An argument for atheism that doesn’t work as well as its arguers seem to think

The, like, three of you who inexplicably read my blog may remember last year when I made it a Lenten discipline to write things and post them. I’m not officially doing that this year, but I am using the fact that it’s Lent to motivate me to post more often.

Quite a few of my friends are atheist or agnostic. Most of the ones who would say they’re agnostic are, for all intents and purposes, actually atheist, but that’s neither here nor there. Some of my atheist or agnostic friends are more tolerant of those who are religious; others are more militant in their atheism, or at least more insistent that those who don’t share their point of view are less intelligent. But there’s an argument that I’ve heard several of them use at one time or another to support their atheism or agnosticism which has always bothered me–not because I disagree with their position, although I do, but because the argument itself doesn’t sit right.

The argument goes more or less like this:

“I believe in science and reason and in what can be proven by rational or scientific means, and only in those things. If the existence of God is proven scientifically or rationally, I will consider accepting that God exists, but until that happens, I will not.”

(I should note that, by “God,” I mean more or less the supernatural creator and lawgiver of the Abrahamic religions; for my purposes here, I don’t need to get more detailed than that.)

My friends who make this argument, or versions of it, are generally proud of their commitment to reason and science and of their intellectual orientation to life, and in fairness to them these are traits worth being proud of. Most likely they are less uniformly committed to science and reason in practice than this argument would suggest–most of them would be pretty upset if they were forced to acknowledge love as nothing more than a biochemical reaction, for example–but that’s not really why I have trouble accepting this argument.

No, my main problem with this argument is that it puts the burden of proof entirely on God.

In an American court of law, the burden of proof is on the prosecution. That is, a person accused of a crime doesn’t have to prove that she didn’t do it; she just has to show that the prosecution’s case is faulty. It’s the person who accuses her who has to prove that his accusation is well-founded. The rationale is that, if we make her accuser prove her guilt, she’s less likely to be convicted of and punished for something she didn’t do than it would be in a system where the accused had to prove her innocence. Thus there’s a good reason to put the burden of proof on the prosecution in a legal case: it protects the rights of the accused, especially the ones who are innocent.

But in the argument for atheism cited above, the rationale for putting the burden of proof entirely on God (or at least on those who believe he exists) is less clear. See, the problem there is that neither the existence of God nor the nonexistence of God has been scientifically, rationally proven. There are arguments on both sides, sure, but nothing amounting to conclusive proof. So why is only one of those propositions tasked with proving itself, and why is the other exempt?

“God exists” is a truth claim. But “God does not exist” is also a truth claim. Sure, you can interpret those two statements as opposite propositions; we’ll call them p and ~p, respectively, since the second is in effect a negation of the first. The thing is, this particular ~p is also a proposition of its own.  We’ll call it q and its opposite ~q. That is, the proposition “God exists” is both p and ~q, and the proposition “God does not exist” is both ~p and q. Both statements say something about the universe: the former posits that it has a creator and lawgiver, while the latter posits that it exists and operates without one.

But neither p nor q has been proven or disproven. And that means that, strictly on the basis of logic, there is no rational basis for preferring one over the other–and no rational basis for putting the burden of proof entirely on one side or the other.

Now, at this point my atheist friends would argue that it is, in fact, somewhat more rational to demand proof for the existence of a thing than for its nonexistence, although for the reasons given above I have trouble seeing why. Nonetheless, I’ll offer a counterargument. And I’ll offer it not to place the burden of proof on the atheists–I believe theists and atheists should both be responsible for arguing their own cases as far as they are able–but to undermine the atheists’ argument that the burden of proof should rest solely with the theists.

Here it is:

“For most of known human history, the overwhelming majority of the world’s people–and the vast majority of the world’s people today–have believed in some sort of gods or supernatural beings. Their beliefs have varied, certainly, but those who say the natural world is all that exists have always been far outnumbered by those who say it’s presided over by some deity or deities. So is it more rational to put the burden of proof on the vast majority of humans throughout history, or is it more rational to make the relatively small minority prove their case against the majority whom they say are wrong?”

A few reflections for Good Friday

Today is Good Friday (or Holy Friday in some traditions), the day Christians commemorate the execution of Jesus. Rather than one long post on a single topic today, I thought I’d share a couple of brief(ish) observations on topics related in some way to the cross.

