theological interest and is an exciting book to read… Throughout the book the writing is clear and entertaining, parts of it written with a controlled passion and enthusiasm, and with hafts of sarcasm, self-deprecation and other assorted humour. Plantinga has command of a vast range of philosophical and theological material.” – Mind

James Anderson has written a helpful introduction and review of the book here.

(HT: Patrick Chan at Triablogue)

New audio from 2009 Apologetics Symposium

New Reformation Press has just made available the lectures from an Apologetics Symposium that was hosted earlier this year at the Zion Lutheran Church. The Symposium was focused on introducing the task of apologetics and offering a defense of the historcity and truthfulness of the Scriptures. The lectures were conducted by Rod Rosenbladt, a professor of theology at Concordia University and co-host of the radio program “The White Horse Inn”, and Craig Parton, a trial lawyer and US director of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights. Both are strongly influenced by the great apologetist, John Warick Montgomery, and use the evidentiary approach of a court room in their defense of Christianity.

The six sessions are being offered as a set for $9.99 but you listen now to the first two foundational lectures for free.

The lecture titles:

  1. Why Defend the Faith at All? – Craig Parton
  2. Intro to Apologetics – Rod Rosenbladt
  3. Historical – Legal Apologetics – Craig Parton
  4. What Non Christians Ask – Rod Rosenbladt
  5. Islam, Cults and the New Age – Craig Parton
  6. A Lutheran Defense of the Biblical Gospel – Rod Rosenbladt
  7. Q and A – Rosenbladt and Parton

Merry Christmas from Thinking Matters

From all our contributors, we want to wish everyone a Happy Christmas. It’s been an encouraging year for us, and I’d like to thank our readers for providing us with plenty of thought-provoking debate and discussion. As you prepare for the Christmas festivities — travel, bbqs, and the swapping of presents — may you take the chance to get beyond the romanticized picture of gentle shepherds and starry nights to reflect on the scandalous but intimate message of Christmas:  Christ has come. God Himself has entered history to display the power of His kingdom and restore the whole world. While we put ourselves in the place only he deserves to be, God has substituted Himself for us on the cross and put Himself where only man deserves to be. Whoever does, however, recognize Christ’s Lordship and relies on his perfect work and record (and not their own), that kingdom power can come upon them and begin to work through them.

If you are after some reading during the celebration, here are some links from around the interwebs (cookies and milk not included):

We’re dreaming of a Bright Christmas?

“Asantaism” and “Athorism” are all the rage nowadays – ought Atheism to be our collective next step? In recent times the “New Atheists” have often recommended that the God of the Old and New Testaments be ditched along with other myths and fables for children such as Santa Claus.

It won’t break your heart to hear that, despite the hype at this time of year, that jolly old white guy ‘Santa’ is in fact a fictional character. Many people however, believe that the Judaeo-Christian God can also be placed in an area labelled ‘non-reality’. I argue that the usual attempts to infer a relationship between the two, display cracked thinking.

There is debate in philosophical circles over the sense in which fictional characters can be said to ‘exist’ – however, for the purposes of most of this essay, I’ll take it that Santa does not exist. But for the ‘neo’-atheists to compare God to Santa Claus only displays their own childishness rather than philosophical acuity. It seems clear that wishful thinking; of which the ‘bright’ (Dawkins’ designator of choice) brigade are here guilty; and insightful thinking share a verb, but little else.

Three years back, Richard Dawkins wrote a witty piece in the Washington Post where he implored the western world to give up taking Yahweh seriously in the same way that we’ve given up Thor, that once-rather-popular Scandinavian god of thunder.

“While technically agnostic about all those ancient gods, and about fairies and leprechauns too (you can’t disprove them either), in practice we don’t believe in any of them, and we feel no onus to explain why”

For Dawkins it is clear that in systematizing the universe, Yahweh is best placed into the same category as a leprechaun. Yet Yahweh, who has been part of the dominant world view of the western world for the previous 2000 years; and in the thinking of various other parts of the world for much of that; is neither non-existent nor twee.

So what is special about the God of the monotheist compared to the merry Santa of the mislead secular child? Clearly, God is believed in by a number of people older than 8 years; you may wish to take myself and the Pope as suitable instances. A key factor for me however, aside from the fact that there many intelligent people who take God to exist (pick up Philosopher’s Who Believe, for example) is the weight of positive evidence for Yahweh that we do not have for Santa or any other ancient god. Evidence such as the argument from morality, from teleology in nature, from cosmology, and most important of all, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in history.

