Tag Archives: atheism

LOOKING FOR GOD IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

For 30 years or longer I have been trying to figure out what makes skepticism, indifference and atheism plausible and belief in God difficult for some people.  I am sure there are many reasons and the relative strength of each varies from person to person. But one stands out to me. The external, physical/material world seems so real to us that we have a hard time imagining anything real that is not also external and material. This sentiment is expressed by a saying making the rounds on Facebook: “I worship nature. Don’t laugh. At least I can prove it exists.” I laughed anyway.

During his early adulthood, under the instruction of the Manicheans, Augustine of Hippo also experienced this difficulty:

When I wanted to think of my God, I knew of no way of doing so except as a physical mass. Nor did I think anything existed which was not material. That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error. ..If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, at once all their imagined inventions would have collapsed and my mind would have rejected them. But I could not [Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Oxford 1991), pp. 85, 89].

And speaking of the philosophers of his day, who focused on external appearances, Augustine says,

They can foresee a future eclipse of the Sun but do not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate the source of the intelligence with which they research into these matters (Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 74)

Baron Holbach, author of The System of Nature (1770) and patron of Paris’s atheist and freethinking community, attempted to explain the whole world and every event within it in material terms. His fundamental assumption seems to be that the true nature of things is revealed only in empirical experience. Empirical experience works by physical contact between our bodies and other bodies. We know things only in their external relationships to us and other things. Reality consists exclusively of external bodies set in relation to other external bodies. Holbach then interprets all our internal experience, which we do not experience empirically through the senses, in keeping with his external view of knowledge. We know that our minds, ideas and concepts possess no reality beyond the physical forces that bring them about. God is a creation of the human imagination, which itself is a product of the motions of matter.

As you can see, Holbach falls into an error similar to the one Augustine complained the Manicheans made, that is, that reality can be known truly only as external bodies and the images that represent them. Augustine saw through this error when he realized that we have internal access to reality as well as external access. Limiting knowledge of reality to how things appear from an external viewpoint severely limits and greatly distorts our understanding of the world. Holbach, the Manicheans and the nature worshiper mentioned above forget that the internal power by which we know the external world also knows itself and all its contents. And the mind knows itself and its contents not by physical contact with external surfaces but by knowing itself directly. Inside the world of the mind, nothing is external and material. Nothing takes up space or weighs anything. Nothing breaks down into smaller material bits.

In Augustine’s view, the Manicheans, and by extension Holbach and all metaphysical materialists, should have given priority to the knowledge gained by our mind’s experience of itself. Privileging an external point of view makes an inferior, indirect and obscure access to reality the judge of a superior, clear and direct access. It dismisses our sense of certainty that our minds are real and possess freedom and causal power over our bodies in favor of an analogy drawn from our external observation of the interaction of assumedly mindless bodies. It rejects our internal experience of immaterial ideas, logical laws, concepts and relations and forces them into the pattern we derive from external observation, that is, they must be material bodies externally related to each other, despite our invincible inclination to believe otherwise.

What a difference there is between the two systems (Atheism and Christian Theism)! Christian theism asserts that the appearance of humanity and all that goes with it—mind, reason, freedom, self-consciousness, moral intuition, and all that is made possible by them—reveals the true nature of the ultimate reality behind all appearances better than the externality, unintelligibility, inertness, and mindlessness of matter. And this truth comes to light in our experience within ourselves of ourselves and in fellowship with other human beings. The idea of matter is derived from sense experience’s discovery of opacity and obscurity in its vision of the world in contrast to the clarity of ideas and the self-identity and self-transparency of the mind in its act of thinking and self-reflection. Atheism (at least the most common contemporary forms) views the mindless externality of matter as disclosing the true nature of what we wrongly think we know on the uniquely human level: mind, qualities, freedom, consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, intelligibility and moral intuition.

Here is a stark choice. Both views make knowledge claims. One must choose. But the irony is that in choosing materialism I give revelatory priority to something I know externally, obscurely and indirectly over what I know directly and clearly by virtue of the process of thinking. I assert that the ultimate and underlying reality from which thinking, ideas and concepts derive is itself unthinking, obscure and unthinkable. Don’t miss this: ironically, if not in complete self-contradiction, materialism is a theory that conceives and thinks of thinking and concepts as secondary qualities derivative of matter, which is the complete absence of mind and intelligibility! According to their theory, the very power (mind) and its instruments (ideas and concepts) by which materialists formulate, defend and explain the philosophy of materialism, need to be resolved into their (material) components in order to get a clear idea of what they really are. What an absurdity! Mind and the idea of ideas are obscure and complex whereas the idea of matter is simple and clear? Of course the idea of matter is simple and clear but the idea of matter is in the mind. But matter itself is defined by being external to the mind and obscure to the eye of the mind. So, in the theory of materialism I am basing my understanding of all reality on something that can be known only as unknowable and obscure. Surely there is some kind of incoherence here!

