26 March 2015

Sharing the Gospel with an Atheist

I recently engaged with a set of atheists in an online discussion that was born out of an article in the Huffington Post about some graphic comments that Phil Robertson made about atheism. Those of the atheist persuasion flocked to the comment boards to denounce Phil Robertson, Christianity, and religion in general.

Occasionally, there was a comment from a religious individual; however, most of the comments where somewhere along the lines "If Phil Robertson needs an imaginary friend to keep him from performing atrocities against fellow humans, he can stay far, far away from me!"

I saw this line often enough that I lost my ability to keep my mouth shut, and I decided to post the following (long) comment. I offer this because perhaps it will give a voice to other Christians who want to share their convictions online against the opposition of civil, well-meaning atheists:
Interesting thread; while I probably don't have much to offer, I'll put in my two cents.

I believe in God (I'm LDS); I believe that morality is eternal and exists outside of this material world. I also believe that God is perfectly moral, which has the logical consequence that whatever God does is morally correct. If their are faults among god-fearing people (me included), they extend from the fact that we see through a glass darkly. God has given us the edict to try and be like Him and we are all failing at it. IMHO, He will continue to work with each of us here and beyond until we reach our full potential as determined by exercise of our free agency here while we are away from His presence.

What does this have to do with whether something is wrong or not? In my opinion, it is largely about purpose and free will. Christians argue (or at least I argue) that without an eternal existence, there is neither. When I die, if that is the end of my progression, then there is little purpose that can be infused into this life, making my decisions matter very little. How much difference is there between the red ball and the blue ball when there is little light in the room? The analogy is simplistic, but if the red ball is the "right" choice and the blue ball is the "wrong" choice, while there is certainly a difference, unless there is light there isn't much point in distinguishing so.

Like others have said, I have no desire to go out and do horrible things to other people. Hopefully, I possess empathy. I thank God that He has granted me what empathy I have. Like the scriptures teach, I pray for the gift of charity and alongside it I do my homework to turn myself into a more charitable person. I do these things not because I fear judgment, but because my life and the lives of others matter, and I believe the more charitable I become, the more effective I can be at bringing others to Jesus Christ.

Were I to decide one day that God did not exist, I don't think I would go out on some sort of crime-against-humanity rampage, but I do believe that the lack of His light would cause the differences between the red and the blue to become more gray. Life would be more gray. Life likely wouldn't really matter: We'll all die anyway, we are complete products of our environment, etc., etc.

I believe that purpose (light) and thus clarity of thought with regard to morality comes from God.

I'm out of time, but a couple of quick thoughts: The notion that a Christian can be terrible and all he needs to do is say "sorry" to her "imaginary friend in the sky" is a charicature of real Christian repentence. I invite those who would like to understand this principle better to read "The Infinite Atonement" by Tad Callister and "Believing Christ" by Stephen Robinson. For comments about, "But whose God are we talking about?" I believe that tolerance and giving one another the benefit of the doubt is the answer. For comments about, "But what about people who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, pre-dating religion? What about animals?", I believe that God has always been there, even 4.3 billion years ago. I know that God's purpose is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children, and to this point I haven't felt compelled to find out precisely who "His children" are, but I believe that Steven Peck has a great idea in his article about consciousness:  "The Current Phillosophy of Consciousness Landscape". And for comments about, "Woah, dude, that post is way too long," you're probably right; it's probably an indication that relevant philosophy and theology is hard to do on Facebook.
I waited a day and then got online to see if anyone responded. There was so much vitriol directed at Phil Robertson and one Christopher Mills that I was a bit nervous to scroll through. However, what I found was a very thoughtful comment from a David Becken who said:
@Josh Cummings You said: "Were I to decide one day that God did not exist, I don't think I would go out on some sort of crime-against-humanity rampage, but I do believe that the lack of His light would cause the differences between the red and the blue to become more gray. Life would be more gray. Life likely wouldn't really matter: We'll all die anyway, we are complete products of our environment, etc., etc."
It is just the opposite. It took me 47 years, 40 of it studying religion, the bible, science and history, then, at that age, I could no longer support such idiocy. I remember the very spot I was in when I realized "it just isnt true". I had the same feeling I had forty years earlier, when I found out there was no Santa. I was upset for a day or two, then I began to realize how good it felt to know the truth, and to not have to invest one more second in the lunacy. There is no evil in there not being a god, it is just what is. The evil is making people think they are working toward a reward that is not there, jumping through one hoop or another to please an non-pleasable god. I am not atheist because it is easier, or because I want to do bad things. Anyone who knows me will tell you I spend most of my time doing for others. I do it because I want to, not to please some imaginary big eye. Just because people want or need there to be more than what there is, wont make it happen. We have this one life, and it is better to know what you have to work with, rather than skipping over life here, anticipating something that isn't coming. If there was a god, things would be running way better than they are, and he would not need backwoods bigots like Duck Dynasty to do his bidding. Man has excused so much nonsense to keep people believing he is real, but it has about gotten to the point where most people are not going to fall for it any longer. It wont cause your world to go grey, it will make each day more valuable to you.
My anxiety subsided as I read what was a very civil comment, which I interpreted as an invitation for discussion. So, I responded with the following:
@David Becken: Thanks for your thoughtful and civil response.

A few questions come to mind; for each question, I'll share my view as well, but please don't let that hinder you from responding. Unfortunately, I've spent way to long on this response (my own fault), so I won't further respond on this thread. Thanks for making me think!

