Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Wed Aug 19 2009 - 02:01:06 EDT

George, Schwarzwald, et al.:

I tend to agree with Schwarzwald. There is no "risk-free" approach. There is no evangelical "technique" which can guarantee that anyone will believe in the "right" kind of Christian God (whether that God be the kenotic, suffering Christ of George Murphy, or the sovereign, irresistible, inscrutable, predestining Will believed in by many Calvinists).

Yes, it's possible that certain ideas of God that a person might adopt (perhaps, say, a God who is identified exclusively with will, power and victory) may make it difficult later on for that person to accept many forms of Christianity (in which God is thought of in terms of submission, weakness, and humiliation). On the other hand, unless the Christian God of kenosis and humility is *entirely* different from the Creator-God of power, will, intelligence, etc., there will be *some* overlap between the God inferred from nature and the suffering God. I don't think that even George Murphy, with his emphasis on the self-emptying aspect of God, would say that *all* language in the Bible and tradition which speaks of God and creation in terms of power, wisdom, etc., is false and inappropriate. I do not think he could say this, and remain, as I believe he intends to remain, within the tradition of historic Christianity, with its emphasis on the Bible, the Fathers, the Creeds, the Trinity, etc. Thus, I think there exists a "bridge theology" between those who are Deists, Jews, and Christians, a sort of minimalist theology acknowledging the existence of an intelligent power which has given rational form to the world. I cannot see what harm such a minimalist theology can do, as long as no one supposes that it is a full or adequate theology.

It is true that not "just any kind of theist" can easily move to Christianity. But the theists who cannot easily move to Christianity -- George gives Muslims as an example -- are theists who are "dedicated", so to speak, to *a particular form* of theism. Schwarzwald is talking about "non-dedicated" theism. An example that springs to mind: if you have a motor which is connected with the blade of an electric lawn-mower, you cannot easily use the whole assembly as a living-room fan. Nor, if you have a motor which is connected with the blade of a living-room fan, can you easily turn the whole assembly into an electric lawn-mower. But if you have a motor powerful enough for either job, which has not yet been integrated into the structure of either a lawn-mower or a living room fan, you can put it to either use, by building it into the appropriate mechanical setting. Schwarzwald's theists-in-general are like such a "non-dedicated" motor. George's Muslims, on the other hand, are like the motor which is already encased in the electric lawn-mower and therefore badly suited to use as a living-room fan. However, Schwarzwald is not recommending dragging an electric lawn-mower into the house, setting it up on its side, and using it as a clumsy fan. He is recommending that atheists consider the possibility that there might be such a thing as a motor. Once they are convinced that motors exist, they may also come to believe that living-room fans exist.

Further, even if, once believing in motors, a person should fall in love with electric lawn-mowers rather than living-room fans, what is the loss? Prior to that, the person did not believe in living-room fans, anyway. Similarly, if a person should move from atheism to generic theism and finally to Islam, well, that person was not a Christian before anyway, so there is no net loss to Christendom. And since at least a *some* people who move from atheism to generic theism will later become Christian, then on the whole, the move from atheism to generic theism cannot be anything but a gain for Christendom.

The social relevance of Schwarzwald's suggestion is this: as of right now, there is a whole sector of the population -- bright, well-educated, upper-middle-class, with above average wealth and confidence and social position -- which is effectively atheist or agnostic, whether it still retains a nominal church connection or not. This sector of the population believes that "science" has disproved the existence of a creator God, or that "science" has made such a God a redundant and/or dubious hypothesis. If this sector of the population could be shown that "science" has shown no such thing, and even further, that "science", to the extent that it shows anything about God, makes the existence of a creator God at least as likely as not, and possibly even more likely than not, then one of the huge intellectual and cultural barriers to even considering the possibility of Christianity will have been removed. Design arguments, to the extent that they seriously weaken the "science has shown that there is no God" position, are constructive in this regard. (This is not to say that design arguments can "prove" the existence of God; but even rendering dubious the alleged scientific disproofs of God's existence is a very useful service to religious belief.)