But everything changes if with Augustine we give priority to internal experience. The way we know our minds and their contents becomes the model for our knowledge of the external world. We experience the world not only as external, material and obscure but also as internal, ideal and transparent. Through our senses we receive into our minds information (not simply dumb physical impacts) embodied in the world. This information becomes internal to our minds; only then do we possess knowledge of the “external” world. Assuming that this information truly exists in the world apart from the work of our minds, we can ask from where it came. Or, since we know from our internal experience the creative and shaping power of mind and ideas, we can ask about the nature of the Mind that thinks and creates the world I experience as intelligible but not as the product of my or any human mind.

The apostle Paul was not making idle conversation with the Athenians when he quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Unlike the young Augustine, Holbach and today’s nature worshiper, Paul looked around at the world and saw in everything the marks of the divine Mind, and he felt surrounded, indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of the living God. Our task, Paul says is to “seek him and perhaps find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). And it helps to begin your search in the right place.

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The Debate Continues: Evangelical Versus Secular Feminism

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Moderator: We now have before us three views of the relationship between men and women in society, church and family. It’s time to listen to what each of our speakers thinks of the others’ presentations. This evening evangelical egalitarian Sarah will respond to Gloria’s presentation of secular feminism.

Note: Gloria’s original statement was posted on Ron Highfield’s blog on December 3, 2016. You may wish to refer to the original as you read the critiques.

Three Points of Agreement Between Sarah and Gloria

Sarah: Thank you, Moderator, for the opportunity to reply to Gloria from an evangelical egalitarian perspective. I will begin with the places where I agree with Gloria’s presentation.

(1) In her opening paragraph, Gloria asserts the following principle:

 It is wrong everywhere, always, and for everyone to forbid a woman to do something she wants to do simply because she is a woman.

I agree wholeheartedly with Gloria. What motivation other than irrational prejudice could anyone have for disagreeing with this principle?

(2) I also agree that women’s experience serves as an important source of truth for constructing the ethics of gender relations. Because of their experience of oppression and abuse, women can see oppressive structures and abusive relationships to which men are blind. Even if men come to agree with the principle of equality, they need women to help them see specific areas where they are privileged.

(3) If male privilege is morally wrong, it stands to reason that any theory that justifies it is also wrong. Hence, for the most part evangelical egalitarians agree with Gloria’s call for reform:

Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil.

In sum, as an evangelical equalitarian, I agree with secular feminists when they stand against male privilege, assert the equality of women, and call for reform that institutionalizes equality.

Moderator: Thank you for this precise statement of agreement. It will help us achieve our goal of getting as clear as possible on the most basic agreements and disagreements between these two philosophies and facilitate our making an informed decision between them.

Sarah Critiques Secular Feminism

Sarah: Clarity is also my goal. So, let me state this clearly: I am not secular feminist. And I am grateful for the opportunity to explain why. I am an evangelical Christian. I believe that God is the creator and ruler of all things and that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. I don’t know whether or not Gloria is an atheist, but it’s clear that she leaves God completely out of her theory. She grounds all her principles and values in human existence and experience. My specific disagreements with her arise from this fundamental difference. In the following I will address five places where this fundamental disagreement comes to the surface in what Gloria says.

(1) As I admitted above I agree with Gloria on the injustice of rules that keep women from doing what they want to do just because they are women. But Gloria goes on to make a much more radical and deeply troubling statement. She says,

Anything that is possible [to a woman] should be permissible. Secular feminists recognize as legitimate no law of nature, no social custom, no political legislation, and no divine law that forbids a woman to do what is possible for her.

I understand why Gloria would make this argument. Patriarchal society forbade women to do many things they were perfectly capable of doing: vote, run marathons, become doctors, serve as police officers, soldiers and fire personal, preach in churches, and many others. But she goes too far when she equates the permissible with the possible. Many things are possible that are immoral, unjust and illegal; they should not be permitted for women or men. In order to free women from rules that derive from the false idea of male superiority, Gloria denies the legitimacy of any rule that does not derive from her own will. In effect, she denies the objective distinction between right and wrong. This move makes as much sense as slitting your throat to cure a headache. It’s effective, but the side effects make it impossible to enjoy the cure. For if there is no objective distinction between right and wrong, then male domination of women is not objectively wrong either! In contrast to secular feminists, evangelical egalitarians believe in a God-given moral law that roots justice, love and the equality of men and women in the eternal divine being and will.

