John Lennox on science and faith

Just watched John Lennox lecturing on science and faith.

“Science has buried God, but atheism is on its way to bury science, because it undermines the very rationality that we need to do science”.

Science is something our brains do when looking at the world, and so if our brain is the product of random mutation then why should we (whoever that is) trust it? I guess one answer would be that its development/survival necessitated a linked between it’s representation of reality and the way things really are. To be totally wrong about reality, would seem to be detrimental to survival. Could a deluded brain be the fittest organism? Could a brain that saw a cube and thought a sphere survive for very long? To be wrong about the truthfulness of inference and deduction would not be very advantageous to reproduction.

But I think the argument is saying how can we trust “our conscious thoughts”, rather than whether the representation of the world in the synaptic connections of our brain is right. And that question is hard to answer because we don’t know what our consciousness actually is, at least in material terms.

In any case, as he says, any scientist must “believe” that the universe is rationally intelligent before they can get started.

I love the point he makes about contrasting two world views.

  • Mater and energy is fundamental (or nothing is fundamental, or a quantum vacuum is fundamental) ie everything is made of and comes from and is reducible to these things.
  • The word (information, meaning, morality etc in a person) is fundamental (and I would add “with” is also fundamental. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God”).

It makes so much more sense having a personal relational being behind everything than nothing, or mater or any sort of vacuum, quantum or otherwise.

Now, some Q&A:

Q: “Doesn’t our knowledge of the laws of nature make belief in miracles impossible.”

A: “NO…this is one of the biggest issues [of our time?]”

Miracle = “something to be wondered at”

CS Lewis gave a helpful example here : “if I put a hundred dollars in the draw of my hotel bedroom and then after dinner come back up and find it has gone, do I conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken or that the laws of Texas have been broken”. I’ve heard that before but I’m still not quite sure what it means…I think it’s just saying that natural laws are very different from government laws. You can’t break a natural law as it’s just a description. The fact that the money is gone means that someone from outside the system (the draw) entered it and took it out. Jesus rose form the dead because God reached into the world he created and exerted a massive amount of energy (and information etc). The laws are not being broken because they describe what normally happens.

In fact we wouldn’t know that it was a thief unless we knew the laws of arithmetic… “the only way you can recognise the supernatural is by knowing the natural laws”.

Joseph was not a gullible fool. When he found out that Mary was pregnant he was going to divorce her. He knew where babies came from. It took a massive supernatural phenomena to convince him that a miracle had taken place. Same with the blind man. “since the beginning of the world it has never been known that  a man born blind has got his eyesight back”. He knew the law. Jesus was not raised from the dead by natural processes. It was an injection into the system of colossal power. A hand reaching into our world and raised him from the dead . The natural laws were not being broken. An outside influences was being exerted.

Antony Flew who was (according to Lennox) the world’s greatest interpreter of Hume (Mr Anti-Miracles), towards the end of his life, converted to deism. When John Lennox asked him about his books on Hume he said

“I was wrong about Hume. I’d love to write those books again. I will never be able to do it though. I was simply wrong”.

Christmas : Drawing it all together

A couple of years ago I did a talk at our church Christmas carol concert inspired by Rob Bell’s “Everything is Spiritual” talk. As he spoke he illustrated the concepts on a massive white board. This really drew me in (if you will pardon the pun) and kept my attention so I decided to experiment with the style. When Christmas came I built a massive back-projected white board 7 meters long by 2 meters high and used it to illustrate my points. I have just found the audio and redrawn some visuals to go along with it. The actual context of the talk is based around the idea of separating everything into the visible and invisible  and showing how it all points to Jesus. I hope you like it.

play part 1 on YouTube.

play part 2 on YouTube.

play part 3 on YouTube.

play part 4 on YouTube.

The reason for recreating it was to begin to explore how far I can take the idea of illustrating truth with doodles. This was relatively easy to do as the talk was designed to be drawn out but I would like to try other talks and see if it’s possible to illustrate them in this way.

How can a good God allow evil?

