Debate: “Talk Me Out of Christianity”

May 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Mark claimed to be a Christian who wanted to be talked into atheism in a question he posted at askanatheist.wordpress.com. Mark revealed that he is depressed and suicidal, and he fears eternal judgment for taking his own life, so he appealed to atheists to convince him there is no afterlife or judgment to fear. I responded first with a case for Christianity and the gospel while a couple atheists followed with cases for atheism. The discussion proceeds in light of Mark’s dilemma but then moves away from Mark and into general debate over life purpose and evidence for God in nature and natural law (morality).

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Talk me out of it

mark says:

I’ve been a christian all my life. I now want to be reasoned out of it. Please help

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Mike Johnson

Mark,

If I may ask, how old are you and how would you describe your experience with religion or Christianity?

You say you’ve been a Christian all your life and now want to be reasoned out of it. If you already put value to reason, could it be true that it’s actually by reason that you’ve held to Christianity thus far, and that there may be some other impetus to reject Christianity?

At the risk of assuming too much, there are many reasons people may choose to abandon faith, i.e. a bad past experience with a particular church or denomination or another Christian. Knowing a little more of your story may help to see what applies in your case.

Regards,

Mike

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Mark

I’m 23. I was brought up a christian and made personal commitments at various stages. My experiences with God, with family at home and in the church have been overwhelmingly positive.

My impetus is cowardly and selfish; I want to end my life, I don’t want to go to hell. I’ve fought with depression for a long time and I’m tired. I’m getting meds, therapy, etc – don’t feel burdened to counsel me.

God says to never get tired of doing good, to put His and my families wishes ahead of mine, and that as His property I have no right to destroy “my”self.

Dawkins has said that the universe is neither good nor evil but indifferent, and there’s no big purpose.

I want to believe that (devestation to family and friends excluded) my actions are ultimately inconsequential.

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Mike Johnson

Mark,

Fear of eternal judgment can be a strong motivator, and I could say in your case if it encourages you to persevere in life then it might be a good thing. But thankfully, the Christian life is so much more than fearing death, as Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)

I have not experienced the level of depression you seem to have and am in no way qualified to counsel. I would only add that you’re right in that as God’s children we do not have the right to take our own lives. But just as valid is the truth that as His creation we have tremendous value, and as Christ’s followers we are called to serve and take part in life “to the full” while we’re here. To end this life early is to miss out on a lot of blessing, in addition to the suffering others would experience in losing you.

I imagine it’s very hard to have clarity and see all that past your own suffering. If you haven’t truly embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the suffering and death He endured to pay for our sin, and His triumph over it all in His resurrection and the salvation He promises to those who believe, take a fresh look. Praying for you, Mark, for healing.

Mike

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The Atheist

Hi, mark. I’m very sorry to hear the level of suffering you are having to endure. Honestly, I don’t think being “talked out” of your religious beliefs is the answer unless your beliefs are actually contributing to your depression. Instead, I’d strongly recommend that you consider participating in support groups – either in person or online – like some of these for example. You can learn from others who have had to struggle with exactly the same thing that you are going through now – especially those who’ve struggled for decades and have learned how to cope. And you can help others by sharing your own experiences – both the successes and the failures – which is also a very positive thing.

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mark

Thank you both. But I do want to hear the atheist argument for there not being a God, a purpose, an afterlife. I’m being vague, but God has been the strongest part of me for so long that I don’t know where to start. I hoped you would as you’re used to discussions like this.

I apologise for how uncomfortable you must feel about this given my honesty above. My decisions are not your responsibility, but please defend your beliefs.

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Adam

For a reason based argument to hold stead more than an emotional desire for the position to be true is needed. Naturally, one must hold the foundational positions on which such an argument is based.

Namely that knowing the truth is preferable to not knowing it and that our senses provide an accurate description of reality. One provides us the method to identify the truth, the other the will to do so.

