I've sparred over the years with John Loftus before (the main contributor at DebunX) and he's . . . not overly attentive to data and logic, let us say. Once he figured out I really am a Christian universalist (which took a while because he doesn't pay attention well), he didn't care to duel me anymore; but neither does he respect Christian universalists (much less understand us). He has actually written at least one post trying to argue that people like me (by name) are worse because we make Christianity seem more attractive and reasonable. Which from his all-religion-is-a-virus standpoint makes sense, I guess. (Cf. Sobor's comment comparing the New Atheist crowd to modern witch hunters.)
Jason: Loftus took a great atheist philosopher (Jeffrey Jay Lowder) to task because he advocated debunking bad arguments for atheism. Loftus saw it as detrimental for the godless cause.
In many occasion he called Christian people not agreeing with some of his cherished arguments "delusional". To my mind he has proven beyond any reasonable doubt he is an ideologist and not a honest thinker.
Disagreeing to Agree?
I will try to answer that question. It is important to remember that two people can disagree on the surface and yet still be fundamentally in agreement. For instance, you might believe spanking is wrong and I might believe it's not. We might even find ourselves arguing about it. If things get heated enough, we could even wind up in a fistfight. But I would venture to guess that when passions cooled and we sat down and talked, we would discover, probably to our great embarrassment, that the disagreement was mostly illusory. That's because beneath the disagreement about the best means to discipline a child, there's a fundamental agreement that discipline is a good thing and that the best means of discipline ought to be implemented. We just might disagree about what means is the best.
I find that my own disagreements with Loftus are more of this variety than they are about things that are fundamental. For instance, Loftus believes a good God could not allow the kind of suffering that exists; hence he does not believe God exists. This argument resonates with me. I cannot for an instant imagine how a good God can allow the suffering that He does. But I don't think that means he doesn't exist. Fundamentally, I agree with Loftus. He just takes the very same view I hold to a different conclusion—one which, I might add—all believers are tempted to draw at times.
One might object that I am confusing the morality of his positions with their soundness. But that's not what I'm getting at here. Sound or not, I still say his arguments are based on sound principles. Maybe the conclusion he reaches—that God doesn't exist—is wrong, but I would argue that the principles he uses to come to that conclusion are sound. More precisely, I mean this: the principles he uses to conclude God doesn't exist are more sound than the principles mainline Chrisitianity uses to defend their doctrines—particularly the doctrine of eternal torment—and therefore Universalists are in greater fundamental agreement with Loftus than with mainline Christians.
For instance, Loftus argues that God allows so much suffering that we ought not to believe. Obviously, he believes that if there is a God, He owes something to his creation. That's a principle with which I agree. Calvinists, however, do not. They argue that God is not our Father; He's only our Creator. The very fact that He created us entitles him to do with us whatever He pleases—no matter what it is. That's a principle with which I do not agree. I am more in fundamental agreement with Loftus than I am with John Piper. My argument with Loftus would be of the same variety as the spanking argument presented above; it would not really reflect a fundamental disagreement. My argument with Piper, however, is entirely different. It reflects something fundamental. It is also more personal. I am offended that someone would defend God's right to create me in order to make me as miserable as possible for as long as possible. I am not the least bit offended that someone would argue that there's so much pain in the world that there probably is no God.
Faith and Upbringing
A big part of Loftus's case against faith is the fact that faith is mostly a product of one's upbringing and the presuppositions that inform their interpretation of the bible. This is also a common theme among Universalists. I will now compare some excerpts of Loftus's book with some excerpts from the writings of some Universalists in order to demonstrate that they are operating from the same fundamental ideas. Loftus writes:
There are many religious faiths from which to choose. How does one choose to be on the inside of any of them if from the outside none of them have any plausibility? Unless one is on the inside as an adherent of a particular religious faith one cannot see. But from the outside, the adherents of a particular faith seem blind.
Years before I considered Patristic Universalism, I would think about the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis meant you obtained the meaning from the text (a good thing) while eisegesis meant you read the meaning into the text (a bad thing). But for these words (exegesis and eisegesis) to have any meaning, there would have to exist some official, single, and authoritative interpretation of each passage of Scripture by which all interpretations could be measured against. But such a standard interpretative canon does not exist so in reality we all commit eisegesis in the minds of anyone who doesn't belong to our particular theological view.
