Atheism is in a sad state today, unfortunately many, if not most who are publically opposed to religion, and pushing atheism are profoundly ignorant of actual theology, who criticize religion from a standpoint of ignorance about what religion actually is and what theology is. What you end up with is a shallow critique of religion which is on the same intellectual plane as a creationist saying “How come there are still monkeys if we evolved from monkeys,” the creationists critique along with much of the new-atheists critique come from a standpoint of ignorance and thus come out as ridiculous as stupid to anyone who knows anything about theology. The fact is however, that those who criticize religion often don’t know anything about theology because they don’t have enough respect for it to actually read it, or read it seriously, and then argue against religion with such arrogance and disdain, that it makes their ignorance even more vulgar.
A prime example of this is a post by so called “free thinker” Michael Tosto called “Christianity: Simply Illogical.” Now much Christian doctrine does have very difficult problems that can be critiqued and worked out, and that can very rightly be criticized by an Atheist, that was what I (perhaps naively) hoped to read when I started reading this post, I was disappointed. I’m writing about this post, not because it’s a serious challenge, not because it comes from a well known source, but rather because it is quite representaive of a lot of the modern anti-theism that exists out there, sadly so. It’s a rather long post that Michael posted, but I’ll just go over some arguments he posits.
He starts out with a condemnation of the Israelite Sacrifice System:
For instance, the Christian God is, allegedly, a spirit. As such, he has no physical body. He therefore should have no physical needs. And yet, this God, who ostensibly created the entire Universe, requires the blood of goats from one of the tinier planets in the vast Cosmos for which he is apparently responsible (see Leviticus, chapter 16). Why does he need this blood, you ask? Well, the Bible does specifically state that without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness (see Hebrews 9:22). In other words, when part of his creation (us, the humans) commits a sin, he needs innocent blood to pay for it; otherwise, he is forced to punish us (which apparently does not want to do). So, by means of a proxy, he is willing to accept the innocent blood of another part of his creation (goats, in the Old Testament) to reconcile the rupture the sin has produced.
There is no Jewish or Christian Theological system that posits that God needs the sacrifice of animals, or that he in fact gains any benefit from them. The requirement has nothing to do with what Gods needs. This is a common confusion with Atheists, they constantly confuse God, the Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with the pagan concept of gods which is why they think it to be cleaver when they utter such colossally stupid statements such as “You don’t believe in Zeus, Odin (Insert pagan Deity here), I just believe in one less God than you,” as if the Pagan concept of God and the Abrahamic concept of God was even in the same category as the Pagan Deities (that’s a different discussion thought). The fact is God does NOT need sacrifices and he never has. Then why did he require them (contingently for a specific time and place mind you)? Michael cites Hebrews 9:22 which, he has to realize, is speaking specifically of typology, not the literal purpose of the sacrifice. Let’s take a look at the verse (from the NRSV) in context:
19 For when every commandment had been told to all the people by Moses in accordance with the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, 20 saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.’ 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent[q] and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
23 Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these.
Notice what is happening here? He is taking the Type of sprinkling of the blood to symbolize purification and comparing it to the antitype of Christ’s death for forgiveness, blood was involved in the purification, and Jesus death involved the shedding of his blood showing that the blood which was shed by Christ was necessary for forgiveness of sins. This section was absolutely not at all about the actual reason for the sacrifices; it’s an example of typology. All one has to do is read Hebrews 8 where the sanctuary is a “sketch and shadow” or ὑποδείγματι καὶ σκιᾷ, or a copy and a shadow, of the heaven. So no, the sacrifices were not needed by God to forgive sins. We have so many examples of God giving forgiveness without sacrifices, for example in Jonah the entire city of Nineveh was forgiven.
Michael Goes on:
First of all, how does a just God reason that the killing of an innocent life form and using its blood as some kind of offering is a suitable act for the atonement of another life form’s sin? Isn’t this an example of committing one sin to atone for another? “It’s not like that,” you might say. “After all, a goat is not a human being. Goats don’t have rights.” Perhaps they have no legal rights, but shouldn’t they at least have humane rights? Shouldn’t they at least be afforded the courtesy of not having to stand in to pay for the sins of a differing life form?
I wonder if Michael eats meat? Or knows people that do? I’ll assume he does. I would like to ask him, when he wants to eat a steak what does he do? Does he reverence the value of the Animals life? Does he recognize that life does not belong to him, but rather to God, or something higher? Does he make sure that before he takes the life of an Animal his own sins are recognized and acknowledged? Is his taking of a life for food part of a sacred act sanctifying life? Or does Michael go to the supermarket, let some corporation raise the cow in a pens where it lives a life of suffering being fed corn then slaughtered on an assembly line, and sold to supermarkets for a profit, so that Michael can enjoy a nice stake without thinking about the life of the animal, the importance of life itself, and show some sort of reverence to God? I’m going to guess it’s the latter.
