UPDATE: The answers are posted here.
Recently, I have been writing about morality on atheism. In one post, I contrasted the moral behavior of a consistent, authentic Christian, William Wilberforce, with the moral behavior of a consistent, authentic non-Christian Darwinist, Adolf Hitler. In another post, I engaged an atheist commenter about who is really responsible for the mass murders in history. And the post on British novelist A. N. Wilson’s recent return to Christian faith which was partly due to his discovery of the objective moral law.
I decided to interview my atheist friends about God and morality. Yes, I have atheist friends, and yes, they read the blog, and yes, they know the Wintery Knight’s true identity. So, I arranged some lunch meetings with them, and I asked them, and recorded their responses. Later on, I will be posting their replies and my comments about their replies, then some general comments about the Christian Life.
Who is safe to talk to?
In this post, I am going to explain to you clearly how to engage your atheist friends on these issues. But be careful. Some atheists have fascist tendencies – when they feel offended, some of them want to bring state to bear against those who make them feel bad. Atheists struggle with morality, it just doesn’t sit well on their worldview, even though they sense God’s law on their hearts, like we do.
If you want some advice about who to avoid, e-mail me. The easiest way to see if the person is safe, is to ask them for reasons why someone might accept positions that they don’t hold. Ask them: “Why do people believe in God?”, “What’s good about capitalism?”, and “Why are people pro-life?” and so on. If you can’t hear any good reasons presented respectfully, then move on.
How to organize the engagement
My advice is to meet with the person one-on-one for lunch. Describe the questions, but don’t give them the list: 45 minutes is needed to get through all the questions below. You should buy their lunch. Try to convey to them that this will be a safe place for them to tell what they think, and that you will keep what they say in confidence. Explain that you will not be responding or arguing, just asking questions.
You should definitely pray about it beforehand. Ask God to help you to keep calm. Ask him to help you not to be defensive. Also, it may help if you practice these questions on safe people, like family members, first. Yes, they are impossible to persuade, but they won’t be as inclined to censor you. You need to practice hearing views you don’t agree with, and saying the words “I’m sorry!” if you offend someone.
What are the questions to ask?
Below are the questions I used last week in the 5 interviews I did so far. I have more interviews scheduled this week with an agnostic and an atheist, so I may use different questions.
1) Do you believe that the universe was brought into being out of nothing by a person (agent)? Is it possible that this agent could communicate to us, or that we could discover something about that agent? (i.e. – does God exist, is he knowable)
2) Explain to me in which religion you were raised by your parents, if any. How did your parents approach religion in the home? (strict, lax, etc.)
3) What events in your past affected your beliefs about God’s existence and knowability? (e.g. – I studied biology, comparative religions or anthropology, or I met a girl I liked)
4) What are your main objections to belief in God’s existence and knowability today? (e.g – suffering, pluralism, hiddenness)
5) This salt shaker (grab salt shaker and brandish it in a non-threatening way) exists because it is made of matter and occupies space. What is the mode of existence of moral values and moral duties, on atheism? Where do they exist, and what do they exist as? (e.g. – in people’s minds, as descriptions of behavior, in God’s mind)
6) Free will is required in order for humans to act in ways that are morally responsible. You cannot assign praise or blame to anyone if they do not have free will. What is the rationale for free will on atheism? If there is no free will, on what grounds can atheists praise or condemn any behavior? (free will means the ability to act or not act)
7) Suppose you are an atheist journalist writing a story in atheistic North Korea in which you criticize the atheist leader Kim Jong Il. His secret police burst through the front door of your apartment and drag you off you a torture chamber. You are told that you are about to be personally executed by the dictator himself. On what basis would you plead for your life, on atheism? (i.e. – how would you persuade a powerful atheist to do right)
8) Suppose that you are strolling along the river in the winter, and you cross a bridge. Suddenly, you hear shouts for help coming from the icy water below. A little girl has fallen in the water and will die in minutes unless you jump in. There is no one else around to save her. You have no relatives/dependents. You can swim. There is an even chance that you will both die if you try to save her. Do you try? How is this rational on your worldview? (i.e. – how is self-sacrifice rational on atheism)
9) Suppose you travel back in time to the United Kingdom, when slavery is still legal! You meet William Wilberforce. He says that he has been battling slavery hard for 20 years, on the basis of Christian convictions, but that today he wants to let you try it in his place. On atheism, on what rational grounds could you try to persuade them? (If they say yes, ask them if they are pro-life and what they have done to support the pro-life movement)
10) Consider the heat death of the universe, which is the theory that the amount of usable energy is going to run out at some point in the finite future, as it disperses in space. On atheism, what is the ultimate significance of your moral decisions? How does it does it affect your fate, or the fate of anyone else you act on ultimately? What does it matter to you and to the species ultimately whether you act morally or not? (i.e. – how do your good and evil actions change where you and everyone else ends up?)