You said: "We have this one life, and it is better to know what you have to work with, rather than skipping over life here"

Do you feel that a belief in life after death causes people to give less value to this life than otherwise (i.e. to "skip over" it)? When I consider the weight that my choices here have on an eternal progression that stretches both directions eternally (e.g. a knot tied in the middle of a long rope is the typical analogy), it causes me to place *great* value on my choices. I realize that every interaction that I have with an individual has potential eternal consequences; in fact, the quote comes to mind from C.S. Lewis's "The Weight of Glory": "...to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship...". It's a long quote, and you can look up the rest with a Google search. This motivation to treat everyone as if they were honorable, charitable, just, etc. is increased by maintaining an eternal perspective, not decreased.

Another concern that I hear from folks about skipping over this life is in helping the poor and the needy. Some atheists I've spoken with worry that a belief in an afterlife causes folks to say "God will fix it in the afterlife" instead of hunkering down and doing what is necessary to help their fellow men. Those who do adhere to that principle, IMHO, misunderstood Christ's teachings which are that in life we have two commandments, love God and love your neighbor. We cannot achieve one without the other and he who claims to have one without the other is incorrect. Now is the life to prepare to meet God and that means standing for something, being good for something, etc. here while on Earth.

You said: "I had the same feeling I had forty years earlier, when I found out there was no Santa."

When you equate your belief in Santa to your belief in God, do you mean to equate the value that you gave to the truth claims attached to each?

Tragically, my wife and I have a funny disagreement on this point, but it makes for hopefully an interesting answer. I'm not very big on Santa Claus because I don't like that kind of make-believe. I'm okay with telling my children that Santa is like many other heroes and role models that we can find in the make-believe world. Make-believe characters can motivate children because of their impressive ability to blur the lines of imagination and reality. My wife disagrees, and so we sort of hobble along each Christmas trying to support one another in our differing opinions.

The problem for me is that the claims that Santa makes and the claims that Christ makes (speaking for Christians anyway) are completely (not just magnitudinally) different. If we step away for a minute from the similar aspect of being a good person under threat of punishment (coal in the stocking, eternal torment), I can see that Christ makes an additional claim about who we are as people which Santa does not make. As C.S. Lewis stated above and Spencer W. Kimball states elsewhere, we are "gods in embryo". It is important to me to distinguish for my children that it's not about behavior, it's about identity and to discard Christ for the same reason as discarding Santa is to miss that point.

You said: "There is no evil in there not being a god".

Would you say that this is a tautology? I thought that a tenent of atheism is that there is neither good nor evil. Please correct me if I'm splitting hairs.

You said: "I am not atheist because it is easier, or because I want to do bad things."

And I would also say I am not a Christian because it is easier/harder, or because I want to do good/bad things. Am I correct that the real reason you are atheist is because that is what makes the clearest sense to you? I hope that this is what we all do: The thing that is clearest to us. I appreciate Sam Harris, but I often disagree with his explanations; perhaps I am experiencing confirmation bias, but unfortunately we can't recuse ourselves from metaphysics. I really liked Timothy Keller's treatment of this in his book "Encounters with Jesus". Having looked at both, Christianity seems the clearest path.

You said: "he would not need backwoods bigots like Duck Dynasty to do his bidding"

Thank heavens we both agree on that! Has this kind of evangelism been your primary exposure to religious devotion? If so, I can see why you might make such a conclusion. Certainly, I find that the most extreme among any group are often the loudest. That's not to say that I can't see where Phil was coming from, but the logical fallacy of saying that because a single evil person feels justified in committing horrors because he denies God makes atheism wrong is the same logical fallacy of saying that because a single evil person feels justified in committing horrors because he believes God said so makes religion wrong. All Christians are trying to be like Christ, and we are all failing at it.

Also, why do you conclude that God needs Phil to evangelize for Him? I hestitate here because I'm probably splitting hairs with your words again. Certainly, Christ asked all of us to proclaim His gospel, and He certainly does tend to call on the weak things of the world, the salt of the earth, etc., but I wouldn't go as far as saying that Phil is one of God's chosen vessels.

You said: "If there was a god, things would be running way better than they are"

What leads you to suppose this? For example, is it born out of a belief that God is omnipotent? I've heard some atheists say that if God were there, because he obviously can't or won't fix X, then he's not worth worshiping. Is this your view?

This is one that I've pondered a lot, too. Evolution seems so heartless and ad hoc. Natural disasters indiscriminanty leave widows and fatherless.

I'm certain that I can't offer anything unique or novel to what you have already studied; however, it is my view that through the story of Adam and Eve, God teaches us that we live in a fallen world, and that there are certain laws that must be followed, e.g. free will, death, etc. given that circumstance. I've been asked before "why can't God create a rock so big that He cannot lift it?" While a silly question, it demonstrates that there are limitations and laws in nature, and God, in choosing to interface with us in the natural world, must adhere to them. I like the explanation in "Letters from a Skeptic" by Greg Boyd and Edward Boyd on pages 35-38. C.S. Lewis explains his view very well, too. I suspect that you've read these and more already on the topic.

Personally, I believe that if evolution is correct, then it is an amazingly brilliant system for producing intelligent life that has the power to seek out its Maker. Perhaps God, by allowing the agents He created to exercise their own free agency, He *is* fixing the problems and making us into gods at the same time.

All of the above probably sounds like a cop out to the devoted atheist; however, knowing that God has entrusted me with becoming like Him and helping others become like Him gives me greater motivation, context, hope, etc. than I would have otherwise.
I await David's response. Hopefully, because these are posted online, they can be a resource for others and perhaps motivation for an atheist to take another look at Christianity.

Note: I'll post any response I get from David or any other civil response here on my blog.