Sympathy for atheists (part 2 of 2) – some frustrations

One of the frustrations I have in discussing matters of faith and ‘religion’ with atheists, which I don’t get when discussing with people of other faiths, is the insistence that the primary issue is whether or not God exists. But, as I said in part 1, to critique someone’s point of view, it helps if you try to see things from that point of view, even if you don’t hold to it yourself.

So in looking at atheism, which is not merely a rejection of christianity, but of any ‘religion’ that may be described as theistic, I do have a great deal of sympathy. After all, if the existence of God had been proved there would be no need for much further discussion and we could all agree. But the fact remains that God’s existence has not been proved. There is still doubt and disbelief, and that is not entirely irrational.

Where my frustration lies is with those who I would describe as more fundamentalist to whom this is seen as a blocking problem. i.e. one which must be resolved fully and finally before any other progress can be made. When I try to speak of the good work of many a philosopher and theologian over the centuries, who have wrestled with a great many of these ideas and those related to them, I often get a response back that theology is “nothing more than weasel words” or a play on semantics or some other similar kind of put-down.

That point of view I have little sympathy for. Imagine for a moment that I am a sceptic about chemistry. Having read a little chemistry, I know that the whole science is dependent upon the interaction of electrons and their “orbits” or quantum shells. But this imaginary sceptic doubts whether there is such a thing as an electron. “Show me one,” I demand. “Let me hold it in my hand and turn it over so that I may examine it.” The chemist friend, who is extremely patient, explains that one cannot hold an electron in the hand as one might hold a coin. He pulls up a blackboard and does some illustrative diagrams, though he explains that these are models which represent the behaviour of electrons, but which are not necessarily 100% accurate depictions thereof. He does some fancy demonstrations by throwing group 1 metals into water, putting nails into acid and setting fire to the resulting gas. He does everything he can with the means available to his disposal to show me that chemistry is real. I turn to him and say, “That’s just trying to weasel your way with coloured flames and powders. You haven’t shown me a single electron.”

The frustration that the chemist would feel at my imaginary dunce is the frustration that I do feel for those who would ask for a proof of God before looking at any other aspect of christianity. For me, and also for many other christians, the route to belief leaves a big clue in the name – Christ. Though my understanding is that Christ is a title, the same as Messiah, which is attributed to Jesus. So when referring to the person I will tend to refer to Jesus rather than to Christ.

Going after the historical Jesus

Given that this christian’s faith is grounded in the person of Jesus, if any wish to dissuade me from my belief (as you are perfectly entitled to do) then this must be the starting point, rather than an attempt to start with the question of God.

Logically, there’s nothing wrong the latter approach. If the idea of God could be disproved then not only would christianity fall but so would most religions. In this respect, it’s a prize that any atheist should desire, if being right is their aim. Yet it is because the idea of God varies so much from one religion to the next, that trying to disprove its existence is a tricky task.

There certainly have been efforts made to try to discredit Jesus, though some of these fall prey to the same kind of bad apologetics I alluded to before. Here, I think specifically of adherents to the Christ Myth hypothesis, who believe, contrary to evidence, that Jesus never existed. Even Richard Dawkins has backed away from such extreme irrational revisionism!

To discredit the figure of Jesus would only result in the falsification of christianity. To try to discredit all other religions would require more effort. This would put to the test those who not only do not believe in a god, but who also claim that not believing in a god is an insignificant part of their lives. I see whole twitter feeds, comment profiles and blogs dedicated to telling us how much of a non-issue it is for them. Yet such an effort would be needed to allay the suspicion that atheism is a lazy cop-out, a non-thought process. I’m sure there a number of things we don’t believe in, but the truth is we either don’t give them much attention or we have a glib answer to hand.

To those who do not think much about the matter, I can understand that. There are a great many things in this world to worry about, competing for our attention. So why should you pay attention to the guy on the street corner yelling out random things interjected with the word ‘Jesus’ every now and then. I don’t expect you to know the difference between a Mormon and a Jehovah’s Witness, let alone why neither of them are typically regarded as christians, in spite of seemingly having so much in common with your friend who says she goes a pentecostal church, or your uncle, the lifelong anglican. It’s absolutely to fine for you to have your (non-)belief and I don’t find there anything wrong with that. I might disagree with you, but if so, let us sit down and reason together.

To those who have thought about the matter, and admit as much, I commend you. It takes guts to be willing to take a serious look at something you disagree with. I would have some questions to ask you, though maybe I’ll save those for another time.

