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from-camille-flammarions-latmosphc3a8re-1888In The Atlantic, Crispin Sartwell writes refreshingly about his atheism as a faith position.

Atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.

Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.

It seems to me that both atheists and Christians need to recognise this truth. The Dawkins-style New Atheists are such logical positivists that they shift the whole argument onto an extremely rationalistic footing. They decry "Faith Heads" as fleeing all rationality and define faith as "belief in the absence of evidence."

In response, many Christians spend their time correcting this false view of faith (and it is false). But all of a sudden the Christian position becomes an insistence that faith is belief because of evidence. The trouble is, it's not evidence in general that calls forth faith. In the Bible it is 'the Word', 'the gospel', 'the grace of God', 'the preaching of the cross' that causes faith. Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. You can call that "evidence" if you like but I think both the Christian and the atheist have good reasons to dislike that equation!

Rather than insist that Christianity is also evidence-based, I think it's much more fruitful to show that atheism is also a faith position. This article does a great job of that - do read it.

What fascinated me was Sartwell's conclusion. He gives reasons for his 'faith position' - the suffering of the world:

Genuinely bad things have happened to me in my life: One of my brothers was murdered; another committed suicide. I've experienced addiction and mental illness. And I, like you, have watched horrors unfold all over the globe. I don't—I can't—believe this to be best of all possible worlds. I think there is genuinely unredeemed, pointless pain. Some of it is mine.

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world's indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time. I do not see any reason to suspend judgment: I'm here, and I commit. I'm perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

I'd love to chat with Crispin because it seems to me that belief in the evil of evil is a great reason to be a Christian. It's the Christian who can love beauty, hate suffering and think of those things as "perfectly real." It seems to me that the materialist account of the world does not see beauty and suffering as "perfectly real". I write about this in my upcoming book 321 - check out the pre-order page here.

Why are we outraged by evil and suffering? We are outraged. We should be outraged. But why? This question is easy to answer for the Christian but difficult for the atheist. Remember what Dawkins said: ‘at bottom ... [there is] no evil, no good.’ For him evil and good are surface-level experiences, not deeply connected to the way things actually are. The nastiness of this world might be unpleasant, painful, grotesque or maladapted to survival. But if, at bottom, there is no evil and no good, then for Dawkins those things are not wrong – not on the deepest level.

Yet when we experience the horrors of this world, we experience them as evil; we feel that they should not be; we cry out for a solution, for justice; and we grieve them as realities that don’t belong. Therefore, even as suffering strikes, the Christian view is not disproved but upheld. For the Christian, evil can never be ‘one of those things’. It is a profound violation of the way life ought to be.

When Christians say ‘God is love’, they don’t then conclude that ‘everything is lovely’. It’s not. But the God of love makes sense of our outrage at everything that is unlovely. He gives us the right to call a bad world ‘bad’. There is much more to be said about suffering in chapters 4 and 8, but for now the point is simply this: the God of Jesus helps us to understand our experience of both good and evil. This God allows us to make sense of the goodness of good and the evil of evil.


