The Scriptures Testify
Truthfully Of Him
David Rice

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Opportunity for Public Discussion?
Date: Tuesday, October 19, 1999 1:31 PM

You must first tell me what you mean when you use the word God. It would be dishonest of me to try to discuss the word itself because so many people have attached a different meaning to it that the word God is now meaningless. We can, however, discuss your description and examine your claims that something -- as described by you -- exists, and that the existence of that something which you know about is not evident to us.

Also, since you capitalize the word Truth I take it that you attach an unorthodox meaning to the word. You will, because of this, need to set down your working definition for the word Truth and your criteria for discerning Truth. When we use the word truth we mean truthfulness as opposed to lying, falsehood, being mistaken, not working with all the facts, or not knowing but stating yea or nay nonetheless.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Opportunity for Public Discussion?
Date: Wednesday, October 20, 1999 4:42 AM

All-powerful means that this god is the source of all evil. I would not respect such a being who could prevent suffering and premature death but who took no action to prevent it.

I was a sickly child and I think my mother cried while she watched me lie there in excruciating pain. More than one doctor thinks I still carry the scars and that this damage has probably prevented me from living a normal life.

Then my little brother died -- rather, he was taken by the State of California and institutionalized where he later died of an unspeakably painful disease, probably before he reached the age of six (we never found out when he actually died). After they took my brother away, I never saw my mother cry again.

If there exists a sentient being who was capable of preventing these tragedies but who allowed them to occur nonetheless (ultimately causing them to happen), then I hope I never meet this despicable monster.

However, you say nothing about what this god wants from me, so even if this being does exist, its existence is of less concern to me than is my landlord's Social Security number or the size and shape of Neptune's moon Proteus.

Nevertheless, I have been given no reason to believe that your claim for the existence of such a deity is truthful. (I do not, at this point, call you a liar; I simply do not have sufficient reason to agree with your claim.) Thus, I remain in my original state: I lack a god-belief.

This lack of a god-belief is what we mean when we use the word atheism. I do not outright deny the existence of "God" but I can show why the various god-claims I have encountered either make no sense or are unconvincing. If given convincing arguments for the existence of a god, I think most atheists would become believers.
 

So, then, how does faith differ from human reason? Are these two ideas then synonymous?

If so, then why bother using the word faith at all, since most people describe faith as something "above" or "beyond" or somehow in addition to human reason. Pope John Paul II (so I am told) said to a group of scientists that where science cannot answer questions, faith takes over. Most Christian and Jewish sects teach that faith is valid and functioning even in the absence of evidence. A few go so far as to say that faith is valid even in spite of evidence to the contrary (although this viewpoint is thankfully becoming rare).

I have seldom encountered the view that evidence is a requisite for faith, and wonder how such faith differs from human reason, except in the sense that faith is usually seen as private, whereas evidence and reason involve publicly available knowledge.

And is this faith that you talk about the same thing as what Paul describes, when he discusses what some call "a saving faith in Christ," or "the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe" (Rom. 3:22a)? If so, how can Paul's abstract interpretation of the crucifixion be tested with or against evidence? In other words, evidence may establish that Jesus either was or was not crucified, but even if he was crucified, how can evidence weigh into a discussion of Paul's meaning of the crucifixion?

Finally, because of a slight visual impairment, it would be much easier for me if you would separate your responses with a blank line.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Opportunity for Public Discussion?
Date: Thursday, October 21, 1999 1:26 AM

Okay, now we have an additional element in your description of "God": God is good. My previous discussion did not include this assumption.

We also have the additional claim that God refrains from reducing (or "stopping") evil because (it is implied) a greater good will result from allowing evil now.

How could we know that this is, in fact, God's reason for allowing evil? Could we know that it is for this reason and not some other? Could we eliminate other explanations, such as the claim that God lets evil continue simply because allowing it will somehow "glorify his name"? And how do we eliminate the explanation that the Big Bang was a chance event, requiring no energy or intelligence, and that evolution results from the non-random selection of small, randomly occurring changes in self-replicating molecules, which produce organisms which, in order to survive and reproduce, must eat other organisms?

