Conversations with atheists
From C.I. to Alan Myatt:
Q: >> What is more rational about this God you've described
than Thor or Zeus? << ME: >> BTW, all of the above did not even come close to answering Q's original question..." YOU: >> We are talking about two totally different worldview with entirely different ontologies, epistemologies, ethics, and teleologies. <<
You're stalling. These kinds of differences are implied in the question.
>> You could benefit by doing some basic reading in Christian theology so that you understand what the concept is we are talking about, before raising irrelevant questions. <<
It's not as if your theology is that difficult to understand. It's aimed at the level of a six year old -- intentionally.
>> The definition of the terms must be understood before an intelligent argument can proceed and Q's question would have never been made by someone who really understood what the Christian notion of God is. <<
This is pure evasion. Next you'll claim you can't possibly make your case unless you study the theological system of Thor.
From AM to C.I.,
Message text written by C.I.
> It's not as if your theology is that difficult to understand. It's aimed at the level of a six year old -- intentionally. <
Yes there are some elements of Christian theology that are aimed at children, and that quite intentionally, however this statement is just mind-boggling. Surely you cannot be serious. I am currently working my way through Augustine's On the Trinity and I don't think it would go over to well in 1st grade Sunday School.
There are lots of atheists intellectuals, such as Bertrand Russell, Antony Flew, Paul Kurtz, just to mention some of the more well known, who argue against Christian theism, but they would never make the kind of remark that you imply here. If you think that Christian theology is so shallow then you work your way through Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles, Calvin's Institutes or Cornelius Van Til's Christian Theory of Knowledge. But then you won't bother I'm sure, since you already know all about Christian theology.
>You're stalling. These kinds of differences are implied in the question. <
No, actually I am not stalling. The way the question was framed seemed to me to ignore that such differences exist. I showed in my response that the notion of Thor (as all polytheism) implies a back drop of pantheism or naturalism, and is hence philosophically much closer to atheism. I would reject it for many of the same reasons.
Finally, demanding that you understand the definitions of the terms of an argument is not evasion. It is an essential aspect of rational discourse.
From C.I. to Alan Myatt,
>> Yes there are some elements of Christian theology that are aimed at children, and that quite intentionally, however this statement is just mind-boggling. Surely you cannot be serious.<<
I am serious. Orthodox Christians made the decision nearly 2000 years ago to keep things very simple so they could attract as many converts as possible. That was one of their big beefs with the gnostic Christians who wanted a complex theology.
I think Paul even praises the simple understanding of children and implies this is to be the Christian model.
>> I am currently working my way through Augustine's On the Trinity and I don't think it would go over to well in 1st grade Sunday School. <<
But understanding Augustine is more of an intellectual curiosity than anything else. It is not a necessity prior to understanding and using the core theology.
You claimed atheism was straightforward. I claim Christianity is even more so. Sure, you can claim Augustine makes things complex, and I could claim B.Russell makes atheism complex.
Van Til might try to invent a Christian epistemology and B. Russell might claim to invent an atheistic epistemology. If you think atheism is so straightforward I wonder if you also think Russell's epistemology is as straightforward. That's what you seemed to imply. If so, it makes me wonder why you are surprised that I might point out that Christianity is also very straightforward. Do you enjoy dishing out what you are afraid to eat yourself?
BTW, Calvin and Van Til might be considered complex theologians in some circles, but I wouldn't consider either to be great thinkers. Simplistic is more like it.
>> No, actually I am not stalling. The way the question was framed seemed to me to ignore that such differences exist. <<
True. There are some differences between Christianity and some religions. But there aren't many differences between Christianity and some other religions.
>> I showed in my response that the notion of Thor (as all polytheism) implies a back drop of pantheism or naturalism, and is hence philosophically much closer to atheism. <<
You complain that Thor is polytheistic yet Christianity has God, Jesus, Satan, and various angels. What Christians fail to recognize is that other so-called polytheistic religions are very similar to Christianity in their understanding of their gods.
