Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 11: “How Can I Make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”

(**Note to new visitors**: If you’ve been directed to this page, and you’d like to read this review from the beginning then please look to the right of the screen, and scroll down a little, where you’ll see the “Recent” header. Under that you’ll have access to all the links for each weekly instalment of my Alpha Course review. Click on the bottom one, “WEEK 1a: Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?” to start from the very beginning. Thanks.)

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WEEK 11:

I enter the church to find a few of the group already in attendance. Thankfully Lady Three is back for the last session of the Alpha Course. I ask if she’s been ok and she responds by telling me that she’s fine and the reason why she missed last week’s session was because of a family member’s birthday party. I’m relieved that she’s fit and well. She’s a nice lady, happy and bubbly, calm, well spoken, unassuming, and though I’m fond of every member of the group I must say I’m of the opinion that she’s the best of the bunch.

I take to my seat and the pastor walks over to me and says, “Here’s a leaving present for you”, and hands me a book that I seem to remember him mentioning last week. It’s called, “Secret Believers”, by Brother Andrew. I take a look at the back cover and read the blurb, which says, “Here are the terrifying true stories of the men and women – born Muslims and still living in strict Islamic states – who have chosen to convert to Christianity.”

I thank the pastor and put the book on the table beside me.

For the next few minutes we talk about Muslims and Islam. Lady Three chips in to tell us that certain people, “always used to have a go” at her husband for being a Christian, and that these certain people never used to say anything of a similar derogatory nature about Muslims and Islam. Lady Three’s husband was curious as to why this was so, that is until a friend of his, who “wasn’t of any particular faith”, said “I can tell you the reason why they have a go at you about your faith. What you have has got them worried”

Yes, that’s right, non-believers poke fun at Christianity because they’re deeply worried by its power and truth. And, of course, no one pokes fun at other religions because they’re just so obviously false that they’re not even worthy of ridicule.

Yeah, that sounds like a convincing argument. And no doubt a completely true story, too. Or something like that.

The conversation continues about Muslims and Islam. I stop to think why it is that the group are concentrating on Islam rather than any other faith. Maybe the truth of Islam has them worried? No, maybe not. Maybe that kind of argument is just silly. Christians use it all the same, though.

As we’re talking, my eye catches a glimpse of a heavy-looking cardboard folder which is positioned under Lady Three’s chair. I remember the pastor telling me that Lady Three had spent many hours on the Internet investigating these so-called “sons of god” that I had mentioned to her a couple of weeks ago. Maybe she’s prepared a dossier to counter my claims, as I joked she might.

Only a moment or two after I notice the folder, Lady Three turns to me and says, “I’ve got some things for you, Stephen”. She can barely contain her excitement as she reaches under her chair for the aforementioned folder, thuds the bulging beast on her lap, and proceeds to pull out a host of documents.

“I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying the names you gave me a couple of weeks ago”, says Lady Three. “Yes, [the pastor] tells me you’ve been hard at work on the Internet. Four hours in one session alone, so I hear”, I reply.

She hands me a document, about five or six pages thick, which turns out to be a printout of a Wikipedia entry regarding the question of Jesus’ historicity. I thank her kindly for going to such effort, but also tell her that I’ve read the article previously. I promise to take it home with me and read it once more, though.

She then delves some more into the folder and pulls out another computer printout. “You know the list of names you gave me?”, she rhetorically asks, referring to the “sons of god” list, “Well, I’ve looked them up and most of them were listed on a site by this fellow”. She hands me the document and at the top reads the name “Kersey Graves”.

To those of you who are not familiar with the name – Kersey Graves was a 19th century writer most famous for his book “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors”, which is a book that I own and have read. Unfortunately for Graves he fails to cite sources for many of his claims and is therefore deemed by modern historians as “unreliable and unscholarly”. Richard Carrier, a well-renowned speaker, writer, and atheist, who also holds a PhD in ancient history, says of Graves, “[Y]ou will never be able to tell what he has right from what he has wrong without totally redoing all his research and beyond, which makes him utterly useless to historians as a source”

It’s fair to say, too, that Graves has been the target of heavy and prolonged criticism by Christian scholars, and the butt of many of their jokes. He’s been an easy target, and perhaps justifiably so.

I explain all of this to Lady Three. “Oh”, she says, “his was the website that I found all the names on, you see. And he’s not very credible.”

I’m curious, why would Lady Three’s search for the names that I mentioned (Perseus, Hercules, Mithras, and Dionysus – all well known characters in Greek and Roman mythology) bring up the name “Kersey Graves”? A quick Google search for their names doesn’t bring up an immediate link to his work, so I’m thinking that Lady Three must have searched high and low for a website, most probably a pro-Christian one, that proclaims Jesus Christ to be the only true “son of god” in the history of mankind. Graves, being the easy target that he is, was probably mentioned in such a website, and Lady Three had latched onto that with a vengeance.

Lady Three looks a little flustered as she searches some more within the depths of her folder. I’m beginning to think that she was of the opinion coming into this evening’s session that tonight was the night where she would deliver her winning hand against the pesky sceptic, a certain Mr Butterfield, who, in her eyes at least, has been attempting to poison the minds of the group for the last eleven weeks. Sadly, for her, the royal flush that she thought she was holding has turned out to be a busted flush, much to her dismay.

She pulls out another thick printout, “This is from a Christian website, admittedly, but it’s about all the non-Christian sources that mention Jesus”, she says. Then sheepishly asks, “You may have read it?”

I take a quick look at the page headings, “Josephus”, “Tacitus”, “Suetonius”, “Pliny the Younger”, and so on. Names we have discussed in previous sessions, none of whom were contemporaneous sources, which is what I’d asked for, and the earliest, Josephus, is almost universally regarded as a much later interpolation (most proabably from the 4th century A.D).

I explain this to Lady Three and ask if she managed to stumble upon any contemporaneous, extra-biblical sources that made mention of Jesus, his miracles, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. “I think Josephus wrote during that time. I think someone told me that he wrote about Jesus in 40AD”, she says. “Josephus wasn’t born until 37AD”, I reply, and add that “His Antiquities were written in 93AD”

After all of Lady Three’s hard work I do feel rather uncomfortable having to disregard it, but I thank her so very kindly for making the effort.

The pastor, like he did in a previous session, attempts to explain the contemporary silence about Jesus:

Pastor: “The wife of a friend of mine studies Church history. I spoke to her about the fact that you’d raised the question about the silence of contemporaneous sources. She told me that they were such a small band of people, and that the people around Jesus wouldn’t have been able to write.”
Me: “It does say in the Bible that Jesus was attracting huge crowds wherever he went. And that there were earthquakes, and that zombies popped out of their tombs in their multitudes, and that these zombies walked into the city to reveal themselves unto the crowds [Matthew 27: 51-53]. Yet not a single account outside of the Bible can be found to support such a story”
Pastor:[Long pause] “It’s because they tried to deny it”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Pastor: [Looking very uncomfortable] “They obviously didn’t perceive it as significant”
Me: “I think zombies leaping out of their graves and marching into the nearest city would have been quite a significant event. Don’t you?”
Pastor: [Very long pause] “People are very sceptical about it all, aren’t they”
Me: “But no one even wrote about them being sceptical about such events. There’s absolutely no mention of them anywhere”
Pastor: [He shrugs his shoulders, sighs, leans back in his chair, then whispers] “Fascinating”

At this point Lady Three offers her own viewpoint:

Lady Three: “There was talk about Christians later on, though. To me, they wouldn’t be talking about someone who hadn’t actually existed.”

No one doubts the existence of Christians. The fact that later sources mentioned Christians is not direct confirmation that there existed a historical Jesus. Using her line of thinking I could confirm the existence of any God or indeed any fictional character, just by appealing to the people who wrote about them or believed in them. Which, of course, is just silly.

Lady Three continues in a similar vein:

Lady Three: “He [Jesus] must have existed in order for them to be followers of him”
Me: “Would you take a similar view of Krishna, then?”
Lady Three: “Krishna?”
Me: “There have been followers of Krishna for 3,000 years. Does the fact that people believe in him prove to you that he was a historical character?”
Lady Three: [Avoiding the question altogether] “If the people who wrote about Jesus didn’t believe he existed they would have written in their work, “But there’s no evidence that he actually existed”. If they were proper historians that’s what they would have said.”

This is a comment that barely deserves a response so I’m thankful that the pastor intervenes at this point and jokes, “Steve has kept [Lady Three] very busy for the last two weeks!”. We all smile and Lady Three slides her humongous folder back under her chair. “It’s definitely an interesting subject, though”, she says. She’s right, it’s a fascinating subject.

“What’s it about?” asks a bemused Lady Two, whose been sat glassy-eyed, staring into empty space for the last twenty-five minutes. I like Lady Two a great deal, but she doesn’t talk (or listen) until the time arises when she thinks it’s a good opportunity to offer us her testimony. It’s just so bizarre.

The pastor switches on the DVD player, then inserts the last of Nicky Gumbel’s presentations which is entitled, “How Can I Make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”

Gumbel starts by asking, “How do we make the most of the rest of our lives?”. To answer this question he gives us the words of the Apostle Paul:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” [Romans 12:1-2]

Gumbel then spends a couple of minutes dissecting that passage and explaining to the audience in simple terms what Saint Paul actually meant.

He then tells us that, as Christians, we shouldn’t give in to the temptation of taking off our “Christian uniform” and mingling in with the rest of the crowd. “What we’re called to be is distinctive, to retain our Christian identity wherever we are and whatever the circumstance.”

As Christians we should avoid backbiting and character assassination, and instead try to think of something positive to say about somebody. This is, of course, an admirable approach.

Gumbel then touches on the subject of sexual immorality: “We are called to demonstrate the blessing of keeping God’s standards. God LOVES us. God loves YOU. God is the creator of marriage. God is the creator of sex. It was God who INVENTED sex. He came up with the idea of sex!” He continues, “God made us sexual beings. And the Biblical context is lifelong commitment in marriage.” and “It’s God’s perfect plan that children should be brought up in an atmosphere of love and commitment and security.”

I suppose drowning every baby in the world by sending a flood to kill them all demonstrates his “love” for his children. And I suppose executing the innocent first-born children of the people of Egypt is another demonstration of his complete love. Yes, God loves little children so much. I sometimes wonder if Gumbel actually reads the Bible.

Gumbel then alludes to premarital sex and states, “I’ve never met anybody who has said to me, “I really regret that I waited [to have sex] until my wedding day”. I’ve met lots of people who said, “I really wish I had waited because I made a mess of my life””.

A mess?

Gumbel recaps and tells us that in order to become fruitful Christians we should 1) Break with the past, and 2) Make a new start in life.

At this point we are given a story of when Gumbel, as a vicar, was taking a funeral service at his church. The funeral was for a well-known, incredibly poor, homeless lady in the area who used to walk the streets begging for money. Gumbel tells us that this lady was very aggressive and rude to people when she asked for money, and she had no friends at all. However, oddly enough, her funeral was attended by lots of people. Gumbel wondered why this was so, and was then told that “Some years earlier she had inherited a HUGE fortune. Millions of pounds” and that’s why all these people, obviously relatives, had crawled out of the woodwork. Allegedly this lady had acquired an expensive flat in a trendy part of London as well as a number of expensive paintings.

“Why would someone with all this money choose to live on the streets with all their rubbish?”, asks Gumbel. Someone close to Gumbel answered, “I think the problem was she didn’t want to leave behind the life she knew”. Gumbel tells us that he initially thought this to be absolutely absurd, but that was until he had a think and it dawned on him that, “There are many people that are doing something even more absurd. They’re hanging on to the rubbish in their lives, and they’re missing out not just on a flat – they’re missing out on all the treasures that God has for us in our lives.”

By this I suppose he means that non-Christians are the rude, aggressive street-urchins that waste their lives living amongst the rubbish, while the Christians of this world escape the flea-ridden hovels and choose instead to live in the palatial abodes of Christendom, where they bask (and perhaps cower) in the wonderful glory of the biggest bully in the universe: Yahweh.

Gumbel then tells us that even though Christians are lavished with all of God’s treasures they should still be ambitious. “Jesus commands us to be ambitious”, states Gumbel. But we must make sure we’re aiming for noble ambitions. What is the point trying to earn lots of money, he asks. “Its pathetic”, exclaims the wealthy Mr Gumbel. “What you should be saying is “my priority is to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.””

Christians must remember to put God first in their lives because, as Gumbel says, “If we live for ourselves we find ourselves in bondage, in slavery. But if we present everything to God we find freedom”

Gumbel then turns up the heat, “If you want an easy life, if you want a life of ease, please don’t become a Christian because it’s not easy being a Christian. But if you want a GREAT life, a FULFILLING life – life at its BEST – then follow Jesus!”

Great stuff.

Gumbel then tells us why it’s not easy being a Christian: “More people have died for their faith in Christ in the 20th century than in all the other centuries put together. So it’s not always easy being a Christian”. He then asks, “So why should we do it?”

“First of all” states Gumbel, “for what God has planned for our lives”.

But all of the hardship is worth it in the end, supposedly. To the outsider this might sound absurd, but Gumbel tells us “I had a totally false view of God before I was a Christian. I thought God was a kind of spoilsport; God was a kind of person that if you gave your life to him he would destroy it; he’d take away all the things that were fun and good in our lives. How absurd that is! God LOVES us far more than we love our own children. And the little sacrifices we have to make for him are NOTHING compared to the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross”

Doesn’t this “God loves us” mantra get a little tiring after a while? Considering that all the evidence in the world suggests that, if he even exists, he couldn’t care a jot about any of us.

To finish his presentation Gumbel offers us a tale about “a wealthy English baron”. I’ll let Gumbel take up the story:

“This man had one son who had left home. When he was away from home he [the son] died. This wealthy man never got over the loss of his son. As his wealth increased he invested in valuable paintings. When he died, his will called for all the paintings to be sold, and because he had such a great collection collectors and museums came from all over the world. On the day of the auction the lawyer read from his will and what it said was this, “The first painting to be sold in this auction is of my beloved son.” It was an unknown painting of poor quality, and the only person who bothered to bid for it was somebody who had worked for the family and who’d known the boy and had loved him, and bought it for sentimental value and the memories it held. Then the lawyer read the 2nd clause of the will: “Whoever buys my son gets everything. The auction is over.””

This, of course, is to illustrate the point that whoever buys into Christianity (to buy the son of God) shall inherit all things. Brilliant!

I’m sure that if Baywatch star, David Hasselhoff, was asked to read aloud that story he would say, “I’m sorry buddy, I can’t read THAT. It’s too cheesy, even for me!”

For the last time the pastor ejects the DVD and switches on the lights.

My fellow sceptic gets up and goes to the toilet. While he’s away Lady Two appears from the kitchen pushing the food trolley, which is stacked with all sorts of fancies. I decide to break with tradition and actually eat something. I plump for a chocolate bun. “YESSSSS!!!!!” jokes the pastor, “Steve’s actually eating something!”

As we’re eating, members of the group express how fond they are of Gumbel, and how great he is at his job. Eventually my fellow sceptic returns from the toilet, sees that the room is peaceful, and jokes “It hasn’t got to loggerheads yet, then?”. The pastor looks at my fellow sceptic, winks, then nods in my direction and says, “Sssshhhhhh, he’s eating his chocolate bun!”. I look up, and also with a wink, joke, “This should keep me quiet for the next forty minutes. You should have offered me a chocolate bun in each of the previous ten sessions.” The group laugh.

When I first entered the room this evening I pictured the session ending with me delivering a rousing, Churchill-esque speech, in which I would point out the flaws and silliness of the arguments that I’d heard during the last eleven weeks. Now, though, I feel no desire to end it that way. I’ve now made a decision to sit quietly for the remainder of the session. The group is in good spirits, and I’ve decided that I’d like to keep it that way. I’ll sit quietly for the remainder of the evening, shake hands at the end and wish everyone well for the future. Nothing is going to get sorted tonight, that’s for certain. It’s too late for that.

The group begin to speak about the supposed beauty of Christianity:

Lady Two: “It [Christianity] gives your life direction. It gives it purpose. You know where you’re going. You know what you’re trying to aspire to and be. You want to be filled with the fruits of the Holy Spirit and try to bring others into the fold. That’s your direction.”
New Christian Male: “It opens your eyes as well. When you’re filled with the Holy Spirit you just focus on that. If previously you’d been hitting wall after wall after wall, then after you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit those walls seem to break down. That’s one thing I’ve learned from this course.”

The pastor tells us about how he’s always been honest in business, and how that’s thanks to his firm Christian beliefs. My fellow sceptic and the rest of the group discuss honesty in business. It’s an interesting discussion that lasts for about twenty minutes or so, and a number of different topics manage to find a way into the conversation, such as 1) how it’s not easy to be a Christian, 2) the environment, 3) the lead singer of U2, Bono, and 4) Cadbury’s chocolate. The Christians in the group then tell us of the challenges they face in daily life, and how their belief in God helps them overcome such challenges.

The next topic to crop up is that of heaven. The pastor says that he’d love to see a united Church where all races, ages and creeds came together as one. “Because that’s what it’s going to be like in heaven” he says.

Lady Two: “Yes, everybody being loving and no backbiting. Every one being kind and filled with the fruits of the Holy Spirit.”

My fellow sceptic jokingly asks how they are all going to cope with no one to preach to? How will they get by without an insatiable thirst to convert people to their faith? What will these Christians find to do with their time if there are no heathens? “We’re all going to be concentrating on worshipping God”, replies the pastor.

My fellow sceptic then wants to know how the pastor envisages heaven. The pastor then tells us about how the Bible mentions God sitting on a throne, and how we’ll all spend time praising his holy name. He also mentions that it is unlikely that pets will be joining us in the hereafter. So any of you reading this blog who are looking forward to seeing your favourite pet when you get to heaven, then forget it – as I have it on good authority that pets aren’t allowed in the heavenly realm. God’s orders.

I break my now thirty-minute silence by asking, “How big is heaven?”

Pastor: “I don’t know”
Me: “Is it bigger than the earth?”
Pastor: “I guess so”
Me: “So there’s going to be people separated by considerable distances, yes?”
Pastor: “I don’t know”

I ask that question because I’m curious as to how we’re going travel from A to B in heaven, particularly if the journey is of a considerable distance (such as, say, from Britain to Australia). Planes perhaps? Rockets? Jet packs? Star Trek style teleportation machines?

Pastor: “I think that’s only an issue when we’re bound by the body. Once we’re in spirit, once we’re in our spiritual bodies, distance and time is just irrelevant.”

I’d love for him to explain exactly what he means by that, but the opportunity for me to ask doesn’t present itself as my fellow sceptic jumps in wanting to know if we’ll be able to recognise people in heaven. The pastor is a bit vague in his response and basically admits that he has no idea [again?], but then says, “That’s like asking if someone dies when they’re seven years old what age are they in heaven?”
I inform the pastor that British theologian, Alistair McGrath, believes we’ll all be thirty years of age! Here’s a quote from one of his books:

“A final question that has greatly vexed Christian theologians concerns the age of those who are resurrected. If someone dies at the age of 60, will they appear in the streets of the New Jerusalem as an old person? And if someone dies at the age of 10, will they appear as a child? This issue caused the spilling of much theological ink, especially during the Middle Ages. By the end of the thirteenth century, an emerging consensus can be discerned. As each person reaches their peak of perfection around the age of 30, they will be resurrected as they would have appeared at that time – even if they never lived to reach that age… The New Jerusalem will thus be populated by men and women as they would appear at the age of 30 (the age, of course, at which Christ was crucified) – but with every blemish removed.” Alistair McGrath, A Brief History of Heaven (p.37)

The long-standing male member picks up the topic and runs with it a little:

Long-Standing Male Member: “God talks about us reigning, but what we’re going to reign over I don’t know [again?]. Other planets, maybe, but I don’t know. If there’s a new heaven and a new earth then what’s to stop us going to other planets?”
My Fellow Sceptic: “So basically all of you are saying that you have no idea what it’s going to be like, no idea where its going to be, no idea what’s going to happen, no idea who’ll be there, yet Christianity is all geared up towards “Lets get to heaven!””

My fellow sceptic is on to something. These people are obsessed with heaven, but, when asked to tell us about it, they know little (or nothing) at all. Yet we non-believers must be absolutely certain of such a place, and long to go there, or be doomed to an eternity of torture in hell. Strange?

Long-Standing Male Member: “Jesus loves us and he doesn’t want us to end up in Hell”
Me: “I asked this to [Lady Two] last week, so I’ll ask you too if you don’t mind: Could you live an eternity of happiness in heaven knowing that people were being fried and tortured in hell? And that they were suffering these torments because of nothing more than them having had a different opinion on religion whilst on earth.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “This is how I understand it: I won’t know about what’s happening to them. That’s something that God deals with as the Almighty. When I get to heaven there will be no sadness, I won’t even be thinking about people in hell”
Me: “So you’ll just forget about them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “That part of my memory will be gone”
Me: “It all sounds rather sinister to me”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Sinister?”

Lady Two jumps in:

Lady Two: “I believe it’s not the father’s will to lose one child. I think he wants to save everybody. I think he’s trying to save us by using Christians and the Holy Spirit, and things like that. We as Christians are trying to witness, we’re trying to get everyone saved. We’re trying to get everyone nice and peaceful with him [God] before they die, so that it’s a safe passage through for them”
Me: “Well, I’ve said this before but he could have created a system where everyone was peaceful with him from the beginning.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But then we’d have been robots, Stephen”

Oh dear, here we go again. So much for me keeping quiet for the remainder of the evening…

Me: “I don’t understand your line of thinking at all, sorry. Using that kind of reasoning we’re all going to be robots in heaven, then.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “What God has done is this: In the Old Testament he used one nation – Israel – to say, “Look, here’s the laws. You try and live by them”. And they tried time and time again but failed time and time again. They just couldn’t do it”
Me: “But God knew that in advance”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, he knew that”
Me: “So why bother?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “So that they couldn’t come to him and say “You never gave us a chance to come to you with our own free will. You made us robots””
Me: “So why would he get upset with them if he knew exactly what they were going to do before he even created them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Because as a father you know what you want your kids to do. Are you a dad, Steve?”
Me: “No, I don’t have any children. Not yet anyway.” [EDIT: My first child, a beautiful baby boy, was born on the 23rd of January 2010]
Long-Standing Male Member: “With my kids if there’s something they should do and they don’t do it, and they hurt themselves, I get very cross. That’s how I picture God. He sees the nation of Israel the same way I see my kids. If my kids are messing about at the top of the stairs I’ll shout “Don’t do that, you might fall!””
Me: “Your analogy might work if God wasn’t omniscient. But he is, so it doesn’t. You don’t know every event – past, present and future. God does. You may have an inkling that your kids may hurt themselves, but then again they may not. God knows precisely what each person will do before it even happens. Would you place your kids at the top of a flight of very steep and hazardous steps knowing in advance that they would fall and kill themselves? You’d get locked up for that, wouldn’t you? But this is what God has done. He’s put mankind on earth knowing in advance that they would fall. Knowing in advance that millions of kids would be tortured and raped, that billions would starve to death, and so on”
Long-Standing Male Member: “God is looking at the end game”
Me: “And if you knew that the “end game” would be that your kids fell to their deaths down the steep steps, would you place them there?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “It’s like stopping your kids from putting their hands close to a coal fire. You teach your kids not to go near the coal fire”
Me: “That’s not what I’m asking.”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “Ask again”
Me: “If you knew in advance that by placing your kids at the top of some steep, hazardous steps they would fall to their deaths, would you place them there?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “It depends what my goal is.”
Lady Three: [Turns to me] “You’re saying that what God has done to us is like him putting some kids at the top of some stairs knowing they would fall. That’s how you see it. But I don’t see it like that. I see that God has made a perfect place and he’s placed his ultimate creation – which is a man and a woman – in a perfect garden with just a guideline”
Me: “Yes, he placed them in the garden knowing in advance exactly what was going to happen”
Lady Three: “Its not like he’s left them at the top of some dangerous stairs. He’s left them in a safe environment with instructions that would keep them safe”
Me: “But it wasn’t a safe environment. He placed them in a garden with a tree bearing fruit that would ruin the future of mankind, if eaten. This is a “safe environment”? Was a garden that contained Satan himself, who was on the prowl looking for a couple of human victims, a “safe environment”? God put them there knowing in advance what would happen.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “He did that because of love. It was because of love. Because he loves us he gives us free will. You’re struggling with the free will bit”
Me: “No, I’m struggling with the fact that God could have created a system where pain, agony, torture and death weren’t necessary.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “If he didn’t give us free will he’d always be controlling us. If we didn’t have free will we couldn’t do wrong even if we wanted to do wrong”
Me: “Supposedly we have free will in heaven, yet never do any wrong. If this sort of free will is possible then God could have given us it in the first place. No kids tortured, no innocent people murdered, no rapes, no muggings, no assaults, nothing like that need ever happen. But God didn’t give us that sort of free will. He gave us the kind where people WILL commit all the atrocities I just mentioned. And, worst of all, he knew it all in advance. And you honestly want us to believe that he loves and cares for us?”
Lady Two: “God wants us to do his will. He wants a relationship with us. That’s the point. He wants the relationship to be lovely and happy. He knows that if we keep in his will we’ll be happy and safe”

The pastor joins in:

Pastor: “You’re looking at this from a completely human point of view, Steve. I gave you a scripture the other day about God’s ways being higher than our ways. The reason why God has done it is beyond our comprehension”
Me: “But that doesn’t answer the question. All you’re saying, basically, is that you’ve no idea [again?] why God set it up the way he did, with him knowing that billions of people would live short, sad, tortuous lives, but that we shouldn’t question God because he knows best, so we should just leave it at that. It’s not good enough. Sorry”
Pastor: [In a tone that suggests he’s just about had enough] “You’re not satisfied with our answers. Fine. But we have an answer that satisfies us”
Me: “Throwing your hands up in the air and saying “God knows best” is hardly an answer likely to be deemed satisfactory by any non-Christian”

Lady Three gets back in the mix:

Lady Three: “What you’re saying is that God should have made us robots”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to Lady Three] “Yes, that’s how I’m seeing what Steve is saying, too.”

Hammer and chisel anyone?

Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to me] If you were God how would you do it?”
Me: “I’d create a paradise where people have the sort of free will that they will supposedly have in your idea of heaven. Where the only things they want to do are good things. No rape, murder, assault, and heartache. Just a wondrous place where everyone shows immense love for one another, and where everyone gets along. An eternity of peace, happiness and well-being. That’s how I’d do it. So what I’m asking you is this: Could God create a system where people have a version of free will where the possibility of raping and abusing children is not there? If you say, “Yes” then I’d like for you to explain to me why God didn’t create such a system in the first place.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Because God is after perfect holiness, perfect righteousness. Not a watered down version”
Me: “So in order for a select few to achieve this state of holiness they must go through a system where the majority of God’s creations are nothing more than collateral damage, as they starve to death, are raped, abused, tortured, and so on?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes”
Me: “I don’t think there’s anything further to add”

Lady Three thinks she has a solution to the problem:

Lady Three: “The reason why kids are raped is because Satan has influenced people. It’s not because God created it like that.”
Me: “You’re missing the point altogether. God created Satan, knowing in advance what he would do. God could have created a system without Satan, without pain and suffering, and without gratuitous evil. But he didn’t. Ultimately the buck stops with God”

The discussion suddenly turns into a heated free-for-all. Everyone in the group is trying to get their point across to me, and it becomes somewhat of an inaudible jumble. I sit for a moment shaking my head. Lady Three can see that things are getting out of control and tries to shush the baying crowd. The most vociferous of them all is the new Christian male, who’s doing his best to shout over the top of everybody else. As they say, there is none so passionate as a new convert.

Lady Three manages to quieten everyone down and asks me to carry on with what I was saying. I’m thankful to Lady Three. Once again she proves to me that she is the best of the bunch. I ask the question once again:

Me: “God could have created a system where humans live in paradise from the very beginning, just like how you all believe you will live in heaven. If God is so concerned for human welfare, and for us all to worship him, why didn’t he just do that in the first place?”
Pastor: “Well, we’ve answered that question. That was God’s choice and his ways are better than our ways.”

I’m beginning to think that someone should nominate me for the Queen’s Honours List, for my sustained and dedicated services to patience, of course.

The pastor continues:

Pastor: “You just want to blame God. You just want robots. I’m telling you that God didn’t want robots.”
Me: “You’ve told me that heaven is going to be perfect. We’re all going to get along and we’re all going to love each other”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah”
Me: “But God could have made it that way from the off. We don’t need billions of innocent casualties in order to achieve complete happiness.”

The new Christian male then goes into a tirade about how Satan (in the guise of a “smooth talking serpent”) deceived Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge. Satan is to blame for all the world’s ills.

“And who created a garden with such a serpent in it?” asks my fellow sceptic.

Pastor: “I understand your argument. You want to blame God”
Me: “God created the system, did he not?”
Pastor: “I can only give the answer that I’ve given to you. It doesn’t satisfy you, and I can’t change that. But I’ve answered your question”
Me: “With respect, you haven’t really. All you’ve said is God knows best. It doesn’t answer anything”
Pastor: “I accept your argument that it would have been nice to get to heaven without all the raping and the killing. I agree with you on that, but that’s not the way God has chosen. He’s chosen it to be like this instead. I don’t know why.”
Me: “If God chooses it to be like this – a system where innocent people are victims – what, then, makes you so convinced that God is all good, and that he has even the slightest interest in our welfare?”
Pastor: “The fact that God is holy. And because he is so holy no other created being has the right, however good they may be, to be in his presence because that created being is not holy. We are not worthy of being in his presence. Until you perceive the holiness of God, and the miracle of anything else standing in his presence, you have no understanding of the miracle of grace. Until you recognise the holiness and that God is God is God is God [huh?] then human argument and reason can never understand why this dilemma has happened”
Me: “I admire your attempt to explain the situation, but, with respect, and try as I may, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, to be honest.”

The long-standing male member is still keen to press the issue. He tells me that God gave us free will because he wanted us to choose whether or not we loved him. He continues:

Long-Standing Male Member: “The argument I could make is that we’d be robots if it were any different. If we HAD to love God then we wouldn’t be free.”
Me: “Are you free in heaven not to love him?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m choosing IN THIS LIFE to love God. I make the choice HERE
Me: “Oh, so there’s no choice in heaven? I gather from that that we aren’t free in heaven, then”
New Christian Male: “I think if you didn’t love God he would kick you out of heaven until you said sorry to him”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. I’ve just got to make sure that I listen to Jesus and obey what God’s word says. It’s living that Christian life. I’m preparing myself NOW for when I get to heaven. So when you ask if I have the choice not to love God when I get to heaven the answer is no, because I’m making the choice now.”
Me: “No choice in heaven? So you’re a robot in heaven, then”
Long-Standing Male Member: “No, because I’ve made the choice here.”

The words, “This”, “Is”, “Like”, “Talking”, “To”, “A”, “Brick”, and “Wall” spring to mind, possibly in that order, too.

Long-Standing Male Member: “Would you murder someone?”
Me: “No, of course not”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Not loving God is the same way, it’s like murder. So I’m not going to do it.”
Me: “We’re going round in circles”.
Long-Standing Male Member: “God doesn’t want murder. He doesn’t even want white lies. When you use the example of children being raped you’re using a very emotional topic.”
Me: “Because it’s probably the worst thing I can think of. The simple fact of the matter is that God created a system where such atrocious things can and will occur. And he knew all of this in advance.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “God wants relationships to be pure and holy”
Me: “As I keep saying, God could have made it so that we had pure and holy relationships without anyone ever raping a defenceless, innocent child. But he didn’t.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah, he didn’t”
Me: “Yet you cling to the belief that this God character is all-loving and wants no one to come to harm. I don’t know how you can reconcile that belief with the evidence we have around us in the world”
Long-Standing Male Member: “The reason he didn’t make it without all those nasty things is because he’s given us the free choice. We surrender our lives to God. Being a Christian is not easy. Some people don’t want to be Christians because they don’t want to change their lifestyle.”
Me: “I’d be willing to change if I knew of some evidence in favour of what you’ve had to say. But genuinely I know of none.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “The only way to please God is by faith”

Brilliant this, isn’t it? As I’m typing up this transcript I’m sure I’ve headbutted the wall at least twice, and sprouted a dozen or so more grey hairs.

Long-Standing Male Member: “Faith comes by hearing the word, so you need to spend more time reading the Bible”

I sit back, take a sip from my glass of water and hope [maybe I should pray?] that someone talks about something else. The pastor looks at his watch. It’s 9pm, time for the session to end. The pastor explains that he has to leave immediately in order to make an important phone call. He states that we are free to continue our discussion, though, and that we can stay over for as long as we want. He may even manage to get back before we’ve all gone home, he says. He gets up out of his chair and thanks me for attending. I joke, “You’re leaving? I was just on the brink of giving my life to Christ!” The group laughs, and the pastor shakes my hand and tells me that he hopes that I’ll stay in touch.

As the pastor exits the building Lady Two turns to me and says:

Lady Two: “God is just waiting. The night that I found him [here we go] he was just waiting for me, too. He was waiting for me to reach up to him, you see. As soon as I reached up to him, as a child would, I was looking at him as a God who was white. That’s how I saw him. I didn’t question it, I just thought, “God, you are white. If you’re there, and you’re the God of that Bible, then you’re white and I want to be your child. You know?”
Me: [Trying to nip this in the bud] “Like I’ve said before quite a few times in the past, that’s fair enough”
Lady Two: “That’s how I saw it. He met me in ABSOLUTE LOVE. It was… it was… I can’t describe the ABSOLUTE LOVE that it was. It was just ABSOLUTE LOVE being poured into me. Because I’d reached up to him, in a child-like way, and recognised that if he was there then I wanted to be right with him.”
Me: “Great”
Lady Two: “That was all I needed to do. It was as SIMPLE AS THAT. And that is what he’s waiting for, he’s waiting for his children to say sorry for what they’ve done wrong, that they recognise their sins, they recognise where they’ve been out of line with him, and they’re just saying sorry for it. They’re saying “I want to be your child, I want you in my life and I want to follow your way”. And that’s all he wants.”
Me: [Trying my best to just agree with her] “Ok”
Lady Two:I’M NOT A LIAR, I’M NOT A LIAR. It was simple. All you need to do is go to your maker, go to that place in your mind and APPEAL to him. It’s as simple as that. For me it was over in a space of two minutes, it was all done with. He had ABSOLUTELY convinced me 100% that it was all true.”
Me: [Doing my best to tread carefully here] “I don’t think for one moment that you’re lying to me. But you must remember that people can say things that are false without actually telling a lie. A lie requires intent. Lets say that [the long-standing male member] tells me that he used to live in Australia for twenty years. He would be lying. But I wouldn’t know that. If I went and told you that he used to live in Australia for twenty years I would be spreading a falsehood, but I wouldn’t be lying. He would be lying to me but I wouldn’t be lying to you. Being led to believe a certain thing, which unbeknownst to you is false, does not mean that you’re lying if you then go and tell someone about it. You’d just be mistaken. There’s a difference. Like I say, I don’t think you’re lying to me at all. I think you’re completely convinced by all of this.”

Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to me] “I’d like to ask you something, Steve. Over the last eleven weeks how do you think we have shared the Gospel with you? In a way I’m kinda asking for a review of how you’ve viewed what we have had to say.”

[That’s interesting, isn’t it? I wonder if this website might be of some assistance?]

Me: “I think you’re all incredibly sincere and passionate people. I’m quite fond of all of you.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Have we shared the Gospel with you? Have we communicated the Gospel to you as best we can? Have we communicated to you that Jesus is God, that he came down as a human being, gave up his divine powers, died on the cross for our sins and rose again?”
Me: “Sure”
Long-Standing Male Member: “There’s something that’s been hitting home to me this week and for some reason I’ve felt the need to share it with you. None of us, NONE OF US, deserve to go to heaven. Ok? I deserve to go into heaven as much as the person who is raping a three year old kid. Which is NIL. Ok? None of us deserve to go into heaven. It’s purely God’s choice to give us the opportunity to go into heaven. That’s what the Gospel is. I believe what I believe, and that’s how it is. And when you tell me to look at another faith, and how they supposedly “prove” their arguments, my faith is strong enough not to be fazed by it. Just like your faith is strong enough to make you think, “No, there is no God””
Me: [Laughs] “No, that’s not my faith at all. In fact I don’t think I’ve said such a thing in all of the eleven weeks that I’ve been here.”
Lady Two: [Turns to me excitedly] “You want to believe that there is a God! You WANT to believe that there IS!
Me: “Well, not really. I don’t WANT to believe that there is a god. I’m just interested to know if there is a god or not. But, as it stands at the moment, I have no reason for believing that there is a god. Especially not the kind of god who is supposedly all-loving, and who supposedly has a vested interest in the welfare of human beings, yet for the entirety of human history has allowed kids to be raped in their millions.”
Lady Two: “But God HATES that. It’s not what he wanted!”
Me: [Tongue in cheek] “Well, I think it’s best if I decline the opportunity to repeat myself for the 114th time”

All of the group smile and take my comment as a lighthearted acceptance that we’re not going to solve anything on this particular problem. That is all of the group with the exception of the new Christian male, who looks at me and says:

New Christian Male: “Let’s hope that you’re not forced into believing in God when something bad happens to you.”
Me: “Well, let’s not hope for that, hey?”
New Christian Male: “That’s the only way some people can come to understand God. With my hand on my heart I hope it doesn’t take that for you to believe in God. But if it does then you know why.”

This is nothing but a veiled threat. I’m sure anyone else with less patience than I would have told him where to go, and very promptly, and perhaps with an accompanying scuff of the earlobe for good measure. I understand, though, that he’s just keen to fit in with the group, he’s trying his best to be “one of them”, and this often clouds his judgment. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, and I choose not to respond in the way that many people might have.

A few moments later we are discussing charity, and the group tell me about how some Christians work tirelessly for charity. I agree with them, yes, some Christians do work tirelessly for charity, as do some atheists and some Muslims, some Sikhs and some Hindus. To which the new Christian male responds “Yeah, but they’re just jumping on the bandwagon”

I take the group back a few weeks, and take the opportunity to remind them of the session when the pastor laid hands on me. He asked God to reveal himself to me but I’ve heard nothing from God since. There’s been no sign of this God character anywhere. I ask the group why they think God failed to show. No one seems particularly keen to offer an explanation. That is until the new Christian male chimes up with his own theory:

New Christian Male: “When you talk to Muslims do you talk about Allah with them?”
Me: “Of course”
New Christian Male: “Then that is why God is saying, “I won’t speak to you unless you come away from Allah””
Me: “Eh? So I’m not allowed to talk to Muslims?”
New Christian Male: “Talk to Muslims, yes, but don’t talk to them about their faith. Because God thinks you’re going to go to Allah”
Me: “I have to understand what it is that people believe. To do that I have to talk to them about it”
New Christian Male: “You might go home at night and ask God to reveal himself to you but he might be thinking, “Why should I reveal myself to Steve when he’s talking to Muslims about Allah?” God is saying “If Steve wants to be with me then he cannot listen to Allah” So if you don’t talk to Allah then God will talk to you. Then you’ll hear God. Read the Old Testament. When Hezekiah became king of Judah he did evil in the eyes of the Lord. When he decided to talk to another god he was punished by the real God”

Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

The long-standing male member has, what he thinks, a better explanation for why it is that God never revealed himself to me:

Long-Standing Male Member: “I think the more time you spend reading the Bible, especially the New Testament, at some stage the Holy Spirit will reveal himself. That’s why they call it the living word. It’s where the Holy Spirit can take the word and apply it to my life to make me more like Jesus. The reason why God wants us to surrender our lives to him is so that we can become more like Jesus. God wants us to be exactly like Jesus. The two hours or so that you’ve been spending here every week try to use that time in the future for reading the New Testament. It’s great that you’re reading lots of other books. I’m not saying don’t read other books. But if you’re REALLY seeking God then read the New Testament”
Me: “I’ve read the New Testament several times”
New Christian Male: “Every night, every night, you must read it every night”
Lady Two: “When I was a hoper, Stephen, I used to think “Even if it’s not true I want to support it in terms of the way I live my life and the way I treat other people”. Because it’s the nicest ideology, it’s the nicest story going. You know, that a saviour had come to save me from my sins and to show me the way to live my life properly and everything. When I was a hoper, like you, I used to analyse it too. I used to think, “Well, it’s a fantastic story, and even if it’s not true I’m going to try and live my life largely as much as I can to follow it”. I tried to be kind and I tried to say nice things to people because I came to the conclusion that out of all the ways to live your life it was the best one to follow. You know? The ideology was so nice, that God loved us so much that he’d done his utmost to make us live a nice life and a happy life and everything, by following him and working for him. It gave my life purpose, it gave my life direction, it made life fruitful because I would meet other people who were kind and who kept on the straight and narrow as well. They treated each other with respect and everything. Everything was nice about it. So I was always that hoper following it. You know?”

My fellow sceptic looks at me and, with a wink and a shake of the head, states, “You must try harder, Steve”. Everyone laughs.

We’ve over run the time by about 45mins but we’ve all enjoyed our chat and this seems as good a time as any to call a close to the evening. I tell the group that I have really appreciated their time, and that I have enjoyed the course immensely. They thank me for attending.

Lady Three asks, “We’d like to say a final prayer if that’s alright. Is that alright?”. My fellow sceptic and I reply with an “Of course. No problem”

Lady Three: “Heavenly father, we thank you for this course. It has given us the chance to get together and talk about you and to debate different ideas. Lord, I just pray that it would be great if you did reveal yourself to them. To show the truth and the reality of what you’re about, Lord. We can’t persuade them, Lord, it’s got to be you, in a way that is tangible and real to them. Lord, only you know the depth of their hearts and where they are. Lord, thank you for the time we’ve spent together and thank you for the friendships that have developed over the great evenings we’ve had together. Lord I pray that you watch over us and keep us safe, and we ask this in the name of Jesus our Lord.”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

Lady Two has a go:

Lady Two: “Thank you, God, that your Holy Spirit is evidently working in both their hearts, that they’re searching for you as they are and that they come to the meetings every week like they do. You are working in them and that’s obvious, Lord. I just earnestly ask, Lord, that you would not leave them alone. Not let them have rest. I don’t want them to have rest, Lord, until they’ve tussled it out and found you, Lord. I just want them not to give up and to be wrestling with it, and to be searching for you, and for them not to be happy with the direction of their lives until they have made a commitment, Lord, and for you to reach down and make yourself real to them, Lord. I just want that, Lord, because I know it means a lot to them and I know that to have come here for eleven weeks it is obvious that both of them are searching and both of them would love a direction in life which is so holy, so purposeful, and so lovely. I just pray, Lord, that they will both find it in their own time and in their own way. In Jesus’ name. Amen. “
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

The room remains silent for a moment or two, then gradually the Christians in the group open their eyes and look approvingly towards my fellow sceptic and I.

People start to move out of their seats and I help Lady Two clear the pots away. On our walk to the kitchen we all chat about family life and such.

I approach my fellow sceptic and tell him that it was lovely to meet him. Shame we didn’t really get to chat together all that much. When everything is cleared away I put on my coat and say my goodbyes for the last time. I wish everyone well then head for the door. As I open the door to exit the church I bump into the pastor who is on his way back in. We shake each other’s hand and wish each other well for the future. “Stay in touch”, he says. I pat him on the shoulder; thank him for his patience and then I slip him a little bit of money as my contribution towards the cheesecakes and fruit salads that have been on offer over the last eleven weeks. “That’s very kind of you, Stephen” says the pastor. One last final handshake and then I open the church door and head back to my car for the journey home.

My time on the Alpha Course has come to an end.

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November 24, 2008 - Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

152 Comments »

  1. PASTOR
    She told me that they were such a small band of people, and that the people around Jesus wouldn’t have been able to write.

    CARR
    Gosh, I thought Christianity grew explosively with 3000 people being converted by one Peter speech (Jesus must have been turning in his grave when he saw how successful the movement was now that he was no longer doing the preaching)

    And Matthew and John wrote Gospels, while Peter wrote letters.

    Now we learn that the people near to Jesus would not have been able to write.

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 24, 2008

  2. Christian on the course ‘None of us, NONE OF US, deserve to go to heaven. Ok? I deserve to go into heaven as much as the person who is raping a three year old kid.’

    CARR
    Obviously the guy is crazy if he thinks the three year old kid is as hell bound as the person who is raping the child.

    I hope that his God finds it in his heart to forgive the child.

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 24, 2008

  3. Pretty epic end, but the cognitive brick wall seemed to be getting bigger and bigger as time went on. Hopefully one day these people will one day understand what you were trying to get at

    Comment by Stylesjl | November 24, 2008

  4. The Bible is very clear that rape is wrong, and punishes the rapist with the greatest severity possible – he is forced to marry the girl he raped.

    ‘If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.’

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 24, 2008

  5. Well done again! A most interesting read.

    Regards the “New Christian Male” and his veiled threat, I’ve seen this before many times. A well reasoned challenge to cognitive dissonance often produces anger.

    Any chance of you doing the Scientologists next? 🙂

    Comment by Steve Jones | November 24, 2008

  6. Steve Jones wrote: “Any chance of you doing the Scientologists next?”

    It’s funny you should mention that, Steve. Although I don’t have any plans to do a write up about scientologists, I did actually spend a full year with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (November 2006 – November 2007) and managed to record over 100 hours of audio with them over that 12-month period.

    I took them up on their offer of a home Bible study, and each week they came to my home and we worked our way through their book, “What Does The Bible Really Teach”.

    We had some truly remarkable conversations, and some of the claims they made were nothing short of mind blowing. They put the Alpha Course group to shame, that’s for sure.

    I don’t know if I’ll write a blog about my time spent with them, but it’s something I’m mulling over at the moment.

