the Participants] [Opening
Statement by Ed Buckner] [Opening
Statement by John Rankin][Dialog]
from the Audience] [Closing
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Does It Make Sense to Be an Atheist?
Opening Statement by Ed Buckner
I want to start by saying thanks again to Rev. Haas and to this group for hosting this event and to John Rankin. And I also want to say that I do not think that it was a sign that we had an earthquake this morning. I really don't. I think that's just a coincidence. It did wake me up. I'd like to start with a verse from the Bible, perhaps my text for tonight's sermon. Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1 is almost exactly the same. "The fool hath said in his heart there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." So if the holy Bible is accepted as a reliable authority in these matters, I lose. And if we stick to a biblical model, it may be hard to avoid insulting each other as we disagree about matters of profound importance to us and to most of you.
Since the Rev. Rankin, who for convenience, I'll refer to hereafter as John, though I greatly respect him and especially his willingness to exchange ideas and to test his ideas in forums like this one. Since he will, I know, follow a biblical model, I will argue forcefully that it does not make sense to trust the Bible.
John and the Christians in the audience should know that I intend no disrespect tonight. But I recognize that to some extent the very fact that I do not accept your faith that I'm willing to argue against belief in it and against the Bible is perceived as an insult to you. I do not mean for it to be. I would prefer for you to see it as provocative to make you think. Please know that although I disagree with you, I respect and will vigorously defend your right to hold views even though I happen to think they are wrong.
Our topic "Does it make sense to be an atheist?" could get bogged down with tedious definitions of exactly what it means to be atheist. My own definition is simply someone who harbors no supernatural beliefs. But for purposes of this forum, I'll be more specific and define my atheism as not accepting as real the God of the Bible.
I think, by the way, that being a secular humanist is actually more important than being an atheist. I think how we treat each other and how we live our lives is more important than a label for our beliefs or the lack of those beliefs. Nearly all secular humanists are atheists or agnostics but one can certainly be an atheist and not subscribe to a positive human-affirming philosophy like secular humanism.
Any of you who are interested in learning more about secular humanism can go to our website - you always have to do this in speeches today - secularhumanism.org or you can just ask me about it. But John chose the topic for tonight. I got to choose the last one so it was his turn. And I certainly am an atheist, so we'll discuss his topic tonight.
Some definitions of "God" are so open-ended that we can hardly know with certainty what the word refers to, much less debate intelligently about God's existence. But I presume John will defend the proposition that only believing in the Christian biblical God makes sense. I will defend the idea that the Christian biblical God is himself not sensible, nor reasonable and that disbelieving in such a God is therefore quite sensible.
Indeed, I can and will prove that the Christian biblical God does not exist. If there are non-Christian theists here tonight I invite them to ask both John and me questions about that when we go to the audience Q&A.
First, let me read you another quote, one some Christians think sometimes is biblical but that was in fact written in the 18th century by a poet, William Cowper. "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm." And later in the same poem, Cowper wrote, "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face."
And that is the approach that nearly all Christians, even though they sometimes deny it, take. That God doesn't really make sense, at least not to us mere mortals, that he is mysterious and hides his goodness at least at times. But that we should all ignore all of that and believe in him anyway. That we should just have faith. We are not urged to trust our senses, our empirical observations, and our ability to reason systematically but to rely instead on emotional, hopeful, but illogical paths to alleged truth.
I said I could prove the Christian biblical God doesn't exist and that's easy, so I'll do that first. Then I want to explain why accepting Christianity means giving up your integrity and accepting with a vengeance that might makes right. Why it means that for Christians following orders has to be more important than doing what is right. Proof that God does not exist - doesn't everyone know you can't prove whether God exists or not that it's just a matter of faith either way? No, that's only a myth, unless God is defined too loosely to pin down.
But the God of the Bible is supposed to be pretty well defined. He is all powerful and an infinitely good and merciful God, is he not? Yet we all know that there is virtually endless suffering in the world and not just for evil people or even just for misbehaving people.