I don't know much about Thor but I do know some things about other religions. You are approaching us as if you are offering a religion with special attributes. You are not. For example, the Egyptian religion has one main god who is so unknowable he creates generations closer to mankind so we can comprehend something of the divine. Plus, he is so pure he cannot touch the real world without a go-between. But the Egyptians believed in a hierarchy with one all-powerful god who
was really in control just like the Christian God. Lower gods do the handiwork just like God sent angels to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. The Egyptians also believed laws were divinely given and that the universe was made orderly by the gods. For the purposes of this discussion, their theology was essentially the same as Christian theology. Here are a few snippets from the Book of the Dead regarding Osiris:
"The stars in the celestial heights are obedient unto thee, and the great doors of the sky open themselves before thee. "The imperishable stars are under thy supervision... "The uttermost parts of the earth bow before thee... "...permanent is thy rank, established is thy rule. "...the stablisher of Right and Truth throughout the World...
I've seen you state previously:
>> Thor or Zeus (or any of the other gods for that matter) are simply other beings who are alleged to exist in the context of the larger Being that encompasses all things,i.e. the Universe, Nature, or whatever. <<
But this is simply not the case. Egyptian gods were seen pretty much exactly like the Christian gods.
>> The Bible is a different sort of thing altogether. He does not exist as a part of a larger Being, rather he himself is the original uncreated Being. <<
Just like Egyptian cosmology. Of course I know you know the meaninglessness of this. It just passes the problem of something from nothing onto a new entity called God. (Where did God come from?) It doesn't really answer the question, it just ignores it.
>> The universe was created by [God] out of nothing and is utterly dependent upon him in every aspect of its own being. <<
Just like Egyptian cosmology.
>> Thus, the Christian holds that the ultimate reality is personal, rational, and purposive. <<
And also the Egyptian view. Also similar to Greek, and most other religions.
>> The universe is not ultimate...<<
Nor is it for practically any religion, especially Egyptian. Given all of this, why aren't your arguments equally valid for the Egyptian world order? The fact is, Christianity and its theology is not very unique. Your attempt to single it out is a Christian reflex but it is not very well informed. So when you claim that your religion and only your religion explains reality with a special theology, epistemology, etc... it is an argument made from ignorance, deception, or wishful thinking. We ask pertinent questions like "Why your god" and you act like this is somehow improper. In reality it's something you don't want to confront because it challenges your delicate presuppositions.
From Alan Myatt to C. I.,
There are some errors that are so elementary that when they are made it is almost embarrassing to have to correct them. This especially the case when said errors are cloaked in language that gives them the appearance of having scholarly support when in reality none exists. Unfortunately your post is a prime example of such mistakes and regardless of how awkward it might be for you, I shall have to expose and correct them anyway. You imply that my argument is based on ignorance and you purport to know something about religions, particularly ancient religions. You make several assertions about the cosmology of these religions and imagine that they are practically identical to that of Christian theism. Yet you offer no documentation whatever from any recognized scholarly works on the religions you discuss. Your one citation from the Book of the Dead does not come anywhere near giving an accurate picture of the Egyptian god in its context. Well, it happens that I know a little about religions myself (it helps to have a Ph.D. in religious studies) and for the sake of those reading these posts I will remedy your lack of documentation by citing what various scholars have written about the religions in question. We will look at the sources and see whose interpretation is correct. Now to the specifics of your post.
>Orthodox Christians made the decision nearly 2000 years ago to keep things very simple so they could attract as many converts as possible.<
My main comment here is to simply challenge you to prove this statement with documentation from any scholarly source. I have read quite widely in church history and have found no evidence of such a calculated decision based on this type of motive. The basic gospel message is simple indeed and it was kept that way over against the gnostics in order to avoid changing its content. BTW your ascription of simplicity to Christian theology would seem to contradict your earlier implication that most Christians of different denominations don't agree with each other over what Christianity is. If that were the case it would imply that Christianity is much more complex than you let on. You seem to change the content of your argument depending upon what is most convenient at the moment.
>I think Paul even praises the simple understanding of children and implies this is to be the Christian model.<
Your sloppy scholarship first shows itself in your citation of the Bible without giving references. It was actually Jesus who said that we must come to God as little children, and this was not so much a reference to intellectual understanding as it was to having an attitude of humility and trust as a child would (Luke 18:15-17). Of course Paul does not contradict Jesus, yet his writings were already known for their complex theological arguments even during the early years of Christianity. 2 Peter 3:16 mentions that in Paul's writings there are things difficult to understand. The fact is that while the basic message of Christianity is simple, the development of Christian theology involved grappling with the most difficult and complex of philosophical questions.