    What I am hoping to do most of all, though, is finish writing a book that I had started a couple of years ago. I have quite a fair amount already written, so I may approach a publisher in the not-too-distant future. We’ll see.

    All the very best,

    Stephen Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | November 24, 2008

  7. I’m not surprised you are nonplussed and remain unconverted after your Alpha Course experience. Based on what the attendees and the pastor said about heaven, God’s role in ‘allowing’ rape, child abuse etc, it is more a surprise to me that they are such believers.

    It is evident to me that your knowledge of the New and Old Testaments is greater than theirs. The self-proclaimed UK’s expert on spirituality nothingness is also apparently something of an expert on scripture.

    But then spirituality is completely different to intellectual prowess. Intellectuals can also be spiritual just as spiritual individuals can also be bright. However, those who take excessive pride in their intellectual accomplishments/ endowments often have empty hearts.

    Luke 10:21 “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure”

    I would like to turn very briefly to a couple of things you mention.

    “Lady Three: “The reason why kids are raped is because Satan has influenced people. It’s not because God created it like that.”
    Me: “You’re missing the point altogether. God created Satan, knowing in advance what he would do. God could have created a system without Satan, without pain and suffering, and without gratuitous evil. But he didn’t. Ultimately the buck stops with God”

    Lady three has it right.
    On your point, when God created Lucifer the latter was certainly not the evil fallen-angel who is the prince of this world. He was, rather next only to God. this is why in Ezekiel 28:12-17, we read:

    ““You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. 14 You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. 16 Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. 17 Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.”

    Satan became what he is after he was cast to earth. He now holds sway over the Earth. This is why even Jesus refers to Satan as the ‘Prince of this world’.

    Finally, you write: “Me: “Supposedly we have free will in heaven, yet never do any wrong. If this sort of free will is possible then God could have given us it in the first place. No kids tortured, no innocent people murdered, no rapes, no muggings, no assaults, nothing like that need ever happen. But God didn’t give us that sort of free will. He gave us the kind where people WILL commit all the atrocities I just mentioned. And, worst of all, he knew it all in advance. And you honestly want us to believe that he loves and cares for us?”

    Now, I don’t know if this is what heaven will be like, but it is what the new earth (described in John’s Revelation and Daniel) will be like when Jesus returns again and establishes His kingdom on Earth. Will all this coincide with 21/12/12? Should we read about St. Faustina (check that one out Mr. Carr) to know what the signs will be?

    The point is that the idyl you describe is what was originally intended before Adam relinquished power to Satan in the Garden of Eden. Instead, we got the fall and Satan has been in control since…until Jesus Christ conquered death on the cross.

    There..I’ve given enough material for the UK’s ‘Greatest Atheist’ to play with!

    Comment by Anthony | November 24, 2008

  8. Goodness, Anthony, what a mean-spirited comment. Where has Steve ever indicated that he thinks of himself as “The self-proclaimed UK’s expert on spirituality nothingness (sic)” or “UK’s ‘Greatest Atheist’”? Why should it be a surprise that he knows something about scripture? From my experience, atheists frequently know more scripture than christians, simply because once you know what’s actually in the bible, it is far harder to give it any credence.

    Isn’t it funny that as soon as atheists start defending or reasoning out their position in public, they are accused of being “militant atheists” or “fundamentalist atheists.” It is as if anyone who will not instantly defer to the faithful in the name of “respect” must automatically be some sort of hard-line extremist. Rebecca West famously wrote “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.” I, myself, have never been able to find out precisely what militant atheism is: I only know that the accusation is thrown about when people not only hold atheist views but are prepared to robustly express them.

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 24, 2008

  9. Ian…if I was talking about the author of this blog it would be mean spirited. But I’m referring to Mr. Steven Carr.

    Comment by Anthony | November 24, 2008

  10. Here you go
    “The UK’s leading atheist” – http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/christ.htm

    Comment by Anthony | November 24, 2008

  11. Anthony, I misunderstood you, and I apologise.

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 24, 2008

  12. Although… while I don’t take back my apology (I really am sorry for accusing you of something that you didn’t intend), I would contest that your wording was ambiguous at best. Much of what you write is directly addressed to Steve B. The references to Steve C are oblique.

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 24, 2008

  13. Anthony can get nothing right.

    The title of my web page is ‘The UK’s leading atheist web page’. I wonder why Anthony decided to change it so he could be mean-spirited and vicious….

    I would be interested to know which web pages were better than mine when I set it up over a decade ago. I think there were only two, making my claim as totally inerrant as anything in the Bible!

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 25, 2008

  14. ANTONY
    The point is that the idyl you describe is what was originally intended before Adam relinquished power to Satan in the Garden of Eden.

    CARR
    Gosh, your god is as dumb as a rock!

    Apparently it was Satan in the garden.

    And your god cursed snakes, because Satan possessed a snake.

    Eve was fooled by Satan, and so was this alleged god, who cursed snakes, unaware that the snake was actually Satan in disguise.

    At least I know how to avoid damnation. I just wear a Ronald Reagan mask and this god will not know who I really am.

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 25, 2008

  15. Ahh but there is a problem with your talk about satan anthony.

    It is true that satan was a good angel when created, but God would still know what was going to happen with him! All knowing, yes? So he had to approve of satan, fall and everything.

    Omniscience implies responsibility. At least when paired with omnipotence.

    Comment by Cat of Many Faces | November 25, 2008

  16. Antony says:

    “Satan became what he is after he was cast to earth. He now holds sway over the Earth. This is why even Jesus refers to Satan as the ‘Prince of this world’. ”

    If I catch a wolf, and put it in a fold with a flock of sheep, are the deaths of the sheep that will almost certainly result the fault of the wolf…or are they *my* fault?

    And, as Cat of Many Faces points out, it’s much worse than that, with God. Because I only have a very strong certainty of what the wolf will do…I cannot be 100% sure. God, on the other hand, being omniscient, KNOWS for certain how Satan will act, knows for certain the suffering that will result, knew everything that would transpire after he created Satan. What are we to think? That God intended the suffering and pain? That is our only possible conclusion. Why would he want that?

    Comment by Steve Jones | November 25, 2008

  17. Stephen, a most interesting review, and pause for thought for anyone considering running an Alpha course!

    I have to say I’m bemused by the fact that you apparently built up friendly relationships with these people, became fond of them, and IIRC even said ‘I’m being honest with you’ or ‘I’m not lying to you’ (sorry I can’t find the exact quote – I admit it’s out of context) yet, unless I missed it or you simply didn’t tell us this bit, were quite happy to record the audio and post this blog without anyone’s permission (albeit you didn’t post their names). Now I’m aware that an Alpha course is open to all, but surely it’s one thing to welcome anyone attending, and another to unknowingly have your words recorded and distributed elsewhere. I think a few other posters commented on this too.

    So, did your fellow Alpha-goers know or didn’t they, and if not, what’s your response?

    As I said, well done, and I hope you keep exploring – perhaps find a different group of not-so-literal Christians and do a compare-and-contrast?

    Dave

    Comment by Dave | November 25, 2008

  18. Dave said: “I have to say I’m bemused by the fact that you apparently built up friendly relationships with these people, became fond of them, and IIRC even said ‘I’m being honest with you’ or ‘I’m not lying to you’… yet… were quite happy to record the audio…”
    Hello Dave. At the very beginning of the very first session I asked if it was ok to use my audio recorder, and the group was fine with it. So I haven’t been dishonest and I wasn’t lying to them.

    Dave said: “… and post this blog without anyone’s permission (albeit you didn’t post their names).”
    I didn’t need their permission to write a blog about my time spent on the course. Your comment in brackets is an important one, as I have intentionally written my review in such a way that the members of the group remain anonymous throughout. Not only are there no names, there isn’t even a location.

    Dave said: “As I said, well done, and I hope you keep exploring – perhaps find a different group of not-so-literal Christians and do a compare-and-contrast?”
    Oddly enough, Dave, I’ve already done that (see comment#6, above). I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Christians of most denominations, as well as quite a number of Muslims and Hindus.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | November 25, 2008

  19. Steven Carr wrote: “The title of my web page is ‘The UK’s leading atheist web page’. I wonder why Anthony decided to change it so he could be mean-spirited and vicious….”

    Steven, interesting to hear an atheist use the term ‘mean-spirited’. I’m sure it was intended only as a turn of phrase and you do not actually believe in ‘spirits’. After all, in your materialism, spirits do not exist (the mind being only a computer, thoughts the random happenings of chemical reactions, no such thing as conciousness). It would be interesting to hear you address more difficult areas of enquiries e.g. such as the apparently critical role of the observer in quantum theory and how this still fits in with your model of spiritual nothingness. As it is, you are reduced to making cheap shots by concentrating on the nature of God (whether He is, as many believe, pure love).

    Finally, can you please explain something you said a few weeks ago when we were talking about a dear gentlemen by the name of Maitreya. As you will recall, you pointed to the miracles (including a sighting in Nairobi) he is said to have performed and you said (in so many words) that in X years, there will be no-one on earth who will not have heard of Maitreya due to his miraculous deeds etc. My question is: how can you tally your statements with an atheist stance? It is once thing to use atheism to attack religion in general (including Christianity) and quite another to seemingly endorse an occult figure like Maitreya.

    (even more) finally, you say “I would be interested to know which web pages were better than mine when I set it up over a decade ago” To which one might (if one were so mean-spirited) suggest that there were no better home computers than the ZX80 not so long ago!

    Comment by Anthony | November 26, 2008

  20. On the question of God creating Adam and giving him custody of the Earth when knowing all along that Satan was present (had in fact already been cast to Earth) and would succesfully tempt them into doing evil…..

    Let’s go back to the beginning.

    “1.In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
    2. Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

    A question back to you: what happened between 1 (in the beginning) and 2 Now. Why was the earth formless and empty? Most suppose that it was formless and empty because God had not created light etc. Maybe, but what if 1 happened billions of years ago (consistent with the Big Bang) and 2 was 6,000 or so years ago? How would this reconcile with legends of ancient civilisations such as Atlantis as related by Plato and others, legends of angelic wars (following which Satan was cast to Earth along with one third of all angels) If the Earth was practically destroyed (and I am reliant here on the work of Velikovsy…Worlds in Collision as well as Firestone, West et al http://www.amazon.com/Cycle-Cosmic-Catastrophes-Stone-Age-Changed/dp/1591430615, James McCanney etc) and rebuilt 6,000 years ago…then what?

    This is an area of serious research for me…I accept neither the literalist ‘creationist’ ideas that everything was created 6,000 years ago, nor the opposite (atheist apologetic) idea that the universe has always existed and we’ve simply..evolved from star dust.

    Comment by Anthony | November 26, 2008

  21. Apologies for taking up so much bandwidth…it was precisely because of what happened in the Garden of Eden (the Fall) that God sent Jesus.

    Comment by Anthony | November 26, 2008

  22. Anthony,

    If you really think that it is strange for atheists to use terms like “mean-spirited”, as I also did upthread (without appreciating the historical context, and how religion has appropriated many words that can be used in other contexts, transcendental being another case in point); if you really think that atheists think that there is no shuch thing as conciousness; and if you really think that computers were not much better than ZX80s just over a decade ago (I was an IT manager at that time, and computers and the internet were not fundamentally different to what they are now), then I’m not sure that we have much in the way of common ground for discussion.

    And this is before we even begin to deal with “demonic possession is a reality” (week 10 comment 12).

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 26, 2008

  23. Antony simply cannot read or comprehend what people say.

    I said that Maitreya does not even exist, but people have reported seeing him.

    And I sarcastically claimed that it could very well be just like Jesus, and in 2000 years people will say it is irrational to deny that the Maitreya existed.

    Comment by Steven Carr | November 26, 2008

  24. This has been one of the most consistently entertaining blogs I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a good few). I’m so sad to come to the end of it – I hope we hear much more in the same vein! And I’m mad curious to hear more about the book you’re writing … are you going to drop a few hints?

    Comment by Spud | November 26, 2008

  25. Proof of divine authorship of Genesis.
    http://www.s8int.com/page30.html

    Would love to hear how the atheists could explain away this one…especially since “Unsettling though the implications are to mainstream science, the research has made it past the usual critical hurdles into two scientific journals: Statistical Science and Journal of the Royal Statistical Society.”

    Is it possible that hardcore atheists, having so much intellectual investment in their (non) beliefs, could ever be convinced by anything that was contrary to their sacred cow (oops, there I go again with another religion-inspired expression!)

    CONCLUSION:”One is reminded of the persistent (but after 80 years at last weakening) skepticism that greeted certain results in quantum mechanics research: for example, that what happens in every part of the universe instantaneously–or even backwards in time–influences, in measurable degree, what happens everywhere else. Should the “codes in the Torah” phenomenon remain undefeated, perhaps in the light of such astonishing findings in modern science it, too, will one day seem not so preposterous.

    What then was the purpose of encoding this information into the text? Some would say it is the Author’s signature. Is it His way of assuring us that at this particular, late moment–when our scientific, materialistic doubt has reached its apotheosis, when we have been driven to the brink of radical skepticism–that He is precisely who He said He is in that astonishing, radical core document of the Judeo-Christian tradition?”

    Comment by Anthony | November 27, 2008

  26. Naturally, I recognise (past posting) that bible codes is a controversial area with people on both sides of the fence (a bit like Ron Wyatt in fact). Please do not therefore assume I am not aware of the arguments for and against. It would seem that ELS has never been properly refuted, however, a bit like Wyatt’s work.

    Comment by Anthony | November 27, 2008

  27. C’mon Anthony, give us something real to engage with. That whole site is madder than a box of frogs.

    Comment by Ian Edmond | November 27, 2008

  28. Anthony,

    Witzum et al.’s paper published in 1988, Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis? It passed peer review as to general methodology, but the reviewers do not re-analyze the data, and the question as to whether this was a unique case, as is certainly implied by fans of the paper, was answered by the now-somewhat-famous accomplishment of the same feat with War and Peace.

    A further summary paper by McKay et al. and some ongoing replies to Witzum’s baseless complaints are here: http://cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/dilugim/StatSci/

    Velikovsky, too, the man with a fun idea but with no understanding of orbital mechanics?

    Atlantis??

    *grin* Have you yet to meet a conspiracy theory that you didn’t like? 🙂

    Comment by Ritchie Annand | November 27, 2008

  29. Hi,Ritchie

    If you are still clinging to the traditional Newtonian model of orbital mechanics, aren’t you a bit out of date? Velikovsky got a few things wrong, but the fact is that electromagnestism is vastly more powerful and prevalent a force in the universe.

    “Conspiracy theories” is a nice term to use to avoid getting into the merits of arguments. Unless of course you believe in the accidental theory of history and that, for example, a bunch of bearded cave-dwellers were responsible for the collapse of 3 large buildings on 911.

    Thanks for the links to McKay et al…I am aware of their rebuttals but, as you know, there are rebuttals to their work too! All we know is that there is still phenomena in the codes that has not been properly explained by the doubters.

    None of which you will find, alas, in the Alpha Course.

    Comment by Anthony | November 28, 2008

  30. Ian Edmond..you asked for something ‘real to engage with’. How about contrasting a near-death experience as related by St Bede in the 7th century with modern ND experiences. The similarities are remarkable, particularly in the description of ‘the void’, & darkness. Please meditate on this.

    Here is the URL

    http://www.near-death.com/experiences/research15.html

    And Bede.

    http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/bede/hist129.htm

    Comment by Anthony | November 28, 2008

  31. Anthony,

    “If you are still clinging to the traditional Newtonian model of orbital mechanics, aren’t you a bit out of date?”

    *laugh* Indeed? I am familiar with the Pioneer anomaly as well, the variances in the Lagos satellites, and the processions of Mercury. While interesting, none of them are even remotely of the magnitude necessary to deviate from plain Newtonian calculations to the degree that Velikovsky required.

    “Velikovsky got a few things wrong, but the fact is that electromagnestism is vastly more powerful and prevalent a force in the universe”.

    Electromagnetism is indeed more powerful, but its efficacy is vastly limited by the ratio of cancelling charges, and even a strongly-charged object can only attract a neutral object by the sum of inordinately tiny dipoles. Even a planetary rubbing with Jupiter-sized silk or fur would not be enough to get the effects Velikovsky wants.

    I’m even aware of Alfven’s plasma cosmology. It, too, doesn’t have the effects you would need.

    The fact that Velikovsky interjects the possibility of an earth-sized mass of iron filings to help generate the eight billion gauss field required to stop the sun in the sky should be a clue to how strained his story was, not to mention the effects on the Earth and its contents when subjected to the resultant torque!

    ““Conspiracy theories” is a nice term to use to avoid getting into the merits of arguments.”

    Avoid it? It is “merely” tiring. Conspiracy theories work backwards from suspicion and incredulity and ignore evidence that does not conform, takes non-replies as confirmation that something sinister is at work, and then takes replies as additional confirmation that these are just people in the sway of sinister forces. Implants, reptilians, expanding Earth, UFOs, Illuminati, 9/11 truthism, NDEs, Chi… what have you.

    There’s also the matter of apologetics, which cherry-picks any available evidence that might be in concord with their beliefs, or interpretable as in concord with their beliefs, and use those points to claim that they lead to the things that they believe in, but this is an exercise you can repeat with almost any fiction.

    I never know sometimes if I’m dealing with a person suffering from schizophrenia.

    I’m not completely beholden to mainstream thoughts, but I give merit to those that have been through the empirical and theoretical grinder, which include a lot of current science. On the other hand, I find string theory, despite its very understandable noble initial intentions, devoid of any utility except for mathematical curiosity. I do not expect results from the LHC to vindicate it.

    “All we know is that there is still phenomena in the codes that has not been properly explained by the doubters.”

    If you finish that sentence “…that the doubters OF the doubters will ever accept,” then I would concur 😉

    Something along the lines of “there are no transitional forms” because every discovery creates two new gaps 🙂

    Comment by Ritchie Annand | November 29, 2008

  32. Stephen -> I often wondered about the zombies 🙂

    27:52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
    27:53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

    Based on my readings over the years, the Bible often seems a bit confused as to what exactly happens after death. In one version, it seems that in death, you stay in your body (I’ve seen it argued that you are your body, and that the Old Testament “soul” meant body) but your batteries, your ruach, your Breath of God, runs out, and you have to remain intact for Judgment Day when your body will be reanimated… and in the other version, your soul is separate from your body and is released when your body dies to go to its fate pretty much immediately.

    Then there might be some weird combination of the two with a sleeping dualistic soul trapped inside a body which has to remain intact for Judgment Day.

    Some of the church prohibitions on cremation have been explained as related to need those bodies intact, but in a strangely utilitarian concern, cremation was allowed once church graveyards started to become disgusting and dangerous.

    (If you have any light to shed on my collected memory of history, do share it. The sources of my remembered history often stem from a decade ago or more )

    The zombie story certainly seems to compound that confusion, not to mention its ahistoricity.

    I’m reading Michael Onfray’s “In Defense Of Atheism”. I must say that it’s an interesting read; it has a significantly different “flavour” than many others on the market today, and focuses in a lot more on history, anti-intellectualism, philosophy and the like as well as several interesting turns of phrase. It’s a good translation from the original French, but there are a lot of French philosophers and figures with which I admit to being completely unfamiliar. Recommended if you have not yet read it.

    Comment by Ritchie Annand | November 29, 2008

  33. Hi Ritchie,

    I read the Michael Onfray book a couple of years ago (though at that time it was published in the US under the title “Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam”). Like you I enjoyed it immensely. I remember making a considerable amount of notes and jotting down a number of quotes (as I do with all the books I read), especially early on in the book. I must say I’ve had some mileage out of his “perpetual mental infantilism” phrase, as given on page 1 of the Introduction.

    If you enjoyed Onfray’s book then you may find Michael Martin’s similarly titled, “The Case Against Christianity” to be just as rewarding.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | November 29, 2008

  34. Thanks for the book recommendation; I just finished Onfray’s book, and it was very good, in the final analysis, but with a fairly weak ending – his final thesis should have taken more than a bare handful of pages 🙂

    Cheers, Stephen!

    Comment by Ritchie Annand | December 1, 2008

  35. Stephen -> I can’t help but think that you probably made the experience a little more valuable for everyone just from bringing some skepticism, history and lesser-known scripture to the table.

    I daresay their experience would have been merely self-reaffirming and full of too-easy – and with Gumbel in many cases, specious – answers.

    Have you kept in contact with anyone from the group at all?

    For what it’s worth, I’ve popped a link to you up on my blog. I am fascinated by this sort of live “Into the Viper’s Nest” slash “How Things Work” from a skeptical perspective. Jason Rosenhouse lets me experience creationist and intelligent design conferences vicariously, and Abbie Smith does the same, well, for one anti-vaccination conference, which was enough 🙂

    Cheers, Stephen. Looking forward to your future exploits.

    Comment by Ritchie Annand | December 2, 2008

  36. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks yet again for taking the time to prepare this blog. I hope you have gained something from the experience, culturally if not intellectually at the very least.

    I believe many of the questions that you have put to the group are deserving of decent, thoughtful responses, and I fully believe that all of the objections that you raise are actually, at least in principle, quite answerable. I want to apologize for not taking the time to provide responses to these issues to the level of detail that they deserve, but unfortunately my time is very much constrained at present.

    If I may make a suggestion I would recommend that, if you decide at a future point in time to re-engage with theistic evidences in general and Christian claims in particular, then you apportion your time wisely by focusing on the writings of the ‘cream of the crop’ (eg. scholars and theologians of the caliber of Polkinghorne, Haught, Ellis, Lewis and co.) and continue to ponder their evidences over a quiet read.

    As but one example, I came across the following book recently which I thought might be quite profitable for someone with your worldview. The approving review from Michael Shermer is certainly a positive sign:

    http://www.davidmyers.org/Brix?pageID=139

    Thanks again, and good luck in your quest for truth. May it continue to be characterized with sincerity and integrity, and rewarded with progress and fulfillment.

    Best Regards,
    James

    Comment by James Garth | December 8, 2008

  37. Ritchie Annand said, “Have you kept in contact with anyone from the group at all?”

    Since the course ended the pastor and I have exchanged a few emails, in which we thanked each other for the cordial nature of the discussion throughout the Alpha sessions. I may pop along to one of his Sunday morning services in the coming weeks/months.

    James Garth said, “I came across the following book recently which I thought might be quite profitable for someone with your worldview. The approving review from Michael Shermer is certainly a positive sign. Thanks again, and good luck in your quest for truth. May it continue to be characterized with sincerity and integrity, and rewarded with progress and fulfillment.”

    Thanks for the book suggestion, James. It’s much appreciated. And thank you, too, for your consistently pleasant manner. You’re a gentleman.

    All the very best,

    Stephen Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | December 8, 2008

  38. Very interesting Steve. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Comment by null | December 8, 2008

  39. Oh, if I may, might I recommend 50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy Harrison? I feel as I’ve been ticking them off in my head while reading about your journey!

    Comment by null | December 8, 2008

  40. Just came to this blog as a result of reading Nullifidian (who I see precedes me in the comments). Nice one – I admire your fortitude in enduring all this for 12 weeks on our behalf!

    Apart from the arguments about the incompatibility between God’s omniscience and the events in the world, I find another useful line to pursue is that of eternity, and the length thereof. Once you have a relgionist admit that they’re hoping to go to heaven when they die, try asking how long they think they’ll be there. When they say “Forever”, ask them how long they think that is. Here’s my take on it… 🙂

    Comment by PeterM | December 9, 2008

  41. Just finished reading the full blog and I have been most impressed, you are an intelligent, articulate person (and writer) always displaying a sense of understanding and calm throughout difficult and sometimes nonsensical arguments. I will certainly look forward to your future work.

    Comment by Jonathan | December 10, 2008

  42. Hi Stephen
    Wonderful blog, thank you for doing such a wonderful job for our cause.
    Have you been on the bus?
    I would like to go on one of these courses, but, how did you manage to keep a straight face? I do not think that I could be that disciplined.
    Best wishes and a Merry Christmas
    Malcolm, Holly and Jo

    Comment by Malcolm Dodd | December 11, 2008

  43. Sorry Stephen, too many wonderfuls; have I caught the L2v? I sincerely hope not; I am already suffering from OCADD.

    Comment by Malcolm Dodd | December 11, 2008

  44. Stephen,

    Just wanted to let you know that I’m sincerely grateful for you taking the considerable effort to sit through this and write it all up in so much detail. It’s fascinating to try and understand the way Christians think. Your approach was just how I would (or would like to) talk to Christians.

    I’ve spent some time with Jehovah’s Witnesses and written about that on my blog, but your efforts here are truly Herculean and made for a riveting read! I’ll certainly be posting something enthusiastic about your work soon.

    Comment by Eshu | December 11, 2008

  45. Stephen B.,

    I’d just like to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed following this blog. Do your fellow participants on the Alpha course know about it yet?

    Comment by johnnyess | December 14, 2008

  46. It took a couple weeks, but I’ve now finished your blog. That was quite the adventure! I went through the course 5 years ago back when I was a Christian. Btw, did the participants know they were being taped and did you ever tell this about this blog?

    Comment by Jeffrey | December 16, 2008

  47. Null said, “… might I recommend 50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy Harrison? I feel as I’ve been ticking them off in my head while reading about your journey!”
    Thanks, Null. I ordered Harrison’s book after hearing him on Freethought Radio a while ago (Listen here). He sounds like a reasonable chap. I haven’t read it yet though.

    PeterM said, “Apart from the arguments about the incompatibility between God’s omniscience and the events in the world, I find another useful line to pursue is that of eternity, and the length thereof. Once you have a relgionist admit that they’re hoping to go to heaven when they die, try asking how long they think they’ll be there. When they say “Forever”, ask them how long they think that is.”
    Thanks Peter. I read your splendid blog entry and I must say I’ve thought in a similar fashion myself. We humans can barely remember things from 20 years ago, let alone 746 trillion years. Imagine spending an eternity somewhere only for almost ALL of it to be forgotten!

    Thanks for your kind words Jonathan, Eshu, and Malcolm. By the way, Malcolm, I’ve added a few links to the atheist bus campaign on this website. Ariane Sherine, who, as far as I’m aware, came up with the idea, also recommended my blog on her facebook page (so I hear). I must say I’m quite flattered.

    Johnnyness said, “Do your fellow participants on the Alpha course know about it yet?”
    I have no idea. I haven’t seen any of them since the course finished. I’m planning on paying them another visit in the near future, though.

    Jeffrey said, “…did the participants know they were being taped?”
    Yes (see comment #18 )

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | December 16, 2008

  48. Like you I went through an Alpha course recently. I was working in a school in Hong Kong with quite a few Evangelicals on the staff and a very nice colleague asked me to go so I did.
    Like you I was primarily astonished by the low level of argument, the lack of any evidence and the general simple mindedness of the whole thing. During the week on Prayer I asked the group I was sitting with to test the efficacy of prayer by asking for world peace. Clearly this would not work but none of the group offered a reason as to why six good Christians and true should not expect such a prayer to be answered.
    Apart from that I wish that I had your persistence in keeping up the blog for the full course. Many thanks.

    Comment by Rick Twyman | December 17, 2008

  49. Hello Stephen,

    I’ve just taken the liberty of adding your website address to the Alpha Course “Questions for God” slot. Didn’t think God would click on it, but possibly some seekers after truth may. However, I had to post Week 1b, as Week 1a seems to have disappeared. Could you please put it back, as I would have been very frustrated to have missed it (obsessive compulsive syndrome, I know).

    Comment by johnnyess | December 18, 2008

  50. Hello Johnny,

    The “Recent” header gives access to a maximum of 12 links, so the earlier blog entries (the first 2) aren’t under that header anymore. However, these earlier links can be found in the “Archives” section (September).

    Better still here’s a direct link to Week 1a:

    https://alphacoursereview.wordpress.com/2008/09/09/week-1a-introduction/

    People can then navigate through the remainder of the review by using the links under the “Recent” header.

    Thanks Johnny.

    All the best,

    Stephen Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | December 18, 2008

  51. On second thoughts I’ve decided it’s best to dispense with the “Half-Term Break” blog entry (which was nestled between week 7 and week 8), as this was nothing more than a very brief announcement to say that I was going on holiday. Week 1a now slips back under the “Recent” header.

    Hope that helps.

    All the best,

    Stephen Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | December 18, 2008

  52. would you consider restructuring the site now that its ‘done’. Maybe in less of a post/comments format.. and more of a book format ? maybe with a tab for each weeks entry. just an idea.

    Comment by qmonkey | December 19, 2008

  53. Congratulations Stephen on your blog. Myself and a number of colleagues have been spending our lunchtimes ‘religiously’ reading it and enjoyed it immensely. We started off with amusement at Creationists but that has developed into a serious distaste and concern that the creationist agenda is achieving growth in the country. Your blog succinctly asks the questions we would love to ask of ‘people in the know!’ and stumps them for valid responses. I would urge fellow readers to take a look at Christianvoice.org.uk for the word of Christian intolerance and answersingenesis.org for mind numbing and manipulative views arguing for a young earth.

    Comment by Mike Brough | December 27, 2008

  54. Hi Steve,

    That was a really good read. Interesting and a little alarming. Well done for keeping your cool.

    Thanks

    (PS “Long-Standing Male Member”? Snigger.)

    Comment by Rodney Cross | February 22, 2009

  55. Though I’m a solid atheist, I’m rather sceptical about the worth of this project.

    On reading it soon became clear that this was not a simple, objective account of your “alpha” experience. It seemed to me that you were attempting some sort of intellectual challenge to Christianity. If this is the case, choosing a local church with a tiny handful of believers where (according to your presentation) you “win” most of the arguments is very weak. Read J.S.Mill’s ‘On Liberty’. You should be seeking out the strongest possible arguments against your views, even where your weakest positions are attacked and you are most vunerable – and never hide behind rhetoric or the inexperience of those you debate with. Also, ideally, one of the other people present would be writing it all up.

    Comment by Jonathan | March 28, 2009

  56. Hello Jonathan,

    I’m afraid you’ve completely misunderstood the point of this website, sadly.

    I’m not writing a piece against Christianity, the Bible, or Christians. Nor am I writing an article in defence of atheism. Maybe that’s your misconception. This website is, as the title suggests, a review of my time spent on the Alpha Course. Nothing more.

    Perhaps you’re reading too much into it and looking for something that isn’t actually there, Jonathan?

    Thanks for your input though, it’s genuinely appreciated.

    All the very best,

    S. Butterfield

    PS. I’ve added a link to Mill’s On Liberty in your post (above), for anyone who might be interested in reading it.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | March 28, 2009

  57. Repentance & Faith

    There are therefore important areas which must be examined concerning Alpha. The message of Repentance is sidelined because the focus is taken off the proclamation of the inerrant Word of the living God. Despite quotes from the Bible, Alpha fails to present us with the God who has revealed himself in Holy Scripture. The message of sin through the total depravity of the human heart is missed. The apostle Paul explains in Ephesians 2 v 3 that we are ‘by nature children of wrath’ and deserve His condemnation. By contrast Alpha does not use strong and clear terms warning as scripture does of Judgment and Hell.

    Theologically & ecumenically suspect

    Alpha clearly from the evidence, has no problem with the gospel which Rome proclaims. Nicky Gumbel has been a frequent visitor to the Vatican. Some years ago after returning, he is quoted ’It was a great honour to be presented to Pope John Paul II, who has done so much to promote evangelization around the world.

    We have been enriched by our interaction with Catholics in many countries and discover that what unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us’ !

    Foolishness of Preaching

    The apostle Paul made this emphasis in Holy Scripture beyond doubt ‘And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?’ Romans 10 v 14 and ‘It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe’ I Corinthians 1 v 21.

    Alpha is silent therefore on some key issues, much to the fore in apostolic preaching. It was George Whitefield the evangelist of another century who declared ‘I love those that thunder out the Word. The Christian world is in a deep sleep. Nothing but a loud voice can awaken them out of it’

    Salvation from Sin

    AW Pink has wisely written that ‘God saves us from the pleasure or love of Sin before He delivers us from the penalty or punishment of sin’ ‘God is a God of order throughout. There can be no saving faith till the soul is filled with evangelical repentance, and repentance is a Godly sorrow for sin, a holy detestation of sin, a sincere purpose to forsake it. The Gospel calls upon men to repent of their sins, forsake their idols, and thus it is utterly impossible for the Gospel to be a message of good tidings to those who are in love with sin and madly determined to perish rather than part with their idols’

    As Christians we must ‘Try the Spirits’ 1 John 4 v 1
    The Word of God is clearly our only authority. Martin Luther declared that his conscience was captive to that Word and that is why he was not bound by the Roman church as today’s ALPHA is.

    Alpha misses the Biblical Gospel and worldwide is aiding the gospel of the Anti-christ and the false prophet.

    Comment by Raymond | April 9, 2009

  58. I just thought I’d re-read this site (and some of the new comments). It’s still awesome, Stephen.

    I’ve also come to a conclusion—indeed—especially regarding Raymond’s last comment here: The joy of theology is that you can make up any old shit to explain religious “facts”, and nobody can say you’re wrong. Well they can, but they’re obviously just not as “spiritually enlightened” as you and so you can dismiss them out of hand without having to support your assertions with that nasty materialistic “evidence” stuff.

    Too soon? It’s been a good 2,000 years or so, but I’m a terrible judge of that sort of thing…

    Comment by nullifidian | June 29, 2009

  59. Most enlightening and amusing throughout! It is astonishing just how weak the “arguments” of the pastor, your Christian fellow-course-members, and most of the Christian commenters are (honourable exception: James Garth). One concludes that Christianity is, primarily, a religion for the weak-minded or ignorant.

    Comment by Knockgoats | October 6, 2009

  60. Very well written and frequently hilarious, you have done us all a great service by the way you have recounted your experiences and kept your cool. I suspect the vast majority would have lost it when confronted with people who appear to have been programmed to the point where they appear unable to process logic, however otherwise nice they might be.

    I’ll certainly post a link to this from my site. Well done!

    Comment by Greg du Pille | October 7, 2009

  61. Thank you for posting these. It was funny and educational. You have got a lot of patience.
    Reason to believers is like bullets to superman.

    Comment by AdamSch | October 9, 2009

  62. Thanks, I really think you have done a wonderfull job. Your approach is very refreshing and I really admire your patience. I think I couldn’t even bare the first lesson…

    Comment by Jacco | October 10, 2009

  63. Hi Stephen,

    I am a Christian in Australia and I just want to say that I have viewed the Alpha Course before and I don’t think it represents the gospel properly to those who are not Christians.

    Also, in reading the conversations you have had with Christians at the Alpha Course, I am sincerely disappointed with their responses to your questions. Although they may have been keen to help, their answers have clearly not been helpful to you, or even Biblically correct.

    I just wanted to say that if you do sincerely wish to find God, please don’t give up on that because of what happened at the Alpha Course you attended.

    Thanks for your time,

    Alex.

    Comment by alex | October 14, 2009

  64. Fascinating and beautifully written account. Thank you Stephen.

    I would never have the guts to do this myself but your arguments have given me some great ammunition for future conversations with my Christian brother….!

    Comment by Andrew MW | October 14, 2009

  65. I have very much enjoyed reading this. I’ve found your patience to be absolutely extraordinary! I’ve often considered attending the Alpha to see if I can be ‘swayed’, however i’m now convinced that the apologetic argument is quite hollow. I’m baffled as to how they can accept such bizzarre tenets. It would be very intereseting to read this blog from the view point of one of the believers.

    Comment by larynx | October 15, 2009

  66. Stephen, this has been an epic read. And you have a level of patience found only in legend! This has done two things; a) confirmed that it’s far better to live under the blue skies of learning and discovery, however disquieting it gets, over a life of dogma and b) avoid going on an Alpha course! I doubt I’d be as polite as you.

    Comment by Am I Evil? | October 15, 2009

  67. I just finished reading your reviews of the whole Alpha Course, and I am very impressed by your writing! You mentioned upthread on this entry that you’re working on a book, and I’d love to hear if you’ve finished it yet.

    Again, excellent work here.

    Comment by Josh | October 18, 2009

  68. Hi Josh,

    I’ve been adding bits and pieces to my book for the last few months, but haven’t had the opportunity to spend any serious amount of time on it recently. I’m hoping to have a window of opportunity in the New Year where I can knuckle down and make some hefty progress. Fingers crossed, I should have it completed sometime in 2010.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 19, 2009

  69. Stephen,

    A wonderfully entertaining and even-handed account. My son (18) recommended it to me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am an inveterate proof reader and wanted to suggest that you correct the only off turn of phrase I found:

    “yet for the entirity of human history he has allowed kids to be raped in their millions.”
    (it may have been quite late when you wrote it!)
    Thanks again and await your book expectantly.

    Ted Michelini, Ph.D.

    Comment by Ted | October 20, 2009

  70. Thank you for your effort. Very interesting read, useful too.

    I find the “logic” of most Christians to be bizarre in the extreme. I have had contact with evangelicals who thought it okay to pray for a parking space (God found them one …eventually) and yet the millions of prayers made by desperately poor people go unanswered. The mind boggles

    Comment by righter | October 22, 2009

  71. Stephen, I very much enjoyed reading your blog, and am pleased you found time to visit mine – your encouragement was a source of inspiration when I very much needed it…!

    My own humble effort at a review of the Alpha Course can be found here: http://carcrashinternet.blogspot.com/ – I hope you won’t mind me taking the liberty of drawing attention to my site here.
    I’ve reciprocated in kind, of course.

    Comment by Jim | December 7, 2009

  72. Dear Stephen

    I have only just come across your blog, and as a Christian involved in helping with alpha courses, I have found it utterly fascinating. Very well written, and very interesting and insightful.
    I also think your attitude to the members in the group is very admirable, and it was great to see you building relationships with them despite your disagreements when it came to faith.

    Take care
    James

    Comment by James | July 14, 2010

  73. Hello James,

    I’m glad that you enjoyed my Alpha review. Many thanks for your kind words.

    I wish you well.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | July 14, 2010

  74. Thank you for a really interesting read. It’s certainly made me think! I am attending an Alpha course at the start of September 2010. A family member recently revealed to me she had made contact with her ‘spirit guide’ (rather unexpectedly for her) and has become a channel for ‘healing! Coming from somebody I love, respect and admire this has had a big impact on me and has caused me to question my ‘faith’ (or lack of it!). I have to say, your ‘conclusions’ mirror my thoughts but the fact that a sane and highly intelligent woman who I have known for over 25 years and whom I trust implicitly has told me things that she couldn’t possibly have known causes me to question everything.I am at a crossroads…here goes, so thanks for the intro!Whatever happens,commandments 5 to 10 are a code of conduct I hope one day we can all live by if nothing else in this troubled world!

    Comment by LYNNE ECCLESTONE | August 7, 2010

  75. I’ve been a Christian nearly my whole life and while I’m pretty sold on the truth of Christianity I like to think of myself as a pretty open minded person. I’ve never read through such a solid argument from a secular perspective that remained so respectful and patient the whole way through. Thanks for typing it all up, I’m going to be doing a decent amount of research myself now, much like lady 3, and hopefully avoid all wikipedia Josephus answers…

    Comment by Ben | August 13, 2010

  76. Thanks for your kind words, Lynne and Ben.

    Lynne, I do hope you enjoy your time on the Alpha Course, which starts next month. Hopefully my review will be of some assistance as you work your way through Alpha.

    Ben, good luck with your research. I’m sure you’ll find it to be a thoroughly enjoyable journey.

    Best wishes to the both of you,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 15, 2010

  77. Hi Stephen

    Thanks for a very interesting read. I’ve been reading your review / blog every day for the last week or so on my commute in preparation for a debate I am hosting this Saturday. It’s been a very useful insight into the Alpha course as I sadly did not have the time to attend onemyself.

    I hope you don’t mind me posting the details of the debate in the comments section as I think that you and your readers may find the debate interesting.

    Between 9am and 10am on Saturday 2nd October Pastor Roy Young from Garston Community Church and John Dowdle, President of the Watford Area Humanists will go head to head in a live debate. To listen, tune in by clicking on http://www.watfordhospitalradio.com and clicking on the LISTEN NOW link. If you have any questions for either guest leading up to the event, please do email me at andy.leeks@watfordhospitalradio.com

    Comment by Andy Leeks | September 28, 2010

  78. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the information regarding the upcoming debate. I’ll make sure to tune in on Saturday morning.

    If there’s a question that springs to mind between now and then I’ll send you an email.

    Good luck with the show.

    Best wishes,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 29, 2010

  79. This was great. I’d love to be part of a very small group like you’ve described. Everyone was nice, and it didn’t get ugly.

    But no one changed their minds. I wonder if they are all still perfectly content and sure of their beliefs. I wonder if the Christians listened very carefully and later thought through what you and the other agnostic were saying?

    Maybe they were simply saying that it doesn’t have to make sense, and you were saying it does have to make sense.

    Thanks again for posting this experience. It was truly fascinating and actually a little encouraging that it is possible to have a discussion with good faith and civility all round.

    Comment by Lynn | October 3, 2010

  80. Hi Stephen, just read all these posts in one hit… absolutely fascinating, thank you. (FWIW, I’m an ex-believer and a couple of friends have been trying to get me to attend the Alpha Course for ages in the hope that it would get me to change my mind back again. I’m really not seeing anything in the course that I haven’t already heard a hundred times before, so I won’t be going.)

    Comment by Sue | October 3, 2010

  81. Very interesting read.

    You remind me of me (which is a compliment), if that doesn’t make me sound too vain.

    I am the same age as you, I also come from God’s county and I attended an Alpha course 10 years ago.

    I was 100% more skeptical than you, but the penny dropped for me on the course. I read the bible in a month and it made complete sense; I haven’t looked back. I go to church but I am not religious. It is about me, my bible and God, not a set of standards and rules and my life is a better place with the Big Man on my side. I never thought I needed him. I was driving a Porsche, with a gorgeous family but my perspective changed, for the better.

    I would never argue about faith with anyone. It is about you and God.

    Why the note from me?

    Two things:

    1: Keep looking, as U2 say, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but I’m still running…

    2: Take some time, in the peace and quiet, to read one of the Gospels, as you would read a book. It doesn’t take long.

    I pray that the penny drops for you too. My faith is precious to me and life is better as a result.

    Comment by Andrew | November 11, 2010

  82. Hello Andrew,

    I appreciate that your faith is incredibly precious to you. As I’m sure faith is to many other people, too (including those of different religions). And I have no doubt that the Bible makes complete sense to you, as I’m sure it does to the people that attended the same Alpha Course as I did.

    I just find it rather strange, I suppose, that these kind of people struggle terribly when it comes to supporting their beliefs with actual evidence or even a half-decent argument. They always end up drawing a blank, and I can’t possibly imagine why, especially in light of the fact that their belief is supposedly grounded on the greatest truth imaginable.

    Anyway, I’m glad you’re leading a happier life nowadays Andrew, and I genuinely wish you well for the future.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | November 11, 2010

  83. Lovely note back – thanks. And will you read one of the gospels – just to humour me?

    Comment by Andrew | November 16, 2010

  84. I’ve read them many, many times already Andrew.

    Having said that, I’m sure there’s every chance of me reading them again sometime in the near future.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | November 16, 2010

  85. Great job here. I really enjoyed what you had to say. Keep going because you definitely bring a new voice to this subject. Not many people would say what you’ve said and still make it interesting. Well, at least I’m interested. Can’t wait to see more of this from you.

    Comment by phentermine | November 29, 2010

  86. This is a smart blog. I mean it. You have so much knowledge about this issue, and so much passion. You also know how to make people rally behind it, obviously from the responses.

    Comment by Spots | January 16, 2011

  87. Thank you for all the hard work that you put into this blog. I read through it over a few days and I must say, it takes me back. I grew up in a church very similar to the one you you attended for the Alpha Course.

    Thanks again, would love to read more from you on the subject of religion.

    -Stephen

    Comment by Stephen | February 3, 2011

  88. Thanks for your kind words Stephen, and I’m glad you enjoyed my review.

    Since writing this review in 2008 I’ve been working on a book, also about religion, though work has ground to halt since the birth of my first child last year and my subsequent struggle with illness. With a bit of luck I should be fit and well enough to be able to re-focus on my book sometime in the coming months.

    All the very best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | February 4, 2011

  89. Hi Stephen

    I’ve only just come across your review of 2008 and am very grateful for your analysis. I was asked recently to help with an Alpha course by accompanying the songs on guitar. I then participated in the discussions but was told at the review meeting after the «clients » had left that « staff » are not allowed to express personal views but but stick rigidly to the programmed text, while facilitating exchanges and revelations by the clients. This and other remarks led me to look more closely at the programme. As you found, it is strongly literalist and dogmatic and I’m not surprised that its message is rejected by many. This is a pity because the teaching and example of Jesus, stripped of all the magical elements and signs that grew in the telling by his overawed followers, seems to me worth heeding. He came out of a particular religious tradition where fixed practices were very important and he rejected those practices, instead emphasizing a radically different approach to life and the deity. His teaching of a spirituality that can lead to a fully compassionate existence ought to be presented without the trappings of dogma that only complicate and obscure his message. Therefore I think the Alpha course does a huge disservice in peddling the idea of a God who needed sacrifices (a concept of early religions) and of a man who was also God, thus creating impossible arguments. I’m encouraged to read that more than half of practising catholics don’t believe in the virgin birth or the holy Trinity. Hopefully at some time in the future the Christian churches will catch up with their members and be open to other religions, instead of insisting that theirs is the only way. Or is that pie in the sky?
    I wish you a full recovery from your illness, much joy with your family and every encouragement with your writing.
    Gordon

    Comment by Gordon Fraser | February 13, 2011

  90. Gordon, thank you very much for your wonderful post. Your encouragement is gratefully received, and I wish you well.

    All the very best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | February 13, 2011

  91. Dear Stephen,

    I have only read your posts for weeks 3 (How can I be sure of my faith?”, 2 and this one, week 11, but when I next get the time I’d really like to read your other blogs.

