Published: 4 years ago

So, “Atheist Megachurches” Are Apparently A Thing

Photo credit: Jae C. Hong, AP, via USA Today

Saw this article over the weekend in USA Today. The AP reports that “dozens of gatherings” of atheists are popping up across the U.S. after gaining ground in Britain. Here’s a clip:

Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection and an “inspirational talk, ” and some stand-up comedy by Jones, the movement’s co-founder.

During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.

At the end, volunteers passed cardboard boxes for donations as attendees mingled over coffee and pastries and children played on the floor.

I’m baffled by this. Truly baffled. I think back over forty years plus nine months of my own church experience. I can probably count on two hands and two feet (and have a toe or two left over) the number of times I’ve not been at church on a Sunday. Whether I was always there for the right reasons or not, I was always there.

But to gather just for the purpose of gathering is curious to me. I’ll be honest: if I were not a person of faith, I could think of plenty of other things I’d rather do on the weekend: sleep in. Grab breakfast with friends. Sleep in. Get all introverted and read. Did I mention sleeping in?

Way way down on the bottom of my list would be to show up to a large event with a bunch of strangers, sing some songs, and put money in a box.

To have a service when there’s no One you’re serving…well, that would be like inviting friends over for a movie night, but staring at a blank wall. The concept is good, but the execution is empty.

I don’t come to church because I get to sing, or talk to strangers, or have one more thing on my calendar. As a matter of fact, as one who’s more of an introvert, those things make the weekend a challenge for me. No, I sing and talk to strangers and schedule “church” because of the One the church is built upon. It’s the life of Jesus that informs my church life.

The point of church has never been to simply sing or gather or give. Yes, those things are a part of it. But the point of church is to point to Jesus. And without Jesus as the center, without someone who serves as the recipient of what we do, I remain…baffled.

My goal is not to bash atheists who gather corporately. I’m not out to question the sincerity of people who probably sound really good when they sing “Here Comes the Sun.” (As a matter of fact, if you attend one of these gatherings and happened to stumble across this post, I would genuinely love to have a dialogue with you so that I can learn from you.)

But here’s what I gleaned from the article: even people who don’t believe in God believe in relationships. According to Sanderson Jones, one of the co-founders of the movement:

“…it’s a shame because at the heart of it, it’s something I don’t believe in. If you think about church, there’s very little that’s bad. It’s singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?”

That, I understand. That’s where Jones nails it. People are looking for community. We’re hard-wired for relationships. And that’s why our churches must be places where people can connect, can get to know one another, can serve each other and live beyond themselves.

That’s why we have to plan the weekend experience with both believer and unbeliever in mind. Whether someone is a disciple or disillusioned, sold out or skeptic, apologist or atheist, we have the responsibility to plan for people who are like us, not like us, and don’t like us. We have the mandate to think outside the walls when it comes to people who wander inside our walls. We have to meet people where they are, not where we think they ought to be.

But as we do it, we must think bigger than corporate singing or generous giving. We must go beyond an inspirational sermon or strong relationships. All of those things should be present, but all should be a catalyst for something more. Sermons and singing and giving and relating has to point somewhere. It can’t be an end in itself.

It has to point to Jesus.

43 Comments.
  1. “Way way down on the bottom of my list would be to show up to a large event with a bunch of strangers, sing some songs, and put money in a box.”

    Well, that’s you. Clearly some people like the community, and like seeing their money go to worthwhile causes. Good for them.

    “To have a service when there’s no One you’re serving…well, that would be like inviting friends over for a movie night, but staring at a blank wall. The concept is good, but the execution is empty.”

    There’s no ONE you’re serving. There’s BILLIONS. Around 7 billion, to be precise, that can either benefit from forming a community or from donations from that community.

    “The point of church has never been to simply sing or gather or give.”

    Which is a bad thing. At least according to the atheists who are putting these gatherings into effect.

    ” It can’t be an end in itself.”

    Sure it can. Particularly the parts about helping other people.

    • Danny says:

      NotAScientist, thanks for the comment. I agree with you: “…that’s you.” It probably does reflect from my more introverted tendencies. I’m certainly not saying that there’s no sense in gathering. That’s why people pay big money to attend a pro sporting event or a concert or a whatever…we connect through our shared interests, and we march under the banner of affinity. (I also happen to be that guy who doesn’t thrive on concerts or football games. I live a pathetically boring life.)

      But the line “It can’t be an end in itself” points to the fact that for me – I find a weariness in the ever present need that is before us. Whether it’s a hurting friend or a massive disaster like we’ve seen in the Philippines, I can only give out of myself and my resources for so long before I dry up. Personal limitation? Definitely. But as a follower of Jesus, it’s a humbling reminder for me to constantly check myself and see if I’m the one that’s giving hope, or if I’m pointing people to the real source of hope.

      My resources are finite. His are not.

  2. Thanks for this post, Danny. From my perspective, declaring oneself as an atheist definitely has one advantage. That is, no one can be saved-a Biblical term, not a Baptist term-until they realize they are lost which means being alienated from God. The host of folks who believe they are saved by being good persons, it seems to me, face a more tortuous route and perhaps need our prayers and influence even more.

    • Danny says:

      Great word, Steve.

      Kristin, I did think that the “megachurch” label might not be self-selected. 🙂 Even megachurches don’t like to be called a megachurch.

  3. Kristin says:

    They’re called Sunday Assemblies, and my Geography of Religion class in college discussed and studied them. At one point on their website, they had a “Talk to an Atheist” video conference/live chat option much like the Mormon sites. We tried scheduling an appointment with them as a class but they never responded to us. Their current website doesn’t offer that option anymore: http://sundayassembly.com/

  4. joemf says:

    just a different spin on Nimrod!

  5. Anonymous says:

    One must love this. The atheist community has now become demonstrably denominational, providing primae faciae evidence that Atheism is, in fact, a religion existing within the United States, benefitting from all the protections offered by Equal Protection AND, therefore, not the official religion of the land, but merely a member of the community of religions in the republic. If widespread, it marks the end of the arguments fostered by the freedom from religion community. It is a catastrophic error committed by those who would exclude religious expression from public American life.

  6. Ashley says:

    Sad…God will not be mocked…just a matter of time, they realize it….

  7. lennie15 says:

    Unfortunately this is where the World is heading. These churches are built on mans ideas and not biblical standards, anyone can claim to have something that lifts them up and fosters their goal, even homosexuals have gotten on the boat and are now wide spread with their own beliefs, using the Constitution as a shield. But to what avail?? What gains are they getting besides the anger of the Lord and the wrath of God? There foundation is weak and always will be weak, the very ground they stand on is sinking beneath their feet, but there too blind to see or feel it. As a Christian this makes me and the family of God stronger, this encourages us to weather the storms of this world and to continue to hold on too the hope and promise of our Lord Jesus. With Him as our God these things are only figments of this time and really not a worry for us, Why? because the Lords days is coming ( could be almost here) a day that will rid this world of the unfortunate souls that have been trying to disrupt the plan of our Lord and God. So let them build their churches and sing there songs, let them gather and proclaim there worldly desires , let them eat and be merry , Gods will, will be done!!

  8. Phil says:

    Not A Scientist seems to provide a pretty good response. But I’ll throw in my 2 cents:

    But to gather just for the purpose of gathering is curious to me. I’ll be honest: if I were not a person of faith, I could think of plenty of other things I’d rather do on the weekend: sleep in. Grab breakfast with friends. Sleep in. Get all introverted and read. Did I mention sleeping in?

    I think people gather for a variety of reasons. Connection with and communication with others is one, as well as a chance to stop and reflect on the important things in life is another. Sleeping in doesn’t allow you to do those things. (I would also argue that, in the end, that is all you are doing at church anyway–That is, using “Jesus” as an organizing principle to come around to connect with others and reflect on the important things in life.)

    Way way down on the bottom of my list would be to show up to a large event with a bunch of strangers, sing some songs, and put money in a box.

    It helps to go regularly–then they aren’t strangers. And I think there is a universal human tendency to want to help others–hence the money in a box.

    To have a service when there’s no One you’re serving…well, that would be like inviting friends over for a movie night, but staring at a blank wall. The concept is good, but the execution is empty.

    Got to disagree. Go see it done well, and it isn’t staring at a blank wall. Certainly doesn’t feel empty.

    No, I sing and talk to strangers and schedule “church” because of the One the church is built upon. It’s the life of Jesus that informs my church life.

