One debate, many responses: Response #2 (Bruce Dickson)
In "By" (Die Burger, Saturday June 27) prof Amie van Wyk, a theologian, published an article titled "Three debates, many questions".
Response by Bruce Dickson.
It's been a while since I last contributed to psychohistorian.org – but Auke invited my response to Prof Amie van Wyk's article in Die Burger of Saturday June 27. So here it is…
1 "The third debate is being carried out between atheism and Christian faith. Personally I view this debate as meaningful, if it is carried out responsibly."
Hmm – there may well be a debate among Christians about atheism in South Africa, but I'm pretty certain the representatives of Christians can't be debating with a representative number of atheists. I submit that anyone purporting to speak for me should at least ask my permission.
2 "It sets the stage for both atheists and Christians to re-state their arguments clearly in terms of how sensible [meaningful? "sinvolheid"] and feasible [defendable? "houdbaarheid"] their points of view and assumptions are."
My understanding is that sinvol means intelligible so that sinvolheid translates as intelligibility. Similarly, houdbaar means sustainable so that houdbaarheid means sustainability. However – if you put these words into the sentence you end up with something unintelligible – I think Auke's translation is at least coherent. I'm comfortable with either view.
3 "Amongst others it is about the question of the relationship between faith and knowledge/science."
Sorry – the debate is partly about whether there's a relationship between faith and knowledge? I honestly thought that Christians claimed to "Know Jesus" (sic). For those who are confused, Science is only one of several routes to knowledge. Reading literature is another. The real question is whether Religion is also a valid route to knowledge. Auke discusses this at some length in his response so I won't repeat it.
4 "For the atheist there is no relationship. The more the science, the less the faith; more faith, less science. Such a (rationalistic) approach excludes faith and science from each other. To believe in God is not scientific and is an expression of a primitive or superstitious belief."
5 "In contrast, the Christian faith accepts it that faith and science are not competing, but are complementary world views. The God that makes himself known in nature (and science) is the same God that reveals himself in the scriptures of Christ."
I dispute categorically that atheists do not have faith.
I have faith that depressing the brake pedal will bring my car to a stop; I deep have faith in the conservation laws of physics; I even have faith sometimes misguided that the lights will turn on when I press the switch. These are evidence based beliefs but in the absence of contrary evidence I embrace them and frequently trust my life even others' lives - to them. Atheists can even have faith in things they cannot reliably test for example I have considerable faith that if I fall from my 24th floor balcony, the rest of my life will be relatively brief. Of course, I cannot usefully test this because my faith tells me I would not be around to interpret the results.
The point is that an atheist's faith is based on what they can in principle test - and perhaps what they extrapolate from the tests of others. The faith of the religious is based on what they are told.
I can only wonder "Whose faith is the stronger?" This is a serious question I have often wondered to myself whether any reasoning person in the clergy can actually be a believer.
6 "Another question atheism raises is: How can an omnipotent and good God of love allow (or dispense) ["toelaat (of beskik)"] so much pain and suffering? And: how can such a God allow (or dispense) ["toelaat (of beskik)"] that people are lost forever? These are deep, engaging ["ingrypende"] questions to which no cheap answers ought to be given."
7 "The Christian faith still answers this with reference to God's promise of caring proximity ["sorgsame nabyheid"] and his love in Christ for a broken world, as well as man's personal responsibility. Regarding those who never hear the scriptures, theology makes no comment."
Um, no. This is that's patently false. How could a rational person who denies the existence of a deity ask this question in anything but a rhetorical sense? The Epicurean circle only creates difficulty if you persist in believing self-contradictory things.
I don't purport to speak for Christian theologians, but a reference to the ancient Greeks seems apposite. A dilemma was likened to the horns of a bull either the left horn or the right horn would get you or you'd be trampled. There are thus classically three ways to defeat a dilemma you jump to the left and refute the first of the claims - and escape that horn. Alternatively, you jump to the right and refute the second of the claims - and so escape the other. Lastly, you can try singing the bull to sleep and try to avoid being trampled.
I leave it to the gentle reader to decide what Christian theologians are trying to do.
8 "But the Christian faith also asks important questions of atheism. The first Is about the origin of the universe: Where does it all come from? What (or who) existed before the big bang? Don't we (yet) know, or did everything come into existence by chance?"
9 "But if everything came about "by chance", then this event is a rather unreliable instance. You don't know what it is, can't address it, and also don't know where it leads."
10 "I immediately have to point out that this argument cannot be held as evidence for God's existence. It merely serves to argue that it is more meaningful to believe in God as the origin of everything than in that everything came into existence by chance."
Ok – this is bizarre – but it's more likely to reflect the scientific ignorance of the good professor than a deliberate attempt to deceive. Christians say that the Universe was created but that God was always there. Atheists – or at least those atheists who understand advanced cosmology – say that the Universe has a net energy, momentum, angular momentum, charge, spin of exactly zero so that nothing was ever created at all. All that seems to have happened is that things were re-arranged. We don't even have an idea of how this happened but once again we return to faith in the conservation "laws". There is no evidence that any these have ever been violated. Not even once. Not even during the Big Bang. How much plainer can I put this?
