I wish I could say I enjoy the ideological insulation of the yes men echo chamber that I’ve painstakingly assembled, but I don’t. You jerks still disagree with me--but that’s a good thing. The marketplace of ideas shouldn’t be one-stop shopping. For this reason, I’m shocking your system this week with a shot of Christianity courtesy of the last apologetic blogger I enjoy. Let me tell ya, I disagree with nearly everything this guy says, but I like how he says it. The Apologetic Professor is well spoken, seemingly sane, and has made me laugh on more than one occasion. I hope you don’t thoughtlessly dismiss what he has to say. Thoughtful dismissals only.
If you want more of me, the Apologetic Professor is posting the longest piece I’ve ever written on his site. Please comment here, there, everywhere and check back for our follow-up posts in which we will show that we’re in complete agreement on everything...I said sarcastically.
Do Not Wait on God
An atheist once gave the following advice about belief in God: “Wait and see. Or wait and don’t see.” The implication is that if you wait around long enough, you will finally decide that God does not exist…because He doesn’t. You cannot see a ghost.
It may surprise you, but there is a sense in which I completely agree with our unnamed atheist. Namely: I believe that if you wait around passively about the question of God, that you will likely not ever see Him.
You see, Jesus did not say “wait and you will find.” He said “seek and you will find.” Jesus openly encouraged you to explore the truth with an open mind.
Seeking is active; waiting is passive. If you just sit around on your hands, without ever truly exploring whether God actually exists with an open mind, you will be like someone who never sees Italy because you waited around in Montana.
Now, if you are the thinking person that I take you to be, you may reasonably say: Well, shoot, Mr. Christian-Pants (ok, please don’t call me that), God is God, right? I mean, if there is a God, why doesn’t He come to me? It’s all well and good to talk about not seeing Italy. But I have no reason to believe that Italy would come to me. Yet, I do wonder why the omnipotent Creator of the universe would make me seek Him to find Him? Shouldn’t I see Him anyway?
My answer to that perfectly reasonable question: I don’t know either. I could speculate (and indeed I have speculated about this question a bit on my blog). But the truth is: I did not design the universe. I certainly would not have allowed mosquitoes (or Michael Bolton or the Dallas Cowboys or 98 degree weather on Christmas day) if I had. I am not trying to claim I fully understand why the universe is what it is, exactly – though, as you’ll see, I think Christianity offers the best explanation that I know of. I am only trying to tell you that, until you have actively sought the truth about God with an open mind – and have not given up the pursuit until the day you die – you have not really followed the advice of Christ, and therefore should be cautious in claiming that it is invalid. I myself spent 4 years in a fuzzy state of half-Christian agnosticism – sometimes believing, always wondering – with apparent silence from Heaven before I became convinced of God’s existence. But during that time, I actively sought God. Granted, I sought God sporadically, imperfectly, stupidly…but I sought Him nonetheless.
So all I am asking of you is what I believe God is asking of you at this moment – I mean, this very
moment, the moment you are reading this, right now – and that is to honestly consider, with an open
mind, the legitimate possibility that He exists. With an open mind, I said. Not with the prejudice that
many of you have no doubt acquired. Maybe you’ve met religious hypocrites; well, I’ve met them, too. Many days, I no doubt am one of them. But stop thinking about them. They are irrelevant. Only the truth matters. If I’m right, then one day you will be standing, you alone, naked before the Creator of the universe…and you will have to answer for your life. The many dumb and mean hypocrites you and I have encountered will not be an excuse, in that moment, for our own choices. And deciding to simply close your mind to the possibility of the miraculous is a choice.
Now, it is in the spirit of open inquiry that I present three things for you to think about below. I do not present these as arguments designed to convince you of God’s existence. (If you read my blog, you will know that I do not believe there is such an argument). That would be ridiculous. Rather, I present these as things for you to ponder, openly and honestly, in the beginning or middle of an intellectual pursuit. Being in academia as I am, I have met many atheists, and indeed many of them I count among my best friends (ok, did I really just say that? Well, it’s true anyway). And many of them are open-minded, wonderful folk – and I have more in common with a seeking atheist than with some of the people that go to my church. I respect that kind of atheist. I am quite sure that many of my atheist friends will get into Heaven before I will. But I suspect that some of you have simply closed your mind to the issue because you have believed a lot of essentially myth-like statements about Christianity, or have never honestly challenged yourself to think hard about why people might actually reasonably believe in God. Maybe you are saying to God: OK, I’ll wait around and see, if you do something incredible, sure, I’ll believe then. But you aren’t seeking God like you mean it.
So I present these as food for thought – things to ponder as you decide the plausibility of God’s
existence or what Christianity is actually like. Many of these are issues I have elaborated upon in my own blog.
1. Religion is built into us. Let’s start with one of the few things that atheists and theists seem to agree on: People have religious instincts. Indeed, modern research (by atheists) in my own field suggests that people are, without higher-order thinking, by nature religious. Some other neuropsychology work with FMRIs suggests that religion is literally built into our brain. Other work in developmental psychology suggests that children, even children from secular homes, have something like an intuitive theism. Yet more work studying atheists suggests that most of them go through a kind of “religious” phase.
Now, I really don’t care about this research, because I find it unnecessary – it is obvious to me that people are primed in some form to believe in the supernatural. That’s kind of our unthinking default. We wanted Santa Claus to be real as children, whether we believed in him or not. The real question is: Is this some kind of primitive system that evolved by chance and does not correspond to anything real, or does it reflect some reality of religious truth? Does this intuitive system need to be overridden (as some claim) by higher-order processes, as when we cease to believe in Santa, or does it simply need to be understood by them and integrated into them? Is our religious instinct like our hunger instinct – does it exist because there is a real food to satisfy it? Or is it like our instinct that the sun moves around the earth – when in fact the opposite is true?
