ThinkSince 1968 I have been involved in a ministry designed to show thinking people that science and faith are compatible and that there is solid evidence that God does exist and that the Bible is His word. During the many years that I have been presenting lectures and materials on this subject I have made over 14,000 presentations, most of them on college and university campuses, in public high schools, and civic center auditoriums.
What has been interesting about this is that, in doing these presentations, I have had equal amounts of support and rejection from both atheists and religionists. One learns a lot about human nature when he challenges people to look at what they have believed in the past and reconsider some ideas to which they have held. There are attitudes that we all have to some degree, which restrict our ability to learn and understand. I would suggest that these attitudes not only restrict us in understanding issues related to our understandings of God, but also impact our personal happiness and our relationships to families and friends. I have friends who are religious and friends who are atheists who have had a terrible time with their marriages and their kids, and I have seen as an outsider to the relationship that it is their thinking and their attitudes toward others that is at the root of their problems. Learning to think differently does not mean giving up our principles or compromising Truth. It does mean learning how to understand others and how to communicate in a way that promotes understanding and friendship instead of hostility and open warfare. In this article we would like to look at problems that both religionists and atheists which impede understanding, in the hope it will motivate people on both sides of the issue to think about why they believe what they believe and hopefully come to a better understanding and a more positive view of the world in which we live.
Both religionists and atheists tend to lock onto a charismatic leader and follow that leader blindly. In the religious world we have had very public cases where people have put their brain in park and followed a charismatic leader to their death. Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewaite were able to manipulate and control people to an incredible degree. Religious and atheist political leaders like Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Hussein, and many others have been able to lead whole nations to accept beliefs that denigrated human life and murdered scores of innocent people. Modern religionists have not encouraged thinking, and many people are very happy with that. Not long ago I had presented one of my lessons that challenged people to consider what their understandings are of what God is. The lesson challenges both atheists and religionists to consider what their understandings are, and I had two people in the same lectureship who came after me with fire in their eyes. The first was an atheist who said "This is too complicated. I do not believe any concept as abstract as what you presented is worth my time." This was the same gentleman who had earlier challenged something I had presented from quantum mechanics, a concept at least as abstract as what I was presenting. He was unwilling to think outside of the box in whhich he had experience. A few moments later a religious person came after me with equal vehemence. After pounding the table several times about how he knew God existed and what God is like from experience and he did not need to know what God was, he concluded his harangue by saying "I don't come to Church to think!" I have to feel that he does not and will not.
The largest and fastest growing churches in America today are the ones with charismatic preachers who manipulate the emotions of people with clever stories, jokes, and claims of miraculous powers. There is little if any emphasis on understanding the Bible, and no freedom for interpretations other than those of the charismatic leader. Tolerance is preached, but disagreeing with the leader is the surest way to see a total lack of tolerance. The tough issues that people face in everyday life are not approached, and people with problems are not given lasting logical ways of coping with life. In systems like this, people have a great experience during worship and are elevated and set free of their problems as long as they are within the walls of the church building. As soon as they step back into their lives with the problems that were there still facing them, there is a crash and life becomes a destructive roller coaster of highs at church and crashes as soon as church is over. Clever clichšs and moving stories of miracles are not tools that enable us to deal with tragedies and frustrations in our lives.
Atheism has the same problem. One of the interesting things that I have seen in the attacks that have been made on us in our presentations and our web site is the fact that the attacks all come from the same sources. When Richard Dawkins made his attack on religion by using DNA as the guider of our lives and fate, he used this quote:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
--Richard Dawkins, Out of Eden, p. 133.
Ever since the statement has come out we have had it quoted to us, usually without credit, over and over again. Atheist spokespeople like Fred Zindler will attack religion with humor, abuse, and clever clichšs and for months afterward we will have the statement come to us in e-mails and in statements at public presentations. These atheist spokesmen are bright, well educated, clever, and articulate. When I see something they write in their magazines and journals to which I subscribe, I know I will see the statements over and over again in the months ahead. Like many religious people, the statements are mindlessly quoted, frequently mispronounced or misspelled, and often given in reference to a subject to which they do not apply. Dawkins' statement, for example, has no relationship to cosmological arguments for the existence of God, but over and over we see it quoted in that context. It is also interesting to notice the quote cycles in both atheistic and religious literature. Person A will make a statement which is quoted by person B. Person C will quote person B and person A will quote person C. This happens in virtually all creationist literature, and is especially evidenced on atheist web sites. Circular referencing needs to be looked for and discarded, no matter who does it.
