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Missing the Mark

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The two images above are billboards recently released by American Atheists.  Should these billboards be considered persecution?  I believe that they should.  Denigrating one’s beliefs – especially in the callow, sensationalistic, straw-man manner shown on these billboards – counts as persecution, in my book.  Granted, these billboards are not the equivalent of beating somebody and sending them prison, but are they not just a lower rung on the same ladder?  It is promoting an environment where Mormons and Christians are ridiculed for their “unreasonable” beliefs.  What would happen if these billboards really caught on, and the majority of society started treating Mormons and Christians with the same petulant contempt?

Hence a series of ironies:  American Atheists are against people being persecuted for their beliefs (e.g., “Action Alert” at the bottom of their home page), yet they persecute people for their beliefs.  The billboards decry Christianity for promoting hate, yet they promote hate.  The billboards violate American Atheists own aims and principles.

It seems that even atheists have their share of people who break with their own by-laws.  Christians have their share of people who advocate hatred, despite the fact that the book they purport to follow supports no such agenda.  One of American Atheists self-stated aims is to “collect and disseminate information, data, and literature on all religions and promote a more thorough understanding of them,” a task at which these billboards miserably fail.

I believe (hope?) that these billboards do not represent the majority of atheists in America.  I’m hoping this type of rhetoric will be increasingly marginalized.  From the responses I’ve read thus far on these billboards, it seems that most people are dismissing them, as they should.  Conversely, I hope that atheists understand that churches like Westboro Baptist Church do not represent Christianity.

Once again, it’s not organized religion that is the enemy, nor is it organized non-religion, nor theism, nor atheism.  It’s people.  We’re all hypocrites.  We’re all inconsistent.  We’re all hateful at some level.  We are the great problem with the world, and we need a great savior.  I maintain that reason is not this great savior, and I believe that history abundantly supports my claim.  We cannot save ourselves.  Only God can save us from ourselves, each other, and the mess we’ve made of this world.  Through Christ and His Spirit, that’s exactly what He has done, is doing, and will do.

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I first heard of David Bentley Hart’s new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, on volume 98 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.  Thanks to some leftover birthday money, it was soon at my doorstep.  I will give the book an “official” review at a later date.  In this post, I wanted to look at a larger issue catalyzed by the first paragraph in Atheist Delusions, which I will quote at length.  Hart opens by setting the context for his book, which seeks to uncover the folly of today’s popular atheists (pp.3-4):

Conditions in the world of print have never before been so propitious for sanctimonious tirades against religion, or (more narrowly) monotheism, or (more specifically) Christianity, or (more precisely) Roman Catholicism…The God Delusion, an energetic attack on all religious belief, has just been released by Richard Dawkins, the zoologist and tireless tractarian, who – despite his embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning – never fails to entrance his eager readers with his rhetorical recklessness.  The journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic, has just issued God Is Not Great, a book that raises the wild non sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method…Sam Harris’s extravagantly callow attack on all religious belief, The End of Faith, has enjoyed robust sales…Philip Pullman’s evangelically atheist (and rather overrated) fantasy trilogy for children, His Dark Materials, has been lavishly praised by numerous critics…its third volume…has even won the (formerly) respectable Whitbread Prize.  And one hardly need mention the extraordinary sales achieved by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code [sic]…surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate.  I could go on.

My initial reaction to Hart’s asperity (his word), was gleeful laughter.  The quote above is more or less indicative of the tone throughout the book:  Hart plays the role of the mature, erudite professor scolding a bunch of juvenile high school students (Dawkins, et al) for their facile, jejune publications.  I’ve found similar joy in reading other authors who embarrass their opponents with such delightful eloquence.

I question, however, whether or not I am right to “delight” in such things.  Though I can’t say for sure, I’ll wager my delight in Hart’s deconstruction of Hitchens is mirrored by atheists who delight in Hitchens’ anti-Christian vitriol.  Everybody loves to root for their own side, and when your team scores a touchdown (real or perceived), it’s hard not to cheer.

But therein lies the rub.  These people (outspoken atheists in this case) are not my enemies.  Nor do I think the “us versus them” mentality is an especially Christ-like posture, let alone one conducive to helpful, civil dialogue.  “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” after all (Eph.6:12), and where is it written that we are to rejoice when another human being receives their comeuppance?  Does God take pleasure in the punishment of the wicked (see Ezk. 18:32, Mt. 23:37, among others)?  Should we?

For example, in the many harsh expositions of the New Testament (such as Mt. 23, 2 Tim. 3:1-9, Jude 8-16) I don’t find any indication that fist-pumping glee is the proper reaction.  Why, then, is it often my own?  When Dan Brown’s historiography is exposed for what it is (i.e., excrement), why do I get a warm feeling inside my chest?  To wit: my last sentence brought about a wry smile to my face.

