I listened to an episode of the the radio show “Unbelievable”, which is broadcast in the UK by Premier Christian radio.
“The Atheist’s Bible” (Duckworth & Co) has been a bestseller in the USA. It brings together a mass of quotes from atheists, agnostics and more. Its compiler Joan Konner speaks to Justin Brierley about why she put it together and her own thoughts on atheism. She interacts with Christian apologist Peter Williams whose own book “The Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism” (Paternoster) has just been published.
Joan and Peter debate whether atheism has some fundamental faith assumptions of its own, as Peter argues that atheistic naturalism is a self-defeating notion. Joan argues that Christianity is arrogant in its exclusive claims.
Some people in our society believe that moral rules and the purpose of life should be decided based on an individual’s feelings and intuitions, and not by any external state of affairs that can be reasoned about or proven. I call these people postmoderns. Postmoderns are opposed to organized religions as well, because they usually come with set ideas of what’s right and wrong. Some organized religions, like Christian theism, try to show that their system of morality and their ideas about meaning and purpose in life should be accepted because their system is true – i.e. – because Christian claims about the way the world is are true, and therefore humans are obligated to act based on Christian morality and Christian ideas about the purpose of life. Postmoderns are especially hostile to these truth-claiming religions, and they attack them in several ways.
What postmoderns believe about religion
1. Postmoderns think that truth claims made by a religion cannot be proven true or false using public, testable evidence, because then people in some religions that contradict history or science would feel bad. I.e. – they think that claims made by a religion, like “the physical universe came into being out of nothing” cannot be tested using scientific experiments and shown to be true or false, because if you tested it and found that the universe did begin to exist, then people like Mormons who think that the universe is eternal would feel bad. So the safest thing for a postmodern to do is to assert that religions are all neither true nor false, and cannot be tested. This is, of course, not the view of religion that many religious people have – we think that morality and purpose are true objectively because we are able to make a case that the religion that defines them is true.
2. Postmoderns try to argue that changing their actions to comply with an objective moral reality or an object purpose, even if it has been shown to be true using logic and evidence, is “coercive” and opposed to individual freedom. I.e. – they think that even if a religion like Christian theism is shown to be true using science and history, they shouldn’t have to care about it, they should just be able to do whatever makes them feel good without caring about what’s true. It’s not that they have considered the case for Christian theism, it’s that they decide, in advance of considering the evidence, that they will not let the real state of affairs in the universe determine what is right or wrong, or what they are supposed to do with their lives. They don’t want to let what can be demonstrated about reality “coerce” their search for happiness.
3. For postmodernists, the purpose of religion cannot be to hold true beliefs about the external world. If the purpose of a religion were to have true beliefs, then religions that were false would be excluded, and that would make people in those false religions feel bad. So, the purpose of religions must be to make people behave well, because then they are all equivalent, and no religion is excluded. It is irrelevant to a postmodern that Christians claim that their religion hinges on a historical event, (the resurrection), which either happened or didn’t. Postmodernists refuse to assess the case for or against a religion by studying whether a religion’s claims are true. The want to treat them all as equal independently of truth, because, they claim, all religions are equally good at making people behave nicely. Postmoderns also like this view because it means that they do not have to waste any time assessing whether religions are true or false.
4. Tolerance, to a postmodernist, means that everyone has to behave as if morality is not real and that life has no objective meaning. If you think that the universe is any one way, or that people ought to act any particular way, then you are “intolerant” according to a postmodernist – because you think that your view of morality and purpose is real, and that it applies to others. Postmodernists want everyone to just arbitrarily decides their likes and dislikes, as well as the goals that give them significance. Postmodernists disagree with those who think that morality and meaning are objective – that they are set up by a Designer, and not up for individual humans to decide however they like.
Responding to postmodernism
I think that many people who have this postmodern/subjectivist/relativist view of morality and purpose are people who have been raised in strict religious environments that were focused more on rituals and compliance, and less on debate and truth. It’s a lot easier to persuade a postmodernist when you 1) express a genuine interest in them as a person, and 2) take the time to try to show them why you think that your religion is true. Trying to ram moral rules and a purpose to life down someone’s throat without settling the truth question is stupid and counter-productive. Never talk about religion and theology unless you can link it to analytical philosophy, history or science. When talking to a postmodern, try to avoid sounding like a pastor. Don’t sound mystical. Don’t speak Christianese. Try to show them that evaluating a religion’s claims is no different than evaluating any other testable claim.
It’s especially important to argue that religion is about truth, because no one is going to be able to defend morality and purpose in the context of a religion unless they can argue that the major claims of that religion are true. These days, most people are postmodern, and they’ve been trained to be offended by anyone who tells them that what they are doing is wrong or that what they are believing is false. If you aren’t coming from a truth perspective, with all your arguments and facts in order, then it is tremendously difficult to withstand the sobs and victimhood of an aggrieved postmodern. Pointing out the selfish motives of postmodernists is not a bad idea either – show how they care about truth in technical areas, say, but have a selective dislike of truth in religious and moral areas.