Monday 16 July 2018

The difference between being an atheist; and being a theist but not a Christian

Being an atheist is incoherent and leads to nihilism; not being a Christian means being hope-less.

This difference used to be understood by almost everybody - Christians and non-Christians; but centuries of muddle and evasion have obscured it. A-theism, that is not-believing that there is any god - means that there is no creator, reality is not created, and therefore reality has no meaning or purpose. Stuff just is; and nothing more can be said about it.

That is atheism. And there have been very few genuine atheists up until recently - but there are quite a lot now; and atheism is mandatory in public discourse in the West - which is why things will necessarily collapse.

What about Christianity? We need to understand that - properly understood - Christianity is the only hopeful religion. All men should want Christianity to be true, and if they do not, then that is because they don't understand things. The afterlife of Christianity may not be your idea of perfect happiness, but no other religion is hopeful except by contrast with a miserable mortal existence.

This was obvious in the early years of Christianity - when the only questions were whether or not Jesus was who he claimed and whether he really could deliver on his promises. Everybody at that time, and for a long while afterwards, knew that if Jesus was who he claimed to be, and if he really could deliver his promises of eternal resurrected life in Heaven; then that was better than any known alternative.

The reason for Not being a Christian - for many centuries - was that you didn't believe that Jesus really was the son of God, and/or you didn't believe he really could lead us through death to life everlasting.

This is quite a different situation from what exists here and now, in the modern West. Modern Man is usually an atheist who thinks that Jesus's claims cannot possibly be true. Not that his claims happen to be factually-wrong; but that they are meaningless.

In other words Modern Man is thinking nonsense - because he is trying to argue from incoherent premises in an incoherent reality. In reality, he assumes the un-reality of God, and of creation, and absence of order, meaning, purpose - and from this assertion of ultimate chaos he assumes that Jesus could not be true, because the atheist already-assumes that nothing is true; not really true.

By contrast, for a theist, a religious person, a believer in creation/ order/ meaning/ purpose to deny the truth of Christianity, is a perfectly coherent thing. He is simply saying that Jesus did not really exist, or that he was a fraud/ liar/ madman; that his Heaven is not a real place - and that therefore a less happy, a sad, outcome in life is the best that can realistically be hoped-for: whether that be a Paradise, endless reincarnation, Nirvana, painless unconsciousness, or whatever.

But he would, if he has understanding, know that it would be better if Christianity were true and that he personally could avail himself of its promises.

Christians need to be clear that Jesus's claims were extreme. A Man was claiming to be the Son of God and to have created this world, and much else. These are astonishing claims - and it is not surprising that many or most people did not believe them; even when backed up by what appeared to be amazing miracles, the endorsement of the holiest prophet alive (John the Baptist), by fulfilment of prophecies, by the resurrection. All of these might have been false - there is no 100% sure way of knowing that they were true.

And modern Man has none of these. He has 'historical' reports, which he needs to believe is uniquely and in a special way true (because normally secular history is full of errors and constantly changing its story). And he has intuition - but he also needs to believe that is, or can be, true. He has personal miracles in his own life - but needs to believe that miracles are possible in general, and also that these specific events are miraculous.

Yet there are always alternative explanations for any 'fact', or any 'evidence'. This is the case for science and it is the case for Christianity. Evidence is never ever conclusive and compelling. We must, and always do, believe despite this immovable fact - but the modern ignorant and incompetent belief that evidence should, can (and does!) dictate belief; stands in the path of understanding reality.    

What, then, of evil? What of those who know that Christ's promises are true; but they refuse them? Well, one thing that can be said of such persons (whether they be demons or mortal Men) is that they cannot be happy about their situation and prospects! Not to be Christian need not be insane or incoherent; but it is necessarily miserable.

Someone who is mastered by pride, or resentment, or envy, or is consumed by a lust for sex or inflicting pain... and therefore rejects Heaven, hates God, loathes Jesus and Christians; such a person has rejected everlasting happiness... this may, indeed, be a source of the pride and disdain. Pride i having rejected the 'easy' or 'cowardly' or 'sentimental'... pride at embracing permanent pain. This is a real phenomenon, and I have certainly felt it myself; and seen it in others. 