(2) My second objection is closely related to the first. It concerns the source and nature of the dignity of women. In an astounding claim, Gloria declares,

The dignity of the [woman’s] self does not derive from any value system outside the self, from nature or God or society. Its dignity is self-grounded. That is to say, I am related to myself and I am worth something to myself. I value myself more than I value the whole world. Given the power of the self to create its own identity and establish its own dignity, it makes sense for the self to assert its right to determine itself and liberate itself from all external frameworks and forces.

This statement contains so many extraordinary claims I hardly know where to begin with my critique. Gloria rejects being created or loved by God as relevant to the dignity of woman. Instead of finding her dignity in her relationship to God, she grounds it in her subjective feelings of self-worth. And then she demands that other people make way for her to act as she pleases and become what she wishes. The problem with this view is that our subjective feelings of importance and desires to live and act as we please cannot legitimize making objective moral claims on others. For other people have their own feelings and desires that they may assert against our claims. And in Gloria’s system there is no objective law or arbiter to adjudicate competing claims. Unless human dignity has an objective and universal foundation, it can found no rights or claims against the state, social institutions or individual human beings. Because there is no universal authority to which all parties can appeal and are willing to submit, efforts at persuasion are doomed to fail and coercive power becomes the final arbiter between competing wills.

(3) I said above that I agreed substantially with Gloria about the role and importance of women’s experience in this discussion. However she seems to view men wholly negatively. As a Christian I do not view men as irredeemably evil. Men too are made in the image of God. They can repent and learn how to treat women as equals.

(4) My fourth critical observation concerns Gloria’s statements about the practical program of secular feminism. She says,

Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil. We also demand that every framework, order, institution, and structure that blocks or inhibits the realization of women’s potential be reformed or abolished…And since these institutions are heirs of a long history of oppression, they cannot be left to reform themselves. There must be an aggressive public policy of affirmative action to move rapidly toward equality.

While I agree that institutions need to be reformed in an egalitarian direction, I think Gloria’s rhetoric labeling patriarchal ideas “false, anti-human and evil” crosses a line. Such rhetoric arises from deep anger and fuels the fires of hatred. And her obvious willingness to use government coercion and possibly violence to compel the recalcitrant shows that her philosophy of self-assertion, outlined in objection (2) above, is at bottom a will to power that sets itself above the distinctions between good and evil and right and wrong. In its secret heart it harbors the kind of metaphysical and moral nihilism that would be willing to destroy itself and the whole world to taste one second of revenge on its enemies.

(5) Gloria’s assessment of the Bible is distinctly uncharitable:

Bible, that ancient patriarchal and misogynous text that ought to have been relegated to the dustbin of failed mythologies long ago but is still revered by uneducated men and the women deceived by them.

Gloria’s disparagement of the Bible and those who love it betrays a striking lack of empathy for past cultures and an appalling ignorance of the central message of the Bible. Evangelical egalitarians do not believe the patriarchal aspects of the Bible are essential to the its ethics. There is even an internal dialogue within the Bible in which patriarchy is overcome and replaced by equality. We can see this most clearly in Jesus’ teaching and in Galatians 2:26-28, which I quoted in my original talk:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This text shows that evangelical egalitarians have a great advantage over secular feminists in criticizing male superiority and advocating the equal dignity of women. We can ground our program of equality in divine authority. We can challenge Christian men (There are hundreds of millions of them!) to live up to the ethical demands of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Secular feminists’ assertions of dignity and demands for respect, once you see through their deceptive rhetorical form, boil down to expressions of subjective feelings and wishes with no authority at all.

Moderator: Thank you Sarah for this analysis and critique of secular feminism. Next time we will hear from Abraham who will speak from a neo-patriarchal perspective.

Can Science Show There is No God?

