Monday, February 16, 2004

Dialogue With an Agnostic Concerning Several Common Objections to Christianity in General and Catholicism in Particular (vs. Matt Fahrner)

The following exchange of amiable private correspondence is reproduced with my opponent's permission. He has expressed a desire that his letter to me be available in its entirety, for contextual reasons. I have not omitted any part of it below, but to see it "un-cut-up," readers can write to Matt at the above address. I thank him for this opportunity to clarify my own beliefs and to present to my website visitors a congenial (and I think constructive and instructive) discussion between a Christian and an agnostic. Matt's words will be in blue. Indented and smaller-print excerpts are my own words, from the Dialogue With a Skeptic of Christianity, to which Matt was responding.

* * * * *

I have a few issues with this article (and more) that I wanted to voice.

Thank you for the chance to dialogue and clarify.

First I have to be honest that:

    a) I'm not nor have ever been a Catholic (my dad was).
    b) I'm agnostic at best.
    c) I don't know nearly as much religious literature as either of you do.
    d) I have a lot of anger toward religion, mostly related to the fact
    that I have seen religion as an extension of authority, hypocritical, inflexible, and elitist.

In short, I'm starting off on the wrong side so forgive me.

I greatly appreciate the admission of biases and predispositions up-front. We all have them, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.

    The breaking-down of the Judaeo-Christian ethical standard is clearly the root cause behind virtually all the chaos and tragedy that we see in our society today.

This implies that when the "Judeo-Christian ethical standard" was in place at some theoretical time in the past that things were better (ie: there wasn't chaos and tragedy).

Correct, but of course it is a matter of degree (I would argue that the standard was never completely in place anywhere or at any time), and it is an historically subjective judgment as well, not provable in any strict sense. It is true though that the above statement is a bit rhetorically exaggerated, though I stand by the basic, broad truth of it. Nor does it imply that no "chaos and tragedy" existed before in some "Christian" culture. This is a fallen world, which will always have evil and human rebellion in it.

My question is when was this? This is the same argument that flusters me with many conservatives, the implication that things were "better back then..."

It is historically (statistically) demonstrable that in our own country - say, 50 years ago - rates of crime, and things such as divorce, child abuse, promiscuity, spousal abuse, drugs, pornography, and a number of other societal ills, were significantly less than they are now. The rise of these problems was paralleled by the rise of sexual liberalism and the ascendancy of philosophical relativism and a number of adverse trends such as increased hedonism, narcissism, materialism, etc. (i.e., the values of the 60s counterculture). Several books have been written about this - and not just Christian ones, but also secularist sociological analyses. Other wicked practices, notably prejudice and institutional discrimination have - thankfully - declined.

When was "then"? Right after Jesus died, when Romans were persecuting Christians?

At that time, Christians were rescuing babies who were put out by the pagan Romans in the snow to die (much like our partial-birth infanticide today). So at least self-professed Christians were united as to the evil of abortion (unlike today). The profundity of religious commitment often coincides with persecution. It is that, rather than a particular time period, which raised personal morality and commitment to desirable and heroic ethical ideals (in this instance, Christian ones). There were certainly many lousy, hypocritical Christians in the fabled early Church as well, as we learn from Paul's letters to the Galatians and Corinthians, and also the beginning of the book of Revelation.

But I was speaking of the culture as a whole. It is clear that cultures rise and fall in terms of moral decay and decadence (even viewed apart from a particular religious perspective); that can hardly be denied. The later Roman Empire, periods of Hebrew decadence (as chronicled in the Old Testament), and the mass human sacrifices of the Aztecs come immediately to mind. Those situations were relatively bad periods, compared to other times and places. One can also note the widely-acknowledged revival in England in the 18th century, largely brought on by John Wesley and his social influence. My larger argument was that - all in all - Christianity has had a very positive social affect on cultures.

In the middle ages, when people were repressed, dying of disease, and we had such lovely instruments as the Spanish Inquisition?

There is a pronounced bias against the Middle Ages precisely because it was a period dominated by Christian (Catholic) influence. We see this in the very terminology employed ("Dark Ages," "Enlightenment," "Renaissance," etc.). I have written about aspects of this, but it is a question ultimately for historians. I would say that the 20th century was incalculably worse than any century of the Middle Ages. It was unquestionably more violent and bloody than all previous history put together. And what was the cause of that? Christianity? Hardly! It was Communism (officially and fundamentally atheistic) and Naziism (pagan). Both systems specifically persecuted Christians, among others, which ought to give you a clue of some of the dynamics and causal elements going on there. No secularist has any grounds for feeling morally superior (as a group) to us Christians, given the past 100 years!

The 1700's when slavery was in vogue and monarch's heads were coming off?

