Defending Theism: A Response to Hume, Russell, and Dawkins

sunrise

T.S. Weaver looks at anti-God arguments from three prominent philosophers, showing why belief is God is more reasonable than their objections to His existence.

Theism, broadly defined, is the belief in the existence of a supreme being or other deities. Believers in Jesus Christ would say we follow Christian Theism, believing in and trusting the one true God who has revealed Himself through His word and through His Son Jesus. In pursuit of the defense of theism and answering profound antagonists to the faith, I will engage with some of the objections raised by three prominent thinkers: David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Richard Dawkins.

David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher who is often considered the best philosopher to have written in the English language. Although he was wary of metaphysical things like God, he was very fascinated by religion. He is widely considered to be an atheist, but we do not know for certain whether he was atheist [one who denies that God exists], agnostic [one who is not sure if God exists], or deist [one who believes God created the universe but then let it run according to natural laws without divine intervention] by the time of his death. Regardless, his more prominent work is Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In it he presents classical challenges to theism.

The strongest challenge to theism Hume presents in Dialogues is the problem of evil and God’s moral nature. His view is that with the amount of evil in the world, we cannot consider God as morally sensible, morally great, and powerful. His assumption is that if God were to exist, He does not care to solve the problem of good and evil. While this is the toughest intellectual challenge a theist has to answer, I believe there is an answer.

When God created, He gave humans the ability to make free decisions. If this ability were denied, our love (the supreme ethic) for Him would not be a choice and thus coerced. As a result, it would not be real love. Church Father Augustine (354-430) commented on this in his book On the Free Choice of the Will, by arguing that free will is what makes us human. God made us that way so we could freely choose to venerate, trust, and follow Him. So built into love, veneration, trust, and obedience was the ability to make free decisions. Consequently, certain choices are going to be terrible or evil (e.g., Adam and Eve’s disastrous disobedience in the Garden of Eden). As a result, the only way to eradicate evil is to eradicate free will. Hence, evil is merely the consequence of the free will of humanity. John Stackhouse rearticulates this case:

God desired to love and be loved by other beings. God created human beings with this in view. To make us capable of such fellowship, God had to give us the freedom to choose, because love, though it does have its elements of “compulsion,” is meaningful only when it is neither automatic nor coerced. This sort of free will, however, entailed the danger that it would be used not to enjoy God’s love and to love God in return, but to go one’s own way in defiance of both God and one’s own best interest. This is what the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden portrays.{1}

It is not that God is insensitive to evil (Proverbs 6:16, 15:26; Psalm 5:4), but that moral and natural evils are the cause of the sin (free choice to disobey God) of man.

Bertrand Russell

Shifting gears, Bertrand Russell, (1872-1970) a famed agnostic philosopher, argued against theism with a famous view that everything on this globe is the result of “an accidental collocation of atoms.”{2} Thus, there is no real aim for which we were produced. I believe this view is both incredibly depressing and incredibly wrong. If one were to take what Timothy Keller would call a “clue of God” like beauty and think this through, it would have serious implications. If this were true, as Keller put it in The Reason for God, “Beauty is nothing but a neurological hardwired response to particular data.”{3} Conductor Leonard Bernstein once spoke of the effect of the beauty of Beethoven’s music:

Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.{4}

Does that sound like a “neurological hardwired response to particular data”? Or is Beethoven’s music beautiful? As a seminary student, I often yearn for an excellent night of sleep. The thought is beautiful to me. Augustine in his Confessions argued that yearnings like this were clues to the existence of God. While my tiredness does not prove that my desire for an excellent night of sleep will happen tonight, it is correct that native yearnings like this link to actual substances that can fill them. For example, sensual yearning (linking to sex), hunger (linking to food), tiredness (linking to sleep), and interpersonal yearning (linking to relationship). We have a desire for joy, love, and beauty that no quantity or condition of sex, food, sleep, and relationship can satisfy. We hope for something that nothing on this globe can satisfy. Do you think this is a clue? I assert this unpleasing yearning is a deep-rooted native longing that is an undeniable clue not only for the existence of God, but also that God is the only one who can satisfy that yearning. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”{5} (Please also see Dr. Michael Gleghorn’s article “C.S. Lewis and the Riddle of Joy” at probe.org/c-s-lewis-and-the-riddle-of-joy/) Tying all this back to Russell’s famous view, it makes sense that if there were a God who can satisfy that kind of yearning, this God likely made us, not by accident, but with a purpose. That is worth investigating.

Richard Dawkins

Now I turn to Richard Dawkins (1941- ), who I think is best described as a militant atheist scientist. He writes in his book The God Delusion, describing God:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.{6}

Tell us how you really feel, Dawkins. Although there is a lot said here, what is most obvious is his portrayal of God as immoral because of what God displayed of Himself in the Old Testament. These acts are perceived to undermine his morally perfect nature. Although this will not be my main response, I want to highlight that for Dawkins to grumble that God has perpetrated immoral acts, he acknowledges there is an objective moral law. In a separate argument, I could go from here to make the case that for there to be an objective moral law there must be an objective moral law giver (God). However, I instead want to concentrate on “the God of the Old Testament.”

The Old Testament passage found in Deuteronomy (7:1-5; 20:16-18) tends to be the most cited in an argument against God such as Dawkins’s quote above. In this passage, God instructed the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites living in a specific region: “[T]hen you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (7:2), and “[D]o not leave alive anything that breathes” (20:16). This passage bothers many (including myself) and may be an example of where Dawkins got his characterization. It is understandable to wonder how a good and loving God could instruct this.

To make sense of a tough passage like this one must understand the context, starting with who God is. God is not like any earthly ruler. He’s not like Trump. He’s not like Biden. He is Creator of all things and King of the Universe. That said, He supplies life, and He can take life when He chooses, however He chooses. The next step is to think through whether His instruction was justified (as if it were up to us to define justice). There are occasions when we as humans may feel it is justified for people to take another’s life, as in self-defense, to safeguard others, or in a just war. What we must understand about the Canaanites in this passage is that this was not some illogical imperative for them to be murdered. The Canaanites were malevolent. In their obscene paganism, they were spiritually dangerous. They were unspeakably wicked. God said to the Israelites, “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations” (emphasis mine) (Deuteronomy 9:5).

The worst example of their wickedness is child sacrifice. Apologist Timothy Fox informs us, “They would burn their children alive in a fiery furnace as a sacrifice to the god Molech. Just that one act alone would be justification for their complete annihilation.”{7} I wonder what Hume, who raised the problem of evil, would have to say to Dawkins about God dealing with and judging evil. One of the explanations God provided for wrecking the Canaanites was so that Israel would not embrace their malevolent ways. Dawkins may still object though and say, “What about the kids? How could a loving God instruct the Israelites to destroy harmless kids?” I do find this troubling as well, but as shown above, God can take life when He chooses, however He chooses. No one is promised a lengthy, peaceable life and to perish of old age. Furthermore, what if God saw that if these children were to mature, they would be just as evil and corrupt as their parents? What if ordering the death of children infected by their parents’ wickedness is similar to an oncology surgeon cutting out small cancer cells along with the full-grown cells? That is a possibility. In addition, God does not appreciate the murder of the evil but patiently waits for repentance of sins (Ezekiel 18:23). In the case of the Canaanites, we see He will only allow wickedness for so long though.

Another objection Dawkins has to the existence of God is science. His view is that you can either be scientific and sensible, or religious. He is either ignoring, or ignorant of, the fact that modern science arose out of a biblical worldview. Christians are responsible for developing the scientific perspective and method. Francis Bacon, astronomers Kepler and Galileo, and the brilliant mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton all believed in God. They all helped shape the development of modern science; they believed that since God was a God of order, they expected nature to be orderly. They also understood that one man’s opinion could be faulty because of sin, and therefore others needed to verify what any one scientist said. Kepler even characterized his scientific perspective as “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”

Dawkins thinks God and science do not mix. Yet two legendary experiments performed in 1916 and 1997 reveal this view is not as widely held as Dawkins and others make it seem. In 1916, American psychologist James Leuba conducted a study asking scientists if they believed in a God who actively communicates with humanity, no less than via prayer. 40 percent confirmed they did, 40 percent confirmed they did not, and 20 percent were not confident either way. Edward Larson and Larry Witham duplicated this study in 1997 using identical queries with scientists. They discovered the figures had not altered substantially. Even atheist philosopher Thomas Nagle disagrees with Dawkins’s view of reality. Nagle even questions whether atheist naturalists think their moral instincts (yes morality has come up again), for example the belief that genocide is morally incorrect, are true instead of just the consequence of neurochemistry hardwired into humans. He writes:

The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical—that is, behavioral or neurophysiological—terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed—that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.{8}

Science cannot explain all and can be consistent with religious faith. Therefore, it is unreasonable to think that an individual can only be a believer of science or a believer of God. It is also irrational to believe we came into the world by accident, or that because of the presence of evil in the world theism is not workable. In short, it is more reasonable to believe in theism than not to.

Notes

1. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 552.
2. Bertrand Russell, “The Free Man’s Worship,” The Independent Review 1 (Dec 1903), 415-24 Title of essay changed after 1910 to “A Free Man’s Worship.”
3. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 138.
4. From Leonard Bernstein’s “The Joy of Music” (Simon and Schuster, 2004), 105.
5. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 105.
6. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2006), 51.
7. crossexamined.org/god-behaving-badly-destruction-canaanites/, accessed March 31, 2022.
8. Thomas Nagel, “The Fear of Religion,” The New Republic (October 23, 2006).

Bibliography

Bernstein, Leonard. “The Joy of Music,” (New York: Simon and Schuster), 2004.

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. (New York: Penguin Books), 2016.

Moreland, J.P. and Craig, William Lane. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press), 2003.

Nagel, Thomas. “The Fear of Religion,” The New Republic, October 23, 2006.

Ross, Allen P. “Genesis” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.

Russell, Bertrand “The Free Man’s Worship,” The Independent Review. 1. Dec 1903.

©2022 Probe Ministries


Nones: Are Not Mostly Christians Who Are Unaffiliated

beautiful young woman

Steve Cable determines that ‘Nothing in Particulars’ are not actually practicing Christians who just don’t want to affiliate with a particular denomination.

Earlier we examined the significant increase in Nones (those who said their religious affiliation was atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular), which grew from 25% of young adults in 2007 to over 35% of young adults in 2014 according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey taken by Pew Research.{1} In this post, we will examine the level of involvement in religious practices that these Nones, and particularly the Nothing in Particulars, reported in response to the survey questions. We will try to answer the question: “Are these Nothing in Particulars actually Christians who do not feel comfortable announcing an affiliation with a particular religious group?”

Nones Update Fig. 1First, let’s consider the religious practices of the Nothing in Particulars. In Figure 1, we see their commitment to some common behaviors of nominal and committed Christians. The actual questions are:

  1. Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services? [Monthly or more]
  2. People practice their religion in different ways. Outside of attending religious services, do you pray? [At least once per day]
  3. Read scripture outside of religious services [At least weekly]
  4. How important is religion in your life? [Very important]
  5. Pray daily and read scripture weekly and consider religion very important in your life.

