About a month ago an e--mail came in from a member of the Church of Freethought. This group gained press coverage in The Dallas Morning News on November 11th, 1995 (IG). This past summer they received another round of publicity and have been pleased to announce how they have grown and have chapters in other locales. This year's newspaper articles were very similar to the original ones; since there was nothing especially new about this group, there did not seem to be a sufficient reason to say anything more about them (in addition to the article published in these pages on December 17, 1995).
But then came the aforementioned e--mail, which took me to task for that article, and some correspondence ensued. No names or e--mail addresses will be supplied, but some of the exchange may be enlightening--especially to those who may be tempted to think these people are real intellectuals. Printing the entire exchange would be too cumbersome; what follows, therefore, is an edited version which retains the pertinent portions of the written conversation. We will designate the writer by the initials FT (for Freethought); I will be GS. The comments in brackets were not part of the e--mail exchange; they will explain why I answered as I did.
FT: I attend the Church of Freethought and I have to say that you clearly have no idea what it is about. It seems that you merely read an article in a newspaper, assumed that the article correctly depicted the church and its members, and then basically ridiculed the members based on second hand information and straw men.
The fact is that the Church is in its 6th year. There are now 4 Freethought Churches in America and membership in ours is at about 150.
Basically the members are happy well adjusted people....
GS: So, with what exact statement of mine did you take issue? What did I misrepresent? What quotation was taken out of context?
[The reason these questions are asked is that the original e--mail did not cite one specific instance of misrepresentation; only general condemnations were offered.]
FT: What my problem is... and I said this so I don't know why you asked me... was that your impression was from a news article which would likely contain some inaccuracy because of the nature of our press.
GS: I understand your complaint with the press, but how difficult would it have been for you to have written a brief letter, thanking them for the publicity but offering a point of clarity? I (and others) read the editorial page. If your desire is for people to know the truth about you and not have misconceptions, I would think that would be a priority.
[He then responded that most people understood the purpose for the church and that follow--up comments seemed to be unnecessary. He never stated in what ways the newspaper misrepresented him or how I misunderstood the purpose of the church, but he did take issue with some of my comments in our bulletin; we now move to some of these.]
FT: "Why did they seek the publicity of this newspaper article?" [quoting from my December, 1995 article]. We didn't. They came to us. In fact in every case the press has come to us.
GS: The press always comes to you. How fortunate! I have been working with churches for over 30 years, and the press has never come to us. And we are much more unique than you are; we believe in truth.
[Although he took issue with the claim to believe in truth, he made no further comments on the press.]
FT: Your further claim in the same paragraph demonstrates your lack of understanding of the Church of Freethought. You said, "Atheists could surely feel comfortable among some of these 'religious groups' without having to form one of their own." No. You don't get it. The methodist and other Christian churches harbor beliefs that we believe are superstitious and they harbor supernatural ideas.
GS: Many denominations have no supernatural element. Even when they celebrate "Christmas" and "Easter," they don't really believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or raised from the dead.
[Many mainline denominations no more believe in God than members of the Church of Freethought do. They deny miracles and practically anything of a supernatural basis. Even if they do believe in God, their views follow their own imaginations of what they think He is like. They do not believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God or that they should subject themselves to its teachings or morality.]
FT: Further you say, "... Most religious groups gave up on theology years ago." Really?! Read the pope's latest statement? The Southern Baptists [sic] pronouncements regarding the place of women and the "sin" of homosexuality?
GS: Notice that the statement you are responding to on theology says MOST, not ALL, churches. Certainly, the pope issues doctrinal statements, but how many Catholics know or care? Many Protestant denominations follow Calvinism, too, but their members do not even know these doctrines, such as hereditary total depravity. When I have pointed out to many people that children are born in innocence, they invariably agree. They have never learned the doctrines that their own churches teach! We and they are among the few left that really care about truth.
[This last statement was intended to provoke a discussion on the subject of truth. Baptists have shown that they have cared about truth by upholding what the Bible teaches about homosexuality and the role of women; they still resist the truth about baptism.]
Many other subjects were discussed which space forbids repeating, but we want to consider some important comments in the final exchange. After my response, there was no further reply, which is significant. Either the correspondent grew weary of the subject or (all things being equal) he did not know how to answer the points made.
FT: I've seen no evidence that Jesus was divine, was the son of God, or did things that were attributed to him. I have no evidence of the existence of god(s). I have never seen any evidence of supernatural powers. Although I have no intention of arguing "truth" with you, it would seem [you appears to be omitted here, GWS] have beliefs but to call them "truth" is a bit of a stretch.
GS: You say that you have seen no evidence that Jesus is Divine. What would you consider evidence?
So what is your problem with the Supernatural? Are you an empiricist, and if so, what kind? Do you rely only on your senses, or can you use logic or reason?
[Just when the discussion was getting interesting, it stopped. Some portion of many discussions consists of verbal sparring. But here was an opportunity to get beneath the superficial, the external. These two points comprise the heart of the disagreement. What constitutes evidence? Can we only achieve knowledge through our senses? Or can we use logic, reason, and reliable testimony? In comments not reported FT and I both admitted that we enjoyed reading the author Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged). But I never met Ayn Rand. How do I know she existed? Such knowledge does not come through my senses but through logic, reason, and reliable testimony.]
