Christianity, worldviews, and atheism

(Text: “Debating an Atheist“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 2, 2012)

Pastor Stephen Feinstein has just finished giving us four points which summarize what he calls the Christian metaphysical understanding of God. As it happens, the first and last of those points contradict each other, due to the implications of Trinitarian doctrine, but he seems pretty happy with it anyway.

I am not yet offering arguments showing how such a God is the necessary precondition of all intelligibility. Instead, I am simply showing that I am making a defense for the Christian worldview alone. No other religion or philosophy holds anything close to what I just mentioned. In fact, every other worldview holds to a one-level concept of reality, an impersonal ultimate (whether it be chance or Brahmin), and is committed to the epistemological autonomy of man. Christianity alone runs counter to this. And at the end of the day, only the existence of the Christian God can rightly account for all that exists.

The “only Christianity teaches this” meme is a theme that figures quite prominently in Pastor Feinstein’s argument, and up to now I’ve skipped over those quotes in order to focus on other points. But I want to take a look at it now, since he emphasizes it yet again as one of his closing points.

I can see the appeal of having Christianity be a sole source of authority. Imagine if philosophers, by applying pure, cold logic, could deduce the existence of a Christian-style Creator God given the qualities of His Creation. Or suppose that scientists, by rigorous application of the scientific method, could discover that the earth was supernaturally created in six literal days and nights. That might sound like it would be a tremendous corroboration of the Gospel, right? But think about it: if it were possible for people to discover spiritual truth without depending exclusively on religious authorities like Pastor Feinstein, then what would we need Pastor Feinstein for?

Christianity is an authority-driven worldview. Ultimately, Christianity is based on “Because I, the LORD, said so”—as faithfully delivered to us by the human authorities chosen and appointed by God, of course. Declaring that “everybody else gets it wrong” is just a way of defending that unique authority, and eliminating any competition for the priests and pastors and bishops and so on.

While Pastor Feinstein is correct about post-Nicene teaching being unique among the religions and philosophies of the world, I think it’s interesting that he’s more correct than perhaps he lets on. “No other religion or philosophy holds anything close to what I just mentioned” — and that includes Judaism (both pre-and post-exilic), and early Christianity. As we just got done seeing in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, early Christians saw Jesus as the son of God and classed him with “the other good angels” just ahead of the Holy Spirit, but definitely a whole order below God. In this respect, I think perhaps Trinitarian philosophy might be a tad more unique than Pastor Feinstein himself would be truly comfortable with.

Pastor Feinstein also adds that every other worldview holds to what he calls a “one level concept of reality.” I’m not sure what he means by that, since pretty much every religious/spiritual worldview professes the same dualistic natural/supernatural dichotomy that Christianity does. He might mean that Christianity is the only worldview that begins with a Creator God who creates everything else (although that would be a factually incorrect assessment), or he might mean that the Christian creation story is the only one that starts with a God that exists when nothing else does.

That second possibility is interesting because it might actually be true—the Christian worldview might be the only one that proposes a Creator God Who at some point was the only thing that existed. Granted, that might be because no other worldview makes the mistake of adopting such a self-contradictory definition of God. You can’t have a point in time unless time itself also exists. Time, however, is not God, but is merely a property of the material universe, which means that at any point in time where God exists, at least two things must exist: God, and the material property of Time. Thus, there cannot be any point in time where God was the only thing that existed. If Pastor Feinstein is claiming that Christianity is the only worldview founded on this particular mistake, he’s probably correct.

Pastor Feinstein refers to this non-Christian, “one-level” reality as “an impersonal ultimate,” which I think is a fair description of reality. Reality cannot be “person” if it contains the distinction between “person” and “not person,” because if reality is “person,” then every real thing partakes of that personhood to the same degree that it partakes of reality. Reality itself, though, is neither “person” nor “not person,” and thus “person” and “not person” are distinct and consistent attributes that apply to different things within reality. In that sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to describe reality as “impersonal.” But Pastor Feinstein says Christianity is unique in rejecting this “impersonal ultimate,” as though that were something to be proud of. Go figure.

He says something else strange, too: he says that every other worldview besides Christianity is “committed to the epistemological autonomy of man.” Odd phrase. Epistemology refers to the study of how we know what we know, and autonomy refers to freedom and self-sufficiency, so it sounds like Pastor Feinstein is proposing that Christianity is the only worldview that declares that our knowledge is determined by factors beyond our control. Depending on how you interpret it, that’s either something that’s not unique to Christianity, or else is another area where Christianity is uniquely mistaken. But I suppose we’ll say more about that when and if Pastor Feinstein goes into more detail about what he means.