Pagan religious sacrifices were quite different. In paganism the sacrifice was done so as to feed the gods, so as to continue the cycle of nature and history. It was nothing at all like the Abrahamic sacrifices, which had nothing to do with Feeding Yahweh, such a concept is completely alien to Monotheistic theology. Monotheistic theology is not cyclical but historical, its God is not dependant on anything, and its God cannot be manipulated into action by human beings. Monotheistic sacrifices and Pagan sacrifices are completely different.
In the modern form of Paganism, which is secular liberal Capitalism, the God fed is profit. Is killing Animals in the name of profit more “humane” than a liturgical right where the life is given value? It’s important to remember that almost all the meat eaten in Ancient Israel was meat from sacrifices, so sacrifices was where people would get the meat they would eat. The few times most families would have enjoyed eating meat would have been during the festivals, where they would enjoy the meal, but in the context of reverence for God, for the value of life, and recognition of the need for redemption from sin in a communal and liturgical meal.
I could go on, but I think the point is made; Michael is simply ignorant of the theology surrounding sacrifices in Ancient Israel. Next he brings the argument over to Christianity and the Atonement:
Therefore, what we have here is actually quite straightforward. Someone had to die. Why? Because sin apparently demands death. Never mind the fact that the Christian God knew ahead of time that his creations would sin. Never mind the fact that, knowing this, he went ahead and created them anyway. Never mind the fact that while this God had an entire planet upon which to place Adam and Eve, he ostensibly elected to put them within walking distance of the one tree from which he specifically did not want them to eat. Never mind the fact that God also allowed the serpent to occupy this general geographic area. Never mind that all of this practically shouts that God willingly and purposefully placed his creation in the pathway of sin. And never mind the fact that his purposeful willingness makes him complicit in the resulting sin. No, someone had to die for the sins of humanity. At first, God was content with goats. Eventually, though, he needed true human blood. And whose blood would be better than his own son’s? This, the Christians call love. “God was willing to sacrifice his own son!” they will say. “That is how much he loves you!” I would argue that a truly loving response to an offense is to write it off completely, not transfer it to someone else’s account. Furthermore, how many of my readers would be willing to have their daughter sent to jail for the rest of her life in exchange for the release of the convict who raped her? Where is the love there? Is that justice? In any case, perhaps the Christian God resolved to pay the blood price with his own son’s blood because he knew he was complicit in our sin.
Even though I’m a Unitarian and an Open Theist, given the critique here is of a Trinitarian Atonement Theology, I’m going to assume Orthodox Trinitarianism and Foreknowledge. The idea that God knew “ahead of time” and then created man is a very bizarre way of understanding the doctrine of creation, God doesn’t know and then create, God creates time itself, he exists outside of time, his knowledge of creation and creation are one in the same, timeless. It’s a cheap anthropomorphism to say “God knew this, and then did that,” given that God has always been conceived of as outside of time, and acting in time from an eternal decree and foreknowledge. As an Open Theist I would say that it’s logically impossible for God to have foreknown free moral acts, but that’s a different story.
Michael seems to think that the fact that sin was an option for mankind was problematic, I don’t see why that would possibly be the case? The whole point of man is that man is made in the image of God, as a moral being, who can reflect the goodness of God. Had mankind been created in such a way where sin was impossible or so improbable so as to have been almost impossible, any righteousness would be trivial and not praiseworthy. To use a crude example (I don’t necessarily like using anthropomorphized metaphors for God, since they are always inadequate, but as the writers of the various books of the bible realized at times there is no better way to make a point about God), imagine a Father tells his son not to get drunk, at what point can the father be proud of his son, at what point can he praise his son for his virtue? When he’s sitting at home with his father (who doesn’t have alcohol at home) where there is no alcohol to be drunk? Or when he comes home from a party, where he had ample opportunity to get drunk, but out of respect for his father, and respect for what is right, refrained from over drinking? The answer is obvious. Had God made rebellion impossible, then what would have been the point of creating free moral agents? None whatsoever. Had no rebellion or free moral action been possible, creation would not have been an act of love at all, in fact it would hardly be an act of creation had only the consciousness capable of making any significant choices been God himself, it would be more akin to a cosmic toy, but this is not what creation is, it is a total act of Love.
