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On Atheists and Straw Men with David Bentley Hart

“I can see why a plenteously contended, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting–even a little luxurious–to imagine that belief in God is no more than belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the ‘new atheists’–which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men–might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise, and I doubt posterity will be particularly kind to any of them once the initial convulsions of celebrity have subsided. But they have definitely sold well. I doubt that one should make much of that though. The new atheists’ texts are manifestos, buoyantly coarse, and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mode, not encourage deep reflection”

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Hypocrisy, Stupidity, Dishonesty, Ignorance, and Evil in the Bible

noah-drunk One reason I find Christianity believable is the hypocrisy, stupidity, dishonesty, ignorance, and evil in the Bible.

Take, for instance, those remarkable individuals who made it into the spiritual “hall-of-fame” in Hebrews 11:4-38.  A list of some of the most important saints who ever lived; individuals God worked through to accomplish incredible things; individuals whose lives were built on faith.  Yet, every one of them were hypocrites–that is, their lives did not always match up to the values they cherished most.

Consider Noah, one of the only men to remain faithful to God in his lifetime–“humanities last hope”.  After the flood, whilst in the primordial stages of building a new civilization, he gets wasted and exposes himself to his sons (Genesis 9:20-23).  Or take Abraham, for example, who, out of fear, led a king to believe his wife was actually his sister; thus allowing the king to take his wife into his harem (see Genesis 20).  And who can forget King David who lusted after a married woman, committed adultery, then had her husband killed so as to take her hand in marriage (see 2 Samuel 11)?  This is only a sample of the hypocrisy, stupidity, ignorance, and evil in the Bible. There’s so much more.

The Bible is simply filled with greedy, selfish, double-crossing, murderous, people (many of whom are the saints).  In one moment they are the epitome of virtue; demonstrating unwavering trust in God.  In the next, they are fearful, doubtful, conniving, lying, stealing, cheating, coveting, misfits.

The Bible is a remarkably authentic book.  It doesn’t seek to hide or distort the reality of life.  Namely, the reality that everyone is inconsistent; everyone fails; everyone gives way to anger, fear, envy or lust; everyone is a hypocrite.

From the biblical framework, even the most extreme nihilist, who rejects objective values completely, is a hypocrite.  Nietzsche, for example, was a hypocrite.  He exercised his will-to-power to create his own values; but failed to live up to his own standards.  We all fail to live up to the values we cherish most; we all fail to live consistently.

The Bible doesn’t overlook this aspect of human nature.  It doesn’t try to hide it or pretend that life is clean, or pretty, or harmonious–it doesn’t pretend that everyone gets a fairytale ending.  The saints are not depicted like Joel Osteen.  This is why I find it so convincing. The biblical authors could have easily overlooked the embarrassments and failures of the saints in order to create a more pristine and tidy view of the past; but they didn’t.  Instead they were honest and objective.

In so doing, the Bible teaches two things: (1)that the problem of evil is intractably human and (2) that we are in dire need of help.  Irrespective of one’s culture or nationality or race or gender or ideology anyone can be evil and everyone, at some point or another, is.  We are all imperfect and limited and, thus, unable to save ourselves from this awful mess.

For this reason, I find it odd that so many people leave Christianity on the basis of hypocrisy.  Christians, like everyone else, are inconsistent, imperfect, and prone to make major mistakes.  In fact, this is one of the core messages of the Gospel: that we are sick, that we are broken, that we need help, and that we can’t solve the problem on our own.

The Church, like a hospital, is a place for those who are spiritually sick to be made well (not a consortium of already perfected people).  We are not surprised to find unhealthy people in a hospital; neither should we be surprised to find unhealthy people in the Church.

What is surprising, however, is when we encounter someone truly pure, innocent, honest, trustworthy, and loving.  People of this sort do exist, but are very rare; and our reaction to such people is complex and more often than not negative (see Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot for an exploration of this).

Our hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of other’s makes us cold and cynical–we are suspicious and doubt the sincerity of sanctitude.  In fact, due to our pride, we usually lash out at such individuals.  Or, at least, over scrutinize their lives and hold them to such high standards that the slightest lapse causes us to throw our hands in the air and proclaim, “I knew  it! I knew he was bluffing!” (sorry for the shameless Princess Bride allusion). We then use their apparent failure to justify our “doubts” about Christianity and play the hypocrisy card.

Yet again, I say, this is odd. Like the saints in the Bible, the saints living in the Church are merely broken people in dire need of help. This help is what theologians call God’s grace.  The failures of others are meant to remind us of our own fragility, and hypocrisy, and draw us closer to the God who can repair our damaged souls.

So, what’s the conclusion of this meandering post?  It is this: If authenticity is part of the litmus test of truth then the Bible passes with flying colors! . . . and this: If you’ve read and thought deeply about the Bible, you won’t be surprised when you find hypocrisy, stupidity, ignorance, and evil in the Church.

Oxymoronic: A critique of, “Christian Naturalism”

Michael Dowd recently made the oxymoronic claim that he was a Christian Naturalist on his blog Evolutionary Times.  According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, an oxymoron is a, “combination of contradictory or incongruous words . . . something that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements”—and this is precisely what Michael Dowd’s claim amounts to.

Christians believe in God—an all-powerful, all-knowing, personal agent who exists outside of space and time.  Simply put, Christians believe in the supernatural.  This is a foundational belief upon which all other Christian beliefs and doctrines are built upon.  There is no confusion on this point because the Judeo-Christian worldview is crystal clear about the nature of God—he is a person and he is the creator and sustainer of all things (this includes both material and immaterial (spiritual) elements.)

Naturalism asserts that nature is a closed system of material causes and effects—it denies the existence of God and the existence of immaterial substances (spirits or souls).  Simply put, Naturalism is a repudiation of the Christian worldview; it stands as the complete antithesis of the Christian picture of reality.  There is absolutely no confusion on this point because naturalists are very clear about their position on the nature of reality—the physical/material world is all that exists.

Accordingly, Michael Dowd’s assertion that he is a “Christian Naturalist” is incoherent and can only be explained by one of three ways:  (1) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian, (2) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a naturalist, or (3) Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a naturalist.  Now, we can easily eliminate numbers (2) and (3), because it’s quite clear from his writings that Mr. Dowd understands naturalism.  As he says,

“I am a Christian Naturalist, not a supernaturalist . . . my focus and locus of inspiration is found in the cosmos and in this life.” (emphasis mine)

To that extent, it seems clear that Mr. Dowd misunderstands what it means to be a Christian.  In fact, we can be sure of this for one important reason:  Mr. Dowd espouses a naturalistic worldview which, by definition, rejects the foundational Christian belief that God exists.   “But wait,” you say, “Mr. Dowd talks about God all the time; he even dedicated his book Thank God for Evolution to him!”  Mr. Dowd may very well believe in god, but not in the Christian God.  This is made very clear in his book:

“What a difference it makes to be groping our way forward in faith—in partnership with God, or, should you prefer less traditional terminology:  trusting the Universe, trusting Reality, trusting Time.”  (pg. 30)

For the Christian, using terminology like, “trusting the Universe,” is not the same as using terminology like, “trusting God.”  This is because the most basic Christian belief is that God is not the universe—God is the creator and sustainer of the universe.  The universe, the complex arrangement of matter and energy, is not the same thing as a personal, immaterial, God who created matter and energy.  So, when Michael Dowd suggests—as he does throughout his book—that we can interchange these terms it becomes evident that he grossly misunderstands what it means to be a Christian.

In short, Mr. Dowd might as well take the word ‘Christian’ out of his self-description and simply call himself a naturalist—for that is what he is.