11) What is your purpose in life, and why did you choose that purpose? Is it just yours, or for everyone else too?
12) Suppose Jesus appeared to us right now and addressed you directly with the following words: “I’m really here and you need to follow me in order to flourish and achieve the goal for which I created you”. He then glares suspiciously at me, snatches a few fries from my plate, eats them, and then disappears. Later on, the Ghostbusters show up and confirm that Jesus was no ghost, but really God stepping into history. And everyone in the restaurant saw and heard exactly what you and I saw and heard. How would you proceed? How would you find out what to do? (i.e. – the atheist now knows Christianity is true, and I want to see what they think they should do in order to act like a Christian)
13) What would be the most difficult thing about becoming a Christian for you? Would it be the moral demands? The demands on your time? The unpopularity, humiliation and persecution that you would face? How would you feel about publicly declaring your allegiance for Christ and facing the consequences? (i.e. – they have become a Christian, what is the most difficult adjustment from your current life?)
If you are an atheist, please go ahead and answer the questions, and e-mail your answers to me. Don’t leave a comment, use e-mail. This is not about winning and losing, it is about promoting understanding between two opposing teams. I will post non-polemical atheist responses as separate blog posts, and link to your blog if you have one. Answers must be 1-2 lines, at most.
If you are a Christian, start practicing these questions on your safe or Christian friends, and write down their answers. Read the materials below and understand the arguments. Then interview some of your atheist friends and write down their answers. Send me the results of your interviews and I will post them as separate blog posts. Send me any other questions you think of, too!
NOTE: If I interviewed you and you didn’t get all these questions, e-mail me your response to the ones I missed and I’ll add your reply to the list. But you can’t change the answers you already gave!
Atheists: come up with your own list of difficult questions and send them to me. I will post my replies in a separate blog post and link to your blog. Your questions should expose my weaknesses, but not be insulting. This is getting to know each other, it’s not the time for snarkiness. I am doing an interview series on Christians in a couple of weeks, and I may include your questions in my list.
Debates on atheism and morality
My summary of the William Lane Craig (of Biola) vs Shelly Kagan (of Yale) debate at Columbia University on the topic “Is God Necessary for Morality?” is here.
Here are some prior debates on the rationality of morality on atheism.
- From Christianity Today, a written debate: Douglas Wilson vs. Christopher Hitchens
- From the University of Western Ontario, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs. Kai Nielsen
- From Schenectady College, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs Richard Taylor
- From Franklin & Marshall College, William Lane Craig vs. Paul Kurtz (audio, video1, video2, video3, video4, video5, video6, video7)
- From the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, William Lane Craig vs. Louise Antony (audio1, audio2, video1, video2)
A good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally-grounding prescriptive morality is here. My previous posts on this blog on this topic are here and here. The first one is about whether atheists can use an ungrounded, arbitrary standard to judge God for his “moral failures”, the second (better) one is on why the concept of morality is not rationally grounded on atheism.