Just heard a helpful reply to this very difficult question. It was by Ravi Zacharias:
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It is a very difficult question to answer, not just the fact of evil, but the size of it, the volume of it. You know people think we don’t actually think about these things as Christian apologists. The first thing I would say is that the question does not actually dislodge God. If anything it should prove that God actually exists, otherwise value and the question disintegrates. You don’t ask the question unless you believe in an absolute moral law. And you don’t believe in absolute moral law unless there is an absolute moral lawgiver. So God is in the paradigm not outside of the paradigm.
Ravi Zacharias
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The second thing I would say is that the ultimate ethic in life is love. That is the supreme ethic. There is no ethic more supreme than love. But necessary to love is the component of the will. You cannot have love without the freedom to not love. Otherwise you have conformity, compliance; you really don’t have love. So if love is the supreme ethic and the freedom of the will is indispensable to love and the question must keep God in the paradigm then what I would say is the greatest gift of God is the gift of the freedom of our will in order that we can love, but with the greatest gift comes the greatest possible calamity when you violate that love, the entailments actually follow, and so both good is real and evil is real and the human heart must be able to recognise this and choose that which is good otherwise you live in a world of non-concrete expressions where you can choose bad with no consequences. Nobody would believe bad is bad if there were no consequences to it. So in the supreme effort of God to bring you, me to himself he gives us the example of love. He has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.
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One other footnote. If I were to take a life something tragic has happened because I cannot restore that life. But if God allows that to happen he can still restore that life, and the component of eternity does spell the possibility of an explanation. Without eternity the problem of evil remains totally unsolved. In fact the question remains indefensible. So God is able to restore life, eternity is able to bring ultimate justice and we leave those two components in his hands.
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If you are hungry for more clear thinking then here is Ravi’s reply to a Wall Street Journal article by atheist Richard Dawkins and comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong:

Dawkins says: “What is so special about life? It never violates the laws of physics.” Let’s grant him that for the moment. But the fact of physics is that however you section physical concrete reality, you end up with a state that does not explain its own existence. Moreover, since the universe does have a beginning and nothing physical can explain its own existence, is it that irrational a position to think that the first cause would have to be something non-physical?

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More can be said, but for the sake of brevity may I ask one more question?

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The position that both Armstrong and Dawkins would be compelled to concede is that moral categories do exist for us as persons. It is implicit in their writings. So I ask, if personhood is of value and if our personal questions on moral values are of value, then must we not also concede that the value-laden question about intrinsic value for humanity can only be meaningful if humanity is the creation of a person who is of infinite worth to bequeath that value to us as persons?

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In other words, our assumptions about our worth and the worthiness of our questions of good and evil cannot be the offspring of Naturalism.

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But these are the gaps atheists conveniently ignore. They value their Physics but devalue their Physicist. They are quick to blame a person for evil but are loathe to attribute goodness to the ultimate person.
That is, either our questions are rooted in personal worth or not. If they are, then God must exist. If they are not, then our questions are self-defeating.

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That is why G.K. Chesterton said: When belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from him. But in heaven’s name to what? Dawkins and Armstrong are brilliant examples of making something out of nothing but it shows they are borrowing from something that they deny exists.

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A spiritual, moral first cause is a reasonable position much more than the questions that smuggle in such realities without admitting it.

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Maybe that’s why two brilliant minds, Anthony Flew and more recently A.N. Wilson*, left the atheistic fold. They saw the hollow word-games that flew in the face of reality as we also intuitively know it.

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* a very interesting double conversion story http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2009/04/conversion-experience-atheism

Who created God?

Richard Dawkins

At the centre of Richard Dawkin’s “God Delusion” book is the question “Who created God?” It’s supposed to be a devastating blow to the credibility of Christianity rendering speechless those who believe in a creator God. It has always baffled me as to why that is such a problematic question. The answer is “no one created God. He is uncreated. Why is that a problem?”

