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Christianity is not about doing good but making sense of life when sad, miserable sick or poor

A book of apologetics reminds me why that is the faith’s enduring strength

By on Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Atheist advertising campaign launched

I have just finished a stimulating book called Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Published by Faber and Faber at £12.99, it relates the author’s decision to be “unapologetic” about his newfound Christian faith. Sub-titled “Why, despite, everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense”, it is the story of Spufford’s journey into the Christian fold (he is an Anglican) after 20 years as an atheist.

In his conclusion he remarks that “virtuous and idealistic atheists are at work all over the place, but it is observable that a surprisingly large number of believers are to be found among those who volunteer to work with the dying, the demented, the addicted, the institutionalised and the very impaired and afflicted, where the best that can be done is to love for the sake of it, and to keep sorrow company.”

I agree with him. To love without hope of response, encouragement or progress of any kind, and often in the face of great suffering, is very hard. I don’t say that virtuous and idealistic atheists can’t or don’t do it, but it is difficult for them to make sense of lives that are seemingly “useless”; hence the atheists’ temptation to bring in euthanasia or “mercy-killing”, as the kindest thing to do under the circumstances – and the fight to keep it at bay by believers whose faith teaches them that there is more to life than this world can offer.

Martyrs also challenge those of no faith. Why lay down your life for something nebulous that can’t be proved, when you have the chance to live? The only answer to that, to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, is that “Love is the meaning”. I think Spufford would have understood the witness of the least-known of the seven new saints, canonised last week by Pope Benedict XVI. This is Fr Jaques Berthieu, a French Jesuit, martyred in Madagascar in 1896 aged 58. The RomeReports news agency relates that his kidnappers gave him a choice: to renounce his faith and live – or suffer immediate death. They tempted him by saying, “We will make you our counsellor. We will make you our head.”

The priest simply replied, “My son, I’m sorry; that I cannot do. I prefer to die.” He was killed there and then and his body was thrown into a river. Before being captured, Fr Berthieu had several opportunities to escape. But his faith and his love for the local people made him choose to stay with them.

This kind of heroic witness is very rare, even among Christians. As I said, to an outsider it can look absurd, illogical, a waste. But Christianity, as Spufford discovered, is not about being “holier than thou” or do-good social work or being a member of a particular political party. It is about making sense of life when you are “sad, miserable, sick, poor [and] lonely”. As Spufford points out, the bus advertisement that encouraged people to “enjoy” their life because “there is probably no God” is insufferably patronising to those whose circumstances, unlike the comfortable lives of the metropolitan elite, have given them a heavy cross to bear. His book, persuasively and beguilingly written, is a worthwhile and thought-provoking contribution to the on-going debate about belief or non-belief.

  • Peter

    “…a scale at which the absolutely fundamental mechanism is understood without the need to invoke a mysterious original actor.”

    A mechanism is a system that operates.  

    Why would a fundamental system operate on its own, when all other sytems at progressively larger scales are observed to require actions at smaller scales to actualise them?

    Observations suggest that every action must have an action on a smaller scale.  To state otherwise is to refute empirical data.

  • Peter

    The origination of actions at every moment of time without which the universe would not exist, is effectively an on-going re-creation of the universe.

    Whatever is responsible for that continuous creation must be a creator.  Theists first and foremost believe in a Creator.

    This Creator is not an impersonal agent or entity which started the ball rolling aeons ago and left, as the Deists would believe.

    No, this is a Creator which actively keeps us in existence at every single moment of time, without whose continuous action we would instantly cease to exist.

    Such a Creator is a Creator that wishes to keep us and the universe in constant being, and as such we believe that it is a personal Creator which we call God.

  • TreenonPoet

     What I suggested did not refute empirical data. It does not matter how many levels of detail we are able to observe or infer, the data do not show that there cannot be a ‘deepest’ level, even if a pattern is observed along the route to that deepest level.

    You ask why a fundamental system would operate on its own. Given that there is energy in this universe (and we observe that it is not purely potential energy), things happen. I do not see any reason why the shove required at the fundamental level cannot be provided at that level.

    To follow your argument to its extreme, God must be actuated by another god that must be actuated by another god, and so on.

  • JabbaPapa

    There is a grammatical difference between the second and third person singular, in English.

    zounds !!!

  • NewMeena

    The question surely is: does causality exist separately from ourselves and the simulation software in our brains?
     

  • NewMeena

    This is surely the First cause argument.
    But you are also talking about a series of causes and effects operating on progressively smaller scales, which must not (on your submission) reach the infinitely small (otherwise all would condense into your black holes, presumably). 

  • NewMeena

    “Converts” away from religion have posted their thoughts on the RD website.
    Other atheist websites also offer help.

