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Humanism and the Real Problem of Evil, Part 1

October 05, 2020

Summary

An atheist blogger claims a secular society is morally superior to Christianity.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, let’s take a look at an article[1]. I know that this blog is going to be probably a little sarcastic. The name of it is, Another White Atheist in Columbia. M. L. Clark is the author. “Humanism and the Real Problem of Suffering.” The writer says,

Regular readers know that I get pretty grumpy when addressing the Christian Bible’s awful morality, so I try to limit how often I focus on this text and the figure of Christ represented within it. I’m strongly of the opinion that fixating on religion’s textual flaws is not a useful way of building a more robustly secular state — and in general, I find the whole theist/atheist divide to be a distraction.

Right there, our secularist friends are interested in building a secular society.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. I have found that there are two types of humanists with whom I've actually debated. One would be what one might call philosophical humanists who believe that God does not exist and that human beings are the locus of moral value. The other type of humanist isn't really concerned about metaphysical issues like the existence of God. This is what you might call a social humanist. What these humanists are really interested in is promoting their political agenda, as this author says: building a more robustly secular state, securing rights for humanists, making sure that the public square is devoid of religious discourse, and that the schools are free of religious influence. This sort of social concern. For my part, as you might imagine, I think that the theist-atheist debate is absolutely central to the question of humanism and cannot be ignored as a mere distraction. In one of the very first debates I ever participated in with Fred Edwards from the American Humanist Association I presented a dilemma to Edwards. I argued that if God exists then humanism is not true because God is the locus and source of moral values. On the other hand, if God does not exist, humanism is not true because we're landed in moral nihilism. Since God either exists or does not exist it follows necessarily that therefore humanism is not true. And I challenged Edwards to respond to this argument. He had no good response to the dilemma. So I think it's absolutely critical. It's a watershed issue whether or not we believe that God exists because I think only if God exists are we able to affirm consistently the intrinsic moral value of human beings. So this task of social reform by humanists is one that I don't think can be coherently pursued independent of the atheist-theist debate.

KEVIN HARRIS: The writer continues,

The more urgent task for humanists is the quest for fellow-travellers: people, that is, whose cosmologies might differ, but who share an interest in the application of comprehensive empirical knowledge to public policies and actions that maximize human agency and welfare.

Now, I thought that was very carefully worded to say, “I know you're going to try to approach objective morals with me, but what we need are public policies that maximize human agency and welfare.

DR. CRAIG: I'll say something more about this in a moment when we get to his critique of Jesus, but what we already see here is that his primary concern is not your individual ethical life but rather societal reform and how we build a society that is going to maximize what he calls human agency and welfare through the public policies that the government adopts. So this man's concern (I'm assuming Clark is a man) is very much a social and political concern from this secular humanist perspective.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says,

Today, though, I need to call attention to one of the many awful things that Christ is given to say in the New Testament. Why? Because although most of my Christian friends grew up in liberal churches (where Christ’s lousier comments and actions are mitigated by the storytelling of church leaders), it is extremely important to remember that conservative Christians have quite a bit of textual justification for their political positions.

I’ve written before about the Christian Bible’s moral narrative being all about individual charity within a status quo of master/slave relationships that Christ reifies rather than challenging, as opposed to advocating for state reforms that would reduce the power of “masters” over others’ outcomes in the first place.

DR. CRAIG: Well, I think here we see the deep antipathy of Clark toward the person of Jesus. Clark is clearly, I think, a socialist, and I use that word not as an epithet but simply as a descriptive term for someone who in his ethic emphasizes the importance of social goodness and public policy as opposed to individual and personal ethics. So he says that Christians tend to have this ethic about individual charity whereas he's concerned with advocating for state reforms that would reduce the power of masters over others. You see the very different concern – as opposed to improving your own personal life and living a righteous and good life as an individual, the concern here is to build a better society along humanistic lines. And the reason I think he hates Jesus is because he says Jesus wasn't a socialist. Jesus emphasized the importance of personal righteousness and ethical behavior and living correctly before God. And for this author that is secondary at best. What really matters is building this ethical society.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says that a lot of people in the church and

church communities, probably won’t support this Christly view of suffering — and that’s fantastic, from a humanist perspective! — but it’s still important to remember that the view not only exists, but is also shaping public policy.

Apparently this writer thinks that the Christian view that suffering is inevitable and that we should suffer for our beliefs and things like that negatively affects public policy. It is rather negative.

DR. CRAIG: What caught my eye, and what he italicized in his article, was the Christian's emphasis upon individual charity within a state governed by this kind of master-slave relationship. You see, conservatives tend to emphasize personal giving and charity in order to allay society's ills. You support private charities to help the poor and the disadvantaged and the ill and so forth. Whereas, for the socialist, the way in which these problems are to be addressed is through government, through society, and adopting public policies that will promote it. As I say, I'm not calling him names. When Jan and I lived in Europe for 13 years, I would say that most of the Christians in Europe that we knew and talked to would be socialists; that is to say, they thought that the way in which the Christian command to love your neighbor as yourself is best expressed is through government – by having government policies that would help the poor and the disadvantaged and so forth who need help rather than through private charity and individual efforts. So what I see in this author is such a prioritization of socialism as opposed to individual acts of charity that he is very hostile to Jesus because he thinks that Jesus was all about individual acts of charity and righteousness. My claim in response (we'll talk about this in a minute) is that such a critique of Jesus is not only unsympathetic but it's just grossly anachronistic as we'll see.

KEVIN HARRIS: Very good. Maybe I'm not giving too much away by asking you if the Christian ethic is a combination? It is both the individual acts of charity but also to society at large. Would you say that?