John Lennox

John Lennox points out that the question can just as well be asked of naturalists : “Who or what created matter and energy?” If the answer is that they have always existed then they obviously have no problemwith something being uncreated. If the answer is that matter and energy came into being at some stage then something must have caused their appearance and we either have to take that as eternally existent or the thing before that or before that and so on but the buck has to stop somewhere. Something somewhere must have been eternally existent and the first cause of everything. You can’t have an infinite sequence of past causes or we would never arrive at the present.http://johnlennox.org/index.php/en/resource/who_created_the_creator/

I think the real sticking point though is Dawkins’ view that something cannot be a valid explanation or cause if it is in fact more complex. That seems to be a firmly held presupposition, and is in fact at the heart of a reductionist worldview. While it has proved a very fruitful expectation in understanding many things, there is no reason to think it is true of everything. Can you reduce personhood, consciousness, love, information or  morality? There is nothing wrong in trying but do we want to rule out the possibility that a person is the source of person hood ahead of time? Could there not be some highly complex, beautiful, loving and morally perfect being behind everything? Looking for simpler explanations of more complex phenomena is a very valid pursuit and one that works because the universe does seem, in many ways, remarkably ordered but it is a step of faith, or at least a big inductive jump, to say that all valid explanations are in terms of simpler phenomena.

One final point: I have heard people argue that when we find ancient ruins we ascribe intelligent design to them, i.e people made them. This is helpful in that it gives an example of a more complex cause (a person) for a simple phenomena (some scratches in a stone) but it fails to be relevant here because it is not a closed system.  Dawkins and others would simply say that there is a series of increasingly simple explanations for the person, in terms of evolution, and therefore there is ultimately a simpler explanation for the scratches. When we are talking about an uncreated creator there is no possibility of a simpler sequence of causes behind his apparent complexity because there is, by definition, nothing before him. That is why the assumption that “a valid explanation must ultimately be in terms of a less complex cause” needs to be challenged.

I might be missing something but it seems to me that the “who created God question” is not the deal breaker that people think it is.

what the resurrection proves

Just watched this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4k4OXUyatZE&feature=related

Here is my paraphrase of what Christopher says

Imagine a tomb was found in the hills of ancient Palestine in which was found the body of a scourged and crucified man. Something like a crown of thorns has been pressed in to his head and his side has been speared. Imagine that there was discovered in the tomb a plaque with the name “Jesus of Nazareth” written on it and that carbon dating put the man’s death at around 30AD. News of this spreads around the world and it is universally accepted that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Now, would people stop being nice to each other? Would they start to steel, lie, cheat and murder? No.”

I think he is trying to show that the existence of moral behaviour is not contingent on Jesus rising from the dead but who thinks it is? Jews and Muslims certainly don’t. Other arguments, it seems to me, make a persuasive case for the source of moral absolutes. The existential force of the moral absolutes leads one to ask what their basis is. Saying it’s from evolution totally strips morality of its heart and castrates it as a potent reality. There is, as CS Lewis points out, an “ought” in the universe that cannot come from matter or energy. It is from a realm of meaning not matter and I know of no other source of meaning than a person or persons. Absolute morality must therefore come from a unique person or unified people. If morality is like gravity then why not invent the moral equivalent of an airplane and harness it for our own ends. Some people do just that and use other peoples sense of right and wrong to manipulate and control them.

The resurrection is not proof of morality, it’s powerful validating evidence that Jesus is who he said he was and did what he said he did i.e. that he was the son of God come to earth to be a sacrifice for our sin. He is not so much the proof of morality or a reason to behave, but a lifebuoy for those of us who know they are being pulled under by the weight of their own moral failure. Jesus is shown to be not only the judge we were rather afraid would show up, but the saviour we are mightily relived came down.

PS. A question in the study guide for the Fixedpoint debate between Lenox and Dawkins asks:

“Neither Dawkins nor Lennox arrived at their current view of God’s existence as a result of years of scientific study in their adult life. Does this mean that their respective positions are weaker? Why or why not?”

Now that is a very interesting question. Much intellectual weight is being exerted to defend a position that was arrived at by much less vigorous thinking. How can we avoid getting entrenched in our views?

Some Sad News

I have just heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist and champion of the new atheism has been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. It’s usually quite an aggressive cancer and Christopher was quoted by Larry Taunton as saying “I had plans for the next decade of my life. Perhaps I should cancel them”. Larry Taunton is the founder and executive director of fixed point foundations which has organised many of the debates I have enjoyed watching with Christopher on the subject of religion. He spoke with warmth and concern about hearing the news in a short video clip.