Check out Sartwell's article here

Check out 3-2-1 here


Why does the world exist

A fascinating 40 minute discussion between a philosopher a theoretical physicist and a cosmologist. I even understood some of it!
I can't get the video to embed so click the image or go here.
Below are some highlights from the discussion. My comments in blue.
David Wallace (philosopher):
If philosophy's learnt anything in two and a half thousand years... it's that you can't start from no-where in trying to understand something. Descartes famously did try to start from nowhere... it was a glorious failure.
Trying to understand things pretty much always presupposes some background set of things that are our starting point. So we can ask all manner of questions about the universe... in asking those questions we are always going to be having certain starting points and presuppositions.
Crucial point
So if we interpret the question in its widest possible sense: 'Why is there something rather than nothing in the widest possible sense? Why is there mathematics, why is there law, why is there logic?" At that level I actually think science can't answer those questions, philosophy can't answer those questions. I actually think those questions aren't answerable. There's nothing to grip onto and so nowhere to start.
But that presupposes naturalism. Aren't you at least curious to employ a presupposition that gives you more answers rather than the naturalistic presupposition that limits the answers?
But if you want to ask more specific questions about why the world that looks anything like this exists, then I think we have learnt a lot. And in a sense what we've seen is a conflict [and a victory] between two very different ways of looking at the world.  A way of looking that tries to build everything up from the ground, to explain complicated things in terms of simpler things and to explain more purposeful things in terms of less purposeful things versus an understanding that starts with meaning and purpose as a basic starting point and gets the meaningless and the factual things from it.
The bottom-up approach (empiricism) is attractive because it means we can get our hands dirty by investigating the world. It's satisfying to see complex systems broken down to component parts (but only to a point - taking apart the grandfather clock is fascinating, but the whole is superior to the parts and the story behind it might be even better).
The top-down approach (rationalism) is also attractive because it means that the highest levels of explanation are also the ones with most meaning and purpose. The danger is that it's pure supposition and not grounded in empirical fact.
I think the development of science since the renaissance has almost completely vindicated that first way of thinking about things.
Hang on.  For a start you've admitted that the bottom-up approach has rendered us completely unable to answer the question at hand in this debate: Why does the world exist? That's a pretty major short-coming (unless we want to say that everything our empirical net doesn't catch aint fish).
What's more, you've said that presuppositions underlie any understanding of the world. Therefore even the "bottom up" method of empirical enquiry assumes over-arching realities.
Therefore top-down understandings have not been dispatched by the onward march of empirical science. They are unavoidable... BUT ALSO bottom-up enquiries have been extremely fruitful in answering certain questions (with one glaring exception in the question at hand)
So then, how can we hold onto both?
Here's a presupposition that gives us our cake and let's us eat: "The Word who became flesh" There's a Logos to keep the rationalists happy who became a sarkos for the empiricists to investigate. And, hey presto, the unanswerable question gets an answer that is worthy of a universe as gorgeous as ours.
George Ellis (cosmologist, multiverse sceptic):
The "Multiverse" tries to say this universe is incredibly unlikely to be good for life but if you think of all possible universes, they're incredibly unlikely to have life in them, but nevertheless if you have an infinite number of universes then some of them will make it ok and this will give you a scientific explanation...  This is a philosophical hypothesis. I can say anything I like about it and it can't be proven true or false. That's the basic observational situation of the multiverse. I think it's a very fine philosophical hypotheses but... it's a faith position. You can believe in the multiverse but you can't prove it.
Well said. But fascinatingly, fear of having a faith position is what drives multiverse proponents too...
Laure Mersini-Houghton (theoretical physicist, multiverse proponent): I always get alarm bells when I hear things like 'one universe', 'one creation moment' and 'purpose'... If I were to replace those words with 'divine intervention' or 'God' that would take us 2000 years back to square one.
So both the multiverse sceptic and the multiverse proponent dislike faith positions and that drives them to what they say.
All the while David Wallace points out that we all have presuppositions.
David Wallace: If you want to reason your way to the fact that the world exists you're going to have to make assumptions to that story. You might learn that if you make this very simple assumption or that very simple assumption or these very simple starting points then it will follow that the world exists. That could perfectly well be true. You then have the question of where those starting points arise from...  At some point you're going to have to stop explaining. And that's not a matter that science won't be able to explain... it would be a matter that we wouldn't have any resources to explain.
...Your explanation [of anything] is always going to have a thing that you're presupposing to do the explaining.
Ok, what about a presupposition that manages to bridge the top-down and the bottom-up positions. One that accounts not only for a life-sustaining universe, but for the kind of life that we call life. What about an explanation for life that actually LOOKS like what we call life: loving, joyful, personal, self-giving life-in-relationship kinda life.
Maybe we should go back 2000 years and investigate the Word become flesh. We might find that going back is the way forward.


There are none so blind as those who will not see. And none so gullible as those who will not believe.

Exhibit A:  Here's Stephen Fry spouting absolute bunkum for two and a half minutes:

He sets himself up as the sceptic to debunk the religious. In fact he is the sucker, falling for a completely discredited copy-cat theory with not an ounce of truth to it. Here's a good take-down by Lutheran Satire:

In a show that seeks to explode popular myths, why does Fry fall for one in such spectacular fashion? Might it be that he's not actually as sceptical as he likes to think? Might it be that the commitments of his heart do the "thinking" for him?

Exhibit B: This post, supposedly reporting new liberal views from the Pope, is from Diversity Chronicle, a site which claims "The original content on this blog is largely satirical." It's supposedly a statement from  "Vatican 3" which declares all religions true, etc, etc.

