Monday, April 7, 2014

2. Theological Terrors

This is a continuation from the previous post.  I had the pleasure of participating last month in a dialogue hosted by one of the Google+ communities.  The topic was a version of an ancient and classic question of theology:  “Atheists claim they have solid evidence disproving the existence of God. What is your opinion about that?”

Being a lackluster Christian, or perhaps because of it, I found the ensuing debate irresistible.  Yet few of the members agreed enthusiastically with my arguments or points of view, and I faced formidable, though civil, opposition.   What follows are my responses to the topics discussed, separated by paraphrased versions of my opponents’ remarks.  (These are in italics.)  

As much as my obvious bias will allow, I have tried to represent the other participants’ remarks as accurately as I can.  In the last post we left off discussing the relative merits of Holy Scripture.


Readers can certainly find much to criticize in the Bible and how its teachings have been applied over the centuries.  The Bible is probably neither fictional nor factual, but in a category of its own. Yet millions still derive great meaning and value from it thousands of years after the original documents were written.  How many will still be reading Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet in even 50 years?

But it is also possible to derive great meaning from other books as well, and whether that understanding is true or helpful will depend on the book.  Historically, people believed that passages in the Bible sanctioned the oppression of homosexuals, and in the case of the Qur’an, the oppression of women.  Perceived meanings are worthless if they are false or harmful.  And it seems that the Bible and the Qur’an contain material that is untrue.

Regarding your earlier comment—“Our neocortex allows us to invent and carry out spectacular evil in the world, which we routinely do"—speak for yourself!  My neocortex is fine, thank you!  And if we were created by God and put here on this earth through no wish of our own and still deserve eternal punishment, hasn’t your God made a mistake?  Isn’t he responsible? 

And it seems that our more highly evolved brains give us the capacity to anticipate the negative consequences of our actions, and so avoid them.

•And I would add that the history of scripture shows clearly that it was created by its authors.  It promulgates an obsolete morality unsuited for contemporary society—as do all ancient religions.

Oh my.  It seems presumptuous and premature to dismiss ancient religious texts and assume they have failed as providers of wisdom and guidance on spiritual matters.  Because they have done just that for millennia, and are still going strong in every culture where they have emerged.

The texts do not fail—the people fail to learn, or they forget what they have learned.  Human beings are poor students, easily distracted, when it comes to spiritual matters.  Hence, prophets are repeatedly sent.

Seriously, would you dismiss an entire book, say one by Dawkins, if you happened to disagree with one or two elements of it?  Wouldn't you study the entire text to determine if any more general truths emerge from the various sections?  The comments on homosexuality in the Bible or the role of women in the Qur’an are taken way out of cultural and historical context—a typical atheist debate tactic.  What about The Sermon on the Mount? or 'Do unto others..."  (I'm sure the Qur’an contains similar material because it is a spiritual universal.)

Many of the contributors here undoubtedly have a fine neocortex, but surely not one filled with the purest motives—at least not all the time.  The mistake referred to above was not God’s but Adam and Eve's, whether you consider the story mythology, metaphor or literal fact.  The message is simply about the capacity for evil that we all share as human beings.

An earlier respondent distinguished between civil and sectarian law derived from scripture.   He said, "But a civil code handles it better because unlike a religious book, it can be revised from time to time."  But the civil code in most cases originated in religious law if you go back far enough.  'Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness", etcetera are codified into law all over the world, and are not likely to change because they are religious in origin, despite now being part of our civil codes.

I respectfully disagree.  Civil laws are mostly not religious in origin but were based on social, economic and political factors, and later given the flavor of religious authority. Creative compilers of these laws—as in the case of Moses—gave their readers the impression that the laws were much older and derived from historical religious experiences.  There are many examples of this:  Babylonian and Assyrian laws influenced Jewish traditions; Christianity derived its legitimacy from the Hebrew Bible, and Islam borrowed from both Christian and Jewish traditions.

Given human limitations why did God repeatedly send prophets?  Why would he not have changed this patently unsuccessful strategy?  Wouldn’t anyone else try a different key if the one they were using failed to unlock the door—for thousands of years?  Could it be that God, heaven, hell, prophets, Holy Scriptures etcetera are all merely our own creations, an expression of our weaknesses, desires and fears?

(To be continued.)

I will again close with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: 

“The man of belief is necessarily a dependent man…He does not belong to himself, but to the author of the idea he believes.”

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