Agnostic Friend

(Deborah Emory) #1

Hi friends!

It’s been a long time. Hope everyone is doing well. I wanted some input on how to reply to my friend. I’ve been praying for him for years. I reached out to him when I saw him posting about the border family separation crisis. He’s a “staunch agnostic” but was calling Christians hypocrites if they’re ignoring this issue. He also talked this way during pride month.

My main question was how he measures the value of a human life based on his beliefs (out of genuine curiosity). This was his response:

“Hey Debbi, thanks for reaching out and being willing to listen. For myself, as I am sure it could be different depending on who you ask, human rights and the value of human life are not intrinsically tied into any religious beliefs. As an agnostic, the absence of a definite afterlife gives human life more meaning as there is no second chance. It also gives an emphasis on treating others well in hopes of living a good life. To be remembered as someone who did good instead of someone who walked on everyone. A good example of how to live a moral life would be through Plato’s writing. Socrates posited that it is better to have evil done unto you than to dispense evil on others. As far as human rights are concerned, I believe that there is a basic level of rights that should be afforded to any person. It again goes back to all human life is precious due to no afterlife and no reincarnation. I hope this answers your questions. If you need me to clarify, feel free to ask.”

Generally my questions to him are going to be:

  1. Do you believe in a higher power (if so, who?) Or do you an atheist? This seemed fuzzy.
  2. How do you know there is no after life? Where are your beliefs informed?
  3. Define good.
  4. In my opinion, justice is more potent if there are eternal consequences. If there is no God, why does it matter?
  5. How can you say human life is precious without a creator of some kind?

He also talked about visiting a holocaust museum and how it was the darkest experience he’s ever had. And how “history will look upon us unkindly” if we don’t intervene on behalf of this current crisis. I replied (with humor and good will) that I’m pretty sure history (and the universe) are completely indifferent to us.

It’s obvious he cares deeply, I’m trying to get him to take a step back and question his framework. I’d like to add that he grew up in the church but walked away a long time ago.

I’m genuinely surprised that he replied back. I’m hoping this means God is working in his life. Any other insight would be most appreciated!

(SeanO) #2

@Deborah_Emory Thank you for sharing your friends’ post with us. May the Lord grant you wisdom as you seek to share His love with your friend. I think Os Guinness makes a great point in his book ‘Fool’s Talk’ that in order to move into the category of a ‘seeker’ of God people must experience what he calls signals of transcendence. Something in their life must help them realize that their belief system falls short of explaining reality and shake them enough that they are willing to leave the comfort zone of their current beliefs to pursue truth.

My first question would be - has your friend experienced such a signal of transcendence in his own life? Perhaps you could even ask him this question. If he is not seeking God - if he is basically a happy agnostic unconcerned with further pursuing truth - then you have to try to be part of generating that signal of transcendence. That is not always within our power.

But I want to share my thoughts first on his argument about what makes life meaningful and then some notes for a talk I gave on why we cannot live the happy or ‘good life’ apart from God.

Life is Meaningful Because We Only Get it Once

At first I thought your friends’ argument - that life is meaningful because it only happens once - was very odd. I had never heard anyone use the lack of reincarnation or Heaven to explain meaning. However, then I remembered this quote from Hawking after his diagnosis with a terrible disease:

Stephen Hawking - after his diagnosis - “When one’s expectations are reduced to zero,” he said, “one really appreciates everything that one does have.”

So, in a sense, realizing this is all we’ve got can lead to a kind of thankfulness. However, and I think this is important, it does not lead to justice. Justice requires that our response to the brevity of our life is kindness toward our neighbor. But why? Perhaps someone decides that the brevity of life makes them want to drink and party at the expense of others - or to rip off their business firm and flee the country - or even to hurt other people. Simply because life’s brevity makes us realize we only get one chance does not have anything to do with how we treat others with the one chance we’ve got. There is no logical connection there…

The Good Life is Unattainable Apart from God

In my talk, the basic question was - “Why do you need God?” My answer was that we all need three things - Love, Permanence and Assurance.

To support this idea, I began with the Greek philosopher Epicurus - who said that to achieve happiness we must all deal with 3 things - fear of divine judgment, fear of death and anxiety about tomorrow (Love, Permanence, Assurance). Epicurus’ solution was to set your expectations low - be satisfied with just necessities (no one really does this). Buddha once said - “When pleasure or pain come, the wise are above them”. So their solution to happiness was to have low expectations and ignore both pleasure/pain.

I then quoted an Atheist placard - “There’s probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” However, there is a problem with this statement in relation to Epicurus’ 3 questions.

  1. Fear of divine judgment - ignoring God may deal with divine judgment, but someone becomes your lover and judge. It may be your work, your spouse, your looks - but in the end you rely on something outside yourself to validate your existence.
  2. Fear of death - the atheist solution is to ignore it, perhaps via chocolate, alcohol and entertainment. Or by trying to live the good life and hope to leave a great legacy.
  3. Dealing with anxiety - there is no means of dealing with anxiety without God - there is no ultimate plan. Anything could happen at any moment, including death. My friend at work said he liked to jog because when he was running he could forget his anxieties because of the exertion it required of his body. Without God there really is no good way to deal with anxiety.

