Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Four Questions for Atheists and Four Questions for Christians

(From Flickr user kierkier under CC)

There has been a lot of talk recently of Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney's religion. Everyone from Slate to Time Magazine to the NYTimes have commented on how his chances of winning the Republican nomination are low, given that many Evangelicals view Mormonism as a cult.

I was watching Bill Maher's "Real Time" the other day and Maher asserted that unlike Christianity, which took place thousands of years ago, the origin of the Mormon church took place only a few centuries ago and that there were historical "facts" about the history of the Mormon church that could easily be disproved.

I was curious about this, so I took a look around and found this article which asked five questions about the Book of Mormon, that apparently no one has been able to answer satisfyingly. They are as follows:

1. Linguistics. Why, if the American Indians were descended from Lehi, was there such diversity in their languages, and why were there no vestiges of Hebrew in any of them?
2. Why does the Book of Mormon say that Lehi found horses when he arrived in America? The horse did not exist in the Americas until the Spaniards brought them over in the sixteenth century.
3. Why was Nephi stated to have a bow of steel? Jews did not have steel at that time, and no iron was smelted in the Americas until the Spanish colonization.
4. Why does the Book of Mormon mention "swords and cimeters" when scimitars (the current spelling) did not come about until the rise of Islam after 500 A.D.?
5. Why does the Book of Mormon mention silk, when silk did not exist in the Americas at that time?

The matter-of-factness of these questions is almost humorous at times (e.g. the question about silk). I don't know how revealing or relevant these questions actually are so if anyone knows, please do comment/e-mail me.

However, what I do know is that these questions got me to thinking about what questions about my own faith in Christianity, and unanswered questions I have about God. In recent days, I've been reading a lot about atheism. Christopher Hitchens new anti-religion book was recently released and the reviews are mostly good. Richard Dawkins, of course, remains a force to be reckoned with on the lecture circuit. This piece that was posted on Dailykos was an incredibly well-written perspective (and defense) of atheism. And now there's stories in the news about the Blasphemy Challenge:

Atheism is on the rise in pop culture but there are many other, better articles that document this more thoroughly than this blog.

But what I give you is one Christian's perspective. That article above prompted me to ask four questions that I personally haven't been able to answer about Christianity, and four questions I haven't been able to answer about atheism as well. These should NOT be compared to the five questions about the book of Mormon above (although it did make me think about the subject), as I don't think these are unanswerable, nor do I claim to be a scholar. Furthermore, I don't think that any lack of answers indicates a death blow to that respective system of belief. Right now, I'm just confused and looking for the truth. And right now, for me, neither Atheism nor Christianity provides all the answers.

As with all things on this blog, the purpose is not necessarily to convince, but rather, to start a dialogue. Here are the questions, in no particular order:

Four Questions For Christians:

1) The Environment - I read this horrifying article yesterday (on Reddit) and I remain convinced more than ever that humans from the 20th and 21st century are well on our way to destroying planet Earth (or at least, our ability to live on it). If Christianity is true, God gave humans care of planet earth, yet he also gave us the ingenuity to destroy it. Why didn't God command people, more forcefully, to take care of His creation? Nor warn us of the ways in which we could destroy it? The human population is growing at an unprecedented rate and we are quickly overusing the limited resources we have. What would God have to say about this?

2) Religious Violence - As atheists are quick to point out, many people that believe in God spend a lot of time killing each other these days. They kill each other because of different beliefs about God or different beliefs about how to worship God. So why does God allow this to happen? There are clearly billions of people that want to worship Him. Why doesn't He come down with a loud voice and just clear things up for us by telling us which one of us is right? Does He really prefer to see us destroy each other in His name? Related to that note, more generally...

3) Using The Lord's Name In Vain - Why does God continue to allow bad things to happen in His name? For example, take one of the most famous Christians in the world today:
This man won the presidency in no small part because of his professed Christian faith. Yet he has been responsible for tremendous loss of human life and of civil liberties. This man has signed off on the practice of extraordinary rendition, on secret prisons, on secret government wiretapping.

Why does God continue to allow people like George Bush to profess Christianity and yet perpetuate some of the worst acts this country has ever seen? Why doesn't He step in and at least say "Hey, just so you all know, this guy doesn't represent what I stand for"?

4) Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People? - I'm not talking about brutish dictators or serial killers inflicting their misdeeds on innocents. I'm not even talking about genocide, like that in Darfur. I'm talking about things outside of the realm of human control, like the tsunami in Thailand, like flooding in Indonesia, like hurricanes in the United States. These latter things are all presumably things God is in control of, yet he allows thousands to perish at the hands of his creation.