It has been shared tens of thousands of times, very often by "sceptics" like Derren Brown.


Conclusion: None of us are as rational as we like to imagine. We find ourselves able to justify any number of foolish beliefs if they line up with what we wish were true. Sometimes sceptics need to be more sceptical.

Update: Derren Brown tweeted a correction last night, good on him.



Prove-itIf the God of the Bible exists then this God is the certain thing, we are the added thing, right?

"In the beginning" there was this God and we've come along later.

What's more, according to the Bible, this God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, creates not out of need but out of generosity - not from emptiness but from fullness. Make sense?

If that's the case then we are entirely unnecessary, a profligate extravagance, a superfluous addendum, an embellishment, a flourish. We are not needed at all. We are wanted, which is nice, but it all puts us soundly in our place.

So that's the position if the God of the Bible actually exists. But... if such a God doesn't exist then, of course, we are the certain thing. The natural world (as Enlightenment people are wont to call it) is what's really real. The super-natural? Well that's, by definition, the extra thing isn't it? What we can see, hear, touch, taste and feel is rock solid. Anything beyond that is sinking sand, wouldn't you say?

Now... in a discussion between a Christian and an atheist, who has the burden of proof? Who must justify their position by bringing evidence that overwhelms the assumed 'default position' (the null hypothesis)?

If we were talking about the existence of Big Foot, we can probably all agree that those who believe in Big Foot's existence have the burden of proof. They need to bring convincing proofs or else we'll continue to hold our null hypothesis. Our null hypothesis is: Big Foot's existence is unproved and in serious doubt until further, convincing evidence is produced.

So then, why not say exactly the same about the Christian God? Why not say "The existence of God is in doubt until extraordinary evidence is produced"? Why not put the burden of proof on the Christians?

A couple of reasons off the top of my head:

1) God is not in any way like Big Foot. Big Foot (if he exists) is an extraordinary being within the created order. But God - despite how both atheists and some theists want to paint Him - is not just a super-being. The God of the Bible is the Source of Being. And the difference between a super-being and a source-of-being is not one of mere quantity. We're talking about a qualitative difference of infinite proportions.

According to Acts 17: "In Him we live and move and have our being." If Big Foot actually existed it would have no implications except for a small number of enthusiasts. God's existence changes everything for everyone. Who He is, fundamentally changes the universe we inhabit. It changes who we are - suddenly we are unnecessary-but-loved creatures of the living God. Therefore God's existence cannot be held at arm's length and discussed at a distance. When we talk about God we're talking about a reality-defining being. He defines us. And He also defines - must define - Himself.

That's the second reason why the burden of proof is not obviously with the Christian...

2) Anyone who claims that God must justify His existence is clearly not dealing with the Christian God. The great I AM is. Actually God must justify our existence! If that doesn't sound right it can only be because we're not considering the actual God of the Bible. To think of God as a potential addendum to reality is not to think of the living God.

If a person claims that God's existence is possible but requires additional proofs, they show that they are refusing to consider the reality of God. If the triune God exists then God is not the 'added thing' whose reality may or may not be granted. If the Christian God exists, we are the added thing. If the Christian God exists, He must be taken for granted as the certain reality or else we're just not talking about God, only a Big Foot in the Sky.

Who has the burden of proof? It all depends on whether God exists! If the triune God lives then of course it's our existence that must be justified, not His. The good news is that God the Son does justify our existence - He enters it, redeems it and binds it to His own existence forevermore. Jesus is not simply proof of God's existence - He's the guarantee that we exist - really and truly connected to the eternal life of Father, Son and Spirit.

But if the triune God of Scripture doesn't exist - if 'God' is merely a super-being somewhere or there is no god - then the burden of proof would lie with the theist. Because then our existence would be most fundamental and the extra thing - 'God' - would have to show itself.

So then, if someone insists that the burden of proof is with the believer, they may claim to be open-minded about the possibility of God but they have, in fact, decided the issue in advance. By setting things up in this way they have determined not to deal with the great I AM, only with a potential super-being (and only if that super-being passes the tests they set).