Now, here are a few quotes, two from unbelievers, that demonstrate the vanity of trying to find meaning in a universe devoid of permanence and God. They show that there is absolutely no logical reason why not having an afterlife produces meaning - in fact, it obliterates it.

Thomas Nagel - Even if you produce a great work of literature that is read for thousands of years - eventually the solar system will cool or the universe wind down and all traces of your effort will vanish. It wouldn’t matter if you had never existed. And after you die, it won’t matter that you did exist.

Mark Twain, became morose and weary of life. Shortly before his death, he wrote, "A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle;…they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; …those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. In the end they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence,…a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever."

C. S. Lewis - You can’t really love a woman while remembering that all the beauties of her person and her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by a collision of atoms and that your response to her is a psychic phosphorescence arising from the behavior of your genes. In order to move from cold, animal like sensuality to love while remembering this fact you must recognize the hopeless disharmony between your emotions and the universe in which you think you live.

Now, here is a very brief outline of how Christianity provides love, permanence and assurance.

The Cross Proves God’s Love

  • the King who died for rebels

God’s Care Gives Assurance

  • the Prodigal Son - the Father’s Open Arms

Christ’s Resurrection Guarantees Permanence

  • Lazarus (Martha - my brother would not have died)

I think you had already come up with some good questions for your friend. May the Lord open his eyes and heart to see the glory of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

Do you have any additional questions or thoughts regarding what I have posted?

How to Reach Someone Who Doesn't Need a Savior?
Famous People and The Ordinary People
Jordan Peterson - Maps of Meaning Part 2 - How Myth and Science are Both True
Jordan Peterson P7 - Nihilism vs the Goodness of Being
Can we find common ground with progressive Christians?
Can we define our own purpose for living?
(Andrew Valentine) #3

I have spent a fair of time engaging some very intelligent agnostics. Some people have an answer for every question, but the emphasis on “know one knows” seems to be the unwavering fact.

For your particular friend above, he seems to have a high sense of moral compass and reasoning. I would be curious where he thinks the “good” and “evil” he references comes from. As Ravi so aptly says in many of his lectures; a moral law requires a moral law giver.

I would be inclined to ask him more detailed questions about morality and intrinsic worth. It is sometimes difficult engaging agnostics, as some would rather find comfort in accepting the truth as unknowable, than consider a God outside their views of how a god should be (if one were to actually exist).

I think transformation would require getting past intellect, and touching the heart strings. You may be only able to plant a seed, but blessings to you for desiring to do so!

(Omar Rushlive Lozada Arellano) #4

Hello @Deborah_Emory. I pray that the Lord will give you wisdom on how you would dialogue with your friend. Your questions are good. It’s nice to come to someone with a different worldview generally as someone who wants to understand the position of another. Even if you won’t share some insights to this person, your questions can help the person rethink their worldview.

Here are some statements made by your friend that you could challenge:

  1. “human rights and the value of human life are not intrinsically tied into any religious beliefs.”

You can ask him how he came to believe this assertion. It’s like letting her provide support for her position. If he’s an agnostic, where could she objectively ground human rights and the value of human life, so that she could be consistent in imposing on others what they ought to do? In Engaging The Modern World, I remember that different worldviews are inconsistent in this, since the inherent views in each system is contrary to objective human rights.

Here are examples:

  • Islam: Women and those who have left the faith do not have the same rights as others.
  • Hinduism: The caste system explicitly assigns different values to different people.
  • Buddhism: There is no individual identity.
  • Atheism: The strong are more valuable than the weak.

In contrast, we can check the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It’s self-evident that all men are equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. This is consistent with the Christian worldview, where God created both male and female in the image of God.

Where does he ground his in his agnosticism?

  1. “the absence of a definite afterlife gives human life more meaning as there is no second chance. It also gives an emphasis on treating others well in hopes of living a good life. To be remembered as someone who did good instead of someone who walked on everyone.”

How does the absence of a definite afterlife give human life more meaning? He seems to assume that since you only have one life, you should value it more. But this seems to be a self-imposed meaning which is arbitrary and not an objective meaning. Why is it better to be remembered as someone who is good and in treating others well? If you only have one life, if there’s no God, why just not be selfish and spend it on your own desires? Why even be remembered if the second law of thermodynamics reminds us of impending doom that we will all die and human civilization be put into oblivion?

  1. “A good example of how to live a moral life would be through Plato’s writing.”

Plato and Aristotle saw slaves as animals. It’s inconsistent for someone who say that they believe in human rights and the value of human life, and get their morality from a person who would undermine his proclamation because of a person who see slaves not as people equal like us, but as animals.

  1. “I believe that there is a basic level of rights that should be afforded to any person. It again goes back to all human life is precious due to no afterlife and no reincarnation.”

It does not follow that people ought to give everyone a basic level of rights because we only live once. This is arbitrary. He needs to show how his view is objective for him to be consistent in imposing his human rights view on anyone.

This does not mean that we disagree with him on “human rights” and “human value” in itself. We just think that it’s inconsistent for him to say that he values this in his worldview. Challenging his assumptions would help leave a pebble in his shoe for him to think about.

I hope this somehow helps! :slight_smile: