John Dickson’s tips for atheists

John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity wrote an excellent piece for Easter, offering some helpful dialogue pointers for atheists. He gives useful tips on the rich intellectual tradition of Christianity:

“My first tip, then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents … popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, ‘Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!'”

…and offers a vital comment on the status of Young-Earth Creationism within the broader Christian Church:

“Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have done a disservice to atheism by talking as though 6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction. But mainstream Christianities for decades have dismissed 6-Day Creationism as a misguided (if well-intentioned) project. Major conservative institutions like Sydney’s Moore Theological College, which produces more full time ministers than any college in the country, have taught for years that Genesis 1 was never intended to be read concretely, let alone scientifically. This isn’t Christians retreating before the troubling advances of science. From the earliest centuries many of the greats of Judaism (e.g., Philo and Maimonides) and Christianity (e.g., Clement, Ambrose, and Augustine) taught that the ‘six days’ of Genesis are a literary device, not a marker of time.”

Read the whole piece on ABC’s website.

I also just came across a great article by Martin Shields on the literature genre of Genesis 1, a lecturer of Old Testament studies. He notes:

“A significant problem with modern readings of Genesis 1 lies in the dominance of scientific readings. Young-earth creationists read it as though it presents scientific information, those who believe the universe is billions of years old condemn Genesis 1 on the grounds that it conflicts with what they know from science. These groups dominate debate and both seriously misread the text!”

In addition to his notes on the literature style, Shields presents a useful “foreignised” translation of the chapter: that is, he keeps the actual expressions as close as possible to the original meanings, with no attempt to help 21st century Western readers.

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7 thoughts on “John Dickson’s tips for atheists

  1. I think Dickson’s piece has been written as if addressed to a caricature of atheists. Atheists as a group are more familiar with biblical scripture, for example,than the group who identifies as Christian. To assume the average atheist knows little if anything about the writings of many considered church fathers reveals a rather remarkable depth and scope of ignorance; I have found that those atheists who are online – many of whom certainly fit the description of ‘popular’ atheists – tend to be very familiar (and many are in fact de-converted Christians who sought and did not find in this theology what it is advertised to contain: guidance offered by a benevolent divine causal and interactive agency) with exactly these kinds of writings. To assume that atheists by definition – especially popular ones must not understand good theology is to make a fundamental mistake in underestimating the quality of thought that leads someone to claiming no belief in gods or a god. Of course, I would expect this kind of mistake from anyone who assumes faith-based belief is a reliable guide to knowledge about reality.
    As for Genesis 1, yes, it should be read as it was intended to be read: as a creation myth. The signposts could not be more obvious. Now, if only you could convince almost all christian denominations to stop using it as an historical source, we could put the silly claims derived from a misreading of it – about original sin and dominion and gender roles and creationism and the Flood and the need for spiritual redemption and so on – to bed once and for all and get on with job of gaining knowledge about our history of life on earth without being constantly impeded by the pious who believe without merit that explanations derived from Genesis are equivalent to what’s true because they assume they already know the right ones. And that cohort in need of remedial work in their theology includes every major christian denomination.

      • Even I detect some sarcasm from you, Sentinel.
        But seriously, following the advice of Shields here is a good idea. Followers of Christianity really do need some teaching about how to read Genesis and let go of the absurdity of reading it as either science or history. It’s demonstrably neither and fits the form of a creation myth to a tee. People should read it as such, which means assigning personal meaning to the symbolic representations contained within. The supernatural are those symbolic representations of human themes and have nothing whatsoever to do with actual supernatural agencies. Try it, and see what you make of Genesis (as if reading it for the first time with no preconceptions or religious baggage whatsoever). You might be surprised at the wisdom contained within that teaches you about yourself. That’s its value. And that’s the scope of the perversion the blunt Christian interpretation has made of it: reducing its value to zero in its service to create a redemptive need for the blood sacrifice of the later Jesus (which is obviously bass ackwards to why myths are passed from generation to generation… their value doesn’t come thousands of years later – duh – but is immediate and personal). And the Genesis myth predates Jesus by at least a thousand years. That’s a clue about how to read it…

      • Leaving aside the extraordinary arrogance with which you claim to know the true value of Genesis, I’ll just note that it’s impossible to read the passage “with no preconceptions or religious baggage whatsoever”, even (or perhaps especially) for an atheist.

      • Well, I do know the value of myths and I know how to read them for personal meaning. You can do this, too, if you can teach yourself how to put aside preconceived meanings that are not your own (especially because it is not your own) . This is not to say that your interpretation after the attempt will be the same as mine (it shouldn’t be), any more than your experience of the Sistine Chapel should be the same as mine. We’re different people who will bring to the experience many differences. But the power of myths is to offer us an interactive experience based on our shared humanity. That we do have in common. And that’s why mythical themes never go away but present themselves anew in different forms (think of myths as the public dream compared to the private dreams you have when you sleep… again, personal meaning is extrapolated from assigning personal meaning to what images and events in your dreams represent. They are mostly your own but some really are universal to people.). Don’t be fooled by the form – a narrative story that looks sort of like a possible history; be open to the teachable experience that reveals ourselves to ourselves if we take the time to assign to its symbols personal meaning (that’s why it requires the personal assigning of meaning and not borrowed from some other authority).

