An Atheism Primer

A recent op-ed piece by Charlotte Allen in the Los Angeles Times, "Atheists: No God, No Reason, Just Whining," prompted a flurry of reactions from the atheist community.  The most clever response came from Hermant Mehta, who basically said that atheists should be protected from outrageous claims such as those made by Allen (that atheists are basically boring).  Mehta even compared atheists to Jews, perhaps implying that such claims are tantamount to hate speech.

Exhanges like these, especially in the blogosphere, don't really serve much of a purpose, except to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes.  We need more productive conversations, such as the debate that occurred between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens on the campus of Biola University.

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Christians Behaving Badly...

It's all over the news these days. Google "Catholic" and "abuse" and you'll find more than enough reading material to sadden, anger, and sicken you for days. What you won't find is much of an analysis regarding the why of this tragedy. Protestants will glibly declare that the problem is the doctrine of celibacy, conveniently turning a blind eye towards the grave failures in our own camp.

Let's forget about celibacy for a minute and look at this through a different lens. At the risk of oversimplifying things, and realizing that there are complexities in each human heart and situation, I suggest that there's are several deep truths we must consider:

1. form without power is worse than nothing at all. Paul addresses the church in Corinth, warning them that they're headed down a path that will eventually be very ugly if not checked. His warning in I Corinthians 4 is that "God words" are deeply destructive when they're not coupled with God's genuine power of transformation. This is because, as history shows us, the forms of the faith can be perpetuated long after God has left the building (see Ez 10:18). When this happens, you'll have institutional structures used to feed the only appetite left in some individuals, namely our flesh.
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A Good, Bad and Ugly God

A God in control is comforting, but inauthentic. We are happy with this God until “you know what” hits the fan and our world falls like the Tower of Babel. A God in control would have to guide everything—the good, the bad and the ugly. But a God who created a good human race that went bad and ugly is a completely different story. This God isn’t responsible for our mistakes, our suffering or our pain.

Theological Control—Nice, but Absurd

I define theological control as God predetermining the path of the world. This God acts from a distance, deciding the fate of each person and consequently the fate of the world. I oppose this view of God and propose another.

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Jesus Uncensored

Was Jesus a white, Dutch pacifist with blond, curly hair and a flowing robe, like he is portrayed in many movies? Or was he a bearded, Middle-Eastern rabbi who made nearly every religious and political figure of his day infuriated? Why did Jesus die? Could it be that he was perceived as a zealous, sacrilegious leader of a revolt? Who is the uncensored Jesus?

This is a message that I delivered at a mission in my hometown. There is a lot of coughing during the audio since most of the audience is ill from spending most of their time in the cold on the street. Jesus came to these people -- that is the topic of the message. Please pray for my friends without a home. And enjoy the message!

I Have a Problem with God

I am troubled because I feel blessed and cursed, simultaneously. Does God bring the good and the bad? If he does, I have a problem with God.

I hear at church, “God is in control. Do not fear.” Really, is he in control? Because what I see is a world out of control. John Calvin is going to roll over in his grave when I say this, but God is not in control. Because that God would have to be fine with evil to be in control of this mess.

Paul says that the creation and our very selves are subject to the corrupt world:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18–25 ESV)
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The Problem of Evil Solved: Thank You Alvin Plantinga

As I mentioned before, the logical or deductive form of the argument from evil attempts to demonstrate a contradiction in the theist's beliefs that an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God and evil exist at the same time.  The logical challenge can and has been answered decisively, starting with Alvin Plantinga in his famous book, God, Freedom, and Evil

Keep in mind atheist J.L. Mackie's argument from my earlier post, which can be outlined this way: 

  1. God exists and is omnipotent and perfectly good.
  2. A perfectly good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
  3. There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.
  4. Evil exists.
  5. Therefore, God does not exist. 
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The Problem of Evil: Presupposing Good?

In an earlier post, I mentioned the importance of making distinctions when approaching the problem of evil, one being the distinction between the logical problem and the evidential problem.  This distinction informs our response to each, helping us to see what's "in play" and what's not.  And when it comes to the logical argument we discover that the theist cannot respond by accusing the atheist of presupposing some objective standard of goodness by which to measure evil

Let me explain.

When making the logical argument the atheist is trying to point out a logical contradiction within the theist's worldview.  If he succeeds in demonstrating the contradiction then one or more or the propositions in question, again within the theist's worldview, is false.  But notice, this does not commit the atheist to the actual existence of the things in question (e.g. evil, an omnibenevolent God).  The atheist is standing outside of our worldview so to speak, looking in on it, and examining it.  He sees two or more contradictory propositions and so he points them out:  "Hey, you theists believe an all-good, all-powerful God exists but you also believe that evil exists--that's a contradiction.  It's like saying 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5 at the same time."

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Buddhism and God's Grace

Earlier this week, I watched a podcast of a recent Larry King Live interview with Sharon Stone, and I have not been able to stop thinking about two things she said.

Responding to King's question about how she is handling the fact that she does not have custody of her older son, Stone responded by saying, "Well, I’m a Buddhist. I think that helps. I think that in my way of understanding life, that I understand that everybody has their own destiny, even Roan. And so I recognize that Roan has his path in life. When he’s with us, we try to love him up as much as we possibly can."

Interestingly, later in the interview, King asked her about a medical scare she had a few years ago, when her vertebral artery tore and she hemorrhaged into her brain. "At first, they missed it. So I ended up bleeding into my brain for a very long time, nine days, in fact, before they understood what was happening to me. And it was just really very much by the grace of God that I survived."

I was still contemplating her earlier comment about how her Buddhist beliefs helped her accept her son's destiny when I heard her refer to the fact that "it was just really very much by the grace of God" that she survived.

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The Logical Problem of Evil

As I mentioned before, the logical problem of evil purports to show a logical inconsistency between the existence of God and the existence of evil.  Prominent atheist J.L. Mackie formulated the argument like this:

"In its simplest form the problem is this:  God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; yet evil exists.  There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false.  But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions; the theologian, it seems, at once must adhere and cannot consistently adhere to all three."

Given the three propositions here the contradiction is not quite explicit, so Mackie continues: 

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Thinking Carefully About the Problem of Evil: Important Distinctions

When approaching the problem of evil it is important to begin by making some key distinctions.  Distinctions help us to define the issues more precisely, which leads to greater clarity of the problem as well as the solution.  This is just one reason philosophy is an indisensable tool for believers.  Here are some of the key distinctions:

First, it is important to distinguish between the intellectual problem and the existential problem.  The intellectual problem requires a tough-minded philosophical response while the existential problem requires a tender-hearted pastoral response.  If you attempt to answer the existential problem merely with philosophical abstractions or Christian cliches, you may as well keep your mouth shut.

This distinction needs to be considered on a personal level as well.  You may have answered the intellectual problem with careful philosophical analysis but another question remains:  Is your soul prepared for suffering?  This question haunts me a bit, particularly since my wife and I have had children.  Sometimes I ponder how I would respond to God if something tragic were to befall one of my kids and I must confess, I am a little pessimistic about my own response.  I think it reveals my ever-present need to cultivate greater virtue and not just philosophical acumen.

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