Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Rights of Atheists

Today, on the radio, I heard a Christian say, “When an atheist claims he has certain rights, he is absconding the argument of the Christian, because rights can only come from God. Without God, no one has any rights.”

I understand where this person is coming from. He knows that if humans attempted to provide rights to their fellow humans, they would fall short. He wants there to be an absolute set of inviolable rights that apply to all of humankind. But here’s the problem. Suppose such a list of rights dictated by God actually exists. How do we humans determine what they are? After all, God did not carve them into the face of the Earth for all to see. So, how do we discover them? A Christian would say, “God has given them to us in the Bible.” But a Muslim would say, “God has written them in the Koran.” People of other religions would have equally diverse responses. Who gets to decide for everyone else what the true set of rights are?

As you can see, it is problematic discovering the true God-given rights of man when we can’t even agree who the true God is. In addition, people who believe in the same God can’t agree on what their God’s list of rights consists of. Further, even if two people agree on a right, they may not agree on how to implement that right in the real world.

Look at the US Constitution. Even though our Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, our founders found it necessary to include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Why was that necessary if we already had unalienable rights? Well, I believe it was because they knew there would be disagreement over what those unalienable rights were and thus needed to be defined in some way in our founding document so there would be less confusion.

Another issue is that of enforcement. If humans have rights, then it seems reasonable for there to be some sort of punishment for those that violate those rights. We humans recognize that without those punishments, we essentially don’t have any rights, for evil men could run roughshod over good men without retribution. We can state all we want that we have rights, but that will not stop a bad guy with a fist, or a knife, or a gun.

It’s this enforcement issue that makes me question whether our rights come from God. As we all know, God does not find it necessary to exact justice on those that violate others rights. But without that side of the rights coin, the other side fails. Rights mean nothing if a violator of them sees no retribution. It’s like a blind man being told that his eyes are reacting to light just fine. It does him no good if the optic nerve is damaged.

So, why would God give us rights, then do nothing to protect them? Perhaps he just wants to see us flounder about figuring it all out ourselves. The problem is that men are not omniscient. Even with the best intentions, we fail. We sometimes convict people of crimes they did not commit. We sometimes set free the worst among us. Just think of how much better it would be if God—assuming he is a good God—made the decisions about who should be punished and who should not. And I’m not talking about punishment in the next life. That does no good for all the subsequent victims of crimes after the initial one. In fact, if indeed God is omniscient, he could actually prevent all crimes before they are committed. How cool would that be? Kind of like those officers in the movie “Minority Report,” but with a perfect knowledge of the future rather than a murky one.

It seems to me that even if God does have a list of rights that all humans possess, he has left it to us to figure them out for ourselves. We must decide what those rights are, write them down for all to see, get a general agreement on their correctness, and then enforce them by punishing those who violate them. But as we can see by looking at the world around us, there is no agreement across the globe on what rights we have. That is one reason we are divided up into countries with differing sets of laws that define differing sets of rights for its citizens. Also, some countries like the USA are further divided into states, counties, and cities that each define our rights. It seems that’s the best we can do in the absence of God doing it for us.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Revenge, Justice, Forgiveness, and Salvation

My son and I have been watching the entire series of the TV show “House, M.D.” A few days ago, we started the sixth season. In one episode, a maniacal genocidal dictator, who was visiting the United States, gets ill and comes under the care of Greg House’s team at the hospital. Throughout the show, one of the team members, Cameron, struggles with helping this dictator get well because she fears she will then be complicit in any deaths he brings about in the future. Others on the team keep telling her that their jobs as doctors are not to pass judgment on their patient, but to cure him. The conflict builds and finally Cameron’s husband, Chase, who is also on the team, becomes convinced that this dictator is going to commit genocide against many thousands of his own people if he recovers and goes back to his home country. He can’t bear that thought, so switches a blood sample to make it look like the dictator has a medical problem he does not have. The treatment will most certainly kill him given what they believed his real condition was. The plan succeeds, the dictator dies, and now Chase must figure out how to cover up his actions and fight his inner demons.

Moral dilemmas in TV shows and movies have always intrigued me. They push me to evaluate how I would response if put in a similar situation. The answer is not always easy. In fact, more often than not, I am left not really knowing for sure what I would do. 