Also, could we know precisely how this would work? I don't understand how anyone (including a god) could possibly redeem the travesties suffered by the Jews during the Nazi regime of the mid-twentieth century. For that matter, how could anyone redeem, to a greater good, the travesties endured by the Midianites at the hands of the Jews (assuming for the sake of discussion the accuracy of that legend)? If memories of the women who were unjustly brutalized and burnt by the Christians for "witchcraft" were somehow "erased," how would they retain their identities? And how could my brother ever be my brother when I never got to know him? when his brain was too underdeveloped from disease for him ever to learn to talk? when he died so young? The collective experience of humankind and of all life that has ever lived on this planet indicates that my brother (and the Jews and the Midianites and the witches) are dead. They will not live again because who they were, the organism that established their identities and their conscious awareness, has "returned to dust." This is the terror that drives most humans to superstition. Very few wish to face overwhelming likelihood that "The rest is silence." (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2.)
 

These are not questions that I can simply accept as mysteries, and then go beyond them to ponder the existence of a sentient being who is both good and all-powerful. I agree with Richard Dawkins that before Charles Darwin, William Paley had a point and the Argument from Design was intellectually compelling. I hope that you will indulge me in this dilemma, which has yet to encounter its equivalent of a Charles Darwin. The notion that there is a sentient, good, all-powerful being does not explain our situation very well; it raises more problems than it solves.

To summarize, any of the following claims provide superior (albeit not necessarily correct) explanations for our dilemma. In other words, fewer problems are left after any of these explanations are entertained: (1) there exists (or existed) an all-powerful creator that is neither sentient nor good (variations on the Deism theme); (2) there exist sentient and good beings who are powerful, but who are not powerful enough to reduce the evil that we endure (polytheism; modern Paganism; Raelian extra-terrestrial creationists); (3) the Big Bang was a chance event that required no energy whatsoever to initiate (particle physicist Victor Stenger and others) and that the evolution of organisms on planet Earth occurred through non-random selection of random changes in self-replicating molecules, most of which did not enhance the organism's chances for survival in an environment where various organisms compete for limited resources -- and where sometimes you are the resource over which other organisms compete (Charles Darwin through Richard Dawkins and beyond).

The notion of a sentient being who is both good and all-powerful, but who allows the wanton waste and painful destruction of individual life that is everywhere evident to anyone who studies zoology and anthropology, creates more problems than it attempts to solve.
 

I do not understand why the situation needed to get to where it is, to be in a state where it even needs to be restored in the first place. What is the point of creating something that will eventually need to be fixed, if it is admitted that one was capable of making it flawless in the first place?

And what would be the purpose of the delay? What could it be that prevents God from reducing evil at an earlier stage, and then allowing life to go on from there? What would have stopped God from reducing or eliminating evil right from the start? (I suspect that it may be God's nonexistence which prevents him from doing these things, but I cannot "prove" in the traditional sense, the nonexistence of God. I can only observe my environment and weigh likelihood of various explanations proposed.)

Even Jesus is alleged to have given his followers, in discussing the (now long-awaited) end of the world, the following reassurance: "And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven. Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When her branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is near: So ye in like manner, when ye shall see these things come to pass, know that it is nigh, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done." (Mk. xiii. 25-30.)

But here we are, almost 2,000 years later, and nothing has changed in this respect. Those people that Jesus (supposedly) told would not taste death before his glory would be manifest, though not yet candidates for fossilhood, are old enough to be dated through the carbon 14 technique.

The problems of suffering and premature death are a serious obstacle to my accepting an explanation that appeals to a nebulous promise that these wrongs will somehow be righted sometime in the unforeseeable future. However, I cannot see why the evil we currently endure could even be necessary -- much less advantageous -- in a scenario that was planned out by a sentient being who is both good and all-powerful.
 