Conclusion

I suppose my point is this: atheists and christians often talk at cross-purposes. For a christian to speak of God, we do not all speak with the same understanding or viewpoint. I speak from my own perspective, many aspects of which will be familiar and shared with a wide range of christians from a number of denominations and those of none. There are ideas of God which I reject, such as the depictions of an old man with a large beard in the clouds, a sky fairy or kind of invisible puppeteer. I know of no christian whose beliefs are expressed as such, or which could be fairly described likewise.

Theology is not so much a study of God, as a searching of God. It cannot be contained in a cage to have Its behaviour studied, to see how it reacts to certain stimuli. In part 1, I mentioned an ordo fides that the christian has. In this respect, God is best seen as a sort of tentative ‘conclusion’, but not a ‘conclusion’ that is ever finalised, if you get what I mean. I know I’m playing loosely words there, but I admit I struggle to find the perfect expression. But one person’s ‘conclusion’ should not be another person’s starting point. To do so misses out on a wealth of reasoning and nuance which may not be readily apparent from a concise statement of conclusion – such as a creed or other statement of faith.

To be an atheist can be to be wholly independent of any religion. That is, a viewpoint of non-belief that is purely a vaccum, not referencing any other viewpoint, whether “religious” or not. It need not be though, and of those that I ‘meet’ on the internet, in particular their atheism is formulated with specific reference to a number of religions, in particular the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Catholicism (where I am careful to distinguish the latter two, though many conflate them  – incorrectly in my view).

It is almost inevitable that any prolonged discussion between a christian and an atheist will involve some level of disagreement. What I would hope need not be necessary is any form of insult, ridicule or hectoring. Because there is a great risk of talking past one another, or of possibly making assumptions about what another person does and doesn’t believe, why not listen to one another? Don’t assume you know what another person thinks, but hear them out before interjecting with any clarifications. Be aware that another may be approaching a subject from a completely different angle, couching their reasoning in different terms and with different emphases.

By all means, we should challenge one another and permit ourselves to be challenged. Only, if you do, don’t demand everything on your own terms. An atheist might want to discuss the question of God’s existence, but if that’s not the way a christian naturally approaches the issue, don’t be surprised if the response seems oblique. Likewise, to any christian that might wish to challenge an atheist, listen to what they have to say first; don’t project onto them the views of others who may hold similar views. If we can base discussions on these foundations, then I would hope that there may be a lot less unnecessary disagreement and that any disagreements remain solely on the things which matter to each of us in our shared humanity.

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28 responses to “Sympathy for atheists (part 2 of 2) – some frustrations

  1. Why would you want to direct how atheists can engage with you. You say you want us to start with Jesus, but pray tell me, isn’t Jesus claimed to be the son of a god? How do you escape from this unless you are willing to accept that there is indeed a problem with you belief that need addressing. it is not the atheist that need sympathy but you.
    You can redefine words all you want; theology is the study of the nature of god not a searching for god and it hasn’t revealed any results.

    • Why help guide the discussion? Because, as stated above (I thought it was quite clear), to avoid talking at cross-purposes.

      However, you do illustrate my point quite well with your next question: “isn’t Jesus claimed to be the son of a god?” – what do *you* mean when you use the phrase “son of a god”? If, as your addition of an extra ‘a’ in there implies, you mean “offspring of a deity” then we would be talking at cross-purposes. The phrase “son of God” is not one that denotes parenthood; it is a title.

      If you want to read more on this, then N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God has a lengthy discourse on precisely what the phrase originally meant. The idea that Jesus and God are one and the same was a later development that sprang out of the use of the phrase. But then this is a conclusion that one might come to, and, as stated, one person’s conclusion is not a good place to start.

      So to start a discussion on the validity of christianity, I still think one must start with Jesus the human. Similarly, if one wishes to discuss Islam, I think it far better to discuss the historicity of Mohammad than it is about the modern faces of Islam.

      I also did not state that theology was “searching for god”, I said it was a “searching of God”. Rather different things.

      • You ask why I say son of a god? Well because there have been many gods created by men as long as they have worshiped something and yours happens to be just one of the many in the pantheon of gods and I make no discrimination on gods. I hope that clarifies it much better now.

        I have read a bit of the early church’s disagreement on whether Jesus was divine and all those and honestly they are not in the group of things I want to spend my short existence on. So I’ll pass Wright’s book.

