"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Anne Atkins invokes the devil

It’s been a while since I caught Radio 4’s Thought Sermon for the Day segment on the Today program, but travelling to work this morning I was treated to some delightful drivel from Anne Atkins who to be fair I always find good value if only for the amusing lack of rational content in her contributions.
Anne Atkins
Her latest missive was inspired by the Church of England’s re-working of the Christening ceremony to eliminate the phrase asking godparents if they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and substituting it with “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises”. Atkins opened her piece with the “good news” that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby had “cast out the Devil” but then went on to query why, if absolute good was personified in the existence of the Christian God, should absolute evil not be similarly personified in the form of the Devil? This is of course a very good question that goes straight to the heart of the problem of evil, Christianity’s greatest philosophical nemesis, for if an omnibenevolent and omnipotent god exists there should be no place for evil.
Zoroastrianism, which predates Christianity by some seven centuries and second temple Judaism by two, resolved the apparent disparity by having opposing deities representing good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angra Mainyu) in eternal battle and it is likely that the character of Angra Mainyu became superimposed on Satan during the Babylonian exile demonising a character that in earlier Jewish tradition was considered a loyal agent of Yahweh’s and merely doing his bidding. Mutated by Christian mythology, medieval iconography and Dante’s Divine Comedy we have ended up with the cartoonish Horned Devil so beloved of fire and brimstone Southern Baptist types but seen as an embarrassment to liberal Christians who well understand the theological difficulties such an entity poses.
Anne Atkins reaches out to C.S Lewis to point out that the absurdity of this image has long been recognised.
In every era the Church faces the challenge of presenting eternal truths in the vulgar tongue, and unchanging beliefs in the familiar media of the day. And the devil has been out of fashion as far as memory goes back. “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the patient’s mind,” Screwtape advises his diabolical pupil Wormwood, “suggest to him a picture of something in red tights.” As he observes, nobody could believe in that, so it will throw him off the scent. “An old text book method,” he says dismissively.
But the lurking implication is that there really is a demonic personality behind the temptation to do evil even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype…and that’s exactly where Atkins takes us
Plato taught that behind every material reality is a greater spiritual reality: his definition of God is the ἰδεα, the form, of the good. Thus good itself has the attributes of personality: mind; affection; and volition. God thinks: He speaks, and argues. He feels: He and loves and hates. He wills: deciding on action and carrying it out. If this is so, it is at least a rational supposition that the same could be true of evil. Indeed, otherwise it’s hard to see how evil ultimately exists. The difference between a wicked crime and an unfortunate accident is intent: one is wilful, the other fortuitous. If there is no evil objective behind the sorrows of the world, then they are not wrong but random. If there is morality, there must surely be evil as well as good.
So either she is a born again Zoroastrian or she has totally missed the theological implications of an evil being that her all loving god must necessarily be allowing to exist. But, like all good theists her angst is really all about the necessity of there being some divinely ordained objective morality as without that we are all doomed to nihilism.
 If there is no intelligent force of evil then we live in a neutral universe, I can make choices like a consumer in a supermarket, and ultimately nothing matters.
Nothing matters? Really! Her family, her health, world peace, poverty, the environment, human suffering none it matters unless there is an existential god and his evil twin to make it all meaningful. In order to make this work Atkins has to believe not only in her god but also in a nagging demon on her shoulder tempting her from the straight and narrow.
When new atheists ridicule the superannuated Santa Claus in the sky version of the Christian god we are told that we are fighting a straw man nobody believes in. Sophisticated theologians talk of God as the ground of being or some such blather that we are all too dim to appreciate. But Anne Atkins is not stupid or naïve. I’m sure she is as capable of understanding Alvin Plantinga or Paul Tillich as I am
yet here she is an intelligent woman, the wife of a clergyman no less, arguing against current Anglican doctrine and for the existence of an actual intelligent force for evil, or The Devil by any other name.

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