There is no doubt about it, like him or loath him, Hitchens is a formidable opponent. A writer for the new York Times recently wrote “Hitchens has a mind like a Swiss Army knife, ready to carve up or unbolt an opponent’s arguments with a flick of the wrist.” The UK’s Guardian newspaper says “he has carved out a reputation for barbed repartee, scathing critiques of public figures and a fierce intelligence.

It is true, Hitchens is so brilliantly intelligent he can win most arguments, but that must be very frustrating at times. I recall him expressing in one debate that atheists are not necessarily pleased that there is no God, and that it might be comforting to know that there was a God, but there isn’t. He has also said some things that seem to contradict that but it stuck in my mind and I wonder if he would like to be persuaded if only someone could take him on. I remember playing a game with my brother where he would argue for something he didn’t really believe. His mind was agile and knowledgeable enough and he had enough confidence and charisma to defend and convince others of a position he didn’t himself believe. We were quite young but I never forgot the lesson. While rational debate and enquiry are of course extremely valuable in discovering and testing truth, there are many other factors in play. In the case of the gospel the main one being the action of the Holy Spirit upon the heart opening it to believe. That can happen through rational debate or discussion or in a moment when someone least expects it.

Atheists often look to people like Hitchens as a sort of champion for their cause. Christians do the same with people like Ravi Zacharias and William Lain Craig. I couldn’t hope to beat Hitchens in a knock down argument but I relish the thought of Ravi going up against him. I wonder to what extent though these debates change people’s minds or whether they are in fact like football matches. You may cheer if your side wins or get depressed if your side loses but you’re not going to switch sides.

Here is a snippet from a video I have just watched where Christopher summarises some of his thoughts  on religion:

“Religion is a poison because it attacks the very heart of our integrity. It says that we would not be able to tell right from wrong, or distinguish good from evil, if we were not afraid of a celestial dictatorship. God did not make man. Precisely the contrary. Man made God. That’s why there are so many Gods and always have been and always will be. I wouldn’t say it was wrong to believe in God but I would say those who believe in God are very seriously mistaken. You can believe in a God if you must, or if you will, without having to be religious. A religious person is someone who goes further than believe that the God hypothesis is true. A religious person is someone who says they know what God wants. They claim to know him in person and to have him revealed. That’s more than anyone can possibly claim. It’s therefore an unsound claim and because it is a large claim on a very major subject it’s likely to lead to fanaticism. It would be idle for me to say that a Quaker was as bad as a member of the Mahdi army, but I do think that religions all make the same mistake in that they surrender reason, which is our most precious faculty, to faith which is a very vague and abstract force…I have been told I am going to hell a few times. I get that all the time.”

I am a Christian and accept that we can know right from wrong and do good rather than wrong, aside from a belief in God. I think that’s the standard Christian position. We are made in God’s image and no matter how fallen we are we still have some sense of morality. The actual argument is that religion gives morality a basis. Without it morality begins to fray and unravel like a loose thread on a woollen jumper.

To think that Christians do good to avoid punishment from a cruel dictator is to totally misunderstand Christianity. Jesus did all that was necessary for me to be accepted by God and avoid his wrath and anger. I act out of love and thankfulness, not fear and coercion. The fact that evil will be punished though, I feel, is a necessary condition for morality to have any absolute meaning. Without it, someone can do evil, laugh at others quaint sense of morality, even profit from it, and be proved right in doing so by coming to the same end as those who do good. In the end, good and bad are interchangeable and right and wrong were just invented abstract concepts. There is a role of fear though. We should fear something if it is fearful and threatens to harm us as this motivates us to do something about it. When I realised I was guilty of sin, fear of God drove me to the cross.  It was there that I found a God who so loved me he had put into operation a very costly rescue plan.

Moving on a bit he makes reference to many gods. At first sight this seems to reduce the case for there being one true God. Actually the fact that there are several man made Gods says nothing about the truth or falsehood of one true God. The existence of counterfeit notes does not reduce the chances of their being real bank notes in existence. It just means we have to use our heads a bit and examine the currency we are being given for signs of authenticity.

