the Participants] [Opening
Statement by Ed Buckner] [Opening
Statement by John Rankin][Dialog]
from the Audience] [Closing
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]
Does It Make Sense to Be an Atheist?
Ed Buckner: I know I go first. I'm trying to make sure our sound man is back there and ready. Do you have to do what God tells you to do?
John Rankin: No.
Ed: The consequences of that are what?
John: The consequences are that I would love something more than him and I would receive what I love because I love it. Have you read C.S. Lewis's little book, The Great Divorce?
Ed: I haven't read that C.S. Lewis book, but I've read others.
John: What he points out, and I think he's ethically correct, and that is that the very language of hell in the Bible - and this is a little metaphor on hell. He describes it as being a dingy, underground place where everyone hates each other and they keep moving away from each other. But people are always free to go to heaven if they want to. And so a small busload of people go to heaven, they all reject heaven because it's too bright, it's too light, the grass is too green.
One woman finds out that her cousin is there and she says well if my cousin's here, then I'm going back to hell, thank you. And the whole idea of the story is that people love what they love. For example, I think all of us have experienced bitterness from one angle or another and we either break the cycle of bitterness for someone who's betrayed our trust and forgive them, or we enjoy the bitterness and will not yield it. And so essentially what the ethics of choice in Genesis 2 states is, you will have what you love and I won't force it upon you. And once you make the wrong choice, all of redemptive history has God reaching out to us to offer the right choice and we reap the fruit of wrong choices and they metastasize throughout all of culture in history, then we have to choose whether or not to believe that God will triumph over that in the end. So I don't have to. I'm not coerced, I'm not forced. I choose.
Ed: It seems to me that you say over and over again that if you take the Bible on its own terms, it says so and so. If you take the Bible on its own terms, it says not just in one isolated passage but in many passages that hell is a place of eternal fire and torture and that sort of thing. But we shouldn't take that seriously.
John: But I'll just take a moment there. It also has the delightful freedom of mixed metaphor - fire and darkness. How do you put those two things together? What you described, I think if you look at the human nature of a bitter, revengeful person and you look at the fire in their breast that consumes their humanity out of hatred for another person, I think all the language of hell describes that intense nature that people choose. And the other element that's consistent all the way through scripture is no one is ever once judged apart from deeds they chose to do - eternally.
Innocents suffer and Jesus addresses that. But that's part of the freedom of a culture to say no to begin with and Jesus rescues us from it. But in terms of eternal destiny, no one is ever judged apart from deeds they chose to do. Do we love light? Do we love darkness, ultimately?
Ed: I just don't think that it amounts to much of a choice if you're told that you can choose this and suffer forever or choose this and have heaven whatever that's defined as.
John: Let me come back and respond to that question and ask you what is the best definition of freedom, the best definition of good and evil?
Ed: Well, I think let's start with the good and evil since that's the one that I'm focusing on tonight. And it is certainly true that when I define evil or actually spoke primarily of suffering rather than of evil. Because the word "evil" can imply some supernatural definitions of what counts and what doesn't, but we all know what we mean when we say that somebody is hurting - that they are suffering.
So I would say evil, and I wish to avoid any supernatural definitions here, so I would just say that evil to me is suffering that isn't necessary. Or there's no point to it for the sufferer or for others. And I believe there's lots of suffering in the world that meets that qualification easily.
It's very clear that you can have in your mind a concept of something that is bigger than space, time and number and that's an impressive concept - I don't deny for a second that it's an impressive concept. But how impressive the concept is has almost nothing to do - it doesn't tell us, not only does it not tell us whether it's true, it doesn't even tell us anything about how likely it is to be true. Because some of the most impressive concepts that we're aware of on our human scale are in fiction and literature where people do have amazing imaginations and conceive of things that are not real.
And I do think that man created God in his own image to a very great extent. Over a very long period of time, it's been many different forms. And you're right that some previous gods were created without transcending space, time and number. But just because you can imagine that something can - although you can't get very specific about what's on the other side of the brick wall. I will tell you immediately I cannot really get my mind around infinity of space or infinity of time. And I don't deny that I cannot. I don't think anybody else can either.
