Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mat's Blog

[Originally Published at "Down With Absolutes" on March 14, 2009]

Congratulations on your new blog, Men of Reason. I have seen many others like it, and I often wonder about their necessity. Really, if you are convinced about atheism, is it all that necessary to propagate it with such religious fervor? If there really is no God, what is the harm of people believing that there is one? While I can concede that some terrible injustices have been perpetrated in the name of God by overzealous people, belief in God and the corollary beliefs that He is just and will hold us accountable for our actions have on the whole made the world a better place. Even atheists have conceded as much. By contrast, my gut reaction to those who wear atheism on their sleeves is “Methinks he doth protest too loudly.”

I am also intrigued by the name of your blog. What exactly is “reason” anyway, other than a bunch of neurological processes that happen to go in one direction as opposed to another? What is it that makes one conclusion more valid than another? In any event, I think a site aptly named “Down with Absolutes” is as good a forum as any to discuss the origins of the universe, so I will answer you here.

Thank you for replying to my comments, but you either unintentionally or deliberately side-stepped the main point, so I will repeat it here: Neither the existence nor non-existence of God can be proven conclusively by scientific methods. Even if we conceded all of what you call the facts of evolution, these do not preclude the existence of God as the First Cause, neither do they establish anything else as the first cause. Science is limited to that which can be observed, measured or replicated. By contrast, the first cause of the universe, be it God or eternally existent matter and energy (or maybe just energy… E=mc2?), is beyond the reach of science. So I repeat, theists and atheists alike must gather all the evidence for and against the existence vs. non-existence of God and make an informed decision, but either decision will necessarily involve a leap of faith.

Now to your self contradictory assertion:

Nobody honestly contends that in some sort of universal hiccup, a singularity formed and expanded in the beginning of the universe, eventually accidentally creating stars, which accidentally created complex matter, which accidentally formed planets, one of which was accidentally in a habitable portion of the universe, wherein those complex molecules accidentally led to a biogenesis, which accidentally became intelligent life. I believe that the universe came into existence by chance, yes. But I also believe that everything occurring within it can easily occur with certain natural laws, hardly by accident.

The accidental hiccup is exactly what you are contending, and for an atheist to say that it did not occur by accident but rather by natural laws is a circular argument at best. What exactly is the difference between “chance” and “accident”? And what natural laws are you talking about? Who or what set these natural laws into motion? Are these natural laws universal; that is, are they always true in every time, place and circumstance? Why do positive and negative forces attract while like forces repel? Is this always the case? Why, for that matter, should anything behave consistently?

You also deliberately sidestepped my arguments about history and Jesus. If you can at least have the intellectual honesty to say that, by definition, science cannot provide a definitive answer one way or the other with regard to God, then you can start looking at other clues by moving out of the realm of science and into the realm of recorded history.

There are at least four different recorded accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They all were written in a definite place, time, and geo-political situation, concerning events that occurred in Palestine about two-thousand years ago under the Roman government, a time and circumstance about which we have copious amounts of information. These accounts were supplemented by a number of widely circulated letters-written to and about real people, real places and real events-hardly the stuff of mythology. They also shared one fundamental premise: the death and resurrection of Jesus.

After having seen their friend, teacher and hero die a horrific death on a Roman cross, historical figures like Peter and John would have much rather gone back into obscurity and lived their remaining days as humble and quiet fishermen. In fact, that was their original intention after the crucifixion. But something happened that caused a major paradigm shift in their world. What was it? Similarly, another historical figure named Saul of Tarsus was devoting all of his energies to persecuting and killing Christians, until he underwent his own paradigm shift. They and countless others were not thinking about such arcane matters as the origins of the universe or natural law as they faced their own deaths by crucifixion, decapitation, burning at the stake or mauling by lions. They knew one and only one thing: They had known and seen the historical Jesus-who had been brutally murdered on a cross for all to see--alive and well again. Nothing else really mattered. In fact, the apostle Paul boldly asserted that everything hinged on whether or not the resurrection happened; and if it didn’t happen, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

As I mentioned before, many people have since attempted to debunk the accounts written in the Gospels, attempting to explain away the resurrection. Some, perhaps like you, just dismiss it out of hand, saying it is scientifically impossible. (Well, duh! I guess that’s what makes it miraculous.) Others have concocted ridiculous theories-such as the swoon theory, the stolen body theory, etc-all of which fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. Others have simply made up alternate stories out of whole cloth.