I want to focus, however, on the robust ‘big-scale’ explanatory role that Christian theism can play, an advantage that individual gods in polytheistic systems cannot claim and which the faith of the neo-atheists has no hope of playing. Theism provides a much better explanation than atheistic materialism, for example, of the origin of the universe. This idea bears rephrasing – theists claim that God made the universe; God made nature itself. For the naturalist to say “aha, shame on you, ignorant Christians; we know how thunder works, so good bye to Thor and to your god!” completely misses the point and the grandeur of the God concept. Note that this isn’t a ‘god of the soon-to-be-filled gaps’ argument. Discovering natural mechanisms within the natural universe; no matter how wonderful or how many; can no more get rid of God than discovering linguistic structures in a book or blog post can get rid of the author.

The epistemological minimalism encapsulated in the oft-intoned “Occam’s Razor” does not sit well with the way modern science works. In hypothesis-testing, a concept’s explanatory power; not just its simplicity; is important. Particularly suspect is whether the Razor ought to be ruthlessly applied in the case of the universe itself – is it really more satisfactory to have nature itself as a brute fact (or indeed, billions of other universes), rather than a single person as its source? In the light of our own experience of agent causation and creativity, I suggest the personal option comes with at least some initial plausibility.

And there is modern cosmology; and philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe, including those against the existence of actual infinities, which strongly challenge the eternity of matter/energy and hence count against any assumption which takes the universe as brute fact. Yet regardless of, for instance, whether all of the premises of the Kalam argument can be sufficiently defended to convince the already convinced sceptic, there are prima facie considerations in favour of God’s existence that Santa or Thor do not share; minor mythological figures are simply not ambitious enough. Ultimately, whether or not you choose to believe in the existence of the man in the red suit at the north pole, the present question of a personal, non-physical creator of the universe who interacts with it to the point of incarnation, remains important and open; ready for unwrapping and investigation.

Is there salvation outside Christianity?

Wintery Knight has pointed out a helpful summary by Stephen Notman of the classic title in the Zondervan Counterpoints series on Christian theology, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Edited by Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, the book surveys the different approaches in reconciling religious pluralism with the exclusive claims of Christ.newbookcover

Traditionally, the debate has been characterized by the positions of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. The title includes a fourth position; agnosticism (defended by Alister McGrath). Here is a quick run-down of the positions in the debate:

  • Exclusivism/Particularism: This view maintains that the central claims of Christianity are true and only those who explicitly place faith in the Christ of the Bible are saved. Salvation cannot be achieved through the claims or structures of other religions. It is important to point out that exclusivists do not say that every religion is wrong in every respect, but that only where other religions contradict the self-disclosure of Christ, they are wrong. This is defended by by R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips.
  • Inclusivism: This view can be broken down into different positions. Generally, inclusivists affirm the truth of fundamental Christian claims, but nevertheless appeal to the love of God and insist that God has revealed Himself, even in saving ways, within other religions.  All who are saved are in fact saved on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, but conscious faith in Jesus is not necessary: some may be saved who have never heard of him, and may respond positively to the light they have received.
    • Soft inclusivism (Agnosticism): Unconvinced by the clarity of teaching of Scripture on whether those outside Christianity are truly condemned, advocates allow for the faint possibility that God may save some who have never heard of Christ – so long as these individuals respond to God’s grace in Creation and entrust themselves in repentance and faith. Some also go further in arguing that there is biblical reason to be hopeful and not simply agnostic about the possibility of salvation for those outside Christianity. Alister McGrath puts forward a version of soft inclusivism in the book.
    • Hard inclusivism: This view differs from radical pluralism in that it does argue for Christ as the absolute basis of a person’s salvation. But while Jesus may have been God’s principal plan of salvation for humanity, it is argued that salvation itself is not unavailable in other religions. Unlike exclusivism or soft inclusivism, this view emphasizes believing, but not believing in Christ. Jesus is therefore ontologically necessary, but not epistemologically necessary. Some hard inclusivists will also concede that God may yet use other religions as instruments of his salvation. Clark Pinnock argues for this position.
  • Religious Pluralism: This view relativizes every religious claim. According to it, no religion can advance any legitimate claim of superiority over any other religion. Every religion has the same moral and spiritual weight, and offers an equally valid path to salvation. John Hick has been one of the leading voices of this position, and he defends it in Four Views.

