Results tagged “atheism” from Reformation21 Blog

Affirming Ignorance, Certainty and Intellectual Death

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In Col 3:10, the apostle Paul describes one of the most stunning aspects of the Spirit's re-creative work in uniting us by faith to the risen Christ. In that verse, we read that the natural man is, by that Spirit, suddenly and irrevocably "renewed in knowledge after the image of Him who created him." 

This raises a key question: what does it mean to be "renewed in knowledge"?  Hodge answers admirably by clarifying the significance of the Greek preposition: "This renovation is said to be εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν, not in knowledge, much less by knowledge, but unto knowledge, so that he knows. Knowledge is the effect of the renovation spoken of" (Systematic Theology, 2:99). This is a renewal that issues in knowledge, a newfound knowledge that that is altogether true because it reflects the mind of God ("after the image of Him who created him").  In short, it is a God-given knowledge that self-consciously relates all created things to the God who gives this world its meaning and purpose.  

Prior to our fellowship with Christ, we knew things (and for some of us, many things) only so well, and in spite of our sinful impulse to deny the beauty and coherence of this dazzling theater of divine glory. But now in Christ we are enabled to see the world for what it really is and seek to live accordingly.  As Hodge goes on to say, "The knowledge here is not mere cognition. It is full, accurate, living, or practical knowledge" (ibid., 100). It is the kind of Spirit-fueled knowledge that qualifies the Christian to judge all things rightly (1 Cor 2:15), especially the goodness and majesty of God in Christ (John 17:3). As Francis Schaeffer might say, it is a true knowledge of true truth.

Lest the postmoderns pounce, we must be clear that such saving epistemic renewal in no way derives from an autonomous appropriation of self-evident principles, nor does it transform Christians into paragons of genius. But neither does it lead to wimpish shoulder-shrugging as we blissfully affirm one other's ignorance! Rather, by this epistemic recreation in the Christian the Spirit infallibly and progressively opens to him the infinite implications of Christ's triumph as far as the curse is found (John 16:13), resulting in deepening praise and increasing humility in the hearts of those who bow before the One who is Truth itself (John 14:6). Contrary to the shifting winds of our hyper-hermeneutical age, we can indeed have certainty concerning the things taught by the Spirit (Luke 1:4; cf. Acts 2:36). 

With such truth in mind (!), I heartily recommend listening to a chapel message by Dr. James Anderson of RTS-Charlotte--wonderfully titled, "The  Atheist's Guide to Intellectual Suicide." In this crisp, 30-minute message, Dr. Anderson very helpfully unpacks the biblical teaching that the atheist's denial of God's self-revelation is, as Dr. Anderson provocatively puts it, "the philosophical equivalent of lopping your head off." In fact, to the extent an atheist still speaks, he shows himself not only to be intellectually moribund, but self-contradictory as well. Don't believe it? Have a listen for yourself! While I might quibble with Dr. Anderson's language of common sense (preferring instead the language of common grace) your time will be well spent.


*This post originally appeared at Reformation21 in September of 2012. 

Several years ago, while on vacation, I bought a quirky little book by the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville entitled The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Though I knew no work quite like it, the idea the author developed, that atheists can and somehow must be spiritual too, was not new. Another French philosopher and atheologian named Comte--Auguste Comte (1798-1857), father of positivism and sociology--had long ago founded the Religion of Humanity. This alternative faith, or perhaps faith alternative, was intended to supply the social benefits of traditional religion in the positivist utopian societies of tomorrow.

Tomorrow has apparently arrived, minus the utopian bit.

I dropped by my local big-box bookstore here in the heart of America's Bible belt to find a book on how to help cats get along with each other. While there, I stumbled across the end cap of recommended titles from the science and mathematics section. Among the offerings were Sam Harris's Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and Edward O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence. Both develop a similar idea, that atheists like them who believe God, free will, and the soul are illusions can be just as spiritual as those much-despised religious nuts they seldom tire of dismissing but apparently can't help imitating.

Speaking of religious nuts--specifically the ones who argue America was founded as a Christian nation--well, oddly enough, the "science and mathematics" end cap offered a counterpoint to that perspective too: Matthew Stewart's Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. Stewart argues America was founded by people trying to liberate us from the tyranny of George III and God above. That he's at least partly right is more than some evangelicals are prepared to admit, but the curious thing to me is how important some people on both sides of the debate think it is to make their case.