The truth is one of the reasons people don't accept evolution very well is they can't get their minds around more than a lifetime or two of human life and evolution occurred on a scale that's far larger than that. I'm not sure. I don't think I've answered your question very well. You can repeat the question or let me ask you a question.
John: Well, let me just follow-up real briefly there. OK, one comment and then one question - two questions. Buddhism starts with the Hindu assumption that says suffering is. And many Buddhist traditions are non-theistic and others are polytheistic. And is there any difference between that statement and your atheistic presupposition which leads in the next question is "What is the definition of goodness?"
Ed: Well, I think there is no transcendent definition of goodness. Goodness is however easily defined in human terms for humans and it has to do with the people in Piedmont, Alabama when that church was destroyed by a tornado. It is certainly an example of goodness that they cared for each other, that they comforted each other, that they helped each other out as best they could and they rebuilt the thing.
John: But why?
Ed: Because in human terms what makes human life better for other humans or ourselves is good. Growth and development of human life is a good thing for humans. Does it mean it has any meaning or purpose in the greater scheme? No, it doesn't mean anything of the kind.
John: Let me just take on the human capacity. If you're an atheist and a macro-evolutionist and you believe, you admit the impressive nature of the question, but yet you believe that there ultimately isn't a purpose in our existence that is transcendent - I think that's what you've been saying.
Ed: Well, I said that in the last debate and it's certainly correct.
John: If that's the case, then doesn't goodness become subjective to whoever's in power?
Ed: Goodness is subjective, it certainly is. And it is whether you pretend it isn't or not.
John: So if that's the case, if it's subjective then there could be 6.2 billion definitions of goodness and there really is
Ed: Probably are.
John: And if that's case, then your goodness could be another person's evil and vice versa.
Ed: That can happen and it does sometimes. And it's very unfortunate when it does for those people. Sure. I said in our last debate in some of the Q&A, if you believe in a transcendent reality, that doesn't keep you from damaging other people and doing harm to other people, killing them, and engaging in Inquisitions and so forth, including if you're a very sincere believer. We know from history that not just those 19 that flew those planes on September 11, but many, many Christians sincerely believed they were doing the right thing when they burned people at the stake, when they put spikes through people's tongues for saying the wrong thing and so forth.
This notion that somehow if we will accept transcendence, then we won't harm each other or that we'll be moral is not borne out by history at all. If you're suggesting that human beings can be very dangerous to each other, there's no question that's true.
John: Actually I'm going a little bit deeper. You said the God of the Bible makes no sense.
Ed: I contend that He does not.
John: And it makes sense to be an atheist. And your whole argument to me was not a logical argument, it was an ethical argument of saying that the God in the Bible is evil. But here's - correct me if I'm wrong
Ed: I don't think the God of the Bible is evil, I don't think the God of the Bible exists. I think -
John: The concepts throughout the Bible allows for a lot of evil that you've diagnosed.
Ed: Well, yes that's right.
John: So here's my concern, if as an atheist you have nothing but a subjective definition of good or evil, how sensible is it to critique a different standard. In other words, aren't you eternally enmeshed in nonsense? Because you have no basis for what is consistently sensible? You're concerned about the good but you don't have but a subjective definition which for someone else could be evil.
Ed: Subjective definitions of good are all we have. They're all you have also, John,
John: Well, I know that's your opinion.
Ed: Well, it's demonstrably correct that Christians have as definitions of the good only subjective definitions. It's very clear they don't get it straight from God. Because if you believe they do, then why is it that people who have religious visions or religious experiences have so many different responses to that, so many different conclusions about what that means for truth.
They don't get it from the Bible because if they did - I'm not talking about me - I'm talking about sincere Christians reading the Bible. Taking it all on its own terms, taking it very seriously and some of them come to the conclusion that abortion is fine and others come to the conclusion that abortion is murder and not fine. And some of them come to the conclusion that capital punishment is okay and to others it's not. And on and on. I mean, it's not just one or two issues it's almost every issue that any human beings disagree on.
