Following my letter exchanges with Vox Day, Mark van Steenwyk, and Tom Gilson, here is my third letter to Christian writer Tim Challies, author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. See our past letters here.
This is my final letter to you. I have enjoyed our dialogue!
I understand that you reject my “facts” about the Bible:
Many of the New Testament letters are known to be forgeries even by the most conservative scholars. The books of the Bible are written by very different authors with very different theologies. The gospels contradict each other all over the place. And if there’s any consensus at all about who the Historical Jesus was, it’s that he was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet; a failed one at that, since the end of the world did not come in his generation. And the religion of Jesus was quite different than the later religion about Jesus, apparently launched by Paul.
We don’t have time to argue over these here. On my blog I suppose I’ll eventually have time to explain why all that is New Testament Studies 101 stuff and give the reasons why most scholars – even the Christian ones – have been persuaded by such views. I also plan to write on why so many Christian scholars have accepted these facts and not abandoned Christianity (as you say you would if you accepted them). Instead, they think this knowledge leads to a more authentic Christian faith, relieved of unnecessary superstition and magic.
Also, let me briefly compare my statements above to your summary of conservative Christian faith. I can give extended, careful, scientific-historical arguments in favor of my positions given above (as many Christian scholars have already). In contrast, you proclaim many things for which it’s hard to imagine an argument could be produced:
God is the Creator of all that is. [How? Did God create himself? How could God create the property of omnipotence if he did not already possess it?] He is utterly holy, having no sin or evil whatsoever. [How would you know such a thing?] … God exists in three persons. [Is this even coherent?] As the crowning act of his creation, God created human beings. But these human beings chose to go their own way, committing an act of cosmic treason against their ruler… Therefore sinners must be put away from him in a place of punishment—a place we know as hell… [So God] sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be punished on behalf of sinful men… Anyone can now receive the benefit of what Christ did, exchanging their sinfulness for Christ’s holiness. Their sin will be counted against Christ and his holiness will be counted to them so that when God looks at sinful men he sees only the holiness of his Son… At some point in the future Christ will return, bringing an end to this world and ushering in a new era where those who follow Christ will inhabit a recreated, perfected earth while those who have rejected him will receive the necessary and eternal punishment for their rebellion against him.
Perhaps you disagree, but it seems to me that the only “evidence” you can offer in support of such astonishing claims is an “inner experience” claim (which of course you must reject in people of all other religions who have inner experiences of Allah and Vishnu and so on), or else the “evidence” of a library of ancient myths filled with absurdities and contradictions. (But this is not a slam on the Bible. This is true of all other libraries of ancient literature, too. It only becomes a slam when you make the extreme claim that your library of ancient writings is very special because it was written by an all-knowing (!!), all-good (!!), spaceless (!!), eternal (!!), non-physical (!!) being.)
Tim, you asked me a question:
While Christians are known for their work and perhaps with their obsession in spreading their faith, in recent years atheists are making strides in this area. As it becomes increasingly socially acceptable to be an atheist, we find atheists interested in spreading what they believe (or do not believe). How do you feel about proselytizing? Should we both be free to proselytize or should we both just keep private what we believe (or again, what we do not believe)?
Seeing as I write a blog of evangelical atheism, it would be odd if I denounced proselytizing!
Here’s the thing. Beliefs matter. It matters whether you think disease is caused by demons or by microorganisms. It matters that many Christian leaders say that AIDS is bad but condoms are worse. These and many other beliefs are matters of life and death for millions of people. I think it’s very important that people know that disease is not caused by demons but by microorganisms, and that condoms are very helpful for preventing the spread of AIDS when abstinence fails.
It also matters whether or not there is a God to which one should devote so much time, money, and energy rather than to scientific and humanitarian work.
And of course, if it really is true that an all-powerful being will torture us forever if we don’t devote our lives to his arbitrary (if you’re a divine command theorist) moral demands, then that would be pretty important for everyone to know. And if it really is true that we will all perish if we do not submit to the will of Allah, then that would be important for everyone to know.
So it’s not proselytizing that is bad. It’s proselytizing for falsehoods that is bad. I claim that you’re proseltyizing for falsehoods, and you claim that I am proselytizing for falsehoods. There’s no way around that, except to keep working towards a more certain knowledge of what really is true about the universe we find ourselves in. And in addition to atheistic evangelism, that search for truth is also a major topic of my blog. Much of my work here is not evangelism but investigation, as disinterested in the outcome as possible. (For example, my work on the KCA.)
A Better Place
I’m sorry to hear that you’re pessimistic about the idea of getting Christians and atheists to work together on common goals like the reduction of suffering. I think it would be a great opportunity to come to understand and respect each other, even if we remain in disagreement.
I recall, for example, my recent work cooking food and serving it to the homeless people of Los Angeles via the organization Food not Bombs. Most of the volunteers were atheists, but several were believers of one type or another, and we each shared some thoughts that helped us come to understand each other better.
There’s a sense of camaraderie that develops when people are working together toward a common goal. I think that kind of thing can be better for everyone than the usual worldview-exclusive charity work that may only reinforce our prejudices against one another.
Tim, it’s been fun. I look forward to your final response.