    I personally think that is an illusion that exists only in your head. But it does provide an organizing principle, at least in theory. The actual execution isn’t much different, as the rest of your blog post points out. 🙂

    Sermons and singing and giving and relating has to point somewhere. It can’t be an end in itself.,/i>

    Sure. Well, you do have to sing about something right? How about peace, love, forgiveness, etc.

    • Danny says:

      Phil, I appreciate you taking the time to comment, and grateful for the thought you put in to the response.

      I suppose it goes without saying that you and I are starting at a couple of different points. As a Christ follower, Jesus simply has to be the center. There’s not another way. It would be like saying that I’m a follower of Islam, but dismiss the Quran, or a proponent of the Atkins Diet, but regularly gorge on french bread (mmm…french bread).

      I absolutely understand – and agree with you wholeheartedly – that people certainly can gather without Jesus being the center. But the point of the original AP article was to talk about this from the perspective of an atheist “church.” The whole concept of church was built on the person of Jesus. That’s not a religious belief, but a historical fact. He established it. He founded it, so to remove him is to remove the very heart of what it stands for.

      Now in fairness – nowhere on the Sunday Assembly website (at least not that I can find) do they refer to themselves as a church. That’s a moniker placed on them by a reporter. But I think you’d agree – to call something an “atheist church” is an oxymoron to end all oxymorons. And honestly – that’s what caught my eye in the first place. “How can there be atheist megachurches?” That’s like jumbo shrimp, organized chaos, or government intelligence. 🙂

      To your last point (“…you have to sing about something, right? How about peace, love, forgiveness, etc.”), I would agree. But my question: where do those concepts emanate from? Can peace be possible without the one who said he came to bring peace? Can we really forgive without understanding how much we’ve been forgiven? Again, I know you and I are at different places on this, but convictionally, these are the things that inform my faith, and the reasons why I do gather corporately with other believers.

      Thanks for the dialogue!

  9. Phil says:

    First, thanks for the dialogue as well.

    I absolutely understand – and agree with you wholeheartedly – that people certainly can gather without Jesus being the center. But the point of the original AP article was to talk about this from the perspective of an atheist “church.” The whole concept of church was built on the person of Jesus. That’s not a religious belief, but a historical fact. He established it. He founded it, so to remove him is to remove the very heart of what it stands for.

    Some thoughts on the use of the word “church:” First, I agree that using the word “church” isn’t really appropriate–here it is even a little “cheeky.” And different “atheist” meeting places that I know don’t really use the word, for the reasons you describe. (Ironically, using that word can also turn off some of the most likely people to attend–specifically, people with a Jewish background. Such people, even though they are non-practicing Jews, often don’t want to go to anything that might be called a “church,” in any sense of the word.) But I think even here we are talking about “Sunday Assemblies”–the word church is just a gimmick to get people to notice it.
    Other possible alternatives to “church” is “congregation” (a lot of UUs use that word) or “platform” (Ethical Culture), or “meetings” (American Humanist Association).

    But I think you’d agree – to call something an “atheist church” is an oxymoron to end all oxymorons. And honestly – that’s what caught my eye in the first place. “How can there be atheist megachurches?” That’s like jumbo shrimp, organized chaos, or government intelligence. 🙂

    I think we are in agreement.

    But my question: where do those concepts emanate from?

    We are all human. I start there. 🙂

    Can peace be possible without the one who said he came to bring peace?Can we really forgive without understanding how much we’ve been forgiven?

    I think so. At least I think about 5/7ths of the world isn’t Christian. I think they can know (real) peace and forgiveness too.

    Again, I know you and I are at different places on this, but convictionally, these are the things that inform my faith, and the reasons why I do gather corporately with other believers.

    Me too! 🙂

    • Danny says:

      Phil, great thoughts here. This conversation has been very helpful to me, and I appreciate you being willing to carry it forward.

      Obviously the worldview that I’m walking around with is the thing that influences my side of the conversation. Can people know peace and forgiveness? Sure they can. Can they know it without a relationship with Jesus or even a Judeo-Christian framework? I think so. But I think in those cases peace and forgiveness are faint echoes of a deeper reality. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, they’re the rays of light that point back to the sun.

      You and I both know plenty of good people that are law-abiding, spouse-honoring, tax-paying citizens, and they are those things without the “Jesus factor.” However, I can’t speak for anyone else, only myself. I know that on my best day, my life is still left wanting at the end of the day. My “goodness” only lasts so long until I drift into selfishness. My “kindness” can only be self-fueled until I get pretty self righteous and condemning of others. I’ve simply found that it’s the belief that there’s something (someone) bigger than me that changes me organically, rather than leaving me to mechanical reboot. I can’t explain it as much as I can tell you that I know I’ve experienced it.

      Some would argue that makes Christianity a crutch. I disagree. It’s far more serious than a crutch…it’s a gurney that’s wheeling me into a room full of life-giving medicines and life-saving surgeries. I can’t imagine what my life would look like if I had tried to approach it under my own steam all these years. I know myself too well, know my heart too well, and I know that thing can be – and often is – a cesspool.

      But again, I’m grateful for the open, respectful dialogue that we’ve entered in to, and I’m happy to continue it if you’d like. Besides, I finally found somebody that uses the word “cheeky” in casual conversation. That’s worth a lot right there. 🙂

  10. Anonymous says:

    I do not like the word “atheist”. It suggests I believe in nothing. That is so far from the truth. Why Must I have a super power to worship? Why can’t I just want to be the best person I can be? Help others, do no harm, live a good honest life serving. If YOU need something bigger than yourself to make you that person fine. I don’t. With or without Jesus, I am the best person I can be. This will always be true. So worship whomever you want and I will do the same. Just because we don’t agree on who that is, doesn’t make either one of us the “right” one. Live your life and let me live mine.

  11. Phil says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. If I may, I might provide some (gentle) pushback. Although I certainly don’t mean to be antagonistic or disrespectful–it is not my intent to come across that way. 🙂

    Obviously the worldview that I’m walking around with is the thing that influences my side of the conversation. Can people know peace and forgiveness? Sure they can. Can they know it without a relationship with Jesus or even a Judeo-Christian framework? I think so. But I think in those cases peace and forgiveness are faint echoes of a deeper reality. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, they’re the rays of light that point back to the sun.

    I think I know what you mean, and in a certain sense I understand what you are driving at. But there is (to my mind at least) a certain sort of parochialism that says the peace and forgiveness found in people who aren’t Christians are somehow “lesser” forms. It just doesn’t comport with my experiences with other people, and doesn’t seem to me to be an accurate way the world works (or people in the world).

    I can’t speak for anyone else, only myself. I know that on my best day, my life is still left wanting at the end of the day. My “goodness” only lasts so long until I drift into selfishness. My “kindness” can only be self-fueled until I get pretty self righteous and condemning of others. I’ve simply found that it’s the belief that there’s something (someone) bigger than me that changes me organically, rather than leaving me to mechanical reboot. I can’t explain it as much as I can tell you that I know I’ve experienced it.

    I am glad you have found a way to increase the kindness in your life.

    Some would argue that makes Christianity a crutch. I disagree. It’s far more serious than a crutch…it’s a gurney that’s wheeling me into a room full of life-giving medicines and life-saving surgeries. I can’t imagine what my life would look like if I had tried to approach it under my own steam all these years. I know myself too well, know my heart too well, and I know that thing can be – and often is – a cesspool.

    If I may be so bold, I think you are selling yourself short. 🙂 I suspect you are a kind, decent person, and would continue to be so even if you weren’t a Christian.

    • Danny says:

      Phil…

      Oh, I don’t know about all that. I could have quite a few people line up as character witnesses. I refuse to even read your last sentence to my wife, because I’m afraid she’d never stop laughing. The eye-rolls alone would kill her. 🙂

      I like this. You’re not being antagonistic (and I hope I’m not either). I’m having fun with the conversation.

      I’m paraphrasing a little bit from your second paragraph, but I would agree with you that I know lots of people who are peaceful, forgiving, but not necessarily a Christian. While you’ve not come right out and said it, I would assume that you don’t call yourself a Christ follower. And yet this has been one of the most delightful exchanges I’ve had in a long time. You seem like a genuinely nice guy, the kind I’d love to grab a cup of coffee with at Starbucks and talk about everything from religion to politics to why more people don’t use the word “cheeky.” So no, you certainly don’t have to be a Christian to be nice, or peaceful, or forgiving.