Thinking that there is a God (presumably a Deist God) is one thing, he says, but once you say you know what he is saying to you, you cross the line. It is true you can try to justify any horror by saying “God told me to do it” but again that doesn’t say anything about the false hood of every claim to know and hear from God. To rule out hearing from God as impossible a head of time “that’s more than anyone can possibly claim” is surely begging the question. We should examine the claims on their own merits.

It’s good to hear him say that some religions or religious behaviour are more dangerous than another. I think it would be much more helpful and accurate if he separated religions a bit more in his thinking rather than lump them all together, although I sympathise with him doing so. It’s easier, and there are lots of similarities and common themes to most of them.

The justification he gives here for dealing with them all together is that they replace reason with faith. I would rather say that I have a reasonable faith. Reason has lead me to faith. It’s often our experience, thinking, and processing that leads us to put our trust in the person of Jesus. It’s like reason walks us to the aeroplane and faith lifts us into the skies. Faith is different to reason but not a substitute.  It is not an abstract force, in fact it is more solid than anything else, but even if it was, you could argue that love and morality are abstract forces but these things are very real with the potential for much good in the world.

People have obviously been rather blunt with him at times but something tells me he can take it! It really turns up the contrast when you talk about hell. “are you saying I am going to hell, that I deserve eternal punishment for the things I have not done?“. Well, that’s part of the truth but not the whole truth. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish [go to hell] but have eternal life (John 3:16). The gospel is bitter sweet but we decide which taste lingers in our mouth.

I am sure that he would have some very powerful replies to my puny thoughts but the bottom line is that I am now in the air. The little legs of reason have lead me to an experience, knowledge and living faith in the person of Jesus. As I look down some stuff makes sense and some doesn’t but I’m staying in the plane!

I was so sorry to hear he was not well and so struck by the timing of the news, right in the middle of my write-ups of his debates and thinking. How frail our lives seem at times like this and how important they make these discussions. The arguments are not academic. I am praying that Christopher’s treatment would be successful and that God would heal him and catch him up in his loving arms. I trust he will come through this and look forward to seeing how the experience influences his thinking in the future.

Q&Q with the Hitchens (Hitchen vs Hitchen debate part 2)

Just to finish off my write up of Christopher and Peter Hitchens’ debate on God here are the questions from the audience. I have put myself into the debate too and made a few comments! As before I have done my best to represent the words of the combatants fairly given my limited time and typing speed.

Question :        Could you say something about self interest and morality.

Christopher :   Human solidarity comes to people very naturally. The idea that people didn’t know that rape was wrong until they got a stone tablet that told them is an insult to our decency and integrity. [The Israelites] would not have got there without knowing those things. The story of the good Samarian tells us that we don’t need religion to behave with ordinary morality. The priest didn’t do anything. It’s in my interest that people don’t suffer. I want them to have a bath for my sake!

Peter : In societies that don’t believe in hell, hell comes into existence.

Me : Surly no one argues that you can only do good things if you believe in God. The argument is rather than God gives you a basis for morality. Without God is it really always in my best interest that others don’t suffer? What if I believe the opposite ie that it’s in my best interest to make others suffer? I spend my life hurting others and die at a ripe old age having led a selfishly enjoyable life. How does morality force itself upon me? Morality makes sense if there is a God.

Question : Is truth real and how do you determine it?

Christopher : The task of finding truth may be unattainable but that does not mean we should give it up. The golden rule was stolen by the Christians from Rabbi Hillel (“don’t do to other people what you would not want them to do to you”). Except they mangled it (my recollection of what he said). “Loving others as yourself” is unattainable and it is sinister because of that. It is demanded that you do the impossible. You will always be in the wrong and in the claws of the priests. You are created sick and commanded to be well.

Me : Jesus did fulfil his own the positive version of the golden rule but I guess that misses the point being made that fallen man can’t and should therefore not be held responsible when he doesn’t. The bible recognises a version of this question “why does God still blame us” Rom 9:19 but does not give a full answer. It does however point to God’s right to do whatever he wants with the creatures he created. Maybe looking back a bit at Genesis will be helpful. Man was made in the image of God with moral responsibly. He was original created good and choose to do good. It was only when he chose to do evil that his nature/will became corrupted. The problem is then why his offspring are still held responsible given that they inherit a faulty nature. I don’t know but I would not be so quick to make the analogy between wills and bodies, moral failure and sickness. They are too different to assume that an absurdity in one maps to an absurdity in the other. In terms of the priestly control issue, it’s true that people misuse or misrepresent the truth about God to manipulate others but it doesn’t follow that there is no God.