Read Stephen Notman’s summary of the debate in the book.

Although no longer recent, the book remains a significant effort to represent the strongest positions and the strongest advocates for those positions. R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips put forward a convincing exegesis of the important texts (Acts 4:12; John 3:16, 18; Romans 10:9-15; and John 14:6; 17:20) and provide a robust defense of the traditional Christian position. For anyone who has pondered these questions, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World is an excellent introduction.

For further reading on the topic, Ronald Nash’s Is Jesus the Only Savior? is a great book, or Paul Copan’s article If you had been born in another country, is it at all likely that you would be a Christian? The latest issue of Philosophia Christi also features a dialogue on religious pluralism with scholars Keith Yandell, Paul Moser and Paul Knitter.

A bridge to nowhere: Wilson on New Atheism and morality

Douglas Wilson, pastor at Christ Church in Idaho and a senior fellow of theology at New St. Andrews College, reflects on his recent debate tour with Christopher Hitchens (the documentary of the tour, Collision, is now available on DVD) and the problem of morality for atheists:

“Can I be good without God? Sure. Knock yourself out. May I be good without God? Again, sure, but here is where the question starts to cut both ways. The question is double-bladed because it is here that we realize that we are alone by ourselves, and we are not really asking anybody for anything. I may be good without God for the same reason that I may be evil without Him or, as it suits me, indifferent without Him. There is no one here to get permission from. For anything. Mom doesn’t care if I go play ball, and she doesn’t care if I shoot my sister. She doesn’t care because she doesn’t exist. Turns out I have been asking questions of a deaf and indifferent universe.

Near the end of our film, Christopher [Hitchens] admirably acknowledges that you can be a fascist and an atheist, a communist and an atheist, a sado-masochist and an atheist, and so on, and you can do it all without contradicting anything within the tenets of atheism. Christopher does not think of this as a concession to my central point, but I do want to press it. He wants to go on to insist that atheism does not commit you to the “absurd belief” that if you are an atheist then you “have no morality.”

If we piece all this together, the only thing he can possibly mean is that every atheist has the authority to generate his own code of morals, and that these morals do not need to conform to the tenets promulgated by the International Society of Nice Atheists, and that they further do not need to conform to the code of morals being generated in the fevered brain of the fellow next to me. But notice what this does. It makes all morality a matter of radical personal choice.

But once we do this, how can we come back in later to restrict or limit the choices? Once the individual generates his code, he certainly may seek out other like-minded people in order to form what sociologists call a plausibility structure. But there is no such thing as an overarching moral code, independent of the individual, one that is authoritative over him. There is no ultimate reason why he cannot decide to defy his societal norms (his plausibility structure), or move to northwest Pakistan to join up with another plausibility structure–one with more excitement and explosions.

Once we have gotten to this point, we may certainly fight with those who have made different choices. But we may not appeal to a standard that overarches both of us, which they are disobeying and which we are not. They have as much right to generate their code as we do ours. We may fight with them, but we have lost the ability to reason with them.

Centuries ago, David Hume pointed out how deep and broad the chasm was between is and ought. The new atheists, for all their vaunted skill in engineering, have not been able to build a bridge.”

Read the whole article at On Faith.

Challenging naturalism: David Gordon on the Nagel controversy

David Gordon of the Ludwig von Mises Institute has made some interesting comments about the recent controversy created by Thomas Nagel’s endorsement of Stephen Meyer’s new book on Intelligent Design. In reviewing Nagel’s Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002–2008, Gordon writes:

Although he does not accept Intelligent Design, Nagel refuses to dismiss the movement as merely religious. Critics claim that design cannot be a legitimate scientific hypothesis; but at the same time, they maintain that the theory can be shown to be false. Nagel pertinently asks, how can both of these assertions be true together? Further, Nagel sees no constitutional obstacle to teaching Intelligent Design.