 

This still does not explain to me how we could, through evidence and discussion, determine the meaning of the Cross (even if we could establish the fact of the Cross).

Paul is the only person who mentions 500 witnesses, and he mentions this only once. This lone, bald statement of Paul's is hardly convincing. We cannot rule out the possibility that his "account" was not circulated in Palestine, where his claims could receive scrutiny (or at least no evidence survives that it was circulated among people contemporary to the time Jesus allegedly lived). Neither can we rule out the possibility that a later editor embellished a statement that originally did not contain this claim.

As for the others, some of the "accounts" border on the fantastic, and they read like we would expect any myth, embellished with fiction, to read (Mt. xxvii. 51-3; Lk. xxiv. 13ff). Others are known forgeries (Mark xvi. 9ff) or are highly suspect in that they disrupt the natural flow of the rest of the work (John 21). Some even read like they were describing a hallucination (Lk. xxiv. 13ff again; Jn. xx. 11-7).

I will not here discuss the sheer unlikelihood that physical laws were violated or that the order of nature manifest itself differently during these times, but will limit myself to considering the Gospel legends.

I think that to deem this story true requires something more than a simple examination of the evidence and a weighing of the likelihood. This "something more" goes beyond how we discern material truths, and I think this "something more" is called faith. I think that a good case can be made that what I here call faith is trusted by many in the absence of evidence, and by some even despite the evidence. I suspect, from reading your answers, that you also use the word faith this way.

While I realize that the Bible is almost silent when it comes to describing what faith means, I do not think an appeal to Heb. xi. is a very strong argument that faith involves evidence. First, the translation of this word is controversial; secondly, the theme of the remainder of the chapter seems to be people having "faith" despite the lack of evidence.

Hebrews 11:1 is apparently difficult to translate, as evidenced by the variety of ways in which it has been translated into English. The word evidence seems to be unique to those based directly upon the translations of Wycliffe and Tyndale, that is, the King James, and the Douay and their modern derivatives. The other translations I have seem to prefer the word conviction.

Here is one school of thought, the substance/evidence school:

And here is a different school of thought, the assurance/conviction school:

Just for fun, I have thrown in two translations that I have found to be extremely biased, in that I have discovered numerous deliberate tampering with the text to support certain doctrinal positions: the New World Translation, altered to support Jehovah's Witless theology, and the New International Version, "corrected" to bolster the position of biblical inerrancy. The Living Bible also translates certain cryptic passages to underpin the weak structure of premillennialism. Please be assured that I have little use for any of these translations except to document that some people who describe themselves as Bible-believing Christians have been willing to deliberately alter the words of the very Bible that they insist is infallible. The words that they oxymoronically call "God's Word" are, in practice, subject to human revision.

Summary: Since this entire chapter is a poetic recap of various stories within Hebrew mythology, we cannot rule out the possibility that this first sentence is a parallelism. Both parts of the first sentence could be two different ways of saying the same thing, as is a common practice in Hebrew poetry. One example is from Zech. ix. 9: "... lowly, riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass." The writer is obviously not talking about two animals here, but one; can you imagine some poor clown trying to ride two animals at once and still wishing to be described as "lowly"? I can see riding two animals at once as a showy demonstration at a circus or a rodeo, but not as an example of humility. If Hebrews xi. 1 is a poetic parallelism, then either the assurance and conviction pairing or the substance and evidence pairing are equally valid.

And if this is a poetic parallelism, the following translations miss it entirely:

(Would this be the Scriptural equivalent of a mixed metaphor?)

Nevertheless, this sentence introduces an entire chapter of recaps of Hebrew mythology. The gist of this section is that people acted by faith, seemingly in the absence of what you and I would agree is rightly called evidence. I think the whole chapter can best be summarized with the example given of Noah, who "by faith..., being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear." If this is the meaning intended by the writer, then I would favor translating the first verse: "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." I would never base an argument upon a translation that uses the words substance and evidence.

Thus, I am still not convinced that the "faith" you and I are talking about has much to do with what we commonly understand as evidence.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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