The closest that God comes to addressing this is in the Bible, in the Book of Luke. In the 13th chapter, Jesus refers to how The Tower of Siloam fell and killed 18 people in an apparently freak-of-nature disaster. Jesus' response? "Unless you repent, you too will perish." Direct and forceful, yet not very comforting or illuminating. So what are we to make of this?

(This point is best put by Sam Harris at this link.)

Four Questions For Atheists:

1) Human Emotions - I don't think that the world was created 10,000 years ago. I believe in evolution, and in species change over time. I believe in natural selection. But I don't believe that these things can account for the full panopoly of human emotions and of human experience. What scientific process explains why humans experience guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, sorrow, shame, joy, love? I know that science points to altruism as being evolutionarily beneficial, and although I can certainly buy that, I can't buy that that accounts for the human emotions we see and experience every day. Relatedly...

2) Majesty - I don't quote much scripture on this blog, but there's one verse in the Bible that strikes me as particularly relevant to the topic at hand: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Psalm 19:1-3). I've stood at the tops of mountains, I've stared at the vast firmament of the sky from the middle of the ocean, and I've seen lots of things in between. There's a sense of awe, a sense of wonder at the majesty of (what I believe to be) creation. I know I'm not the only one that feels it. So how did we evolve that awe, that appreciation? And more importantly, is all of the beauty we see in this world merely a result of some haphazard seeding of proteins and amino acids, with no rhyme or reason? To answer "yes" seems wrong on a visceral level, though of course, I acknowledge there's no way for an atheist to really rebut this point....

3) The Human Void
- The great Christian and author C.S. Lewis wrote often (and often brilliantly) about Christianity. Lewis once opined that "creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists." This led him to draw the following conclusion: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

The vast majority of religious people turn to it because they feel some deep, profound need for fulfillment, something that only belief in God or some other supernatural being can provide. You can debate whether or not God actually exists but even most atheists will acknowledge that people are driven to seek meaning in their lives through the act of faith and/or belief?

So why does the preponderance of humanity have this deep, abiding need inside us to believe in a God? I've read evolutionary explanations [Times Select only] and come away unsatisfied.

4) Jesus - Despite claims to the contrary, Jesus bones haven't been found yet. So if Jesus wasn't God (and most Christians believe that He was), wouldn't archealogical digs have unearthed his remains by now? I understand that it's not incumbent upon atheists to defend why Jesus remains haven't been found, but I find it curious the fate of such a major historical figure, so major that our calendar is divided into before-he-was-born, and after-he-was-born, still remains shrouded (no pun intended) in mystery.


[Update 1: The comments have been phenomenal; thanks to everyone for making them. One of the biggest complaints about this post is about the #4 question for atheism. On reflection, yes it is a lame question; billions of people have died in the history of the world, and so there's no reason why we should have been able to find ONE person's remains.

I guess the impetus behind me putting that forth as a question is simply because I've been told since a very young age that if they were to find one bone of Jesus' body, it would disprove Christianity once and for all. Perhaps what I really crave is not knowledge that Christianity is true, but knowledge that there is some obtainable truth, whether it proves Christianity true or not. I don't need incontrovertible evidence; I just feel like I need a more solid, factual, and rational grounding for my faith. This post was a way for me to come to terms with that.

Ultimately, there are probably "better" questions that could be asked; my brother brought up a few good issues to me, like "Why does the Bible leave room for a young earth theory," which is an issue that's still tearing up our public school policy. So just so I'm clear, these 8 questions aren't the only questions there are, but they are ineffably my questions]


Anonymous said...

As an Atheist I'll give you my 2 cents on the questions you ask:

1. Human Emotions: I think we'd both agree that humans (and indeed other animals) are complex beings, that we do not currently understand how these emotions "evolved" does not suggest that they haven't.
Humans and many primates are social beings and we need "tools" or emotions to interact with one another; in small groups picking fleas off each other is handy, but in larger groups we need more complex things. I would argue that emotions are relatively recent things (maybe only 100,000 years - maybe much less) for the more complex ones. Think how living in massive cities have changed the ways we interact with each other.

2. A weak question - but I can see where you're coming from. We have a sense of awe because we can comprehend what it is, or perhaps an inner sense of asethetics helps.
Suggesting there is a god because things look nice to us isnt overly compelling. Perhaps a rotting corpse looks great to a crow, but to us looks repulsive - surely God made both?