In other words:

No-one seeks God... Faith comes through hearing (Romans 3:10; 10:17)



TEP-PodcastCover-1024x1024In previous episodes we have thought about:

1. Introduction. Six kinds of atheism

2. Six things that atheists get right

3. Six things that atheists miss

In this final episode on atheism we tie up some loose ends. In particular we address six hot topics in engaging with atheism:

  • Don't believers just believe in 'fairies at the bottom of the garden'?
  • Who made God?
  • Don't miracles break the laws of nature?
  • Doesn’t science rule out God?
  • What about Evolution?
  • Surely Christians reason in a circle?




Caravaggio-ThomasWhen evangelists and apologists want to make their case for the resurrection, I've noticed one piece of "evidence" keeps getting used: No Jew expected a bodily resurrection in the middle of history. I'm not sure of the origin of this argument. Tom Wright certainly makes a big deal of it, maybe everyone else has just jumped on board?

The point seems to be that the resurrection was not wish fulfilment or a conspiracy to make the prophecies tally - it took everyone by surprise. Greeks certainly didn't believe in resurrection and Jews, it's claimed, exclusively thought of resurrection as an end-of-time phenomenon... Ergo, the resurrection wasn't a fantasy dreamt up by gullible Jews but a stubborn fact that foisted itself upon them. It's basically saying "you couldn't make this stuff up! Not if you were Kosher!"

What do we think?

Well I'm not going to go down the road you think I am... If you don't know my views on the expectant faith of believing Israel then perhaps have a look at this post where I challenge the myth that 'no-one expected the kind of Messiah Jesus turned out to be'. We won't discuss that here. In this post I want to ask a different question and it's this:

If we want to make the 'nobody saw it coming' argument, what are we assuming about the resurrection? More specifically, What story is the resurrection being fitted into? And why?

It seems to me telling people "No-one saw it coming" undermines the actual story which resurrection fulfils - the story of the Scriptures.

"Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures... he was buried... he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Resurrection makes sense in terms of a prior story - and it doesn't really make sense without it. When Paul summarises the gospel again in Romans 1 and 2 Timothy 2 he insists that Christ's descent from David is the proper precursor to His resurrection. Unless we know He is the Davidic King (and all which that implies) we lose the gospel sense of the event.

My fear is that 'nobody saw it coming' tries to fit the resurrection into a different story. In this story, resurrection is a freak occurrence in the midst of history (in general) in order to prove to thorough-going sceptics (with a presumption of unbelief) that there is an abstract realm called 'the supernatural.'

Yet Jesus did not rise 'according to general history' but according to a very specific history - Israel's'. He did not appear to His enemies but to His friends. And His rising did not vindicate 'the supernatural' but His own unique identity as LORD and Messiah (Acts 2:36). When Jesus and the Apostles sought to explain the resurrection they didn't close off the alternative explanations (stolen body, mistaken tomb, group hallucination), they opened their Bibles.

Last month Stephen Law, an atheist philosopher, responded to William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher, over Christ's resurrection. The heart of Law's argument is this:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the claims.

I might, for instance, have every reason to believe Jack whenever he reports to me his movements from the night before. But if, one day, Jack claims that he hosted the Queen for tea and was crowned King in a secret ceremony, the extraordinary claim bumps up the requirement for further proofs. Given the new claim, it's just not enough to say "Jack has always told the truth in the past" or "Jack has no motive to lie". We need extraordinary evidence to support the extraordinary claim.

Law says that extraordinary evidence for Christ's resurrection is lacking and therefore we have every right to disbelieve it (just as we would disbelieve the normally truth-telling Jack).

It seems to me a poor response to Law to say: 'No, the evidence is actually very plausible, let me list it again.'  What we need to do is shift the paradigm into which resurrection is being placed. Resurrection is according to the Scriptures, not according to Supernaturalism. It's part of the story of God remaking the world from the inside through His Davidic King. Easter Sunday vindicates the God who fulfils His purposes for Israel and - through them - for the world. It doesn't vindicate some double-decker universe in which, occasionally, freaky stuff from upstairs intrudes. But so often the atheist and the Christian can end up arguing the resurrection on that footing.

Against this I think it's important to emphasize the non-surprising nature of the resurrection. What if the Queen was inclined to have tea with her subjects? What if ancient prophecies foretold the time she would visit her people? What if, Jack turned out to have a claim to the throne himself? What if, the more you thought about it, the more you realised how regal Jack had always been? (The illustration is stretching to breaking point I know, but stick with me for one more paragraph...)