However, many people hold additional assumptions along with or in lieu of these. Presupposational apologetics, for example, bases its foundational principles around the existence of a God.

As such, first you must identify what your foundation is and whether it is conducive to accepting a reason based argument.

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Mark

Massive emotional investment but I want to know the truth. Why don’t you believe in God – specifically the christian God?

Anyone think that euthanasia is right?

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Adam

Emotions are allowed, I wouldn’t ask you to be an unfeeling robot. It’s just they cannot provide the core motivation for holding a position since emotions stem from people and people are fallible. If one wants to know the truth one cannot base this claim on emotion. After all, we don’t want the saftey of an aeroplane to be based on someone’s gut feeling.

Instead we rely on evidence as objective as possible. When trying to determine what is out there we do our best to ignore intuition, feelings and try to seek out data that is asaccurate as possible. Only then we can be sure our conclusions are correct.

Of course, evidence isn’t perfect. We don’t have a complete knowledge of the universe and there is still the potential for human error. Maybe when collecting or processing it someone made a mistake.

As such to suggest we have reached absolute truth is absurd. There remains the possibility that some new evidence might be discovered; a correction to existing data be made, and suddenly our view of reality will have to change.

But until that time we are unjustified in believing the alternative to be correct. It is possible, but possibility alone is not sufficient to make a claim accurate. It’s possible I might win the lottery tomorrow, but I don’t burn through my savings believing it to be the case.

Until there is sufficient evidence for God, one is unjustified in accepting it as true. The only reasonable position therefore is to not accept that a God exists. To be an atheist. Some take it a step further and suggest that there is no God, although the difference between these two positions is relatively minor. The latter is simply suggesting that since there is no evidence, despite thousands of people searching for thousands of years, not only is it unjustified to believe in a God but it is likely there is no God.

As for euthanasia, it’s an unfortunate conclusion. You only have one life. One chance to exist, influence people, enjoy yourself and change the world. To put a stop to this only existence is to give up an incredible amount. To give up everything, in fact. But at the end of the day it is your body and so, if in sound mind, one earnestly wants to end their life I will not stop them. I would urge them to reconsider, but it is ultimatley their life and their choice.

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Lauren

I suggest reading The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel and then coming to your own conclusion. It was written by an athiest on the hunt for facts about whether or not Jesus really is the “unique Son of God.” Learn all the facts to help you make an informed decision. But also, I want you to know that my best friend commited suicide and it nearly killed me. You can have no idea how big of an impact taking your own life has on others. The depression they will then go through themselves. I myself have been depressed and it took years to find the right medication and dosage to work but i can tell you that it was well worth it for the happiness i am experiencing now. Talk to your doctor about new medication. And i strongly urge you to find a good counselor to help you get past the pain. That was the hardest part for me but well worth it.

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Mike Johnson

Well said. Just last weekend there was a suicide in a local high school that deeply affected many classmates who happen to be kids in our youth group. Spent a long while with them just tonight listening to a lot of pain and confusion. And a 2nd student in the same school made an attempt just a couple hours ago. There are obvious theological differences on the table here, but what we all seem to agree on is that we think you should stay with us, Mark. We hope you agree.

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Mike Johnson

It’s true that we don’t have a complete knowledge of the universe (and in that sense we are all at least a little agnostic), but I think what we can observe with reasonable certainty points to a Creator, the same way anyone looking at a painting can be certain of a painter, whether or not they see him.

We know that nature logically had to have had a beginning, so that means that nature’s cause had to be beyond nature—supernatural.

Everyone (even atheists) treat morality, which couldn’t have evolved without a pre-existing standard for it, as if it is universal and absolute, applying to everyone for all time—even to the idea of God. This points to a moral law-giver outside of humanity, not to a set of rules we contrived for ourselves.

There are many arguments for God (ontological, cosmological, teleological, etc) that rely on reason rather than emotion. Concluding that God exists—or something just like Him—is not simply an emotional response.