As shown, the figure looks at the answers to these questions for three different groups:

  1. Those responding in 2007 who were 18 through 27 years of age
  2. Those responding in 2014 who were 25 through 34 years of age (the age range corresponding to those 18 through 27 in 2007)
  3. Those responding in 2014 who were 18 through 24 years of age

As you can see, about one in five pray at least daily, about one in ten read the Bible at least once a week, about one in twenty attend church at least once a month. And only about three out of one hundred pray, read the Bible and consider religion to be a very important part of their life.

Note that the corresponding age groups across the two survey dates have roughly the same percentage of respondents who participate in these practices, but the youngest group lags their elders in praying, Bible reading, and attitude toward religion.

Nones Update Fig. 2How do these levels relate to the responses from Evangelicals on the one hand and from Atheists and Agnostics on the other hand? Figure 2 gives us the answer to this question.

First let’s orient ourselves to the data. The first and fourth column of each group correspond to the second and third column of each group in Figure 1, i.e. 18–24s and 25–34s from 2014. The second and fifth column of each group are the responses from Atheists and Agnostics. As you can see, they are lower than those for the Nothing in Particulars in every category. But more importantly, those results for Evangelical young adults in both age categories (columns three and six) are much, much higher than those for Nothing in Particulars and Atheists and Agnostics.

For example, looking at reading the Bible at least once a week, we find about one in ten Nothing in Particulars, about one in thirty-five Atheists and Agnostics, and almost six out of ten Evangelicals.

Looking at the combination of prayer, Bible reading, and considering religion a very important part of life, we find about one out of twenty-five Nothing in Particulars, about one in one hundred Atheists and Agnostics, and almost five out of ten Evangelicals.

Clearly in this area of religious practice the Nothing in Particulars appear to be much closer in their practice to those who profess Atheism or Agnosticism than those who are Evangelical.

The data clearly does not support the notion that the Nothing in Particulars are actually practicing Christians who just do not want to affiliate with a particular denomination. In fact, the vast majority of Nothing in Particulars have no regular activity associated with worshipping God. Perhaps they believe in Christianity even though they don’t attempt to practice it. We will consider that possibility in our next blog post.

Note

{1} The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2007 and 2014, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (a project of The Pew Research Center). The Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here. The data were downloaded from the Association of Religion Data Archives, www.TheARDA.com, and were collected by the Pew Research Center.


Lessons from Camp Quest

In August of this year, the North Texas Church of Freethought (NTCOF) hosted Camp Quest Texas on a farm outside of Dallas. This eight–hour event for children of atheists, agnostics and other “free thinkers” included nearly 40 children between the ages of five and 15. According to a published report{1} , the day began with an exercise in making up creation myths based on the Apache story of fire before leading into activities with exotic animals, fossils and staged UFO sightings. The primary purposes of the event were twofold:

• Encourage the children to have open minds and embrace scientific skepticism

• Provide a fun experience for the children where they could make friends among the community of non-believers. This objective was partially motivated by a desire to counter negative experiences some of the children had experienced with schoolmates who believed in God.

Let me begin by stating that I applaud the organizers and parents for taking positive steps to encourage their children to ask good questions and look for good answers. Even though I suspect that the event was slanted towards promoting an atheistic worldview, I believe all parents should assume an obligation to steer their children toward the truth as they see it. At the very least, they should equip their children to see through the illogical arguments of some enthusiastic proponent of a cultic religion (even if they think that I am just such a proponent!).

The newspaper account of this event and an accompanying interview with the executive director of NTCOF can teach us several lessons as we evangelicals take on the task of raising younger generations.

Background

Before looking for takeaway lessons, let’s investigate a little more background. Zachary Moore, the executive director for NTCOF, described their church this way:

“We’re a church of freethinkers, which means that we try to understand the natural world by relying on reason and evidence. Like most people, we enjoy spending time with others who share our values and have similar interests. Forming a church just seemed like the natural thing to do, since many of us thought the only thing wrong with churches were the strange things they told you to believe in.”{2}

At one time, Zachary considered himself a believer in Christianity. At some point, he came to the conclusion that the evidence did not support his belief in God. As he said,

“If Christianity were true, then I would want at least what Doubting Thomas got. If another theistic worldview were true, then I’d need something equivalent. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be able to talk to a deity personally before I’m asked to worship it.”{3}

This question, “If God wants me to believe in Him, why doesn’t He present me personally with overwhelming evidence?” is one of the classic hard questions raised against our faith. The purpose of this article is not to answer this question, but if you want more information you can find it at Probe.org (see related articles).

Zachary and the NTCOF represent a point of view that is heavily in the minority among Americans, but is growing move vocal as it grows numerically. Recent Pew Institute surveys indicate that the number of atheists, agnostics and others who claim no faith is less than 10% of the population. However, a 2007 Barna survey provides a revealing look inside that statistic.

The table below shows the number of people with “no faith” in each age demographic based on surveys taken in 1992 and 2007. The data reveals two important trends. First, the number of people claiming no faith in God in 2007 grows markedly higher with each younger generation, more than tripling from the 6% for those over 61 to 19% for those from 18–22. Second, the percentages for each generation have not changed significantly in the last fifteen years. We don’t see more people turning to faith as they grow older. It appears that the skeptics remain skeptics as each generation ages.

Percent of Americans who are atheist or agnostic{4}:

Generation Ages in 2007 1992 Survey 2007 Survey
Adult Mosaics 18-22 19%
Boomers 23-41 16% 14%
Busters 42-60 8% 9%
Elders 61+ 4% 6%

 

Could it be that our secular schools, culture and public square are creating their expected result—generations that are becoming more and more secular? It also appears that on average, once people reach the age of 18, their belief in God is pretty much set for life.

How should we respond to this trend of succeeding generations turning away from God? I believe the report on Camp Quest reveals some lessons we can take away and apply to this question. I want to consider three possible lessons:

• Respect those who express doubts

• Understand that the Truth is not afraid of skepticism (or scientific inquiry)

• Don’t be intimidated by an unfriendly world.

Respect Those Who Express Doubts

Many of the children attending Camp Quest felt like they are living in a culture where it is taboo to ask the question, “Why should I believe in God?”

One fourteen year old boy “was at camp hoping to meet some nonbelievers his age. All his friends in Allen believe in God, he said, and he tries to keep his atheism a secret from them. ‘They’d probably avoid me if they knew,’ he said.”{5}

“Another boy, 14, whose stepfather requested his anonymity, started home-schooling this year after enduring years of bullying for his open atheism.”{6}

In my opinion, looking at the experience of the Quest campers gives startling insight into the issue of teenagers from Christian homes turning away from the church in their college years.

Consider a teenager from a Christian family who has questions about the God they learned about in Sunday school. Where can they get some answers to the tough questions? They look around and see how their peers and parents react to other children who question the party line. They realize they may risk status with their peers if they ask these questions. So, at a time when they are around Christian adults on a regular basis who could help them deal with the tough questions and the evidence for God, they are intimidated into keeping silent. Once they leave the home for college or other vocations, they enter an environment where the primary people that claim to have answers to these questions are belittling Christianity as a crutch for people who believe in myths.

In other words, if the children of atheists are afraid to bring up their doubts in public, how much more do many children from Christian families feel forced to go through the motions while hiding their major doubts and concerns?

If we teach our children to respect those with genuine questions about God, we receive a double benefit:

• Our children will be more willing to bring up questions that cause them to struggle.

• Our children will have opportunities to hear the questions of others who need to know Christ. If we model for our children a gentle and respectful response to peoples’ questions/beliefs, their friends are more likely to be willing to share their questions with them.

Understand That the Truth Is Not Afraid of Skepticism (or Scientific Inquiry)

Most parents at Camp Quest indicated that they did not want to dictate their children’s beliefs, but clearly they wanted to impact the thought process. As one mother stated:

“Our job isn’t to tell children what to think,” she said. “It’s about opening up their minds and learning how to ask good questions.”{7}

Just as we hope that the children at Camp Quest will ultimately ask the right questions about the purpose of life and their eternal destinies, we should encourage our children to examine the truth claims of Christianity. After all, Jesus told Pilate:

‘For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” John 18:37-38 (NASU or New American Standard Updated.)

Lies and hoaxes are afraid of skeptics. The Truth welcomes skeptics because it shines in the light of examination. If we are willing to examine the truth with our children, it will build their confidence in their faith.

Many teenagers in Sunday School and youth meetings learn the things that Christians do (and don’t do) and some things that Christians believe, but never learn about why we believe that the evidence for Christianity is strong and a biblical worldview answers the hard questions better than any other worldview. I suspect that many teenagers get the impression that their pastors and teachers are afraid of hard questions and want to avoid them. Perhaps in too many cases this suspicion is reality.

This reinforces what we have stated in prior articles on the subject of youth retention (see The Last Christian Generation, related articles). We need to:

• Encourage students to ask tough questions and respect them for doing so.

• Equip parents and student leaders with solid answers for the tough questions.

• Take the initiative and address these topics in Sunday school and youth meetings even before the students ask the questions.

• Point them to resources like Probe for those that want to go deeper into these topics.

• Expose them to Christian adults who are living out a mature biblical worldview

Don’t Be Intimidated By An Unfriendly World.

How many of us can identify with the following statement:

Just as evangelical adults need social support from their church, our children need it even more. Many of our kids are ostracized at school because their parents are evangelicals, or because they’re sharing their own faith at school. It can also be challenging to be an evangelical parent when most people assume that you’re intolerant and ignorant if you teach your children to believe in hell and in Jesus as the only way to heaven. Christian camps provide a valuable resource for parents, plus they are full of fun activities for kids that reinforce our values–—faith in Christ, love for God and our neighbors, good morals, and a desire for others to receive eternal life.

It rings true, doesn’t it? It is interesting to consider that the statement above is a slight modification of a statement made by Zachary Moore:

Just as freethinking adults need social support from groups like the NTCOF, our children need it even more. Many of our kids are ostracized at school or in their neighborhoods because their parents are freethinkers, or because they’re developing their own freethinking perspective. It can also be challenging to be a freethinking parent when most people assume that you’re immoral if you don’t teach your children to believe in a god. Camp Quest Texas provides a valuable resource for parents, plus it’s full of fun activities for kids that reinforce our freethinking values – science, critical thinking, ethics and religious tolerance.{8}

American society as a whole does not have a high regard for atheism. However, in many ways, our public sector and public schools are more supportive of the NTCOF than they are of evangelicals. This is the reality our children will become adults within. We need to encourage them through a community of like–minded believers while at them same time preparing them to stand up in an unsympathetic and sometimes hostile public square.

Youth groups and Christian camps are not refugee camps to protect our children from the world. They need to focus on equipping them and encouraging them to stand for the Truth in whatever cultural setting they encounter.

