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Why a Judeo-Christian Worldview Is Essential to Good Fiction

Why a Judeo-Christian Worldview Is Essential to Good Fiction

by Mike Duran · 66 comments

You can’t have bad guys without real evil. You also can’t have compelling drama without real stakes. And a biblical worldview is the only worldview that sustains the philosophical framework necessary for eternal stakes and ultimate moral consequences.

Which is why most authors — even non-religious ones — appeal to a religious / moral worldview to frame their tales.

In How Science Fiction Found Religion, Benjamin A. Plotinsky outlines how “popular fantasy has become increasingly religious at heart.” First, Plotinski traces it to the erosion of geopolitical intrigue. “During the sixties and seventies,” he writes, “popular American science fiction looked to the stars and saw a Cold War there.” Thus, sci-fi franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars both portrayed “a universe caught between two great rivals, one free and democratic, the other hierarchical and autocratic.” Whether it was Klingons or Imperial stormtroopers, the anti-American archetypes abounded.

Then came the collapse of Communism, a “villain” that was essential to the genre’s drama:

When the Soviet Union began to thaw in the mid-eighties and collapsed entirely in 1991, that neat good-versus-evil scheme resonated less, and mainstream science fiction started to cast about for alternative inspirations. Often it failed. Star Trek, for example, continued to imitate geopolitics as it launched a phenomenally boring new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, in 1987 (it would end its run in 1994). The Federation and the Klingons were now at peace, and the Enterprise resembled a spaceborne United Nations, a bustling enclave safe enough for the crew to bring children with them. So yawn-inducing was the galaxy that the show frequently sought to introduce drama with a device called the “holodeck,” a virtual-reality entertainment area where the characters could cavort in more exciting locales—the Wild West, say, or 221B Baker Street.

So the further the screenwriters steered the U.S.S. Enterprise toward peace, the less dramatically engaging the show became. Nothing like evil to spice things up, even if that evil is synthetic. Thus, the “holodeck.”

But how gripping can artificial evil really be?

Plotinsky suggested that this absence of real political bad guys is one of the reasons sci-fi has migrated away from geopolitical themes and back towards religion. Of course, religious themes aren’t exactly new for science fiction.

Science fiction of the written kind has long taken advantage of the cultural power of the Christ story. In fact, two of the twentieth century’s most popular sci-fi novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, were overtly messianic, a fact noted by the sizable critical literature that exists on the books.

But while messianic images crowd spec-fic literature, it is their underlying assumptions, I think, that empower and sustain much of the dramatic narrative. Saviors imply a need for salvation. So whether it’s Neo or Harry Potter, Superman or Luke Skywalker, their draw is in the felt needs of their audience. While the sci-fi messiah figure summons deeper cultural mythologies, as Plotinsky points out, it is this instinctive notion of ultimate good and evil, of heaven and hell, generation and degeneration, that whets our existential appetites. In other words, it is not just the absence of geopolitical villains that has caused a renewal of biblical imagery in sci-fi, it is the resonance of a biblical worldview.

Messianic figures are inherently part of a biblical worldview. Now, by biblical worldview I do not necessarily mean a worldview that is theologically detailed and orthodox in every aspect. In the simplest sense, a biblical worldview is a perspective or set of assumptions that generally coheres with how the Bible frames reality.  This includes, among others, things like  belief in a Supreme Being, moral absolutes, that human beings are imperfect, and that one day we will give account of our imperfections. Of course, people differ in their views about God and the afterlife. But the fact that a person believes in a God and an afterlife is the start of a biblical worldview. The messiah figure, whether found in primitive myth or Christian theology, is rooted in the belief that there is real evil, that we are suffering under that evil, and that a Person can empower us or rescue us from this plight.

Which makes a biblical worldview superior to every other worldview in framing good fiction.

  • Atheistic worldviews do not produce messiah figures because humans have no need of gods; we are complex animals — not sinners — who must simply evolve. And in the end, the Nothing wins anyway.
  • Relativistic worldviews do not require messiah figures because there is no ultimate right or wrong; sin and evil is entirely a subjective experience that cannot be imposed upon me by another. There is no Ultimate Good worth fight for, or Ultimate Evil worth avoiding.
  • Pantheistic worldviews do not demand messiah figures because sin / evil is an illusion that must be transcended; the only real evil is the belief in evil.

It’s rather amazing how many books and films seek to embrace an atheistic and/or relativistic worldview (i.e., there is no Absolutes or Real Evil), while seeking to maintain dramatic tension. In my post Avatar’s Fickle Deity, I commented on the director, James Cameron’s, philosophical schizophrenia:

…why defeat evil or battle bad guys when the very philosophy that drives the film doesn’t believe in evil or bad guys?

Then there’s Slumdog Millionaire: Transcending Karma in which I suggested that the Indian author intentionally avoided using themes like karma and jettisoned a Hindu worldview in favor of a more westernized one. Why? Hindu scholars have estimated that the average person will require approximately 6,800,000 incarnations before they can become perfect. Practically speaking, a genuine Hindu worldview guts life (not to mention a story) of any dramatic necessity. We all eventually migrate toward perfection and merge with the Universal Self. Sure, I might be 5 million incarnations away, but I’ll get there. Ho hum.

The reason that the Judeo-Christian worldview is more viable for authors than, say, a relativistic worldview, is not just because it is more intellectually compelling, but because it jibes with reality. Whether or not they import stark biblical language or imagery, fictional worlds that involve moral absolutes and real evil are more interesting than those that don’t. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was mired in war. Why? Because Evil existed. And because it existed, the players were on one side or the other. We didn’t root for Frodo because he was cute and had furry feet, but because he was on the right side.

In this sense, a relativist could not have written Lord of the Rings. They don’t believe in Right or Wrong sides.

The naturalist might believe life is a colossal accident, and that when we die we return to Nothingness. But if that’s the case, not only will my existence be irrelevant, so will my stories.  The struggle for survival has little consequence — in the existential or fictional sense — if there is no afterlife, if nothing really eternal is at stake. Ultimately, for the naturalist, the only real dramatic tension is how long she can stave off the inevitable advance of cold complete Annihilation.

Boring.

Life, like good stories, has something at stake. It’s why the struggle of Good and Evil is at the heart of life and fiction; it’s why messiah figures are so prolific in literature and resonate so powerfully in our psyche;  it’s why choices have consequences, both in the here and the hereafter. Real evil is at work to corrupt us, there are real forces that we need saved from, and a real Person who can save us from them.

Without a biblical worldview, there is no Absolute Evil, and no compelling reason to fight or overcome it. In fact, if evil is simply an illusion, then fictional evil is the most illusory of all things.

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{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Thomas January 9, 2012 at 7:57 AM

It’s funny you should say this. When I was dabbling with New Age ideas, pre-Christian baptism, it was exciting and intriguing at first, but when I played the story out to its completion I realized nothingness was at the heart of the message. Evil is just an illusion and our purpose is to evolve and evolve and evolve? Really? That’s it? I’m bored to depressed tears just thinking about it. Not to mention frozen with fear at the thought of having to entertain myself for eternity. Same with many other religions I mentally sampled. I imagined myself following their paths and found nothing at the end of them. (This was not a happy time in my life, I might add.)

At the same time I was coming to these realizations, real evil was knocking at my door and I had no context for it except to blame it on God. (So, humans don’t really murder each other, it’s just an illusion, eh? What kind of sick “life force” are you anyway…)
Long story short, it was during that time I found something in Christ, and what a relief it was to realize I could rest in Him rather than continually strive to become my own god of an empty universe.

My spriritual journey shows up everywhere in my writing. I can’t help it. I can’t stop writing about characters who are pulled from darkness by the true, living God. It’s the ultimate tale. And writing it is my ultimate act of gratitude to Jesus who saves me from all this wordly bunk.

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Johne Cook January 9, 2012 at 8:36 AM

Mike, I notice you didn’t make your post specific to writing good SF/F fiction, and yet your examples include SF/F references. I also notice that you frame your argument not in the ‘should true SF/F include religion,’ you pull back and make an argument on what makes for better fiction.

Thanks. Great post. Much to think on here.

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Mike Duran January 9, 2012 at 9:52 AM

Johne, I initially started this post aimed at sci-fi (mainly because my lead quote does). However, the more I worked on it, the more I felt the principle was not exclusive to sci-fi, but that all genres rely on a Judeo-Christian worldview to some extent.