But perhaps the most telling title of the lot was The Mathematics Devotional assembled by Clifford A. Pickover. It offers a devotion a day for a year, each one spread over a single glossy page. The top half of the page is a psychedelic picture of some sort (usually a fractal), equally suitable for mathematical meditating or dropping acid. Beneath the picture, birthdays of celebrated mathematicians are listed like feast days and followed by a center-justified quote of mathematical interest, served up for the inspiration and enlightenment of the religiously devoted.

Whatever spirituality these theorists conjure to satisfy their cultic fetish, the strange spirit of Comte is lurking in the shadows, complete with there own dogmas, grounding myths, and alternative canon of saints and devotional calendar to enhance spiritual formation.

Wisdom surely mocks these attempts at a godless, sinless, graceless, and soulless spirituality. The very need of their advocates to do something to satisfy their impulse to worship and find some sort of transcendent meaning to life, while refusing to direct their awe Godward with gratitude, betrays them. They sense the universe is more than matter and we are more than biology and the whole cosmos points beyond itself. They have a profound and justly stirred sense of awe, but fall short of referring it to the most awesome of all, settling instead for meditating on artificially-colored photos of fractals and praising the puny genius of creatures who, for all their brilliance, get it wrong more often than right.

That idolatry, and what it does to us, is the testimony of that end cap to our stubborn, divine-image-bearing humanity. Ironically, it vindicates the gospel as Paul unpacked it in Romans and Calvin in the Institutes. Following their lead, Reformed theologians have long predicted that naturalism and secular thought in general would fail us, leading to desperately spun spiritualities and a re-mystification of nature, while most atheologians predicted just the opposite.

2014 may mark the dawn of Comte's tomorrow, but the day we are waking to is just what Reformed thinkers expected it to be. Don't be troubled: keep on believing; and keep on preaching Christ till that far better day breaks.

Atheist activists are making headlines for recent advertising efforts, this time in the southern states of America. Several years ago a similar effort in the United Kingdom caused some degree of consternation among British evangelicals. I was living in Scotland at the time, and came face to face with one of the public advertisements (pronounced ad-VERT-is-mints) promoting atheism before I ever heard about them on the news. I remember the moment quite well. I was parked across the street from the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary at 7 a.m., waiting to pick my wife up from a night shift at the hospital, when a bright red double decker bus pulled into the hospital bus stop immediately across from me. Written large across the bus (where one would normally expect an ad for the latest film) were the words: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

My gut reaction to that message -- once I got over the surprise of encountering it on the side of a bus -- was puzzlement. I couldn't, and I still can't, understand how someone could consider life as the product of random chance more enjoyable (or at least less worrying) than life as a gift from an all-powerful, all-wise, loving God. Who enjoys a diamond ring more, the man who stumbles across it with his metal detector on the beach? Or the girl who receives it from the boy who loves her and wants to marry her? I'd argue the latter. The ring sustains the same monetary value in either scenario, but it brings greater pleasure to the girl because it is a gift to her which constantly serves to remind her of a relationship worth infinitely more than whatever dollar value might be placed on the diamond. Who enjoys life more? The person who believes himself and everything around him to be the product of random chance, and so treats every day as something he has effectively stumbled across in the sand? Or the person who sees her life as a whole and every day in it as a gift from Someone who loves her with a perfect and constant love, and intends to spend forever with her. I'd argue the latter, by the same logic as before.

If God didn't exist I wouldn't be able to stop worrying. If this world and this life were in fact all there is, I'm fairly sure I would squander it in a constant state of anxiety about whether I was squeezing enough pleasure, or the right kind of pleasure, out of my pitifully few days on this earth. Despite these atheists' apparent intention to help people relax and enjoy themselves, it seemed to me (and still does) that they had prescribed a fairly heavy dose of anxiety and misery for folk with their (false) news about God's non-existence.

These more recent, American atheist advertisements (pronounced ad-ver-TIZE-mints) have me equally puzzled. Billboards in a variety of southern states picture a young girl wearing a Santa hat and a mischievous smile, writing a letter to Saint Nick. Her letter reads: "Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church! I'm too old for fairy tales." My puzzlement over this particular advertisement has been of an ambivalent sort, corresponding to my ambivalent feelings about Old Saint Nick. There's a part of me that simply finds the ad ironic and sad. It's ironic insofar as the girl is writing to a mythical creature called Santa Claus to express her disbelief in God. (I'm guessing that this irony was intended, and that most atheists don't themselves believe in Santa, or think him to be the most appropriate person to register one's unbelief with). It's sad, however, even to see in a fictional scenario a young child willing to trade in belief in an omniscient God who freely offers forgiveness for our sins for an omniscient man from the north pole who annually promises to reward you (or punish you) purely on the basis of your performance, with absolutely zero possibility of repentance for your misdeeds. "He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good." Santa Claus, at least as depicted in popular song, is scary. The ethical punch line of the Santa Claus story is "you better be good for goodness' sake." But what about those of us who haven't been good? There's no promise of rescue for naughty children in the gospel of Santa. The best you can hope for is moral improvement for the years you have left (so, get to it...). What a tragic substitute for a God who not only knows everything you've done but offers you full and complete forgiveness on the basis of the incarnation, person, and work of his Son, who has lived and died in the place of sinners.

