Whatever one’s view of God, faith is at the center of all human knowledge.
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.
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
I was thinking recently about two articles in the New York Times about two very different approaches to the reality of human suffering. In each case individuals viewed the suffering of others and made a choice about what it says about the existence of God and the nature of human experience.
For atheist journalist and author Susan Jacoby, suffering is an essential motivation for unbelief. Like many (if not all) atheists, In her op-ed The Blessings of Atheism, Jacoby sees suffering as coup de grâce of belief in a beneficent, all-powerful God. She shares with students how observing the suffering of a friend as a child caused her to question the existence of God, and the relief she finds as an atheist in not having to square the pain in the world with the goodness of God:
The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.
IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
As I noted in a recent post, atheists do not have much to offer by way of comfort to those who face the bleak realities of human existence. The unavoidable experience of pain and disease, finality of death, and the fact of unchangeable circumstances are not relieved by the atheist’s insistence that they are purposeless, inevitable consequences of an incidental universe grinding along according events set in motion long before humans happened to make an appearance. As critical as atheists are of the supposed contradiction between the goodness of God and the fact of suffering, they seem blind to the fact that atheism can offer no hope whatsoever in the face of greatest pain there is – the death of a loved one.
Atheism may even be more useless when dealing with the case of an incurable condition. While atheism may vaunt its inclination toward pragmatic scientific solutions, it is certain there will always be diseases and disabilities that resist treatments. At that point atheism can only pity the poor sufferer, or in the case of the most pernicious secular solution, suggest the elimination of undesirables as was the case in the early 20th century’s prevalence of eugenics solutions. It is still the case today with selective abortion which has been responsible for the near elimination of some conditions by eliminating in the womb persons who have those conditions.
Thankfully Jacoby’s atheism isn’t the only view we might consider. Another New York Times article, Laws of Physics Can’t Trump the Bonds of Love considers a different approach to humans suffering, one that was highlighted in the award winning documentary short Wright’s Law:
The documentary and the article introduce us to the life of Jeffery Wright, an inspiring high school physics teacher and the father of a child with rare disorder called Joubert syndrome. Unlike the atheist Jacoby, Wright discovered in his son’s suffering a power greater than that of the inevitability of physics:
Mr. Wright starts his lecture by talking about the hopes and dreams he had for Adam and his daughter, Abbie, now 15. He recalls the day Adam was born, and the sadness he felt when he learned of his condition.
“All those dreams about ever watching my son knock a home run over the fence went away,” he tells the class. “The whole thing about where the universe came from? I didn’t care. … I started asking myself, what was the point of it?”
All that changed one day when Mr. Wright saw Abbie, about 4 at the time, playing with dolls on the floor next to Adam. At that moment he realized that his son could see and play — that the little boy had an inner life. He and his wife, Nancy, began teaching Adam simple sign language. One day, his son signed “I love you.”
In the lecture, Mr. Wright signs it for the class: “Daddy, I love you.” “There is nothing more incredible than the day you see this,” he says, and continues: “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”
“Love,” his students whisper.
“That’s what makes the ‘why’ we exist,” Mr. Wright tells the spellbound students. “In this great big universe, we have all those stars. Who cares? Well, somebody cares. Somebody cares about you a lot. As long as we care about each other, that’s where we go from here.”
For the strident atheist of course such professions are sentimental claptrap. For Jeffery Wright and his son Adam it is a divine credo, the stuff of life.
Viewing suffering through the lens of God’s love turns the sufferer from an object of pity and tragic circumstance to a human being, with inherent value and dignity. And it transforms the observer who is willing to embrace the purpose in the suffering to a different kind of human being, one love knows no bounds and who has the ability to partake in transforming the lives of others. Jeffery Wright is a great teacher because he values the lives of his students – and he values them because he has learned to love what Scripture calls, “the least of these” – those who suffer the most.
