How To Be A Good Atheist

How To Be A Good Atheist

A few years ago, David Bentley Hart wrote a  review of a book called: 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, co-edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. On Amazon the book is described thus:

“50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists presents a collection of original essays drawn from an international group of prominent voices in the fields of academia, science, literature, media and politics who offer carefully considered statements of why they are atheists.”

Hart’s original article can be found at the First Things website, but here’s a snippet of his sigh-ings against what he delicately calls the “sheer banality of the New Atheists”:

 

“How long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

If that seems a harsh judgment, I can only say that I have arrived at it honestly. In the course of writing a book published just this last year, I dutifully acquainted myself not only with all the recent New Atheist bestsellers, but also with a whole constellation of other texts in the same line, and I did so, I believe, without prejudice. No matter how patiently I read, though, and no matter how Herculean the efforts I made at sympathy, I simply could not find many intellectually serious arguments in their pages, and I came finally to believe that their authors were not much concerned to make any. . . .

I came to realize that the whole enterprise, when purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast, is reducible to only a handful of arguments, most of which consist in simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true. And arguments of that sort are easily dismissed, if one is hardy enough to go on pointing out the obvious with sufficient indefatigability.”

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Pt 6: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 6:  Response to Chapter 10. Heaven.

Turning now to Lewis’s final chapter, on heaven, then I agree with his point that the issue of the existence of heaven precedes any discussion of whether or not belief in heaven’s existence is escapist. If heaven exists, belief in it isn’t escapism, but realism. Since it is far more rational to assert that only God could create a heaven on earth than it is to assert that mere humanity could create a heaven on earth, then it is modernism’s utopian odyssey that is escapist, not Christianity’s eschatological pilgrimage. Moreover, since our heaven will indeed be a new heavenly Edenic earth, then the motivation to bring about reform isn’t lost to escapism either. We don’t get pie in the sky when we die, so much as a reformed earth. Reformation now becomes all the more assured now that we know that our reforming labours are not in vain.

Lewis is also quite right to argue that if heaven is good, then desiring it isn’t mercenary. Mercenaries serve themselves, but heaven is fundamentally about serving others. So, how can it be selfish to desire not to be selfish? As Lewis rightly argues, only the pure in heart want to see God, and so it is safe to assure them that they will.

I believe that Lewis is also quite right to argue that the desire for heaven is universal. And yet this true point, of course, contradicts Lewis’s other arguments that say that the damned don’t want heaven. Here, again, Lewis projects the demonic onto the human in order to make hell seem more palatable.

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Pt 5. Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 5:   Chapter 9. Animal Pain.

Lewis’s chapter on animal pain is very interesting. Since Lewis acknowledges that he is just speculating when it comes to this matter, then we should be gracious in our responses to what he says. To begin with, Lewis argues that vegetables and non-sentient lower animals (e.g. earth-worms) do not feel pain. To me, this assertion seems reasonable since, as Lewis points out, such life-forms have no developed nervous systems.

I am less certain about Lewis’s argument that “merely-sentient” animals do not feel pain and that they react to stimuli a bit like sleeping humans do. That is, in Lewis’s view, in the case of merely-sentient animals, the body reacts to stimuli, but there is no conscious awareness of anything. Lewis defines consciousness as a selfhood or soulhood that recognizes itself as the same beneath the stream of sensations, a bit like a constant river bed beneath the river-water that passes by overhead. Given the distinction, in consciousness, between the river-bed and the river-water (to continue the analogy), consciousness is able to objectify – to an extent – sensory experiences as being “other” than itself, and so is able to “organise” them into a perception of succession, an “experience”, and not just into a succession of perceptions. Since, in Lewis’s view, merely-sentient animals can have a succession of perceptions, and not a perception of succession or “experience” (i.e. they have no consciousness), then they cannot consciously reflect that they are in pain, and so they don’t suffer pain.

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Pt 4: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 4:  Chapter 8 – Hell

In his chapter on hell, Lewis takes the three notions of “destruction”, “eternal torment”, and “privation” and then works them into a systematic unity. This leads to two difficulties. First, Thiselton points out: (a) that the Bible has three traditions in it about hell that seem to contradict one-another: (i) hell is eternal torment; (ii) hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation; (iii) all are saved; (b) that all three traditions have been considered to be “orthodox” in the history of the church, even though “eternal torment” has been the dominant view in orthodoxy; (c) that it would be hermeneutically-premature, given where scholarship has reached, to press these three contradictory traditions into a unity in favour of any one of the traditions, which seems to militate against Lewis’s conclusions.

Second, if Thiselton is correct, then Lewis entirely dismisses one biblical tradition – that of universal salvation. Even if it were right to press all the traditions into a unity then Lewis would still have to press (i) “hell is eternal torment”; (ii) “hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation”; and (iii) “all are saved”, into a unity – along with his emphasis on “privation”.