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nkc January 9, 2012 at 10:59 AM

The point of this post is exactly the one (applied to the narrative art) that G. K. Chesterton makes in Orthodoxy; if anybody wants a “romantic” (in the wide sense of the term) view of the world, he will find it only in Christianity. Other philosophies can’t provide it. If you prefer a boring (and ultimately, an insane and mad-making) view, there are other options.

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Johne Cook January 9, 2012 at 11:54 AM

Strangely, all the discussion about this post I’ve seen has been elsewhere, primarily FB.

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Mike Duran January 9, 2012 at 12:20 PM

Really. Who’s linked it?

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Johne Cook January 9, 2012 at 12:29 PM

The longest thread is here hosted by Matt Staggs, a friend from the SF community:
https://www.facebook.com/mattstaggs/posts/245350498866584

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Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) January 9, 2012 at 1:30 PM

I recall Mike saying, Bring it on!(equivalent translation) when it came to criticism. Boy, did he get it on FaceBook. Good thing he wanted it.

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Michelle V January 9, 2012 at 1:43 PM

Great post! I agree wholeheartedly.

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Katherine Coble January 9, 2012 at 1:50 PM

Okay. I’ll be fair and bring this home where it belongs. Although I DO think it’s cute how many people want to talk about it on FB pages. FB is replacing blogs as the Center for discussion just as blogs replaced UseNet. I think this is a bad move because it means that conversations tend to get held among a more like-minded group. You know, that happens with self-selected pools. Anyway….
—-
I’ll try to not parse too much of what you say because that’s all picky editor wank, but I do think this statement of yours:
Which is why most authors — even non-religious ones — appeal to a religious / moral worldview to frame their tales.

is a huge mistake.

Because you are really flaunting a bias here. Most authors? Maybe most authors in your experience or most authors you know about or most authors who are successful in North American publishing circa right now. But MOST authors? That’s kind of nervy. Because there is a whole world of fiction, say, Greece that has nuts-all to do with Judeo-Christian beliefs and is chock full o’ good and evil and those paradigm-fillers. And then you have folklore and myth from,well, pretty much 80% of the planet. And then you have Salman Rushdie. (That’s a story for another day. Do we include Islam in the Judeo-Christian umbrella, since that’s where they get most of their value stuff? Technically if Mormons are Christians now then Muslims are too. Different century, different prophet coming up with add-ons…but still the same basic idea.)

And then you have ex-Catholics writing relavistic fiction that is some of the best reading I’ve ever put my hands on. Yes, I’m talking about George R.R. Martin.

I could go on and on.

I think your point stands if you parse it a bit differently; take out the “mosts” and the definitives. Because I happen to think that while moral absolutism makes some tales awesome (Star Wars Eps. IV-VI) and relativism makes some tales bite the wax tadpole I think there just really is a lot of difficulty in making an absolute statement about it.

Oh, and picky editor would like to say that you mean “jibes” where you say “jives”. It’s a common mistake and one I’m out to correct, just like “swatch” vs. “swath”.

http://www.beedictionary.com/common-errors/gibe_vs_jibe_vs_jive

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Mike Duran January 9, 2012 at 3:04 PM

Katherine, I see “biblical worldview” in pretty squishy terms. Forgive the lengthy requote:

“…by biblical worldview I do not necessarily mean a worldview that is theologically detailed and orthodox in every aspect. In the simplest sense, a biblical worldview is a perspective or set of assumptions that generally coheres with how the Bible frames reality. This includes, among others, things like belief in a Supreme Being, moral absolutes, that human beings are imperfect, and that one day we will give account of our imperfections.”

In this sense — and I’m sure some will disagree — I see both Mormons and Muslims as embracing an elementary biblical worldview. Yes, I think they are off — way off – on specifics. But certain core beliefs about a Supreme Being and Moral Absolutes are a part of their worldview.

But your point is well-taken.

Re: relativistic fiction — If relativism is the driving worldview behind a work of fiction, then on what grounds are there heroes and villains? Both heroes and villains require some moral standard for framing their standing.

Thanks for commenting, Katherine!

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Katherine Coble January 9, 2012 at 3:49 PM

You ask on what grounds there are heroes and villains in relativistic fiction, and in truth I suppose that’s a lot of what I enjoy about it. And yes, I know I’m picking a lot on _A Song Of Ice and Fire_ (aka “The Game of Thrones series”), but it’s one example I know rather well and can speak to.

In that series you open with the protagonists and their POV. You see right and wrong through their eyes and as a reader you develop allegiances based on that information. Then in subsequent books as you see the universe and plot points unfold from others’ points of view you see how there are vast swaths of gray area and no one person is all good or all bad. The way you feel about Jaime Lannister in Book 1, for instance, is most likely going to be markedly different than the way you feel about him in later turns of the page.

I think there IS a place for relativistic fiction for several reasons.
–It bears thinking about that other folks have motivations and reasoning. It’s a chance to walk in a lot of different people’s shoes.
–It forces you to ask real questions of yourself about which absolutes you hold are devout and which are dogmatic and yet again which are merely cultural.
–It underscores the difference between true villainy and mere actions of conflict.

Most importantly, we live in a more relativist world than many Christians like to admit. Yes, ultimately we are all fallen and need the redemptive propitiation of Grace. But outside that basic truth we are in a place where it is too simple to ascribe Hero and Villain status to living people. (Take politics, for instance. Never was so relativistic a game played so fatally earnestly by so many well-meaning people.)

Heroes and villains are very necessary for a certain type of story. But not every type of story is constructed in that manner and frankly I’m finding that those which offer a bit more gray are, in this current time frame, turning out to be much more well-written. I’m elbows-deep in the very relativistic yet very wonderful _Long Price Quartet_ by Daniel Abraham. I’m reading it as a follow-up to several Christmas stories that were the basic g.v.e. construct and I have to say that it’s just BETTER. From my point of view of course.

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Lyn Perry January 9, 2012 at 6:22 PM

Nicely articulated. I’ll have to start reading your blog! :) I’m with you, but agree with Mike in principle, especially that one’s worldview informs one’s fiction and the “biblical” worldview provides a massive framework for great fiction. But I can also understand that a lot of stories are more slice of life and don’t necessarily depend on a worldview at all. Maybe those relativistic and pantheistic stories fit within the biblical frame without “knowing” it? (BTW, I just finished A Game of Thrones and am totally caught up in the tension. Fantastic story arc; we’ll see if it “goes anywhere” or if it’s ultimately a dramatic vapor. I hope it’s more than that.)

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Mike Duran January 10, 2012 at 5:07 AM

Katherine, I really enjoy discussions like this! Perhaps I am imposing too strict of a philosophical grid to this but… it is the presence of hard moral blacks and whites that make things grey. Now, I like greys. I like ambiguity. Which is why I agree, sort of, with your statement: “…we live in a more relativist world than many Christians like to admit.” Christians don’t seem to allow much room for mystery and obscurity, or plurality of experiences and opinions. I’m with you on that. Nevertheless, Absolutes have not changed. We have. I mean, which part of the Ten Commandments has been rendered moot by 21st century man?

“I [might be] the Lord your god…”
“Thou shalt [try really hard not to] commit murder.”
“Thou shalt [only] covet your neighbor’s wife [if you can't help yourself].”

Or to take it a step further, Original Sin, the Atonement, the Afterlife, and the existence of One Holy God. We may live in a relativistic world, but for the Christian, these are pillars of logic that should frame our Universe. To relinquish these is to drift further from a biblical worldview.

Of course, different authors bring worldviews contrary to ours to their stories. But this is exactly my point: We often employ a biblical worldview to judge those worlds. Why? Because a biblical worldview jibes ( ;-) )with reality. For instance, characters who rape, murder, cheat on their partners, torture animals, steal, molest children, and seek to silence all who disagree with them are — in pretty much any worldview — BAD.

But why?

Sure, I can sympathize with an arsonist’s bad childhood, a rapist’s genetic predisposition, a murderer’s anger issues, and a tyrant’s thirst for power. But no amount of relativism can make their actions Good. A truly relativistic novel can’t have protags and antags, because every character is both. This is what I’m getting at.