No doubt that it requires faith to accept something we can’t see or prove empirically. Atheism requires faith as well. There are presuppositions in hard or soft atheism, for instance, of a natural origin for nature, universal morality that somehow evolved locally, certain laws of uniformity in nature, and alternative explanations to fact that somewhere around 85% of the world are theistic in the belief. Complete knowledge is not required for belief, but sufficient reason is.

Something else to consider is that there is some debate over whether many antidepressants actually include suicidal thoughts as a side-effect. That may be something worth checking into.

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mark

God has spoken to me directly (I heard a voice) three times, through visions twice, and through the bible (I asked for guidance on specific issues and found answers in my daily reading or weeks sermon) countless times.

Is this a coincidence, or me subconsciously fitting verses to circumstances? Have I been ‘brainwashed’ from childhood?

When people of different beliefs become genuine christians, they describe a joy and fulfillment, they want to share it with everyone. Do converted atheists also feel like this?

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Adam 

People are great pattern seekers, at identifying a link between different things. Often this can lead to spotting a link where there is none – think of all the people who have a “lucky habbit” based on something good that happened a couple of times when they wore the same underwear or something.

Without meaning to sound dismissive I suspect that finding answers in the Bible is merely the result of that. Combine someone trying to find links and a suitably vague text (especially one trying to give advice) and its inevitable that some connection will be made. It’s how horoscopes work, after all.

It’s not brainwashing, just the brain doing what the brain does very well – being mistaken.

As for the joy of being an atheist, many people to experience a sense of liberation. On the other hand there are real counselling groups out there for people who stop being religious but have been pyschologically harmed by the religion and so have difficulty readjusting. I wouldn’t go for atheism because of any “fulfillment.” It is there to be had, but shouldn’t the sole reason one believes it.

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mark

You’re right about the antidepressants, but this side effect, along with agitation, should wear off in the first few weeks. Personally suicidal thoughts was one of symptoms I had before I began taking them.

( I don’t want to discourage anyone from engaging with treatment like this if they feel it’s needed, extra support is given during this dangerous time. I’ve seen antidepressants – and non-medication treatments – really work. (trainee dr) )

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Adam 

The thing which entertains me about the painter analogy, or any of the similar phrases, is that it doesn’t support the conclusion most theists think it does. Painters don’t create something ex nihlo instead they are merely rearranging existing materials into a new shape. Thus even if we were to grant the starting premise of the painter argument, that there is design akin to a painting detecatble in the world (a premise I’m far from convinced from) the real conclusion of this train of thought shold be that God did not create the universe but simply reorganised existing stuff into that which we see today.

As for morality, it’s worth noting there is a distinction between what people think and what is actually the case. I, for convinience’s sake, have treated Pi as 3.14. That doesn’t mean it is. Just because people act as though morality is absolute doesn’t make that the case. Further, provided morality is an evolutionary stable strategy (ESS) then it could potentially evolve and every indication we have is that it is.

Also, the arguments you hint at have been presented before and debated for a great many years. I would highly recommend taking a look at ironchariots.org, which provides a good grounding in why those arguments fail to convince. Whilst I am not affiliated with the site and so cannot attest to everyword they’ve written I do find it a handy resources none the less.

Finally, it’s worth noting as an aside that atheism does not require one assume a natural cause for the universe. Atheism is the rejection of a God, not of all supernatural causes. Buddhists, after all, are atheistic yet have their own supernatural explanation for how the world is.

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The Atheist

I have close relatives and friends who suffer from depression so I’m not at all uncomfortable with the subject. So no apology needed. My only discomfort is my feeling of empathy toward anyone who suffers, including of course anyone suffering with depression. So my first comment wasn’t “holding back” in any way, but rather attempting to deal more directly with what I saw to be the motivation for your question.

I agree with Adam’s post regarding reasons for disbelief. You also asked about purpose and afterlife.