3. Perhaps this is related to 1. in that it is a complex emotion, we all like to "belong" few people like to be alone for long, perhaps this "void" is for that reason - to encourage closeness to others. Or perhaps we like to believe there is a reason because we cannot comprehend that it's all just a bit of luck that we are here on a peice of rock floating around a big ball of hot gas being dragged around by a huge black nothingness. Read Hitchhikers Guide to the galaxy :)

4. No scholar am I, but I'd wager there's more than a few peoples bones that havent been found. Given his burial status it is more than possible that his bones should remain lost :)

Josh Withers said...

Hi, 4 answers from a Christian

1) The Environment - Why didn't God command people, more forcefully, to take care of His creation? Nor warn us of the ways in which we could destroy it? What would God have to say about this?

A) You quote correctly that God gave us dominion over the earth, he put us in charge, but we lost that "all encompassing" reign when Adam sinned.

He, and his wife, opened up their lives to the devil, and part of their lives was having dominion over the earth, a place the devil now holds, he is referred to in the bible as the Prince of this world.

That was of course in the very beginning, since then God has made covenants with his people regarding the land, and it all involves us enacting something, in the book of Joshua he talks of this, and then of course we are now in the Jesus time, post crucification, an exiting time where we can do all things through Christ, that being the final key to turn ... through Christ, it's not about what we can do, its about what we can do through Christ, and more so what Christ can do through us.

2) Religious Violence - So why does God allow this to happen? Does He really prefer to see us destroy each other in His name?

God hates disunity, Jesus prays against it, and more over -ruling than that is God's love for every person on this planet, that has lived, is living and will live, he proved this by sending his son to pay the price for our sin, as discussed in last question. But the answers you may be looking for have already been spoken, written, published and preached.

Can Jesus say it any more boldly than "Love God, and love your neighbour as you do yourself".

When he says that he is saying it in relation to what the most important commandment is. Love God, and Love yourself so you can love your neighbour to the same measure.

If you ignore that then what else can be said to you?

3) Using The Lord's Name In Vain - Why does God continue to allow bad things to happen in His name?

God tells us that he uses all things for good, even those things that don't make sense to us, an example is sending his own son to pay the price for our sins.

Another side note to this, is this: Bad things happen when good people do nothing.

You are in charge of yourself, its easy enough to look at others and what they don't do, but what influence have you used, or what generosity have you enacted, or what eorks have you done, or who have you prayed for today? Make your existence worthwhile, and let a good person do something so a bad thing won't happen.

4) Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People? - What are we to make of this?

Nothing can justify or explain in our hearts why millions of lives are lost every day for any reason, from war to tsunami etc etc. But as we've said, God uses all things for good, and he loves every human on this planet, thats why he made us.

So if he takes some away, and gives some back as the process goes, I nor any person could explain these things, the only comfort I have is that Jesus is alive today, not on this earth, but at the right hand of the father. And the blood that he shed on the cross was redemptive, redeeming all humans of their sin, so that they may live with him forever in paradise, the only thing you need to do is accept and believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that he is God. We pronounce him Lord of our lives, and start living for him, like him, thats what Christian means, like Christ.

I read a great scripture today, I'll try recite it without referring to my bible, here's the guts of it.

It's the apostle Paul, who hated Christians, until Jesus spoke to him personally, and he realised that he was the saviour, and he says that we should have the same attitude as Christ, which is:

He was made in the very nature of God, but he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but he made himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant, being made human.

And when he was a man he humbled himself and became humbled to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Therefore God made his name higher than any other name on earth and in heaven, and that at his name every knee shall bow and every tounge confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God the father.

Thats the Josherised version of Philippians 2:5-11, very holy sounding, has that ol' school feel to it, but I read it and it changes my perspective on Jesus, who he is, what happened 2000 years ago, and what is happening in the world today and why there is despair and sorrow. So I made a decision to have the same attitude as Christ.

It's a tough call, but hey, why not, what have I got to lose?

My typing at this time of night is horrible, and so is my theology lol, I'm no-one special just someone who loves Christ, and loves his neighbour likes he does himself.

Any Q's throw me a line, hopefully I didn't sound to super-spiro or religous or anything, Jesus ain't about religion, he's about relationship, religion is dead, relationship is alive, and my Jesus that I have relationship with is Alive!

Anonymous said...

Point One: Panopoly of emotions.