So yes we have subjective definitions of what good is and a Christian who believes there is a God cannot judge that God. He has to accept what the God says. But how does he know what the God says. He has no method for hearing it or understanding it except through the same set of senses that I have. He or she can read a book that he or she has been told is a sacred book. But it does not make sense to accept as a sacred book things that are self-evidently immoral to us that are supported in that sacred book.
John: Yes, but when you say self-evidently, you're once again in subjective scenario.
Ed: Absolutely. I don't deny that. But show my an objective.
John: Now let me try to give an attempt. It's obviously the presupposition that God has revealed himself in the scripture and you're challenging the coherence of that - and I understand that. So there is a basis of revelation from a Christian world view. By the same token, I argue it's the best basis for intellectual rigor and testing of the universe. It's the best basis for science and the scientific method. In fact, it's the ethical basis for it. But you asked a question, Ed, that I thought was very good - why is there such a wide range of beliefs. And this comes down to the definition of goodness.
Ed: Whose definition of goodness?
John: A definition. It comes down to the debate - the concern about that definition in terms of human opinions. And so I asked you your definitions, now you asked me my definition - or you didn't ask me, but I'll answer anyhow.
Ed: But it's a lot of airtime that way.
John: Well, what it does - the way I answer your question about why is there so many different beliefs and interpretations. Because my understanding of goodness starts with the God who created us, made in his image, gave us this universe to enjoy and once he gave it to us, he said OK, in feasting you shall feast. If we look at the text in Genesis 2, we see that God gives Adam an unlimited menu of good choices to fill and subdue. And he says, but don't eat the one forbidden fruit, because if in eating it, in dying ye shall die.
Now what this says is an unlimited menu of good choices and therefore an embrace of the diversity of human experience and from many different angles of testimony, number one. But number two and far more importantly, and that's what I mean, the four gospels - testimonies of the same truth from four different angles. That's written into human nature to begin with.
But on the other hand, we are free to say no. And if we say no and there's a whole history of us having said no and being affected by saying no, and then if we understand how the Bible describes sin which initially means brokenness of relationship between God and man and then between man and woman. And if we are broken from the source of truth then we're not going to have full interpretative power, we are going to be rooted in some subjective perspective, the best of what we try to do.
So in the midst of that, do we trust the God who's good and who gives us this freedom? And therefore, I could critique much of church history as being judgmental upon each other in their own midst and fighting over certain doctrines and things like that. Doctrinal teaching is exceedingly important to me. But when Jesus is asked what is the most important command of all, he goes to ethics - love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. And therefore a genuine love that gives with no strings attached and lets people reap what they sow, is a love that's charitable.
And that describes a variety of experiences in the midst of sin and distrust in the universe. And therefore a believer such as myself rooted in that understanding is going to pursue truth but be utterly charitable at the ethical level in terms of desiring to see where love can be shown, where it can be catalyzed, where it can be reciprocated. And so I'm arguing that this is incredibly sensible. It's the only basis there is in all religious origin texts for freedom of the human will. Even pagan text assumes we are slaves to capricious deities.
Ed: I'm not a pagan.
John: I know that. But the Greeks from whom a lot of your heroes come from were ethically that.
Ed: My philosophical heroes do indeed include some of the Greeks but also members of the Enlightenment and many who worked in the fields of science thwarted at every turn by religion.
John: Some religion.
Ed: Let me ask you something that gets at this question of what constitutes good. Because maybe I'm misunderstanding Christianity and you can help me out here. I have to give Oliver credit for this. Let's assume Oliver's friend, I say that for Diane's sake. I can tell you Oliver's full name and his occupation and so forth but I don't know for sure that he wants me to, so I won't.
John: My headmaster had a dog named Oliver and he never moved and they didn't know he was dead until two days later.
Ed: That's not the answer to my question.
John: I know, but that's what Oliver made me think of and I just wanted to clarify it.
Ed: Let us imagine in a neighborhood here in Simsbury there are four people who live on a street near each other. One of them is an Orthodox Jew who believes sincerely that the Torah is the path to righteousness and to truth. He lives by that as best he can, he makes a mistake, but he treats his neighbors well, he loves his God and he lives a very good life by his own definition of good.
