Sunday, December 18, 2005

An open letter to an atheist friend of my daughter

I hate to begin with, "When I was your age," but here I go.

When I was your age, I also said I was an atheist, and I mostly believed it. I didn't know about any Big Bang, but I believed in evolution and determinism and behavior modification and operant conditioning and mathematics.

But there were two things that got me off that track -- two "interruptions" if you will, in the language of this weekend's sermon at MPPC.

The first was a pair of annoying question about ethics. Are they real or are they imaginary? And if they're real, where do they come from?

I had a sense, as I think you have, that "right and wrong" are real rather than imaginary, more akin to Columbus than to Zeus and Hera. Some people claim that ethics are relative, but I don't think they really believe, for example, that
Murder is wrong for me but I'm not going to judge you if that's your culture.
Well, maybe they do, sort of. Until it affects someone they care about.

But if ethics are real, where do they come from? I took a couple of classes in college on this -- in fact, I was one of Michael Bratman's first Stanford students. What I learned there was astonishing. There are several schools of meta-ethical thought -- meta-ethics being the question of "What is the nature of statements like 'X is good' or 'X is praiseworthy'?" There are non-naturalists like G.E. Moore, naturalists like (forgive me, this was over 30 years ago - Hume maybe?), and non-cognitivists like A.J. Ayer(?), but each position has serious flaws. And there are no others.

Sorry for the digression. This "where do they come from?" is a very difficult question for someone who doesn't believe in God. Kant formulated the categorical imperative, but it doesn't really work because, as Hume says, it doesn't engage the passions. J.S. Mill's attempt to reduce ethics to utilitarianism doesn't wash because its foundation is based on some verbal sleight-of-hand (or -pen). I feel another digression coming on.
The proof that something is audible is that you can hear it, wrote Mill. Likewise, the proof that something is desirable is that you can desire it. Hence, ethics, to promote desirable things, must necessarily promote the things that people desire.

I'm oversimplifying Mill, and probably distorting him, too, but I'm confident that I got the comparison between "audible" and "desirable" correct. The problem, of course, is that what *can* be desired, or what *is* desired, is not what "desirable" means in the ethical sense. Rather, when we say something is desirable in the moral sense, what we mean is that it ought to be desired, that it should be desired, that it is honorable and good.
In the opening essay of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes that the human perception of right and wrong gives us some valuable clues to the meaning of the universe - the meaning of life.

But at your age, this argument didn't do much for me. Neither did the next one, but I'll tell you anyway.

The Empty Tomb

The essence of Buddhism, or Taoism, or Yoga or TM or any other philosophy or ethical system, is a set of principles. You follow the 8-fold path, you do certain practices, you train your mind and/or body in certain ways, you suppress desires, and you get the goodies. Exactly where the principles came from isn't the point -- the point is the principles themselves. Did the Buddha reach enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, or was he on a ship at sea? Who cares? Did Baba Ram Dass do mescaline, or was it LSD or "magic" mushrooms? Who cares? The point is that the adherents or practitioners do the practices, they train themselves, they empty their minds, they do whatever.

But isn't Christianity the same? To be sure, there are some similarities. Do some religions teach that desire brings suffering? "Do not love the world, nor the things in the world," says the Bible.

Is self-denial important? Jesus says, "... let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."

How about charity? "Sell your possessions and give to the poor."

Many (but not all!) of the principles are the same across religions, but most important is the man Jesus. His birth is important, but not nearly as important as his death and resurrection. Two of the four evangelists, Mark and John, don't mention his birth at all; Matthew mentions the Magi, and Luke mentions the shepherds. There are no discrepancies, but little overlap.

But all four evangelists mention his death and resurrection, and the resurrection is shown as the pivotal event. When the frightened, demoralized, scattered bunch of disciples encounter the resurrection, they turn around and turn the established religious order upside down.

Peter, who before the resurrection denied Jesus before a servant girl, became a bold spokesman who faced beatings, scourgings, imprisonment and death for him. The others do similar things.

The principles are important to Christianity, but the center is Jesus Christ himself, and in particular the fact of the empty tomb -- his body has never been found, in spite of the best efforts of very powerful, highly motivated people.

So why is the empty tomb so important? Here's how I understand it.

The gospels report -- as do the records of Josephus -- that Jesus of Nazareth said a lot of important things. Among them were:
1. The Scriptures (what we today call the Old Testament) are the infallible word of God.
2. That God is my father and I am one with him in a unique way.
3. I will be killed but will rise on the third day
4. After I leave, I will send my spirit, who will guide you in all truth and tell you what to say (and, by implication, write)
Because #3 came true (his body has never been found), that's an indication to me that #1-#4 are all true.

People may say the gospels form a self-serving fantasy, but whom do they serve? The disciples do not come off looking very good. Consider Mark chapter 16:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Whom does this serve? Mary and Mary? I don't think so. At the beginning, they go to the tomb without a plan. They receive instructions to "go, tell his disciples..." but they say nothing to anyone.

Then does this serve the male disciples? Nah! You have to understand that at the time this was written, the testimony of a woman was not admissible in a court of law. If this were a fantasy that was supposed to make the men look good, the men would have been the ones to get the angelic visit. And they wouldn't have muffed the instructions, either!

"OK," some have said, "Maybe it's not a self-serving fantasy; maybe it's a fantasy serving some vision of a greater good. These guys were really dedicated fanatics." A valid point, but let's consider how likely it really is. These guys stuck to their guns, many of them to horrific deaths. I have never read Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but you might find it instructive.

In Born Again, Charles Colson deals with this theory. The men involved in the Watergate break-in believed they were doing the Right Thing, but the conspiracy fell apart pretty quickly. What were these guys threatened with? A few months in a minimum-security facility. Would they be killed? Tortured? Ha!

The contrast is laughable. Smart, well-educated lawyers threatened with a few months in a minimum-security facility couldn't hold a conspiracy together even a few months, for something they believed was a worthy goal. How likely is it that Jesus's disciples, these (for the most part) uneducated men could hold on to a lie their whole lives -- in the face of starvation, torture, and death?

I'm sure these arguments won't convince you.

That's all right. If I've sown a few seeds of doubt in your faith of atheism, that'll be fine.

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