One mistake a lot of people who are only moderately conversant in evolutionary theory make is suggesting that every objective physical or mental characteristic must bestow an evolutionary advantage in order to be consistant with darwinian evolution. Stephen J. Gould writes a lot about this kind of phenomenon, I'd recommend his writings if you are interested. There's two things to keep in mind, one is that evolution works on a deals with what is already there, and 2. The simplest way for something new to arise from what already exists is often associated with other, incidental, unhelpful or even harmful characteristics...I think that can explain a lot about emotion. Altruism, as you say, has a pretty easily comprehendable evolutionary benefit...other emotions that seem nebulous need not be directly advantageous in order to have been selected for if they were to say allow for altruism or sexual selection or whatever else. The major idea is that even with evolution as our origins, we can be more than just what evolution selects for.... There's more to be said, but I'll leave it at that.

Point Two: As with a lot of this, there is no direct proof that suggests a process like above accounts for perception of majesty, all I can say that the existence of such a perception does not disprove, or even go evolutionary theory.

Point Four: Im certain you could come up with a lot of people who are historic, even really super famous, and we don't have bones. Most bones from jesus' time, even people who may have had means for extraordinary burial...have long since gone to dust, and a historical jesus probably wouldn't have had the means or the notoriety in his time to spring for a giant Pyramid or a tomb with thousands of stone soldiers.... Having bones are an exception, not a rule. So the lack of bones really doesn't bother me at all.


The only thing else i wanted to say is that while the evolutionary principles i mentioned are sound, we don't fully understand the biological basis for emotions (which i think most creationists and evolution advocates would surrender has to exist), so to seek to explain the origin of them in any specific context is pretty much impossible.

CrypticLife said...

1) Human Emotions - evolution:

So what if evolution doesn't account for human emotions? Just because one theory can't account for something isn't a reason to invoke a deity.

2) Majesty - Do you feel the same sense of awe at a single blade of grass? If not, you're simply impressed by anything big. Again you invoke evolution as if it were intended to answer these kinds of questions. I don't think it is, but I can see how it could be beneficial to be impressed by very large things.

3) The Human Void - I think the vast majority actually turn to religion because they're taught to from childhood, and that deities are completely unnecessary to meaning and fulfillment. Before the Hebraic deity, I'd question whether that was even a primary purpose of deities -- a lot of the old Greek and Norse mythos have deities who are quite imperfect, often cruel, and who focused on a single area of activity rather than some more comprehensive fulfillment.

4) Jesus - wouldn't archealogical digs have unearthed his remains by now? No. Most bodies decompose; some are stolen, removed, or dismembered; and a body would not necessarily be identified.

Anonymous said...

Well, for the religious violence thing, I think C. S. Lewis said that chirstianity was like a pure liquid and people were like rusty cups, they can contaminate the water they hold.

And bad things happen to good people for reasons. Even if they are small, these events will infleunce them and the people around them and might lead to a tipping point in someone's life. Also, if you were good and nothing bad ever happened to you, it would be a lot easier to be good.

And to some of the atheist posts, a lot of people don't inherit their religion from their parents. I've seen and heard many people's testimonies. One person who partied and lived a really bad lifestyle had a super big turning point in his life and went on a short stint of ministries before winning the grand prize in The Price Is Right. After that, he sold all the prizes and just left for Uganda. He worked his way to an orphanage and spread the Word. It was really interesting talking to him.

P.S. Sorry for any spelling errors.

Frank Walton said...

Just to let you know I have a blogsite against the blasphemy challenge here.

Frank Walton

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to thank you all for this (I especially enjoyed reading all about the questionare and the silk question)because you were all so thoughtful and considerate of each other that many of my own questions have been answered. Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

The Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) is often misunderstood. Some accuse the Church of not believing in Christ and, therefore, not being a Christian religion. This article helps to clarify such misconceptions


Early Christian churches, practiced baptism of youth (not infants) by immersion by the father of the family. The local congregation had a lay ministry. An early Christian Church has been re-constructed at the Israel Museum, and the above can be verified.
The Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) continues baptism and a lay ministry as taught by Jesus’ Apostles. Early Christians were persecuted for keeping their practices sacred, and not allowing non-Christians to witness them

The Trinity:

A literal reading of the New Testament points to God and Jesus Christ, His Son, being separate, divine beings, united in purpose. . To whom was Jesus praying in Gethsemane, and Who was speaking to Him and his apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration?

The Nicene Creed”s definition of the Trinity was influenced by scribes translating the Greek manuscripts into Latin. The scribes embellished on a passage explaining the Trinity, which is the Catholic and Protestant belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The oldest versions of the epistle of 1 John, read: "There are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water and the blood and these three are one."