>it makes me wonder why you are surprised that I might point out that Christianity is also very straightforward. Do you enjoy dishing out what you are afraid to eat yourself? BTW, Calvin and Van Til might be considered complex theologians in some circles, but I wouldn't consider either to be great thinkers. Simplistic is more like it.<
This latter statement makes me wonder how much if any of the works of these men you have actually read. But that is not the real issue here. I never said that Christianity is not straightforward. In fact, I think it is. This aspect of the discussion arose from what appeared to me to be rather clear evidence that Q did not seem to understand the nature of God as understood by Christian theism. At least he did not appear to grasp the notion of the Creator-creature distinction which I articulated previously. This notion is essential to what the Christian God is and it is a concept that differentiates Christianity entirely from systems with finite gods such as Thor. Now it has become apparent that you don't get it either, since we have this:
> There are some differences between Christianity and some religions. But there aren't many differences between Christianity and some other religions. ...You are approaching us as if you are offering a religion with special attributes. You are not.<
>I don't know much about Thor but I do know some things about other religions. You complain that Thor is polytheistic yet Christianity has God, Jesus, Satan, and various angels. What Christians fail to recognize is that other so-called polytheistic religions are very similar to Christianity in their understanding of their gods.<
Your claim to know something about other religions is cast into serious doubt by the increasing confusion about these religions that becomes evident as your post progresses. Your confusion rears its head here in your implication that Christianity is polytheistic. This confusion explains why you imagine that Thor is somehow comparable to Yahweh. Even a superficial reading of the Bible is sufficient to pick up the fact that at no point does the Judeo-Christian cosmology consider Satan and the angels to be gods. They are all clearly shown, from the beginning, to be created beings who operate within the confines of the created universe. Apparently you think that God and Jesus are just beings ontologically equal to the angels in some sense. All of this stems from your bringing to your interpretation of Christianity the basic assumption that all that is, exists by participating in Being. If a God be identified, by definition then he must be an entity that exists in the realm of this prior Being. God is analogous to man and the angels in this view. He is just bigger.
But this is the whole problem. By reading your own basic metaphysical presuppositions into Christianity you engage in a straw man argument against a system that is a figment of your imagination. Let me state it once again for clarity. According to the Bible there is no such thing as Being as such. God does not exist in the context of any environment other than himself. Van Til refers to God as being self-contained, meaning that he is not contained in nor does he participate in Being or any other context. The universe is an entity totally distinct from God and it is here that we encounter finite beings. The question is which is ultimate, God or the universe. You assume that it is the universe. Christians assume that it is God.
Also, you imply that the notion of the Trinity is somehow polytheistic as well. It would be difficult to find any serious scholars outside of Islam who would pay any attention to you on this point. Perhaps if you bothered to read Augustine on the Trinity, whose work you seem to think has no bearing on the content of Christian thought, then you would have a clearer picture of the ontological unity of God as well as the diversity of persons in the godhead. Judaism is militantly mono-theistic. Christianity shares this heritage.
>For example, the Egyptian religion has one main god who is so unknowable he creates generations closer to mankind so we can comprehend something of the divine. Plus, he is so pure he cannot touch the real world without a go-between.<
Your confusion over other religions becomes quite clear with your complete misconstrual of the nature of ancient Egyptian religion in relation to Christianity. This confusion is evident right off the bat in that these first two statements, rather than being evidence of similarity with Christianity, demonstrate that the Christian concept of God is indeed quite different. The unknowability of God that you describe is not uncommon among non-Christian religions. It was part and parcel of the gnosticism which you mentioned earlier. Yet the Bible never, ever, represents God in this fashion. This was in fact one of the things that made orthodoxy so objectionable to the gnostics. If anything is clear about the biblical God it is that he is knowable. In fact, from the beginning of the book of Genesis to the end of Revelation one of the Bible's main themes is that God wants to be known. The very definition of a Christian involves knowing God. Of course this does not mean that God is totally comprehensible to human beings. He is not. But unlike the Egyptian deity, he does not need to create generations of mediators in order to be known. He becomes most known by himself taking on a human nature and walking among us in the person of Jesus. In doing so he enters into intimate contact with the real world. He touches it as closely as can be imagined and he himself is the only "go-between" that there is. He does this without becoming ontologically identified with the creation. The Egyptian god is ontologically identified with the Being of the universe, even while trying to remain totally aloof from it. The Christian God, on the other hand, is precisely the opposite from the description you generate here. Your statement establishes the opposite of what you are trying to prove.
