Before I jump into today’s post, the standard disclaimer: This is narcissistic for two reasons: (a) People in the comments of previous posts usually frame it as, “But Bob, you still haven’t explained how you can reconcile your faith with objection #12…?” and because (b) I am quite an amateur in these matters and don’t pretend to speak for “Christians.” So that’s why I frame this stuff as, “Here’s how I think about it…”
Q: “OK let’s assume your arguments (as presented to the hypothetical Landsburg, for example) establish the existence of a God. How do you know it’s the God of the Bible? Why are you a Christian and not, say, a Muslim or a Buddhist?”
According to the gospel accounts, Jesus claimed He was the Son of God, and in fact God Himself who assumed human form. In my understanding, none of the other major religious figures did this. So if I already think (on other grounds) that there is an intelligent Creator of the universe, who communicates with humans, and then I come across stories of this guy Jesus claiming that He was sent by God etc., then I prima facie want to hear more from this guy; maybe what he’s saying is true.
I don’t know enough about the other major religions to say whether they are consistent with Christianity or not. For example, I think from 30,000 feet Muslims, Jews, and Christians believe in the same God, though they have different names and stress different things about Him. So it’s not that I think (say) an orthodox Jew is “wrong”–of course not, since Jesus Himself was raised as an orthodox Jew! Rather, I just think Jesus was the Messiah for whom the Jews were waiting. (I don’t know enough about Islam to say how it relates to Christianity.)
I looked into Buddhism when I was in grad school during this transition phase (I can’t remember if it was before or after I dropped my atheism) and I found it just didn’t resonate with me. I realize this is a very big paraphrase, but I concluded that Buddhists basically say, “Stop stressing out about the world, just stop caring what happens. You are upset that bad things happen, but who’s to say that it’s bad? Maybe it’s good. And really, to be truly at peace you should drop these notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ altogether.” In contrast, I took the Christian view to say, “Stop stressing out about the world, God is in charge, and He is omnipotent and infinitely good. Yes bad things do happen, but He has a plan that will allow those admittedly bad things to redound to the greater good in the long run.” Those are very different views, even though superficially they sound the same.
As far as Zeus etc., I am not aware of masses of people who claimed to have seen firsthand his mighty works and then were willing to die instead of renouncing those views. In contrast, the early Christian martyrs would have known if Jesus really came back from the dead, or if that were something they made up in order to win converts to their cause. I am prepared to believe that people will lie for a cause, but less willing to believe that they will be willingly tortured to death for something they know is a fraud.
Q: “Why don’t you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? What about this lady who claims she saw intelligent dolphins? If we believe you about God, are we supposed to believe her about dolphins too?”
A: Just about everyone except Objectivists agrees that the moral teachings attributed to Jesus are very wise (though some would quibble about how literally we are to apply them). I personally am a pacifist, and go even further and think that loving everyone and holding no grudges is a wonderful recipe for happiness on this Earth. So I think that when it comes for advice on how to live, the Biblical character of Jesus of Nazareth is the best teacher of all time.
There is obviously nothing like this regarding the FSM or the dolphins that lady reported. If she told us the dolphins told her all these wise sayings, which at first sounded crazy but in retrospect–like after growing in wisdom through decades of living–they sounded truer and truer, then yeah maybe I would give her story more credence. But as it is, she sounds as crazy to me as she does to the atheist, and I don’t see any reason to inquire further.
To repeat, I WAS NOT offering my personal experiences as evidence that should sway anybody else. The reason I offered those things was so that my atheist/agnostic opponents would understand why I had such conviction in my beliefs. Someone brought up an alien analogy, and that’s a good one. Suppose some guy literally was visited by aliens when he was out hiking in the mountains; he went into their ship and saw all kinds of advanced things etc. Now if then tried to argue with astronomers and other scientists about the existence of extraterrestrial life, he obviously couldn’t cite those experiences. But he would be quite sure that when some guy tried to “deduce” that the universe couldn’t possibly support alien life, that this guy was making a mistake in his reasoning.
So it’s a similar thing with me, and the arguments we have every week on this blog. I can use my reason to spot (what is obvious to me) a non sequitur in someone’s “knockdown” argument against the Bible or whatever, but beyond that I have personally communicated with God (or so I believe) and so that’s why I’m all the more sure that I am right on this question. I didn’t even bring that stuff up for a long time, because I knew the scorn to which I would be subjected (like Landsburg saying my arguments were “insane” not to mention the kudos from Major Freedom). Back to the alien analogy, the guy who had been personally visited probably would bite his tongue too, knowing full well he’d be painted as a nutjob if he said, “I know they’re real! I talked to them!” But we can all understand that those experiences would drive home the point, for that particular guy.
Q: “Why does your God let innocent children die of cancer?”
A: This is a classic conundrum and great thinkers have shed much ink on it. Let me give a very quick reply that will sound incredibly flippant and heartless, but I actually think is correct:
Once again, we have to seriously entertain the hypothesis that the God described by the Bible exists. Now if that is true, there is a sense in which He personally kills everyone who ever lives. In other words, suppose the 10-year-old boy who dies from cancer instead lived to be 120 and died of “old age.” In that scenario too, God killed him. That’s because God is responsible for everything that happened.
Now one might follow up and say, “*sigh* OK fine Murphy, but why do little kids have to suffer? Why can’t they just go peacefully in their sleep?”
But who’s to say how much suffering and pain we experience in an absolute sense? Look, no matter how God designed our universe and the human experience, so long as there were some variation from life to life, then some events would be “painful” compared to others. Now it’s logically conceivable that we could live in a world where the following torment is a possible thing that could happen to you:
C-3PO: His high exaltedness, the Great Jabba the Hutt, has decreed that you are to be terminated immediately.
Han Solo: Good, I hate long waits.
C-3PO: You will therefore be taken to the Dune Sea, and cast into the pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlaac.
Han Solo: Doesn’t sound so bad.
C-3PO: In his belly you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years.
Han Solo: On second thought, let’s pass on that, huh?
There’s another element to this. Some cynics (like an economist from the University of Rochester) wonder why Christians even take minimal effort to preserve their lives. After all, if paradise awaits us once we die, then why go to the doctor or put on seatbelts? What a bunch of hypocrites these Christians are! (Or actually, as Landsburg suspects, they don’t really believe the stuff they chant on Sundays.)
Now I’m skipping some steps in the argument, but related to Landsburg’s criticism, I have seen other cynics wonder why a loving God who “just wants a relationship with us” would subject us to a painful testing ground on this miserable planet. So here’s what I claim: You can say that it makes no sense for the Christian God to allow kids to die early. Or, you can claim that it makes no sense for the Christian God to subject us to decades of toil on this Earth subject to scarcity, evil, etc. But, it doesn’t really make sense to level both accusations simultaneously. Even though it is OBVIOUSLY devastating when any parent loses a young child, if the Bible is correct, then the Christian parent hopes (and “has faith that”) when he or she dies and enters paradise too, the child will be there and the parent will be so grateful that God, in His infinitely good plan, allowed that child to enter paradise that much sooner. From that eternal, heavenly perspective, the eight-month battle with leukemia or whatever it was, will literally be like a momentary blip in contrast to the eternity of inconceivable joy, basking in the presence of God Himself.
I don’t mean to downplay how awful things are in this world; they really are. But what I’m saying is, think of “the worst thing that ever happened in human history.” No matter how God designed things, we would still be able to carry out that task, and then cynics would wonder, “Why did God allow such a bad thing to occur?”