Michael Coren recently wrote an Easter column for the Toronto Sun entitled “Answering Christianity Haters.” In the column he gives short responses to some typical criticisms of Christianity. I go through these criticisms and his responses to show that the issues aren’t nearly so pat as Coren wants his readers to think. Beginning with the title of his column, I’d like to point out that many people who reject Christianity don’t hate the religion or Christians themselves. Modern, decadent Christians like to think critics hate their religion. This way these Christians, safe and pampered in Christendom, can still feel persecuted. This establishes the illusion for them that they’re living in a Christ-like way even though they tend to ignore virtually everything Jesus reportedly said.
Has theism done more harm than good?
Coren addresses the claim that more people were killed because of religion than because of anything else. In response, he points to how many people were killed by secular regimes in the Twentieth Century. Comparing the different numbers of people killed in this way is crass, regardless of whether the comparison is made by atheists or by theists. In any case, the reason so many people were killed in Twentieth Century wars isn’t that so many more wars were fought in that century in the name of atheism; rather, the reason is that during that period there were far more destructive technologies invented and used, such as machine guns, attack helicopters, tanks, and missiles. Coren has mistaken a correlation between the great number of people killed and the great number of nominally nonreligious regimes in the last hundred years, on the one hand, with a causal relation between them, on the other. What caused so large a number of killings in recent wars, either directly or indirectly, was the relatively recent availability of much greater means of destruction, not the prevalence of atheism.
Coren makes the same mistake when he confuses the correlation between the supposed atheism of Soviets, Nazis and so forth, and the wars of aggression they fought, with a causal connection between atheism and these wars. But what led Communists and Nazis to wage these wars wasn’t their atheism. Communists fought primarily in the names of socialism, the downfall of capitalism, and the glory of the State, and of Stalin or some other dictator; only incidentally did Communists fight in the name of undermining religious ideologies as parts of bourgeois culture. The Nazis fought in the names of Hitler, of vindicating Germany after WWI, protecting the purity of Aryan blood, and exterminating weaker races, not in the name of atheism. Many wars in the past and in the present have been and still are fought in the very names of people’s god(s), with their god(s) being uppermost in the mind of those doing the fighting even while they plunged their swords into the bellies of their enemies, into people who worshipped other gods or none at all. That’s the difference, but the argument is still a crass one.
Is morality absolute?
Coren says that “God told us through the Bible that His words would be abused and exploited by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.” He adds, “Indeed it is because humanity is so capable of being barbaric and cruel that we need an absolute sense of morality and right and wrong.” Perhaps if Jesus had returned, bringing the kingdom of heaven when his early followers expected him to–within their lifetimes, as the New Testament reports Jesus was supposed to have done–later Christians wouldn’t have been forced to sift the tea leaves of their sacred texts. Now that two thousand years have passed and there have been hundreds of interpretations of Jesus, including those of heretics and of founders of various Christian sects, all based on imperfect readings of the Bible and of Church history, and all disagreeing on how to apply Christian teachings to daily life, a Christian today might have been expected to give up the idea that people have an absolute sense of morality.
Is there a perfect interpretation of the Bible?
Indeed, the notion of a perfect interpretation of a text is an oxymoron. All textual interpretations leave out some context and creatively assemble the textual evidence; that’s the difference between the complete event itself and a description of the event. Of course, the gap is made all the wider by the paucity of independently confirmable evidence of Jesus’ life. Christians once thought the Gospel narratives were written independently by four eyewitnesses to the events. Now we know two of the narratives (probably Matthew and Luke) depended on one of the others (probably Mark), and that probably none of the authors were eyewitnesses. If Christians had more in the way of evidence to work with, they wouldn’t have had to rely so much on their own creative interpretations, intuitions, wishes, prejudices, and political agendas.
Why would a loving God create hell?
“If God is so loving,” Coren asks, “why does He allow us to go to hell?” The answer: “The same reason good parents allow their children to choose their own way. They give them guidance, love and sacrifice but they have to give them freedom of choice.” He adds, “Hell is eternity without God. It is the ultimate act of selfless love for God to allow His creatures to reject Him. He sent us prophets, monarchs and finally His Son, to die in agony for the world. It is rather ironic for us to blame God for our own rejection of Him.”
Much of this response would be reasonable were it not for its revisionism about hell. The traditional Christian idea of hell is of a place of everlasting, infinite punishment and pain. Sure, a good father wants his children to be independent and free, but no good father wants his children to suffer in an everlasting way. A father might still be considered good were he to let his child choose to become a soldier, a mountain climber, or to take on some other dangerous occupation and die in the process. A person should accept responsibility for his or her choices, and a soldier or a mountain climber knows that physical death is a risk of the job. But no father would be considered good who pretends that his child’s infinite and everlasting torture in a lake of fire is a just consequence of the child’s choices. Whereas a soldier knows for a fact that he might get shot and physically die, no one knows for a fact that there’s an afterlife and a hell. So the father of a soldier can’t be blamed for letting his child make a responsible choice when the young man or woman knows and accepts the risk. The same reasoning doesn’t apply in the case of God’s responsibility for surprising his creatures with a spirit-world, and with absolute rewards and punishments in the afterlife after giving people so much scientific evidence in favor of naturalism. Of course, if hell isn’t really so bad, and the traditional Christian talk of hell is just metaphorical, perhaps all the rest of Christianity is metaphorical too, including Jesus’ miracles, his virgin birth, and his resurrection.