Question : We should stop letting churches off paying tax.

Christopher : Religion is poisoning our democratic republic and its time we said “enough”!  BTW The green movement is taking on the forms of a religion. Original sin = humans existing! Sin = making smoke. Armageddon is coming and the way of Salvation lies in reducing our carbon footprint. Being environmental friendly is the new righteousness.

Question : What do you think about Intelligent Design

Peter : We do not know how things came into being. We should allow a hearing of various ideas including design. It’s telling that intelligent design arguments against evolution are not given space or tolerated. There has been a reversal of roles. Where once in the Stokes trial hard headed bible believing literalists tried to squash the discussion  of evolution, now evolutionists are trying to kick out all talk of intelligent design.

Christopher : We need to separate the fact of evolution from the means of evolution. There is debate about the later but no serious intellectual publications dispute the former.

Me : On the one had there is the issue of whether there is a plausible interpretation of Genesis that fits with a valid scientific understanding of the past. I have explored that in my other blog http://marcusbible.blogspot.com/ and I am sure will continue to explore it.  On the other hand there is the concept that sometimes get missed which is that God can and does sovereignly work through everything to accomplish his purposes. It is not a choice between creation or evolution as if he can’t work through a processes he set up, sustains and directs. He works through gravity and even human will to accomplish his purposes. If we look for God in the gaps we will look at him through a smaller and smaller window. We need to look for him in everything we know as well as everything we don’t know. We should glorify him for the rational order as well as exceptional miracles.

Question : What about subjective religious experience as giving us a valid window on reality?

Christopher : If you take the good subjective stuff you need to take the bad too. Someone says “God appeared to me and told me to help so and so” but someone else says “God appeared to me and told me to kill so and so”.  You need to take both or none.

Me : Why do you have to take all experiences as valid or none of them as valid? Why not form a coherent picture of what you see and use it to discern good from evil, valid from invalid? We can often discern a vision or mirage from reality in the light of the sum total of our sensory experience and our rational thought. We don’t say “everything I see corresponds to reality or none of it”.

Peter : People do bad things. Both religious and atheists do bad things but religious people do more good than atheists and rejecting religion will lead to an increase in bad things being done.

Question : Trotsky preached atheism and hung priests form the back a his train.

Christopher : Atheism is a necessary condition for enlightenment but not a sufficient one. Fascism and right wing Catholics did the same things. Why was Gerbils was expelled form the catholic church? For marrying a divorced protestant that’s why! No other Nazis were expelled and more than 40% of the SS were practicing confessing Catholics. No one was even threatened with excommunication! The Nazi party and Catholic church where united on many things…Northern Korea is the most religions state I have ever seen….You find me a state that threw of theocratic religion and said we adopt the teachings of Lucreacions, Democratus, Darwin and Rustle and fell into tyranny and torture.

Peter: Both religious and non religious people do bad things.  The most enlightened government in terms of its own self conceit was that of the French revolutionary terror which ended by executing so many people that the Place de la Concorde was ankle deep in blood and the executioners were too tired to finish their work. As for the soviet union, to portray the ideology and regime of  that country  as religious is an absurdity almost beyond belief requiring actually the most colossal nerve. It was a state that tried to murder God, it was a state of massacred priests, of desecrated and demolished churches in which people were brought up with enormous energy not to believe in God. There was no established religion there, no tax breaks for priests, nothing of that kind. A total, totalitarian horror of persecution of something which people believed to their own comfort in times of trouble and which they had to keep in their hearts privately if they wished to avoid being thrown out of their homes, jobs, and having their marriages deliberately destroyed though persecution.  That was the state of it. This was not a religious phenomenon. It is straightforwardly untrue to conclude that it was. I have conceded the evils done by my side, why can’t you! Just simply except that the soviet union was an atheist regime which hated God.