Another is a secular humanist who attempts at every turn to be moral, to be honest, to treat his neighbors as he would want to be treated, as Confucius would have suggested and other sources. And who in fact cares about what happens and stays loyal to his wife and cares about his children, pays his debts and pays his taxes, does things even when he could get away with not doing the right thing, does what he believes is the right thing.
Another is a follower of Islam, a Muslim, who is very dedicated to his faith, who believes that his faith requires of him that he treat his fellow man well, that he be honest and upright in his dealings and so forth. And the fourth is a man who has no great religious belief except that he believes that it is important not to blaspheme, so he does not take the name of the Lord in vain, he does not say things against God, but he fools around on his wife, even to the extent of raping the babysitter of their children, he steals from his employer and from his fellow men - I know there's nobody like that in Simsbury - you have to use your imagination. He is in fact a rotten fellow.
After 50, 60 or 70 years of this, he comes over here to the Old Barn, hears the Rev. Haas preach, is inspired, takes it seriously and falls down his knees and says I believe that Jesus died for my sins, goes out into the parking lot, gets into his car and through no fault of his own runs into and kills a van with the other three guys in it. All four of them were killed. What happens after that to the four of them?
John: That's a good question. And since I am not the Lord, I cannot give you
Ed: What does Christianity suggest probably happens?
John: The deepest way to answer this is to understand ethics. Let me walk through each of the four figures you've given to us.
An Orthodox Jew. The only difference between an Orthodox Jew and a Christian is the question of who is the Messiah if the Orthodox Jew is taking the Torah on its own terms. And therefore ethically, love of God and love of neighbor as self should be common territory. And when Jesus said he's the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through him, that's the most inconclusive statement in all of human history. Now why is this on biblical terms?
Because the Bible says that we all are
Ed: The part I disagree with by the way is the "on biblical terms," but go ahead.
John: Well, the Bible makes a unique claim. It says that every person is a descendent of Adam and Eve, we're all cousins. And you get to the book of Revelation, everyone from the tribe, nation, language and culture worships at the throne. There is a unified understanding of human nature. And the Messiah is the one who's always committed to that human nature, the unity of the human race. And therefore he comes to save all people. And as it says in Romans 2, we're saved according to what we know, not according to what we don't know. We're judged not by what we don't know. And so the Orthodox Jew will hinge on elements, not of how he lived his life, but whether he trusts God to be good in having done it.
The secular humanist. Well first of all, secular humanists, since they have no basis whatsoever on their own admission for an objective definition of good and evil, they can have by their own terms a wide range. And they do - a very wide range.
Ed: Very much like Christians.
John: Muslim. The definition between the God of Islam and God of the Jews and Christians is radically different if you understand the Koran on its own terms. And the question is does the Muslim understand the biblical God? Islam does not teach the Bible and Mohammed never saw a full Bible. He only saw portions and portions given by people who the church and Jews had judged to be unfaithful. And so Islam is very confused in that regard, but God still doesn't judge people according to what they don't know.
So I would say in each one of those, salvation is only through Jesus and God judges the heart. There's more elements about that where I could spend quite a bit of time in terms of biblical history. How it treats those who know the covenant and those who don't. But that's a fair ethical summation.
Now we come to the last one. The last one is the non-blasphemer who is an absolute crud of a person. In fact he should be in jail because you said he was a rapist. So here's a man who has tremendous evil, but he repents and he changes. He kills all the four and so the setup of the question is, the wicked man goes to heaven and the three people who didn't.
Ed: Is that right or not?
John: No, it's an honest potential setup. And so what happens is the three people who did reasonably good go to hell because they weren't Christians.
And what is the nature here? Well, Jesus taught a parable. And he talked about those who said at the beginning they would do what the Master said and didn't do it. Then someone who said he wouldn't do it and he changes and does it. And Jesus says who will receive the Master's commendation. Now he's striking at a deep reality of human nature, and that human nature is, what is the motivation of our heart. Are we accountable to change when the Lord shows us we need to change? Are we completely self-righteous in our own understandings? The number one sin in the Jewish bible is to be an idolater, to place something above God and to trust in that something rather than God himself. So that ethic will be consistent all the way through.