But I'm not really such a Santa hater as all that. The truth is, I like Santa, maybe even believe in him a little bit. Whatever the rhetoric of our Christmas jingles, the reality -- so far as I can tell -- is that Santa delivers the goods to children irrespective of their moral fiber or performance during the year. Santa's gift giving scheme doesn't really seem to be a meritocracy in the end of the day. And, whatever the truth about his knowledge of your doings, what's not to like about a guy who drives a sled pulled by magical reindeer and squeezes down chimneys to stack packages under the Christmas tree.

My ultimate problem, then, with this particular atheist advertisement is not that it promotes belief in Santa, but that it grossly deceives people into thinking that somehow you can do away with God but still retain a bit of magic in the world. The truth about atheism, which they so desperately want to obscure, is that when you do away with the One who made us and this world, you deprive us and this world of meaning, moral absolutes, and magic. Without God, the world becomes a closed natural universe, where nothing (or rather, no one) can intervene because there's no one there to do so.

As strange, then, as it may sound (given a fair degree of Christian nervousness about Santa Claus and his tendency to steal the spotlight from Christ on Christmas), I'd suggest that it really does take a Christian perspective on things to sustain a story like Santa Claus (at least as anything more than a collective effort on the part of parents to elicit good behavior from their children). G.K. Chesterton once wrote: "The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature." Mankind is not the product of chance. Mankind, spoken into existence by God, is a miracle. And once you realize that, it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to entertain the possibility of one particular man who lives at the North Pole, travels by reindeer-drawn sled, and squeezes down chimneys to leave presents for boys and girls under Christmas trees.

When, alternatively, you deny mankind itself to be a miracle, all possibilities of one miraculous man named Saint Nick evaporate. Atheism is, without a doubt, the quickest route to the disenchantment of the world in which we live. The child (or adult) who no longer believes in God really is "too old"  -- or too something, at least -- to believe in fairy tales. If these atheist activists were honest, then, they wouldn't have a child professing her atheism to a fairy tale creature. They'd have her sitting by herself, lonely and scared, professing her unbelief to no one, because that is who is ultimately there. And they'd better wipe that mischievous smile off her face, because mischief is a symptom of the magical that exists in this world.

Of course, in the end, the false advertising of atheists -- dressing a child up in the trappings of an enchanted world while she effectively pulls the plug on all the enchantment -- is pretty much what you'd expect. What else can you do when you're peddling a product that leads to misery and death (Prov. 14.12)?

Atheism from a Recliner

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"...and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together..." (Gen 3:7)

Atheists attempting to work out the worldview implications of their (un)belief-system appear to be on the rise these days (for an excellent handling of one example from a Christian perspective, see here). I recently came across another example in the form of a Washington Post article by biology professor PZ Myers, titled, "An Atheist's Guide to the Good Life"--suggesting, predictably, that "the Good Life" means a life without God. This atheist exposition is intriguing in that it appears to signal a developing pattern (both chronologically and in rhetorical flourish) of disciples of Hitchens and Dawkins: they aren't interested in advocating for atheism at all, at least not directly. Instead, Myers and his ilk are content simply to assume their atheism from the outset and lob verbal volleys at those who dare to disagree with them [as a side note, I actually appreciate the greater philosophical transparency of this new approach, but that is another matter...].     

"Atheism," Myers asserts, "is the default position. You don't have to do anything to be an atheist, but you have to work awfully hard not to be one..." So, settling back into his intellectual Lay-Z-Boy, Myers undertakes to educate believers about all the "baggage you can throw off the ol' Conestoga Wagon of life, the stuff that we know is completely unnecessary because atheists have traveled the trail without it, and come out just fine." What follows is an unapologetic screed against church worship, prayer, the desire for divine forgiveness, the hope of life after death, and more.

