What does Christianity have to offer?

Andrew, at his blog Irresistible (Dis)grace, responds to iMonk’s post on atheism:

Disregarding how “unconditional” the Christian love actually is [ . . . ] the problem is unconditional love is not something that can be monopolized. There is no patent on charity and love or capital barriers to entering the industry…so what happens when atheists make “generic” alternatives to Christian charity? The Christian charity, much like a name brand pill, will have a pretty package and a great price, but the generic pill of nontheistic charity will be cheaper, less ornate, but still have the same chemistry.

I’ll stop here to let everyone ponder about that. What is it that Christianity offers that cannot be “exported” to a generic product?

That’s a question and a half.

I’d argue that what Christianity offers, at root, that is really “unexportable” is a compelling metanarrative which grounds and sustains its ethic.  The creation of the world, the fall of humankind, the election of Israel, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, Pentecost, the coming Eschaton (end of days): these theological “events”, you might call them, provide an account of the way things are—an ontology—which gives birth to a vision of the way things should be—an ethic.

An example: the environment.  Never mind, for a moment at least, the fact that most of the people still convinced that global warming isn’t happening are probably Christian fundamentalists (that fact, I think, is at bottom a cultural and political, not a theological, issue).  Look, rather, at the story the Bible tells: God creates the earth and all of its creatures (never  mind, again, the details of how it happened), and deems it “good”.  Humans, part of that good creation, are charged with the task of tending the land: the imagery here is of stewardship.  Humans fall, and, as a consequence, their relationship with the land is somehow perverted—a loss of shalom, of harmony.  Christ comes with a message and a mission, is crucified, buried, and—surprise!—resurrected.  The Resurrection represents the breaking in of new life in a world we had thought enslaved to entropy, trapped in an inevitable march towards death; his death and Resurrection are to “reverse the curse”, and it is the Church’s task to finish what He started, so to speak, and usher in His return.  Part of that restorative task is working out ways to restore our relationship with the earth.  The vision of a restored peace—with each other, with the earth, and with God—in the future guides the way we act in the present.

Another example: feminism.  God creates woman and man alike as full and equal bearers of God’s own image, and they live in harmony until the Fall, after which man rules over woman: patriarchy is here a symptom of humankind’s fallen nature, an original sin.  Fast forward to Jesus, who comes, again, to restore harmony: redemption.  The Church is charged with embodying that redemption in the way its community functions.  Has the Church embodied the spirit of egalitarianism in the past, let alone in the present?  Certainly not.  But the point is, even if the ethics haven’t been worked out yet in every congregation, the script is there, and the actors will, hopefully, figure it out soon enough.

What atheism lacks, I think, is exactly this: an ontology to back up its ethic.  The metanarrative that science alone offers us—Big Bang, lots of chaos, lightning strike, evolution, stuff blowing up, Big Crunch—doesn’t give us any reason, really, to be good.  Lately the atheists I’ve been reading seem to have adopted a sort of Kantian ethic (which seems a bizzare move to me, for a number of reasons) which states that we should be good, well, because we should be good.  Why do atheists have to believe in fairy tales, they ask, in order to be decent human beings?

They don’t.  But they do need a compelling worldview if they’re going to gain any converts.

An important part of offering a compelling worldview is offering a coherent worldview, and to have one of those, your ethics and your ontology need to make some kind of logical sense.

Where is the atheist to go?  The Darwinian route—arguing that we should be good to one another to perpetuate the human race—is a dead end.  Why is it good to perpetuate the human race?

Or, to be more specific, drawing from our previous examples, why should I take care of planet earth if, in 50 million years, the sun’s going to blow the whole thing up anyway?  Why should I work for the liberation of women from patriarchy when patriarchy has worked so well to keep our species afloat for the past 10,000 years?  Why work for the good of others when, in the end, we’re all dead?  Without a future, all of our striving has been and will be an exercise in futility.  None of it means anything.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins met this argument with a shrug: “Life may be ultimately meaningless, yes,” he basically said.  “But I’m planning on having a good lunch.”

That was it.

Can the ground of an atheist’s ethic be anything more than a shrug of the shoulders?

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6 Responses to What does Christianity have to offer?

  1. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the response post, urbanfall. Sorry, this will be a long comment back.