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Katherine Coble January 14, 2012 at 8:40 AM

” A truly relativistic novel can’t have protags and antags, because every character is both. ”

I agree. And I like that. I know this whole thing has spiralled out of control while I’ve been hiding out on Opium Island. I’ll let the whole Atheist-Postmodernism-Subjective Truth go for another time because I kind of feel like they aren’t what you were trying to say.

But to leave this not dying on the vine (and to reassure you that I wasn’t ignoring you) AND to also make this point very clear….

I LOVE books without clear heroes and villains. Not always, of course. A steady diet of that sort of thing is as yuck as any steady diet of anything. But I find books where you see the whole of a person, good and bad, to be fantastic reads.

I like them because the conflict feels more natural, more nuanced, more real. After awhile, and especially in speculative fiction, the black hat-white hat setup of books based on a Christian worldview feels simplistic and trite and contrived.

An example: We’re currently watching Once Upon A Time on ABC–getting caught up on the first 6 episodes that aired before we cared about it. The stories are interesting and there’s a degree of charm to the setup. But it’s getting to the point where the Evil Queen character is soooo bad that I find myself thinking “why don’t the townspeople get together and just kill her Orient Express-style?” It strains credulity.

In relativist fiction I don’t look to see a character’s actions redeeming them. Or even explaining them. I like to look at their actions as a whole and ponder how I would have responded in a similar situation. If I really love the character (Tyrion Lannister) I groan when they do something stupid and cheer when they do something great. I’m more engaged in that type of story than your standard heroes vs. villains kind of thing.

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Mike Duran January 14, 2012 at 9:10 AM

Katherine, this is a fun discussion and one I need to think more about. I think you’re talking more about allowing ambiguity and not forcing an interpretation upon a viewer / reader than you are actually talking about relativism. We recently watched Meek’s Cutoff — a bleak, minimalist Western that I totally loved. One reason is how it ended… and the many possible interpretations of that end. (You might think about renting it if you get a chance.) All that to say, I enjoy pondering moral greyness, and believe that’s one terrible flaw in much Christian fiction: we simply can’t tolerate ambiguity. But there cannot be moral greys if there aren’t blacks and whites. That’s really all I’m saying here. True relativistic fiction CAN’T have good guys or bad guys because Good and Bad are completely subjective concepts for relativists. To even interpret someone as a hero requires a Standard of Good and Evil. A filmmaker or novelist, in order to even create a context for moral ambiguity, needs Goods and Evils, Blacks and Whites. Without them there could be no greys.

Blessings, Katherine! Have a great weekend!

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Josh January 9, 2012 at 2:04 PM

I don’t buy it. As an atheist, it is my opinion that those religions are themselves little more than works of fiction. For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that I’m right (actually, you all should just do that all the time, come to think of it). So where, then, did the authors of the Bible come up with these story elements?

Instead, I would argue that religious mythology is merely a codification of the biases and pattern-matching irregularities of the human mind. They are, essentially, pareidolia written down; a fictional framework to explain the oddities that many are now prone to explain with that fictional framework.

It’s not that this worldview is necessary to write good fiction, it’s that this worldview evolved specifically to stimulate the parts of the human mind that evokes reactions. There are certain mental stimuli that do a good job of exciting the human mind, and it is those stimuli that religion (or at least successful religion) takes advantage of to gain popularity in the face of opposing evidence. Any good fiction, therefore, will tend towards similar themes because it’s targeting similar reactions.

Basically, this is a case of convergent evolution.

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Josh January 9, 2012 at 2:14 PM

I should probably clarify that this is not to say that no work of fiction every borrows from religion, Judeo-Christian or otherwise. Clearly that happens, and happens a lot. I mean only to dispute the notion that it’s necessary to adopt such a worldview in order to write good fiction.

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Mike Duran January 9, 2012 at 2:47 PM

Thanks for commenting, Josh. Even if religion is fiction, as you say, at least it offers a coherent framework (albeit contrived) to view life and art. An atheistic worldview, on the other hand, offers NO compelling reason for either. Not only is morality simply a changing social construct, there is NO need for a savior or a motivation toward Good. For the atheist, in the end, Nothing is our destiny. Which renders all fiction bad.

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Josh January 9, 2012 at 3:30 PM

You’re both correct and mistaken here. You’re correct that atheism, in and of itself, does not offer a coherent framework with which to view life and art. However neither does a theism, in and of itself.

The most basic form of theism is the simple assertion that there is at least one god. Atheism is the simple assertion that there is not. Neither one provides any sort of serviceable worldview until you bring in a lot of other elements. At that point we can start talking about theist worldviews such as Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Greco-Roman paganism, &c.; as well as various atheist worldviews such as Buddhism, Humanism, Confucianism, &c. As atheist worldviews go, those three listed absolutely offer the sort of framework that you claim atheist worldviews lack.

And again, you’re both correct and mistaken when you say that an atheist worldview provides ‘NO need for a savior or a motivation toward Good’. You are, of course, absolutely, 100% correct that atheists see no need for a savior. From what would we think we need to be saved? But you’re absolutely incorrect that atheists necessarily have no motivation towards ‘Good’.

Humans are social animals, and we evolved, physically and mentally, to live in groups. Doing so requires a relatively stable interpersonal dynamic. Why it seems inconceivable to so many people that we would, therefore, evolve an in-built sense of morality to allow that I simply don’t understand. Nothing about the world we live in suggests that theists are inherently more moral people than atheists, so unless all us atheists are simply lying about what we believe, I don’t see how it’s justifiable to claim that theism provides a better motivation towards good. If we value our own lives, then it is in our best interest that we, and society, value life in general. The Golden Rule, which, despite being perhaps most famously formulated in the New Testament, is not a Christian innovation, and has been almost universally formulated in all culture, theist and atheist alike.

As for your final statement, I’m not sure I understand. I assume you’re referring to a lack of afterlife, something which I, of course, believe is likely the case. So what? I don’t see why that’s a problem, or why it would render fiction bad to not believe in an afterlife.

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TC Avey January 9, 2012 at 4:51 PM

I guess regarding fiction an afterlife really doesn’t matter, I was just more curious. For me, as a Christian, believing there is an afterlife shapes how I view the world and how I interact within the world. While I believe I am saved by grace through faith and therefore do not need to do good works to get into heaven, because I believe there is a heaven and want others to join me there, I choose to do good when doing what is easy could be more convenient (such as not lying, putting in a full days worth of work, telling a cashier when they have given me too much change, etc)

I’m not suggesting there are not good atheists or that one has to have some sort of religion to be motivated to do good. On the contrary, I agree that most people want what is best and do good deeds. In all walks of life there are both good and bad people, to think Christians are above anyone morally is silly. My basic belief comes down to the realization that man is inherently evil and while they want to do what is good, they fall short of that, therefore they need a savior- Jesus Christ.

I guess I just struggle to understand what the point of life is if there is nothing after it? Why read a good book, why do a good deed, why be kind to someone who is mean if all there is to life is just the here and now? I know part of the answer to that… we do good to ensure a good life for others, we read a good book for entertainment, but aren’t those things sort of empty if all you have to look forward to is now? What about tomorrow?

Again, I don’t mean to offend, I simply want to understand. I have been reading about Christopher Hitchens and intend to read some of his works. Thank you for answering my questions.

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Josh January 10, 2012 at 8:22 AM

My biggest issue with this is your realization ‘that man is inherently evil’. I just don’t see it. I mean, I understand where the idea comes from in scripture, but I don’t see why it’s considered credible. The same goes for salvation, which, honestly, seems like a solution looking for a problem.

I realize that this discussion is heading more and more towards the irreverent, and I hope that doesn’t cause offense, but I’m not sure it would be possible to get deeply into a conversation like this without confronting the fact that we each think the other’s view is, simply, wrong. So, with that in mind, what it ultimately comes down to for me is this: what makes Christianity credible?

I’ve read the Bible, cover to cover, several times, and I just don’t see a reason to believe it (not everything, anyway, some of the historical detail is clearly correct, but some of it is also clearly incorrect). It’s claim to authority is that it’s either of divine origin or, at least, divinely inspired. But the only reason to believe that is because it says so itself. What makes it more credible than any of the other ancient books that make the same claims? What makes Christianity credible, but not Islam? Not Hinduism? Not Buddhism? Not Mormonism? For that matter, why not Scientology?

