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  1. The problem of God and “sincere disbelief”

    I would like to respond to the Opinion piece by Michael Collett which appeared on the ABC website on 29 March 2017 (entitled, “God and the problem of sincere disbelief”). In his article, Michael asserts that he rejected the Christian faith of his childhood after a “sincere search for the truth”. Michael’s rejection of Christianity and acceptance of atheism is not based on any “sincere search for truth”, but simply his personal and subjective preference. It is unlikely that Michael will change his mind about Christianity – since his decision to embrace atheism was not based on reason – but it may be beneficial for readers to expose the inconsistent arguments, muddled conclusions, logical errors and contradictions within the article.

    Michael says that his journey from faith to disbelief began with having an unbelieving girlfriend. He writes: “She wasn’t a radical atheist. She didn’t try to steer me away from my faith. She had a sense of spirituality of her own, and was open to the idea of there being a god. In short, she had nothing against my Christianity: she just wasn’t convinced by it.” Since Michael’s girlfriend was open to the idea of there being a god, she wasn’t really an atheist, but rather an agnostic. We may forgive Michael for his inaccurate use of terms, but not for confused reasoning. Christianity claims that there is only one God and the way to him is through faith in Jesus Christ. If Michael’s girlfriend was not convinced by it, it means she was rejecting the claim and hence objecting to Christianity. From what he tells us, it appears Michael’s girlfriend was not a relativist as he seems to think.

    Michael states that his girlfriend, being an unbeliever, “changed everything” for him. But what exactly was it that “changed everything”? It was not that she had good reasons for rejecting Christianity. In fact, he states that she did not try to convince him about anything. It appears that Michael’s decision to question everything was driven by his desire to please his girlfriend or to be like her, rather than on any evidence or a “sincere search for truth”. Michael goes on to state that his girlfriend showed him that “there were people who had looked at Christianity and been unmoved, unstirred; simply, unsold.” And that, “It was upon this realisation that the edifice of my faith began to crack.” Again, we note that Michael’s faith began to crack when he discovered that many people were unbelievers, not on any investigation of the evidence or on sound reasoning. He discloses that he has been swayed by the opinion of the majority. Michael’s first reason for rejecting Christianity was because his girlfriend and many people did not find it convincing (it is called peer-pressure). There is no argument here based on a sincere search for the truth.

    The second reason why Michael objects to Christianity is because he disagrees with the principle expressed in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” He says, “It always seemed unconscionable to me that someone could be denied salvation not because of a moral failing, but because they simply disagreed about the evidence for God.” (His argument is not very consistent, it frequently changes the topic, and there are grammatical errors, but we will overlook that for the moment.) Michael now sets himself up as judge. He implies that he is more just and righteous than the God of the Bible. According to him, people should only be denied salvation if they have a moral failing. But, if that is the case every human stands condemned! Who does not have a moral failing? The message of the gospel is that people with moral failings can be saved through God’s mercy and grace. Michael also sets up a straw man, according to him Christianity teaches that people are denied salvation because “they simply disagreed about the evidence for God.” Where in the Bible does it say that? Michael’s argument is not based on what Christianity actually teaches or on any scientific or historical argument, it is simply based on his predilections.

    After the straw man argument, comes the red herring. “Could someone really be condemned to hell for not being able to reconcile the idea of a loving God with a world of pain?” Here Michael assumes a standard of justice or righteousness that both humans and God must adhere to, and he implies that he is adhering to it, but not God. But, if God does not exist, on what basis does he establishes his idea of righteousness? Why should the world be just? Many theologians have addressed the problem of evil, and some responses have been more adequate than others. But, ultimately for Christians, Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates that God is not aloof or unaffected by the suffering in the world. In fact, he took it upon himself in order to atone for sin and show the meaning of true love. Michael’s objection to Christianity here is based on personal incredulity (Ad ignorantiam) and not on any reasonable assessment of arguments.

    Ironically, only Christians have the “problem of evil”. No problem of evil exists in non-biblical worldviews. For atheism, evil is just a part of the natural world and is the natural consequence of the struggle for survival. It is neither good nor bad. In Buddhism, evil does not really exist, it is just an illusion. So when non-Christians ask this question, they are presupposing the Christian worldview and value system. So if Michael finds evil to be a problem, he is affirming the truth of the Christian worldview. If he is objecting that the Christian position is inconsistent with respect to the problem of evil, we will ask him why should inconsistency be a problem, since atheism provides no foundation for absolute laws in nature and morality. Therefore, in order to attack the Christian position, Michael has to abandon his own worldview and presuppositions.

    Michael writes, “For a lot of Christians, these questions don’t hold: disbelief is a moral failing.” He insinuates that for Christians disbelief has nothing to do with rationality, but only with morality, which contradicts his own definition of Christianity at the beginning of the article, where he stated, “Ultimately, it isn’t a commitment to loving your neighbour or turning the other cheek that makes you a Christian. If it was, I’d still be one. Rather, being a Christian means having particular views about history and science.” I don’t know any theologian who says that disbelief is a moral failing. Rather, according to the Bible, disbelief is disobedience and the rejection of God. Michael says this because according to him only people with moral failings should be denied salvation, not those who do not believe. According to the Bible, everyone should be denied salvation because all have sinned and are morally corrupt, but the good news is that those who trust in Jesus and accept God’s grace will be saved. Whether or not one accepts the gospel as true based on evidence, the argument is consistent. Michael objects to it not because he found evidence that Jesus did not die on the cross or that he did not rise from the dead, but because he does not agree with the soteriology. His objection is based on his own preference of how people should be saved. In short, he wants to be God. (I am so happy he isn’t, otherwise, I certainly will not be saved!)

