Whatever one’s view of God, faith is at the center of all human knowledge.
“I have never believed in God. Yet, I have to admit that if He does not actually exist, then we can be little more than feverish, selfish little clods of ailments and grievances. And that is hardly enough reason to go on living. Only the existence of God can make anything at all have any meaning at all.”
George Bernard Shaw
I was recently watching an interview with theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin that was conducted as part of the Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s PBS series, Closer to Truth. A couple of things struck me about the interview. The first is Vilenkin’s humility. While he is certainly no believer and at most holds a Spinoza-esque view of an impersonal God, Vilenkin is certainly humble with regard to the idea of God. This is refreshing in light of the arrogance one typically sees amongst those scientists who are advocates of New Atheism. As a Christian I am never offended that someone doesn’t share my belief in God – in fact in a world where God allows men to choose their responses to Him, I would expect a certain number of people not to believe in God. But there is no reason for epistemic arrogance displayed by New Atheists, who have no warrant for the certainty they invest in scientism, materialism, and naturalism. So to see measured responses of the sort Vilenkin gives is refreshing.
But the other thing that strikes me about the interview is Vilenkin’s references to the underlying laws of physics which exist independent of the universe itself, as he calls it, a Platonic existence. For those who aren’t familiar with Plato, he imagined our universe was a reflection of a deeper reality, an ideal reality. To that end Vilenkin expresses the notion that mathematics itself isn’t merely a human a construct, but an underlying reality waiting to be discovered by us.
Vilenkin’s view here comport on some levels with those of another thinker, philosopher Thomas Nagel who recently wrote the book, Mind and Cosmos, which is a critique of the reductionist view of the universe suggested by Neo-Darwinism. Lest you take Nagel to be a creationist, he is in fact an atheist, though again a thinker of the sort Vilenkin is – thoughtful, epistemically humble and willing to be skeptical of things other atheists seem certain of. He suggests in his book that the universe has an inherent ‘mindfulness’, a tendency that inclines it to follow a path that eventually leads to us. In this he channels another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who believed the ends to which nature tends were inherent in nature itself.
Where both men seem to be arriving, albeit through different means, is at teleological view of the universe. For those not familiar with the term, generally speaking it means that processes bear attributes indicating they are being shaped toward an end – or that those processes have a purpose.
For most of human history humans have understood nature to be essentially teleological. Only in the 20th century did the reductionist notions of materialism and naturalism really begin to predominate in the sciences. But as Nagel points out, such reductionism essentially fails to explain certain aspects of nature – particularly the minds ability to explore the universe. More generally materialism fails to explain many aspects of the universe – it’s fine-tuning, the origin of the information driven machinery of life as well as human consciousness – or consciousness generally.
Of course Christianity has and continues to offer an inherently consistent answer to the question of the teleology we see in the universe. When Genesis describes God speaking the universe into existence it provides the bridge between the underlying principles, the forms that exist in the eternal mind of God and the reality that we experience as the universe. We see not only the receptacle of the natural laws that govern nature, a place both outside the universe and consistent with it, but we see how such laws could be invested in the fabric of the universe itself. A Christian view of the universe encompasses both Plato and Aristotle.
It also aids us in understanding why our minds comprehend the universe at all. If it is true that we are ‘created in the image of God’ then we derive from God the ability to conceptualize the principles that underlay the structure of nature – we are both the product of the mind of God, and we share with it the ability to comprehend its works.
That modern thinkers are beginning to see the underlying purpose of the universe is no surprise. If men are honest observers, whatever winding roads they might follow they arrive back at the same place despite their desires to end up somewhere else.
As a Christian I believe the universe was structured so that, as Romans says, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” If that is true, then the simplest man or the most sophisticated thinker should be able to observe nature and have some notion that it exists for a purpose – and that certainly appears to be the case.
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.
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.
The Atlantic recently featured an article called the There’s More to Life Than Being Happy which considers the difference between mere happiness and having purpose. The piece outlines the difference between the fleeting and selfish desire to be happy versus the lasting value of outward focused meaning which can endure even the greatest suffering. The article highlights the life of Viktor Frankl, a prominent 20th century Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who wrote a seminal book on meaning inspired by his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp called, Man’s Search for Meaning. The article explains the essence of the Frankl’s understanding of what lay at the core of those who survived the horrors of the concentration camps:
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
In reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many conversations I have had with atheists, particularly those of the New Atheist variety concerning the importance of meaning. Whenever I point out (as I often have) that the materialism and naturalism upon which New Atheism is derived essentially renders human life without purpose, atheists begin by pooh-poohing the importance of meaning and then blithely claim that meaning can be created for oneself. Frankl’s witness seems to undermine that proposition; it’s not so easy to lie to oneself when circumstances dictate otherwise. In a concentration camp either one has intrinsic purpose beyond the experience or one succumbs to the suffering.
But the absence of meaning doesn’t just weaken our ability to face suffering; it also corrupts us and increases our tendency to cause others to suffer. In his examination of the motivations of the Nazi regime, Frankl came to this conclusion:
If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automation of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instincts, heredity, and environment, we feed the despair to which man is, in any case, already prone.
I became acquainted with the last stages of corruption in my second concentration camp in Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazis liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.
Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: Introduction to Logotherapy, 1982, p. xxi)
This captures as much as anything why as a Christian I see it as critically important to argue against the materialism and naturalism of New Atheism; it is damaging to the well-being of individuals and it is ultimately damaging to society as a whole. Apart from seeing in men the image of God and believing that He has a plan and purpose for our lives we have no substantive basis for hope and meaning.
And occasionally one finds an atheist like British atheist and philosopher Tim Crane who makes sense:
“But what is undeniable is that we cannot understand our own culture unless we recognise that it was formed, for good or bad, as a Christian culture. It’s an illusion that we could somehow recover a human essence which is independent of the way it was created by culture. And the way western European culture was created was as a Christian culture, whether we like this or not. So to understand our own culture we must take into account its Christian roots, which may well be deeper than many atheists would like to acknowledge. Should religions be given special privileges? In the abstract, the answer to this question must be yes. If an atheist society (and I am assuming that the UK, at least, is an atheist society) is going to tolerate religions, then it is hard to imagine how this toleration would not result in special privileges. Orthodox Jews may not work on Saturdays or Friday evenings, Muslims and Jews may kill animals for food in a certain way, many religions will have the privilege to educate their children in their own way, and so on.”
Cambridge Philosopher Tim Crane in a recent interview at 3ammagazine