But many who have carefully examined all the available written accounts with the same scrutiny one would apply to other historical documents, applying logic and reasoning in the same way that a juror would be asked to examine the evidence before him, have reached the reasonable verdict that the accounts as written must be true. Some who had initially intended to debunk Christianity were compelled to conclude the opposite.

Who, you ask? Well for what it’s worth, I offer you the following list from Wikipedia:

Some of those listed are more notable than others. I can add others, such as English journalist Frank Morrison who set out to prove it was all a myth but ended up publishing the opposite conclusion in his book Who Moved the Stone?; or Italian former atheist Giovanni Papini who stunned his friends and admirers when he published Storia di Cristo in 1921.

The one person in the Wikipedia list to whom I am most indebted in helping to shape my thinking is C.S. Lewis, a profound thinker and man of letters who had been raised in a Christian family but by age 15 had declared himself an atheist. By age 30 he (in his own words) “came into Christianity kicking and screaming.” That is, he was intellectually honest. You may or may not be familiar with his prodigious classics such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man and others. In these, he wrestles with a lot of the questions you and I have only begun to dabble in, making the case for Christian faith with devastating logic and no small amount of wit.

I and many others have complimented you before, Mat, for your formidable intelligence, your grasp of facts and figures and your ability to put your thoughts together and express them in a coherent way. But on the other hand, some of your writings are not becoming of such an intellect. Consider the following from your blog:

I see the mystery and expanse of the universe, the complexity of life on earth, and the harmony of all of it, and I see beauty. I see wonder. I see a world which is the product of natural laws, the continuing result of patterns applied over massive amounts of time. I find a great amount of security in the idea that there is no God. If you ask me, all it means is that there are answers out there besides “God’s way”. And it makes me value my own life much more, understanding the complexity of it and the borderline unfathomable – i.e., that I once did not exist, and that I will one day no longer exist. Atheism makes me see the universe in a much more harmonic, peaceful way than I think religion will allow. And it inspires me to try and find the real answers out there.

I am tempted to use a C.S. Lewis line: “Stop talking damned nonsense!” If there is no God, there are no answers out there, and whatever answers you might find would not matter anyway. Sure, you see beauty and wonder, but what exactly is beauty? What makes a sunset or a waterfall any more attractive than the smokestacks of Gary Indiana or the drab Romanian apartment buildings built during the Ceau┼čescu regime? How can any perceived beauty and wonder make you value your life even more? In a godless world limited to physics and biochemistry, all musings about beauty and wonder and truth and good and evil are pure bullshit, and I mean that almost literally, because in an atheistic world, we all are or will become the biochemical equivalent of excrement. Without God, it is all a cruel joke, and not even a joke, because there would be No One to tell it. (And humor is meaningless too.)

Instead of trying to make your atheism more attractive with flowery language, try some intellectual honesty instead. Start to ask yourself some serious questions, such as:

  • Have I taken all of my atheistic thinking to its logical conclusion?
  • How do I explain when those logical conclusions contradict present reality?
  • How much of a leap of faith am I taking in opting toward non-belief?
  • How much of a leap of faith by comparison must be taken by a believer?
  • How is it that otherwise intelligent and thinking people (including men of science) choose to believe?
  • Are the conclusions I reach at all tainted by my own preferences?
  • Does the thought of a life after death comfort me or terrify me? Why?
  • Is it possible that I would rather that God not existed and has this tainted my thinking?
  • Could I possibly be wrong?
Have at it, Mat. Pursue the answers until you find them and can make an honest decision. But I must concede that I will do one thing that is utterly unfair and may likely tip the scales in one direction: I will be praying for you.

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