Well, I think both theories are plausible – both can account for the way we are. But that means that the theist theory is in fact plausible. That’s my point. I find many of the atheist arguments against what I believe intellectually as strange as you no doubt find many Christian arguments. Not because they are always bad, but because they are obviously false when stated as absolute proofs. I think probabilistically. Probabilistically speaking, I see no reason up front to choose between these two theories, if we are trying to explain why we have a religious instinct. Thus, contrary to what a lot of high-brow academics seem to think, theism certainly is a plausible theory of why our religious instinct exists. Indeed, it is clearly the straightforward, front-door answer to the question; much like a straightforward answer to the question of why we have hunger is because there is such a thing as food. That doesn’t make it true; but it ought to at least make blithe, unthinking dismissals of it the intellectually vapid things that they actually are.
2. Theism provides a more coherent view of morality than atheism. If you are an atheist, you are faced with the following intellectual problem that I, as a theist, do not have: Namely, you believe in a universe that has absolutely no moral will. Materialist atheism assumes that we are all atoms…and nothing but atoms. That universe cannot have a moral will. A chance physical process cannot, by definition, exist in order to produce morality. The materialist must assume that I have a moral will for the same set of reasons that I have blue eyes or a love of the Indigo Girls, or that the sky appears blue or rocks are solid substances – they are the result of a long chain of purely physical events guided by physical laws or chance or what-have-you. I presume none of you believe that, at the Big Bang (or whatever), the atoms there assembled in the way they did so that someday they could produce the thought I should not kill my neighbor for fun inside my head. Such a thought exists because of chance physical processes. And if those chance physical processes had happened to produce the thought killing for fun is cool in all our heads, then that’s what we’d believe, and that’s what morality would be…because there is no actual morality.
Indeed, that much is elementary – and certain. The atheist universe isn’t an immoral universe, as some have claimed. It’s an amoral universe. Morality isn’t bad in the atheist universe; morality doesn’t exist in the atheist universe. (Philosophically speaking, I mean – atheists themselves are typically highly moral people – indeed, that’s the reason for the dilemma. More on that in a second). Morality has no meaning in that world.
Now that would all be well and good, except for the other fact: Pretty much every atheist I know actually believes in morality (including all of the “new” atheists, e.g., Dawkins, Harris, etc.). And they don’t just believe in it in a “well, that’s nice” kind of way; they don’t believe that it’s wrong to kill people for fun is just a chance-y neuronal deal and they’d be fine if it had turned out the other way around. No; they really believe in it – like it matters that it turned out this way. In fact, they believe in it so much that they often use moral arguments against theism, as a reason to get rid of it.
But the atheist philosophy is not at all a comfortable fit with this practical atheistic moralism. Atheism actually provides no real reason to suppose morality has any meaning. It’s like trying to build a science without believing in the scientific method.
Well, my philosophy does not have this intellectual incoherence. My philosophy says that God built morality into the fabric of the universe; that the moral law that exists in my head to avoid killing my neighbor for fun exists because, well, it really is actually bad to kill my neighbor for fun. This intellectual coherence does not make my beliefs true – and Christianity has its own intellectual difficulties, to be sure – but I am not trying to provide a proof, only to open a door for sound thinking. Atheism may digest some facts about the universe more easily than Christianity; but this is not one of them. And the thinking person should consider all sides of the facts when deciding on the possibility of a theory being true or not.
3. Christianity is a highly intellectual enterprise. One of the most curious things about much of the modern atheist attack on Christianity is its bold assertions of how stupid and unintellectual we all are. These sorts of things make me laugh, not just because I am an academic whose research has been featured in USA Today and the Washington Post...and who has been interviewed on BBC Radio and NPR…but also because they are so historically and comically indefensible. I gave a whole talk on this topic which the curious can access on my blog, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it in this already-too-long blog post. I will limit myself here to saying that (a) even secular historians credit Christianity with creating the very icon of intellectualism, the modern university system, (b) a large number of intellectual disciplines (e.g., chemistry, a lot of mathematics, genetics, existential philosophy) were founded (and understood by everyone to be founded) by Christians, (c) Christianity has spread literacy and education pretty much everywhere it has ever taken root, and (d) contrary to the idea that “faith” is unintellectual, all thinking people recognize that some elements of their most cherished beliefs require faith in something unseen that cannot be directly proven. (The primary difference between thinking and unthinking people is the thinking person recognizes their untestable assumptions and can defend them; the unthinking person is simply unaware of them).
All of this to say: Some of you may have the idea that you are smarter than Christians because you are atheists…as if that is enough. But that’s just a stereotype (one of the things I’ve studied in my career) – a stereotype with little basis in reality. Christians are a highly intellectual group as a whole, historically-speaking. It’s tough to argue that Christians are opposed to intellectualism when we created so many intellectual disciplines, and indeed created many of the very mechanisms by which intellectualism itself grows and advances (the university and the scientific method, to name a couple).
Now, I partially blame this rather bizarre view of Christianity on Pat Robertson and some truly anti-intellectual elements of the modern North American church…so don’t think I’m blaming you. There’s plenty of blame to go around here. Nor am I saying that I’m smarter than you because I’m a Christian. That would be ridiculous. Atheists as a group also have much to be proud of in terms of their intellectual contribution to the world’s body of knowledge – for example, a disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners are atheists. This isn’t in any way intended to denigrate atheists…only to remove what I believe is a completely indefensible view – a view that in my experience, many atheists hide behind without facing the real intellectual issues head-on – a view that suggests Christians are just stupid, so why bother with them? Well, we aren’t stupid at all; having faith is not stupid; and there’s an end to that.