      I don’t think it’s as much a question of “lesser” forms of peace and forgiveness, as it is about a standard. When terms are thrown around like good, well, that’s good. But good is such a subjective term, and a slippery slope. Who gets to determine what is good? Different world religions have different ideas of what constitutes good. Every Muslim I’ve ever met has told me that Islam is a religion of peace. And for every single Muslim that I know, I’ve found that that’s true for them. But there are factions of their very religion that would say good means eradicating infidels.

      In the Christian realm, good was once defined by religious zealots who used the Crusades as an opportunity to turn people to Christ at the edge of a sword (a tactic that’s certainly not in the playbook). Were they sincere? Sure. But wrong? Absolutely. In modern day, there are factions of Christianity who would say good means that you amass as much prosperity as you can in this life – that’s a sign of God’s blessing on you. I personally say good is better determined not by how much you get, but how much you give.

      The tragedies we’ve seen in recent months in American headlines – school shootings, mass murders, etc. – have at their center an antagonist who probably believed they were doing the right and good thing. Their warped, twisted mind had redefined good as the murderous quest they embarked on.

      Even in political circles, some would say that good is constituted by the redistribution of wealth, while others would say it’s good that if a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat.

      The point is, good always has to have a standard. You and I could both be convinced that our ways are good, but our value systems might look totally different. Somebody has to decide, because not all interpretations of good are good.

      That’s why I give the nod to Jesus. There’s not a doubt he’s a historical figure. But the question is, was he the son of God? IF Jesus was a good teacher (as multiple world religions claim) that would mean he must speak the truth (to not speak the truth would not be good). So if he claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), if the Bible says he was without sin, and if he rose from the dead, then I have to hedge my bets on the dead guy – raised to life – that was perfect. I’m far from perfect, but he was and is.

      In full disclosure, I grew up in the church (as noted in the original blog post). I’ve never really known life outside the church. But I’ve also struggled with my fair share of doubts: is this stuff real? Can the Bible be trusted? Is Jesus who he says he is and did he do what he said he would do? After examining those truth claims, I can say I certainly still don’t have all the answers, but I’ve been exposed to enough light that I can still trust when in darkness.

      Here’s the caveat – even the Apostle Paul (arguably the most notable Christian outside Jesus himself) says that if Christianity is based on a myth, then we are of all men “most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 5:19). I might get to the end and realize I’ve been chasing wind, but I don’t think so. I choose faith. And yes, faith is the “substance of things not seen,” but there have been too many things in my life that I can’t chalk up to pure chance, and certainly not to my own kindness or decency.

      (My wife would still be laughing, just for the record.)

  12. I think this phenomenon is just evidence of certain human needs built into us…..

    1. We are made as social creatures. We need some form of community and belonging. Some of us don’t need it as much as others, but it’s part of our nature.

    2. As I have been thinking for some time (and as many have covered exhaustively), atheism is a religion, and it’s a good thing that some atheists are acknowledging that – this place it more on a level where it can be compared with other religions, and not just assumed to be some sort of natural default position.

    3. People need to worship. Of course, it is the object of worship that will make all the difference. I think many will find that atheist worship does not really satisfy the deepest reaches of our hearts and minds. Also, I do not expect that radical agape love will manifest in atheist churches because that requires conversion of the soul that could never be found with their theology.
    That said, good things can and will be done for good causes through these churches.

    These are just a few generalizations that come to mind immediately. I’ll go back and read the comments, and apologies if this has all been mentioned already.

  13. Phil says:

    First, thanks for the substantive response. I appreciate it. Unfortunately, I truly have a busy day at work today (ugh. stupid work—gets in the way of more interesting/important things), and I cannot really devote much time at all to a response.

    Some quick thoughts:

    Oh, I don’t know about all that. I could have quite a few people line up as character witnesses. I refuse to even read your last sentence to my wife, because I’m afraid she’d never stop laughing. The eye-rolls alone would kill her. 🙂

    I am still not buying it. 🙂

    While you’ve not come right out and said it, I would assume that you don’t call yourself a Christ follower.

    You are correct.

    You seem like a genuinely nice guy, the kind I’d love to grab a cup of coffee with at Starbucks and talk about everything from religion to politics to why more people don’t use the word “cheeky.”

    Actually, I just listen to Justin Brierley’s podcast too much. 🙂

    So no, you certainly don’t have to be a Christian to be nice, or peaceful, or forgiving.

    I think the original idea I was resisting was that there is something qualitatively different about the peace/love/forgiveness that a non-Christian experiences because that non-Christian is not partaking in peace/love/forgiveness in or through Christ. I think you are still saying (if I understand you correctly, and I hope I am not putting words in your mouth) that they do partake in such experiences, but they aren’t the “true” experience. I guess I reject that, as it doesn’t seem to match up with my experiences/understanding of the world. (I realize I am just repeating myself–We may have to agree to disagree here.)

    I don’t think it’s as much a question of “lesser” forms of peace and forgiveness, as it is about a standard. When terms are thrown around like good, well, that’s good. But good is such a subjective term, and a slippery slope. Who gets to determine what is good? Different world religions have different ideas of what constitutes good. Every Muslim I’ve ever met has told me that Islam is a religion of peace. And for every single Muslim that I know, I’ve found that that’s true for them. But there are factions of their very religion that would say good means eradicating infidels.

    In the Christian realm, good was once defined by religious zealots who used the Crusades as an opportunity to turn people to Christ at the edge of a sword (a tactic that’s certainly not in the playbook). Were they sincere? Sure. But wrong? Absolutely. In modern day, there are factions of Christianity who would say good means that you amass as much prosperity as you can in this life – that’s a sign of God’s blessing on you. I personally say good is better determined not by how much you get, but how much you give.

    The tragedies we’ve seen in recent months in American headlines – school shootings, mass murders, etc. – have at their center an antagonist who probably believed they were doing the right and good thing. Their warped, twisted mind had redefined good as the murderous quest they embarked on.

    Even in political circles, some would say that good is constituted by the redistribution of wealth, while others would say it’s good that if a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat.

    The point is, good always has to have a standard.

    It seems to me that you just made a pretty good argument that, in reality, there is no such standard. Some things seem more “right” to you, and some seem more “right” to me. Everyone has his or her own opinion.

    You and I could both be convinced that our ways are good, but our value systems might look totally different. Somebody has to decide, because not all interpretations of good are good.

    I am not 100 percent sure what you mean by “somebody has to decide.” My first reaction is that, from a purely internal perspective, no one has to/can decide. I will always remain convinced (well, I like to think I am open to rational argument and experience), but generally speaking, I will always remain convinced that “my understandings of right and wrong” are the right ones. I suspect it is the same for you.

    If you mean we need a societal mechanism to decide what ways are good and what ways are not (for example, when those ways come into conflict), I think we already do exactly that–we (consciously and unconsciously) create law/government/societal norms for exactly that reason.

    Those norms are ultimately based on shared values because we are human–those values are then molded/shaped by society. The laws/rules/regulations/norms (and jails) are based on our collective understanding of what is or is not permissible behavior, in this society, now. Now individuals may have their own understanding of what is, and is not, permissible behavior. But it is the collective group (“society”) that ultimately dictates whether the behavior is acceptable or not. That is the “decider.”

    Sorry….got to go. I may try to respond more later.

  14. Phil says:

    There’s not a doubt he’s a historical figure. But the question is, was he the son of God? IF Jesus was a good teacher (as multiple world religions claim) that would mean he must speak the truth (to not speak the truth would not be good).

    It seems to me Jesus could have been right about some things, and yet wrong about other things. I don’t see why a “good” teacher has to be right all the time. (Actually, there are a number of things that he said/taught that I would probably disagree with, so I am not sure I would consider him a good teacher anyway.)

    So if he claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), if the Bible says he was without sin, and if he rose from the dead, then I have to hedge my bets on the dead guy – raised to life – that was perfect. I’m far from perfect, but he was and is.

    It seems more likely to me that the Bible got it wrong.

    In full disclosure, I grew up in the church (as noted in the original blog post). I’ve never really known life outside the church. But I’ve also struggled with my fair share of doubts: is this stuff real? Can the Bible be trusted? Is Jesus who he says he is and did he do what he said he would do? After examining those truth claims, I can say I certainly still don’t have all the answers, but I’ve been exposed to enough light that I can still trust when in darkness.