    Michael continues his prejudiced argument against Christianity by portraying Christians as being simplistic and naïve, “For them, no one who truly heard the story of Jesus Christ with an open heart could possibly respond in any other way than to recognise its truth.” This is a misrepresentation and a very caricatured way of presenting the views of Christians. Christians believe that people are rebellious and so they are not surprised that most people reject the gospel. It is consistent with the teaching of the Bible that people are inherently sinful and that few are saved.

    Michael then relates how these thoughts led him to embrace atheism. “More and more, I came to realise that the unbelievers I’d come across hadn’t rejected faith because they wanted to remain ignorant or they felt Christianity threatened their immoral lifestyles. Instead, they’d looked at the evidence and concluded it didn’t add up.” Did Michael really conduct a survey of unbelievers he came across and examined their evidence and arguments for atheism? He does not give any of their arguments, so far he has only listed ideological objections he personally has against some of the Bible’s teachings. He writes, “I’ve since come to terms with the fact that I’m an atheist, and I no longer believe I’m missing out on anything.” But then he goes on to describe how he misses worshipping and praying with his family. He does not want to acknowledge that there has been a disruption in relationships. And we may ask, what evidence does he have for his atheism? Is he omniscient? Does he know everything there is to know about the universe? Is he omnipresent? Has he been everywhere in the universe to assert that there is no God? What if God is spirit and exists outside of our physical universe? It is his preference to believe there is no God, it is certainly not based on evidence!

    Michael says he often wished that he could go to church with his family and not feel like an imposter. But why should that bother him if he is an atheist? Why does he still have a sense that being an “imposter” is wrong? On what standard does he base his moral judgments and how does he account for his unease (his troubling conscience)? In other words, Michael is admitting that there is an objective moral standard to which his conduct should conform. Hence, Paul argues that people know the truth, but are suppressing it in Romans 1:18-23. Paul’s argument is not ad hominem as Michael accuses Paul, but is based on reason, “since what may be known about God is plain to them”. Of course, one may not find Paul’s reason persuasive and may charge Paul with having a faulty premise, but Paul’s argument is not “a giant ad hominem attack”.

    It is also revealing to note that Michael is rejecting his parents’ request to go to church with them, because of their faith and not because of any moral failing on their part. He is judging his parents on the same standard he disapproved of when God judges people, i.e. for believing or disbelieving rather than a “moral failing”! If we continue to read just a few verses more in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we come across the following words: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Rom 2:1).

    At the end of the article, Michael’s third reason for rejecting Christianity becomes transparent. He says, “I didn’t read Voltaire and Bertrand Russell and have the mud removed from my eyes in a moment of transcendent rational thinking. I certainly never came to the conclusion that those who believe in God are delusional (In terms of strangeness, I think the idea that God created the world is pretty much on par with my belief that the universe somehow came into existence unbidden).” Michael is admitting that he has not come to his atheism through rational thinking! He also acknowledges that the Christian position that God created the world is based on evidence and is, therefore, legitimate since the opposite of being “delusional” is being rational. On the other hand, how rational is the statement that “the universe somehow came into existence unbidden”? How can he have evidence for that? How can that be analogous to believing that God created the universe? His “somehow” is just begging the question. It appears that Michael’s decision to become an atheist has nothing to do with evidence or a search for truth, rather it is simply based on his own personal preference.

    Michael concludes his article with the following confession, “I might be wrong about God. But what I’m sure of is that my search for the truth has been genuine and my beliefs are sincere. I can’t prove that, of course. All I know is my own heart and (I think) the hearts of the nonbelievers around me. So in the end, rather ironically, I can only ask that this be taken on faith.”

    I doubt if Michael has been so “sincere” as he thinks he has been in his search for truth. “Sincere” means to be open and not deceitful. He is, in fact, trying to deceive his readers and himself in his article. He pretends to have rejected Christianity based on objective reasoning and evidence, but he only listed his own predilections of how he thinks God, if he exists, should act. He has theological objections against the gospel. He has not listed any scientific or historical argument to refute Christianity. Simply stating that there is no evidence for the resurrection does not mean that there is no evidence! Considering his argument, he is quite insincere. Michael’s final appeal is to his own “heart” and to the “hearts” of nonbelievers around him. We use “heart” as a metaphor to refer to our feelings and innermost desires as over against our intellect. In other words, Michael’s rejection of Christianity is again not based on rational intellectual thought, but on his subjective opinions. The prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). Of course people have a right to their subjective opinions, but should not claim that they are based on history and science if they provide no evidence.

    By appealing to faith and not evidence and rational argument, Michael admits that his evidence is insufficient! But if he “can’t prove” it, why is he still an atheist? He rejected Christianity because the evidence did not add up for him, why does he now not reject atheism since, on his own admission, it can’t be verified? Michael’s real reasons, which he states in his article, for rejecting Christianity is that the majority does not find it convincing, that he finds God’s way of salvation through faith objectionable, and thirdly, that the inclination of his heart prefers atheism above Christianity. Clearly, his rejection of Christianity and acceptance of atheism are not based on any “sincere search for truth”, but just on his personal preference. Therefore, at least the title of Michael’s article is appropriate, God and “sincere disbelief” is problematic. Michael questioned his faith, like his parents I hope that he will also question his disbelief.

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