You may not be excited about the prospect of a Church of Freethought. However, their experience and reactions may help expose some our inadequacies in preparing our children to stand firm in their faith in this world. Let’s make sure that our children know that we are open to their hard questions and are prepared with real answers.

“For he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” Heb 11:6-7 (NASU).

Notes

1. Avi Selk, “Secular kids’ camp in Collin County aims to provide questions, not answers,” Dallas Morning News, August 31, 2009.

2. Rod Dreher, “A church for skeptics,” Dallas Morning News, August 31, 2009.

3. Ibid.

4. Barna Group, “Atheists and Agnostics Take Aim at Christians”, June 11, 2007, www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/102-atheists-and-agnostics-take-aim-at-christians.

5. Selk.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Dreher.

© 2009 Probe Ministries

 

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“You are Full of Hatred and Bigotry”

I just read your article Contact: A Eulogy for Carl Sagan. I hope you live to understand the hatred and bigotry you people spread and the millions of deaths that your kind of blind stupidity has caused. You live based on a political system used to control gullible people; that in itself is not wrong but please try to use the brain you have and think, just once in your life think.

Don’t waste your life with a lie. The universe is a wonderful place, whatever you believe, being so large and wonderful, let’s all think big and not insular and earth bound.

Good luck with seeing the truth and being honest with yourselves.

Sorry you had such a negative reaction to my article concerning Sagan and “Contact.” You’re certainly not the first to respond to me that way.

I certainly do think that the universe is a wonderful place. I simply believe I have a much better reason for thinking that way. The universe is wonderful because God created it that way and I can appreciate the beauty, wonder, and awe of what I see as a reflection of the Creator. Sagan, and I presume you, have no reason for awe and wonder. We’re just cogs in a mechanistic universe that did not have us or anything else in mind. We just happened. When we die, we’re dirt and our lives have had no real significance.

Sagan in his opening monologue to the Cosmos series claims “There is a catch in the voice and a tingle in the spine as we approach the grandest of mysteries.” He is referring to the origin and nature of the universe. However, if it’s just molecules colliding over time, what’s to get excited about? I maintain Sagan is borrowing his awe and wonder from a Christian perspective. When I approach the origin and nature of the universe, I too get a catch in the voice and a tingle in the spine because I am approaching the Creator in all His majesty, wonder, complexity, and mystery. Now that is truly awesome.

Every worldview has had its moments of terror attributed to it. Materialists such as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot have put a dark stain on that worldview. On the other hand, the Christian West literally invented hospitals, orphanages, shelters for the poor and homeless, and relief aid around the world for centuries. Certainly Christianity has had its dark moments such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, to name just a few. However, I would argue that the perpetrators of those events were not consistent in their application of the Bible to their world, where the materialists listed above lived far more consistently within theirs in perpetrating their horrors.

So I agree that we all need to think more clearly and consistently.

Respectfully,

Ray Bohlin
Probe Ministries

© 2005 Probe Ministries


“Why Don’t You Respect Others’ Beliefs?”

How come you can’t accept other religions and beliefs instead of always trying to convert them to Christianity? I was brought up in a Christian family and was always taught that you should accept others for who they are instead of forcing them to be how YOU want them to be.

I personally am an atheist and have told my family that since I was old enough to fully understand my own feelings on religion, and my own family have not tried to convert me as they respect what I think and feel. But when I read your replies to people’s e-mails you try to convert people you don’t even know. I fully respect your beliefs and thought that since you were Christians you could respect others. I am not trying to be disrespectful but I have friends from almost every religion in the world and yet even when we come to together we never try to (for lack of a better word) force, our views on each other instead we respect each other. I am sorry if I am sounding rude when I say this but would you please email me back with your views on this and I will gladly read them and attempt to understand them.

Dear ______,

I very much appreciate the respectful tone of your letter. Bless you!

There is a difference between accepting others for who they are and forcing them to be someone you want them to be. I am not aware of anything on our website that attempts to force anyone to do anything; we do OFFER the way to know God through a personal relationship with His son Jesus, and we do OFFER a Christian perspective on many topics, but I would be grateful if you would help me see any place where we’re forcing anything on anyone. Especially since everyone who reads our website freely chooses to come here and freely chooses to continue reading once they discover our position.

We don’t have the power to convert anyone. We will do our best to explain why Christianity makes the most sense because it’s true, and you have no doubt discovered that we have a lot of confidence in our position. But everything we say comes from a deep understanding that God created us with the ability to choose. We understand the power of influence, and we try to use whatever influence we have by way of what we have learned about the evidence for Christianity being true to help others understand what is right and true.

Many people think that respecting others’ views and beliefs is the same thing as affirming that they are all equally valid, and we can’t do that. For instance, what if you met someone who believed that red lights mean go and green lights mean stop. Would you respect that view? Really? Or would you do your best to convince the person believing it that it is a wrong and dangerous view to hold?

That’s what we do. We believe that God has spoken to our world through the Bible and through the person of Jesus Christ, and thus we can know truth because God has communicated it to us. And those who believe differently from what God has specifically said, hold wrong and dangerous views because it can keep them separated from God forever.

I hope you understand us better now, even if you don’t agree. And if you get to the point where your life seems pointless and meaningless–because if there is no God there is no meaning-giver–then we’ll be here to help you.

Respectfully,

Sue Bohlin
Probe Ministries


Jimmy Williams Recalls Debate with Madalyn Murray O’Hair at SMU

Jimmy Williams, founder of Probe Ministries in Dallas, remembers vividly his encounter with Madalyn Murray OHair, her husband, and her son John Garth, in the Umphrey Lee Student Center of Southern Methodist University on March 28, 1966.

The president of the freshman class, Charlie Williams (no relation), was active in the student group of Campus Crusade for Christ, which Jimmy directed at that time. Hearing of Mrs. OHairs visit to the campus, Jimmy recalls that Charlie invited her to enter into debate with me.

The debate, Jimmy remembers, was mostly a monologue with Mrs. OHair doing most of the talking. Her intimidation tactic was to shock listeners, using the f-word and a stream of other profanities, something we were not accustomed to hearing from a woman in those days. There is no question that she was a gifted and intelligent woman, but her demeanor was harsh and mean-spirited. I challenged her on a number of areas, but she quickly brushed them off with more four-letter words and continued with her agenda of things she apparently thought must be said to the group.

After the debate, refreshments were served, and we chatted with her husband and her son. I asked Mr. OHair if he shared his wifes beliefs, and he said he did not. Then I turned to John Garth, who must have been about ten years old, and asked him what he thought about all of this. He seemed to be a great kid. Looking somewhat confused, embarrassed, and sad, he replied, ‘Well, Im not sure. I guess Im caught somewhere in the middle.’ When I learned the news earlier this year that authorities had finally located the dismembered bodies of Mrs. O Hair, John Garth, and a daughter-in-law, it grieved me deeply, said Jimmy.

A couple of years ago I read a quote attributed to Mrs. OHair, who said that the one desire of her heart was to find someone in the world who really loved her. When I read it, I regretted I did not express to her that day in the student center that I did and Jesus did.

After serving with Campus Crusade at SMU eight years, Jimmy spent four years in California (1968-1972) overseeing the campus works of Campus Crusade throughout the southwest U.S. Grappling with issues among students during these turbulent years on the West Coast provided the main motivation to found a new ministry (Probe Ministries) to address the spiritual needs and questions of university students. Jimmy moved back to Dallas and founded Probe Ministries in 1973, serving as its president for twenty-five years. He has personally visited 181 universities to minister and lecture throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Russia.

 

©2002 Probe Ministries.


Atheists and Their Fathers

How does one become an atheist? Does a person’s relationship with his earthly father affect his relationship with his heavenly Father? These are some of the questions we will explore in this article as we talk about the book Faith of the Fatherless by Paul Vitz.

Vitz is a psychologist who was an atheist himself until his late thirties. He began to wonder if psychology played a role in one’s belief about God. After all, secular psychologists have been saying that a belief in God is really nothing more than infantile wish fulfillment. Dr. Vitz wondered if the shoe was on the other foot. Could it be that atheists are engaged in unconscious wish fulfillment?

After studying the lives of more than a dozen of the world’s most influential atheists, Dr. Vitz discovered that they all had one thing in common: defective relationships with their fathers. The relationship was defective because the father was either dead, abusive, weak, or had abandoned the children. When he studied the lives of influential theists during those same historical time periods, he found they enjoyed a strong, loving relationship with a father (or a father substitute if the father was dead).

For example, Friedrich Nietzche lost his father (who was a pastor) before his fifth birthday. One biographer wrote that Nietzche was “passionately attached to his father, and the shock of losing him was profound.” Dr. Vitz writes that Nietzche had a “strong, intellectually macho reaction against a dead, very Christian father.” Friedrich Nietzche is best known as the philosopher who said, “God is dead.” It certainly seems possible that his rejection of God and Christianity was a “rejection of the weakness of his father.”

Contrast Nietzche with the life of Blaise Pascal. This famous mathematician and religious writer lived at a time in Paris when there was considerable skepticism about religion. He nevertheless wrote Les pensées (Thoughts), a powerful and imaginative defense of Christianity, which also attacked skepticism. Pascal’s father, Etienne, was a wealthy judge and also an able mathematician. He was known as a good man with religious convictions. Pascal’s mother died when he was three, so his father gave up his law practice and home-schooled Blaise and his sisters.

Here we are going to look at the correlation between our relationship with our earthly father and our heavenly Father. No matter what our family background, we are still responsible for the choices we make. Growing up in an unloving home does not excuse us from rejecting God, but it does explain why some people reject God. There may be a psychological component to their commitment to atheism.

Nietzche and Freud

Friedrich Nietzche is a philosopher who has influenced everyone from Adolph Hitler to the Columbine killers. His father was a Lutheran pastor who died of a brain disease before Nietzche’s fifth birthday. He often spoke positively of his father and said his death was a great loss, which he never forgot. One biographer wrote that Nietzche was “passionately attached to his father, and the shock of losing him was profound.”

It seems he associated the general weakness and sickness of his father with his father’s Christianity. Nietzche’s major criticism of Christianity was that it suffers from an absence, even a rejection, of “life force.” The God Nietzche chose was Dionysius, a strong pagan expression of life force. It certainly seems possible that his rejection of God and Christianity was a “rejection of the weakness of his father.”

Nietzche’s own philosophy placed an emphasis on the “superman” along with a denigration of women. Yet his own search for masculinity was undermined by the domination of his childhood by his mother and female relatives in a Christian household. Dr. Vitz says, “It is not surprising, then, that for Nietzche Christian morality was something for women.” He concludes that Nietzche had a “strong, intellectually macho reaction against a dead, very Christian father who was loved and admired but perceived as sickly and weak.”