Some, for example D.A. Carson, are adamant that eternal torment is the nature of hell, and that all who do not believe in Christ go there. Lewis, on balance, seems to favour a kind of qualified annihilationism whilst still holding onto a perspective-dependent notion of eternal torment. Others, such as G. MacDonald (alias R. Parry), reconcile the biblical traditions in favour of “all are saved, but in some cases only after prolonged periods of punishment in hell”.

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Pt 3: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 3:  Response to Chapter 6 & 7 – Human Pain/Appendix by R. Havard (a Doctor)

 

I agree with most of what Lewis says in Chapter 6. Lewis rightly stresses three forms of remedial pain: (a) retributive punishment that is justly deserved; (b) spell-breaking and the redirection of misdirected fallen nature; and (c) proving our God-wrought faith and righteousness genuine to us. In particular, Lewis rightly distinguishes divine retribution and vengeance from evil vindictive passionate revenge – a kind of tabloid Lamech-style brutalism that is evil, self-centred, over-harsh or disproportionate, and seeks only to destroy.

Lewis is also correct to argue that remedial pain is universal, life-long, and unevenly distributed (i.e. complexly, and not simply, related to “just deserts”); and Lewis is correct to argue that remedial pain faces us with a choice: whether in response to it we choose patience, humility and repentance or whether we choose instead to run with the crowd and adopt attitudes of culturally-normal anger and cynicism. Finally, Lewis adds an interesting Appendix at the back of his book which basically shows that most medium term pain has a positive effect on character.

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Pt 2: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 2:

Chapter 4 – Human Wickedness

Chapter 5 – The Fall of Man(kind)

 

Response to Chapter 4. Human Wickedness

Lewis is entirely correct to emphasize the unhappy truth that we habitually deny our sin, or at least its seriousness, and that we deploy self-deceiving means to do so. Lewis is right to emphasize: (a) evil (anti-Trinitarian “Lord of the Flies”-type localist tribal) clique-dynamics that only look evil from the world of the broader public realm; (b) the role of certain sin-denying popular trends in (pretentiously boastful pseudo-intellectual pseudo-wise) psychoanalysis; (c) a reductionist approach to virtue (which stresses a chav-ethics of outwardly-brutal ego-centric drama-triangle sentimentality and victim-aping self-pity); (d) the finger-pointing self-evading blame-projecting strategies deployed within the superficial outward comparisons used by sin-deniers who binary-categorize only others as evil (using terms like “offenders” and “scum”); (e) the evil things said about “nature” and “finitude” as though God (the very paradigm of innocence, more innocent than a baby) were at fault; and, (f), the view that time alone (rather than Christ’s high-priestly work of (re-)consecrating the defiled and unclean) brings about cleansing from sin and guilt. All these emphases – (with my views added in brackets) – are true.

Two points come to mind, however, in response to what Lewis says: (a) Lewis’s use of the notion of “virtue” has more of a classical feel than a biblical feel. One can speak in terms of “the seven virtues” and of the “seven deadly sins”, but in my view there are more biblical ways to speak of “right and wrong”. To speak only classically about “sin and virtue” is itself a liberal sin-denying strategy. (b) There are also more biblical ways of speaking about the ways in which we disguise sin and hide it from ourselves. Lewis is correct to point out some of the contemporary manifestations of sin-denial, but there are strategies of sin-denial that pervade all cultures and that are manifest in the contemporary manifestations of sin-denial that Lewis notes.

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Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 1:  Chapter 1 – Introductory

Chapter 2 – Divine Omnipotence

Chapter 3 – Divine Goodness

 

Response to Chapter 1: Introductory

I agree with Lewis’s basic argument that the problem of pain emerges historically, and not philosophically. Suffering is a historical fact, and yet belief in a good all-powerful God is also a historical fact. The problem of pain, as an intellectual problem, simply emerges as the problem of how to understand the co-existence of these two historical realities intellectually.

My main query with respect to Lewis’s argument in his first chapter is that there are many intellectual reasons for holding to the truth of Jesus’ claims, whereas there seems to be more than a little liberal British Bultmannian School Neo-Kantian existentialism in Lewis’s appeals to the supposedly undergirding roles of universal experiences of the numinous and of the moral impulse. Whilst the Bible affirms the experiential, existential, moral, or practical side of revelation and of human existence, the Bible also affirms the cognitive, propositional, conceptual side of revelation and of human life – as part of a broader formative overall revelation in which Christ’s Spirit uses biblical texts relationally to form or build individual Christians and the corporate Church.

That is, Lewis seems to make the veracity of biblical content and formative function too dependent upon the universality of mystical and moral experience. In fact, though, revelatory content and formative function should be held together with, and should constitute criteria of authenticity in relation to, revelatory experience.

One of the big problems in the church today is an experience-centredness that refuses to allow itself to be tested against biblical criteria with content, and against the formative results or fruitfulness of a right relational engagement with the Scriptures – an engagement that is everywhere marginalised in such churches. But Jesus says, “by their fruit you shall know them”, John commands us to “test the spirits” and Paul, following Jesus, makes it quite clear that whilst “love sums up the law and the prophets”, transformation unto love or right-relating comes through a biblical “transformation of the mind”. As Jesus prays, “sanctify them by the truth – your word is truth”.

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