        And yes I am game if you want to discard the whole god part and just concentrate on Jesus. So tell me, is this Jesus the man, the same one talked about in the bible as being divine or do you mean another Jesus? Tell me about his parentage and you know where he lived and all such questions. I hope here there is no cross purpose. I want us to engage according to your terms.

        My bad, you said searching of god. Pray tell me where the difference is.

        • Sorry that I cannot reply fully to you right now. I’m a little pushed for time. Unfortunately, “all such questions” is a big topic. Though for the issue of Jesus’ parentage, I have written a bit about this before, which may interest you.

          Must rush.

          • I have read the article you linked and since the comments are closed, I will make a few comments about it here. I think you make quite a lot of rationalizations for your belief. Take for example, you mention Luke 1 which the author says very well was not an eyewitness but is a telling a story he has heard and researched, how then you use it to justify your position about the nature of Jesus parentage is beyond me. The second problem is the fact that the gospels, without exception, are all wanting in some way and without external corroboration, why would you think the stories therein are anything more than metaphor?

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking two posts. On reflection I think what I wanted to say after your previous post is probably somewhat missing the point of what you were trying to say. But I might as well go ahead and say it anyway!

    I think the problem with having “sympathy” for atheists, from this kind of perspective, is that it gives too much credence to their position. You did mention Romans 1 in your previous post. I don’t think Romans 1 is a weak argument for God, I think Romans 1 is more fundamental. Here’s v18-30:

    “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:18-30 ESV)

    I don’t think Paul is arguing here that mankind should just be able to look around at the world and say “ah, clearly, God exists” (although that is an aspect of it). I think he’s actually saying that every single person is born with a knowledge of God. God has set eternity in the hearts of mankind (Eccl 3:11). I think the point Paul is trying to make is that no-one who has ever lived has a valid excuse to not believe in God. All of us are born with that knowledge, those who deny it are actually suppressing the truth. In other words, I don’t think there *is* such a thing as an honest atheist.

    And this leads me on to the second thing I’d want to say. I would also not want to concede ground to those who want to judge God’s existence on entirely rational grounds, given the above. The Fall had an effect on our minds, our reason (“the noetic effects of the fall”, which is I think how theologians might put it). We cannot simply reason our way to God.

    So if we say “I think it’s understandable to believe that God doesn’t exist, after all there’s not very much evidence” – it is basically conceding ground to the atheist that “reason” or rationalism is the correct way of going about determining whether God exists or not.

    I feel that it’s important to bear in mind that it is not us who puts God in the dock and demand that he prove himself to us. I’d see humanity as being on the run from God, trying to flee from the inescapable fact that his existence is plain to us, in rebellion against Him, and that ultimately God will hold everyone culpable for unbelief.

    I’m sorry if this is somewhat tangential to the point you were trying to make in your posts!

    • I can’t say I agree with your comment that, “I don’t think there *is* such a thing as an honest atheist.” – I can’t help but think that it could be seen as quite haughty and insulting.

      The idea that people are born with an innate knowledge is an interesting one, and may go some way to providing a reason (amongst many other factors) for the invention/discovery of “religion”, though I can’t say it’s an idea I find particularly convincing. I suppose my means of reconciling this with Romans 1 is that Paul had specific groups in mind who were around the Mediterranean at the time; it seems less likely to me that he had envisaged every facet of contemporary and future schools of atheistic thought. Even then, we must bear in mind the anachronism of using the term ‘atheist’ as some early christians were called atheists for not believing in specific Roman gods.

      I also wouldn’t be so hasty to depart from rationalism. I think it’s a very good epistemology, as robust as any other. Though I would stop short of saying it’s the only one that can and should be used. Simply because it might be one that is frequently appealed to by atheists is not a reasonable basis for rejecting it.

      Rather, to me it seems best to meet people where they are. If a friend of mine is a rationalist as well as being an atheist, then I would be happy to start any discussion within that paradigm. But it would be only fair to ask them to try to see things from my point of view too.

      • “I can’t help but think that it could be seen as quite haughty and insulting.” I’m sure that’s how it would be perceived, but nevertheless I think it’s true from a theological perspective. I wouldn’t actually say that in a dialogue with an atheist.

        In the passage in Romans Paul is talking about idolatry: what we hold in our hearts in place of God (in this instance, images of things resembling mortal man etc). Atheism is probably not in his scope, as you say, but I still think the point stands that mankind stands culpable for worshipping the created rather than the creator.