And when you parse it out, we could do a whole lot more than this. But when you parse it out, we'll come back to what I said earlier about my conviction. And that is, the only people who'll be in eternal life are people who want to be when the final day comes. And the only people in hell are the people who want to be. For them, a hell is their heaven because they get to own their bitternesses and do not have to forgive. And so that's how I would judge ethically.
And now final observation response to this, and back to my starting point about the marvel of time, space and number and the marvel of the Hebrew bible describing the God who's bigger than all that, whose goodness is unlimited, who has given to us without strings attached, without coercion. Since I am limited, the best I can do is take those ethics that I find to be consistent and seek to measure my life accordingly and to love my neighbor as myself. But I'm very grateful that I'm not your judge or anyone else's judge; that God is our judge. So I have complete confidence in his equitability in that regard.
Ed: It seems to me two observations first and then it's your turn to ask me a question. First of all, it seems to me that John works in a mysterious way his questions to answer because I didn't hear what happened to those four folks.
John: Because you asked me to be a judge in what I cannot judge. So what I tried to do is to give you an ethical basis of how I understand God will judge.
Ed: And the other thing is it sounds to me like the [forum moderator] Rev. Haas might have a problem since it sounds like Christian doctrine is we all go to heaven no matter what as long as we just want to sometime.
John: You pointed out a good point. The "wanting to" is the willingness to believe in God's goodness and let him order our lives. In other words, what I said was something after the fact. Those in heaven are those who desire to be there because they trust that Yahweh is good. And those not in heaven are those who say it's not good and are more self-justified and happy in their own bitternesses, being their own gods, judging others.
Ed: I hate to say it, John, but that doesn't make sense and it doesn't seem to jive with the Bible either. But it's your turn to ask questions.
John: Well, I'll just ask one final quick question, point of definition. Is there any exception to cause and effect in your understanding of the observable universe?
Ed: Not in the observable universe, and it does strike me as interesting that you seem to be implying that there must be some cause for God.
John: You know what I'm saying?
Ed: I understand you're saying everything is caused by something, therefore the universe must be caused by something. And that does not make sense. It makes sense only in the sense that of those things we can observe, when we observe things. Yes, we can observe that something else caused it. Can we observe the universe? Yes. Can we observe whether or not something caused it? No. And if we could then we'd have to say about the next step back. We observed God.
Is there any reason to believe that something caused God? You want to tell me, I know, that God is outside of the universe but we don't have any evidence for that, we just have sort of the hope maybe that there's something that will meet this wonderful concept of something outside time and space. You have faith that there is a God and that that is the explanation. And I have confidence that that is not an explanation and that in fact we don't know what happened before the "big bang;" that we don't know what is, if anything, outside of space.
John: But see, going back to the whole issue of does it make any sense to be an atheist or a Christian and looking at the whole issue of sense. You stated as a secular humanist that you're only going to be dealing with stuff in the human domain.
Ed: But I think that's what we're all going to do.
John: Well, I'm only speaking it in the human domain at this point. I'm not syllogistically requiring you to take my question about cause-and-effect and say you have to believe. I'm saying why I do but I'm not saying you have to as a matter of my purpose for raising the question. That may be in the longer view a concern. I'm actually asking something a little bit more humble that may lead in that direction but I think at the point of origin. And that is, if we see cause and effect and we experience that in human dimensions and we see no exception to it, and it takes a greater order to produce a lesser order - again I know of no exception to that. Then logic and sense by coming to whatever theory we hold about the "big bang" or whatever preceded the universe at this point, if at this point we do not entertain, do not ask rigorously what is greater than space, time and number, then at that point all of our sensibilities are forfeit. And we enter into an unwillingness to be consistently sensible at that point. So I'm saying, on the basis of our shared humanity and our observation with the most rigorous of scientific inquiry, everything evidences cause and effect and greater order producing lesser order. Therefore, the question to be sensible, if we are a people of sense, is to ask what is greater than space, time and number.
Ed: And if that is what makes sense then you also have to ask and it only makes sense to ask what causes the whatever it is that caused God? And what causes that? And what causes that?
John: That's a fair question.
Ed: And the answer is we don't know. And you know what, we don't know when you get to the end of the universe. That's where you don't know.
John: Okay, that's a very fair response and here we come to the starting point of my own faith. At what point do we say that there's something greater than us? In other words, if we see all the cause and effect, the greater order producing the lesser order, if we see the beauty of the Milky Way or of a sunrise, or a child's smile, and even in the face of the evil -- however we wrestle with that -- but we see the goodness that we want to hold onto. We see the order that holds the universe together, which blows my mind.
I've heard scientists talk about the 110 or so known elements of the universe that if one or two of them were different by a half a percent the whole universe would fall apart. I'm blown away by that reality. And so when you look at that reality and you see all the cause-and-effect, the greater order that produces the lesser order, and you come back and say what goes before it, what caused God, that's a very fair question. But at this point, we've immediately gone beyond our ability to reach.
Ed: No, you went beyond it one step sooner.
John: Go ahead.
Ed: You did. You went beyond your ability to reason and make sense one step sooner when you got to the end of the universe and said, "Oh, well, I have to understand something about that. That that's a God, that's a creature who is beyond space, time and number."
John: You don't have to define, we just
Ed: You don't know that. You don't have any evidence.
John: Yes, you and I have
Ed: Interesting and awesome universe, the only one we have. I'm a statistician so I can tell when you have a unique case you can't draw conclusions about other cases. You don't have enough information. We only have one universe. The probability of this universe being like it is is 100%. We have nothing to compare it to. If, there may be, maybe there are millions and billions of other universes and I know there's all sorts of speculation about them, but we don't know anything about them if there are.
John: But do you know what we do know? We do know we live within the limits of time, space and number. And we know those domains cannot exist without something greater.
Ed: That we don't know.
John: You don't?
Ed: That's a leap of faith.
John: No, it's not, do you know why? If there is not something greater you can measure it and prove it to me.
Ed: We know that we don't know. But that doesn't mean we know anything about what it is we don't know. We know we don't know. There's no question. I cannot talk to you about what's on the other side of the brick wall in your dream. And I have the same dream. And it's something that's very difficult for human beings to wrap your head around. When you get to the end of time, or when you get to the end of space, what then? The answer is, we don't know. We don't know at all. It's not that we don't know very well, we don't know at all.
John: If we can wrap ourselves around it, then we understand it.
Ed: Well, we can pretend. We can think we wrap ourselves around it. We can come up with a concept.
John: If we can and we can prove it to a statistician's delight then we know it. So when we come to what we cannot wrap ourselves around, okay, it's utterly sensible and logical to say there has to be something greater. So for you to say there's not something greater is to say that you understand.
Ed: It is to say that your last statement is what's not very sensible. Because it isn't. If you take the seating pattern in this room right now and have everybody go back out and come back in and see how many different combinations of seating patterns with this many people, I can tell you as a statistician that there are more different seating patterns that these people right here can have in this room. Just in these chairs - than there are stars, than there are seconds since the universe, since the big bang, etc.
John: I agree.
Ed: That doesn't mean it's meaningful. It means some of these people came in with other people and they sat next to them because they already knew them. Other people it's just luck that they happened to sit next to them. There's no meaning to this pattern in any greater sense just because it's a whole bunch of numbers involved, if this one is the only one that came about.
John: If meaning is determined only by number, but if meaning is determined by the One who created time, space and number for the sake of relationships it has wonderful meaning.
Ed: If you presume that somebody created space, time and number
John: I put it out as a hypothesis for your consideration.
Ed: If you start with the assumption that there is a God, then you can make a very logical case that there is a God.
John: I started with the awesome nature of the universe and starting from where I am moving outward to the point where I could no longer conceptually grasp, and I was in awe of it.
Ed: I'm in awe of the universe. If that's all you're trying to convince me of, I'm convinced.
John: I'm in awe of the Author of the universe.
Well, if I were convinced there was one then I'd be in awe.
the Participants] [Opening
Statement by Ed Buckner] [Opening
Statement by John Rankin][Dialog]
from the Audience] [Closing
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]