Sunday, March 20, 2005

Christianity Versus Atheism (Part One)

This came yesterday sent by Tibor R. Machan.

(Note: this is the first of what will be at least two and possibly additional parts addressing the fundamental questions asked by the disputes between the various forms of Christianity and the various forms of materialism and naturalism. This door opened when I circulated an announcement the other day about the forthcoming publication of Worldviews and soliciting sales of advance copies--one book order so far. Other questions worth addressing: what sort of ethos is necessary for building and then sustaining a free society? What was, in fact, the ethos of our own original Constitutional republic? What aspect(s) of the human condition is/are responsible for our headlong rush toward police-state conditions in the postmodern American Empire? What sort of ethos should be encouraged to stop this juggernaut, if indeed it is stoppable?)

From the Times (London)
March 19, 2005

The virus of religious moderation
Sam Harris

PERHAPS it should come as no surprise that a mere wall of water, sweeping innocent multitudes from the beaches of 12 countries on Boxing Day, failed to raise global doubts about God's existence. Still, one wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world's faith. The Holocaust did not do it.

God's ways are, indeed, inscrutable. It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith. In matters of faith, we have kicked ourselves loose of the earth. Given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, this is not the good news that many of us imagine it to be.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest concerns — about ethics, spiritual experience, and human suffering — in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Incompatible religious doctrines have Balkanised our world and these divisions have become a continuous source of bloodshed.

Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews v Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians v Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians v Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims v Hindus), Sudan (Muslims v Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims v Christians)and Iran and Iraq (Shia v Sunni) are merely a few cases in point. These are places where religion has been the explicit cause of millions of deaths in the past decade.

It is in the face of such pointless horrors that many people of goodwill now counsel "moderation" in religion. The problem with religious moderation is that it offers us no bulwark against the spread of religious extremism and religious violence. Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as though we knew what we were talking about. And they don't want anything too critical to be said about people who really believe in the God of their forefathers because tolerance, above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world — to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish — is antithetical to tolerance as moderates conceive it.

In so far as religious moderates attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, they close the door to more sophisticated approaches to human happiness. Rather than bring the full force of 21st-century creativity and rationality to bear, moderates ask that we merely relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos.

But by failing to live by the letter of the texts — while tolerating the irrationality of those who do — religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. As moderates, we cannot say that religious fundamentalists are dangerous idiots, because they are merely practising their freedom of belief. We can't even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivalled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. It is time we recognised that religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge
and scriptural ignorance.

Religious moderates imagine that theirs is the path to peace. But this very ideal of tolerance now drives us toward the abyss. Religious violence still plagues our world because our religions are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise, it is because secular knowledge and secular interests have restrained the most lethal improprieties of faith. If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

Moderation in religion has made it taboo even to acknowledge the differences among our religious traditions: to notice, for instance, that Islam is especially hostile to the principles of civil society. There are still places in the Muslim world where people are put to death for imaginary crimes — such as blasphemy — and where the totality of a child's education consists of his learning to recite from an ancient book of religious fiction. Throughout the Muslim world, women are denied almost
every human liberty, except the liberty to breed.

And yet, these same societies are acquiring arsenals of advanced weaponry. In the face of these perils, religious moderates — Christians, Muslims and Jews — remain entranced by their own moderation. They are least able to fathom that when jihadists stare into a video camera and claim to "love death more than the infidels love life", they are being candid about their state of mind.

But technology has a way of creating fresh moral imperatives. We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation — because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like "God" and "Allah" must go the way of "Apollo" and "Baal" or they will unmake our world.

Sam Harris is author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. He can be reached at

How does he plan to fulfill these new "moral imperatives"? And what does he plan to put in place of "God" and "Allah"? In practice, it has almost always been the State that has rushed in to fill the vacuum created when the intelligentsia collectively decided it no longer believed in a God.

A reply, addresssing just the tsunami question--published not yesterday but some weeks back.

The Problem of Evil
Steven Yates

Greenville Times-Examiner
January 19, 2005

ON DECEMBER 26, 2004, a tsunami ravaged the coastlines of several countries including Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, among others. Its cause was the most powerful earthquake in roughly 50 years, measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale.
The known death toll has continued to climb, having reached over 140,000. We may never know how many bodies were washed out to sea, never to be seen again. Thousands survived, but are homeless. Americans have spearheaded one of the largest relief efforts ever—UN bureaucrats’ gripes about our “stinginess” notwithstanding.

I recall trying to imagine sitting in front of a picture window at 7 a.m. local time, sipping coffee at a resort hotel in, say, Phuket (in Thailand), casually looking out and seeing a wall of water rushing towards the shore at near-supersonic speed. The very thought is terrifying to contemplate, as would be the moment it hit and caused sudden, totally unexpected, utter devastation.

Natural disasters raise problems in philosophical theology. Unbelievers are prone to raise questions like: if there’s really a God and He cares what happens to us, then why do such events occur? Some see the problem of evil, as it has been called, as a fundamental objection to Christianity. “Evil” here means any cause of tremendous human suffering and devastation that presumably God could prevent, at least in principle. In a nutshell, here’s the dilemma: if God is all-powerful, then He could prevent evils such as devastating earthquakes and tsunamis. If he is morally perfect and all-loving, then surely He is motivated to prevent them. But such natural evils exist. Therefore, concludes the skeptic, there is no all-powerful, morally perfect God.

At first glance, it’s a troubling argument. But it seems to me that the believer can offer a Biblical response.

Why does evil exist? Ultimately, according to the Bible, because of the original rebellion. Satan wanted to be equal to God, and when the opportunity came, Satan tempted the first humans. They followed Satan rather than God. Genesis 3:14-19 tells us what happened next. Among the events that ensued: God literally cursed the ground (3:17). The harmony that had presumably existed between human beings and the rest of nature was disrupted.

It is true that a loving God does not will natural disasters into existence. But they flow out of the curse that befell this world when sin entered the picture.

Natural evil therefore has a Biblical explanation. And if God really is all-powerful, he has the power to use it for His purposes.

Nothing prevents God from testing anyone’s faith. Sometimes he allows the innocent to suffer. Consider Job. Job was a good man, a God-fearing man, and God tested him. Through a series of catastrophes and maladies, Job lost everything he had—his possessions, his family, his health. Job wasn’t a happy camper. He went so far as to curse the day he was born. He begged God to explain to him, “Why me?” God’s answer was that His purposes are larger than we can fathom. Job backed off, and in the long run, persevered. He finally triumphed over his adversities. His faith remained.

So should ours. Perhaps natural disasters and other serious adversities ought to remind us that one of the central messages of the Christian faith is not to place our value system in the things of this material world. Even if they are not taken away abruptly and shockingly, they will eventually, after all, pass away.

Dr. Yates lives in Greenville and teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina Upstate. His book Worldviews: Christian Theism versus Modern Materialism will be published soon by the Worldviews Project.

Additional thoughts on God and the Tsunami:

God and the Tsunami: A Dialogue

Tsunami, God and evil

God’s Penmanship or Satan’s Design

God vs. the Tsunami

Is the Tsunami the Wrath of God?

The Tsunami, God’s Anger Revealed

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