For the past five weeks I’ve dealt with objections to Christian belief that arise from the experience of evil. Today I will begin to examine objections inspired by modern natural science. In general, people who object to belief based on science argue that science has discovered fully natural, lawful explanations for processes and phenomena that were in the past explained by the existence and activity of God. If belief in God is an inference from observed effect to unobserved cause, belief in God is no longer warranted. Since the beginning of the scientific revolution so many secrets of nature have been given natural explanations that there is no longer any reasonable expectation that we will find any place within nature for God to act. Even if natural science cannot prove there is no God, the argument continues, it has closed so many gaps in nature so tightly that belief in a God who created and is active in the world has been robbed of its explanatory power and hence of its rational basis.

Before Galileo and all the way back to Plato and before, the world was conceived as a combination of body and soul. In analogy to the human being, the world body was animated by a soul that enabled it to move. The distinction between dead matter and living soul was self-evident. Matter possesses no power to move itself or cause any change in something else. Only soul is active and causal. When people living before Galileo looked up into the sky they assumed that the movements they saw there were the result of the rotation of all things around earth, which is the center of the universe. The Sun, Moon, the planets and the stars moved around earth propelled by the world soul. It was a spiritual universe in which the activity of God and the spiritual world was obvious. Movement (the visible effect) was explained by soul (the invisible cause). And all of this was made doubly certain by our experience of our minds and souls in relation to our bodies and the external world.

Galileo and those that followed him argued that we should adopt a new analogy or model to help explain how the world works. Instead of the organic model of soul/body in which soul exercises its causality mysteriously by an internal organic connection, such as that we experience between our minds and our bodies, we should think of the world as a machine in which wholly material parts (ultimately atoms) interact with each other only externally. Movement is transferred from one body to another by external impact. In this way the mystery is removed from movement and change within the world, because mechanical interactions involve only relative spatial location, magnitude and direction and these can be comprehended by the clearest and most precise of all the sciences, mathematics.

Perhaps Galileo believed that there were spiritual and organic aspects to the world whose working cannot be explained by the mechanical analogy. But soon there were those who argued that everything and every process in the world can be explained exhaustively by mechanical principles, that is, by external relations comprehended in mathematical language. All movement in the physical world is cause by impacts of physical objects on each other. All phenomena are caused by atoms that come to be arranged spatially by purely natural means. Hence no inference from the beauty, intelligibility, fittingness, complexity and order of the world to a spiritual cause, i.e., God, is warranted.

Much more could be said in response to this argument than I am going to say. Those who know something about contemporary physics know that the mechanical model is no longer held to mirror everything and every process in the physical world. It applies only approximately to a narrow range of the world. The idea that the world is made of unbreakable atoms that relate only externally has been exploded. Other analogies and models now play a part: fields, waves, strings, etc. Causality is no longer central to scientific explanation and quantum discontinuity or indeterminacy has been added to continuity and determinacy, introducing again a sort of mystery into nature. Many of the arguments against belief that were forged in the post-Galileo era no longer carry any weight. Nevertheless the impression still remains that somehow scientific explanations of physical processes exclude the activity of God.

In response to the arguments derived from the mechanical model, I want to remind you that what occurred in the early scientific revolution was a shift from the organic analogy to the mechanical one. But why should we prefer a mechanical analogy? From where do we get it? The answer to this last question is obvious: From everyday experience. We see simple machines like the fulcrum and lever or complex ones like the mechanical watch and are impressed with how easily we can understand them and how readily we can describe them simple spatial and quantitative terms. But machines are outside of us and we have no capacity to get inside them. Hence we assume they have no inside, no consciousness, no soul and no mind. Then we extend this analogy to the whole universe and conclude that the universe has no inside, no consciousness and no mind. But we do not know this! We have assumed it based on our experience of simple external objects.

My simple answer to the argument from natural science to unbelief or skepticism is as follows: The metaphors of machine, fields, waves and all the others derive from common sense observation of the external world. But there is one object in the world to which we have a most intimate relationship, not external but internal, that is, our own being, body, mind and soul. We experience within our very selves the power of causality and movement and freedom as our own acts. And that is something one can never experience in an external way! All physical science is but an extension of common sense experience of the external world, so of course science will never reveal the spiritual/mental dimension of the world. Only by taking our internal experience of ourselves as primitive and self-evident can we gain access to a spiritual dimension of the world.

Why not take our most direct experience of reality as the deepest window into that we can experience only indirectly? I consider it completely absurd to allow external and indirect experience to overturn the compelling impression of internal and direct experience! After all, both are human experience understood only in the mind. In empirical experience we use without noticing the power of our minds to construct internal images of things outside the mind from sense impressions. But in the mind’s experience of itself we experience the creative and constructive power of the mind directly. If we allow internal experience to have its proper say, the world will no longer appear as a meaningless machine or a mindless interplay of energy fields or a random world of quantum probabilities. (Don’t forget that these are but images or models in our imaginations!) It will appear as beautiful, meaningful, intelligible and spiritual. It would make perfect sense to view it as an expression of the mind of the Creator.

