Atheism, Values and Sociopaths

I’ve read a couple of interesting articles over the last week or so, and both of them deal with atheism and values (as in the sense of morality). The first article was entitled “Famous atheists… reveal where they get their values from“. I found this absolutely fascinating: too often, atheists criticise religion without offering an alternative. As I’ve said before, atheism is not a replacement for religion – and so most of the atheists quoted in that article came out with humanism (which I’ve critiqued recently).

To my mind, one of the weakest points of atheism or humanism is the idea of values and morality: Bob may look at his fellow humans and decide that they are wonderful and that kindness and compassion are values he wants to live his life by. All well and good. On the other hand, John may look at his fellow humans, decide that they’re all worthless and reason that the best way to go about life is to lie, steal and cheat his way to the top. Which one is ‘right’? Well now, herein lies the problem. There is no ‘right’. As Dostoevsky wrote, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

This problem is not simply an academic one,  as the other post I’ve read demonstrates: “What sociopaths reveal to us about the existence of God“. The post is based on the video testimony of a former sociopath called David Wood. It highlights the problem atheism or humanism gets itself into when someone disagrees when it comes to morality: what do you do when someone dissents from morality as our culture tends to understand it? What do you do when someone takes atheism and concludes that we’re all a bunch of atoms, and that you might as well have a bit of fun while you’re on this earth – fun which includes killing other people?

If you read the article and scroll past the video, you’ll see three arguments presented by different people (Elton Trueblood, Immanuel Kant and C.S. Lewis) about the existence of morality. They argue that morality has to exist in an objective sense, otherwise – essentially – life as we know it would not make sense.

I think most people would say what David Wood thought was wrong – but is that a logical conclusion for those who believe there is no better standard to appeal to, i.e. that there is no objective morality? I think you could argue (to my mind, correctly) that he was simply being a consistent atheist. I’m curious to know if there was an atheist or humanist argument which could have changed his mind. I suspect not.

Sexuality and Friendship: Good news after all?

FriendshipI recently added a morning conference entitled Human Sexuality: Discerning a Biblical Vision, hosted by the Chelmsford Diocesan Evangelical Association. It was a good morning with three different speakers talking about various issues – theological, pastoral, and practical. One speaker was Lis Goddard, talking about the pastoral issues involved. Of the three sessions, I probably found hers the most practically helpful and thought-provoking.

One of the complaints I often hear from the LGBT community when discussing this issue is that the church’s traditional position is nothing but ‘bad news’ for gay people. Why would you turn a gospel of good news into a gospel of bad news – forcing people who are attracted to those of the same sex to a life of celibacy? How could God ask anyone to do that, surely it’s impossible for anyone to actually manage?

I’ve been thinking about this issue recently. What I’ve been beginning to see more clearly is that you can’t simply articulate the traditional, Biblical vision of sexuality without saying anything positive. Let me try and explain.

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Thoughts on the Church from 2 Timothy

A BibleIn our evening services at church, we’ve been preaching through 2 Timothy. It’s an absolutely wonderful book and I do commend it to you – especially if, like me, you are involved in Christian ministry in some way. As we’ve been going through it, I’ve been reminded time and again how Paul predicts pretty much the exact state of the church in this age – and, really, in every age. I’ve come to believe that 2 Timothy is actually one of the most prophetic books of the Bible, to my mind Paul absolutely nails it.

As I’ve prepared to preach on various passages I’ve picked up a few insights which I thought might be worth sharing with you today.

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All quiet on the blogging front

Just wanted to apologise here for how quiet it’s been here recently. Starting my new role as the curate here, moving house, and having a daughter who’s just turned one continues to take up the vast majority of my time! I do have thoughts about things I can blog about, but most of the time I simply don’t have the time to follow through with them.

Anyway, in the short term I will be blogging a fair bit less but I do plan to return to blogging more regularly as soon as I am able (whenever that may be)… and I will post from time to time on various subjects!

The emptiness of ‘Thought for the Commute’

The British Humanist Association have launched a new campaign called ‘Thought for the Commute’. This involves posters going up on the London Underground (initially) with inspirational quotes from famous Humanists.

I say inspirational quotes. The quotes are … well, in my opinion at least, not that inspirational. In fact, to be honest, I think it’s an illustration of how empty humanism actually is as a philosophy. Let’s have a quick look at them.

My notion is to think of the human beings first and let the abstract ideas take care of themselves. (Virginia Woolf)

Does that give you a nice warm glow in the pit of your stomach, and inspire you to love and cherish your fellow human being? … me neither. It’s morally neutral: one could well think of human beings first – in a negative sense – and let abstract ideas (such as ‘justice’, ‘compassion’, or ‘murder’) take care of themselves. It seems strange to me that you could think of human beings without thinking in terms of abstract ideas, such as love, kindness and justice.

