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Humanism and the Real Problem of Evil, Part 2

October 12, 2020
Humanism and the Real Problem of Evil, Part 2


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

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, next up is the crux, I think, of what the writer is trying to say.[1] He says,

My point here lies strictly with the assertion [by Jesus, by the Bible] that poverty will always be with us.

He is thinking therefore that has a demoralizing effect, I guess, on society of not making progress against poverty but to just accept that poverty will always be around and therefore to facilitate it.

DR. CRAIG: The great thing about a hypothesis like that is that it is falsifiable. We can look at the sociological evidence and see whether or not Christian societies have been apathetic toward poverty and have not taken efforts to alleviate it and even eradicate it, and how that effort compares with, say, Hindu cultures or Buddhist cultures or African pagan cultures. And there I think there's absolutely no question that historically it has been the Christian church that has led the efforts to found hospitals and universities and promote women’s education and to promote the help of the poor and the alleviation of poverty. There has been no movement within history comparable to the Christian church in addressing and alleviating these sorts of societal problems. So what the author here fears is easily refuted. It is groundless. Even today in the United States surveys have shown that those who are conservative in their religious beliefs give far more to charity than do those who are liberal or secular in their religious beliefs. That kind of is consistent in a way with Clark's point of view. Why? Because he doesn't want to emphasize individual morality but just societal morality. So it's perfectly all right to be stingy and penurious yourself in your individual life while demanding that the government take action to alleviate [poverty]. Both of these extremes have their dangers, don't they? On the one hand you could so emphasize individual and private charitable efforts that you neglect these societal reforms that need to take place. But on the other hand the danger (and I think we see this with Clark) is that you could so emphasize political and societal reforms that in your own personal life you become a hypocrite and an unrighteous and ungenerous and uncaring person. And that's just as bad as the other extreme.

KEVIN HARRIS: Clark continues that to keep poverty intact, to keep the poor around,

to many conservative Christians, that makes perfect sense. After all, in a world without poverty, without unjust imprisonment, without suffering, how would a Christian exemplify his faith via his conduct towards his fellow man?

KEVIN HARRIS: This is so revealing. Do you remember in the very first paragraph Clark says, “Most of my Christian friends are from liberal churches.” The emphasis in classical liberalism from the 19th century onward has been the social Gospel. The Gospel is not about preaching repentance of sin and belief in Christ to find forgiveness and eternal life. The Gospel is about societal reform: social justice and things of that sort. So he thinks that Christians need to keep poverty around so that they can carry out their social Gospel when that's not in fact what mainstream – or maybe I shouldn't use the word “mainstream” – it's not what traditional historic Christianity has been about which is to bring the Gospel throughout the entire world to make disciples of all nations teaching them to obey all that Jesus has commanded us. And for that certainly there's no need to keep poverty around and to not try to alleviate or even eradicate poverty. No matter how wealthy people are, they need the Gospel. They need God's forgiveness and moral cleansing in their lives regardless of their economic station in life. So poverty is by no means a necessary condition of the promulgation of the Gospel.

KEVIN HARRIS: Well, that's quite an indictment that this writer says that if there were no poor people around how would I show my personal piety? I wouldn't get to show you how pious I am if we didn't have any poor people for me to go and . . .

DR. CRAIG: It's just ridiculous, and it shows that this fellow doesn't get out enough. The Christians he knows are from these liberal denominations where the way in which their piety is displayed is by these political and social efforts. He needs to get out and to get to know some evangelical Christians who still believe that people need to hear the Gospel, and a necessary condition of that is not being financially poor.

KEVIN HARRIS: I will say that in one sense there's a point well-taken here. If we as followers of Christ get our doctrine wrong in some areas then it could affect society negatively. I often think that we can negatively affect public policy and society if we hold to a certain eschatological view that it's all going to hell-in-a-handbasket anyway and just let it. Don't try to improve society. So there can be a demoralizing effect. At the same time, Jesus said that the Kingdom of God would spread and look like a mustard seed and grow into a big tree and the birds of the air could build their nests in it. That's what you were pointing out earlier – that's what we've seen.


KEVIN HARRIS: Jesus is being practical about the poor, but the idea is also to alleviate poverty. We don't want poverty.

DR. CRAIG: Right. And there are different ways of doing it. One would be through private charitable giving, and there's an argument here. I'm not going to enter into that political argument, but many conservatives would argue that giving to charity is far more effective in actually getting help to the disadvantaged than government programs which tend to be extremely wasteful, inefficient, and even destructive. When you look at the record of Lyndon Johnson's so-called war on poverty that began in the 1960s, trillions of dollars have been spent in the war on poverty to eradicate poverty in the United States, and yet the rate of poor or percentage of the poor in society remains largely unchanged as a result of these efforts through governmental policy. So there's a real debate, I think, to be had here and one on which Christians can differ. The question would be: what is the most effective way of addressing the concerns of the poor? And it doesn't have to be 100% either way. It can be, as you say, a both-and. And I think Jesus is simply realistic in saying, “You will always have the poor with you.” That no matter how hard you try, there's always going to be poverty if only in a relative sense – relative to wealthy Americans, a large number of people are poor in the United States, but compared to certain third world countries who don't even have toilets and clean water to drink much less flat screen televisions and cars, the poor in our country are well-off compared to people in some of these third world nations. So there's always going to be the relative poor no matter how wealthy and prosperous society as a whole is.

