Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Atheist reviews CMYK

I had the pleasure recently of receiving a free copy of CMYK by Justin McRoberts.  I got it for free because I know him personally, and I threatened to shoot him in the kneecaps if he didn't give me one.  Being a weak "turn the other cheek" Christian, he obliged, right after peeing in his pants from fear.  Nah, I'm kidding.  He sent me one for free, no doubt one of the reasons being that I inspired (at least partially) one of the chapters.  Actually, I got two copies - the text-only one, and a digital edition of the full-color version.  By the time you're done reading this, and you're thinking of buying it, I definitely recommend getting the full-color one.  Why?  'Cause it's got pitchers.  It also looks really good. Check out his entire store, as you'll find that it's not just a book but a "project" that includes music with different albums that thematically fit the prose. (Is "albums" the right word nowadays?  You know what I mean.)

Before I go any further, I should point out that while I wouldn't lump this book into the category of Christian apologetics, it takes the Christian viewpoint as a given.  Generally speaking, I think that this is book from a Christian to his fellow Christians.  Even the chapters that are aimed at atheists are really more there for the Christians, or at least, that's how I interpret it.  I'll get to that later though, as I'd like to start off on a positive note before I ruthlessly demolish his entire world view and unload every foul curse that I know.

How it's structured:

The book is mostly a series of letters that Justin wrote to his friends and family.  Many of the letters deal with people who are struggling through their faith through one reason or another.  Some of the letters are directed at friends who have completely lost their faith, and one of them is a letter to Justin's dad, who committed suicide about two decades ago.

My overall reaction:

There are parts that were really moving, and I had a hard time putting the book down.  Other parts, like when he addresses his fellow Christians who struggle with faith, made me want to write my own letters to them saying, "It's okay to not believe this stuff, you know."  The parts where he addresses atheists and atheism are probably the closest I've ever seen a Christian address the way nonbelievers see things, but I still found myself shaking my head and going "No, no, no..." from time to time.  It's not full of strawmen arguments, although somewhere in there he presents the false dichotomy of believing that the world was "created" rather than "a coincidence", as though those two words were opposites.  I'll let that go, as he kinda just throws it out there instead of making a greater point of it.  I'm forgiving like that.  Just like that one guy.

Where I'm with it:

Gotta give Justin credit for the following:
I have found most of the challenges offered by atheists are not couched in a hate-driven, maniacal desire to eradicate faith so that they can control the world...I've come to find atheism as a worldview in which many friends find hope...Atheism is a worldview in which religion is problematic insofar as it is an obstacle in a fully flourishing human life.
Let's see the likes of William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, or Rick Warren say something like that, and I'll eat some broken glass.  Seeing that many of us atheists find hope in our non-belief?  That's awesome, and I intend no exaggeration or sarcasm in it, because usually we atheists get nonsense about how we're "sad" and "without hope".

As for me, the best part is the section where Justin writes about his decision to become a father and reconciling that with what happened with his dad.  He's very candid with his feelings about what his father did, while still showing an incredible amount of love for the man.  There's a fear in all of us that we'll become our parents (for some, the fear is greater than others) and for Justin, he's clearly determined to bring about an end to the pain that his father found to be insurmountable.

Maybe it's because I'm a dad, and our sons aren't too far apart in age, but that bit really got to me.  Still, I think that you'd have to be pretty dead inside to not have it hit you right in the heart.  Oh, and just in case you're wondering, we plan on having our sons battle it out, gladiator-style.  If his son wins, he'll shout: "Praise Jesus!"  If my son wins, he'll shout: "Where's your God now?"  Obviously, our sons are too young for this right now, and we plan on making this happen when they're both five.

Justin also relates some personal stories, like how he proposed to his wife, and his experiences in India. That all makes for some good reading.

Where it loses me:

Well, you know that it had to go here eventually, didn't you?

The chapter entitled "The Fear of God" is the one addressed to me.  It starts off with sort of an odd sentence:  "The idea that anything beyond observation is absurd to you."  Hmm...I've been struggling to wrap my head around that sentence, and while I can't tell you exactly what's wrong with it, it just doesn't quite sit right.  A more accurate description of how I see the world is what Carl Sagan said:  "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."  In terms of Christianity, I find that it fails to meet the burden of that proof and considering just how outlandish its claims are, yes, I would call them absurd.

After that, he spells out my objections to faith pretty accurately, while contrasting them with his beliefs.  He writes about "The Creator" though without making a case as to why I should even entertain that concept as a serious possibility.  I don't necessarily blame him for this, as the book's intention is not to make a case for Christ.  Still, substitute the word "Creator" with any other mythological concept, and you'll have a feeling of how I'm already starting to shake my head a bit.

But where I really get lost is when he moves on to write:
And this is where my challenge to you begins.  I believe your value system - your vision for what is good - is as much a matter of faith as mine.

This is where the train goes completely off the tracks.  For me to have a value system is not even in the same neighborhood as saying that you believe that God had a son who was Himself and was crucified only to come back three days later, not to mention talking snakes and donkeys.  Shoot, it's not even on the same planet.