    I think the issue is whether the metanarrative is, as you say, compelling. And I don’t think it is. I think, in many ways, the way it is commonly told (which is different than how you told it, so I’ll have to address both), the metanarrative is one thing that compels people *away* from Christianity.

    For example, the fall is one of the more distasteful aspects of the metanarrative. It is the problem that Christianity and other religions create to which they offer their own solution. It alone cannot sustain itself…and if one doesn’t buy into it, the saving aspects of grace don’t make sense (save us from…what?)

    Why is this metanarrative unsustainable? Well, it’s because it’s not clear that it’s ontologically sound. For example, if it proposes to be the way things are, then people are going to test it and see if it’s the way things are.

    You can’t really do that here. So, without some level of faith, the default position is to say that this *doesn’t* represent things as they actually are.

    For example, I could easily see people asking, “Why is the Judeo-Christian narrative needed for environmentalism?” They would note a few things…1) as you mentioned, fundamentalists who have hijacked and abused the meta-narrative. 2) That even regular Christians don’t seem to be on the “cutting edge” of stewardship to the earth. 3) That the SAME parts of the Christian meta-narrative can be used, instead of proclaiming “stewardship” of the earth, to proclaim “dominion” over the earth. So, Fundies and regular Christians USE their meta-narrative to justify their actions — it’s not exactly that they are hypocrites not following their meta-narratives. Rather, the meta-narrative isn’t clear. I mean, I’m not a Malthusian kind of guy, but the same narrative justifies going forth and multiplying. The earth is God’s footstool, and I guess all our children are given free reign to play all over it. Not much of an image for stewardship.

    Same with feminism. 1) Fundies have hijacked. 2) Even regular Christians don’t seem to be on the “cutting edge” (NOTE: I understand on all these issues, there are Christians who are progressive…but these things are often progressive OUTSIDE OF or SEPARATE FROM their Christianity). 3) Eve comes from the rib, even before the fall. The fall gets kinda “blamed” on Eve. And even AFTER Christ comes, you have Paul to remind women to know their place in the religious community — leave the speaking to the husbands. While Jesus did give those guys a post-mortal smack on the foreheads to say, “C’mon guys, Jews and Gentiles…this way is for both.” He didn’t seem to ever say, “C’mon guys…Men and women…equal” and direct the early church in that way.

    Now, regarding atheism. Remember that atheism isn’t an ontology or an ethic. Atheism is just the lack of belief in gods. So atheism is really an umbrella, similar to theism. You can’t tell anything about a “theist” except that WHATEVER their beliefs are, it includes some formulation of deity or deities. Similarly, you can’t tell anything about an atheist from the term except that WHATEVER their beliefs are, it does *not* include that formulation.

    So atheism’s meta-narrative is not the meta-narrative of science. It is not the meta-narrative of Kant. And so on. But within atheism, there are scientifically minded people who want to take the narrative of science. Within atheism, there are rationally-minded people for whom the “rational beings” parts of the Categorical imperative makes part of their ethic. (This shouldn’t be a controversial statement…it’s like saying, “Within theism, there are some who are Christians and some who are Hindus.”)

    I would think that there isn’t really a goal of atheism (in the same way there is no goal of “theism,” but can be a goal of “Christianity,”)…but that if there is something that many atheists would like to achieve in common, it is not that “more people become atheist.” So setting things up as “they need a more compelling worldview if they need more converts” is focusing on the wrong system.

    Rather, you see atheists of different stripes, different beliefs, different ethical codes coming together and speaking out as a reaction to the common treatment from theists of different stripes, different beliefs. If our demands are anything, they are these two things: 1) don’t treat us in an inferior way because we don’t believe in gods, and 2) don’t try to stick your supernaturalisms — which don’t represent the way the world actually works — into the public domain. You do not have to “convert” to atheism to follow these two things (although many religious people will probably think that they shouldn’t have to follow these two things…after all, theists believe that, whatever their god/s is/are, it actually is a part of the world…so it seems like a challenge for atheists to say it isn’t.)

    So, what are the arguments, if any? The arguments are some that the Internet Monk brought up in his original article. Quite simply, all atheists do is show how the religious meta-narratives are complex, inadequate, nonsensical. They require people to get into theological pretzels to understand. Atheists simply point out that you don’t *need* to do that. The world does not fall apart and cease to make sense if you do not do those cognitive gymnastics. In fact, it actually begins to make *more* sense when you aren’t overlaying such a comprehensive, yet old religious meta-narrative on it.