This suffering varies greatly in intensity but is nearly universal. Human babies are born and sometimes die of birth defects, antelopes are torn limb from limb by lions, and cougars eat cute little rabbits alive. Earthquakes, not like the one this morning, kill millions of people indiscriminately. Fleas, mosquitoes, ticks, rats, roaches and thousands of other pests cause apparently pointless misery and disease to humans and other species as well. People in skyscrapers in New York City die horrible deaths just because they were responsible enough to get to work on time.
And on Palm Sunday eight years ago, March 27, 1994, 20 people died in a Methodist church in Piedmont, Alabama when a tornado struck during Sunday morning services. Hannah, the 4-year-old daughter of the pastor, Kelly Clem and of Kelly Clem's husband also a Methodist minister, died in the rubble while her mother searched frantically for her. Her father was elsewhere and learned of his daughter's death by telephone.
Did any good come of that tornado? Well, the church, the Goshen Methodist Church, has built a brand new undoubtedly better building with contributions that poured in from Christians everywhere. Little Hannah's parents have had lots of visibility and attention. Her mother was featured in Guidepost magazine. Her father wrote and succeeded in having published a book on the event. Perhaps new souls have been won over to Christianity. But is all that worth the violent, pointless loss of a 4-year-old? If she was your little daughter, would you trade her for any of that?
Well, possibly this really was a hellish punishment sent by a cruel God to teach people not to be Methodist or to not accept female pastors or to not live in Alabama or to choose Islam instead, or much more logically maybe this was a terrible accident. Just plain bad luck that a tornado happened to develop this time where a church full of innocent people were sincerely worshiping the God they truly believe in. The tornado had no meaning. It was terrible and painful, but not sent or controlled by any supernatural force.
The great things that humans, the surviving church members and their neighbors probably did for each other afterwards - the comfort, the hot dishes brought over for grieving families, the loans, the shoulders to cry on - those were purposeful. Those were worth encouraging and repeating. Humans can be grand to each other.
But what is the sense of believing that there was anything supernatural behind it? And why would a God who we're told has the power to stop the tornado decide instead to let it rip or worse to send it roaring toward the church? If you go to the web and you type in Goshen Methodist Piedmont and tornado, you'll pull up dozens of sites on this event. Some were recount it mostly in meteorological terms describing the tornado's path, top wind speeds and so forth.
But many provide sermons or essays, including from Rev. Clem that explain why this happened. Those sermons disagree with each other but more to the point none offers any real explanation. The most common approach is to say or imply that God works in a mysterious way. Or that God has to allow evil for us to have freedom or free will. But that makes no sense.
What action of the believers in that church could have stopped that tornado? What freedom did 4-year-old Hannah have that she or someone else abused and thus she deserved a violent death? A perfectly good God could not accept useless, pointless suffering even for some other allegedly good thing like free will. The free will argument ignores the suffering of non-human animals who are said not to have free will but who suffer nearly endlessly and pointlessly anyway.
If God can allegedly make a heaven with no tornadoes, no annoying fleas, no jet-fuel-laden jets flying into buildings. A heaven where good Christians will nevertheless be happy even as they contemplate us nonbelievers gnashing our teeth forever in a lake of fire - why couldn't he make an earth like that? And if you say we'd mere automatons, if he did what will you be when you get to heaven - an automaton?
A couple of other points about the existence of evil need to be made. One, although we obviously cannot claim to be able to read God's mind, we can reasonably conclude that there could be no morally adequate reason to permit evil. How? In the same way that we reasonably conclude that mastodons and dodo birds have gone extinct - by thorough and careful consideration of the evidence available to us. If after careful reflection, no one is able to produce a convincing and morally adequate reason for the actual evils we witness, then we can reasonably conclude that there is no such reason.