FT: Our church grew in small part out of response to people like her [Shirley MacLaine, gws] that disavow logic and reason in order to find "Truth."
GS: Christians who follow the Bible do not disavow logic and reason (which it seemed you were implying). On the contrary, we insist upon it. If you were familiar with the Warren--Flew Debate, conducted on [the campus of the] University of North Texas in 1976, you would know that Thomas Warren was the one using logic night after night while the atheist Flew floundered around in the sea of subjectivity.
FT: Almost all of the membership believe that knowledge and morality comes from logic and reason and that final decisions of these things are individual choices.
GS: You say that morality comes from logic and reason? This is fascinating. Is adultery right or wrong? Is abortion right or wrong? Is homosexuality right or wrong? Is polygamy right or wrong? Is stealing right or wrong? On what basis? Apart from an objective source (one that arises outside and above man) there is no way to reach an authoritative conclusion. When morality depends on our subjective feelings, nothing can ever be decided.
[Brother Warren pressed this point in his debate with Antony Flew--that without God there is no basis for morality. When right and wrong cannot be established upon an objective source (the Scriptures), which arises outside of man, then morality cannot be anything other than subjective--what any particular individual thinks about it. This point is so obviously true that it scarcely needs elaboration, but to insure that it is fully grasped, the following illustrations are provided.
Many cultures practice polygamy; they do not consider that it is morally or ethically wrong; it is their long--standing custom to live in this fashion. Many nations have banned the practice as uncivilized. Now who is right? If logic and reason are applied to the practice, where do we stand? Those who defend polygamy will argue that it is a practical way of life and that reason demands that they continue in it. We might argue that polygamy demeans women and robs them of their full potential. The countries that tolerate polygamous marriages would reply, "Fine. We don't mind if you don't allow it over there, but leave us alone because it works here." Apart from God, no standard exists that can resolve this situation.
Further, on the subject of lying, reason would tell us that for a president to look into the TV cameras and tell what he knew to be an outright lie would end a political career, but strangely his stature was enhanced. The climate of America once was such that a person lost credibility when he purposely stated things that were false (which is logical), but now lying is considered acceptable, perhaps even a desirable ability to possess. So, which is it? Is lying good or bad? Without an objective standard, lying is both good and bad.
Historically, people have thought that adultery is bad, but that philosophy has been replaced by, "Well, if it makes you happy...." Never mind that vows have been broken (what's another lie?), that a mate is unnecessarily hurt to satisfy someone's lust, that children may be adversely affected for years, or that yet another home has disintegrated--so long as the guilty person feels good and is happy.
Do not reason and logic tell us that these things are wrong? Apparently not, since such a large segment of society have turned adultery and lying into a national sport. WITHOUT AN OBJECTIVE STANDARD THERE IS NO MORALITY!! The Church of Freethought will never reach agreement on any of these issues. No wonder there was no response.]
FT: I think throughout your entire article [the December, 1995 article, GWS] you were assigning a target to statements...made which were inaccurate.
GS: You say that my article is inaccurate. Isn't such a conclusion based on certain assumptions which are listed below?
1. Words have meanings.
2. Words can be used in an objective sense, with definitions common to all of us.
3. We can all understand word--and the ideas that they express--alike (watch out for postmodernism).
4. We have a moral obligation to understand words as they were intended to be understood (how does this sense of oughtness come about?).
5. We have an obligation to truth as it pertains to what someone has written.
6. If someone has written something that is inaccurate, he has an obligation to correct that statement and make it accurate (apparently the news media lacks this philosophy).
Understand that I am not agreeing with you that anything I said was inaccurate; but do not the above items need to be true before you can tell me that I have written something that is inaccurate?
[Numbers one through three above are designed to show that we all believe that we can understand words and ideas alike, thus ridding ourselves of the bogus notion that everything depends upon "interpretation," which is now all the rage in universities. There is little to be gained in studying anything, if (in the final analysis) truth will be determined by subjective feelings. Of course, in religion, this dodge has been practiced for years: "I don't care what the Bible (objective standard) says; I know what I feel (subjective emotions) in my heart."
Points four through six are designed to provoke thinking (one would think that members of the Church of Freethought would be interested in thinking) about the source of moral obligation. If a person ought to do something, the first, and perhaps best, question is, "Why?" Who has the power to make such a demand of me--someone with power and authority? What will be the consequences if I don't behave as I ought? Apart from God, why ought I accept anyone else's subjective definitions of oughtness?
These are questions which are fully pertinent to the differences between those who believe in the Bible and those who reject it as the inspired Word of God. It is unfortunate that this exchange ceased at the most crucial juncture. Is this posture freethought or nothought?]
*Send comments or questions concerning this article to Gary Summers. Please refer to this article as: "FREETHOUGHT OR NOTHOUGHT? (10/15/00)."