This is the latest installment of my ongoing dialogue with “Havok”, who while he disagrees with me on the existence of God, does his best to remain civil and respectful, and to make his case using logic and conviction rather than hyperobole. I respect him for those qualities, even while I profoundly disagree with him on his final analysis.
It’s strange. You and I have this fundamental disagreement on one of the more important issues in life, yet strangely, I feel like we’re developing a kind of friendship. It makes me want to press forward to share some things with you that logic tells me will be a waste of time. Somehow I can see a human quality in some of the things you say that keeps drawing me back to our discourse.
Let me try to explain. It seems to me that if one believes, down deep inside, that this is all there is – that there is no God, no heaven or hell, no anything after this life is over — It seems to me that you would feel like you are completely alone in the world, that nobody really values you beyond what they get from you, that your life is a flash, a vapor, that when you die it will not matter to anyone, and that life itself was completely without any meaning or purpose. If I really believed as you do, I don’t see how I could avoid living that ‘life of quiet desperation’ that Thoreau wrote about. Yet you do not seem to feel that way.
My life revolves around my family and my church. The most important things in life are not things. They’re people. I’ve been married for 43 years to the same woman. Neither of us takes credit for that – we would have been divorced long ago if not for our kids who kept us together for a long time, just being devoted to them and wanting to raise them right. Then for the last 10 years, we give credit to God, who came into our lives and not only kept us together, but showed us how to fall in love with each other again. We’re blessed with two daughters, both of whom married great men who have become great Dads, each for two children. We live close to each other and we are intricately involved in each other’s lives. We just enjoyed a week at the beach together, and we had a great time.
The next circle of relationships is with people I serve with through church activities. It is not exageration to say that they are like an extended family to me and my wife. We are always doing something with them, and have grown to love many of them in a much deeper way than most people ever experience. Truthfully, the friendships I had before I became a Christian were all based on either proximity, occupation, or recreation. I was a necessary part of whatever activity we were engaged in, and if activity changed, we drifted apart. I know that some people have lasting friendships that transcend those activities. I just never seemed able to do that. Since joining my church, though, I have friends I care deeply about, and those bonds of friendship are among the most valuable parts of my life.
Do you agree that human beings seem to be hard-wired for caring relationships? I hope so, because I can’t imagine why life would be worth living if not for them. And it’s because Christ is the center of my lfe, that my friendships with other Christians are so strong.
Now, let me quickly acknowledge that there are plenty of Christians out there who act like they were weaned on lemons or pickle juice. I don’t like them much either. They are actually among the strongest reasons I stayed away from the faith for so long. Christians seemed to fall into one of two categories – either they acted piously in church, then cursed, drank and slept around just as much as anyone, or they were the sourpusses who didnt seem capable of relaxing, laughing or, for that matter, loving. But trust me when I tell you that Christians who are part of a healthy body of “disciples” (people who are following and learning as students), under the leadership of a strong and devoted pastor, are good people. They know that they are sinners and hypocrites (the church is a hospital for sinners and hypocrites, they’ll say) but they believe that God’s Word changes people, and they’ve witnessed first hand how powerful and life-altering that change can be. Nearly all of them have a story to tell of how their lives were transfixed and transformed after surrendering to “the way”.
I have – we all have this one life to live. Not everyone approaches it the same way. Most people do poorly because of the choices they make. It took me over 50 years of living before I was finally able to admit that many of the choices I had made had not worked out all that well. So when I met and got to know likable, successful, happy, fun people who were also humble, spiritual, and quick to express their gratitude to God for who they were and what they had, I started to wonder what they knew that I didn’t. I was open to hearing how I could make better choices in my life. I am reminded of a passage from Isaiah 30 – “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Like many things in the Bible, that’s probably a bit allegorical, but it does paint a kind of picture. It says, keep reading scripture, do it every day, keep it in your mind and in your heart. Then when you encounter a need to make a decision, your conscience, having been properly “trained” by scripture, will tell you what is the right choice.
So I guess my point is that I love my life. I love it because of the relationships I have with Christ. The relationship with Him makes my relationship with my wife and family better, adds the bonus of great friendships outside of family, and is itself a source of great joy on a spiritual level.
Now, right there, you’re probably thinking ‘There he goes again, weak-mindedly conjuring up a deity who doesn’t exist, and basing his whole life on it’. But stick with me here. I believe that Jesus was and is the Christ, the Messiah. But what if that’s not the truth? What if men made him up, and that all of the things in the New Testament are just a made-up story, cobbled together by men with who-knows-what motive?
Well then, they said that He said that the most important commandment was to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Also to love your neighbor as if you WERE your neighbor. If everybody did just those two things with every ounce of study, creativity, diligence and devotion they could muster, how could we not make the world a better place? Can you think of anything we could do that would be more effective in making the world a better place to live?