But we ought to be clear about the options and possibilities; and it seems that many people are not clear; they are incoherent. They deny God but also assert morality and claim to know meaning and purpose; when religious they claim to be unsatisfied by the promises of Christ and to 'prefer' other religions on the false ground that they offer more or better outcomes.

Modern people are the stupidest, the most unrealistic people ever; presumably because they are so dishonest, and think so little, and are so distracted, and refuse to join-up assertions and refuse to acknowledge that this is what they are doing and failing to do. They live in a miasma of half-wishes, half-thoughts, transient feelings, vague hopes.

But the issues are actually clear and simple; and almost everybody used to be able to see the situation and possibilities. Now people see neither.   


Chiu ChunLing said...

I feel that it is important to allow for the existence of theists who look forward to a messiah to come (notably Jews) as well as those who believe in a savior other than Christ (most adherents to non-Christian religions, even where the official doctrine of their religion does not appear to contain any support for such a concept).

Nirvana is, as far as I can tell, mere nonsense formulation along the same lines as "pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible," etc., rather than someone that should be taken quite literally. In practical terms, what Buddhists believe is that some person or persons have achieved a transcendent state free from human failings which can be extended to others.

The question is, why all the disagreement over whether Christ is the messiah? It is not and never has been a purely historical question, to be settled according to ordinary historical evidence. The problem is that people have very different notions about what the messiah is and does. They may all agree that it must be a being who has surpassed human weakness and failings, but there is a lot of disagreement about what exactly constitutes a "weakness" or a "failing".

Take the common Marxist ideal, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In practical terms, this inevitably means that you regard ability as a moral failing (to be punished) and need as a virtue (to be rewarded). The messiah of the Marxist is thus an 'intellectual' with no actual productive capability but a vast array of clever arguments to cow the able into slavery (the prototype being Marx, but all other Marxists aspire to that perfection).

We can in some cases examine the fundamental credibility of a given concept of the messiah by examining what would be the result of everyone really trying to be follow that definition of perfection (or we can look at the historical results, for some cases). Any reasonable person will see that the Marxist idea of moral perfection is untenable. But in most cases I think that it is delusional to imagine that human intellect or even historical inquiry is adequate to analyze the essential validity of most religious concepts of messiah, which tend to be a bit nebulous. If we look at the history of conflict and oppression within Christianity, who are the 'Christians'? Is it the Inquisition, or the heretics they tortured and killed? Is it the Catholics or the Protestants? Is it perhaps a quality that is even more subtle than these already abstruse distinctions (for those looking at it without)?

I think that it is not useful to say that every concept of messiah has to be what we should call Christian in order to be hopeful. There are many historical religions which did not agree with the particular historical claim of the messiah having been born in Bethlehem a couple of millennia ago but in more pertinent details of defining the qualities of moral perfection exemplified by their idea of messiah are well within the spectrum of what we would generally call Christianity.

I also feel that we should understand that "theism" already implies not just a being that embodies the laws of reality, but one that is essentially benevolent towards humans. In other words, it already implies a messiah of some sort, though the range of possible forms such a messiah may take exceed the bounds of human imagination.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Atheism isn't usually a denial that there are any laws of the universe at all, nor even that those laws are implicitly expressed in some being. It is merely a denial that this being would be benevolent to human interests or provide a savior for us. Of course, that denial logically entails the conclusion that such a being will have no necessary interest in ensuring that we correctly understand it. Not all atheists will admit that, if there is no God, then our sense of truth and logic can be nothing more than a cruel joke (if it is even something so fun as that). But while there is no practical difference between there being no truth at all and it simply being utterly beyond human ability to discover it, there is in fact a profound philosophical difference and I do not ignore it.