The reason I doubt that there is an afterlife is that an afterlife suggests that there is something more to my being than my physical being. However everything we know about the brain and consciousness suggests the opposite. Damage to specific areas of the brain have a direct effect on consciousness. Completely numbing the brain with certain general anesthetics causes consciousness to cease completely until the effect of the anesthetic wares off. Stimulating certain parts of the brain with electricity has a predictable and profound effect on consciousness. We have no evidence whatever of a disembodied mind.

I don’t agree that there is no purpose as your question suggests. If the universe is the product of natural causes (and the evidence we have points to that conclusion), then there was no purpose behind it’s coming into being. However we should understand what we mean by “purpose” before we decide if there is any purpose to existence, even in a universe that came into being without any purpose.

When we say “purpose”, we mean “the outcome that something serves”. We also mean that there must be an agent who conceives of the outcome he wishes to bring about, and that the outcome has meaning to the agent. For example, if a god created the universe, then the god had to have an outcome in mind for which the universe serves, otherwise the universe would have no purpose even if a god created it.

If this is what we mean by purpose (and I believe it is), then our own actions have purpose. We are agents and outcomes have meaning to us. We act to bring about the outcomes. Our actions therefore have purpose. Because we humans are in the universe and purpose exists for us, then purpose exists in the universe.

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Kathy

being an athiest is not about doing what ever you want and that includes suicide. Just the fact that you are human comes with responsibilities to other people, family included. Your first consideration should be your family andtheir feelings. It really hurts a mother, father, sister, brother, wife or Children to loose some one . Death is never easy for the person left behind.. Infact suicide is the ultamite selfish act.

a caring Athiest

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Mike Johnson

Adam,

While it’s true that painters use existing materials, they are not randomly rearranging them into a new shape. They are rearranged according to the designer’s purpose. We recognize structure and design because the painting communicates a message on a level of clarity and intelligibility that can’t be claimed for by undirected processes.

“Just because people act as though morality is absolute doesn’t make that the case.” Yet it isn’t true that only some people treat morality as if it were a system of objective moral laws and some don’t. It appears that ALL recognize the fact that, even though people may interpret them differently, everyone lives as if they are laws that are supposed to apply to everyone, everywhere, at all times. We dutifully seek to follow these laws because we know intuitively that we didn’t write them (Romans 2:15). “There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.” (Richard Taylor). And as Kathy above rightly says, “the fact that you are human comes with responsibilities.”

Can you conceive of a way for “good” to have evolved in the mind without an objective standard for “good” already in place? Some of the reasoning at ironchariots.org is: “Simply because one cannot conceive of something happening without a cause, does not mean that we can assume everything needs a cause.” A similar argument can be made for morality: Simply because we cannot conceive of truly subjective morality does not mean we can assume morality is completely objective. While this is plausible, it is far from practically observed. Because we see that all observable things in nature need a cause, it’s a very reasonable belief that nature we don’t observe also needs a cause. Because we observe that moral law is treated exclusively as if it’s something we’re supposed to follow, it’s very reasonable to believe that morality was something written for us to follow, which therefore must be outside of human convention. Only by unnecessarily assuming something contrary to what we observe do we reach the opposite conclusion, and from Occam’s Razor we know that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

Thank you for the link, although I wasn’t too impressed with the arguments I saw at ironchariots.org, at least the few I looked at. Certainly nothing that hasn’t been refuted elsewhere, and the section on Biblical inerrancy was particularly weak. I would offer BeThinking.org as an alternative.

The Atheist,

When Mark asks the question (as we all do at some point) about purpose in life, my guess is that it’s the larger view of ultimate purpose—the “big purpose” as he stated. Any purpose that we invent and ascribe to ourselves is temporal and dies when we do. Things we do may have lasting effects beyond our lifetime, but this is still not necessarily the purpose given by our Creator. An atheistic worldview naturally brings the horizon much closer, simply because there is no affirmation within atheism of anything beyond it. It’s this worldview that limits consciousness to a healthy brain, and mandates that morality be evolved within humanity and must be subjective in nature (even though the way we speak and act shows the opposite). Mark noted that “Dawkins has said that the universe is neither good nor evil but indifferent, and there’s no big purpose.” Sadly, on atheism, this has to be true.

