Conversation with an Athiest Friend (03)

18 04 2009
Tooth Fairy, Where Are You?
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From this point there was a free flowing discussion, as you will read…

Friend: I am as close to certain that there is no god as I am certain there is no tooth fairy. You can’t prove there are no leprechauns

Me: There’s one living in our back yard actually!

Friend: now we’re getting somewhere

Me: My thoughts precisely. As one author put it – God is Jesus… no smart arse responses please.

Friend: that’s all I have

Me: Now we are really getting somewhere

Friend: I realized a long time ago that the reason the US is the last refuge of religiousity in the west is simply because the Americans worked out how to make money out of it. Everywhere else people have left the old superstitions behind.

Me: I wish my salary was a little higher then

Me: Did I ask you yet your reason for such (18th -19th) century enlightenment optimism about science and who you are 99.999% certain there is no God?
Friend: you gotta write a book and go on a speaking tour like your pal Tim. Set up a little cult — they are always a good money spinner.

Me: Good thinking!

Friend: base it on Christianity — there are 17,000 different sects so you can do just about anything. BTW, why do you say I have ‘enlightenment optimism’ about science?

Me: With the enlightenment came optimism that science would answer all our woes, all our questions, that the answer to everything would turn up sooner – or in the present case much later than expected.

Friend: did I ever say that?

Me: Well you suggested it answers questions about God, which is a stretch. You imply that it can define bias individuals from those who alone can weight up truth objectively. That seems pretty optimistic to me.

Friend: when did I say it answered questions about god?

Me: Are you saying your disbelief is based on somthing else?

Friend: sorry, disbelief in what?

Me: In the tooth fairy of course.

Me: My further thought was just this. It was interesting when I undertook my PhD in Chemistry to see just how much fudging was happening, especially as you move away from the more pure sciences like Maths. Francis Bacon’s quote is a good one about what often drives some of the “lesser sciences” – Truth arises more readily from error than confusion. And the same kind of market forces are at work when it comes to justifying your field of research and the results you are getting.

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Coversation with an Athiest Friend 02

26 03 2009
Karl Marx 1882 (edited)
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Here is a continuation of the answer I wrote to my friend addressing some things about the nature of science…

“Enlightenment optimism” means you are overly optimistic about what scientific method can achieve. Science cannot prove non-repeatable events. Thus science cannot prove history. Science can help in the establishment of history by creating analytical methods (my own PhD specialty) for testing the validity of historical evidence or by refining information about it, but it cannot actually prove a non-repeated event. You have to be able to repeat an experiment enough times statistically to show it must definitely be the case.

Science is firstly about establishing positive truth. In the process it debunks other false ideas when the establishing alternative contradicts previously held notions. Many scientists (Christian or not) don’t see any contradiction in anything yet found and that’s because they are biased by their upbringing, lingering primitive thought patters and/or a need to affirm themselves (poor Tim Keller). I.e. they have bias, which is exactly what Descartes was about eliminating (more power to him!). But reading Descartes, the first principle in his method is equally applicable to hard-core atheists as to hard-core deists – assume nothing you cannot be absolutely certain about. You cannot be certain there is no God, and you kid no one to suggest otherwise. What you can be certain about is that you are no more objective than the next Joe (plumber or not). You also think in paradigms which like to accept what fits with them and affirms them, and reject what doesn’t. So I will look for things, in science, the world, and my own experience that fit with existence of God and try to dismiss things that don’t. You will look for things that fit with disbelief in God and seek to dismiss things which don’t – which is exactly how your responses so far have read. E.g. an honest reading of history doesn’t show that individual belief (note carefully) in God leads to any more immorality, bigotry, hatred etc. than a belief that Manchester United is better than Liverpool, or Marxist humanism is the solution to all political woes. Your accusations about Keller misrepresenting science is equally applicable to what you’ve done with social history. Let’s discuss this thing sensibly like two well educated blokes who both hope Australia might win the return leg in South Africa – but have their doubts. [but of course Australia did win 2-1!]

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Conversation with an Atheist Friend 01

23 03 2009
Category:Atheist Wikipedians
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I have been having a very lively conversation with a childhood friend who is an atheist. We have known each other for over 30 years… so you will see that we have speak quite freely on things. I pick the conversation up with discussion of evidence:

[Why don’t you believe in God?]

[My Friend]

If you mean Yahweh from the bible, then it is meaningless to say whether you believe in him or not — some people have proposed that he exists but haven’t demonstrated it in any way that can be verified. (Equally, people have proposed that UFOs have secretly abducted them in the night but have failed to back it up with any evidence.) The UFO claims have actually got more veracity because they are made by people who are still alive. As I said at the beginning, the claims that the bible does make that can be tested have all been shown to be wrong, or simply obvious even to the Jewish goat herders who wrote them. The onus is on the proposer to back up their claims with honest, open debate and with clear instructions on how anyone can reproduce the effect or experiment. If you just want to state something, especially something as extraordinary as what is claimed by Christians, then don’t expect people to take you seriously unless you can back it up. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence


OK I’m back…

If the UFO guy has burn marks on the soles of his feet and his car had the top ripped off, this is evidence but what you do with that evidence has nothing to do with science. Science has no comment to make (except probably to say that it could have naturally been caused by, x y or z). It has everything to do with how skeptical or otherwise you decide to be with the evidence. Add to this 100 different things and science still cannot prove whether he was abducted or not. Now let’s say you were the guy. How do you know you weren’t just tripping out somehow? In fact you may know of David Hume the philosopher, who essentially said that if you experienced a miracle you’d be safer going for any other explanation than to accept that it was a miracle. Can science prove that Jesus didn’t walk on water? Of course not. Can science prove that he didn’t do miracles? Of course not. Can science prove that he didn’t rise from the dead? Of course not. If God is Jesus how else is he going to give evidence to humans except to become a person so we can identify with him, and then do things that show he’s not bound by the laws of nature? Actually now I think about it, Jesus did give scientific evidence that he is God – he did miracles on repeated occasions under varying experimental conditions (there’s a thought)! But of course this is rubish, and you’re 100% sure god can’t exist. Why? Because you are operating on a pre-disposition (due to a marriage with science) that the supernatural doesn’t exist. You’ve made a prior decision, and through this you interpret everything. But don’t pretend this is scientific. It is a paradigm, as Thomas Kuhn would put it (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1992]). Check out Alistair McGrath (a not so unintelligent) microbiologist and theologian who teaches at Oxford and has had a few things to say to Richard D about his enlightenment optimism.

[To Be Continued…]

Posted by Bruce Lowe

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Every blessing? (2)

4 03 2009
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The quickest way into the Prosperity Gospel issue that I’ve found is to up the stakes – and talk about death.  Consider this statement:

Jesus has won every blessing for us at the cross.  In particular, Jesus has defeated death at the cross.  He has won for us victory over death.  So that means no Christian should ever have to die, if they’re putting their faith in Jesus.

I haven’t yet come across anyone who’s willing to let that argument stand without modification.  But once someone’s accepted the principle that this argument needs qualified in some way, then that often opens the door for a productive discussion about how “already/not-yet tensions”1 apply to blessings in general.

Sickness is small fry compared to death.  Yes, Jesus came to defeat sickness – but even more importantly he came to defeat death and sin.  So if the argument above needs modified in regard to death, it will need modified in regard to sickness as well.  (And also sin: the holiness movement2 made the same sort of mistake, but with sin instead of sickness.)

Now in some ways, this goes against my instincts.  My instinct is to begin with a verse from the Bible – that’s our ultimate authority after all!  But, on this Prosperity issue, I’ve found that people are more willing to take on board a specific Bible verse, after they’ve wrestled with a more general biblical concept first.  (Like the issue of death, above.)

In the next post, I’ll try to sketch out why I think that is.  Again, I’d value your thoughts on that in advance – so let me ask a specific question:

2 Tim 3v12 is pretty clear: “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” – but quoting it, or verses like it often isn’t enough.  Why not?

1 The language of “already/not-yet tensions” is a way of trying to describe how everything in history pivots around the coming of Jesus.  The Bible speaks of this “present age” and also of the “age to come”.  And it’s Jesus who moves us from one to the other – but with an overlap.  The cross and resurrection marked the beginning of the new age to come; but the present age won’t come to an end until Jesus returns.  So now, we are living in the overlap between those two ages.  The new age is already inaugurated, but not yet consummated.  The blessings of the new age are already inaugurated, but not yet consummated.  E.g. we are already co-heirs with Christ, but we have not yet received the full inheritence that will be ours in the new creation.  Death has already been defeated, but it has not yet been banished.

2 The holiness movement said that if you were really trusting Jesus then you should be able to eliminate sin entirely from your life, because Jesus has defeated sin at the cross.

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Every blessing? (1)

24 02 2009
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I was in northern Nigeria for a big chunk of January. The church there faces 3 big challenges:

It’s the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ that I’d like to focus on in the next couple of posts.  One of the common ways it comes up in Nigeria, would be people saying things like:

Jesus has won every blessing for us at the cross.  “By his wounds we are healed.”  That means Christians can expect to be healed, if they’re putting their faith in Jesus.  During Jesus’ ministry (i.e. before the cross), he never turned away anyone who came to him, and asked him in faith for healing.  He’s the same yesterday, today and forever.  So he won’t turn us away now if we come to him in faith.

Now there’s a whole range of things you could say in response to this.  But the question is – where do you start?  It some situations I’ve had the luxury of taking time to tackle this in depth. But other times I’ve needed to get something basic across within a few sentences.  I’ve got some thoughts on this which I’ll put into my next post.  But I’d be interested to hear what ideas everybody else has.  What are some effective ways into tackling this false teaching?  (Especially when you need to say something brief, but telling.)


If you were speaking to someone who’d be influenced by the Prosperity Gospel, how would you start to tackle the issue?


RJ, in the first comment, made explicit something I was thinking but didn’t say: One really useful way to begin is by asking a question. It’s not the only way to begin, but it’s a great way. So suggested questions are welcome!

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