Future Posts: What is science, and what are its limits? Do the Big Bang Cosmological Theory and the Theory of Biological Evolution contradict belief in a Creator who exercises providence in and over the world?

Would You Torture a Child to Bring Universal Harmony? The Rhetorical Argument From Evil

The most potent argument challenging belief is not an argument at all. The other two arguments from evil discussed in previous posts attempt to maintain a logical form and a rational tone. Not this one! It rehearses in exquisite detail the horrors of war, the ravages of sicknesses and the savagery of human cruelty. It speaks of holocausts and genocides. It places the believer in a completely untenable position. The suffering described is so horrible, so unforgiveable that voicing any hope for redemption or for any good to come from it makes you sound like you are trivializing it.

The argument is sometimes called the “emotional” argument from evil, but I think it is best labeled the “rhetorical” argument from evil. I prefer this designation for the argument because it attempts not to persuade believers but to silence them with sarcasm or nauseating descriptions of suffering. It pictures those who believe in a kind Heavenly Father who takes care of us as fools blindly following an optimistic theory in face of its obvious refutation or as unsympathetic listeners unmoved by the most horrendous human suffering. In this setting believers are placed in the dilemma of either remaining silent and giving tacit assent to the argument or speaking and sounding foolish or cruel.

Voltaire’s book Candide is the most famous example of using sarcasm to attack belief in that God allows everything happen for a reason. The book tells the story of the misadventures of Candide and his companions as they witness and endure terrible wickedness and suffering. Dr. Pangloss is a blind optimist who believes that everything happens for the best. His constant refrain is that “this is the best of all possible worlds and everything happens for the best,” which sounds absurd in the context of Voltaire’s description of the death, dismemberment and suffering they encounter. What makes Pangloss seem foolish is not his deep faith that God will work all things for good but his silly presumption that he can see this with his own eyes and his tactless voicing of this opinion.

The most famous example of using agonizing and nauseating descriptions of wickedness and suffering against belief is the conversation between Ivan Karamozov and Alyosha his novice monk brother in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Ivan explains to his younger brother why he rejects God’s world and plans to kill himself when he turns 30 years of age: “Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept” (p. 203, Norton Critical Edition)! Ivan tells story after story of innocent children tortured by heartless adults. But the most agonizing is the story of a little girl tortured by her own parents:

“These educated parents subjected this poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat, thrashed, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, turning her whole body into bruises; finally they reached the highest refinement: in the cold, in the frost, they shut her up all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to be taken out at night (as though a five-year-old child, sleeping its angelic sound sleep, could be taught to ask)—for that they smeared her whole face with her excrement and made her eat that excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! And that mother could sleep at night, hearing the groans of that poor little child, locked up in that vile place! Can you understand that a little being, who still can’t even comprehend what is being done to her, in that vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself with her tiny little fist on her strained little chest and cries her bloody, unresentful, meek little tears to ‘dear God’ to protect her—can you understand that nonsense, my friend and my brother, my pious and humble novice, do you understand why this nonsense is necessary and created? Without it, they say, man could not have existed on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil, when it costs so much? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the little tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’”

Ivan concludes that no possible good that could be achieved is worth even one tear from that little girl. “I don’t want harmony, for the love of humanity, I don’t want it. I would rather remain with unavenged suffering. I’d rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong” (p. 212). Alyosha the believer is completely silenced. There is nothing to be said.

Ivan Karamosov is the literary expression of what came to be known in the mid-20th century in response to the Holocaust as “protest atheism.” Protest atheism contends that any effort to find meaning in horrendous events of suffering diminishes that suffering and dampens our enthusiasm to fight against evil. The “unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation” must be kept alive for the victims’ sake. Their suffering must not be made a means to a higher end.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, the rhetorical argument from evil is not a logical and rational argument. Now I think we can see what it is. It expresses agonized rebellion against forgetting and minimizing the suffering of the victims of the evil that human beings do to each other. And it expresses an irrevocable commitment to keep alive the determination to fight against such evil. Christian believers can and should share these concerns. We must. To believe that God will dry every tear does not mean that the tears were not cried or were cried in vain. No. Hope in God does not exclude weeping for ourselves and others who suffer. Faith that God will make all things right does not mean that we are relieved of the duty to denounce evil as evil and fight against it with all our might.