Why isn’t the evidence for theism overwhelming?
“Why didn’t He make His existence more obvious?” Coren asks. “That would be to eliminate choice, and choice is a fundamental of human dignity. There is ample proof if we are willing to look for it.” What Coren is saying is that the quality of the evidence regarding Christianity depends on who’s looking at the evidence. A bad person, who would rather go to hell than look at all the evidence showing that Jesus walked on water, raised the dead, and was resurrected himself, won’t see all the evidence in Christianity’s favor, whereas a good person won’t be impressed by any evidence against Christianity. But surely the evidence itself doesn’t change depending on the will of the person looking at it. Surely the New Testament doesn’t literally transform from an ancient report of the supernatural activities of one of the many wandering wise men of the day into “the living Word of God,” into God’s voice which speaks directly into the ears of the reader. The evidence itself isn’t different; all that’s different is the set of assumptions different people bring to the work of analyzing and interpreting the evidence.
When the evidence is sufficiently strong, these assumptions don’t carry the day or determine which belief about the evidence is justified. Instead, all kinds of people will then be convinced by the evidence, because their reason is impressed by the objective quality of overwhelming evidence. Thus, both Gandhi and Hitler believed there’s gravity, there’s a moon, and so forth. The evidence in favor of these beliefs is overwhelming. And it’s because there’s so little direct, unambiguous evidence for or against belief in God’s existence, in Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, and so forth, that something as irrelevant as the character or the willpower of the person evaluating the evidence is left to justify a belief one way or the other. It’s because the fundamental Christian doctrines are empty and meaningless that they’re unfalsifiable, and that Christians can explain away all contrary evidence.
Unfortunately for the theist, the lack of much direct, unambiguous evidence in favor of atheism isn’t helpful to theism, since the atheist has less of a burden of proof. The atheist hasn’t looked in all places to check if there’s a personal creator of the universe, and hasn’t traveled back in time to check if a miracle occurred in Jesus’ tomb, but the atheist doesn’t have to do so for atheism to be justified; all that has to happen is that the theist fails to meet his or her greater burden of proof, fails to provide sufficient unambiguous evidence in favor of theism. There once was a great deal of such evidence, and so even most educated people were theists of one sort or another. Then scientists started to gather more and more evidence about how the natural world works, and the evidence in favor of theism became more and more ambiguous–at best. Now many educated people reject theism, not because the direct evidence in favor of atheism is overwhelming, but because the evidence in favor of theism is no longer overwhelming, and the theist has the higher burden of proof since the theist makes the positive claims which fly ever more in the face of established science. We know now that gods don’t live in the heavens above, that diseases aren’t demons, that a person’s mind depends on the brain, and on and on. The evidence for theism used to be overwhelming only because of people’s massive understandable ignorance about how the universe works.
Who do good people suffer?
“Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” Coren asks. “Faith doesn’t guarantee a good life but a perfect eternity. Our 70 or 80 years on Earth are nothing compared to the time we will spend afterwards.” So God is a utilitarian, crunching the numbers, weighing our earthly pleasure and pain against the pleasure and pain we’ll feel in the afterlife. Notice that Coren’s reasoning is identical to the reasoning surely used by the suicide bomber: What’s the worth of a handful of years of life on Earth compared to an eternity in heaven? So the goal of infinite reward in the afterlife can justify finite evils done in the present life. But if earthly life is comparatively so worthless, why do some Christians care so much about the life of the unborn? Why not abort the fetuses and send the unborn souls straight to heaven? Why wouldn’t God reward these murderers in heaven for preventing the fetuses from growing into people who could fall into sin and go to hell? If earthly life is comparatively so worthless, why would God have created the natural world? Why does the Book of Genesis say God called Creation good?
Notice also that Coren’s reasoning is consistent with Nietzsche’s claim that the Christian is a closet nihilist, a person who rejects nature as a source of values in favor of the afterlife about which we have no trustworthy information, leaving the Christian with precisely no source of values. This lets the Christian make up values out of thin air; take, for example, the value so-called pro-life Christians give to the week-old fetus. Were this glob of matter to have an immaterial soul, and were the value of people dependent on their souls at least as much as on their brains, the glob would indeed be as precious as any adult human being. But since the soul must be immaterial–now that scientists have thoroughly investigated the workings of the human body and haven’t found any soul–there’s no way to know whether the glob has one.