Nagel’s opinions on this issue have led to a remarkable episode. Brian Leiter runs a blog, Leiter Reports, which is read by philosophers, owing to detailed accounts of promotions, jobs, and other news about philosophy departments. Leiter’s comparative rankings of philosophy departments also attract much attention. Leiter obtrudes his own political and social views on his audience; were he to present these in a separate venue, it is a safe bet that his audience would vastly diminish. Among Leiter’s many aversions, the Intelligent Design movement ranks among the foremost: he often attacks what he calls the “Texas Taliban.”

When Nagel’s article on Intelligent Design appeared, Leiter could not contain his rage. We were presented with the unedifying spectacle of Leiter’s speaking in abusive and condescending terms about one of the foremost philosophers of the past half-century. Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism, The View From Nowhere, and the essays collected in Mortal Questions are classics of contemporary philosophy.

Matters worsened when Nagel recommended in The Times Literary Supplement Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as one of his “Best Books of the Year.” Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and his book argues that naturalistic accounts of the origin of life on earth confront severe difficulties. Only a designing intelligence, Meyer contends, can account for the intricately specified information contained in DNA. Nagel did not endorse Meyer’s conclusion but praised the book for its account of the “fiendishly difficult” problem of life’s origin.

This recommendation aroused Leiter to new heights of contumely. It seems quite likely that Leiter never bothered to look at Meyer’s book. He quoted from an English professor of chemistry protesting Nagel’s claim that natural selection cannot account for DNA because it presupposes its existence. The chemistry professor, echoed by Leiter, said that natural selection exists in the preorganic world: was not Nagel ignorant to deny this? Both Leiter and the chemist ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial. To appeal to the fact of their existence against Nagel is to assume what is much in dispute. Leiter extended his attack to accuse Nagel of ignorance of the relevant fields of study. Nagel has never claimed authority in biology; but had Leiter bothered to read Nagel’s well-known essay, “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” he would discover that Nagel has more than a passing acquaintance with neurobiology.

I have gone on at some length about this, because the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism seems to me altogether deplorable. To some people, evidently, the first line of the False Priestess in In Memoriam is Holy Writ, not to be questioned: “The stars, she whispers, blindly run.” But even if these avid naturalists are correct in their metaphysics, debate needs to be encouraged rather than suppressed. Perhaps Leiter should reread On Liberty. Pending that happy event, one can only say of his abuse that the barking of Bill Sikes’s dog just tells us that Bill Sikes is in the neighborhood.

(Source: Bill Vallicella)

Truth and Integrity

Truth and integrity lie very close to one another. In the absence of what is true, all that remains are power and manipulation. What takes the place once occupied by truth are private agendas, community ideals, rhetorical force, savage ad hominem attacks, fabrications, exaggerations, and power seeking. In the absence of truth, lying becomes the common coin of the realm. And this lying takes on especially virulent forms when it becomes religious. For then God is pressed into service for personal advantage. The stage is then set for terrible things to happen. We understand the dark side of this connection.

On the positive side, this connection between truth and integrity shows itself in that kind of ethical consistency that binds the whole of an individual’s life together. To know God is to know him in every facet of our being. It is to know him in our mind, heart, and emotional life, in our private world at home and in our public world, in worship, in Christian service, in the arena of ideas, in the conflict of worldviews, in the competition between religions. Because it is the same God whom we know in each of these ways, through the same truth that he has given us, a person of integrity will be the same person in all these arenas. The point about hypocrisy is that a person is different in different contexts. The person creates a post, or an image, to gain some advantage with some audience. The person and the pose, however are two different things. The point about integrity is that a person is the same, even when audiences may not be pleased and when there is, as a result, some cost to pay.

David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008) page 95.

The Case for Life After Death

Christianity Today has posted an interview by Mark Galli with Dinesh D’Souza, the former policy analyst and political commentator turned Christian apologist. In the interview, D’Souza discusses his latest book, Life After Death: The Evidence (Regnery 2009), and the debate over post-mortem existence:

Why do we need a book on life after death when it appears that most people believe in it?

Life after death is a universal sentiment, but in modern times and only in one civilization—the West—a powerful movement has risen to deny life after death. Ordinarily you could ignore the deniers because they are a small minority, but they tend to be some of the most educated people, and they appeal to the authority of knowledge and science.

This book is different in that it doesn’t attempt to present what the Bible says about life after death. Rather, it’s an attempt to provide secular corroboration through reason and science for what believers have affirmed by faith. There’s a lot of powerful evidence, and new evidence, that shows that not only the afterlife but also the Christian conception of the afterlife can be affirmed by modern science.