As far as God sending his son because he was no longer satisfied with animal sacrifices. I want to re-quote what Michael said, so that the gravity of its stupidity is clear:
At first, God was content with goats. Eventually, though, he needed true human blood. And whose blood would be better than his own son’s?
I don’t think I can over emphasize what a triumphantly silly statement this really is.
First of all, (as we already touched on) does Michael actually believe that God is like some junky who just needs more and more sacrifice? Does he really think that the sacrifices done by Israel actually filled a need that God had? Over and over again, the scriptures show that God is more interested in what people do, the bible itself explains that the sacrifices are a type to the anti-type of Christ. Sacrifices, and this is known not only by every theologian, but also almost every Christian Child that goes to Sunday school, are not something put in place for the good of God, they are for man. This is not a difficult concept, in the Law itself it says this, in Deuteronomy 12:
27 You shall present your burnt-offerings, both the meat and the blood, on the altar of the Lord your God; the blood of your other sacrifices shall be poured out beside the altar of the Lord your God, but the meat you may eat.
28 Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.
God doesn’t get anything from the sacrifices, it is good for man to worship God, but God doesn’t receive anything from it, as if he lacked something. Then Michael goes on to talk about how it is not at all love that God sacrificed his son. He completely forgets that Orthodox Christianity (which I disagree with on this point, but none the less) says that Jesus is himself God in the flesh. So it’s God sacrificing himself for the sins of others. Here’s another thing Michael is missing, he is assuming penal substitution, probably because he grew up as a Southern Baptist. He ignores the huge tradition of the Christus Victor theory, which the theory held by the Eastern Orthodox tradition, or the subjective theory, or moral theory of atonement, or the many other theories and discussions over the atonement. It’s not like discussions about atonement theory are difficult to come by, given it’s one of the most popular things both theologians and religious people love to discuss, but perhaps that was too much work.
But what about his treatment of the specific theory of penal substation? He argues the more correct thing to do would be simply to write off the sin, go back and read the quote, that is seriously what his argument is. So his solution is essentially that God says “Just kidding, sin doesn’t matter, when I said sin brings about death, I didn’t mean it,” arbitrarily writing it off. Let’s entertain this option for just a second, if he arbitrarily ignored the sin and his own pronouncement, then what is sin? If sin, when done by completely free and rational moral agents (not enslaved to sin) can simply be written off, then sin has no meaning. The analogy of writing off debt, or letting someone free from prison doesn’t fit at all, because these things happen within the context of an imperfect law and people who we recognize are not entirely free in that they are subject to outside pressures and uncontrollable impulses. The sin of Adam in the story was a rational one and a free moral one against a perfect God. If God just writes off the sin, he’s no longer God, because his word is arbitrary and contingent, and sin is no longer sin, because it’s arbitrary and contingent. Simply writing off the sin is not even an option, when it comes to God, logically speaking. In the film “Anchorman” one of the Characters says about cologne “Studies show 60% of the time it works every time,” the film was a comedy, and that was a joke in the movie. Michael’s suggestion that God could logically simply write off the inevitable consequence of sin inherent in creation and his own necessarily true and eternal decree is basically the same thing as saying “60% of the time it works all the time,” the problem is Michael wasn’t joking, he was serious.
Michael goes over 3 more objections which he thinks are arguments showing Christianity to be “illogical,” including “God’s refusal to Act immediately, the “illusion of God’s control” and “The problem of free will.” It’s clear when reading his objections that Michael hasn’t read the bible, hasn’t read a word of theology, or even worse, he has, and still manages to not understand any of it whatsoever. These are objections that a child in Sunday school could answer. The last objection is a difficult question, but he doesn’t even begin to understand it.
I’m not going to continue going over the rest of the blog post, lest I go on for too long? Unfortunately this kind of ignorant anti Christianity is not rare, it’s common. I’ve heard objections like these from many places, including from otherwise intelligent people (which I am sure Michael is), objections which as soon as they are uttered make it clear that the objector has no clue about what he’s objecting to, not clue about the actual theology he’s criticizing, hasn’t put an iota of research or even rational thinking into the objections he makes. Yet these anti-Christians, who don’t manage to display an ounce of awareness in their objections, still manage to, with no irony, call Christians “illogical,” the arrogance is astounding.
There are intelligent atheists out there, who in the traditions of Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre and others actually understand something about theology, something about what it is they are rejecting, but unfortunately they are harder to come by these days, being outspoken by the louder childishness we see displayed in Michael’s post.
The probably isn’t that Atheists like Michael aren’t intelligent, I’m sure they are, the problem is they hate Christianity so much, and lack so much respect for it, that they don’t feel the need to actually study it before they criticize it. It’s unfortunate.