Fraternising with the enemy

The latest edition of Humanitie is out. This is my contribution, which as always should be read alongside Tim’s contribution from The Friendly Humanist.

I was invited by a friend of mine in the Christian Union (yes, I do have friends) to an Alpha Course group. For the first few weeks we followed the structure of the course guide, but we increasingly noticed that Nicky Gumbel, the incredibly well-spoken man behind the course, assumes he’s managed to turn everyone into a Christian after week three. Unsurprisingly, he’ll have to try again with me. So we did away with the course guides and instead we’d just have a discussion about some aspect of Christianity like the power of prayer, final judgement or the unlikelihood of life or something. Then after a few weeks of that we watched some short films as a stimulus and have a discussion afterwards, and we kind of fizzled out from there. All in all we met for about 10 weeks.

There were several points when I realised some differences between many theists and many atheists. For me and most other people, the reason for debate and discussion is a healthy respect for the truth. But that didn’t always seem to be the case there. Sometimes it seemed that the only reason they were engaging in the discussion was in the hope that I’d change my mind, with no possibility that they might too. Often I would make a point that they couldn’t answer (like for example that you could never justify eternal punishment), but instead of taking it on board, they just changed tack and used another argument to try and convince me. I didn’t expect that from relatively liberal Christians at university (although I’m still shocked that several members of the CU don’t believe in evolution).

So is it worth doing? Definitely! Interactions of this type between humanists and faith groups mean that next time someone at church refers to the demon atheist wallowing in sin and obstinate hatred of the innocent baby Jesus, the believer knows at least one example where that isn’t true, and similarly we don’t fall into the lazy trap of generalising religionists as idiots (we should only call them idiots if they ARE idiots). Humanists should constantly be challenging their own positions, and discussion with a group of people who don’t share those positions is the perfect opportunity to do so! I found that I came out of such encounters more sceptical of religious belief than when I went in, with my arguments and opinions honed (and my patience more durable). I have an appreciation for evidence that I didn’t have before. But most importantly of all, these interactions with faith groups mean that now, everyone at the Chaplaincy includes non-believers in their thoughts and actions from the offset. They no longer speak of ‘faith groups’ but of ‘beliefs and traditions’ or ‘backgrounds’. The humanists at the university have become part of a wider community based at the Chaplaincy. Of course many might see that as an excellent reason not to interact, but I think those people are missing out.


5 Responses to Fraternising with the enemy

  1. Kirsty Moffat says:

    Firstly, may I just say that I can’t stand Nicky Gumbel. He irritates me. Second, kudos for being open-minded enough to go to Alpha! One question though(for now). What do you mean by “you could never justify eternal punishment”?

  2. grammarking says:

    Hi Kirsty, missing you already…

    I get the impression that Gumbel would be such a better person to know if he wasn’t heading Alpha. He seems to be trying to be perfect because he’s in the spotlight, but occasionally something funny underneath shines through that makes him seem human. But yes, annoying.

    You could never justify eternal punishment because all earthly crimes are temporal and finite. Say Hitler was the most evil man in history, he was responsible for the deaths of say 6 million people. Say he served 20 life sentences (saying 50 years for a life sentence) for each of those people (something I’d consider excessive), that’s 120 million life sentences, some 6 billion years of jailtime (or horrifying torture). After that, he’s still got the rest of eternity. How can you possibly justify such an excessive, never-ending, infinite punishment for a finite crime? A finite crime deserves a finite punishment. I would also ask what the point of such a system is on two levels:

    First of all, quite obviously, the point of punishment is not retribution, it’s rehabilitation, it’s a deterrent, it’s for reparation. Eternal punishment doesn’t fulfil that role. Eternal punishment cannot be correctional because it never ends, even if the criminal changes their ways.

    Secondly, if God is all-knowing, then he’s created me in the knowledge that I’m going to hell. He’s essentially created me for the purpose of going to hell. Now, even if despite his omniscience he doesn’t know that, he’s got heaven and he’s got hell and he’s created the earth as this kind of filter between what he sees as the good and the bad (I’d actually argue that my moral sensibilities are much better than his, if the Bible is anything to go by). Why did he bother with the earth at all? If he’s creating the game, why not just do away with the whole test thing and just have heaven with a bunch of good souls that know and love him? It doesn’t make sense, from start to finish it doesn’t make any sense.

  3. Kirsty Moffat says:

    It actually really depends on how you look at it. Some would argue that eternal damnation or hell is actually just eternal separation from God as opposed to some kind of cosmic torture chamber. God is so perfect and holy that it doesn’t matter if you have only sinned once in your life- you are still dirty by comparison. The punishment for that is hell(eternal separation from God). Even if you rehabilitate someone, they will never be perfect enough to earn back the right to be with God. That’s where the blood of Christ comes in. I know you would argue with this point, but I’m going to make it anyway. Jesus was completely sinless and as such would not have to endure hell, so he took our sins upon himself and died. If you accept that then his blood effectively covers you and the price has already been paid. You get to spend eternity with God.

    As to your second point, God created humans for relationship with Him. Life on earth was not intended to be a test to see if people go to heaven or hell. Originally God created Eden, a total paradise for Adam and Eve where He could just be with them. They fucked that up of course, because God decided that people should have free will. He wants people to choose Him. He didn’t want to just make a bunch of puppets that would love Him because He forced them to. The same applies to you as well. I honestly can’t answer the question as to why God would create people who He knows will never come to Him and will inevitably end up in hell. Maybe He just figures that they still deserve to live and that it is their choice to make.

  4. grammarking says:

    You should know I don’t normally discuss this with people I care about, I don’t like offending my friends.

    However, it doesn’t matter how you look at it. If hell, whatever you consider that to be, is worse than heaven, and is imposed by God, then it’s a punishment. Like I say, you can’t justify eternal punishment for finite, temporal crimes. Unless you’re saying it’s impossible for God to just forgive me? He’s incapable of just forgiving? Why does he need to go through this whole charade of sacrificing himself to himself, if he’s creating the game and its rules? Because just forgiving is what an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being would do. I would also argue that Jesus didn’t give that much of a sacrifice but that’s maybe for a different post.

    Your second paragraph. Well, we’re not working on the assumption that Genesis is true, are we?

    Furthermore I would question how much of a free choice it is. First of all, it’s hardly a free choice if there’s eternal punishment behind it. If I put a gun to your head and said “Are you having chicken or beef? If you choose chicken I’m going to blow your brains out” then it’s not a free choice. There’s a series of 3 videos which address this point, starting here:

    Secondly, it’s not a free choice if I’m not given all the information. Especially when the greatest sin is apparently not believing in God, I can hardly be blamed for that when the evidence for the existence of God is a little lacking. If I don’t know heaven and hell exist then obviously I haven’t made a choice between the two. On a similar vein, I can’t choose what I believe. I believe what I do based on the evidence I’ve seen. If I could just choose to believe, wouldn’t God see through that? So it’s not a choice, your belief is based on external factors for which, again, you can’t be blamed. I suppose the nearest thing would be if you died and met Thor, and he sentenced you to eternal punishment because you ‘chose’ not to believe in him. Ridiculous, I hope you agree.

    Finally, let me ask you one thing. The Bible says I’m going to hell. The one unforgivable sin is denying the holy spirit, according to the Gospels, and I’ve done that several times. Do you think I deserve that? You know me, I’m a fairly nice guy.

  5. […] is in complete contrast to the debating style of many theists I’ve encountered, who’ll sometimes not bother responding in any depth to any refutation that you offer, […]

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