Christopher : because it would be false, because the Russian orthodox church stood then as it did with Stalin…there was never a moment that the powers at be didn’t find that church convenient [and the means by which to perpetrate evil]. Russia was not an atheist state, it was a pseudo religious state, trading upon its teaching.

Peter : The Bolshevik region from its beginning persecuted religion. That was not a religious phenomenon.

Christopher : regions take time to be expelled once the clerical class has been removed.

Me : Of course bad rulers can misuse Christianity. That does not make Christianity false, or the ruler religious. The key question is whether the actions of a regime are motivated by a belief in God or a belief that there is no God? Were they consistent with a religious ideology or an atheistic one? The answer, surly, in the case of Stalin, was that they were motivated by a belief that God did not exist. As far as the Catholic thing goes, I want to ask whether what they did was in line with biblical Christianity?. If Christopher can specify a branch of atheism represented by people like Democratus, then fairness should allow the specification of a particular religion or holy Book. The complication of course is that in Catholicism the teaching of the church carries authoritative weight too. You can’t just go to a book and see if the actions were consistent with it. (I would hope though that if you consulted authoritative representatives of the Catholic church today they would be grieved by the actions of the church back then.) I say again, the teaching of Jesus and an understanding of the whole biblical narrative, stand in utter opposition to what Stalin did. I share Peter’s frustration (as well as other like Alistair McGrath’s in The twilight of Atheism) that Christopher won’t accept that Atheistic regimes did very bad things.

Question: How can we avoid falling into a fundamentalist frame of thinking. How can we sustain a modern secular response to medieval fundamentalist atrocities?

Christopher : In the Middle East, a partition plan isn’t being accepted even though most people are ok with it because each side appeals to religion, saying “God gave us this land”. This persuades others and the stalemate continues, expect that is the Christian USA can support the Jews long enough (as a rope supports a hanging man) they can bring on the battle of Armageddon which is what all religions yean for anyway. “We want this world to be over” they say. Coexistence with religion is impossible. Now you see why religion poisons everything.

Me : It strikes me that there is a lumping together of all religion rather than looking at what the bible says. Of course worshiping false Gods will include very bad things among good things. I would say some key distinctions need to be made between Christianity and other religions. Following Jesus, as presented in the NT, does not lead to violence, hatred, persecution etc. At the end of the day though, in a democracy any moral stance by the majority will affect other peoples choices. The hard part is to put the OT acts commanded by God in a context such that they do not draw biblical Christianity down into the mire, placing it, with seeming legitimacy, alongside other religious groups who commit atrocities in the name of God or religion. That’s hard, but I believe it must be possible.

For one, the people were evil in ways it’s hard for me to think about. That’s ok up to a point but it leads to the question about the death of innocent children. At this point the temperature of the discussion gets as high as it’s possible for it go. I can point to the consequences of one generations sin on another (if parents are cruel or negligent their children suffer) or the presumed absence of any other way to provide a Messiah. The trouble is, though these are valid points that help intellectually, emotionally they fell like squirting water into a raging furnace.

My “Encyclopaedia of Bible difficulties” also makes the point that destroying the inhabitants of cities like Jericho was the only possible way of protecting Israel and bringing through the messiah. When Israel didn’t clear the land of other nations they were negatively influenced by them and turned away from God. They didn’t have the same spiritual recourses that are available to Christians today. We have the Holy Spirit in us to empower us on mission. Rather than withdraw from the world we are to be in it, where we shine without getting snuffed out, and bring flavour without being diluted. For this to be available Jesus had to come, and for him to come Israel need to exist. At least it’s reassuring to know that the situation has radically changed and there is no way that these things can be legitimate ways of extending God’s purposes and kingdom. Our weapons are not physical but spiritual; Rather than fire bullets we reach out with words;  instead of holding guns we serve with actions motivated by love (2 Cor 10:3-4). A double check on this is the truth that the things in the OT were shadows and pictures of the reality to come in Christ. The real challenge, it seems to me, is what would happen if you still accepted the OT but didn’t think the messiah had come. Would physical force, even genocide, to posses the land, still be a possibility?