These thoughts are expanded greatly in the 25-page chapter (“The Rhetorical Argument From Evil”) in my soon-to-be published book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 400 pages). I will be saying more about his book when it is released this fall. Here is the Amazon.com link for the book:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0830840826/ref=s9_psimh_gw_p14_d1_i2?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=1H95ZJBR9X5X34AR2YDR&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop

Does the Existence of Evil Prove There is No God?

Last week I maintained that the argument from evil to atheism is deeply flawed and arguably incoherent. As long as one defines “evil” at minimum as “something that has gone wrong” we must also admit the existence of an ideal plan from which evil deviates. And “ideal” plans exist only in minds; therefore the argument presupposes the existence of minds, either a divine-like cosmic mind or finite minds such as ours. But robust atheism denies the existence of a divine-like cosmic mind, so atheism must also give up the idea of a cosmic plan for the way things should go. Apart from such a plan no event can count as deviating from the ideal for the way things should go. There is no cosmic evil and hence no argument from cosmic evil.

If atheists give up the argument from cosmic evil to robust atheism, perhaps they can construct an argument from the human experience of evil to robust atheism. Human beings experience some events in the world process as painful, horrifying and repulsive. Measured by human wishes, plans and ideals, events often go horribly wrong. How does the contradiction between human desires and judgments about how things should go in the world and the actual flow of events argue for robust atheism? Clearly the argument would have to be developed along these lines:

  1. A divine-like cosmic mind would conceive and desire the same or nearly the same ideal for the way things go in the cosmic process as the ideal conceived and desired by human beings.
  2. A divine-like cosmic mind would do everything within its power to attain this divine/human ideal.
  3. A divine-like cosmic mind would possess enough power to insure at least a close approximation to this divine/human ideal is realized.
  4. Things do not go according to this divine/human ideal; indeed they deviate from it dramatically.
  5. Therefore no divine-like cosmic mind exists.

Obviously, the first premise is the crux of this argument. Since the argument is made from an atheist perspective, it cannot appeal to divine revelation to establish how the divine mind actually conceives and desires the world to go. It must assert that human ideals would be shared by any actually existing divine being. Apart from this premise the argument goes nowhere. But it seems highly questionable to assume that a map of the values, goals and thoughts of a divine mind that encompasses every event in the cosmos could be extrapolated from the limited experience of finite beings like us. Understandably, we place ourselves at the center of all things and think the entire world process should serve our private ends; but what evidence warrants the conclusion that a divine being must also place us at the center? Perhaps the divine being thinks and judges in ways very different from ours and views us as mere means to an end very different from ours. Indeed, there are many conceptions of a divine-like cosmic mind that are consistent with the human experience of pain, suffering and death. Maybe there are many divine beings that possess conflicting desires or perhaps the divine being is not omnipotent or its understanding of what is good differs dramatically from ours. Hence this five-step argument fails to establish robust atheism.

The failure of the argument just analyzed highlights something about atheist arguments from evil that is rarely noticed much less explored: they do not argue from evil to “robust” atheism. I have never read an argument like the one I outlined above. I employed the unusual term “robust atheism” to designate the view that there is no God or anything like God, no pantheon of gods or divine mind, plan or law. In my view, the only atheism worth considering denies that mind or anything mental is a fundamental eternal reality. And this is what I mean by robust atheism. Modern atheism (from about 1770 to the present) argues from the fact of evil to the incoherence of western theism (a view of God influenced by Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and concludes to the nonexistence of the God of western theism. The Creator God of western theism is omnipotent, perfectly good and omniscient. Atheists argue that the factual existence of evil demonstrates that God cannot possess all three attributes. If God really were all-powerful, he could prevent all evil, if God were perfectly good he would want to prevent all evil and if God were omniscient he would know about every instance of evil. But evil exists; therefore the God of western theism does not exist. A variant of this argument contends that perhaps some instances of pain and suffering are consistent with God’s existence but there is so much evil in our world that no good end could ever justify it or make it right.

Clearly this argument does not warrant the conclusion of robust atheism that no God or anything like God exists. At most it points to the problem of reconciling a particular view of the divine cosmic mind (western theism) with the existence of evil. But this problem finds its natural home within a philosophical theology that affirms the existence of a divine mind. Only by a slight of hand can a debate about the nature of the divine and its relation to the flow of events evoked by the experience of evil be transformed into a debate about the very existence of anything like God. If you fall into robust atheism because of the argument from evil you have leapt far beyond the evidence. Some other motivating force must be at work.