The Bible Vs. Moral Intuitions
Here's another example of how closely Loftus's arguments mirror those of Universalists. Loftus writes:
If we were born black in America and were also football fans, we would probably have believed O.J. Simpson was not guilty of murder because of our distrust of white police officers . . . If we were born in the Palestinian Gaza Strip, we would probably hate the Jews and want to kill them all. If we were born in France, we would probably have opposed the war in Iraq . . . These kind of moral, political, religious, and cultural beliefs, based upon specific cultural conditions, can be extended into a lengthy list of beliefs we would've had if we had been born in a different time and/or place . . . For someone to claim he or she wouldn't have shared the same beliefs is what I call chronological snobbery, which runs completely counter to the sociological and cultural facts. According to Voltaire, “Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time.”
“But it is no different,” he continued, “with the Bible. Isn't it just as hard to know whether our present understanding of biblical truth accurately reflects the infallible revelation that God has provided?--and isn't that why, once again, we need a set of procedures to make biblical doctrine clear to ourselves and to make sure that our overall interpretation of them is consistent? I mean, look at the bewildering variety of interpretations that exist. Every sect or denomination, every epoch, every culture seems to have a quite different interpretation of even very basic doctrines. The Western Church, for example, thinks it finds a substitutionary theory of Christ's atonement in the New Testament, but the Eastern Church is just as confident that no such doctrine exists there. Thank God, our most basic moral intuitions are more stable (and more widely shared) than that!
With regard to fundamental beliefs, concepts of what's moral and what's not, and what criteria should be used to make those determinations, Talbott is more at odds with traditional Christianity than he is with Loftus. After all, Talbott seems to value our “basic moral intuitions” more than scripture when scripture seems to go against them. And what does he do in those instances? Well, he tends to doubt that such an interpretation is the correct one. But if we allow our basic moral intuitions to guide our interpretation of scripture, then why not get rid of scripture entirely? Are Universalists simply people that domesticate scripture to fit the moral intuitions that both Loftus and Talbott seem to think are more reliable anyhow? Loftus would argue that they are. This is why he sees Universalists as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
My point is this: With regard to basic moral intuitions Talbott is probably in closer agreement with Loftus than he is with mainline Christianity. And therefore I would suggest that his disagreements with mainline Christianity are of a more fundamental nature than his disagreements with Loftus. Indeed I would argue that Loftus and Universalists are arguing from the same conceptual framework to different conclusions with regard to God's existence, whereas Universalists and mainline Christians are arguing from a different conceptual framework with regard to many doctrinal issues—especially eternal torment.
Different Conceptual Frameworks
What do I mean by conceptual framework? Well, I argue in chapter four of my book The Calvinist Universalist that the Christian religious system employs an entire conceptual framework which is alien to scripture and reason in order to defend the doctrine of eternal torment. I give ten examples and explore them from a biblical and a philosophical standpoint. For my purposes here, I will provide just two: God is our Father, and God sees the act of creation as entailing a bond. Either explicitly or implicitly the Christian religious system denies these facts. They may not deny their form, but they deny their substance—their meaning, the inescapable implications they entail. These two facts are clearly established by scripture (Ge. 1:27, 9:6; Ps. 82:6; Is. 64:8; Mal 2:10; Mt. 6:9; Ac. 17:22-28; Ep. 3:14-15). They also clearly agree with our God-given reason and conscience.
Loftus and Universalists argue largely from within this framework. If Loftus did not accept this framework, many of his arguments would instantly collapse. As mentioned before, he argues against the existence of God from the amount of suffering in the world. At least that's one of his arguments. This argument can only get off the ground if we accept that the act of creation entails certain obligations on the part of the Creator. Calvinism does not accept this fact. They argue, in effect, that God is not our Father; He is only our Creator. In other words, they seek to absolve God of the lesser obligation by appealing to the greater one. For the Calvinist, suffering is only a problem for man; not one for God's goodness. A child is born into squalor, endures a few years of pure misery, then dies of malaria in the gutter? That's her problem. A thousand people are killed in a mudslide? That's their problem. You get bone cancer at age 30 and die a slow, agonizing death and leave behind a wife and child? That's your problem. It's no argument against God's existence. Well, I don't buy that and neither do Universalists. They accept suffering as a problem for those who argue for God. So do atheists. We are arguing from the same fundamental principles, the same moral intuitions. And sharing those things is more important than sharing an opinion about an objective fact—such as whether or not God exists.