11 "Another question: what is the destination of the universe? Here, too, the same questions are valid. If the future of the universe is open and can go in any direction, then humans are leading a hopeless and meaningless existence. Life of earth is then a freak."
12 "The Christian faith argues that God, with his creation, is on a path of renewal and completion."
The first question presupposes that the 'destination of the universe' is a meaningful statement – I'll assume that the author really meant the 'fate of the universe'. Cosmology has proposed a number of possibilities for study – we could have the Big Crunch, the Big Rip, the Big Freeze or maybe the Universe will endure something else. At the moment, we don't know. To shamelessly borrow from others, "Acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step to recovery."
Whether we like it or not, the Universe' fate is almost completely decoupled from our desires. To say that this implies our lives are meaningless tells more about the speaker's life than it does about those of the addressed.
Again – I do not claim much knowledge of Christian theology but I seem to recall eternal damnation as one of the threats proffered to coerce the impious. It really strikes me that this is inconsistent with the claimed doctrine of renewal and completion.
13 "The third question follows from this: If God does not exist, what then is the meaning of life? Or is life meaningless and absurd (as existentialists argue)? As the Greek philosopher Menander said, "Let us eat and drink (and be merry) because tomorrow we die." Is pleasure (hedonism) the meaning of life? Or is serving the kingdom of God – in its widest dimensions – the meaning of life?"
Gloves off time. What does the question "What is the meaning of life?" actually mean? To paraphrase Richard Dawkins – we should not attribute depth to a question just because it is grammatically well constructed. The question sounds difficult and profound because it is basically meaningless. Zen Buddhism calls these things "koans" – they are intended to suspend reason.
Now if you think that the question means "What is the purpose of your life?" then ask me that damned question and I'll tell you my answer. Your answer may be different; at least mine will be interesting.
If you hadn't guessed, I'm an atheist. This does not imply that my life is devoid of value or joy or wonder. In fact, I think it is full of these and I am not embarrassed when people ask me questions that I don't know the answer to.
14 "A fourth question concerns ethics. Where does atheism get its ethical code? How is good and evil discriminated, and where do norms and values come from? Assume that I somehow discover what is good and evil – where do I get the will-power and motivation to do the good thing?"
The ethics of the Bible – supposedly Christianity's master reference - are disgusting. Have you ever heard of an atheist persecuting someone on behalf of a God they didn't believe in? Let's be clear on this – I am a decent person because I choose to be a decent person – not because I believe your God is going to sit in judgement over me some day. I make no claim that my ethics are correct – only that they are functional. How do I know that I'm a decent person? Easy – I'm not in jail. That seems to be good enough for society. Of course, societies sometimes do great evil but I submit that the reason they right themselves is that most of the people know these things are evil.
15 "The last question: why does the atheist choose mankind's reason as the highest authority (rationalism), and also that the only way of knowing is that all knowledge should necessarily be verifiable (positivism)?"
Actually this is not true. All scientific knowledge is not verifiable. Godel's incompleteness theorem rigorously proves that some things are true but cannot be proven so. As the result is taught in many advanced math courses, most mathematical scientists know this. More importantly, they understand it.
Regarding choosing reason as the highest authority – NO! That is not what I claim at all. The highest authority is OBSERVATION. Rigorous reasoning coupled with observation is just a good prophylactic for making things up as we would like them to be.
16 "Do these two models present feasible answers to life's deepest questions? Have they ever succeeded in solving humankind's problems meaningfully? Isn't this a case of working with a very reduced view of mankind (and a closed world view)?"
It's pretty clear that Christianity is among the most divisive inventions of humankind. It has served to suppress the masses by encouraging belief in a better world. It continues to do the same. It is also clear that reason has done a lot more to resolve humankind's problems – illness, food, shelter, happiness – than religion ever has.
Again, the answer is patently obvious.
17 "Isn't post-modernism, with its search for spirituality and constant reminder of the provisional nature of human knowledge, providing powerful criticism of cold rationalism (and hence atheism)?
Post modernism provides spiritual support to those who reject formal religions. It is formal religion they have rejected – not rationality. If anything they have rejected Christian myth and embraced reason – at least in the sense that they want to believe things that are vaguely believable. It is not uncommon for atheists to experience a deep sense of wonder when observing the universe. Some even say this almost feels spiritual – it's not surprising that some people believe that is exactly what it is.
18 "The Christian faith avails itself of another vast source of knowledge: the revelation of God, in nature and in the Bible, but also in Jesus Christ as God's greatest, last and highest self-revelation."
19 "If He falls away, the whole edifice of the Christian faith collapses like a house of cards."
Of course the whole of Christianity falls away! Christianity is wrong – in every sense of the word. Besides the priestly caste, the only people who care are those who the priestly caste has deluded for so long. Would that be such a bad thing to enlighten them – or would you prefer to perpetuate the lie? There is very little – if any – evidence that even suggests Jesus ever lived. The early church was presented with a large number of inconsistent ideas, documents, stories and ancient mythology that they had to weave this into some plausible narrative that would be easy to sell to the residents of 4th century Rome.
28 June 2009.
nothing more to see. please move along.