In the book of Matthew Jesus taught his disciples a parable meant to help them understand how closely God was associated with the lives of those who suffer:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Many Christians see this as a parable about the future rewards believers will receive in heaven, but it is so much more than that. Only in Christ is the suffering person so completely associated with the person of God Himself. Only in this understanding of not only the goodness of God, but the compassion and humility of God is suffering shown not only to be meaningful but essential to our own ability to be good. We see the good through suffering not because it works out well in the end, but because seeing the good through the suffering transforms us into different people, a people we could never be otherwise.
In the light of suffering atheism can only ever offer us a resigned acceptance of unintentional circumstances out of our control in a cold meaningless universe. The knowledge of God can give us the power to see the lives of others, whatever their life experience, as eternally valuable gifts by which we can be transformed and transform others.
There was an interesting piece in the NYT’s in late Dec. concerning the ‘Humanist’ response or in this case, non-response to the Newtown massacre. It appears to confirm what many Christians have often said – there is no substantive comfort in atheism when faced with grief and loss. Interestingly certain secularists acknowledge this shortcoming:
“It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book “Good Without God.” “What religion has to offer to people at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.”
Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist in the Kansas City area who runs the Web site The Secular Therapist Project, made a similar point in a recent interview. As someone who was raised as a believing Christian and who holds a master’s degree in theology, he was uniquely able to identify what humanism needs to provide in a time of crisis.
“When people are in a terrible kind of pain — a death that is unexpected, the natural order is taken out of order — you would do anything to take away the pain,” Dr. Ray, 62, said. “And I’m not going to deny that religion does help deal with that first week or two of pain.
“The best we can do as humanists,” he continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”
In an attempt to protect atheism from responsibility for any wrongs committed by atheists, secularists are quick to point out that the term atheism is descriptive, not proscriptive. But when it comes to positive actions like caring for those in need atheists are quick to take credit for ‘being good without God’. This might work when it comes to feeding the hungry or raising money for a charity, but when it comes to offering hope to the bereaved or dying, atheism obviously has nothing to offer. Like it or not, when one faces the finality of death, existence apart from God is always nihilistic; and there is certainly no hope or comfort in nihilism. Of course this is quite different for the Christian who is commanded to “mourn with those who mourn” and who have hope to offer beyond the grave.
That fact that Christianity offers hope to those who have suffered tragic losses doesn’t in and of itself prove Christianity true, but it does demonstrate that the lack of faith represents a significant loss. And given the fact that humans have a universal need for such comfort and hope, it demonstrates that there is a deeper aspect to human life that atheists simply don’t comprehend.
I was thinking about Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy’s request for a moment of silence on Friday to be followed by churches ringing their bells 26 times in honor of the victims of the recent school shooting, and it reminded me of a the poem by Longfellow I heard again recently, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day written at a despairing time when his own son’s life was nearly ended by gunfire:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on the earth, good-will to men.”
We have no greater hope than this, that God’s goodness will prevail, justice will ultimately be had and there will be hope and healing in the next life if not in this one. If death is the end, then there is no final justice, or comfort or peace – only in the eternal hope of the Gospel is there any real hope that what has gone so tragically wrong can be made right.
Jerry Coyne recently posted a video which he puts up as a reasonable argument from Richard Dawkins as to why religious belief is ‘bad’:
Dawkin’s arguments in this video (like those of most New Atheists, for whom he is Dear Leader) are a typical string of straw men, Red herrings and ad hominem attacks.
In his first claim Dawkins contends that religious folk are an incurious lot that don’t question or consider anything beyond what is written in their Holy book or as he characterizes it, “This is how it is. It is all written in the Holy Book. It was written 2000 years ago and that’s the end of it”. It’s rather obvious he is referring to Christianity here since Christianity is about 2000 years old. Of course this is a straw man version of Christianity since historically Christianity is anything but incurious. From the Apostle Paul to Augustine and Aquinas, to Newton, Pascal and Mendel, Christianity is filled with folks who pursued knowledge and understanding about every aspect of life. Christianity’s contributions to theology, philosophy, science and culture are undeniable.