People who enjoy a good fight will continue to go in the same rut they have always been in, but for those of us who would like to see tolerance, understanding, and striving for constructive dialogue there is a need to get away from quoting charismatic leaders and strive to understand the arguments on a personal level. Religious people need to understand why saying "God did it" when they do not understand something is not a valid evidence for God's existence. Atheists need to understand that not everyone uses religion as a crutch, but that there are solid academic reasons which can be articulated for the existence of God that have no dependence on personal experience or emotions. There is a need for both atheists and religionists to read what people who differ with them are saying, and try to understand the arguments without impugning the motive of the author.
It is important for atheists and religionists to understand that there are qualified people on the other side of the fence. Religionists tend to believe that all atheists are immoral selfish individuals who have an ax to grind and are not really sincere about what they express. There are atheists who have selfish reasons for promoting atheism just as there are religious people who have selfish reasons for promoting their religion, but that is not universally true. I have atheist friends and family members who are good people and functional citizens, but they have reasons for not accepting that belief in God has any factual base. I can disagree with them on this without accusing them of selfishness or immoral motives. There are also well educated scholarly religious people who have solid arguments for the existence of God, who are not in a business or in a church where they need to manipulate people or make money. We have tried to review books and materials over the years of these folks, and have bibliographies available on a wide range of subjects that people of good scholarship have written. The bottom line is for all of us to think, and not allow someone else to tell us what to believe. In the words of the writer in Philippians 2:12, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," whatever you understand that salvation to be. Grow, learn, think, and be open to new understandings.
Atheists and believers tend to lock into non-issues and refuse to deal with the "why" questions. The most visible spokesmen in religion and atheism seem to be people who like to focus on non-issues. For the past 30 years there has been a huge debate going on about evolution. Evolution is an important issue, and there is a great need for everyone involved to better understand what evolution is and what it is not. The fact is, however, that evolution has nothing to do with whether there is a God or not. For someone to be an atheist because of evolution is like being a Democrat because of classical music. The evidence for the existence of God does not have anything to do with the way in which God does things. To question the way God operates in the world is a theological issue and not an apologetic one. You cannot like what God has done in the past, but that does not mean that God does not exist. You can feel that you see a flaw in God's character or nature, but the possibility of your lack of understanding will always impact any judgment of this kind. Many times atheists will base their attacks on God on the conduct or statements of religious people. The difficulties of the Catholic Church in recent years with everything from pedophile behavior to political manipulation is not related to whether there is a God or not, any more than the acts of a political leader or an atheist in Chicago brutalizing young children and killing them can be held out as an indictment against atheism. Take a religious wacko's teachings on something and attributing it to God is an act of intellectual dishonesty just as much as a religious person quoting an atheist extremist as typical of all atheists would be.
Both religionists and atheists tend to avoid important "why" questions. Why would God create man? Why does pain and suffering exist? How does faith help or hinder dealing with problems in life? Why should we pray? Why is one God any more valid than another? Why should we practice any morality? What is the purpose of religious acts such as baptism, communion, etc.? Why should we be concerned about euthanasia, cloning, incest, homosexuality, and similar issues. Both sides of the fence seem to offer flippant answers to these difficult issues, but it is important to find some common ground for any meaningful dialogue to take place. The first point that needs to be understood is that these are not matters of belief in God; they are theological and philosophical issues. Refusing to consider the damaging aspects of these issues is a closed minded approach. Saying "because" or deferring to the preacher or family tradition is also a closed minded approach. These are practical issues that our society is faced with, and the stability of our daily lives can be disrupted by extremists from either side on these issues.
It is time for a change in the way the issue of faith and atheism is approached. Rather than attack personalities and resort to personal attacks on people of a different persuasion, we need each to look at the overall picture and logically investigate the evidence. What evidence do we have that there is a God--any kind of God. Consider the cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral, and philosophical evidence by considering books and materials put out by established apologists with good academic credentials. We can offer addresses and web pages for people interested in approaching the issues in this way, and our own web site at doesgodexist.org gives resources and elementary approaches to these issues. After considering the evidence that there is a God, one needs to consider what that God is and which of the claims about God makes logical and evidential sense. It is only when these issues are settled in one's mind that questions about moral decisions, pain and suffering, why we are here, and things like evolution can be intelligently discussed and acted on. Starting with these issues breeds confusion and hostility that gets us nowhere. Think--logically, carefully, and open-mindedly-- about what you believe and why you believe it. Think and be "ready to give an answer of the reason of the hope that is within you to every man" (1 Peter 3:15) with kindness, respect, and the understanding that we live in a complex universe with many options and many consequences for the choices we make.
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