Maybe you saw the coronation coming from a mile off or maybe you weren't brilliant at piecing together the evidence at the time - let's leave that to one side. But once Jack's claim is made, it now makes more sense of the story not less. Suddenly believing in the Queen's visit doesn't only 'explain' the raw data of the event - it vindicates a whole vision of reality. And that vision casts light on the event.

In this way the Old Testament and the resurrection are mutually reinforcing. The one gives us the vision, the other the event.  So let's preach the resurrection "according to the Scriptures."  As Abraham said to the Rich Man:

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’ (Luke 16:31)



TEP-PodcastCover-1024x1024Having discussed what atheists get right, here we talk about what atheists miss...

  1. Atheists are believers too
  2. A non-miraculous account of reality is impossible
  3. Materialism undermines itself
  4. There's goodness in the world
  5. There's goodness in us
  6. Atheism doesn't describe the world we live in






LA Times Festival of BooksIn this podcast we discuss 6 things atheists get right.

  1. We are all atheists with regard to the vast number of deities ever proposed
  2. A world with God is very different to a world without God
  3. Being good in order to get heaven is perverse
  4. Suffering is real
  5. Religion is a terrible slavery
  6. “God” is a monster (Hitchens’ god anyway!)







In this episode we discuss the crucial questions: Which Atheism? and Which God?

In future episodes, we'll cover "What atheism gets right", "What atheism gets wrong" and finally "Hot Topics".


SUBSCRIBE (and view show notes)



Last year I was in a kind of debate with Andrew Copson - Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA). His final line of the evening was a plea for us all to "be good for goodness sakes."

The line sounds twee but there's a genuine point that deserves our attention: Goodness for the sake of 'spiritual reward' is neither necessary, nor desirable. In fact it's pretty ugly. If a religious person is motivated towards goodness simply by celestial carrots and sticks (which some are) then you can understand a humanist's protest. I hear the criticism loud and clear, and I wrote these four posts called "Why be good?" as a response.  Only the gospel saves us from immorality and moralism.

But if you're unaware of the gospel, then your view of religion will probably sound that of like BHA President Jim Al-Khalili:

I have often felt offended by the misguided notion that people require a religious faith to provide their moral compass in order to lead a good life. Reason, decency, tolerance, empathy and hope are human traits that we should aspire to, not because we seek reward of eternal life or because we fear the punishment of a supernatural being, but because they define our humanity.

We might want to be curious about why such traits define our humanity, and who gets to say, and why the ones mentioned by Al-Khalili are so darned anaemic, and why he didn't also identify deep-seated characteristics like greed, hypocrisy and violence. We might want to point out that Christian faith brings far more to the table than 'a moral compass'. Actually it's a vision for the whole terrain and an accounting for why and where we fit into a moral order that is very old and runs very deep.

But we're not going to mention those things. We're just going to point out the terrible danger of moralism here.

Suppose that I'm a humanist who has unplugged the celestial CCTV and now I'm free to be good for goodness sakes. What will that look like? Well I'm still going to get outraged by 'inhuman' behaviour - good. But now God isn't the ultimate court of appeal and dispenser of perfect justice. No, the 'moral-outrage buck' stops with me. Since God has been deposed, I'm going to have to mount the highest horse.

And, as far as godless high-horseing goes, get a load of this: [Read from the bottom upwards. RD was responding to this]


Dawkins has never let ignorance of a topic prevent him from weighing in with the full weight of his moral indignation. But feel the indignation.

When one tweeter asked him whence his moral compass (given Darwinism and all), he responded:

Idiot that I am, I'm mining the quote - but I think it unearths a deep problem for those who let go of "God" but want to be "Good." The problem is not in acting morally- of course not. The problem comes in adjudicating the morals and in acting The Moral One.  Wonderfully for the Christian, the Father adjudicates and the Son is the Moral One, but what's the situation for the humanist?

They are above the non-existent 'God', they are above the religious who (they claim) are only good for dubious reasons, and they are above nature ('red in tooth and claw') and their own selfish genes. They have risen above everything else in all reality... in order to be good.

How does a humanist not avoid hubris at this point? How do they not avoid moralism?

Dostoyevsky famously said "If there is no God, everything is permissible."  But nihilism isn't the only danger. Dawkoyevsky's dilemma is this: "If there is no God, everything is puritanical."

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