Simply put, I am offended by attacks against my God, and I long to see His Truth vindicated.  When another person wages warfare against the beliefs – indeed, the Person! – I hold in highest esteem, it is injurious in two ways.  First, I feel it as a personal attack, not unlike somebody decrying my own father or wife.  Second, I understand the attack as a lie, and wish the truth to be known over and against it.  I don’t find anything sinful in these reactions, per se.  They are often cast under the umbrella or “righteous indignation” or “righteous anger,” against which I have no beef.  It is rather the attitude behind my reaction that I believe to be sinful:  I am hurt, so I wish to hurt back, even if vicariously through another author.  Speaking, writing or appreciating a harsh rebuke is no sin, but the attitude behind it can be.

I believe the key to reacting well is to maintain the distinction between the attacker and the attack.  The attack (the anti-Christian proposition), is of the devil.  It is a lie to be hated and defeated.  We love the Truth, and rejoice when the Truth is shown to triumph over the lie.  The attacker (the person), is loved by God, and therefore loved by us.  Our attitude towards him or her is primarily loving.  To see one loved by God so viciously attack Him is ultimately a sorrowful affair.  If fatherhood has taught me anything, it is that it is possible to be angry with somebody while simultaneously loving them and laboring for their best.  I’ve never once rejoiced at my thorough, truthful rebuke of my own son.  Rather, my heart is always heavy.  We must walk carefully, however, lest our attitude becomes, “Poor things, they’re so deceived.”  We could just as well commit the error of the Pharisee in Lk. 18:11 and thank God we’re not one of those people.

It is often the case that the attack and attacker become blurred in my mind.  I confuse the person with the proposition, and make the mistake of thinking that a given philosophical stance exhaustively defines who somebody is.  The sayings are perhaps trite, but loving the sinner and hating the sin goes a long way to reacting well, so also does speaking the truth in love.  Honestly, I think I fail at this more often than I succeed, as perhaps my writings on this blog (this post, even) will testify.  Would that the scales tip in the opposite direction for me and all of God’s children soon.

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A series of ads funded by eight atheist groups are being posted in the New York subway system.  The ads will show a blue sky with the words, “A million New Yorkers are good without God.  Are you?”  It seems that this sort of thing makes news (or at least, this blog) every year.  This time, the ad appears to be less an attack on theism so much as an attempt to reach out to other non-theists.  Michael De Dora, one of the directors for an atheist group sponsoring the ad, expresses the intent to create awareness of the city’s secular community, and foster “talking and thinking about religion and morality.”

I personally don’t find the ad to be particularly offensive.  That is, it is no more offensive than other advertisements that litter our view.  Other advertisements promise that a new car will bring satisfaction, that a better paying job will bring about personal fulfillment, or that we deserve a luxury cruise.  A harsher critic might call these claims lies, and he’d be right.   So, is this ad also a lie?  Yes and no.

I could argue from my worldview, and claim that this ad is a lie because the million New Yorkers are not good.  They are actually sinners who bear real moral guilt for their thoughts and deeds, just like everybody else in the world.  This lie is amplified by two more lies:  (1) the presupposition that goodness can be achieved without God, and (2) the claim that real “goodness” actually exists without God.

I could also take a cue from De Dora, and do some thinking about morality.  Such thinking could lead me to argue that this ad is true, but desperately in need of an asterisk next to the word “good.”   The asterisk could be explained in fine print on the bottom of the ad: *that is, good as they define it.  However, that would make the ad a boring non-statement, since one can easily be good without God, because “good” is a meaningless concept that can be defined by the individual.  Therefore the ad is true.

In the interest of honesty, the ad might want to incorporate an additional footnote that being good without God may require the consistent thinker to live the rest of their days in despair over the absurdity of life without God.  Without God, our meaningless, purposeless life in the cold, uncaring, and dying universe makes the chemical accident of our existence cruel (that is, if such a thing as cruelty existed), and all of our striving for good (whatever that is), quite pointless, save perhaps that it can distract us enough to live in delusional happiness on our fleet journey to non-existence.  This sounds harsh, but life without God is harsh.  I’ve yet to hear a cogent argument for how life without God (or even a god) has any meaning, value, or purpose.

In my worldview, I can say that much of what the ad is striving for is good:  I commend the notion of people getting together, even more so when thoughtful dialogue is the goal, and even more when morality is the topic du jour.  I, too, do not want individuals to feel isolated, lonely, or persecuted because of their beliefs.  However, I cannot argue that the ad is good from the atheist worldview, because my thoughts are all predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as objective “good.”  The ad is therefore self-defeating, since by its own worldview, it cannot make any claims to objective good.  It could try, perhaps by an appeal to a collective, but the claims would ultimately fail because (1) living out such claims would require inconsistencies, as noted on this blog, and (2) the collective would change over time, making “good” today something different from “good” tomorrow.  If “today” were ancient Greece, for instance, the collective might condone the exposure of female infants.

Thankfully, we do not have to live in despair, because there is a God, and He is good.  The existence of a good God is also grounds for despair, since we are guilty of moral wrong before Him.  Thankfully, there is more good news, because Jesus Christ died and rose again to free us from our bondage to decay, and forgive us for our sins, such that those in Christ no longer stand condemned before God.  While this ad has the best of intentions (like many atheists in my experience), it cannot deliver on its promises, for there is no good without God, no hope without Jesus, and no turning to the good without the Holy Spirit.

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