The Catholic Church repeatedly condemned slavery. This was not a Christian institution per se. It flowed from human greed and the lust for money and free labor, not Christian principles, which were primarily responsible for its abolition (remember the evangelical Wilberforce in England, or the Quakers in the US?). As for monarch's heads coming off (and heads in general), you must know that the most likely place to see that in the 18th century was in France during the French Revolution, also atheistic and anti-Catholic, and arguably spurned on by the agnostic and atheist (or at least anti-Catholic) philosophes. Christians have had their internecine wars, also, to be sure, but they are clearly no worse (I say, far less destructive) than the wars brought on by secularist, pagan, and nationalist philosophies more recently.

The 1800's when children were working in mills,

And if you study this, you will find that it was progressive Christian activists who were at the forefront of stopping child labor. These in turn were more numerous as a result of the several major revivals in American history, such as the Great Awakening of the 1840s, which brought about all sorts of positive societal changes, including the seeds of modern feminism, for one.

brothers killing brothers?

This (the American Civil War, I assume you meant) was mainly cultural and political in cause and origin, not predominantly a Christian conflict. I was not arguing for any "Golden Age." My point was that many of the ills we see today can arguably be traced to a lessening of Christian influence culturally, personally, and especially ethically. I was referring largely to the prevailing ethical relativism today, which is in stark contrast to Christian absolute morality.

The 20's (WWI)?

That was from 1914-1918, but anyway, this, too, can hardly be blamed on Christianity. Rather, it seems to me that the major cause was nationalism, which Catholicism in particular has played a large role in opposing, as we believe in an overarching society of the Church, which transcends petty nationalism and ethnocentrism.

The 30's (stock market crash)?

People were more religious then, precisely because they were suffering, and less able to depend on the typical crutches of materialism and financial security, which tends to mitigate against religiosity.

The 40's (WWII)?

You again miss my point. It can be shown that many social indicators were more healthy and positive in past times in this country - not that there were no problems at all (which would be a silly and absurd proposition).

The 50's (Cold war, segregation, Korea, Communist witch hunts)? And of course we know all hell broke lose when we got into the 60's.

See the above.

When was this golden time of "ethical standards"? When haven't teenagers been having sex out of wedlock?

Oh, if you read, e.g., the famous Kinsey Report on sexual behavior, from the late 40s, you will find that teenagers (especially girls) were far less sexually active than they are now. Virtually no social scientist would dispute that. We had a sexual revolution, after all. It could hardly have been a revolution, if nothing changed.

When haven't people been killing each other?

Again, if you want to count numbers, secularism, atheism, and paganism have exponentially and astronomically more numbers of victims than religious wars. You can bring up the few thousand executions of the Inquisition (as you did), and ignore the estimated 60 million of the Maoist Revolution (as you did), or the 10 million starved Ukrainians of Stalin (as you did, and as the liberal columnists and useful idiots of that time ignored or overlooked also). And I didn't even include the multiple millions of legally aborted babies, which long ago put the paltry 6 million of the Holocaust to shame. I have this little proverb I came up with:

    "The liberalism of death is the death of liberalism."

How true that is. Liberalism used to mean caring for the downtrodden, the innocent, the exploited. Well, nothing is more innocent or helpless than a baby in its mother's womb, being led to slaughter and savage butchery on the altar of personal convenience, expedience, and sexual license without responsibility.

When was the moral character better, because I can easily argue though we may have had times with less sex, those times had far worse things going on.

Some things were worse, such as the wicked racism and other ethnic prejudices, and the treatment of women in many respects. But based on what I have said, I would much rather live in the 30s than in the current era. That said, I do believe a revival is coming which will reform our society again, just as so many of the most decadent centuries in history were followed by great moral and spiritual revivals in the next century (e.g., 13th, 16th, and 19th centuries).

    . . . rather than explaining the ill and now manifest consequences of premarital sexual promiscuity?

Assuming people take the proper precautions, other than "Gods wrath", what are the "ill" consequences of premarital sexual promiscuity?

Higher divorce rates, broken homes, abused children, venereal disease and in some cases AIDS (despite such "precautions), and arguably many other things. Just today, in fact, I heard a sociologist on the radio say that co-habitation increases the chance for a divorce. The silly, misguided "try-before-you-buy" sexual philosophy is a lie. And this guy was not arguing on a religious basis, but on sociological, social-science grounds. He even stated that he was not "a religious person." Contraception has to be used correctly. But today, if it fails, the woman can always kill the baby. And abortion is no light affair, easily undertaken, no matter what one's opinion on it is (radical feminists are now saying this). It cannot be denied that the higher abortion rates are due in large part to increased sexual activity.

Birth control is very simple to use, far simpler than arranging a marriage I might add, and highly effective.

One would think so, but the fact of the matter is that it is often used incorrectly. As to the general matter of the evil of contraception (a major factor in my own conversion to Catholicism), and abortion, see my web page Life Issues.