With that being said, what we are inevitably doing is arguing over entire worldviews. I hold to the Biblical worldview as expressed in Scripture (every theological/philosophical position stated above has many Biblical proof-texts). I am assuming that you hold to a worldview that favors the ultimate reality as being that of impersonal time and chance (randomness) and that the universe and all that is in it (both inorganic and organic) come to us via macroevolution. Given that it is a battle of worldviews, we are going to have to use transcendental logic to see which worldview is even possible in the first place.

In case you’re not familiar with how “Biblical proof-texts” work, here’s an example. Let’s say you want to argue that all state executions should be performed by hanging (as opposed to lethal injection, electric chair, or firing squad). So you look up Joshua 10:26, which says that Joshua hanged some guys on 5 trees, and therefore you’ve proven that hanging is the Biblical form of execution. That sounds like fairly silly reasoning, but that’s basically how proof-texting works: you find any passage that involves words or concepts similar to the point you’re trying to make, and then you assume that the Biblical text is implying all of the implications that you think of when you use the same concepts in your own arguments, and poof, suddenly the Bible is “teaching” all the things you assume it “implies,” even though they’re not explicitly written there. All Christian worldviews are built on this kind of reasoning, which is why there are so many mutually-contradictory Christian worldviews.

Based on the statements he makes after that, I’d say Pastor Feinstein holds to the young-earth creationist Christian worldview, as opposed to the old-earth creationist Christian worldview or the theistic evolutionist Christian worldview. Apparently in some Christian worldviews, the Creator God is either not clever enough to come up with something as sophisticated and elegantly simple as Darwin’s idea, or else He lacked the wisdom to see why it would be a good idea to endow His creatures with this ingenious design, or else He lacked the ability to make it all work. Ironic that a seminary dropout like Darwin could come up with a better design for Earth’s ecosystems than an allegedly omniscient and all-wise God, but for some reason creationists prefer this sort of worldview anyway.

Meanwhile, Pastor Feinstein’s understanding of the materialistic worldview is both incomplete and distorted, at least as he presents it above. The fundamental characteristic of material reality is that it is consistent with itself, and in fact this self-consistency is the essential and defining characteristic of material reality. Remember: material reality is not just “everything that is made of atoms,” but rather everything that exists in and of itself, apart from any observer’s perception of it. Everything that is actually real is part of the self-consistent material reality, because this is what it means to exist.

All natural orderings, like time and space and the other regular properties and laws of the material universe, are simply manifestations of the fundamental and essential self-consistency of material reality. Things like “chance” and “randomness” are rather irrelevant, unless by “chance” and “random” you mean “inconsistent with real-world characteristics,” in which case they are contrary to sound materialistic thinking (as well as being untrue). If materialism is true, then we ought to expect to find a universe that has properties like a consistent relationship between causes and effects, and similar self-consistencies, including the laws of logic and math and physics. Self-consistency is necessarily inherent in the nature of reality itself, so we should find this sort of self-consistency everywhere in the real world. Randomness and chance, in the “anything could happen” sense, are ruled out by the nature of self-consistent existence.

Pastor Feinstein’s understanding of atheism seems as misinformed as his understanding of evolution and materialism.

Atheism possesses a distinct view of reality (materialism), a distinct view of epistemology (human intellectual autonomy), and a theory of ethics (whether it is evolutionary, utilitarian, etc.). This makes it just as much of a worldview and philosophy as anything else.  And as a philosophy, it has problems that render it irrational. I will begin with only 4, and as the debate moves on I can bring in some others. The 4 are as follows: 1) Problem of Inductive Inference; 2) Problem of Deductive Inference; 3) Problem of the Mind/Brain; and 4) Problem of Moral Absolutes. I will not get into these now because we will have plenty of time to jump into them as we go on.

Again, atheism is absence of belief in God. There are reincarnationists who do not believe in any god(s) according to the classic Christian definition of a god, and yet they are certainly not materialists. Likewise, there are a variety of views on epistemology, and no one view is distinctly atheistic, or held by all atheists, or held only by atheists. And of course the morality you get based on reincarnation and karma is not necessarily the same as any of the many systems you can derive once you decide that morality is not dictated on high by any divine Authority, not to mention the fact that several of those moral systems are also embraced by people who do believe in god(s). Factually speaking, Pastor Feinstein is wrong concerning every single affirmation he makes regarding atheism as a distinct and describable worldview.

As for the four problems that he claims render this alleged worldview “irrational,” we have only his promise that he will tell us what he means later on, so we’ll just have to wait and see where he goes with that. Stay tuned for Pastor Feinstein’s second post, starting next week.