From here your post continues with several assertions about the nature of the Egyptian belief in god whose intent is to show that the Egyptian gods were viewed basically just like God is in Christianity. They can be summarized thus:
1. The gods of other religions, in this case those of Egypt, were not viewed as existing in the context of a larger, impersonal Being. The Egyptian god was seen as himself the original uncreated Being.
2. The Egyptians therefore understood ultimate Being (god) to be rational, purposeful and personal. They did not believe that the ultimate reality is impersonal.
3. The universe is not ultimate for Egyptian nor most other religions. It was created out of nothing (ex-nihilo) and utterly dependent upon the personal god for its existence.
4. The Egyptian god was all powerful and in control of the universe just like the Christian god.
It is here that we encounter the most embarrassing part of your post. The simple fact of the matter is that each one of these statements is false. This is easily demonstrated by a perusal of recent scholarship by experts on Egyptian religion. While each of these statements accurately describes the God of the Bible they are nothing like that of ancient Egypt. An examination of the evidence shows that the Egyptian notion of god is exactly like what I previously stated. We shall take each point in turn.
1. Egyptian creation myths contradict this point at every turn. In one sense it is difficult to speak of a consistent Egyptian theology, since it evolved over time. Yet the creation myths point back to a common notion of deity and while later cosmology tended to elevate the Egyptian deity towards infinite attributes, the Egyptian concept of god was essentially that of a finite being. Let's look at some specifics:
From Donald A. McKenzie, Egyptian Myth and Legend, London: Gresham Pub. Co., 1907, reprinted Portland, Maine: Longwood Press, 1976.
"At the beginning of the world was a waste of water called Nu, and it was the abode of the Great Father. He was Nu, for he was the deep, and he gave being unto the sun god who hath said: "Lo! I am Khepera at dawn, Ra at Noon, and Tum at even tide". The god of brightness first appeared as a shining egg which floated upon the water's breast, and the spirits of the deep, who were the Fathers and the Mothers, were with him there, as he was with Nu, for they were the companions of Nu.
Now Ra was greater than Nu from whom he arose. He was the divine father and ruler of gods, and those whom he first created, according to his desire, were Shu, the wind god, and his consort Tefnut, who had the head of a lioness ..." pp. 1-2.
"Ra spake at the beginning of Creation, and bade the earth and the heavens to rise out of the waste of water."
"When Ra, according to his desire, uttered the deep thoughts of his mind, that which he named had being. When he gazed into space, that which he desired to see appeared before him. He created all things that move in the waters and upon the dry land."
The original reality was Nu, "the Primordial Abyss of waters (which) was everywhere, stretching endlessly in all directions. ... There was no region of air or visibility; all was dark and formless." (R.T. Rundle Clark. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt Thames and Hudson, 1991, p. 35). One should not get the impression that God and Nu were identical. In fact, Nu was an impersonal void, ultimate being, from which god arose. Robert A. Armour notes that,
"In the story of creation that was developed in Heliopolis, the idea that the first of the gods evolved out of chaos and darkness and brought order to a disordered universe runs parallel to creation stories from many other cultures, including the Greek and Hebrew. In the beginning were the primeval waters, named Nun (variant spelling: Nu) which, since they were unconscious and inanimate, were incapable of independent action. Out of the waters Ra raised himself on a hill and created himself. Ra says that at the moment of his creation nothing else existed, neither the heavens, nor the earth, nor the things upon earth. Until this moment he had lived alone in the primeval waters, where he developed in darkness and contained both male and female principles." (Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt . Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1986, pp.18, 20).Clark notes that the waters (Nu) are "the basic matter of the universe" (p.36) from which consciousness came into being. He quotes Pyramid text utterance 600 that states concerning the High God, "O Atum! When you came into being you rose up as a High Hill..." Later the creator says in chapter 85 of the Book of the Dead, "I came into being of myself in the midst of the Primeval Waters..." (Clark, p. 40). Note the phrase, "came into being." The very name of Yahweh in the Hebrew comes from his self designation as "I am" (Exodus 3:14). It would have been inconceivable for any Hebrew, biblical writer or otherwise, to have said of Yahweh that he "came into being." He is the original Being in Christian theology. The Egyptian god may have managed to somehow evolve himself out of Nu, but clearly he is not original nor self-contained. He is derived from, dependent upon and everywhere ontologically part and parcel of the impersonal Absolute that exists before him. His environment is impersonal, chaotic Being, which he must ever strive to master. We see quite clearly then that the Egyptian god, contrary to what you say, was not the original uncreated Being, but rather a secondary and dependent entity who regardless of his growth in the attributes of deity, never surpassed his more ultimate and impersonal environment.