But Dawkin’s claim makes even less sense when one considers the Christian view of nature and the universe. For Christians historically Scripture wasn’t the final Word but the launching pad for intellectual development. The Bible’s picture of our world as an orderly place that is conducive to rational comprehension is a greater impetus to explore and understand the universe than is the atheist’s perspective is. To see why this is one need only consider the following scenario:
Imagine for a moment I told you about an incredible art gallery. Not only incredible, but this particular art gallery was filled with artwork by the greatest artist that ever existed. The works of this artist were so intricate and so vast that generations of people had devoted their lives to the study of his productions and never come to the end of them. Now imagine further that I told you not only was this the greatest artist ever, but this artist was so wise that he had anticipated those who would study his work and had worked into them wisdom and truth that would benefit those who took their time to gaze upon his handiwork. Would you be curious about such an art gallery? Would you devote time and effort, perhaps even pay something to see such a place? If after a little effort you began to see that indeed what was there opened your mind to greater truths and understanding would you perhaps consider it your life’s work to study the works of this artist? I would think most would.
Now imagine I told you about another gallery. The works of art in this gallery are unusual – because no artist produced them. The art is incidental – it exists merely as the result of a series of unplanned events that began no particular purpose in mind. You could spend your life studying the art, but in the end the art has nothing for you, it just is. The very notion that you are seeing ‘art’ in it – that is design, purpose and beauty – is an illusion you have projected upon the objects in this gallery. You may glean some understanding of the processes that produced the art but in the end you always come to the same dead end – it’s just there, there is no ultimate explanation for why it exists. And we know the end result of these works – they are decaying, and in time they won’t exist at all, and neither will anybody’s memory of them. They began without purpose, and they end without any permanent value.
This explains the absurdity of Dawkin’s characterization of faith. The Christian’s faith in the order and meaning of nature gives him confidence that he can explore and understand it. The greatest motivation for exploring the universe has been to understand more about God – which is why so many scientists, including some of the originators of science, were also men of God in one way or another. It is a pursuit that is purposeful and fruitful; in the Christian perspective nature is a reflection of the mind of God.
The second contention by Dawkins is that faith is potentially lethal; it has been used to turn men into weapons because religious people are particularly vulnerable to mindlessly do acts of violence due to their unquestioning belief. At this point he does a bait and switch, referring to the Islamist suicide bombers instead of the Christians he previously targeted. For New Atheists, such details “don’t matter” as Dawkins puts it. Of course they don’t matter for his purpose, which isn’t to discern the actual causes of violence but to besmirch religious. This latter contention is more ridiculous than the first.
The ‘religion incites violence’ argument fails in two major ways. The first is that while religious belief is virtually a universal human attribute, the particulars of religious belief vary widely. Tendencies to religious violence seem almost wholly dependent on the particular beliefs of a religion. No one can contend that the Quakers, Amish and Mennonites, who are among the most devout believers, are in any way violent. Buddhists and Baptists don’t seem particularly inclined to strap bombs on themselves. And the most religious cultures aren’t necessarily the most violent. So there is no necessary connection between religion and violence.
This isn’t to say religious belief can’t incite the worst human behaviors – but the second reason the argument fails is that men are capable of atrocities quite apart from religion. Men have killed millions in the name of eliminating economic classes, attempting to breed a master race, even murdered in the name of equality and liberty – all perfectly secular considerations.
So if religion doesn’t necessarily incline men to violence and secular interests may, what are we to conclude? The Christian understanding makes the most sense here – men on the whole are corruptible, given to selfish ambition, desires for power and wealth and dominating others. In short they are sinners. This why the New Testament emphasizes the need for the transformation of human nature. And for a society as a whole it takes generations to internalize the moral behaviors we take granted now, and a few tragic choices to undue those same behaviors. Dawkin’s naturalism has no power to accomplish this.
So Dawkin’s arguments fail completely here. What is amazing to me is that Dawkin’s arguments are held up as the pinnacle of reason by Jerry Coyne and other New Atheists when his logic is so transparently fallacious. If this is the best of atheist reason, then the movement is bereft of any intellectual vigor whatsoever.