Presenting the Case for the Resurrection: Some Cautionary Advice for Would-be Apologists

Today we begin to address the question of the historical facticity of the resurrection of Jesus, which, as I have emphasized, is the crucial event at the origin of Christianity. All subsequent Christian history and teaching is premised on the reality of the resurrection. And as Paul readily admits, “if Christ is not risen” (1 Cor 15:14-19), the Christian message is false, the Christian way of life is useless, and the Christian hope is groundless. It has taken us four essays on the resurrection to get to this point. We had to get a feel for how the first believers understood the event of the resurrection. How else could we know what is at stake in our decision to accept or reject their witness? Now we know that to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead is to accept a radical reorientation in our worldview and a revolution in our way of life. Likewise, to reject the resurrection of Jesus is to reject all that flows from it, the forgiveness of sins, hope of the resurrection, the identity of God, the meaningfulness of suffering, and the love of God.

Allow me to remind readers that this is the twenty-fourth essay in this series on the truth of Christianity. We are now dealing with the fourth decision point on the journey from atheistic materialism to full Christian faith. In my opinion, only those who have gone through the first three decision points are ready to face the question of the historical facticity of the resurrection of Jesus. What sense does it make to present a case for the resurrection of Jesus to a materialist? Nor is a polytheist or pantheist or committed deist ready to make a rational judgment or a responsible decision about it. Perhaps, if the atheist or deist could have seen the crucifixion and burial of Jesus on Good Friday and accompanied the women to the tomb on Sunday morning to see the empty tomb and meet Jesus alive…or, if they had been struck down like Paul on the Damascus Road and heard Jesus speak directly to them, they would have come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and the existence of God at the same time. Perhaps they would not deny the evidence gathered by their own eyes and ears. But we cannot reproduce these events for them or for ourselves. We have only the testimony of those who say they experienced them and the testimony of those who believed them.

And for those who do not want to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, there are plenty of ways to evade that conclusion. If you are an atheist materialist, you think you know apart from any historical evidence that the resurrection did not happen, because, since there is no God, God could not have raised Jesus. No evidence will move you. Deists respond much the same way. God set up the world to run on its own and does not interfere. Since God never interferes with course of natural events, God did not reverse the course of nature in Jesus’ case either. If atheists or deists bother with history at all, they see their job as finding plausible naturalistic explanations for historical reports of miracles: the supposed eye and ear witnesses were mistaken or they lied. The reports do not come from eye witnesses but from hearsay, and, whatever really happened, the story has become overlain with legend or myth.

For those who believe in the one God who made the world and sustains it in existence every moment, for those who are open to divine revelation in nature and history, and for those who have no rational or theological objections to miracles, objections that are based on presupposed atheism or deism don’t carry much weight. They are either irrelevant because they presuppose atheism when we are convinced of God’s existence or they are disingenuous because they make metaphysical objections in the guise of historical arguments.

My reading of Christian apologetic literature has led me to conclude that many of these well-intentioned works do not take the preceding cautions into account; and they make other serious mistakes that limit their value in helping people come to faith: (1) they do not take care to follow the most rational decision cascade from atheism to full Christian faith; (2) they fall into the evidentialist trap of accepting the burden of proof; (3) they give the impression of anxiety, of being over-eager to convince; or (4) they overstate their case, providing easy targets for rebuttal. Each of these mistakes in its own way deflects nonbelievers’ attention away from the seriousness of their situation and from the necessity of making a decision in the moment.

Perhaps these considerations will help you understand why I am somewhat impatient with objections to the resurrection faith that are based on atheism, deism, or any other philosophy that denies the possibility of miracles. Responding to such objections is fruitless endeavor. I am also impatient with equivocations, demands for more evidence, and alternative ways of explaining the resurrection faith that seem to be designed to evade the real issue. The division between faith and unbelief is not merely a matter of dispassionately weighing evidence in some neutral scales. It is also a matter of friendship or hostility, love or hate; this decision has an unmistakable moral dimension. Paul and the others claim they know that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and they staked the meaning of their entire existence on this fact. Either they are correct or they are lying or they are mistaken. You have to look them in the eyes and say, “I believe you” or “I don’t believe you.” You have to make a decision and live with it. And you have to do it now. This is a vital component of any apologetic situation. Any apologetic that does not make this clear risks failure.

