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My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism - Page 4

Habermas: What critical evaluation would you make of the three major monotheisms? Are there any particular philosophical strengths or weaknesses in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam?

Flew: If all I knew or believed about God was what I might have learned from Aristotle, then I should have assumed that everything in the Universe, including human conduct, was exactly as God wanted it to be. And this is indeed the case, in so far as both Christianity and Islam are predestinarian, a fundamental teaching of both religious systems. What was true of Christianity in the Middle Ages is certainly no longer equally true after the Reformation. But Islam has neither suffered nor enjoyed either a Reformation or an Enlightenment. In the Summa Theologiae we may read:

As men are ordained to eternal life throughout the providence of God, it likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away from that end; this is called reprobation . . . . Reprobation implies not only foreknowledge but also is something more. . .28

What and how much that something more is the Summa contra Gentiles makes clear:

. . . just as God not only gave being to things when they first began, but is also - as the conserving cause of being - the cause of their being as long as they last . . . . Every operation, therefore, of anything is traced back to Him as its cause.29

The Angelic Doctor, however, is always the devotedly complacent apparatchik. He sees no problem about the justice of either the inflicting of infinite and everlasting penalties for finite and temporal offences, or of their affliction upon creatures for offences which their Creator makes them freely choose to commit. Thus, the Angelic Doctor assures us:

In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God . . . they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned . . . Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed, while the pains of the damned will cause it indirectly . . . the blessed in glory will have no pity for the damned.30

The statements of predestinarianism in the Qur'an are much more aggressive and unequivocal than even the strongest in the Bible. Compare the following from the Qur'an with that from Romans 9.

As for the unbelievers, alike it is to them
Whether thou hast warned them or hast not warned them
They do not believe.31

God has set a seal on their hearts and on the hearing
And on the eyes is a covering
And there awaits them a mighty chastisement.32

In the UK the doctrine of Hell has for the last century or more been progressively de-emphasised, until in 1995 it was explicitly and categorically abandoned by the Church of England. It would appear that the Roman Catholic Church has not abandoned either the doctrine of Hell nor predestination.

Thomas Hobbes spent a very large part of the forty years between the first publication of the King James Bible and the first publication of his own Leviathan engaged in biblical criticism, one very relevant finding of which I now quote:

And it is said besides in many places [that the wicked] shall go into everlasting fire; and that the worm of conscience never dieth; and all this is comprehended in the word everlasting death, which is ordinarily interpreted everlasting life in torments. And yet I can find nowhere that any man shall live in torments everlastingly. Also, it seemeth hard to say that God who is the father of mercies; that doth in heaven and earth all that he will, that hath the hearts of all men in his disposing; that worketh in men both to do, and to will; and without whose free gift a man hath neither inclination to good, nor repentance of evil, should punish men's transgressions without any end of time, and with all the extremity of torture, that men can imagine and more.33

As for Islam, it is, I think, best described in a Marxian way as the uniting and justifying ideology of Arab imperialism. Between the New Testament and the Qur'an there is (as it is customary to say when making such comparisons) no comparison. Whereas markets can be found for books on reading the Bible as literature, to read the Qur'an is a penance rather than a pleasure. There is no order or development in its subject matter. All the chapters (the suras) are arranged in order of their length, with the longest at the beginning. However, since the Qur'an consists in a collection of bits and pieces of putative revelation delivered to the prophet Mohammad by the Archangel Gabriel in classical Arab on many separate but unknown occasions, it is difficult to suggest any superior principle of organization.

One point about the editing of the Qur'an is rarely made although it would appear to be of very substantial theological significance. For every sura is prefaced by the words "In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." Yet there are references to Hell on at least 255 of the 669 pages of Arberry's rendering of the Qur'an34 and quite often pages have two such references.

Whereas St. Paul, who was the chief contributor to the New Testament, knew all the three relevant languages and obviously possessed a first class philosophical mind, the Prophet, though gifted in the arts of persuasion and clearly a considerable military leader, was both doubtfully literate and certainly ill-informed about the contents of the Old Testament and about several matters of which God, if not even the least informed of the Prophet's contemporaries, must have been cognizant.

This raises the possibility of what my philosophical contemporaries in the heyday of Gilbert Ryle would have described as a knock-down falsification of Islam: something which is most certainly not possible in the case of Christianity.  If I do eventually produce such a paper it will obviously have to be published anonymously.

Habermas: What do you think about the Bible?

Flew: The Bible is a work which someone who had not the slightest concern about the question of the truth or falsity of the Christian religion could read as people read the novels of the best novelists. It is an eminently readable book.

Habermas: You and I have had three dialogues on the resurrection of Jesus. Are you any closer to thinking that the resurrection could have been a historical fact?

Flew: No, I don't think so. The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It's outstandingly different in quality and quantity, I think, from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most other supposedly miraculous events. But you must remember that I approached it after considerable reading of reports of psychical research and its criticisms. This showed me how quickly evidence of remarkable and supposedly miraculous events can be discredited.

What the psychical researcher looks for is evidence from witnesses, of the supposedly paranormal events, recorded as soon as possible after their occurrence. What we do not have is evidence from anyone who was in Jerusalem at the time, who witnessed one of the allegedly miraculous events, and recorded his or her testimony immediately after the occurrence of that allegedly miraculous event. In the 1950s and 1960s I heard several suggestions from hard-bitten young Australian and American philosophers of conceivable miracles the actual occurrence of which, it was contended, no one could have overlooked or denied. Why, they asked, if God wanted to be recognized and worshipped, did God not produce a miracle of this unignorable and undeniable kind?

Habermas: So you think that, for a miracle, the evidence for Jesus' resurrection is better than other miracle claims?

Flew: Oh yes, I think so. It's much better, for example, than that for most if not all of the, so to speak, run-of-the-mill Roman Catholic miracles. On this see, for instance, D. J. West.35


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