    I think it is certainly understandable to doubt. From my own experience, I guess I would say that 1) extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and 2) the Bible to me seems to be much more consistent with the idea that it is a creation of men, then a creation of God.

    Here’s the caveat – even the Apostle Paul (arguably the most notable Christian outside Jesus himself) says that if Christianity is based on a myth, then we are of all men “most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 5:19).

    I don’t follow Paul’s line of thinking. Why?

    I might get to the end and realize I’ve been chasing wind, but I don’t think so. I choose faith. And yes, faith is the “substance of things not seen,” but there have been too many things in my life that I can’t chalk up to pure chance, and certainly not to my own kindness or decency.

    I think if faith in Jesus Christ leads you to a more loving, kind, meaningful life, then that’s a great thing.

    • Danny says:

      Phil:

      Sorry I went AWOL for a while. Like you, it was a very busy day yesterday, and today has been…well, another day. 🙂

      Let me jump in on just two points. I’ll try to keep these brief, and we may find a robust conversation somewhere in here…

      the Bible to me seems to be much more consistent with the idea that it is a creation of men, then a creation of God.

      I’d humbly ask your reasoning for that statement. When you think about the sheer mechanics of scripture, it’s pretty heady: 66 individual books authored by 40 people, written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, over the course of 1500 years and across Africa, Asia, and Europe. And yet with that, there is such a synthesis and cohesiveness of the message, it’s a bit mind boggling. I do believe that the Bible is a “creation of men,” as you say – but only to the point that it was written down by them. I believe the words were God-breathed, and he used those men to do it.

      Those norms are ultimately based on shared values because we are human–those values are then molded/shaped by society. The laws/rules/regulations/norms (and jails) are based on our collective understanding of what is or is not permissible behavior, in this society, now. Now individuals may have their own understanding of what is, and is not, permissible behavior. But it is the collective group (“society”) that ultimately dictates whether the behavior is acceptable or not. That is the “decider.”

      Point two: permit me a little humor here. Let’s say you and I did go get that cup of coffee. And let’s say that the “kind, decent person” you described me to be decided I didn’t like the amount of foam the barista put on top of my latte. And so, because I thought I had the right to less foam and more liquid caffeine goodness, I decked the guy right there in the coffee shop, because I thought that was the best thing to do and the only way he’d learn.

      According to your statement above, you’d say that – even though I thought I was entirely right to punch him – you’d believe I was wrong. The barista would certainly believe I was wrong. The cop that was picking up a donut would likely cite me or arrest me on the spot for assault. And yet, I would still maintain that I was in the right to lay him out for too much foam.

      The point is, there are certainly moral absolutes. We all have those things that serve as our metaphorical “punch the barista” issues. But for everything one person declares to be right, another group will say that it is wrong (exhibit A: the partisan side show that is the U.S. Congress). But that doesn’t take away the fact that moral absolutes certainly exist.

      Would you agree with that? And if so, wouldn’t it make sense that those absolutes may have come from something even bigger than a societal “decider”? Isn’t it possible that absolutes are governed by something bigger than us?

      For what it’s worth, I appreciate you for sticking around on this conversation.

  15. lennie15 says:

    Hi Phil, you don’t know me and probably won’t in this lifetime, ( but maybe ,just maybe you’ll see me in the next) it’s hard to believe in something that has seemingly no presence or form, yet their has been a great deal of talk based on this person. Some of it good and others kinda questionable, but still a lot of questions. You hear the name Jesus and a lot of things pop up, you want to know more but because of the influence of this world, our life styles and things being said by this Preacher and that Evangelist, your not quite sure as to how you should take Him. I have read your conversations with Danny and I have to say that you have a lot to talk about and I am one to say that you could get a lot of people to listen to you. That’s what Christ did , He talked to people and got them to listen to Him, He said things that got their attention and they wanted to hear what He had to say. Being a Christian means just that, to listen. The Bible says a lot of things , things meant for our good, because that’s the way God wanted it to. Things that help us grow and to help in times of trouble. How to hear when someone is speaking and what to say to encourage them, how to live among your fellow man by joining him or her in the worship service. How to rely on each other in times of need and help bring a nation or world to a peaceful solution. But to do that we must give respect and honor to the one who sacrificed Himself for us, by taking the shame of our sin and placing it all upon His shoulders. By shedding His blood so that we would become heirs of Heaven and rebuild a relationship with our God who loves us. The Bible is not a strict and arrogant book full of have too and betters, it’s a love letter From God to us, a book of instruction and a book of knowledge, a book that tells a tell of yesteryear and of the future. You can gain a lot from this book and learn a lot about our Father God. Jesus died so that we could live, He died a physical death and rose in a physical form, so we will see Him again in all His Glory. There is a promise awaiting us , with Faith and Hope as our guide we anticipate His coming and await His call. I pray that as the yearning continues to grow in you ,you will anticipate along with us.

  16. AJG says:

    I don’t follow Paul’s line of thinking. Why?

    Because Paul thinks that all men are sinners and are thus separated from god. Of course, I and other atheists don’t believe that at all, so Paul’s reasoning begins with a false premise and ends with a false conclusion.

    I say this as a former evangelical Christian myself.

    I find it amusing that so many here want to label atheism a “religion”. Atheism is the lack of a belief in a god or gods. Religion by definition is:

    “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.”

    Do people here see the problem? Religion is not simply some idea that you hold dear or even something to which you devote your life. It requires the belief in the existence of the supernatural. I suppose there may be atheists who believe in Karma or something like it, but the vast majority of atheists reject the supernatural. Therefore, it is wrong to say that atheism is a religion.

    • Danny says:

      AJG:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. Your background (former evangelical Christian) intrigues me. There was one sentence that gave me pause:

      I and other atheists don’t believe that at all, so Paul’s reasoning begins with a false premise and ends with a false conclusion.

      Respectfully, that seems like a slippery slope to say that because you don’t believe in something, it must be false. People have believed the world was flat and man would never fly and the moon landing was on a movie set. Finite understanding doesn’t eliminate truth.

  17. Love People! says:

    Why are you so concerned with what OTHERS are doing. Pretty sure if you are secure in your faith, your life, your direction – that’s all you need to worry about. Different folks for different strokes. This is why I stopped going to church. Too much judgement. Jesus didn’t judge. Jesus loved. And he loved EVERYONE.

    • Danny says:

      Love People: I feel like you just judged me. 🙂

      But seriously, here’s what happened: I linked to an AP article, tossed in my random commentary on it, and now I’m having what I hope is a healthy, respectful conversation with intelligent people I may not have met otherwise. Phil and I are legitimately enjoying the dialogue (or at least I am, I don’t want to put words in his mouth). I’m not judging him, and he’s not judging me. I’m listening, expressing my opinions and what I believe to be true, and he’s doing the same.

      If I had allowed comments but not responded, that would be akin to ignoring people who were trying to speak to me at a party. Healthy debate and conversation doesn’t automatically assume judgment. And checking my beliefs at the door just because I have some respectful disagreements with someone? That doesn’t seem like a great idea, and I’m sure that’s not what you’re advocating.

      And you’re partially right on your statement that Jesus loved, and loved everyone. You’re right; he did. But he also laid down judgment, particularly for the self-righteous religious leaders who were ALL law, no grace. And he spoke of judgment – and his right to do so, as the perfect son of God – pretty frequently in the New Testament (Matthew 5:21-30, 7:21-23, 12:33-37, 21:12-13, 23:1-36, 25:31-46 just to name a few out of the first few pages).

      Everyone had access to Jesus, but not everyone wanted Jesus. That’s because he turned people’s conventional thinking upside down. They couldn’t be good enough, lovely enough, moral enough, whatever enough in order to earn his favor. I believe that’s part of the reason he hung out with people that everyone else in that day’s society rejected: the tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, etc. They had nothing to offer him except for their unrighteousness, and his death on the cross gave them his righteousness (1 Peter 3:18, 2 Corinthians 5:21).

      On a more personal note, can I tell you how truly sorry I am that your church experience was so lousy? Churches are supposed to be a family: a place where we love and serve and grow together. And while that doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to the sins of others, it does mean that we engage gently and with deep humility. It sounds like that was never your experience, and you were in a place where you never really felt safe. I’m sorry for that. Some churches do get it right, but not all do. I would encourage you not to give up on the church, since it’s God’s “plan A” for the life of a believer. Not all of ’em are like the one(s) you described.