Nihilism is the position that there is no ultimate meaning at all. All meaning is purely subjective and dependent on the intersection of perceptual experience and desire in some emergent imaginative conceptualization (what could by ordinary people be called a 'sentient being'). Atheists are not all nihilists, nor are all nihilists atheists. Indeed, a pure nihilist cannot even be a nihilist...the nihilist conclusion about the nihilist premise of the absence of any absolute meaning is that it is also nonsense.

Atheism is the belief that humans cannot absolutely know the truth about the universe because whatever being may be the ultimate expression of reality, it has no benevolent interest in humans and thus has not bothered to reveal to them how they may live in accordance with absolute truth.

Satanism (or Gnosticism, or Prometheanism) is the belief that the truth of the universe is hostile to humans, and that they therefore must ally themselves to an enemy of that truth who happens to be friendly to humans, or at least willing to use them as tools to fight against the ultimate truth of reality.

Theism is the belief that the truth of the universe is fundamentally benevolent, either generally or towards humans specifically, or at least some humans. Messianic religion is a natural expression of Theism, but not the only possible one, merely the most common strain that takes into account that humans are not generally perfect and must therefore be led (and justified) by some perfect example.

Christianity is a general family of religions bound together by acceptance of the historical claim that the messiah was born at a particular time and place and did and taught certain things recorded in scripture, though there is wide disagreement about which of the accounts are true scripture and which interpolations or falsehoods.

These definitions are not absolute, but they are more helpful (even just to a practical evangelist) than assertions that rely on "Christianity" being defined in a sense that makes it impossible to tell if anyone (even oneself) is a Christian or not.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I think you are perhaps making things much less clear than they could and should be!

Perhaps Steiner said it best and most briefly:

"To deny God is a sickness*; to deny the Christ is a calamity."

(Also - "to deny the Spirit, the Holy Ghost, signifies dullness, obtuseness, of a man's own spirit.")

*"an actual sickness in a man who denies what he should be able to feel, through his actual bodily constitution. If he denies that which gives him a healthy bodily feeling, namely that the world is pervaded by Divinity, then he is a sick man, sick in body."

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I found CCL's classification of nihilism, atheism, Satanism, and theism very clear and helpful, actually.

William Wildblood said...

"To deny God is a sickness." This is the very truth. Atheists are sick but it is a sickness of the soul caused by a stunted imagination and a rebellious will. So, it is a moral sickness or that certainly is a large component of it.

Then the denial of Christ. Some of this must come from the poor performance of the churches and of Christians themselves. People reject them because of their shortcomings, not seeing they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But any real reflection on Christ or unbiased reading of the Gospels must make a sincere person see the truth. Once again, it is a sick soul that rejects Christ because he is the pattern of truth and this exists within us. If we are faithful to it we will recognise him. If we are not faithful to our own truth then we will also dismiss the truth of Christ. People don't like hearing this but there it is.

But the other problem is that most people don't even think about God now. They have had no spiritual education and they are so preoccupied with material things that they don't worry about the spiritual at all. At least not until they have to confront their own mortality and then it is often too late because the habits of a lifetime are so ingrained.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I doubt whether I'm making anything less clear to anyone.

Some things are just less clear to some people. To those who are not already Christian in a deep and profound sense that is not extended to all overt claimants of Christianity, the difference between Christianity and other messianic theism, or even between theism and atheism, is very obviously not clear at all and hasn't been for most of human history.

And while it is possible that I'm the one that made it unclear, it doesn't seem likely.

Nigel Worthington said...

In reality, he assumes the un-reality of God, and of creation, and absence of order, meaning, purpose - and from this assertion of ultimate chaos he assumes that Jesus could not be true, because the atheist already-assumes that nothing is true; not really true.

Well put, such is the status of many modern thinkers.

That said, I have doubts about some of your other assertions. What constitutes a hopeful religion in your mind? Why would you regard benevolent theistic religions like the Bahai religion or Zoroastrianism for example as hopeless?

Further I'm not convinced that incarnate humans know or can know what conceptualization of an afterlife they should prefer. I'm not convince we are aware enough for that. The bible suggests as much - "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard...", "we see through a glass darkly.." and so on. You seem to imply otherwise and that this was obvious to everyone erstwhile.

Bruce Charlton said...

I wanted, in the post, to distinguish clearly between atheism and being a theist but not a Christian; because Christian apologists tned to conflate them.

And there ios a reason for this conflation - atheism may be incoherent, but very few people really put coherence as their highest priority - people aren't motivated to do that. And if they do become 'pure thesists' then it won't 'make them happy'.

So it is natural to try and look beyond theism to Christianity. Yet the Christian idea of God is only a subset of coherent concepts of deity.

Furthermore, there is a really big problem with the way Christianity is presented as a 'double negative' - the idea of The Son coming to save us from a damnation which The Father imposed.

Since modern Man does not feel sin - nor believe in its objective reality, he sees nothing to save himself from - and anyway, who wants to 'believe' a God which does that kind of trick?

So, if the 'package' of theism and Christianity are to be proposed together, coherence and joy joined - as seems necessary - then there needs to be a change.

Christians probaly need, one way or another, to get back to the original positive, 'enhancing' understanding of Jesus's work - as in the Fourth Gospel.

Chiu ChunLing said...

That's why I introduce nihilism as an important strain which exists independently of atheism as such. Incoherence in one's fundamental beliefs is essentially a species of nihilism...and yet isn't. More properly it could be called a sin of intellectual sloth rather than any kind of 'ism', but it's fundamentally nihilistic.

Whether or not people believe that there is a God (or even gods), to regard thinking consistently about that all-important reality as unimportant cannot be justified on any ground but nihilism (in which everything is justified by the assumption that nothing is...that is to say, nihilism does not rate consistency highly).

I find that the cure for a little bit of nihilism (used to evade important questions) is a good hard look at where else a little more nihilism will take one. I'm not aware of any cure for a lot of nihilism, short of death (and my sources indicate that death doesn't cure it either).

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Nihilism is mostly used to make space for a person/ group's unrepented sins - especially sexual. As in 'it's nobody else's business what I do with my sexual organs. Of course this indifference goes along, in practice, with a crazed hypersensitivity to (for example) the one-off articulation of a single Politically-Correct taboo word (even in private) by anyone guilty of being male, white, Christian-living, and native-born...

Since nihilism is always incoherent, and always applied with selectivity; why is it almost universal?

My answer is that nihilism comes from our false metaphysics - an incoherent denial of the possibility of knowledge about reality - which is itself a consequence of atheism.

So that any coherence-generating/ meaningful/ purpose-validating knowledge can be undermined by nihilism; and be made the focus of ineradicable doubt; but gratifying and socially expedient claims to knowledge are justified by being rewarded proximately.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Nihilism is so prevalent because the universe itself is nihilistic.

This is the primitive Judeo-Christian doctrine found in Genesis and reiterated throughout the Old Testament, which forms the context on which the New Testament has real significance.

Simply put, it is not easy for God to create meaning and hope in a universe that is fundamentally inhospitable to such things. Platonic Idealism and Post-Christian thought cling to the assumption that there must be meaning and hope in life, but Christianity itself only makes sense when you accept that there is nothing logically necessary about your life meaning anything in the end. That's the initial attraction to believing in God at all, let alone Christ, so that there will be someone who cares about your otherwise pointless existence (who will not simply die out meaninglessly in turn).

Nihilism doesn't come from false metaphysics so much as from a lack of metaphysics. But when you have incomplete metaphysics, in which the positive metaphysical assumptions do not include all that is logically entailed, then the remaining metaphysics are false. When someone assumes that their own life has meaning and purpose, but does not accept the metaphysical assumption that makes that possible, then the (otherwise true) assumption that it there is meaning and purpose (or even coherence) in life is rendered false.

For someone in this position, it is useful to be confronted with the real alternatives, if they do not believe in God they cannot really believe in anything at all. They can merely willfully entertain a delusion of unsupported meaning.

Some may at that point decide to go ahead with believing nothing at all. But most won't.