        It’s all very cool, very powerful, and quite transformative without any need for whacky beliefs and allegiance to some kind of Oogity Boogity. That the Genesis creation myth shows up as the first book of the bible is not a coincidence; its transformative power has long been recognized as a very great danger to any authoritative institution, so it steals the myth and claims it for its own while insisting that only one interpretation of what this creation means is the right one for everyone. Bunk. It’s not because that’s not what myths do, not how myths work. Claiming ownership of the redemptive interpretation is a clear perversion of what this particular myth is about. This theft undermines what myths are intended to do, what myths allow us to teach us about ourselves. Going along with a charade that an ancient creation myth explains the need for a later blood sacrifice is really what’s arrogant here. But what’s truly remarkable is how many people have gone along with this. That’s like claiming that the King Arthur myth is ‘explained’ by becoming the necessary historical basis for the blood sacrifice of the Holocaust. It’s ludicrous… unless you power the deception by authority and indoctrination and brutal repression and vilification of myths.

        No myth is history. It’s a form of story telling that will include not just references for you to make sense of it but clear signposts such as “Once upon a time in galaxy far, far away,’ or ‘In the beginning…’ or ‘In the deep, dark forest…’. The supernatural plays an essential role. Have you never wondered why Plato ends the Republic with The Myth of Er? Myths are teaching tools. They have never been about history, about science, about justifications for later events. They have always been about teaching people by affording us an opportunity to be transformed by the hero’s journey that we ourselves must undergo. Genesis is no different.

  2. Atheists as a group are more familiar with biblical scripture, for example,than the group who identifies as Christian.

    Uh, sure. But let’s just take that as read for a moment.

    Now, if only you could convince almost all christian denominations to stop using it as an historical source

    Done. Next?

    But wait; you claim that you are more familiar with biblical scripture than Christians, yet you don’t even know enough about Christians to know that “most denominations” do not use Genessis 1 as an historical source?

    Uh-oh. Better take that log out of your eye.

    we could put the silly claims derived from a misreading of it – about original sin and dominion and gender roles and creationism and the Flood

    And yet by positing that false dichotomy, you simply prove the thesis of the article in question in demonstrating your profound ignorance of Christian thought!

    explanations derived from Genesis are equivalent to what’s true

    Newsflash: science is not about “what’s true”. Think about it.

    And the Genesis myth predates Jesus by at least a thousand years.

    Come on, any boring old Creationist will tell you that. In fact they would look at you rather oddly if you were to claim otherwise.

    You really just don’t seem to know what you don’t know. But never mind; it is a common affliction amongst those of the atheist faith.

    • …yet you don’t even know enough about Christians to know that “most denominations” do not use Genessis 1 as an historical source?
      Sure they do. And in several ways.
      The Adam and Eve account and their fall from grace (original sin) is a foundational tenet of Christianity, one that justifies the need for redemption. This is not a ‘metaphorical’ fall but a very real historical event (from which we ‘inherit’ our sinful nature, no less).
      In the beginning, god created the heavens and the earth. This is not a ‘metaphorical’ beginning but the foundational belief of a real historical event for the establishment of a creator.
      When I say ‘explanations derived from Genesis are equivalent to what’s true’ I’m speaking about those who use this source not just as an historical document but a scientific one that supposedly ‘explains’ human origins and ‘describes’ cosmology. In this sense, this document is used by the foolish to be an equivalent replacement for gaining knowledge of the cosmos and determining our place in it. How we inform knowledge (by what method(s) we use) determines the quality of this knowledge. Revealing that quality are the products based on these incompatible methods. Faith-based belief is a method of inquiry that produces claims about reality (‘truth claims’) not arbitrated by reality but disassociated from it. (Such claims may be true but we have no means to independently verify this.) Evidence adduced belief is a method of inquiry that produces claims about reality arbitrated by reality through the development of technologies, applications, and therapies based on these claims that seem to work for everyone everywhere all the time. How well these products work for everyone everywhere all the time independently verifies the modeled explanations and descriptions. if we use the root definition for knowledge as an acknowledgement (recognition) of what is the same for everyone everywhere all the time, then we can call these claims that explain and describe reality as ‘truth claims’ about an independent cosmos. Figuring out whether they are true or not is where the rubber of our inquiry method meets the road of reality. And only one method produces traction… and it’s not faith-based belief.
      You also missed my point about the order of interpreting myths. Claiming an earlier myth somehow explains a later event is absurd. If anything, it should be the other way around to have any historical or scientific validity (cause typically precedes effect). Sure, ‘any boring old creationist’ may understand that the myth predates the crucifixion but they fail to grasp – as you do and almost the entire cohort of people who claim to be Christian – why this order matters, why the order is fatal to the christian interpretation of it.
      Think of this contribution not as another atheist helping out a believer again but as a public service on behalf of myths everywhere.

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