In the end, the only way I can see to separate the wheat from the chaff (obviously, none of this is to say that the Bible is not of literary value!), is to look at the evidence. But the evidence does not provide any reason to think the Bible is a more reliable source of revealed knowledge than any other holy book. It’s arguments are entirely tautological: this book is true because God said so, you know that God said so because it’s in this book, which is true because God said so, which you know because… Couple that with a modern understanding of the human mind and proper statistical analysis, and the whole enterprise just starts to seem, well, made up.

As far as the point of life: why does there need to be something afterwards for there to be a point? For that matter, why does there need to be a point at all? I read good books, do good deeds, and am kind to people because those things make my experience of life more enjoyable. It seems to me that it’s especially true if there’s no afterlife that it’s important to enjoy the life we have.

Again, there’s no offense taken. I enjoy discussing these things, especially with people who have different opinions. Personally, I think that it’s good to have my own ideas and opinions challenged; it’s the best way to improve them and determine which of them might be false and need to be further considered or even discarded in favor of better ones.

Christopher Hitchens makes for an excellent read. I can only dream of having half of his rhetorical and literary eloquence. I highly recommend his writing to anyone, even if it’s just his literary reviews. Sam Harris, I think, also does an excellent job of writing about these sorts of things, although he approaches it from a slightly different perspective (he’s a Buddhist).

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TC Avey January 9, 2012 at 3:36 PM

Josh, forgive me of my ignorance on atheism, I would like to ask you a question. You don’t have to answer, but I am curious as to how you view the end of life. Is it not depressing?
To me it seems like it would take MORE faith to NOT believe in anything than to believe there is a creator that loves you.
Again, I apologize. Hope you are having a great day and that I didn’t offend you.

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Katherine Coble January 9, 2012 at 3:54 PM

I’m not an atheist by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. But I’d like to echo Josh’s point that many atheists (including all of those I know personally) are very compelled toward what we would call Good. Their belief is that this is the only shot we get at anything and it’s important to do things right the first time. Basically, it’s a call to Honour. The atheists I know believe that Christians and other theists are often more lax about behaving of The Good because they can “just get a do-over from Jesus”. (Atheist terminology.)

Clearly both sides have glaring misconceptions about the other. Something that can be rectified by reading relativist fiction. :)

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Josh January 9, 2012 at 4:27 PM

Hi TC, no offense taken at all! This is, obviously, a fairly important question when you start talking about things like the existence, or lack thereof, of gods, souls, and the like, and one that everyone, at some point, will have to answer for themselves. I don’t know if depressing is the word, but I do find the idea that I, at some point, will no longer get to experience life to be, I guess disturbing would be the best word. I suppose that if I spent my time thinking about that and nothing else, that would probably be depressing, but I always take the point of view that there’s no point in worrying about the inevitable. The one part of it all that really is annoying is that I’ll never even know it if I’m right!

As far as faith goes, honestly I just don’t see that it’s an option. The fact that facing a truth is unpleasant doesn’t strike me as a very good reason to doubt its veracity, and I’ve yet to be presented with a convincing argument in favor of anything else. Faith has simply never really just worked for me, and the more I’ve looked at any specific religion, the less I’ve been able to consider it credible. When you get right down to it, I just don’t see any evidence—or need, for that matter—for anything beyond the physical, material universe.

A lot of people seem to think that this means I must find life to be depressing, unfulfilling, hopeless, or something along those lines, but that’s just not the case. The idea my time is limited and that, after some unknown (and potentially, though hopefully not, soon) point in time it will be over is, if anything, motivating. It means that I’ve only got a limited amount of time to do the things that I enjoy and accomplish the things that I want to accomplish. Time and life becomes scarce resources, and, as the law of supply and demand dictates, that makes them valuable.

And, to be perfectly frank, I find the idea that death (and the afterlife that is presumed to come after it) is something to hope for to be far more disturbing than the idea that it’s something to fear. I enjoy life, and it is that enjoyment of life that motivates me to improve my life and the lives of others. I see no value in suffering or death, so I avoid those things and do what I can to help others do the same.

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TC Avey January 9, 2012 at 5:02 PM

Sorry Josh, I just responded above to what I thought you had written to me and Mike. I guess my computer didn’t update all the comments fast enough. I appreciate you honesty.
This past year I have endeavored to learn more about various religious- or lack therefore- views. Mainly I have been studying Humanism and Islam and while I am beginning to understand some of the concepts of these beliefs, I still am convinced that Christianity offers the most hope and peace.
I also have come to realize that, in many cases it is Christians themselves, have turned others from this great religion. It is people and not the religion that is to blame for many of the misconceptions people have. Christians seem to bicker between denominations causing others to not want to be apart of something that seems so contradictory. Also, I think some Christians are not as committed to their faith, as say Muslims, and therefore people are not as apt to want to join a group that has ‘watered down their faith’.
From my Christian upbringing I have come into my faith rather easily. I do not know what it means to struggle with questions of faith. I want to learn more, I want to understand and to be honest the reason is because I want to help you and others see the need for God. You may not like that, but it is the truth.
Anyway, I invite you to my blog. I would love to have your input on my religious posts. I understand if you do not want to visit and/or comment, but I extend the invite and hope to speak with you again.
I see no reason that Christians and non-Christians cannot be friends. Just as I have many extremely liberal friends. Differences can help make our society stronger as we learn from each other.

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Josh January 10, 2012 at 8:34 AM

After reading this comment I’m left with a question. You say that you are ‘convinced that Christianity offers the most hope and peace’. That very may well be true, but I don’t think that has any bearing on whether or not it’s true. Do you find reason to believe that Christianity is more true than the alternatives, or only that it’s better, or more pleasant, or something like that?

For context, I was raised with a mixed Jewish and Christian upbringing. That, in itself, probably contributed to my desire to question and discern the truth of things as it it was clear from an early age that not all religions said the same thing and that, therefore, they couldn’t all be right. It wasn’t much of a leap from there to realize that, AT MOST, only one could be right (but there’s no guarantee that any of them are). From there it became clear that the solution was to look for evidence, which I mentioned in a previous comment. If you think you have evidence, I’m happy to look at it.

I will definitely check out your blog, regardless of what I believe, I find the topic of religion to be endlessly fascinating and very much enjoy discussing it.

I couldn’t agree more that differences and diversity of opinion (and other things) make our society stronger and better. Many of my friends and family believe very differently from me, and I find that just helps to make life even more enjoyable.

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TC Avey January 10, 2012 at 1:29 PM

Josh, I’ve been reading through all the comments on this post- seems there is much to talk about (wink).
I’m not sure how to respond to some of your questions, mainly because my answers come down to faith and that is not something that can easily be explained (and we both know we view this topic from different perspectives).
But I want to try and answer a few of your questions, I want to try and explain why and how I believe what I do. It is not simply because it is the easiest religion (in my opinion) or provides great benefits.
Anyway, here goes, I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “I can’t see the wind, I see the affects of the wind, but I don’t see the wind, nevertheless I believe in the wind” (something along those lines). My belief in God is the same. I see the affects of God in my life. I have a relationship with him, not a religion. In fact, I tend to shy away from “religion” because man likes to warp it, likes to twist it to fit his needs/desires.
I know my belief in the Bible is real because I feel God. I talk to him and he talks to me. He has answered my prayers on more than one occasion. I have a miracle baby modern technology cannot explain (I use to work in the medical field). I have felt Gods peace and leaned on his hope during some of the toughest times in my life. Four years ago I lost my father to a very short battle with cancer. I can honestly say God held me through those dark hours when I did not understand anything, when I questioned everything.
As for kindness and goodness being distributed evenly, it goes back to man being inherently evil. Watching my son grow I realize I have to teach him to share, I have to teach him to be honest, I have to teach him to not hit/bit/etc. Good behaviors do not come naturally and while goodness can be explained away by saying society molds us as we grow, that does not deal with the fact that inside we have to choose to do what is right. We have to overcome our baser desires, some people manage that better than others. God in his wisdom and in his love, gave us free will to choose to do good, to choose to love him. He did not create robots. Therefore, it is because we have free will and because we are born with a tendency to do “evil” that there is good and bad people (that is not saying the only good people in the world are Christians, in fact I know many Christians who give us a bad name). It is also why, according to my faith, I need a Savior. I can never be good enough.