If I’m being charitable, I think the sense of the quote is that we need to consider what’s best for human beings first, what is in their interests. But surely, what you think is in someone’s best interests will largely depend on the abstract ideas you have about what it means to be human, what it means to be in society (and so on).

Also, given that Woolf doesn’t seem to like “abstract ideas”… the quote is pretty abstract, isn’t it?

Wear a smile and make friends; wear a scowl and make wrinkles. What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other? (George Eliot)

This is probably the best of the four slogans, but it seems to boil down to “be nice!” It’s a good sentiment but, if the history of the human race has taught us anything, it doesn’t work. Try giving the slogan to ISIL in Iraq and see if that changes anything. Try giving it to rich people who are exploiting the poor and see if it changes anything.

The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile. (Bertrand Russell)

I’m sorry, but… this is useless. The second half (“friendly rather than hostile”) is essentially ‘be nice’ (albeit with a caveat – “as far as possible”), and so suffers from the same defect that I mentioned above. The first part… let your interests be as wide as possible? Really? That’s the secret of happiness? There are plenty of people whose interests are pretty narrow, from what I’ve seen they don’t seem less happy than average.

The meaning of your life is what you make it. (A.C. Grayling)

There should, of course, be a footnote which says “unless you’re Adolf Hitler, Rupert Murdoch or … any other bogeyman you’d like to mention”. And that’s not to mention that life is not really what any of us make it: life didn’t turn out the way I expected it to be, for sure. I’m sure it’s the same for pretty much everybody. Many people, in fact, having achieved what they dreamed of, end up feeling empty because there’s nothing else to try for. Why do people who win sports tournaments enter them again the next year?

Part of the problem with this statement – and really with all of them – is that they are vague enough that they could be applied to just about anything. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about why some ideas are memorable and some are forgotten. They cite Jesus as a master example of someone who communicated effectively using their criteria. Things like referring to specific, concrete objects (i.e. trees, farmers, and sowers in Jesus’ parables) rather than abstract ideas. All these BHA slogans seem to fall short simply on the grounds of effective communication. Bertrand Russell’s quote is particularly egregious in that regard – as if anyone ever refers to “things and persons that interest [them]” in those terms! How forgettable is that phrasing?! (As an aside, do have a read of George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language for some gold dust on poor use of language).

Many atheists recently have begun to realise that saying “there is no God” is insufficient – such as Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists” or the atheist ‘church’. Unfortunately, as this campaign demonstrates, it turns out that it’s pretty hard to come up with something positive to replace religion. For my money, I think it’s because human beings are hard-wired to find meaning, meaning which can only be found ultimately in God. Exhorting someone to ‘be nice’ will not really change anything – I think only God has the power to change someone’s life (I wonder how many humanist cardboard testimonies there are, for example).

We’ll have to wait and see what the reaction to the campaign will be. For my money, I’m betting there won’t be much of one!

Sermon: Abraham and the Promise – Genesis 12:1-9

This is the text of a sermon I preached this morning at church. It’s part of a series on Genesis (looking at Creation – Fall – Noah – Abraham – Joseph, following our Holiday Club themes).

I think at some point I will need to reconsider posting up sermons as I’m not sure that the blog is the best format for this kind of thing. In the meantime, they will be here. Without further ado, here’s the link to the PDF:

Abraham and the Promise – Genesis 12v1-9

Evangelicals and disagreement: What can we learn from the Arians?

Athanasius of Alexandria.

If you haven’t seen the news recently, Christian worship leader and media commentator Vicky Beeching has come out as gay. (If you don’t know who she is, or any of the background, that link will hopefully explain). In a similar vein to Steve Chalke, who came out in support of same-sex marriage recently, Vicky wants to retain the label ‘evangelical’. All this has re-opened the same debate which has been bubbling away for some time now: just what is an evangelical? (A subject which I’ve written about before from another angle).

I read an interesting post this week by Ian Paul about the role of experience in interpreting Scripture, and it made me realise once again that the debate (within evangelical circles at least) largely centres around how we interpret Scripture. Two people can have the same view of Scripture and yet interpret it differently, so it is said – therefore, both interpretations are legitimate.

It put me in mind of something I studied at college last year – namely, the debate between those defending Nicene Christology and the Arians. If your eyes glazed over when I mentioned the word ‘Nicene’ and you entered a coma-like state at ‘Christology’… I apologise. I will explain. But the similarity between the debates within evangelical circles today and the debates in around the 4th century AD are striking, to say the least. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). Continue reading