  1. Sometimes we spread the message of the cross in some really screwy ways. Mel Gibson’s 2004 splatter flick The Passion of the Christ, for example. When it first came out, an awful lot of voices in the Christian press were proclaiming how wonderful an opportunity it presented for evangelism. Take your friends to see it! Show them how much Jesus suffered for their sake!

    Except no. If you already know the story of Jesus, sure, you’ll have some context for the events of the movie–but if you don’t, all you really see is some poor guy getting wailed on for two hours. It’s basically torture porn. This is a message of love … how, exactly?

    In a way, what it reminded me of most was a movie they showed at a Maundy Thursday supper at our church when I was maybe three, that my parents didn’t think to remove me from the room for. It was one of those reel-to-reel jobs, and for some reason it didn’t have sound, because I remember the pastor narrating (“This is Peter–crying, because Jesus is dead”). But there was a graphic depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. I remember thinking for months after that, “I’d cry if I were nailed to a cross.” I also remember unsettling dreams about myself or my family members facing imminent crucifixion, usually as some sort of medical procedure whose purpose was never explained. Point is, I saw Jesus’ crucifixion in the context of his life and in a family and church community that would continue to care for me and help me understand, and it still kind of traumatized me. As essential a part of the Gospel as the crucifixion is, we should think more carefully than we sometimes do about how we talk about it with non-Christians, not-yet-Christians, and new Christians.

  2. The theology of the cross is another thing we do weirdly sometimes. About ten or twelve years ago I found myself in conversation with the pastor of a Reformed Presbyterian Church. He was a great guy, but it was clear from the beginning that his theological perspective was very different from mine. He talked about the relationships between grace and law or between the Old and New Testaments in more oppositional terms than I was comfortable with. It wasn’t that I disagreed with his theology, not entirely; I just thought he was allowing too little room for other interpretations to supplement or modulate it.

    As our conversation wrapped up he handed me two pamphlets he had on him that he said would help explain the matter further and give me something to think about. I gladly accepted, and when I got home I read the pamphlets. His good intentions notwithstanding, they were no help whatsoever.

    The problem was that they were written not to convince an outsider that the RPC’s theology of the cross was true but to convince other RPC folks that this or that soon-to-be-ex-RPC-pastor’s theology of the cross was false. Both pamphlets were strident in their defense of something they called “classical reformed covenant theology” (which I’ll abbreviate “CRCT”), but I only knew what that was from a college class on the Puritans I took years before; the pamphlets themselves told me nothing about CRCT, except that so-and-so’s theology wasn’t it. We should defend truth against error, sure, but I was rather put off by the weak arguments (“He can’t be teaching CRCT because he’s not using the phrase ‘substitutionary atonement'” and that sort of thing), the theological rigidity, and the hostile tone of the pamphlets.

    To be fair to the pastor, he hadn’t meant to alienate me. I couldn’t help wondering if he’d meant to hand me those pamphlets or if he thought he was handing me different ones. Or maybe he meant to hand me those because he hadn’t read them and thought they were about something different. I guess, if there’s a lesson here, it’s to know what you’re sharing with whom.

  3. One day during our junior year of high school (which is grade 11, if any non-Americans are reading this), one of my best friends gave me a tape she’d made for me of the soundtrack to the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I hadn’t seen a stage performance or movie of it–still haven’t, actually–so it took me a while to sort out which characters were singing some of the songs. But I liked the music well enough, so I kept listening to it.

    I was a bit bothered by Jesus’ apparent lack of concern with matters of salvation and his ignorance of why his Father wanted him to die. And worse, the play ends with Jesus’ burial and doesn’t include his resurrection. Seems rather a glaring omission.

    But as I listened to the tape again and again over the years, I came to appreciate what the opera does well. For example, the political side of what some people hoped and others feared that Jesus would do often gets ignored amid our discussions of spiritual salvation, but Superstar captures it very well. The disciples’ cluelessness about what Jesus is actually up to is evident throughout, as are their changing moods, as the jubilation of Palm Sunday gives way to the violence of Good Friday–and as an egotistical Jesus swings wildly (as they see it) from benevolence to wrath to despair and back again. Even if it takes some liberties with the Scriptural accounts, Superstar has forced me to think about the events of Holy Week, the role of politics, and the perspectives of the disciples more deeply than I might have otherwise. That tape my friend gave me remains a staple of my music collection. And I’ve been grateful to her ever since.