The Bible is a wonderful manual for building lives and whole societies. The USA is the only country ever built on a creed, and it’s the one found in the Bible. It works, because its teachings are rock solid and undeniable, even if you reject its main character.
So with that background, let me address a few of your specific points. You said:
You don’t have to justify yourself at all, though you should accept these many and varied “truths” along side your own. Either that or accept that Christianity is simply “true” for you, and that truth is subjective. I don’t think you’d accept that level of subjectivism, though.
I know you don’t mean to suggest I adopt the postmodern view that all truth is relative. My position is that there are absolutes, and some of them may actually be knowable. The postmodern view that ‘your truth is just as valid as my truth’ is just a patent absurdity. You may be right that there is no God. That would make me wrong. The absolute truth canceled out all other contenders. Yes, I arrived at that conclusion subjectively. I know of no way to avoid making some subjective decisions. But I also believe that objective truths do exist. As for justification, I said I didn’t care about justifying myself to YOU. Sure, I’d like you to like me, and I’d like you to agree with me. But I have to choose for myself what or whom to serve. I choose Christ. You said:
If you’re claiming that I have no basis for morality, or that I have to accept some extreme moral subjectivism/relativism (which you seem to be lead up to), I say you’re mistaken. There are moral/ethical theories which don’t require a deity, which give me grounds to claim Singer is right or wrong. In fact, it seems as if Singer’s own ethical theory is one such system. If you disagree with it perhaps it is not the ethical system, but your own subjective morality which is mistaken?
It’s not that you have no basis for morality, it’s that your basis is a construct of prevailing cultural opinion, and is vulnerable to corrupting influence by powerful and articulate personalities. (Think Hitler and Stalin, Kinsey and Hefner, Sanger and Nathanson. All were able to reinvent culture to suit their needs because the masses had no moral basis on which to object.) The Bible is at least a book of identifiable moral doctrine. And it’s better than any of the contenders. Shouldn’t a society have a coherent doctrinal guide for moral conduct? If so, what would you base it on?
If you live in the USA, you live in a culture built on Judeo-Christian moral beliefs. Some have been discarded as we careened toward secular “utopia”, but some have been retained. Compare our society and it’s moral grounding to countries that have never been influenced by Christianity in any meaningful way. Somalia, which seems to be one of the worst places on the planet to live, comes to mind. Also Cuba, although there is apparently a Christian ‘revival’ of significant magnitude going on. Cuba some time ago declared that they were no longer an atheist nation, but merely secularist. Since then, they cut back dramatically on the killing and imprisoning of those trying to express their beliefs. They still do it; they just do it in more subtle ways.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have given large amounts to “charity”. Two points. First, for them a few billion here or there makes zero difference to their lifestyles. I know people who give small amounts of money, but large amounts of time and heart to helping marginalized human beings. Which one deserves higher praise? Luke 21 contains this statement from Jesus: “…Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
The second point is really a question. Planned Parenthood qualifies under the law as a charity. If I give money to them, what exactly have I done for society? If Peter Singer gives, somehow I find it hard to believe he’s actually a humanitarian.
Then I asked about groups of atheists doing good work. You said:
First, “atheism” is simply a lack of a belief. It’s like asking if all non-stamp collectors have a “group”. I doubt there’s any organisation which is based on strict theism which you can name.
Second, Secular Humanist organisations do conduct charity work. Other secular/non-denominational organisations also count, I would claim. I think you could even include foreign (and internal) aid given out by secular governments, at least to some degree.
I don’t see how an atheist can claim to have a lack of belief. Agnostics may be able to make that claim, but not atheists. You believe for some things and against others. You believe that there is no God. And there are organizations of atheists, are there not? American Atheists is one.
What do these charities do to serve the sociological needs of our world? You can contribute to your local PBS channel, and that’s fine, but is that it? And even if the causes are worthwhile, and even if you gave more than you could afford, what did YOU do? Where did YOU go and whom did YOU serve? I’m not trying to put you down personally. Without Christ in my life, if asked those questions, my answers would have been nothing, nowhere, and nobody. We all need to be encouraged to do the right thing. And that’s part of why I asked about atheist organizations. You may have the noblest intentions, but it’s tough to build a fire with only one log. You need mutual encouragement and accountability.
Jesus said “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then added “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
We love our Lord because he first loved us, and because he taught us how important it is to love, and to demonstrate that love through loving acts. Mother Theresa came close to getting that right. Her total lifetime charitable donations don’t add up to a rounding error for Bill Gates’. But she gave without ceasing. She gave everything she had to give.
I hope you can see this attitude coming through from what I have said here: That whether we agree on certain things or not, I respect you as a person, and I sincerely hope nothing I will or have said is taken as a personal affront. Peter Singer may see some people as expendible, but a central doctrine of the Christian faith that I adhere to is that every human being has dignity, and should therefore be cared about, cared for, and treated with respect. We are taught to be humble. That does not mean weak. It means treating you as I would want to be treated, were our situations reversed.