Sigmund Freud despised his Jewish father, who was a weak man unable to support his family. Freud later wrote in two letters that his father was a sexual pervert, and that the children suffered as a result. Dr. Vitz believes that Freud’s Oedipus Complex (which placed hatred of the father at the center of his psychology) was an expression of “his strong unconscious hostility to and rejection of his own father.” His father was involved in a form of reformed Judaism but was also a weak, passive man with sexual perversions. Freud’s rejection of God and Judaism seems connected to his rejection of his father.

Both Nietzche and Freud demonstrate the relationship between our attitudes toward our earthly father and our heavenly Father. In both cases, there seems to be a psychological component to their commitment to atheism.

Russell and Hume

Bertrand Russell was one of the most famous atheists of the last century. Both of Russell’s parents lived on the margin of radical politics. His father died when Bertrand Russell was four years old, and his mother died two years earlier. He was subsequently cared for by his rigidly puritanical grandmother, who was known as “Deadly Nightshade.” She was by birth a Scottish Presbyterian, and by temperament a puritan.

Russell’s daughter Katherine noted that his grandmother’s joyless faith was “the only form of Christianity my father knew well.” This ascetic faith taught that “the life of this world was no more than a gloomy testing ground for future bliss.” She concluded, “My father threw this morbid belief out the window.”

Dr. Vitz points out that Russell’s only other parent figures were a string of nannies to whom he often grew quite attached. When one of the nannies left, the eleven-year-old Bertrand was “inconsolable.” He soon discovered that the way out of his sadness was to retreat into the world of books.

After his early years of lost loves and later years of solitary living at home with tutors, Russell described himself in this way: “My most profound feelings have remained always solitary and have found in human things no companionship . . . . The sea, the stars, the night wind in waste places, mean more to me than even the human beings I love best, and I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God.”

Another famous atheist was David Hume. He was born into a prominent and affluent family. He seems to have been on good terms with his mother as well as his brother and sister. He was raised as a Scottish Presbyterian but gave up his faith and devoted most of his writing to the topic of religion.

Like the other atheists we have discussed, David Hume fits the pattern. His father died when he was two years old. Biographies of his life mention no relatives or family friends who could serve as father-figures. And David Hume is known as a man who had no religious beliefs and spent his life raising skeptical arguments against religion in any form.

Both Russell and Hume demonstrate the relationship between our attitudes toward our earthly father and our heavenly Father. In each case, there is a psychological component to their commitment to atheism.

Sartre, Voltaire, and Feuerbach

Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most famous atheists of the last century. His father died when he was fifteen months old. He and his mother lived with his maternal grandparents as his mother cultivated a very intimate relationship with him. She concentrated her emotional energy on her son until she remarried when Sartre was twelve. This idyllic and Oedipal involvement came to an end, and Sartre strongly rejected his stepfather.

In those formative years, Sartre’s real father died, his grandfather was cool and distant, and his stepfather took his beloved mother away from him. The adolescent Sartre concluded to himself, “You know what? God doesn’t exist.” Commentators note that Sartre obsessed with fatherhood all his life and never got over his fatherlessness. Dr. Vitz concludes that “his father’s absence was such a painful reality that Jean-Paul spent a lifetime trying to deny the loss and build a philosophy in which the absence of a father and of God is the very starting place for the good or authentic life.”

Another philosopher during the French Enlightenment disliked his father so much that he changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire. The two fought constantly. At one point Voltaire’s father was so angry with his son for his interest in the world of letters rather than taking up a career in law that he “authorized having his son sent to prison or into exile in the West Indies.” Voltaire was not a true atheist, but rather a deist who believed in an impersonal God. He was a strident critic of religion, especially Christianity with its understanding of a personal God.

Ludwig Feuerbach was a prominent German atheist who was born into a distinguished and gifted German family. His father was a prominent jurist who was difficult and undiplomatic with colleagues and family. The dramatic event in young Ludwig’s life must have been his father’s affair with the wife of one his father’s friends. They lived together openly in another town, and she bore him a son. The affair began when Feuerbach was nine and lasted for nine years. His father publicly rejected his family, and years later Feuerbach rejected Christianity. One famous critic of religion said that Feuerbach was so hostile to Christianity that he would have been called the Antichrist if the world had ended then.

Each of these men once again illustrates the relationship between atheism and their fathers.

Burke and Wilberforce

British statesman Edmund Burke is considered by many as the founder of modern conservative political thought. He was partly raised by his grandfather and three affectionate uncles. He later wrote of his Uncle Garret, that he was “one of the very best men, I believe that ever lived, of the clearest integrity, the most genuine principles of religion and virtue.”

His writings are in direct opposition to the radical principles of the French Revolution. One of his major criticisms of the French Revolution was its hostility to religion: “We are not converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helevetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers.” For Burke, God and religion were important pillars of a just and civil society.

William Wilberforce was an English statesman and abolitionist. His father died when he was nine years old, and he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle. He was extremely close to his uncle and to John Newton who was a frequent visitor to their home. Newton was a former slave trader who converted to Christ and wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” Wilberforce first heard of the evils of slavery from Newton’s stories and sermons, “even reverencing him as a parent when [he] was a child.” Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian who went on to serve in parliament and was instrumental in abolishing the British slave trade.

As mentioned earlier, Blaise Pascal was a famous mathematician and religious writer. Pascal’s father was a wealthy judge and also an able mathematician, known as a good man with religious convictions. Pascal’s mother died when he was three, so his father gave up his law practice and home-schooled Blaise and his sisters. Pascal went on to powerfully present a Christian perspective at a time when there was considerable skepticism about religion in France.

I believe Paul Vitz provides an important look at atheists and theists in his book Faith of the Fatherless. The prominent atheists of the last few centuries all had defective relationships with their fathers while the theists enjoyed a strong, loving relationship with a father or a father substitute. This might be something to compassionately consider the next time you witness to an atheist.

 

©2002 Probe Ministries


A Conversation with an Atheist

Rick Wade distills an in-depth e-mail dialog with an atheist in which he addresses her doubts and arguments concerning the existence of God.

Spanish flag This article is also available in Spanish.

About Our Dialogue

The Conversation Begins

In the fall of 1999 I became involved in an e-mail conversation with an atheist who wrote in response to a program I’d written titled The Relevance of Christianity. In this program [Ed. note: The transcripts for our radio programs become the online articles such as the one you are reading.] I contrast Christianity and naturalism on the matters of meaning, morality, and hope.{1} She wrote to say that she was able to find these things in her own philosophy of life without God. If such things can be had without God, why bother bringing Him in, especially given all the trouble religion causes?

Stephanie has an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and is pursuing her doctorate in physics.{2} Our conversation has been quite cordial, and in our over two-month long conversation I’ve grown to respect her. She isn’t just out to pick a fight. I try to keep in mind that, if her ideas seem grating on me, mine are just as grating on her.

Stephanie seems genuinely baffled by theistic belief. If God is there, He is outside the bounds of what we can know. While someone like Kierkegaard saw good reason to take a “leap of faith” into that which can’t be proved, she sees no reason to do that. “I think that if I had faith it would be like his,” she says, “but the leap seems, at this point, both futile and risky.”

Stephanie has three general objections to belief in God. First, she believes that the evidence is insufficient. The evidence of nature is all she has, and God is said to have attributes beyond the natural. There’s no way to know about such things. Second, she believes that theistic belief adds nothing of importance to our lives or to what we can know through science. I asked her, “What is it about Christianity that turns you off to it?” And she replied, “I imagine believing, and I am no more fulfilled and no less worried than I am when I am not believing. God just does not seem to be a useful, beneficial, or tenable idea.” Third, she believes that religion is morally bad for people. It grounds morality in fear, she believes, and it produces a dogmatism in adherents that prompts such behavior as killing abortion providers.

Stephanie began our correspondence not to be given proofs for the existence of God, but for me “to explain more personally His relevance.” What is called for, then, is defense and explication rather than persuasion.

Basic Elements of Stephanie’s Atheism

There are three main elements underlying Stephanie’s atheism. The first is reason, which she believes is sufficient for understanding our world, for morality, and for understanding and cultivating human qualities such as “aesthetic appreciation, compassion, and love.” It is, of course, the final authority on religion as well. Reason does not admit faith. Insofar as one has admitted faith into the equation, one has moved toward irrationalism. As George Smith wrote, “I will not accept the existence of God, or any doctrine, on faith because I reject faith as a valid cognitive procedure. . . . If theistic doctrines must be accepted on faith, theism is necessarily excluded.”{3}

The second element, nature, is reason’s best source for information. Stephanie says, “I have no access to anything outside of the natural universe and my own mind.”

The package is complete with Stephanie’s commitment to science, which is the tool reason uses to understand nature. It alone is capable of giving us “objective, investigable knowledge,” she says. In fact, I think it is fair to label Stephanie’s approach to knowledge “scientistic.” There seems to be no area of life which need not be submitted to science to be considered rational, and for which scientific investigation isn’t sufficient.

The reason/nature/science triumvirate provides the structure for acquiring knowledge. To go beyond it is to move into irrationalism, Stephanie believes. There’s certainly no reason to add God. She says, “As I understand it, the idea of God as a creator or guarantor adds nothing but unjustified mysticism to my knowledge.”{4}

Theists have no problem with using reason to understand our world, or with the study of nature, or with using the tools of science. The problem comes when Stephanie concludes that nothing can be known beyond nature analyzed scientifically. She believes that nature is all that is there or at least all that is knowable. Stephanie says she doesn’t consciously start with naturalism; she has no desire to “champion naturalism as a dogma,” she says. However, since science “only permits investigation of natural, repeatable phenomena,” and she is satisfied with that, her view is restricted to the scope of nature. She even goes so far as to say, “I equate rationality and naturalism.”

It seems, then, that the deck is stacked from the beginning. Stephanie’s emphasis on science doesn’t necessarily prevent her from finding God, but her naturalism does.

Insufficient Evidences

The Evidentialist Objection

Let’s look at Stephanie’s three basic objections to theistic belief, beginning with the charge that there is insufficient evidence to believe. Rather than offer a defense for theistic belief, let’s look at the objection itself.

Stephanie’s argument is called the “evidentialist objection.” She quotes W. K. Clifford, a 19th century scholar who wrote, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”{5} Stephanie’s objection is that there isn’t enough evidence to believe in God. The first question, of course, is what constitutes good evidence. Another question is whether we should accept Clifford’s maxim in the first place.

Some atheists believe they don’t bear the same burden of adducing evidences for their beliefs as theists do. They say atheism is the “default” position. To believe in God is to add a belief; to not add that belief is to remain in atheism or perhaps agnosticism.{6} But atheism isn’t a “zero belief” system. Western atheism is typically naturalistic. Atheists hold definite views about the nature of the universe; there’s no reason to think that atheism is where we all automatically begin in our thinking, such that to move to theism is to add a belief while to not believe in God is to remain in atheism. It’s hard not to agree with Alvin Plantinga that the presumption of atheism “looks like a piece of merely arbitrary intellectual imperialism.”{7} If theists have to give evidences, so do atheists.