I can honestly say I have never seriously contemplated the idea that heaven is not real so it is difficult for me to comprehend your beliefs.
I have had many moments where I have been mad at God, times I have questioned his methods and his love, but in the end I have always come back to him. To my knowledge Christianity is the only religion that has a living Savior, one who conquered death, I know that is not enough for most people because that still takes faith to believe that that event even occurred.
I realize all religions believe theirs is the true religion and I dare not try and contradict someones beliefs, I can only say that I know my God is real because he is real to me. He is my father, he is my provider, he is my healer and he is my hope.
I will admit, that of those I know who do not share my faith, many of them have read more of the Bible than some Christians. I find that sad on the part of believers yet encouraging because it means you and others are at least open to the possibility of Jesus.
I trust that if you truly seek God, you will find him. Again, that takes faith. I recommend the book Ascent from Darkness: How Satan’s soldier became Gods warrior (you can read the book review on my blog). While I use caution recommending this book because it does portray Satan as powerful, it also shows the power, grace and goodness of God (and God victorious over the powers and allures of Satan and his lies). God doesn’t give up on any of us, he pursues us with a devotion that is unequaled. I know of no other Savior that has gone through so much just to have a relationship with us.
And that is what I have, a relationship, not a religion.
Thank you for discussing this with me. I look forward to future discussions.

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Iola January 9, 2012 at 2:09 PM

It has always interested me that the first thing a Sci-fi or fantasy writer does is create a religion which underpins the values of the world they have created (of course, Hubbard took this a step futher with Scientology). Without a belief system, there is no right and wrong, and therefore there can be no conflict, no story.

Mike, thank you for your posts. They are consistently intelligent and thought-provoking, a combination that can be hard enough to find in real life, let alone in the almost-infinite blogosphere.

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TC Avey January 9, 2012 at 2:46 PM

I have recently been studying about various worldviews- how they have evolved, what they mean and so on. I have found it all to be very enlightening. A recent book breaks down humanism and Christian world views in great detail (it can get a bit dry but seems to be well researched and written in great detail) and I recommend reading it if one has questions related to these two opposing world views. It is titled, ye shall be as gods by Larry Johnson.

Prior to reading your post I had not given much thought into a Christian world view in secular fiction, but you are right, I see it almost everywhere! Harry Potter is a great example. Thanks for spanning my mental horizons!

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Heather Day Gilbert January 9, 2012 at 3:13 PM

I can think of several books I’ve read that don’t embrace a Judeo-Christian worldview and RATHER embrace an athiestic (nothing matters anyway) or relativistic (no ultimate good) worldview. I’m talking about classics here, like Tess of the D’ubervilles or Anna Karenina. These books are typically ENDLESSLY depressing, because the author’s worldview has been carefully woven into the fabric of the storyline. Let me add, have you read any Plath? Yes, her enemies were the Nazis/injustices of humanity, but there was NO WAY OUT–exactly how she lived her life. Nothing to look forward to.

I think it’s hard to make blanket statements on this, because some people can read these relativistic/athiestic books and totally relate to the idea that there’s no good/bad REALLY and that their lives will be over when they die.

Yes, a Judeo-Christian viewpoint jibes with OUR reality, but not with the reality of non-Christians. As they perceive it, at least.

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TC Avey January 9, 2012 at 3:28 PM

Plath is a good example. I don’t know how I could face each day without something to give me hope.

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Mike Duran January 10, 2012 at 5:34 AM

Heather, an atheistic worldview can only be depressing. How else can you interpret life if everything is a cosmic accident that will eventually recede back into Oblivion? But think about this: Atheist worldviews are only depressing if we think life should mean more. Which is why giving up hope is the primary means of salvation for an atheist.

No, I haven’t read Plath. You wrote, “…her enemies were the Nazis/injustices of humanity.” Again, in a truly atheistic / relativistic worldview, what makes “the Nazis/injustices of humanity” bad? A standard of Right and Wrong / Good and Evil is required to make anyone / anything Evil or Unjust. So, what standard is the reader using?

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Josh January 10, 2012 at 7:50 AM

I strongly disagree that ‘an atheistic worldview can only be depressing’. And I also disagree that ‘giving up hope’ is a ‘means of salvation’. As I asked before, what is it that I should want salvation from? ‘Despite’ being an atheist, not believing that there is anything waiting for me ‘on the other side’ other than oblivion, and ‘despite’ having hope about many things in my life, I am not depressed. Rather, I’m quite happy. I have a good life. I have an awesome job. I have an amazing wife. These things all make me happy and satisfied with my life. I don’t feel that there’s anything that I’m missing or need, and the fact that there’s nothing for me after I die just makes these things more important and fulfilling.

As for how I can ‘interpret life if everything is a cosmic accident that will eventually recede back into Oblivion’: as an amazing opportunity that I’m lucky to have and so intend to enjoy to the fullest. My enjoyment of things is rarely conditioned by what might or might not happen after I’m done with them; I’m not depressed by the fact that once I finish eating an amazing, delicious meal it will be gone, I’m happy to have it and to be able to enjoy it; why would life be any different?

I’m also going to strongly have to disagree that atheists can’t view the Nazis as bad. That’s just plainly false. I’ve already laid out, in a comment to TC, a very simple basis for how morality can arise in the absence of gods, but, in summary, there is every reason to believe (including even some actual research on the matter revealing evidence) that evolution (genetic and memetic) can and did provide the basis of human morality as a pre-requisite for us being able to have social groups.

There are some people out there that completely lack in any sort of morality or empathy, but they are a tiny, tiny minority. The vast majority of people have, in-built, the capacity to empathize with others. It is this capacity for empathy that enables morality. Rather than ask where it comes from if not from some god, I would ask, if it is granted to us by God, why does He distribute His gifts so unevenly? Evolution provides a good and consistent explanation both of why most people have this capacity and also of why some people don’t. There are many Christian (and other) apologia about why there is evil in the world, but none of them are particularly convincing.

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Mike Duran January 10, 2012 at 9:18 AM

Josh, thanks for staying with this conversation. I apologize for my responses, as they will be brief. I don’t blame you for striving to have hope. Problem is, apparently even you acknowledge that hope does not naturally extrapolate from an atheistic worldview. You said you have hope, “DESPITE… believing there is anything… other than oblivion.” Your hope is in spite of your beliefs, not because of them. Likewise, there is no compelling reason for an atheist to argue for hope except that it is (temporarily) more practical for our species to have it than not. I tend to side with Camus on this when he suggested that the greatest question facing modern man is whether or not he should commit suicide. If our world is an accident, wasting away to Nothing, suicide is as reasonable as trying to muster hope.

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Josh January 10, 2012 at 9:36 AM

I put ‘despite’ in quotes for a reason. I don’t think that being an atheist deprives me of hope or anything else worth having. The only thing that atheism ‘deprives’ me of is the idea that there are any gods, and idea that you share except for one specific deity.

The question of suicide is an interesting one. If it weren’t for a specific prohibition against it, it would seem that Christianity would rather encourage it. Believing in an afterlife, especially an afterlife that you gain access to with only a requirement of belief, would seem to make death an attractive prospect that should be embraced by those who expect eternal bliss afterwards. As an atheist, however, I can’t find the prospect of death particularly attractive. Suicide would be final, something that, while it might relieve short-term suffering, completely removes the possibility of future pleasure. Because I don’t expect to enjoy some pleasurable afterlife, I avoid death at all costs.

I can’t help but think that your impression of what it must be like to be an atheist is horribly misinformed by your own beliefs (understandably). Just because you (I presume) find faith to be an essential part of your life doesn’t mean that it has to be so for everyone. A lot of people talk about how their belief in God ‘completes’ them in some way or fills something that would otherwise be missing, but lacking such a belief I don’t feel that I’m missing anything that a belief in God would fill. We have mutually incompatible perspectives here, which makes it difficult to appreciate each other’s points of view.

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TC Avey January 10, 2012 at 1:42 PM

Josh, your view on suicide and Christians is interesting. I had never thought of it that way before, probably because I have always believed it to be wrong. God loves his creation and doesn’t want to see it destroyed, neither does he want us to live in fear. God desires for us to live a joyful, productive life that brings him glory. While he longs for a relationship with us, he does not want to see us end our lives before its time. He does not want to see his creation destroy itself. Instead he wants to be a part of our lives here on earth and then enjoy us for all eternity when our lives are over.

I just wanted to say, I admire your openness and willingness to talk on this blog.