What to you is the strongest argument against life after death?

There are two strong arguments. One was made most famous by Sigmund Freud. It essentially says that belief in the afterlife can be safely dismissed because it is a case of wish fulfillment. Freud distinguished between error and illusion: An error is a mistaken belief; an illusion isn’t a mistaken belief, but it’s a belief rooted in what you hope will be rather than what is the case. For example, if a servant girl says, “I’m going to marry a prince,” is she making an error? No, because she actually could marry a prince, but it’s an illusion. The chances of this are preposterously low, so it reflects her wishful thinking rather than any clear-eyed view of the facts. Freud basically said that we all have this juvenile desire to survive our deaths, so we made up this idea.

What is the second strong argument against life after death?

The argument that insists that science has searched for the soul, some ghostly immaterial part of us, and has found nothing. What we call immaterial things—our thoughts, our emotions—are extensions of material objects in our brains, and when the material objects disintegrate, the rest of us goes with them.

Read the whole thing to find out how D’Souza responds to those two arguments.

Life After Death: The Evidence marshals recent findings from quantum mechanics, the AWARE study (“Awareness During Resuscitation”), and other discoveries in neuroscience that suggest the mind cannot be reduced to the brain and that consciousness and free will seem to operate uninfluenced by the laws of nature (read D’Souza’s article at the Huffington Post about NDE’s and the case for the afterlife). He also turns one of the atheists’ favorite arguments against Christianity – the problem of evil – back on the materialist by showing that our revulsion over unpunished evils demonstrates that moral beliefs must correspond to another post-mortem reality. While a recent name in apologetics, D’Souza’s has been impressive in his debates with the New Atheists (watch this one with Christopher Hitchens, for example) and this new book looks like it will be an interesting read.

The God who condescends

“The triune God made a decision – a decision of humiliation… This decision carried with it no necessity; it was not necessary for the second person of the Trinity to decide to humble himself. He had every right to refrain from such a decision and to not add to himself the humiliating status of humanity. But he determined not to. This second person – one who was equal to God, who is in the form of God, who is himself God (John 1:1) – did not stop being God (such a thing would be impossible), but rather he took on something that was not a part of his essential character previously. He took on human nature (John 1:14).

To be clear, Christ does not become the opposite of himself by taking on human nature. Moreover, it is not as though he gives up deity in order to become man. This pattern is nowhere given in Scripture; it is, as we have said, an impossibility (given what we understand of God’s essence). Rather, just as the “I AM” remains Lord while coming down to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so the second person of the Trinity remains God, while coming down to assume human nature and therefore becomes the God-man. This, as we have said, is the covenant; as the Westministers Confession reminds us, Christ is the substance of the covenant. It is covenant condescension, inconceivable to comprehend fully, but nevertheless central to a basic understanding of God and his relationship to creation.”

K. Scott Oliphint,  in Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (P&R Publishing Company 2006), page 242.

There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

I’ve taken the time to write some of my thoughts on the proposed “Atheist” bus advertising initiative coming to New Zealand next year. If you haven’t heard, the campaign hopes to raise awareness about atheism through advertisements such as “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” (check out this post for all the details). Here’s my take on the campaign:

Firstly, it’s not properly an Atheistic campaign.

Traditionally and properly speaking Atheism is the theory or belief that God does not exist. As a positive claim to truth this philosophy needs justification – that is, if it is to be held as rational. On this definition Atheism turns out to be just as much a statement of faith as belief in God is often accused to be. Aware of this and lacking successful or convincing arguments to sustain their position, many have sought to redefine Atheism. This is especially true of the so called “New Atheists,” such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and many others. Because of their popular appeal, evangelistic zeal and appearance of scholarly credentials, they have succeeded in construing Atheism as the theory or belief of those who have no reason to believe that God exists.

This latter claim is very different. The first thing that should be said is that this new construal of atheism is totally consistent with God existing (of course, it is also totally consistent with God not existing). Accordingly, on this new definition, both a Christian Fideist and the most fervent anti-Christian bigot can call themselves an Atheist. Also, a person who has looked at all the evidence for God’s existence, and tried their best to understand and engage rationally with the arguments, may well conclude in the end that there is no reason to believe that God exists. He then may decide (i) to believe anyway, or (ii) he may decide to disbelieve. Alternatively, (iii) he may decide to remain undecided on the issue, declaring he doesn’t really know. This last option should rightly be called some form of agnosticism. But under the new definition, this person would be an Atheist.