Materialism’s Sacrificium Intellectus or Atheism’s Leap of Faith

Last week we pursued the hypothesis of materialism from the starting point of our experience of the world through the senses. We experience the external world as structured in intelligible ways we can understand through common sense and natural science. But we also experience it as external, as brute facts offering only resistance to penetration by mind or body. But as we examined physical objects we discovered that we can break them apart to experience their internal order as intelligible. We ended up unable to discover pure matter by way of the senses. Every object we thought might be pure matter ended up being internally structured and therefore at least partially intelligible, that is, partly an idea. Matter, we concluded, is the abstract idea of an unintelligible, unordered, and yet real, stuff we can never experience apart from its connection with intelligible structure.

Today I want us to begin our examination of materialism at another point. We experience ourselves as creators and causes, as initiators of movement and change. We possess a first person consciousness of ourselves as actors, as free. We are able freely to create information and through our bodies shape the material world according to this information. In other words, we experience ourselves not only as passive readers of information encoded in physical objects, human made or natural, but also as active minds and wills and creative powers.

Of course, some materialists deny that we really are active minds that can initiate change and create information. We are merely part of the material process of cause and effect. But those materialists who deny freedom always base their denial on their theory, as one of its implications. They never deny that it seems to our own consciousness that we are free and creative. In my view, denying what seems self-evident to consciousness because of one’s commitment to materialist theory strains credulity and calls into question the denier’s commitment to rationality. What can you say to someone who denies what we and they cannot help but believing? I view this denial as on the level with someone who denies the existence of the external world. For our experience of freedom is as primitive and irreducible as the experience we gain from the senses. You cannot verify one by the other or reduce one to the other.

Materialists, too, must begin with trust. They must trust the senses to tell them the truth about the existence and nature of matter. Such primitive experiences cannot be verified by more basic experiences, for there are none. But in order to be a rationally responsible adherent of any theory about the external world, including materialism, you have to believe you have a mind capable of taking the data from the senses and constructing a true theory. It seems to me, then, that affirming the truth of materialism requires also affirming the irreducible reality of free and creative minds; these two affirmations are clearly incompatible.

What does it mean to say that mind and intelligibility are real? Most people have no trouble believing something is real when they can experience it with one of the five senses. More precisely, we believe things are real if there are any possible circumstances under which they can be experienced, even if those means are not yet available to us. Even more generally, we consider something real if it possesses causal power, that is, if there are any possible circumstances under which it can effect change in something else or be changed or resist being changed by something else. We cannot know a “thing” that possesses no causal power, and we do not consider it real. When we think of it this way, we can see that our minds, our ideas, and the ideas that structure nature are real. We experience their causal power. Our minds create information, which can, then, in combination with physical power, create new things in the external world. New ideas arising from our own creativity or from other minds or from natural objects inform our minds, that is, they cause change in our minds. Hence, if to be real means to possess causal power, our minds, their ideas and the ideas that give the world its intelligibility are certainly real…just as real as stuff that creates change in our senses.

I think I am on solid ground, then, when I assume that our experience of ourselves as free causes of movement and change and free creators of new information tells us the truth. Not only do we experience in our own being a mind capable of abstracting and thinking the information that structures the external world, we experience directly our minds as active and creative. Just as I experience my feelings of pain or pleasure or fear as self-evident and undeniable, I also experience myself as a free cause with the same certainty. We make a difference between the automatic unconscious processes that go on in within our bodies and our deliberate choices and acts. We know the difference between being knocked to the ground by the impact of a physical object and our deliberate act of sitting down. There is a qualitative difference between the two.

In the previous post I showed that we cannot imagine a rational way to account for the intelligible order’s genesis from pure, amorphous, undifferentiated matter. For the reasons I mentioned in that earlier post, chance can’t do the job. Other than active mind the only option is the sheer absurdity of asserting that it happened, somehow, anyway. But why choose the absurdity of spontaneous generation when we experience our own minds as free causes able to initiate change and create information and place it into a physical medium? We know this can happen because we actually do it! Hence we have a simple and rational explanation for the intelligible structure that permeates nature: Active mind is at least equally primordial with matter. We do not need to resort to an arbitrary leap of faith made necessary by commitment to the metaphysical theory of reductive materialism.

Now we have a second rational reason to reject the materialist option and its sacrificium intellectus. We can take the road that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit.

Next Week: What do we make of our experience of other minds? Are other minds real? How and where do minds meet?