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Mike Duran January 10, 2012 at 9:49 AM

@Josh — On atheists viewing Nazis as “bad.” Of course they can, but on what grounds are they bad? If morals are simply evolving social constructs, couldn’t Nazis simply argue that their “morality” is simply more evolved? On what ground do atheists make their morality superior to the Nazis’?

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Josh January 10, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Anyone can argue that their morality is more evolved. And, in some sense, it’s true. Nazi ideology evolved from the previously prevailing ideology of the German people. Being ‘more evolved’ does not mean ‘better’, that’s not the way that evolution works in any context; evolution is not a progression towards some ultimate goal, it’s simply a process of change over time that leads to both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ changes (where ‘good’ is defined as increasing reproductive fitness, it’s not a moral judgement). Nazism was clearly a ‘bad’ adaptation, in an evolutionary sense, as it hasn’t (for the most part) survived. But, clearly, that’s not what you’re talking about.

As far as a moral judgment, I have no qualms in judging the Nazis as bad. I already explained how and why I value life, mine and others, which makes it difficult to find any worth in an ideology that pretty much inextricably wrapped up in the idea that it’s not only ok, but advisable to kill massive numbers of people due to an accident of their birth.

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Heather Day Gilbert January 10, 2012 at 4:48 PM

Hi there Josh, shameless plug here, but here’s a link to my very erudite husband’s law article on evil in the world (as relates to government and justice).

http://www.dionysiana.srctomis.ro/609/lessons-from-theodicy-the-problem-of-evil-and-the-limits-of-governmental-power/

He said it’s just basically an introduction into the problem of evil, but I thought you might find it interesting as you like to think over these things and read about the problem of evil.

And Mike, yes, I get what you’re asking–how can Plath know the Nazis were wrong, if there’s no good/evil? Of course, her conclusion seemed to be that even though she hated Nazis, life is unfair and who cares anyway, so I’m going to stick my head in the oven. Horrifying. But there is that element of UNFAIRNESS there, so who puts the idea that one day things should be fair in humans’ heads? I’d say God, not evolution. But I don’t think that would give her a Judeo-Christian viewpoint, just a realistic one (based on a reality she was unable to come to grips with).

And Josh, I’m glad that you love life, your wife, your job, your food, etc…but what if it’s all TAKEN AWAY? If you were in a Holocaust death camp (God forbid)? Then you either give up hope, or have something bigger to cling to. I’d rather have hope and have a God I can talk to, who I’d know is right there with me through it all. A God I’m willing to die for.

Anyway, enjoy my husband’s article, he’s much more well-spoken and brilliant than I could ever hope to be!

–Heather

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Heather Day Gilbert January 10, 2012 at 4:57 PM

And now I just realized that’s only a link to his abstract…there’s a way to get to it online, but I don’t know how! It’s also published in the Liberty University Law Review, Volume 5, Number 3.

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Jill January 9, 2012 at 4:46 PM

First of all, please define Judeo-Christian for me. Second of all, let’s move past the idea that atheists, relativists, and other faiths are borrowing from the Christian Bible in order to bring their stories alive. It’s far too simplistic. What if they’re borrowing from the universe at large, encoded by the creator with light and dark, dying and rebirth? Good and evil are more slippery in concept–oh, hell, they’re all slippery concepts because dark masks as light, and birth comes from death. But, still, these slippery opposites are inherent in the universe–they’re a part of who we are. So, really, just define what you mean by Judeo-Christian–because as far as I know, Jews don’t buy into the redemption story at this point–not the way we’re pushing it, anyway.

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Mike Duran January 10, 2012 at 5:58 AM

Jill, concerning a Judeo-Christian worldview, please see my reply above to Katherine. I realize I employ a fairly broad interpretation of what others see as pretty tight. You said, “…just define what you mean by Judeo-Christian–as far as I know, Jews don’t buy into the redemption story at this point–not the way we’re pushing it, anyway.” That’s why it’s Judeo-Christian, because the spiritual / moral / ethical world framed by early Judaism paves the way for Christian redemption. Jews and Christians, for the most part, share the same basic view of the cosmos, the One who runs it, the Laws intended to order it, and the creatures who scurry about on it. For the most part.

As far as “other faiths… borrowing from the universe at large” rather than “borrowing from the Christian Bible in order to bring their stories alive” — I’ll give you that. In fact, I’d go a step further and say that the laws of the universe ARE the Laws of God and predated the Bible (see: general revelation). Which means that any appeal to morality or truth is rooted in something much bigger and older than us.

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Jill January 10, 2012 at 10:06 AM

“I’ll give you that. In fact, I’d go a step further and say that the laws of the universe ARE the Laws of God and predated the Bible (see: general revelation). Which means that any appeal to morality or truth is rooted in something much bigger and older than us.”

Yes! They predated the Bible. That’s exactly what I meant to say.

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Royal January 9, 2012 at 8:50 PM

Literature is based on conflict. Like the old Junior High maxim Man against Man, Man against nature …Man against himself or woman as the case may be. The argument that you need a bibilical worldview to have villains or hero or clear darkness and clear light…Tolkien wrote a Pantheistic worldview and what theistic worldview does the Old Man and the Sea follow. I will need a lot of things to finally complete the novel I have been planning for some time among might be Prozac and some really good therapy and a house in the country

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Mike Duran January 10, 2012 at 6:20 AM

Royal, thanks for commenting! Tolkien was a Catholic and framed Middle Earth in clear terms of morality. Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University and a Tolkien expert, in his wonderful essay, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited, states that Tolkien, “. . .called The Lord of the Rings ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God’s ‘sole right to divine honour’ (Letters, 172, 243).” All that to say, Tolkien DID NOT write from a “Pantheistic worldview.” And The Silmarillion is clear evidence (see the Creation event) that one god was at its center.

Re: The Old Man and the Sea — Santiago’s futile fight against the fish and the elements is supposed to embody Man’s futile fight against a meaningless universe, yes? So why should I feel anything for the old man? If the Universe is pointless and Meaningless, then the old man got what was coming. But readers typically feel bad for the protag. Why? It is our sense of Hope, of Good, of Justice that makes the story hard to bear. Question: Where does the sense of Hope, Good and Justice derive?

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Katherine Coble January 10, 2012 at 10:47 AM

I’m not Royal and can’t speak for him.

And I really thoroughly dislike _The Old Man and the Sea_ in much the same way I dislike Jack London’s _To Build A Fire_.

To answer your question, Mike, I think we are to feel for the Old Man and the freezing man because we are supposed to recognise our Self in them and see our struggle in their struggle. I think people who like those stories do so not because they are uplifting but because they reaffirm experiences from everyone’s lives.

I think that’s why a lot of Christians do indeed have issues with stories not written from our Worldview, because they lack that frisson of hope you get when a bad guy is vanquished by the good ones. Most modern Serious Literature suffers from this problem, but a lot of people seem to like it. Just take a look at Oprah’s Book Club.

So I suppose my quibble with your premise is not that Our worldview is essential to _good_ fiction but rather that it is a key component to _enjoyable_ and escapist fiction.

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Mike Duran January 14, 2012 at 5:06 PM

Katherine, I agree that we are to “feel for the Old Man and the freezing man because we are supposed to recognise our Self in them and see our struggle in their struggle.” I am not suggesting that a Christian worldview would interject hope into this story (although you’re right that something like that would never be tolerated in a Christian book), but that it is a biblical worldview that makes this story so tragic. If this was the way life was “supposed” to be, the Old Man’s struggles would be tolerable, normal. It is precisely the fact that we yearn for something Bigger, Better, Truer, more Fulfilling that makes the story so tragic. We can only see the Old Man and the Sea as Tragedy, because it is measured against Comedy.

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Tim George January 10, 2012 at 5:10 PM

Since I’m jumping in this late in the action perhaps we could go even deeper into your premise. That is, that all fiction does indeed have a worldview (whatever it may be). “But it’s just fiction,” is a phrase all we writers use. Yes, but we do not and cannot write in a vacuum. Even when we seek to write a character with a totally different worldview than our own, it still has shades of our own belief system within it. To deny this is foolish and somewhat arrogant.

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RJB January 11, 2012 at 3:10 PM

I think the arguments in defense of atheism given here lend fuel to those who claim Atheism is in fact a religion, replacing an external deity with an internal god as self.