Myers clearly enough rejects biblical revelation and derides those who accept it, but those are not the features of Myers' piece I want to highlight. No, my hang-up is that Myers claims that atheists "do good because we're happy to help our communities and see our fellow human beings thrive"; that it is "right and appropriate" to feel guilty if you harm another human being; that when we lose a loved one "the right and good thing to do is to mourn and honor the memory of the dead." All this, he asserts, after telling everyone who believes in the power of prayer that "no one is listening" to their "futile babbling," or that we may be sexually intimate with anyone (anyone?) we choose since there really is no "divine foundation" for the rules that have guided human relationships from time immemorial. The self-described "happy atheist" is "happy," he explains, because there is no transcendent purpose to guide life's decisions, no plan according to which all is moving, no divine foundation for interpersonal relations, and therefore no rules to norm our behavior. No rules, we might add, except for the ones Myers deems "right and appropriate." No obligations, except those that Myers is "happy" to fulfill.

All this brings up a question for those thinking about cozying up to modern secular unbelief alongside Myers: exactly why, and on what basis, does he leaven his atheism with lumps of meaning, purpose, and moral obligation? Why does he mock God with one hand while motioning "Shh!" to his more violent atheist comrades with the other? Why does Myers, an atheist who counts himself among "the freest people on Earth," confound himself with such contradictions?

One answer--a somewhat harsher one--is that PZ Myers is not a courageous atheist; he is a selfish one, as we all once were in one form or another (cf. Titus 3:3). He is eager to preserve for himself enough cultural respectability to be seen as an enlightened secularist without embracing the moral blindness that it really demands. He wants to run for intellectual touchdowns against the Christian theist while stiff-arming the epistemological obstacles that stand in his way. He is the inconsistent atheists' Heismann trophy winner.

Another answer--a deeper one--to the question posed above is that Myers, despite his insistence that he is an undesigned biological happenstance somehow morally accountable to other biological happenstances, is actually made in the image of God. As such, he is confronted by the personal presence and covenantal demands of this God with every tweet, every chortle, every breath he takes, every volley he lobs at Christians. But instead of repenting of his arrogant refusal to submit to the sovereign authority and care of his Creator, Myers, like our first father, Adam, runs from God and attempts to hide himself in the forest that owes its very existence to divine generosity. In other words, he purports to co-opt for atheists what only God can and does give--the possibility of respect for human dignity, the pleasure of productivity, a longing for life in the face of death--and stitches these gifts together to adorn his supposed autonomy when at most he only masks his shame (cf. Gen 3:10). Myers portrays these as the fruits of his default position instead of acknowledging that he has ripped these fig leaves from the life-giving soil of their God-given purpose. With a certain biological self-consciousness, Paul foretells the real result of this kind of thinking: "[T]he end of those things is death" (Rom 6:20-21). When set against their Maker, those covering leaves shrivel up and expose the nakedness of a rebellious creature of the dust.  

Myers, however, is right about one thing: you don't have to do anything to be an atheist. It is the "natural" disposition of every human being (Eph 2:3; cf. Ps 51:5; Jer 13:23). The good news is that, in a certain biblical sense, you don't have to do anything to become a Christian either. Repentance and faith in Christ are the effects of God's breathing new life into our dead hearts. Christians are those who have been raised to walk in newness of life by a power not their own (Rom 6:4). All this from a Savior who has planted us in Himself that we might grow in the light of His presence (cf. John 15:5). To be grafted into Him is true liberation and an other-wordly happiness, for if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed (John 15:11; 8:36).


"Not Enough Evidence!": Augustine versus Russell

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Such was the (in)famous reply of atheistic British analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell when asked what he would say if, upon his death, he found out that God really existed. 

Our own Carl Trueman, eschewing the unbelief of Russell while evidencing the same British snobbery, will engage in a formal debate with Chad Trainer, Bertrand Russell Society chairman.

However, as the title of this post informs us, this will not be a typical debate. Trueman will be speaking as Augustine, while Trainer will speak as Russell. This intriguing format was devised by Darin Pesnell, pastor of the event sponsor Iron Works Church.

If you're in the Phoenixville (PA) area, make sure to witness these two intellectual giants from the past rise from the ashes and engage in a debate we all wish could've happened. Since both Augustine and Russell now have impeccable theology, it will be interesting to see how their earthly interpreters fare in this unique venue!

Well, what do you know...