Second, even if it were true that God has a morally adequate reason to permit evil and suffering a good God would not remain silent as we are subjected to that evil. He would tell us why he permits it and try to comfort us, for God is supposed to have a loving relationship with us. And in a truly loving relationship each partner gives the other some reason why he or she permits suffering to befall the other and seeks to comfort the other in the face of that suffering. God, if he exists, either has the power to end suffering and evil and chooses not to, or he lacks the power. Either he is all powerful but not all good, or he is all good but lacks some power. Clearly, there is no all powerful and all good God. So clearly there is no Christian biblical God.
The Bible that Christians trust has beautiful, inspiring, lovely passages in it. It includes useful, powerful, moral guidance in some of its passages. But it also includes strong support for the acceptability of human slavery. It does not condemn sexism and in fact appears to direct women to sit down and shut up. It describes blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, of which I am undoubtedly guilty tonight, as the only unforgivable sin. It describes sometimes in words in red letters allegedly uttered by Jesus Christ himself a punishment for non-believers and other sinners that is astonishingly out of proportion to our alleged crimes.
As a parent myself, I flatly deny that there is anything my son could do that would make it reasonable to have him burn forever in a lake of fire literally or figuratively. The Bible God demands actually requires as cardinal virtues in commandments engraved in stone by the Lord himself and sent down with Moses things like "on the 7th day thou shallt rest" and "thou shallt not seethe the kid in his mother's milk."
And the Bible tells us unmistakably if we take it on its own terms that any man seen picking up a stick on the Sabbath should be stoned to death. Not fined, not admonished, not jailed or shunned, not left to suffer God's wrath in some future life - stoned to death by the community of believers. These are not just difficult passages, not just bits I've ripped out of context, these and many more are passages that describe a God who is impossible to believe is a good God, who indeed is impossible to believe in at all. And the Bible says in the New Testament that you are not responsible for your own trespasses or injuries to others, which also doesn't make sense.
Now about obedience and provocativeness. For a good Christian, obedience is the highest good, and yes, blind obedience is required. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to slit the throat of the one we love most if so ordered. It does not have to make sense.
In fact the biblical God demands that we obey. That we not ask questions nor even try to understand. I refer here of course to Jephthah who promised to offer as a burnt offering the first person who greeted him on his return from battle if he won the battle. This is in Judges, Chapter 11. Jephthah's only child, his beloved daughter, the light of his life was the first one out the door when he returned from his victory. He was heartbroken. He tore his clothes. She asked for and he gave her two months to wander in the wilderness with her friends and bewail the fact that she die soon and die a virgin. And then he did what he promised. He cut her throat and burned her body for he had promised the Lord he would. And no the Lord didn't provide a convenient scapegoat to sacrifice in her stead as he did for Abraham and his beloved son Isaac back in Genesis 22.
But the point is the same with Abraham. He got out of the actual throat-cutting but only because he pleased the Lord by being willing to obey without question and to kill his best-loved only son if ordered to do so.
To a good Christian, integrity requires being willing to do anything the Lord commands including cutting your own child's throat. And not because it's the right thing to do, not because you see how this is good, not because you understand - but because an all powerful being tells you to. This is the ultimate in believing that might makes right. And by the way, make no mistake. You have no right, none at all, to judge the Lord as good for sparing Isaac any more than to judge him bad for not sparing Jephthah's daughter. What is good is not what you think it is. And I'll bet all of you were glad when you were read that the angel of the Lord pointed out the sacrificial goat to Abraham. Good is whatever the Lord says, period.
Integrity for me means saying even to an all powerful God, if I believed one existed, that it would be wrong to kill my son and I will not do it. But if God tells John Rankin to cut his youngest child's throat and he cannot do it, and I'm confident John couldn't, that he is in fact more moral than the God he worships. John actually has to think that he should do it, to feel guilty if he couldn't. That doesn't make sense, it makes much more sense to be an atheist.
the Participants] [Opening
Statement by Ed Buckner] [Opening
Statement by John Rankin][Dialog]
from the Audience] [Closing
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]