  • NewMeena

    “At their best, human beings can offer unconditional love
    And this is just straightforwardly untrue”

    It’s true in my experience.

  • NewMeena

    “As for non believers, their god is nihilism or here and now Utopias”

    No. One can also hope for the future of the human race  - and that progress will continue into a future we cannot imagine. Such hope is not a God. 

    “Not a twinge of doubt.”

    No. There is always uncertainty.

  • Oconnord

    Thanks teach! ;)

  • Oconnord

    Playstation 2!!!!!

  • scary goat

     Simulation software?  Now I wonder where that came from?  A programmer perhaps?

  • teigitur

    Touche!

  • Peter

    I would be careful with the use of cause and effect in a temporal sense.  The actions at progressively smaller scales can occur more or less simultaneously.  

    That is why I used the example of the splitting of a cell which is the large scale manifestation of progressively smaller actions which are biological, chemical and particle. 

  • Peter

    “To follow your argument to its extreme, God must be actuated by
    another god that must be actuated by another god, and so on.”

     

    Your comment is on the right track to understanding the nature of the
    Creator.

     

    What you are suggesting is that a Creator would need to be created by an
    infinite series of underlying creators, the former creating the latter.

     

    By doing so you are implying that the realm of creators would need to be
    infinite.

     

    This is what theists also believe, but with one difference.

     

    Instead of there being an infinity of distinct creators, theists believe
    that such infinity applies to only one Creator who keeps himself in perpetual
    existence.

  • Peter

    To follow your argument to its extreme, God must be actuated by another god that must be actuated by another god, and so on.

     

     

    Your comment is on the right track to understanding the nature of the Creator.

     

    What you are suggesting is that a Creator would need to be created by an
    infinite series of underlying creators, the former creating the latter.

     

    By doing so you are implying that the realm of creators would need to be
    infinite.

     

    This is what theists also believe, but with one difference.

     

    Instead of there being an infinity of distinct Creators, theists believe
    that such infinity applies to only one Creator who keeps himself in perpetual
    existence.

  • Peter

    To follow your argument to its extreme, God must be actuated by another god that must be actuated by another god, and so on.
    Your comment is on the right track to understanding the nature of the Creator.

    What you are suggesting is that a Creator would need to be created by an infinite series of underlying creators, the former creating the latter.

    By doing so you are implying that the realm of creators would need to be infinite.

    This is what theists also believe, but with one difference.

    Instead of there being an infinity of distinct Creators, theists believe that such infinity applies to only one Creator who keeps himself in perpetual existence.

  • Peter

    “To follow your argument to its extreme, God must be actuated by another god that must be actuated by another god, and so on.”
    Your comment is on the right track to understanding the nature of the Creator.
    What you are suggesting is that a Creator would need to be created by an infinite series of underlying creators, the former creating the latter.
    By doing so you are implying that the realm of creators would need to be infinite.
    This is what theists also believe, but with one difference.
    Instead of there being an infinity of distinct Creators, theists believe that such infinity applies to only one Creator who keeps himself in perpetual existence.

  • Peter

    “To follow your argument to its extreme, God must be actuated by another god that must be actuated by another god, and so on.”Your comment is on the right track to understanding the nature of the Creator.
    What you are suggesting is that a Creator would need to be created by an infinite series of underlying creators, the former creating the latter.
    By doing so you are implying that the realm of creators would need to be infinite.
    This is what theists also believe, but with one difference.
    Instead of there being an infinity of distinct Creators, theists believe that such infinity applies to only one Creator who keeps himself in perpetual existence.

  • TreenonPoet

     Theists give themselves licence to abandon reason. They say that deities do not have to obey the laws of logic and arithmetic. They think that it is sensible to proclaim that 3=1 or, as in your comment, infinity=1. If you abandon reason, your views can be dismissed as unreasonable.

  • NewMeena

    Mangled it more than fixed it!

  • NewMeena

  • Peter

    Your assertion that “things happen” would appear to me to be an abandonment of reason.

  • TreenonPoet

     Thank you for that illustration of my point.

  • JabbaPapa

    Only some radical extremists teach that sort of creationism, which Dawkins is quite dishonestly presenting as being a standard feature of religious belief ; as for indoctrination, he quite clearly has nothing against it whatsoever, he just wants his own preferred doctrines to be forced on children instead.

    Religious beliefs in adults are typically present after a conscious decision by the individual, whether to convert to or to remain in the particular religion or not.

    You continue to peddle the myth that religious education might somehow deprive individuals of their free will — you are confusing it with brainwashing, which is something that only some extremist sects engage in, religious, anti-religious, or otherwise.