Stephanie, however, doesn’t defend her atheism or naturalism this way. She believes that reason using the tools of science is the only reliable means of attaining knowledge. The result of her observations, she says, is naturalism. There simply aren’t sufficient evidences for believing in God, at least the kinds of evidences that are trustworthy. Which kind are trustworthy? Stephanie wants evidences in nature, because in nature one finds “objective, investigable knowledge.” However, she doesn’t believe evidences for God can be found there. God must be outside of nature if He exists. She said, “You may rightly ask what kind of naturalistic evidence I would ever accept for God, and I would have to answer, none.’ Because once a naturalistic investigation turns to God with its hands up, it ceases to be naturalistic, and so it ceases to refer to anything that I can hope to investigate. I lack a sense for God and I have no access to anything outside of the natural universe and my own mind.” She said in a later letter that the cause of the universe may have had an agent. But when we begin adding other attributes to this agent, attributes which can’t be studied scientifically, we get into trouble. “As soon as you talk about God as having infinite attributes, those attributes actually begin to lose meaning,” she says. “My view,” she says, “is that it’s just as well to call the unknown cause what it is–an unknown cause–until the means to investigate it are developed.” And by this she means natural means. A Naturalistic Twist

The first problem here is obvious: Stephanie has biased the argument in her favor by her restrictions on knowledge to the realm of nature. She reduces our resources for knowledge to the scientifically verifiable. Such reductionism is arbitrary. By reducing all knowledge to that which can be discovered scientifically, Stephanie has cut out significant portions of our knowledge. Philosopher Huston Smith said this: “It is as if the scientist were inside a large plastic balloon; he can shine his torch anywhere on the balloon’s interior but cannot climb outside the balloon to view it as a whole, see where it is situated, or determine why it was fabricated.”{8} Science can’t tell us what the final cause (or purpose or goal) of a thing is; in fact it can’t tell whether there are ultimate purposes. It cannot determine ultimate or existential meaning. While it can describe the artist’s paintbrush and pigments and canvas, it can’t measure beauty. Clifford’s Folly

Beyond this difficulty is the fact that Clifford’s maxim itself has problems.

First, the evidentialist approach is unreasonably restrictive. If we have to be able construct an argument for everything we believe¾and upon which we act–we will believe little and act little.

Second, this approach might have validity in science, but it leaves out other significant kinds of beliefs. Kelly Clark lists perceptual beliefs, memory beliefs, belief in other minds, and truths of logic as other kinds of “properly basic” beliefs that we hold without inferring them from other beliefs.{9} Beliefs involved in personal relationships are another example. Relationships often require a willingness to believe in a friend apart from sufficient evidences. In fact, the willingness to do so can have a positive effect on developing a good relationship. Beliefs about persons are still another example. I accept without proof that my wife is a person, that she isn’t an automaton, that she has intrinsic value, etc. These kinds of beliefs don’t require amassing evidences to formulate an inductive or deductive proof. Clifford’s maxim works well in scientific study, but not for beliefs about persons.

More to the point, religious beliefs don’t fit so neatly within evidentialist restrictions. They are more like relational beliefs since, in confronting a Supreme Being, one is not confronting a hypothesis but a Person.

Fourth, Stephanie’s use of Clifford’s evidentialism is biased in her favor because, as we discussed above, her satisfaction with the deliverances of scientific investigation means she will only accept evidences in the natural order. Do We Have Good Reasons for Believing?

Some Christian scholars are saying that we don’t have to have evidences for belief, meaning that we don’t have to be able to put together an argument whereby God’s existence is inferred from other beliefs. Our direct experience of God is sufficient for rational belief (using “experience” in a broader sense than emotional experience).{10} Belief in God is therefore properly basic.

This is not to say there are no grounds for believing, however. Drawing from John Calvin, Alvin Plantinga says that we have an ingrained tendency to recognize God under appropriate circumstances. Of course, there are a number of reasons or grounds for believing. These include direct experience of God, the testimony of a people who claim to have known God, written revelation which makes sense (if one is open to the supernatural), philosophical and scientific corroboration, the historical reality of a man named Jesus who fulfilled prophecies and did miracles, etc. Am I reversing myself here? Do we need reasons or not? The point is this: while there are valid reasons for believing in God, what we do not need to do is submit our belief in God ultimately to Clifford’s maxim, especially a version of it already committed to naturalism. We can recognize God in our experience, and this belief can be confirmed by various reasons or evidences. Rather than view our belief as guilty until proven innocent, as the evidentialist objection would have it, we can view it as innocent until proven guilty. Let the atheists prove we’re wrong.

Theism Adds Nothing

The second general objection to belief in God Stephanie offers is that it adds nothing of value to life and to what we can know by reason alone. Is this true? Meaning

Consider the subject of meaning. Stephanie said she finds meaning in the everyday affairs of life without worrying about God. Let me quote an extended passage from Stephanie’s first letter on the subject of meaning. Her reference in the first line is to a quotation from a book by Albert Camus.

Your quote from The Stranger (“I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe”) expresses well a feeling that I have had often. The universe is not concerned with me, so I do not need to bow and cater to anything in it; I can merely be grateful (yes, actually grateful to nothing in particular) that I can walk along a path with trees and breathe in the crisp late autumn, that I can watch cotton motes fly into my face, facing the sun, that I can struggle and wrangle my way into knowing that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is that which keeps atoms from collapsing (in nanoseconds!!). I find meaning in my relationship with my parents, brothers, and in my marriage; my husband is the most kind, capable, ethical, and wise person I’ve ever met. These things are sufficiently meaningful for me; I do not think that true meaning is necessarily eternal and I do not demand recognition from the universe or the human notion of its maker. I am convinced that belief in a personal god could do nothing but dilute these things by subordinating them to something as slippery as God.

Thus, Stephanie believes that God isn’t necessary for her to find meaning in life.

I replied that her naturalism provides no meaning beyond what we impose on the universe. We can pretend there is purpose behind it all, but a universe that doesn’t care about us doesn’t care about our superimposed meanings either. What does she do when the meaning she has given the universe doesn’t find support in the universe itself? I wrote:

You might see this earth as a beautiful ‘mother’ of sorts which nourishes and sustains its inhabitants. Do people who suffer through hurricanes or earthquakes or tornadoes see it as such? Do people who live in almost lifeless deserts who have to spend their days walking many miles to get water and who struggle to eke out a meager existence from the land find beauty and meaning in it? Often people who live close to the land do indeed find a special meaning in nature itself, but by and large they also believe there is a higher power behind it who not only gives meaning to the universe but who gives meaning to the struggle to survive and to the effort to preserve nature.

When I said that all her efforts at accomplishing some good could come to naught, and thus be ultimately meaningless, her response was, “That’s OK. . . . I’m not looking for universal or eternal meaning.”

It’s hard to know what to say to that. We might follow Francis Schaeffer’s advice and “take the roof off;”{11} in other words, expose the implications of her beliefs. Stephanie says she isn’t a nihilist (one who believes that everything is thoroughly meaningless and without value); perhaps she could be called an “optimistic humanist” to use J. P. Moreland’s term.{12} She believes there are no ultimate values; rather, we give life whatever meaning we choose. However, this position has no rational edge on nihilism. It simply reflects a decision to act as if there is meaning. Such groundless optimism is no more rationally justifiable than nihilism. It is just intellectual make-believe designed to help us be content with our lot¾adult versions of children’s fairy tales.

Since the loss of absolute or transcendent meaning undercuts all absolute value, each person must choose his or her own values, moral and otherwise. As I told Stephanie, others might not agree with her values. The Nazis thought there was valid meaning in purifying the race. What did the Jews think?

What can be seen as meaningful for the moment is just that–meaningful for the moment. Death comes and everything that has gone before it comes to nothing, at least for the individual. Sure, one can find meaning in, say, working to discover a cure for a terrible disease knowing that it will benefit countless people for ages to come. But those people who benefit from it will die one day, too. And in the end, if atheists are correct, the whole race will die out and all that it has accomplished will come to naught.{13} Thus, while there may be temporal significance to what we do, there is no ultimate significance. Can the atheist really live with this?

By contrast, the eternal nature of God gives meaning beyond the temporal. What we do has eternal significance because it is done in the context of the creation of the eternal God who acts with purpose and does nothing capriciously. More specifically, belief in God locates our actions in the context of the building of His kingdom. There is a specific end toward which we are working that gives meaning to the specific things we do.

Strictly speaking, then, we might agree with Stephanie that it’s true God doesn’t add anything. Rather, He is the very ground of meaning. Morality

What about morality? Although Stephanie says that naturalistic morality is superior, when pressed to offer a standard she was only able to offer a basic impulse to kindness. In addition, she said, “I think that it is sufficient to have an internal sense of the golden rule, and I think that’s a natural development.” She used the metaphor of a child growing up to illustrate our growth in morality. Reason is all that is needed for good moral behavior. If biblical moral principles agree with reason they are unnecessary. If they don’t, “they are absurd.”

In response I noted that we can measure the growth of a child by looking at an adult; the adult we might call the telos or goal of the child. We know what the child is supposed to become. What is the goal or end, in her view, of morality? What is the standard of goodness to which we should attain? Stephanie accepts the golden rule but can give me no reason why I should. Reason by itself doesn’t direct me to. The golden rule assumes a basic equality between us all. Where does this idea come from? Even if it is employed only to safeguard the survival of the race, by what standard shall we say that’s a good thing? Maybe we need to get out of the way for something else.

God, however, provides a standard grounded in His character and will to which we all are subject. He doesn’t change on fundamental issues (although God has pressed certain moral demands on His people more at one time than another in keeping with the progress of revelation{14}), and His law is suited to our nature and our needs. The universe doesn’t necessarily stand behind Stephanie’s chosen morality, but God–and the universe¾stand behind His.

One final note. Showing the weaknesses of naturalism with respect to morality is not to say that all atheists are evil people. In her first letter, Stephanie wrote, “I take offense at your statement that the relativism of a godless morality permits things like the destruction of the weak and the development of a master race.’ . . . I find this charge of atheist amorality from Christians to be horribly persistent and unfair.” I noted that I never said in the Relevance radio program that all atheists are immoral or amoral. What I said was that “atheism itself makes no provision for fixed moral standards.” I asked Stephanie to show me what kind of moral standard naturalism offers. In fact, it offers none. As I noted earlier, Stephanie doesn’t want to “champion naturalism.” She knows it has nothing to offer. In fact, in one of her latest posts, she admitted that her philosophy only leaves her with “a frail pragmatism” and even “a certain moral relativism” because she doesn’t have “the absolute word of God to fall back upon.” She only has her own moral standards that have no hold on anyone else. Until she can show me what universal standard naturalism offers, I’ll stand behind what I said about what naturalism allows. Hope

Let’s turn our attention now to hope. Stephanie says that when she dies she will cease to exist. She thus has to be satisfied with the here and now. If there is nothing else, one must make do. Stephanie said, “I am satisfied with the time that I have here and now to think and feel and explore. You say, ‘an impersonal universe offers no rewards,’ but I am simply unable to comprehend the appeal of the vagaries of the Christian Heaven, especially with the heavy toll that they seem to of necessity take on intellectual honesty. If your notion of true hope requires a belief that one is promised eternal glory and fulfillment, then I cannot claim it. I am unable to comprehend what that could mean.” Maybe the reason she is unable to comprehend it is her scientistic approach. Heaven isn’t something one can analyze scientifically. P>In response I noted that she stands apart from the majority of people worldwide. There is something in us that yearns for immortality, I said. Of course, the various religions of the world have different ways of defining what the eternal state is and how to attain it. Christians believe we were created to desire it; it is a part of our make-up because we were created by an immortal God to live forever. If naturalism is true, I asked, how do you explain the desire for immortality?