I'm married, but I've never regretted even slightly any of my sexual activity before marriage. Yes, I got emotionally hurt at times, but I don't think it had any relation to sex or lack thereof.

What can I say? My own opinions on this, from an explicitly Christian perspective, are expressed on my Sexuality Web Page.

Frankly I'm of the opinion that its foolish, at least as a man, to get married without having sex with your partner.

The social statistics (as mentioned today by the sociologist referred to above) suggest otherwise. The truth is exactly the opposite (though there will be many exceptions, of course). The happiest, most sexually-satisfied marriages, generally-speaking, are those of committed Christians who waited till they got married. I have seen many social studies supporting that opinion. Promiscuity before marriage is a far greater indicator of sexual problems in marriage and divorce. There are many reasons for that, too complex to delve into here.

I honestly believe there is no way to differentiate "lust" from "love" until you've gotten past the "lust" part.

That's a common opinion today, I suppose. I think it is very sad and unfortunate, both for legitimate romance, true respect for women, and for marriages.

    One can spurn that grace and become overly skeptical, and adopt fallacious objections.

Just as one can spurn skepticism and adopt fallacious faith.

Sure one can. As for myself, I can and do defend my faith rationally, as presently, and all over my website. Can you do the same with regard to your viewpoint?

    Not if they are closed-minded as you seem to be. If they are open at all to the evidence, there is plenty.

Closed-mindedness goes both ways.

Indeed it does.

Clearly you have left yourself room for little doubt.

I'm always willing to change my mind, and I have on almost every major issue I have considered in depth. Can you say the same? I used to believe almost everything you have expressed.

Have you ever spent significant time trying to disprove God?

In effect, yes, as I familiarized myself with the many philosophical arguments against God. Have you spent significant time studying the theistic and Christian proofs for God?

Have you ever seriously entertained doubt without the expectation of the return to faith (ie: with faith having actually and truly left you)?

No, but I have bolstered my faith by a long study (now 19 years) of apologetics, which helps one's faith, as it is seen (in my strong opinion) that Christian faith is the most rational outlook or worldview to have. I am most willing to give up faith as well, if compelled by reason (or even some profound experience) to do so. But Christianity is not simply a rational thing; faith transcends mere reason, though it is not irrational. Long discussion . . .

Have you ever grasped upon one exceptional glaring flaw that you cannot gloss over with "faith"?

I think the problem of evil is a very troubling philosophical problem (about the best objection to Christianity skeptics can argue), but I think that the Christian answers to it are sufficient enough that it does not affect my overall faith. I think the evil in the universe, assuming that there is no God, would be an infinitely more troubling and terrifying affair, as there would be no ultimate meaning of, or escape from, the suffering and evil.

Because I believe with an issue as complicated as this that atheist, agnostic, or faithful alike will be compelled to find huge flaws that cannot be solved in their viewpoints.

I appreciate the fairness of this analysis. Obviously, I think our answers to the charges against us and the God we believe in are more satisfying than the answers (or, in my experience, non-answers and silence) that atheists and agnostics give to our objections to their systems of belief. I agree that all systems have problems. We would expect that. I say ours are not fatal to our beliefs, whereas, in my opinion, yours are.

    while still being justifiably skeptical about present evolutionary theory. The least you could do is admit that you don't have anything to offer the world which is superior (or even equal) to what Christianity has offered it (even considered apart from its ultimate truthfulness).

Huh? I can understand your personal choice to be skeptical about Darwinism, but to imply the Bible has something more to offer on this is absurd. There isn't the least bit of empirical evidence supporting the Judeo-Christian theory on creationism. All there is is simple hearsay.

You are mixing apples and oranges here. I don't use biblical arguments in my critiques of evolutionary theory, but philosophical and scientific ones. My critique is philosophically complex and much more nuanced and subtle than the average creationist diatribe which you are probably familiar with. To better understand my views, please consult the Creationism page on my website. I explain my views in great detail there.

Evolution and natural selection can literally be shown in your own house. Use Raid on ants, the ones that live were more resistant and go on to reproduce a stronger, now "evolved" offspring. Same problem with antibiotics, hence our current issues with TB.

I agree with this, because it comes under the category of microevolution, which I accept. But that is far different than macroevolution, which assuredly has not been demonstrated.

    :-) Your favorite charge! Can't you ever flat-out disagree with a viewpoint without making the ubiquitous charge of circularity?

Well, circular argument is par for the course for Christianity isn't it?

No, not in an informed presentation and understanding, but go ahead and make your argument.

    1) The Bible is the word of god - according to what? The Bible
    (maybe other religious writings, but same problem). Zero
    empirical proof.