2. That leads quite naturally to the second point. Since ultimate reality for the Egyptians was the impersonal void it is obviously not the case that they agreed with the Bible's teaching that ultimate reality is personal, rational and purposive. In fact they believed exactly the opposite. The original Being of the universe, Nu, is "unconscious and inanimate", obviously characteristics of an impersonal entity. Nu exists prior to the Egyptian god as an inanimate, impersonal and formless void. There is a superficial parallel with the biblical creation story, but with at least one crucial difference. In the Bible, God the Trinity exists alone prior to anything else. There is no impersonal Being, no Nu, no formless void, no chaos and darkness from which he evolves. The infinite personal God is there first - then he speaks and the universe comes into existence. The contrast between the order of events in Genesis 1:1-2 and that of the Egyptian creation story is so striking that it must have been shocking to those steeped in the ancient mythologies. The formless waters of Genesis 1 were created from nothing by God. Then he proceeded to give them structure. Notice the difference. Christianity: God first, then the impersonal creation; Egyptian cosmology: impersonal Being first, then consciousness and the gods.
3. Given that for the Egyptians the ultimate reality was impersonal Being it followed that they had no notion of fiat creation from nothing. The doctrine of creation ex-nihilo is indeed unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Concerning the Egyptian concept of creation one scholar writes:
"For the Egyptian mytho-theological mind creation was of the ultimate importance, for all things had come into being at some specific point, and there was no concept of an eternally existent cosmos. The universe had to have a beginning, and before that beginning there had been nothing. A Pyramid Text speaks of the time before the creation as follows;In other words, ultimate reality is impersonal Being and out of this the Egyptian god emerges. There is no ultimate distinction between the creator and the creation. Both share equally in the impersonal Being which is the ultimate reality. The Egyptian god may be extremely powerful, he may even bring order to much of the chaos of Being and use it to fashion the rest of the world. But he is, after all is said and done, just another piece of furniture in the house of Being. Maybe the biggest, but nothing like the sovereign Lord of Creation depicted in the Bible. Like all of the pagan gods, the Egyptian deities are not capable of providing the infinite reference point needed to rise above the relativity of the universe. In the end the Egyptian god descends into the chaos that spewed him forth in the first place. The eternal cycle never ends.
The sky had not yet come into being;
The earth had not yet come into being;
Mankind had not yet come into being;
The gods had not yet come into being;
Death had not yet come into being.
One should not, however, state of this time before the creation that there had been nothing in existence, for the Egyptians seem to have had no philosophical notion of a creatio ex nihilo. In the beginning there had existed chaos, the primeval waters of Nun, a single existent reality in which there was a primitive demiurge, a type of Prime Mover, if one may express it in terms of a later philosophical vocabulary. Such a philosophical expression, however, would have been totally non-Egyptian, nor would the Egyptian mind have seen a need for an abstract elaboration of the primary substance of the universe. For the Egyptian mythopoetic mind it was sufficient to state that before the creation there had only been the Nun. This Nun, however, was not so much a primary substance or form of matter, but rather a mythic symbol of the abstract reality of the full potential of being, a principle which contained within itself both the masculine and feminine forces which were necessary for generation and procreation." (Vincent Arieh Tobin, Theological Principles of Egyptian Religion . New York: Peter Long, 1989, pp. 59-60.)
