If I found myself doing as much work to disprove the existence of the Tooth Fairy as atheists do trying to disprove the existence of God, I think I would start robbing dental labs and piling teeth beneath my pillow.
I was reading a post recently by New Atheist Jerry Coyne criticizing a book by philosopher J. P. Moreland called Christianity and the Nature of Science. I haven’t read the book myself, so I can’t speak directly to Coyne’s criticisms, but I can speak to the logic of his main argument. Essentially he argues (contra Moreland) that theology has not arrived at “some truth concerning the world”. How does he know that? Well according to Jerry Coyne, he knows that because so many religions disagree on the nature of God:
Now let me first agree that philosophy has progressed, at least in areas I’m familiar with, like ethical philosophy, where bad arguments have been weeded out and questions have become clearer.
But that doesn’t apply to theology. One need consider only this: if theology has arrived at “some truth concerning the world,” then that “truth” is flatly denied by adherents of other faiths. There is in fact no unanimity among religions about how many Gods there are, what God is like, what God’s commands are, whether there’s a hell or an after life of any sort, how you get saved, whether you’re reincarnated, and so on. There are, for example, more than 34,000 denominations of Christianity alone, and that doesn’t include all those other religions. And all of them differ not only in claims about the nature of God and how one is saved, but about things like divorce, sex, gay rights, and birth control. If you think that religion has arrived at the truth, first have a look at this truncated phylogeny of Christianity (which of course leaves out the thousands of other religions).
As is typical of Jerry Coyne as well as New Atheists generally, what is missing here is logic. He doesn’t ever justify why the existence of various beliefs about some topic undermine the fact that we can know something true about said topic. Take a study like political philosophy. It has been fairly well established that constitutional democracies that respect individual rights are far superior to any number of other political systems in terms of freedom, personal prosperity, health and scientific and technical advancement. Despite this fact, many of the same political systems that have always existed still exist. We still have tribal warlords, kings, dictatorships, communist regimes, and theocracies. And within the broad umbrella of constitutional democracies, there are many variations – multi-party systems, two party systems, those that employ prime ministers and those that employ presidents, and some that do both. If Coyne’s logic were accurate, then we would have to conclude that nothing has been learned about what constitutes a good political system. Of course such a conclusion is absurd.
But thinking about his contention this way partly explains why there are so many systems of religion. The reason dictatorships and the like still exist despite the demonstrable superiority of constitutional democracies is that such systems allow certain individuals and groups to selfishly retain power they would otherwise not have. In other words corrupt human ambition explains the existence and proliferation of demonstrably untrue ideas about governing. I would say much the same is true about false religions or ideas about God – such ideas benefit certain people or groups of people in terms of their selfish ambitions. It is no accident that people are punished for conversion in large parts of the Islamic world, or in Hindu controlled India, or even in secularist regimes like China, North Korea and Cuba. So the existence of multiple religions doesn’t in any way undermine the idea that we can grow in our knowledge of God.
Of course science is different than certain other kinds of knowledge like theology or political philosophies in that science is essentially a method or tool, whereas our religious and political beliefs govern the way we live individually and the way we run our societies. Discovering that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way round may change one’s view of the solar system – but understanding human nature and how God intended us to live can change every aspect of one’s life. This isn’t to say scientific knowledge doesn’t impact our lives, but we choose how that knowledge will be used – and how it is used depends on other beliefs that science can’t inform.
Even so, Coyne overplays his hand. He cites the common misused figure of ‘34,000 denominations of Christianity’ as if this represents 34,000 fundamentally different beliefs. If Coyne himself actually knew anything about theology, he would know that the vast majority of Christians who are members of those denominations all adhere to certain fundamental truths like the Apostle’s Creed. As a Christian of the New Testament evangelical stripe, I find shared beliefs with Aquinas and Luther and Calvin and C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham – even though I am not of the same ‘denomination’.
But such a fine to thought process is probably too much to expect from the likes of Jerry Coyne. New Atheism is not after all an intellectual pursuit, but a rhetorical hammer meant to obliterate all thought contrary to its own. We shouldn’t expect them to be rational when discussing such matters.