A naive response to the problem of evil is that presumably whatever a perfect creator makes must be good, including human life in the natural world. But since nothing could escape the reach of a perfect creator, God must also have made all the things that threaten our lives in this world, and these threats must also be good since God made them. So both human life and threats to human life must be good, since both are made by a perfect creator. This stretches the word “good” past the breaking point; it’s like saying a temperature of minus one hundred and a temperature of plus one hundred are both “cold.” The word “cold” then loses its meaning. If both human life and the diseases which eat the flesh of human beings are good, then nothing is good since “good” loses its meaning. Again, that leaves the Christian with nihilism, not with absolute morality.
Were the Crusades justified?
“What about the Crusades?” Coren asks. “A geo-political response from Christian Europe to the massive military expansion of Islamic armies into the Christian heartlands of North Africa, Palestine and Syria. There were certainly aspects of it that were dreadful but it says nothing about the truth of Christianity.” What Coren leaves out is that Islamic culture at the time was far more advanced than Christian culture. Just as today Americans can justify fighting in the name of civilization against backward countries, enemies of freedom, and so on, so too centuries ago Muslims could have justified their military expansion in the name of wiping out the manifest barbarism of European Christians.
How should the Inquisitions be explained?
Take, for example, the Inquisitions. “How do you explain the Inquisition?” Coren asks. “Actually there is not a lot to explain. The number of people killed under its authority was very small and most European towns saw an Inquisition delegation once every 10 years.” Again, Coren thinks the issue is quantitative, as if human life could be measured and a calculation made about whether the killing of a person is justified. The issue isn’t how many people the Inquisition killed; rather, the issue is the enslavement of virtually all the minds existing in medieval Christian societies, owing to the Church’s laws against heresy and the Church’s willingness on occasion to back up its threats with actual persecution of people who committed only thought crimes.
Here, for example, is James Given (1997) writing about this mind control:
The Inquisitors were not, however, the mere slaves of reality. Their investigative techniques allowed them to create their own, tailor-made truth. Through their interrogation procedures the inquisitors could make concrete the ideas, fears, and fantasies that resided only in their own minds. In a sense they could make these phantasms objectively real.
Given goes on:
More is involved here than the undoubted capacity of medieval people to lie and deceive. The inquisitors had perfected techniques by which the very fabric of reality itself could be altered. By the mid-thirteenth century the creation of various fantasies and their projection onto certain out-groups, such as the widespread belief that Jews indulged in ritual murder, had become an integral feature of western European culture. The inquisitors had devised methods of using power and coercion to give such fantasies a legally validated and socially accepted reality. Now not only could the despised and rejected members of society be made objects for the projection of the fears and fantasies of Western culture, but they, or virtually anyone else, could be made to admit that those fantasies were true and to suffer the terrible consequences of being guilty of behavior that existed only in the imaginings of their persecutors. The inquisitors could, if they wished, script a role for almost anyone who appeared before them and make that person play that preassigned and largely prewritten part. (213-215)
And again, the issue isn’t only how often people actually died because of this mind control; rather, the issue is the fear in which so many people then lived because of the threat posed by this religious institution run amok.
Do atheists lie to win people to Satan?
Coren ends by accusing the people raising such arguments against Christianity of having “designed” these arguments “to deny truth and prevent people from asking the most important question. Not where will I be spending Easter but where will I be spending eternity. He is risen. He is risen indeed.” The idea is that atheists don’t have the willpower to face the truth of Christianity, and so they concoct flawed arguments to distract people so these other people will die without having been saved. Surely these atheists are therefore evil and in league with Satan, the source of absolute evil.
This is the kind of fantasy which at one time the Church had the power and the authority to force people to accept on pain of excommunication, torture or execution. Now the fantasy is accepted often on gratuitous grounds, such as a person’s becoming “born again” in Christianity, turning to this religion out of desperation, as dictated by a kind of self-help strategy. Now, instead of issuing from the mouth of a pope who once commanded armies, the fantasy is put forward by a columnist writing for a newspaper like the Toronto Sun, which bears in each issue a pin-up of a scantily clad young girl called “the Sunshine Girl.” Once, most people lived and died in accordance with their shared fantasies of the supernatural; now Michael Coren reminds some people of such a fantasy on the occasion of Easter, when people care as much about eating chocolate rabbits as about a dying and rising god-man.
Using the printing press and the Internet, the operations of which depend entirely on knowledge of the natural world, Coren proclaims that someone two thousand years ago miraculously rose from the dead and that people will go to heaven or to hell in the afterlife depending on whether they believe this miracle happened. The mystery isn’t whether Jesus was resurrected, but how a universe could care so little about the creatures living inside it that the creatures could be given the freedom to believe such strange things.
Come to think of it, this isn’t so mysterious.
Given, James (1997) Inquisition and Medieval Society. Ithaca: Cornell U.
Michael Coren’s article: www.torontosun.ca/News/Columnists/Coren_Michael/2007/04/07/3943418.html