4. So while quotes such as the one you presented suggest that the Egyptian god is very powerful, yet he is not the all-powerful Creator as is described in the Bible. Eric Hornung writes in Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many (translated by John Baines. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982) that the "Egyptian gods have a beginning and an end in time. They are born or created, they change with time, the grow old and die, and one day will exist no more." p 143. The Egyptians may have made some strides towards a true monotheism like the Hebrews, but they never arrived.
Really C., a survey of Egyptian religion reveals that it is not much different from the many run of the mill systems of occult doctrine that seem to have almost universally controlled the ancient mind. Ancient (and modern) Hinduism, Greek religions, the myths of Babylon, gnosticism, even the nordic religion of Thor, shared in common this notion of a primal impersonal Being from which the gods where generated and to which all things eventually return. History was seen as a series of endless cycles of the one Being. Not until the Hebrews encountered Yahweh did this scenario change. God was truly seen as absolute and history as linear, rational and purposeful. And that only makes sense, as not until the Hebrews do we encounter a concept of the Ultimate that is personal, rational and purposeful.
So it is in light of what scholars have to say about Egyptian religion that we must evaluate your statements in our dialogue.
(you)>Egyptian gods were seen pretty much exactly like the Christian gods.<And when we do so we see that all of your assertions are false. Whether or not this is based on your own ignorance, deceitfulness or wishful thinking I suppose only you and God know. What can be said for sure is that your assertion that > For the purposes of this discussion, their theology was essentially the same as Christian theology< is simply laughable. So clearly my arguments could not be equally valid for the Egyptian world order, since it is nothing like that of Christian theism. (1)
(me) >> The Bible is a different sort of thing altogether. He does not exist as a part of a larger Being, rather he himself is the original uncreated Being. <<
(you)>Just like Egyptian cosmology.<
(me)>> The universe was created by [God] out of nothing and is utterly dependent upon him in every aspect of its own being. <<
(you)>Just like Egyptian cosmology. <
(me)>> Thus, the Christian holds that the ultimate reality is personal, rational, and purposive. <<
(you)>And also the Egyptian view. Also similar to Greek, and most other religions.<
(me)>> The universe is not ultimate...<<
(you)>Nor is it for practically any religion, especially Egyptian. <
Finally, you charge that making God ultimate does not explain anything since >It just passes the problem of something from nothing onto a new entity called God. (Where did God come from?) It doesn't really answer the question, it just ignores it.< Well, no it does not ignore the question, but rather it goes to the heart of the question. Unless you yourself are willing to believe in some kind of materialist eternal regression you have to deal with the same question. And the question is not how did something come from nothing. Obviously something does not come from nothing. Both you the atheist and I the Christian will have to admit that there is some type of original reality that is just there and always was there, one way or another. There is a necessary being of some kind; something of which existence is a necessary property. The real question is not where did ultimate reality or being come from. The question is: What is ultimate reality or being like? Is it personal? A rational mind? Is it identical with the universe we see around us? Or is it impersonal material and energy, without purpose and mind? Those are the questions. And how you answer them determines whether or not your own thought will eventually lapse into relativism and irrationalism or if it will be able to sustain a rational world view. Atheism is firmly in the former category.
Despite your best efforts you have failed to establish that atheism can justify knowledge, ethics, and purpose rationally nor can you give a rational account of the universe. Your potshots at Christianity have revealed your own lack of ground to stand on. I previously stated my intentions to bow out of these discussions since I have other things to do and there does not seem to be much left to say. Your posts compelled me to stick with it a bit longer, but now seems to be an appropriate time to wrap it up.
The best to you and the rest,
1 . In addition to the sources cited here, the discussion of Egyptian religion by R. J. Rushdoony in chapter 3 of The One and the Many is quite instructive. He shows that Egyptian religion shares with all non-Christian thought the basic denial of the Creator/creature distinction, rendering it vulnerable to the same epistemological problems that plague atheism. The discussion is well worth reading, not only for its treatment of Egyptian religion, but for its analysis of the basic problem involved in the notion of Being in general, so I am including an extensive quotation here .
Alan Myatt, Ph.D.