Often when I argue that cells are infused with information driven molecular machinery and that this observation constitutes the basis for a readily falsifiable theory on why the cell is the product of the effort of a mind, opponents will accuse me of over-extending the use of the word ‘machine’. That is why I appreciate animations like the one below – it clearly depicts a molecular motor, that has been an integral part of cells since the beginning of life. It is clearly a mechanism composed of multiple integrated and highly interdependent parts that both convert energy into work, and provide the fuel on which the rest of the cell subsists.
The ATP synthase is definitely an information driven molecular machine, and the best explanation of its existence is that it was designed by a mind.
Best hamster wheel ever.
In a recent blog post on the New Atheist site A-Unicornist Mike shares his view of heaven by invoking Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek series. In the particular episode This Side of Paradise Kirk dismisses an offer to join an alien spore induced paradise with a typical Kirkian aplomb:
ELIAS: Captain, why don’t you join us?
KIRK: In your own private paradise.
ELIAS: The spores have made it that.
KIRK: Where did they originate?
SPOCK: It’s impossible to say. They drifted through space until they finally landed here. You see, they actually thrive on Berthold rays. The plants act as a repository for thousands of microscopic spores until they find a human body to inhabit.
ELIAS: In return, they give you complete health and peace of mind.
KIRK: That’s paradise?
ELIAS: We have no need or want, Captain.
SPOCK: It’s a true Eden, Jim. There’s belonging and love.
KIRK: No wants. No needs. We weren’t meant for that. None of us. Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is.
ELIAS: We have what we need.
KIRK: Except a challenge.
And later, with a reference to the Fall…
MCCOY: Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise.
KIRK: No, no, Bones. This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.
Mike’s point in employing this bit of dialogue is the same one skeptic’s have been using ever since – well at least since I was a skeptic myself, namely that heaven is boring, so who would want to go there anyway? It is an adolescent argument, the sort one would employ if one had a teenage view of the matter – which incidentally is around the time many men choose to become atheists. But it fails for two reasons, at least as far as Christianity is concerned; and one of the reason it fails is because Captain Kirk is a hypocrite.
How is he a hypocrite you ask? Well if you have a geek’s knowledge of the Star Trek universe like myself, then you know that by 21st century standards, the world Kirk and his crew inhabit is a paradise. Think about it – the Federation has long done away with money. The crew of the Enterprise never worries about running out of power, having an ample supply supplied by dilithium crystals. They jet about the galaxy, free to explore the mysteries of the universe having all their physical needs supplied at the push of a button on a replicator. They can move about at will over distance materializing in buildings on a planet’s surface in seconds (hey, where have I seen that before?!) War has ceased on earth and diseases are cured at the wave of glowing medical device.
As a matter of fact, Kirk often lectures warring alien about their primitive ways and absurd prejudices. Why? Because in order to have the freedom to really explore and gain more knowledge (which is after all the mission of the Enterprise) a high level of peace, prosperity and knowledge must be attained first. And as it turns out, this is pretty much true – historically, the cultures that have greatest advances are those who have managed to carve out for themselves a space where they can prosper in relative peace, away from the primitive human urges that constantly tear down civilizations. Man doesn’t stagnate when he is given room and means to rest and reflect, man prospers. In short, we advance by way of the heavenly, not by the way of the brutish struggle, something Kirk apparently forgot. But he is not known for his logic.
But the other reason this fails as a critique of the Christian view of heaven is that it is not an accurate view of the Christian view of heaven, at least as Scripture explains it. The proper Christian view of heaven is not one of mindless people floating about clouds, playing harps without a care or concern. That is a cartoon view of Christianity, which is where New Atheists seem to get most of their information. In Scripture our earthly lives are just a shadow of what our eternal experiences will be. This is how the Apostle Paul puts it:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. – 1 Corinthian 13:9-12
Paul is contrasting our current experience which is limited by time, our limited knowledge and experience with an eternal existence which has no such limitations. Knowing what’s true won’t be limited by our senses. In another passage, Paul attempts to explain how different this life is from the life to come:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.
There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. – 1 Corinthians 15:35 -39
In other words, one can’t measure our eternal experience by our temporal, earthly experience. It would be like trying to study a forest by looking at an acorn. Saying that ‘heaven is boring’ is akin to a bird in a cage saying the sky looks boring. It’s absurd, especially if you have a tiny taste of what flight is like.