DR. CRAIG: Yes, I would. It's not mutually exclusive. In first-century Roman Palestine there was little opportunity for social reform on the part of persons interested in building a better life. But in time when the first Roman Emperor to become a Christian, Constantine, was in power then social reforms were promulgated due to Christian influences. Constantine declared an edict of religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire which had never existed before. And of course in time then slavery was outlawed. Slaves were free. And then much later in history after slavery had re-entered Western culture it was through the efforts of Christians like Wilberforce that the slave trade was abolished in Britain and elsewhere. So obviously Christians have been involved in this kind of social reform in addition to emphasizing the importance of a personally clean and righteous life before God. Otherwise you are simply a hypocrite if you are living immorally while advocating for this kind of moral reform on a societal level. So it doesn't need to be an either-or; it can be a both-and.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. Let's get to the passage here that he is offended by, and I'll just synopsize it rather than read the entire passage. I think that a lot of our listeners and readers would be familiar with John 12:1-8:

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany . . . they made him a supper; and Martha served . . . then Mary took a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot . . . which should betray him, said, “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, “Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor you'll always have with you, but me you will not always have.”

Now, he's got several objections to that.

DR. CRAIG: Yes.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's go through them. He makes a big deal about the anonymous writer of John, but he says,

It’s clear that the writer recognized the source material as pretty darned lousy, and was trying to mitigate the awfulness of “eh, poverty’s always going to exist — let the lady pamper me while I’m still around.”

DR. CRAIG: What he means there is that the author of the Gospel of John slanders Judas by saying he didn't really care about the poor. The reason he said this was because he kept the bag of money for the disciples’ support, and he used to pilfer from it. So the author of the fourth Gospel is slandering Judas by accusing him of petty theft from the bag of money that the disciples carried with them.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says,

 

But [the writer of John]’s explanation actually makes things worse, because it suggests that Christ was going around with his disciples all this time, accepting donations from whomever they visited, knowing full well that Judas was stealing from whatever the group gathered.

DR. CRAIG: That seems to me to be a leap. There's no reason to think that Jesus knew that Judas was pilfering from the bag. This is something that John says later. Now, someone might say: But wasn't Jesus clairvoyant? Didn't he know everything? Well, there are occasions in the Gospels where Jesus is said to know what someone's thinking, for example, and anticipates their remark. But then there are plenty of other occasions where Jesus asks honest questions like “How many loaves do you have?” when he's going to feed the multitude. So there's no reason to think that Jesus is always exhibiting clairvoyant knowledge. In fact, quite the contrary. I think a serious doctrine of the incarnation is that Jesus had an ordinary human consciousness like we do, though aware of his calling and his mission as God's Son and Messiah. So there's no reason to think here that Jesus was tolerating petty theft on the part of Judas. And, in any case, you notice that's inconsistent with what Clark said about how John added this note in order to slander Judas and make Jesus look better. If this is merely an editorial addition by the fourth evangelist to try to make his tradition look more acceptable then it's not something that Jesus could have known about! You can't have it both ways. Either it's an unhistorical editorial edition or it's not. In either case, as I've explained, I don't think you can use it to indict Jesus.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing the article he says,

So many of the things that Christ is given to say and do in the Bible would be regarded as unacceptable conduct among us today — and allowing your financial department to steal from your non-profit organization, while still accepting donations from others who trust that you’ll use their offerings to do good? Oof. That is definitely high on the list.

DR. CRAIG: I would say further that I think this misrepresents the situation. He seems to think that Jesus was like the chairman of a private charity that was going about Judea and Galilee collecting donations, and that's simply not true. According to the Gospels there were several women who served as patronesses of the disciples. They had left their employment. They had left everything to follow Jesus. And there were certain women who would give out of their own means to sustain the disciples.[2] So this wasn't a charity for others. This was the personal support on which Jesus and the disciples lived. So even if Jesus did for some reason or another tolerate Judas' pilfering (perhaps because he knew that Judas was the one who would betray him or for some other reason he was willing to tolerate this) it's not as though Jesus was allowing embezzlement from donations that were given to charity. This was their own personal support that we're talking about here, and if Jesus had good reason to allow Judas to do this for a time it's not at all like accepting donations to a charity while it's being embezzled.

KEVIN HARRIS: He then accuses Jesus who is supposed to be this supposed champion for the poor for “choosing comfort over service by glibly invoking poverty as a social constant.” You'll always have the poor with you.

DR. CRAIG: Right. “You'll always have the poor with me so don't condemn this woman for what she's done.” I think there, frankly, it all hinges upon the person of Christ. Who do you think this is? Christ is God incarnate. He is deserving of all laud and honor and glory. And so Jesus says, “This woman has prepared me for burial.” After burial, the practice was to anoint the body. Remember that the women came to the tomb on Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body, but he was risen. He was gone. And Jesus says, “This woman has anointed me for burial in advance and wherever the Gospel is preached what she has done will be said in remembrance of her.” And so this is an honorific act that is, I think, entirely appropriate to Jesus. The problem with Clark is, of course, that he doesn’t think that Jesus was divine. He thinks that Jesus was just an ordinary human being and that therefore it was selfish and comfortable for him to allow this woman to honor him and worship him in the way that he did.

KEVIN HARRIS: We are going to stop right there and pick it up next time in the next podcast and continue this discussion. In the meantime, thank you very much for your prayerful and financial support for Reasonable Faith. Give any time online when you go to ReasonableFaith.org. We’ll see you next time.[3]

 

[2]           c.f. Luke 8:1-3

[3]           Total Running Time: 21:28 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)