If we had no good reason to believe in “the vagaries of the Christian Heaven,” I suppose it would be foolish to allow it to govern one’s life. However, we do have good reasons: the promise of God who doesn’t lie, and the resurrection of Jesus. We also have the witness of “eternity set in our hearts.” (Eccles. 3:11) Because of this hope–which isn’t a “cross your fingers” kind of hope, but is justified confidence in the future–our labors here for Christ’s kingdom will not die with us, but will have eternal significance. They are what is called “fruit that remains” (John 15:16), or the work which is “revealed with fire.” (1 Cor. 3:13-14) Science

We’re still thinking about what belief in God adds to our lives and our knowledge. One area in which even some theists don’t want to bring God is science itself. Does theistic belief add anything to science, or is its admission a source of trouble?

Much ink has been spilled over this question. Aside from naturalistic evolutionists, some theistic scientists believe that to go beyond what is called “methodological naturalism” is risky.{15} That’s the belief that, for the purposes of scientific investigation, the scientist should not fall back on God as an explanation, but should stay within the bounds of that which science can investigate. However, not everyone is of this opinion. As scholars active in the intelligent design movement are showing today, it isn’t necessarily so that the supernatural has no place in science.

William Dembski, a leader in the intelligent design movement, says that, far from harming scientific inquiry, design adds to scientific discovery. For one thing, it fosters inquiry where a naturalistic view might see no need. Dembski names the issues of “junk DNA” and vestigial organs as examples. Is this DNA really “junk”? Did these vestigial organs have a purpose or do they have a purpose still? Openness to design also raises a new set of research questions. He says, “We will want to know how it was produced, to what extent the design is optimal, and what is its purpose.” Finally, Dembski says, “An object that is designed functions within certain constraints.” So, for example, “If humans are in fact designed, then we can expect psychosocial constraints to be hardwired into us. Transgress those constraints, and we as well as our society will suffer.”{16}

In sum it simply isn’t true that belief in God adds nothing of value to our lives and our knowledge. After all, whereas Stephanie is restricted to explanations arising from the natural order, we have the supernatural order in addition.

Moral Problems with Theism

It Doesn’t Live up to Its Promises

A third general objection Stephanie has to theistic belief has to do with moral issues. Atheists say there are moral factors that count against believing in God. To show a contradiction between what the Bible teaches about God’s character and what He actually does is to show either that He really doesn’t exist or that He isn’t worthy of our trust.

One argument says that the Bible doesn’t live up to its promises. Stephanie pointed to the matter of unanswered prayer. She referred to a man who claimed to have been an evangelical who lost his faith primarily because of “the inefficacy of prayer.” She has concluded that “hoping at God gives you the same results’ that hoping at the indifferent universe does–none that are consistent enough to be useful!”

In response, I noted first that people often put God to the test as if He is the one who has to prove Himself. Do we have the right to expect Him to answer our prayers 1) just because we pray them, or 2) when we haven’t done what He has called us to do? People can’t live the way they want to and then expect God to 1jump when they pray. Second, God has promised His people that He will hear them and answer, but He doesn’t always answer prayers the way we expect or when we expect. Answers might be a long time coming, or they might come in totally unexpected ways. Or it might be that over time our understanding of the situation or of God’s desires changes so that we realize that we need to pray differently. Evil

The problem of evil is a significant moral issue in the atheist’s arsenal. We talk about a God of goodness, but what we see around us is suffering, and a lot of it apparently unjustifiable. Stephanie said, “Disbelief in a personal, loving God as an explanation of the way the world works is reasonable–especially when one considers natural disasters that can’t be blamed on free will and sin.”{17}

One response to the problem of evil is that God sees our freedom to choose as a higher value than protecting people from harm; this is the freewill defense. Stephanie said, however, that natural disasters can’t be blamed on free will and sin. What about this? Is it true that natural disasters can’t be blamed on sin? I replied that they did come into existence because of sin (Genesis 3). We’re told in Romans 8 that creation will one day “be set free from its slavery to corruption,” that it “groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” The Fall caused the problem, and, in the consummation of the ages, the problem will be fixed.

Second, I noted that on a naturalistic basis, it’s hard to even know what evil is. But the reality of God explains it. As theologian Henri Blocher said,

The sense of evil requires the God of the Bible. In a novel by Joseph Heller, “While rejecting belief in God, the characters in the story find themselves compelled to postulate his existence in order to have an adequate object for their moral indignation.” . . . When you raise this standard objection against God, to whom do you say it, other than this God? Without this God who is sovereign and good, what is the rationale of our complaints? Can we even tell what is evil? Perhaps the late John Lennon understood: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” he sang. Might we be coming to the point where the sense of evil is a proof of the existence of God?{18}

So, while it’s true that no one (in my opinion) has really nailed down an answer to the problem of evil, if there is no God, there really is no problem of evil. Does the atheist ever find herself shaking her fist at the sky after some catastrophe and demanding an explanation? If there is no God, no one is listening.

Biblical Morality

Moral Character of God

Another direction atheistic objections run with respect to moral issues is in regard to the character of God. Is He good like the Bible says?

The “Old Testament God” is a favorite target of atheists for His supposed mean spirited and angry behavior, including stoning people for picking up sticks on Sunday, and having prophets call down bears on children.{19} The story of Abraham and Isaac is Stephanie’s favorite biblical enigma. She asked if I would take a knife to my son’s throat if God told me to. Clearly such a God isn’t worthy of being called good.

Let’s look more closely at the story of Abraham. Remember first of all that God did not let Abraham kill Isaac. The text says clearly that this was a test; God knew that He was going to stop Abraham.

But why such a difficult test? Consider Abraham’s cultural background. As one scholar noted, “It must be ever remembered that God accommodates His instructions to the moral and spiritual standards of the people at any given time.”{20} In Abraham’s day, people offered their children as sacrifices to their gods. While the idea of losing his promised son must have shaken him deeply, the idea of sacrificing him wouldn’t have been as unthinkable to him as to us. Think of an equivalent today, something God might call us to do that would stretch us almost to the breaking point. Whatever we think of might not have been an adequate test for Abraham. God needed to go to the extreme with Abraham and command him to do something very difficult that wasn’t beyond his imagination given his cultural setting.

Next, notice that Abraham said to the men with him “we will worship and return to you.” (Gen. 22:5) The book of Hebrews explains that “He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received [Isaac] back as a type” (11:17-19). Abraham believed what God had told him about building a great nation through Isaac. So, if Isaac died by God’s command, God would raise him from the dead.

Stephanie also objected to stories that told how God commanded the complete destruction of a town by the Israelites. The only way to understand this is to put it in the context of the nature of God and His opinion of sin, and the character of the people in question. God is absolutely holy, and He is a God of justice as well as mercy. To be true to His nature, He must deal with sin. Read too about the people He had the Israelites destroy. They were evil people. God drove them out because of their wickedness (Deut. 9:5). Walter Kaiser explains why the Canaanites were dealt with so severely.

They were cut off to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted (Deut. 20:16-18). When a people starts to burn their children in honor of their gods (Lev. 18:21), practice sodomy, bestiality, and all sorts of loathsome vices (Lev. 18:23,24; 20:3), the land itself begins to “vomit” them out as the body heaves under the load of internal poisons (Lev. 18:25, 27-30). . . . [William Benton] Greene likens this action on God’s part, not to doing evil that good may come, but doing good in spite of certain evil consequences, just as a surgeon does not refrain from amputating a gangrenous limb even though in so doing he cannot help cutting off much healthy flesh.{21}

Kaiser goes on to note that when nations repent, God withholds judgment (Jer. 18:7,8). “Thus, Canaan had, as it were, a final forty-year countdown as they heard of the events in Egypt, at the crossing of the Red Sea, and what happened to the kings who opposed Israel along the way.” They knew about the Israelites (Josh. 2:10-14). “Thus God waited for the ‘cup of iniquity’ to fill up–and fill up it did without any signs of change in spite of the marvelous signs given so that the nations, along with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, ‘might know that He was the Lord.’”{22}

One more point. Stephanie seemed to think that God still does things today as He did in Old Testament times. When I told her that God does not require all the same things of us today that He required of the Israelites, she said that “the advantage of the absoluteness of the biblical morality you wish to trumpet is negated by your softening of OT law and by your making local and relative the very commandments of God.” In other words, we say there are absolutes, but we give ourselves a way out. I simply noted that where it was commanded by God, for example, to put a rebellious son to death, we do not soften that command at all. But when in God’s own economy He brings about change, we go with the new way. God doesn’t change, but His requirements for His people have changed at times. This doesn’t leave everything open, however. The question is, What has God called us to do today?

Its Harmful Effects on Us

For Stephanie, biblical instruction on morality not only reveals a God she can’t trust, it also is harmful for us, too. So, for example, she says, “The desire not to harm can be overcome by the desire to do right by [one’s] idea of God (look at Abraham, my favorite enigma). That’s where the real harm to society can creep in.” She believes that the certainty of religious dogmatism regarding it own rightness encourages “excesses,” such as “holy wars and terrorism for possession of the holy land, and the killing of doctors and homosexuals for their own good.” She said that Christianity permits the kind of horrors we accuse atheists of perpetrating but with the endorsement of God. “Hitler was a very devout Catholic, as I understand it,” she said.

There is serious confusion here. Loaded words like “terrorism” bias the issue unfairly, and Stephanie takes some “excesses” to be rooted in Scripture when in fact they have nothing to do with biblical morality. It is unfair of her and other atheists to ignore the commands of Scripture that clearly reflect God’s goodness while ignoring sound interpretive methods for understanding the harder parts. It’s also wrong to let religious fanaticism in general count against God. Just as some atheists aren’t going to live up to Stephanie’s high standards, some Christians don’t live up to God’s. Gene Edward Veith says that, while Hitler had a “perverse admiration for Catholicism,” he “hated Christianity.”{23} What is clear is that there is no biblical basis for Hitler’s atrocities. To return to the point I tried to make earlier, if he looked, Hitler could have found moral injunctions in Christianity to oppose his actions. Naturalists, on the other hand, have no such standard by which to measure anyone’s actions. Conclusion

We have attempted to respond to Stephanie’s three main objections to believing in God: there’s not enough evidence; it adds nothing to what we can know from science; and theism is bad for people. These are stock objections atheists present. I think they have good answers. The next step is to try to take the atheist to the place where she or he can “see” God. Removing the reasons for rejecting God is one step in the process. The next step is to show her God. I can think of no better way to do that than to take her to Jesus, who “is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb. 1:3). I recommended that Stephanie read one or more of the Gospels, and she said she would read John. This is the point of apologetics, to take people to the Lord in the presence of whom they must make a choice. Now we’ll wait to see what happens.

