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Kyle's answer

12/02/07 | by [mail] | Categories: faith/skepticism

I was excited to see my friend and fellow Truman (and CCF) alumnus Kyle write about the reasons he believes in God. I think very highly of Kyle and while I found his reasons unconvincing, I respect his faith and I enjoyed reading about it. I don't consider my beliefs to be permanently settled, so I think about the subject a lot and try to test my ideas and refine them. I'd like to deal with each of his reasons in turn, not to argue with him or to attempt to disprove his beliefs, but to explain why the they don't work for me.


Kyle writes at length about his "sense of wonder at the universe." He mentions music, art, literature, the vast size of the universe and more personally for Kyle, life itself. I'll deal with the origin of life in a moment, but what about this sense of wonder that seems to transcend science and even language? Does it point to the existence of a deity? Do non-believers feel it as well? Kyle lists Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut as people who have been instructive to him on the wonder of the world. As he points out, both of them are secular humanists who don't see a need for a god to explain the numinous (despite Vonnegut's proposed ironic epitaph).

GalaxyI also feel this sense of wonder. Watching my daughter grow, looking at the stars, watching the autumn leaves change and listening to music all awaken feelings in me that seem to transcend the material world. But I don't feel the need to invoke an invisible deity or spirit world to explain the feelings. Couldn't they just be another feature that our minds have evolved, like hunger, maternal instinct and fear? I don't think this view cheapens those feelings. On the contrary, the humanist view says that the numinous is something that we create, rather than something that is poured into us by an external agent. When I look at the stars and understand the great distances involved, I'm humbled and amazed. Part of that amazement comes from the knowledge of what I'm looking at.

If atheism ignores the numinous, it's because it only attempts to deal with a very narrow subject (does god exist?). Humanism is the philosophy that explores our sense of wonder and attempts to use it to our advantage.

We could go on to discus the different approaches that secular and religious worldviews take toward the mysterious numinous. Both revere and enjoy the feelings we have about things which we do not understand. But science urges knowledge onward even if it means shrinking the territory of the numinous.


In an earlier writing, Kyle described a religious experience which centered on his sense of wonder at life itself.

If scientists were somehow able to build a leaf from scratch, to start with atoms, then molecules, to create all that a plant cell needs, there would still be something missing. The truth is, for all that we have learned about how biological organisms work, we are no closer to understanding what, exactly, life is. It is perhaps the easiest thing to identify in nature—there is no doubt that a moving insect is alive—and it is terribly easy to destroy. But to define it, to understand where it comes from, and, ultimately, to create it from something not alive, is impossible.

Close-up of a leafKyle, to his credit, does not conflate the issue of the origin of life with evolution. Too many people criticize evolution because it doesn't explain how life came to be, when in fact, that question lies outside the jurisdiction of evolution. Evolution explains how we arrived at the diversity of life by descent with modification and natural selection. There is, contrary to what Kyle claims, a vigorous field of science investigating what life is and how it came to be. The Wikipedia article on the Origin of Life gives a good introduction to the subject.

While we still can't explain exactly how life arose, much less replicate the process in a lab, there are credible models for how this could have happened by purely natural means. Life is amazing. The fact that we don't know how it happened adds to that amazement. But it's a gap in our knowledge that is shrinking and which may, at some point, disappear. Geneticist and author Francis Collins in The Language of God warns against using the origin of life as evidence for god. Like other God of the Gaps lines of reasoning, this is trying to prove something based on what we do not know.



After making his general case for belief in a god, Kyle turns to Christianity specifically. He points to Isaiah 53 and says that it predicts several details about the death of Jesus and its theological implications. Kyle saves me some time by providing a nicely worded answer to his own claim:

But couldn't the stories of Jesus' life and teachings have been invented specifically to align with these prophecies? Perhaps, but that would require us to assume a great deal of invention, including his manner of death and his burial in a rich man's tomb--things that could easily be disproven by witnesses.

But, it's quite possible that by the time early Christians began connecting the death of Jesus with this passage there were no longer any eyewitnesses (if there ever were any). Is it so hard to believe that the gospel writers (who were almost certainly not eyewitnesses) invented some of the details of the life of Jesus? And if they were inventing them they would probably draw on popular mythology and Jewish literature. If the creativity involved is hard for some to believe, then they must find Shakespeare, Homer and Chaucer to be stunningly miraculous as well. I find it more likely that the story was borrowed and embellished than that an invisible deity gave cryptic clues to one or more of the authors of Isaiah.


Then there are the disciples themselves. Some of them who knew Jesus firsthand were willing to die for the message they preached. I would argue that a good deal of the accounts of Jesus must be true for them to believe so strongly.

Heaven's Gate cult leader Marshall ApplewhiteThis reason seems very convincing at first glance, but even if we grant that the early disciples named in the Bible were real people and they really did die for their faith (and there's little evidence for either idea), this argument is easy to answer. We need to look no further than the religions/cults that have sprung up in our own country to see that people are often convinced to die (or kill) for ideas that they should know to be false. Jesus could have been just as deluded or dishonest as Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, or Marshall Applewhite. And his followers could have been just as credulous as theirs.