    I am currently helping out with an Alpha course in my workplace and I googled “Alpha course week 3” because I had to email the attendees about a change in date and I couldn’t remember the exact title of this week’s course (what did we do before google?!), and anyway your blog came up as the first hit. (Not convinced you needed all this background but there you are!)

    So I have been thoroughly engaged today, reading about your experience and then the follow up comments that others have posted.

    Firstly, I agree with many people that your writing style is brilliant, and really funny! And you’ve given me LOTS of food for thought for this week.

    I am a Christian, in that I belive in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit being one, and I belive that the Bible is God’s word, and I belive that Jesus died for my sins.

    But I totally empathise with many of the points you’ve made, and concede many of your arguments throughout. For example, WHY didn’t God just make it so that there would be no devil and no hell, if he knew the devil, this fallen angel, was going to turn bad. But that kind of blows my mind, because on that logic, maybe he wouldn’t have made me. Sure, I’ve never killed any babies – but I have lied, I have hurt people I love, I have cheated. They’re not great things to have done, and they’re against God’s 10 commandments (which Jesus later sums up as two: love God first and love others as yourself). But maybe God should just say about me, “it’s totally cool, I forgive you for that stuff because you mess up and people make mistakes”. But then I’m thinking, well, he does kind of say that – he says that through Jesus. ie. God KNOWS that no one can be perfect, so he decides to to deal with the punishment for it once and for all by putting jesus on the cross and separating himself from him for 3 days. (Sounds pretty whack, I admit!)

    Also, on that point – why does an innocent man (God in the form of Jesus) have to take the hit? And is it justice if he takes the hit – have my wrong doings even been dealt with if it wasn’t actually me who took the punishment for them? I suppose firstly I’m really glad that the innocent man in this analogy did decide to take the hit for me – or at least, I believe he did! But I totally get the analogy that you gave to the pastor: that if a man has killed a child, but someone else takes the punishment on behalf of the man, then justice hasn’t been done, because what about the fact that the man who killed the child has gone free. I am all over that argument, and I wonder if there is anything that can be said to go some way in answering it for us (I’m thinking, what if someone asks at Alpha this week?!) Well first off there can be no justification for anyone harming a child. And I truly believe it grieves God’s very soul that this evil thing has happened. But a few thoughts – I don’t know the killer’s background or what caused him to do what he did – other than pure evil running through him. But I do kind of feel like even if that man did that to my child – my own beautiful flesh and blood – although I would HATE him for doing it, it wouldn’t be up to me to judge him and say he should go to hell, because I’m far from perfect myself. And also, it IS freeing to forgive someone who has grieved you even in the most horrific of ways such as this. A brief example – I know a girl who went to Rwanda post-1994 genocide. She stayed with a woman whose daughter had been killed by a member of the other tribe (I can’t remember who was hutu and who was tutsi). Now what I’m about to say next kind of defies belief, but a year or so later, the man who killed the daughter came knocking on the woman’s door looking for shelter – he was wounded or something. Surely she would tell him to rot?! But the mother took the man in and looked after him, and she told my friend she thought of Jesus and prayed for the strength to forgive the man, because she knew her little baby’s soul was in heaven now, with her loving and heavenly father, and she wanted to forgive the killer just as Jesus forgave her all her wrongdoings and as Jesus commanded. Now I kind of cringe at this story too, because how could a loving God allow such a thing to happen, and what kind of mum is she if she didn’t want to avenge her child’s death?! BUT – it’s our old friend free will again – pain like this happens every day, and if God stops this event, he has to stop all evil and they we are as your Alpha guys said “robots”. But, I recall your point – we’ll all be robots in heaven anyway, right? Why didn’t he just stop evil at the beginning, and have us all be perfect creations in heaven and not bother with the earth part? IS this all just a test run? Why bother with the earth part – why not just take our £200 and pass go?

    Well I’m not certain of the answer by any means. Not to repeat all of the (so often ill-thought-out) arguments of your Alpha friends, but maybe it IS just all free will – the chance to decide, because God wants us to love his freely. If God just made us but we were incapable of sinning, then that would be hunkey dorey, right? Maybe. Why bother creating people, just to see if they’ll change their minds and actually decide to love you, when because you’re God and you know it all already, you know they won’t? Like, imagine I didn’t belive, or didn’t feel I could believe – I mean, I didn’t ASK to not be a believer, why would God even create me just to destroy me? Oh boy, do I ever get that argument.

    BUT, I think I’ve reconcilled myself to the belief that if someone is searching, always looking – and that someone has heard of* God, then God is loving and righteous enough to make the right decision when the time comes. Only he knows the extent to which that person knew him and loved him. I think. I hope!

    *cf. people of other faiths or no faith, who have never heard of and understood the Word of God – I’m still not convinced God’s just going to throw them into hell without batting an eyelid…but that’s possibly unbiblical….

    So yes, it’s all VERY interesting. I don’t know why I believe, when there are so many good arguments against belief. Also, my God is a curious creature – his old testament ways seem so much to contradict the Jesus of the new testament. But I know that that comes down to holiness, as your Alpha pals said. God is holy, so we have to be holy to be united with him – he cannot take sin* into himself so it has to be dealt with. Before Jesus came people has to strive and make sacrificed to atone for their sins. It is a mystery, why he dealt with people’s lack of holiness by Jesus. I agree it doesn’t really make sense, especially when you look to what we said about re the man who killed the child not actually being punished, which surely can’t be right. I don’t really think there is a great analogy here – instead I kind of think that God is the creater of the universe and who am I? (Maybe I just have low self-esteem as I think you might have said as an aside in one of your blogs!) He is a mystery, but 10 years ago I took a tentative wee step of faith and said – I don’t really understand all this, but I want to find out more. I’m still learning. But sometimes these weird ‘coincidences’ happen and I laugh to myself because I think what subtle and gentle and loving ways God has of getting my attention! I’m not sure if I’ll ever know and understand it all. Maybe I’m brainwashed and it will turn out that all we’ll ever be is worm food – but something inside me is just screaming ‘NO, that’s not how it is’. But maybe I just don’t WANT that to be how it is! Well, I don’t know – I kind of do want that to be how it is – a depressing thought perhaps, but better that the alternative if there is a hell – plus my life now having no consequences for my life later – ho ho, the fun I might have!

    I jest though, because I truly believe that God’s laws are there for our own good – and that all he wants is for us to have a wonderful, full and rich life now.

    For every argument people make I think there is a “but what about that”, and I suppose so far no argument I’ve read has truly convinced me that God is a fake and a phoney, or that he exists but he’s unloving (just as, I’m guessing, no argument has ever conviced you of the opposite?), because as the ever-smiley Mr Gumble says – I have experienced him. And whilst I concede that’s a very poor argument for trying to PROVE the existence of God to someone who has never experienced him – now that I have come through the other side, I personally couldn’t deny his existence now. How have I experienced him? Small ways, sure. I belive that God is a gentleman – waiting for you invite him in – but I DO believe he’s there. And not in the form of a human in my living room, but in the form of funny little coincidences like I said, or strange kindnesses, or interesting unexpected conversations. Maybe I’m looking too hard. But I don’t think I am – if anything the opposite. Plus remember Moses and the burning bush? God is too holy to appear before me right now – or something like that?

    Sorry this is massive – I hope you don’t mind. Brevity is not a strength if mine.

    Last point – the “new christian” dude saying maybe you’re not believing because you’re talking to Allah?! This is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst – second guessing God like that – not cool.

    Anyway I think the fact you look down all avenues is awesome, I thank you for these blogs because they’ve given me a lot of food for thought, as I say!

    Comment by Frankie | April 5, 2011

  92. PS Unlike poor Gordon, everyone is encouraged to speak freely at our Alpha! How vexing!

    Comment by Frankie | April 5, 2011

  93. Perhaps Frankie and others will be released from the kind of inner conflicts that he/she describes if they accept to read the Bible less literally. For me the Bible is a clear description of human psychological and religious development. The Adam and Eve story is about the dawn of self-awareness (they realise that they are naked); early ideas about God were about rules and punishment; later, love and compassion came to be understood as the essence of the Creator. Even Jesus was influenced by the existing traditions to talk about evil and Satan; there is really no need for these concepts now that virtually every event can be explained by physics, psychology etc. related to our time/space universe. There seem to be more than this however – but since we are here and surviving so far, what ever else there is seems to be benevolent. It remains for interested and intelligent humans to discover how to relate to the presumed God. Reading the Bible literally, I believe, is an obstacle to progress.

    Comment by Gordon | April 6, 2011

  94. Tomorrow, I’ll be attending a happy lil’ dinner with my Christian friends at my last Alpha Course meeting. Hope they’re not too disappointed I’m still a filthy heathen bastard…

    Thanks for this writeup. It was the inspiration for my attending the course in the first place.

    Comment by MikeTheInfidel | April 18, 2011

  95. Thanks Mike, and good luck with your last evening on the Alpha Course.

    By the way, sorry for the slight delay in approvng your comment. I only got back home to the UK this evening.

    All the best,

    Steve Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | April 19, 2011

  96. I was wondering what you thought of the course. A friend has suggested it as im looking for a constant in my life and have been struggling with things. But wasnt entirely sure if this would help as I havent attended church or believed in anything for some time now.

    Comment by John | May 2, 2011

  97. I’m glad to see, a fair time after the event, that this blog is still up and people like John on May 2 come to it with questions. Although it requires some time to read it all through I think it is a very useful review of one approach to making some sense of life. I have to say, along with Steve I think, that the very dogmatic and restricted path proposed by the Alpha course is not for everyone. On the other hand the message and example of Jesus Christ on how to live life within the hypothesis of a benevolent creator has inspired amazing and admirable lives. Whether the hypothesis is true or not is not available to proof, whatever the Alpha course asserts, but I for one hope it is true. A recent book, ‘Spe Salvi’ by the present Pope (a good intellect, despite his conservative biais) points out that hope and faith were once expressions of the same idea but later ‘faith’ came to represent some magical property that was given like a passport to some and not to others. I would say don’t worry too much about ‘belief’; Mother Teresa had doubts but it didn’t stop her carrying on with the hypothesis that it is in the end all worth while.

    Comment by Gordon | May 7, 2011

  98. Have just read this whole blog and was genuinely sad for it to end. Thanks for sharing, Stephen.

    Comment by Andy | May 15, 2011

  99. Hi Stephen,

    I really found your blog interesting and helpful from a Christian point of view, trying to give actual answers and not avoid them. However, I did think that your reasoning was something of a hindrance to yourself. We can’t just say I will only believe something if I understand it 100% can we? If there is a God then we are putting ourselves in his place when we do this. I wonder whether you would watch this 10 minute video that is clear and helpful on this point. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=qnrJVTSYLr8
    And maybe have a look at this very short blog post and see if you think it is fair? http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog/article/not-enough-evidence?

    Comment by Tim | August 11, 2011

  100. Hi Tim,

    I watched the video and read the short blog entry. Thanks.

    Just out of curiosity, how is my reasoning a hindrance to me? Perhaps you could highlight a particular example so that I’m able to see where you’re coming from. Thanks.

    All the best,

    Stephen Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 11, 2011

  101. Hi Stephen

    May I butt in again with a point about evidence. Tim doesn’t accept atheists’ rejection of miracles as evidence. But evidence in a scientific context means being able to corroborate phenomena by independent observation. I don’t think accounts of miracles two thousand years ago qualify, Miraculous healings were attributed to a number of prophets of pagan and other traditions and it is quite possible that this was just a form of expression of the spiritual power of Jesus. The Alpha course is going nowhere in trying to force a fusion of literary tradition and science. On the other hand there is evidence of phenomena that lack rational explanation, such as surviving for years without food or drink (e.g. Marthe Robin) and different kinds of extra sensory perception that point to the likely existence of another dimension of life that doesn’t fit with our physical world.

    In the end it’s a personal choice whether to believe in a remote creator, a loving god, a mere possibility that doesn’t really affect our lives or the unambiguous absence of any of those. In fact there seems to be an inborn disposition, possibly genetic, to adopt one or other of those positions, which makes discussions like this blog particularly difficult. I particularly like the open-minded declaration of a Jesuit that I read recently; it was to the effect that he is happy to have spent his life believing in god but if it is proved that god does not exist he will not consider it to be his fault but god’s for not existing.

    Gordon

    Comment by Gordon | August 11, 2011

  102. Hi Stephen, thanks for watching the video, reading the blog and replying to me!

    I’m actually not really sure what Gordon is getting at here but never mind. I’ve actually seen miraculous healings very recently (people who have even had ‘miracle healing’ written on hospital reports) so I’m not trying to make a point about a dead book and a pagan God but what I believe to be a very living God. But I can’t make out what Gordon is saying, he may not even be disagreeing with that!
    Anyway
    What I meant about your reasoning was sort of what Francis Chan said in the video. I remember in one of your blogs you made some comments about how God seems more evil and bullyish than loving- letting children die in their thousands in some parts of the OT. But you are reasoning from your human perspective. I understand – as Francis Chan does in the video – that this seems horrific. But we aren’t God. When we say ‘He CAN’T do that’ we are putting ourselves in his place and assuming that our reasoning is superior.
    The other point is that, as I’m sure you’ve read, Paul the apostle says in Romans 1:19- 20 that “19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
    When we reason without submitting to God we reason like this ‘I will only be content that there is a God when God shows himself the way I want him to’ Therefore we are asking him to stop being God, to be lower than us. In Romans 1 Paul is saying we are all without excuse because God has already made himself known. If that revelation is not good enough for us then that is because we are unwilling to believe, not because God needs to ‘step up’. I understand I am coming from a biblical viewpoint and not a philosophical one or a secular humanist one so I don’t expect this to convert you but I thought it may help somewhat, and hopefully it will give you something of a clearer Christian viewpoint other than, ‘please stop saying things we can’t handle!’ 😉
    At the same time, I do believe that Christianity is reasonable as in you can actually argue for the existence of a God through science and creation. Science and God are far from mutually exclusive as some people would argue. (Look up William Lane Craig and John Lennox arguments for examples of Christians who argue scientifically for God) Not to mention Historical arguments – which are how the Alpha course approaches it I think.
    And yet again Christianity is totally unreasonable – that God himself would be tortured, spat on, mocked, betrayed, and killed, taking God the Father’s wrath against sin, so that any of us could walk into freedom and righteousness. But that is what he has done – that’s not reasonable- it’s certainly not how we would have done it anyway!

    I’m grateful for your attempt at fair and balanced reasoning and that you respect Christianity somewhat and Christians. Even as I write I am aware of how easily people can feel patronised when the person they are talking with is just trying to help and answer questions. I’m grateful that you never take that stance. Thank you. Like I said before, it is extremely helpful to hear your point of view. I found it a real challenge when I read about the ‘words of knowledge’ and how they are so generic. The new testament church received the power of the HS and really moved in power. I believe that power is still available to us, and you are right, if it is real, we shouldn’t be content with airy fairy but should be asking God for more.

    Thanks again, Tim

    Comment by Tim | August 12, 2011

  103. Hi Tim,

    Tim said, “What I meant about your reasoning was sort of what Francis Chan said in the video. I remember in one of your blogs you made some comments about how God seems more evil and bullyish than loving- letting children die in their thousands in some parts of the OT. But you are reasoning from your human perspective.”
    Obviously I’m reasoning from a human perspective, for I can reason from no other. I must say, I don’t really understand how I am supposed to reason from the perspective of an entity which I have no reason for believing to exist in the first place. Perhaps you can explain how this makes any sense. Thanks.

    Tim said, “The other point is that, as I’m sure you’ve read, Paul the apostle says in Romans 1:19- 20 that “19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”” If that revelation is not good enough for us then that is because we are unwilling to believe, not because God needs to ‘step up’.
    I’m not quite sure how we are supposedly without excuse to doubt that the Christian God created the universe and everything within it. Maybe I’m missing something here. As it stands at the moment, I just don’t see it. So, if I may ask, what is so strikingly obvious that demonstrates the Christian God did any of this?

    Tim said, “I’m grateful for your attempt at fair and balanced reasoning and that you respect Christianity somewhat and Christians. Even as I write I am aware of how easily people can feel patronised when the person they are talking with is just trying to help and answer questions. I’m grateful that you never take that stance. Thank you.”
    And thank you, too, for your polite approach.

    All the best,

    Stephen Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 12, 2011

  104. Hi Tim
    I’m sorry I was less than clear on the question on evidence. I was in principle responding to the point in the whatyouthinkmatters blog that you cited; there the atheists are chided for not accepting the evidence of miracles in the gospels. You appear now not to be relying on those reports but cite instead more recent unexplained cures and accept that they are evidence of the voluntary intervention of God in human individual lives. I remain sceptical; we just do not understand enough about the mind and the body, or indeed about our environment, to be able to say why such things happen. I also fail to see the point of divine interventions in favour of some and not others. I recall a cleric being furious with one person who had just avoided having a nasty accident and ascribed his survival to having a holy medal in the car; indeed if he was saved through intervention of the deity one is tempted to conclude that all other misfortunes are willed by that deity.

    I looked at the video of Francis Chan and can only agree with him that the purposes of the creator of the universe are not going to be readily understood by a human brain in it’s current evolutionary state. But from there to accepting that the same creator has also designed a system of everlasting torture sounds to me all too anthropomorphic. A deity who is perfect must have perfect understanding, compassion and forgiveness in which there can be no place for such a vengeful construction. I think that a number of blind alleys are created by literal readings of the Bible, which is essentially a record of the evolution of religious thought: in the beginning God was indeed thought of as an angry fearsome being, later as introducing love and justice and finally in the Gospels as pure compassion. I have in addition little use for the Apocalypse, cited by Chan, a poetic work full of violent imagery: many Christian traditions decline to accept it as part of their teaching.

    Gordon

    Comment by Gordon Fraser | August 12, 2011

  105. Hi Stephen, thanks for this blog, as an Alpha Course organiser it’s really helpful to hear such honesty, sometimes our guests in their politeness don’t always give us the full message of their feedback, so this is refreshing and insightful. Thank you.

    Comment by Simon Thomas | March 15, 2012

  106. Hi Simon,

    Thanks for your nice comments.

    Good luck with your future courses.

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | March 15, 2012

  107. […] Christian doctrine is accepted regardless. For example, here’s an extract from the final session which includes a typically protracted discussion of evil and free will. The long-standing male […]

    Pingback by One Man’s Experience Of The Alpha Course | BridgingSchisms.org | March 25, 2012

  108. Hi Stephen, I came across your blog as part of a research project I’ve been doing on the Alpha Course. It was very useful, thanks. However, there was one point I was unsure of. You refer to the lack of external contemporaneous sources re Jesus, but surely there are no sources in existence from that period at all? The Alpha course points out that the earliest New Testament fragment only originates from about 130. The lack of external references to zombies in Jerusalem etc only shows that the sources werent maintained, not that they never existed. Of course they may never have existed, but their lack doesnt seem to me to be evidence of frailty in the New Testament record – which you seem to assert. Isnt that a glaring flaw in your argument?

    Comment by Pete | June 19, 2012

  109. Hi Pete,

    I think you’ve misunderstood the point I made about the lack of extra-biblical, contemporaneous sources. From your comment above, it would seem that you think that I am arguing that there should be some original documents from that period in existence today. However, that’s not what I’m arguing.

    A contemporaneous source is an account (copy or otherwise) from someone that lived during the lifetime of Jesus. My point is that we have no such account (copy or otherwise).

    All the best,

    Stephen.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | June 20, 2012

  110. Sorry for not making myself clear. My point is that the absence of contemporaneous documents, does not show there werent any around at the time (or even for hundreds of years after). There is no good reason why there couldnt have been many references that simply werent kept or copied. (I’m not saying that it proves there must have been such sources, just that there’s no reason why there couldnt have been).
    Rgds

    Comment by Pete | June 20, 2012

  111. Hi Pete,

    An important point: No one is saying that there couldn’t have been accounts in existence that have since been lost.

    But here’s 3 quick questions for you:

    1: What good reason would you have for believing that contemporaneous accounts did exist (not that they could have existed) and that they have since been lost?

    2: If, as you say, such accounts could have existed for hundreds of years after the event but were then lost, why is it that in all of these hundreds of years we have no record whatsoever of anyone even refering to these hypothetical accounts? Not a single mention anywhere in the historical record. (Would you really want to argue that all of these references were coincidentally lost too?)

    3: If such contemporaneous accounts really did exist, and considering how important they would be for supporting the Christian claim, why did God fail to keep them preserved?

    I’d be interested to hear your response to these questions. Thanks.

    All the best,

    Stephen.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | June 20, 2012

  112. Hi Stephen, thanks for your invitation for a response.
    You did make quite a point that the lack of a single extra-biblical contemporaneous source indicates the unreliability of the New Testament accounts. However, as you accept, the lack of sources is not necessarily evidence that the events didnt occur, simply that the sources dont exist. The absence of contemporaneous sources therefore has no relevance to the reliability of the NT accounts. If you wanted to argue from lack of sources, you could just as well argue that there are no contemporaneous sources that disagree with the NT record, therefore it is very reliable.

    As regards to your questions though, I’m happy to suggest some answers:
    1. First Century people obviously didnt write down as much as we do now, but those that were literate did write. Documents from that period are extremely rare, so it is safe to assume that large quantities of texts have been lost. Why shouldnt some of those lost texts include references to the events recorded in the NT?

    2. What kind of sources are we talking about? There wasnt a historian on every street corner. Lets say that there was an educated merchant in Jerusalem who witnessed some neighbor, who had died, return from the dead (on the day of the crucifixion). As a result he writes a letter to a colleague in Rome. That would be a great primary source, but why would it be kept or referred to later? At the time it was a bit of a story to marvel about down the forum, soon to be forgotten and the letter used as a fire lighter. Even assuming that such sources were kept, for posterity, say until Rome fell a few centuries later, why would such a inconsequential source be commented on when the Christian texts (Gospels, letters, commentaries et al) were more detailed and more public?
    You refer to there being no mention in “the historical record”, but there is barely a “historical record” about any events (Christian-related or otherwise) in that period. If there were vast amounts of extra-biblical historical records and not a single one contained a corroborative account, then, I would agree, it would be suspicious. But that’s not the case. The ancient Christian writings were kept and copied because they were so important to the early Christians, other ancient documents werent kept. Simple as that, no far-fetched coincidences. The latter may have contained references to NT events. I’m not saying that they did or didnt – we’ll never know – but there’s no reason why they couldnt have.

    3. Firstly, I’d want to say that me guessing why God does anything is a bit like a microbe hypothesising about the galaxy, and, even then, I’m exaggerating the microbe’s relative size. But secondly, I’d argue that, although you are saying they are so important as corroborative evidence, Nicky Gumbel and the folks on your course evidently dont see it like that. They were quite happy to accept the biblical accounts as true, despite your efforts to convince them of their ignorance :). They, and presumably the other millions of Christians over the centuries, dont think the Chrisian claim needs supporting. In addition, the Alpha course points out, early on, the historical veracity of the Bible. For myself, as a historian, I also find these claims more than sufficient. Even if you believe there is a God who controls history to that extent (which I’m not sure is the case for many Christians), then there is no need to believe He would need to keep such additional sources,when He has done such a good job of maintaining the Bible.

    Rgds
    Pete

    Comment by Pete | June 22, 2012

  113. Hi Pete,

    I’ll highlight some of your comments and respond to them below:

    “… as you accept, the lack of sources is not necessarily evidence that the events didnt occur, simply that the sources dont exist.”
    The sources don’t exist, that’s right (which is the point I’ve made all along). And yes, as we agree, this is not necessarily evidence that the events didn’t occur, but let’s imagine just for a moment, if you will, that these events didn’t actually occur: Would we expect a complete silence about such alleged events from contemporaneous sources? Yes, of course. And, interestingly enough, a complete silence is precisely what we’ve got.

    ”What kind of sources are we talking about?”
    The kind of sources that chronicled all the other major events that occurred in the 1st century. A few quick examples off the top of my head would be Paterculus describing the Roman massacre in the Teutoburg Forest, Josephus writing about the fall of Jerusalem, or Pliny’s account of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. These events, though incredibly important, pale in to insignificance compared to God himself coming to earth, walking among us, performing miracles, rising from the dead and flying up to heaven sometime in the first half of the 1st century AD. This event, if true, is the biggest event in world history. Is it not? Yet no contemporary source saw fit to give it even a passing mention. It seems to have gone completely unnoticed. That doesn’t trouble you?

    ”Lets say that there was an educated merchant in Jerusalem who witnessed some neighbor, who had died, return from the dead (on the day of the crucifixion). As a result he writes a letter to a colleague in Rome.
    Let’s say this neighbour of his was God himself. Imagine that! God dying then rising from the dead, and this chap saw it all and wrote about it. A contemporaneous account that supports the biblical claim. That would be lovely.

    “That would be a great primary source, but why would it be kept or referred to later?”
    Well, let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the events described in the letter would have to be believed by people of future generations, and that failure to believe that such events actually occurred would be a punishable offence. In fact, the punishment would be worse than death. Imagine the horror! If this was the case, why wouldn’t the letter be kept or referred to later? Surely it must be kept and must be referred to.

    “At the time it was a bit of a story to marvel about down the forum, soon to be forgotten and the letter used as a fire lighter.”
    Why is it that the written accounts of other (less important) events of the 1st century weren’t soon forgotten and used as fire lighters?

    ”Even assuming that such sources were kept, for posterity, say until Rome fell a few centuries later, why would such a inconsequential source be commented on when the Christian texts (Gospels, letters, commentaries et al) were more detailed and more public?”
    I’m having difficulty trying to fathom out how you would consider potential contemporaneous, extra-biblical support for the life and deeds of Jesus to be nothing more than “inconsequential”. If it didn’t matter if we believed or not then what you’re suggesting wouldn’t be a problem. It isn’t an offence to doubt that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, that Ovid was exiled by Augustus, or that Nero kicked his wife to death. We have evidence to support all of these claims but people are free not to believe them. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what if people had to believe these three claims or face an eternity of torture? Don’t you think the quality and quantity of evidence would have to be exceptionally good? So good in fact that no reasonable person could doubt it? Yes, of course. But this isn’t the case with some of the most important claims about Jesus. The evidence is simply not of that quality, unfortunately.

    … “I’d argue that, although you are saying they [contemporaneous, extra-biblical accounts] are so important as corroborative evidence, Nicky Gumbel and the folks on your course evidently dont see it like that.”
    Conveniently so, yes.

    ”They were quite happy to accept the biblical accounts as true… They, and presumably the other millions of Christians over the centuries, dont think the Christian claim needs supporting.”
    The worrying thing is, they can say that with a straight face. The claim, they say, doesn’t even need supporting yet it is, they say, the epitome of perfect justice to eternally torture anyone who doubts it.

    Madness.

    Thanks Pete.

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | June 25, 2012

  114. Hi Stephen
    It’s very refreshing to see your mammoth work of a few years ago to throw light on the content of the Alpha course still attracting interest. I tend to share your view that the attempt by the course to treat all the events related in the New Testament as fact and substantiable is doomed. One possible reason is that the compilers of the different documents that we call the NT were in fact working independently (although clearly drawing in part on common sources) and were already drawing together all the useful information they could about the life and death of Jesus. The only author who claims he was there was John, writing in Patmos, paradoxically later than the others, and he was a mystic whose writing is not easy to decipher. Paul was the first of the extant authors to write and this was in letters to dispersed communities around 20 or 30 years after the crucifixion. Luke in the Acts describes how Paul attended the stoning to death of Stephen, one of Jesus’s disciples, and approved the act, only having remorse hit him some time later.

    The other possible reason for lack of news spreading beyond a small initial group is that objectively the events that occurred were not that newsworthy. There was a huge amount of foment in the Jewish population at the time. A number of Galileans could be massacred by the Roman soldiers just to show an example, and a tower could fall on 18 of them without causing a stir. The events were also not newsworthy if they just were about some miracle man in the teeming popular quarters. Paul had not met him. We are left with the impression that, by our standards, there may have been more than a certain amount of exaggeration in the telling.of events like miracles, although it is clear that if Jesus was as wonderful as his followers believed, he probably did have exceptional gifts of healing and understanding. And if they had visions of him after his crucifixion, this is not impossible to believe.

    The reason why I think the Alpha course is a mistake is that it obscures the value of the teaching of Jesus, who took the beautiful but strangely blinkered religious culture based on the Torah and showed a new way forward. Instead, the course, like much of mainstream Christianity since Constantine, presents a literal reading of the NT, which is as futile as a creationist reading of the Old Testament.

    Best wishes

    Gordon

    Comment by Gordon | June 26, 2012

  115. Hi Stephen, we may end up agreeing to disagree, but let me just come back on one point. You dismiss my point that the NT evidence is more than sufficient for Nicky Gumbel and millions of other Christians, with the inference that “well they would say that because they’re Christians”. But, if you take the example of Gumbel, he explains, in the Alpha talks, how he was a well-educated and antagonistic non-believer, who then became convinced of the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Your basic premise that the historical evidence is inadequate for most reasonable people is based on the fact it is not adequate for you. I’m sure you are a fairly intelligent guy, but I presume you are not claiming you are more intelligent than every person in the world who ever converted to Christianity. Just to clarify, I’m not saying that the existence of well-educated Christians, such as Gumbel, proves anything. Merely that many non-believers over the centuries have been convinced of the Christian message based on the evidence placed in front of them.

    Ps. Evidently written accounts of less important events of the First Century were used as firelighters (or whatever) as we dont have a wealth of such sources (as we already agreed, I thought).

    Rgds
    Pete

    Comment by Pete | July 4, 2012

  116. Hi Pete,

    “… Gumbel… explains, in the Alpha talks, how he was a well-educated and antagonistic non-believer, who then became convinced of the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
    Well-educated, intelligent people can believe all sorts of things, even things that are supported by weak evidence and/or poor arguments. We are all aware of the fact that highly educated individuals, people with PhD’s, have relatively recently slammed aeroplanes in to skyscrapers at 500mph, convinced they were to be rewarded, after death, with 72 virgins in a magical, invisible realm. Does the fact that these people were well-educated lend any support to their beliefs being true? Of course not. So why should Gumbel’s intelligence be regarded as some sort of reliable indicator to his beliefs being true? The simple fact of the matter is that it isn’t.

    “… I’m sure you are a fairly intelligent guy, but I presume you are not claiming you are more intelligent than every person in the world who ever converted to Christianity.”
    That’s right, that’s not what I’m claiming.

    “… many non-believers over the centuries have been convinced of the Christian message based on the evidence placed in front of them.”
    I refer you to the first sentence of the answer that I gave to your first comment.

    “… Evidently written accounts of less important events of the First Century were used as firelighters (or whatever) as we dont have a wealth of such sources (as we already agreed, I thought).”
    My point was that we have written accounts from 1st century, contemporary sources about all manner of things. The fact that we have such accounts means that they weren’t “forgotten about and used as firelighters”, obviously. However, according to you, contemporary accounts of the most important event in human history, if indeed they ever existed at all, were most probably cast in to the flames and erased from memory altogether.

    A bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | July 5, 2012

  117. Thanks for this article. It seems to me that the biggest problem with evangelical christianity is that it does not recognise the activity of God in those outside the group. Hence the comment on those helping charities as jumping on the bandwagon.

    Comment by gordonhudsonnu | July 18, 2012

  118. It’s a problem with most religions, in fact. If there is a God who created the universe and has some sort of reason for it and is consequenty favourably disposed to us, there can ony be one such God as far as we are concerned. Whether you call it Allah, Yahveh or Universal Spirit, it is completely illogical to ask such a deity only to bless America, or sanction only charity done in the name of Jesus or the Buddha or whatever. The Bible is an account of the growing of religious understanding and referring back to a God who is going to smite my enemies (other humans) is no more helpful than insisting on a six-day creation of the Universe. That said, I believe Jesus was on the right lines and worth following. Despite the Alpha course, there are plenty of Christians with a more liberal philosophical view.

    Gordon

    Comment by Gordon Fraser | July 18, 2012

  119. I have no idea how you remained so patient with these people, especially some of those who have commented here, in the face of their breathtaking ability to ignore reality and rely on texts which at best contradict themselves and at worst present evil on a scale any supernatural being which has been imagined by man would struggle to compete with.

    It does confirm House’s opinion that if it were possible to reason with religious people there would be no religious people. At least we know House is an imaginary character but he does have the advantage over their imaginary characters of saying things which not only make sense but are borne out by the evidence of experience.

    Comment by Yiam Cross | October 15, 2012

  120. Many thanks for all your tireless work, humour and insight you brought to your time in Alpha – a riveting read that I read in one whole go and probably the best analytical deconstruction on Christianity I have ever read. It stimulated me to read around your sources, look at a lot if Nicky Gumbel videos (to be honest I him and a lot of his fellow Alpha converts a little cultish and inhuman) and I’ve passed it onto my brother who was equally enriched by the same reading experience. Would love to read your other experiences you touch upon in your comments (Jehova Witnessess) and would love to see you producing a book at some point. Simply brilliant – and many many thanks.

    Kind regards

    Ian

    Comment by Ian | April 26, 2013

  121. Thanks for your kind words, Ian. Nice to hear that you and your brother enjoyed the review.

    Best wishes,

    Steve.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | April 27, 2013

  122. It seems to me that you were asking for something that no Christian is able to give – a convincing set of reasons to have faith. I have a sneaking sympathy for the pastor, having to field variants of the unanswerable question (“if God actually is real/omnipotent/good/Jesus’s Dad, why doesn’t he prove it?”) week after week. The irony is that you were asking those questions in the context of a course which – quite dishonestly IMO – claims to have answers. I think you’ve demonstrated quite convincingly how hollow your course’s answers were.

    So what are anyone’s reasons for becoming a Christian, if they’re not based on hearing a convincing argument? Ultimately I think it’s a question of wanting to join a club: you see what Christians are like, you want to be like them, you do what they do and try to think like them. And, if you try hard enough, faith follows.

    I was brought up as a Christian; for me being a Christian was about acting in certain ways, and thinking – and debating, and worrying – about the big questions. The ultimate answer might always be the same – we don’t know, we must trust in God – but we were still asking the questions and contemplating the prospect of not having an answer, rather more seriously (and frequently) than most people who don’t have any religious belief. So the church for me was the club of people who try to be fair and honest, give to charity, and think quite a lot about whether there’s any purpose to life and if so what it is. Some members of that club impressed me as strong, generous and wise; they made it seem like a good club to be in, and I still think of myself as a rather distant semi-detached lifetime member (I may be an atheist, but I’m an Anglican atheist!). Nobody ever claimed to have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and if they had done I’d have thought they were… well… undergoing an intense and subjectively real personal emotional experience, with no necessary basis in verifiably intersubjective reality. (It happens.)

    By way of contrast, I’m very struck by the comment from “Andrew” up above:

    I go to church but I am not religious. It is about me, my bible and God, not a set of standards and rules and my life is a better place with the Big Man on my side.

    Emphasis added. In the unlikely event that Andrew reads this, I’d like to ask him what use a faith that begins and ends with a personal relationship with God is to anyone else – does he think it makes him a better person, and if so how does that manifest itself? It all sounds very narcissistic to me. I think this vision of a one-to-one with God is what Alpha is peddling – in effect they’re offering membership of the club of people who experience a certain kind of warm fuzzy and feel like God’s on their side.

    Thanks for going the distance with the Alphanauts, and for a fascinating series of blog posts. Good luck with the book!

    Comment by Phil | July 14, 2013

  123. Phil
    I really am very grateful for your clear and intelligent post. It comes down into the end to personal choices. I too associate myself with the Christian ethic and about the big question choose to believe that there is Something rather than nothing. Now, where Jesus fits in is another question but I simply accept his leadership (from what we can know about him). And yes, the Alpha course doesn’t, and can’t do, what it says on the packet.
    Best wishes
    Gordon

    Comment by Gordon | July 15, 2013

  124. Hi Stephen

    Thanks for your review of the Alpha Course and for being consistently fair in your write-up of the experience. There were quite a number of cheap shots that you didn’t take even though you easily could have – I appreciate that. I have a couple of questions:

    1 – one of the issues you seem to have re Alpha is that it is insufficiently rigorous as an apologetic for Christianity (is that fair?). You were frequently better read and informed about various debates and issues than not only the volunteers on the team but the pastor leading it, which seemed to be a cause of some frustration (or at least surprise) to you. My question is whether expecting typical Alpha course leaders to be au fait with the kind of arguments you are familiar with is fair, given that Alpha is described as ‘An Introduction to the Christian Faith’ i.e. it is an explanation of the Christian faith basically ‘from within’? In fact, Alpha was originally designed as a course explaining Christian basics to people who had actually just become Christians – it was almost by accident that it was discovered to be of interest to those who were not Christians. Perhaps you were misled into thinking it would be a more intellectually rigorous explanation and apologetic for Christianity than it actually is?

    Sorry that’s a bit rambling, but hopefully you get the gist of the question in there.

    2 – Even if the pastor or team members had been able to give you considerably more satisfactory answers to your questions than they in fact did, what sort of effect (if any) do you think that would have on your own level of belief or respect for Christianity? I ask because in my admittedly fairly limited experience of dialoging with well-read atheists such as yourself, I frequently hear the assertion ‘if only I saw sufficient evidence, I would change my mind’ – but I have honestly no idea what sort of form that evidence would have to take. I presume you have read standard Christian expositions of the cosmological, moral, ontological etc arguments and remain unconvinced. You’re also clearly unconvinced by testimonies of religious experience – as Lady Two failed to realise – and would presumably be similarly unmoved by any stories I could tell of what I perceive as miracles, after all, why should you believe me?

    So – even if the pastor at the Alpha course had been able to give rigorous, intellectually coherent, answers to all your questions, would that honestly have been enough to convince you to believe? If not, what – if anything – would?

    Many thanks for your time
    Matt

    Comment by Matt | August 5, 2013

  125. Hi Matt,

    Apologies for the delay in responding to your post. I’ll offer some responses below:

    “My question is whether expecting typical Alpha course leaders to be au fait with the kind of arguments you are familiar with is fair, given that Alpha is described as ‘An Introduction to the Christian Faith’ i.e. it is an explanation of the Christian faith basically ‘from within’?”
    The Alpha Course materials (pamphlets, booklets, and of course the videos presented by Nicky Gumbel) allude to supposed facts and evidence that support the Christian claim. I would think it only natural to expect typical Alpha Course leaders to be familiar with these materials. It’s the very least we should expect, surely?

    Just out of curiosity, is it your opinion that during my time on Alpha I was merely ambushing the course leaders with arguments that were completely unrelated to the course material?

    “Alpha was originally designed as a course explaining Christian basics to people who had actually just become Christians”
    Personally, I think Alpha sits well as a course explaining Christian basics to people who have just become Christians. But that’s not what Alpha has become. It’s much more than that. In it’s current form I think it is flying too close to the sun, unfortunately.

    “Perhaps you were misled into thinking it would be a more intellectually rigorous explanation and apologetic for Christianity than it actually is?”
    Not really. Like I said earlier, the Alpha Course materials are very clear about the facts and evidence that supposedly support the Christian claim yet those that lead the courses, such as pastors and vicars, know little, if anything, about them. I just find that rather odd, that’s all.

    “Even if the pastor or team members had been able to give you considerably more satisfactory answers to your questions than they in fact did, what sort of effect (if any) do you think that would have on your own level of belief or respect for Christianity?”
    Well, my level of scepticism would have certainly decreased.

    “I ask because in my admittedly fairly limited experience of dialoging with well-read atheists such as yourself, I frequently hear the assertion ‘if only I saw sufficient evidence, I would change my mind’ – but I have honestly no idea what sort of form that evidence would have to take.”
    A personal revelation would change my mind. Barring that, it would probably be the same type of evidence that would convince you that another religion was true, or that alien abductions were true, etc etc. With regards to the latter in particular, what sort of form would that evidence have to take, Matt?

    “I presume you have read standard Christian expositions of the cosmological, moral, ontological etc arguments and remain unconvinced. You’re also clearly unconvinced by testimonies of religious experience – as Lady Two failed to realise – and would presumably be similarly unmoved by any stories I could tell of what I perceive as miracles, after all, why should you believe me?”
    That’s absolutely right, Matt. With respect, why should I believe you? People of other religions use the very same arguments you listed above but what reason do you have for believing them? I’m sure I’m right in assuming that you don’t have good reason for believing them? Me neither. We’re both sceptics, it’s just that you make an exception for Christianity. If I may ask, why should I?

    “… what – if anything – would [convince you to believe]?”
    A personal revelation would. But I haven’t had one.

    But let’s say, hypothetically of course, that I did come to have a personal revelation and became convinced by it. Would I expect someone else to be convinced by my testimony? Of course not. Why, then, should I be convinced by someone else’s? I shouldn’t. Should I?

    Thanks once again Matt.

    Take care,

    Steve.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 7, 2013

  126. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your reply. One of my fellow students at St Mellitus college (where I’m currently training for ordination) heads up Alpha’s work in the UK with youth and students – I’d be interested to hear what he makes of your review, and also of your question about how well-prepared those running Alpha courses should be to deal with the sort of questions you brought. In my experience of running Alpha, the more typical level of scepticism encountered either centres around the question of suffering (often brought to the group in a very personalised form e.g. ‘so if there is a God, why is my mum / brother / best friend dying from cancer?’), or a rather vague question of ‘so what about all the other religions then eh? They can’t all be right’ i.e. questions pitched at the sort of non-technical level that I suspect the pastor on your course would have been capable of fielding. I haven’t encountered anyone on the courses I’ve been involved in who has come equipped with prior knowledge of Mithras, or wanted to dialogue much about the lack of written sources contemporaneous with Jesus.

    That said, you don’t come across in your review as someone who deliberately mugged up on the most tricky questions you could possibly ask, just to humiliate the people running the course – to me it just looks like you are considerably better informed about these issues than perhaps you think you are, and definitely more than the average member of the populace is. Also it’s worth saying that in my experience, not very many people come to faith in Jesus because they have been bludgeoned into it by sheer force of reason (C.S. Lewis is one notable exception). Many people do require *some* level of assurance that Christianity isn’t completely irrational, but for the majority, again in my experience at least, what brings them to faith is a combination of factors like:

    1 – they see ‘something’ in the lives of Christians that they want (typically described as a sense of peace, or joy or something like that)
    2 – or they observe Christians living their lives in such a way (caring for the poor etc) that they conclude that there ‘must’ be something in it
    3 – they experience something in the welcome and sense of family within a gathering of Christians that they want to be part of
    4 – they are drawn to the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels
    5 – they start to pray and attend worship services, and experience something that they might describe as the presence of God, or what they believe is answered prayer, or some measure of physical/emotional healing etc.

    The trouble with all those factors, of course, is that they also have perfectly good rationalistic explanations:

    1 – of course believing that your life has a purpose and a meaning, that a divine being loves you unconditionally, and that you’re going to heaven when you die is going to give you inner peace. It doesn’t mean that those beliefs are true.
    2 – Plenty of atheists or people of other religions do good, philanthropic works. They can’t all be operating out of the correct belief system.
    3 – A sense of welcome and shared purpose can be found in any gathering of like-minded people, whether that’s centred around chess, running, black-belt origami or whatever.
    4 – Jesus (as portrayed in the Gospels, which may or may not have any kind of historical validity whatsoever) is indeed a mostly attractive character. So is Gandalf, and I don’t worship him.
    5 – Healings can be psychosomatic. Answered prayer can be a mix of wish-fulfilment and coincidence. The ‘presence of God’ is nothing more than psychologically manipulated group-think.

    And so on…

    On reflecting further on what I wrote before, I suppose what I’m getting at is that it seems that you are trying to access proof of the supernatural, but via purely rationalistic means, and I’m just not sure that’s going to work, because any hint of supernatural causation can largely be given an alternative, rationalistic, explanation that in many instances will do just well – and perhaps better, if you’re applying Occam’s razor and don’t want to postulate unnecessary explanatory entities. To give an analogy, it would be like me being set an essay question as part of the music degree I did years ago that said ‘Explain the emotional appeal and attraction of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K. 488, referring only to the harmonics used and the chemical reactions engendered in the listener.’ Well, I could describe that piece of music just in terms of the physics of the music and the bio-chemical response in the listener, but would I really have captured the essence of the piece in terms that would make someone say ‘yes! That’s what I experienced’? I doubt it.

    It seems to me that the same applies to God – trying to demonstrate his existence using scientific, rationalistic, would-stand-up-to-the-most-exacting-scrutiny-in-a-court-of-law methods just isn’t possible. God (if he exists) is by definition bigger than a rationalistic worldview – so why expect him to be found within that particular approach? It’s like trying to capture Mozart in physics and chemistry, but infinitely more difficult.

    A personal example – on the last Alpha course I helped with, on the week about prayer, one of the other course leaders told the story about how he and his wife were short of (I think) £850 they needed to pay the college fees of the theology course he was on. Some Christian friends came to see them, chatted for a while, and left, without anyone mentioning money at all. About an hour later they knocked on the door again and said ‘we’ve just been praying for you in the car, and we feel that God wants us to give you £850.’

    Now – leaving aside the very obvious fact that I could have just made that story up, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to travel to West London solely for the purpose of conducting polygraph tests – I realise that if someone has an a priori commitment to a rationalistic worldview, that story is of no value whatsoever in proving or even hinting towards the existence of God. Even if it were true, there are still plenty of rationalistic explanations – the visitors could have subliminally noticed clues that my friends were stressed about money, or even subconsciously noticed a letter from the college with the fee demand on it, or it could just be an enormous coincidence, because coincidences do happen.