Notes

1. Rick Wade, The Relevance of Christianity (Probe Ministries, 1998).

2. Stephanie is aware of this program, and has given me permission to use her name.

3. George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989), 98.

4. One is reminded of the time when the eighteenth century mathematician and physicist the Marquis de Laplace was asked where God fit in his theory of celestial mechanics. He replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

5. W. K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Baruch A. Brody (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 246.

6. Antony Flew, “The Presumption of Atheism,” in Faith and Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 337-38. See also George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989), 7-8.

7. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 28.

8. Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, rev. ed. (Wheaton: Quest Books, 1989), 85.

9. Kelly James Clark, Return to Reason (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 126-28. I am indebted to this book for this portion of my discussion.

10. A good introduction to the evidentialist objection and this kind of response to it (what is being called Reformed epistemology) is found in Clark, Return to Reason. See also J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City; A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 116-17. The seminal work is Plantinga and Wolterstorff, Faith and Rationality.

11. Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), 128-130.

12. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 120ff.

13. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, rev. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 59.

14. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 60-64.

15. Papers from the “Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise” conference in Austin, Texas in 1997, which included several presentations on this subject can be accessed on the Web at www.dla.utexas.edu/depts/philosophy/faculty/koons/ntse/ntse.html.

16. William A. Dembski, “Science and Design,” First Things 86 (October 1998): 26-27.

17. There is an article on Probe’s web site about the problem of evil, so I’ll only make a few comments here. See Rick Rood, The Problem of Evil: How Can A Good God Allow Evil? (Probe Ministries, 1996).

18. Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 102-03.

19. For a in-depth discussion of the moral difficulties in the Old Testament, the reader might want to refer to Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, in which he devotes three chapters to such difficulties.

20. W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 197.

21. Kaiser, 267-68.

22. Kaiser, 268.

23. Gene Edward Veith, Modern Fascism: Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), 50.

©2000 Probe Ministries.


The Relevance of Christianity: An Apologetic

Rick Wade develops and defends the relevancy of Christianity, encouraging believers to find points of contact with an unbelieving world.

This article is also available in Spanish.

Christianity and Human Experience

In his book, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths, theologian Alister McGrath tells about his friend’s stamp-collecting hobby. His friend, he says, “is perfectly capable of telling me everything I could possibly want to know about the watermarks of stamps issued during the reign of Queen Victoria by the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago. And while I have no doubt about the truth of what he is telling me, I cannot help but feel that it is an utter irrelevance to my life.”{1}

Christianity strikes many people the same way, McGrath says. They simply see no need for a religion that is 2000 years old and has had its day. How is it relevant to them?

One of the duties of Christian apologetics is that of making a case for the faith. We can prepare ourselves for such opportunities by memorizing many facts about our faith, such as evidences for the reliability of the Bible and the truth of the resurrection. We can learn logical arguments such as those for the existence of God or the logical consistency of Christian doctrines. While these are important components, such things can seem very remote from people today. They will not do much good in our apologetics if people are not listening.

This is why some Christian thinkers are now saying that before we can show Christianity to be credible, we must first make it plausible. In other words, we must get people’s attention first by bringing Christianity–at least in their thinking–into the position of being possibly true.{2} We need to find those points of contact with people that will encourage them to want to listen.

Why do we need to begin at such a basic level? A few reasons come to mind. First, many people think religion has nothing important to say regarding our public activities. So, in our daily lives religion is only allowed a minor role at best. This attitude quickly affects how we view our private lives as well. Second, many people hold that science is the only worthwhile source of meaningful knowledge. This often–although not necessarily–leads to a naturalistic worldview or at least causes people to think like naturalists. Scientism and naturalism seem to go hand-in-hand. Thus, in order to get a person’s attention, the first step we might need to take is to show him how Christianity applies to his life’s experience.{3}

Even though we are physically better off because of our scientific knowledge applied through various technologies, are we better off all around than before we had such things? I am not deriding the benefit of science and technology; I am simply wondering about our spiritual and moral health. Our society is trying to find itself. This is clearly seen in current debates over important ethical and social issues. At the root of our culture wars is the question, Who are we, and what are we to be about? The age-old questions continue to haunt us: Where did I come from? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing? Where am I going? With the loss of his exalted place in the universe following the loss of a Christian world view, man now wonders what his place is. Am I significant in a universe that sees me as just one more piece of cosmic dust? Is there any intrinsic meaning to my existence? Or must I determine for myself what my place and role will be?

In addition to apologetic arguments from logic and factual evidence, we should also be prepared to answer questions such as these. We need to let people know that in Christ are found answers to the major issues of life. By doing this, we can engage people where they really live. We can show them that God is not some abstract force separated from the concerns of life, but “is intimately related to personal and human needs.”{4} As one writer put it, “God must be shown to be necessitated or justified by practical or existential thinking.”{5}

In this article I will address these three issues: meaning, morality, and hope.{7} offers and contrast it with the Christian view.

The Matter of Meaning

Let us begin with the matter of meaning. The question What is the meaning of life? might not be one which most people give serious attention to. But a similar question is often heard, namely, What’s the point? When we look for the significance or the point of our activities, we are wondering about their meaning. Reflective individuals carry this idea further, wondering What’s the point–or what is the meaning–of it all? Although many people would argue that life has no ultimate meaning, most people seem to expect it to. We search for it in creativity, in helping others, in “finding ourselves,” and in a variety of other ways.

The question of meaning encompasses other questions: Where did I come from? What is the significance of the experiences of my life? What is my overall purpose, and what should I be doing? Where is all this heading?

The prevailing view in the West today, for all practical purposes, is naturalism. This is not only the prevailing philosophy on college campuses, but we have all been encouraged by the successes of science to believe that if something is not scientific, it is not reliable. Since science investigates the natural order, we tend to see nature as all that is really important, or even as all that exists. This is called scientific reductionism.

However, the scientific method is capable of dealing only with quantitative matters: How much? How big? How far? How fast? Philosopher Huston Smith has argued that, for all the achievements of science, it is incapable of speaking to such important issues as values, purpose, meaning, and quality.{8}

This focus on science is not meant to pick on this discipline, but to point out that science cannot give answers to some of the major issues of life. Moreover, if we go so far as to adopt naturalism as a world view, we are really in a bind, for naturalism has no answers to give, at least to the question of ultimate meaning. Naturalism says there was no purpose for our coming into being; the only meaning we can have now is that which we superimpose on our own lives; and we are all just going back to the dust. If the universe is just a chance accident in space and time; if living beings intrinsically are nothing more than just so many molecules, no matter how marvelously arranged; if human beings are merely cousins to trees, trapped on a planet caught somewhere “between immensity and eternity,” as Carl Sagan said; then there is no meaning to life that we ourselves do not give to it. Being finite, we are by nature incapable of providing ultimate meaning.

If we should seek to establish our own meanings, what is to guide us? By what shall we measure such things? What if that which is meaningful to me is offensive to you? Furthermore, what if the goals we pursue are not capable of bearing the meaning we try to put into them? Many people strive to move up the ladder, to attain the power and prestige that they think will fulfill them, only to find that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The possession of material goods defines many of our lives. But how much is enough? Does the one with the most toys when he dies really win? Or, as some have said, is it simply that the one who dies with the most toys . . . still dies?

Thus, there is no ultimate meaning in a universe without God, and our attempts at providing our own limited meanings often leave us looking for more.

If naturalism is true, we should be able to shake off the fantasies of our past and give up worrying about questions of ultimate meaning. However, we continue to look for something bigger than ourselves, something that will give our lives meaning. Christianity provides the explanation. We are drawn toward the One who created us and imbues our lives with meaning as part of His purposes. We are significant in ourselves because He made us, and there is meaning in our daily activities because that is the context in which we work out His ambitions for us and our world. Recognizing the true God opens to us the reality of value and meaning. The meaning of life is found when we find our place in God’s world.

The Matter of Morality

In his book, Can Man Live Without God, apologist Ravi Zacharias makes this bold assertion: “Antitheism provides every reason to be immoral and is bereft of any objective point of reference with which to condemn any choice. Any antitheist who lives a moral life merely lives better than his or her philosophy warrants.”{9} What a bold thing to say! Is Zacharias saying that all atheists (or antitheists, as he calls them) are immoral? Not at all. But he is saying that atheism itself makes no provision for fixed moral standards.

One very important aspect of being human is morality. A basic understanding of the concept of right and wrong or good and bad is fixed in our nature. We constantly evaluate actions and events–and even people–as good or bad or, in some cases, neither. These are moral evaluations. They are significant for our personal choices, and they are critical to our participation in society.

In our culture today naturalism is the reigning public philosophy. Even if many people claim to believe in God, practical naturalism (or atheism) is the rule of the day. Regarding morality, the general attitude seems to be that there is no moral code to which we all are subject. We say in effect, I’ll choose my morality, and you choose yours. But if Zacharias is correct, naturalism (or atheism) provides no solid foundation even for personal morality.

The question we might pose to an atheist (which could be directed at a practical atheist as well) is this: How do you justify your own actions? To that question the atheist could simply answer that he has need no for justification apart from his own desires and needs. While I think it is possible to argue that naturalism cannot be trusted to provide a moral compass–even for one’s own needs–we can bring the real issue to the fore more quickly by asking two questions: How do you justify your moral outrage at the actions of others in any given instance? and, Do you expect others to take your objections seriously? To expect someone to take my objections to his behavior seriously, I must presuppose a moral standard that stands in authority above us all, unless, of course, I think that I myself am that standard. But what does that do to his right to determine his own morality? The atheist sometimes wants to have it both ways. He wants to be his own standard-maker. But is he willing to give this privilege to others?

Now, some atheist might respond that, of course, as a culture we have to have laws in order to live together peacefully. Individuals are not free to do anything they please; they have to obey the laws of society. The well-known humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz believes that “education, reason, science and democratic methods of persuasion” are adequate for establishing our norms.{10} But there are educated people who hold different beliefs. Intelligent reason has led people to different conclusions. Science can not instruct us in morality. And in a society where there are a variety of opinions about what is right and wrong, how do we know which opinion is correct? Simple majority rule? Sometimes the minority is in the right, as the issue of civil rights has shown. No, Kurtz’s reason, education, science, and democracy will not do by themselves. They need to be informed by a higher law.