        I agree with you that it’s good to meet people where they are. My problem is that, in the past, I’ve tried to go down the road of trying to convince someone to believe by proving it using evidence (“Hey, look at the historical evidence for the resurrection, etc…”). In my experience this rarely works – and I think it is partly because it fosters the attitude of forcing God to prove himself to us. Whether you’d call that rationalism I don’t know.

        I have found a more beneficial approach being to talk about people’s presuppositions and whether or not they match someone’s actual beliefs/behaviour. It’s always interesting, for example, to talk morality with an atheist.

        • “I can’t help but think that it could be seen as quite haughty and insulting.” I’m sure that’s how it would be perceived, but nevertheless I think it’s true from a theological perspective. I wouldn’t actually say that in a dialogue with an atheist.

          So dishonest as well as insulting. You’re quite the charmer, aren’t you? Carry on with dodgy and inaccurate ad hominems like that, and you’ll be doing your bit to hasten the church’s ultimate demise.

          • Allow me to apologize for my poor choice of words. I didn’t mean it would hide what I believe from an atheist, but I think there are more helpful ways into dialogue. The ‘no true atheist’ line is, as you rightly point out, liable to be perceived as ad hominem.

          • Fair enough. I’m still not convinced that considering an entire group of people to be inherently dishonest, based purely on their answer to a particular question, is the basis for a fruitful discussion whether you voice that view or not. But I don’t think we’re likely to agree there.

          • For some reason I can’t reply to your more recent comment!

            I wouldn’t say that atheists were inherently dishonest; just that we human beings are incredibly good at kidding ourselves. I’m sure no atheist would say that they were being dishonest and I think that’s true, but one of my goals as part of an apologetics style dialogue would be to try and expose or demonstrate that rather than just come straight out and say it.

          • For some reason I can’t reply to your more recent comment!

            I think that’s because between us all, we’ve hit the nesting limit. Am not a big fan of extended nested comments, so I keep it to 5 comments per ‘thread’. Most posts don’t generate this much discussion.

        • I would agree somewhat with Recovering Agnostic on this. I think we should be willing to state our theology openly to anyone. To me, I keep in mind 1 Peter 3:15 “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” – even though it’s biblical I would hope everyone who has taken time to comment here would at least go some way to agreeing with me that the final clause is a very good idea in any debate. I would think especially of Prime Minister’s Questions which frequently gives me cause to despair.

  3. “Yet it is because the idea of God varies so much from one religion to the next, that trying to disprove its existence is a tricky task.”

    There’s an interesting grammatical issue here. Tied into this: what could possibly constitute proof of god *not existing*? This starts to reveal the problem with the word/concept. Nothing can conclusively count against it, and this should ring alarm bells.

    • One could also flip it round and ask what constitutes proof *for* God/god’s existence. I suppose what is behind this is the idea that an idea should be in some way defensible. Maybe not proof, in the strictest sense of the word, but if I were to become an atheist, I would want good reason for doing so. If someone says to me, “I simply don’t believe in any gods” that’s fine, it’s just very convincing. If they, ala Hitchens, want to point to the negative consequences of some religions in history, that’s a perfectly honest reason, though I would question whether that’s a reason for disbelief or whether it’s more an indictment on human nature.

      • No, no I’m asking something quite different. For you to flip it, your question would have to be: what *could* constitute proof of god? As a concept.

        This would be much easier to argue. One could use all sorts of criteria, perhaps the being in front of you making the claim demonstrates that it can create life from nothing etc. etc..

        But what could possibly count AGAINST a concept such as god is far more difficult. Impossible, I would suggest. This is much more significant.

        The problem we have having been raised in the West is that it seems that the assertion “either there is a god or there is not a god” has to be true.

        Only to the extent that this assertion: “either glaribi exists or it does not” has to be true or false.

        • But what could possibly count AGAINST a concept such as god is far more difficult. Impossible, I would suggest.

          And this was the emphasis in part 1 and why I suggest that while anyone should certainly be free to look at the question on some sort of grand scale, I’m not sure it’s any more productive than the flogging of a dead horse.

          One way round this, which I find equally unconvincing was an argument by definition. I forget who I was reading at the time; it might have been Thomas Aquinas or Anselm of Canterbury, but whoever it was defined god as being ‘[that which is greater than anything we can think of]’. I paraphrase, as I don’t have the precise quotes to hand.

          That’s why, in my view, the best approach is the historical one.