    Sorry I’m waffling on – I’m just thinking out loud – but if God is by definition not an entity that can be fully apprehended within a rationalistic worldview (but must be experienced in some ‘other’ way, by faith), and you have an a priori commitment to rationalism, then surely not even a personal revelation would actually be sufficient to change your mind? Say you’d gone home after the Holy Spirit evening and that night had a dream about Jesus in which he told you that he had indeed died on the cross for you – would that have been enough? Or would you have instead woken up, said ‘those Christians have clearly learnt a few mind tricks from Derren Brown, must have been thinking about it too much late at night’ and gone off to work as normal? I’m not (I hope) being rude – but do you see what I mean? Because a rationalistic explanation is generally at hand for almost everything (including most famously the supposed resurrection of Jesus – take your pick from swoon theory, wrong tomb, wrong man, identical twin, heinous plot hatched with help of Mary Magdalene etc etc), isn’t looking for rationalistic evidence of God therefore futile?

    You might ask why I believe in Jesus given what I admit is an inadequacy of hard scientific evidence, and I’m happy to go into specifics if you want (I’ll try not to be so long-winded next time!), but I guess it’s at least partly because I don’t live my life subjecting everything to the kind of scientific rigour that you are applying to the question of God. And to be honest, I’d be interested to know if you really do live your life the way you claimed when you said:

    Would I expect someone else to be convinced by my testimony? Of course not. Why, then, should I be convinced by someone else’s? I shouldn’t. Should I?

    Really? We operate constantly on the basis of other people’s testimony / experience – whether that’s a recommendation of a good restaurant to eat at, or an account of feelings in a relationship, or a description of a moving film or play – if a friend came to you and said ‘I’m distraught, I think my relationship is breaking up’, you wouldn’t say ‘well, I’ve seen no evidence of that, pull yourself together and stop wailing at me’ – of course not. Testimony and experience has to have *some* validity in shaping our worldviews, because otherwise we’re a few steps down the road towards logical positivism, which to my limited knowledge is a pretty bankrupt philosophy. Regarding the ‘well Matt you’re only a sceptic about one less god than me’ point of view, I have some thoughts about the distinctiveness of Christianity if you’re interested, but I’ll leave it here for now, I’ve already taken up too much space.

    All the best

    Matt

    Comment by Matt | August 7, 2013

  127. PS – if you are still interested in exploring the rational basis for Christianity (you said that at least it might reduce your level of scepticism) then I’d be happy to have a go at trying to give some more solid answers – I hope (!!) I could do a bit better than the Long-Standing Male Member in your review. I’d only attempt it on the understanding that I wasn’t trying to convince you, merely demonstrate some of the answers that I have found reasonably satisfying to the many questions you raised; apologetics is an area I’ve read a little about. If that’s of interest then maybe pick one or two questions and we’ll go from there.

    Regards
    Matt

    Comment by Matt | August 7, 2013

  128. Hi Matt,

    “… I suppose what I’m getting at is that it seems that you are trying to access proof of the supernatural, but via purely rationalistic means, and I’m just not sure that’s going to work… trying to demonstrate his existence using scientific, rationalistic, would-stand-up-to-the-most-exacting-scrutiny-in-a-court-of-law methods just isn’t possible. God (if he exists) is by definition bigger than a rationalistic worldview – so why expect him to be found within that particular approach?”
    During my time on Alpha I allowed the group to lay hands on me. I prayed, and I asked God if he would reveal himself to me, as did the pastor and his congregation. Would you say these are examples of me applying only “scientific, rationalistic, would-stand-up-to-the-most-exacting-scrutiny-in-a-court-of-law methods” of trying to find out if God is real?

    Let me ask you this, Matt: If you had to put your finger on it, what would you say is the most reliable way of demonstrating to another person that your particular God exists? And what approach should I take that would leave me with no doubt as to the truth of his existence? Remembering of course that if I have good reason to doubt that he exists then my current stance is justifiable – but that would make God unjust if he was to punish me for not being a believer. How do you square that up?

    “Say you’d gone home after the Holy Spirit evening and that night had a dream about Jesus in which he told you that he had indeed died on the cross for you – would that have been enough?”
    To be honest I would class that for what it was – a dream. If Jesus really wanted to reveal himself to me, and wished to leave me with no doubt that the experience was genuine, I fail to see the sense in choosing a dream state – which is essentially an unconscious simulation by the brain – as a medium for doing so.

    Jesus – if he is what you believe he is – knows precisely what it would take for me to believe, and the kind of revelatory method he would need to employ. He hasn’t done this (yet).

    “You might ask why I believe in Jesus given what I admit is an inadequacy of hard scientific evidence… but I guess it’s at least partly because I don’t live my life subjecting everything to the kind of scientific rigour that you are applying to the question of God.”
    Let’s pause here for a moment to consider this hypothetical scenario: One of your children is accused of burning down the house of a neighbour. She is dragged from your home, locked up and then put before a judge. You protest and ask – considering the magnitude of the accusation and the severity of the punishment – for some good evidence that shows your child is worthy of being charged. The judge replies, “I don’t have any”, and then adds, with a straight face, “You might ask why I believe in your daughter’s guilt given what I admit is an inadequacy of hard scientific evidence… but I guess it’s at least partly because I don’t live my life subjecting everything to the kind of scientific rigour that you are applying to the question of her charge.”

    I’m sure you would consider this an absolute travesty. But why? Couldn’t you just forget the evidence, or lack of it should I say, and just take a leap of faith and side with the judge on this one?

    I’ll return to this in my response to your next question…

    “We operate constantly on the basis of other people’s testimony / experience – whether that’s a recommendation of a good restaurant to eat at, or an account of feelings in a relationship, or a description of a moving film or play – if a friend came to you and said ‘I’m distraught, I think my relationship is breaking up’, you wouldn’t say ‘well, I’ve seen no evidence of that, pull yourself together and stop wailing at me’ – of course not. Testimony and experience has to have *some* validity in shaping our worldviews…”
    Yes, of course testimony and experience has *some* validity in shaping our worldviews but, to be fair, I think you’ve stretched my point a little bit further than necessary. I was of course referring to the completely subjective experience of a divine revelation by a being for which there is little (if any) evidence for besides the experience in question. Such a revelation would leave the individual with good grounds for belief, but that wouldn’t necessarily be good grounds for other people – who had no such experience – to take it seriously (though of course some would). That is my point. I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t believe a word from anyone about anything until there is 100% scientific facts to support what they say. For example, I believe that your name is Matt, you live in the UK, and you did a music degree some years ago. I suppose it’s possible you could be tone-deaf Ethel from Timbuktu instead, but it doesn’t matter really. I’ll believe you. I’m not going to ask for birth certificates, passport stamps, or confirmation documents from your old university in order to believe you. But here’s the game changer: What if my life depended on being right about your name, age and education history? There would be no room for mistakes, I simply had to believe you were called Matt, had to believe you lived in the UK and had to believe you have a music degree, or else be subjected to unimaginable torture. How do you think I’d approach the question? Yes, you guessed it, I’d want to see those documents. I’d want the evidence. Just like you would want the evidence to back up the judge’s claim that your daughter deserves to be convicted for arson. We simply do not treat claims of that magnitude in the same way we would treat a friend’s film or restaurant recommendation.

    When it comes to religion, I treat the God question as you would treat the arson question. I’d like to base my decision on the available evidence. So far, however, I’m not aware of any good evidence for his existence.

    “PS – if you are still interested in exploring the rational basis for Christianity (you said that at least it might reduce your level of scepticism) then I’d be happy to have a go at trying to give some more solid answers – I hope (!!). I’d only attempt it on the understanding that I wasn’t trying to convince you, merely demonstrate some of the answers that I have found reasonably satisfying to the many questions you raised; apologetics is an area I’ve read a little about. If that’s of interest then maybe pick one or two questions and we’ll go from there.”
    Thanks for the offer, Matt. If there are any particular objections that I raised in my review that you think you have satisfactory answers for then you’re more than welcome to offer them here. I’d be more than happy to talk them through with you. I’ll certainly learn something. Though as a clergyman-in-the-making you may have to be a little patient with a non-specialist like myself!

    Thanks for your wonderful posts so far.

    Take care,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 8, 2013

  129. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your post. I’m off on holiday tomorrow for a week or so, so I’ll try and put some thoughts down now, apologies if they’re rushed and incoherent (as in – more incoherent than usual, that is 🙂

    Regarding ‘what would be enough for you to believe’ – I’m interested that you would fairly quickly reject a dream as evidence for God’s existence. If I remember correctly at one point in the course you were given a copy of Secret Believers by Brother Andrew, is that right? I haven’t read it myself, but one of the stories I hear fairly regularly from Christians working in predominantly Muslim countries is that of Muslims becoming Christians because they have seen ‘Isa’ (Jesus) in a dream – stories like these http://www.charismamag.com/spirit/evangelism-missions/14442-when-musiims-see-jesus. My point is not that you should be convinced by other people’s religious experiences, more that for those Muslims, a dream actually was sufficient to bring about conversion, even when for them the issue was even more immediate than the question of their post-mortem state; for Muslims in many countries, converting to Christianity means probably ostracism and other forms of persecution. I think it’s fair to say (you’d probably agree?) that much of the general population of the world doesn’t take the same kind of rationalistic approach to life that you do?

    Digressing a bit – would you say that rationalism is definitely an all-sufficient explanation for the universe as we see it? Or perhaps that it is merely the best available worldview you’ve encountered, and given the lack of compelling evidence for other worldviews you’re sticking with it until convinced otherwise? I’d be interested to know what your take on concepts like meaning and purpose in life is – I’m well aware that atheists range from bleak nihilism to optimistic humanism; where are you on that scale? Also re morality – how, within a rationalistic worldview, have you come to make the decisions you have regarding the ethics of how you live your life?

    [Those aren’t loaded questions, by the way, I know some Christians say silly things like ‘ha, you’re an atheist, that means you HAVE NO MORALS and your life has NO MEANING and why don’t you just go right ahead and kill yourself???’ I’m sure you’ve heard things like that at some point, or know people who have, and I’m very sorry.]

    You asked:

    If you had to put your finger on it, what would you say is the most reliable way of demonstrating to another person that your particular God exists?

    There is no one way. To give a few examples:
    On an Alpha course I helped run last year, two of the six group members (to my knowledge) became Christians. One of them said on the first night ‘I’d have to see a miracle to believe’. That Saturday, his wife, who was already a Christian, was healed of a long-standing back problem at a Christian conference. She didn’t know that he had asked for a miracle, but when she came home and told him what had happened, he was pretty much convinced straight away.

    Another group member had plenty of questions throughout the course, but on about week six or seven described the sensation of feeling like his questions were just becoming less relevant, that they were ‘falling away’. He also had the experience of praying and ‘feeling’ God present with him – when another group member asked him what he meant by that, he described it as being ‘filled up’ with joy and peace, and he said he ‘knew’ it was God because the sensation occurred only when he was praying.

    Yesterday at my church’s community cafe (this is us, by the way http://www.stpaulshw.org.uk/ – you can even listen to me preach if you want! 🙂 Look under Media, it’s me on 14th July for the most recent example) I was chatting with another couple of people who had different stories again – one of them was an ex-US military man who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had been in hospital with bowel cancer, at a very low point in life, cried out to God and believed his prayers were answered via an extremely quick recovery. Another was an Indian lady who was really struggling in a difficult (arranged) marriage to a Hindu man, but was sustained in her faith by a vision she had had of Jesus as a child.

    For me – why do I believe? I’m slightly reluctant to say, because I suspect I don’t have any one piece of evidence that would stand up to the kind of scrutiny you would wish to subject it to, but then I don’t believe because of any one piece of evidence – it’s more the cumulative effect of a whole series of nudges and hints and answered prayers and encounters and coincidences; just a few examples:

    – when I was a teenager I had a couple of powerful experiences of God; on one occasion I was ‘slain in the Spirit’ (horrible phrase – but is the Christian jargon for having an encounter with God that leaves you unable to stand; in my case I was absolutely poleaxed) and on another occasion God ‘spoke’ in what was essentially an audible voice, giving me guidance for some major life decisions.

    – the house that I’m living in at the moment is either a great answer to prayer or an extraordinary coincidence – long story.

    – I am intrigued by arguments for God like the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument (I did Physics A-level and still have a keen amateur interest in science), and arguments from absolute moral values. As I’ve said, none of those are knock-down arguments by any means, by I equally don’t believe they have been unequivocally refuted.

    – I have a host of examples of friend’s testimonies of things God has done in their lives – someone I know very well attributes his recovery from heroin addiction to God; two guys in my church would say the same about their recovery from alcoholism and crack addiction.

    – Most of all and above everything else, I am compelled by the person of Jesus. I find it extraordinary that one Jewish peasant who never wrote anything or organised any system of religion, who got crucified after only a few years of ministry (and even someone as sceptical as Bart Ehrmann would agree that the crucifixion of Jesus is the one part of the story pretty much everyone can agree on – it’s so wildly improbable that his disciples would make up the story of their leader being killed in humiliation and disgrace), and left a small, rag-tag group of uneducated followers, that became a movement that within a few hundred years had overtaken the entire Roman Empire… how did that happen? Seriously? Compare the history of Islam, where Mohammed was a warlord, a military leader, as well as a prophet, and it’s quite straightforward (in my view) to see how that could catch on. Quite different from a penniless carpenter whose friends betrayed and denied him at the end – and yet he has quite literally become the cornerstone of history.

    I’m aware that the last point strays into the fallacious ‘Argument from Incredulity’, as I said I’m not offering these as proofs for you, more trying to give a sense of what I mean when I speak about my faith. And speaking of Jesus reminds me – it seems to me that you are trying to get some kind of proof that would convince you to believe a series of propositions that at the moment, you simply find unbelievable. I don’t blame you.

    However, Christianity is emphatically not a series of ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ that we are required to believe. In the sayings of Jesus that we have recorded, he never said ‘OK guys, there’s this problem of sin, you’ve all done wrong, my Dad’s kind of angry but don’t worry, I’m going to offer myself as a sacrifice and that’ll make it all right, you’ve just got to believe that this is all true and your passport will be stamped for heaven.’

    He said ‘follow me.’ Becoming a Christian is not about mental assent to a series of propositions, it is an active decision to make Jesus ‘Lord’ i.e. the boss, the one in charge. It’s a decision to say ‘I’m no longer the one calling the shots in my life, instead I’m going to seek to model my life on Jesus’ life and example, I’m going to pray for the Holy Spirit to help me and bring about the love, joy, peace, patience etc that I need, and I’m going to join with other Christians as we help each other on the journey.’ If being a Christian just meant ‘believe certain things’ or ‘pray a certain prayer’ that would be far too easy! I’m aware though that sometimes Christianity can be portrayed that way, even on Alpha. I think the church has been in danger of dumbing this down; for the first Christians, to call Jesus ‘Lord’ (Kyrios) was not only a radical personal statement, it was a highly political one as well, because in the first century AD, there was only one Kyrios, and that was Caesar. Christians weren’t thrown to the lions for being religiously unorthodox, they were perceived as being a political threat.

    For today – I guess the alternative ‘Lords’ are things like consumerism, materialism etc; the powerful forces in our culture that to a greater or lesser extent command our obedience (‘oh but I NEED the need iPad’! – really??) and Christianity at its very best shows what it’s like to live with a different Kyrios; that’s why you’ll find Christians giving up high-paid jobs to work for charities or the church, and why two families in my church are selling their lovely homes in affluent Richmond to move to considerably-more-gritty Hounslow – because they believe that’s what it means for them at this time to follow Jesus.

    Sorry, this was supposed to be a quick post and it’s now gone 1am – I hope this gives a bit more of a flavour of what I understand Christianity to be. There’s lots I haven’t said though… ah well.

    Couple of other quick things:

    – do I believe in a God who condemns people to an eternity of unimaginable torment for failing to believe things they find impossible to believe? No, emphatically not. It’s worth saying that a lot of the things Jesus says about judgement need to be (a) understood in the context of first-century apocalyptic literature, when things like the judgement of God would be painted in stark, dramatic, but very much non-literal terms (b) understood in many cases as referring to Jesus’ warnings of judgement upon Israel – judgement that most scholars agree was historically fulfilled when the Jewish Temple was destroyed in AD 70.
    Furthermore, I believe that God is just. I find C.S. Lewis very helpful on this, he wrote a great little book called ‘The Great Divorce’ which suggests that whatever happens to us after death is effectively a continuation of the choices we have made on earth – so if we have chosen to live primarily for ourselves, with our comfort as our Kyrios, then our selves will be the only company and comfort we have in eternity. If, on the other hand, we’ve set ourselves to live for God and for others, giving of ourselves in love, then that too will continue unabated in heaven. I personally wouldn’t be surprised to find people who profess not to believe in God, but have nevertheless orientated their lives around giving of themselves to serve the poor and needy, being welcomed by God. Now, I do believe that salvation only comes through Jesus – but Matthew 25: 31-46 seems to suggest to me that some people who have given their lives to help others will see Jesus for the first time after death and will say ‘ah, so it was you all along’.

    – re other religions. I know it’s a classic objection (have you seen the Richard Dawkins smackdown ‘But what if you’re wrong’ on youtube?) but – of course – I do think there are distinctives about Christianity. One of them is grace (again I’m with CS Lewis here), the idea that God’s love is freely available to all and does not have to be earned through performance in various ethical and religious tasks. That is, as far as I’m aware, unique among major religious systems.
    Another is the person of Jesus – it is vitally important for Christians to affirm that Jesus really was a human being, that he really suffered and felt the whole gamut of human emotion, that he really was tempted. Equally it’s vitally important for us to affirm that Jesus was also God, the pre-existent Logos (‘the Word became flesh…’) and so in him we see the fullness of who God is and what he is like. A Muslim, a Jew or a JW would say that was all wrong, because God is not and never has been human. A Hindu would have no problem with a god appearing ‘like’ a human, but it would only ever be a disguise. It might seem theological hair-splitting, but it really does matter – how can we know what God is like unless he reveals himself to us, genuinely as one of us, on our level, in our skin so to speak?

    I’m sure that’s more than enough for now! I hope some of this is helpful. Happy to clarify etc when I’m back from holiday.

    All the best

    Matt

    Comment by Matt | August 9, 2013

  130. Hi Matt,

    I’m also going on holiday tomorrow, so we’ll put this conversation on hold for a while and pick things up when we get back. Hope you have a nice break.

    Best wishes to you and your family.

    Take care,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 9, 2013

  131. Hi Matt,

    Hope you had a terrific holiday. Mine started well but after a few days I began feeling unwell, and after a rather rapid decline after that I went to the medical centre where I was diagnosed with pneumonia. Unbelievable. So, here I am a week on from being diagnosed, hopefully through the worst of it, though still bed-ridden, still feeling dreadful, half-a-stone lighter, but thankfully able to look at a screen for a few moments and type a few words (I could barely move a day or so ago). Apologies in advance if what I have to say makes no sense. I can always blame the medication:

    “I’m interested that you would fairly quickly reject a dream as evidence for God’s existence. …[O]ne of the stories I hear fairly regularly from Christians working in predominantly Muslim countries is that of Muslims becoming Christians because they have seen ‘Isa’ (Jesus) in a dream – stories like these http://www.charismamag.com/spirit/evangelism-missions/14442-when-musiims-see-jesus.”
    There are plenty of accounts of Christians converting to Islam due to seeing the Prophet Muhammad in dreams (do a quick Google or YouTube search). I doubt that the existence of such accounts gives you any reason whatsoever to believe them. I’m sure I share your scepticism. Why, then, should I make an exception for the dreams of a new Christian convert? Why should I take them seriously whilst dismissing the others?

    “My point is not that you should be convinced by other people’s religious experiences, more that for those Muslims, a dream actually was sufficient to bring about conversion, even when for them the issue was even more immediate than the question of their post-mortem state; for Muslims in many countries, converting to Christianity means probably ostracism and other forms of persecution.”
    In the same way you could ask why people would convert from Christianity to Islam in post-911 America? They do. Talk about going against the grain and putting themselves in danger of ostracism and other forms of persecution! Do their conversions, under the circumstances, give you pause for thought? Do you take them seriously because of this? And for those converts that have dreams, how do you explain them?

    “… would you say that rationalism is definitely an all-sufficient explanation for the universe as we see it?”
    Not necessarily, no.

    “Or perhaps that it is merely the best available worldview you’ve encountered, and given the lack of compelling evidence for other worldviews you’re sticking with it until convinced otherwise?”
    I think a worldview should be at the very least coherent, consistent, tentative, and open to revision in light of new evidence. I just don’t see that in most religious people that I talk to, unfortunately.

    “I’d be interested to know what your take on concepts like meaning and purpose in life is – I’m well aware that atheists range from bleak nihilism to optimistic humanism; where are you on that scale?”
    As I briefly discussed in one of the instalments of my Alpha Review, I see no problem in giving my own life meaning and purpose. Having a loving family, building friendships, finding love, raising children, having jobs and hobbies, learning things about the world etc etc, are all things that give life meaning and purpose on an individual scale, but I see no reason why these things can only truly matter if they apply on a universal scale. Why would that be the case?

    Moving on to another point:
    One question I asked you in my last response was, “If you had to put your finger on it, what would you say is the most reliable way of demonstrating to another person that your particular God exists?” [emphasis added]. You replied with, “There is no one way. To give a few examples…” [emphasis added] and then offered a number of anecdotes below:
    1 – “On an Alpha course I helped run last year, two of the six group members (to my knowledge) became Christians. One of them said on the first night ‘I’d have to see a miracle to believe’. That Saturday, his wife, who was already a Christian, was healed of a long-standing back problem at a Christian conference. She didn’t know that he had asked for a miracle, but when she came home and told him what had happened, he was pretty much convinced straight away.”
    2 – “Another group member had plenty of questions throughout the course, but on about week six or seven described the sensation of feeling like his questions were just becoming less relevant, that they were ‘falling away’. He also had the experience of praying and ‘feeling’ God present with him – when another group member asked him what he meant by that, he described it as being ‘filled up’ with joy and peace, and he said he ‘knew’ it was God because the sensation occurred only when he was praying.
    3 – “I was chatting with another couple of people who had different stories again – one of them was an ex-US military man who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had been in hospital with bowel cancer, at a very low point in life, cried out to God and believed his prayers were answered via an extremely quick recovery.”
    4 – “Another was an Indian lady who was really struggling in a difficult (arranged) marriage to a Hindu man, but was sustained in her faith by a vision she had had of Jesus as a child.”
    5 – “I have a host of examples of friend’s testimonies of things God has done in their lives – someone I know very well attributes his recovery from heroin addiction to God; two guys in my church would say the same about their recovery from alcoholism and crack addiction.”
    Almost every religion imaginable can provide limitless accounts of such anecdotal evidence in support of their particular god’s existence. Would you consider their accounts as a reliable method of demonstrating that their gods exist? If not, why should I consider your anecdotes reliable? I would really like for you to explain this one for me, Matt. Thanks.

    “For me – why do I believe? … I don’t believe because of any one piece of evidence – it’s more the cumulative effect of a whole series of nudges and hints and answered prayers and encounters and coincidences…”
    To be fair, that could be said by any proponent of any religion but, once again, I’m sure it wouldn’t give you grounds for taking them seriously. Correct?

    “Most of all and above everything else, I am compelled by the person of Jesus. I find it extraordinary that one Jewish peasant who never wrote anything or organised any system of religion, who got crucified after only a few years of ministry (and even someone as sceptical as Bart Ehrmann would agree that the crucifixion of Jesus is the one part of the story pretty much everyone can agree on – it’s so wildly improbable that his disciples would make up the story of their leader being killed in humiliation and disgrace), and left a small, rag-tag group of uneducated followers, that became a movement that within a few hundred years had overtaken the entire Roman Empire… how did that happen? Seriously?
    Firstly, let’s take a look at Mormonism and it’s founder – Joseph Smith. This man was, without question, very influential towards a small band of initial followers, and he later succumbed to a somewhat ignominious death. The Mormon religion has expanded faster in its first 150 years than Christianity did in its first 300 years (there were 14 million Mormons as of 2010. There were about 7 million Christians by the start of the 4th century). Is this a good argument for the truth of Mormonism? If Mormonism was to become the world’s dominant religion, would that be a good argument to it’s truthfulness? Do you put the rapid rise of Mormonism down to a historical chain of events that occurred without recourse to any particular god? If that’s the case, why should we treat the rise of Christianity any differently?

    Secondly, let’s have a little bit of fun here for a moment and consider this quick thought experiment: Let’s say that in the 4th century A.D the Roman Emperor Constantine had been a passionate convert to a religion that wasn’t Christianity (we’ll use Hinduism just as an example). He then legalised Hinduism and set the wheels in motion over the course of the remainder of the century that eventually led the Emperor Theodosius to declare Hinduism as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Not only that, Theodosius also passes legislation prohibiting all other forms of worship. Hinduism is spread as the Roman Empire spreads. Conquered people face conversion to Hinduism or slaughter. To be a non-Hindu becomes socially and economically unfavourable. Fast forward seventeen centuries, and Hinduism is, unsurprisingly, the dominant religion in the world. Would this hypothetical historical scenario lend any weight to the truth of Hinduism? Would the rise of Hinduism be best explained by appealing to the existence of the Hindu gods, or would you explain it as simply a historical accident? We’d both plump for the latter, wouldn’t we?

    Thirdly, would Christianity be less true if it was believed by fewer people? Is the truth of Jesus’ resurrection dependent on the number of people that believe it? I’m sure you’d answer “no” to both questions. Correct?

    “Becoming a Christian is not about mental assent to a series of propositions, it is an active decision to make Jesus ‘Lord’ i.e. the boss, the one in charge.”
    And what actual reason would I have for making Jesus ‘Lord’ as opposed to the thousands of other supposed gods? If it’s “not about mental assent to a series of propositions” then I could just as easily plump for any other deity that I care to name off the top of my head. Surely there’s more to it than that?

    “… do I believe in a God who condemns people to an eternity of unimaginable torment for failing to believe things they find impossible to believe? No, emphatically not.”
    That’s refreshing to hear. But many Christians do believe in a God who condemns people to an eternity of unimaginable torment for failing to believe things they find impossible to believe. And many of them have told me me that God has assured them personally that this is the case. Looking at it objectively, why would I a) believe you over them?, b) believe either of you?

    “I personally wouldn’t be surprised to find people [in Heaven] who profess not to believe in God, but have nevertheless orientated their lives around giving of themselves to serve the poor and needy… Matthew 25: 31-46 seems to suggest to me that some people who have given their lives to help others will see Jesus for the first time after death and will say ‘ah, so it was you all along’.”
    So if Christianity isn’t a necessity in order to live a fulfilling, happy, loving, charitable life, nor is a belief in Christianity necessary to gain access to Heaven, what is the need for an Alpha Course? And why should any of us be convinced by it?

    “… it is vitally important for Christians to affirm that Jesus really was a human being, that he really suffered and felt the whole gamut of human emotion, that he really was tempted. Equally it’s vitally important for us to affirm that Jesus was also God, the pre-existent Logos (‘the Word became flesh…’) and so in him we see the fullness of who God is and what he is like.”
    Yes, I understand that.

    “A Muslim, a Jew or a JW would say that was all wrong, because God is not and never has been human. A Hindu would have no problem with a god appearing ‘like’ a human, but it would only ever be a disguise.”
    I understand that, too.

    “It might seem theological hair-splitting, but it really does matter – how can we know what God is like unless he reveals himself to us, genuinely as one of us, on our level, in our skin so to speak?”
    An omnipotent God could reveal himself to you in any way he pleased, and make sure that that particular method made you absolutely certain of his existence.

    Obviously if you start with the belief that God came down “as one of us, on our level, in our skin” then I guess you’ll feel the need to defend that particular belief. But it doesn’t follow, necessarily, that an omnipotent God must choose the method that your particular theology proposes. Why would it?

    I listened to your sermon on the St Paul’s website. Sounded as though you were getting quiet tearful there, Matt. You’re obviously a very passionate chap, and your beliefs are incredibly important to you. I understand that.

    Anyway, I think it’s time to put the pillows flat once again and get yet more rest in this bed that I haven’t moved from in goodness knows how long. I’m on the path to recovery though, I’m sure.

    Nice speaking to you again.

    Best wishes to you and your family,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 22, 2013

  132. Hi Stephen, I’m very sorry to hear about your illness, that’s highly unfortunate timing. I do hope you recover completely soon. My holiday was thankfully illness-free, though I have just spent the last week up at my parents with my two very lively kids (5 & 4) while my wife is away on a business trip, so I may be rather incoherent as well due to the overwhelming quantity of play centres and bad knock-knock jokes that I’ve been enjoying the last few days 🙂

    Anyway, here goes:

    It’s a fairly peripheral issue, but your point about Christians converting to Islam in the US post-911 is an interesting one. I read quite a lot of books written for and about the American church, and my understanding is that there is a great deal of ‘cultural Christianity’ in the States in a way that there probably was 50 years ago in this country but has been almost wiped out by a generation of church decline – by that I mean plenty of people going to church in the US because it’s the done thing, in a way that simply isn’t the case over here except perhaps for some in the older generation. I’m generalising, of course, and probably unfairly, but I can see the appeal to someone who has only known a dead religious ritual Sunday by Sunday, to encounter adherents of a religion who are so convinced by their purpose that they were prepared to fly planes into buildings. We’re both speculating on this one though, I suspect (at least I am anyway) – a more local example though would be the murderer of Lee Rigby who came from a Christian background. I have no idea what combination of political, religious, relational or whatever influences conspired to cause the change in his beliefs, but I’m not sure that many people would argue that he’d changed for the better.

    [In saying that, btw, I’m not arguing ‘Christians are less violent than Muslims so Christianity must be true’ – I’m well aware that (a) some of the awful bits of Christian history – Inquisition, Crusades, recent sex abuse scandals etc are things of which we should be ashamed and (b) even if it were true that Christians were less violent, that says nothing about its veracity. Just saving you having to point those things out 🙂 ]

    You said:
    I think a worldview should be at the very least coherent, consistent, tentative, and open to revision in light of new evidence. I just don’t see that in most religious people that I talk to, unfortunately.

    I want to press a couple of points. You presumably think that this is the best approach to take in life – but I want to ask on what grounds do you judge that a ‘tentative’ worldview is better than a faith-based view held with greater certitude? Obviously you could argue that the terrorists who flew the planes on 9/11 were utterly certain of their beliefs – but then so were people like Maximilian Kolbe (read his story on wikipedia if you’re not familiar with him), Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce etc? Why is tentative better than certain?

    And why your particular collection of ethics and morals? If I was a nihilistic child-murderer, I might have a completely coherent and consistent world-view, but it’s certainly not a view that would you would agree with or choose to follow. Is your non-child-murdering worldview ‘better’ than the child-murdering view? If it is, why?
    (a) – It just is
    (b) – I have chosen that it is
    (bii) – I find the concept distateful, and therefore believe it is wrong
    (c) – Society has decided for its smooth functioning that child-murdering is bad
    (d) – Evolutionary processes have engendered in us a desire to protect children
    (e) – other…

    Almost every religion imaginable can provide limitless accounts of such anecdotal evidence in support of their particular god’s existence. Would you consider their accounts as a reliable method of demonstrating that their gods exist? If not, why should I consider your anecdotes reliable? I would really like for you to explain this one for me, Matt. Thanks.

    There is currently no reason at all why you should consider my anecdotes reliable – as we both know, I am in fact tone-deaf Ethel from Timbuktu merely masquerading as a young(ish) male ordinand in the C of E…. 🙂 but that’s the point. The fact that you may well be (understandably) suspicious of the stories told you by someone who randomly contacted you via facebook a few weeks ago does not therefore mean that all anecdotal evidence is disqualified full stop. I think we live rather too far away to ever meet in person, but we do believe personal testimony of this kind from people we know and trust, and we do it all the time. What if we lived geographically closer, or worked for the same company, or in some way interacted in a way that enabled you to observe over time that I was a basically honest and trustworthy person? Would that then give greater weight to my testimony?

    I realise that’s rather a hypothetical question – I’m not planning on moving house anytime soon – but I’m interested to hear if you would accept these kind of anecdotes from anyone including someone you know or trust, or whether in your view anecdotal evidence is de facto ruled out?

    And – apologies, anecdotal evidence again – my experience of people from other religions is rather the reverse. One regular attender of our church and also on the staff of our pre-school, is a Sikh – but she has told me that she has experienced a sense of God’s presence in our Sunday services in a way that she has never done in the Gurdwara. Another Sikh man came to our church because on the day that we re-opened, he was walking past – as he did every day – when, in his words, ‘your God told me I should come in’.

    Now, I’m happy to accept that this kind of anecdote is useless in terms of providing any kind of confirmation to you that the Christian God exists, I am after all just a random stranger on the internet – but looking at those stories from my viewpoint as a Christian, do you consider me irrational for taking those incidents as some sort of confirmation of my beliefs? I know the people involved a little and believe they are basically trustworthy, so should I reject what they say out of hand, simply because it is a description of their experience, to which I have no access other than what they tell me? If I am justified in accepting what they say as supporting what I believe (though admitting we might both still be deluded), then surely your problem with anecdotal testimony is not that it is in itself no reason to believe, it’s rather that you’ve never heard sufficiently compelling testimony from someone you trust? Or perhaps you have – but were able to explain away their experience by rational means?

    I’m sorry I’m going on about this a bit, but I guess the point I’m trying to get to is something like this:
    – if, in your view, any testimony of religious experience is to be disbelieved, basically because a wide variety of different (and contradictory) religions offer similar accounts, then why go on Alpha? In essence, Alpha is Christians telling others about what and why they believe – but this inevitably must involve personal testimony, it simply has to. You would be even less convinced by the group leaders if they expressed no personal buy-in or experience of God themselves, however annoying Lady Two’s repeated testimony turned out to be. If a direct, incontrovertible, unmistakable, inexplicable revelation from God Himself is the only thing that could make you believe, then is it worth pondering the fact that this is not the way the vast majority of Christians typically become Christians? Even Saul/Paul on the Damascus Road, who described something like the sort of experience you might be seeking, was already a faithful Jewish believer in God. I really don’t want to be rude, (I wish there was a font for ‘asking something slightly tongue-in-cheek) but what makes you so special that you should receive a revelatory confirmation of God’s existence that only a few others could testify to?
    In response to your point about ‘God knows what he has to do to convince me’, I suppose I want to ask, who exactly is calling the shots in that scenario? You or God? Would you really (want to) believe in a God who was effectively no more than a genie in a lamp, performing magic tricks to dazzle you into belief?

    I’m sorry if that comes across as rude, I hope you get the point of what I’m asking. Such things should generally be discussed over a pint, not a blog – but anyway…

    I don’t think your analogy with Mormonism holds water, for several reasons:
    – Mormonism began as (and to its current members, still is) a sect within Christianity, it wasn’t starting something new. There is no analogy at all with an initially Jewish movement sweeping within a couple of generations through the Gentile, pagan Greco-Roman world.
    – Given the relative world populations at the time, I think 7 million in 300AD compares pretty favorably with 14 million adherents in 2010.
    – Mormonism began as an American movement within a relatively new country, assuring the Americans that their country had in fact a long pre-history and was special to God. I think that idea has more natural catching-on value than Jesus saying ‘if anyone would follow me, they must take up their cross…’

    re Constantine, I don’t think the point about him converting to Hinduism is particularly relevant – he didn’t. However, I will completely agree that post-Constantine, power, politics and faith got intermingled in a very unhappy and often coercive way. In that respect, no it’s not surprising that Christianity caught on after that – like it doesn’t surprise me that there are 1.5 billion Muslim followers of a militant warlord. I’m much more interested in the previous 300 years, when Christianity grew explosively despite persecution and without the associated benefits of power and prestige that followed in later periods. Or to take a more modern example, in 1949 the Communist Party in China expelled all Christian missionaries and began a crackdown on all expressions of religion – many Christians were beaten, imprisoned and tortured. At the time there were 500,000 baptised Protestant Christians out of a population of 450 million. There are now estimated to be between 40-100 million Christians in China. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_China

    I’m interested – we can both see the advantages in following a religion that guarantees you power, wealth, or at the very least means you avoid being killed. Why do you think Christianity in China has grown so much when none of those advantages exist, and in fact becoming a Christian is likely to result in persecution? And can you think of any other religions that have similarly flourished despite oppression? I’m not talking about an isolated few like converts to Islam post-9/11 (I’m not aware of any statistics on that, perhaps you are?), but massive, exponential growth despite severe persecution, not just societal ostracism.

    And what actual reason would I have for making Jesus ‘Lord’ as opposed to the thousands of other supposed gods? If it’s “not about mental assent to a series of propositions” then I could just as easily plump for any other deity that I care to name off the top of my head. Surely there’s more to it than that?

    Yes, there is – for me, at least. I find the moral teaching (love your enemies, turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute you) and personal example of Jesus to make him someone worth following, more so than – for example – Allah, who says:
    “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” Quran 9:29

    But many Christians do believe in a God who condemns people to an eternity of unimaginable torment for failing to believe things they find impossible to believe. And many of them have told me me that God has assured them personally that this is the case. Looking at it objectively, why would I a) believe you over them?, b) believe either of you?

    Why should you believe me over them? Because I’m right, of course 😉

    But seriously – one theologian (I think it was Karl Barth, but I can’t find the quote) said ‘there is no part of God that is not Christ-like’. Jesus, when confronted with a woman caught in adultery, or the Samaritan woman who was a social outcast due to her many relationships, or Zacchaeus the tax collector, or anyone of a number of misfits, sinners and no-hopers, unfailingly refused to condemn them (though did also without fail effect transformation in their lives). He was, on the other hand, pretty savage with the religious hypocrites and the wealthy who exploited the poor. If that is how God judges, that’s OK with me. I’m painfully aware (as you heard in my talk – thanks for listening, by the way!) of my own inadequacies and failings and my need for God’s mercy – which I believe he delights to give to those who ask. Re exactly what happens to people who suffer God’s judgement after death, I don’t know. The Bible does paint a picture that it is not pleasant – but the pictorial language used should not by any means be taken literally, it wasn’t meant to be – and there are a wide variety of views within Christianity. Even someone like the doyen of British evangelicalism, John Stott, argued that those who have lived selfish lives, not caring about God or others, will basically cease to exist, rather than suffer unimaginable torment for ever (technically ‘annihilationism’). Other Christians are universalists – everyone ends up with God in the end. (I can say more about why on earth you would be a universalist and still evangelise if you want, although I’m not myself a universalist).

    My point is just that there are a wide variety of views within orthodox Christianity about the afterlife, all I would say to someone investigating Christianity was not to let it be a sticking point – believing in eternal conscious torment is not a required or even a core Christian belief. For those Christians who use the threat of hell to coerce or intimidate others, especially ‘sinners’ of one sort or another, my concern would be that the only people that Jesus did threaten with blood-curdling promises of judgement to come were the highly legalistic religious types. Oops.

    So if Christianity isn’t a necessity in order to live a fulfilling, happy, loving, charitable life, nor is a belief in Christianity necessary to gain access to Heaven, what is the need for an Alpha Course? And why should any of us be convinced by it?

    I think I said in an earlier post that I am well aware that many atheists and agnostics (as well as people from other religions) live fulfilling, happy lives. I didn’t, however, mean to imply by my previous remark that following Jesus was pretty much irrelevant in determining whether someone goes to heaven. I do believe that believing in and following Jesus, however imperfectly, is sufficient to guarantee a welcome in heaven – but I also am quite happy to leave the final decision regarding those who don’t believe in Jesus up to God. There are, of course, many millions of people in the world who have no idea who Jesus is, and many people who lived before he did. How God will judge them, I don’t know, but I believe he will be just. Regarding people who essentially stick two fingers up at God and live their lives for themselves, I believe that in the end they will get their wish, and be separated from God. For someone who genuinely was basing their life on love, self-sacrifice and care for others (and not just claiming to), but didn’t believe in God, firstly I wouldn’t want to predict how God will judge them, and secondly if that really was how they were living, I would say ‘why not then follow Jesus, the supreme teacher and example of the values you hold?’

    I hope that clarifies my thoughts on heaven and hell a bit – to be honest though it’s not something I think about that regularly. I’m not a Christian because of any promise of future bliss, or fear of avoiding eternal flames that may or may not exist, I am a Christian because I believe Jesus lived the most authentic life of anyone, ever, and my desire is to model my life on his to the best of my ability. I’ve also seen the power that faith has in my life and in others to bring about radical transformation – hence Alpha. If you believe that you possess a message that can bring positive change to others, why would you not want to share it?

    I’m going to finish there as it’s pushing 1am again. I’m sorry this has been a marathon, but I’ve tried to answer as many of your questions as I can (and also chip in a couple of my own), I hope it helps in some way. I don’t want this conversation to become impossibly unwieldy – if you choose to come back at me on only one or two points then I won’t assume you’ve conceded all the rest! And I’ll try to be more concise next time!

    All the best for your continued recovery,

    Matt

    Comment by Matt Osgood | August 22, 2013

  133. Hi Matt,

    Sorry for the delay in responding to your last post. My earlier thinking that I was through the worst of my illness was sadly a tad premature. I had planned to lose a few pounds over the summer but my current rate of losing 1.5lbs a day isn’t what I had in mind. Pneumonia, huh.

    I’ll respond to your questions below:

    “If I was a nihilistic child-murderer, I might have a completely coherent and consistent world-view, but it’s certainly not a view that would you would agree with or choose to follow.”
    That’s right, I wouldn’t. But it’s important to point out that I did not say that a coherent and consistent worldview is necessarily a true or correct one.

    “Is your non-child-murdering worldview ‘better’ than the child-murdering view? If it is, why?
    (a) – It just is
    (b) – I have chosen that it is
    (bii) – I find the concept distateful, and therefore believe it is wrong
    (c) – Society has decided for its smooth functioning that child-murdering is bad
    (d) – Evolutionary processes have engendered in us a desire to protect children
    (e) – other… “

    A penchant for child-murdering would be wrong by definition, wouldn’t it? I hardly need explain, then, that a non child-murdering worlview would be “better” than a child-murdering one.

    “There is currently no reason at all why you should consider my anecdotes reliable …”
    That’s right. So, just out of curiosity, how would I determine that your supernatural anecdotes were reliable? What criteria has to be met in order to confirm their reliability? I really would like to know.

    “The fact that you may well be (understandably) suspicious of the stories told you by someone who randomly contacted you via facebook a few weeks ago does not therefore mean that all anecdotal evidence is disqualified full stop.”
    I didn’t say that it was.

    “I think we live rather too far away to ever meet in person, but we do believe personal testimony of this kind from people we know and trust, and we do it all the time.”
    Here’s where we go back to the discussion we had in an earlier post. Yes, we take restaurant recommendations from friends, and we tend to believe them when they say that they’ve done this and that (within reason), etc etc, but this doesn’t mean that we therefore believe every word that comes out of anyone’s mouth at any time about any subject.

    “What if we lived geographically closer, or worked for the same company, or in some way interacted in a way that enabled you to observe over time that I was a basically honest and trustworthy person? Would that then give greater weight to my testimony?”
    It all depends on what that testimony actually was, Matt. If your testimony was that you once lived in Sweden and went out with a girl called Hilda, then fair enough. The more I knew you, and the more I came to recognise your trustworthiness, the more likely it would be that I would believe your tales of Swedish life and love (though it wouldn’t be too hard to believe in the first place). But let’s say that in the near future you and I come to live next door to one another and become good friends. You discover over time that I’m quite a trustworthy bloke, and I give you great film and restaurant recommendations. One day, out of the blue, I tell you that I have an interstellar spacecraft locked in my garage, and that I have the occasional day-trips to Alpha Centauri and back. Would you believe me? If not, wouldn’t the fact that I was an otherwise trustworthy bloke convince you that my claim was true? What about all the fantastic film and restaurant recommendations I’d given you over the years? Would they all count for nothing? Surely, if I’m right about films and restaurants I’m right about interstellar spacecraft parked in my garage, yes? Is that how it works, Matt?

    Or would you admit that actually there are other factors involved here that determine whether you believe me or not? Perhaps you have the background knowledge that Alpha Centauri is approximately 4 light years away, and your time spent studying physics to A-Level standard means that you’re aware that a round trip cannot possibly be achieved in a day? You also know that no such technology exists that is capable of propelling a manned spacecraft anywhere near to the speed of light anyway? Not even close. Are you really suggesting that this sort of background knowledge doesn’t have a major influence on your decision to believe my claim or not?

    “… I’m interested to hear if you would accept these kind of anecdotes from anyone including someone you know or trust, or whether in your view anecdotal evidence is de facto ruled out?”
    My view is not that anecdotal evidence is de facto ruled out.

    I can’t stress this point enough:

    1) – If someone offers me an anecdote about their supposed time living in Sweden I wouldn’t necessarily have good grounds for thinking they were mere fantasists (unless of course I had background information that they had definitely spent all of their lives in the UK). In all likelihood I would believe them.

    2) – If someone offers me an anecdote about going on day trips to Alpha Centauri, travelling in an interstellar spacecraft that is capable of faster-than-light speeds, and how such a craft sits secretly in their garage, then in all likelihood I wouldn’t believe them (based on the background knowledge that I have of physics, the speed of light, the distance from earth to Alpha Centauri, and of the current state of spacecraft propulsion technology, etc).

    Are you really suggesting that we should treat all claims the same? That all anecodotes are equally valid? And that if they are made by otherwise trustworthy people they should be believed, regardless of you possessing background knowledge that would undermine them? Surely you’re making a mistake in your thinking here.

    “… looking at those stories [anecdotes] from my viewpoint as a Christian, do you consider me irrational for taking those incidents as some sort of confirmation of my beliefs?!
    No.

