The burden is on Fred
In a debate, the affirmative side has the more difficult task. It has the obligation to prove the truth or correctness of its position. The affirmative must show, at least, that there is some predominance of evidence or reason on its side. In the case of this debate, the topic sets a difficult burden for my friend Fred Heeren, for it requires that he show that Christianity is the best reason for a moral and meaningful life. He must show not only that Christianity offers a reason for a moral and meaningful life, but that of all possible reasons that one might imagine for living a moral and meaningful life there is some flaw or lack in all of them that renders Christianity superior.
How might one show that something is the best of its class? One way would be to compare the proposed best thing with all other members of the class and then conclude by some standard that each falls short of the best candidate. Another way might be to show on logical grounds, as if our proposition were a theorem, that no matter what the other proposed reasons for a moral and meaningful life were, they could not possibly equal Christianity.
Fred offers no evidence to show that he has gotten far in an attempt to survey all possible reasons to live a moral and meaningful life. How can he be so certain that there is not some religion about which he has never heard that provides a better reason for a meaningful, moral life? There are, after all, thousands of religions. In fact, we know that most human beings are not Christians, and Fred offers no evidence that they find their lives any less meaningful or that they live lives any less moral than Christians.
Moslems and Hindus
Even among the religions about which I am sure that Fred has heard, he has evidently not considered the possibility that some might offer equal or better reasons for a moral and meaningful life than Christianity. Let us consider, for example, Islam. This religion, which boasts a similar number of adherents as Christianity, accepts Fred’s beloved Jesus as a great teacher. It accepts both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian gospels as divinely inspired books filled with wise teachings.
Moslems, however, believe that these teachings have been surpassed and improved by those of its great prophet, Mohammed. Moslems do not reject the Bible. Moslems feel that they have a personal relationship with their creator, a creator who offers them eternal spiritual life, a creator who has taught them those moral and spiritual values that will help them to lead good lives. Does Fred believe that Moslems find their lives less meaningful than he finds his? Does Fred believe that Moslems find insufficient reason to lead moral lives as they see morality?
Fred compares Christianity with what he thinks an atheist might believe. Just what an atheist might believe, however, is unclear to Fred. He believes that Bible rejecters are atheists. My Hindu friends would be surprised to discover that because they don’t accept the Hebrew and Christian bibles as objects of faith Fred thinks that they are atheists. If anything, they are more theist than he because he limits his belief to but one god while they believe in many.
Fred’s idea of Bible acceptors and rejecters sounds simple enough, but under examination it falls apart. If we were to question Fred on the matter, we would find that he accepts some parts of the Bible as true and others as metaphorical or fictional. He is not among those who believe that the Hebrew and Christian bibles are literally true in every word. I think that he would admit that the Universe did not come into existence in its present form in six days. This is one of the cases in which Fred would declare that the Biblical word for day must really be a metaphor for a long period of time. Of course, Biblical authors had perfectly good words to use if they meant a long period of time, and they did not use the word for day metaphorically anywhere else as far as I know.
I think that Fred would admit that the Adam and Eve of Genesis are fictional characters and that God did not create Eve from Adam’s rib. So Fred’s idea of accepting the Bible means that he accepts that some parts are correct and that others are not. The correct ones, he believes, were divinely inspired. Fred, furthermore, believes that he can, for the most part, tell which part is which.
Immoral rules in the Bible
Fred mentions societies that kept slaves as examples of immoral societies, but he neglects the fact that the society that produced the Bible found slavery to be a part of normal, moral life. Far from condemning slavery, the Bible contains rules and regulations as to the proper treatment of slaves. I assume that Fred now rejects those rules as immoral.
The Bible contains rules that require animal sacrifice. I hope that Fred rejects those rules. The Bible contains rules as to proper foods that I am sure Fred ignores. The Bible calls for circumcision of male infants. Jesus bans divorce. Does Fred really think that morality forbids a woman married to a drunken, adulterous, wife-beater to seek happiness elsewhere? This list could go on. In fact, I am sure that Fred, a closer student of the Bible than I, could tell us of many other parts of the Bible that he rejects.
Contradictions in the Bible
The Bible is also filled with contradictions, allowing believers to chose either side of a question. On a question that Fred and I have discussed previously, for example, Fred finds Biblical citations and priestly support for the idea that God created the Universe from nothing, ex nihilo. He ignores the Genesis account in which God created the Universe from tohu and bohu, a trackless wilderness and featureless, watery mass. In the future, before I engage in debates on this matter, I plan to ask Fred to go through the Bible with a yellow marker to highlight those portions he happens to believe and those that he rejects.
Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible? The Bible has many authors. In fact the Bible’s compilers frequently did not risk selecting the best or the correct story. That is why so many of the Bible’s stories appear two or three times with variations between them. Consider, for example, the most famous of these duplicated accounts, the creation story in Genesis. The second version begins with Chapter 2, verse 3. Among the many differences between these two accounts are the order of creation and the creation of man and woman. In one account, God creates man and women at the same time. In the other account, God creates women from Adam’s rib after Adam finds, after examining all the animals, that God had not had the foresight to create a suitable partner for him.
Immoral teachings of Jesus
Fred will have the same difficulties with the Bible even if he were to limit his attention to the reported teachings and prophecies of Jesus. I have already mentioned Jesus’s cruel and wrong-headed prohibition of divorce, a teaching that has caused immense suffering and also contradicts early parts of the Bible that allow divorce. Does Fred believe that it is immoral for a man or woman to divorce and remarry?
Then there is Jesus’s famous and foolish advice, contained in one of the most beautiful parables, to not concern oneself with future material matters on the grounds that God would provide for us as He does for the birds and flowers. In fact this advice might have made sense if one of Jesus’s most famous prophecies had turned out to be true. This is the prophecy that some of those who heard his words would be alive at the end of the world to face God’s judgment. Alas, this prophecy, along with some of his others, has proven false. Many of Jesus’s other teachings, such as the golden rule, may be good advice generally speaking, but they are neither original with Jesus nor do they require divine guidance to propose.
Which teachings to believe?
It is not my goal in this debate, however, to attempt to discredit Christianity. That is a task that I leave to the Christians. For Fred would have us believe that by reading and considering the text of the Bible, it is possible to arrive at a unitary objective morality or criterion for deciding right from wrong. If the Pope, considered by many to be a good Christian, were to make an announcement of a moral principal, say for example, that homosexuality is immoral or that ministers of god could not marry, and declared that he made this pronouncement infallible dictum, would Fred agree?
Christians, holders of the objective moral truth, have found themselves in murderous battle over the question of whether God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are One or Three, or whether the sacramental bread and wine are literally or figuratively the body and blood of Jesus. If it is correct that there is such a thing as objectively correct morality, no one knows what it is. Or no one who knows what it is agrees with anyone else who knows what it is.
How to find answers
Fred is correct that there are some questions for which the scientific way of thinking cannot provide answers. Could science tell us in advance whether Mark McGuire would hit more home runs than Sammy Sosa? Science says we could not know until the season is over. Was Rembrandt a better painter than Monet? Science will not tell us. On the other hand, there are plenty of as yet unanswered questions that are, at least, within the realm of possible scientific answers. Can cancer be cured? What is the nature of consciousness? What is the origin and fate of the universe? Who knows? Some day we may find an answer for these.
It is not the answers to these questions that concerns Fred in this debate. He wants to know about the meaning of life. Why are we here? Does he think that science has no answer to this question? He is unsatisfied with science’s present answer that we are here as the result of the operation of natural law and directionless evolution. He is correct that many people want the answers to these questions. You will notice in his discussion of this question that he never says that people want correct answers, only that they want answers. Of course, every religion and many other groups offer so-called answers. Many people find some of these answers satisfying to them. These same people find answers that satisfy others to be ridiculous.
Fred is happy with revelation as a source for these answers, the revelation of answers to supposed holy men and women from the past or even direct revelation to him. If you ask him how he knows that these revealed answers are correct, he will tell you that Jesus said that they were correct, or that he would be unhappy if they weren’t correct. It is unhappiness that is his real objection to science’s present answer to the question of why we are here.
It is exactly at this point that Fred and I part company in our search for the truth. It is my view that all human knowledge is uncertain to some degree. There may be absolute truth and there may be objectively correct morality, but no one knows what these are, nor does anyone know for sure how to find out. The best method that we know of for finding out if something is true is the empirical method. I have no objection to revelation as one of many possible sources for testable hypotheses. The scientific way of thinking accepts any ideas from any source as sources for testing. But I object to proclaiming revealed hypotheses to be true because people object to our limited state of knowledge or our unhappiness with what the facts proclaim.
To me the answer to the question of this debate must be no, because belief in Christianity requires its adherents to turn off their rationality as they seek answers to their most important questions. I cannot say for sure what the best system of belief, if there is such a thing, will be. I am sure that Fred doesn’t know either, and that is why he has failed to prove his case.
Bernard J Leikind