    I’ll tell you: right here, I don’t speak for all atheists. But I’m not a scientismic (e.g., relating to scientism) thinker. I do not believe that because evolution is, evolution is how we should be. I do not agree with people who go that route.

    But what I will say is this…I am an existentialist and perhaps an absurdist. I believe that meaning and morality do not have to be objective to still be valuable — precisely because I think that humanity is defined by *subjective* experience instead. Why should we take care of the planet if we’ll die in ~80 years and the planet will die in another 50 million? Because we don’t live for these objective constraints. We live for the subjective experience of living in the here and now, and here and now, it matters to me to maintain this earth, make it good for my children, grandchildren, and even further generations I won’t know personally. I don’t live for hope of an afterlife where I will get a “score report” of how well I did. I live because this is life and I have to make the best of it. The definition of “best” is not written in the sky…so I have to find the definition (subjectively) for myself, and learn to cooperate with others who have found (for themselves) other definitions. I work for the liberation of women from patriarchy not because there is anything written objectively in the universe about it, but because it improves my subjective condition on this earth if women can be as productive, joyful, and fulfilled in life as I can be. If I know that my possible daughter can be.

    I really lament what you say: “Without a future, all of our striving has been and will be an exercise in futility. None of it means anything.”

    One of the only things I know in this life is how untrue this is. Subjectively, this stuff means stuff to me all the time, regardless of a future. And I believe that if you look at yourself, you can find that it means stuff to you too. I think TRULY TRULY you do not believe that you need to have an afterlife or see the fruits of your labors to get joy in the doing now. Because for me, it’s the opposite, RIGHT NOW, things mean stuff. Something far off in the future that I can’t anticipate in any way (like an afterlife) — that’s what doesn’t mean anything to me.

    I think Dawkins’s (seemingly paradoxical) statement really represents it. Let’s take absurdism. Let’s say that objectively, the universe is meaningless. So, this is an objective nihilism that represents Dawkins’s first part of the statement, “Life may be ultimately meaningless…”

    But I will say that this DOES NOT and has NEVER mattered to people. Because in the end, we really don’t care about objective meaning (even if we think we do). We care about the second part…the subjective meaning that exists because we are here. That’s the part that Dawkins means when he says, “But I’m planning on having a good lunch.” Because notice, if all we had were OBJECTIVE meaning, he would not be able to say “I’m planning on having a good lunch.” Because lunch isn’t OBJECTIVELY good. It doesn’t ULTIMATELY mean anything.

    But because he notes (and everyone UNDERSTANDS HIM when he says it) that it is good, he’s pointing out this is a subjective experience. And even if the universe presses against us from all directions with meaninglessness (or, perhaps, even worse, a different meaning…let’s say there is an objective meaning to the universe, but it’s DIFFERENT than yours. Let’s say another religion is right, and not yours), this does not stop us from SUBJECTIVELY feeling our current meaning, even if it may ultimately be meaningless or it may be objectively wrong.

    This really is the disconnect. I don’t know if I’ve explained it to you in a way you can understand or not, but I believe that there doesn’t have to be any “convincing” about this, because I think you already live your life like this — your subjective wiring, at best, is simply different from mine. You may subjectively feel that you have to live your life according to an “objective” meta-narrative, so you say your meta-narrative is objective. Does that make it so? No, but if you subjectively feel it, it doesn’t matter.

    Does this make any sense? I would hate for such a long comment not elucidate *anything*…

  2. Where is the atheist to go? The Darwinian route—arguing that we should be good to one another to perpetuate the human race—is a dead end. Why is it good to perpetuate the human race?

    This is a non sequitur. We should be good to one another because that is how we ourselves would like to be treated, not because it has anything to do with perpetuating the human race (it doesn’t, which is why the statement makes no sense). Out morality evolved exactly this way, through the principle of reciprocity.

    Atheism doesn’t offer a worldview. It does, however, free the disbeliever to find a worldview which is philosophically defensible, something religions lack. I would certainly disagree that Christianity offers a coherent worldview. It’s propositions are so ludicrous and self-contradictory that one has to be blind and unthinking not to see them. If you want a worldview to adhere to, try secular humanism. Most atheists subscribe to this.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’m impressed with the way that Shamelessly Atheist reiterated the MOST important parts of my mini-essay comment :).