During World War II, there were quite a few Germans who saw Hitler for what he really was, which was a maniacal genocidal dictator like the one in the “House, M.D.” episode. Some of these astute citizens realized they needed to stop Hitler before he destroyed their country. Several assassination attempts were unsuccessfully carried out. I often wonder how those people, had they been successful at assassinating Hitler, would be viewed by the world. Most assuredly the German military would have executed them for treason. But much of the rest of the world would have viewed them as heroes and martyrs.

It is interesting how varied people’s opinions can be over the same actions of others. In most of the cop shows, the main issue is justice. Someone mistreats other people and the police talk about bringing that person to justice. In other movies like “John Wick,” the issue is revenge. Someone did something bad, and the victim won’t stop until he gets his vengeance against the perpetrator. In religious shows, the emphasis is oftentimes placed on forgiveness. Rather than seeking justice or revenge, seek to forgive the person who transgressed against you. Yet in other shows, the emphasis is salvation. Consider the movie “Taken.” A man’s daughter is kidnapped and about to be sold into slavery. Since the man has “certain skills,” he goes on a rampage to save his daughter. He is not driven by justice or revenge, but rather solely by rescuing his daughter from the hands of evil. Anyone who stands in his way is a target of his wrath.

This afternoon, my wife and I went to see the movie “The Shack.” I had read the book many years ago but, given the inefficiency of my long-term memory, could not recall much about it. The basis of the movie is that a young daughter of the main character is kidnapped and killed. The father struggles with this as does his wife and two other children. He gets an invitation from God to return to the shack where his daughter was murdered. There his judgmental mentality and his inability to forgive others is challenged. And, interestingly, a question that I had just challenged my wife and son with at lunch earlier was asked in the movie. “How does one decide what is good and what is evil?” If you think deeply about this, the answer may not be as obvious as it seems at first glance.

Now, ask yourself, “Which response to evil do you like the best?” Revenge? Justice? Forgiveness? Salvation? If you are like me, I think perhaps you might be saying, “I like them all.” I cheer on John Wick as he leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake while seeking revenge on the man who stole his car, killed his dog, and knocked him unconscious. I applaud the police officers who relentlessly investigate a murder and finally bring in the murderer so justice can be served. I cry at the struggle victims go through to forgive the criminal who did them wrong. I urge on the man who will do anything to save the person he loves.

So, what’s going on? Do I have multiple personalities living within my brain? Am I simply crazy? Or is it simply coded into my DNA, and perhaps yours as well, to want all these things to occur simultaneously? Is that even possible?

Upon thinking about these questions, I have concluded that it is possible. Revenge seeks to teach an evil person how deep the pain of what they did was by having that person experience that same pain. Justice seeks to right a wrong, as much as humanly possible, by taking them out of society, thus making it impossible to perpetrate the same evil on others. Forgiveness seeks protection of yourself by letting the past go and to quit obsessing over the evil that occurred. Salvation seeks to prevent harm to a loved one and perhaps prevent additional harm to others. A combination of these things can be both therapeutic and good for society as a whole. While all four of these reactions are legitimate, different situations call for a differing mix of the four.

I don’t pretend to have it all figured out, but I do have an inkling of how these four reactions should be applied. For instance, while seeking vengeance, you must not cross a line that ends up making you the evil one. When seeking justice, one must be certain, usually through a trial process, that the right person is being punished. When seeking to forgive, you should not “deal with the devil” or place yourself or others in danger. When seeking to save, one must be confident that the actions they take do not end up bringing harm to the one you are trying to save. Accomplishing these things will most likely not be easy. Mistakes will often be made, but doing nothing will probably end badly.

After watching “The Shack,” I told my wife that I view some movies as following the Old Testament, where we typically think of God acting out of vengeance and justice, while other movies are like the New Testament, where God is defined by forgiveness and salvation. I like a little of both. Concerning forgiveness, I should note that there are actually three levels of forgiveness: 1) letting go, 2) no punishment, and 3) restored relationship. “The Shack” only addresses the first. That level of forgiveness is difficult, but the other two are much more so. For a complete explanation, please see my book, “God Is: Exploring the Nature of the Biblical God.”