      Thanks for the comment.

  18. AJG says:

    Respectfully, that seems like a slippery slope to say that because you don’t believe in something, it must be false. People have believed the world was flat and man would never fly and the moon landing was on a movie set. Finite understanding doesn’t eliminate truth.

    The difference, of course, is that empirical evidence eventually refuted those views. Nothing of the sort has ever been offered for the idea of Original Sin. In fact, science has roundly refuted the idea that there ever was an original human pair whose sin tainted the human race. No Adam, no Original Sin, no need for a second Adam to rescue humankind.

    The Christian makes an extraordinary claim without evidence (all men are born with a sin problem that cannot be fixed without divine intervention). The skeptic rightly dismisses the claim as factual since it is based only upon the writings of people who have been dead for 2000 years. Of course, the true skeptic is always ready to reassess his view should evidence to the contrary be revealed. None has been though and I think I’m pretty safe in saying that view is false regardless of how the Christian “knows” it’s true.

    Christians are always selling themselves (and the human race) short. Living with the view that all the good that people do is just “filthy rags” is depressing as is the idea that one must await the perfect life after death that will almost certainly never come while forsaking much that this life has to offer.

    • Danny says:

      AJG, your statement would assume that all truth has now been revealed and we’re living in the age of ultimate empirical evidence. IF the Bible is true, then there’s a day coming where the evidence of original sin and judgment will be more than evident. I’m sure that 500 years before Columbus, some were certain that there was no evidence the earth was round. The longer I’m around, the more I recognize my own finiteness and my own depravity. Left to myself, I’m a mess. I’m not simply awaiting that perfect life after death, I’m trusting in Jesus for today.

      Oh, and I have a three year old. She’s pretty good evidence for original sin. We never taught her to scream, throw a doll across the room, or pitch a world-class fit that sends us running from a restaurant. All that came naturally, and there’s only so much “behavior modification” that we can engage in that will knock off those rough edges. Mechanic change isn’t nearly as effective as organic (heart) change. And what I’ve learned is that I’m incapable of changing hearts – hers or my own – without the one who created my heart to begin with. I can’t even measure up to my own standard, much less that of “the writings of people who have been dead for 2000 years.”

      Caveat: I recognize that you’re at a different spot. If you describe yourself as a former evangelical Christian, then there may not be much I can do to convince you otherwise. But at the end of the day, I don’t need a set of great-great-great-grandparents in a garden to realize that there’s something functionally wrong with my heart. While “original sin” may dictate that they passed it down to me, I would still argue that I’m a pretty good sinner on my own.

  19. Phil says:

    Danny, you’ve give me much to think about–hard questions–so a response may take some time. Thanks. 🙂

    AJG,

    Danny wrote: even the Apostle Paul (arguably the most notable Christian outside Jesus himself) says that if Christianity is based on a myth, then we are of all men “most to be pitied”

    I don’t understand why he says “of all men the most to be pitied.” (Really, of all men?) If Christianity is a myth, you can certainly lead a good, meaningful life based on that myth. (Indeed, it may lead you to do exactly that.) The only thing I can think is that maybe you sold all your possessions in expectation of the coming “kingdom of god,” but in reality your actions were based entirely on a myth. I suppose I might pity some of those people. (If it turns out Mohammad didn’t really record God’s words in the Koran, are Muslims then the most to be pitied?) ….. There may be some insight in Paul’s words here that I am (genuinely) missing. Thoughts?

    Danny,

    One thought:

    With regard to your “Starbucks” example (if I may call it that–BTW, i’ve finally stopped ordering Frapucinnos at Starbucks, because, no matter how much I want them to taste like a milkshake, and think they ought to taste like a milkshake (hey, they look like a milkshake!), and expect mocha milkshake yumminess, they never taste like a milkshake. I’m disappointed every time. 🙂 )

    it seems to me that it doesn’t show “there are certainly moral absolutes.” It just shows to me that we share the same moral framework. That makes sense to me, as we are all human (that is, the moral framework comes from being human–not from any “outside moral absolute”)

    • Danny says:

      Phil, we’ve found yet another thing we’re in disagreement about. I can’t quit Frappuccinos. 🙂

      But seriously – I would argue that we can’t say we all share the same moral framework. Morality seems to shift from tribe to tribe and individual to individual and historical era to historical era. Things that were generally frowned upon on public airwaves even as recently as 25 years ago are publicly lauded as “revolutionary” and “cutting edge” today. Societal issues that were once completely legal (i.e., slavery) are now (thankfully) outlawed in the U.S. We celebrate the freedom and equality of women in America, yet in Saudi Arabia it’s illegal for women even to drive.

      Then you have the outliers – people you and I would consider “mad men,” like Timothy McVeigh, David Koresh, Hitler, Pol Pot, Hussein, Kim Jong-un, et al. Those latter names represent not just their individual views, but those of thousands who faithfully (if not blindly) followed / follow them. It’s safe to say we’d distance ourselves from them and never say they were moral, yet, many of history’s villains believed they were indeed embarking on a moral crusade.

      Also insert the names of any one of the hundreds of perpetrators of workplace violence, school shootings, home-grown terrorism, etc. We could say that these people were psychologically “off” (and in many cases, I’d agree with that), but if they are human, they must share that moral framework.

      So I would say we can’t posit that humans share the same moral framework just on the basis of being human. Every one of those negative examples are most certainly human, and the list of “bad guys” throughout history are nearly as numerous as “good guys.” So the question remains: where does that morality issue from? What is the “standard” that you and I seem to inherently know is out there, somewhere?

      By the way, Starbucks is running a buy one, get one on holiday drinks from 2-5 through tomorrow. I’d encourage you to rethink that stance and let a friend buy you a milksh–um, Frappuccino.

    • Danny says:

      Sorry Phil, one more point I meant to bring up in the last comment:

      I don’t understand why he says “of all men the most to be pitied.” (Really, of all men?)

      There may be more than one way to apply that one, but I’ll apply it from the perspective of the Apostle Paul who said it. Remember, historically he was Saul, the “Pharisee of Pharisees,” the persecutor of the church, the jailer and killer of Christians. That is, until he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. That was the catalyst that changed everything for Saul, the least of which was his name. He went all in, proclaiming the message he once despised. And in this particular verse (1 Corinthians 15:19), he was referring to the hope of life beyond death, the resurrection of Jesus and therefore the hope of the resurrection for all Christians.

      IF Paul was the staunch follower of Jesus as he claimed, then he had given up every single thing (reputation, income, status, home, etc) for the sake of the Gospel. And if the Gospel was untrue, then Paul (and therefore, millions of Christ-followers to come) are utter, hopeless fools.

      But yet when you read the story of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9) and the logical defense he makes of how the gospel changes our “moral compass” and our natural bent towards the law (Romans 1-11), it’s obvious that he’s no slouch in the intellect department. He argues from both a position of experience, of a Jew (law) turned Christian (grace), and of logic. And so if Paul has seen logic and experience collide in his life, and he cashed it all in for the sake of a story that may or may not be true, then … well, he’s pitiable.

      I hope that helps clear up that statement a bit more.

  20. AJG says:

    AJG, your statement would assume that all truth has now been revealed and we’re living in the age of ultimate empirical evidence.

    I don’t think I ever implied any such thing. In fact, science never answers anything with absolute certainty. The universe has a certain amount of inherent uncertainty built into it that can never be overcome.

    IF the Bible is true, then there’s a day coming where the evidence of original sin and judgment will be more than evident.

    If the Quran is true, you are going to have quite a bit to answer for in worshiping Jesus. Conditional statements that are presented without evidence to support their correctness aren’t very compelling.

    I’m sure that 500 years before Columbus, some were certain that there was no evidence the earth was round.

    Eratosthenes demonstrated and accurately measured the circumference of the earth two centuries before Christ. The educated world knew the earth was round, but that knowledge was lost and/or deemed heretical by the Catholic church and Islam. It took almost two millenniums to reclaim that knowledge largely because of religion.

    The longer I’m around, the more I recognize my own finiteness and my own depravity. Left to myself, I’m a mess. I’m not simply awaiting that perfect life after death, I’m trusting in Jesus for today.

    I certainly understand your feelings any why your faith helps you live daya to day, but you are not depraved. You’re a human with weaknesses who will live a short time and die. You’re a person capable of great good and I’m sure you live your life that way.