    “I know the people involved a little and believe they are basically trustworthy, so should I reject what they say out of hand, simply because it is a description of their experience, to which I have no access other than what they tell me?”
    Not necessarily, no.

    If you believe in an invisible Being that speaks to you telepathically and appears to you in dreams, then you are, in all likelihood, going to believe the testimony of someone who claims that an invisible Being spoke to them telepathically or appeared to them in a dream (as long as testimony is placed in the correct religious context, of course).

    Similarly, if you believe that interstellar spacecraft regularly take people on quick round trips to nearby star systems, and that certain people secretly hide such spaceships in their garages, then you are, in all likelihood, going to believe the testimony of someone who claims that he takes regular jaunts to Alpha Centauri in a spacecraft that sits secretly in his garage.

    “If I am justified in accepting what they say as supporting what I believe (though admitting we might both still be deluded), then surely your problem with anecdotal testimony is not that it is in itself no reason to believe…”
    Anecdotal evidence can be a good reason to believe something. But, as I keep saying, it depends on the nature of the claim being put forward. Sweden ok, Alpha Centauri not ok.

    “… if, in your view, any testimony of religious experience is to be disbelieved, basically because a wide variety of different (and contradictory) religions offer similar accounts, then why go on Alpha?”
    I went on Alpha because the course materials speak confidently about a number of supposed ‘facts’ (whether they be historical or scientific) that support the Christian faith. I went to find out what exactly these ‘facts’ were. Oh, and another reason why I went is because I am fascinated to hear testimonies from religious people. Lady Two (one of the ladies in my review) proved to be quite a fascinating character, making my time spent on the course all the more enjoyable.

    “… what makes you so special that you should receive a revelatory confirmation of God’s existence that only a few others could testify to?”
    Because I would have thought that an intelligent, reasonable God wouldn’t expect me to believe impossible things for no good reason. Unless he has a particular fondness for rewarding gullibility and punishing honest investigation?

    “In response to your point about ‘God knows what he has to do to convince me’, I suppose I want to ask, who exactly is calling the shots in that scenario? You or God? Would you really (want to) believe in a God who was effectively no more than a genie in a lamp, performing magic tricks to dazzle you into belief?”
    And the alternative is what, Matt? That I should believe the supernaturally-inspired testimonies of people who don’t necessarily trust supernaturally-inspired testimonies? That I should believe the dreams of a religious nature of those who admit that dreams of a religious nature aren’t necessarily convincing? Is an honest search for a little bit of compelling evidence for God’s existence the wrong approach to take? What would you suggest I do?

    “Given the relative world populations at the time, I think 7 million [Christians] in 300AD compares pretty favorably with 14 million [Mormon] adherents in 2010.”
    And this tells us what about the truth of either religion? Anything? The fact that they both rose incredibly fast tells us nothing about whether they are true or not. That’s my point. You seem to think that an evidence for the truth of Christianity is that it grew incredibly fast from a rather ordinary backdrop. You “find it extraordinary” (though we can very easily explain the rise of Christianity without introducing a god in to the equation). You could just as easily say that you “find it extraordinary” that 170 years after the death of the convicted con-man Joseph Smith, there would be over 14 million people in the world who consider him to be a true prophet of God. It’s not hard to explain though, is it?

    “ … I will completely agree that post-Constantine, power, politics and faith got intermingled in a very unhappy and often coercive way. In that respect, no it’s not surprising that Christianity caught on after that…”
    Great. So we’ve easily explained the last 1700 years of Christianity.

    “I’m much more interested in the previous 300 years, when Christianity grew explosively despite persecution and without the associated benefits of power and prestige that followed in later periods.”
    So if you admit that Christianity’s world dominance can be explained by decisions made by powerful men from the 4th century onwards, and that you’re really just interested in the first 300 years of Christianity, then I’d like to ask you this: if you admit that a religion that isn’t true (i.e. Mormonism) can go from a handful of adherents to 14 million in about 150 years, why would I think another religion true just because it went from a handful of adherents to 7 million in about 300 years? We both know that this simply is not an argument that lends any weight whatsoever to Christianity being true.

    “… in 1949 the Communist Party in China expelled all Christian missionaries and began a crackdown on all expressions of religion – many Christians were beaten, imprisoned and tortured. At the time there were 500,000 baptised Protestant Christians out of a population of 450 million. There are now estimated to be between 40-100 million Christians in China. I’m interested – we can both see the advantages in following a religion that guarantees you power, wealth [emphasis added], or at the very least means you avoid being killed. Why do you think Christianity in China has grown so much when none of those advantages exist, and in fact becoming a Christian is likely to result in persecution?”
    Because, according to Christianity, these advantages DO exist (in the eternity that follows this life). We can both see the advantages in following a religion (in this case Christianity) that guarantees you power, wealth and eternal well-being in the life to come. Quite appealing, one would think, to the typically poor, down-trodden people that we’re talking about. Tell them that this life, and all it’s hardships, are just a temporary blip, and if you believe certain things then all the riches will come your way. Quite an attractive proposition for those that have, and will continue to have (in this life at least), nothing at all.

    “And can you think of any other religions that have similarly flourished despite oppression? I’m not talking about an isolated few like converts to Islam post-9/11 (I’m not aware of any statistics on that, perhaps you are?), but massive, exponential growth despite severe persecution, not just societal ostracism.”
    Plenty of religions have grown despite severe persecution:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Jews
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Buddhists
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Hindus
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sikh_holocaust_of_1746

    “I find the moral teaching (love your enemies, turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute you) and personal example of Jesus to make him someone worth following, more so than – for example – Allah, who says:
    “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” Quran 9:29”

    I do find it a tad head-scratchingly ironic when someone of one faith presents nasty-looking verses from the holy book of another, as if that somehow shows that the god in question is a violent, ignorant, malevolent warlord and therefore shouldn’t be believed. I wont paste similarly nasty-looking verses from the bible here.

    “I’m painfully aware … of my own inadequacies and failings and my need for God’s mercy – which I believe he delights to give to those who ask.”
    With respect, I’ve never really understood this kind of language or indeed this kind of mindset. I just find it incredibly odd. (No offence intended)

    “My point is just that there are a wide variety of views within orthodox Christianity about the afterlife, all I would say to someone investigating Christianity was not to let it be a sticking point…”
    Yes, a wide of variety of views from people who all claim to have a “relationship” with God. Now, it’s either the case that they’ve all forgotten to ask him about the truth of this particular matter or he is telling them all different answers. Either way, it’s just impossible to believe, sorry.

    “For someone who genuinely was basing their life on love, self-sacrifice and care for others (and not just claiming to), but didn’t believe in God, firstly I wouldn’t want to predict how God will judge them, and secondly if that really was how they were living, I would say ‘why not then follow Jesus, the supreme teacher and example of the values you hold?’
    And they might reply, “Because I don’t believe that Jesus was/is the supreme teacher and example of values that I hold. Thank you.”

    “I am a Christian because I believe Jesus lived the most authentic life of anyone, ever, and my desire is to model my life on his to the best of my ability. I’ve also seen the power that faith has in my life and in others to bring about radical transformation – hence Alpha. If you believe that you possess a message that can bring positive change to others, why would you not want to share it?”
    By all means share it. But those that do should have the ability to defend it. Sadly, most don’t have that ability and instead make Christianity a laughing stock in the process.

    Thankfully you aren’t like most Christians, and that’s why it’s a pleasure speaking to you.

    Sorry once again for the delay. You may have to be patient with me over the coming weeks.

    All the best,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 27, 2013

  134. Hi Stephen,

    I’m sorry to hear of your continued illness, that sounds pretty awful – not really the ideal way to shed those pounds. Hope you recover completely soon. Thank you for nevertheless continuing the discussion, no rush with a reply though, I’m supposed to be writing an essay for college at the moment so could probably use a few days without this conversation as an excellent procrastination option 🙂

    “Is your non-child-murdering worldview ‘better’ than the child-murdering view? If it is, why?
    (a) – It just is
    (b) – I have chosen that it is
    (bii) – I find the concept distateful, and therefore believe it is wrong
    (c) – Society has decided for its smooth functioning that child-murdering is bad
    (d) – Evolutionary processes have engendered in us a desire to protect children
    (e) – other… “

    A penchant for child-murdering would be wrong by definition, wouldn’t it? I hardly need explain, then, that a non child-murdering worldview would be“better” than a child-murdering one.

    I’m not sure what you mean here – the definition of ‘child murder’ is ‘taking the life of a child by violent means’ or something like that. There’s no judgement call there on the morality or lack thereof of such an action. Now, I appreciate that you ‘hardly need explain’ that child-murdering is wrong – but I’m still curious as to what you think the grounds for that view are. If I was a nihilistic child-murderer, which of the six options above would be the basis on which you would attempt to prove that my actions were wrong?

    “There is currently no reason at all why you should consider my anecdotes reliable …”
    That’s right. So, just out of curiosity, how would I determine that your religious/supernatural anecdotes were reliable? What criteria has to be met in order to confirm their reliability? I really would like to know.

    Are you really suggesting that we should treat all claims the same? That all anecodotes are equally valid? And that if they are made by otherwise trustworthy people they should be believed, regardless of you possessing background knowledge that would undermine them? Surely you’re making a mistake in your thinking here.

    Re the question of religious testimony & stories of Sweden / daytrips to Alpha Centauri. You ask ‘how would I determine that your religious/supernatural anecdotes were reliable?’ To my mind there are two separate questions that need to be separated out here:

    1. Is the person giving the testimony a reliable witness?
    2. Is the content of the testimony itself believable?

    At the moment, I agree that in my case the answer to question 1 for you is probably no – I could be making up any kind of nonsense in an effort to convince you of the veracity of my beliefs, and you don’t know me well enough to have good grounds to consider me reliable. However, as I think we’ve agreed, we can both imagine circumstances in which we got to know each other over the course of time, and my behaviour (and long series of excellent restaurant recommendations 🙂 ) gave you good grounds for considering me a basically decent and honest sort of chap. You could of course still be deceived, I could just be incredibly devious and playing a long, manipulative, game, (it’s possible – my GP for 18 years was Harold Shipman) but life is too short to apply that kind of scepticism to all human relationships; eventually, some sort of trust is required.

    So then considering question 2, is the content of my testimony believable – here I don’t think that the analogy with the Alpha Centauri day-trip works. In that case, you have a priori knowledge that such a trip is impossible. If you knew me well, you would probably be concerned that I was suffering from some sort of mental illness (have you seen ‘A Beautiful Mind’? That kind of thing) and you might want to see if there was some way you could get me some help.
    However, in the case of the question of God’s existence and his intervention in the world, no such a priori knowledge exists. For the analogy to work, God’s existence would have to already be known to be as impossible/improbable as being able to get to Alpha Centauri and back in a day, and even Richard Dawkins wouldn’t put the question of God’s existence on that level. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9102164/Richard-Dawkins-6.9-out-of-seven-sure-that-God-does-not-exist.html)

    So – if your answer to question 1 is satisfactory i.e. you know me to be a believable witness, then if I tell you a story of some ‘miraculous’ answer to prayer or something like that, I would argue that you would be very reasonable to consider it carefully on its own merits – I would claim that God was the cause of whatever the incident was, and you should assess that claim as it stands, as a sceptic who nevertheless holds his worldview ‘tentatively’. The question you would be considering is simply: ‘is “God did it” the most reasonable conclusion to come to regarding the cause of this event? Or are there rationalistic causes that are more reasonable?’ – Note, not: ‘are there rationalistic causes that are in any way possible, because I have a priori knowledge that “God did it” is NOT a reasonable explanation’ because that’s simply begging the question.

    That’s essentially what we’re doing in the discussions regarding Jesus’ resurrection or the growth of the church in China (I’ll come back to that one later) – I would say: ‘look at the transformation of the disciples from scared men who ran away from the threat of arrest, to men who boldly proclaimed Jesus as risen from the dead despite the inevitable punishment and eventual martyrdom that would result: the most reasonable explanation for that kind of transformation is that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead.’ It is not (in my view) sufficient to simply say ‘dead men don’t rise from the dead’ because that is assuming the answer i.e. that there is no God to effect that kind of miracle. What you must do instead if you are wanting to approach the question with a genuinely open mind, is construct a purely rationalistic understanding of the birth of Christianity and the early church’s testimony of the resurrection that makes better sense of the available data – not one that is merely just-about-possible-but-actually-massively-tenuous.
    If the most elegant and comprehensive explanation for an event (or a religious testimony) is actually “God did it”, then that should be taken as evidence for his existence. If, therefore, you considered me to be a reliable, trustworthy, witness, and I recounted a story that had “God did it” as the most elegant and comprehensive explanation for that occurrence, I would suggest you would be reasonable to believe me.

    “If I am justified in accepting what they say as supporting what I believe (though admitting we might both still be deluded), then surely your problem with anecdotal testimony is not that it is in itself no reason to believe…”
    Anecdotal evidence can be a good reason to believe something. But, as I keep saying, it depends on the nature of the claim being put forward. Sweden ok, Alpha Centauri not ok.

    And then the question is: do claims regarding God’s existence and intervention in the world fit into the Sweden category or the Alpha Centauri category? To say that God-claims fit into the Alpha Centauri category is erroneous (not to mention a bit rude, which I don’t believe you meant to be) because it’s saying that to believe in God’s intervention is to believe in something which is patently, demonstrably, ludicrously false, and which no-one in their right mind (literally) could believe. I know that Dawkins, Hitchens et al at their worst would say that that is exactly the truth about faith, but those kind of over-inflated claims tend to induce massive face-palming in more measured, respectful atheists and agnostics. From what you’ve written so far, I don’t believe you have that kind of dismissive attitude to faith either.

    I went on Alpha because the course materials speak confidently about a number of supposed ‘facts’ (whether they be historical or scientific) that support the Christian faith. I went to find out what exactly these ‘facts’ were. Oh, and another reason why I went is because I am fascinated to hear testimonies from religious people. Lady Two (one of the ladies in my review) proved to be quite a fascinating character, making my time spent on the course all the more enjoyable.

    Given what we’ve already discussed about the possible unreliability of religious testimonies, I’m interested to know more about why you consider them fascinating? Presumably you don’t find them fascinating because they might illuminate some truth about the universe?

    “In response to your point about ‘God knows what he has to do to convince me’, I suppose I want to ask, who exactly is calling the shots in that scenario? You or God? Would you really (want to) believe in a God who was effectively no more than a genie in a lamp, performing magic tricks to dazzle you into belief?”
    And the alternative is what, Matt? That I should believe the supernaturally-inspired testimonies of people who don’t necessarily trust supernaturally-inspired testimonies? That I should believe the dreams a religious nature of those who admit that dreams of a religious nature aren’t necessarily convincing? Is an honest search for a little bit of compelling evidence for God’s existence the wrong approach to take? What would you suggest I do?

    You ask ‘Is an honest search for a little bit of compelling evidence for God’s existence the wrong approach to take?’ to which I would reply, yes, it probably is, and the reason why is in the word ‘compel’. The paradigm for how Christians understand God is of course Jesus, to whom the early Christians applied the prophecy of Isaiah 53:3 ‘He was despised and rejected by people’ – in fact, according to the gospels he was rejected by the Jewish authorities who plotted his crucifixion, the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:22), his disciple Judas (Luke 22:4), his own village (Luke 4:29), a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52), his brothers (John 7:5), and ultimately by much of the population of Jerusalem, who changed their tune from ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ (Matt 21:9) to ‘Crucify him!’ (Matt 27:22) within the course of a week.

    Now whether you think the gospels contain any historical content whatsoever isn’t the point here, the point is that for Christians at least, we believe that God comes to us in a way and in a person who can be rejected. If you’re compelled, you don’t have any choice, you’re simply over-ruled and, I would argue, devalued as a person. I would further suggest that you would be incapable of coming to a point of loving God, because to love someone implies a choice in their direction and away from alternatives. If God were simply to over-ride your sceptical resistance in a way that left you with no possible doubt regarding his existence (and to be honest, I’m not sure how he would do that without killing you – any kind of vision etc could, if you wanted, be rationalistically justified as a hallucination, perhaps an after-effect of pneumonia or something like that), you would believe that he existed, you would know him, but you wouldn’t love him – and love of God and neighbour is the essence of the Christian faith.
    [Matt. 22:34 ff – Jesus was asked: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And he said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”]

    Now at this point, you might throw your hands up and say ‘fine! Well it’s clearly pointless investigating the Christian faith if by definition the Christian God is not going to give me sufficient evidence for believing in him’, but that’s why I said in one of my first posts that I wasn’t going to attempt to demonstrate the scientific verifiability of Christianity to you, because I don’t think it can be done. What I do think is possible, however, is the more modest aim of demonstrating that Christianity is reasonable i.e. that it doesn’t require checking your brains in at the door, or believing something as nonsensical as the possibility of day trips to Alpha Centauri.

    We’ve spoken mostly about religious experience, but I’m sure you know of the other main arguments for God – William Lane Craig (www.reasonablefaith.org) gives some of the best concise expositions of the cosmological, moral, fine-tuning and other arguments in his debates. I would put arguments like those together with religious experiences (my own and others) including stories of personal transformation; the historical records of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and his subsequent impact on world civilisation; and the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived have believed in some sort of spiritual dimension [we seem to be ‘hard-wired’ for it in a way that other animals aren’t] – and I would argue that the cumulative effect of those philosophical, theological, experiential and historical arguments are sufficient to make faith in God reasonable – not proved, but reasonable, not Alpha-Centauri irrational etc.

    Now many (most? all?) atheists would say that faith in God is of course not reasonable, it is an irrational delusion that should be jettisoned along with the tooth fairy and Santa. But if I could demonstrate to you that your objections to Christianity along the lines of the problem of hell, suffering, other religions, difficult biblical texts etc etc are not in fact insuperable barriers to belief – that rational, coherent (but not necessarily ‘compelling’) answers to those questions do actually exist, I would consider my aim of demonstrating the reasonableness of Christianity achieved. You may not ever think I get there, of course 🙂

    And once someone has conceded that faith in God is reasonable, they are then I would suggest by definition agnostic, not atheist. The question then moves to: ‘which is more reasonable [NOT – which is scientifically, demonstrably true] – the atheist worldview or the Christian one?’
    On atheism, someone is required to believe that:

    – There is no meaning to life other than what we construct ourselves by attributing meaning to relationships, hobbies, possessions etc

    – Morality has no objective ground and is therefore ultimately subjective (and therefore changeable).

    – Love is fundamentally a chemical reaction derived from animalistic sexual desire, or a need for self-preservation, or a desire to preserve one’s own genetic material.

    – The universe came into existence without a prior cause. (unless it was a product of another universe… but then the question only moves back a step, as there can’t by definition be an infinite regression backwards because otherwise we could never reach this point in time; there has to be a beginning at some point)

    – The earth with all its various riches of plants, animals and minerals has no intrinsic value of its own, only what we attribute to it. We are therefore free to exploit / destroy / preserve it however we want.

    – Human beings similarly have no intrinsic worth other than what we attribute to them. It is therefore possible to attribute zero worth to a human being – for example someone in a persistent vegetative state – and so justify disposing of them.

    – Beauty is simply ‘something I find aesthetically appealing’. It has no objective truth.

    – There is no such thing as ‘sin’, only things we find morally objectionable.

    You may well want to challenge or clarify some of these (I’m fairly sure you will!), as I may be wrong on some points – this pretty much represents my understanding of the atheist worldview though. Against this, the Christian believes that:

    – Meaning is to be found ultimately in a relationship with God, by whom and for whom we exist.

    – Morality is grounded in the character of God, who is the paradigm of goodness, truth and love

    – Love is, in fact, the fundamental reality of the universe and the goal towards which we are all either moving towards or away from – love of God and of each other. God’s love is supremely revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

    – God is the cause of the universe

    – The earth has intrinsic worth as part of God’s good creation, and should be stewarded appropriately.

    – Similarly human beings are created in the imago Dei, the image of God, and so have intrinsic worth and should be valued accordingly.

    – Beauty is fundamentally found in things that are consonant with God and his character and creativity.

    – Sin is the failure of a human being to live up to God’s original design. We are ‘slaves to sin’ – we don’t live like we know we should – but God can set us free from the penalty and the power of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    Now I’m sure you will want to challenge some of these!! Any one of these points could be the starting point for a huge debate on its own. But I’m not at this point trying to argue for the truth of these points, just laying out some of the bare bones of the different views; the job of the honest seeker is to evaluate them both and rather than asking ‘which one of these worldviews is scientifically verifiable’ (answer – neither), instead to ask ‘which one of these worldviews is most reasonable; which one coheres most closely with my intuitive understanding of how the universe really is?’

    If someone were to say ‘OK, I believe that the Christian worldview is reasonable [i.e. not self-contradictory or demonstrably nonsensical]’ then I would argue they would be justified in putting their faith in Jesus, if they so chose, even in the absence of ‘compelling’ evidence. Marriage is a helpful analogy here: two people experience something over time in their relationship that gives them a reasonable belief that their relationship will last for life, and so they choose to make the commitment of getting married. Their relationship may not last, of course, as divorce statistics show, but nevertheless we would say they were justified in taking the step of making a lifelong commitment to each other (which is, let’s be honest, pretty serious and not that far off committing to faith in God), even though they have no watertight scientific evidence that their relationship will be lifelong.

    It’s essentially the same with God. If, after investigating Christianity closely, you came to the conclusion that it was actually a reasonable belief system, I would argue that you be justified in choosing to become a Christian, even though you could not point to any one piece of laboratory tested, repeatable-under-double-blind-controlled-conditions piece of evidence for it. You might say ‘but how could I claim to believe something I don’t know is true?’ – but that’s missing the point. The essence of Christianity is not propositional belief, it is an active, practical commitment to follow Jesus, expressed through Christian spiritual practices like practical care for those around us, charity, prayer, worship, reading the Bible etc – all of which may honestly and reasonably be embarked on, even with the lack of that piece of compelling evidence.

    Does that make sense? I know I’ve gone on (a lot) there, but on reflection this is probably how most people who become Christians on Alpha come to faith – it’s not through the presentation of this or that absolutely killer ‘fact’ (the Alpha publicity may be misleading there, I don’t know), it’s that the Christian worldview is explained in the talks and expounded in the lives and testimonies of the group leaders, and over the course attendees become convinced that this worldview is in fact reasonable, and so they start to practically live it out. Interestingly, it is often at that point i.e. after a decision to trust in the reasonableness of Christianity has been made, that some sort of confirmatory experience of answered prayer or something like that happens.

    “Given the relative world populations at the time, I think 7 million [Christians] in 300AD compares pretty favorably with 14 million [Mormon] adherents in 2010.”
    And this tells us what about the truth of either religion? Anything?

    No, not as such. It does demonstrate that both messages must have had powerful resonance with their hearers to catch on. In the case of Mormonism, that was the (fictitious) pre-history of America and its corresponding importance in God’s eternal plan. In the case of Christianity – what do you think it was that people found so compelling about the message of a crucified Jewish carpenter that it would catch on to that extent? It’s important to note that for the early church the gospel [lit. ‘good news’] was that ‘Jesus is Lord [and by implication, Caesar is not]’, and was NOT ‘believe in Jesus and you will go to heaven when you die’

    “ … I will completely agree that post-Constantine, power, politics and faith got intermingled in a very unhappy and often coercive way. In that respect, no it’s not surprising that Christianity caught on after that…”
    Great. So we’ve easily explained the last 1700 years of Christianity.

    Ha 🙂 Touché. Power corrupts, even (perhaps especially?) religious power. However, within the Christian tradition, the people and movements that stand out luminescent above the rest are those who have willingly shunned more typical power struggles in pursuit of submission and non-violence – unarguably therefore more authentically following the example of Jesus who knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. Think of Pope Francis kneeling to wash the feet of a young Muslim girl, or Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu expounding the path of non-violence and forgiveness, or William Wilberforce campaigning against the oppression of slavery, or Corrie ten Boom finding the strength to forgive a concentration camp guard (http://www.familylifeeducation.org/gilliland/procgroup/CorrieTenBoom.htm) – it’s no good saying ‘well some Christians abuse power and others don’t so it’s all clearly rubbish’ because authentic Christianity means following Jesus, who did not abuse his power but in fact willingly surrendered it.

    As an aside, given that evolution favours the powerful over the weak, why do you think many people have a moral sense that the weak should be defended / protected rather than crushed?

    “… in 1949 the Communist Party in China expelled all Christian missionaries and began a crackdown on all expressions of religion – many Christians were beaten, imprisoned and tortured. At the time there were 500,000 baptised Protestant Christians out of a population of 450 million. There are now estimated to be between 40-100 million Christians in China. I’m interested – we can both see the advantages in following a religion that guarantees you power, wealth [emphasis added], or at the very least means you avoid being killed. Why do you think Christianity in China has grown so much when none of those advantages exist, and in fact becoming a Christian is likely to result in persecution?”
    Because, according to Christianity, these advantages DO exist (in the eternity that follows this life). We can both see the advantages in following a religion (in this case Christianity) that guarantees you power, wealth and eternal well-being in the life to come. Quite appealing, one would think, to the typically poor, down-trodden people that we’re talking about. Tell them that this life, and all its hardships, are just a temporary blip, and if you believe certain things then all the riches will come your way. Quite an attractive proposition for those that have, and will continue to have (in this life at least), nothing at all.

    I have a few problems with this view (I guess it’s the classic ‘opiate of the people’ Marxist critique):

    – Christianity in China is booming amongst the middle classes as well as the poor, as the BBC reported a couple of years ago http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14838749.

    – It comes across as perhaps a touch arrogant to take the view that ‘those poor, down-trodden people will believe anything if they think it means pie in the sky when they die.’ Do you really think that poor people are devoid of the same critical faculties that the more well-off supposedly possess? (Especially when you consider that the UK ranks lower than Costa Rica in global happiness levels despite their average income being a quarter of ours; perhaps poorer people are wiser than us in some/many ways?)

    – In any case, if all Christianity was, was some unfounded, unsupported claim of heavenly bliss, do you really think that would be sufficient to outweigh people’s natural instinct’s towards self-preservation from the very real and very present threat of persecution now? As I’ve said before, the core message of Christianity is not ‘believe this and you’ll go to heaven’ it’s more like ‘follow Jesus and enter into a relationship with God now.’

    “And can you think of any other religions that have similarly flourished despite oppression? I’m not talking about an isolated few like converts to Islam post-9/11 (I’m not aware of any statistics on that, perhaps you are?), but massive, exponential growth despite severe persecution, not just societal ostracism.”
    Plenty of religions have grown despite severe persecution:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Jews
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Buddhists
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Hindus
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sikh_holocaust_of_1746

    I read the articles and couldn’t find any statistics of religious growth analogous to the level of growth seen by the Christian church in China – however I guess your basic point is that ‘the ability of a religion to withstand persecution is no indicator of its essential truth’, and I would agree with that, fair point.

    I do find it a tad head-scratchingly ironic when someone of one faith presents nasty-looking verses from the holy book of another, as if that somehow shows that the god in question is a violent, ignorant, malevolent warlord and therefore shouldn’t be believed. I won’t paste similarly nasty-looking verses from the bible here.

    Happy to discuss problems in the Bible if you want, though that may introduce another discussion at least as encyclopaedic as this one is becoming… Muslims believe that the Koran is THE supreme, infallible revelation of God. Christians believe that the supreme revelation of God is Jesus, not the Bible. The two books aren’t analogous. So although there are problematic texts a-plenty within the Bible, they need to be scrutinised in the light of the person and work of Jesus, who advocated and lived a life of non-violence, contrary to what the Koran says in this verse and elsewhere.

    It’s worth saying that although it is a common atheist view to look at the variety of religions across the world and say ‘well, they can’t all be right so they must all be wrong, because they all think each other is wrong’, this is fallacious reasoning. You wouldn’t stand in front of a roomful of Mona Lisa’s and say ‘well the real one can’t be in here because there are so many different ones.’ And in the case of religions, they really are different! Fundamentally, vitally different. It’s more like looking a roomful of paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Rembrandt etc. The question is which of these paintings most accurately represents how life, the universe and everything really is, and the fact that there are many different paintings does not eliminate the chance that one of them may be more accurate than the others.

    “I’m painfully aware … of my own inadequacies and failings and my need for God’s mercy – which I believe he delights to give to those who ask.”
    With respect, I’ve never really understood this kind of language or indeed this kind of mindset. I just find it incredibly odd. (No offence intended)

    That’s interesting. No offence taken at all. Have you ever read or come across Francis Spufford’s book ‘Unapologetic’? I would be delighted to buy you a copy if you haven’t read it, I guess Kindle would be easiest if you have one? I’d advocate reading it not because it will convince you about the truth of Christianity (one of the reasons it’s called UNapologetic is because he’s deliberately not trying to offer an apologetic for Christianity) but because I think he writes more powerfully about this than anyone else I’ve read. He describes what is commonly called ‘sin’ as the HPtFTU – that is, the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up (he uses a different word which I won’t quote so google doesn’t start blocking your site…)

    He writes:
    ‘What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch…
    In the end, almost everyone recognises this as one of the truths about themselves. You can get quite a long way through an adult life without having to acknowledge your own personal propensity to (etc etc); maybe even all the way though, if you’re someone with a very high threshold of obliviousness, or with the kind of disposition that registers sunshine even when, at least for an hour or a day or a season, we find we have to take notice of our HPtFTU…
    ‘Our appointment with realisation often comes at one of the classic moments of adult failure: when a marriage ends, when a career stalls or crumbles, when the supposedly recreational coke habit turns out to be exercising veto powers over every other hope and dream. It need not be dramatic, though. It can equally well just be the drifting into place of one more pleasant, indistinguishable little atom of wasted time… You’re lying in the bath and you notice that you’re thirty-nine and that the way you’re living bears scarcely any resemblance to what you think you’ve always wanted; yet you got here by choice…’

    If none of that resonates with you, you are fortunate. I have my own story of realising my HPtFTU which I’m happy to share if it would help – it’s a non-supernatural anecdote as well!

    “My point is just that there are a wide variety of views within orthodox Christianity about the afterlife, all I would say to someone investigating Christianity was not to let it be a sticking point…”
    Yes, a wide of variety of views from people who all claim to have a “relationship” with God. Now, it’s either the case that they’ve all forgotten to ask him about the truth of this particular matter or he is telling them all different answers.

    Or, that God uses the process of human interactions and discussions as a means of gradually bringing us further towards the truth. I’m studying theology at the moment, and there are plenty of discussions / arguments to be had about all kinds of things, but for Christians the most important consideration in those kind of discussions should not be who is necessarily right (in some cases, we’re best to admit we will never fully know), but who conducts themselves in the most loving and respectful manner. If I smash someone to bits with my ninja-like theological skillz but completely disrespect them in the process, then as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 (the bit that often gets read at weddings) I am ‘nothing’.

    This comes back to the relationship / proposition dichotomy again. If you think that Christianity is primarily about correct assent to a series of propositions, then the idea that God would not precisely and definitively reveal the nature of the after-life is nonsensical. But if you understand that Christianity is actually about becoming truly human after the model of Jesus, and that affects how you relate to others, then the idea that Christians need to learn to listen to each other, respect each other’s views and as much as possible ‘speak the truth in love’ makes perfect sense. I would contend that God is more interested in my character than my doctrine.

    “I am a Christian because I believe Jesus lived the most authentic life of anyone, ever, and my desire is to model my life on his to the best of my ability. I’ve also seen the power that faith has in my life and in others to bring about radical transformation – hence Alpha. If you believe that you possess a message that can bring positive change to others, why would you not want to share it?”
    By all means share it. But those that do should have the ability to defend it. Sadly, most don’t have that ability and instead make Christianity a laughing stock in the process.
    Thankfully you aren’t like most Christians, and that’s why it’s a pleasure speaking to you.

    Thank you, I appreciate that. For my part, it’s a pleasure dialoguing with an atheist who has not resorted to ad hominem attacks or felt it necessary to mention the Crusades in every answer. I hope the above is helpful in explaining more of the Christian worldview – as I said before, if you want to just pick up on one or two bits to continue the discussion but keep it a bit more focussed that’s fine with me, we can always come back to other topics later.

    Anyway, must get on with the essay!

    All the best

    Matt

    Comment by Matt Osgood | August 28, 2013

  135. PS Sorry some of my html tagging doesn’t seem to have worked, I was aiming for my old quotes in bold italic and yours in bold – is there a way to edit posts? Doesn’t matter if not, I guess it’s still pretty easy to work out who’s who…

    Comment by Matt Osgood | August 28, 2013

  136. Hi Matt,

    I’ll edit your post so that the quotes are distinguishable.

    I’ve just had a quick read-through and will respond when I can. Thanks.

    Best wishes,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | August 28, 2013

  137. Hi Matt,

    Hope you’ve had a good week and all is well. I’ll respond to your points below:

    “Now, I appreciate that you ‘hardly need explain’ that child-murdering is wrong – but I’m still curious as to what you think the grounds for that view are.”
    I will start by saying that I am open on the question of morality. When it comes to ethical theories I’m not sure I would be comfortable nailing my colours to a particular mast with any degree of certainty, but I feel that it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine morality as an innate human faculty. I am not arguing that this is the case but if it is then we have, by our very nature, grounds for thinking ‘child murdering is wrong’.

    Also, there are a number of moral theories that posit the existence of ‘objective’ moral truths where no appeal to deity is necessary (social contract theory, utilitarianism, desire utilitarianism, consequentialism, etc, etc), and they too can offer an explanation for why we would have grounds for thinking ‘child murdering is wrong’. Again, I am not arguing for the truth of any of them here, however, only pointing out that theism is not the only plausible explanation for moral objectivity.

    Interestingly, eminent Christian philosopher, Richard Swinburne famously said, “I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.” Personally, I don’t see why I would have reason to disagree with him.

    “You ask ‘how would I determine that your religious/supernatural anecdotes were reliable?’ To my mind there are two separate questions that need to be separated out here:
    1. Is the person giving the testimony a reliable witness?”
    If you have a wholly subjective experience – a voice inside your head or a feeling inside your body, as would be the case here – how would you be deemed a reliable witness for something only you could possibly experience? Is it just a case, then, of someone saying, “Well, he seems like a nice bloke” and that adequately satisfies the first of your criteria?

    “2. Is the content of the testimony itself believable?”
    If you have a wholly subjective experience in your mind of a man that supposedly lived and died 2000 years ago, who was born of a virgin, who walked on water, who magically fed thousands of people with a couple of crumbs, who died and then miraculously rose again, who physically flew up in to the clouds and became invisible, who is now living in a different dimension as a disembodied mind and who now speaks to you telepathically, then, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t be rushing to class the content of such a testimony as believable.

    So if I said to you, “Matt, you seem like a really nice bloke but I don’t believe you on this particular matter” would that settle it? Would it mean that your testimony isn’t reliable? If not, why not? Is there something else we would need to consider instead, then? If so, what would that be?

    “So – if your answer to question 1 is satisfactory i.e. you know me to be a believable witness, then if I tell you a story of some ‘miraculous’ answer to prayer or something like that, I would argue that you would be very reasonable to consider it carefully on its own merits – I would claim that God was the cause of whatever the incident was, and you should assess that claim as it stands… The question you would be considering is simply: ‘is “God did it” the most reasonable conclusion to come to regarding the cause of this event? Or are there rationalistic causes that are more reasonable?’”
    Imagine you have a neighbour who believes in a different god than you do. You consider him a decent and trustworthy bloke. He tells you a story of some ‘miraculous’ answer to prayer or something like that, and he claims that his god was the cause of whatever the incident was. Is his use of “god did it” (note: NOT your God) the most reasonable conclusion to come to regarding the cause of this event? Or are there rationalistic causes that are more reasonable? Wouldn’t his decency/trustworthiness sway you in the slightest?

    “I don’t think that the analogy with the Alpha Centauri day-trip works. In that case, you have a priori knowledge that such a trip is impossible. If you knew me well, you would probably be concerned that I was suffering from some sort of mental illness… and you might want to see if there was some way you could get me some help.
    However, in the case of the question of God’s existence and his intervention in the world, no such a priori knowledge exists. For the analogy to work, God’s existence would have to already be known to be as impossible/improbable as being able to get to Alpha Centauri and back in a day…”
    Well, my ship was teleported there by a race of technologically advanced space aliens. It’s important to note, let’s not forget, that in the case of the question of the existence of technologically advanced space aliens and their intervention in the world, we don’t possess a priori knowledge that their existence is impossible. Just as you would argue as being the case with God. Right?

    So, imagine that an otherwise ‘decent bloke’ tells you of his trip to another star system in his spacecraft that was teleported there by those technologically advanced space aliens. He asks if you believe him or not. How do you respond? If you don’t believe him I would like to know what would it take to change your mind? What would you require? What grounds would you have for saying that you don’t believe his testimony? Would there be any similarity, perhaps, between you not believing him about his alleged trip and me not believing you about you’re alleged relationship with a god?

    “It is not (in my view) sufficient to simply say ‘dead men don’t rise from the dead’ because that is assuming the answer i.e. that there is no God to effect that kind of miracle.”
    And couldn’t the hypothetical Alpha Centauri traveller say, “It is not (in my view) sufficient to simply say ‘people don’t travel to nearby star systems’ because that is assuming the answer i.e. that there is no race of technologically advanced space aliens to effect that kind of event”?

    “What you must do instead if you are wanting to approach the question with a genuinely open mind, is construct a purely rationalistic understanding of the birth of Christianity and the early church’s testimony of the resurrection that makes better sense of the available data – not one that is merely just-about-possible-but-actually-massively-tenuous.”
    The resurrection isn’t taught as a historical fact in any history class of any secondary school, college or university, instead it is taught in R.E class alongside, and in the same context as, the similarly fancy (and literally unbelievable) tales and miracles of other religions. Why do you think that is, Matt?

    “Given what we’ve already discussed about the possible unreliability of religious testimonies, I’m interested to know more about why you consider them fascinating? Presumably you don’t find them fascinating because they might illuminate some truth about the universe?”
    To be honest, I haven’t come across one yet that has illuminated some truth about the universe. The overwhelming majority of testimonies are of the Lady Two variety. I doubt I’m alone in considering such testimonies as truly fascinating.

    “I would… suggest that you would be incapable of coming to a point of loving God, because to love someone implies a choice in their direction and away from alternatives. If God were simply to over-ride your sceptical resistance in a way that left you with no possible doubt regarding his existence… you would believe that he existed, you would know him, but you wouldn’t love him…”
    My partner has left me with no possible doubt regarding her existence. I know her. Does this mean, therefore, that I cant possibly love her?

    “Now at this point, you might throw your hands up and say ‘fine! Well it’s clearly pointless investigating the Christian faith if by definition the Christian God is not going to give me sufficient evidence for believing in him’”
    If there isn’t sufficient evidence to support a certain claim then it’s perfectly reasonable for someone not to believe that certain claim.

    “What I do think is possible… is the more modest aim of demonstrating that Christianity is reasonable i.e. that it doesn’t require checking your brains in at the door…”
    A man supposedly walking on water, a physical body flying up in to the clouds before turning invisible & immaterial, dead people popping out of their graves and walking in to town, a disembodied mind that resides in another dimension that contacts you telepathically, etc etc? I’m not sure how reasonable such claims are, to be honest. Maybe you could explain what you mean by “reasonable” in this instance, as perhaps you define it in a way that I am not familiar? I’d be interested to know if tales of alien abductions and miracle accounts from other religions would fit your particular definition.

    “… once someone has conceded that faith in God is reasonable, they are then I would suggest by definition agnostic, not atheist.”
    A rather common misconception there Matt (if you don’t mind me saying). Agnosticism and atheism aren’t mutually exclusive. One can be both agnostic and atheist at the same time (as am I), and agnostic and theist at the same time. Agnosticism/gnosticism concerns knowledge, atheism/theism concerns belief.

    Atheism isn’t just the belief that God doesn’t exist. These links may help:

    Negative atheism: http://atheism.about.com/od/Atheist-Dictionary/g/Definition-Negative-Atheism.htm
    Positive atheism: http://atheism.about.com/od/Atheist-Dictionary/g/Definition-Positive-Atheism.htm

    “The question then moves to: ‘which is more reasonable… the atheist worldview or the Christian one?’
    On atheism, someone is required to believe that:
    Morality has no objective ground and is therefore ultimately subjective (and therefore changeable).”

    This is incorrect. I already gave examples of ethical theories that do not use (or need) a deity to ground objective morals. It is simply not the case that an atheist must subscribe to moral relativism.

    ”The earth with all its various riches of plants, animals and minerals has no intrinsic value of its own, only what we attribute to it.”
    And couldn’t one just as easily say, “The earth with all its various riches of plants, animals and minerals has no intrinsic value of its own, only what God attributes to it”? Or does it have intrinsic value regardless of God saying so?

    “Human beings similarly have no intrinsic worth other than what we attribute to them.”
    The same response here as given above .

    “We are therefore free to exploit / destroy / preserve it however we want.”
    Doesn’t your favoured apologist, William Lane Craig, famously argue that God is free to destroy/preserve human life however and whenever he wants? Even though he considers us to possess intrinsic worth? But you are arguing here that the freedom to destroy/exploit a certain something comes only as a consequence of it having no intrinsic worth.

    “The essence of Christianity is not propositional belief, it is an active, practical commitment to follow Jesus, expressed through Christian spiritual practices like practical care for those around us, charity, prayer, worship, reading the Bible etc – all of which may honestly and reasonably be embarked on, even with the lack of that piece of compelling evidence.
    Does that make sense?”
    People are free to follow a certain religion (in this case Christianity), and adopt the practices that come with it, even though they have no compelling evidence to support such a belief in the first place. That’s their choice.

    Personally, however, I have no reason for joining them in such a belief.

    “Interestingly, it is often at that point i.e. after a decision to trust in the reasonableness of Christianity has been made, that some sort of confirmatory experience of answered prayer or something like that happens.”
    That’s to be expected though, isn’t it? Do you consider it just as remarkable that a person feels better after taking a placebo?

    “[QUESTION: Mormonism and Christianity rose fast, and this tells us what about the truth of either religion? Anything?] No, not as such. It does demonstrate that both messages must have had powerful resonance with their hearers to catch on.”
    Obviously. And this applies to every single religion that has ever existed.

    “In the case of Christianity – what do you think it was that people found so compelling about the message of a crucified Jewish carpenter that it would catch on to that extent?”
    If we’re talking about the first 300 years of Christianity (as you admit the true explosion of the religion occurred after this point, and we have adequate natural explanations as to why such an explosion did occur) then there is nothing remarkable to explain. People have felt the need, and will continue to feel the need, to believe all sorts of oddities for all sorts of reasons. Belief in the numerous religions in existence, the conspiracy theories, New-Age practices, healing crystals, tarot cards, horoscopes, psychics, and the plethora of assorted hokum in the world are all testament to that.

    “It’s worth saying that although it is a common atheist view to look at the variety of religions across the world and say ‘well, they can’t all be right so they must all be wrong, because they all think each other is wrong’, this is fallacious reasoning.”
    I would offer a slight modification to your comment here: I think it is a common atheist view to look at the variety of religions across the world and say ‘well, they can’t all be right but they can all be wrong”.

    “Have you ever read or come across Francis Spufford’s book ‘Unapologetic’?”
    I’m aware of both Spufford and his book, though I haven’t read it. He was interviewed about the book in an edition of New Humanist earlier on in the year, so that was how I came to know about it.
    [EDIT: Online version here: http://rationalist.org.uk/articles/2858/dear-atheists ]

    “For my part, it’s a pleasure dialoguing with an atheist who has not resorted to ad hominem attacks or felt it necessary to mention the Crusades in every answer.”
    Cheers Matt. You’re a good guy and it’s nice talking to you.

    Hope you’re doing well with your college essay (though I’m sure you’re doing a fine job). Good luck with that.

    As ever, all the best.

    Steve.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 8, 2013

  138. Hi Stephen,

    Many thanks for your reply. How are you? Hoping you’ve recovered completely from the pneumonia? I’m doing OK – my essay is finished but I’m already onto the next one, or at least I should be 🙂

    “Now, I appreciate that you ‘hardly need explain’ that child-murdering is wrong – but I’m still curious as to what you think the grounds for that view are.”
    I will start by saying that I am open on the question of morality. When it comes to ethical theories I’m not sure I would be comfortable nailing my colours to a particular mast with any degree of certainty, but I feel that it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine morality as an innate human faculty. I am not arguing that this is the case but if it is then we have, by our very nature, grounds for thinking ‘child murdering is wrong’.
    Also, there are a number of moral theories that posit the existence of ‘objective’ moral truths where no appeal to deity is necessary (social contract theory, utilitarianism, desire utilitarianism, consequentialism, etc, etc), and they too can offer an explanation for why we would have grounds for thinking ‘child murdering is wrong’. Again, I am not arguing for the truth of any of them here, however, only pointing out that theism is not the only plausible explanation for moral objectivity.
    Interestingly, eminent Christian philosopher, Richard Swinburne famously said, “I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.” Personally, I don’t see why I would have reason to disagree with him.

    Firstly can I thank you for having the honesty to admit that there are some questions of life/existence/morality to which you don’t (yet?) have a completely certain answer. I’m in the same boat, but it’s refreshing to meet an atheist who is prepared to say that as well.