Teachings of Jesus

Kyle admits that all of his reasons so far may not be convincing, but then he moves on to his central point.

Let's suppose for just a moment that I'm wrong. Science explains everything that exists now and has ever existed, including whatever it was that caused the Big Bang and started the universe as we know it. Suppose nothing exists beyond the physical world. There is no God and Jesus of Nazareth was just a man like the rest of us. Let's even suppose that Jesus did not say or do any of the things attributed to him. If that were the case I would still choose to call myself a Christian, because even if everything else we believe about Jesus is false, the idea of him still remains, and that is enough to change the world. The teachings of Jesus call for a radical shift in human relationships.

JesusHere's my attempt at summarizing what Kyle is saying:

  1. The ethical teachings of Jesus are good. Really good.
  2. The teachings of Jesus are unique.
  3. The teachings of Jesus are so good and so unique that even if there was no supernatural, it's still worth it to be a Christian.

Number three deserves its own section, so I'll address it below. For now we'll set aside the fact that a majority of the things Jesus taught are so dependent on the supernatural that if it isn't real his teachings become ridiculous. What about his ethical teachings? Are they good? Yes, I think many of them are. I'll partially agree with Kyle on point one. Jesus promoted humility, empathy, peace (sometimes) and forgiveness. They are things that Christians, Jews, Muslims and Humanists can agree on. If we all observed these precepts, the world would be a much more pleasant place to live.

Unfortunately, there are some other ideas attributed to Jesus which are not so nice. "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). In Matthew 19:29 and Luke 14:26 Jesus encourages his followers to break ties with their families, a tactic that is used by many cults today to detach followers from reality and make them more dependent on the cult.

Many of the things Jesus taught are good. But are they unique?

You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43,44)

This was a break from the eye-for-an-eye approach to justice that was more common in the ancient world than it is now. But Jesus wasn't the first person to suggest it. The Jewish law contained a similar idea. "If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it" (Exodus 23:4-5).

SenecaSeneca, a Roman philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, wrote "Someone gets angry with you. Challenge him with kindness in return. Enmity immediately tumbles away when one side lets it fall" (Seneca, De Ira, 2). Most of the ethical teachings of Jesus can be found in earlier or independent writings. That's no surprise because if non-resistance really works, and I think it does in many situations, then humans can discover it on their own, with no need for an appeal to the supernatural. If Jesus was one of those humans that popularized this principle, then he deserves to be recognized and respected. But that doesn't mean that his other ideas should be given a free pass or that he should be followed unconditionally.

To be pitied

But what about this idea of holding to Christianity even if there is no supernatural? Not that I consider it the final word on the subject, but let's see what the Bible has to say about it.

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19)

Of course, I don't really care about what the Bible says on the subject, and maybe Kyle doesn't either. I am curious about what Kyle means by the word Christian when he says, "even if there was no supernatural, it's still worth it to be a Christian." A Christian who doesn't believe in the supernatural, and therefore doesn't believe in God, seems like a strange oxymoron when using the normal definition of the word. It's like a feminist who doesn't believe that women exist.

Kurt Vonnegut


Maybe by Christian he means someone who accepts and tries to live by the best ideas that Jesus taught. But why give yourself a label that carries so much baggage when you could just be a humanist who values the good ethical teachings attributed to Jesus (alongside any other useful ethical ideas)?

Kyle sounds an awful lot like one of his favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut:

How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do. "If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?" (A Man Without a Country, 80)

Like Ghandi, who followed some of the teachings of Jesus but never became a Christian, I choose to embrace the best teachings of Jesus and leave behind the rest. I have no use for the mythology, rituals, fundamentalism and the apocalyptic view that was so central to the ministry of Jesus and to many of his followers today. I don't have to try to explain the bad parts of Christianity and I'm free to learn from the best ideas of any religion or philosophy.



Well done and well said.


Kyle really is a very bright guy.

gringo [Visitor]  12/02/07 @ 17:53

Aw, shucks, gringo…

You make some excellent points, Danny. I must admit that you seem to be better read on these topics than I am. You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about.

I want to point out one thing, though. You wrote, “If the creativity involved is hard for some to believe, then they must find Shakespeare, Homer and Chaucer to be stunningly miraculous as well.”

I really don’t think this is an accurate comparison at all. None of the writers you mention were considered historians by their contemporaries. Shakespeare’s historical plays are at best like today’s biopics, or even like films that claim to be “inspired” by true stories. Chaucer dealt exclusively in older tales, both fictional and legendary, and Homer’s equivalent would be the Torah: a written version of oral myths. I have the impression that the gospels were treated much more as history within their culture.

As for the time of their writing, I’ll point to the oldest passage in the New Testament. It’s a pre-existing hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2:6-11, also known as the Kenosis Hymn. It is believed this was a familiar hymn in the Christian church and predates the gospels and Paul’s letters. What’s interesting is it’s thematically very similar to Isaiah 53.

This would suggest that teachings about Jesus’ death and resurrection were around very early in the history of the church.

Kyle [Visitor]  http://www.brendoman.com/kyle12/02/07 @ 18:48
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/12/02/07 @ 19:47

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