Sun | Dec 11, 2016

Imagine there's no heaven

Published:Sunday | December 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Ian Boyne
Dan Silverman displays the Atheist Proclamation. Contributed
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Ian Boyne

Imagine there's no heaven

It's easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today ...

That John Lennon classic expresses the hubris of an atheistic outlook which presumes that the death of religion ushers in cosmopolitanism and a sense of shared brotherhood and camaraderie bereft of divisive, often violent, religious divisions. It continues:

Nothing to kill or die for

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace.

Such a happy, utopian world, without religion. It's hard for the average Jamaican to see how anyone in his right mind could be an atheist, let alone for that person to believe life would be better without God. Indeed, one letter writer to The Gleaner this week who stated quite matter-of-factly that there is no one who is truly an atheist represents the views of many who simply can't imagine — however much John Lennon implores — that there is no God in this vast universe.

Last week in my column ('Can the Church be saved?'), I pointed to some of the moral problems theologians themselves find in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. It is commonplace now when one goes on atheistic sites or reads books by atheists and agnostics to see a litany of texts that deeply offend our moral sensibilities. Gays like to use these texts to ask, essentially, how can you trust a book like this as a source of moral authority and then use it to condemn us when it has these repugnant and absurd edicts that nobody would dare advocate today?

A number of educated people believe in God, but fewer of them believe in the Bible. At least not in the way they used to decades ago. I have been following very intensely this atheism-theism debate. One of my main observations is that many outside the academy and the scholarly world are quite one-sided in their reading. I find that many who write blog comments and have other Internet postings as well as those who respond to newspaper articles are usually quite conversant with popular atheistic arguments and objections to Christianity, but are largely ignorant of conservative or liberal Christian responses.

history's trash heap

I also generally find that even among the scholars, conservative Christian or mainline Christian scholars are usually more aware of what their opponents have written about their views than vice versa. Part of it is the arrogance of many atheists and sceptics who see the views of religious people as so inherently absurd and archaic that it would be a waste of valuable time to even consider them. After all, does anyone today consider whether Zeus, Marduk or Dionysus exist? Religion, including Christianity, is for the trash heap of history.

Patrick White and Ethon Lowe will show evidence of their acquaintance with popular anti-Christian objections, regurgitated from some common sources, but they evince no evidence at all of any acquaintance with credentialed Christian philosophers and scientists. They are totally pedestrian and unsophisticated when it comes to philosophy and, especially White, abjectly oblivious to the philosophy of science. (Unfortunately, I am completely embarrassed about the appallingly poor responses of the Christians, including pastors, to them).

White and Lowe recite the popular Dawkins-Hitchens arguments as well as those of other infantile atheists, but they are clearly unaware of the work of more sophisticated atheists, and certainly of the finest Christian apologists. I don't mean to demean or to be offensive to these gentlemen.

As a Christian, I have taken it as a duty to read all the serious atheists and agnostics. And I will say this: I generally find the atheists - especially the agnostics - more sophisticated and nuanced than their religious counterparts. I find many Christian apologists superficial, trite and lacking in rigour. I watch many atheist-Christian debates, and generally the atheists have the better arguments. Some of the Christian apologists I used to be impressed with when I began my serious reading in the 1970s no longer hold my intellectual interest.

I realise now that these esteemed Christian apologists can't answer the best arguments of the agnostics (I find agnosticism far more appealing than atheism, though I am still a committed theist.)

veritas forum

If you really want some sources where you can be exposed to some of the most intellectually stimulating Christian philosophers, scientists and theologians you have to visit the Veritas Forum. Online. The Veritas Forum holds debates on a number of Ivy League campuses and features the best thinkers and scholars in atheism and theism. Just log on and you will experience exquisite pleasure, if you like the life of the mind. Brilliant, first-rate atheists and theists debate in a civil, responsible and respectful way.

Another indescribably valuable source of atheist-theist, theological debates is Justin Bryley's Saturday evening show (which is archived) titled 'Unbelievable' on Premier Christian Radio (Britain). Every Saturday, the leading minds in theology, philosophy and science come together to debate for an hour and a half. Any big name in scholarship you can think of, you find him on that show. Peter Enns, whose latest book, The Bible Tells Me So, which I quoted last week, was two weeks ago challenged on his views by another top-rated biblical scholar, Professor David Instone-Brewer.

Think there is no response to the arguments about the genocidal God who ordered the execution of the Canaanites? Well, tune in online to that podcast. Want to hear Dawkins seriously challenged by top Christian scientists from the finest universities? Go to Unbelievable and the Veritas Forum.

Leading Christian philosopher William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith website is another very valuable source for Christian apologetics. Craig is formidable, though I believe he met his match in a recent debate with the brilliant atheistic astrophysicist Sean Carroll. I have seen Craig debate the finest atheistic philosophers and scientists and I have never seen him clearly outgunned, but had to give it to Carroll in that encounter.

If you are serious about your atheism or agnosticism, or if you harbour grave doubts about the reliability of the Bible, you owe it to yourself to be exposed to the best arguments of those who disagree with you.

Don't take dogmatic positions as a sceptic and you have not done your thorough reading. Resist intellectual laziness. Invest time in intellectual engagement. Certainly, if you intend to be writing in response to articles like these. For my atheistic readers, I suggest you go online and watch debates with or lectures by Oxford mathematician and philosopher John Lennox, Os Guinness, William Lane Craig, Hans Halvorson, Ian Hutchinson, Satyan Devadoss, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Ravi Zacharias. Read Richard Swinburne, William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, as well as those just quoted. On Bible, read Craig Evans, Daniel Wallace, Craig Bloomberg (get his recent book Can We Trust the Bible?), Darrell Bock, NT Wright, Joel Green, Andreas Kostenberger, Don Carson, just for starters.

serious debate

There are some absolutely brilliant atheists and agnostics whom any serious Christian intellectual has to read if you want more than the elementary and puerile arguments advanced by Hitchens, Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. You have to read Taner Edis, William Rowe, John Schellengberg, (super-brilliant) Graham Oppy, Michael Martin, Theodore Drange, Keith Parsons, Wes Morriston, Richard Gale, Kai NJielsen, Paul Kurtz, and Richard Carrier, and Bart Ehrman.

We need a serious, nuanced debate on Christianity and religious faith. For example, many of the criticisms about the Bible are reactions to fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. People like Dawkins, Harris and the late Hitchens are not theologians, and many of the texts they cite to show the Bible is foolishness are ripped from their literary, historical and sociological contexts. They are made to look absurd simply because these atheists don't have the hermeneutical tools to interpret the texts and they are really responding to those ignorant and unlearned preachers they see on television. They are responding to a popular Christianity divorced from any scholarly roots.

Atheists and agnostics have not been exposed to a broad range of biblical scholarship. Of course, people like Ehrman and other former Christian theologians like John Loftus have and still reject Christianity. But they are in the minority.

Another time I will show that John Lennon's optimism about how beautiful the world would be if there were no heaven is just another delusion.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who works with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.