          • Well, you’re appealing to the right person as I was a Classicist for my sins. But this ends up with all sorts of problems as well. If without divine association could Jesus be anything but the Ghandi of his time? If you haven’t already, let me know your thoughts on Russell’s essay: “Why I am not a Christian”. I would provide a link but have no computer at the moment and so rely on my phone. One of the sections of the essay examines the historical Jesus and asks why anyone would choose to follow him when there have been better time models throughout time.

          • I have not yet read Russell’s essay. If you browse around this blog enough, you’ll quickly discern I’m a bookworm, so I have added it to my reading list, though even excluding the OUP’s Very Short Introduction series (to which I have a mild addiction), that list currently has over 300 titles on it. I admit I have read woefully little Russell – I think the thickness of his History of Western Philosophy puts me off a little every time I see it in a bookshop.

          • Oh and you were right with your layer assertion: you were referring to Anselm’s Proof. Thoroughly disingenuous as all christian philosophy of its kind was thoroughly contrived. It’s often considered Descartes’ greatest achievement that he dispelled all of that nonsense.

          • Just a comment to Witty Ludwig, I think it was Kant in his critique of pure reason where he laid to waste all arguments for the existence of god that attempt to get there by definition

  4. To discredit the figure of Jesus would only result in the falsification of christianity

    Which is precisely why no one wants to engage in such games, quite apart from the shifting of the burden of proof. Despite thousands of years of effort, no one has come up with a reason for believing in any deities that amounts to more than wishful thinking and post hoc rationalisation. Why you think anyone should engage in carefully deconstructing one form of belief, rather than the whole concept, is a mystery. Nevertheless, that appears to be what you’re advocating here, seeing that you’re unimpressed with anything but arguments relating to Jesus.

    The chemistry parallel is a poor one, I’m afraid. Chemistry makes predictions, and the existence and nature of electrons has largely been validated by experimental data. If the evidence changes, so will the central theories of chemistry. None of this can be claimed by theology, which does little more than assume a perfect god and attempt to explain why, in that case, the world’s so manifestly imperfect.

    Sorry, I wanted to be a lot more positive after the first post, but this attempt to backtrack on what read like a very sensible and reasonable position seemed to warrant immediate comment.

    • Well, you can’t please everyone all of the time!

      Why you think anyone should engage in carefully deconstructing one form of belief, rather than the whole concept, is a mystery.

      It’s not really a mystery. You answered it yourself in the preceding sentence:

      Despite thousands of years of effort, no one has come up with a reason for believing in any deities that amounts to more than wishful thinking and post hoc rationalisation.

      With regards to the analogy, no analogy is ever perfect. All, when pushed to their limits, break. It was never my intention to indicate that theology is an academic discipline that makes particular, testable predictions. I never stated that; to indicate that that is what I meant would be a gross distortion of the intended point. Whether this was because you did not understand it or because you chose to overlook it, only you can answer that.

      There was no backtracking. I only split the post in two due to its length around 2,500 words, when it was first composed. I would be interested to find out what points you thought I made in the first that I recanted in the second.

      • I’m sorry, I don’t follow. If there’s no good reason to believe in any gods, why expect atheists to deconstruct each individual belief separately, rather than provisionally dismissing all of them until and unless some proper evidence is offered?

        Analogies aren’t easy, and I don’t want to get into a lengthy back and forth about it, especially as your comment seems a little tetchy, but my point is that chemistry provides good reason for trusting its conclusions. Theology doesn’t. Without that support and successful track record, what is there to distinguish theology from the study of astrology, palmistry or dowsing?

        I didn’t intend to accuse you of backtracking, but I thought the initial post seemed very positive and reasonable about atheists, while this one is far more negative. That’s probably just the way your initial long post got broken down in an “on the one hand, on the other” sort of style. I wanted to explain that I was going to agree lots with part 1, but by the time part 2 came around, I was more motivated to address the things I disagreed with.

        • If there’s no good reason to believe in any gods, why expect atheists to deconstruct each individual belief separately

          Because trying to define “god” without reference to any specific description must lead to a broader and all-encompassing definition. My observation is then that this results in such a loose and woolly definition that it loses all meaning, thus becoming a straw man argument.

          At the risk of using another analogy, one might enter into a discussion about “food” – but this is a broad category that trying to come up with any meaningful debate it is a fruitless (pardon the pun) exercise. If I have in mind a potato and you are talking about food in general, or even root vegetables, then we might well end up talking at cross purposes.

          what is there to distinguish theology from the study of astrology, palmistry or dowsing?