    I’m no ethicist (ethics module comes later this year!) so I’m not familiar with the details of the theories you mention. I do have a copy of John Stuart Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’ on my kindle though and had a quick browse through the first couple of chapters and found this:

    ‘As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.’ (loc. 261)

    A few points:
    – ‘Utilitarianism requires’… Utilitarianism is a system of thought. It can’t ‘require’ anything. Only persons can make requirements.
    – Interesting, therefore, that Jesus’ moral teaching (and yes, similar rules are to be found in many different systems of thought and religions) are cited as the ultimate ideal. I would say that I was required as a Christian to obey Jesus’ ethical teaching – but then (atheistic) utilitarianism seems to be saying the same thing. Which is interesting.
    – the sort of altruism required to have no more preference for one’s own interests as for the interests of others is extraordinarily unrealistic. Christianity, I would suggest, is far far more realistic about the human condition in suggesting that our most natural state is to be selfish, and that it is the grace and strength found in having faith in Jesus that enables us to work against our natural instincts. This video, by ‘sceptical agnostic’ journalist John Harris about Frontline Church in Liverpool expresses it well – check out the response of the foodbank volunteer at 7:01. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2011/jun/13/faith-liverpool-frontline-big-society-video

    Furthermore, I’m not sure that any of the ethical systems you mention constitute a strictly objective basis for morality – they are by definition human societal constructs and could therefore be remade in a different way if society chose.

    What I find fascinating (possibly in a similar way to your interest in lady two’s testimony etc) is that I have no reason to doubt that you a moral person, probably more so than many people who would call themselves Christians, and quite possibly more than me – and yet you don’t really know why you act that way (or at least, can’t offer any explanation as to why you should act in a that way)

    You said:
    I feel that it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine morality as an innate human faculty.

    You’ve said a number of times that believers base their lives on things for which they have no evidence. Isn’t this sentence basically an admission that, when it comes to morality, you do the same? ‘Feel’ and ‘imagine’ are hardly scientifically rigorous terms, are they? Now as it happens, I would agree with Swinburne, in fact as I’ve said previously I don’t think any of the so-called arguments for God work as knock-down philosophical proofs (although there are plenty of intellectual heavyweights who would disagree with both Swinburne and me there – C.S. Lewis for one, who became a Deist in the first step on his way to becoming a Christian, precisely because of the argument from objective moral values) but I’m not trying to prove the existence of God. I’m attempting to assert that Christianity is reasonable, not that it is proven. I guess I’m also trying to point out what I see as elements of atheism that are self-contradictory, or at least not based on the kind of scientific evidence that atheists claim to hold so dear. Living according to a moral code that you don’t actually have any empirical evidence for holding to is one such area.

    I know a standard atheist response here is ‘well, alright, I may not have any objective grounds for my morality, but I chose it – I didn’t need to be told by some sky-fairy that murder was wrong’. That’s fine. I’m glad you’ve chosen to go along with the ethics of the Golden Rule (or whatever) rather than being a nihilistic child-murderer. But for an atheist to admit that his own view of morality is held in the absence of scientifically rigorous proof, and then to accuse a Christian that his beliefs are held in the absence of scientifically rigorous proof (as though that’s a bad thing) smacks to me of a certain lack of even-handedness.

    Furthermore, you speculate that morality may be an ‘innate human faculty’. A Christian would say, yes, of course it is, because we are made in the imago Dei with the capacity to recognise and actively choose between right and wrong. Given that, of course, you would hold that we are not made in the image of God, where might this innate human faculty have come from? Evolution? Nature red in tooth and claw? I doubt it.

    If you have a wholly subjective experience – a voice inside your head or a feeling inside your body, as would be the case here – how would you be deemed a reliable witness for something only you could possibly experience? Is it just a case, then, of someone saying, “Well, he seems like a nice bloke” and that adequately satisfies the first of your criteria?

    I don’t think I suggested ‘nice’ as a criteria, I suggested trustworthy. We do this all the time – whenever we say ‘I felt really sad’ or ‘that film was incredibly moving’ or ‘I was so uncomfortable in that meeting’ we are trying to convey a wholly subjective experience. If someone you know and trust shared something of their inner experience, I have no doubt that you would consider them a ‘reliable witness’ and have no reason to doubt that the experience they reported did in fact occur to them, even though you have no direct, empirical access to their experience and only their testimony to go on. My point is that if someone whom you know and trust has a religious experience, you should not (unless you are being unreasonable) doubt that the experience occurred, even if you reserve the right to doubt that the cause of that experience is the divine one that they may claim.

    So, to give a trivial example, if you knew and trusted me as a basically honest person, and I said ‘I had the most incredible sense of the presence of God in church last Sunday’, then I would suggest that your scepticism should not be applied at the level of ‘well I think Matt is lying and trying to trick me into believing God is real’ because you know that I am fundamentally honest, it should instead be applied to the cause of that experience – so you might attribute my sense of the ‘presence of God’ as groupthink, or me being especially emotional, or me having eaten something funny, or the vicar indulging in hypnosis etc etc. Does that seem reasonable?

    To give another example – I heard or read a talk by Sam Harris, can’t remember, in which he spoke about his work as a neurologist, studying inexplicable patterns of consciousness in mystics of various religions. Apparently some atheists had attacked him for even acknowledging that those patterns existed, that those mystics seemed to experience consciousness in a way most people don’t, but he insisted that the patterns were real and that it was therefore the job of science to discover what the cause was – because of course, on Harris’ account, it wasn’t God. I would suggest that atheist scepticism should be applied at the level of causation of the experience, not whether the experience itself occurred (assuming a trustworthy account etc etc), because otherwise you are fairly arbitrarily closing off an entire area of dialogue regarding people’s inner experience – would you agree?


    If you have a wholly subjective experience in your mind of a man that supposedly lived and died 2000 years ago, who was born of a virgin, who walked on water, who magically fed thousands of people with a couple of crumbs, who died and then miraculously rose again, who physically flew up in to the clouds and became invisible, who is now living in a different dimension as a disembodied mind and who now speaks to you telepathically, then, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t be rushing to class the content of such a testimony as believable.

    Well no, you wouldn’t, because you have made an a priori decision that because God does not exist, what I might term ‘supernatural’ occurrences cannot by definition occur. As I said above, if you thought me basically trustworthy, you would be reasonable to believe that I had had the experience I had described (even if you disagreed with the cause) – your task is simply to offer a more plausible, rationalistic explanation. If my described experience is simply ‘I had an overwhelming sense of God’s love for me’, that’s pretty easy, there are plenty of alternatives I’m sure you could offer. If my experience is that what I believe is God gave me specific guidance about the direction of my life, which subsequently came to pass, I imagine that might be more difficult, though still not impossible because given an a priori commitment to rational explanations, any explanation is more plausible than God.

    The difficulty for offering alternative explanations multiplies, though, when the experience spills over from a mere internal, subjective, experience to something more concrete. So, for example, my former heroin addict brother-in-law stood on a platform in front of 6000 people at a Christian festival this summer and testified that God had turned his life around. My friend Steve says the same about his former cocaine habit. As does Jez Etherington (husband of my boss, the vicar of St Paul’s) about his alcoholism. As does Gary Flynn, member of my previous church about his multiple different issues – http://www.fgbmfi.org.uk/node/2996

    Given all these experiences (I could go on for a long time with similar stories of people personally known to me), which crucially are not just subjective, internal experiences of disembodied voices, but have had very real, concrete consequences – would you say that I was unreasonable to think that God may indeed be the cause? Or is it more reasonable to suggest that this long series of experiences occurring to unconnected individuals but having similar results of total life transformation, breaking of addictions etc is simply the result of a strangely consistent delusion?

    Imagine you have a neighbour who believes in a different god than you do. You consider him a decent and trustworthy bloke. He tells you a story of some ‘miraculous’ answer to prayer or something like that, and he claims that his god was the cause of whatever the incident was. Is his use of “god did it” (note: NOT your God) the most reasonable conclusion to come to regarding the cause of this event? Or are there rationalistic causes that are more reasonable? Wouldn’t his decency/trustworthiness sway you in the slightest?

    I hope this helps clarify my thinking here: My friend Jez still goes to AA meetings regularly to mentor and help others. AA famously invites participants to call on a ‘higher power’ for help, but leaves it up to the group members to discern what, if anything, that power might be – atheist attendees will ascribe it to nature, or the power of good in people, or anything, it doesn’t really matter. If – as I believe – a good, loving and gracious God exists, and someone in desperate need calls out to a ‘higher power’ that they don’t really know or understand, I have no problem in believing that God hears their prayer and is perfectly capable of answering, even if the end result is a religious experience for them that is not (by their description at least) a Christian one.

    Similarly, if someone from another religion came to me and described how they had had a dream in which Allah (or Brahma or whoever) appeared to them and encouraged them towards love of God and others, I would not doubt for a second that their experience had actually occurred (assuming I know them to be trustworthy), but I would share with them my belief that the ultimate revelation of love is found in Jesus Christ, and that perhaps God was working in them to draw them to faith in him. C.S. Lewis writes brilliantly about this in the last of the Narnia Chronicles (The Last Battle) re the different gods of Aslan and Tash.

    Also, if their dream or belief was that God was telling them they should hijack a plane and fly it into a building, I would not – again – doubt their experience, but I would question the cause. They could be being influenced by unhelpful teaching from others, they could be mentally ill, or – if their experience was unequivocally a spiritual one – then Christian theology has a place for that as well because we believe that there are evil supernatural forces as well as good ones.

    So – for various reasons, no, I would have no problem admitting that my neighbour’s described experience was real. I might disagree with them on the cause or the implications, but (again, assuming I trust them) I wouldn’t have an a priori commitment to denying that their experience even happened; nor do I have to accept their testimony as sufficient reason for me to change religion. However, as I’ve said previously, my personal experience of working in Hounslow at the moment tends to be more of Sikhs and Hindus expressing a sense of finding a deeper reality in the Christian God rather than the other way round, so this is for me only a hypothetical question.

    So, imagine that an otherwise ‘decent bloke’ tells you of his trip to another star system in his spacecraft that was teleported there by those technologically advanced space aliens. He asks if you believe him or not. How do you respond? If you don’t believe him I would like to know what would it take to change your mind? What would you require? What grounds would you have for saying that you don’t believe his testimony? Would there be any similarity, perhaps, between you not believing him about his alleged trip and me not believing you about you’re alleged relationship with a god?

    Would I believe his testimony immediately? Probably not. If the vast majority of people in the world all started claiming that they had been teleported to different star systems then I might well begin to suspect that there was something in this teleportation business – even if they all described slightly different methods of transportation to different destinations. And then if my friend had previously had a serious drug problem and then said ‘since the aliens met me, I’ve found the power to kick my habit and to love others in a way I never thought possible’ – and proceeded to live accordingly for years afterwards, I would have to acknowledge that something profoundly powerful had happened, even if I was still sceptical about the cause. If a whole series of people all claimed to have similar transportation experiences that had similar transformative effects on their lives, I suspect I would be asking to be taken on the next ship. Wouldn’t you?


    The resurrection isn’t taught as a historical fact in any history class of any secondary school, college or university, instead it is taught in R.E class alongside, and in the same context as, the similarly fancy (and literally unbelievable) tales and miracles of other religions. Why do you think that is, Matt?

    Well it’s taught as a historical fact at my university, if that helps? 🙂 That Jesus was in fact a historical figure very few of even the most sceptical historians will deny. That he was crucified is similarly conceded (and crucified by a real historical person in a real historical place in a certain year that we can know to within 5-10 because of the ‘Pontius Pilate’ inscription uncovered in 1961). That Christianity grew explosively in the centuries after Jesus’ death, with multiple witnesses claiming that Jesus had, in fact, been bodily raised from the dead, is a matter of historical fact. What you believe lies at the centre of those historical facts is largely down to whether supernatural explanations are permitted or not.

    “I would… suggest that you would be incapable of coming to a point of loving God, because to love someone implies a choice in their direction and away from alternatives. If God were simply to over-ride your sceptical resistance in a way that left you with no possible doubt regarding his existence… you would believe that he existed, you would know him, but you wouldn’t love him…”
    My partner has left me with no possible doubt regarding her existence. I know her. Does this mean, therefore, that I can’t possibly love her?

    Of course not. But your partner is not (I presume) an omnipotent, all-powerful deity. You have chosen to be in a relationship with her and you still presumably have a choice not to be in a relationship with her. If she threatened to kill you if you walked out, and you believed that she meant it, then you would no longer have free choice in the matter and whatever way your relationship was described from that moment on, I doubt that any onlooker would use the word ‘love’. (Apologies to your partner, by the way, whom I’m sure is very nice).

    If God revealed himself to you in a way that removed any shadow of a doubt about his existence, there would be no logical options left to you other than to fear / revere / worship him – but that worship would have been brought about by compulsion, not by your choice. The difference in relationship between two creatures and between creature and Creator is literally infinite. That is why, for Christians, the incarnation is so important, that we believe that God came to us in a form and in a way that we could understand, relate to, and crucially reject if we so chose. The options are open in a way that they wouldn’t be if God simply overrode our senses in the sort of way you suggest.

    “What I do think is possible… is the more modest aim of demonstrating that Christianity is reasonable i.e. that it doesn’t require checking your brains in at the door…”
    A man supposedly walking on water, a physical body flying up in to the clouds before turning invisible & immaterial, dead people popping out of their graves and walking in to town, a disembodied mind that resides in another dimension that contacts you telepathically, etc etc? I’m not sure how reasonable such claims are, to be honest. Maybe you could explain what you mean by “reasonable” in this instance, as perhaps you define it in a way that I am not familiar? I’d be interested to know if tales of alien abductions and miracle accounts from other religions would fit your particular definition.

    By ‘reasonable’ I guess I mean coherent – but not only internally coherent (plenty of wacky conspiracy theories would fit that description) but also coherent with our ‘innate sense of morality’, our admiration as a species of self-sacrifice and living for good of others, an ability to explain and deal with our sense that we ‘should’ act differently to the way we often do (and consequently feel guilty when we fail to meet our own expectations), the sense that many people have that this life has meaning and purpose beyond what we ascribe to it, the transformation that many people experience within the life of faith and so on.

    Your dismissal of miraculous claims is, I would suggest, just the (fallacious) Argument from Incredulity – I don’t believe that any of those things could happen, so they didn’t. Surely if God exists (and more than that, was incarnate on earth), we should expect a few miracles now and then? Isn’t it more normal for atheists to accuse Christians of not having enough miracles to hand to prove their faith? You can’t have it both ways.

    Agnosticism and atheism aren’t mutually exclusive. One can be both agnostic and atheist at the same time (as am I), and agnostic and theist at the same time. Agnosticism/gnosticism concerns knowledge, atheism/theism concerns belief.
    Atheism isn’t just the belief that God doesn’t exist. These links may help:
    Negative atheism: http://atheism.about.com/od/Atheist-Dictionary/g/Definition-Negative-Atheism.htm
    Positive atheism: http://atheism.about.com/od/Atheist-Dictionary/g/Definition-Positive-Atheism.htm

    Thanks for the links, I’ve learnt something there, that’s helpful. I presume from what you’ve written previously that you would personally ascribe to negative rather than positive atheism?

    On atheism, someone is required to believe that:
    Morality has no objective ground and is therefore ultimately subjective (and therefore changeable).”

    This is incorrect. I already gave examples of ethical theories that do not use (or need) a deity to ground objective morals. It is simply not the case that an atheist must subscribe to moral relativism.

    See above. From my admittedly limited knowledge, I didn’t see that any of those ethical theories actually ended up with strictly objective moralities that would be unchanging even if society and its values changed.

    ”The earth with all its various riches of plants, animals and minerals has no intrinsic value of its own, only what we attribute to it.”
    And couldn’t one just as easily say, “The earth with all its various riches of plants, animals and minerals has no intrinsic value of its own, only what God attributes to it”? Or does it have intrinsic value regardless of God saying so?

    I would suggest that creation (and humans) are good and valuable because they are the result of God’s good creative work, not because God just decreed it. The value is grounded in God’s character and subsequent action, not in an arbitrary decree that could be rescinded.

    “We are therefore free to exploit / destroy / preserve it however we want.”
    Doesn’t your favoured apologist, William Lane Craig, famously argue that God is free to destroy/preserve human life however and whenever he wants? Even though he considers us to possess intrinsic worth? But you are arguing here that the freedom to destroy/exploit a certain something comes only as a consequence of it having no intrinsic worth.

    Just because I cited Craig once doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with everything he says – you cited Swinburne above but I doubt you agree with him on almost anything else he has ever written! To a point though I do agree with Craig on this, because if God is Creator of all then he has unique rights over his creation in a way that we do not over the earth (a proper Biblical understanding of our relationship to the earth is that we are stewards, not oppressors). However, I would suggest that the character of God is best understood through the person of Jesus, who is described as gentle and humble in heart, full of compassion, and not an arbitrary despot with his finger hovering over the smite button. Where I differ from Craig is that I’m not so compelled to support his particular view of the inerrancy of sections of the OT that would seem difficult to reconcile with that.

    “Interestingly, it is often at that point i.e. after a decision to trust in the reasonableness of Christianity has been made, that some sort of confirmatory experience of answered prayer or something like that happens.”
    That’s to be expected though, isn’t it? Do you consider it just as remarkable that a person feels better after taking a placebo?

    The placebo analogy only works if the sort of ‘answered prayers’ a person experiences are along the lines of ‘dear God please give me inner peace and strength to face today’ – i.e. are completely internal. I know plenty of people who have become Christians and have experienced what they would describe as answered prayers or have had other experiences that go much broader than just themselves and their inner emotional/spiritual life.

    “In the case of Christianity – what do you think it was that people found so compelling about the message of a crucified Jewish carpenter that it would catch on to that extent?”
    If we’re talking about the first 300 years of Christianity (as you admit the true explosion of the religion occurred after this point, and we have adequate natural explanations as to why such an explosion did occur)

    I don’t think I admitted anything like the true explosion of Christianity happened post AD300 – rather that when Christianity became associated with power and privilege as it did after Constantine that a very logical naturalistic explanation for its continued growth becomes available. I would say that growing from 11 uneducated fishermen and assorted ragtag others from Galilee to 7 million people across the known world in three centuries, in the absence of any modern forms of mass communication, and in the face of persecution, was fairly explosive. You would disagree, and that’s fine.

    I would offer a slight modification to your comment here: I think it is a common atheist view to look at the variety of religions across the world and say ‘well, they can’t all be right but they can all be wrong”.

    True – but I’ve heard too many atheists argue stronger than that, that the presence of multiple different religions across the world makes it more likely that they are all wrong. If you don’t hold that view, great.

    “Have you ever read or come across Francis Spufford’s book ‘Unapologetic’?”
    I’m aware of both Spufford and his book, though I haven’t read it. He was interviewed about the book in an edition of New Humanist earlier on in the year, so that was how I came to know about it.
    [EDIT: Online version here: http://rationalist.org.uk/articles/2858/dear-atheists ]

    Hmm. The article is OK, but he seems very aware that he is putting his head into the lion’s mouth, as it were. I’m not sure asking for respect from atheists in an atheist forum is a great use of anyone’s time – there will be some atheists who believe that all human beings are worthy of at least a measure of respect, and other atheists who would hold that no sky-fairy worshipper could ever be worthy of any respect whatsoever. I doubt that one article, no matter how cleverly written, will change that. IMO the book is better because he is deliberately not trying to persuade anyone of anything, but has a much fuller opportunity to explain the emotional life of a believer from the inside. I do think you’d find it interesting, possibly even ‘fascinating’ (!) – certainly not ‘compelling’, but it’s not trying to be. If you have a kindle fb message me your email address if you want and I’ll send you a copy.

    Got to go to the physio now – trying to sort out a dodgy leg in time to get training for the Brighton marathon next year and haven’t run more than a few hundred metres in the last couple of months. Could be interesting.

    Many thanks for your thoughtful and courteous replies. It’s a pleasure discussing with you.

    All the best,

    Matt

    Comment by Matt | September 9, 2013

  139. Hi Matt,

    I’m much better thank you. I’ve made good progress this last week (putting a few pounds back on) and I actually went out with the family for a walk along the river on Sunday. Felt nice breathing some fresh air and seeing people for the first time in weeks.

    “Firstly can I thank you for having the honesty to admit that there are some questions of life/existence/morality to which you don’t (yet?) have a completely certain answer. I’m in the same boat, but it’s refreshing to meet an atheist who is prepared to say that as well.”
    Thanks.

    When I first started talking to people about religion, one of the things that shocked me was how so many of them seemed to think they had an answer for everything (and I’m not just talking about theists). Maybe it’s because they think that if they openly admit they’re wrong on one thing then they could be wrong on many other things, and that’s a thought they simply cannot entertain.

    “I’m no ethicist (ethics module comes later this year!) so I’m not familiar with the details of the theories you mention…
    – the sort of altruism required to have no more preference for one’s own interests as for the interests of others is extraordinarily unrealistic.”

    Altruism is pretty much well understood Matt, and is far from “extraordinarily unrealistic”. It’s perhaps important to point out, too, that altruistic behaviour is not just displayed by humans but also numerous members of the animal kingdom (primates, dogs, dolphins, bats, etc). Would you say that animals display such behaviour because of their deep faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ? Of course you wouldn’t. We have natural explanations for animal behaviour, as we do for human behaviour.

    “You’ve said a number of times that believers base their lives on things for which they have no evidence. Isn’t this sentence basically an admission that, when it comes to morality, you do the same?”
    My problem isn’t with people who base their lives on things for which they have no evidence. My problem is with people who base their lives on things for which they have no evidence and then not only demand that we take them seriously but consider us worthy of the worst type of punishment imaginable if we don’t. It is preposterous. And it’s this type of mentality that was present on the Alpha Course.

    “‘Feel’ and ‘imagine’ are hardly scientifically rigorous terms, are they?”
    No, but I wasn’t asserting any scientific fact.

    “I’m attempting to assert that Christianity is reasonable, not that it is proven. I guess I’m also trying to point out what I see as elements of atheism that are self-contradictory…”
    Can you give some examples of how my position is self-contradictory, Matt? I’m open to the possibility that this could be the case but I’m not aware of it at the moment. You could help me out here.

    “But for an atheist to admit that his own view of morality is held in the absence of scientifically rigorous proof, and then to accuse a Christian that his beliefs are held in the absence of scientifically rigorous proof (as though that’s a bad thing) smacks to me of a certain lack of even-handedness.”
    There’s quite an important misrepresentation there, unfortunately. I have never said that it is a bad thing to believe something without scientifically rigorous proof. I simply haven’t said that. My stance is that people are free to believe whatever they want. Everyone – whether theist or atheist – believes certain things that aren’t supported by scientifically rigorous proof. For example, I believe you’re called Matt, you have a young family, you’re currently training for ordination, etc etc. I believe these things without scientifically rigorous proof, but that isn’t a bad thing.

    However, if I was running a course about the life & times of Matt Osgood, and was hoping to be taken seriously, then I ought to have some facts about you and your life rather than just accounts of hearsay and wishy-washy, contradictory testimonies.

    “I don’t think I suggested ‘nice’ as a criteria, I suggested trustworthy. We do this all the time – whenever we say ‘I felt really sad’ or ‘that film was incredibly moving’ or ‘I was so uncomfortable in that meeting’ we are trying to convey a wholly subjective experience. If someone you know and trust shared something of their inner experience, I have no doubt that you would consider them a ‘reliable witness’ and have no reason to doubt that the experience they reported did in fact occur to them, even though you have no direct, empirical access to their experience and only their testimony to go on.”
    If somebody is moved by a certain film you can go pick up a copy and watch it yourself. You may not be similarly moved but you may be able to imagine how someone might be moved by a particular segment of the plot. Importantly, you can, of course, confirm that the film in question actually exists, regardless of whether you “believe” in it or not. It isn’t a matter of faith that films exist. The same goes with meetings. There’s a rather huge difference between the claims “I watched a film and was moved” and “I spoke to God and was moved”. In the case of the film, the thing that moved you can be externally and independently verified to exist. In the case of God, it cannot.

    “My point is that if someone whom you know and trust has a religious experience, you should not (unless you are being unreasonable) doubt that the experience occurred, even if you reserve the right to doubt that the cause of that experience is the divine one that they may claim.”
    And that is precisely what I said on numerous occasions throughout my Alpha review. For example, in week 8 during a conversation with Lady Two I said, “… obviously you know that I’m not convinced by it [her testimony], but I must stress that I don’t think you’re lying to me. I don’t doubt that you’ve had an experience of some kind…”

    In your last post you seemed to spend a lot of time arguing against a position that I do not hold (you gave about half-a-dozen examples of why I would be unreasonable for doubting that someone had had an experience of some sort, and that I should be doubting the cause instead). I do not claim that religious people haven’t had an experience of some kind. I have clearly stated the opposite.

    “… you have made an a priori decision that because God does not exist, what I might term ‘supernatural’ occurrences cannot by definition occur.”
    Matt, what makes you think that I have “made an a priori decision that God does not exist”?

    “The difficulty for offering alternative explanations multiplies, though, when the experience spills over from a mere internal, subjective, experience to something more concrete. So, for example, my former heroin addict brother-in-law stood on a platform in front of 6000 people at a Christian festival this summer and testified that God had turned his life around. My friend Steve says the same about his former cocaine habit. As does Jez Etherington (husband of my boss, the vicar of St Paul’s) about his alcoholism. As does Gary Flynn, member of my previous church about his multiple different issues –”
    Anyone from any religion could give you a mile-long list of names of people who testify about how their particular god changed their lives for the better. He saved them from alcoholism, pornography, smoking, extra-marital affairs, gambling, etc etc. Is this any reason for you to take them seriously? If not, why would I take seriously the testimonies of the names you’ve just given above? How is what you’re offering here any different to what ‘Lady Two’ offered every week in my review?

    “Given all these experiences (I could go on for a long time with similar stories of people personally known to me), which crucially are not just subjective, internal experiences of disembodied voices, but have had very real, concrete consequences – would you say that I was unreasonable to think that God may indeed be the cause?”
    No.

    “Or is it more reasonable to suggest that this long series of experiences occurring to unconnected individuals but having similar results of total life transformation, breaking of addictions etc is simply the result of a strangely consistent delusion?”
    Tell me, do you consider the testimonies of people from other religions who claim similar results of total life transformation, breaking of addictions etc to be simply the result of a strangely consistent delusion?

    “… if someone from another religion came to me and described how they had had a dream in which Allah (or Brahma or whoever) appeared to them and encouraged them towards love of God and others, I would not doubt for a second that their experience had actually occurred (assuming I know them to be trustworthy), but I would share with them my belief that the ultimate revelation of love is found in Jesus Christ, and that perhaps God was working in them to draw them to faith in him…”
    So you wouldn’t believe that their god was the cause of such a dream. Despite the fact that they can give you a list of names that have had similar dreams or have experienced this particular god in ways which, allegedly, are not just subjective, internal experiences of disembodied voices, but have had very real, concrete consequences. None of this sways you in the slightest. Once again, I must ask you why you think I should be swayed by the dreams and anecdotes of you and your friends? What reason would I have for doing that? Why shouldn’t I treat your anecdotes like you treat the anecdotes of people from other religions? Obviously you’re going to have to offer something better than, ‘Well, my God is real and theirs isn’t’. So, please help me out here.

    “Would I believe [the Alpha Centauri traveller’s] testimony immediately? Probably not. If the vast majority of people in the world all started claiming that they had been teleported to different star systems then I might well begin to suspect that there was something in this teleportation business – even if they all described slightly different methods of transportation to different destinations.”
    Let’s say the vast majority of people in the world were divided in to 10,000 separate groups who each claim to have been teleported to a certain star system, and each individual group in the 10,000 claims to have travelled to a different system to the other 9,999. Each group claims that the other 9,999 are all mistaken and/or deluded. Interestingly, all 10,000 individual groups use the same arguments for how they got there and what we should expect when we get there, and all 10,000 of them cannot supply a shred of evidence that the spacecraft (and race of technologically advanced space aliens) used to get there actually exist. You’d still think there was something to it? What reason would you have for believing one over the other?

    “And then if my friend had previously had a serious drug problem and then said ‘since the aliens met me, I’ve found the power to kick my habit and to love others in a way I never thought possible’ – and proceeded to live accordingly for years afterwards, I would have to acknowledge that something profoundly powerful had happened, even if I was still sceptical about the cause.”
    And what would make you believe that the cause was space aliens? Please be specific in your response.

    “If a whole series of people all claimed to have similar transportation experiences that had similar transformative effects on their lives, I suspect I would be asking to be taken on the next ship. Wouldn’t you?”
    Surely you wouldn’t be asking for some of that ‘compelling evidence’ stuff, Matt? 😉

    As for me, no I wouldn’t be asking to be taken on the next ship. I’d be asking for evidence that the ship even existed in the first place.

    “Well [the resurrection is] taught as a historical fact at my university, if that helps? ”
    I don’t think Bible College counts, Matt 😉

    So, I’ll ask again, why isn’t the resurrection taught as a historical fact in history class at secondary schools, colleges and universities? Doesn’t that tell you something?

    1: “That Jesus was in fact a historical figure very few of even the most sceptical historians will deny.”
    Jesus being a historical person does not demonstrate that the resurrection is a historical fact.

    2: “That he was crucified is similarly conceded (and crucified by a real historical person in a real historical place in a certain year that we can know to within 5-10 because of the ‘Pontius Pilate’ inscription uncovered in 1961).”
    Jesus being crucified under Pilate does not demonstrate that the resurrection is a historical fact.

    3: “That Christianity grew explosively in the centuries after Jesus’ death…”
    That Christianity grew explosively in the centuries after Jesus’ death does not demonstrate that the resurrection is a historical fact.

    4: “…multiple witnesses claiming that Jesus had, in fact, been bodily raised from the dead, is a matter of historical fact.”
    Yes, it is a historical fact that people claimed that Jesus rose from the dead. But this does not mean that it is a historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead. There’s a big difference. We both know that it is a “matter of historical fact” that multiple witnesses have claimed to be abducted by aliens. But this does not mean that alien abductions are a historical fact.

    So, just like the previous 3, point 4 does not demonstrate that the resurrection is a historical fact.

    “By ‘reasonable’ I guess I mean coherent – but not only internally coherent (plenty of wacky conspiracy theories would fit that description) but also coherent with our ‘innate sense of morality’, our admiration as a species of self-sacrifice and living for good of others, an ability to explain and deal with our sense that we ‘should’ act differently to the way we often do (and consequently feel guilty when we fail to meet our own expectations), the sense that many people have that this life has meaning and purpose beyond what we ascribe to it, the transformation that many people experience within the life of faith and so on.”
    Most religions would fit your definition of “reasonable”, then, but you don’t take them seriously. Why not if they are reasonable? And I’m still fascinated to know how tales of a man supposedly walking on water, a physical body flying up in to the clouds before turning invisible & immaterial, dead people popping out of their graves and walking in to town, a disembodied mind that resides in another dimension that contacts you telepathically etc, can be deemed “reasonable”. How so? You really need to explain that one for me.

    “Your dismissal of miraculous claims is, I would suggest, just the (fallacious) Argument from Incredulity – I don’t believe that any of those things could happen, so they didn’t.
    That’s just another misrepresentation of my position, Matt (with respect). I’m not claiming that such things didn’t happen. I just have no reason for believing that they did happen.

    “Surely if God exists (and more than that, was incarnate on earth), we should expect a few miracles now and then?”
    Surely if technologically advanced space aliens exist (and more than that, are active in the lives of spacecraft-flying individuals) we should expect a few teleportations now and then? Yes?

    “Thanks for the links, I’ve learnt something there, that’s helpful. I presume from what you’ve written previously that you would personally ascribe to negative rather than positive atheism?”
    That’s correct.

    “… I didn’t see that any of those ethical theories actually ended up with strictly objective moralities that would be unchanging even if society and its values changed.”
    To be fair, it was only a moment ago that you admitted, “I’m no ethicist (ethics module comes later this year!) so I’m not familiar with the details of the theories you mention…”. So it’s a little odd, perhaps, that you would then allude to some supposed critical flaws in the theories, which would mean that you are familiar with the details. Strange?

    “I would suggest that creation (and humans) are good and valuable because they are the result of God’s good creative work, not because God just decreed it. The value is grounded in God’s character and subsequent action, not in an arbitrary decree that could be rescinded.”
    Question: Is God free to destroy/preserve human life as and when he sees fit?

    “I would say that growing from 11 uneducated fishermen and assorted ragtag others from Galilee to 7 million people across the known world in three centuries, in the absence of any modern forms of mass communication, and in the face of persecution, was fairly explosive.”
    But no more “explosive” than the growth of Mormonism – a religion that didn’t have some of the advantages that early Christianity had (though of course it also had advantages that early Christianity didn’t). And, like I’ve pointed out already, the fact that a religion grew ‘explosively’ tells us nothing whatsoever about it being true or not. It grew explosively? So what?

    “I do think you’d find [Francis Spufford’s book] interesting, possibly even ‘fascinating’ (!) – certainly not ‘compelling’, but it’s not trying to be. If you have a kindle fb message me your email address if you want and I’ll send you a copy.”
    That’s very kind of you, Matt. However, I have a backlog of books to get through (and the stack doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller!) so it’ll be quite a while before I even get the chance to read anything else, unfortunately.

    Good luck with your training for the Brighton marathon (!), and I hope everything went well with the physio.

    Please give my regards to your wife & kids.

    Take care,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 12, 2013

  140. Hi Stephen,

    Very glad to hear you’re recovering well and managing to get out and about – for my part the trip to the physio went well, but my fitness levels are so low that when I did try getting on a treadmill I only managed 2k before having to have a rest, which is (a) a bit frustrating as I managed a half-marathon in May and (b) slightly concerning as I need to add another 40k to that before next April! Ah well, plenty of time yet, just need to go easy on the Christmas cake etc in December…


    When I first started talking to people about religion, one of the things that shocked me was how so many of them seemed to think they had an answer for everything (and I’m not just talking about theists). Maybe it’s because they think that if they openly admit they’re wrong on one thing then they could be wrong on many other things, and that’s a thought they simply cannot entertain.

    I like to quote New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham NT Wright, who said that he was wrong 20% of the time, the problem was he wasn’t sure which 20%. The percentage is undoubtedly higher in my case. That’s why I like dialoging with people who disagree with me, because flaws in my thinking get pointed out, as do areas where my reasoning is actually (in my eyes anyway!) robust.

    Altruism is pretty much well understood Matt, and is far from “extraordinarily unrealistic”. It’s perhaps important to point out, too, that altruistic behaviour is not just displayed by humans but also numerous members of the animal kingdom (primates, dogs, dolphins, bats, etc). Would you say that animals display such behaviour because of their deep faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ? Of course you wouldn’t. We have natural explanations for that, as we do for human behaviour.

    There is a great difference between animal altruism and the demands of utilitarianism, though. Animal altruism, which as you say is a widely observed phenomenon, relies on the relationship being of mutual benefit to both species. I may have misunderstood, but utilitarianism seems to be suggesting that one person / animal should be prepared to act in a way that benefitted another creature, even to its own detriment (because he/she/it shouldn’t have any more preference for its own interests than the interests of others). If that is what utilitarianism is suggesting, then I continue to hold that it is unrealistic, because human beings are in general naturally selfish (Am I right in thinking you have a young child? My children are 5 and 4 years old, and if your child is anything like mine, you won’t need convincing that the ‘natural’ human disposition is towards selfishness! Unless of course you happen to have a child like the one in the John Lewis advert, who was desperately waiting for Christmas so he could give his parents their present – if you do, well done 🙂 My daughter has already started the countdown to Christmas, and it’s not so she can give me my present 🙂

    If I have misunderstood and utilitarianism is only advocating acting for the benefit of others when it also benefits oneself, then it is insufficient to explain the kind of sacrificial actions of someone like Maximilian Kolbe, who was indeed motivated by his deep faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Kolbe

    In any case, I don’t believe you’ve answered my question of a post or two ago: if I was a nihilistic child-murderer, on what basis would you attempt to demonstrate to me that my actions were wrong?

    My problem isn’t with people who base their lives on things for which they have no evidence. My problem is with people who base their lives on things for which they have no evidence and then not only demand that we take them seriously but consider us worthy of the worst type of punishment imaginable if we don’t. It is preposterous. And it’s this type of mentality that was present on the Alpha Course.

    If I can take this as a tacit admission that you don’t have a scientific, evidential, basis for your morality (you said that you were ‘open’ on the question) – then based on what you’ve just said, and with respect, why should I or anyone take any pronouncement you make about morality seriously? If the problem is not so much having views that aren’t based on evidence, but inflicting them on others (with the possible correlating threat of eternal torment, which I personally don’t remember being a big part of Alpha), then how do you presume to teach your child what is right and wrong? It’s hard enough for me to try and instil positive values in my kids without being unsure of the basis of what I’m trying to teach them, or questioning whether I should try and pass on my (subjective) morality.

    Can you give some examples of how my position is self-contradictory, Matt? I’m open to the possibility that this could be the case but I’m not aware of it at the moment. You could help me out here.

    I find an inherent contradiction in the moral stance of atheists who hold to a basically subjective view of morality, which you haven’t yet given me any reason to believe you don’t, then claim it is morally wrong for theists to (for example) threaten people with eternal torment. If the theist’s subjective view of morality holds that it’s OK to threaten people with eternal torment, then, with respect, who are you to judge? Isn’t that contradictory?

    In your last post you seemed to spend a lot of time arguing against a position that I do not hold (you gave about half-a-dozen examples of why I would be unreasonable for doubting that someone had had an experience of some sort, and that I should be doubting the cause instead). I do not claim that religious people haven’t had an experience of some kind. I have clearly stated the opposite.

    OK. Thanks for clarifying. In which case – what do you think is the cause of those experiences? Both the more personal, subjective experiences like Lady Two’s, and the experiences which have a more concrete expression like those I mentioned where someone’s life has been transformed.

    “… you have made an a priori decision that because God does not exist, what I might term ‘supernatural’ occurrences cannot by definition occur.”
    Matt, what makes you think that I have “made an a priori decision that God does not exist”?

    In your last post you said:

    If you have a wholly subjective experience in your mind of a man that supposedly lived and died 2000 years ago, who was born of a virgin, who walked on water, who magically fed thousands of people with a couple of crumbs, who died and then miraculously rose again, who physically flew up in to the clouds and became invisible, who is now living in a different dimension as a disembodied mind and who now speaks to you telepathically, then, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t be rushing to class the content of such a testimony as believable.

    If God and a concomitant spiritual dimension do in fact exist, all of what you’ve just written becomes not only believable, but quite natural. So the fact that you find reports of miracles etc unbelievable suggests to me that you have assumed the answer to your question – they can only be unbelievable if God doesn’t exist. If I’ve misrepresented your position, I apologise, but that is rather how it comes across.

    Just as a side note – some variants of string theory posit the existence of up to 13 dimensions, not the four of space-time that we experience. Quantum theory holds (and it has been demonstrated experimentally) that two particles can interact with each other, instantaneously, potentially across the width of the whole universe – Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’. It further says that we can change the wave-like behaviour of, for example, an electron, into behaving like a particle, just by observing it. Increasingly large molecules have been experimentally placed in two different places at the same time. Given the really, really, weird world that we actually inhabit, I would say that the idea that a deity could temporarily render liquid water solid enough to walk on is pretty banal.

    “The difficulty for offering alternative explanations multiplies, though, when the experience spills over from a mere internal, subjective, experience to something more concrete. So, for example, my former heroin addict brother-in-law stood on a platform in front of 6000 people at a Christian festival this summer and testified that God had turned his life around. My friend Steve says the same about his former cocaine habit. As does Jez Etherington (husband of my boss, the vicar of St Paul’s) about his alcoholism. As does Gary Flynn, member of my previous church about his multiple different issues –”
    Anyone from any religion could give you a mile-long list of names of people who testify about how their particular god changed their lives for the better. He saved them from alcoholism, pornography, smoking, extra-marital affairs, gambling, etc etc. Is this any reason for you to take them seriously? If not, why would I take seriously the testimonies of the names you’ve just given above? How is what you’re offering here any different to what ‘Lady Two’ offered every week in my review?

    Firstly, from what I remember of Lady Two’s related experience, it seemed to be quite a subjective, personal, thing, without much by way of practical consequence in her life as a whole (other than a determination to tell her story at every available opportunity). Quite different to my brother-in-law’s experience of having his desire for heroin taken away.

    Secondly, leaving aside for a moment the question of other religions, what do you think is the cause for these transformations? The power of positive thinking?

    And thirdly, I have to call you on this ‘any religion could say the same’ defence. I searched ‘Muslim testimony’ on youtube, and at least the first page of results was entirely full of Muslims testifying how they had become Christians, met Jesus in a dream, or otherwise left Islam. In any case, I doubt that you or I would be particularly impressed with a story told in a random video on the internet – so then, what’s your experience of this? You’ve referred repeatedly to the idea that ‘anyone from any religion could given you a mile-long list of names etc’ so I presume you must know people in that situation? What’s their story? I’d be interested to hear.

    “Given all these experiences (I could go on for a long time with similar stories of people personally known to me), which crucially are not just subjective, internal experiences of disembodied voices, but have had very real, concrete consequences – would you say that I was unreasonable to think that God may indeed be the cause?”
    No.

    That’s interesting. Thank you. I’m glad to hear that you wouldn’t consider that conclusion unreasonable, from the evidence I have available to me.

    Tell me, do you consider the testimonies of people from other religions who claim similar results of total life transformation, breaking of addictions etc to be simply the result of a strangely consistent delusion?

    See above – I simply don’t know enough people from other religions well enough to know their equivalent testimonies (those who I do know from other religions tend to tell me that they have come to believe the Christian God is the true God). I would be interested to hear any stories that you are personally familiar with – and also particularly interested in any stories you know of people turning to atheism and having similar life transformations. I have heard and read plenty of believable stories of people experiencing a sense of real freedom in turning to atheism from repressive religious upbringings (like Matt Slick’s daughter Rachel: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/07/15/the-atheist-daughter-of-a-notable-christian-apologist-shares-her-story/) but I haven’t come across stories that run more like ‘I was an alcoholic / drug addict but then I became an atheist and everything changed.’ I presume they exist?

    So you wouldn’t believe that their god was the cause of such a dream. Despite the fact that they can give you a list of names that have had similar dreams or have experienced this particular god in ways which, allegedly, are not just subjective, internal experiences of disembodied voices, but have had very real, concrete consequences. None of this sways you in the slightest. Once again, I must ask you why you think I should be swayed by the dreams and anecdotes of you and your friends? What reason would I have for doing that? Why shouldn’t I treat your anecdotes like you treat the anecdotes of people from other religions? Obviously you’re going to have to offer something better than, ‘Well, my God is real and theirs isn’t’. So, please help me out here.

    This is still dealing in hypotheticals. I presume that the fact that you aren’t swayed (or perhaps even intrigued) by stories of Christians experiencing life transformation is because you have personally heard a similar range of stories from a wide variety of religions, and indeed from within atheism. Is that correct?

    Let’s say the vast majority of people in the world were divided in to 10,000 separate groups who each claim to have been teleported to a certain star system, and each individual group in the 10,000 claims to have travelled to a different system to the other 9,999. Each group claims that the other 9,999 are all mistaken and/or deluded. Interestingly, all 10,000 individual groups use the same arguments for how they got there and what we should expect when we get there, and all 10,000 of them cannot supply a shred of evidence that the spacecraft (and race of technologically advanced space aliens) used to get there actually exist. You’d still think there was something to it? What reason would you have for believing one over the other?

    I’d prefer to deal in the concrete rather than hypothetical version of the question, if that’s OK – the underlying question is (if I’m understanding all this space travel by multiple groups correctly!) – Matt, why your religion and not another? Firstly, Christianity was the religion that I was brought up with. I would simply be disingenuous if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that my parents’ beliefs (my parents are now retired, but are both ordained) obviously had an impact in shaping my own. However, I don’t mind admitting that for several reasons:
    1 – I know plenty of people who have moved from atheism / agnosticism / other religions to Christianity as adults, so I know that being a Christian does not depend on being brainwashed as a child. [As a sidenote, I think that the section of ‘The God Delusion’ where Dawkins attempts to advocate the prohibition of all religious instruction for children is just a bit silly – both for its utter unrealism and for its obvious double-standards:
    RD: I won’t permit any parent to instruct their children in their religion, even though they believe it is true. Instead, they must be instructed in the ways of rational, sceptical thinking.
    Parent: Why’s that, Richard?
    RD: Because I believe it is true.
    Parent: Ah right, of course… ]
    2 – The fact that my parents taught me something doesn’t by definition mean it is true – but it doesn’t mean it is false either.
    3 – I have had several periods in my life of questioning, doubting and exploring other religions (and atheism). No other option has looked as attractive to me as Christianity. And of course, you say, I would say that wouldn’t I? But then you are – as everyone is – shaped by their background. I was interested to read the story of John Loftus’ ‘conversion’ from being a church pastor to passionate atheist – a transformation that took place in the context of the breakdown of his marriage, an affair, and some really awful behaviour by church members around him. Circumstances shape our beliefs, yes – but that cuts both ways.

    Other reasons why I’m a Christian I’ve said previously – the person of Jesus, the extraordinary universe we live in, the prevalence of a sense of something beyond us through most of the human race, my own religious experiences, the experiences of others, morality, the story of grace and forgiveness offered by God… etc.

    “And then if my friend had previously had a serious drug problem and then said ‘since the aliens met me, I’ve found the power to kick my habit and to love others in a way I never thought possible’ – and proceeded to live accordingly for years afterwards, I would have to acknowledge that something profoundly powerful had happened, even if I was still sceptical about the cause.”

    And what would make you believe that the cause was space aliens? Please be specific in your response.

    Returning to the hypothetical aliens for a moment, I would believe that the aliens had something to do with it primarily if my friend said that that was his experience (and the long-term evidence bore out that a genuine, unexpected transformation had indeed taken out). There is a danger in your scepticism that I’m not sure you appreciate – taking my brother-in-law Joe as an example, he stood up in front of thousands of people this summer and claimed that God had transformed his life from heroin addict to stable and happy husband and father. To respond to that testimony with ‘ah well, you might feel that’s what happened, and I don’t doubt that you have had an experience of some kind, but you’re wrong about the cause’ is in danger of just sounding patronising, because the real expert when it comes to personal experience is (in almost all cases, exceptions including instances where it is clear the person is mentally ill) the person having the experience. I appreciate that neither you or I want to be desperately gullible and simply believe things because people say ‘I had a powerful experience, ergo it must be true’ – but I guess my question is; what criteria would you use to discern the relative level of believability of someone’s testimony other than simply whether or not it coheres with what you already believe about the world?