  • JabbaPapa

    There are cases in applied mathematics, in computing for example, where 3=1 (in stock management, for example, of items sold in threes), or ∞=1 (sometimes in probabilities, or in some cases to resolve a division by zero or by ∞, depending on the material practicalities represented in the maths).

    When applying mathematics to contingencies or objects in reality, where abstract mathematics disagree with reality, it’s not the reality that’s wrong, it’s the maths.

    The same limitation applies to logic — reality does not obey the rules and laws of either logic or mathematics, but instead these must obey reality — and reality transcends both of them by nature.

  • JabbaPapa

    Obviously.

    You have not answered my question, nor seemingly even pondered it in the fullness that it deserves.

  • JabbaPapa

    It’s from The Matrix, probably — a film with some quite absurd pseudo-philosophy, though the sequels are far better in this respect.

  • JabbaPapa

    Then you’re lying to yourself about the human condition.

  • JabbaPapa

    Thanks for spontaneously posting this new evidence that this Dawkinsism is a quasi-religious cult.

  • Peter

    What is the underlying mechanism through which virtual particle pairs pop in and out of existence?

    To simply say that that’s the way it is whether we like it or not, is a cop out.

  • TreenonPoet

     I don’t know what the underlying mechanism through which particle pairs pop in and out of existence is. If scientific investigation has not already discovered a mechanism, then maybe it will in the future. The cop-out is to say that God did it. If you want an explanation of why particle pairs pop in and out of existence, saying that God did it does not advance our understanding at all.

  • TreenonPoet

     If so, then there is nothing you can say about God. If you say that God is perfect, the notion of perfection being a product of human thought renders your assertion “ludicrous”. If you can say nothing about God, why try?

  • TreenonPoet

     Where does Dawkins claim that creationism is a standard feature of religious belief?

    Give a single example of a doctrine that Dawkins says he wants to force on children.

    I would never say that religious education deprives individuals of their free will because individuals do not have free will. Individuals respond to a new input according to their state before they received that input (possibly with some randomness thrown in). If they have been brought up by adults whom they instictively trust telling them in subtle ways that God exists, they might not even be aware of the influences that caused them to inexplicably believe in God. The Catholic Church uses fairly subtle techniques, such as encoraging young children to pray. Please don’t pretend otherwise.

  • NewMeena

    I do not work with computers, although I know a man who does. Nor have I ever watched the matrix.

    But a knowledge of the brain’s simulation “software” has come about through neuroscience *.

    *Wikipedia; “Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently aninterdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry,computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine and allied disciplines, philosophy, physics, and psychology.”

  • NewMeena

    My reply to you (“scary goat”) has been removed.

    My postings often vanish as the weekend arrives – the weekend shifts are populated by scary censors.

  • JabbaPapa

    Give a single example of a doctrine that Dawkins says he wants to force on children

    “Children should not be labelled by their parents’ religion”

    Doctrine.

  • JabbaPapa

    You assume that God is a product of human thought — hence your misunderstanding.

    God is not a product of our thoughts, God informs our thoughts via Revelation.

    Disagree with those statements if you want, though you’d be wrong to do so.

  • Oconnord

    Ok, the glib answer was unavoidable, but humorous. The medium was unimportant, TV or movies could have been used, along side books.

    I just find it annoying when the religious insist that atheists hate god. I think it’s a stupid assertion. Do christians hate invisible dragons and orbiting teapots? Of course not, because they don’t exist. Would christians hate a group that insisted that teapots or dragons should be worshipped? Well that’s plausible and understandable.

    To carry the analogy, some non-believers, like me, might find the idea of dragons interesting. They might even listen to teapot followers, to find out how the teapot affects their lives. The ways of the dragon or teapot seem strange to us… but we don’t hate the object of your desire. We just question it’s existence. 

  • TreenonPoet

     That is not doctrine because it is the result of reasoning. And what is it that Dawkins is supposed to be forcing on children – freedom to choose their religion? You don’t need force to grant that.

  • Oconnord

    Bob, you got me, I was wrong, I mixed up observations with evidence. But I would assert that there is a natural tendency amongst humans to consume and to follow a charismatic leader. 

    The best example of that leader would be a dead/ever-living one. It’s easy to proscribe values to a dead.. but existent…. leader. He’s dead so he can’t argue… but ever living.. so he can pass on new messages!  But only to the certain few of course.

  • teigitur

    Its a struggle to answer this. As your thoughts are not my thoughts and your ways are not my ways.” Object of my desire “is actually a very succinct description of God and my relationship thereof. I desire God because its  why I was made and he/she/it is pure love, and I desire pure love, above all else.Its like” wisdom” described in the book of the same name in the Bible. Nothing can be added or taken away from that which is.As to the existence; well one questions from time time to time, as human nature is the “status quo”. But personal experience con cludes that no other path is possible  than that which leads to God.

