This afternoon I had an interesting yet challenging encounter with the CU. Ruth, who I’d met at the society’s fair, invited me along to a lunchtime talk but I didn’t realise it was the Alpha Course. Maybe that’s a good thing because if I’d realised that I probably wouldn’t have gone (I’ve seen some of the materials used and it’s clearly geared towards Christians). In any case that wasn’t the interesting part, that was mainly just an exploration of Christian theology, which I’m not too interested in. I think it was good for them too to have an atheist come along and ask questions from that point of view.
I started by commenting on the notion of justice. During the talk there had been a section on grace and mercy which linked in with justice. God has to punish somehow, else where would the justice be? We wouldn’t be too happy if the Nuremberg Trials had just given Hitler a slap on the wrist (had he survived, of course), for example. But I entered the suggestion that an eternal punishment of any kind cannot be justified (whether you view hell as a place of torment or just a separation from God), there should always be some kind of time limit on it. One of the humanist society’s newer members, Greg, has made this argument before, but I think he made the mistake of saying you can’t justify eternal torment, when in fact a more modern interpretation of the idea of hell is that it’s just a separation from God, which takes the poke out of his argument, when in fact it should be on the idea that it’s eternal. There’s nothing you could do to warrant an eternal punishment. Someone brought up that even in human justice systems we have life sentences which, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, is essentially eternal, but for me that’s nothing to do with punishment, a life sentence is to protect to public from a dangerous person. The conversation kind of concluded on the thought that hell isn’t a punishment either, it’s a choice. People have chosen not to be with God, and hell (a separation from God) is the outcome of that choice, people just don’t realise how bad it is. That doesn’t really sit well with me either, but we kind of cover that later.
I then moved the conversation onto predeterminism, much to the groans of the others. The fact that God supposedly knows me and knows what I will do before it happens means that (presuming I don’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour) he has created me purely so that I can go to hell, which is a problem because he’s supposed to love me. Balancing free will against this predeterminism is also a significant problem with me. I suppose knowing what I’m going to do isn’t necessarily the same as controlling it, but in that case why does he bother with our time on earth, why not just judge us based on what he knows we’re going to do?
Free will is also one way to explain away the problem of evil which I brought up next. If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then how can evil persist in the world? Someone asked if I thought God controlled everything and I said no, just that he would intervene to prevent evil. The extension of that argument is that it would contravene our free will, but so what? Surely an omnibenevolent God would place the prevention of evil above free will? Even if not, free will doesn’t explain natural disasters and genetic diseases, but that can be explained by the Fall. Apparently the earth took the physical consequences of our sin. I have my own problems with the Fall (for example, there’s no evidence that sin is genetic), but for the purposes of the conversation I left that aside.
-It’s awkward, I keep remembering important things we talked about, but we were talking for a good 2 hours or so, I can’t possibly include it all here, which is a shame. Maybe I’ll fill in the gaps in another post another time-
I think I’ll finish on our discussion of the trilemma and its branches. You may be familiar with CS Lewis’ argument that Jesus was either ‘lunatic, liar or lord’, and that if he’s either of the first two he cannot be merely a great moral teacher on the lines of Ghandi, Buddha etc. I added the possibility that he was merely lied about (apparently a lot of people add the words ‘or legend’ at the end), but for the people there, the historical evidence is so overwhelming that that’s not an option. I’ve already dealt with this kind of thing in my review of The Case for Christ and I don’t accept it (it’s based on the view that miracles are just as likely as normal stuff, whereas I’m like Hume – after all, if we accept the possibility that witches might exist, what happens after that is the Inquisition, it’s a twisted logic). From their perspective I look like the closed-minded one, but they’re going to have to show me the evidence before I believe in miracles. I’m not likely to budge on that one. I also queried whether Jesus could be a good moral teacher if he was a lunatic, because as far as I know, morality and lunacy aren’t mutually exclusive. This really puts the trilemma in hot water because the only reason Lewis accepts Jesus as the Son of God is because the other options aren’t feasible.
It was good to go along and discuss this kind of thing. I think I was invited personally because I like to listen to people (this is something we’re not very good at as a society – even during our own meetings we get sidetracked into our own little conversations and people get ignored, a personal pet peeve of mine), and I appear more open to discussion, whereas other members of our society can seem intimidating. That’s going to be a weakness in interfaith events, I think. I also had to leave aside points of contention (like interpretations of genesis, for example) which I knew we wouldn’t get anywhere on. Anyway I think I’ll go along next week, but my timetable changes in 3 weeks so I may be unable to go after that.
That was a long post and I still didn’t cover half of it.