No; rather, things like fulfilled prophecy, accuracy about various scientific/philosophical issues (e.g., creation ex nihilo, which is consistent with present Big Bang cosmology, which holds that the universe had a beginning). Also, there are many historical arguments, such as the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus; other miracles consistent with a biblical view, etc.

    2) We need God to forgive us for our sins. Where did those sins
    come from? God. Believe me, I would have never felt bad about
    sex and felt I needed forgiveness if I wasn't brought up in
    religious dogma.

This is a variant of the problem of evil. There are philosophical and/or Christian answers for this. One may think they are lousy answers, but they are not circular. I wouldn't expect you to feel bad about sex, being brought up in this present cultural milieu. We believe that one's conscience can be dulled and stunted. This is no difficulty for our position.

    3) You need faith to go to heaven. What if I want to question
    that premise? You don't have faith and you won't go to heaven
    (kills religious discourse pretty quick I must say - better have
    faith and shut up).

Well, I agree that this is a stupid, insubstantial presentation of the cogency and rationality of Christian faith. If this is how it has been presented to you, I assure you that you have not been in the circles where you would receive an infinitely better presentation of Christianity (which I can relate to as well, as this was the case with me until about age 23). I would hope that my website is one such place, where you can see what sort of arguments we can bring to bear; as opposed to this silly, caricatured, simpleton, garden-variety "pop" version of "Christianity" you describe.

    4) God is perfect. According to what? God.

:-) Ditto.

That's just a few.

Oh, I could come up with at least as many objections to agnosticism, believe me. And my objections usually go unanswered (again, I speak from 19 years of experience dialoguing on these matters). whereas I have carefully tried to answer yours, or refer you to papers which attempt to answer them.

That's not to say I don't believe in God. I really don't know what I believe,

Fair enough.

except I do believe:

    1) The Bible was written by men and thus reflects the words and
    opinions of the men who wrote it. It may contain the word of
    God, but it is not THE word of God. I challenge you to
    prove me otherwise without referencing the bible or some other
    religious document.

It certainly was written by men, but they were inspired by God.

    2) I don't think God according to the Bible is perfect. I think this
    was added on after the fact to shut off religious argument.

By whom? When? Prove it!

If God is perfect you can't argue can you? It seems clear that there are multiple occasions that God "corrects" himself. More modern revisionists have chosen to make all sorts of excuses for this but it seems to be BS to me.

This gets into exegesis (interpreting the Bible and cross-reference) and as such is far beyond the present discussion. Many of these questions require huge discussions themselves. That is what my website was designed to tackle.

    3) Even if they are the words of God I don't in my heart agree with
    them all. I think no amount of "enlightenment" will change that.

It requires faith, but such faith is not irrational.

I don't want to go to Hell if there is one, but I have to say this: I'd rather be honest to myself in hell, than a liar in heaven.

Wait till you get there, then give me your opinion as to how pleasant a place it is. :-) I'm half-joking . . . Secondly, you don't have to be intellectually dishonest to be a Christian (rightly-understood). I certainly don't feel that way at all, or else I wouldn't believe as I do, since I take a very high view of reason and consistency.

I'd hope, if he's as good as he claims, that he would appreciate someone who's being honest about their feelings, not just kissing up. What kind of faith is that after all?

I agree that faith must be intellectually credible. I think that Christian faith is. You just have to do more reading. Start with my website. There is plenty of food for thought there, to stimulate your intellect, believe me.

As a last note, just because I'm getting so tired as to be stupid, why do we as a "Christian society" spend so much time worrying about sex, homosexuality, and adultery when there are so many other sins that we seem to ignore?

Because - for one reason - the family, and by extension, sexual morality, are the bedrocks of stable society. These are very important issues. I do agree that Christians tend to deal with sexual matters too much and ignore other issues such as poverty, the treatment of minorities, etc. Why that is would be a long discussion. But then I could say that non-Christians are just as selectively indignant, if not more so. They will ignore the evils of Communism or abortion, while they simultaneously decry capital punishment and apartheid (now just a memory, while the persecution of Christians in China goes on unabated). The argument works both ways.

I mean, why does the Pope spend so much time worrying about sex and not reminding us that:

A camel will sooner fit through the eye of a needle, than a rich
man get to heaven.

(or something like that).

The pope does talk quite a bit about world conditions and the evil of materialism. I doubt that you have read much of his writings. You parrot so many of the typical caricatures. What have you read about Christianity, anyway?

I mean in a society hopelessly lost in materialism which is threatening to consume the very Earth on which we depend, comparatively sex seems like a tiny detail.

I think both things are very important. I don't have to choose one and deny the wrongness of the other, as you are doing.

Uh, duh, now I'm really getting stupid. Feel free to ignore me.

:-) No; I thought this was an excellent chance to dialogue. Thank you.

Take care, and I eagerly look forward to your return letter.

Compiled on 3 August 2000 from personal correspondence.

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