That said, I’m willing to grant the new Atheist his definition. The net result is a belief which is frankly identical to the traditional Atheist – that God does not exist. Even if that were not the case, their predicament also remains the same as before – such a position is a philosophical position and therefore needs rational justification by way of reasoned argument. It is also false that in the absence of evidence for God’s existence it is more rational to presume that God does not exist. (This idea is fleshed out in my discussion of Russell’s Teapot.)

What can we say of the bus advertising slogan “There probably is no God”? Lacking certainty, this is actually soft agnosticism – the belief that does not know if there is or is not a God. Given the measures Atheists are willing to take to make their philosophy more reasonable, one might be forgiven for thinking that Atheism is a philosophy in retreat.

Secondly, if God does not exist, why should we not worry?

Here are three points where I think worrying would be good advice if it were true that God did not exist.

First, the question of God’s existence is truly the most important question there is. If God exists there are many entailments, some of which are the strong probability of an existence after the death of the physical body. Such an entailment should strongly effect how you live in this life. So this is not a trivial question at all.

To illustrate, think of yourself as a parent whose child has gone missing in the wilderness. Three days of desperate search has quickly passed by, and the leader of Search and Rescue comes to you and gently says, “Listen, we all are very tired and hungry, and we think that there is only a 5% probability that your child is still alive. We want to call off the search.” As a parent you would truly be alarmed, for as long as there are people searching there is a possibility that your child may be found, and found alive. You therefore press the Search and Rescue officer, “Please… Keep searching.” He responds kindly and continues through the night, but in the morning says, “Listen, we think that there is only a 1% possibility that your child is still alive.” Even with a 1% possibility, do you as a parent ascent to calling of the search? Of course not. In fact, the small odds would inspire the parents to reconsider how the child has avoided detection and even the assumptions that informed the initial search parameters. Even if the possibility were to be reduced even further, as long as there is the slimmest hope, the search is not abandoned. For the parents continuing the search is justified, for the reward of having their child back safely in their arms far outweighs the any effort they could expended. In the same way and for the same reason, so should our search for God be. Pascal says the wise man will search for God with all his heart.

The immortality of the soul is a matter so important to us, one which touches us so deeply, that a man must have lost all feeling to be indifferent to it . . .

One does not need to have a very highly trained mind to understand that there is here no genuine and solid satisfaction, that all our pleasures are only emptiness, that our ills are infinite, and that finally death, which threatens us every moment, must in a few years inevitably place us in the awful necessity of being eternally annihilated or miserable.

There is nothing more real than that, and nothing more terrible . . . So a man who doubts and yet does not search is at the same time utterly miserable and utterly wrong-headed. Pensees, 11

Second, if God does not exist then what restraint is there on moral behaviour? This is not to say that Atheists cannot act morally – they most often do. Similarly, I’m not suggesting that Atheists are unable to discern what is right and wrong – I think for the most part they can. Instead, the point is that by erasing God from the picture all morals become mere human conventions that are unfixed and subject to change by the latest whim. They are reduced to preferences, such as the taste of chocolate over vanilla. Without a transcendent ground for moral values and duties, justification for commonly held moral beliefs we all share is lost, and rational restraint from tyranny and oppression along with it. All are vulnerable to be victimised by another’s hedonistic ideal. Without a standard, there can be neither justice nor injustice. Without an ultimate good, there can be no evil.

God has traditionally filled the position of that transcendent ground required for the justification of morality. Immanuel Kant saw that for practical reasons (in order to make sense of morality) it was necessary to assume that God exists. Voltaire, the Eighteenth Century French Atheist said, “If God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In other words, if God does not exist objective moral values and duties do not exist, and this is unacceptable. An Atheist may believe in objective moral values – if he does, he does so without rational justification. An atheist may disbelieve in object moral values but still live a life that affirms them – but to be more consistent with his philosophy he should renounce all moral values and duties, actually become a nihilist and not just believe it, and live as he pleases. After all, if God is absent there is ultimately no moral accountability and no life after death. So if there is no ultimate accounting for your actions, why not live by pure self-indulgence and gratification if you can get away with it? The consequence of a thoroughly realised atheistic view, is cause enough to worry.

