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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Atheism and Morality

Numerous times on Sunday mornings we have had occasion to take a look at Romans 1.  I’ve noted more than once that “there is no such thing as a true atheist.”  vv18-20 reveal that God has made Himself known to man through the things that He has made, so that man is without excuse for not worshiping Him. In spite of this, man seeks to suppress that knowledge of God.
So everyone knows that there is a God.  And even the self-proclaimed atheist demonstrates this everyday.  One of the clearest ways is through living his life presupposing absolute moral standards.  Though he may deny they exist, he lives as if there is objective good and evil.  And he is right to do so – it is patently self-evident that objective morality exists. 
But what do we mean by objective?  When we say that something is objective we mean that it is independent of what people think or perceive. 
Here’s an example.  I love olive loaf.  Always have.  (For some reason, its getting harder and harder to find, though.)  Let’s say I go to the deli and ask for a pound of olive loaf.  The gentleman behind the counter is going to cut slices of olive loaf for me and weigh it on a scale.  That scale is going to measure the weight of the meat based on an objective standard: a pound is 16 ounces.  It will do me no good to say to the olive loaf man, “that doesn’t look like a pound to me.”  It doesn’t work that way; a pound is 16 ounces, regardless of anyone’s opinion.  We presuppose such objective standards all the time.
Likewise, there is an objective standard of good and evil, a standard which we presuppose all the time.  For example, we would say that the actions committed by Jeffrey Dahmer – which included drugging 17 men and boys, sexually assaulting them, strangling them, skinning them, dismembering them, keeping their heads and hands in the freezer, making hamburgers out of their flesh, and eating them – we would look at those things and say, “that is evil,” even if Jeffrey Dahmer thought it was good.  Evil is evil regardless of anyone’s opinion.
There is also an objective standard of good.  We recognize that saving a child from starvation is good. It is good whether or not anyone believes it to be so. We recognize good and evil because there is an objective standard of good and evil, which we presuppose, or assume, in our daily lives.  The question is what is the foundation for that objective standard?
The Bible teaches that God Himself is the unchanging, universal, objective, and absolute standard of morality.  God created man in His own image (Gen 1:27).  In doing that, He wrote His law, which is an expression of His own moral character, on the heart of man, in the form of the conscience (Rom 2:14-16).  Everyone intuitively knows right from wrong, because everyone has a conscience because everyone is created in the image of God.  Without God, there would be no objective standard of morality.
When the atheists decry something or someone as immoral or evil, what basis do they have for doing that?  I would propose that they have no basis for doing that, at least no basis consistent with their materialistic worldview.  They are forced to work within the framework of naturalistic evolution, where there are no immaterial values. There are just genes, which program organisms to do whatever necessary to survive and propagate the species. 
Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous and ardent atheists of our day, recognizes this when he says, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference… We are machines for propagating DNA… It is every living object’s sole reason for being.”[1]  In other words, Dawkins follows his worldview to its logical conclusion: evolution provides no objective standard for good and evil.  
So how does he explain morality?  Essentially, Dawkins says that our morality has its roots in evolution, but he admits that the morality based on evolution is inadequate to ground the moral norms of modern society. But this begs the question: if evolution provides no objective standard for good and evil, how does he know it’s inadequate?  You see, he cannot account for an objective standard, but he can’t reason without one.
Dawkins recognizes this is a problem and so he declares that now our morality can be described as a “changing moral zeitgeist.”  That is, what is right and wrong in society is the result of a mysterious consensus that shifts over time.  In other words, what is good and evil is good and evil because we all agree about it.  Dawkins further says that this consensus moves in a consistent direction that most of us would judge to be an improvement.  But again, that begs the question: an improvement according to what standard?  If good and evil are a matter of consensus, how can we say that one consensus is better than another consensus since the consensus itself is what determines what is good?  If Dawkins was being consistent, he wouldn’t say that any morality is better or worse than any other, he would just call them different. 
The notion of morality by consensus becomes obviously preposterous when we apply it to real life.  According to Dawkins’ theory, what Jeffrey Dahmer did was evil because of some mysterious ballot box – it is a consensus that such things are evil.  And it is conceivable that the consensus will shift over time such that there may be a day in the future when people will look back on Dahmer’s actions and think, “What a fine young man.”  But that’s crazy.
Further, a “changing moral zeitgeist” cannot explain the outrage that all people – including atheists – express over the rape, torture, and murder of a child. How does the average person react over such events?  “Hey, you shouldn’t do that…it’s contrary to the consensus”?   NO!  We are outraged because we know intuitively that such things are objectively EVIL!
There must be an objective, absolute standard of morality.  Otherwise any kind of moral judgment is completely groundless.  The atheist’s problem is that he cannot account for that objective standard within his own worldview.  But if you read closely the writings of prominent atheists, you will notice that they cannot do without it.
So even when an atheist claims that the God of the Bible is evil, a God whom he claims does not even exist, he presupposes an objective standard of morality that only the existence of God can explain. 