          Difficult to know where to start with this. What’s the difference between a raven and a writing desk? For starters, theology, as you rightly state, doesn’t make predictions; the others all do. Yes, this makes them more easily falsifiable, though I’m sure you must have caught whiff of Anthony Flew’s Theology and Falsification in the background to part 1, even though I didn’t mention it explicitly at the time. I’m not sure there are many similarities between theology and the others, so it does appear to be a bit of a non sequitur.

          I think part 1 expressed the bulk of what I wanted to say, even though it constituted the smaller half. Any posts can always do with further editing, and maybe the word length of each part is misleading. In short, I think I am far more positive about atheists who think and come to rational conclusions, even if I disagree with those conclusions. I have less time for those whose atheism is borne out of not thinking – to borrow an idea from your own blog post of the 8th of July, I would describe them as apatheists – who, in my experience, constitute the majority of those I know “offline”.

  5. Makagutu,

    You’re quite right; I was referring to the fact that Descartes made the push to get philosophy back to one fundamental starting point; i.e., certainty. Kant in those parts of CoPR I feel was just driving the knife home! Dark point in history, Anselm, Aquinas, and the like.

  6. “I have not yet read Russell’s essay. If you browse around this blog enough, you’ll quickly discern I’m a bookworm, so I have added it to my reading list, though even excluding the OUP’s Very Short Introduction series (to which I have a mild addiction), that list currently has over 300 titles on it. I admit I have read woefully little Russell – I think the thickness of his History of Western Philosophy puts me off a little every time I see it in a bookshop.”

    Then avoid Principia Mathematica at all costs! To be honest, unless he’s writing on mathematics or logic, he is somewhat dated even now.

    The essay I mentioned is in fact very short. Now that I have a computer in front of me, this is the excerpt I was referring to:

    The Character of Christ

    I now want to say a few words upon a topic which I often think is not quite sufficiently dealt with by Rationalists, and that is the question whether Christ was the best and the wisest of men. It is generally taken for granted that we should all agree that that was so. I do not myself. I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do. I do not know that I could go with Him all the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can. You will remember that He said, “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present prime minister [Stanley Baldwin], for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.
    Then there is another point which I consider excellent. You will remember that Christ said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries. I have known in my time quite a number of judges who were very earnest Christians, and none of them felt that they were acting contrary to Christian principles in what they did. Then Christ says, “Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” That is a very good principle. Your Chairman has reminded you that we are not here to talk politics, but I cannot help observing that the last general election was fought on the question of how desirable it was to turn away from him that would borrow of thee, so that one must assume that the Liberals and Conservatives of this country are composed of people who do not agree with the teaching of Christ, because they certainly did very emphatically turn away on that occasion.

    Then there is one other maxim of Christ which I think has a great deal in it, but I do not find that it is very popular among some of our Christian friends. He says, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.” That is a very excellent maxim, but, as I say, it is not much practised. All these, I think, are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then, after all, it is not quite the same thing as for a Christian.

    Defects in Christ’s Teaching

    Having granted the excellence of these maxims, I come to certain points in which I do not believe that one can grant either the superlative wisdom or the superlative goodness of Christ as depicted in the Gospels; and here I may say that one is not concerned with the historical question. Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one. I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.” Then he says, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom”; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. I have, as a matter of fact, known some Christians who did believe that the second coming was imminent. I knew a parson who frightened his congregation terribly by telling them that the second coming was very imminent indeed, but they were much consoled when they found that he was planting trees in his garden. The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent. In that respect, clearly He was not so wise as some other people have been, and He was certainly not superlatively wise.

    The Moral Problem

    Then you come to moral questions. There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sorts of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him.
    You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

    Then Christ says, “The Son of Man shall send forth his His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth”; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often. Then you all, of course, remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming He is going to divide the sheep from the goats, and He is going to say to the goats, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.” He continues, “And these shall go away into everlasting fire.” Then He says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.

    There are other things of less importance. There is the instance of the Gadarene swine, where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill into the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chose to send them into the pigs. Then there is the curious story of the fig tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig tree. “He was hungry; and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply He might find anything thereon; and when He came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: ‘No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever’ . . . and Peter . . . saith unto Him: ‘Master, behold the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.'” This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.

    But you should read the whole thing. He really was a wonderful writer.