I've probably said this before, and I hope I won't bore people if I say it again: on this front, ID is more useful than TE. The TE message is for those who are *already Christian*, but who do not accept certain results of modern science. The TE message, at least as it usually appears on this list, and even in many of the essays in the *PEC* book, is: "Conservative, Bible-believing Protestants, don't be afraid of science, and in particular, don't be afraid of evolution. You can still keep your Christianity if you subscribe to evolution, an ancient earth, etc." But such a message has no relevance for those who aren't Christian, and aren't particularly interested in becoming Christian. They already accept evolution and an ancient earth and the Big Bang anyway. The ID message, on the other hand, is: "Atheists and agnostics and former believers (who, being Harvard and Cornell grads, or readers of books and blogs written by those grads, have lost your faith), don't believe Sagan and Dawkins and Gould and Coyne when they say that undirected natural processes have already accounted for the rationality of the cosmos and of the integrated complexity of living things. There is a strong inferential case, based entirely on empirical data and reason, that an intelligent design of some sort pervades the non-living and living worlds." The ID message resonates better with the sort of people I am talking about, because (a) it is based on the empirical and mathematical study of nature, which is appealing to such middle-class, science-respecting people; and (b) it is religiously non-threatening, because it does not push the Bible in such people's faces. TE literature, on the other hand, is pious-sounding, with many references to Christ, the Bible, faith, the theistic world-view, God's sovereignty, theodicy, etc., and this scares many middle-class agnostics away. Thus, I think the ID approach, which leads only indirectly to revealed religion, via a generic "natural theology" accessible even to a thoughtful and open-minded agnostic, is much more likely (albeit only in a roundabout manner, and in the long run) to win converts to Christianity than TE is, from that part of the public which I have specified. I don't see why TE proponents should begrudge this "mission field" to ID, since it is not a field in which TE is doing much cultivating, anyway.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Schwarzwald
  Sent: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 10:28 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

  Heya George,

  I've already said that, certainly, bringing someone to theism does not guarantee that they're going to become Christian. But I don't think there's a "risk-free" approach to this - absolutely any move you make (including making no move at all) has a risk attached. One has to keep in mind their message and their approach, but at the end of the day do what seems to make the most sense. And I maintain that the approach I'm talking about makes quite a lot of sense, specifically in the west. I wouldn't say it's the only approach available, or that it doesn't have risks, of course. But I'd need to hear more than "They may end up believing differently than we/you do" to reject it, because that's the status quo for this group as is.

  On Tue, Aug 18, 2009 at 9:38 PM, George Murphy <> wrote:

    It's not at all clear to me that a person becoming just any kind of theist is better - i.e., closer to Christian faith - than atheism. From a theoretical standpoint, Christianity is very different from many varieties of theism. It's not without significance that the early Christians were accused of being atheists by the pagans. If you ask many of the people who "believe in God" what God they believe in, you may have to say "I don't believe in that God either." & practically, being a member of many theistic communities (e.g., Islam) introduces constraints against acceptance of Christianity that are not felt by atheists. & even the "mere theist" may have settled upon notions about God that that make it difficult to take seriously the belief that the real God is revealed in a man dying on cross.


      ----- Original Message -----
      From: Schwarzwald
      Sent: Monday, August 17, 2009 9:18 PM
      Subject: Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

      George Murphy: I really do believe that you are correct when you talk about there being a danger in making use of mere theistic arguments. However, I'd simply point out that there's danger in just about every apologetic approach - get an atheist to accept the existence of a grand designer or creator and for all you know you've just turned him into a hindu (I'd point out that with CS Lewis, this was apparently a very live possibility early on) or something else. At the same time, I'd consider an atheist becoming a hindu, a panentheist, an idealist, a pagan, or a "mere theist" to be progress. In other words, if we're thinking purely pragmatically here, I'm tempted to take a Pascal-like view - whatever danger there may be in using arguments for mere theism in discussion with agnostics or practical atheists, it's outweighed by the danger/detriment of the status quo being maintained with them. I'll put this again bluntly: I'd much rather deal with a mere theist of just about any stripe rather than the alternative, because at least the mere theist can be expected to take the question of God seriously.


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Received on Wed Aug 19 02:03:21 2009

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