My vision for what is good basically boils down to an opinion - an opinion that has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, the society in which I was raised, my parents, and my own specific experiences. Thankfully, most people tend to agree on the bigger issues.  Those who don't tend to find themselves not getting along too well or even thrown in jail.

Saying that the Christian story is true is not stating how you want the world to be (although that thought comes along with it) it's making a statement about reality and what happened in history.  It's saying that things that we understand to be impossible are actually possible, but only when it comes to one particular mythology. While a Christian might say (as Justin has) that determining what's good and what's bad involves a process that cannot be explained through nature, the fact remains that we have a perfectly natural explanation as to WHY we have values.  (And I also disagree that you have to go beyond the natural world to figure it out, in case you haven't figured that out.)

Justin goes on, of course, but as of this point it doesn't matter how logically he forms the rest of what he says, the very premise is flawed, and it's like building on sand.  The walls might be well-designed, but the whole thing is gonna sink.  Still, I'd like to address this:
Part of what this means for me is that when my will differs from the Creator's will, I am not only in the wrong but possibly detracting from what is good in the world. Ultimately, such a crisis of wills must be resolved in my submission to the Creator. Not because I find his will more appealing or better suited to my sensibilities, but because His will is the standard of goodness.
I have so many problems with this statement.  Embedded in it is the assertion that God is good.  (For the sake of argument, I'm going to assume the existence of God here.)  Why is that?  Because He created the universe?  Is it because he's the one who created the concept of "good" in the first place?  I don't know why this is an automatic.  It seems to me that His will could just as easily be the standard of evil.  If He created everything, then he created both good and evil, so why does he instantly get put in the "good" category? What's to say that he's not just messing with us?

Ultimately, it's this word "submit" that I find frightening. (I need to go back to my assertion that this God probably doesn't even exist here.) It's like the late Christopher Hitchens said, and I'm paraphrasing: "It's one thing to say that a God exists.  It's entirely another thing to say that you know what He wants."  Until you meet the burden of proof for this God's existence, then it's more likely to say that you're either following what you have decided that this God wants or, as is the case of so many people, what completely fallible human beings are telling you that He wants. In other words, it's a complete surrender of your own mental faculties to something that is quite likely a falsehood.

Anyway, there were a lot of other bits that rankled my sensibilities, but I don't want this review to be as long as his book.  I just think that a lot of these points are indicative of religion's death throes. I genuinely think that we're going to see more nonbelief as time goes by considering that a lot more people are being exposed to the objections of religion than might have before the days of the Internet.  Some religious people will go out kicking and screaming and some will reach out and politely tell you to keep checking for vital signs because maybe this whole religion experiment wasn't completely useless after all.  I guess I'd put Justin in the latter category.

Even though I completely disagree with the entire notion that God has a place in discussing what's good and what's bad, Justin is doing something that I think we can all agree is important - making us think why we believe certain things to be good or bad. He's right that we basically make an assumption that human life has value, but I think that this assumption can be defended - and it should be defended. Any atheist who reads this book will have to think about why that is, and even though they'll conclude that introducing God to the mix is akin to saying, "Hey! What about magic?" the thought process is still worth having because it goes beyond the existence or nonexistence of God.


Ingrid Johnson said...

Lance, no argument coming from me, but I always wonder why you say "God had a son who was Himself". Jesus said "the father and I are one", which doesn't mean they are the same, and Jesus also said "the father is greater than I ". Jesus was the son of God, not God but a god.

Lance Johnson said...

You're aware that this contradicts what the vast majority of Christians believe though, right? The Council of Nicea determined them to be one and the same.

I realize that you don't believe that, and I'm not going to argue it one way or another. To me, it's like arguing whether Superman is faster than the Flash or not, only less interesting.

Tony from Pandora said...

I may be opening yet another huge can of spiritual worms here... but... I gotta go with the Flash...

Lance Johnson said...

You are correct. The most recent Justice League series proves it.

Justin McRoberts said...

Thanks for reviewing this, man. I did't have a chance until now to dig into your review but I'm thankful you did it. Good feedback.

Regarding the idea that "I believe your value system - your vision for what is good - is as much a matter of faith as mine." I hear it when you say "My vision for what is good basically boils down to an opinion - an opinion that has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, the society in which I was raised, my parents, and my own specific experiences." I think we agree about the mechanics of value development. What I'm pointing at is that I think we share a kind of "belief" that some things are simply right and others wrong… You call your understanding of right/wrong an opinion and I would agree.. so is mine. But there are other opinions and I don't grant those equal weight because I think folks can be off about their value system. So do you. For instance, valuing a religious system over and above the people it is designed to serve is dangerous and stupid. That's an opinion we share… but we also think we're right about that.. which I read as a matter of faith.

And yes... "to have a value system is not even in the same neighborhood as saying that you believe that God had a son who was Himself and was crucified only to come back three days later, not to mention talking snakes and donkeys" But I'm not suggesting that either… that's mythology and I'm not trying to convince you of its value. I'm saying we share a root value for human life and that we share in assuming that value's basic truth.

I attribute that value to our relationship to God. You attribute that value to something else… maybe our capacity to create great works of art like Amazon Women 4.

Anyway, thanks for your friendship and for taking the time to read the book and write this.