Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hi e. peevie,

Great to hear from you!

If I may chime in with what you wrote, it seems to me that atheists like Josef Stalin have done their share of terrible things too! Not to suggest that atheism MAKES people into Stalins. Rather, I think the darkness in the heart of a Stalin is left quite unrestrained by a belief that no one is watching who will call to account.

Yet, there's no escaping it, religious beliefs can easily become a tool of POWER of some people over others. "You're going to hell, unless you tap into God, by means of the way that my fellow priests and I have been exclusively entrusted by God to show you."

But if there really is a God, do you think he would author a religion that would put that kind of power in the hands of people?

The biblical approach, I think, is to relativize the human role by exalting the ultimate power and importance of God. The Bible says, yes, Israel is God's chosen people, for the purpose of blessing the world (Genesis 12, 17; cf. Romans 11), but, look what a bunch of schmucks they are, their status surely isn't due to their own merits, and this promised blessing is only going to work if God himself brings it about through and in spite of them. Likewise, Peter and the apostles hold, in some sense, the keys to the kingdom, and yet Peter is portrayed in the New Testament as having said all sorts of stupid things and denied his master three times, so this role that God is assigning him can only work in spite of the man himself as God works through him.

The potential for religious leaders to abuse the power of religious beliefs is certainly there. And yet, if God is also really there, is it not those religious leaders themselves who ought to fear the most (yet really believe the least), because they will have to answer to God for their abuse?

Much depends, I think, on what kind of God you believe in, and on what level you really believe. I think the worst kind of God you can possibly believe in is one that you think you can control or make subservient to your earthly interests. That is indeed the God of much of what passes for Christianity and many other religions, and I think it is our natural tendency to convert biblical religion into this by means of a highly selective reading of the Bible. Such a person thinks of himself as pretty OK, and certainly not in need of being delivered from any dire predicament like "sin," even if he holds himself out to be a necessary instrument of deliverance to all the poor blokes around him who hang on his every word. Such people have indeed committed every kind of atrocity.

But how about belief in a God who is the high and majestic King, and yet humbled himself to serve his unworthy subjects, and paid an incomprehensible price to deliver them from their sins? What kind of behavior does that belief engender? Can anyone who deep down really believes in that kind of God maintain pride and arrogance and act mercilessly to fellow human creatures? When I say "believe" I don't mean the beliefs you formally profess, but the ones that really drive your actions. What this means is that, whenever we fail to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8), it is evidence that, at that moment and to that degree, our professed belief in the biblical God is not really driving us.

Does Dawkins explore the distinctions between varieties of God concepts, and the kinds of behavior they motivate? For example, one of the most moving examples of Christian compassion I have ever read about was that of Charles Wesley, who visited condemned criminals on death row. In his day it was a popular pastime to gather around and jeer at prisoners as they were being led in procession to the gallows. Charles ran up behind a cart that was carrying a condemned African slave whom he had visited in the prison, and hopped on the cart to comfort this new believer as he was led to his death. What I would want to ask Richard Dawkins is what kind of belief in what kind of God motivated that behavior? Is it the same idea of God that lay behind the actions of religious people that he decries? And would an atheist be likely to do what Charles Wesley did? In actual fact, skepticism and ridicule of religious "enthusiasts" was very much in vogue among the aristocratic classes of the 18th and 19th Centuries, who opposed the efforts of Evangelicals like William Wilberforce and Hannah Moore to abolish the slave trade, educate the poor, etc. Wilberforce et al did what they did because they really believed that all people were "created in God's image" and that all people would in the end have to give an account of their actions before a just and holy God. The rich fashionable atheists who routinely oppressed others had no such belief in their hearts.

Both atheists and believers in controllable gods have left tremendous misery and oppression in their wakes. But I would invite people like Richard Dawkins to open their minds just a crack and take a careful look at Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament, and ask what kinds of behavior does a deep and genuine belief in him really lead to.


E. Peevie said...

Just as it's not accurate for the Dawkins gang to lump all Christians, or all God-believers, together by saying "religious people do this or think that"--we also cannot lump all atheists together by saying "all atheists do (or don't do) this."

You said, "would an atheist be likely to" do what Wesley did? I'm guessing that not all atheists in Wilberforce's time were rich and fashionable, and some (many?) were likely on the side of the abolitionists. I don't know--but I just think we're skating on thin ice when we think we're exposing something that all atheists do, or that none do.

On the other hand, I think you're right on the money to suggest that atheists and agnostics have not really grasped the Jesus of the New Testament. He is so counter-intuitive and counter-cultural that if He doesn't knock you off your feet, my assumption is that you haven't really encountered Him.

Steve said...

Hi e. peevie,

Thanks for the heads up. I'm pondering a re-write that might express more clearly what I really wanted to say.

It was far from my intent to suggest that all atheists act in any certain way. And, you're right, though there aren't many atheists OR theists like this, it's conceivable that there might be atheists who engage in the kind of acts so wildly celebratory of compassion that Charles Wesley engaged in when he hopped onto that horse-drawn cart of the condemned. But I'd argue that such people would not be driven to do that by their atheism in itself, whereas in the case of Charles Wesley, it is clear that his behavior was the direct aftermath of a powerful Christian conversion experience. Any number of other factors might motivate an atheist to act in all sorts of exemplary ways, such as the inspiring example of a mentor, or the love they received as a child, but I don't think it would derive from the influence of atheism in itself. I am seeking to argue that atheism--the mere negation of God's existence--really has little sway on the human heart's inclination to good or to evil. It neither restrains our evil inclinations, nor does it inspire good inclinations. Biblical theism, on the other hand, injects an array of very powerful beliefs that cannot but radically reorient the human heart to the extent those beliefs are deeply believed and the Reality those beliefs point to is personally encountered. So I'm not really thinking so much about what various kinds of people do or don't do as about what influences on behavior various beliefs tend or don't tend to have.

Pardon my delayed response. Some business matters have been taking up my time practically 24/7 of late.