In recent debates several of the New Atheists have voiced their objections to belief in God and especially to Christian belief.
Question: Christians are required to have compulsory love and compulsory fear at the same time: to love and at the same time to be frightened by God. This is not the way to teach morals.
Answer: It seems to have worked remarkably well down through history. The Hebrew Bible says that "fear is the beginning of wisdom." This sort of fear is much closer to "reverence" and "respect" than to "frightened."
If a man avoided murder because he feared the wrath of God, I would count such restraint as a good act, although only at the lowest rung of the ladder. Much higher rungs would be represented by a higher motive: understanding the reasons for such avoidance, and/or out of love for the maker of the law (whether the Almighty, source of all good or the civil will of one's fellow citizens expressed in the law).
Since, alas, experience shows that there are many rough characters who heed no motives except fear, I would not count fear as a motive to be scorned. It is far from the highest motive. But if and when the higher motives fail, this one may stand sentinel.
Question: Christianity offers vicarious redemption. It applauds human sacrifice — one in particular — and then condemns you to punishment if you do not accept this cruel and revolting sacrifice, which happened before you were born, to fulfill a prophecy in which you had no say.
Answer: Every day, evolutionary biology demands the sacrifice of individuals (and sometimes whole species) for the sake of biological progress. Every war demands the ultimate sacrifice of human lives — often in the most cruel and revolting ways. All this would still be true, had Christianity never been born.
Yet if in a desire to express His love for mankind, the Creator wished to insert Himself into human history, and to give an example of the special meaning He gives to love — not amor or eros, exactly, but something fuller and richer, unique to Himself (caritas) — His advent into time and space would in fact be after the lives of some men and before the lives of others. That is what "becoming man" would mean, entering into finite space and time.
We often say of soldiers, "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." The Creator as creator could have done much less than that. Instead He chose to share our human lot of pain, humiliation, and ignominy, dying as a criminal.
Question: The desire for forgiveness — to be white as snow — is an immoral one. Take responsibility!
Answer: It is not immoral to ask wife, children, or friends to forgive us when we have wronged them. It is the responsible thing to do. Of course, our atheist friends do not judge that they have offended the God Who loves them by doing one of the few things He asked us not to do. Many other people know when they have deliberately done what they should not do, and failed to do what they should do. Some, even before they knew of the God of Judaism and Christianity, have wished there were forgiveness, so that they could start over again. It is because they take responsibility for themselves that they seek forgiveness. Blessed are they who have no need for forgiveness!
Question: A Virgin can conceive? The dead body can walk again? Nonsense!
Answer: On the face of it, these are startling at least. Do atheists, however, have a better idea of how our true God could become fully man than by way of a divine "Father" and an unlikely but carefully chosen Mother? Hundreds of millions have been touched by the beauty of God's inventiveness.
And how could any man lead others to suspect that He also was God unless He gave them evidence — raising the dead, healing the lame, giving sight to the blind — and maybe most divine of all, forgiving sins, wiping them away: "Go, and sin no more." Of course, the whole evidence of the way He lived and died must also be added up.
From the very beginning, many who saw and heard the Christ just walked away, unbelieving. The Creator lovingly preserved their liberty. His coming as a man did not overwhelm the minds and hearts of all those who encountered Him. Not then, not today. He shone His light before men, and many of them turned away. On one occasion when hundreds turned silently away from His words, He asked his disciples: "Will ye also go away?" Although He would have let them go, too, these few stood their ground. He did not desire the acquiescence of slaves, but the friendship of free men standing erect.
Michael Novak. "Conversations with the New Atheists II." The Catholic Thing (June 27, 2008).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Michael Novak, retired George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute who now resides in Ave Maria, Florida as a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. His selection as recipient of the 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion capped a career of leadership in theological and philosophical discourse. He has written or edited forty-five books including: Writing From Left to Right, Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Washington's God, as well as The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God (with his daughter Jana Novak), and On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.Copyright © 2008 The Catholic Thing
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