    I should work on being less wordy.

  4. urbanfall says:


    Thanks for both your comments and compliments, both here and elsewhere. It’s nice to know that my thoughts on the matter are at least intelligent enough to merit a reply. I don’t think the comments section of a blog post is a great time to open up a full-blown atheist-Christian debate, so forgive me if I don’t address everything you’ve posted, but I do hope to respond to the core issues behind what we’re talking about.

    This is sort of a side note, but I’m afraid I can’t understand your trouble with the doctrine of the Fall. It seems to me that just 10 years out of the bloodiest century in human history, we’d be a little more ready to admit that humanity, though it may be fundamentally good, has some serious problems which penetrate almost to its very core. That’s all that the Fall says: that humanity has some big problems which, judging from thousands of years of human history, it doesn’t seem to be able to work out on its own. Failing to take this into account seems to me a very dangerous thing.

    But back to business.

    What hadn’t occurred to me, I suppose (and thank you for pointing this out), was that an atheist would adhere to a worldview that made no pretensions about linking ethics and metaphysics into a coherent (there’s that word again) system. To be honest, I had never really given much thought to the more existential approach to atheism, an important part of which ends up being, as you said, absurdism: conceding that life has no objective meaning while clinging to the subjective, “felt” meaning of our everyday experience. Fair enough.

    But doesn’t your tentative embrace of an absurdist existentialism rather prove the main point of my post—that what Christianity (at its best) has to offer that atheism does not is a metanarrative and an ethic that are coherent? It’s that kind of coherence, I think you’d have to admit, that a great number of people find very compelling. Now, a worldview being both coherent and compelling doesn’t make it necessarily true—as you say, ontologically sound—but that’s hardly the point I’m trying to make. I’m merely pointing out that Christianity offers a metanarrative that grounds and sustains its ethic: something uniquely “unexportable” to a generic product.

    I’m interested to hear your response and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to give you the last word on the matter.

    Oh, and no need to call me urbanfall. My name is Mike.

  5. Andrew says:

    re Mike:

    Relating to the fall, the entire point is that humanity isn’t “fundamentally” good or bad. This is a false dichotomy. We are neither. But the more dangerous part about the fall is its fatalism. I think it’s even more dangerous to argue that the deep problems of humanity are “fundamental,” so that we need to appeal to something “higher” to fix it.

    Relating to atheism vs. Christianity: I think you give yourself too much credit when you assume coherence. This may be something difficult to understand, but Christianity, for most atheists, does not offer these things in a *coherent* manner. This is the big problem. Christians *think* it’s coherent (and therefore has something “more” to offer than atheism, so to speak), but to atheists, there are either gaping problems in its worldview or gaping problems in ethics…or sometimes both. And apologetics is the “damage control” crew trying to patch it up. WLC doesn’t convince atheists of anything other than he’s good at damage control for Christ. Lee Strobel doesn’t convince atheists of anything other than he’s remarkably bad at damage control for Christ.

    I think part of the problem is precisely because it packages the two (metaphysics and metaethics) together, whereas atheism does not. So, if you don’t like one or the other, you’re screwed in Christianity. Perhaps it would be better to say that what Christianity offers is an *integrated* metanarrative with ethic, and then I’d agree that Christianity offers this and atheism doesn’t. The problem is…1) but it still CAN be exported. Pick any religion. Even the atheistic ones. For example, if I want to follow scientism (which I actually think is a TERRIBLE IDEA, but go with me), that would also be an integrated metanarrative with ethic (we are here because of scientific processes that I value waaaay too much, so let’s live according to scientific processes. Why is it good to propagate the human species? BECAUSE MY GENES CRY IT OUT LOUD.), I certainly could follow scientism. But the question becomes: why should someone want this? I guess the question has to become: what does Christianity have that cannot be exported…that people would actually *want* to export?

    I think that a numbers game doesn’t work. That many people like the integrated metanarrative with ethical system doesn’t mean that many people *should* like it or should be compelled by it, and it doesn’t mean that this metanarrative with ethical system *is* coherent. So, you’re dealing with a system that *you* find coherent and compelling, but that your “market” still doesn’t. This is what you’re trying to offer, but atheists are not amused. They aren’t even convinced that “integration” is all its cracked up to be!

  6. Pingback: Coincidentally . . . « Of City Streets and Falling Leaves

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