Why I like old hymns and their old lyrics

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I grew up in a church where we sang hymns and then went to a youth group where we sang modern folk-inflected praise songs. Might as well write a bit more about church music today, while I’m on the subject.

The first thing I’ll say is that I’m not here to take sides in the hymns-versus-praise-choruses debate. People connect with God through many different kinds of music, including not only the stately majesty of hymns and the creative energy of praise choruses but also the lively immediacy of Gospel songs, the lavish richness of classical choral compositions, the spare simplicity of monastic chants, and plenty of other forms. More than one of those musical forms has helped me connect with God myself at one time or another, and if hymns resonate a little more deeply with me, that’s just me; other folks have the same response to other kinds of music. That’s one of many things that makes the diversity of the worldwide church so enriching and exciting.

But I do want to write about hymns a little bit today, and the thing I want to address is the modernization of the lyrics. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens, and I usually detest it.

See, one of the things I like so much about hymns is their theological density. The verses of a good hymn can bore through the layers of a theme or unfold a progression of ideas in a way that fires my imagination and gets my spirit–which, for me, has a close relationship with my brain–eager for God to reveal himself. (Again, that’s what hymns do for me; other musical forms grab other people, and sometimes also me, in other ways that are also good.)

But sometimes modern Christians insist on revising the words so the hymns say something different. I’m not talking about writing a new refrain to insert between the verses of a classic hymn, though for purely aesthetic reasons I’m not always crazy about that practice either; I’m talking about rewriting the words of the hymn itself. Why some Christians do this, I don’t know, and it probably varies from instance to instance. Maybe they see a word they don’t really understand, so they figure that to make the hymn comprehensible to them, or maybe accessible to non-Christian visitors to their churches, they have to rewrite the line to remove the offending word. Maybe they see a theology they don’t recognize, so instead of trying to understand it they replace it with another one. Maybe–and this one I can sort of accept–they see gender-specific language in a lyric that’s meant to apply to all humans everywhere, so they try to expunge it for the sake of inclusivity.

Whatever the reasons, the classic instance of this problem, for me, is coincidentally (and irritatingly) one of my favorite hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” usually sung to the tune “Nettleton.” The version I grew up singing had this second verse:

Here I raise my ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

Robert Robinson’s original 1757 lyrics were in a different order, so perhaps in inveighing against monkeying with hymn lyrics I’m a bit hypocritical. But this version, even while reordering them, leaves the ideas themselves essentially intact. What doesn’t is this late-20th-century revision:

Hitherto thy love has blessed me;
Thou hast brought me to this place.
And I know thy hand will bring me
Safely home by thy good grace.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Bought me with his precious blood.

To begin with, the first four lines are completely rewritten. Now, I understand that nowadays the only reference point people have for the word “ebenezer” is Ebenezer Scrooge. But the word itself, derived from Hebrew, means “stone of help” and is used in I Samuel 7:12 as the name of a monument Samuel erected to commemorate a victory over the Philistines, won with God’s help. (Side note: we should totally start using “ebenezer” as a normal word again.) The idea of a journey and a return home is preserved, but in addition to replacing God’s help and pleasure with his love and grace, the change deprives the hymn of both a vivid image and a Biblical allusion.

The other major change to this verse is in the last line, where “interposed” is replaced with “bought me with.” These are two very different understandings of the cross. The newer version is economic: there was a price to be paid for me, and Jesus paid it, using his blood as the currency. But the older version has an immediacy to it that the newer one doesn’t quite capture: death or some other danger was making straight for me, but Jesus stepped between it and me so that it would strike him instead. In the newer version, Jesus pays a ransom for me; in the older version, Jesus takes a bullet for me.

Mind you, the new lyrics are not theologically incorrect. It’s not as though the hymn used to be true and now isn’t. It’s that the hymn used to say one true thing and now says a different true thing instead. The first true thing, which may have fit well with 18th-century theological emphases and sensibilities, has been replaced by a different true thing, which fits well with 20th-century theological emphases and sensibilities. But maybe it’s because the revision fits so well with current thinking that we should keep singing the old, un-revised version to remind us of other truths that we too easily forget because we don’t encounter them as often.

That’s one of the reasons I like hymns. And it’s one of the gifts that, at their best, they can offer the whole church–including the people who prefer praise choruses.