    Your daughter has not matured to the point where she can understands that others have as much value as she does. It has nothing to do with original sin. Baby birds are one of the most selfish organisms on earth. Their parents spend months doing nothing but fetching food for them. That’s not due to original sin either. It’s simply self preservation. They grow up and your daughter will too.

    Let me ask one question of you. Can you envision any possible way or evidence that would lead you to reject Christianity? If not, you have sealed your mind off from rational discourse and have ceased to be a thinking, inquisitive being.

    • Danny says:

      AJG, respectfully, there are some holes here:

      You’re a person capable of great good and I’m sure you live your life that way.

      That’s really encouraging, but capability and reality are two different things. All of us wrestle with not living up to our own standards, much less someone else’s. All of us can point to the fact that most of the conflict in our lives is a result of something WE have done. You can chalk that up to original sin, a character flaw, or not living our best lives now, but the reality is we do not consistently live our lives that way.

      Your daughter has not matured to the point where she can understands that others have as much value as she does.

      How then would you explain those who have matured, and still don’t allow others to carry as much value as they do? Founding fathers of our country who were slaveholders, “ethnic cleansing” which led to mass genocide in Rwanda, attempting to kill off an entire race Nazi death camps, you name it. Maturity doesn’t automatically lead to the giving of value to another.

      Can you envision any possible way or evidence that would lead you to reject Christianity? If not, you have sealed your mind off from rational discourse and have ceased to be a thinking, inquisitive being.

      Allow me to change the question. Can I envision any possible way or evidence that would lead me to reject my wife, my sons, my daughter? No. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I got married 20+ years ago (for that matter, neither did my wife). But we made vows that have kept us together even when we didn’t like each other that much. We keep discovering new things about each other as thinking, inquisitive beings. Some of those things we like. Some we despise. But that doesn’t mean we toss each other aside. Our vows keep us, even when we don’t keep our vows.

      We adopted our aforementioned daughter two years ago. We entered that decision soberly, rationally, with a ton of advisers, and with a (relative) great deal of maturity. But even with all of those things being true, we didn’t fully know the road we were starting down. Does that mean that on difficult days, I rethink my decision? Not a chance. My love for my daughter far supersedes the difficulty of choosing to raise a three year old. We’re in this thing together till the very end, whether she likes it or not. She can’t get rid of her daddy. 🙂

      In the same way, I didn’t know everything there is to know about Jesus when I handed my life over to him. I still don’t…far from it. And I likely never will this side of heaven. But I’m confident in what I do know, even if I still don’t have all the answers. I still have a lot of questions, and I still have a lot of doubts. But on the days when it’s difficult for me to see it all, I can still trust. There’s a person that I’m pursuing even more than I’m pursuing knowledge of the person. I’ll never know everything there is to know about my wife; she’s a map that I’m constantly exploring. But just because I don’t know it all doesn’t lead me to give up on her wholesale.

      So I guess I’d ask the same question: can you, as a self-described former Evangelical Christian, envision any possible way or evidence that would lead you to re-embrace Christianity?

  21. Reblogged this on Random Thoughts and commented:
    Another article on ‘Atheist Megachurches.’ Actually, it was written in response to the article I linked to in my previous post concerning ‘Atheist Megachurches.’

  22. AJG says:

    How then would you explain those who have matured, and still don’t allow others to carry as much value as they do? Founding fathers of our country who were slaveholders, “ethnic cleansing” which led to mass genocide in Rwanda, attempting to kill off an entire race Nazi death camps, you name it. Maturity doesn’t automatically lead to the giving of value to another.

    The Bible sanctions both ethnic cleansing and slavery. It’s a horrible excuse for a moral compass. And don’t bother trying to convince me otherwise with clever apologetics. Any person not already predisposed to excuse Yahweh for anything he does can see that he is no source of morality. Unless you want to argue might makes right, or course.

    So I guess I’d ask the same question: can you, as a self-described former Evangelical Christian, envision any possible way or evidence that would lead you to re-embrace Christianity?

    Sure. If god bothered to show himself. It’s been 2000 years since he supposedly walked the earth. If he wanted, he could rearrange the stars to give us a message. He could appear as a 900 foot being. He could change the laws of the natural universe and make it clear to us that he was the agent of change. There are a multitude of ways god could demonstrate that he is more than a human creation, He hasn’t so the most logical conclusion to draw is that he doesn’t exist. I am always open to change if the evidence justifies it, but I’m pretty confident that will never happen.

    Anyway, it’s been a nice dialogue, but there’s little point in continuing. You have already admitted your mind is closed to the possibility of change. Hopefully, others reading this are not so set in their intransigent ways.

    • Danny says:

      AJG:

      You’re absolutely right: there are countless stories of “ethnic cleansing and slavery” in scripture. Actually, let me go a bit stronger than you did on your word choice. “Sanctions” implies that God gave tacit approval over those things, when in reality there were many times God commanded Israel to destroy another nation because of that nation’s rebellion against him or crimes against Israel. And yes, there were also many, many times that Israel herself suffered through her own slavery, deaths, or persecution because they too did not follow God’s commands.

      Do I understand all of it? Nope. Does it make me uncomfortable when I read those things in scripture? Absolutely. But while you can say that it’s “a horrible excuse for a moral compass” and that God is “no source of morality,” that doesn’t change the basic disagreement I think you and I are having: IF God exists, his knowledge far surpasses our own. IF he exists and I believe in him, then it makes sense that one who existed before me and one who created me is not always going to make sense to me, correct? Man, I can’t even understand everything my doctor tells me. But because I trust him, I do what he says.

      But I get it – that’s not your belief, so it’s not reasonable for me to expect you to believe. We’re starting at two vastly different points.

      You say that “if [God] bothered to show himself,” you’d believe. But “it’s been 2000 years since he supposedly walked the earth…there are a multitude of ways [God] could demonstrate that he is more than a human creation, He hasn’t so the most logical conclusion is that he doesn’t exist.” I don’t think you’re arguing against a historical Jesus. I’d suppose though, that you’d believe that Jesus – though historical – wasn’t divine.

      But what if he was? What if he was God’s son who came to earth? What if he was more than just a good moral teacher, but a sinless God/man who became flesh? What if the miracles he performed were real, and served to point people back to a broken natural order that was beginning to be restored? What if he really did die on a cross as a substitute for the sin of mankind, and really did rise from the dead three days later?

      And what if his followers – a dozen soon followed by hundreds and then thousands of contemporary followers – what if they were so overwhelmed by the evidence of his crucifixion and resurrection that it changed absolutely everything about their lives? What if the movement of Jesus was the catalyst that transformed not only their lives, but the lives of their neighbors, countrymen, and former enemies, and 2000 years later people are still talking about him and giving their lives to him?

      Time doesn’t erode truth. Just because 2000 years has passed doesn’t make it less true, and less worthy of being believed.

      You can argue the morality of God for days. You can say that God doesn’t exist. But I don’t think you can argue that when Jesus came, something happened. There was a decided shift in tone when he came on the scene. The storyline of the New Testament simply reads differently than the storyline of the Old, but both storylines ultimately pointed to Jesus.

      AJG, if I’m wrong on this, you’ve lost nothing. You’ve lived a life where you’ve tried to be the best person you can be, without the influence of an outside source of cosmic morality. If I’m wrong, I am – as I said in an earlier comment – the most to be pitied.

      But if Jesus is real, and you no longer have to depend on your morality but on his free gift of salvation…if Jesus is real, and there’s something that goes on beyond this life…if Jesus was more than just a historical figure, it really does change everything.

      I don’t expect this post to convince you. As you said, there may be “little point in continuing.” But I can’t check my convictions at the door, just like I wouldn’t ask you to wholesale dismiss your doubts about whether God exists. Wrestle with your doubts, but be intellectually honest enough to continue to explore those truth claims of Jesus.

      I do appreciate the conversation, and I appreciate you taking the time to engage.

  23. Phil says:

    Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to a Starbucks today–but thanks for the tip!

    Staying with the morality conversation:

    So I would say we can’t posit that humans share the same moral framework just on the basis of being human. Every one of those negative examples are most certainly human, and the list of “bad guys” throughout history are nearly as numerous as “good guys.” So the question remains: where does that morality issue from? What is the “standard” that you and I seem to inherently know is out there, somewhere?

    Let me try to rephrase your response (this is just to make sure I understand it–if I got it wrong, please let me know!): I put forth that our moral frameworks stem from our human nature. You said that people have different moral frameworks, so it cannot come from (the same) human nature.