19 Responses to “Christianity, worldviews, and atheism”

  1. Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

    if it were possible for people to discover spiritual truth without depending exclusively on religious authorities like Pastor Feinstein, then what would we need Pastor Feinstein for?

    Most people don’t discover underlying physical truths without the aid of scientific authorities. Humans don’t have an intuitive grasp of general relativity and quantum mechanics, even though they both affect our day-to-day lives. Most of us only learn about those from books or lectures.

    I suspect that Feinstein would cast himself in the role of a scientist, or at least his understanding of what a scientist is: an authority who rationalizes his worldview into digestible pieces for the proles in an attempt to win them over to his way of thinking by invoking observation and logic.

    It’s a false understanding, but it sure seems common.

  2. David Evans Says:

    Feinstein says (in Debating an atheist) “Personality requires relational existence. Therefore, if God were not a Trinity, who then did God have a personal relationship with prior to creation?”

    That’s curiously similar to your argument that God’s existence is contingent on “reality”, and no more convincing.

    He says “…every other worldview holds to a one-level concept of reality, an impersonal ultimate (whether it be chance or Brahmin)”.

    I think he means Brahman – a Brahmin is a human being. Also some schools of Hinduism teach that Brahman is personal. In fact I think Hinduism and Gnosticism have more levels of reality than Christianity – not that I really understand any of them.

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      That’s curiously similar to your argument that God’s existence is contingent on “reality”, and no more convincing.

      I’m not clear on what exactly it is that I’m failing to convince you of. That reality exists? That the existence of reality itself is a logical precondition for the real existence of God? I don’t see how either of those two propositions could be denied by anyone but a solipsist (and even then who would you deny them to?). Not that I think you’re a solipsist, of course, but I’m just mystified concerning the nature of your objection.

      • David Evans Says:

        Those propositions are true, but you use them to support this statement:

        “Pastor Stephen Feinstein is taking us on a whirlwind tour of presuppositional Christian apologetics, and as we saw last week, he’s already made the mistake of presuming that a Creator God can be non-contingent, meaning His existence is not preconditioned on anything else.”

        I don’t think they do support it.

        Suppose Feinstein were right and his God were non-contingent, i.e. necessary. Then the actual reality, whatever else it contained, would necessarily exist and include God. The existence of God guarantees the existence of such a reality, and therefore cannot be contingent on it.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        So far so good. In other words, reality itself must exist whether or not God exists, but God cannot exist unless reality exists. By this we know that the existence of reality is not contingent on the existence of God. Contingent, by definition, means A cannot exist and/or be true unless B exists and/or is true. Or to put it slightly differently, if A is contingent on B, then A cannot be true when B is false. The existence of God would necessarily mean the existence of reality, and thus if “reality exists” is false, then “God exists” cannot be true. That’s the contingent relationship.

        Remember, we’re not talking about cause and effect here. This is a logical contingency, an identification of which propositions necessarily require that other propositions be true. It’s possible for reality to exist without any Creator God existing, and in fact it’s necessary for reality to exist in order for anything to exist. But the existence of reality does not itself depend on God. Thus, reality is the “necessary being,” and God is not.

      • David Evans Says:

        I’m not satisfied with my previous answer. Let’s try again.

        You say “…the existence of reality itself is a logical precondition for the real existence of God”. The trap there is the use of “reality” as if it were the name of something. But it isn’t. It’s a synonym for “what exists”. So your statement can be rephrased:

        If God exists then it is logically necessary that what exists, exists.

        You can call that a logical precondition if you like, but it’s vacuous. It doesn’t prove that God’s existence is contingent on anything other than himself.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        I think it’s an oversimplification to say that reality is just a synonym for “what exists.” It’s true that we perceive reality through what exists, but there’s a greater whole there than just a simple enumeration of the parts. There’s a boundary between what’s part of reality and what isn’t, and we can detect that boundary. This would not be the case if reality were merely an enumeration of things that exist. Naming every known species of reptile, for example, would not eliminate the possibility that fire-breathing, maiden-devouring dragons were also real.

        Reality is both “what is” and a constraint on “what cannot be.” That latter attribute is more than what you can get from accumulating the properties of each and every individual object within reality. Therefore reality is something more than just “what exists,” and it’s this greater reality, which draws the line between true and false, that is the necessary, logical precondition for the existence of any god(s).

      • erik Says:

        If a god exists outside of our Universe, in some other place, then this would mean existence is a necessary state outside of our Universe. If this is true, then God’s existence must be contingent on the basis that existence is the default position. There is no such thing as nothingness. Existence itself would be the only non-contingent part of the equation.