    “If a whole series of people all claimed to have similar transportation experiences that had similar transformative effects on their lives, I suspect I would be asking to be taken on the next ship. Wouldn’t you?”

    Surely you wouldn’t be asking for some of that ‘compelling evidence’ stuff, Matt? 😉

    Ah that’s not what I meant, I’m not as sceptical as you, remember? 😉 I meant ‘I would be asking to be taken on the next ship’ as in ‘I would be convinced enough to want to try it out’, not as in ‘I would want hard evidence that they weren’t talking rubbish’. In fact, that’s quite illustrative of a very typical Christian journey – people see the evidence of Christianity ‘working’ in the lives of others, so they take that much talked-about ‘step of faith’ and begin with the practical stuff like praying, worshipping, and living as a Christian does. It’s not often – as I’ve said before – the case that someone comes to a place of belief in a bunch of Christian propositions, and then begins to live accordingly. Most people are much more pragmatic than that.

    “Well [the resurrection is] taught as a historical fact at my university, if that helps? ”

    I don’t think Bible College counts, Matt 😉

    No, somehow I didn’t think it would be… 🙂

    So, I’ll ask again, why isn’t the resurrection taught as a historical fact in history class at secondary schools, colleges and universities? Doesn’t that tell you something?

    It tells me that because the resurrection belongs to the category of ‘supernatural events’, it probably hasn’t been taught as a historical fact in secular contexts since Hume. If something isn’t taught in secondary schools, all that tells me is that it’s not taught in secondary schools, it doesn’t say anything about its truth. (I worked in secondary schools for three years after graduation, trust me when I say you don’t want to make what goes on in secondary schools the ultimate arbiter of truth…!)

    1: “That Jesus was in fact a historical figure very few of even the most sceptical historians will deny.”
    Jesus being a historical person does not demonstrate that the resurrection is a historical fact.

    True.

    2: “That he was crucified is similarly conceded (and crucified by a real historical person in a real historical place in a certain year that we can know to within 5-10 because of the ‘Pontius Pilate’ inscription uncovered in 1961).”
    Jesus being crucified under Pilate does not demonstrate that the resurrection is a historical fact.

    Also true.

    3: “That Christianity grew explosively in the centuries after Jesus’ death…”
    That Christianity grew explosively in the centuries after Jesus’ death does not demonstrate that the resurrection is a historical fact.

    Indeed.

    4: “…multiple witnesses claiming that Jesus had, in fact, been bodily raised from the dead, is a matter of historical fact.”
    Yes, it is a historical fact that people claimed that Jesus rose from the dead. But this does not mean that it is a historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead. There’s a big difference. We both know that it is a “matter of historical fact” that multiple witnesses have claimed to be abducted by aliens. But this does mean that that alien abductions are a historical fact.
    So, just like the previous 3, point 4 does not demonstrate that the resurrection is a historical fact.

    No, it doesn’t. But if a man called Jack is found with blood on his hands, a blood-stained knife in the boot of his car, and his wife lying dead at home with knife wounds consistent with the knife in Jack’s car, then the best inference from the available evidence is that he committed murder – even though no-one actually saw him do it. Given the historical facts you’ve admitted above (with the further point 4ii, that those multiple witnesses were so psychologically transformed by their experience that they were prepared to hold to the supposed resurrection story even in the face of oppression, imprisonment and ultimately martyrdom), what do you think is the best inference from the evidence?

    “By ‘reasonable’ I guess I mean coherent – but not only internally coherent (plenty of wacky conspiracy theories would fit that description) but also coherent with our ‘innate sense of morality’, our admiration as a species of self-sacrifice and living for good of others, an ability to explain and deal with our sense that we ‘should’ act differently to the way we often do (and consequently feel guilty when we fail to meet our own expectations), the sense that many people have that this life has meaning and purpose beyond what we ascribe to it, the transformation that many people experience within the life of faith and so on.”

    Most religions would fit your definition of “reasonable”, then, but you don’t take them seriously.

    That’s incorrect. I take them very seriously. I believe that other religions, to a greater or lesser extent, reflect something of the universal human longing for something greater than ourselves, a longing that is present within us because that greater something does in fact exist and created us to encounter the divine (CS Lewis argued by analogy that the fact we experience thirst proves that there is such a thing as water). However, I furthermore believe that the ultimate expression of the divine is found in Jesus Christ, which is where I would diverge from a Muslim or Hindu. That doesn’t prevent me from recognising many things that are good and true and beautiful in other religions, though. I’m going to a meeting tomorrow morning over in Hounslow to see how our church can contribute to an inter-faith festival in a local park that is celebrating Diwali (Hindu), Eid (Muslim) and Gurupurab (Sikh). Should be interesting 🙂

    … I’m still fascinated to know how tales of a man supposedly walking on water, a physical body flying up in to the clouds before turning invisible & immaterial, dead people popping out of their graves and walking in to town, a disembodied mind that resides in another dimension that contacts you telepathically etc, can be deemed “reasonable”. How so? You really need to explain that one for me.

    I think I answered this one above – they are ‘reasonable’ if God exists. But you can’t assume that God doesn’t exist in an attempt to dismiss them as unreasonable.

    “… I didn’t see that any of those ethical theories actually ended up with strictly objective moralities that would be unchanging even if society and its values changed.”
    To be fair, it was only a moment ago that you admitted, “I’m no ethicist (ethics module comes later this year!) so I’m not familiar with the details of the theories you mention…”. So it’s a little odd, perhaps, that you would then allude to some supposed critical flaws in the theories, which would mean that you are familiar with the details. Strange?

    Sloppy wording by me. I should have said ‘in the five minutes I’ve spent skating over the definitions of these systems of thought in wikipedia/on my kindle, I didn’t see that any of those ethical theories actually ended up with strictly objective moralities…’

    Is that better? 🙂 I did mean it when I said I’m not an expert – or even a beginner – when it comes to those particular theories of ethics. If you believe that they would in fact convince me that it is possible to have objective morality apart from God, then I will definitely read further.

    Question: Is God free to destroy/preserve human life as and when he sees fit?

    Actually I would say (possibly contra Craig, though I think he might agree with me) the answer is a nuanced no. Like with the old ‘can God make a stone so big he can’t lift it?’ chestnut, I would say there are limits to God’s omnipotence – he cannot make triangles with four sides, for example. Similarly, I would say that God is not “free” to act in ways that are inconsistent with his character, because he is always ‘true to himself’ in a way that human beings might aspire to but never quite achieve. However, I would say that God, as creator of the universe, is entitled to destroy/preserve human life as and when he sees fit – but I certainly don’t believe that God (for example) caused the Boxing Day tsunami, despite the rather horrible statements of some Christians after that event.

    Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions and pose your own. I know you are something of a student of religion, but I wanted to check that this conversation is still of use / interest to you? I realise our dialogue has got rather long and I don’t want to be wasting your time by making you answer questions just from politeness, or a sense that if you gave up the discussion then I would conclude I had in some way ‘won’ and so would immediately email my friends who work at Alpha with a link to our discussion and a subject line saying ‘how I beat the horrid atheist in a bare-knuckle debate’ or something ridiculous like that 🙂 I’m enjoying our discussion, because you are making me think, and I appreciate that – but I don’t want to overstay my welcome on what is, after all, your blog.

    All the best to you and family

    Matt

    Comment by Matt | September 12, 2013

  141. Hi Matt,

    Hope you’re well.

    “Animal altruism, which as you say is a widely observed phenomenon, relies on the relationship being of mutual benefit to both species.”
    Take for example the case of captive Rhesus monkeys. In studies, individual monkeys were trained to pull a chain that released their daily rations of food, and after a while the mechanism was altered so that pulling the chain released the food as usual but also administered a high-frequency shock to a companion monkey in an adjoining booth. Observing this, the monkeys that were tested simply refused to eat. They preferred to go hungry than administer pain to the other.

    “Am I right in thinking you have a young child? My children are 5 and 4 years old, and if your child is anything like mine, you won’t need convincing that the ‘natural’ human disposition is towards selfishness! Unless of course you happen to have a child like the one in the John Lewis advert, who was desperately waiting for Christmas so he could give his parents their present – if you do, well done”
    That’s right, I do have a young child. He’s 3 years old and is of the ‘John Lewis advert’ variety. Phew! 😉

    “… I don’t believe you’ve answered my question of a post or two ago: if I was a nihilistic child-murderer, on what basis would you attempt to demonstrate to me that my actions were wrong?”
    Putting aside the obvious answer that child-murderers are immoral by definition, my personal basis for holding that such actions are “wrong” would be moral intuition, and I’m pretty sure you would hold quite a similar view. Such an innate morality would be God-given in your view, of course, and that’s the point where you and I would differ.

    “If I can take this as a tacit admission that you don’t have a scientific, evidential, basis for your morality (you said that you were ‘open’ on the question) – then based on what you’ve just said, and with respect, why should I or anyone take any pronouncement you make about morality seriously? If the problem is not so much having views that aren’t based on evidence, but inflicting them on others… then how do you presume to teach your child what is right and wrong? It’s hard enough for me to try and instil positive values in my kids without being unsure of the basis of what I’m trying to teach them, or questioning whether I should try and pass on my (subjective) morality.”
    I have said that I am open on the question of morality, yes, but that is not to say that any and all proposed explanations are equally valid, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the moral theories that I consider most likely to be true are not supported by science and evidence. Nor does it mean that I do not already have a basis for 1) teaching my child what is right and wrong, and 2) considering ‘child-murdering’ as wrong.

    I have spoken previously of morality as an innate human faculty. This sort of morality would be ‘objective’ in the sense that it is grounded in human nature. Your view of morality would differ very slightly in that it would be grounded in the nature and character of God instead.

    I don’t know to what degree of certainty you hold true that God’s nature is the locus of moral value (perhaps you could tell me), but are you open, perhaps, to the possibility of being wrong? If you are, couldn’t I level the same accusation at you about attempting to teach your kids right from wrong without having proof that your moral theory is correct?

    “I find an inherent contradiction in the moral stance of atheists who hold to a basically subjective view of morality… then claim it is morally wrong for theists to (for example) threaten people with eternal torment. If the theist’s subjective view of morality holds that it’s OK to threaten people with eternal torment, then, with respect, who are you to judge? Isn’t that contradictory?”
    I haven’t claimed that I adhere to a subjective morality, so your suggestion that my position is contradictory is perhaps a mistake?

    “…what do you think is the cause of [religious] experiences? Both the more personal, subjective experiences like Lady Two’s, and the experiences which have a more concrete expression like those I mentioned where someone’s life has been transformed.”
    I don’t know for certain what the cause is. Could it be psychological? The power of suggestion, positive thinking, wishful thinking, etc? Could it be a god? I couldn’t say. Am I convinced that it is a god? No, I’m not.

    If persons A, B, C, and D each claim to have had a religious experience, and these experiences are mutually exclusive (if one is true then the other 3 are false) I’m not sure what grounds I would have for believing one over the other. As we have touched upon previously, all of them can’t be right but all of them can be wrong.

    As for ‘concrete expressions’ such as overcoming drug addiction, well, The Nation of Islam, for example, states that one if its greatest successes is in its rehabilitating of drug addicts in North America. I don’t know what kind of religious experiences new converts might have had, just as I don’t what sort of religious experience your brother-in-law had, it’s just a case of me not having good reason for believing that one person’s experience points to a true external reality and the other doesn’t.

    “If God and a concomitant spiritual dimension do in fact exist, all of what you’ve just written [about scepticism towards a dying & rising Jewish carpenter who flew up in to the clouds and became invisible and immaterial etc] becomes not only believable, but quite natural… you can’t assume that God doesn’t exist in an attempt to dismiss them as unreasonable.”
    I’m not sure you quite appreciate the self-defeating nature of this sort of circular reasoning. You are supposed to be attempting to demonstrate that these things are “reasonable”. But what you are essentially saying here is that if one first assumes that it’s true then it becomes reasonable. But one could assume that just about anything is true (even god’s non-existence) and base a claim’s ‘reasonableness’ on that initial assumption.

    So, without assuming that it’s all true before you even start, I would like to know how tales of a man supposedly walking on water, a physical body flying up in to the clouds before turning invisible & immaterial, dead people popping out of their graves and walking in to town, a disembodied mind that resides in another dimension that contacts you telepathically etc, can be deemed “reasonable”. How so?

    “So the fact that you find reports of miracles etc unbelievable suggests to me that you have assumed the answer to your question – they can only be unbelievable if God doesn’t exist.”
    Plenty of people believe in a god that doesn’t perform miracles. There is no inconsistency in such a belief. Finding miracle reports to be unpersuasive does not mean that you must assume that god doesn’t exist.

    “… I have to call you on this ‘any religion could say the same’ defence. I searched ‘Muslim testimony’ on youtube…”
    And when did I say “Matt, do a search for ‘Muslim testimony’ on YouTube”? Wouldn’t you have tried “A Christian experiences the prophet Muhammad in a dream” or something like that first?

    “… and at least the first page of results was entirely full of Muslims testifying how they had become Christians, met Jesus in a dream, or otherwise left Islam.”
    Firstly, you simply weren’t searching for examples in support of the specific topic that we were discussing. Why then would you be surprised at the results of your search?

    Secondly, so what if your chosen search phrase returned more examples of Muslims dreaming of Jesus and subsequently becoming Christians? What does that have to do with the fact that some Christians have alleged to have experienced the Prophet Muhammad in a dream and converted to Islam as a result? I suggested to you that a quick Google or YouTube search will bring up examples of the latter. And it does.

    “In any case, I doubt that you or I would be particularly impressed with a story told in a random video on the internet…”
    1) Someone posts a video on YouTube claiming that his friend [insert name here] has been saved from drug addiction by [insert name of god here].
    2) Someone makes a post on an internet blog claiming that his friend [insert name here] has been saved from drug addiction by [insert name of god here].

    What makes 2 more believable than 1, Matt? What reason would I have for thinking that some Muslim, Sikh or Hindu’s testimony about a life-changing experience is false, while thinking that your Christian brother-in-law’s experience is true?

    “You’ve referred repeatedly to the idea that ‘anyone from any religion could given you a mile-long list of names etc’ so I presume you must know people in that situation? What’s their story? I’d be interested to hear.”
    It isn’t necessary for me to know any such individuals on a personal level. An observation of the world and its cultures, its numerous religions – and proponents of them – is enough to become aware of the overabundance of religious testimonies. Not to mention that a quick look around the internet will do the trick. Wherever there is a religion there is a testimony of some description, of that you can be sure.

    However, I do know people on a personal level who have claimed to have life-changing results after experiencing their god in one way or another. A man who had spent a number of years in and out of prison assures me that his conversion to Islam has transformed his character. He can reel off numerous examples of answered prayers and so on, but you and I do not believe that the cause of such things is Allah. Similarly, I do not believe that the cause of your brother-in-law’s improved character is Yahweh (but don’t confuse this with me declaring that Yahweh isn’t the cause. That’s not what I’m saying).

    “I simply don’t know enough people from other religions well enough to know their equivalent testimonies…”
    That’s fair enough, but if I was to ask you, “Matt, if you did know someone from another religion well enough and they claimed such a testimony, would you believe it?” you’d probably respond with, “I’d prefer not to deal with hypotheticals” – as you’ve done on a number of occasions already when I’ve asked similar questions.

    You claim not to know anyone on a personal level from another religion who has had a life-transforming experience, and you aren’t interested in hypotheticals. But aren’t most of our questions to one another based on hypotheticals? If you’re not willing to entertain such question then that’s somewhat of a conversation-stopper, isn’t it.

    “…I haven’t come across stories that run more like ‘I was an alcoholic / drug addict but then I became an atheist and everything changed.’ I presume they exist?”
    Such stories may exist, I don’t know (you could do an internet search). I certainly don’t know anyone on a personal level with such a testimony, but then again most people that I know have no interest at all in religion. It’s not a subject that is ever discussed amongst my friends, family or work colleagues.

    “– the underlying question is… Matt, why your religion and not another? Firstly, Christianity was the religion that I was brought up with… I have had several periods in my life of questioning, doubting and exploring other religions (and atheism). No other option has looked as attractive to me as Christianity… Other reasons why I’m a Christian I’ve said previously – the person of Jesus, the extraordinary universe we live in, the prevalence of a sense of something beyond us through most of the human race, my own religious experiences, the experiences of others, morality, the story of grace and forgiveness offered by God… etc.”
    No, you’ve obviously misunderstood. The underlying question is not, ‘Hey Matt, why are you a Christian as opposed to being a member of some other religion?’. The underlying question is ‘Hey Matt, what reason would I have for thinking your God real and all the others false?’

    This question isn’t answered by giving me anecdotes about how some Christians you know were saved from drug addiction. As I have continually pointed out, I can give you examples of people from other religions who were saved from drug addictions, but this doesn’t (even for one second) mean that their god is real and yours false.

    “Returning to the hypothetical aliens for a moment, I would believe that the aliens had something to do with it primarily if my friend said that that was his experience (and the long-term evidence bore out that a genuine, unexpected transformation had indeed taken out).”
    So ‘Aliens did it’ would be preferable to thinking it merely a psychological episode or even a comforting delusion? So if your friend had an experience of [insert name of other god here] ‘and the long-term evidence bore out that a genuine, unexpected transformation had indeed taken out’ you’d believe that too? Even though it would refute your own claims and experiences?

    “There is a danger in your scepticism that I’m not sure you appreciate – taking my brother-in-law Joe as an example, he stood up in front of thousands of people this summer and claimed that God had transformed his life from heroin addict to stable and happy husband and father. To respond to that testimony with ‘ah well, you might feel that’s what happened, and I don’t doubt that you have had an experience of some kind, but you’re wrong about the cause’ is in danger of just sounding patronising…”
    Unfortunately you’re misrepresenting my position again, Matt. I am not saying that religious people are wrong about the cause of their experience, and I don’t know how many times I have to repeat that.

    “… what criteria would you use to discern the relative level of believability of someone’s testimony other than simply whether or not it coheres with what you already believe about the world?”
    There are a number of examples: Is the testimony logically consistent? Is it coherent? Which facts, if any, support such a testimony? Is there any correspondence to what is posited to exist and what exists in the external world? Is the testimony self-contradictory?

    [My question: So, I’ll ask again, why isn’t the resurrection taught as a historical fact in history class at secondary schools, colleges and universities? Doesn’t that tell you something?]
    “It tells me that because the resurrection belongs to the category of ‘supernatural events’, it probably hasn’t been taught as a historical fact in secular contexts since Hume.”
    So it’s shuffled in to R.E class alongside (and in the same context as) other literally unbelievable tales from other religions. And even there it is not taught as a historical fact. In secondary schools, colleges, and universities, nowhere is it taught as a historical fact. Supposedly the most important event in human history can’t even warrant a paragraph’s worth of attention in the national curriculum programmes of study for history. And somehow this doesn’t cause you even a moment’s concern.

    “…if a man called Jack is found with blood on his hands, a blood-stained knife in the boot of his car, and his wife lying dead at home with knife wounds consistent with the knife in Jack’s car, then the best inference from the available evidence is that he committed murder – even though no-one actually saw him do it.
    Correct. But we don’t have this sort of forensic evidence for the supposed resurrection of a man 2000 years ago

    “Given the historical facts you’ve admitted… (with the further point 4ii, that those multiple witnesses were so psychologically transformed by their experience that they were prepared to hold to the supposed resurrection story even in the face of oppression, imprisonment and ultimately martyrdom), what do you think is the best inference from the evidence?”
    But the “historical facts that [I’ve] admitted” lend no weight whatsoever to the resurrection being a historical fact. The only question seemingly worthy of examination is why some people believed as they did in face of oppression and imprisonment (the “martyrdom” issue is questionable. I’d be interested to know which historical sources you’re using to make such a determination). People the world over have held firm to beliefs even in the face of oppression and imprisonment. Why should I give special attention to the followers of Jesus?

    [I said: “Most religions would fit your definition of “reasonable”, then, but you don’t take them seriously.”]
    “That’s incorrect. I take them very seriously.”
    I think you know what I meant by “seriously”. You don’t believe they are true, so you do not take them seriously to that extent. Even though they are “reasonable”.

    [I asked: Is God free to destroy/preserve human life as and when he sees fit?]
    “…I would say that God is not “free” to act in ways that are inconsistent with his character, because he is always ‘true to himself’… However, I would say that God, as creator of the universe, is entitled to destroy/preserve human life as and when he sees fit…”
    Was the act of drowning the entire population of the earth (except Noah and his family) consistent with his character? Was his slaughter of the Egyptian first-born consistent with his character? How about him sending bears to maul the children that had laughed at Elisha’s bald head? Was that consistent with his character?

    “Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions and pose your own. I know you are something of a student of religion, but I wanted to check that this conversation is still of use / interest to you? I realise our dialogue has got rather long and I don’t want to be wasting your time by making you answer questions just from politeness… I’m enjoying our discussion, because you are making me think, and I appreciate that – but I don’t want to overstay my welcome on what is, after all, your blog.”
    I’m enjoying our conversation, too. I’m more than happy to continue for a little while longer, if you are. Apologies for not responding quicker but I’m simply not getting the opportunity lately to spend time on the blog. I’m lucky to get a few minutes here and there, but if you’re happy waiting then it’s not so much of a problem. Thanks for being patient.

    It may have to be the case, though, that on certain points of contention we simply agree to disagree and then move on to the next question, otherwise we’ll be here until we’re picking up our pensions 😉

    Hope you have a great weekend.

    Best wishes,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 18, 2013

  142. Hi Stephen,

    Apologies for delay in getting back to you, just been away for a residential weekend with college. Thanks as always for taking the time to reply.

    [re: Rhesus monkeys refusing to eat so others didn’t suffer pain]

    That’s interesting, but a better analogy with the kind of altruism that humans admire would be a monkey willingly allow himself to be electrocuted so that others could receive food. Are there experiments that demonstrate that faculty that you’re aware of?

    That’s right, I do have a young child. He’s 3 years old and is of the ‘John Lewis advert’ variety. Phew! 😉

    Congratulations 🙂


    Putting aside the obvious answer that child-murderers are immoral by definition, my personal basis for holding that such actions are “wrong” would be moral intuition, and I’m pretty sure you would hold quite a similar view. Such an innate morality would be God-given in your view, of course, and that’s the point where you and I would differ.

    With respect, I think this view is incoherent, for several reasons:

    1. As I pointed out earlier, the definition of murder has nothing to do its morality. Technically the definition is:

    “when a person, of sound memory and discretion, unlawfully kills any reasonable creature in being and under the king’s peace, with malice aforethought, either express or implied.”

    That is simply a description of an act and the mental processes involved in the perpetrator. To get to the idea that this act is immoral requires a further step of reasoning which is not grounded in the definition of the act itself.

    2. If your basis for morality is that it is an innate human faculty, then presumably it is to be found in our DNA i.e. there is a ‘moral gene’? If so, could you describe how a particular feature of deoxyribonucleic acid could be described as an adequate ground for moral behaviour and decisions? If morality is not based in our DNA, where does it come from and how can it be described as ‘innate’ (i.e. as opposed to something imposed or suggested by society)?

    3. If one person’s ‘innate’ sense of morality suggests to them that theft is fine, how do you adjudicate between that moral sense and another’s moral ideas that contradict that? If the answer is basically ‘society decides’ then I take that as an admission that morality is grounded in society, rather than in any innate faculty.

    4. Even if morality is innate, how does an ‘is’ become an ‘ought’? i.e. supposing I do indeed have an innate moral impulse that gives me a vague sense that I shouldn’t steal, why should I obey that instinct? We admire people who, for example, overcome their natural instinct towards laziness by becoming an athlete, so why should I not be admired for overcoming my natural instinct against stealing?

    I don’t know to what degree of certainty you hold true that God’s nature is the locus of moral value (perhaps you could tell me), but are you open, perhaps, to the possibility of being wrong? If you are, couldn’t I level the same accusation at you about attempting to teach your kids right from wrong without having proof that your moral theory is correct?

    If a God worthy of the name exists, then his nature must be the definition of goodness and the standard to which all other moral ideas are compared. Therefore my level of certainty that God’s nature is the locus of moral value is exactly the same as my level of certainty that he exists. Which is not 100% – some days it is close to that, other days are full of doubt and questions and the level of certainty is much lower.
    So yes, your accusation would be justified – IF – and it’s a big if – there was an objective moral imperative that said ‘you can only teach your children things for which you have absolute scientific proof.’ I don’t believe such an imperative exists, but it sounds like Richard Dawkins does when he talks about banning parents from instructing their children in religion.


    “I find an inherent contradiction in the moral stance of atheists who hold to a basically subjective view of morality… then claim it is morally wrong for theists to (for example) threaten people with eternal torment. If the theist’s subjective view of morality holds that it’s OK to threaten people with eternal torment, then, with respect, who are you to judge? Isn’t that contradictory?”

    I haven’t claimed that I adhere to a subjective morality, so your suggestion that my position is contradictory is perhaps a mistake?

    Yes, my suggestion would be a mistake, if you had demonstrated that your morality was genuinely objective. I may be wrong, but I don’t think you’ve demonstrated that – in fact, you’ve said that you’re ‘open’ on the question, which doesn’t sound that objective to me.

    “…what do you think is the cause of [religious] experiences? Both the more personal, subjective experiences like Lady Two’s, and the experiences which have a more concrete expression like those I mentioned where someone’s life has been transformed.”
    I don’t know for certain what the cause is. Could it be psychological? The power of suggestion, positive thinking, wishful thinking, etc? Could it be a god? I couldn’t say. Am I convinced that it is a god? No, I’m not.

    I think – do you agree? – that it might be worth parking the subject of religious experience? Otherwise it probably is in danger of becoming one of the subjects we’d be discussing come pension age 🙂
    I would naturally ascribe the transformation that I have witnessed in the lives of people I know to God’s action, because the transformation seems to me too dramatic to be ascribed to a naturalistic cause. That, I will concede, is a question of perception, and we differ in how we see these things. Happy to revisit it if you want.

    “If God and a concomitant spiritual dimension do in fact exist, all of what you’ve just written [about scepticism towards a dying & rising Jewish carpenter who flew up in to the clouds and became invisible and immaterial etc] becomes not only believable, but quite natural… you can’t assume that God doesn’t exist in an attempt to dismiss them as unreasonable.”
    I’m not sure you quite appreciate the self-defeating nature of this sort of circular reasoning. You are supposed to be attempting to demonstrate that these things are “reasonable”. But what you are essentially saying here is that if one first assumes that it’s true then it becomes reasonable. But one could assume that just about anything is true (even god’s non-existence) and base a claim’s ‘reasonableness’ on that initial assumption.
    So, without assuming that it’s all true before you even start, I would like to know how tales of a man supposedly walking on water, a physical body flying up in to the clouds before turning invisible & immaterial, dead people popping out of their graves and walking in to town, a disembodied mind that resides in another dimension that contacts you telepathically etc, can be deemed “reasonable”. How so?

    It’s not circular reasoning. To be circular, I would have to be saying, ‘BECAUSE God exists, all these things are believable.’ That’s not what I’m saying. I’m instead claiming that ‘IF God exists, events that we would term miraculous, such as Jesus walking on water, become perfectly explicable and indeed ‘reasonable’.’ In the same way, IF God exists, then it is easy to see how objective moral values can be grounded in his nature. IF God doesn’t exist, then moral values cannot be grounded in him, so they must either be subjective, or objectively grounded in something else. I still haven’t heard or read a convincing case for objective moral values to be grounded in something else, which leaves us with moral relativism, something that some atheists are happy with, and that others shy away from because the consequences are pretty awful. As I said in my last post, I haven’t read much in this area, so will engage with any recommendations you have for reading material that presents the case for objective moral values that are not grounded in God.

    Firstly, you simply weren’t searching for examples in support of the specific topic that we were discussing. Why then would you be surprised at the results of your search?
    Secondly, so what if your chosen search phrase returned more examples of Muslims dreaming of Jesus and subsequently becoming Christians? What does that have to do with the fact that some Christians have alleged to have experienced the Prophet Muhammad in a dream and converted to Islam as a result? I suggested to you that a quick Google or YouTube search will bring up examples of the latter. And it does.

    Sorry, I should have made it clearer – I wasn’t trying to make any kind of point by reporting the results of the youtube search, I was just being lazy by not researching further. That’s because I think you and I would agree that:

    – a random, unsubstantiated video on the internet does not constitute strong evidence for the existence of God (or indeed the existence of the God of a particular religion as opposed to another)

    – if one religion (or indeed atheism) has considerably more videos claiming its truth on the internet than another, that does not say anything particularly significant about the actual truth of those claims.

    Am I right in saying we agree on those points?


    However, I do know people on a personal level who have claimed to have life-changing results after experiencing their god in one way or another. A man who had spent a number of years in and out of prison assures me that his conversion to Islam has transformed his character. He can reel off numerous examples of answered prayers and so on, but you and I do not believe that the cause of such things is Allah. Similarly, I do not believe that the cause of your brother-in-law’s improved character is Yahweh (but don’t confuse this with me declaring that Yahweh isn’t the cause. That’s not what I’m saying).

    That’s fair enough – this is why I think parking the religious experience discussion might be worthwhile. Both of us (I think, do correct me if I’m wrong) would claim that the verifiable, personally observed examples of the lives of most of the people around us basically substantiate our worldviews. That therefore doesn’t say much about the relative truth of our worldviews – though they clearly both can’t be right.

    Re what would I do with the testimony of a former Christian-turned-Muslim, I don’t know. Such testimonies do exist (in internet / book / video form), but as I’ve pointed out previously, we take the testimony of people we actually know in real life much more seriously than the story of people we can’t verify or haven’t encountered in a way that enables us to assess the reliability of their testimony. Even then, we can still disagree on the cause of their experience (as you did with Lady Two, without doubting that she had in fact had an experience of some kind).


    “I simply don’t know enough people from other religions well enough to know their equivalent testimonies…”

    That’s fair enough, but if I was to ask you, “Matt, if you did know someone from another religion well enough and they claimed such a testimony, would you believe it?” you’d probably respond with, “I’d prefer not to deal with hypotheticals” – as you’ve done on a number of occasions already when I’ve asked similar questions.

    I don’t think I’d say ‘I’d prefer not to deal with hypotheticals’ in that instance, I think the more honest answer is I don’t know how I’d react. I would be interested in what they said, certainly, as I’m interested to read (for example) the story of John Loftus’ conversion from pastor to atheist. However, there are two ways your question could be interpreted – you asked ‘would you believe it?’ – if by that you mean ‘would you believe that they had had the experience they describe?’ then yes, I probably would, assuming I have reason to believe that they are basically honest etc etc. If by ‘would you believe it?’ you mean ‘would you find their testimony sufficiently compelling to wish to change religion?’ then no, I almost certainly wouldn’t. That’s because I would have their testimony on the one hand, and on the other hand I would have a whole list of contrary testimonies that I am personally acquainted with, along with all the other evidence which (for me) points towards the existence of the Christian God.

    I suspect you would answer exactly the same if I asked ‘Stephen, if you knew someone who was a dyed-in-the-wool, Dawkins-reading, Hitchens-reading atheist who had a dramatic experience and became a Christian as a result, would you believe it?’ – yes, you may well believe that they had had that experience, but you would (probably) doubt the cause, and it may well not cause you to change your own beliefs immediately, if at all. Is that correct?

    … you’ve obviously misunderstood. The underlying question is not, ‘Hey Matt, why are you a Christian as opposed to being a member of some other religion?’. The underlying question is ‘Hey Matt, what reason would I have for thinking your God real and all the others false?’
    This question isn’t answered by giving me anecdotes about how some Christians you know were saved from drug addiction. As I have continually pointed out, I can give you examples of people from other religions who were saved from drug addictions, but this doesn’t (even for one second) mean that their god is real and yours false.

    I think those two underlying questions are actually more linked in my mind than perhaps they are in yours. The central reality at the heart of the Christian faith is the person, work and teaching of Jesus Christ. He is the distinctive reality that I hold to that means I am unlikely to say, defect to Islam. And he is then also the reason I would point to, to anyone who was considering religions in general, to put their faith in the Christian God rather than other gods. I believe that Jesus reveals the character of God to humanity, that his wisdom and moral teaching are unsurpassed, that his sacrificial death is the supreme demonstration of love, and that the invitation to be his disciple is an invitation to live life as it is meant to be lived.

    So both questions are (I think anyway) answered by the counter-question ‘what do you think of Jesus?’ If the answer is ‘not much’ (or ‘he said some good stuff but that’s about it’ or ‘he was just a mythological character’) then there isn’t any reason why someone would become a Christian, as opposed to any other religion or no religion at all, precisely because to be a Christian is to become a follower of Jesus.

    Some questions for you, if you don’t mind, as we have gone around this question of other religions rather a lot (and these are genuine questions rather than some kind of sneaky trap!):

    – I appreciate that you believe all the different religions are false, but do you also think they are all, in essence, basically the same?
    – If you don’t believe all religions are basically the same, do you consider some religions more valuable / helpful / positive for the world than others?


    So [the resurrection is] shuffled in to R.E class alongside (and in the same context as) other literally unbelievable tales from other religions. And even there it is not taught as a historical fact. In secondary schools, colleges, and universities, nowhere is it taught as a historical fact. Supposedly the most important event in human history can’t even warrant a paragraph’s worth of attention in the national curriculum programmes of study for history. And somehow this doesn’t cause you even a moment’s concern.

    Of course it doesn’t. Our national curriculum is secular, as is the entire state-run education system. Supernatural events are therefore by definition not taught as historical facts in the way that, for example, the Battle of Hastings is. The historical facts that I mentioned in my last post (the existence of a Jewish rabbi called Jesus, his crucifixion, the subsequent emergence of Christianity as a separate Jewish and then Gentile religion complete with resurrection testimony) are taught in courses that deal with history of religion or the history of the ancient near east – the exact explanation for what links the crucifixion to events following is of course a matter of debate. You haven’t said what you think the most plausible explanation for the very early Christian testimony of the resurrection is?

    “Most religions would fit your definition of “reasonable”, then, but you don’t take them seriously.”
    “That’s incorrect. I take them very seriously.”
    I think you know what I meant by “seriously”. You don’t believe they are true, so you do not take them seriously to that extent. Even though they are “reasonable”.

    No, I really did mean it! I don’t see ‘the truth of Islam’ as being a binary thing, in that it is either wholly true or wholly false. There are many things that Muslims believe about God that I share and can affirm, and there is plenty that many Christians (myself included) can learn from devotees of other faiths in terms of their commitment to prayer or charity or many other positive things. Of course, overall I believe that Christianity presents a truer picture of how things really are, but being able to respect the beliefs of others and even share them in some cases, is definitely what I would call taking them seriously. You may well have meant something different by the phrase, but that’s a semantic issue rather than a religious one.

    [I asked: Is God free to destroy/preserve human life as and when he sees fit?]
    “…I would say that God is not “free” to act in ways that are inconsistent with his character, because he is always ‘true to himself’… However, I would say that God, as creator of the universe, is entitled to destroy/preserve human life as and when he sees fit…”
    Was the act of drowning the entire population of the earth (except Noah and his family) consistent with his character? Was his slaughter of the Egyptian first-born consistent with his character? How about him sending bears to maul the children that had laughed at Elisha’s bald head? Was that consistent with his character?

    Good questions. This is a whole new area of discussion because we haven’t really talked about the Bible so far and what it records about God’s actions and character. I hope you don’t mind if I put down some thoughts about the Bible in general before trying to answer these questions – I’ll be as brief as possible given the enormous subject area. If this is of no interest, I apologise; if you want to come back at me on any of this then please do.

    Firstly a quick comment about the Bible in general. Christians rather shoot themselves in the foot most times they make confident pronouncements like ‘the Bible says…’. Well the Bible says a lot of things, and quite a number of elements are in tension with each other. You are well aware that the Bible is made up of 66 books that differ widely in terms of style and genre, but many people (both Christians and atheists) take the fact that it comes to us in one binding as a signal that it can all be treated and read in exactly the same way – when really that idea is about as silly as expecting ‘A Brief History of Time’ to function as a text in the same way as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ just because they’re sitting next to each other on a bookshelf.

    Secondly a comment on ancient history. The sort of history recording done by ancient Israel cannot be thought of in the same category as yesterday’s newspaper is by us. It is anachronistic to assume that our modern-day concerns over exact factual accuracy would be the same as the thought-processes of an ancient scribe compiling even more ancient oral traditions 2-3000 years ago. For example – former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested that those who read Genesis 1-2 as a kind of scientific treatise are committing a category mistake. I’d agree with him, as would St Augustine and many other pre-Darwin Christians who were capable of recognising an origins myth functioning as a theological polemic against the gods of other nations when they saw one.

    So you mentioned the story of Noah, a story that has similarities to the Gilgamesh epic and other ancient flood stories. Given the type of primeval history involved, I feel under no compulsion at all to believe that every mountain in the world including Everest was literally covered by water, nor that Noah managed to squeeze 4.3million+ species into what was not really a very large boat at all. Again, I know I differ from other Christians, who believe that a literal reading is the only true one, but I would argue that that is simply not required by the type of literature involved, and that that point is really, really obvious to anyone paying attention to the text.

    Genesis 6:19 – God’s command to Noah:
    And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.

    Genesis 7:2 – God’s command to Noah repeated:
    Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate;

    The idea that the final compilers of Genesis didn’t even notice the flat contradiction in these verses isn’t particularly convincing – of course they noticed. But they didn’t alter it, because what the story was about was not the precise number of precisely which species Noah took into the ark. It is much more a story about God’s judgement on the world (which is, I believe, consistent with his character, even if we don’t like it. If God is NOT the ultimate Judge, then there is no ultimate justice), his desire to preserve humanity and to provide a rescue for those who are faithful, and the goodness of creation. Now the fact that there are several similar stories found in other ancient traditions suggests to many scholars that there was, in fact, some kind of catastrophic flood event that occurred in that region of the world, that was then preserved in the collective human memory and transmitted through various different stories – so it’s not wildly improbable that there was also a Noah figure who escaped the flood with his family and animals in a boat. But my faith in the Bible as a means of God’s revelation to humanity does not stand or fall on whether the flood account is literally true in every detail or not.

    Similarly with the slaying of the Egyptian first-born. Again, scholars have noted that in many ways the story functions as a theological polemic against specific Egyptian gods – for example, the Egyptians worshipped the god of the Nile as the source of the land’s fertility, and the Nile is turned to blood and becomes undrinkable. Likewise they worshipped the sun god Ra, and the land is covered in darkness for three days. The final judgement against the first-born of Egypt demonstrates that the supposedly divine Pharaoh is unable to protect his people against Israel’s God, and so Israel is released from the oppression they have suffered for 400 years, to go free as Yahweh’s people. The Exodus happens in the context of the first Passover, both of which events are drawn on again and again in the New Testament, to provide a context and an explanation for the life and death of Jesus – in Jesus the first-born son voluntarily allows himself to be killed, at the celebration of the passover, to defeat the power of sin and death and lead the new people of God into a life of freedom and wholeness.

    Our secular, (post) modern Western culture is almost as far as it is possible to be removed from the Bronze Age culture of the ANE world. Stories and history of that time do not function in the same way that a contemporary historical record does, and so we need to do some work to understand them. I’m not saying that therefore all the history of the OT is completely fictitious, I personally believe that there is some historic content there. But to assume that the ancient authors had exactly the same concerns and priorities re historical exactitude as we might is just anachronistic – that wasn’t why they wrote. Primarily, as far as we can deduce from the text, they wrote to demonstrate that Israel’s God, Yahweh, was the only true God, and that Israel’s national identity was to be shaped and formed around the conviction that God had created the nation as an act of grace, redeeming them from slavery, and that their primary calling was to be a light to other nations. Most of the OT is then a record of how miserably Israel failed to live up to that calling – they oppressed the poor, excluded foreigners, worshipped other gods and basically weren’t that different from nations around them, except under the leadership of a few good kings like David and Josiah. In the end, God’s judgement comes on Israel as well in the form of foreign invasion; the Temple is destroyed, and Israel’s national hope and identity is crushed.

    All of this needs to be seen as the backdrop to the life of Jesus – he wasn’t just some isolated, floaty mystical figure, detached from history – he was a first century Jew, born into a fomenting mass of conflicting nationalistic expectations and hopes, who Christians believe fulfilled the calling and purpose of Israel in his life and death. We see that in his treatment of the poor, his affirmation of women, his inclusion of outsiders (even the hated Samaritans and Romans), and his calling to a life of sacrificial love. We also see it in events like the temptation in the wilderness (paralleling Israel’s wandering in the desert), his giving of the new law in the Sermon on the Mount (paralleling Moses on Mt. Sinai), and ultimately his offering of himself as the final passover lamb, providing a way to be delivered from slavery to sin into new life.

    That’s a much longer answer than you probably expected or wanted and there’s lots more that could be said, but I’ll leave it there for now.


    I’m enjoying our conversation, too. I’m more than happy to continue for a little while longer, if you are. Apologies for not responding quicker but I’m simply not getting the opportunity lately to spend time on the blog. I’m lucky to get a few minutes here and there, but if you’re happy waiting then it’s not so much of a problem. Thanks for being patient.

    No problem at all – any delay gives me more time to do the work on essays that I should probably be doing 🙂 Thanks as ever for your thoughts.

    All the best
    Matt

    Comment by Matt | September 24, 2013

  143. Hi Matt,

    Hope you’ve had a pleasant weekend.

    “That’s interesting, but a better analogy with the kind of altruism that humans admire would be a monkey willingly allow himself to be electrocuted so that others could receive food. Are there experiments that demonstrate that faculty that you’re aware of?”
    Well, to be fair, you initially said that altruistic behaviour in animals only occurs if it is of mutual benefit. But this is simply incorrect, and I gave you the example of rhesus monkeys to demonstrate the point.

    As for a monkey willingly allowing itself to be electrocuted so that others could receive food, well, I can’t say I’m familiar with any such experiment, but there are examples in the animal kingdom of similar (and in fact more extreme) types of sacrifice. The female Japanese foliage spider, for example, sacrifices herself as she allows her body to be consumed by her young. Dozens of species of arachnids and insects display rituals of self-sacrifice, such as a male presenting himself as a meal to the female after copulation. And various species of birds are known to protect chicks that are unrelated to them by fighting off would-be predators, an act that can often lead to their own deaths.

    “If your basis for morality is that it is an innate human faculty, then presumably it is to be found in our DNA i.e. there is a ‘moral gene’?”
    There are a number of recent studies that would support that hypothesis but, like I said at the start, I am not asserting that a particular moral theory is correct.

    Evolutionary psychologists, sociobiologists and philosophers (such as Steven Pinker, E.O Wilson, and Michael Ruse) are notable proponents of the innateness of morality, and how it was bred in to us by natural selection. For an account of the actual science involved here you would have to consult their work, as I wouldn’t want to do it a disservice.

    “… could you describe how a particular feature of deoxyribonucleic acid could be described as an adequate ground for moral behaviour and decisions?”
    Perhaps an oversimplification there, but presumably it would be in the same way that a particular feature of an invisible, immaterial person could be described as an adequate ground for moral behaviour and decisions. Unless you’re of the opinion that morality is instead determined by what God commands? You’d have to tell me where you stand on that particular issue because, as far as I can tell, either position is problematic.

    “… my level of certainty that God’s nature is the locus of moral value is exactly the same as my level of certainty that he exists. Which is not 100% – some days it is close to that, other days are full of doubt and questions and the level of certainty is much lower.”
    I admire your honesty but I’m curious as to how a person can claim, for example, that there are strong arguments for the resurrection (an event which requires God to exist), and then in the next breath admit that on occasions they are full of doubts as to whether or not such a God even exists in the first place. It follows, then, that if you are on occasions full of doubts as to whether God exists you are also full of doubts that the resurrection ever happened, for without God there is no resurrection. Surely this is an open admission that those supposedly strong arguments aren’t that strong after all? How can they be?

    Also, if you occasionally doubt that God exists then you also occasionally doubt that he is the cause of your friend’s recovery from drug addiction. All of those other anecdotes you listed previously aren’t particularly convincing to you either (on occasions), obviously.

    Putting aside for a moment the anecdotes and the supposed resurrection, what about your ‘relationship’ with God? How can you be in a relationship with someone and continue to doubt that they even exist? How does that work? I’m genuinely curious.

    “I’m… claiming that ‘IF God exists, events that we would term miraculous, such as Jesus walking on water, become perfectly explicable and indeed ‘reasonable’.”
    Yes, IF the Christian God exists, and Jesus is God, and the associated tales are legit etc, then it would follow that those associated tales (such as him walking on water and contacting people telepathically) are ‘reasonable’. However, a demonstration that such tales ARE reasonable (rather than merely potentially reasonable) would first require a demonstration that the Christian God exists. Seeing as you cannot demonstrate that the Christian God exists I struggle to see how you can possibly hope to demonstrate that the tales under discussion are ‘reasonable’.

    “… as I’ve pointed out previously, we take the testimony of people we actually know in real life much more seriously than the story of people we can’t verify or haven’t encountered in a way that enables us to assess the reliability of their testimony.”
    I agree. But if what you have just said is true, then what were you possibly hoping to achieve earlier on in our discussion when you were reeling off names of people you know (and I don’t) and the details of their respective testimonies? There would be little reason for me to take them seriously, surely?