  • JabbaPapa

    TreenonPoet : That is not doctrine because it is the result of reasoning.

    You really haven’t a clue — ALL doctrines are a “result of reasoning”.

    And what is it that Dawkins is supposed to be forcing on children – freedom to choose
    their religion? You don’t need force to grant that.

    I’m really not *that* interested in yet another pointless discussion with somebody who quite manifestly does not fully understand what a doctrine actually is.

    Any and all specific philosophical beliefs that one teaches to others are doctrines, including the one that you’ve just lobbed back at me ; the deliberate teaching of such beliefs to children is necessarily an indoctrination.

  • JabbaPapa

    I just find it annoying when the religious insist that atheists hate god

    I’d disagree with it as a generalisation — but I think you misunderstand the nature of the suggestion, at least when it’s made in a cogent manner.

    It does not purport to describe the interior emotional state of atheists in general, though certainly some atheists actually do feel an actively emotional hatred towards God and towards religious people ; the “hatred” though, where it is meant more cogently, refers to the spirituality of the atheists’ souls’ rejection of God.

    You cannot fully understand this suggestion on the basis of not accepting the truth of God, because this “hatred” is spiritually defined as being the absence of love for the Divine.

  • JabbaPapa

    Those without any training in the various interrelated disciplines of linguistics, and the related disciplines in Philosophy and Science, and neurolinguistics in particular (in which I am certainly NOT a specialist) very often confuse the various allegories and similes that are used for basic teaching purposes as being “descriptions” of the functioning of the human mind — whereas in fact, at best they could be considered as “theories”, or more accurately as “simplifications”.

    In reality, and speaking as someone who HAS had some training in these disciplines AND has been a professional software developer, the functioning of the human mind is in fact *utterly unlike* that of any computer software.

    The commonality between human minds and computers is twofold –

    1) computers are designed and built by humans, so that they therefore obey the desires of our human minds and are constructed according to structures, patterns, and knowledge that are contained therein

    2) human/machine interface, whether a graphic interface or the design of a 2nd generation programming language or higher and &c, is deliberately designed to be superficially imitative of or supportive of our various powers of cognition. To claim that our minds work like these imitations is therefore to say that the cause of these similarities is produced by the consequence. In other words, you have it completely backwards.

  • JabbaPapa

    That’s just one philosophical approach of the question — a cogent and coherent one, but there are others… :-)

  • TreenonPoet

     You wrote about Dawkins’ ”own preferred doctrines”. Doctrines contain elements that are a matter of preference, even doctrines in law. Facts are not matters of preference. and facts do not become matters of preference as a result of somebody inventing a fiction that contradicts those facts. A person might quite like the idea of being able to perform magic in the style of Harry Potter, but they cannot prefer to perform magic because that is not an option open to them.

    The fact is that children are born without knowledge specific to one religion. The claim that God is already at work instilling the beliefs of a particular religion (that of at least one parent) into newborns is pure invention. Scientific facts can (at least in principle) be independently verified. It is not necessary to use the techniques of indoctrination to teach such facts.

  • Oconnord

    Of course I wouldn’t use the term “Why, (or how), I was made, but let’s leave that aside.
    Sorry to be glib again, but if god exists, well he made me an atheist. It’s his will that I don’t believe in him and that I, in no way, have any desire to believe in any “higher power”.

    I still find the concept and/or the mythology of gods interesting. I’ve mentioned before in a comment the idea that all gods are real, but empowered by their level of believe. So gods wax and wan in power according to their level of veneration by humans. That’s an idea that has been posited fairly often in fiction, it is interesting, in my opinion, but of course fictional, and as disprovable as any other concept of god/s. 

  • Oconnord

    At least we agree on the generalisation, perhaps that’s proof of the miraculous ;).

    I even agree that some atheists hate religious people, but I would point out that that hatred is pale in comparison to the hatred that some religious people feel towards those of a differing religion.

    Then you seem to mix up understanding and dismissal. I readily admit I do not share your understanding of a “soul”. I reject the existence of a “soul”, so I don’t try refine an understanding of it. 

    To use a simple analogy, I won’t try to understand the nature of unicorn horns, and would dismiss any discussion of their properties, until I have evidence that unicorns exist. 

  • teigitur

    Well I am not a theologian, just a simple bum on pew.I m sure why we are what we are, is very complicated, tied up with free will etc. I do not pretend to understand, maybe you were meant to be an atheist, and perhaps there is a reason for that but my limited mind does not have a clue why. Perhaps to make the rest of us think a bit more, but thats on a human level, but thats what I am and a limied one at that. But I could no more deny God, the Abrahamic God, than I could deny I have a left leg or a right eye, or even a beer belly