      • David Evans Says:

        ‘Reality is both “what is” and a constraint on “what cannot be.”’

        That’s a really interesting statement. I’m going to retire for a while and consider it.

    • Jer Says:

      That’s curiously similar to your argument that God’s existence is contingent on “reality”, and no more convincing.

      David – all that DD is saying is that if there is a God and a Creation and God and his Creation are separate then that requires something to exist that contains both God and His Creation.

      I’m not really sure why this is so hard for you to understand. Maybe it’s the word “contingent”?

      • David Evans Says:

        I’ve replied to DD, so I’ll take this opportunity to make another point.

        DD’s argument works to show that no object X can be non-contingent – just replace “God” with “X” and “Creation” with “everything except X”. So if he is right, there are no non-contingent objects. Do you believe that?

        Take the number 5. I think that exists in every possible world – at least, I can’t imagine a world without it. So its existence is not contingent in any real sense, though of course its existence is contingent on the existence of some sort of reality. I think that sense of “contingent” is too weak to be interesting.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        An excellent point, thanks for bringing it up. My response would be to ask whether the number 5 is, in fact, an object? Suppose that numbers, rather than being independent entities, are actually a pattern that results from the way that reality is consistent with itself? If “numericity” turns out to be a fundamental attribute of the nature of reality, then that would account for its non-contingency, would it not?

  3. Rain Says:

    If he’s so terribly wrong about evolution, then it makes me think twice about whether I should listen to him on other intellectual matters. I mean, he could be right about other things, but if he’s so horribly off base on such a simple and basic thing as evolution, then it does make me wonder if he has some seriously biased prejudicial issues.

    • Rain Says:

      I was putting that mildly by the way. Stating the obvious and putting it mildly, lol. Creationism went from being a joke to being nearly mainstream, and now it’s going back downhill to being a total joke again. Hopefully it don’t make it up that hill any more. I know it’s a lot to hope for but hey a boy can dream can’t he?

  4. Anthony Bertolotti Says:

    I love watching evangelicals try to shoehorn atheism into a “worldview”. It’s such a pathetically desperate attempt to evade the fact that the evidence supporting their belief system is scarce and untenable, at best.

    Also, I’ve been dealing with Christians for years who go to the “Christianity is the only religion that teaches this” canard. So friggin what?! Scientology is the only religion that teaches the uniquely batsh!t crazy stuff within its dogma. Does that say anything about its veracity?

    And lastly, that you can continue to tread through this impending minefield of nonsense after this man blatantly comes out and denies both an old-Earth and evolution (two of the most strongly affirmed and supported scientific theories in the history of mankind) makes you a much stronger man than I.

  5. recseiuq Says:

    In my experience of dealing with presuppositional apologetics, the intended ‘Gotcha!’ moment is when they argue that there is no “valid epistemology” besides that expressed in the Bible, which requires an initial leap of faith (presupposition) but is (they allege) internally consistent. They will argue that any statement about knowledge/objective reality is reliant on some base set of axioms for which no epistemological underpinnings (evidence, logical deductions, etc) can be produced. Even starting with a ‘negative’ basis such as scientific scepticism leads to an infinite regress, as one must then be sceptical of scepticism itself.

    Personally I’ve never found this philosophical sleight of hand even remotely convincing. I am agnostic but confident based on my understanding of human fallibility and propensity to deception and delusion that no human beings have any insight into the nature of god(s), were any actually to exist.

    So I could probably spend the next hour creating a new religion that is i) internally consistent, ii) supplies a grand metaphysical narrative (or epistemology) that is not obviously inconsistent with reality as we know it, and iii) proclaims myself as god. Would it be refutable by these philosphical tricksters?

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      Sounds like a chicken and egg problem: without a valid, extrabiblical epistemology, you don’t have any way to know what epistemology is expressed in the Bible, or even if any Bible exists. You can’t even make a leap of faith, because you have no way to know what’s available for you to put your faith in. I have a feeling they’re overlooking some important presuppositions of their own.

      • Anthony Bertolotti Says:

        This video is a great rebuttal to the transcendental argument for the existence of god (presuppositional apologetic). Explains why the argument is bunk, and how it actually accomplished the exact opposite of what it sets out to accomplish.

  6. J. Simonov Says:

    David Evans;

    A particular existent object, like God, cannot be the source of all of existence per se, as this would fallaciously assume the thing you’re trying to source in the first place.

    To put it another way, any putative gods would themselves require the properties inherent to self-consistent existence, and thus cannot provide a metaphysical grounding for them.

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