Besides all this, Kurtz has certain presupposed ideas about the proper end of our laws. For example, does furthering the human race mean giving everyone an equal opportunity? Or does it mean joining with Hitler and seeking to exterminate the weak and inferior?

Naturalism provides no transcendent law that stands over all people at all times to which we can appeal to establish a moral order. Nor is there a solid basis upon which to complain when we are wronged. Christianity, on the other hand, does provide a transcendent moral structure and specific moral laws that serve to both restrain us and protect us.

When the question of morality arises, atheists will often offer the rebuttal that Christian morality is apparently not sufficient to lead people into the “good life” because Christians have done some terrible things to other people {and to each other) over the years. While it is true that Christians have done some terrible things, there is nothing in Christianity that requires it, and there are definite commands not to do such things. The Christian who does evil goes against the religion he or she professes. The atheist, however, can justify almost any kind of activity since man becomes the measure of all things. Again, this does not mean that all or even most atheists lead blatantly immoral lives. It just means that they have no fixed point of reference by which to establish laws or to condemn the actions of others.

Christianity not only provides a moral structure and specific moral laws, it also provides for the power to do what is right. The atheist is left on his own to do what is right. Those who submit to God also have the Spirit to enable them to obey God’s moral law.

There is turmoil in our society today as we try to decide all over again what is good and what is evil. In our encounters with non-believers, by tapping into the need we all have for a moral structure suitable for both our preservation and our betterment, we can pave the way for their consideration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Matter of Hope

You have likely heard the expression “hope against hope.” It refers to those times when there is no hope in sight, yet we keep on hoping anyway. There is something within us–most of us, anyway–which continues to see some possibility for good beyond a present crisis, or at least causes us to long for it.

As we consider the role human experience can play in apologetics, we should give serious attention to the question of hope because it quickly finds a home in our souls. Few of us have absolutely no hope. What worse state can we imagine than to have no hope at all? What we are more likely to see than no hope at all is hope in things that are not worthy. Nonetheless, the presence of hope in the darkest of places is something with which we are all familiar.

Nowadays, however, hope seems to be in short supply. In spite of all the glorious advances made in a number of areas of life, there is a prevailing mood of unease. Americans seem to be scrambling for something in which to put their confidence for the future.

For centuries the Western world found its hope in God, the One who was working out His purposes toward a glorious end. But by the early part of this century, naturalism had taken hold of the academy and then our social consciousness as well.

From there, people went in different directions in their thinking. Secular humanists took the optimistic route and declared their hope in mankind. They continue to do so in spite of the fact that, in this “enlightened” era, our means of advancing the cause of humanity include aborting the unborn and helping the desperate kill themselves. Education, reason, science, and democracy–the gods of humanism–have yet to give us any real cause for hope.

Other people have grown cynical. With nothing more to hope in than what they see around them, they have lost faith in everything. They do not trust anyone anymore; they doubt that anyone can be truly virtuous; and they have simply settled into hopelessness. {11} Still others of a more philosophical bent have been drawn to atheistic existentialism, the philosophy of despair, which declares that God is dead and with Him that in which we once put our hope.{12}

A good illustration of someone trying to find something positive in the loss of hope in the Christian God is found in Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger.{13} The protagonist, Meursault, winds up in jail for the senseless murder of a man on a beach. After his trial, as he is awaiting either an appeal or his execution, Meursault is visited by a chaplain who tries to get him to confess belief in God. Meursault informs him that he does not have much time left, “and [he] wasn’t going to waste it on God.”{14} Meursault angrily rejects all the priest says. He believes that the fate of death to which everyone is subject levels out everything people believe. One action is as good as another; one way of life is as good as another.

After the priest leaves and Meursault has slept for awhile, he says this as he considers his fate:

[I] felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great gush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. {15}

If there is no God out there, the best we can do is accept the reality of our nothingness, and begin to make of ourselves whatever we can. Like the bumper sticker I once saw which read, “I’ve been much happier since I gave up hope.” Previously Meursault had admitted being afraid, and he had betrayed his own humanity when, after coolly thinking about how death comes to everyone, and how it really does not matter when or how one dies, the thought of a possible appeal brought a sudden rush of joy through his body and brought tears to his eyes.{16} Now he bravely faces a universe that does not care, and he feels free.

If anyone ever truly feels this way in real life, that person is the exception rather than the rule. The word hopeless has negative connotations; we do not normally think of it as a positive thing. The atheistic existentialist must go against what appears to be the norm to achieve this state of happiness in the face of a purposeless universe.

Of course, not all atheists will opt for Camus’ philosophy. To some extent, hope for the fulfillment of our various earthly ambitions fits in with a naturalistic worldview. A boy can practice his swing with the hope of doing better in the batter’s box. A woman with the hope of getting married can very likely see that hope fulfilled. A man may get that promotion he hopes for by working hard. Yet frequently people find that what they had hoped for fails to provide the fulfillment they expected.

And what about hope for the future? Is there anything to hope for after death? When old age creeps up and the elderly man reviews his life, is there any hope that something will come of all the labors and heartaches and wins and losses of his life? Was it all leading somewhere? The most naturalism can allow is that our lives might benefit others. But naturalism cannot of itself undergird such a hope. An impersonal universe offers no rewards. And no one can predict what the next generation will do with one’s efforts. Besides, we might wonder why we should worry about the benefit of others who, like ourselves, are just pieces of cosmic dust. To take this even further, naturalism can just as easily allow for the destruction of the weak and the development of a master race as it can for an altruistic attitude toward all people.

Of course, naturalism has nothing beyond the grave to offer the individual him- or herself. There is no culmination, no reward, no “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21). You live, you do your best (according to your own standards, of course), and you die.

Yet, we continue to hope. I wonder if the “hope [that] springs eternal” is rooted within us in that “eternity” which is “set . . .in the hearts of men”(Eccl. 3:11)? Or, maybe it stems from the knowledge we all have of Deity, even though that knowledge might be warped by sin. An inescapable awareness of something transcendent continually draws us upward.

Christianity holds that the psychological reality of hope, and the content of hope that does not fail, is found in Jesus who is our hope (1 Tim. 1:1). Let us look at that in more detail.

The Answer Found in Jesus

One of the great benefits of addressing the matters of meaning, morality, and hope in Christian apologetics is that they take us right into the Gospel message. Our meaning is rooted in the personal God who created us and is actively involved in our affairs. Lasting, objective moral values to which we all are accountable and which serve to protect us find their source in God’s nature and will. And hope is what He sent His Son to give us along with forgiveness and new life and a host of other things.

Before looking at these issues more closely, I should address a couple of potential objections to bringing human experience into apologetics. One objection is that the apologist can quickly fall into selling the faith by an appeal to the felt needs of consumeristic Americans. Such needs are not always valid.

Another objection is that such matters are subjective. To appeal to them is to become trapped in matters that are at best non-rational and at worst irrational. Our consideration of Christianity should not be based upon such flimsy foundations.

These problems can be avoided by concentrating on those aspects of our experience which are universally shared. Someone has called these “objective-subjective” matters. That is, they are subjective matters of a kind shared by all of us by virtue of our membership in the human race. The desire for moral order is something felt inwardly, but it is a universal need. Faith is subjective, but the disposition to believe is a universal one. Personal meaning also is an inward desire, but it is one we all have.

Let us consider now the answers the Bible gives to the questions we’re considering.

Remember that one of the questions encompassed by the question of meaning is, Where did I come from? In John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16-17, and Hebrews 1:2 we learn that we were created by God through Jesus. Furthermore, we learn from the examples of David and Jeremiah that God created us and knows us individually (Ps. 139:13-16; Jer. 1:5). Unless we are prepared to argue that we were made on a whim or maybe just for sport–and nothing in Scripture indicates that God does anything like that–we must conclude that He made us for a purpose.

The question, Is there meaning in the experiences of daily life?, is answered by the understanding that God is working out His own purposes in our lives (Phil. 2:12-13; Rom. 8:28; 9:11,17; Eph. 1:11).

Finally, to the questions, What is my purpose? and What should I be doing?, Scripture teaches that I am to obey God’s moral precepts (Jn. 14:23,24; 1 Jn. [entire book]), and that I am to participate in God’s work by doing the things He has given me to do in particular (Jn. 13:12-17; Eph. 2:10; 1 Pe. 4:10).

Regarding morality, the noble acts of people and the ravages of war are understandable in light of our being created in God’s image, on the one hand, and corrupted by sin, on the other. Although we typically do not think of Jesus as the law-giver as much as the exemplar of moral goodness, this is not to say that He does not Himself define for us what is good. Being fully God He shares the moral perfection of God the Father. He also created us as moral creatures and planted in us the awareness of right and wrong. Furthermore, His central position in the plan of redemption–which was put into effect because of our sin-induced estrangement from God–makes Him a focal point in the matter of good and evil. Thus, in Jesus is found an understanding of our consciousness of sin and judgment as well as the solution to the crucial issue of guilt and forgiveness.

This is all too often forgotten in evangelical witness today. One theologian has noted that the central theme of the Gospel is no longer justification by faith, but the new life. But people know that they do wrong, and they want to have the burden of guilt lifted. Many do this by denying any kind of universal morality. All they have to do to maintain a clear conscience, they think, is to be “true” to themselves. But in practice this does not work. We react negatively when an individual who is being “true” to himself does something mean to us. We also know that others are justified in objecting to our actions that are hurtful to them. Our moral outrage at the actions and words of others betrays our sense that there is a moral law that transcends us. Naturalism has no means of dealing with all this, but Jesus does.

I have already touched on the important place that hope occupies in the Christian life. We have something specific to hope for, and in our walk with Christ we can experience hope on the psychological level.

For the apostles Paul and Peter, hope finds its objective focal point in the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 23:6; 24:14-15; 1 Pe. 1:3). For our hope is eternal life (Titus 1:2; 3:7), and Jesus’ resurrection is objective, concrete evidence that the promise of eternal life is sure. It is with the objective content of our hope in mind that Paul can say the Gentiles had no hope and were without God in the world (Eph. 2:12).

The hope we have is not something we can see (Rom. 8:24-25); it is waiting for us in heaven (Col. 1:5). Nonetheless it provides the context for our joy today (Rom. 12:12). Hope is strengthened as we learn what God has done in the past, and as we persevere in our Christian walk (Rom. 15:4). As our faith grows and we experience the joy and peace Jesus gives, our hope is brought alive (Rom. 15:13). Rather than put our hope in earthly riches (1 Tim. 6:17), we put our hope in the God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2).

In short, the answers to the questions of meaning, law, and hope–which have no answers in naturalism — are found in Jesus. These truths, buttressed by the facts and logical consistency of Christianity, can be a significant part of our case for the truth of Jesus Christ. Although truth is not ultimately determined by experience, the common experience of humanity provides a point of contact for the Gospel. Even if such matters are not persuasive by themselves, they might at least serve to show that Christianity is relevant to our lives today.

©1998 Probe Ministries.