Again, I will go back the child spanking analogy. Suppose three people are having a discussion about this issue. Let's call them Jim, Jane, and Paul. It turns out that Jim and Jane are both opposed to corporeal punishment. Paul, on the other hand, favors it. At first it may seem that Jim and Jane are in fundamental agreement with each other and against Paul. As the discussion proceeds, however, more light falls on each person's reasons for their position. It starts to become evident that Paul and Jane both regard child rearing as life's highest prerogative—a sacred obligation that must be exercised with the utmost care and devotion. Moreover, both agree that instilling discipline is the most important part of this endeavor. Paul believes an occasional spanking is indispensable to this task. Jane, however, does not. It soon becomes apparent that Jim, while sharing Jane's views on spanking, does not share her—and Paul's—philosophy about child rearing. He regards children mostly as a nuisance and parenthood as a thankless task to be grudgingly endured until such time as the child reaches legal age and can be booted out to fend for himself. He thinks spanking is a waste of time mostly because he thinks discipline is a waste of time. His philosophy is: Why bother? Let them do what they want. Now, I ask: Who is Jane in fundamental agreement with—Jim or Paul?
I think what many atheists really hate is church-think. They hates the conceptual framework that governs Christian thought and cannot give us any answers. So do Universalists. I believe in this sense we are closer to atheists than to mainline Christians. We may not share the atheists view of God, but we do share their view of reality. Of what God ought to be if He exists. And of man, too. Of humanity. Of what we are and how we got to be that way. I cannot say we have this in common with mainline Christians. The following excerpt is from an Atheist website
“But there is a bigger problem for me. We are taught how merciful Jesus is, but when you read the gospels straight through without the conditioning of a lifetime in the faith, a different picture predominates. My dog, Lilliane, is difficult, annoying, and sometimes downright weird, but she is never not a dog. Us, too. We never do anything that doesn't spring from the wide range of human potential developed through a complex interplay of nature and nurture. We have built-in limits which can be worsened (and improved) depending on what we're taught and given to work with, and can even turn horrifying through damaging experiences. True, sometimes damage and misdirection come from our own choices, but these take root in that same human fashion: no matter what, still all human, all understandable, all the time, no exceptions—at least so it should be to a loving creator who set us on this path. But Jesus' pronouncements don't reflect this. They read black and white only, coercive, and condemning at least as often as forgiving. They betray an understanding of human nature in which evil is an occupying force—and an invited one, at that—more than something built in that we struggle with. And his solution for evil is more like ridding the world of sinful trash than healing brokenness that is part of God's handiwork. I do not in any way think that a real God incarnate would speak to us or about us this way, or threaten and condemn us to eternal punishment this way.
So then we try to fix this with theology (and schism), to attenuate and harmonize the unfathomable, and jettison the intolerable. We have filled libraries re-explaining, and in the end remaking God's teaching according to our own way of thinking instead of the other way around. But what evidence supports the divine reality of these views any more than the original?
I look for God's divine stamp in all the places it should be, but I don't find it. I don't think a True God, creating Truly, sending True Divine Help, would have done all this—created this way, caused such suffering, come to help in this way, taught us this way, permitted this much confusion and conflict and bloodshed, or such doubt and perplexity, affecting even the most committed. I can no longer believe that the universe is created or run by the loving God I was raised to worship.
Logically, evil is impossible in a world created and ruled by God, for it is just what God did not create and does not will. This is the parasitical power of evil. It is not the truth about who we are and what the world is like; it is a lie, a contradiction, and denial of the truth . . . Evil is the Big Lie that is so destructive and terrible just because it convinces us that the truth about God, God's world, and life in it is not the truth (p 53)
Please. But that's how the Christian system thinks. That's their conceptual framework. It is a bizzarro world reality where effects do not flow proportionately from causes, things do not operate in accordance with their natures, and the operative factor seems to be a mysterious randomness that “causes” men to act against their own natures, their best interests, and their Creator's designs in ways that do them irreparable harm. A.P. Adams put it this way:
It was not in God's original plan that evil should exist, but evil has come into existence and done incalcuable harm; yet God's plans cannot be thwarted nor disarranged in the least, because he is all-wise and almighty. Evil being in existence before man was created, God allows it to come into contact with the man He created when He might have prevented it, knowing full well what the result would be; yet He is in no wise responsible for the consequences of evil. In fact, it is blasphemy to entertain any such idea. Evil having come into existence contrary to god's will, he cannot put it out of existence, but it will continue as long as he exists, an eternal blot on his otherwise perfect universe and a perpetual offense unto all the purified; yet His will is absolute and sovereign and the redeemed will be perfectly happy. Thus, God is in no wise responsible for either the origin, existence, consequences, or continuance of evil; yet He can have everything he pleases, and is the Creator of all things.