“I have hope because I want to”
“I declare what is evil”
“I decide what is moral”
“I make the rules”
“I am god.”

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Josh January 12, 2012 at 9:02 AM

I’m not really sure where you’re getting that from, as it’s not remotely like what I said and I didn’t see anyone else really engaging from an atheist point of view.

Nobody chooses to have hope, you either do or you don’t; it’s an aspect of your condition in life and what you can predict might be in store for you in the future. I don’t choose to have hope, I see reason for hope. Perfect example: I have a flight to Chicago that was cancelled and I was instead put on a later flight with a 3 hour layover in Nashville. The weather in Chicago can often be unpredictable, especially during the winter, so I see a very definite possibility that I might end up stranded in Nashville over night. However, there’s also the possibility that everything will go fine and I’ll end up in Chicago as scheduled. Therefore, I have hope that the weather won’t screw up my travel plans. This hope arises solely from my current circumstances and the different possibilities for the future; the fact that I can see a possible future that is unpleasant, and one that is more pleasant is what enables hope, I have no choice in the matter.

As far as morality, I tried to express my thoughts on where morality can and does come from in the absence of some divine source. But, even still, the charge could equally be leveled that theists still ‘declare what is evil’ and ‘decide what is moral’ for themselves. Unless you think it would be moral and not at all evil to stone your children to death for being disobedient as the Bible says you should do.

However the important point that prevents atheism from being a religion is this: atheism is a single position, the position that one does not believe there to be any gods. It is not in contrast to religions like Christianity or Islam, it is in contrast to the basic proposition that there is at least one being that could be termed a god. Different people who are atheists might subscribe to various other belief systems that could be considered a religion, but atheism, in and of itself, simply is not a religion. There are, in fact, people who are atheists and consider themselves to be Christians (I don’t understand it either). Simply believing that there is a deity or two also would not qualify as a religion.

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Keanan Brand January 12, 2012 at 12:03 PM

Josh–

Just as Christian apologists (Ravi Zacharias, for instance) strive to clearly express and apply the truths of Scripture, you seem to be standing as an apologist for atheism, and I am curious: Why is it important that readers of this blog post / comment thread understand your position? What compels this “evangelization”?

There is no organized system of non-belief among the atheists of this world, no particular spokesperson (although there are a few superstars) for the cause, no rituals or rites or sacred texts, but I do agree with RJB’s statement that, in atheism, one’s self stands in place of an external deity, which means that man becomes god, and that all morality becomes relative.

If everyone believed and behaved in complete accordance with that relativity, this world would be in more chaos than it is, and humanity would very likely, and very rapidly, cease to exist. There needs to be a curb, a boundary, something to keep the chaos in check. Belief in an all-powerful, just-but-merciful God is essential, I think, to that boundary.

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Josh January 12, 2012 at 2:28 PM

Keanan,

My motivation here is to address what I think are mistakes in reasoning caused by not fully understanding the atheist point of view. My original contribution to the comments on this post were to express that and why I disagreed with the premise based on my own experiences. Since then the conversation has continued as several people have had questions and responses to my points. I’m much more interested in having a stimulating intellectual conversation about a topic that I find interesting than in any sort of ‘evangelization’.

That said, I do think that there is, generally speaking, a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about what atheism is and how and why people find themselves to be atheists. This discussion has obviously been very civil and, I think, mostly motivated by a genuine interest in learning from both sides, but it is distressingly common that any mention of atheism or admission of being an atheist provokes knee-jerk and often vicious reactions. For that reason I find it important to simply spread awareness that there are people out there who are atheists and that we are perfectly capable of coexisting and interactive in a civilized way with theists. My intention is certainly not to ‘convert’ anyone or anything like that, only to increase awareness. (And I do, genuinely, enjoy engaging people in these sorts of discussions, I find religion to be a fascinating topic.)

I get what you and RJB are saying about the idea of ‘becoming’ god, but I think that it’s poor phrasing that only contributes to an inaccurate perception of the facts. In discussions about religion, especially when dealing with people who have very different perspectives on the matter, it’s important to have a consensual understanding of what is meant by the word ‘god’. Even amongst Christians different people will have a different understanding of who or what ‘God’ is. Some people stretch the definition of ‘god’ so much as to say that god is basically just a synonym for ‘universe’. Personally, I don’t find that definition to be very helpful, as it seems pretty clear to me that most people are referring so some sort of discreet being that displays intelligence and will and exercises power to cause things to happen that would not if things were left to their own devices. Saying ‘I believe in God’, when what you actually believe is that ‘god’ is the universe strikes me as disingenuous at best. So if you want to say that an atheist ‘becomes god’ as simply shorthand for saying that an atheist takes upon themselves the responsibility of figuring out what is and isn’t moral that’s fine, but I think it muddies the issue by playing fast and loose with the nature of ‘god’.

The problem with complaining that morality would ‘become relative’ is that it clearly already is. There are people out there, and even entire societies, in which it is commonplace to do things that we would find absolutely abhorrent. Most of the time, they claim that those things are authorized, or even mandated, by their god or gods. Even among Christians, there’s not much evidence of a universal, absolute morality; at least not one that’s any different from the very basics that everyone feels at an instinctual level. There’s a tendency for Christians to dismiss the demonstrably bad behavior or morals of other Christians by saying that they’re ‘not real Christians’, but that just proves the relativity of morals, as each person is then, in your words, ‘becoming god’ in order to determine the criteria for who is and isn’t a Christian. Adventists say that Catholics (and just about everyone else) aren’t ‘real Christians’, Catholics say that Anglicans (although that’s been calming down a lot in the past few years) aren’t ‘real Christians’, &c. I rather suspect that even within a single church you would find that nobody is really in complete agreement over what constitutes a ‘real Christian’ or moral behavior. The world is already quite chaotic, with people doing horrible things to each other all the time (there are, in the United States, right now, millions of people living in slavery, for example).

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Mike Duran January 14, 2012 at 5:13 AM

Josh, once again, thanks for your civility and continuing with this discussion. It’s interesting, but I see your response here as a perfect case for Absolutism. I will intersperse some of my responses with your points.

Josh: “The problem with complaining that morality would ‘become relative’ is that it clearly already is.”

Mike: If morality “clearly already is” relative, then it has passed from being ‘relative’ to ‘absolute.’

Josh: “There are people out there, and even entire societies, in which it is commonplace to do things that we would find absolutely abhorrent. ”

Mike: If we find something “absolutely abhorrent,” then perhaps it is… as in Absolutely.

Josh: “There’s a tendency for Christians to dismiss the demonstrably bad behavior or morals of other Christians by saying that they’re ‘not real Christians’, but that just proves the relativity of morals.”

Mike: If a behavior is “demonstrably bad,” this suggests a Standard by which to judge behavior. If there is NO standard for being a Christian, then there is no such thing as bad behavior. Arguing that someone may not be a real Christian suggests Absolutes rather than infers relativity.

Josh: “I rather suspect that even within a single church you would find that nobody is really in complete agreement over what constitutes a ‘real Christian’ or moral behavior.”

Mike: This is probably true. But turn the question around: What does it mean to be a “real atheist”? Can someone who believe in a god be a ‘real atheist’? No. Which shows there is a Standard — however loose — for both Christians and atheists.

Once again, Josh. Thanks for your comments!

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Bryan Thomas Schmidt January 14, 2012 at 2:45 AM

All due respect, Mike, the problem with this is it smacks of the same arrogance which made missionaries go to Africa and try to turn the Africans into Westerners. I value the Judeo Christian viewpoint, I am Christian. But it is not the only valid worldview that exists. It may be the only one that points to Christ and that’s significant but suggesting it’s essential just smacks people in the face in a way that others resent. It’s a stereotypical Christian arrogance that is not helpful to our cause, but, in fact, destructive. Instead, I prefer to suggest that what’s essential is some societal moral compass which characters must reconcile their actions and decisions with. This forces questions to be asked about right and wrong and how their lifestyle fits within that scope. It avoids nihilistic moral ambiguity and pushes stories to ask the larger questions which help readers question themselves and their motives in productive ways. To me those questions are essential to good fiction.

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Mike Duran January 14, 2012 at 5:46 AM

Bryan, I appreciate your comments. I’ve been thinking about a follow-up post to this because I believe I’m being grossly misinterpreted and/or my point is being missed or intentionally evaded.