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In Col 3:10, the apostle Paul describes one of the most stunning aspects of the Spirit's re-creative work in uniting us by faith to the risen Christ. In that verse, we read that the natural man is, by that Spirit, suddenly and irrevocably "renewed in knowledge after the image of Him who created him." 

This raises a key question: what does it mean to be "renewed in knowledge"?  Hodge answers admirably by clarifying the significance of the Greek preposition: "This renovation is said to be εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν, not in knowledge, much less by knowledge, but unto knowledge, so that he knows. Knowledge is the effect of the renovation spoken of" (Systematic Theology, 2:99). This is a renewal that issues in knowledge, a newfound knowledge that that is altogether true because it reflects the mind of God ("after the image of Him who created him").  In short, it is a God-given knowledge that self-consciously relates all created things to the God who gives this world its meaning and purpose.  

Prior to our fellowship with Christ, we knew things (and for some of us, many things) only so well, and in spite of our sinful impulse to deny the beauty and coherence of this dazzling theater of divine glory. But now in Christ we are enabled to see the world for what it really is and seek to live accordingly.  As Hodge goes on to say, "The knowledge here is not mere cognition. It is full, accurate, living, or practical knowledge" (ibid., 100). It is the kind of Spirit-fueled knowledge that qualifies the Christian to judge all things rightly (1 Cor 2:15), especially the goodness and majesty of God in Christ (John 17:3). As Francis Schaeffer might say, it is a true knowledge of true truth.

Lest the postmoderns pounce, we must be clear that such saving epistemic renewal in no way derives from an autonomous appropriation of self-evident principles, nor does it transform Christians into paragons of genius.  But neither does it lead to wimpish shoulder-shrugging as we blissfully affirm one other's ignorance!  Rather, by this epistemic recreation in the Christian the Spirit infallibly and progressively opens to him the infinite implications of Christ's triumph as far as the curse is found (John 16:13), resulting in deepening praise and increasing humility in the hearts of those who bow before the One who is Truth itself (John 14:6). Contrary to the shifting winds of our hyper-hermeneutical age, we can indeed have certainty concerning the things taught by the Spirit (Luke 1:4; cf. Acts 2:36). 

With such truth in mind (!), I heartily recommend listening to a recent chapel message by Dr. James Anderson of RTS-Charlotte and wonderfully titled, "The Atheist's Guide to Intellectual Suicide".  In this crisp, 30-minute message, Dr. Anderson very helpfully unpacks the biblical teaching that the atheist's denial of God's self-revelation is, as Dr. Anderson provocatively puts it, "the philosophical equivalent of lopping your head off". In fact, to the extent an atheist still speaks, he shows himself not only to be intellectually moribund, but self-contradictory as well.  Don't believe it?  Have a listen for yourself!  While I might quibble with Dr. Anderson's language of common sense (preferring instead the language of common grace) your time will be well spent.

 

The End of Infidelity

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Last fall, Steve Hays of Triablogue, did an excellent article for ref21 refuting the collection of new atheist essays published under the title of The End of Christianity (ed. John Loftus).

The book-length refutation of Loftus and company is now available in PDF here. Not only is it a wealth of solid, biblical argumentation, it is also (as any reader of Triablogue can attest) full of wit. Enjoy and share!

Chrysostom, Christians and Critiques

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One of the things Christians are increasingly hearing from secular critics is that Christianity is not only wrong, but evil; it's false but also immoral. One of the best responses to this phenomena is a recent book by the guys over at Triablogue, entitled The Infidel Delusion. One thing the author(s) do in this book (which is a response to The Christian Delusion) is point out that Christians have been critiquing the failings of their own far longer - and far better - than unbelievers.

It is interesting that one of the things being saved by grace alone does is alert one to the fact that he is probably the triumphant failure that the Scriptures tell him he is. Yes, we can all admit Christians do some pretty terrible things. But this fact, far from showing Christianity false or immoral, only shows that the Bible's diagnosis of our condition is, in fact, correct.

Chrysostom offers characteristic insight to this condition when he writes, "`Christians damage Christ's cause more than his enemies and foes" (Thanks, Dr. Trueman, for that quote). We don't need a group of atheists to tell us what gigantic failures we are. The Bible does that for us, as all the great Christians of church history have been so keen to demonstrate.

We should therefore be the harshest critics of our own - and ourselves. But there is hope in all this: if we accept the Bible's teaching on our total depravity - acknowledging it, accepting it and not watering it down - well, then the door is open  (so to speak) for radical grace.  Which is exactly what we need - and what God provides in Christ.