KEVIN HARRIS: I wanted to look at this paragraph quickly. It says,

Christian humanists who work hard to get Christ and the Bible up to speed with contemporary secular mores therefore raise the bar for all humanists — because, in retooling the stories of their birth to match the moral arc of today’s society, they’re also giving others in their communities the narrative space to cultivate better virtues, too.

DR. CRAIG: I'm glad that he recognizes that there are Christian humanists. That's why when we talk about humanism it really is important to use the adjective “secular” humanism because Christianity is also a humanism in that it affirms the intrinsic value of every human being because we believe that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore invested with intrinsic moral values. So there is a kind of Christian humanism, and I'm glad that he recognizes that Christian humanists can help to raise the bar for secular humanists in terms of achieving moral reform. As I indicated before, historically it has been Christians who have been at the forefront of societal and cultural reform in education, in medicine, in poverty, in agriculture, and so on and so forth.

KEVIN HARRIS: A little bit of caution there in what the writer is saying about “we need to update, modernize Christianity to go with today's mores as opposed to maybe some of the traditional ones.

DR. CRAIG: I didn't focus on that. You're right. He's quite incorrect to say we have to bring the Bible up to speed. That again would be the attitude of his liberal Christian friends in these mainline denominations. But what I would argue is that what we simply need to do is to apply consistently the ethic of Jesus that is taught in the New Testament, and it doesn't need to be brought up to speed on any of these things.

KEVIN HARRIS: He takes his fellow atheists to task next in saying, “Look, some of you guys have awful secular stories as well that need to be retooled and reevaluated, and don't just take pot shots at people of faith but to work together.” Because, he says, “Your cosmology matters less than what you do with it.”

DR. CRAIG: There’s that indifference again to worldview concerns which I just disagree with completely. Your worldview matters crucially in your moral values that you're going to affirm. Here again we see not only the socialism of Clark but also frankly his anti-Americanism when he speaks about knee-jerk nationalism and Western supremacy and so forth. That might have applied in the colonial era to nations of Western Europe but I think it's, again, anachronistic with respect to contemporary America just as his indictments of Jesus were completely anachronistic in first-century Roman Palestine under a military dictatorship at that time where there just wasn't opportunity for these kind of social reforms.

KEVIN HARRIS: I just want to re-emphasize what you just said again because for him and for many in today's society it's all about narrative and story, and your worldview doesn't matter, not realizing that your worldview is what informs story and narrative and things like that. But using language like “story” and “narrative” that we hear a whole lot, it's all subjective and you can bypass so-called objective worldview.

DR. CRAIG: Right. We mustn't let these folks get away with this indifference to metaphysical questions about the ultimate nature of reality and the ultimate nature of human being. It matters vitally.

KEVIN HARRIS: He talks a little bit about the lessons from the pandemic. He said,

Early in the pandemic, a common news-media refrain held that people were grieving the loss of old norms — and to some extent, I would agree that many people underwent such emotional journeys.

However, I would also argue that quite a few people were also processing their shock at how quickly supposedly intractable aspects of the socioeconomic landscape could change after all. How quickly the U.S. government, for instance, could find trillions to bail out corporations, when its mantra for years has been that universal healthcare . . . was “too expensive.”

That might be a point well-taken as well.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, I doubt it. I think that we may well pay the piper in the future for the trillions that we've spent to try to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. And, again here, without wanting to enter the debate, the question here is: Does socialized medicine (universal healthcare) that he wants to promote and spending trillions of dollars on that as he advocates – is that really the best way of raising the level of medical care in our country as opposed to some other way? And I think, again, there's a real argument that is possible there. When you look at the national health system in Great Britain, for example, where Jan and I lived, the level of medical care there pales by comparison to what we have here in the United States with private insurance and so forth. So this is a screed for socialism that Clark is writing, and he's really bothered by the fact that many Christians don't buy into his socialist agenda.

KEVIN HARRIS: We could also argue that one of the reasons that the government may say we don't have the money, we don't have the funds, is because we might have a pandemic and we need to keep some in reserve. You can argue that as well. Money doesn't grow on trees.

DR. CRAIG: Well, what the government did was simply deficit spend. We just went further and further into debt, and I think, as I say, it remains to be seen what the long-range consequences of that will be. I have no idea.

KEVIN HARRIS: The article ends, I think he's basically saying we need to reject this idea of the poor always being with us. Christians telling the poor you'll be rewarded in the afterlife so don't worry about it. He says that makes for religious nihilism apparently. He says,

The religious nihilist leans on the idea that the poor will find their reward in death, while the indifferent shrug, and the claim of suffering’s inevitability, is the provenance and rallying cry of nihilists in general.

DR. CRAIG: That's so silly, isn't it? Christians do not shrug their shoulders indifferently at the plight of the poor. Quite the contrary, as I say, it can be the person who is relying on the government to do the job who can be personally so indifferent to the plight of the poor and live comfortably in his own hypocrisy, doing nothing – not lifting a finger personally for the poor – because he's looking to the government to carry that moral responsibility for him.

KEVIN HARRIS: I guess we could end today by just saying if anybody has any doubts about Jesus’ intentions, Jesus’ attitude, and Jesus’ unprecedented impact can just look at the Sermon on the Mount and that would straighten out a lot of the issues and questions that this person would seem to have (even though I know he's focusing on John and one particular passage). Taken as a whole, Jesus is, as you have said many times, a very compelling individual.

DR. CRAIG: Right. And a great moral teacher. I think that Jesus is entirely right in emphasizing the need for personal repentance and reform as opposed to simply trying to alter the structures of government.[2]


[2]            Total Running Time: 19:48 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)