Fortunately, Christianity is justified as belief not solely on the basis that it provides hope and purpose in Christ, but because it’s a very reasonable belief.

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Adam

Indeed, paintings are (normally) not random and if you look at my original post on the subject, you’ll note I never said they were. My point, which I’ll reiterate here for your benefit, was simply that creation from nothing is not the necessary conclusion of design as we have many examples of design that weren’t created ex nihlo. Even if you could show the universe was designed that doesn’t demonstrate that God created it from nothing.

Such distinctions are also important when thinking about how everything in nature has a cause. Again, we don’t witness things – caused or uncaused – appearing from nothing. As such it is hard to justify extrapolating from the examples of cause and effect we have to this unknown situation. Do the same rules apply when something comes from nothing? Do the same rules apply if the starting conditions of the universe were different to the conditions we observe now; if time, gravity etc. were non-existent or different in some way? These situations are so far removed from what we know that we can’t really apply our everyday reasoning to it.

As for morality, again, the fact that someone thinks something is true doesn’t make it true. The fact a lot of people agree with them again, does not make it true. Argument from popularity is after all a fallacy; pretty much every functional equation involving Pi treats it as a number with a finite amount of digits, this does not make it so. And I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to get at with your evolution argument, could you please elaborate on it?

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Mike Johnson

Adam,

Sorry that I missed your point. It’s true that obvious design doesn’t necessarily mean ex nihilo creation. Reversed, an ex nihilo creation would support design, since design is inherent in creating anything. Although creation from nothing (no pre-existing natural materials) and design are two parts of one event according to Genesis 1, I wasn’t trying to use one to prove the other.

In a chain of causes there must be a first cause. Since the first cause of the universe is in the past, we can’t observe it, and all we are able to observe are causes and effects from it. We know the first cause didn’t have an effect because that would be logically absurd, and we know the starting conditions of the universe were different, in that the universe, time, gravity, were non-existent. That is very different. 🙂

You’re right, if every person thought that the scope and authority of our sense of morality extends far beyond humankind, this doesn’t make it true. I think what we observe about objective morals is an observation about the law, not what people think of it. Though people may interpret it differently, moral law presents itself as something fixed and immutable. We know this but sometimes deny it. I think objective morality is denied when there is fear of theistic implications, though there may be other reasons. If what we observed were subjective rules adopted by individuals or the majority, it could not be denied that torturing children can some context be morally right. I don’t think anyone on earth is prepared to say that, and maybe that’s presumptuous, but in any case it ought to be the norm, not the extremely rare exception. Everyone treats morality as if it’s universal, objective and absolute law relevant to everyone, everywhere, for all time, because that is our observation. Even in fiction, we can’t imagine morality that isn’t universal. Every film or book I’ve ever seen about encounters between humans and aliens, representing isolated beings that presumably would have evolved very different moral systems, subject each other to a larger, universal system of law, in the idea that alien invasions are a violation of universal rights to freedom, dignity and so forth. Further, any atheist who has ever considered the Biblical idea of God to be a moral monster admits that whatever system of morality the atheist appeals to is large and over-arching enough to encompass the deeds of the hypothetical infinite creator of the universe, deeds done in a distant culture millenia ago. We can’t imagine morality any other way, although we may try to frame it in an argument when we feel the need. Such arguments fail as soon as they’re voiced, as they are always voiced objectively. My argument against moral evolution is that the way we regard morality would be impossible if morality evolved within humans, as it would then only be understood to govern humans, and not even every, therefore any, human would be necessarily subject to it.

• Some humans hold that moral obligations evolve.