Third, there is implied here in the statement “Now stop worrying” a view of God who sits in judgement of the world, condemning every trespass and hanging the threat of hell over every person, in order that they might behave. Such a view is a distortion of the Christian view and misrepresents the nature of God. Jesus said, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) As we approach Christmas, we are reminded about the extraordinary lengths God undertook to rescue us from the predicament we were already in, and of the God who loves, and saw fit to offer the life of his Son as a substitute for many. The Christian message is not one of sorrow where a judge finds us guilty and punishes every wrong action, but one of great joy, where a Saviour has made every effort to reach out and draw people to himself, that we might freely choose him and thus avoid the judgment we already so richly deserve.

Thirdly, thanks for the reminder to enjoy life.

Jesus said, “I come that you may have life, and life more abundantly.” This slogan reminds us of the words of Jesus, and that it should be Christians who enjoy life the most. This is the natural state of true believer who has discovered the purpose of all life. That this life is is to discover and know Christ Jesus our Lord, and this should be the greatest adventure as He is the source of fulfilled life and true happiness.

Fourthly, Atheists apparently need a thicker skin.

The stated reason for this promotion of so called Atheism is not to convince anyone that there is probably no God, but to reduce stigma attached to the label “Atheist”. At this I wonder, what stigma could he be referring to? I’ve wrestled with a number of obstinate, unreasoning, and raving-mad atheists in my time, but realise that these are not representative of the general horde (approximately 60% according to the last census) of Atheists/Agnostics in New Zealand. Have Atheist’s got it so bad that they feel stereotyped or misunderstood in some way? It strikes me as supremely odd that in western countries such as Britain and New Zealand, Atheists would start an awareness campaign for Atheism, when Christians in other countries face immanent threat of death from real persecution, and must meet in secret to avoid extermination. To add to the insult, for the most part in the twentieth century it was Atheistic regimes doing the persecuting of Christians. Atheists in Britain and New Zealand apparently need thicker skin. If they want to know what persecution is they should become Christians and experience what it is like living in North Korea, or Saudi Arabia.

Fifthly, these issues are not unprovable.

I often hear the claim that;

1) The Atheistic claim is a universal negative
2) In principle, it is impossible to prove a universal negative.
3) Therefore, Atheism is unfalsifiable.

While the logic is valid, both the premises are false. For (1), the Atheistic claim that “God does not exists,” is not a universal negative – it is a singular negative statement. For (2), both universal negatives and singular negative statement can in principle be proved. All that is required is to find an instance of whatever x is. And if x is God, then finding God disproves a negative. Christians should be aware of this, and have a ready response.

As another instance, I heard recently this argument made by a Christian

1) You cannot prove that God exists.
2) You cannot prove that God does not exist.
3) Therefore, both Atheism and Theism are equally faith commitments.

Again, the logic is valid, but the premises are false. For (1), it is certainly true that one cannot prove with logical necessity that God exists. Logical necessity would be the level of certainty attained by mathematic equations, logical syllogisms, and very few other things. However, it is possible to prove that God exists to the standard of beyond reasonable doubt, which is all that is required in a courtroom. Successful arguments for God’s existence can be constructed with premises that are true or at least more plausible than their contradictories and therefore, rationally compel one to believe its conclusion. For (2), the same response for (1) applies – logical necessity is not necessary for a proof. Plus, it is untrue that Atheism does not have positive arguments. The Atheist has traditionally appealed to the Problem of Evil. Some atheists still appeal to the incoherence of the concept of God. Furthermore, what I said about universal negatives not being unfalsifiable applies – all one needs to do is demonstrate there is a God and Atheism is falsified.

Sixthly, this is an opportunity for Christians.

My last thought on this campaign is it makes for an excellent opportunity to address this important topic and to enter into discussion with those who have never thought about it before. While I won’t be donating any money to the cause, this should be seen as an open door for us to advance the gospel of truth. It is a fair warning for all Christian theists to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet 3:15), and demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5). Accordingly we should be wary of people who have no good reason or sound argument to hold to Atheism, yet believe it anyway. Likewise we should call our fellow believers to become familiar with the good reasons and sound arguments for Christian theism, which implicitly will be defeaters for Atheism.