It’s always interesting for me to think about how awed atheists are by the universe; and one can see why – it’s vast, it is continually revealing new secrets and the more we know about it the more we know about ourselves. If it were feasible one could spend a lifetime exploring it and never scratch the surface of all its mysteries. Now think for a moment about what keeps us from exploring this immense creation. Our lives and resources are limited. For most of human history they have been severely limited. At this point in human history we barely have the capability to send machines to the nearest planets. Even if we manage to reach them ourselves, there is no indication we could ever send a person to the nearest star. Certainly in my lifetime it will not happen and if it ever does happen no one alive today will know it. And to be even more frank, the power and resources available to us is dwindling – and the will to use it for long term speculative ventures is waning as well, because people sacrifice long term understanding for short terms pleasure. Our ambition is stalled by our selfish natures not by a desire for heaven.
What is exciting about the thought of heaven is no such barriers exist. Time and resources are available for the ultimate exploration of the vastness of creation. Of course, beyond this lies the vastness the Creator Himself – to which there is no end of knowledge, understanding, and immeasurable motivation to go as C.S. Lewis put it, “further up, and further in”.
Of course in our hearts we know this – that’s why we strive for it on earth, even though it will never exist on earth. We strive to know more, we strive to live longer, to be healthier, and to be more at peace. We strive for these things because we realize that desperate lives of limitation are not how human lives ought to be.
Of course this is nonsense to Mike because he does not believe heaven exists to begin with, which rather makes his critique of heaven odd.
But if one is going to criticize something, one should at least understand what one is criticizing and his cartoonish cliché ridden view of the Christian notion of heaven shows he is not only ignorant of heaven, but of human nature altogether.
In light of certain events, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by the scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. In it he describes the inevitable end of extreme skepticism:
What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent.
Pensées, SECTION VII, 434
I thought of this warning about skepticism after reading Salon magazine’s article on the latest conspiracy theories about the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary. While the existence of those who doubt that the events in Newtown, Connecticut occurred is shocking, it isn’t surprising. After all we live in an age where conspiracies abound – the official and well documented descriptions of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the 9/11 attacks, even the moon landings have all been questioned by a segment of the population. The foundation of such conspiracies rests on a pernicious distrust of authorities and the media as well an overblown sense of skepticism that proffers if one wasn’t present for the events themselves one can’t trust the accounts of others.
I have found that in many ways skeptics of Christianity are similar. Their arguments against the New Testament accounts sound very similar to the claims of the Sandy Hook truthers – that the accounts are inconsistent, that those giving the accounts aren’t reliable, that there are unreported facts which undermine the ‘official’ story or show that the story we are getting isn’t complete. The fact that people can question the reality of widely witnessed events days after they occurred show our inherent tendency to doubt; and the tendency of some to doubt no matter what facts are presented.
Now this isn’t to say skepticism isn’t useful as a part of a complete intellectual toolkit. Gullibility can be just as dangerous as skepticism. But skepticism alone isn’t sufficient to weigh the truth of a matter. Complete understanding includes a range of processes, from considering evidence, to personal experience, to knowing history and having some understanding of human nature. It also includes common sense, humility and yes, faith, which is the acknowledgement that even though we can never know all there is to know about certain events, we still must decide what we will accept as true. All these are employed by Christians in their decision to believe in Christ. Just as any rational person has sufficient evidence to accept that Kennedy was killed by a single madman, and that a group of fanatics flew planes into the World Trade Center buildings, that men walked on the moon and that a young disturbed man killed twenty children at Sandy Hook elementary, one also has sufficient evidence to believe confidently that a man walked the earth 2000 years ago, healed the sick, was crucified, died and rose again.
Of course the skeptic will find room to doubt – especially in this age where skeptics reign. But the existence of numerous skeptics doesn’t change the reality of any of these events.
And while some healthy skepticism might help us avoid untruths, in the end skepticism alone doesn’t enable the intellect but untether it from any certain foundation.
You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. “The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God… We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.”
– Martin Luther King, from his speech, “The American Dream” Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965.