You said that the Christian worldview “is not the only valid worldview that exists.” I would ask you, “So what constitutes a VALID worldview”? And who are YOU to say what a valid worldview is?”

You see, you are probably judging “validity” by the same standard I am. Does it jibe with a BIBLICAL worldview — a world of Good and Bad, freedom of will, moral consequences, a Supreme Intelligence, an afterlife, etc. There are many variations of belief along that spectrum. One of my all-time favorite reads is Eternity In Their Heart in which missiologist Don Richardson puts forth evidences of the One True God in many pagan cultures. So rather than trying to “turn the Africans into Westerners” (which, I agree, is misguided), Richardson presents a paradigm of building upon latent Christian worldview elements within pagan cultures. In fact, if God makes Himself known to ALL people (Romans 1-3), then even the most primitive and anti-theistic people will have “residual” knowledge (see: general revelation) of a biblical worldview rattling around in their brain.

Which is why… EVEN PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO BE RELATIVISTS EMPLOY ABSOLUTES.

That’s all I’m really saying here. God has created a world in which His Truth is known. And even those who claim there is no God, can’t logically escape the scaffold He’s erected. Even relativists must frame their world in some semblance of Absolutes.

Furthermore, if we Christians don’t believe our worldview is valid, then what’s the point of any evangelism, missionary work, or outreach? In fact, if our worldview is just one of many, then why become a Christian at all? Why not write Romulan Fiction or Borg Fiction? Heck, Satanism is even a valid worldview, yes? Jesus said He is the only way to God, which makes “other ways”… invalid. Agreed?

You concluded, “I prefer to suggest that what’s essential is some societal moral compass which characters must reconcile their actions and decisions with.” Bryan, this is exactly what I’m saying. Just take it one step further: All “valid” societal moral compasses trace back to the One True Moral Compass. Or else they are invalid.

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Bryan Thomas Schmidt January 14, 2012 at 8:01 AM

Mike by stating it’s “essential” you are judging and insisting that it is the only or better way in a way that invalidates other worldviews and alienates people. Of course they are unhappy with you and unable to hear your message. My recent post suggesting moral ambiguity in fiction is really unhelpful and a problem got me nailed by people who missed my message that part of what makes classics like the Thomas Covenant series by Donaldson and Lord Of The Rings by Tolkien great are their examination of the larger moral questions even by ambiguous characters living within those societal mores. Every world and society has them. Often societies on the same world clash because of differences in their mores. Asking the larger questions of why characters believe what they believe or act as they act and thus having the characters forced to reconcile themselves with either bucking or ignoring the mores or obeying them, makes LOTR and TC fantastically powerful reads. And such questioning is missing from a larger body of modern fiction. I don’t disagree with Romans 1:19 nor that the Truth is known. But I don’t think it’s helpful to throw such things in the face of compatriots in the field in the way you have. It just pisses people off and alienates them instead of stimulating valid discussion which might actually lead to real recognition and change and be more productive. And even if Jesus is the only way to God as we believe, that doesn’t mean that other writers aren’t writing books from worldviews with a different end goal. And that doesn’t make those writings invalidated. They may be of less interest to us. But they are a valid worldview for people who believe them. I am not talking one true way here. I am talking the way of mutual respect, something Christians have continually failed at in arrogantly pushing off their worldview and it’s part of the reason we are so maligned and attacked today. You may not be sick of that, but I am. The only way to convince people of our known truth is to actually be able to dialogue with them and coming off arrogant, judgmental and pushy has only driven them away.

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Mike Duran January 14, 2012 at 8:46 AM

I must say, Bryan, I think you’re portraying my tone way more antagonistically than it is and using rather inflammatory rhetoric in the process. (Not sure what things I have “[thrown] in the face of compatriots”. Hopefully it won’t stain, whatever it is.) By suggesting I am “coming off arrogant, judgmental and pushy,” you seem to be distancing yourself from my point. It appears ad hominem. Might I encourage the “mutual respect” you require from us Christians be applied to THIS conversation?

Yes, I used the word “essential” in my blog post. And it did its job to draw readers in. Again, to clarify, a Judeo-Christian worldview is “essential” to good fiction in the same way that a Judeo-Christian worldview is foundational to all logic and morals, and Western civilization in general. You are free to interpret this as me slamming all other civilizations, but I’m not. You’re free to characterize this as me “invalidating” every non-christian culture, but I’m not. As I said in my comments above, “…even the most primitive and anti-theistic people will have ‘residual, knowledge (see: general revelation) of a biblical worldview rattling around in their brain.” Thus, all cultures are loved by God and, in different ways, reflect His Truth. Sometimes in their denial of it (see: Hindu caste system). This doesn’t, however, make all cultures good or their belief systems right (see: Mayan human sacrificial system).

If you think just stating that a Christian worldview is SUPERIOR to other worldviews is wrong, then I’m guilty as charged. But if you believe a Christian worldview is NOT superior to other worldviews, then I’m wondering what compelling reason there is to even be a Christian. If so, this could explain why we disagree — we have doctrinal / worldview differences.

You said, “…even if Jesus is the only way to God as we believe, that doesn’t mean that other writers aren’t writing books from worldviews with a different end goal. And that doesn’t make those writings invalidated.” I don’t believe I’ve stated anywhere in my post that non-Christian writers or novels are “invalidated.” What I’ve stated is that there is a terrible philosophical contradiction at the heart of them. For EVEN PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO BE RELATIVISTS EMPLOY ABSOLUTES. And absolutes can only be traced back to an Absolute Law or Lawgiver. This is the gist of my post and one, I believe, you are missing.

Thanks so much for the discussion, Bryan!

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Bryan Thomas Schmidt January 14, 2012 at 9:25 AM

Mike I’m writing very matter of factly about it. I’m not trying to offend you. And rereading my posts, I think your response is internal. I don’t see anything inflammatory in what saying. I’m just trying to point out that the response you’re getting from many fronts outside of the faith, which you claim misses your point or ignores it, is the result of your approach. And that perhaps that approach might not be helpful. I am sensitive to this because I have spent years running a nonprofit missionary organization that works with people in places where their culture and worldview has been disrespected by Christians and I’ve had to repair the damage. You are getting people riled up but in the wrong way. They are not dialoguing with you but at and about you. They are offended. Was that really what you set out to accomplish? I have read your blog for a while now. It’s always thought provoking. You clearly put a lot of time into things. I find it a useful resource for dialogue, usually. But this time I think that didn’t work, and I’m just attempting to suggest why that might be the case. Since it offends you, I’ll leave it be. But I thought it was worth attempting to communicate about.

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Mike Duran January 14, 2012 at 9:37 AM

Oh, I’m not offended, Bryan. But I’d stick my assertion that your rhetoric was inflammatory.

You said, “I’m just trying to point out that the response you’re getting from many fronts outside of the faith, which you claim misses your point or ignores it, is the result of your approach.” Not sure I agree with that. Of all the chatter that’s gone on re: that post, only ONE person has actually come here to dialogue. They rather seem more comfortable calling me an asshole, shithead, moron, and dumbass, than addressing the point. And reading some of the threads makes me wonder if most of them actually read the entire post. As I wrote on FB, “Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about my point, that’s a possibility. However, I think it’s my inference that has created the pushback, not my lack of clarity.”

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Katherine Coble January 14, 2012 at 10:36 AM

See: Concern Trolling

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Luke March 18, 2012 at 10:56 AM

I had a question outside of current discussion: Are you certain Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings from a pantheistic worldview? In the Silmarillion, Tolkien states the creation of the world by a single entity, Eru, and his servants, the Valar.

Quoting Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, “there was an omniscient Being called Eru the One, or as the Elves would later name Him, Ilúvatar. This was the Being that Tolkien conceived as the source of all creation.”

As a Tolkien fan, I felt called to clarify that the author wrote the stories with a clearly monotheistic mindset. Although Tolkien mentions several immortal races (the Maiar and the Elves, for example), the story takes place within a world created by a single God.

Your post was thought-provoking, as well as the ensuing discussion. I just think Tolkien’s crown jewel oughtn’t to be listed as pantheistic.

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Iola March 18, 2012 at 2:19 PM

I’ve just finished and reviewed a very short book (31 pages) by Ann Tatlock that looks at this from another angle: http://christianediting.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/book-review-writing-to-post-christian.html. Very interesting.

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