• Moral obligations that evolved in humans should only be applied to humans.

• Humans apply moral obligations to humans and also to intelligent beings in the universe including God, whether real or imaginary.

• Humans do not apply moral obligations exclusively to humans.

• Therefore, humans who hold that moral obligations evolved are inconsistent.

Put another way:

• Moral obligations that evolve cannot be universal.

• Humans observe that moral obligations are universal.

• Therefore, moral obligations did not evolve.

I also recognize that it’s logically absurd to call something morally “good” before a definition of moral good existed. If a standard for good existed before a being thought of or performed moral good, then morality could not have evolved within humans. Then moral law existed before humans, and consequently was prescribed by a Being that exists outside of/prior to humanity.

• Humans exist, therefore humans had a beginning.

• Humans are moral beings, performing moral good.

• There must have been a first morally good act performed by humans.

• Something that first occurs is something by definition.

• Therefore, a definition of moral good must have existed before the first human moral act.

On another point you made in a previous post: “… atheism does not require one assume a natural cause for the universe. Atheism is the rejection of a God, not of all supernatural causes. Buddhists, after all, are atheistic yet have their own supernatural explanation for how the world is.”

If atheism allows for a supernatural cause sufficient to create the universe, why does it exclude God as a possibility? Aren’t you already accepting a good portion of the standard definition of a divine Creator? The need for great power is obvious by the resulting universe. In every observable case, intelligence comes from greater intelligence. In every observable case, functional complexity comes from greater complexity. In every observable case of moral application, the evidence leads us to a source outside of humanity. The simplest answer to the question of God’s existence seems to be that, without multiplying unnecessary assumptions, it is at least very likely that there exists a universal, supernatural cause that is powerful, intelligent, complex, and moral—and if moral, personal. That seems to be the doorstep of God, anyway.

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Mike Johnson

To clarify “We know the first cause didn’t have an effect because that would be logically absurd…”, I mean that the first cause was not caused/not the effect of an earlier cause, because then it wouldn’t be first.

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TaraZ

Mike, You are not an atheist and should identify yourself as a Christian when you comment. Believing in Christ includes accepting numerous impossibilities which are brushed away by those having “faith.” It’s NOT reasonable.

Mark, I agree completely with Kathy that being atheist does not justify suicide. Atheism is not about doing whatever you want, and it can’t be used as an excuse for taking your life. It’s still not right, even if you don’t believe there’s no afterlife.

And I speak as someone who has struggled with suicidal thinking for a long time, both when I identified as a Christian, and when I identified as an atheist.

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Mike Johnson

Sorry, TaraZ, I think it’s pretty clear that I’m a Christian by what I’ve commented. 🙂 There is no attempt to deceive there. Which “impossibilities” do I brush away?

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Kathy

Mike

I dont think you understand athiesm at all. The only difference between us is you beleive and I don’t. We only have one life and that is the here and now. You make the best of what you got and treat every one with respect as long as respect is earned.. Just because we dont beleive in God or gods does not make us monsters. There are more similarities in the people of the world then there are differences.. The ones that seem to embrace the differences are the fanatics who think there religion is the superior.

Kathy

The caring athiest

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Mike Johnson

Kathy, you are right that the only real difference between atheists and theists is what we believe. I haven’t made a case for anything else, and I would never classify atheists as monsters. You are every bit as capable of moral good as anyone, and I believe you are probably a “kind atheist”. We are all made in the image of a moral God and really can’t help but live as if bound to moral obligation. And are you not arguing that your beliefs are superior?

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Kathy

No argument from me. I dont think my lack of beleive is superior. My sole purpose was to let our dostraught friend know that regardless of what ever religion or lack of it, moral or non moral basis suicide is never an option. The one thing I find is there are a lot of closet athiests and this is due to the fact that we are discriminated on.

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As yet there are no further responses from anyone, including Mark. My hope is that he hasn’t abandoned reason for the hopeless lie of atheism.

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