Scribes later added "the Father, the Word and the Spirit," and it remained in the epistle when it was translated into English for the King James Version, according to Dr. Bart Ehrman, Chairman of the Religion Department at UNC- Chapel Hill. . . .He no longer believes in the Nicene Trinity.
The Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) views the Trinity as three separate beings, in accord with the earliest Greek New Testament manuscripts.

The Cross:

The Cross became popular as a Christian symbol in the Fifth Century A.D. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) believe the proper Christian symbol is Christ’s resurrection, not his crucifixion on the Cross. Many Mormon chapels feature paintings of the resurrected Christ or His Second Coming.

Christ's Atonement:

But Mormons don”t term Catholics and Protestants “non-Christian”. They believe Christ’s atonement in Gethsemane and on the Cross applies to all mankind. The dictionary definition of a Christian is “of, pertaining to, believing in, or belonging to a religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ”:. All of the above denominations are followers of Christ, and consider him divine, and the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament.

It”s important to understand the difference between Reformation and Restoration when we consider who might be authentic Christians. If members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) embrace early Christian theology, they are likely more “Christian” than their detractors.

* * *

And the 2005 National Study of Youth and Religion published by UNC-Chapel Hill found that Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) youth (ages 13 to 17) were more likely to exhibit these Christian characteristics than Evangelicals (the next most observant group):
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . LDS Evangelical
Attend Religious Services weekly . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71% . . . . 55%
Importance of Religious Faith in shaping daily life –
extremely important .. 52. . . . . . . 28
Believes in life after death . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76 . . . . . . 62
Believes in psychics or fortune-tellers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0 . . . . . . 5
Has taught religious education classes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42 . . . . . . 28
Has fasted or denied something as spiritual discipline . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68 . . . . . . 22
Sabbath Observance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67 . . . . . . 40
Shared religious faith with someone not of their faith . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72 . . . . . . 56
Family talks about God, scriptures, prayer daily . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50 . . . . . . 19
Supportiveness of church for parent in trying to raise teen
(very supportive) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .65 . . . . . . 26
Church congregation has done an excellent job in helping
Teens better understand their own sexuality and sexual morality . . . . . 84 . . . . . . 35

Courtney said...

It strikes me that all your questions about Christianity basically amount to, "If there were a God, wouldn't he do things my way?" I find that most of my hang-ups boil down to that too.. which is kind of in line with the Bible's account of sin. Not that this is satisfying - if anything it's just annoying. Something about that seems significant to me though.

Anonymous said...

In answer to your question about the Book of Mormon...

Most of your questions can be answered at the following website:

Most people will criticize the Book of Mormon without ever reading it with an open mind. The true test of its truthfulness is the witness of the Holy Ghost. Science changes, truth doesn't. (Many people believed the world was flat at one time.) If you're a true seeker of truth, you will find that the Holy Ghost is the declarer of truth.

From the New Testament:
John 16:13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.

From the Book of Mormon:
4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would aask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

In response to your question about the existence of God:

Many have asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people? If the Lord really loves us, why does He allow adversity in our lives?” Consider the example of Job. He “was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1). Shouldn’t a person’s righteousness bring protection from adversity and tribulation? Even Satan asked, “Doth Job fear God for nought?” (Job 1:9). There suddenly came into Job’s life the tribulation of losing his animals, his servants, even his children. He lost his health and was so physically changed that his friends did not recognize him. Understandably, he suffered enormous grief. Still, he continued to trust in the Lord (see Job 13:15), and eventually the Lord gave him “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).

The Apostle Paul was no stranger to adversity, having suffered from persecution, imprisonment, and long separation from his loved ones. Yet he declared: “We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:3–5).

Even Christ was tutored and mentored by the tribulations He suffered:

“Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:8–9).

As we experience adversity in our own lives, let us, like Job, remain steadfast in our faith. Like Paul, let us seek to develop Christlike traits through our suffering. Like the Savior, let us learn obedience and meekly submit to our Heavenly Father’s will. As we do so, our suffering can make us more humble, more compassionate, and more receptive to the promptings of the Spirit. We can then find comfort in the Lord’s great promise: “After much tribulation … cometh the blessing”

It's all about perspective and knowing that there is a reason for being here on earth. Some of it does require faith, but with a witness of the Holy Ghost, you can at least know all of the puzzle pieces are there but you may not see the whole picture yet.