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The ten key propositions for atheists and Christians today

OPINION | Greg Clarke

Monday, 9 April 2012

I have found myself in dialogue with atheists in Australia and around the world since the time of the publication of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

Over that time, discussions have ranged far and wide, covering much more than the arguments for and against the existence of God.

Atheists today seem very interested in how to live morally, how to treat other creatures, how to interpret history, and a whole range of other issues on which Christians have plenty to say.

These conversations have distilled for me (thanks to the input of many others, whose ideas I have drawn on) a number of propositions that seem to capture the issues at stake. I offer them here as a way of trying to further the debate, blow away some of the cobwebs, and focus on the issues that matter.

'The heart of Christianity is not right versus wrong but "grace versus karma" (as Bono once put it). Atheists tend to be "too Old Testament" about the Christian faith.'

1. Rumours of God’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Despite the current noisiness of atheism, rumours of God’s death are greatly exaggerated. God is not dead; He is just ‘on the move’ around the globe. We are too Euro-centric about this; most people in most cultures at most times throughout history have believed in a deity of some sort. This is still true today.

2. Christianity isn’t a ‘leap in the dark’, but a leap with ‘eyes wide open’.
Christians are not supporters of blind faith; we are supporters of commitment based on what you can reasonably know. We believe there is a lot of evidence on which to make an assessment of ‘the God question’. And we encourage people to take their time sifting through the evidence before arriving at a settled view of mind and heart. There is no value in coercing people into belief.

3. For Christians, the life of Jesus Christ adds significantly to our confidence in God.
The best case for Christianity is Jesus himself. He is an ‘access point’ to God’s heart, to the meaning of history, and to the resolution of some of our most pressing ethical and spiritual problems. In the teachings of Jesus, in his recorded wonderful and miraculous signs, and ultimately in his sacrificial death and reported resurrection from the tomb, we find out what we need to know about God’s love, mercy and justice.

4. Christianity is more tightly connected to history than many other religions.
Christians are positive about the real knowledge that history gives us. We believe God really did get involved in the world, reaching a pinnacle in the life of Jesus and his followers. We are positive about philosophy, science, literature and the arts, too, but history gives us our connection to God’s activity in the world. More than other religions, Christianity is willing to be tested by the methods of history because the historical reality of Jesus is so important to us.

5. Atheists still mistake Christianity for a religion of laws and punishments.
Christianity is distinctive among religions in that it encourages ‘sinners’ to be friends with God. The heart of Christianity is not right versus wrong, but “grace versus karma” (as Bono once put it). Jesus described ‘law’ as something involving the heart and will, not just cold words on the pages of sacred texts. In other words, atheists tend to be ‘too Old Testament’ about the Christian faith.

6. The question of religious bias cuts both ways.
Atheism is not a neutral position; it is a worldview. It presents concepts about the nature of the world, human beings, right and wrong, and death and beyond, and asks others to accept them. It presents ‘absence of God’ as a starting point for thinking. This produces bias. For example, atheists are often concerned about the indoctrination of children; but so are Christians. We must both be careful that passing on wisdom to our children is done fairly, non-coercively, and with room to disagree.

7. Christians have been shocked by the anger with which some atheists have attacked them in recent times.
The depiction of Christians by atheists seems like a caricature to us. On the scale of things, we hope we have done more good than harm. We will have to work harder to demonstrate that. But we find it strange that much of the mood of recent atheism has been so venomous. Of course, there are elements of religion that can be infuriating; there are also elements of atheism that have the same effect. But why the bitterness?

8. Atheism is compatible with any moral vision.
It is apparent that most people want to know how to live the good life, but it is hard to accept what atheists seem to be saying: that we will all end up with an acceptable moral vision in the end, if we are ‘bright’ enough. It’s very optimistic, almost utopian, and elitist. Logically, atheism justifies any kind of morality, even though many atheists still adopt quite ‘Judaeo-Christian’ approaches to the moral life. It seems naïve of atheists to assume that human beings will end up ‘pretty good’ if they abandon religion.

9. Atheistic movements have been tried and found wanting.
The social history of atheism is a chequered one, at least as chequered as any religion you care to name. From the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, we can see something of the outcomes of atheist social movements. The idea that religions are responsible for all, or even the majority, of wars does not add up.

10. You can’t argue God out of existence (nor can you argue God into existence).
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins tries to argue God out of existence. His argument (which is about complexity) might exclude pantheism, but not theism. Theists have always believed in a God that is ‘other’ than the universe; this idea seems inconceivable to the quite blinkered thinking of many atheists. But it needs to be stated that God can’t be argued into existence either. Arguments help us to wrestle with the God-question, they are also pointers, and they help us to reason carefully. But they are only part of the picture. History, tradition, experience and science are all significant. If there is a God, that God cannot be boxed in, sewn up or under-estimated – Christians have always believed that in one way or another God grabs hold of them, not vice versa.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia and teaches on the Bible and literature at the University of  Sydney and Macquarie University. He is the national spokesperson for the Reason for Faith Coalition.

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