[1]Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books/Harper Collins, 1995) 132-33.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Friday, August 12, 2011

Persuading the Sinner and Trusting the Spirit

I spent last week in an apologetics summer class studying atheism.  To prepare, we were required to read a number of atheistic books to become familiar with the most common objections to theism in general and Christianity in particular.  As I worked my way through this material over the last couple of months, I became confident that I could handle these objections if given the opportunity.  Their arguments are so clearly self-serving and inconsistent that I believed it would be quite simple to take such a skeptic and demonstrate to him the incoherence of his worldview.
At the same time, I wondered what real use there is in dialoguing with an unregenerate person about the problem of evil or contesting the supposed “contradictions” in the Bible.  The gospel is the power of God for salvation.  Doesn’t it make more sense to just give them the gospel message and walk away, allowing the Holy Spirit to do the rest?
Both of these thoughts – the necessity to defend the faith and the conviction that only the Spirit can persuade a heart – were swirling around in my head on Wednesday afternoon, as the professor had arranged for three people from a local association of atheists to come and speak to the class.  All three of the atheists grew up in religious homes, and yet their paths to outspoken atheism couldn’t have been more different. 
“Pete” was raised in a Southern Baptist church with a high view of the Bible.  However, when he graduated from high school and went to college, he began to notice “contradictions” in the Bible.  Unable to reconcile them, he decided Scripture was a human invention, and he eventually rejected the idea of God altogether.
“Dave” grew up in a devout Catholic home.  According to him, “Catholics don’t read the Bible,” so the contradictions that plagued Pete were no issue for him.  Dave was a lover of Greek mythology and began to read the Bible as just another source of ancient literature.  He associated the God of the Bible with the Greek gods and for that reason assumed Him to be fictional as well. 
“Jim” not only grew up in church, but he also attended Boyce College (the undergraduate school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) with the intent to go on to seminary and earn a Masters degree in Biblical counseling.  He was a small group leader in one of the most solid churches in Louisville, KY.  As he studied theology, he found himself struggling with the doctrine of hell.  He could not accept the idea that a God of love would send His creatures to hell for eternity.  He turned away from the faith and shortly decided that there was no God at all.
The three of them were well aware of all the arguments for theism as well as the evangelical responses to all of their objections.  They understood and yet they didn’t understand.  We spent two and a half hours interacting with these folks, and the whole time I had these competing drives in my heart – a strong desire to persuade them of the truth and at the same time the desire to leave them to the work of the Spirit.  I was trying to decide which was the more biblical disposition. 
But as I processed the encounter later, I realized that those two desires, if rightly held and understood, were not contradictory.  They were complimentary drives, both necessary if I am to be faithful to the Word.
Indeed, only the Holy Spirit can convert a sinner.  The lost person is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), enslaved to sin (John 8:34), unable to understand the things of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14), and incapable of submitting to the law of God (Rom 8:7-8).  Given the total depravity of man and his inability to will himself to understanding and faith, the strongest powers of human persuasion are woefully inadequate to transfer one lost sinner from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of the beloved Son. The Holy Spirit alone is the one who regenerates (Titus 3:5), who gives life (John 6:63), who removes the veil so that the sinner beholds the glory of the Lord (2 Cor 3:16-18), who gives spiritual understanding (1 Cor2:12), and who imparts saving repentance and faith (Eph 2:8-10).  Try as I might, I cannot in my own power persuade someone to come to Christ.
However, I must not allow that conviction to lead me to despair of any participation in the apologetic/evangelistic task.  Clearly, the church’s ministry and proclamation of the truth are the means used by the Spirit to turn sinners into saints (Mat28:19-20).  Therefore, it is absolutely appropriate to have a strong desire to persuade the lost of the truth of the gospel.  So strong was Paul’s desire to see his fellow Jews converted that he was willing to give up his own salvation that they might be joined to Christ (Rom 9:1-3).  Acts 18 tells us that it was his custom to “reason” in the synagogues every Sabbath, trying to persuade the Jews and the Greeks.  Concerning his time in Ephesus, Acts 19:8 notes that “he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.”
Further, we have been given an explicit Scriptural mandate in 1 Peter 3:15 to always be prepared to give a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in us.  To take a hands-off approach is to disregard a biblical imperative. As our society becomes more and more secularized, it becomes more crucial that the church be able to meet the challenges that come against the validity of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ. 
So, this understanding – that I am to give myself to the task of lovingly spreading the truth and that the Holy Spirit alone can cause a sinner to come to life – calls me to what kind of action?  Two things.  I should diligently prepare myself to share the gospel and to answer the typical objections to the faith, and I should pray fervently that the Spirit would use me as a vessel and prepare the hearts of those with whom I will have the opportunity to interact.  We must pursue these two things with great tenacity.  We must love the lost enough to struggle hard against their unbelief, all the while trusting in the power of the Spirit alone to raise them from death to life.
May the Lord give us all more opportunities to speak the gospel to the lost.  And when those opportunities come, may we have well-prepared minds, soft hearts, and worn out knees. 
Posted by Greg Birdwell