    I am going to expand on what I meant (I think I hinted at it above, but I will try to be more explicit): the process of evolution has given us moral instincts that are then shaped by our environment. Those moral instincts (what I called a moral framework) are largely similar for most people, but, as with everything human, there is a huge amount amount of variety. (Indeed, I think evolution favors variety–but I don’t want to get far out on a limb, as I basically have no biology background. 🙂 ). So, just as people have different physical characteristics, and different capacities to reason, and different capacities for empathy, etc., people have different capacities for moral behavior (maybe that is the same as empathy?). (As an aside, I find babies capacity for empathy and fairness absolutely incredible. In a response to AIG, you talked about how you can look at your 3-year old and see original sin (At least I think you said that–I cannot double check at the moment). . I look at my 2-year old and see an amazingly moral being. She seems to intuitively understand things like “taking turns” and “equal shares.” Blows my mind. 🙂 ) I don’t see any reason to think that, if our morality comes from our moral framework (brought to us by evolution) everyone must have the same framework, or else it cannot be brought to us through evolution.

    But, in any case, there is another HUGE reason why we don’t all have the same framework. Our morality isn’t given to us in whole at birth, but is shaped by our life experiences. So, in addition to the “hard wiring” (which, again, can vary) that we generally come with for morality, there is the environmental aspect that can profoundly shape our moral understandings. Indeed, our environment can completely change our moral instincts (our “wiring”) This too can provide for a huge amount of variety in moral frameworks.

    So rather than variety being a problem, I think it helps to explain why I think moral instincts shaped by environment is where our morality comes from.

    But I do think that variety is trouble for any one who believes in absolute moral truths (that exist independently). Indeed, you point to all of the variety and then, to my mind, still say (somehow) there are absolute moral truths. That’s the part I don’t get. I don’t think I have ever met an absolute moral truth in my life. 🙂

    Finally, I am not sure what “standard” you are referring to that we know exists out there. Again, I don’t think it exists. 🙂

    • Danny says:

      Phil, I’m sorry (again) I was silent for a few days. But the good news – I did get in on the last day of that buy one, get one deal. I still think you’re in grave error. 🙂

      It’s good to know you’re not arguing from a biological background. I’m neither a biologist nor the son of a biologist, and my 10th grade intro to biology class was the best three years of my life, so neither of us would get very far. 🙂

      But rather than going in on a full-scale evolution vs creation debate (a road we could rather easily go down in this conversation), let me go back to our shared experience of having a daughter:

      You say that she’s amazingly moral, almost intuitively so. (May I borrow her to teach my three year old a few things?) And you’re right, there are some kids / adults who seem to be more inclined to know and do the right thing. But let’s say for a moment that your daughter chose the wrong thing: she slugged a playdate friend for taking her toys, she stuck out her tongue at you in a moment of unguarded weakness, or she even did something that wasn’t as much moral as it was dangerous, like running into the street or touching a hot stove.

      As a parent, you would have a right and responsibility to correct her behavior. And in so doing, you’re positioning yourself as an absolute moral truth: we don’t hit, we don’t show disrespect, etc. In that moment she has two choices: release her inner lawyer (we all have them), explaining why she’s right and you’re wrong (and thereby continuing her path and facing punishment for her actions), or aligning her will with your will, thereby bringing peace to her life, her relationship with you, and her relationships with others. (I have a friend who used to tell his preschooler, “I’m asking you to do this because I want you to be a happy grownup.” I always loved that saying.)

      As a parent, you’d be foolish to say, “Well, she’s a smart kid, and maybe she knows what she’s doing by punching the neighbor. Perhaps she’s quick and nimble enough that I could let her run out into the street just this once.” No, you’d never allow her to choose her own path at this age, especially when you see it leads to destruction. You would impose your moral will on her because you know what’s best for her.

      Take the difference between your wisdom as an adult and her wisdom as a two year old, and you begin to have a very small understanding in the gap between our wisdom and that of an “absolute moral being,” if one does indeed exist.

      I’m about to make a huge assumption, Phil, and that’s that you’re interested in what I believe. 🙂 I may be completely wrong, and if that’s the case, you can certainly tell me to pipe down, or ignore this comment, or simply delete this conversation and this webpage from your memory bank.

      But the thing that informs my entire side of this conversation is my Christian worldview. And to leave that out means that you may never understand where I’m coming from. I can’t separate that belief from this argument. (deep breath) So here goes:

      I believe that God exists, and that he created mankind for a relationship with us. I believe he created us without sin, and he created us in his image. He gave us the ability to think, reason, love, etc. … things that the rest of creation does not have the ability to do (we could insert an illustrative argument about Koko the gorilla here, but again…we ain’t biologists).

      I believe that sin entered the world because of man’s choice to willfully disobey the command of God, and that sin is passed down through our spiritual DNA. We’re sinners by nature (as that great theologian Lady Gaga says, we’re born this way) and by choice (there are times that even amazingly moral, intuitive beings willfully do the wrong things). And that sin separates us from a holy, sinless God.

      I believe that God is both completely just and completely loving. His justice compels him to punish our sin. But his love for us compels him to give us a way out of our sin.

      I believe that Jesus was the once and for all mediator between a holy God and a sinful man. Jesus was God’s son who came to earth. He lived a sinless life, and died a brutal death. As the “perfect sacrifice” he took on the punishment for our sin but lovingly gave us a way back to his father. I further believe that Jesus rose from the dead three days later, proving his power not only over sin, but over death itself.

      I believe that there is life after death, and anyone can know salvation by trusting in Jesus. I don’t think there’s a single thing we can do to earn it. I don’t think there are any of us who are moral enough to achieve it (just one sin taints our relationship with a holy God). But I do believe that salvation is freely offered and freely given to anyone who accepts it, and I believe that trusting in Jesus and resting in his finished work is the only way I’ll be able to stand before God.

      I believe that this isn’t just “pie in the sky, by and by” spiritual beliefs, but it changes life here and now. Recognizing God’s love for me and Jesus’ sacrifice for me changes the way that I live. It changes the trajectory of my life. Let me be clear: I’m still a messed up individual. I still make the wrong choices (willfully so) on a regular basis. But the more I really “see” Jesus, the less I feel the need to find my happiness somewhere else.

      So that’s it. That’s what I believe, and that’s what’s driving this side of the conversation. Again, I’m making a lot of assumptions that you even wanted to know that, but I felt like it might be helpful. We can certainly go back to conversations on absolute moral truths, the reliability of scripture, etc., but because that’s such a big rock from my end, I needed to drive that stake in the ground.

      If you’ve made it this far :), thanks for reading this, Phil.

  24. Phil says:

    Danny,

    I wasn’t really intending to come back to “the most to be pitied” thing (as I don’t see it to be a big deal), but you brought it up with AJG again, and still, I fundamentally don’t understand what you are getting at. (But I am genuinely curious.)

    Here are people I pity (maybe you are using a different understanding of the word?–In my case, I think the following description of “pity” from Wikipedia is accurate: A person experiencing pity will experience a combination of intense sorrow and mercy for the person or creature, often giving the pitied some kind of aid, physical help, and/or financial assistance.”):

    Here are examples of people I pity:
    1) People wrongfully jailed for years
    2) Parents who have lost a young child to cancer (or whatever).

    Essentially, people who have had very bad things happen to them through no fault of their own.

    Here are people I don’t pity (although I may feel compassion for them):
    1) People who make bad choices.
    2) People who make rational choices and reach thought-out conclusions about the nature of the world.
    3) People who continue down a course, even though they should know better

    I would put Paul largely in the latter 3 categories.

    By your understanding (I think?), anyone who has given up everything to pursue a mistaken understanding of reality, should be the most to be pitied. This includes millions of seriously religious people who are Buddhist, Mormon, etc.

    I can also think of another example (albeit extreme): the Heaven’s Gate cult. Those people gave up literally everything, their jobs, their families, their futures–indeed they gave their lives–they cashed everything in for a story that I think we both can agree is definitely not true. But I don’t think they are “among all men, the most to be pitied,” nor do I think this is the right way to describe the cult members. Do you find them the most to be pitied?–In my case, I am not sure I pity them at all (well, possibly a little ???–but hardly the “most among all men.”) Foolish? Yes. Pitiful? Not really.