    “If by ‘would you believe it?’ you mean ‘would you find their testimony sufficiently compelling to wish to change religion?’ then no, I almost certainly wouldn’t. That’s because I would have their testimony on the one hand, and on the other hand I would have a whole list of contrary testimonies that I am personally acquainted with, along with all the other evidence which (for me) points towards the existence of the Christian God.”
    I initially asked you what particular criteria has to be met in order for you to be convinced that the alleged cause of a certain experience was in fact true and genuine. After a little toing-and-froing you eventually settled with, “if my friend said that that was his experience (and the long-term evidence bore out that a genuine, unexpected transformation had indeed taken out)” then you’d believe it. But now you’re admitting that even that isn’t good enough, if your own experience contradicts it.

    Obviously there is quite a sizeable problem here as you seem unable to offer a firm and consistent criteria for determining the truth of personal experiences. There’s clearly no consistency in what you’re offering here. However, in your last post you suggested that we drop the subject of personal experience, so it’s ok with me if you want to move on to something else. No problem.

    Well, after I’ve addressed the next point perhaps…

    “I suspect you would answer exactly the same if I asked ‘Stephen, if you knew someone who was a dyed-in-the-wool, Dawkins-reading, Hitchens-reading atheist who had a dramatic experience and became a Christian as a result, would you believe it?’ – yes, you may well believe that they had had that experience, but you would (probably) doubt the cause, and it may well not cause you to change your own beliefs immediately, if at all. Is that correct?”
    That’s correct, I may believe they had an experience of some sort but I may doubt the cause of that experience.

    However, my scepticism towards this particular example may become somewhat problematic if I had earlier admitted that my criteria for determining the true cause of an experience was ‘if my friend said that that was his experience and the long-term evidence bore out that a genuine, unexpected transformation had indeed taken out’. For me to then say that I wouldn’t believe him would be contradicting my own criteria. Which, unfortunately, is what you’ve just done.

    “Some questions for you, if you don’t mind, as we have gone around this question of other religions rather a lot (and these are genuine questions rather than some kind of sneaky trap!):
    – I appreciate that you believe all the different religions are false…”

    I don’t believe all the different religions are false, Matt.

    “… but do you also think they are all, in essence, basically the same?”
    Depends what you mean by “basically the same”, and in what sense.

    “Our national curriculum is secular, as is the entire state-run education system. Supernatural events are therefore by definition not taught as historical facts in the way that, for example, the Battle of Hastings is.”
    So where and how is the resurrection taught as a historical fact? Is it just in Christian Bible class? In the same way that the story of the Angel Gabriel dictating the Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad is taught as a ‘historical fact’ in an Islamic seminary? I didn’t know that ‘facts’ were dependent on and determined by religious faith. Perhaps you can offer an explanation as to what you might mean. Cheers.

    “No, I really did mean it! [in regards to taking other religions seriously] I don’t see ‘the truth of Islam’ as being a binary thing, in that it is either wholly true or wholly false.”
    You don’t take other religions seriously in terms of them being true about their gods existing in reality. However much you respect other religions, however much you can learn from them, how much you admire aspects of them, you don’t consider their gods to be real. Despite them fitting your definition of ‘reasonable’. If a religion can be deemed reasonable while its god does not actually exist in reality then that principle can just as easily apply to Christianity.

    “… a comment on ancient history. The sort of history recording done by ancient Israel cannot be thought of in the same category as yesterday’s newspaper is by us. It is anachronistic to assume that our modern-day concerns over exact factual accuracy would be the same as the thought-processes of an ancient scribe compiling even more ancient oral traditions 2-3000 years ago.”
    But when those ancient scribes were compiling oral traditions 2000 years ago about Jesus flying up in to the clouds, turning invisible and becoming immaterial, you seemingly have no concerns about their exact factual accuracy.

    “So you mentioned the story of Noah, a story that has similarities to the Gilgamesh epic and other ancient flood stories. Given the type of primeval history involved, I feel under no compulsion at all to believe that every mountain in the world including Everest was literally covered by water, nor that Noah managed to squeeze 4.3million+ species into what was not really a very large boat at all.”
    That’s fair enough. But, if I may ask, why don’t you believe that all the mountains in the world were literally covered by water, or that Noah managed to squeeze millions of species of animals on to his relatively small boat? I’m curious, why do you have difficulty believing those things?

    What if someone tried to reason with you by saying, “Matt, some variants of string theory posit the existence of up to 13 dimensions, not the four of space-time that we experience. Quantum theory holds (and it has been demonstrated experimentally) that two particles can interact with each other, instantaneously, potentially across the width of the whole universe – Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’. It further says that we can change the wave-like behaviour of, for example, an electron, into behaving like a particle, just by observing it. Increasingly large molecules have been experimentally placed in two different places at the same time. Given the really, really, weird world that we actually inhabit, I would say that the idea that a deity could temporarily shrink 4.3 million+ species so they could fit on to what was not really a very large boat at all is pretty banal.”

    Or perhaps one of your fellow Christians could persuade you in to thinking such stories are in fact perfectly reasonable by offering something like this, “Matt, IF God exists, events that we would term miraculous, such as Noah managing to squeeze 4.3million+ species into what was not really a very large boat at all, become perfectly explicable and indeed ‘reasonable’”.

    Would this sort of reasoning do anything for you? Would it be good enough to change your mind? If not, why not?

    “If God is NOT the ultimate Judge, then there is no ultimate justice”
    Firstly, if your God doesn’t exist then it doesn’t follow that therefore there is no ultimate justice. If other gods exist they would be the ultimate judge. Secondly, I know you might want it to be true that there is some ultimate justice, but that doesn’t mean it is true.

    Hope you enjoyed your weekend away, and make sure you take it easy with the marathon training.

    By the way, before I go I need to ask you a question. While I was preparing dinner earlier this evening, I was walking round the kitchen singing, “Christ was raised never to die again and he reigns in everlasting light.” How do you explain that?! You’re not performing some kind of Jedi mind trick on me are you Matt? 😉

    All the very best,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 29, 2013

  144. Hi Stephen

    Weekend was good thanks, I hope yours was too. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments.

    Re: animals sacrificing themselves for their young or for others

    This is an interesting point you make which raises some further questions for me. Would you consider that a bird who defends chicks who are not her own has done something that – from the bird’s perspective – is morally admirable? Or is the bird just acting on instinct? – essentially, would you say that birds are capable of making moral choices?

    If birds are capable of moral choices, would you apply the same logic to the male spider who allows himself to be eaten, i.e. are spiders – from a spider’s perspective – capable of morally commendable actions?

    If spiders and/or birds are not capable of morally commendable actions (but are instead just acting on instinct, which we would generally say isn’t a morally commendable thing), would you say that humans are in the same category as spiders / birds, or in a different category as regards moral responsibility? If we are in a different category to birds and spiders as regards moral responsibility, what differentiates us? We are, after all, just another species of highly evolved animals, correct?


    Evolutionary psychologists, sociobiologists and philosophers (such as Steven Pinker, E.O Wilson, and Michael Ruse) are notable proponents of the innateness of morality, and how it was bred in to us by natural selection. For an account of the actual science involved here you would have to consult their work, as I wouldn’t want to do it a disservice.

    I’m familiar with the names you mention, but I haven’t actually read any of their material. Could you recommend one book as an introduction to the ideas you’re describing, and I’ll do my best to read it in the next couple of weeks (more essay procrastination…)? I’m curious as to how morality could be ‘bred into us’ because that would imply that it came from somewhere else. If so, where do you think that might be? ‘Natural selection’ presumably can’t be the source of morality as a ‘blind, purposeless’ process, can it?


    Perhaps an oversimplification there, but presumably it would be in the same way that a particular feature of an invisible, immaterial person could be described as an adequate ground for moral behaviour and decisions.

    Ideas of right and wrong are abstract (as opposed to concrete), and necessarily personal (we don’t hold rocks morally responsible for landing on someone’s head, we hold the person who threw the rock responsible). I’d have thought, therefore, that an immaterial Person would be the ideal ground for morality, wouldn’t you? Much more fitting than a purposeless, amoral, conglomeration of chemical elements [DNA] anyway.

    Unless you’re of the opinion that morality is instead determined by what God commands? You’d have to tell me where you stand on that particular issue because, as far as I can tell, either position is problematic.

    I would hold that morality is grounded in God’s character, not his command i.e. things are good or bad depending on the degree to which they correlate with his essential nature. God is the definition and standard of goodness, he is not subject to an external standard of morality that somehow stands in judgement over and above him – that would be my answer to the Euthyphro dilemma anyway, which I guess is what you’re alluding to?


    I admire your honesty but I’m curious as to how a person can claim, for example, that there are strong arguments for the resurrection (an event which requires God to exist), and then in the next breath admit that on occasions they are full of doubts as to whether or not such a God even exists in the first place. It follows, then, that if you are on occasions full of doubts as to whether God exists you are also full of doubts that the resurrection ever happened, for without God there is no resurrection. Surely this is an open admission that those supposedly strong arguments aren’t that strong after all? How can they be?

    I don’t think (but correct me if I’m wrong) that I have ever claimed that there are any knock-down, scientifically verifiable, 100% unarguable proofs of God’s existence; in fact, quite the reverse. That applies to historical arguments (like the resurrection); arguments from personal experience (whether my own or other people’s); the cosmological, ontological, moral arguments; arguments from the person of Jesus and the growth of Christianity; arguments from authority (clever people have believed in God), or any other kind of philosophical or other argument for God’s existence. None of them are 100% convincing – obviously, because otherwise everyone would believe in God. If none of them are 100% convincing, then there is by definition room for doubt. I am in fact rather suspicious of Christians who claim that they have no doubts or questions whatsoever – apart from anything else a faith that doesn’t regularly wrestle with doubt doesn’t seem particularly ‘Biblical’:

    Psalm 13:1:
    How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me?

    Psalm 42:3
    My tears have been my food day and night,
    while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’

    Mark 15:34
    At three o’clock Jesus [on the cross] cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ [words taken from the beginning of Psalm 22]

    However, I would caveat your rather binary question somewhat. You questioned how I could move from claiming that ‘there are strong arguments for the resurrection’ to being ‘full of doubts as to whether or not such a God even exists’, and that’s simply overstating the case. I believe that the arguments listed above are (in some cases, but not all – the argument from authority is rubbish, for example) strong, but none of them are ‘compelling’ in the sense of being 100% irrefutable – hence it is perfectly possible to hold that these are good arguments, and also experience times of doubt.

    I get slightly irritated when antagonistic atheists define ‘faith’ as ‘believing something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary’ or ‘believing something irrational in the total absence of evidence’ [not claiming for a moment that that is how you would define ‘faith’, by the way, you are most definitely not an antagonistic atheist 🙂 ]. I would suggest instead that faith is the active choice to trust in what is (in my view, but not yours) good evidence to believe, and to live life accordingly. That is not mutually exclusive with doubt.


    Putting aside for a moment the anecdotes and the supposed resurrection, what about your ‘relationship’ with God? How can you be in a relationship with someone and continue to doubt that they even exist? How does that work? I’m genuinely curious.

    Great question. This is why I would love you at some point, when the current book pile has subsided a bit, to read Francis Spufford’s ‘Unapologetic’, because he does a much better job than I can in terms of describing the internal experience of what it means for a Christian to be in ‘relationship’ with God.

    My best attempt, though, would be to look at how relationship with God is analogous with relationships with other people. There is a fairly obvious difference, which you’ve pointed out on more than one occasion, in that God is invisible and immaterial, and people are not. However, if someone, let’s call him Geoff, was in the same room as me, I wouldn’t at that point have what could be described in any meaningful terms as a relationship with him. Relationship would begin at the point when Geoff began to reveal the (invisible to me) inner workings of his mind and emotions, through speech and action. Until that self-revelation has happened and has been reciprocated by me, we are just two physical objects in the same room, we are not (except in the shallowest sense) two persons in relationship.

    I would therefore argue that what is essential to relationship is actually self-revelation, not physicality. I believe that God reveals himself through the beauty and complexity of creation, through the Bible, through my experience and the experience of others, through the character of Jesus, through theological and philosophical study, through answers to prayers and so on. None of these ways of revelation require present-tense physicality – of course I believe that God did take on physical form in the person of Jesus, but I missed that time by a couple of millenia. For my part, I ‘reveal’ myself to God [though in a sense, of course, I am not telling God anything he doesn’t know already – this is one area where the Creator/creature relationship is not analogous to human relationships] in prayer and worship, in committed action, and so on. And – in my experience – this mutual self-revelation grows with time; so I remember times when I have doubted but have chosen to trust God, and then seen some kind of benefit [often what I hope is growth in character] or other reaffirmation that my choice to trust was wise – and that then all becomes part of the experiential resources I draw on to further strengthen my commitment to my faith.

    Now of course you could suggest that what I’m describing is merely wish-fulfilment; I’m looking (whether consciously or not) for evidence that confirms my prior beliefs and – surprise! – I find it. In one sense, that’s what we all do, as Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller ‘Thinking, fast and slow’ points out – it is a generally human characteristic to delete or ignore data that doesn’t fit with our current worldview, and emphasise data that does fit – but that applies to atheists just as much as to Christians. However, I do hope that goes at least a little way towards explaining what I mean by saying I believe I am in relationship with God.


    Yes, IF the Christian God exists, and Jesus is God, and the associated tales are legit etc, then it would follow that those associated tales (such as him walking on water and contacting people telepathically) are ‘reasonable’. However, a demonstration that such tales ARE reasonable (rather than merely potentially reasonable) would first require a demonstration that the Christian God exists. Seeing as you cannot demonstrate that the Christian God exists I struggle to see how you can possibly hope to demonstrate that the tales under discussion are ‘reasonable’.

    But this works both ways, because for you to demonstrate that the tales are NOT reasonable, would require you to be able to demonstrate that the Christian God does not exist, and you can’t do that either. I don’t think I have ever claimed that stories of miracles in the Bible constitute strong evidence for the existence of God, and I equally don’t think that the fact you find those stories rather incongruous constitutes strong evidence against the existence of God.


    … what were you possibly hoping to achieve earlier on in our discussion when you were reeling off names of people you know (and I don’t) and the details of their respective testimonies? There would be little reason for me to take them seriously, surely?

    No, granted. As I said in one of my first posts, I have no intention of ‘achieving’ a goal of convincing you that my beliefs are correct through purely rational argument, merely the lesser goal that they are reasonable (by which I mean, not incoherent or irrational). All I was therefore ‘hoping to achieve’ by reeling off a list of names and testimonies that are known to me personally was to basically present the question: ‘assuming that I’m not making all this up, do you think I am reasonable to believe that there is a God, given the consistency, quality and quantity of the testimonies of personal transformation that are known to me?’ I think you agreed I was reasonable to come to that conclusion in an earlier post:


    “… looking at those stories [anecdotes] from my viewpoint as a Christian, do you consider me irrational for taking those incidents as some sort of confirmation of my beliefs?!

    No.

    Re the question of whether I have contradicted myself in saying that I would believe: ‘if my friend said that that was his experience and the long-term evidence bore out that a genuine, unexpected transformation had indeed taken place’ but then also admitting that in fact I would probably NOT change my beliefs if that happened – I would add to the former sentence that I would believe:

    ‘if my friend said that that was his experience and the long-term evidence bore out that a genuine, unexpected transformation had indeed taken place in the absence of other evidence to the contrary

    In other words – if I was completely open, balanced 50/50 on the question of whether the Christian (or Muslim, or whatever) God existed, and then a friend had a profound, long-term life-changing experience, I suspect that would draw me to follow him into faith. If, on the other hand, I had one friend who had become a Muslim after being a Christian, and several friends who had become Christians from a wide variety of different religious or non-religious backgrounds, then I would be unlikely to become a Muslim.

    You would, I suspect, behave in a similar way; if one atheist friend of yours had a profound experience of God and became a Christian, I doubt you would change your beliefs. If several atheist friends of yours all independently became Christians and all gave glowing testimonies about the radical transformation they had experienced, then you still might not change your beliefs, but I reckon at the very least you would be prompted to consider Christianity more carefully.

    All of this is simply an acknowledgement that our beliefs are inevitably shaped to a certain extent by those around us. It is a tempting myth of modernism to hold that we are completely autonomous individuals, who investigate our beliefs using only cold, rational, processes; and make decisions entirely independently of others – but that is simply not wholly true. Equally, it’s not entirely untrue, because otherwise no-one from an atheist background would ever become a Christian (or vice versa), but that our beliefs are indeed influenced by those around us is pretty unarguable IMO.

    If you agree, I think we can set the religious experience discussion aside for now, we seem to have covered it fairly extensively (unless there are any more glaring contradictions in my posts that need pointing out…? 😉 )

    “Some questions for you, if you don’t mind, as we have gone around this question of other religions rather a lot (and these are genuine questions rather than some kind of sneaky trap!):
    – I appreciate that you believe all the different religions are false…”

    I don’t believe all the different religions are false, Matt.

    I’m intrigued. Which religion(s) do you think are true?

    “… but do you also think they are all, in essence, basically the same?”
    Depends what you mean by “basically the same”, and in what sense.

    OK, it was a vague question. More specifically:
    – do you think that all the different religions are essentially saying much the same thing about God, the nature of reality, the human heart etc?
    – if not, are there some religions you consider less believable or coherent than others? I remember, for example, in a much earlier comment on this blog post you mentioned you’d spent time with some JWs:


    “We had some truly remarkable conversations, and some of the claims they made were nothing short of mind blowing. They put the Alpha Course group to shame, that’s for sure.”


    So where and how is the resurrection taught as a historical fact? Is it just in Christian Bible class? In the same way that the story of the Angel Gabriel dictating the Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad is taught as a ‘historical fact’ in an Islamic seminary? I didn’t know that ‘facts’ were dependent on and determined by religious faith. Perhaps you can offer an explanation as to what you might mean. Cheers.

    I’m not quite sure what the problem is here. You seem to find it strange that only Christians would teach what is a Christian article of faith i.e. that the resurrection is the best explanation for the pretty much universally acknowledged historical facts surrounding Jesus’ death (that Jesus existed, that he was crucified, that his followers began testifying to his resurrection, and that the church grew dramatically in the years following). I am aware that other, naturalistic, explanations exist (though I also notice you still haven’t said what your preferred explanation is), but I find them less convincing than the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.

    Why should this kind of historical uncertainty surprise you? Just to give one example – Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, supposedly by James Earl Ray. Was it him, acting alone? Was Ray the scapegoat for a wider conspiracy? Was it someone else entirely and Ray was framed? No-one knows the real explanation with 100% certainty (except possibly if it was a conspiracy and some of the perpetrators are still alive) – so does the fact that there are questions regarding the real explanation mean that nothing can be said about it? Presumably the sensible thing to do would be to teach the unarguable historic facts (the date and time King died, where he was, that he was shot rather than blown up etc), and then to present the different interpretations / explanations of those facts as having different levels of explanatory power?

    If you agree, then surely you can see that that is exactly what Christians do with the resurrection – we believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus has the greatest explanatory power of the historic facts around Jesus’ death, and so constitutes evidence for the existence of the Christian God. This still holds because even though it is a miracle, unless miraculous explanations have been a priori ruled out by either a non-scientific commitment to rationalism,* or a 100% proof that God does not exist, a miraculous explanation must considered along with the other alternatives.

    *(by ‘non-scientific commitment to rationalism’, I mean the belief that rational explanations are the only kind of explanation required to explain everything in the universe – which is not itself a belief that can be proved scientifically)


    You don’t take other religions seriously in terms of them being true about their gods existing in reality. However much you respect other religions, however much you can learn from them, how much you admire aspects of them, you don’t consider their gods to be real. Despite them fitting your definition of ‘reasonable’. If a religion can be deemed reasonable while its god does not actually exist in reality then that principle can just as easily apply to Christianity.

    I searched back through my previous posts to see how I had in fact defined ‘reasonable’, and found this:

    What I do think is possible, however, is the more modest aim of demonstrating that Christianity is reasonable i.e. that it doesn’t require checking your brains in at the door,

    If I could demonstrate to you that your objections to Christianity along the lines of the problem of hell, suffering, other religions, difficult biblical texts etc etc are not in fact insuperable barriers to belief – that rational, coherent (but not necessarily ‘compelling’) answers to those questions do actually exist, I would consider my aim of demonstrating the reasonableness of Christianity achieved.

    On this basis, I don’t think there is a problem here. It is perfectly possible for me to recognise things that are true or good in other religions, and also consider Christianity more reasonable than them. It’s not just about being ‘reasonable’ though – I do believe that Christianity has an internal coherence, certainly, but I choose Christianity over and above other religions or atheism, because of all the reasons that I’ve mentioned previously and because to me the Christian story simply has greater explanatory power when it comes to questions of meaning, sin, grace, God, love, morality etc etc than other worldviews. I like how Francis Spufford puts it:

    “[Christianity is] something I came back to, freely, as an adult, after twenty-odd years of atheism, because piece by piece I have found that it answers my need, and corresponds to emotional reality for me. I also find that the elaborated structure of meaning it builds, the story it tells, explains that reality more justly, more profoundly, more scrupulously and plausible than any of the alternatives. (Am I sure I’m right? Of course not. Don’t you get bored with asking that question?)”

    “So you mentioned the story of Noah, a story that has similarities to the Gilgamesh epic and other ancient flood stories. Given the type of primeval history involved, I feel under no compulsion at all to believe that every mountain in the world including Everest was literally covered by water, nor that Noah managed to squeeze 4.3million+ species into what was not really a very large boat at all.”
    That’s fair enough. But, if I may ask, why don’t you believe that all the mountains in the world were literally covered by water, or that Noah managed to squeeze millions of species of animals on to his relatively small boat? I’m curious, why do you have difficulty believing those things?

    I gave no indication that I have difficulty believing those things. I said I felt no *compulsion* to believe them on the basis of the text, which is quite different. God is, if he exists, perfectly capable of deluging the earth with enough water to cover every mountain, but whether or not that literally happened in the time of Noah, or whether it was a more localised (though from the limited point of view of the tellers of the story, who would have no concept of the size of the globe, equally catastrophic) flood is not the point of the story, which is more to do with God’s actions in both judgement and providing a means of salvation.

    Contra the stories of Jesus, which are written 10x closer to the events in question, in a different culture, in a different genre (something more like – though not exactly – Greco-Roman biography, rather than primeval myth), in a different language, bearing many of the hallmarks of eye-witness accounts (why would Jesus calling Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem church, ‘satan’ make it into the gospels unless it had actually happened? Why would women – whose testimony was not legally admissible at the time – be recorded as the first witnesses to the empty tomb unless they were? etc), and having a degree of multiple attestation. As I said in my last post, the Bible is not a mono-genre book; Genesis functions as a text very differently to Psalms, which is different to Galatians, which is different to Ezekiel, and so on. It is simply anachronistic to read, say, Mark’s Gospel, and say that because it is correctly read in a certain way, Leviticus should be read in the same way as well. It is not surprising that there is wide variety between the different books of the Bible; it is more surprising that it actually coheres as well as it does, given the different genres and huge timescale involved in its writing.

    “If God is NOT the ultimate Judge, then there is no ultimate justice”
    Firstly, if your God doesn’t exist then it doesn’t follow that therefore there is no ultimate justice. If other gods exist they would be the ultimate judge. Secondly, I know you might want it to be true that there is some ultimate justice, but that doesn’t mean it is true.

    First point – I agree.
    Second point – I agree again. It also doesn’t mean it’s not true – and anyway, the idea that I might really *want* ultimate justice hadn’t really occurred to me until you mentioned it. I suppose I’ve always taken it as just part of the ‘if God exists, then….’ package. I get a bit twitchy around Christians who are fixated on the idea of a final judgement, because what seems to often happen is that they (we / I) try and pre-empt the judgement that only belongs to God, by declaring who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – contrary to what Jesus did, which was to declare that a load of the people who thought they were definitely ‘out’ (‘sinners’, lepers, tax collectors etc) were in fact ‘in’, and that a lot of the people who preened themselves on being very definitely ‘in’, (Pharisees, teachers of the Law etc) were in danger of being declared ‘out’.

    Hope you enjoyed your weekend away, and make sure you take it easy with the marathon training.

    Many thanks – I have a physio appointment next week but thus far the leg is holding up. Only managed 4 miles so far but intending on running a 10k later this month which would be good progress.

    By the way, before I go I need to ask you a question. While I was preparing dinner earlier this evening, I was walking round the kitchen singing, “Christ was raised never to die again and he reigns in everlasting light.” How do you explain that?! You’re not performing some kind of Jedi mind trick on me are you Matt? 😉

    Ha! That did make me chuckle. If I were to offer a rationalistic explanation (which you know I’m very good at), I’d suggest you have googled my fairly unusual name, found the website of the RESOUNDworship song-writing collective of which I am a part, and listened to a couple of my songs, which have then stuck in your head due to the effortless brilliance of the melodic craftsmanship…. or something like that anyway 😉 I’m just impressed that you listened all the way to the chorus! I hope that finding yourself walking around humming praise to Jesus isn’t too annoying for an atheist?!

    Anyway, a pleasure as ever to converse, all the best to you and family,

    Matt

    Comment by Matt | September 30, 2013

  145. Hi Matt,

    “Would you consider that a bird who defends chicks who are not her own has done something that – from the bird’s perspective – is morally admirable? Or is the bird just acting on instinct? – essentially, would you say that birds are capable of making moral choices?
    If birds are capable of moral choices, would you apply the same logic to the male spider who allows himself to be eaten, i.e. are spiders – from a spider’s perspective – capable of morally commendable actions?
    If spiders and/or birds are not capable of morally commendable actions (but are instead just acting on instinct, which we would generally say isn’t a morally commendable thing), would you say that humans are in the same category as spiders / birds, or in a different category as regards moral responsibility? If we are in a different category to birds and spiders as regards moral responsibility, what differentiates us? We are, after all, just another species of highly evolved animals, correct?”

    You were asking about examples of animals getting hurt so that others could eat, not whether or not they were moral agents. No, I don’t believe that spiders and insects are moral agents.

    What differentiates humans from spiders and insects? Our ability to reason (among many other differences).

    “I’m curious as to how morality could be ‘bred into us’ because that would imply that it came from somewhere else. If so, where do you think that might be? ‘Natural selection’ presumably can’t be the source of morality as a ‘blind, purposeless’ process, can it?”
    E. O. Wilson is able to explain this in much better terms than I can:

    “[S]ome people are innately more cooperative, others less so. In this respect moral aptitude would simply be like almost all other mental traits studied to date. Among traits with documented heritability, those closest to moral aptitude are empathy with the distress of others and certain processes of attachment between infants and their caregivers. To the heritability of moral aptitude add the abundant evidence of history that cooperative individuals generally survive longer and leave more offspring.

    Following that reasoning, in the course of evolutionary history genes predisposing people toward cooperative behaviour would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole.

    Such a process repeated through thousands of generations inevitably gave rise to moral sentiments. With the exception of psychopaths (if any truly exist), every person vividly experiences these instincts variously as conscience, self-respect, remorse, empathy, shame, humility, and moral outrage. They bias cultural evolution toward the conventions that express the universal moral codes of honour, patriotism, altruism, justice, compassion, mercy, and redemption.”

    “Ideas of right and wrong are abstract (as opposed to concrete), and necessarily personal (we don’t hold rocks morally responsible for landing on someone’s head, we hold the person who threw the rock responsible). I’d have thought, therefore, that an immaterial Person would be the ideal ground for morality, wouldn’t you? Much more fitting than a purposeless, amoral, conglomeration of chemical elements [DNA] anyway.”
    Slightly misleading last sentence there, IMO, seeing as this “conglomeration of chemical elements” is essentially what constitutes a person. And, as touched upon by Wilson in my response above, ideas of right and wrong would emerge through biases in mental development that are encoded in the genes, so I don’t quite see how Christians hold some sort of advantage when it comes to trying to explain morality.

    “I would hold that morality is grounded in God’s character, not his command i.e. things are good or bad depending on the degree to which they correlate with his essential nature. God is the definition and standard of goodness, he is not subject to an external standard of morality that somehow stands in judgement over and above him… ”
    Let’s have a bit of fun here: I would hold that morality is grounded in the nature of Homo Sapiens, not commandments i.e. things are good or bad depending on the degree to which they correlate with Homo Sapiens essential nature, which is the definition and standard of goodness, and is not subject to an external standard of morality that somehow stands in judgement over and above it.

    “I don’t think (but correct me if I’m wrong) that I have ever claimed that there are any knock-down, scientifically verifiable, 100% unarguable proofs of God’s existence”
    No, but I didn’t say that you did make those sorts of claims. You do believe though, don’t you, that there are strong arguments for the resurrection? If you do believe that there are strong arguments for the resurrection then you agree with my assessment of your position. If you don’t believe that there are strong arguments for the resurrection then that would leave us with little else to say on the matter.

    “ … You questioned how I could move from claiming that ‘there are strong arguments for the resurrection’ to being ‘full of doubts as to whether or not such a God even exists’, and that’s simply overstating the case. “
    Well, you did say, “… my level of certainty that God’s nature is the locus of moral value is exactly the same as my level of certainty that he exists. Which is not 100% – some days it is close to that, other days are full of doubt

    That’s not me overstating the case.

    “My best attempt [to describe what it means for a Christian to be in ‘relationship’ with God] would be to look at how relationship with God is analogous with relationships with other people. There is a fairly obvious difference, which you’ve pointed out on more than one occasion, in that God is invisible and immaterial, and people are not. However, if someone, let’s call him Geoff, was in the same room as me, I wouldn’t at that point have what could be described in any meaningful terms as a relationship with him. Relationship would begin at the point when Geoff began to reveal the (invisible to me) inner workings of his mind and emotions, through speech and action.”
    So if you’ve identified a person named ‘Geoff’ in the same room as you, and even though he may not yet have revealed the “inner workings of his mind and emotions, through speech and action”, how likely are you to continue doubting that he even exists? In all fairness you wouldn’t, would you?

    It gets even stranger, though, when you add God in to the mix, because with God not only do you doubt that he exists even when he is in the same room as you, you continue to doubt even AFTER he has revealed the inner workings of his mind and emotions, through speech and action. What’s all that about, Matt?

    “I believe that God reveals himself through the beauty and complexity of creation…”
    But despite this you still continue to doubt that he even exists. Surely he’s either revealed himself through the beauty and complexity of creation or he hasn’t.

    “…through the Bible, through my experience and the experience of others, through the character of Jesus, through theological and philosophical study, through answers to prayers and so on.”
    Again, despite all of this you still continue to doubt that he even exists.

    “… I remember times when I have doubted but have chosen to trust God, and then seen some kind of benefit [often what I hope is growth in character] or other reaffirmation that my choice to trust was wise.”
    And even after all of the trust and the resulting benefit you still continue to doubt that he even exists at all.

    So to recap, God is in the same room as you, he reveals the inner workings of his mind to you, he reveals himself through his creation and through the Bible, and in the character of Jesus, he is found through your countless hours of study, he answers your prayers, he repays your trust, and he heals your friends, yet even after all of these things you openly admit that you still to this day doubt that he even exists in the first place.

    And this doesn’t strike you as being perhaps just a tad bizarre?

    “But this works both ways, because for you to demonstrate that the tales are NOT reasonable, would require you to be able to demonstrate that the Christian God does not exist, and you can’t do that either.”
    I’m not making the assertion that such tales are NOT reasonable. You are making the assertion that they ARE. And I’ve asked you several times already to explain to me HOW they are reasonable. But it’s clear that actually all you can do is admit that they are merely potentially reasonable. Which means very little and gets us nowhere, to be honest.

    “I’m intrigued. Which religion(s) do you think are true?
    I don’t think any of them are true. That is, after all, why I’m an atheist.

    “… do you think that all the different religions are essentially saying much the same thing about God, the nature of reality, the human heart etc?”
    Not really.

    “if not, are there some religions you consider less believable or coherent than others?”
    I don’t think it’s a case of me putting religions on a scale of believability. It’s simply a case that despite my best efforts I cannot believe any of them.

    “I remember, for example, in a much earlier comment on this blog post you mentioned you’d spent time with some JWs:”
    Yes, that’s right. My year spent with the JW’s was one of my more fascinating experiences. Quite possibly the most naïve bunch of people I have ever encountered, but (mostly) in a nice way. A curious blend of young earth creationism, biblical literalism, infantile reasoning, an overall distrust of science, and of course passionate and deep-rooted homophobia.

    “You seem to find it strange that only Christians would teach what is a Christian article of faith i.e. that the resurrection is the best explanation…”
    I don’t find that strange at all. Nor do I find it strange that Muslims teach that the Angel Gabriel dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad. These stories are, after all, articles of faith.

    I do find it strange, though, that (some) religious people seem to think that the term ‘article of faith’ is interchangeable with ‘historical fact’.

    “Why should this kind of historical uncertainty surprise you? Just to give one example – Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, supposedly by James Earl Ray. Was it him, acting alone? Was Ray the scapegoat for a wider conspiracy? Was it someone else entirely and Ray was framed? No-one knows the real explanation with 100% certainty… so does the fact that there are questions regarding the real explanation mean that nothing can be said about it?”
    I haven’t said that nothing can be said about it. I’m just curious how one makes the leap from, say, ‘No-one knows the real explanation for event X’ to ‘It is a historical fact that event Y occurred and this perfectly explains X’

    “Presumably the sensible thing to do would be to teach the unarguable historic facts (the date and time King died, where he was, that he was shot rather than blown up etc), and then to present the different interpretations / explanations of those facts as having different levels of explanatory power? … surely you can see that that is exactly what Christians do with the resurrection – we believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus has the greatest explanatory power of the historic facts around Jesus’ death,…”
    Yes, Christians believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus has the greatest explanatory power of the historic facts around Jesus’ death, but the vast majority of historians do not believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was even an actual historical event. On questions of history, it’s probably best to go with the overwhelming consensus of historians.

    We’ve had a very interesting dialogue over the last couple of months but it’s probably a good time now to start winding it down a little. If you want to concentrate on a couple of specific points we can discuss those for a post or two more, and the same for any points I may want to probe further.

    Re your song, I thought you might like the image of me parading around my kitchen singing about Jesus. Glad it made you chuckle 😉 When you contacted me through Facebook a few months ago, I clicked on your name and looked at your page. I believe you have a link to RESOUNDworship there so I had a quick look. That’s how I stumbled across “The Darkest Day” track, which I admit is quite a catchy little number. You’re certainly a talented chap, Matt.

    By the way, I hope your upcoming physio goes well.

    As ever, do take care.

    Best wishes,

    Steve.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 6, 2013

  146. Hi Steve,

    Many thanks for your post. I’m happy to begin winding up the conversation as you suggest – I have essays to write and I’m sure you have many other things to do with your time as well. I will try and restrict myself below to a few simple comments clarifying or defending my views rather than attempting to challenge yours; hopefully that will mean you’re not obliged to write yet another lengthy response.

    Re the discussion on morality and its supposed evolutionary origins, I have EO Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth in my Amazon wish list and will try and read it when I have the time. I presume you’re aware, though, in recommending Wilson’s thoughts, that Richard Dawkins absolutely savages the book here? http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/edward-wilson-social-conquest-earth-evolutionary-errors-origin-species/#.UlKEclWzKpg

    Anyway – I’ll read it with Dawkins’ criticisms in mind, I’m well used to Christians disagreeing over doctrine so it doesn’t particularly surprise me that atheists occasionally do the same 🙂

    (Though wouldn’t another atheist disagreement be around your idea that we are in some way essentially different from other animals – wouldn’t Peter Singer and others would say you were just being speciesist there?)

    You said:
    I would hold that morality is grounded in the nature of Homo Sapiens, not commandments i.e. things are good or bad depending on the degree to which they correlate with Homo Sapiens essential nature, which is the definition and standard of goodness, and is not subject to an external standard of morality that somehow stands in judgement over and above it.

    I don’t think this is coherent. You haven’t explained how if a nihilistic child-murderer tried to defend himself by saying that he was acting out of his essential nature, that he could possibly be described as being wrong or immoral, in fact, quite the reverse. I think you would like morality to be objective (because the consequences of it being subjective are pretty awful), but I don’t see that you have any kind of grounding for that at all. That’s my interpretation anyway – I appreciate that we disagree.

    Re the Christian experience of doubt and faith – this is a question of perspective. When I am going through a particularly difficult time, my immediate circumstances can cause me to doubt and question, if not God’s existence (though sometimes that), then at least his benevolence. It is at that point that I have a choice – I can focus on my immediate negative circumstances and draw conclusions from those, or I can choose to focus on the bigger picture of remembered past experience, the experience of others, arguments for God, the resurrection etc etc. When I do that, I find my present circumstances are put in a bigger context, and so faith comes alive again. That’s why the Psalms often enjoin the listeners to remember God’s past acts as a way of sustaining faith in a difficult present. I’m sure you would think this is simply a form of organised self-delusion, but I can live with that 🙂

    Just on a personal note – the last few months have been rather difficult for me for various reasons that I won’t go in to here, but interestingly my faith has actually been strengthened through this time, rather than diminished. In holding on to God, I have found that events have taken on different significance – difficulties have become an opportunity for personal growth, for example. I’m only saying this by way of trying to share my experience of faith and doubt, I realise this doesn’t say anything at all about the truth of God’s existence.

    “I’m intrigued. Which religion(s) do you think are true?
    I don’t think any of them are true. That is, after all, why I’m an atheist.

    That is what I expected – I was seeking clarification of a previous remark of yours when I said:

    I appreciate that you believe all the different religions are false…”

    And you replied:

    I don’t believe all the different religions are false, Matt.

    If you could briefly clarify this for me that would be helpful, I’m not sure how you can simultaneously not believe that all the different religions are false, and also don’t think any of them are true – unless the latter remark was a typo?

    Re the believability of different religions, fair enough, I appreciate that you find Thor, Krishna, Yahweh and Allah all equally unbelievable (i.e. completely). What about their practical or moral impact on society? Do you consider some religions (or some parts of particular religions) more beneficial than others to humanity in general? Sam Harris, for example, seems particularly opposed to Islam – both in its most militant forms and more generally. I’m not asking with any particular agenda, just curious 🙂

    I think that’s probably enough for now, except to say I have genuinely appreciated our dialogue over the last couple of months. Thank you for maintaining a respectful tone and not resorting to ridicule or ad hominem attacks – I know how often those tend to crop up in internet discussions on religion (on both sides). I hope it has been informative for you as someone with an interest in religion; for my part I have enjoyed being made to think and reflect on my beliefs. I’m not sure if anyone else will ever read our rather lengthy dialogue, but even if it isn’t of any use to anyone else, I have personally really valued it.

    That’s enough emotional gushing 🙂 All the best to you and family

    Matt

    Comment by Matt | October 7, 2013

  147. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your response.

    “Re the discussion on morality and its supposed evolutionary origins, I have EO Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth in my Amazon wish list and will try and read it when I have the time. I presume you’re aware, though, in recommending Wilson’s thoughts, that Richard Dawkins absolutely savages the book here? http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/edward-wilson-social-conquest-earth-evolutionary-errors-origin-species/#.UlKEclWzKpg
    Anyway – I’ll read it with Dawkins’ criticisms in mind, I’m well used to Christians disagreeing over doctrine so it doesn’t particularly surprise me that atheists occasionally do the same
    (Though wouldn’t another atheist disagreement be around your idea that we are in some way essentially different from other animals – wouldn’t Peter Singer and others would say you were just being speciesist there?)”

    To be fair, the only thing that an atheist needs to have in common with another atheist is that they both do not believe that a god exists. That’s it. As we all know, there is no atheist doctrine, dogma or ritual. I am not obligated to agree with Dawkins, Singer or any other atheist on any other matter than answering “No” to the question “Do you believe that a god exists?”

    “I don’t think this is coherent. You haven’t explained how if a nihilistic child-murderer tried to defend himself by saying that he was acting out of his essential nature, that he could possibly be described as being wrong or immoral, in fact, quite the reverse.”
    Consider, if you will, the well-established theory that humans are genetically programmed to desire sex and to care for their offspring. Does the fact that some individuals prefer to live a life of celibacy, or that some individuals do not care at all for their offspring make the theory incoherent? Of course not, because it applies to the species as a whole not the individual.

    “Re the Christian experience of doubt and faith – this is a question of perspective. When I am going through a particularly difficult time, my immediate circumstances can cause me to doubt and question, if not God’s existence (though sometimes that), then at least his benevolence. It is at that point that I have a choice – I can focus on my immediate negative circumstances and draw conclusions from those, or I can choose to focus on the bigger picture of remembered past experience, the experience of others, arguments for God, the resurrection etc etc. When I do that, I find my present circumstances are put in a bigger context, and so faith comes alive again.”
    And then withers once again to the point where you struggle to believe that he even exists at all. That’s the difficult part to comprehend, Matt (with respect).

    “Just on a personal note – the last few months have been rather difficult for me for various reasons that I won’t go in to here, but interestingly my faith has actually been strengthened through this time, rather than diminished. In holding on to God, I have found that events have taken on different significance – difficulties have become an opportunity for personal growth, for example.”
    I hope things are on the up for you now, Matt. If ever you want to speak privately about something you are always welcome to message me on FB, and if there’s anything I can do to help just let me know and I’ll do what I can.

    “I’m not sure how you can simultaneously not believe that all the different religions are false, and also don’t think any of them are true – unless the latter remark was a typo?”
    Imagine you take your children to a play centre and your kids jump in to one of those ball pits which is filled with thousands of little coloured, hollow balls. Now, you and I would agree that the total number of balls in the pit is either even or odd, but not knowing how many balls are actually in the pit we cannot say for sure that the answer is definitely even or that it is definitely odd. We would be open on the question, we would be neutral. So let’s say, then, that a person stands up and states that he believes that the total number is even. Being neutral on the question we wouldn’t share his belief that the total number of balls was even, but this doesn’t mean that we are therefore asserting that the number is odd. We just wouldn’t know either way. You can simultaneously not believe that the total number is even and not believe that the total number is odd. In the same way (and in answer to your question) you can simultaneously not believe that any of the world’s religions are true and not believe that any of the world’s religions are false.

    Hope the analogy helps.

    “Do you consider some religions (or some parts of particular religions) more beneficial than others to humanity in general? …I’m not asking with any particular agenda, just curious ”
    Belief in an ever-present friend, carer, and sustainer, who loves you and will never leave you, can certainly be beneficial to millions of people. Beliefs don’t need to be true in order for them to be beneficial, though.

    “I think that’s probably enough for now, except to say I have genuinely appreciated our dialogue over the last couple of months. Thank you for maintaining a respectful tone and not resorting to ridicule or ad hominem attacks – I know how often those tend to crop up in internet discussions on religion (on both sides). I hope it has been informative for you as someone with an interest in religion; for my part I have enjoyed being made to think and reflect on my beliefs. I’m not sure if anyone else will ever read our rather lengthy dialogue, but even if it isn’t of any use to anyone else, I have personally really valued it.”
    I have also really valued our dialogue, Matt. It’s been a true pleasure discussing the various questions with you. You’re a good bloke with a nice manner, and I’m sure you’ll be a great vicar. Do keep in touch and let me know how you get on in your journey to ordination. When you run your first Alpha Course give me a shout if you need someone to come along and play the bad guy 😉

    Sincere best wishes to you and your family.

    Steve.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 10, 2013

  148. Hi Steve,

    Many thanks as always for your response. I will resist the urge to reply to any of your points above, mostly because after tens of thousands of words of correspondence I can’t really claim to not have had sufficient space to represent Christianity! I think we’ve made our cases – it’s up to any extraordinarily patient readers now to decide what they think.

    And thank you for your kindness as well, I do genuinely appreciate that. I’m hoping to get ordained in summer 2015 so will try and pop back on here (or via fb) to let you know. Not sure I’d ever have the courage to invite you to an Alpha course though, if by some providential happenstance/wild coincidence I happened to be working near where you live – but at least I’d be reasonably well prepared regarding what your major objections would be 🙂

    All the very best,

    Matt

    Matt

    Comment by Matt Osgood | October 10, 2013

  149. Hello, Steve,
    I am a protestant pastor in Hungary, and I was considering the option to have an Alpha Course in my congregation. I watched the first two videos (1a and 1b in your blog), and I was totally outraged. I thought – and still think – that Gumbel made a lot of false assumptions, misused the analogies, and had no clue whatsoever about 1st century (or BCE) history and Jewry. Then, I began to search the web to see what my fellow Christians thought of Alpha, and I saw that – with the exception of some anti-charismatic fundamentalist – no negative Christian answer existed, no Christian pointed out the discrepancies and fallacies (not to mention lies) of it.
    Thus I decided to look for some honest atheist pages, perhaps I can find some unfortunate sceptic who participated in such a course to have an outsider point of view about the whole stuff.
    And I found your blog.
    And now, I want to thank you for – unknowingly – convincing me not to have an Alpha Course in my congregation. And thank you for the loving humour you managed to pepper these entries.
    A liberal, and sceptic Christian:
    Eta

    Comment by enahma | February 18, 2014

  150. Hello Enahma,

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed my review of Alpha, and thank you very much for your kind words.

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | February 20, 2014

  151. Hey Stephen,

    I just spent the past week working my way through your blog. I wanted to extend my sincerest appreciation for the time you’ve spent writing this up. Your experience has been invaluable in my own personal search for answers, and I find your critical thinking skills and reason to be quite refreshing. I feel this blog can have a bigger impact on people than you might expect. Thank you again for sharing, and I would welcome the opportunity to cross paths with you in the future.

    Regards,

    Mischa Flourwater

    Comment by Mischa Flourwater | June 24, 2014

  152. Hi Mischa,

    Great to hear that you enjoyed the blog, and many thanks for your kind words.

    Take care,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | June 25, 2014


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