    (On the one hand this doesn’t seem to be worth the mental energy spent on it, but on the other hand, it seems to have real meaning for you–so I am curious.)

    • Danny says:

      Phil, this is a great question. First, I think you’re correct: I believe I would also put Paul in one of those latter three categories.

      But the question remains, why does he use that terminology? I’ll try to answer it in the right context.

      Paul made that statement in 1 Corinthians 15:19. The chapter appears in the middle of a letter he wrote to the Corinthian church, roughly 20-25 years after the resurrection of Jesus. And yet, there were some within that church that were still confused / doubting / disbelieving the bodily resurrection of Jesus’ followers after death.

      Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 15 was to lay out an argument for the resurrection of the dead. He pointed out that if there’s no resurrection, then not even Christ has been raised (15:13). And if Christ was not raised, then everything that Christianity is built on is untrue (15:17). The Corinthian church was accurate on much of their understanding of Christianity, but Paul’s point was that without the resurrection, nothing else really mattered.

      I would guess that Paul’s rationale was that – if all of Christianity is built on a lie or misunderstanding – then tens of thousands of his contemporaries had given up everything for nothing.

      Moving away from the theological realm for a moment: practically speaking, I suppose that pity is in the eye of the beholder. Like you, I would pity someone who is wrongfully jailed or lost a child. And you and I would also be in agreement on the extreme example you gave of Heaven’s Gate. I’m not sure I would use the word “pity” to describe how I feel about them. Their beliefs seem erroneous enough. But then again, there are plenty who would say the same about my beliefs. So while “pity” may not be the best universally-used word, I think that’s what Paul was getting at here, in this particular context.

      Maybe a better word – from the perspective of a Christian – should be “compassion.” That’s the word that scripture often uses to describe what Jesus felt towards the crowds, the sick, the dying, the legalists, the hopeless, the whatevers. He showed compassion towards those who didn’t know him, and didn’t know they needed him. He showed mercy and grace in the moments of their deepest need. And I believe that he did all of that with an eye towards the cross and as an object lesson of the even deeper spiritual need he would fulfill there. The miracles that Jesus performed were intended not just to heal bodies, but to prove he could put souls back together as well.

      (The problem, of course, is that many of us Christians have forgotten the lost art of compassion. I love the often-repeated quote from Gandhi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” And while it’s convicting, it’s too often sadly true.)

      I hope that helps explain a little bit of context behind that saying.

  25. Phil says:

    Phil, I’m sorry (again) I was silent for a few days. But the good news – I did get in on the last day of that buy one, get one deal. I still think you’re in grave error. 🙂

    Lol.

    t’s good to know you’re not arguing from a biological background. I’m neither a biologist nor the son of a biologist, and my 10th grade intro to biology class was the best three years of my life, so neither of us would get very far. 🙂

    But rather than going in on a full-scale evolution vs creation debate (a road we could rather easily go down in this conversation), let me go back to our shared experience of having a daughter:

    You say that she’s amazingly moral, almost intuitively so. (May I borrow her to teach my three year old a few things?) And you’re right, there are some kids / adults who seem to be more inclined to know and do the right thing. But let’s say for a moment that your daughter chose the wrong thing: she slugged a playdate friend for taking her toys, she stuck out her tongue at you in a moment of unguarded weakness, or she even did something that wasn’t as much moral as it was dangerous, like running into the street or touching a hot stove.

    As a parent, you would have a right and responsibility to correct her behavior. And in so doing, you’re positioning yourself as an absolute moral truth: we don’t hit, we don’t show disrespect, etc. In that moment she has two choices: release her inner lawyer (we all have them), explaining why she’s right and you’re wrong (and thereby continuing her path and facing punishment for her actions), or aligning her will with your will, thereby bringing peace to her life, her relationship with you, and her relationships with others. (I have a friend who used to tell his preschooler, “I’m asking you to do this because I want you to be a happy grownup.” I always loved that saying.)

    As a parent, you’d be foolish to say, “Well, she’s a smart kid, and maybe she knows what she’s doing by punching the neighbor. Perhaps she’s quick and nimble enough that I could let her run out into the street just this once.” No, you’d never allow her to choose her own path at this age, especially when you see it leads to destruction. You would impose your moral will on her because you know what’s best for her.

    Take the difference between your wisdom as an adult and her wisdom as a two year old, and you begin to have a very small understanding in the gap between our wisdom and that of an “absolute moral being,” if one does indeed exist.

    I think we are largely in agreement here. There does seem to be a little bit of having both ways–both we can know morality, and we cannot possibly know God’s ways. Is God’s absolute morality beyond us, and thus we cannot know it? Or can we know it (and, more importantly, how)?

    I don’t see any evidence that, even if “absolute morality” does exist, we could possibly know it. Rather, I just see everyone acting out of their own understanding of morality.

    Again, I’m making a lot of assumptions that you even wanted to know that, but I felt like it might be helpful. We can certainly go back to conversations on absolute moral truths, the reliability of scripture, etc., but because that’s such a big rock from my end, I needed to drive that stake in the ground.

    Thanks for taking the time to write out your beliefs. I had guessed it already, though. You do work in a church, after all. 🙂 A church which links to this, as an explanation of its beliefs:

    http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp

    Although I appreciate you not assuming anything. 🙂

    • Danny says:

      Phil: Busted. Guilty as charged. 🙂

      You’re right: I do work in a church. I’m a bona-fide pastor, without the cool-yet-uncomfortable clerical collar. And sadly, I lost my awesomely coiffed televangelist-style combover years ago (although my wife is VERY happy about that). But before I’m a paid endorser, I’m a satisfied customer. I work these beliefs out of my relationship with Jesus, not my paycheck from a church or the title on my business card.

      But if I were to go back to our friend Paul the Apostle, he would argue – to your point about “how can we know?” – that we can know. That there is both general revelation about God – the things that we see in creation, that the design of creation points to a Creator, – and specific revelation about God. That his written word – granted, if it’s to be believed – reveals specific truths about himself.

      There’s more about that in Romans chapter 1.

      But even more than that, we can know moral absolutes because God gave them to us. That’s the whole story of the Ten Commandments: God’s way of establishing order and law into a relatively new society that was wantonly reckless, and God’s way of reorienting people to a relationship with him, a way of understanding his holy nature.

      But here’s the point of the Ten Commandments: many people (and many, MANY Christians) look to them as a list of do’s and don’ts. And left to themselves, they are. But the commandments were given so that we would recognize we could never keep the commandments perfectly. True, I might not ever murder someone or take something that doesn’t belong to me. But covet? Check. Dishonor my parents? Yep. Take the Lord’s name in vain? Uh huh. Creating an idol to place before God (not the hand-carved, sit-on-the-shelf kind, but the my-heart-is-an-idol-factory kind)? Check, check, check.

      The commandments remind me that there are moral absolutes, and I absolutely can’t keep them perfectly all the time. You might say, “Well, everyone has a bad day now and again.” I would argue that I’m the opposite: I have a good day once in a while, but most of the time I can break four out of the ten commandments before I leave my house. 🙂

      “Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God.” (Romans 3:19)

      Left to itself, though, the law is not life-giving, it’s exhausting. Why would a “good” God give us a set of standards he knew we couldn’t keep? That’s why the Bible says that Jesus came. He lived the law perfectly. Never broke a single one. And then he died in our place, thus perfectly fulfilling the law, which is what he came to do (Matthew 5:17-18). When we respond to the law now, we respond not because we’re trying to earn God’s favor, but because God has already poured out his favor to us in Jesus. I don’t keep the law now so that God will love me, I keep it because it’s an overflow that he already has. And when I fail and break the law and violate his moral absolutes, I don’t have to live in abject fear that he’ll reject me. He settled his acceptance of me once and for all when Jesus went to the cross.

  26. Phil says:

    Even if you’ve lost interest in the discussion (which is entirely understandable, BTW), could you at least publish my last comment? Thanks. 🙂

    • Danny says:

      Aw crud. My fault entirely.

      Phil, I haven’t forgotten about you. Well, not completely. Well, sorta. 🙂

      We’re in the final throes of planning for a series of city-wide Christmas Eve services. I’m one of the point guys on that, so I’ve been neck-deep for the last few weeks.

      I’m definitely not tired of the conversation, I just didn’t want to post the comments (from you and others) and then forget to reply. WordPress’ obnoxious little comments badge insures I won’t do that. 🙂

      I’ll get to them soon, I promise! Thank you so much for your patience.

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